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“If Only:” 7 Lessons from a Record-Setting Paralympic Medalist

Written on August 26, 2014 at 4:13 am, by Eric Cressey

Today, we've got a great guest post from accomplished Paralympic swimmer, Travis Pollen, who shares some wisdom to help up-and-comers avoid the same mistakes he made. Enjoy! -EC

During my Paralympic swimming career, I set two American records, won a gold medal at Nationals, and finished just one spot shy of making the team that went to London. A good deal of my success can certainly be attributed to hard work in the water. In addition to the pool sessions, though, I’m certain I owe much of my speed to weight training. I’m also certain – now that I’m both a personal trainer and graduate student in biomechanics – that my gym experience could have been even more effective had I done just seven things.

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Let’s first rewind to the summer after my first season of high school swimming, when my iron journey began in the smelly basement of the local YMCA. I’d recently stumbled upon Getting Stronger by bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl at the library. This text, though hardly “sports-specific,” became my bible.

My workouts consisted mostly of single-joint exercises performed in random order for 3 sets of 15 reps. Despite the haphazard program design, I realized significant newbie gains, and it showed in the pool. I dropped serious time in all my races the following season.

Over the next few years, I practically “maxed out” on library rentals on topics ranging from plyometrics and isometrics to active-isolated stretching and sports nutrition. Nevertheless, my progress in the weight room stalled. I eventually hired a personal trainer, who helped me get “huge,” in the words of my teammates.

But was size what I really needed? How about body-part splits, crunches, and unstable surface training? Looking back on my program, I see a ton of room for improvement. If only I had known then what I know now – if only I had done these seven things – perhaps I would’ve realized my Paralympic dreams after all.

1. If only I had adopted a training split more in line with my goals...

Although I believed I was lifting weights for performance enhancement, I was unknowingly training like a bodybuilder all along: chest and triceps on Monday, back and biceps on Wednesday, leg (singular, since I’m an amputee) and shoulders on Saturday. Muscles, not movements, were all I knew.

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In hindsight, I was more “show” than “go,” with hulking but stiff muscles. Full-body workouts utilizing techniques like supersets (push/pull) and alternating sets (upper/lower) would have been far more time-efficient. Moreover, they would have left me suppler and with more in the tank for afternoon swim practice, as compared to having two completely smoked muscle groups from my morning body part lift.

2. If only I had prioritized strength and power…

In my prime, I could do 80 consecutive push-ups, yet I could barely bench my own bodyweight. Until I obtained my personal trainer certification, I had no concept of a strength protocol. In fact, I was under the impression that the lower the reps, the bigger you get, end of story. So for fear of getting overly bulky, I spent most of my time in the 12-15 rep range, with a heavy dose of unstable surface training thrown in, since someone I (mistakenly) trusted told me that was how you get strong.

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As a sprinter, my longest race was over in less than a minute. What I really needed was not muscular endurance, but rather power. And power can only be realized, of course, with a solid foundation of strength.

3. If only I had addressed my weaknesses and asymmetries...

I’ll admit it: I skipped leg day. Often. When my schedule got hectic and I missed my Friday workout, instead of going back and making it up, I usually just started fresh on Monday with my bread and butter: chest and triceps. These workouts were the shortest – not to mention the most fun – and I had physics homework to do! I also usually saved “abs” for last, and I almost invariably ran out of time.

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Even when I did do legs, since I didn’t use my residual limb much in the water, I decided not to waste time strengthening it outside the pool. Boy, did my blind eye towards symmetry have a negative effect on my low back. Nowadays, I’ve added bilateral rack pulls, good mornings, back extensions, and hip thrusts in an effort to even out the imbalance. All in all, more of an emphasis on my lower body and core undoubtedly would have provided a performance-enhancing boost.

4. If only I had emphasized closed chain compound lifts for my lower body...

As an amputee, it was important that I play it safe in the gym. My earliest memory of a barbell involves a crowded high school weight room, the less-than-watchful eye of the athletic trainer, high pulls, and – you guessed it – crippling low back pain the next day. After that incident, when I didn’t skip leg day, I stuck mostly to machines (and single leg balancing on a BOSU ball, of course).

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Unfortunately, the leg press and leg extension don’t offer nearly the same carryover to swim starts and turns as squats, deadlifts, and cleans. As it turns out, with proper coaching and lots of practice, I can actually perform all the aforementioned big lifts on one leg – and pretty darn well, at that.

5. If only I had trained my core for three-dimensional stability...

Swimming is all about slicing through the water with as little drag as possible. A floppy midsection that snakes from side to side with every stroke not only leaks a ton of energy but also creates serious drag. Unfortunately, ask most swim coaches, and they’ll tell you the way to a strong core is a few hundred crunches, V-ups, and Russian twists daily. These movements are minimally sports-specific, however, as the only time flexion occurs in swimming is during the flip-turn. And even then, several muscles in addition to the abdominals help generate the movement.

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To create the rigid, canoe-like core that’s truly needed for swimming (and all sports, really), core stability work is the key. Anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion exercises, plus rotational medicine ball work, surely would’ve afforded me a gold medal trunk and hips.

6. If only I had foam rolled and dynamic stretched...

Warm-up? You mean jogging to the gym and static stretching before hitting the leg press? For some reason, despite the fact that I routinely observed the college track athletes doing stick work, butt kicks, and lunges with a twist, I – along with the rest of the swimming community – failed to make the connection that these very same tools could benefit me. If, instead of endlessly stretching my triceps to no avail, I had just done some soft tissue work with The Stick each time I hit the gym, I’m positive it wouldn’t have taken them two hours to unknot every swim practice.

7. If only I had logged my workouts and practiced progressive overload...

We all like to be sore, but the reality is that soreness is not the best barometer for a good workout, especially when it detracts from performance in the target sport. I vividly remember a workout in which I did so many pull-ups I was unable to bend my arms for several days afterwards. Needless to say, this made swimming incredibly painful.

A much better way to assess the merits of a workout is through comparison to previous ones. By simply jotting down my weights, I could have actually tracked how I was doing from session to session and season to season. A workout log would have eliminated the guesswork and provided an impetus to add weight each week, instead of hovering at a 115-pound 10 RM bench press for years on end.

Until Time Machines Are Invented

Each item on the list above seems like a no-brainer now. At the time, though, I believed myself to be decently well-versed in training methodology – or at least as best I could be given the library’s offerings. Even if I didn’t know everything, I assumed my trainer was up-to-date.

If I could go back in time in my quest for Paralympic glory, I’d take with me The High Performance Handbook and get to work again that first summer. But until time machines are invented, I’m happy to settle for educating up-and-comers so they don’t repeat the same mistakes I did.

About the Authortravis7

Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware. He maintains a blog and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website, www.FitnessPollenator.com. You can also find him on Facebook.


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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training – Installment 5

Written on August 21, 2014 at 9:08 pm, by Eric Cressey

This week, I've been working my way through Mike Robertson and Joe Kenn's new resource, The Elite Athletic Development Seminar. It got the wheels turning in my brain, and the end result was a new installment of Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training. Here goes...

1. Experiences are more important than stuff.

I had a good text message exchange with one of our pro athletes yesterday where we discussed how long-term happiness was really much more about the experiences you have than it is about the stuff you possess. When you're on your death bed, you'll look back a lot more fondly on time with family, lives you've positively impacted, and things you've accomplished. You won't be thinking about the nice car you drove, or overpriced watch that you wore.

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I wish that this is a mentality that more young athletes would apply to their long-term athletic development.  An amazing coach and great camp can literally change a young athlete's life. As an example, I'm always psyched to see our young athletes getting the opportunity to "rub elbows" with our pro and college athletes, who have a ton of wisdom they can impart.

On the flip side, I can't say that I've ever seen an athlete's life change dramatically when he bought an expensive new bat or glove. Don't get me wrong; appropriate equipment and apparel are super important for athletic success. However, does a 12-year-old kid need a new glove and bat every single year? It's not like he grows out of them like he would a pair of cleats, and those funds could surely be better devoted elsewhere.

It goes without saying that many young athletes (and their parents) have limited financial resources. I wonder if they'd be in a better position to succeed if they applied the stuff vs. experiences logic to how they managed these resources in the context of long-term athletic development.

2. The process is often more of a reward than the destination.

This is an awesome video that does more justice to this point than anything I can write. These kids will take away important life lessons even though they might not have won their last game. Kudos to the head coach for a job well done.

3. People are asking the wrong questions about weighted baseball throwing programs.

At least 3-4 times per week, someone asks me what I think about weighted balls. I've written about this subject in the past (here), and while my approaches have evolved substantially over the years, I'm still a fan of weighted ball programs - as long as they're implemented with the right athlete, at the right time.

There is actually a ton of research supporting the efficacy of weighted ball programs; they've been around for a long time now, but only caught on in popularity in recent years. What's different about the ones out there now, though, are that they are much higher volume (number of throws) and performed with significantly heavier and lighter balls than ever before. If you crank up volume and use more extreme intensities, you'll get more extreme results - both in terms of fantastic improvements and in throwers who actually get hurt.

So, the question shouldn't be "do weighted balls work?" Rather, the question(s) should be, "Am I physically prepared enough to take on an aggressive weighted ball program, and how can I best fit it into my developmental calendar?"

If you're a 16-year old kid who just finished a 120-inning competitive year and your rotator cuff strength is terrible, weighted baseballs aren't what you need; rather, you need rest from throwing, and quality strength training work.

If you're a professional player with a perfect 14-16 week throwing progression spanning the course of the off-season, you have a great 8-12 week block with which you can work to "get after it." Using Indians pitcher Corey Kluber as an example, we started his 2013-14 off-season throwing program on December 9, and then integrated more aggressive weighted ball work in weeks 5-9 of his off-season throwing program. The big league off-season is so short that you can't get a ton of quality work in without compromising rest after the season or mound work going into the season.

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Conversely, many of our minor league guys will started throwing November 25, and got in about eight weeks of weighted ball work (as part of comprehensive throwing programs that also worked in long toss, flat grounds, and bullpens) before heading off to spring training. Each case is unique, so each program needs to be individualized to the player.

4. Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) drills are an "equalizer" for strength and conditioning professionals.

You've likely heard me allude to the Postural Restoration Institute here on the blog in the past - and with good reason: incorporating PRI drills into our training has been the biggest game-changer in our approach over the past 4-5 years. One of the key principles of PRI is "resetting" individuals to a neutral posture prior to training. We're all asymmetrical, but many folks take this asymmetry (and/or heavily extended posture) to an extreme, and we have to get their alignment back closer to "normal" before we squat, deadlift, sprint, jump, or take on any of a number of other athletic endeavors.

Historically, when folks were deemed to be "out of neutral," we'd need a manual therapist to do soft tissue work, joint manipulation/mobilization, or various hands-on stretching techniques. As Robertson noted in his first presentation of the EAD Seminar DVD set, PRI changed the game for strength and conditioning professionals by enabling them to re-establish neutral in clients and athletes with non-manual techniques, specifically positional breathing drills. Effectively, these drills provide for "self realignment."

Sure, PRI is just one of a few tools in the toolbox nowadays that can be used to accomplish this goal, but it's the one where I've seen the quickest changes.

5. Avoid movement redundancy within the training session.

One point I've made a lot in the past - and Robertson reiterated in one of his presentations - is the fact that many young athletes have a "narrow functional movement base." Basically, they've specialized in a particular sport so early that they've missed out on gross movement competencies (or lost ones they already had from early childhood development).

While we might not be able to change the tendency toward specialization, we can change how we manage athletes who do choose to specialize. In particular, we need to expose them to a broad range of activities that create a rich proprioceptive environment when they come in to train. Key to success on this front is making sure that there aren't redundancies within the training session in terms of movement challenges. For instance, you wouldn't want to have a half-kneeling overhead medicine ball stomp, then a half-kneeling landmine press, then a half-kneeling cable row, then a half-kneeling cable chop, and a half-kneeling cable external rotation. Rather, you'd be better off mixing and matching with tall kneeling, split-stance, standing (bilateral), and even single-leg.

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The same "redundancies" should be avoided throughout the training week, too, but I've found that if you do a good job of making sure there isn't this kind of overlap in each specific training day, the longer training periods seem to take care of themselves. If you look at how Joe Kenn structures his tier system style of training, you see that redundancies just don't happen because he rotates among total-upper-lower exercises in each of his training days. I'm a firm believer that exercise selection is the single most important programming variable, and this illustrates one more reason why that's the case.

Speaking of Kenn and Robertson, their Elite Athletic Development Seminar DVD set is on sale for $150 off through tonight (Friday) at midnight. I've really enjoyed watching them, and would consider them an outstanding investment for any strength and conditioning professional. It's an experience, not just stuff! Check it out HERE.

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Bear Crawls vs. Crab Walks

Written on August 19, 2014 at 9:27 pm, by Eric Cressey

Yesterday, I posted on Twitter that I was a big fan of bear crawls because they get you great serratus anterior recruitment, more scapular upward rotation, improved anterior core function, tri-planar stability, and some awesome reciprocal arm/leg activity. They're one of my favorite warm-up and end-of-workout low-level core activation drills.

For some reason, though, every time you mention bear crawls, someone asks about crab walks. Candidly, I don't think so highly of crab walks. In fact, I have never used them - and that's why I didn't have a video on hand of them. As such, this demonstration took place on my kitchen floor at 11:15PM:

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Keeping this position in mind, here are a few reasons that I don't like crab walks:

1. Bear crawls drive more scapular upward rotation by putting the lats and scapular downward rotators on slack as the athlete reaches overhead. With a crab walk, the arms aren't just at the sides; they are actually behind the sides. The lats are as short as they can possibly be - especially if the athlete is allowed to slip into lumbar extension (an arched lower back posture). Most folks lack scapular upward rotation regardless of whether they sit at a computer all day or throw a baseball for a living; we don't need exercises that feed into that problem even more. Additionally, the scapula is generally anteriorly tilted unless it's an experienced athlete with great body awareness. Anterior tilt is an issue we work to combat in just about every population - athlete and non-athlete alike.

2. Crab walks are brutal on the anterior shoulder. For the same reasons I outlined in my article, Are Dips Safe and Effective?, I dislike crab walks. As the humerus (upper arm) is "hyperextended" behind the body, the head of the humerus (ball) glides forward relative to the glenoid fossa (shoulder socket). This puts a lot of stress on the anterior capsule, biceps tendon, and nerve structures that pass along the front of the shoulder. And, it makes the rotator cuff work overtime from a mechanically disadvantageous position.

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3. You don't walk around like a crab in any sport that comes to mind! Seriously, this is the position you're in when you got steamrolled by a running back, or you tripped over yourself! While I get the school of thought that says it's good to be somewhat prepared for just about every potentially injurious situation you'll encounter, we've got a limited amount of training time to deliver exercises that give athletes the most bang for their buck. And, even in young athlete populations, there are literally thousands of other movements we can use with kids to create a rich proprioceptive environment with safe movements they'll actually be able to utilize on a regular basis in life. And, the bear crawl is one of these movements.

Can a lot of athletes "get away" with doing crab walks? Absolutely! However, we never know what kind of long-term structural changes are going to be in place - and we can certainly never truly appreciate what kind of missed development is in play from not including more effective exercises.

To learn more about some of our approaches to assessing and improving upper body function, be sure to check out Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body.

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5 Strategies for Winning the Minor League Nutrition Battle – Part 2

Written on August 15, 2014 at 7:43 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today, we've got part 2 of a guest post from Andrew Ferreira on the topic of nutrition in the minor leagues. In case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1. -EC

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Strategy #3: Back-load Your Carbs.

Carb back-loading simply means saving your carb intake until later on in the day. Personally, I've found it advantageous to eat most of my carbs at night, predominantly after the game. There are several reasons why I suggest you employ this strategy:

A) Maintain sympathetic dominance when it's time to work

Minor leaguers consume a LOT of energy drinks. They consume so many, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if our population could keep energy drink companies in business all by ourselves.

Because the majority of minor league games are played at night, we work when our bodies' natural circadian rhythm wants to unwind and relax with the setting of the sun. Sure, your biological clock can adjust, but there is a physiological ideal that your body operates most efficiently under. In a perfect world, cortisol levels are lowest during the evening, fueling relaxation and a smooth transition into restful sleep. Clearly, these are conditions that are not conducive to high performance. At a superficial level, moderate stimulant consumption is understandable.

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Unfortunately, two to three energy drinks a day doesn't quantify as moderation consumption. Stimulants are ingested at extreme levels and I think a big part of it stems from our half-haphazard approach to nutrition. Let me explain.

When we have to perform mechanical work, we want our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to be locked in. Our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) excites us and floods our blood stream with catecholamines, providing us not only with energy, but the ingredients to be locked in and focused.

When we wake up in the morning, this is our bodies' natural state. Cortisol levels are high and we're ready to take on the day. The problem is that our bodies' enthusiasm for getting stuff done all but goes out the window when you stop at Chick-Fil-A and eat a bunch of refined carbs.

Ingesting carbs causes a spike in blood glucose levels and, consequently, a rise in insulin. Glucose and insulin promote a shift from the SNS to the parasympathetic nervous system. You start to feel groggy, sluggish, and tired because your body is more concerned with digesting the food you just ate than whatever task you were focused on beforehand. So what do you do? You shotgun that Red Bull, prompting a shift back to the SNS, and consquently unneccesarily stressing the adrenals. If your pregame meal looks like anything like your first meal, then you'll again feel sluggish – prompting another energy drink.

We want to avoid this cycle.

If you back-load your carbs and focus on protein, healthy fats, and vegetables during the day, you will trigger a much smaller spike in insulin and in all likelihood stay locked in to sympathetic mode, allowing you the mental acuity to adequately handle the necessary mechanical work without disrupting the balance with the autonomic nervous system.

B) Stay Leaner.

In the minors, we're not fortunate enough to have post-game five star spreads similar to what is available to major leaguers. There's not ever going to be steak or a piece of wild caught fish waiting for us after the game. The economics of the situation simply make it impossible. What we're largely going to get is a staple of refined carbohydrates. The last team I was with had a steady rotation of pizza, fried chicken and fries, and lasagna as our three main post-game meals. Because we pay for the food out of clubhouse dues and the fact that our hunger after the game relegates any notions of health conscious behavior to the background of our minds, we're going to eat whatever we have in front of us.

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Though the choices aren't going to be ideal, if we back-load our carbs, we can mitigate damage. Whatever glycogen debt we created from either training earlier that day, pre-game sprint work, or actually playing in the game will be refueled with the post-game carbs, preparing our body to be ready to go for the next day.

Further, back-loading our carbs is going to keep us leaner. I guarantee if you eat nothing but refined carbs all day, you're going to gain fat. Has not having a six-pack ever kept someone from being a major leaguer? Absolutely not. Over the short term, it's really not going to make a significant difference; yet, habits just don't go away. You'll fall into a habitual pattern of eating refined carbs and over time you're going to be a “bad body guy.” It's not a stigma you want attached to your name. I have seen a player (a top prospect, in fact) have to go to Instructional League and do nothing but work out all day because he finished the season in incredibly bad shape. It's a situation that can be easily avoided.

C) Sleep Better.

Sleep is the greatest recovery tool we have. If we want to survive the duration of the season and stay healthy, it's imperative that we sleep well. Sure, it's difficult to get quality sleep when you’re traveling on a crammed bus for eight hours overnight. That's why we must optimize sleep when we can.

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Our energy drink consumption becomes most problematic in terms of sleep quality. You may be able to get to sleep after drinking that energy drink in the 4th inning, but the quality of your sleep is going to suffer. Caffeine shortens phases three and four (REM sleep and dreaming), which are the most restorative for the brain (Keenan 2014). Continually short-circuiting our bodies' ability to recover is like taking the pin out of a live grenade. Eventually, something is going to blow up.

Back-loading carb intake does a few things for our sleep quality.

First, as I mentioned earlier, glucose intake (carbs) and a rise in insulin promotes a shift to our parasympathetic nervous system. Inducing parasympathetic nervous system dominance at night is crucial to recovery and allowing for high quality digestion, absorption, and cellular uptake of nutrients.

Second, carbohydrate intake inudces a release of serotonin. Serotonin release, through a series of chemical interactions, promotes lasting, quality sleep.

By back-loading our carb intake, sympathetic dominance can be maintained while we have to train and play. When we have to turn our bodies off and relax and recover, ingesting ample amounts of carbs (healthy or not) prompts a shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, facilitating restorative sleep and optimal recovery.

Tip #4: Supplement Wisely.

In terms of in-season supplementation, inducing incredible gains in the weight room isn't priority #1. Sure, that latest pre-workout you got may be the equivalent to cocaine, but is getting a pick-me-up to power through your low volume, moderate intensity in-season lift all that necessary?

Rather than setting a new squat max in July, I want to be sure our physiology is optimized to facilitate proper recovery. I understand that I keep hammering home the importance of recovery, but it's incredibly important on a day-to-day basis.

Take a reliever, for example. Say my max velocity is 92 and another reliever's max velocity is 95. On the surface, the other guy is more valuable. Yet, overlooked is the fact that I am able to pitch at near 100% effectiveness every day while reliever B is only able to utilize his premium ability twice a week. Now who is more valuable? The answer is clear.

Enhancing one's ability to recover is our top priority in terms of in-season supplementation. There are five that I think are essential to facilitate adequate recovery.

1) Fish Oil – For reasons I mentioned above, supplementing with a high-quality fish oil is essential to fighting off inflammation.

2)
Athletic Greens (or some form of greens supplement) – Cooking vegetables is the bane of my existence. I just don't do it near as often as I should, partly because it's just not sexy or appealing to my brain's limbic system. Delayed positive effects on my testosterone levels are just not enough positive justification to cook up a batch of broccoli alongside my steak and 'taters. Athletic Greens is my nutritional insurance. It's loaded with about every health food known to man just in case your vegetable intake is as bad as mine. You'll never feel better, I promise.

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3) Vitamin D – I know what you're thinking... the minor league season is played in the heart of summer, why the need for Vitamin D supplementation? Valid point, but for many AA and AAA leagues, you don't see the sun in April and May. You're miserably cold and I'm sure your vitamin D levels are not optimal. Additionally, once the season gets going, most guys wear sunscreen, so actual sun exposure is lower than you might think. Supplement with vitamin D until the seasons turn.

I know what you're thinking at this point - and, no, leaving the newest fad testosterone booster off my list wasn't a mistake. Stick to the basics during the season and put your focus on optimizing your body’s ability to recover when it comes to supplementation. It's bland and boring – but bland and boring works.

Tip #5: Include Super Shakes to Maintain Weight.

In order to get to “The Show,” it's all about continually producing favorable adaptations and taking steps forward. Most athletes’ off-seasons place a predominant focus on gaining quality weight: the more muscle, the better. Everything else held constant, more mass will equate to greater force production and, in all likelihood, a better athlete.

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So all off-season we focus on eating BIG. Force-feeding oneself into near sickness at the dinner table and thousand calorie shakes a couple times a day become the norm. Compound these eating habits with a quality strength program and we gain 20 pounds by the time we leave for spring training. We look and feel strong as hell and because of the weight gain, our velocity experiences a nice jump.

Your body wants to continually maintain homeostasis. Keeping your bodyweight is an important metabolic homeostatic process. By eating BIG the entire off-season, you forced your body to adapt by disrupting homeostasis and gaining weight. The problem is that your body chooses the path of least resistance when it comes to maintaining homeostasis. Metabolically, it's a whole lot easier for your body to maintain 200lbs than it is to maintain a new 225-lb frame. So, eating big for just one off-season isn't going to cut it if you want to maintain your new frame, strength, and velocity. You have to keep pushing adaptation until your body establishes a new set point and you are better able to maintain your weight without having to consume 5,000 calories a day like you do in the off season.

All too often, I hear stories of guys gaining all this weight and strength in the off-season – but they struggle to hold on to any of it during the season. By the time the season ends, they are back to where they started the previous year. It's a perpetual cycle that keeps them playing catch up each off-season rather than using the time to build on the foundation and keep pushing favorable adaptations to take them to the next level.

Maintaining your off-season eating habits during the season is necessary if you want to maintain your weight. Unfortunately, with our schedule, it's easier said than done. It's nearly impossible to feel comfortable playing when your stomach is full from a gigantic breakfast and lunch.

Enter the super shake. It's a whole lot easier to drink 1,000 calories than it is to eat them. Implementing one or two a day may be what you need in order to keep pushing your body to establish a new set point and maintain your new frame.

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A good place to start in constructing your super shake is using the formula EC wrote about in this article: low-carb protein powder, almond or whole milk, coconut oil, fruits, natural nut butters, greek yogurt, oats, ground flax, and veggies.

It's not rocket science, nor is it sexy. With the above ingredients, the combinations are literally endless, the calories dense, and the product healthy. Unless you literally have no other option, which I can't imagine, avoid the standard weight gainers you’ll see on the market. They are processed crap.

Wrap-Up

Ever since I started my professional career, I was in search of a new model to adequately handle in-season nutrition to give me the best shot of making it. The results of my search gave birth to the model constructed above.

It's not revolutionary, nor is it a model that's going to lend itself into a New York Times' Bestseller. However, it has allowed me to stay lean, maintain my strength, and most importantly feel good throughout a 142-game season. The minor league baseball season is a beast with so many less-than-ideal environmental variables. The ability to adapt is foundational in order to be successful. To adapt adequately, having a workable framework is a necessity. The model above is a start.

About the Author

Andrew Ferreira is a current Harvard student concentrating on human evolutionary biology. He currently writes for Show Me Strength - a site dedicated to improving all aspects of human performance - and was previously drafted by the Minnesota Twins. Follow him on Twitter.

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5 Strategies for Winning the Minor League Nutrition Battle – Part 1

Written on August 14, 2014 at 8:21 am, by Eric Cressey

Today, I have a guest post from professional baseball player, Harvard student, long-time CSP athlete, and all-around fitness and nutrition enthusiast, Andrew Ferreira. Enjoy! -EC

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It's approaching midnight in a town whose name I can't pronounce in a state I've never been in. The game – our 19th in 20 days – was an extra inning affair. Typically, it's no big deal but today is a “getaway day,” meaning we have a nice 8-hour drive ahead of us on the way to the next series.

Having gotten to the field at 2pm that day for some fundamental and early work, noting that my teammates and I are tired would be an understatement. The caffeine spike from the midgame energy drink (the second on the day, for most of us) is starting to wear off and our tired minds are fixated on one thing: food. In a world where PB&Js and deli meat sandwiches are the norm, post-game spreads typically don't arouse too much excitement.

Today, we got “lucky.”

As we walked into the clubhouse, a half-dozen large pizzas were staring us right in the face. Let's call a spade a spade here and make it known that it's certainly no deep dish from Chicago or Nochs from Harvard Square – but at this point, it doesn't matter. Despite how health-conscious I try to be, I'm still going to eat it despite the fact that it could be the worst pizza in the world. In fact, on most nights, I'd venture to say I eat the most slices. Calories are calories and my fatigue-beaten mind simply has no willpower to exert against consuming loads of refined carbohydrates.

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The above scenario is all too common in my world. Minor league life is tough. Money is tight, travel is long, and the nutritional options are even worse. With frequent long travel, good sleep is rare – and subsequently, the “grind” (as some would call it) is only tolerable because stimulants and energy drinks are the minor league equivalent of water. It's certainly not favorable when high performance is needed day in and day out over a grueling 140+ game season that spans from March to September.

Now, it's a fair assumption that having a good, productive off-season is critical to having a good season while staying healthy. Certainly, there are outliers whose performance isn't indicative of the fact that they didn't touch a weight or pick up a ball until Spring Training. As frustrating as it may be to the hard-working non-elite, freaks do exist. And yet, while the off season is important, I'd argue how you handle the off-the-field in-season period variables plays a much larger role in facilitating high performance than most of us players think.

What I've garnered in my three years of professional experience is that it all starts and ends with nutrition, and quite frankly, most haven't a clue on how to manage it effectively. While a general plan or framework needs to be in place, for most, it is nonexistent.

A typical day average (in terms of nutrition, not ability) player looks like this:

Meal #1: Fast food on the way to the field. Whether that be Zaxby's (a staple where I was), Chick-Fil-A, or the gas station, something quick is the predominant option before the field. First energy drink or coffee of the day.

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Meal #2 Pre-game spread at the field. Most days it’s a whole lot of PB&Js and deli meat sandwiches. Possibly a protein shake mixed in at some point. Second energy drink or coffee of the day.

Meal #3 Post-game spread at the field. It varies, but carbs (usually refined) are a staple.

You don't need a PhD in nutritional sciences to realize in any profession, that set up won't lead to high performance. While most professions solely require a sharp mind to handle the mechanical work, in order to make it to “The Show,” we need both our bodies and minds to be operating at an elite level. Eating like that, while possibly sustainable over the short term, isn't going to produce favorable adaptations in our pursuit of high performance.

Minor league baseball players need a new model. It must be one that is both sustainable and feasible, given the environmental (money, travel, etc.) constraints under which we must work. Here is the framework I have used and would suggest others adopt to facilitate adequate nutrition for better levels of recovery and performance.

Strategy #1: Control the “Controllables”

Controlling damage is imperative to be successful nutritionally throughout the course of the season. Eating well on the road is tough. Sometimes you're stuck in a hotel where the only options are McDonald’s and Burger King, and the bus driver has no interest driving you 20 minutes out of the way so you can go to Chipotle. Over the course of a 140+ game season, situations like this are sometimes unavoidable, which mean that we have to do everything in our power to:

A) Eat “Better” At Home

The beauty of playing predominantly night games is that report time isn't until about 2-3pm. Despite the fact that we run on nocturnal schedules, often not getting to bed until one or two in the morning, that still leaves plenty of time to at the bare minimum cook yourself one good meal at your apartment or hotel room before heading to the field.

If you manage your time reasonably well (i.e., not sleeping until 1:30pm every day), picking up fast food on the way to the field should never be the go-to option.

In an ideal world, I would take it a step further. Have a pre-field meal at home and then food prep your second meal to bring to the field so you can avoid the standard pre-game spread that often offers nothing of nutritional value.

I'll get into the “why” a bit later on in the post, but during the season, I'm a big believer in backloading your carbohydrates. I'm a firm believer that the first meal(s) of the day should be largely devoid of carbohydrates. Protein, fats, and vegetables are my early day staples. If carbs are mixed in there, it'll be by necessity, not choice.

An example day for me would look like:

Meal #1: Bulletproof Coffee (grass-fed butter w/coconut oil) – copious amounts of saturated fat make this a meal and an advantageous way to get calorically dense healthy fats in your body if you're hurting for time

Meal #2: 6 egg (cage-free preferred) omelet with spinach

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Meal #3 (pre-game): Protein variation (chicken, beef, fish) with side of vegetables

Meal #4 (post-game): the post-game spread, on most days

It's by no means nutritionally perfect, but we don't live in a vacuum where everything goes according to plan every single day. There are going to be days when you just can't get out of bed and have no time to make yourself a couple meals. Having a framework or general routine will allow you to overcome and still win the days you don't feel like it.

B) Prep Meals in Advance

By about mid-June, you'll be sick of cooking. It's happened to me on numerous occasions. Making three meals a day isn't a chore in April when you're excited about the impact that handling your nutrition can have on the season. Then, the months drag on, cooking becomes monotonous, and that fast food ride with your buddies pre-game becomes all the more appealing.

When cooking becomes a “grind,” turn to meal prepping. It may take you an hour or two one day, but then you have food that lasts you a week and all you need from that point is a microwave. Saves you time and boredom. Brian St. Pierre's chili recipe is a good place to start; it's phenomenal.

Strategy #2: Eat More Real Food

Our bodies are going to get beat up. It's inevitable throughout the course of an incredibly long season.

Last season, I can vividly remember feeling great all the way through about mid-July. My body felt good, my arm felt even better, and I was enthusiastic about the possibility of playing winter ball once the season ended. Then, the first week of August hit and both my arm and body had seemingly hit a wall and with it went my enthusiasm for baseball, much less winter ball.

That bicep tendon (the one you thought felt surprisingly good considering how many innings you'd logged over the year) is starting to bark – and you know what that means: anti-inflammatory pills. Forget the negative consequences on our gut health, the only thing we're concerned about is that NSAIDs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is going to make that shoulder bark all but disappear – at least temporarily.

If we're going to make it through the season without regularly taking enough NSAIDs to kill a small animal, we must become masters at managing inflammation. It starts with nutrition. In terms of our ability to recover, you are what you eat.

Being able to manage inflammation all starts with optimizing our Omega 6:3 ratio. For our purposes here, going into the nitty gritty scientific and anthropological details isn't necessary. What's important to note is that a body overloaded with Omega 6s is in a pro-inflammatory state. A body with an optimized ratio is in an anti-inflammatory state. In order to survive the season without overdosing on Alleve, it behooves you to optimize your fatty acid intake. Here’s a quick plan:

Step 1: Reduce refined carb intake as much as possible. Refined carbs, because of vegetable oils, are loaded with Omega 6s. Don't cook with vegetable oils either.

Step 2: Optimize the quality of your animal protein. Grass fed beef, cage-free chicken, and wild caught fish are best – even if they are expensive on our budget. Start with pastured eggs. They're not much more expensive than regular eggs, with a much better fatty acid ratio.

Step 3: Take a high quality fish oil. If the rest of your diet is awful, this will serve as nothing more than a Band-Aid, but it's better than nothing.

There are other things we can try and tackle to construct the perfect anti-inflammtory diet, but it's overkill. Keep it simple, stupid. Eat more real food, optimize your Omega 6:3 ratio, and you'll put your body in a much better state to recover and handle the grind of the season.

In Part 2, Andrew will outline three more strategies for improving nutritional approaches in the minor leagues.

About the Author

Andrew Ferreira is a current Harvard student concentrating on human evolutionary biology. He currently writes for Show Me Strength - a site dedicated to improving all aspects of human performance - and was previously drafted by the Minnesota Twins. Follow him on Twitter.

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Exercise(s) of the Week: Serratus Wall Slides

Written on August 12, 2014 at 8:27 am, by Eric Cressey

Serratus anterior is a really important muscle - and it works hand-in-hand with proper function of your thoracic spine (upper back). Check out these two drills we utilize to get it doing its job:

For more shoulder-friendly training drills like this, check out our new resource, Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 8/11/14

Written on August 11, 2014 at 3:53 am, by Eric Cressey

Here's a quick list of recommended strength and conditioning reading to kick off the week:

Lessons in Leadership from a Marine Turned Strength Coach - George Kalantzis, the newest member of the Cressey Sports Performance team, offers up a tremendous perspective on how his military experience prepared him for the strength and conditioning field.

How Soon Should Kids Focus on Only One Sport? - Lou Schuler stopped by Cressey Sports Performance a few weeks ago and interviewed me on this subject, and article he wrote as a follow-up is fantastic.

Walking with a Purpose - Current Cressey Sports Performance intern Hannah Wellman provided this excellent guest post for Tony Gentilcore's website. Expect a contribution from Hannah here at EricCressey.com in the not-so-distant future.

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5 Great Analogies for Training Baseball Players

Written on August 6, 2014 at 8:49 pm, by Eric Cressey

In their outstanding book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath emphasize that a new idea will always be more readily accepted if it is incorporated into an individual’s existing schema. In an example I've used before here at EricCressey.com, if I give you the letters TICDGFASOH and then ask you to list all the letters I included to me 20 minutes later without writing them down, most of you won’t be able to accomplish the task correctly.

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However, if I reordered those letters as CATDOGFISH, you’d accomplish the task easily. You know the words DOG, CAT, and FISH – so it would fit into your existing schema. I work to apply this same logic to how I educate my baseball players. With that in mind, here are five analogies I like to use as part of the long-term baseball development process.

1. Arm care is just like making bank deposits and withdrawals.

To me, every action you make with your arm either takes you closer to or further away from arm health.  Every time you do your arm care drills, get in a strength training session, do some soft tissue work, or get your arm stretched out (when appropriate), you're making a deposit in your bank account. Each time you make a throw - especially off a mound - you're making a withdrawal. If withdrawals exceed deposits over the course of a year, you're likely going to go bankrupt (get injured).

2. Bad scapular positioning or scapulohumeral rhythm is like starting behind the starting line - or you're backpedaling when the starting gun fires.

I've discussed the importance of scapular positioning and scapulohumeral rhythmic for throwers in the past - especially in our new resource, Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body. Here's a video to bring you up to speed:

In this video, I talk about "ball and socket congruency." In other words, the ball can't ride up, and the socket can't stay too low. I like to refer to neutral scapular resting position as the starting line. If you sit in too much downward rotation, you're effectively setting up behind the starting line. In the photo below, the black line is where the medial border of his scapula should be at rest, and the red line is where it actually is.

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Other folks may actually start in the correct position, but begin what should be upward rotation with an aberrant movement - such as a "yank" toward the midline (rhomboid dominance) or into scapular depression (lat dominance). These are the exact opposites of what you want to occur - which is upward rotation, or running toward the finish line.

3. Doing arm care drills with a faulty core recruitment pattern is like shooting a cannon from a canoe.

I always talk about how the spine and rib cage "deliver" the shoulder blade. You can do all the arm care drills in the world, but if you don't know how to keep a stable core in place, you'll never really put your shoulder girdle (or elbow, for that matter) in an ideal position to throw - and you certainly won't effectively transfer force from your lower body. Here's what a lot of athletes look like with their overhead reaching pattern:

Instead of getting good shoulder flexion and scapular upward rotation, they just go into lumbar (lower back) extension. When you see an aberrant movement pattern like this, you realize that it's no surprise that some of the same underlying movement inefficiencies can contribute to upper extremity, core, and lower extremity injuries alike. It's really just a matter of where an athlete breaks down first.

4. Committing to a college really early is like proposing to the first girl you ever date - and then letting her "shop around" for other dudes while you stay faithful.

This observation has less to do with the actual training process, but more to do with long-term management of an athlete. Why in the world does a freshman in high school need to be verbally committing to a college - especially when he can't sign on the dotted line to officially commit until his senior year? If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that we always look back on what we did 2-3 years earlier and laugh, as we realize how misdirected we were. I do it at age 33, and you can just imagine how much faster an impressionable teenage athlete can acquire new views on the world.

It's fine to take your time and see what's out there - and any coach that pressures a freshman or sophomore to commit so young is probably not a person for whom you'd like to play. And, 99% of the time, that offer is still going to be on the table 6-18 months down the road in spite of the false deadlines they throw on you.

Finally, as an "in the know" friend reminded me the other day, don't forget that even if you verbally commit to a school, they're still out there trying to "date" other athletes. If they can find someone who they think is a better prospect than you are, they'll drop you like yesterday's newspaper. The ethical coaches don't do this, but it is nonetheless still a sad part of college sports. With that in mind, it's okay to go on "dates" with different schools and take your time in finding the one that's right for you.

Side note: if you're looking to be a more informed consumer with respect to the college recruiting process, give this a read: 25 Questions to Ask During the College Recruiting Process.

5. Stretching a loose shoulder is like picking a scab; it feels good for a bit, but only makes things uglier over the long haul.

There are a lot of hypermobile (lose-jointed) pitchers out there. It's often a big part of what makes them successful, but it comes at a cost: increased injury risk, if they don't stay on top of their stability training.

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What they often lose sight of, though, is the fact that it's just as important to avoid creating instability as it is to train for stability. In other words, continually stretching a hypermobile joint is likely even worse than just leaving out your strength work. The former reduces passive stability, whereas the latter just doesn't improve active stability.

The problem is that a lot of loose-jointed players feel "tight" - and it's usually because they lay down trigger points to make up for their lack of stability. The stretching feels good in the short term, but the trigger point comes back stronger and stronger each time - until you're eventually dealing with a torn anterior (shoulder) capsule or ulnar collateral ligament. Eventually, reducing the passive stability leads to a pathology - just like picking that scab eventually leads to an infection or scar.

Want to learn more about whether or not you're hypermobile? Check out my article, Assessments You Might Be Overlooking: Installment 1.

Looking to pick up more analogies we use to educate our players - and get a better feel for our overall system? I'd encourage you to sign up for one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships. We have events in both October and November, and you won't find a more intensive baseball educational course.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 8/4/14

Written on August 4, 2014 at 8:44 am, by Eric Cressey

It's time for another installment of recommended strength and conditioning reading. Check it out:

The Functional Training Handbook - I contributed a chapter a few years ago for this compilation that was edited by Dr. Craig Liebenson, and I'm thrilled to be a part of this incredible lineup from the rehabilitation and strength and conditioning communities. I'm actually reading through the entire thing myself now, too!

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Long-Term Success: What You Can Learn from Corey Kluber - This is a guest blog I had published on Gabe Kapler's site last week. Young athletes would be wise to follow Corey's lead on a number of fronts with respect to preparation.

All About Infant Nutrition - This isn't really about strength and conditioning, but since my wife and I have twins on the way, I've taken an even bigger interest in nutrition surrounding pregnancy. This was an excellent, comprehensive piece from the Precision Nutrition folks - and I'm sure the parents out there will benefit.

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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training: Installment 4

Written on August 1, 2014 at 6:57 am, by Eric Cressey

In light of the recent launch of The Specialization Success Guide, I feel like there have been a lot of posts on the site lately on the topic of powerlifting. With that in mind, I thought I'd shuffle things up with a bit more discussion about training in a broader sense, so let's talk some general athletic development.

1. We don't any regular barbell bench pressing with our baseball guys, and it's even pretty rare for us to use dumbbell bench pressing in their programs. This is, in part, because we want to utilize movements where the scapulae can move freely, as opposed to having them pinned down on a bench. In light of this exclusion, we're often ask: what do you do instead?

The answer, as many of you know, is landmine presses, push-up variations, and cable press variations. However, what a lot of people might not realize is that another good option is to simply replace a press with some kind of overhead hold variation, whether it's a Turkish get-up or bottoms-up carry.

One other variation I really like is the kneeling overhead hold to stand. I'll often use this with beginners who might need a little stepping stone before they get to the Turkish get-up. In addition to getting some great reflexive rotator cuff work, we're driving scapular upward rotation in a population that really needs it. Still, that doesn't mean that everyone is ready for it. Watch the video to learn more:

2. It's not uncommon at all to see medial (inside) elbow pain in lifter. This usually comes from the tremendous amount of grip work one does in combination with lots of loaded elbow flexion. Usually, when these issues pop up, cutting back on lifting volume and modifying exercise selection is imperative.

However, what a lot of folks fail to appreciate is the impact that supplemental conditioning work can have on the overuse pattern. Just imagine how much abuse your common flexor tendon is taking when you hop on the rowing machine for 20 minutes to log a few thousand meters, or add in some barbell or kettlebell complexes. These are very grip-intensive approaches and need to be incorporated carefully - and certainly not all the time. Cycle them in, and then cycle them out.

As an example, I'm someone who deals with medial elbow irritation here and there, and most of the time, it's when I'm doing more work on the rower. As such, I've learned that one rowing session a week is really all I can handle if I'm doing my normal upper body training workload.

3. Having a good hip hinge is a huge contributor to athletic success, and to that end, we include toe touch progressions with a lot of our athletes. Without a doubt, the biggest mistake I see with athletes doing a toe touch is the substitution of knee hyperextension for hip flexion. Here's what that looks like:

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You'll notice that there really is absolutely no posterior shift of the center of mass, and he stays in plantarflexion (calves don't stretch). This is something you'll see really commonly in athletes with very hypermobile joints. I've demonstrated it before with the following video; you'll notice that this loose-jointed athlete can actually get a crazy toe touch without any sort of hip hinge, as he's blocked by the wall. Hypermobile athletes will always try to trick you!

Every time you allow them to use a faulty hip hinge pattern, you're giving them two opportunities to work themselves closer to an ACL injury. First, you're putting them in a position where the glutes can't control the femur, and where the hamstrings are too overstretched to really help stabilize the knee effectively. Second, knee hyperextension is commonly a part of the typical ACL injury mechanism (especially in contact injuries where an opponent tackles an athlete low); do we really want to be going to this dangerous end-range over and over again in our training? With that in mind, when coaching the hip hinge, you want to ensure that the athlete establishes and maintains a slight bend in the knee; the "soft knees" cue usually works well.

4. I've often heard people talk about how prone bridges (front planks) are useless if you can already do quality push-ups. While I can certainly appreciate this line of reasoning, I think it overlooks two things.

First, most people rattle through push-ups pretty quickly, so the time under tension may actually be considerably lower than what one would get on a prone bridge.

Second, you can make a prone bridge considerably more difficult via a number of different means, and my favorite is adding full exhalations on each breath. This is something that's very difficult to "sync up" with push-ups, but the benefits are excellent: more serratus anterior recruitment, better posterior tilting of the pelvis, better anterior core engagement, and relaxation of overused supplemental respiratory muscles.

So, don't rule out bridges just yet! I love them as a low-level motor control exercise at the end of a training session - and after the loaded core work (chops, lifts, etc) have been completed.

Have a random thought of your own from the past week? Feel free to post it below; I'm all ears!

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