Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Power of Our Thoughts: Self Talk and Performance

Alright, super addicted to Malcolm Gladwell at the moment and have been tearing through his books.  Last post I talked about the power of context and how that can be applied to the weight room and your training.  My inspiration for this post comes from Gladwell's "Blink," and touches on a subject that is under studied and not practically applied as much as it should be.  Hopefully this post convinces you to train your mind as much as you train your body.

Blink is a book that discusses the role that our unconscious has on our everyday lives and how we are able to make snap judgments that more often than not are correct.  The content that really got me thinking was the section on mental priming.  In this section, Gladwell details a study in which individuals had to look at lines of scrambled words and form a sentence as fast as possible.  Here is the example present in the book.

1.  him was worried she always
2.  from are Florida oranges temperature
3.  ball the throw toss silently
4.  shoes give replace old the
5.  he observes occasionally people watches
6.  be will sweat lonely they
7.  sky the seamless gray is
8.  should now withdraw forgetful we
9.  us bingo sing play let
10.  sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

Here is the kicker, this may seem easy to you, but the moment you get up and walk away from your computer, you will walk slower than you normally do.  The researchers purposefully placed words in the sentences like "Florida," "old," "lonely," and "bingo" that are all associated with old age.  Your unconscious sees this pattern, associates it with old age, and in turn makes you walk slower.  I was blown away after reading that.

They also performed another similar test, but in one group the words were aggressive in nature and in the other group, the words were polite in nature.  People from each group were then asked, upon completion of the test to walk down a corridor and hand in their results.  The researchers placed a person who was talking to the person that the subject had to hand the results to however, and the idea was to see how long the subject would wait until interrupting the conversation.  You probably guessed what happened, the aggressive word group interrupted the conversation much quicker than the polite word group.  In fact the polite group subjects almost always maxed out the 10 minutes that was deemed the cut off time in the procedures. 

So your telling me that within minutes of the test, our behavior has been altered/primed by just reading a group of words?  According to the research the answer is yes.  So why are we not constantly reading and thinking about positive things and outcomes?  I do not know if you have ever stumbled upon self-help websites or self-help books, but they all speak to the power of positive thinking and positive affirmations.  This brought me back to a book that I had read in the past titled "Thinking Body, Dancing Mind" by Huang and Lynch.

Thinking Body, Dancing Mind takes the reader through all of the mental obstacles one may face in their journey through athletics, business, and life.  Chapters of the book are brief and contain subjects like the fear of failure, fear of success, dealing with slumps, fatigue, expectations, self-criticism, and much more.  What I think is unique about this book is that in each chapter it provides affirmations/sayings that can be repeated internally or read over and over again to combat mental challenges.

Sample affirmations from the text for re-framing failure.
"Success does not guarantee happiness; failure need not guarantee misery."
"Failures are lessons from which I learn and forge ahead."

Sample affirmations from the text for positive thinking.
"Calm and confident, I play well."
"I am in control and ready to roll."

As I read through many of the chapters some of the affirmations really struck a chord with me and I have continued to use them in every day life to control my inner chatter.  They may sound corny, but you can make up your own that mean something to you.  Who cares, it is not like you are saying them out loud, you are saying them in your head and reaffirming/reminding yourself to be positive and successful.  Hey there is proof that just reading certain words affects your behavior, so why not adopt positive thoughts and surround yourself with them.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Power of Context

So last time we talked, I went on a little bit of a speil about the Malcolm Gladwell book "Outliers" and how the section on the rule of 10,000 hours could be applied to skill development in sports.  Well I have moved on, but not too far.  I recently finished another one of Gladwell's books "The Tipping Point" which discusses how small changes can make big differences as well as spawn epidemics in everything from shoes to ideas.  I thoroughly enjoy his books because they offer new insights about the world around us, but more importantly they get me thinking of how I can apply what I have learned to my own life.

I have always been very interested in psychology and how our surroundings and genetics effect who we are and how we act.  A lot of things that we are attracted to buy and do with our time is in large part due to our environment and even more so, to our groups of peers.  This is what Gladwell refers to as the power of context; the ability for our surroundings to affect our ideas, moods, and our actions.  So I thought about how this affects my life and my training.

If you are reading my blog, you may also read T-Nation articles, stuff by Gentlicore, Cressey and Contreras, all of whom I believe at some point have made note about the importance of the facility you train at, as well as the crew you train with.  Most of this was anecdotal and common sense to me, but I never really knew the mechanism behind it all.  Our environment and peers play a large role in our attitudes and actions and Gladwell cites many studies that back up this claim in the book.  Well, how do we apply this training.

Ever notice what is in a collegiate weight room?  Record boards, pictures of successful athletes, motivational phrases and quotes.  All of these little things add up and although you may not notice it, they effect you and your athletes in a positive manner.  The previous list may be obvious but how about the little things like the lighting, music type/volume, and type of equipment.  The type of equipment will not only dictate the the types of exercise selection that is possible, but it will also dictate an attitude.  Check out the Rocky 4 training montage and notice the different environments each trained in and how that affected their state of mind.  Cheesy, ya maybe, but I think it illustrates the point nicely.

Also, the crew/teammates you work out with make a huge difference.  Your team/training crew has a lot to do with how you workout, how hard you workout, how often you workout, etc.

Take me for example.  I train primarily for climbing, so I perform body weight pulling and core work, as well as a lot of metabolic conditioning to maximize my power to weight ratio.  I train by myself in the weight room in regards to climbing specificity, but train with like minded people at the climbing gym that are all super motivated to keep getting stronger and push their physical and mental limits.  That peer group keeps me motivated to push myself.  I am also around motivated collegiate athletes all day long, so a lot of their enthusiasm for training rubs off on me as well.  But lets say I worked out up at Cressey Performance, I would not have as much access to climbing areas and therefore may not be completely addicted to climbing and rather by means of peer pressure, be addicted to deadlifting and barbell glute lifts.

Also, the guys that you train with are probably the people you hang out with outside of the gym.  Their habits outside of the gym will affect you as well.  If you keep the company of guys that are training their brains out in the gym but get hammered every night and eat like crap, guess what, you may fall into that same trap.

Be mindful of the context of your environment and your peers, as it greatly affects your mood and behaviors.  The more you look for it, the more you will see the impact it has on you.  Also, go read "The Tipping Point," it is truly eye opening.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Climbing Training Talk

I have over the last couple of years been randomly bookmarking training pages that pertain to climbing and bouldering. Some of the advice that is contained within these sites is pretty good, my main beef with a lot of these training articles is the lack of information on periodization and cycling of training protocols. Ya, a sweet hang board workout will probably increase your contact strength, but just completing hangboard workouts 4x a week will get you injured. Another thing I feel is lacking in the climbing literature is weight room based training and how to properly prescribe strength training for climbers.

Here are some of my thoughts on supplemental strength/metabolic training for climbing. My intent is not to write a full annual plan for certain climbing disciplines, as I find it very hard to tailor to individual climbers' needs, but rather to give some insight into basic training plans.

Each climber is different and within each climber are times that they like to boulder, sport climb, boulder, sport climb, you get the point. Rarely have I come across climbers that absolutely stick to one discipline all year long, unless they are fortunate enough to chase the good temps. Extreme specialization may at times be a detriment to an individual's health.  Research has shown that early specialization in children can lead to increased overuse injury rates for a variety of sports. While no research like this has been conducted on climbing, it does not seem to far fetched to hypothesize that if an individual specialized in one form of climbing year round for multiple years, that they might be setting themselves up for an overuse injury. My contention is that it is a good thing that a climber's mood changes a bit during the year.  Maybe it is your body sending subconscious messages to your brain that there is too much of one type of physical stress present and something needs to change.  Of course if you override/ignore these inclinations, you are setting yourself up for injury.

Lets extend this thought process into training for climbing.  The unique thing about climbing is that there are so many different disciplines and different ways that you can train from day to day, week to week, and so on.  Lets take for example a climber that primarily boulders.  I would say that the great majority of boulderers go to the gym and boulder, some days easier and some days harder.  But that is exactly the problem, there is a lack of structure in this process along with a lack of structure with supplemental strength training.  If you do not have a structure for your climbing in a given week or month, it is hard to effectively add additional strength training.

Here is an example that I bet a lot of boulderers fall into.  "I am want to try and get to climbing gym four or five times this week and boulder hard."

Problem #1:  Unless you already boulder 4 to 5 times a week for 3 or more hours, you probably cannot maintain a high level of intensity (hard grades) during each one of these sessions.  Instead, it would be advisable to sit down and decide which days you want to do primary hard bouldering and which days you want to pack in a a lot of easier boulder problems to help build power endurance and gradually increase the volume of climbing your body can tolerate in a given time.

Problem #2:  A lot of time I feel as though boulderers sometimes do things on a whim.  "This week I am going to lift really hard as well as boulder really hard."  Well I got news for you, that ain't happening and if you do manage to get through it, you will put yourself in a hole for the next week.  There are not many people that can train like Patxi Usobiaga, if you have seen Progression, you know what I am talking about.  Not advised for most/all of us.

I guess these problems boil down to the fact that boulderers for the most part do not plan/periodize their training effectively.  You are setting yourself up for an injury if your supplemental training is exactly the same as your climbing training.  If you go to the climbing gym and boulder hard and then go hit the weights and do heavy pull-ups, front levers, and other pulling exercises, you are essentially taxing the same muscle groups.  There needs to be better structure than that, here is a basic structure that may help you train smarter.  I am in the Southeast, so keep that in mind while I move through an annual training cycle.

In-Season Bouldering -- Performance Orientated for Outdoor Bouldering (October through March/April)
During this phase of the year you should be focused on maintaining strength and spending more of your time climbing rather than training in the weight room.  I know that I may be abnormal, or normal depending on your perspective, but I only get outside on the weekend, so here is what my weeks look like.

Climbing Portion: Longer sessions earlier in the week on Monday and Tuesday that will have some hard climbing (single moves and some hard setting) for ~60min and then full problems below redpoint level for 60 to 90min or some 4x4's for power endurance (About a 2.5 hour sesh).  Later in the week, maybe Thursday, shorter session of hard single moves and weaknesses, maybe 80min at the most.  Take Friday off and send Saturday/Sunday.

Weight Room Portion:  Shorter session, 30 to 45min, that is aimed at maintaining strength you developed through off-season and pre-season training as well as injury prevention exercises.

Maintaining strength should include a low volume, but with relatively high intensity.  So lets say that your max weight for 1 pull-up is 100lbs, instead of trying to constantly increase during the season which may difficult considering the amount of climbing you would like to be doing, you should aim at maintaining this.  Maintaining this is easier than you think, doing 4 to 6 sets of 1-2 reps at 80% of your 1 rep max (80lbs) will adequately maintain your strength.  Gaining strength and power during the off-season is the hard part, maintaining should be easy.  Also you should aim for muscle balances as well during this season, when you climb you are constantly pulling, so when you are in the gym it does not make sense to do a lot of pulling exercises.  Instead you should be focusing on keeping your body in balance by performing pushing exercises, such as a push-up or triceps extensions.  As mentioned earlier, we are already at risk of overuse injuries because of the nature of the sport, why add to this in the weight room, it does not make sense and it will get you hurt.  Also please do not forget that you have legs and they to need to be strong and maintained, especially your hamstrings for overhung boulder problems.  Additional core training during this time shoudl follow the same princi

You have no idea of how much injury prevention that I perform with my athletes, it is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.  The industry has coined a lot of these exercises "pre-hab exercises" which are aimed at addressing particular joints and problem areas associated with the given sport.  Pre-hab for climbing should include a lot of shoulder, wrist, and thoracic spine work.  Also soft-tissue work is extremely important, think of this as a self-massage technique, all you need is a foam roller and a lacrosse ball/massage stick.  Also a lot of active flexibility/toga stretching should be included at the end of your workout or on it's own regularly during the week.

Post-Season Bouldering (March/April)
Alright so you have made it through a season of bouldering, hopefully injury free and still feeling strong.  Now bear with me, you may want to take a week or two off to let your body recuperate and heal up.  You may not be injured, but I bet you have some nagging finger/shoulder/biceps pain that good benefit from some recovery time.  Rest and recovery is as important as the actual training itself and should not be overlooked.

Climbing Portion: I would recommend completely abstaining from climbing for a week or two, but if you are feening to climb, which I am sure you will be, go to some low intensity traversing or long easy routes.  For those of us that will be in heat for the summer months, it is usually time to rope up.  So doing some of this low intensity endurance work will not only help us recover, but will give us a bit of an endurance base.

Weight Room Portion: While resting from climbing, I would rest from weight training as well.  In strength and conditioning programming, coaches usually include an unloading week every four or five weeks to let the body recover from the stressors of the previous training cycle.  I do not even mention this in the in-season section because I know that no-one would actually follow this advice.  But in the immediate post-season, it is a great idea and you should come back from a week or two of rest feeling re-energized and and maybe even stronger.  There is a term in the strength and conditioning literature called supercompensation.  Basically this concept postulates that through a hard training cycle you are continually breaking down your body, and once you unload, your body should rebound from the training stimulus and you should be at higher physical state than when you started the previous cycle.

If you are nut, like myself, and simply cannot go two weeks without being active and training in the weight room.  I would suggest low intensity workouts that integrate more flexibility and injury prevention measures as previously mentioned.  This is usually a good time to remember other things that you like to do beside climbing.  Dust off the mountain bike, hike, play frisbee golf, yoga, etc.  Just do something active that is not climbing and your body will regenerate and you will come back feeling strong and have a renewed psyche.

Bouldering Off-Season
Ya, so this one is a bit tricky for me anyways.  I do not particularly get excited for sport climbing.  I do not know why, but unless I get the itch, I typically do not do a lot of sport climbing during the summer months and prefer to train harder in the weight room.  Keep in mind that I am a strength coach and work in a weight room, so it is kind of hard for me not to hit the weights.  With that said I will go through a brief synopsis of what it would like to solely train in the summer for bouldering and omit the sport climbing info (article for a different day and mood).

Bouldering, Climbing Portion:  This can get a bit tricky because we are now moving into a year round bouldering plan, which as mentioned earlier can lead to injuries eventually, but with a proper training protocol, injuries can be avoided.

During the early portion of the off-season, maybe 3 to 4 weeks (June), I would focus on the volume you are capable of climbing in a given gym session.  In strength conditioning, this period is referred to as the general prep or work capacity phase.  This phase lays the ground work and necessary fitness base in which to build strength and power off of.  A typical gym session could be a 4x4 workout, a set number of easier problems you want climb that day (10,15,20), short power endurance intervals, or a combination of these. 

During the next 3 to 4 weeks (July) the focus can shift from general prep to strength development.  Workouts at the gym may include easier boulder problems with lock-off pauses with each move gradually increasing the angle and difficulty of the problems as you get stronger.  Hard boulder problems that require core, hard lock-offs, and pure strength movements as opposed to power/dyno moves will be what you want to pick during this time. Hangboard workouts could be included during this time to help increase contact strength (1x a Week).

During the next 3 to 4 weeks (August) the focus can continue to be on increased strength development, but the emphasis should begin to change toward power production.  Workouts in this phase can begin to include hard boulder problems that require powerful, dynamic movements as well as some campus board work (1x a Week).  I firmly believe that the best way to get better at climbing and reading problems is to actually climb.  Being able to set and just make up problems on the fly is a valuable asset as well.  Not every gym will have the problems set that you necessarily need at the moment, just make them up and remember them or ask to tape them up.  Being able to set will help you to read problems as well as to make up problems that stress your weaknesses.

Please check out this post I put up last month with training ideas.

Bouldering, Weight Room Portion:  Alright, the off-season is where you make your money in the weight room.  You can train your ass off, be tired and not really have to worry about performing, unless you are trying to show off at your local climbing gym, and if that is the case, please stop climbing ASAP.

So here is the way I look at it;  if you are training strength in the climbing gym, I think that you should train power in the weight room and vice versa.  This may be a bit counter intuitive in regards to typical strength and conditioning programs, but climbing is unique and a bouldering session is very strenuous and mimics a weight room training session.  Too much of one type of training will not only set you up for injury, but will degrade the amount of effort you can put in at the climbing gym.  Think about it, say you get into the weight room and train strength (heavy pull-ups, front levers, dragon flags, etc.) and then go to the climbing gym later that afternoon.  You may not be able to perform problems that you normally are able to because of the fatigue you induced earlier in the day.  According to the theory of specificity, training is most beneficial when it closely mimics the demands of the actual sporting movement.  What is great about climbing is that there are so many angles and variation of movement.  This variation makes it hard to replicate these positions in the weight room, so my contention is that you are better off putting greater emphasis on training strength through climbing harder strength-oriented boulder problems rather than in the weight room.

Now, once your focus in the climbing gym changes from strength to power, then your emphasis in the weight room can now shift to increasing strength.  The basic premise is that training two of the same physical attributes (power, strength) concurrently in the climbing gym and the weight room will not lead to greater benefits and may in fact lead to overuse injuries and/or overtraining symptoms.

The one phase I believe you can train concurrently in the climbing gym and the weight room is the general prep phase, that is briefly talked about above in the June portion of training.  Doing come circuit training in the weight room along with some endurance, low intensity climbing will help build a nice base in which to work off of in the strength and power phases of your training.   

  1. Plan your training and log everything.  I will post an article soon about how I record all of my physical activity.  The better you log your activity the more you will stick with it.  Also, you will be able to see trends of when you were sending hard and when you hit plateaus and what kind of training was taking place during these phases.
  2. Don't over do it.  Do not boulder super hard and hit the weights super hard.  You may be able to handle the stress for a couple of weeks, but sooner or later you need to change it up or unload (which most climbers do not do).  More is not always better!
  3. Realize the stress that you are putting on your body.  High stress in consecutive weeks without the proper recovery, will lead you down the road of injury.
  4. If you are young, you will be able to handle the stressors more readily, but keep in mind that as you age, there is a cumulative effect of repeated micro-traumas and injuries that you may be able to fight through now, but maybe not five years from now.  Fred Nicole has been climbing for 25 years and I want you to be able to do the same.

Keep in mind that I am not an elite climber and I started climbing in my mid 20's, so I started climbing late in the game and was way to muscle bound and heavy to begin with.  Needless to say, I thought that my strength in the weight room would immediately carry over to climbing, it did not however and I have had to learn how to balance my weight room training and goals with my climbing goals.  But over the last 4 to 5 years I have tried to apply my training knowledge to the sport of climbing and basically have experimented with a lot of different training protocols.  I am also not an elite climber, I train 3 to 4 times a week in the gym and try to get outside as often as I can, which really is not that often, but have managed to steadily progress each year I have been climbing with no real substantial plateau's.  

More to come, please leave comments with additional thoughts or ideas you may have that you would like me to research.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Does Shaking Out while Climbing Really Work: The Science Says No

Another recent article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, titled "Active recovery strategies and handgrip performance in trained vs. untrained climbers" had the aim of better understanding active recovery strategies as well as to determine if there are differences in isometric handgrip strength between trained and un-trained climbers.

The intro to the article talks about the usual background info about the nature of the sport and the type of intermittent isometric activity that takes place while climbing.  Much of this information has already been covered in my other reviews, Time Motion Analysis of Bouldering Comps and Injuries in Bouldering.

Compared to untrained climbers, elite level climbers have increased blood flow to the forearms and  take twice as long to fatigue during intermittent isometric contractions.  Surprisingly, there are no differences between trained and un-trained climbers when continuous isometric contractions are used with initial strength controlled for.  In non-scientific terms, elite climbers and untrained climbers show similar decreases in forearm strength if asked to hold a grip for 30 seconds.  However if they are asked to hold the grip for 6 seconds then release for 3 seconds in an intermittent fashion, elite level climbers show much less fatigue.  The authors thus hypothesize that the greater endurance elite climbers have over untrained climbers is related to the amount of blood flow between contractions.

In an effort to recover during a climb, many climbers "shake out" when at a rest stance.  Ask any sport climber and they will tell you that it speeds recovery and increases blood flow, but what does the science say.  The subjects in the study were asked to complete 5 to 11 sets of 6 reps (Reps = 3 second contractions with 1 second rest) and each set was separated by 9 seconds in which the participant would shake out in an effort to recover.  The force required to close the grip device was adjusted based on the initial strength measured on each climber so that the climbers could be compared to each other.  Also the number of sets used varied for the participants based on the level of fatigue the researchers wanted to induce.  Another interesting part of the study is that during certain trials of the experiment participants were required to were a blood pressure cuff during the shake out period in an effort to alter the amount of blood flow to the forearm.

The primary finding of the study was that shaking out did NOT significantly improve intermittent isometric handgrip exercise compared with the control, plain rest.  However the initial advantage elite level climbers had over untrained climbers when intermittent isometric strength was measured seemingly disappeared when the blood pressure cuff was used during recovery.  The authors infer from these results that elite climbers superior performance is more dependent on recovery blood flow in between contractions.  

Ok, so we know that trained climbers have better intermittent isometric contraction endurance and have much higher grip strength than untrained climbers.  Kind of a no brainer if you ask me, but now we have some science behind why that is; better recovery blood flow between contractions.  

I am not convinced with the findings that just plain resting your arm is as beneficial as resting it and shaking it out.  More research needs to be done, specifically research that measures blood flow to the forearm and utilizes various climbing grips.  Squeezing a typical handgrip dynanometer, like the one used in this study does not replicate the demands of the holds encountered in rock climbing.  Also there may be something said about the effect gravity has on the blood in the arm, shaking your arm from high to low may aid in the movement and delivery of blood to the forearm.

Green, J.G. & Stannard, S.R.  Active recovery strategies and handgrip performance in trained vs. untrained climbers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(2) 494-501.