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USPLA North American Championship Meet Update

17 Jul

Before I (Greg L) walked on to the platform, I chalked my sweaty hands at the bowl. Normally, you don’t need to chalk your hands before a back squat. But this wasn’t just another rep. This was going to be the heaviest weight I’d ever been under.

467.5 pounds.

My adrenaline was racing. The music blaring. Spectators and fellow competitors alike watched closely as I stepped under the bar.

In some of the more surreal moments of my life, time seems to slow down. Everything goes silent. And for a brief moment, my vision funnels down to a singular point of focus.

This was one of those moments. I couldn’t hear my wife or coaches yelling. I didn’t see the spectators or even the head judge sitting only a few feet in front of me making sure my movement met his standards. I could only see the grey and black banner hanging from the ceiling across the room.

I squeezed every single muscle in my body. I fought hard against the enormous weight on my back that was trying to bring me down. And after what seemed like an eternity, I eeked my way through the sticking point to reach the top.

This is the nature of powerlifting. These are the kinds of moments you expect in a meet. And these are the kinds of experiences you have to embrace.

My meet last Saturday was a memorable one. I set a new PR in my squat. I set a new competition PR in the bench press at 308 pounds. Finally, at the end of what was an incredibly physically and emotionally draining day, I hit a new competition PR in the deadlift at 561 pounds.

I also set a PR for my total weight lifted in competition with 1336 pounds–the combination of my highest squat, bench press, and deadlifts.

But what I will relish in most is the sensation of overcoming the “weighty” adversity that day which came in the form of a barbell sitting on my back.

This is why I compete. It helps remind me that I’m strong, that I’m confident. But it also reminds me that I’m human. And being human, I have my limitations.

And there are times when you willingly rush up against those limitations, that you feel the most alive.

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For Improved Performance, Balance Your Endurance Training with Strength Training.

9 Mar

It seems intuitive for endurance athletes to train almost exclusively using cardiovascular exercise.  The truth is endurance athletes need to have a balanced training program which includes strength training for improved movement efficiency, enhanced performance, and reduced injury.

Strength training can help you run faster, longer, and more efficiently. A study published last year in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that runners who added three days of resistance training exercises to their weekly program not only increased their leg strength, but improved their running economy or efficiency.  This means they were able to run at their desired race pace for longer durations with less effort or even increase their race pace.  The added strength also increased sprint speed, giving them the kick often needed at the end of a race.

Getting in the gym and lifting weights not only increases strength, but will also increase your joint stability which can reduce the risk for repetitive stress injuries. Lower body exercises are particularly important when it comes to reducing injuries around the knees and hips, two of the most problematic areas for runners.  Incorporating exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges into a workout may help prevent these lower-body injuries as well as speed up the recovery process after strenuous runs.

An additional benefit of strength training in an endurance athlete’s training program is the maintenance or the addition of lean muscle mass.  The addition of lean body mass raises your metabolism and keeps your body burning more calories after a workout and at rest.  This helps maintain optimal weight for both competitive endurance athletes and recreational runners.

Brain and Brawn

10 Feb

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone who was excited at the prospect of getting older.  People fear different things, but it’s safe to say most concerns surround declining physical and/or mental well-being.  For years, the medical community has promoted cardiovascular exercise as the best for the prevention and intervention of disability and disease.  Aerobic exercise was said to keep the heart and lungs strong as well as aid in neurogenesis, or the creation of new neuronal cells in the brain, especially in those portions of the brain associated with memory and thinking.  While this recommendation still holds true, recent studies are showing that resistance training is as effective, if not more, at stimulating neurogenesis in the same areas of the brain.

Recently, a few studies examining the effects of exercise on the stimulation of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience in November.  BDNF is part of a family of proteins responsible for the growth, survival and differentiation of nerve cells, and maybe the underlining factor responsible for exercise induced effects on cognition and mental well-being.  In one study, researchers from Brazil secured weights to the tails of a group of rats and had them climb ladders for five sessions a week.  This study, which measured the levels of BDNF, found that the weight lifting rats compared favorably to the rats that ran on a wheel.  The sedentary rats showed very low levels of BDNF.  The other study presented studied rats that ran on a weighted wheel (resistance being equivalent to 30% of the rats body weight) compared to rats that ran on an un-weighted wheel.  Not only did the rats moving the loaded wheel pack on muscle mass but they also showed significantly greater gene activity and levels of BDNF within their brains.  Although these results are not definitive proof, it is, at very least, an indication that further study is warranted.

One such study is underway at the University of British Columbia where principal investigator, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, has found that older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes.  Ms. Liu-Ambrose has hypothesized that the beneficial effect of strength training on cardiovascular health accounts for some of the improvement in function, but also stated “resistance training at first requires an upsurge in brain usage.”  She goes on to mention the involvement and stimulation of the brain during exercise using proper form and technique could contribute to greater cognitive functioning.  In addition to increased cognitive demand, the brain is responsible for activating the appropriate muscles, the necessary type and quantity of muscle fibers (efficiency) and activating the various energy systems that need to be involved.

One word to the wise, conventional wisdom often suggests that if some thing is good, more is better.  When it comes to exercise, this is not always the case.  Another study recently published showed that excessive exercise in postmenopausal women was linked to lower cognitive function.  Although this study was assessed by questionnaire, not known for their reliability, we do know that overtraining stimulates the release of cortisol.  Cortisol in excess has been linked to depression and lower levels of neurogenesis.

Sharon Begley’s January 3, 2011 Newsweek article “Can You Build a Better Brain?”  presented a review of what neuroscience has learned, and has yet to learn, about improving cognitive function. Supporting additional research regarding strength training and the brain is a statement by Columbia University’s Yaakov Stern that “the research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks.”  Stern’s input begs the question, if training cognition doesn’t help, what does?  In answer to that, Begley quotes Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studied the effect of aerobic exercise.  Kramer found that “A year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking… fitness training [stimulates] the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills.  It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision-making.”

In relation to anti-aging, the adage of ‘use it or lose it’ is a good guide for the maintenance of movement and cognitive function, and it appears these are no longer unrelated.  These studies suggest that you can engage both the brain and the body by learning and practicing new or complex movements under a safely prescribed load.  My recommendation would be to start with body weight exercises and focus on learning how to move properly and then progress to greater loads.  The other implication of this study is that checking out during your exercise routine and simply going through the motions to just  ‘get it done’ may not be as beneficial.  Practicing movements with the intent of getting better not only improves your physical health, but also may contribute to your mental well-being