Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An Unlikely Hero’s Story and the Myth of Early Specialization

On Sunday Philadelphia Eagles placekicker Jake Elliot suffered a concussion in the second quarter of a rivalry game against the Dallas Cowboys. For many NFL teams, this injury would have been tantamount to defeat.

The kicker is not only responsible for putting points on the scoreboard via point after touchdown attempts and field goals, but he (or she!) also helps to establish field position as the opposing team's offense begins their drives.

In carrying out these duties, kickers rarely get injured. As a result, teams don’t typically dress a backup on game day.

When your only kicker does go down with an injury, though, a team is forced to attempt to convert on more fourth downs and go for two-point conversions after every touchdown. Perhaps worse still, they risk surrendering great field position to the opponent on offense.

Fortunately for the Eagles, an unlikely hero stepped up.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Is CrossFit Safe for the General Population?

Q&A with Clark Hibbs

Travis: Thanks for agreeing to this Q&A, Clark! Ever since I did my first CrossFit workout (circa 2010), I've been intrigued by it. Coming from more of a bodybuilding background, it gave me an opportunity to compete against myself and the clock. It was a welcome divergence from the traditional three sets of ten.

As CrossFit has grown from a niche training style to a worldwide phenomenon over the last few years, though, so too have the myths and misconceptions surrounding it. As a box owner, I'd love for you to clear the air regarding what actually goes on inside a CrossFit box on a day-to-day basis.

Let's start from the beginning: how do you define CrossFit?

Clark: CrossFit can be defined as constantly varied, functional movements, executed at a high intensity. We try to train movements that we see direct application or benefit to movements in everyday life, and we try to make it as fun as possible.

Travis: I think the fun is often what hooks people. It can sometimes be missing from other styles training.

What’s the difference between competitive CrossFit and CrossFit for the general population?

Clark: CrossFit is inherently competitive, but there is a big difference between the sport of fitness (CrossFit Games, Regionals, etc.) and your everyday class at your local CrossFit affiliate.

The sport of fitness is about winning at all costs and truly testing an individual's maximum work capacity. It’s not uncommon to see form breakdown and dangerous levels pushed… just like any other sport or competition. We don’t always see perfect tackles made in the NFL under the pressure of competition. A linebacker will do whatever’s necessary to take down the running back. In the same vein, we might not see the greatest clean form at the CrossFit Games either. A competitor will do whatever’s necessary to get that barbell to the shoulders and stood up.

CrossFit for the general population is focused on one thing: making people healthier. Competition inside an affiliate leads to increased levels of intensity (which people otherwise might not reach on their own), but we should never let competition inside of an affiliate get to the level of excessive technique breakdown.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Plank Variation That Saved All the Puppies

If there’s one exercise that sets the foundation for all others, it’s the front plank.

Think about it.

What’s a push-up? A moving plank. What’s a pull-up? A moving plank. What are we doing with our torsos during squats and deadlifts? Maintaining the flat back posture characteristic of, you guessed it, a plank!

Yet if there’s one exercise that’s notoriously butchered, it’s also the plank.

People often attempt to hold it for way too long (e.g. several minutes on end). And when they do, it’s usually ugly. They lose proper position (a straight line from head to heel) and, therefore, the desired training effect. They also kill all of the puppies in the process.

Over the last few years, likely in response to the puppy-killing plank epidemic, the RKC plank has emerged as a potential solution.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Biggest Gimmick in Performance Training

“Sports-specific training.”

Everybody wants it for their athletes, but do they really know what it means?

Taken literally, sports-specific training is often interpreted as the act of mimicking sporting movements in the gym. This approach sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t always pan out in practice.

Not only do “sports-specific” exercises tend to be awkward to load and perform, but the added load also changes the movement pattern subtly. This change can be just subtle enough to negatively interfere with the actual performance of the sport.

A classic example of this type of error is wearing ankle weights to run. The weights change the way you run, which can reinforce bad habits.

Wearing ankle weights could make you run like this.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the camp that believes strength and strength alone is sports-specific. Get freakishly strong in the gym, they say, and leave the sporting movements to the sports coaches.

As with most things, the answer typically lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Nobody Cares About Your One-Rep Max

Earlier this summer I found myself sitting in on an exercise prescription lecture for second-year Doctor of Physical Therapy students at my university. I’ll likely be delivering this lecture next year, so I wanted to have a look-see at the material that was currently being offered. Plus, I just love being that guy who sits in the back of the room interrupting the professor to add his two cents every so often.

One of the things that struck me during the lecture was the emphasis (or overemphasis, in my opinion) on the one-repetition maximum (1RM). For those not familiar, a 1RM is the heaviest weight you can lift one time for a given exercise.

(Note: if you’re feeling fussy, you can differentiate between a “true” 1RM and a “technical” 1RM. True would be the heaviest weight you can lift, form be damned, just get the weight up any which way. A technical max would be the heaviest weight you can lift with perfect form.)

Devoting lecture time to the 1RM isn’t unique to exercise prescription for physical therapy students. 1RM and the testing thereof gets a lot of attention in most exercise textbooks and kinesiology curricula. This thorough treatment of the 1RM isn’t without reason, of course. Tons of training parameters are based off of it.

Conventional training wisdom dictates that if you want to train for a particular adaptation (e.g. strength/power, muscle gain, or endurance), you do a specified number of reps that corresponds to a certain percentage of your 1RM. In addition, 1RM testing can be used to document performance gains over time.

That’s all dandy, but here’s my beef. Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter or an otherwise advanced trainee, the process of figuring out your 1RM is often unnecessarily painstaking, risky, and uninformative.

The number just isn’t that important.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Adapting and Overcoming [Travis Mash's Barbell Life]

What’s the one thing that could be better than having one Travis on a podcast? Having two!

Thanks to Travis Mash​ of The Barbell Life Podcast, we were able to make this dream a reality.

In this podcast, we discussed
  • My life story (or at least the cliff notes version)
  • My quest for the Paralympics and how it led me first to personal training and now to my PhD
  • How I approach new clients
  • Advice on growing an internet presence
  • The most important skills trainers should have
  • And much more!

The episode is available for your listening enjoyment on iTunes and Spreaker:

Listen to "158 - Adapting and Overcoming with Travis Pollen" on Spreaker.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Simple Pull-Up Progression You Haven’t Tried

A bodyweight pull-up is one of the most elusive movements to master in the gym, especially for adult female exercisers. It takes a rare combination of upper body strength, core strength, and low body fat.

The pull-up is an incredibly worthwhile goal, though. There are few feelings sweeter than conquering that first rep. Of course, one of them would probably have to be tasting that Unicorn Frappuccino everyone was going crazy about a few weeks ago. Mmmmm....

Starbucks drama aside, every trainer has their preferred method of working their clients towards a pull-up. Most pull-up progressions go something like this, with plenty of room for variation (you could argue about the exercise selection and order until the cows come home, and many trainers do):

1. Lat pull-downs
2. Australian pull-ups (AKA inverted rows)
3. Hanging hollow body holds
4. Band-assisted pull-ups
5. Bent-arm hangs
6. Scapular pull-ups
7. Negative reps
8. Pull-ups!

Progressions like these are proven: they’ve helped lots of trainees crush their first rep. But they don’t always work.

Where I see people plateau most often is right at the tail end of the progression. I’ve had clients who can do negative reps for days, but when it comes time to try the full shebang, they barely budge from the straight-arm position.

Fortunately, I believe I’ve discovered the last piece to the pull-up puzzle. It happened very much by accident, when my girlfriend (who coincidentally is working on her first pull-up) showed me a video of her performing a 3/4 partial rep. Because our doorframe pull-up rig is only so tall, she started with her elbows bent, as shown below, hence the ‘partial’ modifier.

Girlfriend not pictured.
But you CAN see what a doorframe pull-up bar looks like.

That’s when the light bulb went off.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How to Spot a Fitness “Coach" Who Doesn't Actually Train People

I'm a firm believer in practicing what I preach. After all, who am I to make the liberating recommendation to wear two different socks if I’m not damn well doing it myself?

(Full disclosure: I usually just wear the sock on my prosthetic foot until it falls apart. My prosthetic foot doesn’t care if its sock is dirty.)

Relatedly, since I started my PhD this past September, I’ve continued to train people in person at least once a week. I fancy myself something of a Batman figure in this regard, leading a double life as both researcher and practitioner. I don't have a cape, though (yet).

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to being a fitness professional, I don’t think you can keep your head in the game and stay informed on relevant issues if you aren't actually doing and living that #trainerlife (at least as often as your schedule permits).

For this reason, it irks me to no end when I see people giving out nonsensical workout advice that can only be indicative of them having never actually trained anyone (besides maybe themselves).

The issue of these imposters masquerading around the web claiming to train real people when, in fact, they do nothing of the sort is a serious one. And I'm calling bullshit.

Because it can sometimes be a challenge to identify said phonies, here are a few red flags to keep an eye out for.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Stop Vilifying This Exercise

People love to hate on burpees. Their complaints typically go something like this:

  • “They’re horrible for your low back and wrists.”
  • “They’re not functional.”
  • “They make you senselessly tired.”
  • “If your personal trainer makes you do burpees, find a new trainer.”

Yeah, yeah. I get it. Vilifying exercises is all the rage these days, and black-and-white thinking is easier than deliberating in shades of gray. (By the way, has anyone seen the new movie?) Heck, talking down trainers who have their clients do said vilified exercises suddenly makes us feel a lot better about our own personal and professional limitations.

I bet Christian Grey does burpees.

Are you ready for the honest-to-goodness, naked truth, though? I bet you didn’t expect anything to get naked on this blog post, but here it comes.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

New Fitness Competition Takes Delco by Storm

This past Sunday, April 23, 2017, well over a hundred athletes and spectators gathered at Palangi Plus/Thomas DeVietro Strength & Conditioning in Morton, PA, to participate in the inaugural Rangers Games.

The Rangers Games gets its name from the 75th Ranger Regiment, a special operations force within the U.S. Army. It was hosted by Tom DeVietro, a former Ranger himself, and judged by several of DeVietro’s fellow Rangers from the 75th. All of the proceeds from the event went to support disabled veteran Chris Nowak, a former Marine who lost his leg in training.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

11 Things Every Personal Trainer Should Be Doing For Their Clients

They say one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Unfortunately, when it comes to the personal training business, there’s no shortage of bad apples. And it’s true: they give the rest of us a bad name. To raise the standard and elevate the field, I implore you not to be one of the bad apples. Luckily, doing the 11 things below will put you well on your way to being the Honey Crisp of personal trainers (i.e. the best!).

1. Base the training program on your client's goals.

Personal training isn’t about you or your goals. It’s about the client’s. That’s why it's called PERSONAL training.

For example, just because YOU are a powerlifter, that doesn't mean all your clients wants to squat, bench, and deadlift as heavy as possible. If they just want to "tone up," then by golly your sole job is to help them do it.

Or, just because you think big quads and boulder shoulders are sexy, that doesn't mean every client feels the same way. If your client doesn't want bigger quads and wider shoulders, then keep the quad and shoulder training to a minimum (within reason).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

4 Things It’s Not Okay to Do as a Fitness Professional

As a personal trainer and movement scientist, I often get asked for advice on fitness. (Go figure!) Whether it’s a friend, a family member, or a stranger on the internet with a cartoon character for a profile picture, I’m more than happy to share my two cents.

Of course, when I first started out in the industry I thought I needed to have all of the answers. I thought that if people came to realize I wasn’t all-knowing, they’d think less of me as a professional.

It turns out my thought process couldn’t have been further from the truth. In actuality, it takes a great deal of maturity and self-awareness to admit to your own limitations. People respect that.

Moreover, you can only parade around pretending to be smarter than everyone else for so long. Eventually, that shit catches up with you. Before it does, though, you’ll likely have no trouble dishing out plenty of unproductive and potentially harmful advice.

Which leads me to my motivation for this post. Lately, I’ve noticed a number of fitness professionals on the wrong end of the law in this regard. While this problem certainly isn’t a new one, it’s come to a head lately, to the point where I feel compelled to speak out against it.

I figured a constructive way to tackle this would be to provide a few examples of what’s NOT okay to do when you’re in a position of authority. I solemnly swear never to commit the offenses described below, and for the sake of the people we educate I beg of my peers to make the same promise hereafter.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How Working Out is Just Like Eating a Reese’s

During my 500-hour personal trainer certification program, I learned a lot of things about exercise from the instructor, Barry Fritz. One of the most important was the necessity of having a rationale for whatever it is you’re doing at the gym.

I like to make the analogy to eating a Reese’s. (Actually, I’ve never made this analogy before, but hear me out.) We know there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s. Likewise, there’s no wrong way to design a workout — as long as you have a rationale.

I guess it’s not a great analogy, since it doesn’t matter the slightest bit why you chopped your Reese’s into a hundred tiny pieces, organized them from smallest to largest, and ate every third morsel. Oh well. Back to exercise.

What I mean is that you could put together what might seem to be a completely bone-headed training program. You appear to make every “mistake” in the book. Yet if you can justify all of your choices with sound logic, then your program may not be so bone-headed after all.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Top 17 Fitness Professionals to Watch in 2017

Every January, several lists surface advising you on which fitness professionals to follow in the coming year. These lists are rarely to my satisfaction, so I decided to make my own in order to better inform the general public regarding who the most qualified practitioners are.

My selection criteria were pretty strict, so I apologize in advance if you or your favorite fitness professional didn't make the cut. With only 17 spots, I had to make some tough decisions.

Without further ado, I present the Top 17 Fitness Professionals to Watch in 2017:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

7 Lifting Rules That Actually Don't Matter Much [T-Nation]

A lot of folks get their panties in a bunch at the gym when it just isn’t necessary. For instance, there’s no need to have an aneurysm when the equipment you want is in use, when you don’t hit the exact number of reps you intend to, or when you’re forced to miss a workout.
As much as fitness professionals love to argue over the minutiae of training (I'm definitely guilty as charged!), when it comes to getting results some things matter much less than people think. Like the seven topics I wrote about in my new T Nation article, 7 Lifting Rules that Actually Don't Matter Much.
Read all about it here:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

5 Questions You Must Ask Yourself Before Every Exercise

People love to debate over whether this exercise or that exercise is “good” or “bad.” In reality, hypothetical debates like these are nonsensical.

That’s because the question “Is [fill in the blank] a good exercise?” is the wrong one. The correct question is this:

“Is [fill in the blank] a good exercise for me?” 

See the difference?

Despite the proselytisms of some internet fitness gurus, there are no absolutes when it comes to exercise selection. To determine whether an exercise is good for you, you have to ask yourself a few questions -- and answer them honestly.