Please excuse the King of clichéd December blog posts, everybody, but I am going to do it. In this one I decided to have a look back on the past year and have a good think about all the things I have changed my mind about, learned about and solidified my thinking about.
Now I really know why I get out of bed in the morning
Have you ever met one of those career guys who would tread on their own mother to get to the top? Well, that guy used to think that I was too career driven. Although it was a private goal, ever since I first got an internship in professional rugby, my objective was to become a head strength and conditioning coach at the Premiership level by the time I turned 30. And luckily for me I got that opportunity at the Sydney Roosters, two years ahead of schedule!
Without going into detail, the experience at the Roosters was not at all what I hoped it would be and I was pretty miserable. Although I’d achieved exactly what I wanted professionally and was getting paid well to do it, I soon realised I’d been fooling myself about the real reason I get out of bed every morning to coach.
If you were following me at the time you’ll know I walked away from the organisation in April to return back to Argentina rugby until the end of this world cup cycle. Despite having to spend 20 weeks on the road at a time, having my pay pretty much halved and going from working with one of the top rugby league teams in the world to a team that won 1 championship game in 18 attempts, I am infinitely happier.
So now I know: it’s not about the title, the pay or the winning. It’s about being the captain of your own ship, being able to master your profession, and feeling like you’re part of team that is working together towards something. I’ve been lucky enough to feel that at pretty much every stage of my career (even as a lowly intern) and in the future that will be the big deciding factor in any job I apply for.
Soft tissue work probably isn’t working (how we think it is)
There is a tongue in cheek piece of wisdom that says if you want to find out the correct answer to something, don’t ask, just put out the incorrect answer on the internet and somebody on the internet will jump down your neck to correct you in seconds. This certainly proved to be true for me when I posted a video late this year on soft tissue work (foam rollers, lacrosse balls, that sort of thing).
My previous understanding was that mechanical pressure via the above tools resulted in collagen remodelling which permitted better flexibility, mobility and all that good stuff. Well sure enough I appear to have been wrong on several counts, and I thank the internet for putting me firmly in my place. Firstly, we probably aren’t causing any change in tissue whatsoever:
Second: the changes we get via “soft tissue work” are fairly quick and volatile. We get a little bit more flexible, but the effects last for minutes and are soon gone. That doesn’t sound much like a structural change to me. On reflection when we do “soft tissue work” I think what we are really working is the nervous system. By applying pressure in the right way, we convince the nervous system to loosen up a little and permit an increase ROM.
The more I talk to other coaches and read up, the more I am becoming convinced that the central nervous system is a far bigger limiter to range of movement than any structural factor, and that trying to understand and train the CNS for flexibility might offer a far bigger return on training time investment than the stuff I had been doing. That is a direction I hope to take my learning in the next year. I will of course continue to do the old “soft tissue work” as the research suggests it definitely can help, just not for the reasons we thought it did.
Extensive exercises might just be the missing piece of the puzzle
Within certain parts of the traditional rugby strength and conditioning programme the idea of performing exercises in an extensive fashion before we perform them in an intensive fashion is an accepted principle- during strength work or hypertrophy work for example. We all understand that jumping in and doing a 1RM on the squat probably isn’t in our best interest unless we’ve done a good 4-8 week block of lower intensity, higher volume training to develop technique, work capacity and tissue strength beforehand.
So why don’t we do the same with plyometrics, power or speed work? Even at the professional level, within rugby circles, I always see these training methods performed intensively from day 1, week 1: maximum height, maximum distance, maximum speed, maximum power. My hunch is that as a result we are seeing higher levels of injury than we have to, but also worse performance, and a couple of instances from the last year make me think this.
The first is Tau Tau Moga who I worked with on his ACL rehab at the Roosters. During the medium to end stages of his rehab a major part of Tau’s programme was extensive plyometrics and jumps. During that time he didn’t attempt a single maximal jump, bound, hop, nothing. But he put about 2 inches on his vertical jump in 8 weeks, in addition to 70cm on his standing triple jump. Very big numbers for a professional athlete with an already high training age.
Another example is my friend Sam Portland, a strength and conditioning coach at my old club, Wasps. Sam is another athlete who is quite similar: big, strong, powerful, with a decent training age in training intensively (although much less heavy and Samoan like Tau!), This past year Sam implemented an extensive block of plyos in his own training and put about 10cm on his standing box jump. Again, a very big increase for an athlete like that.
When I think back to how both of those athletes trained I find it interesting that both of them had pretty much focussed only on intensive methods up to that point and both had stagnated in their power development. Once the extensive stuff got introduced to their programme, they got a boost again, which confirms pretty much what Natalia and Yuri Verkhoshansky have been saying for decades: athletes require a blend of both extensive and intensive training (in that order) in their training to maximise speed, strength and power on the field. Certainly, moving forward, my athletes will be bucking the rugby trend and performing a dedicated extensive block before we ever consider max effort jumps, plyos or sprints in our training.
Train the weak link in the chain
In the rehab of rugby injuries I’m a massive believer in the concept of mastering the thing that broke you. That is to return to rugby you have to be able to do the very activity or movement that broke you in the first place e.g. if you tore an ACL changing direction, you have no business stepping on a rugby field until you can do that again. Likewise if you tore a hamstring running at full speed in open space, that is your benchmark to return to play.
However in the last year I’ve taken that idea a step further and have started to apply that idea to not just injured players, but healthy players too. Although they aren’t injured, I’m still looking for the weak link in the chain where a movement starts to break down. This is basically where I think they will break in the future. Think knees caving in during a squat, lower back rounding in a deadlift, elbows flaring out during a bench press. This is a concept I first learned from Louie Simmons in 2013. He said to me:
“If you beat me up, should I come to your house the next day and ask you for a rematch? Of course not, I’m going to get my ass kicked. If I want to win our rematch, I need to find out why I lost, train and focus on that, then ask you for the rematch”
Although I liked the idea at the time, it wasn’t something I’d been able to properly implement until this year, and I was quite happy with the experiment. In my own training I have a real problem with losing upper back tightness during a squat, causing me to round over everywhere else in my back. Based on this I decided to implement some exercises which forced me to actively extend my upper back during each of my lower body sessions. These took the form of 85kg medicine ball loading and pause squats, which I always performed as my second exercise of the session after front or back squats. I believe these were an important part of me being able to add 20kg to my front squat in 6 weeks.
Other examples I have seen of this technique include the use of hyper extensions amongst Chinese and Russian weightlifters to develop the lumbar extensors, band hip abduction work during squatting for powerlifters, and also the use of anterior band tension to prevent falling forward, again during squats. I think this technique can be a great way to break through plateaus and also address technical issues. If you want to give it a go, be sure to pick a movement or exercise tweak that exacerbates your technical mistakes and forces to “over correct”them. But remember that a little goes a long way with this technique- if you go overboard with stuff like round back lifting and band tension, you may hurt yourself. You have been warned!
Fat gain is inevitable when gaining lean weight
In October this year I was lucky enough to go to the Juggernaut strength seminar in Sydney. Chad Wesley-Smith and Brandon Lilly were both great to speak and learn from, but for me the highlight was Dr Mike Israetel, who is a professor of exercise physiology at Central Missouri and a BIG bodybuilder. His talk on the nutritional priorities of muscle gain and fat loss was excellent and a decent wake up call for me. The essence of his talk was this (in order of importance):
Eat an excess/deficit of 500-1000 calories per day based on what you are trying to do
Get your macros in order
Space your meals apart sensibly and get some post training nutrition in fairly soon after training
Get your food from good (typical bodybuilding) sources
Nothing groundbreaking in itself, but the big thing I took from it was that you have to break eggs to make an omelette. If we as rugby players with a decent training age want to gain a decent amount of lean mass and bodyweight some fat gain is essential. If we want to strip fat, there has to be some lean muscle mass lost, no question. Like everything else in life there is price to pay for the thing we want.
I am guilty like everyone else in rugby of falling into the trap that thinking if I am clever in my nutrition or adhere to some bizarre protocol that I can hack the system and get all the good stuff without doing the hard yards. I do it every year and every year I am disappointed.
After hearing Dr Mike speak, I decided to do the hard yards and gain weight his way. I ate a calorie excess of about 1000 calories per day, measured my macros and gained a good 1kg a week for about 6 weeks. I definitely gained some fat- which was painful as hell for me to do as a I am sensitive flower and spent the bulk of my life as a fat fucker- but at the end of it I shifted the excess fat without much trouble and people commented that I was looking bigger and stronger for it. Lesson learned. In the future I will definitely try to go the more traditional bulk and cut route advocated by Dr Mike. Yes it might occasionally get uncomfortable in the short term, but the long term results are more rewarding.
Central fatigue and peripheral fatigue are two sides of the same coin
If you’ve followed me a for a few years, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Joel Jamieson and his book “Ultimate MMA conditioning”. It flies in the face of a lot of traditional rugby conditioning methods and it remains one of the best training books I have ever read. However this year I read another conditioning book that I think trumps it in the form of “Science of Running” by Steve Magness. Heres why:
In Joel’s book he makes the case of physiologically focussed conditioning- creating specific exercise stimuli to trigger specific physiological adaptations. Just like components within in an engine that can be tuned to increase the horsepower of an engine, if you find out where your physiological “weak link” is and target it with specific training, you can enhance performance far more quickly and efficiently than adopting the classic “run till you puke” rugby approach.
Joel’s arguments in the book are sound and I’ve had great success implementing its methods, however Steve sticks a giant spanner in the works in the research review portion of his book. In short: physiology often has remarkably little to do with our inability to continue exercising. A more updated opinion is that fatigue is simply a decision by the brain to stop exercising (to prevent catastrophic depletion of ATP or cellular damage). So what is the answer to rugby conditioning? Enhance physiology, or train the brain to delay it’s decision to fatigue?
Steve’s book has made me realise that the optimal answer is probably to train both: yes the central nervous system does decide when we can’t go on anymore, but it makes this decision based in-part on information it gets about the internal physiological environment of the body. If we enhance physiology, we reduce fatigue signals to the brain, and if we then focus on the central nervous system we delay the decision to fatigue even longer. Central fatigue and peripheral fatigue might just be two sides of the same coin, and in the future I will be training them as such.