Friday, October 5, 2012

Gym programming for athletes

The title of this article should have actually been "Why your workout sucks and is making you slow", but I decided on something a little more positive. When I go to the gym I almost always see guys doing dedicated workouts solely for either a single body part, or maybe an upper body split. Usually it's just shoulder day or arm day. One of my good friends at the track even told me he did heavy dead lifts the day before so his next workout was going to be a shoulder day. My response was, why not take it a step further and just do your right shoulder today? I was being sarcastic, but I want to give you some explanations why single body part workouts and workout splits for athletes suck.

Reason 1: Frequency

If you do an upper/lower body split 4 times a week, and you do the same lifts each time you only practice that lift 8 times a month. Usually people only do 15-30 reps of each exercise, which adds up to 120 or 240 reps a month. Now if you skip a workout or two you may be down to doing a single lift 6 or 7 times a month. I don't know if you've ever tried to learn to play guitar, memorize something for a test in school or learning to pop a wheelie, but only practicing "Stairway to Heaven" 6 times in a month will not make you as proficient as Jimmy Page.

Getting stronger isn't just about building bigger muscles, it's also about motor control learning and making your movements efficient. Teaching your muscles to contract harder and faster more often is what will make you a better and stronger rider, not breaking them down to exhaustion a few times a week. Swinging a kettlebell 3-4 times a week will help you to learn proper hip hinge and hip explosion much better than once or twice a week. Popping a wheelie twice as often will help you learn to ride wheelies much quicker...It's just good math.

Reason 2: Symmetry

Your shoulders are not designed to work independently of the rest of the body. When you push or pull something your whole body is involved to a degree. Every muscle will fire when you pull up for a jump or do a gate. You're only as strong as your weakest link. So if you isolate and dedicate your workouts to just shoulders, arms, or legs then you will not fully develop the whole chain it takes to power a movement. Not only does this lead to under performance but also could contribute to injuries.

When we tap manual a jump, we power the movement by shifting our weight by a quick pull, then powerfully extend the hips to catch backside. Then shift weight forward and pull the bike up again as we get over the next jump. As the wheels approach the landing  we will extend the hips and pump the backside as aggressively as possible. This is a chain of events that the whole body performs to properly tap manual a jump. If we lack the hip range of motion we can never get into the right position to stay low over a jump. If we lack the hip, core, or shoulder stability we will also not be able to power this movement. Now think about your gate, jumping, turning, how many different movements it takes to complete a lap. This is one reason why working the whole body is so important to bmx.

Reason 3: Recovery

You may be surprised by how easy some athletes work out. From all the P90X infomercials, CrossFit and Nike commercials you would think that to be considered a good workout you need to bring yourself to the brink of exhaustion, and barely be able to walk out of the gym, a little bleeding is also a touch. The reality is, if you train this hard, your body will struggle to recover from a really hard workout. Add life stresses (work, wife/husband, kids) on top of a bunch of hard workouts and you will never be recovered enough to see your full performance. If you single out body parts and crush them with a hard workout, that body part may not be recovered for the next days sprint session or track day.

I can't imagine working out biceps and triceps for a full hour, but I see guys do it all the time. These are relatively small muscles and don't require a full hour of stimulation to get them bigger and stronger. The key to gaining performance is optimizing how much stimulus your body can handle and then recovering. This allows for super compensation and also helps you to feel fresh and energetic for your next workout. Just like studying for a test, your body gets better by giving it some information often and resting. I like the analogy of studying for a test. You can study every night for 30 min all week or you can stay up all night studying the night before. What one do you think works the best?

How to optimize your programming

Body part training and split training has it's place, but I really don't see a reason to do either for bmx, especially in season. An upper/lower body split may be good for off season when your goal is to gain strength and you're not adding to the stress by racing. But only use it as a method to develop strength that fits into your larger plan. For example the months of December and January maybe used to work solely on gaining some strength since most tracks are closed and weather is bad. But even if you split into upper body and lower body, I think doing most upper body work while standing or in a stability challenging position is optimal.

As the race season approaches, you will want to start focusing not only on gym strength but applying that strength to bike speed. Gym sessions should be quick and focus on compound lifts that require the whole body. Get in, stimulate some growth and get out, recover and repeat. Within that you may have things you would like to emphasise. Earlier in the season, focus on getting stronger and transition into more speed work. To optimally change the body, pick a goal and work on that. You can't train for power lifting and a marathon at the same time. Work on getting mobile, getting stronger, then get fast! This is where having a coach will really help you stay on track.

Most of us are not bodybuilders, power lifters or distance runners. We are not training to compete in CrossFit games. We are Bmx racers that train to do a lap quicker than the next guy. Our training needs to reflect that goal.

"The goal is to keep the goal the goal" - Dan John

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