Counting Your Chickens Before They Hatch

by Larry Traub

2011 USAWA Women's National Champion Amber Glasgow in action with the Dumbbell Snatch at the 2011 USAWA National Championships. The Ledaig Club won all the major awards at the 2011 Championship - Best Female Lifter, Best Male Lifter, and Best Team. (photo and caption courtesy of the webmaster).

I was competing in the USAWA National Championship last June, and I had just completed my second cheat curl attempt.  I was competing for the newly formed national champion team, Ledaig.  After I completed the attempt I was approached by the founder and fearless leader of the Ledaig club, Dave Glasgow, who proceeded to ask me, “What were you smiling about before you went out to lift?”

There was a not too subtle implication in his question that I looked like an idiot.  First, the attempt was successful, so the humiliation of looking foolish is superseded by attaining a successful lift. Second, maybe the foolish smile on my face facilitated the successful lift. Let me explain.  As the bar was being loaded I was visualizing the performance of that particular lift, and of course, the successful completion of that lift.  If completing a big lift on the platform brings a smile to your face then the visualization of that lift should do the same. I guess I was doing the thing that we’ve all been told not to do, and that’s, ‘counting my chickens before they hatch.’  I think that in this case the old adage fails us. Celebrating the success of the lift before the actual performance of the lift helps create the confidence and the desire to complete the lift.

Some studies have shown that in an activity that is primarily a skill movement, like shooting free throws, that mentally practicing may be just as effective as actually going to the gym and shooting. I don’t think that’s going to quite cut it in the lifting world, but I’m pretty sure that mentally doing a set of heavy squats, followed by the actual performance of that set might increase your chances of success.

We’ve probably all heard Yogi Berra’s quote, “90% of the game is half mental.”  His game was, of course, baseball and according to my math (and I’m a math teacher) baseball would be 45% mental. In our game it might even be more than that, but who can put a number on it?  A recent study shows that 67.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot anyway. The important thing would be recognizing how important it is to believe that you can perform a certain lift, and visualizing yourself doing it is a way of convincing your subconscious that it can be done.

Several years ago I was coaching a high school lifter at teenage nationals and he came up to me before his third attempt deadlift and said, “Coach, I don’t think I can pull this.” I just shrugged and told him that he might as well go to the scoring table and pass his third attempt. My coaching strategy at this point was to piss him off a little so he would get fired up and go pull the lift. I would like to tell you it was a brilliant piece of coaching that resulted in a big deadlift, but to tell you the truth, I don’t remember what happened.  I do believe, however, that I had to make some effort to change his mindset.  Telling him to go out there and give it his best shot would just reinforce his lack of confidence and would give him no opportunity for success.

Recognizing the mental aspect of our sport is one thing.  Learning how to utilize this mental aspect may require some effort, but you may be drawing on a previously untapped resource, and tapping that resource just might take you to a new level of performance.

Watch Your Back!

by Jarrod Fobes

Amber Glasgow, of the Ledaig Heavy Athletics Club, performs a Turkish Get Up with 35 pounds. The Turkish Get Up is a great exercise to strengthen muscle imbalances in the back.

Injuries have shaped a lot of my training, and there is nothing that will get you thinking more about how you train than an injured back. Bum knee? Work your upper body for a while. Injured shoulder? Train around it. Hurt your back? You won’t be in the gym for at least a few weeks. After my last back injury I got busy researching back health and learning what I could do to prevent any future relapses. From what I’ve learned, spinal “prehab” can be distilled down to two major factors. Here’s what they are and what you can do about them.

Muscle Imbalances

Muscle imbalance refers to any break in the symmetry of the muscular system. You don’t want your right side stronger than your left, or your front stronger than your back. Most of you have heard that to protect your back, you should strengthen your abdominals. Strong abdominals are important to provide a counter to the powerful muscles of the lower back, but they are only part of the equation. Is your left hip flexor stronger than the right? Then your hip may be pulled down on the left side, and your back will struggle to compensate for it. Are your hamstrings disproportionately stronger than your quads? That may have an effect on the stability of your knee. If your knee goes out, your hips may start compensating for your injured knee. From there the chain of compensation can easily reach your back.

Fortunately there are two exercises that are terrific for correcting major muscle imbalances. One is the Turkish Get-up, already and official USAWA lift. The other is the One Legged, One Armed Deadlift.

If you are balancing on your right leg, you will grab the weight with your left hand. Put a slight bend in the knee of your support leg. As you lean forward to grasp the weight, your non-support leg should rise up, keeping in as straight a line as possible with your back. Maintain that alignment as you stand up with the weight. As with any deadlift, don’t let your head droop forward.

Both lifts should be trained heavy, but not to failure. Within a month or two diligently giving each side of your body equal work with these lifts, you should have corrected the major imbalances in your body. But stay on guard against overworking one side or the other in day-to-day life too: if you ride a bike, don’t always push off with your dominate leg. If you carry a kid around, make sure you use both sides of your body for roughly equal time. You get the idea.

Muscle Endurance

Muscle endurance is the ability of a muscle to work for a prolonged period of time. It is related to, but separate from muscle strength, which most of us focus on in the gym. Many of us have strong backs, but inexplicably still have back problems. That’s because while we may be able to lift enormous loads with our backs, we haven’t conditioned them to handling sustained, symmetrical loads. Just as being able to do 100 push-ups may not translate into a huge bench press, heavy deadlifts do little to condition our backs to prolonged work. That is why kettlebell swings are so important.

Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. You should have about a 90-degree bend in your knees, as well as at your waist. Do not let your back round, and keep your head up. The kettlebell (or whatever implement you decide to you use) will be in both hands tucked under your behind. Your wrists should rest on your inner thighs.

From this position, explode forward with your hips, extending the legs and back. The weight should stop at 12-o’clock, directly over head with your arms straight. A common mistake is to initiate the movement with the arms. The explosive hip extension should provide the momentum to get the weight moving. Guide the weight back down to the starting position, and repeat.

Since we’re focusing on muscle endurance, execute a high number of reps, at least 75. Focus on maintaining a high rep speed, too. This will mean starting with a lighter weight than most of us like to be seen with in the gym, but do it anyway. If 75 is too daunting, start with 3×25, and “steal” reps from the last set and give them to the first in following workouts. So following rep schemes might look like 35×25x15, 50×25, etc until you reach 75 reps. Once you can handle 75 you have the option of increasing weight or increasing reps. Besides muscle endurance, my posture has improved greatly since adding kettlebell swings to my routine. I recommend them to anyone whose shoulders roll forward. Another benefit of this exercise is the tremendous cardiovascular work it provides. If done with speed, explosiveness, and adequate weight, your heart will really be pumping by the end!