Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Ma Strength Seminar with Yu Jie, Liao Hui, and Lu Xiaojun

That's my best Yu Jie face

Not many people can claim they are the best in the world. Olympians Liao Hui and Lu Xiaojun made no such statement, but that's because they don't speak English. Ma Strength co-director Jianping Ma addressed the group that morning saying that these guys are the best.

This past Sunday, I attended the Ma Strength seminar at the South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club. For those unfamiliar with Ma Strength,

"Welcome to Ma Strength – your ultimate site on Chinese weightlifting. Our mission is to provide athletes and coaches with the tools they need to enhance weightlifting performance using the knowledge and methods of the Chinese weightlifting system.

What makes us unique is our expertise and experience in these methods. We aim to fill the growing demand for knowledge and application about the Chinese weightlifting system through this blog and website, along with our technique clinics, coaching seminars, products, and online projects."

The hosts and guests were:
Jianping Ma
- Ma Strength Co-Director
- Head Coach at Lindenwood University
- 1984 Olympian

Manuel Buitrago
- Ma Strength Co-Director
- Head Weightlifting Coach at Supreme Sports Performance & Training
- Trained under Ivan Abadjiev

Yu Jie
- Head coach
- Athletes include Liao Hui, Lu Xiaojun, Lu Haojie, Zhong Guoshun, Tian Tao

Liao Hui
- Men's 69 kg weightlifter
- Four gold medals
- Holds the world records in snatch, clean & jerk, and total

Lu Xiaojun
- Men's 77 kg weightlifter
- Six gold medals
- Holds the world records in the snatch and total
Before I proceed, let me give my own brief background in weightlifting. My university had USA weightlifting instructors available if anyone was interested in learning the lifts. I took advantage of it in my freshman year of 2008. It wasn't until 2011-2012 that I spent more time practicing the lifts, learning more, and meeting with the university's weightlifting club near the end of my final semester. In the summer of 2012, I developed sharp knee pain and discontinued practicing the lifts. Only until recently in 2014 have I started squatting again and making a slow transition to incorporating derivatives of the full movements.

It's not everyday world champions visit your area; the seminar presented a perfect opportunity to meet two of them. Not only that, but the most popular entries on this site are the Olympic weightlifting articles. I knew readers would like a feature on the seminar.

I chose the Sunday seminar for a number of reasons. First, since the seminar was being held from 10:00AM to 12:00PM, I would be able to avoid traffic in Manhattan. Next, there were would be less attendees than the Saturday session, which would potentially make for a more individualized experience. Lastly - and most importantly - since the Saturday session would be their first seminar, I knew any issues they may have encountered from the first seminar would be resolved for the next day.

Attendees came from local and far, but most were predominantly from the East Coast with the exception of one person from outside the US. Everyone knew the basics of Olympic weightlifting and had been training anywhere from a few months to a few years (aside from me).

Ma began with a general introduction explaining the Chinese system. The Chinese studied the systems of America, Russia, Bulgaria, and then finally developed their own.

Ma used five words to describe the snatch with the last two being his own he adds.

  • Close - Bar stays against and near the body while traveling upwards 
  • Fast - Lock out immediately after full extension
  • Low - Lock out low 
  • Timing - Rhythm (More on it below) 
I wrote timing as rhythm. It was illustrated with two fast claps in succession as opposed to one clap, a pause, then the next clap. This described the rhythm of the movement and feet. It was full extension and then boom! The bar is locked out overhead. The aim is to develop rhythm instead of extending aggressively and then riding or squatting the bar down.

After the explanations, we were told the seminar's format was changed and we will get the chance to lift and receive on the spot instructions and corrections. They explained experiencing the concepts first hand will help us better learn them.

This was a last minute surprise. I luckily didn't wear jeans like I was considering that morning. I was dressed to lift and brought my weightlifting shoes along if such an event were to occur.

To be honest, this was a pleasant change. I wasn't sure what the seminar would entail. I signed up to see what content would be presented and how I can incorporate what I learned into my own skill set. As mentioned previously, I haven't done any Olympic weightlifting outside of front squats and snatch high pulls. Later when Ma asked how long I've been training, I just replied "not that long."

But more on that in the next section.

Hands On Corrections


Ma discussed and demonstrated the snatch plus its variations: the split and power snatch. He explained the form of the snatch noting the chest and head are up, the wrists relaxed (no wrist flexion), stance is comfortable around shoulder-width apart, and the knees are out/wide. He said knees out as having each knee over each foot (proper joint alignment).

Ma said full extension is straight up. Yu Jie showed the position quite a few times - on the forefeet, elbows high, wrists and hands close outside the shoulders, and head slightly back. After extending, jumping backwards is wrong. You stay where you start and your feet only move outwards to the sides.

Kazakhstan's Zulfiya Chinshanlo displays 
excellent full extension straight upwards here

As Ma called on us, we went up one-by-one. In the snatch, we would begin in the start position, do a few muscles snatches followed by the full snatch. Either in the start position or the full snatch, Ma would instruct the lifter with Yu Jie adjusting them - raising the hips, head up, relaxing the arms, keeping the bar close, aggressive lock out, head through/forward (not down), and tight back.

Yu Jie adjusted almost everyone's overhead position by internally rotating the shoulders. It was the most intense retraction I've felt. The best way I can describe it as him grabbing the scapulae and folding them into the spine. This is "tight back." It's similar to the retracted scapulae in the bench press in that it's a stable position.

Notice the retracted scapulae and
elbows pointing backwards

My start position required positioning my head slightly up rather than looking straight ahead. I also needed to have the bar closer at the end of extension. The full extension position Yu Jie showed helped and I also understood the scapulae adjustment.

Ma told me that I need tight and flexed hips (so I stay over the bar) and my posture is caved forward: chest and shoulders pulled forward and inward knees. Given how much time I spend sitting (commute + work = over 11 hours a day), it made sense. As for the knees, I've avoided excessive knees out to mitigate my knee pain and have emphasized the adductors in training. His last observation was that only one foot moves out in the catch and I remember that bad habit from the past. After I finished, I was surprised he didn't mention my poor stamina because I was breathing pretty damn heavily.

After this, we took a 10 minute break before beginning the second half of the seminar.


Liao Hui began and said technique is greater in the snatch than the clean, therefore strength is very important for the clean & jerk.

The rack position has the elbows set up naturally with the chest tight/high. This position is strengthened with lots of jerk dips and front squats.

We didn't do many cleans. Instead, Ma had us start with clean deadlifts. Everyone did clean deadlifts well with minor adjustments here and there. Liao Hui helped while Ma instructed - relaxed arms, pulling the elbows upwards, and keeping the bar close.

From there, it was a power clean into three split jerks. The dip for the jerk should be stable and slow. The drive up should use the whole body to extend upwards getting up on the toes then splitting and continuing to drive the arms overhead. Ma said don't just drop under the bar.

The split jerk has the torso vertical, back leg semi-bent, and the front leg's shin vertical. Again, the head is through/forward. The trunk only moves up and down as the legs split apart.

Liao Hui, Yu Jie, and Ma switched off between correcting each person. They emphasized the controlled dip, head positioning, and the set-up of the legs in the split. For instance, Liao Hui took a piece of PVC and slid it between the lifter's head and shoulders for them to understand the forward head posture.

For split jerk corrections, the stride of the front foot was usually short and needed to be further out. The rear leg was too straight and needed more knee flexion and plantar flexion. Usually the heel was off the ground, but not high enough. The weight distribution is spread evenly among both feet, 50-50.

My clean deadlifts and rack needed "tight chest" which felt like exaggerating a big puffed up chest. Liao Hui had me maintain this as I pulled and then he stepped away as I approached a full stand. Because I was very focused on holding my chest like this that as I neared the top, the bar was already well past mid-thigh. For me, staying over the bar and naturally shifting to the power position has always been an issue.

My split jerk was mediocre and I needed the above corrections. Truthfully, I've never done jerks as part of my regular training. I'm willing to bet Yu Jie noticed this because his advice was to practice the split.

General Advice

A question about the back squat came up. Ma said squat straight up and down with the back tight. There's no backwards movement. Weight is distributed on the entire surface of the feet with just a little bit towards the back of the feet.

We were all in need of more flexibility.

Overall, I believe everyone needed to slow down and be smoother in their lifts. There's no reason to rush through the movements. Whether it was standing out of the snatch or dipping for the jerk, Ma emphasized controlled movement and to have solid positions.

Hasty execution leads to poor movement or lack of the full movement. I learned something similar back in eskrima. The head instructor was going through a session with me and kept drilling the basic strikes. He stressed following through after each strike to maximize effectiveness. The same applies to extension, lock out, and driving up after the dip. This is why close, fast, low, timing, and stable are very important. They are the basics to develop rhythm and tempo in a fluid snatch, clean, and jerk. By being precise and having accuracy in the movements, you promote the most powerful positions.


The seminar gave me a lot of information to process. For one, they focused on end positions with little attention on the in-betweens. There was no mention of first pull, second pull, or anything between the start position and extension unless inquired by an attendee. It was only the essentials and it proved to be productive.

Next, they predominantly used internal cues. Liao Hui and Ma had me stay over the bar in the clean without having to say it once. I understand external cues can be helpful, but lately I've found internal cues to be more efficient.

The more I reflect on the seminar, the more I realize it was similar to what I've previously read and watched from Tommy Kono. Both have their differences, but I couldn't help notice the resemblance in some parts. Maybe that's just good weightlifting.

During Q&A, someone asked about sweeping the bar. The second pull was was not directly discussed during the seminar. When translated to Yu Jie, all I saw him do was gesture to the pocket area. The first thought that came to mind was, "Kirksman." From what I recall, he's the first person I read referring to and calling it the pocket area.

Considerations/What If's

I have been wondering - was the minimal instruction effective because it was simple or was it simple because the lifters already had some proficiency? It's hard to say, but I would guess it was a mix of both. Enthusiastic participants plus good coaching are a productive combination.

Second, I am curious if the instruction style and corrections provided would change had our group been comprised of more advanced athletes. That's not to say the group encompassed a bunch of beginners, but what if they were, say, some competitors for the upcoming American Open? I don't think the instruction would have been drastically different because the basics are always paramount, but you never know.


Since we were the second seminar in the lineup, I understand the addition of the lifting portion was a last minute change. Even though we were a small group of 12, going up one-by-one to receive coaching can take time. I don't know how this is playing out in the other seminars or if changes are being made to the format. Aside from time, there was an overlap of corrections from person-to-person. During the clean & jerk, I went to scribbling notes as the person on the platform went through clean deadlifts. It wasn't overly repetitive, but I already saw others go through the same instruction.

If possible, I would have liked to see it broken down into two groups: Manuel + Liao or Lu with one group of attendants and Ma + Liao or Lu with the second group. Yu Jie could supervise and walk around advising both groups. After the break, the groups switch coaches and athletes for further instruction. Although Manuel was busy taking photographs throughout the event, his lifter was in attendance. She received positive feedback on her technique from Yu Jie and Ma. I can't speak for the others, but I would have enjoyed his comments in the seminar as well. I believe the other person with the Chinese team was an assistant coach. Assuming he would be willing, I wouldn't doubt his ability either.

The other thing that comes to mind is maybe including a printed outline to follow along. Taking notes is best, but as I review the notes I took and as I write this, my memory struggles recalling every single detail. An outline would be useful and I would have jotted down less (but probably not).

Finally, Lu Xiaojun wasn't heavily involved in our seminar. He was on the platform at the beginning of the snatch segment warming up with the bar but that was it. He wasn't present during the snatches and came back after the clean & jerk portion concluded, but that's only because someone had asked a question regarding squats. Ma had him demonstrate the back squat plus a squat jerk.

I don't know how it was planned. Maybe Lu was involved the previous day and it was Liao Hui's turn to engage with participants on Sunday? Or something else altogether? I'm not sure. This is especially true since the format changed and we were lifting. Originally, Liao Hui and he were going to demonstrate the movements and work up to near maximal weights. I would have enjoyed the seminar a bit more if Lu spoke or helped lifters.

Other Tidbits
  • Liao and Lu are on vacation and have been relaxing after competing at the World Championships and Asian Games respectively. They will start training once again when they return to China. 
  • Lu has a 4 month old daughter. 
  • Lu has been squat jerking for 10 years. He used to push jerk, but noticed he can go lower as the weight increased. 
  • Lu's squat is his strongest lift. He can deadlift 280 kg. 
  • Lu doesn't bench press. He does push-ups 
  • Yu Jie is tall 
  • I don't know why Liao Hui wasn't brought up. Sorry everyone.
Sorry Liao Hui - no one wanted to 
know what you lift

Final Thoughts

Should you attend the Ma Strength seminar? It depends. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it. I have been going through the material many times since it ended.
Definitely go if
  • You want coaching from Yu Jie and Ma
  • You want to meet Liao Hui and Lu Xiaojun
  • You want to learn something new
Don't go if
  • You're tight on cash
  • You want a significant amount of personal coaching
The seminar was $315 and lasted two and a half hours plus time afterwards to take photos and speak with everyone. The remaining seminars near Chicago this weekend are $365 The seminars have concluded. If you really can't afford it, then I'd suggest to try attend one of Ma Strength's 8 hour technique clinics whenever the 2015 schedule is available. You would get a better bang-for-your buck in the clinic with more hands on instruction.

Was the cost worth it to attend the seminar? You bet! I realize some of you reading this may think this isn't ground breaking information or saying, "Well, I already knew this and that" and so on and so forth. Knowing and experiencing are two different things. Usually when I write a longer piece - such as this - I take time and hit mental blocks as I write. I did not have that issue as I wrote this. Instead, the most arduous part has been simply getting it all down. Two and half pages of notes transcribed into a much more thorough write-up.

Jianping Ma and Manuel Buitrago are great guys who are very knowledgeable and host an enjoyable seminar. I liked it and I doubt the Chinese team will be back from China any time soon. With preparation for the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, I think it is unlikely they will have time to visit again so soon.

If you want to learn more about Ma Strength, visit their website [link] and Facebook page [link]. Registration and details for the remaining seminars can be found here.

Photos from the event will be on the Facebook page. Because photography was not allowed during the seminar, I took some after it ended and they are available for viewing here.

Yu Jie and Jianping Ma

Liao Hui and Lu Xiaojun

Manuel Buitrago

Chinese Style Weightlifting Coaches in the USA

If you're seeking out Chinese style weightlifting instruction in the USA, these are the coaches with the experience that I'm familiar with:
Jianping Ma
- He trains athletes at Lindenwood University in Missouri 
Manuel Buitrago
- He's located in Washington, D.C.
Stephen Powell
- While located in South Carolina, he also does long distance consultations and is familiar with the Chinese and Russian training principles 
Further Reading and Other Reviews

Prior to the seminar, I have followed and read many weightlifting articles and sites. In doing so, it gave more depth to the topics. Below are my recommendations to learn more as well as other Ma Strength reviews.
- Kirksman was the first person I came across who explores the Chinese system. I've found his teachings very helpful
Yatin Prasher [Link 1; Link 2]
- He attended the Ma Strength weightlifting camp in China and wrote about his trip 
Larry's Chinese Weightlifting Experience
- During Larry's visit to China he was able to get in contact with a weightlifting coach and explains what he learned for All Things Gym 
Barbell Meditations
- Dave is another Ma Strength weightlifting camper and gives a great overview of the trip 
All Things Gym
- An attendee shares his thoughts on the Brooklyn Sunday seminar 
Crossfit SAA
- A review from a lifter who attended the Chicago seminar and has also visited the training halls in China 
Wu Chuanfu
- Kirksman's former coach who trained in China 
Takano Athletics
- Bob Takano puts forth excellent discussion and analysis about every level of the sport that I highly recommend 
The Training Geek
- Lester simplifies weightlifting which is what I loved about the seminar 
Tommy Kono Books
- While I haven't finished the first book, I've found his teachings very valuable 
Weightlifting with Marilou Dozois-Prévost
- Not exactly Chinese weightlifting, but Chris's experience echoes many of the corrections that were discussed in the seminar
Related articles,
  • Typically I include specific articles from the site here, but in this case I will simply recommend the Olympic Weightlifting tag to browse all the entries
*I'll be editing this post periodically if corrections are needed

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of Popular Knee Sleeves

When it comes to weightlifting gear, knee sleeves are a popular item. It's likely you have seen athletes wear them in events and competitions.

Knee sleeves provide warmth in and around the knee joint which promotes local circulation. For an individual with minor injuries. the warmth can alleviate pain and make leg exercises tolerable. In contrast, knee wraps provide compression at the joint and positively affect performance while knee braces offer mechanical support.

So, are knee sleeves necessary? Not entirely - it's up to the lifter. For an individual with no issues, they can engage in exercise perfectly fine. Knee sleeves may offer comfort to an injured or older trainee. However, they aren't a 100% fix and some trainees might find the sleeves don't help as much as they'd like or if at all.

I opted to use knee sleeves after injuring one knee a few years back. These days I can perform squats fine without knee sleeves, but I stick with them for comfort.

That being said, knee sleeves range in a number of factors such as price, brand, and warmth. Depending on preferences, this can make choosing a pair more work than it should be. Therefore, I'll discuss popular knee sleeves I own or have had a chance to use.

The main points I'll be looking at are: material/fit, warmth, and price.

Having seen several Olympic weightlifters wear these, I purchased a pair in June. I would call these lightweight knee sleeves - adequate warmth, low price, and movement feels most natural with these. The fit is comfortable and as the knees become warm, the sleeves tighten around the leg. They can bunch up but that can be fixed easily.

Como sells single sleeves whereas hookgrip sells them as a pair with the sizing listed on the site. The second difference is the hookgrip logo is sewn on each sleeve - mine eventually came loose and I removed them. Lastly - while it's not a huge issue - be aware that as the bar slides up your thighs there will be a very small bump in movement from the logos.

These are a nice pick for someone who wants minimal support at a low cost.

FIT: Comfortable and tightens as knees warm up in training.

MATERIAL: Stretchy - hookgrip site lists it's a mix of nylon (55%), rubber (35%), and spandex (10%). Can be machine washed.

WARMTH: Adequate and absorbs sweat.

PRICE: For a pair, $12-14.

WHERE TO BUY: Hookgrip store here.

*Update: Here's a brief review I wrote of the newer sleeves from hookgrip:

Tommy Kono (TK)
This was the first pair of knee sleeves I bought. Reviews I read stated they either were better than the Rehbands, or were worse and tended to rip. I've had no issues with them. They're tight and take practice to put on [view this video here for help]. The rubber material on the inside gives a tighter feeling. For bilateral movements they perform okay, but they don't feel comfortable in single leg exercises.

If warmth is what you need, the TK's are it. When I use them my knees become very sweaty. For squats in particular, the perspiration would drip down my legs. This does cause them to shift and move around a bit. As a result, they needed to be adjusted here and there.

Overall, it's a good mid-priced knee sleeve, especially if keeping your knees warm is your main priority.

FIT: Tight and loosens slightly from sweat in training. Takes practice to wear quickly.

MATERIAL: Neoprene on the outside with rubber-like material on the inside. Has to be hand washed.

WARMTH: Very warm! Knees will become very sweaty.

PRICE: For a pair, $39.95 on Tommy Kono website and slightly less on Amazon.

WHERE TO BUY: Tommy Kono website here or Amazon here.

Rehband (Original)
Unlike the other two, I don't own Rehbands. My experience with them has been through Krank. The Krank coach for school athletes is a strongman competitor who uses them. He has used them for a long time with no problems. My more direct experience with Rehbands was when one of the Krank members bought a new pair and let me try them on. I instantly noticed it was comfortable and easy to slide on. It felt like a good mix between the Como/Hookgrip and TK knee sleeves.

Of course, the better quality comes at a higher price. Rehbands are one of the most expensive knee sleeves and are not sold in pairs. Therefore, the cost you see is for a single sleeve and most trainees are looking to purchase two.

If you want quality, long lasting, and see it as an investment, Rehband makes a great choice.

FIT: Comfortable.

MATERIAL: Neoprene inside and out. Can be machine washed.

WARMTH: Warm and absorbs sweat.

PRICE: For one sleeve, $39.95.

WHERE TO BUY: Amazon here.
Earlier I mentioned I started using knee sleeves because I injured a knee. As great and comforting as the knee sleeves were, they never fixed the issue. What did cause significant improvement for my knee was fixing my squat mechanics. Knee sleeves can be a great accessory item in your training, but know that you're moving correctly first.

Remember, knee sleeves can help you but they can't fix you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Optimize Abs with Pelvic Tilt

This would be a healthier spine if 
it had the rest of the body

The pelvis is the area of the body between the lower abdomen and the thighs. You can imagine it being from the bottom of your pants' zipper to the top of the pants' waistline. Pelvic tilt refers to the movement of the top of the pelvis from a neutral/no tilt position to either:
  • Anterior/Forward pelvic tilt [APT]
  • Posterior/Backwards pelvic tilt [PPT], or
  •  Lateral pelvic tilt (upward shift of one side; this won't be discussed)
In weightlifting movements, you typically want to maintain a neutral pelvic tilt and spine posture. This is for the health of the spine as well as developing long term strength. However, some movements are done more efficiently - either performing it more easily or better engaging the desired muscles - by incorporating slight APT or PPT.

For example to combat lumbar flexion - rounding out of the low back - in an exercise, thinking about arching with minimal APT will keep your spine in a neutral posture. Note, I wrote minimal APT. The goal is to maintain the natural lordotic curve of the lumbar spine (low back).

Due to behavioral habits and strength discrepancies between muscles, pelvic tilt can also become exaggerated in a person's posture. Developing excessive APT is common from sitting for long durations over time. The degree of it will vary on other factors, but this won't be the topic. (You can read more in Mike Robertson's discussion of pelvic tilt at the end of this post).

Instead, I'm briefly going to point out a major issue I've come across with dead bugs and related supine (lying face up) abdominal exercises.

Most articles, videos, and diagrams may discuss and demonstrate the movement, but the problem becomes that the pelvic tilt is fairly hard to notice or understand when described. This goes right over a person's head and they incorrectly perform the movement.

The images below are shown as lying on the ground since that's how the supine exercises are performed. From this view, it's also easier to understand how to do the exercises.

No Tilt (Neutral)

This is "normal/ideal" posture - the lower and upper back both have their natural slight inward and outward curves respectively.

Here the top of the pelvis does not tip forwards or backwards. When lying against the ground, there's only a small amount of space between the low back and floor. There's just enough room for your fingers to slide under. Many exercises should be performed with a neutral spine.
Anterior/Forward Pelvic Tilt (APT)

Here the top of the pelvis is positioned forward causing the butt to stick out. The space between the lumbar spine and floor is substantial - almost enough for a fist to fit through.

I've found this is where a lot of people go wrong. Unknowingly, they perform an exercise in APT because they are not aware of it. In abdominal exercises - such as the dead bug - the focus is on the moving component. While a person concentrates on reps, time, and moving the limb, they will not consciously press their back against the ground.

Without that control, the result is repetitive motion without using the targeted musculature and a large arch causing discomfort in the low back.
Posterior/Backwards Pelvic Tilt (PPT)

As displayed, the pelvis is rotated backwards causing the low abdomen/ribs to "crunch." Done properly, the back is flush against the floor and there is no space whatsoever.

To emphasize how PPT feels, it's better performed on a bench or exercise mat. The padding will provide more feedback during execution. Think of pressing the low back into the ground and "scooping" your pelvis under. The key here is to maintain this position during a movement.

It should be focused on for better results. The PPT is the main aspect to a movement such as dead bugs, leg raises, or hollows. The arms or legs moving are secondary to it.
While I covered supine movements, PPT extends to planks, push-ups, and ab wheel rollouts as well. In these movements, it's common to see the hips sag down and the lower torso become lax. Rather than maximizing use of the exercise, gravity puts undue stress on the lumbar spine.

Pelvic tilt is straightforward to understand. The issue is that trainees aren't aware of it and how it plays a role in certain movements. By knowing how pelvic control is used in the right exercises, it increases their benefits.

Be prepared - you will definitely notice the difficulty change when tilting your pelvis posteriorly.

Further Reading,

Related articles,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kettlebell Rack Position

Prior to Krank, I used kettlebells about two or three times. When I started interning, once again I was introduced to them. To make it more interesting, I had to learn how to use them immediately if I wanted to teach any kettlebell exercises.

Through some trial-and-error, advice from the coaches, and research, I finally reached a level of being okay. No more forearm bruising and losing the kettlebells out of my hands (which did happen once). I realized they're not all that tricky - knowing a few subtleties helps make adjustments that lead to big improvements.

Enter the rack position.

It's a very common posture in the carries, cleans, squats, and push presses that we program. However, it can be glanced over when the focus is on the dynamic parts of those exercises. This became apparent when one person mentioned their forearm was hurting during single-sided rack carries.

A good kettlebell rack is actually simple to understand.

First and foremost, it begins with the grip. The intuitive thing to do is grab the middle of the handle like a dumbbell. Surprisingly enough, this won't lend itself to the most comfortable grip when cleaning it. Instead, take a hold of it with your thumb near the end of the handle as shown below.

Left: How it's commonly grabbed in the middle
Right: This offset grip will set us up to comfortably clean & rack it

A proper rack will:
  • Have your grip in the upper corner of the handle.
  • Have the hand inside the shoulder with the thumb close against the chest.
  • Be in the bottom of your hand with a straight wrist:

Take note of where the handle rests in the hand

Another thing to keep in mind is to stay tight and compact - keep the armpit closed with very little space between your arm and your body. Done correctly, there won't be enough room for a hand to slip through. This accomplishes two things:
  1. It allows your body to support the weight compared to only your arm. In the latter case, the arm  alone has to support the weight against gravity. This unnecessarily strains your arm.
  2. Since your entire body is giving support, you're able to handle more weight with ease.
You can check if the kettlebell is in a good position by opening your fingers up. Held correctly, there will be little change in effort. The kettlebell is supported by the corner space between your thumb and index finger and will hardly move.

Even with the hand open, there's little change in how the kettlebell sits

The adjustments described here can lead to a better rack position to reduce discomfort on the working arm as well as move around more weight in your exercises. Play around with the set-up to get a feel for it.

Next time you're using a kettlebell, remember Ice Cube's words of wisdom, "You better rack yourself before you wreck yourself, cause poor movement is bad for your health."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Welcome to Krank

Back in March of this year, I started interning at a strength and conditioning gym in Nutley, New Jersey known as Krank. For me it has been as an opportunity to learn more, gain hands on experience, and interact with a variety of individuals.

In my initial weeks, I would shadow classes and talk with members before or after class. Throughout the conversations, I'd usually pick up on something. Topics would cover things such as occupations, day-to-day ongoings, pains & injuries, performing an exercise, you name it. A lot of times, there would be similar information overlapping between people. Combine this with everything I would be taught by the coaching staff, I thought I could take a more proactive role through this site.

This site will allow me to share information and help everyone at the gym, as well as current clients and readers. Not only that but when I need to look something up, I actually revisit a lot of what I write. It's a win-win for everyone. I'll be writing similarly to how I have been and keep in line with the theme of exercise.

The regular posts will still be part of this site. The only change now is I'll feature something geared more towards the Krank members that can benefit everyone.

Enjoy the content and welcome to Krank.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Supplements for Joint Pain

Pain can occur for a number of reasons. This is especially true in exercise because of factors such as frequency, intensity, improper technique, and a host of other variables.

For myself, my main issue is my knee (I'll cover knee care in a separate entry). The other minor aches I have are the shoulder, bicep tendon occasionally, and my pec. They're not agonizing, but I can feel them from time-to-time.

As such, I've experimented with a few joint supplements to alleviate the pain. They aren't cures, but they have made daily life and lifting a little more tolerable. I won't be explaining the chemistry and action of the ingredients since that's beyond my scope. Instead, I'll share my experiences on which have seemed to help (and some discount codes for anyone looking to order).

With the exception of fish oil and cissus quadrangularis, they're listed in the order of my initial experience with the said supplement.

True Nutrition Joint Formula
This is one of the first I tried. It had a nice mix of everything I read about that could alleviate discomfort - mainly glucosamine, chondroitin, and cissus quadralangularis. Sure enough, I noticed less aggravation in my knee from day-to-day. Its temporary use was good, but discontinuing it didn't cause immediate flare up. 
USE: As the label directs, "take 1 capsule 4 times daily with food." 
WHERE TO BUY: On their website here. The code "NKP821" will provide a 5% on the Joint Support formula or any other True Nutrition supplements. For full disclosure, the code does provide me rewards as outlined here for new customers' first order through the site.
  • Alternatively, Vitamin Shoppe sells a similar product here that excludes the Cissus Quadrangularis.
Glycine / L-Glycine
The first mention of glycine - also known as L-glycine - I came across was from Kelly Baggett. Being curious, I began to add it to my daily shakes during the same time I used the True Nutrition joint support. I used it briefly, but I noticed my knee felt better than relying on only the joint support formula. This is one I'd recommend to check out. 
USE: Per Bagget's recommendation, take 5g twice a day. It's soluble enough to mix with a spoon. The downside is, the powder most likely doesn't come with a serving spoon. I used a food scale to measure out the serving, but one teaspoon is approximate to 5g. 
WHERE TO BUY: Most brands sell glycine. Typically it's sold in 100g - regardless whether it's the powder or pills. With the above dosage, it will last 10 days. Bulk quantities can be found on Amazon from the following brands: BulkSupplements and Hard Rhino

Helios caught my attention because of the ingredients. To date, I haven't seen any formula with a similar blend. I began to use it a day after I pulled a heavy deadlift at the gym without warming up (walked up to it and pulled). The next day I felt a few aches  - knee, bicep tendon, and shoulder. I couldn't miss my session to front squat and push a prowler that day. It looked like a perfect time to take Helios. I took one scoop, lifted two hours later, and I was fine in the evening. It was a pleasant surprise that I didn't have any pains the rest of day. 
If the powder gets on your fingers, you get a bit of yellow tinge on your skin from the curcumin. The mango ambrosia flavor tastes fruity at first, but has a bitter aftertaste. 
USE: 1-2 scoops a day with or without food. A scoop is included for measuring and it's very soluble in water. 
WHERE TO BUY: Directly from Chaos and Pain here. The discount code "HELIOS" will give a 15% discount at checkout. I do not receive any rewards from this. 
Cissus Quadrangularis
I haven't bought cissus as a separate supplement, but I mention it because it's one of the ingredients I was looking at prior to trying the True Nutrition Joint Support formula. It's found in that as well as Helios and could be something worth looking into if the above supplements are not of interest. 
USE: Varies by brand. The range is 1g to 1.6g twice a day depending on if it's the capsules or powder. 
WHERE TO BUY: Any brand of your choosing. 
Fish Oil
Even with all the research on fish oil, I could never observe any positive effects with its use (which was 3g of combined EPA & DHA daily). I made the decision to drop it a while back and have not seen a difference.
While these supplements may provide some relief, recall that I said they are not the solution to a problem. Exercise in a safe and intelligent manner coupled with adequate nutrition and recovery (mainly in the form of sleep) are excellent for preventing pain and injury. In a serious case, seek professional help if the issue has persisted without any signs of improvement. Supplements cannot act as a substitute for a proper diagnosis.

Supplements are just that - supplemental.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Distance Client Review (from Canada)

Back in November, I received an email inquiring about my Individualized Training Services. After a few email exchanges and a meeting over Skype, everything seemed good to go.

David works an active job and more than 8 hours a day five days a week (and even a sixth day). However, that was never an issue. While he was following a four day routine, I didn't pile on the volume or weights. Instead, we focused on how he felt week-to-week.

That's how it went for the next four months. We discussed details through emails and took care of longer topics over Skype. Along with programming and troubleshooting, I offered diet and supplement recommendations. Outside of that, he oversaw the day-to-day organization of his plan.

Here are his thoughts on working with me.
Age: 32
Before (Dec.05/2013): 138 lbs
After (Apr.05/2014): 148 lbs
I've been playing around with weights for a couple years, though my lifts had been mostly sub­beginner, so it seemed it was about time to get some help. Looking through Niel's site, he clearly knows his stuff, and really, I considered (and still consider) the price to be a bargain.

My goals were pretty general, mainly just building some muscle and getting stronger. Both were accomplished, though my BF% went higher than I had hoped, but this might have had more to do with being overenthusiastic about the instructions to raise calories (a lot of the weight came on around the holidays). 
The program was more strength-based than I was used to, which meant that I was moving around heavier weights than normal. The reps and volume were initially relatively low, and quality reps took priority throughout. The program was based around barbell lifts, with a bit of assistance and some fun stuff thrown in (push­ press, grip work). The intensity, volume, and assistance varied across the training blocks, and were adjusted based on how the previous week went. Tweaks, variations, and drills were added and removed as needed. This was the first time I've used RPE's to set intensity, which took some getting used to, but I'm going to try to incorporate them in my future training.
There was a lot more easy, light training than I was expecting, but it usually followed a peak in volume or intensity, just as I was starting to get sore and tired. The form work and deloads were always beneficial, even if it felt like it was slowing progress, and I was consistently surprised by how much stronger I was when the work got heavier again.
One of the big things that made me to decide to work with Niel was his knowledge of technique, and I wasn't disappointed. First, he sent videos demonstrating form (along with cues). Then, we did a skype training session to try and work out some of the biggest errors. Through the entire time, I sent form check videos, all of which I received critiques for within a day, the same goes for any questions I had regarding training, nutrition, etc. I had been staying away from some of the lifts I assumed I'd never be good at, but by the end, I'm mostly comfortable with all the big ones, and had set PR's on every major lift. Even lifts which I had written off as hopeless greatly improved, and continue to improve.
Overall, I'm very happy with my experience training with Niel, and would recommend him to anyone looking to get stronger.
In the third month, there was a personal best he hit that made me happy. While I was reviewing his previous week, he commented that despite being at a higher bodyweight, he hit a PR for his pull-ups - which he couldn't do before.

Nice work David! And remember, stay strong!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Stretching, Foam Rolling, and the Warm-Up

Dat Polovnikov stretch

Back in November, my friend sent me this wonderful message,

"yo niel
whats good, playa
i was thinking about your blog
and myself
and i was like id love for niel to post on stretching
and foam rolling
what are your thoughts"

Delays aside from writing this, stretching and foam rolling are topics I generally avoid. Over time, I've found there is a ridiculous amount of information on each. Dive into the subjects and be wary of "paralysis by analysis." I'll take it step-by-step, but will only have a superficial discussion without getting into the minute details that are outside my scope. 

First, I'll cover types of stretching and joint mobility, then move on to foam rolling, and wrap it up with application.


There are various forms of stretching. I believe the original question was in regards to passive/static stretching. For a set amount of time, a person holds a fixed position - with or without external assistance - to place the muscle into the end range of extension and/or flexion. Often, this is performed before or after a training session in the warm-up/cool down or outside the workout window for recovery or flexibility purposes.

The planted foot is held down to stretch the calf muscles

Usually, static stretching is associated with increased flexibility and was the popular method for of warming up for athletic activities. To some extent, the latter has fallen out of style in favor of dynamic stretching (explained below). In respect to flexibility and muscle lengthening, it's not 100% accurate. Static stretching a muscle won't impose any permanent effect, especially not a substantial change under short durations. The body is a complex system. Inflexibility at one site might be due to an issue elsewhere on the body. For instance, "tight" hamstrings can be due to a combination of the hamstrings and abdominal muscles' weakness in comparison to the strong quadriceps and hip flexors. By strengthening the appropriate muscles, said "tightness" would be reduced without the incorporation of static stretching.

Likewise, becoming proficient at exercises - like the squat - naturally enhances flexibility. Better flexibility improves positions in the exercises (developed ankle and hip mobility = a deeper squat). Progressing on exercises and spending time on them creates a positive feedback increasing your stretch tolerance.

Greg Lehman puts it very well here:
"You will have a greater range of motion after you stretch for a bunch of weeks BUT this does not mean the muscle is less stiff or longer.  Rather, that muscle (more accurately your nervous system/brain) has increased its stretch tolerance.  Your brain and nerves just let you move further."
Also before stretching, it's important to be aware of what is going to stretched. Stretching an area that doesn't need it or has an underlying issue can aggravate it.

I wouldn't write off static stretching altogether. Personally, I've found - and have read elsewhere - that a regular static stretching routine prior to bed improves sleep quality. If you like your static stretching, pre-bedtime might be the time to do it.

Similar to static stretching, dynamic stretching takes the muscles through a range of motion for a prescribed number of repetitions. Dynamic stretching usually involves specific drills which vary according to the training session movements.

Now the static stretch above is 
demonstrated here as a dynamic stretch

Chosen well, dynamic stretches in terms of execution relate better to the upcoming training movements. Dynamic stretching engages more coordination working from simple to complex moves up to the point when training begins.

In a dynamic warm-up, mobility drills overlap with dynamic stretches. Mobility is the amount of available movement at a specific joint. Therefore, ankle mobility means how well the ankle joint can move and an ankle mobility drill is done to improve ankle mobility. It can be measured in degrees, but most individuals can do a general check through an ankle mobility drill such as this:

Poor ankle mobility won't allow your knee to travel close to the wall
Good ankle mobility will allow your knee to get near the wall and 
you can set up further away from the wall to increase the challenge

Later, I'll expand more on how you select what to do for a warm-up. Let's discuss foam rolling first as my recommendations for it overlap with warming up.

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR). "Self" because it's performed by one's own hands with whatever tool of choice versus the myofascial release done by a manual therapist. A manual therapist can use their own hands or a preferred system of myofascial release (e.g., Gratson). The prefix "myo-" means muscle coming from Greek origin while fascia refers to the body's fascia system which is a single continuous fibrous connective tissue system. Therefore, myofascial release is aimed toward working on the body's muscular system and fascial network.

Illustration of superficial fascia

I find myofascial a tricky topic to pin down. The general idea is that over time, fascia becomes "wound" up and it needs to be untangled for optimal functioning or to remedy any muscle-related issues. Adhesions and scar tissue built up from exercise are removed during the release process. Manual therapy is very specific and looks at the individual's posture and restrictions. During an assessment, it focuses in alleviating those issues found and results in better posture and soft tissue. This highlights enough of the basics for the purposes of this post.

Back to the foam roller, I typically see it used before or after the training session. Because it's a form of self-massage, I didn't quite understand the purpose of it in the warm-up. Massages reduce muscular tension and that's good, but I've questioned its effectiveness pre-workout. However, I haven't read anything that says foam rolling before strength training reduces force output or has negative implications.

I've found foam rolling beneficial in the recovery window, especially when combined with static stretching. Recently, John posted this very relevant study:
"Compared to the control group, the foam rolling group experienced “less” muscle soreness.  For example, at 24 hours post the foam rolling group had a muscle soreness level that was almost 550% greater than baseline, but the control group was almost 720% above baseline.  This is consistent up until 48 hours post, where both groups are essentially equal.
Foam rolling reduced twitch force during recovery, increased quadriceps and hamstring range of motion during recovery, reduced rate of force development compared to the control group (which slowed it down), foam rolling increased vertical jump height during recovery."
If you're not fond of using it before you train, foam rolling as a cool down may yield benefits.

After my initial experience with foam rolling, I was skeptical about its effectiveness. I never saw any changes from it except my muscles turn painful and tender which did not cause any previous discomfort. This with the ENORMOUS market for SMR products - there's an array of outlandish rollers and tools available for purchase - I saw it as hype.

While commonly done with a foam roller, their are other SMR tools available such as the Theracane.
Albeit, I don't know anyone who enjoys it as much as this guy.

Contrary to how I sound, it does have its advantage in the warm-up. I realized it when I worked with someone who had terrible mobility. They weren't strong enough to support themselves on the roller and use it. Fortunately, I thought of an alternative. I had them lie face down while I firmly rolled a medicine ball on their calves. We then proceeded to a few ankle drills to improve their mobility. This was an instance where foam rolling proved to be very valuable. This finally brings me to.....

Use & Application

I like training to be specific to the individual. When it comes to the warm-up protocol, I adhere to a similar thought process. Stretching and foam rolling need to be individualized to the person and training session.

Take into consideration a person's skill level. Someone untrained can't grab a foam roller and go at it. As I mentioned, individuals who don't participate in regular activity may be unable to support themselves on the roller, let alone use it. If stretching is not necessary or, even worse, someone has hypermobility, it can create joint issues. Inappropriately employed, stretching and foam rolling can worsen problems. I've come across forums when a user will ask for suggestions on treating an injury. Frequently, I've read the suggestions of others was to, "roll out or stretch the area." This advice doesn't take into account the injury. It's akin to hitting a TV remote because it stopped changing channels - aimless. Maybe the batteries are dead, something's blocking the receiver, an internal component is broken, or it could be a number of other things.

This is one reason why assessment-based practices work well - various forms of manual therapy, Z-Health, biofeedback, and so on and so forth, individualize their treatments. During the assessment, data is collected based on the client' muscular characteristics. That data in turn helps prescribe the movements for their plan to optimize performance.

The same thought process should go into the warm-up. Make it specific. Any of the above methods can be combined and used. When applied together, it can be a great warm-up. To give some direction, I'd suggest it in this order,
  • Foam Rolling
  • Static Stretches
  • Dynamic Stretches/Mobility Drills
*If preferred, foam rolling and static stretching can be done post workout in the cool down instead.
Before or after the session, foam roll the trained muscles. In the warm-up, perform quick passes on the muscles, but reserve the slower deeper rolling for the cool down. Avoid going over joints and connective tissues (like the IT band). More importantly when doing SMR, pain is NOT a positive indicator. Pain tells the brain something is wrong and to induce pain is not the objective. Accordingly shift your weight on the roller to adjust pressure on your muscles. If it feels too hard and hurts, ease off of it.

For a general dynamic warm-up, you can consider giving attention to these areas:
Lower Body
  • Ankles
  • Hips
  • Glutes
  • Asymmetrical/Single Leg Movement
  • 2-3 Training Session Related Exercises
Upper Body
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders (Glenohumeral Joint)
  • Shoulder Blades (Scapulae)
  • Upper Back
  • Asymmetrical/Single Arm Movement
  • 2-3 Training Session Related Exercises
For example,
Lower Body: Main Exercise - Deadlift
  • Wall Ankle Mobilization
  • Hurdle Step Over [hip mobility + single leg drill + coordination/balance]
  • Thoracic Spine Extension
  • Light Good Morning
  • Single Leg Deadlift
Upper Body: Main Exercises - Pull-Up & Overhead Press
  • Overhead Band Pull Apart
  • Shoulder Dislocation
  • Reverse Curl
  • Lat-Pulldown
  • Light Behind the Neck Press
- Total time for everything (foam rolling & drills) = No more than 10 minutes max
Ultimately, you can warm-up however you choose to and include/exclude whatever you wish. For example, there are lifters who warm-up with their training session's exercises. They start with light sets and gradually work up to their working sets. When it comes to warming up - and lifting - there is no "one size fits all." Rather, it comes down to the way that works best for you and your goals.

When asked a question in weightlifting, "it depends" is a very common answer. But, in the end it really does depend - specifically, on the day's session and your own training levels. Neither stretching nor foam rolling are inherently good or bad. If they are used erratically, they can be both. It instead revolves around individualizing them to your own personal needs. Utilize a variety of movements that relate to the training session. It can be a mix of stretches and mobility drills. What is perfect for one person, can be pointless or detrimental for another trainee.

Examined in depth, the warm-up and its associated activities can appear complex. Understanding a few fundamentals clears up the subject.

But the bottom line? Do a warm-up!

Further Reading,

Related articles,

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