Tag: neuraldrive

Lifting Straps and Grip Strength

Importance of Grip Strength

“In the old days, Olympic athletes are amateurs. So they still need to work in the fields or factories, handling odd shaped objects. Nowadays, most Olympic athletes are professionals, simply used to only deal with small handles on dumbbells hence they lack the neural drive to their finger tips.” laments Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the most respected figures in the field of strength and conditioning. Pavel Tsatsouline, former USSR Spetsnaz trainer and subject matter expert for US special forces also emphasized the importance of neural radiation from tight fists for athletic power. Dan John, former US Olympian and coach echoes this sentiment.

This is the reason why both on my own training, and as I train my clients, I always emphasize on grip strength, using variety of handles such as fat grip and rope.

How NOT To Use Lifting Accessories

120 kg paused deadlift with no straps or weightbelt

Hence it is a shame that with the rising popularity of lifting accessories, increasing number of people are using them where they shouldn’t. Many times I walked into a commercial gym and see big muscular guys using lifting straps and lifting belts for everything including lats pull down! This is one of the causes of a modern day disease where seemingly big muscular men can hardly lift as heavy as a construction worker half their size. Those big muscles are just for show!

Its indeed an irony that although these accessories are originally developed for strength athletes, most of these same athletes do not rely on them as much as these cosmetic guys. Take a look at Dimitriy Klokov, noted Russian Olympic weightlifting medalist that only selectively use lifting straps and weight belts on his training videos.

How To Use Lifting Straps Properly

Lasso Type Lifting Strap

Having said the above, it doesn’t mean that there is no proper use of lifting straps. For example, if you are doing deadlifts and you are lifting at 95 – 100% your max, then the use of lifting straps could be justified if you want to prevent your callouses from peeling off.

If you are doing Olympic weightlifting and you are doing the hang and pull variations of your lift for reps, then the use of lifting straps would actually be ideal to make sure your grip position stays the same.

So yes, if you are serious in either powerlifting or olympic weightlifting, then you do need a lifting straps and for hygiene reason, having your own is ideal. If you are interested in finding the right lifting strap for you, you should read more about it here.

6 Training Myths that Should Go Away

Once you hung around at the weight room long enough, its unavoidable that you will start hearing some “tips” that many people believed in. Some sounded more scientific than others. But not all of these are true. The following are 6 myths circulating at many gyms that you should totally ignore.

Wear Weightbelts to Protect Your Back

curved deadlift

Seriously, this is a myth long proven to be false by Dr. McGill that you can read on his book Ultimate Back Fitness. Its not about how thick or tight your belt is, its about how you keep it in neutral position and use all your core muscles to stiffen it. The image above is definitely NOT something you should be doing with or without any weight belt.

Situps, Crunches and Russian Twists are your essentials for 6 pack abs

russian twist

More like essentials for bad backs. There’s a reason why US Army and Canadian Army finally listened to Dr. McGill’s research and do away with the speed sit up requirements, namely its true that its best for some people to avoid them. I for one haven’t done a single sit up for over a year and still keep my 6 pack abs. Back Mechanics will be a good place to start if you want to do away with these bad exercises and still maintain a strong core.

Machines are Safer than Weights


This is a rather convenient myth to keep especially among lazy personal trainers that don’t really want to bother coaching proper technique to their clients. Fact is among serious, injury free lifters, machines are only useful for assistance lifts after they have done the big lifts (squat, deadlift, benchpress and Overhead press) and explosive lifts (Snach, Clean and Jerk and their variations) with free weights. And there’s a reason for that, namely that big and explosive lifts requires balance and multiple muscle coordination, hence have less risk of developing muscular imbalance or movement pattern dysfunction compared to machines.

You Must Confuse the Muscle for Gains


This is a trend that started out with the bodybuilders and later expand to those trainers that believed in a perverted form of “functional training”. Interestingly, these are the very same people that do not have actual athletic performance as their benchmark. Fact of the matter is powerlifters and olympic weightlifters only focuses on limited number of exercises and yet are the strongest class of athlete strictly on the sagital plane of movement. Joint, muscle and bones becomes stronger by adaptation of progressive loading. If you keep on changing the method of loading every time you train, you will not get stronger any faster.

You Must Train to Failure for Absolute Gains


Yet another myth from the bodybuilding circle. If you train for looks, not for absolute strength, and use lots of steroids, insulin and HGH, then this might be the case. But there’s a reason why real athletes have a motto “no ego lift”. If you struggle to get the weight up, then either there was too much repetition or too much weight in that set for you at the moment. Its not just for safety reason, but also to make sure that your “neural drive” i.e. your capability to activate as much muscle fiber as possible in a single contraction remains intact.

You Must Feel the Burn Before Your Muscle Will Grow


OK, maybe not that type of burn, but you get the idea. This is yet another misguided thinking that started in the bodybuilding circle. Except that real lifters knows that you should first get your technique right first when you are starting. And even once you get into intermediate level, you must have volume days along with recovery days and intensity days to ensure a steady gain instead of a steady joint pain.

Bogus Fitness Trend Of the Week: Low Weight for Muscle Gain

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard the latest fitness trend that goes by different names but same meaning such as “lifting lighter weights just as effective as lifting heavier weight” by Huffington Post and “quick tip: build muscle with light weight” by Men’s Fitness. All this stems from McMaster University research led by Dr. Stuart Phillips which as I quote from EurekaAlert!:

Researchers recruited two groups of men for the study–all of them experienced weight lifters–who followed a 12-week, whole-body protocol. One group lifted lighter weights (up to 50 per cent of maximum strength) for sets ranging from 20 to 25 repetitions. The other group lifted heavier weights (up to 90 per cent of maximum strength) for eight to 12 repetitions. Both groups lifted to the point of failure.

Researchers analyzed muscle and blood samples and found gains in muscle mass and muscle fibre size, a key measure of strength, were virtually identical.

If you are interested in reading the full research paper, feel free to read the paper as published on Journal of Applied Physiology on May 6, 2016.

What do Elite Strength and Conditioning Coaches Do


Quite an intriguing conclusion considering this goes against what most world class strength and conditioning coach advises when your goal is to build strength  or power. They advise lifting 85% of your 1 RM for a few times, and never push till past the point of exhaustion. Of course this could be different if the goal is fat loss or hypertrophy.

So why such vast difference in training method? Why don’t we look at a research done in 2003 by Eastern Illinois University comparing powerlifters, olympic weightlifters, and bodybuilders. Basically all of the research subjects are of the same weight, height, and thigh muscle mass. But the powerlifters and olympic weightlifters simply outlifts the bodybuilders by a big margin. If, as Dr. Phillips mentioned, “muscle mass and muscle fibre size are key measure of strength”, then shouldn’t they all be equal?

And by the way, Dr. Phillips statement “The other group lifted heavier weights (up to 90 per cent of maximum strength) for eight to 12 repetitions. ” is also funny. If you can do up to 8 – 12 reps in a single set, you are most probably NOT doing 90% of your 1 RM. Elite Russian Olympic weightlifters and elite American powerlifters can only do 2 – 3 reps when they are doing 90% to 100% of their max.

What Causes The Difference

The key here, as Dr. Stuart McGill explained in his book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, is that muscle mass and muscle fiber size are not the only keys to measure strength. Another key ingredient is called neural density. Bodybuilders tend to train 8-12 reps per set, at 70% of their 1 RM, emphasizing the “muscle burn”. Olympic weightlifters only do 3-5 reps per set, at 85% of their 1 RM, emphasizing on technique, neural “grooving” and speed to lock out position. Hence the later group ended up with much higher neural density, i.e. the capability of having all their muscle fiber fire up at the same time at high speed. If, you train with even lower weight, at much higher rep (up to 25 on the McMaster research subjects), then you can be sure that your neural density will be even lower than the average bodybuilder’s.

As you already know, our body is great in adapting towards its environment. If you train your body to do low weight, high rep isolated training, then it will be adapt at doing that. And having low neural density means that some muscles will work while others will “cool off” at the same time while you are doing a particular movement, allowing you to have longer endurance.

So at the end of the day, it depends on your goals. If your goal is muscle mass and you don’t care about strength gain, then by and large, the low weight high rep method can also be used and its probably safer than going heavy if you don’t have the movement proficiency to begin with. If your goal is strength gain, then please don’t bother with this latest fitness trend.

Anecdotal Evidence, Statistically based Conclusion, and Functional Training

Good Morning my dear readers, recently I had a conversation with a friend regarding exercises certain “YouTube stars” peddle at their channel. It came down to “If what you say is true, then how come X and Y can do this and that movement and seemed fine?” So allow me to explain here the reasoning on why imitating any movement someone else demonstrated might not be a good idea:

Anecdotal Evidence

Back when I was practicing Kung Fu, even my shifu would say that only certain people with certain type of bone structure can train the 1 finger handstand. And as Dr. McGill has aptly proven in his three decades of spine research, the spine and pelvic ring structure of humans are highly varied, with some are more specialized towards certain tasks than others. This is why all the fastest sprinters in the world have a common ancestor from a specific region in Africa and why 90% of Scottish people cannot do a deep squat with a straight back but are stronger than average on highland games. Different people are also born with different spine flexion/extension capacity. Some people can do 2000 sit ups a day. But if I do 700 sit ups a day for a month, for sure I will get disk bulges again.

Now for an extreme example, check this “tutorial” that will send you one way to my clinic:

First think I would say is notice her youth. Younger people tend to have more flexible spine disks. As part of normal aging process, the disks will start to loose its flexibility and it would not like being contorted into those positions. Second, notice how thin her bones are. If you are born with the bone structure of an NFL line backer, forcing yourself to practice those movements, even progressively over 1 year period will ensure you become my patient.

Hence proper training program isn’t simply imitating someone else’s training. Each individual has his/her own limit of end-range of motions, both due to soft tissues (muscles, tendons etc) that can be trained or hard tissues (bones) that cannot be trained. They also started their training at different fitness level along with different movement proficiency. A good program must consider all these factor along with the consideration on what the goal of the training is. A good program must also maximize the gains compared to the risk associated with doing certain exercise.

Statistically based Conclusion


Now this is the main reason why I love Dr. McGill’s approach. No “motherhood stories” about why he/she thinks this “primal pattern” or what not is important for you to train. No “chikung toe touch” or funny exercises based on “ancient eastern wisdom” either. The man simply did his research and after gathering the data points, draw the conclusion that were tested on both normal civilian and world class athletes.

Hence if a fitness guru claims that he is so good and one of his “proofs” is him training a second division hockey team, then my question is how good was the team before, what is the marked improvement the team did competition wise (moved up the rank, moved to first division, or won the Stanley cup?). Simply claiming that “they look fitter” doesn’t pass the muster. Any gym rat can make a football team more muscular, but might actually damage the team’s athletic capability. As mentioned in my past post regarding training with a purpose, proper strength and conditioning must first design the movement pattern and goals to be achieved before proceeding with the right program design. And more importantly, how does your trainer justify his program? based on anecdotal evidences or from research on hundreds of gold medal winning athletes.

Functional Exercise


Real Athletes have done real functional exercise for ages. And for day laborers, their functional exercise is basically their employment. It basically means you train specifically for your goals. This is also something I highly recommend for recreational sport enthusiast that wants to get better at their game. I also understand that some personal trainers felt the need to develop their own “novel approach” to exercises to make their name, constantly develop new exercises to keep their clients entertained.

However, combined these two factors and you get yourself the bastardized version of exercises with funny devices we see at many gyms these days, invented by people whose main motivation is to sell equipment. Some of them are simply silly and useless unless you plan on applying to Cirque do Solei, pretty much useless. Some others are simply harmful and does not keep up to date with the latest science.

Strength and Conditioning should be about building up your strength and movement competence. Getting you “gassed out” should not be the main objective. It might even ruin your neural drive according to several people more knowledgeable than me. And it should not damage your joints but make them stronger. Dr. McGill gave a detailed explanation on how to properly develop your own REAL functional exercise in his book “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance“. The exercises listed here are some of what I will consider as true “functional training”. Keep in mind that proper movement is essential and great programming involves selecting the movements that will help you reach your athletic goals and according to your current athletic capabilities.