Ask Greg: Issue 86
Greg Everett

Chad Asks: First, thanks for all that you do for all of us who have found Catalyst Athletics, the Paleo Solution Podcast with RW, and more.

A bit of background. I'm a 40 year old male who has been involved in athletics for my entire life. I played competitive high school ice hockey, got into various outdoor pursuits in collage, and for the past 15 plus years have "trained" in various modalities…some lifting (everything from Bigger, Faster, Stronger to Body for Life to…more recently…intense circuit training/boot camp), cycling, recreational ice hockey, mountain biking, a bit of running, you get the picture.

Starting in August of 2010, I joined Cape CrossFit, a box in Cape Town, South Africa. We lived there until June 2011, and I loved the experience at CCF. I competed in the open, and finished, but ended up hurting my back on the clean squat and jerk workout. Consequently, I backed off training in the spring.

Upon my return to the states, my wife and I put together our own Cross Fit style home gym (at our house in Idaho where we spend our summers). Wanting to work on my mobility (lots of desk time = really tight hips in particular), I starting the novice programming for Starting Strength. I followed this until we returned east to our new "permanent" home in New Hampshire, where we live and work at a boarding school. Once we had finished the move, I re-started the Starting Strength novice programming. I am currently seven session. he lifts are still relatively easy and my form is solid, if not perfect. My latest numbers are: Squat - 205lbs, 3X5; Press - 110lbs, 3X5; Power Clean - 135lbs, 5X3; Bench - 160 lbs, 3X5, and Deadlift - 275, 1X5. On non-starting strength days, I usually do some combination of mobility, dynamic warmup, and high intensity (short) intervals on the erg or bike.

In terms of nutrition, I recently completed a "Whole 30" month, which helped to lean out significantly. I haven't measured body fat, but I suspect I'm around 10-12%. I weigh 170-175 and am 6 ft. even, with a fairly l lanky build (fat appears on the love handles first).

My goals are to get stronger and then to become proficient in the realm of Olympic Lifting. Continued mobility improvement and general health and well being are also important.

I'm considering starting up with one of the Catalyst programs. Can you recommend a program to begin with? My build is such (long in the limbs) that I will never be an awesome or even competitive oly lifter, but I still believe that work in this realm will have high pay offs for me in reaching my goals.

Any advice you can provide would be much appreciated!

Greg Says
: Because it sounds like you still have room to grow with the SS program, I would suggest continuing that until you really tap it out. No reason to move on before you’ve completely exhausted it. However, this would be a good time to start working on mobility and skill for the Olympic lifts so that when it’s time to move to a new program, you’ll be able to do it properly.

On the non-SS days, continue with the mobility work and intervals, but add some Olympic-lift-related barbell work such as overhead squats, snatch balance variations, split jerk position work, front squats, snatch and clean segment deadlifts, and muscle snatches and cleans. This should all be light and easy (probably all with an empty barbell) to allow you to do as much volume as you want and feel is needed without taxing you to any significant degree. This is all movement practice and mobility work.

When you’re done with SS, I would suggest using the Classic/Position Cycle on the website. This cycle uses a lot of technical work to help you develop and reinforce proper movement. It’s a lot of work, but it’s relatively light, and it can be made as light as needed to allow you to manage the volume. The squats and assistance strength work will keep your strength up even if you keep the majority of the training pretty light. There are videos of all of the exercises on the site.

After that cycle, you should be well prepared to take on just about any other on the site.

Francois Asks: Hi Greg and Aimee, First of all pardon any errors in my English, I'm French. I've discovered oly lifting thanks to your book, and started practicing on my own since there is no club close enough to where I work. So my technique probably was quite awful, but I used videos to have online critique of my form whenever possible. And most of all, I really enjoyed the sport. I was not doing a pure oly routine, rather a mix of oly and powerlifting.

Last year I've been diagnosed with a herniated disk, L5-S1. The only advice I got from physicians was to stop weightlifting, squats, press, deadlift, etc. I've since then switched to weighted chins, weighed dips, bench... But I really miss the clean and jerk. And one year later, although the pain has mostly subdued, I still have occurrences of flaring lower back. I've tried split squats, but even that seemed to trigger pain past 60-70kg (although it might be unrelated). Same with front squats past 80-90kg.

In retrospect, I believe what caused my hernia, on top of a probable genetic weakness, was tail tuck at the bottom of the squat. It's something I couldn't improve whatever hip mobility stretches I did, so I always had a bit of tail tuck. Now if I attempt to squat in any way, I simply don't go as deep.

I've read all of Stuart McGill books, and am currently doing mainly calisthenics and planks to gain spine stability. I also contemplate doing weighted planks to further improve spine stability under load, as well as overhead squats (something I've never done).

I'm not asking for medical advice, rather for past experience about this kind of problems, which I wager is quite common. Is there any hope, or should I accept that oly lifting is forever out of reach for me? And what kind of exercises or stretches can I do to improve my situation?

Thanks for your time, and hopefully, any answer on your part.

Greg Says: This is definitely a tough one, as what works for one person with this injury will not work for another. In any case, I would very strongly suggest you find a medical practitioner (such as a chiropractor who also does soft tissue work) who has experience working with athletes and understands the mechanics of strength training. Having a good relationship with someone like this is invaluable when trying to come back from such an injury. Regular work with this practitioner can keep everything in check as well as help you gauge whether or not certain practices in your training are helping or hurting. So, first and foremost, work with a medical professional, be smart and be safe.

Making trunk stability and strength the primary focus is a good idea. Make sure you’re approaching all aspects of trunk stability, however, not just the abdominals; strengthen the back and improve mobility in the hips and thoracic spine. The lower back commonly becomes the point that makes up for immobility in surrounding areas. If the hips are not mobile enough, the needed movement will come from the lumbar spine; even limited mobility in the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle can force hypermobility in the lower back. You apparently have tight hips and are aware of your inability to maintain lumbar extension in the bottom of a squat; I agree with you that this is a very likely cause of the problem.

So, the first priority is strengthening the trunk’s ability to maintain a neutral spine position under load. Planks, side planks and supine planks (for the back) are a good foundation. You can add weight IF you’re able to hold a perfect position for a considerable period of time; if you can’t hold a perfect plank for over a minute without struggling, don’t bother adding weight. I would also add some unweighted back extensions with a limited range of motion, isometric hold at the top, and a focus on maintaining tight abs. Try to set up a 45-degree back extension or glute-ham developer such that the fulcrum pad is actually under your abs instead of your hips. Let the spine flex slightly without allowing the lumbar spine to get past about flat (i.e. no actual flexion there), then extend slowly until you’re just beyond neutral (no extreme hyperextension in the lower back). Keep the abs tight throughout the movement to help prevent hyperextension. Hold the extended position for 5-10 seconds before lowering for the next rep. You will probably not be able to do many reps initially with this hold, and you may not be able to hold that long. Start with what you can do and build up gradually. If you feel any pain, stop immediately.

The next priority is improving flexibility so you’re able to move through a better range of motion at the hips and ankles, which will allow you to squat to better depth while maintaining proper spine position. When it comes to stretching, in my opinion, the only “trick” is consistency and frequency; that is, stretch as much as you can as often as you can and do it every single day. Stretch the hips in all directions; don’t just focus on the hamstrings and adductors as many do.

Once you’ve developed the trunk strength and hip mobility to sit into squat with a perfect spine position, I would reintroduce back squats very conservatively. On each rep, focus on pressurizing the trunk and locking it into position tightly. Start with an empty bar and do only as many reps as you can with no loss of position—initially, that might be only 2-3. Do a few sets along with your other training. Over time, build up until you can do 3-4 sets of 10 reps with perfect positioning. Once you reach that point, assuming you still have no pain (which you should if you’re still doing this), start adding weight incrementally to one squat session per week. The other days of the week, stick with unweighted or empty barbell squats only as both a way to maintain mobility and to practice the movement. At this point, you can reintroduce the deadlift in the same manner—never compromise perfect spinal position. When you’ve spend a good deal of time rebuilding your foundation with the squat and deadlift, are strong in the proper positions, and are pain-free consistently, you can start reintroducing the Olympic lifts, although I would be extremely conservative with weight and volume, and starting with power and even hang-power variations is probably wise.

This process may take a long time, but stick with it. Better to invest a lot of time and effort into rehabbing yourself than throwing in the towel and never doing what you like to do again. Good luck.

Justin Asks:
Hey Aimee & Greg... Wondering if you could give me some thoughts on combining Olympic Programming while still making WOD progress... I realize getting back to the strength I had while just being a competitive weightlifter only is probably not an option, but was curious what your thoughts were on trying to work things in along with metcon programming, etc... Two or maybe in this case three heads are better than one... :) Here is what I was thinking of as of now...

2 Days On / 1 Day Off x 3 Cycles Before Repeating With WOD Constantly Changing From Cycle To Cycle

1st Cycle:

Day One:
1. Snatch (Rep Max Work 2-5 Reps)(Keep Same Rep Scheme For Three Weeks, Building Up Work Set Percentages EA Wk...Ex... 90% 3RM, 95% 3RM, Last Week - Retest 3RM
2. Deadlift
3. Assistance Work
4. Metcon

Day Two:
1. Skill Work (Rings, Etc)
2. Weighted OH Movement (1-5 Reps)
3. Metcon

2nd Cycle:

Day One:
1. Clean & Jerk Variation (Power, Full, Jerk, No Jerk, Etc)
2. Front Squat (5/3/1 Program)
3. PC/Heavy Rowing
4. Metcon (Maybe)

Day Two:
1. Olympic Work (Lighter Weight, From Blocks, 3 Position, Etc)
2. Metcon

3rd Cycle:

Day One:
1. Snatch - Singles Up to 90, 95 OR Heavy Single
2. Clean & Jerk - Same
3. Back Squat (Russian Squat Program)
4. Gymnastics Work

Day Two:
1. Maybe 2 Workout Day... Mostly Conditioning Based Day With A Weakness Included

Just A Rough Idea of My thoughts... Any comments? Suggestions? Thanks in advance!

Greg Says
: First, I would say that generally the plan looks pretty good. You’re addressing just about everything you presumably need to work on. You have a heavier, higher-volume day followed by a lighter, lower-volume day, which is a good setup. You don’t specify the details of the metCons listed, so I don’t know how that will work. This is a pretty good amount of work, even with a rest day every third day, so if those conditioning workouts are long and brutal, you may find it’s too much. What I would suggest is keeping them fairly brief in the first two cycles, then doing a short one first on day two of the third cycle, and a long, tough one second on day two of the third cycle; make that your only really nasty conditioning workout in that nine-day period.

The other thing that stands out is the squats: you have one day of front squats based on the 5/3/1 program and one day of back squats based on the Russian squat program. First, you’re mixing two programs, which is always tricky and usually not effective. In this case, you’re mixing a program that runs on a 4-week cycle with one that runs on a 6-week cycle into a program that runs on a 9-day cycle; 5/3/1 has you squat once weekly and the RSP has you squat three times weekly. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it’s unclear how you plan to make that work. I would say that it’s overcomplicating things. I would front squat one day and back squat one day, and select the weight and volume like you are for your Olympic lifts. For example, back squat heavy and with high volume, and front squat with somewhat lower volume and intensity; build for 3 cycles and retest. That may not be the ultimate strength program, but keep in mind this isn’t weightlifting anymore—you’re doing a mix of a lot of different things and simple tends to work just fine in that case, and you won’t be working at your maximum strength capacity.

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