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A question of strength

Eine Frage der Kraft

Q: What kind of diet would you recommend for someone training to build strength?

A: If you are interested in increasing your maximum strength, I believe that supplements play a bigger role than diet - which of course is only true if you are following a diet that is more balanced than the typical American or Western European average person's diet.

Nutrition for strength building is very specific to the individual and trying to recommend a universal strength building diet is a risky endeavor. One of the most important things to keep in mind when eating for maximum strength is that you should immediately eliminate anything that interferes with your focus from your daily diet. I personally have to avoid carbohydrates until after my workout, which is even for low glycemic index carbs, whereas some professional bodybuilders can eat enough pasta before their workout to save a small country in Africa from starvation and still have an excellent training session afterwards.

Things that I have personally found to help me increase my strength include:

  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine, 3-7 grams per day
  • Glutamine, 30-70 grams per day
  • Branched-chain amino acids/glutamine consumed during training
  • A ribose/creatine combination, four servings per day
  • Adequate protein, 4.5 grams per kilogram of body weight (most people will need liquid meals to reach this level)
  • Plenty of healthy fats such as CLA and fish oil
  • Certain forms of tocotrienols in high doses (these can also dramatically lower cholesterol levels)
  • Various herbal preparations (this is beyond the focus of this column. I would consult a trainer who knows about naturopathy)

I'm not saying you have to use all of these things at once, but I would recommend experimenting with some of these - either on their own or in combination - and see what works best for you personally.

Q: What do you think of jump squats? If you like them, how would you incorporate them into a training program?

A: Jump squats are great for improving vertical jump height and shortening the phase during the sprint when your feet are in contact with the ground (the shorter this phase is, the faster you can run).

The problem that most people have with this exercise is that they use weights that far exceed their so-called "stretch-shortening cycle" capacities. In other words, they spend too much time on the floor, which negates the positive carryover of this exercise to other athletic activities. Obviously, you can't load a safe on your back and expect to sprint with explosive power.

Studies conducted with track and field athletes tend to suggest that an athlete should never use more than 40% of their maximum weight for power snatches in this exercise. I usually use 5 to 10 sets of 6 to 10 repetitions of this exercise. Ground contact time must be kept to a minimum. If the weight you use doesn't allow you to move explosively back up immediately, then your vertical jump height is doomed to stay in the low range.

Q: I would like to have a trapezius like the WCW wrestler Goldberg. I've never heard of a trapezius specialization program. Should I just do plenty of shoulder lifts and rowing upright or is there something better?

A: Yes, you can do a trapezius specialization program. This muscle tends to have a very fast growth response.

Martial artists like wrestlers do plenty of trapezius training to improve their specific skills. Ultimate Fighting Champion Ken Shamrock has trapezius development that would make most bodybuilders envious.

Powerlifters achieve their trapezius development through years of deadlifting, while Olympic weightlifters achieve it through Olympic weightlifting exercises and their derivatives. British powerlifter and world record holder Vanessa Gibson has trapezius development that makes Goldberg look weak. Her breasts are prettier too, but that's beside the point.

I would consider power snatches to be the best exercise for trapezius development. This is followed by power cleans and then various forms of shoulder raises. Here is a good 12 workout trapezius cycle that should help you build mass in your trapezius area:

Workout 1-6 (The trapezius is trained every fifth day)

A) Power snatch from medium height

  • 5 sets of 5 reps with a 10X0 tempo and 3 minutes rest between sets.

Editor's note: The tempo numbers refer to how many seconds it should take to perform a repetition, with the first number representing the duration of the lowering phase of the repetition and the second number representing the length of the pause at the lowest point of the movement before lifting the weight. The third number represents the duration of the lifting of the weight (an "X" represents an explosive upward movement), while the last number represents the duration of the pause until the weight is lowered.

B) Trapezius triple set

  • Dumbbell shoulder lift seated, 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions with a 2022 tempo
  • 10 seconds rest
  • Barbell shoulder raise, 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions at 1110 tempo (note the pause at the highest point of the movement)
  • 10 seconds rest
  • Rowing upright on cable pulley, 3 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions with a 2010 tempo
  • 10 seconds rest
  • Repeat all steps twice more

Workouts 7-12

A) Power cleans from an elevation

  • 10 sets of 2 to 3 repetitions with a 10X0 tempo and three minutes rest between sets

B) One-arm dumbbell shoulder lift

  • 5 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions with a 2011 tempo and three minutes rest between sets (one-arm shoulder raises allow a greater range of motion)

Additional training for the neck muscles is recommended if you want to develop a thicker neck.

Q: Could you give us some general guidelines on how an athlete should train during the season and off-season? I know this topic can get complicated and quite sport specific, but are there any rules of thumb?

A: Here are some rules of thumb regarding in-season strength training: there is no need for so-called specific training. You as an athlete will already do plenty of this on the field or on the ice. I know a team that has decided to do sport-specific training during the season. 11 out of 14 athletes developed patellar tendinitis within a short period of time.

It takes very little work to maintain strength - especially when the sport itself provides a lot of external resistance. For example, we found with our alpine ski team that training the quadriceps every 21 days was sufficient to maintain 90% of the gains previously achieved during the so-called off-season.

I believe that an athlete should be more interested in staying as healthy as possible during the off-season. Using our alpine skiers as an example, we found that training the leg flexors once every 5 to 7 days was critical to keeping the incidence of knee injuries low.

My general guidelines include the following: A loss of muscle mass will cause a loss of maximum strength. For this reason, you should make sure to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. The best way to do this is to perform one or two sets of 6 to 10 repetitions every 7 to 10 days. The training sessions should be very short, e.g. 20 to 40 minutes.

One approach that works very well for maintaining strength and muscle mass is the "one exercise after technical training" approach. Judokas and other martial artists use this approach with great success. For example, they do a few sets of pull-ups on Monday after training on the mat. On Tuesday, they might train squats. Wednesday might be dedicated to incline bench presses, etc. I think you know where I'm going with this. You will do an average of five sets of an exercise in a day.

Additionally, the more muscle mass you have, the easier it is to maintain maximum strength. Therefore, lighter individuals need to strength train more often during the competition phase.

Q: Squats are the queen of leg exercises. The problem is that I'm getting tired of squats. Can you tell me a quadriceps dominant exercise that I can use to break the monotony and that is almost as good as squats?

A: Sorry, but I'm sure even my colleagues Al Vermeil and Ian King will agree with me when I say that there is no substitute for squats. Squats not only recruit a lot of motor units, but they also generate a hormonal response unmatched by other exercises that puts you in anabolic mode. And they allow you to get closer to the ground to see if there are any dust flakes under the rack. No amount of leg presses or lunges can replace classic squats.

The near-best alternative would be deadlifts with a trap bar, performed on a platform. This exercise can give you a welcome change from squats. However, if you want to perform more than three repetitions per set, I would recommend using grip aids so that your isometric strength does not become a limiting factor in overloading the muscles.

Make sure to keep the upper arms relaxed during the exercise and initiate the exercise through the legs and not the lower back.

After a three-week cycle of this type of deadlift, you can return to squats with renewed interest and will most likely set a new personal best within a short period of time.

And if you're bored, you can also try the following method. The next time you do squats, pause for eight seconds three times during the upward movement of your last repetition. You'll curse me for this, that's for sure.

Q: I've often heard that athletes should perform their exercises standing when appropriate. For example, they should always stand when doing shoulder presses. One coach even said the following:

"You fight on your feet, you play sports on the field on your feet, so why should you train sitting down?"

Most guys I know sit down and use some kind of support for their back when they train shoulders. Is that wrong? What if it feels uncomfortable in the lower back when I do these exercises standing up?

A: The problem with seated training is that you are inviting problems because you are eliminating the structural training for the lower back. To paraphrase Fred Hatfield, seated training limits the support and the need to use stabilizing muscles. This basically reduces their ability to work synergistically with the primary muscles to stabilize the body. Hatfield says that training while standing, as opposed to training on machines, helps you build a more injury-resistant body. He also notes that standing Olympic weightlifting exercises teach the athlete how to perform explosive movements, accelerate objects under varying degrees of resistance and apply force in the correct sequence. In other words, if you are a competitive athlete, you had better perform your exercises standing when appropriate.

I would also support my colleague Charles Staley's view that bodybuilders could increase their gains by doing more standing workouts on a platform. Most bodybuilders would gain significant muscle mass in the posterior chain and trapezius with some of the variations of Olympic weightlifting exercises.

If you experience lower back pain when performing standing exercises, I would recommend that you consult a competent sports medicine practitioner to help you eliminate the problems causing this pain.

There are also plenty of exercise alternatives for exercisers with lower back pain. Safety bar squats, for example, are a good alternative for someone who experiences lower back pain when performing regular squats. This is a specially designed bar that makes it easier for you to get low enough to perform squats and keep your back upright while minimizing stress on your knees and lower back. The design of the bar provides a lower center of mass for resistance on the bar and therefore generates less leverage forces acting on the lower back.

Another alternative for leg development is the Gerard Trap Bar. This was developed by Al Gerard, a powerlifter from North Carolina who suffered from chronic back problems. To alleviate his pain and reduce the number of lost training days, he developed and patented this special diamond-shaped bar that allows you to stand inside the bar. This improves balance and eliminates leg interference. In other words, this means no more bloody shins. This bar also allows you to maintain a more upright posture so that your spine will be exposed to less shear forces.

Q: Do you think acupuncture has any applications for training athletes? And how does acupuncture actually work?

A: Yes, acupuncture can definitely be helpful for athletes. I know many world-class athletes and professional athletes who have used acupuncture as an adjunct to their training. Over the years, I have seen Olympic medal winners in weightlifting, track and field athletes, alpine skiers and ski jumpers use acupuncture to give them an edge - an edge that cannot be detected by drug testing.

Acupuncture is used both to enhance performance and to treat injuries. Usually acupuncture is used in combination with other therapies such as chiropractic, soft tissue manipulation, naturopathy, etc. I know of athletes who have successfully used acupuncture for the following conditions:

  • Neuralgia (nerve pain)
  • sleep disorders
  • Consequences of overtraining
  • Low androgen/growth hormone production
  • Muscle tears (particularly effective in this context)
  • Bursitis
  • Priapism (a prolonged 8 hour erection)

In terms of performance, athletes are known to use acupuncture to get into the "training zone". If they are too nervous, certain acupuncture points are used to get them ready for competition. If an athlete is lethargic on competition day, acupuncture can be used to activate their nervous system and get them into the zone for optimal performance. I currently have a personal acupuncture therapist who sticks me in the butt repeatedly to keep me in my "meet the deadline" zone.

Acupuncture works by encouraging the body to promote its natural healing processes. It does this by inserting needles and applying heat or electrical stimulation to precisely selected acupuncture points. There are two ways to explain the effect. The first is the classical Chinese explanation:

Channels of energy, known as meridians, run through the body and across its surface in a regular pattern. These channels can be merged into rivers that flow through the body to irrigate and nourish the tissues. Any disruption to the movement of these energy flows can be likened to a dam, holding back the flow in one part of the body and restricting it in other areas. According to acupuncture dogma, any blockage and deficiency of energy, blood and neural pulses will eventually contribute to disease. The Chinese also say that acupuncture balances the negative yin forces and the positive yang forces. The needles basically serve to remove these dams that block the flow of energy.

And now the Western explanation: inserting needles into the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals into the muscles and at certain points of the central nervous system. These chemicals, which include serotonin and endorphins, either alter the pain threshold or stimulate the release of other chemicals involved in healing. Instead of using the yin and yang construct, Western experts say that acupuncture balances the electrical charges at the electron level in the cells.

Regardless of the explanation used for how it works, acupuncture can be a helpful tool for the athlete.


By Charles Poliquin

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