Chris Holder: Strength and Conditioning Coaches, Are We Lifting the Athleticism Out of Our Athletes?
That title is not a rhetorical question. Are we lifting the athleticism out of our athletes?
It’s something that has been on my mind for a long time. From a programming perspective, there was a time where I could do no wrong. It seemed that every decision I was making was the right one and anything new I wanted to play with worked. Years of pushing served us well and we got to a point where if a little was good, a lot more was going to be even better. It was almost coloring by numbers back in those days.
As time goes by, the athletes have changed. We’ve started to see a crop of athletes arrive over the past 5-7 years who had a brand new cluster of issues that we had to address walking in the door.
Remember the “glute amnesia” days?
I look back fondly on those times, when things were simpler. Unlock some hip flexors, wake the rear end up and posterior chain them to death. I can remember seeing the kids show up who had no butt cheeks whatsoever and after a few months of hammering them, their lives (and hindquarters) got significantly better.
Today is totally different. It’s not localized to one thing. I have seen more hip labrum issues from one crop of incoming freshmen than I have seen in my entire career. It was two falls ago, and we had nearly a dozen kids show up with labrum issues. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many of these athletes report to campus for the first time who have either had significant back surgeries or what they report as significant back issues they are rehabbing. Nearly 50% of the new kids rolling in this fall will have some sort of scapular control issue, or a bound up thoracic spine that will have to be addressed.
And do we need to even begin to tackle the topic of Tommy John’s with the baseball community? When you think about the old days with baseball, and the pitch counts and all of that, the one thing that seems to be the glaring new thing is the surge of strength and conditioning on the scene. I’m no baseball expert, by any stretch, but there has to be some correlation.
In general . . . what’s going on? To see what’s going wrong, let’s look at what works.
McGill and Starrett
The genius work of Stuart McGill and Kelly Starrett has not only blessed us with a better understanding of the complexity of the back, but thanks to Dr. Starrett, helped us figure out ways to address getting our bodies moving better, pain free. I will admit, I’m a bit of a Mobility WOD groupie, and I think the work he’s done has saved the lifting careers of thousands of athletes and kept CrossFit at the top of the fitness world. He’s been a godsend for many of us.
If you study their work, there is one universal truth that shines from the ideas of both McGill and Starrett: when lifting weights, the spine must stay braced. Period. Twenty-four bones in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine with an additional 9 (ish – depending on who’s counting) for the sacrum and coccyx bones. The only thing a person new to weight training needs to know is that there are copious amounts of potential for movement in the human spine. And as elegantly as our two friends have put it, we must brace the spine to keep the safety high and the power production even higher.
I will be the first in line to say I subscribe whole and total to this notion. You can’t squat, deadlift, clean, snatch, swing or press with a spine that is moving. Because of the dynamic potential in those joints, a heavy load that isn’t braced well is a recipe for disaster. But what happens when we aren’t under load? We spend hour after hour in these dingy gyms pulling and pushing the heaviest weights imaginable, with braced spines, and then we go out and are expected to move like, well, a supple leopard. Follow my thinking if you can. We never want to load poor movement because increasing the load acts like cement in the nervous system when patterning, right? Even though we know we must brace the spine during our lifting times, after the literal millions of pounds of weight training we have done, who’s to say, that when the spine needs to move, we might not have any choice other than to brace?
Welcome to the recesses of my mind.
For CrossFitters, what Kelly has done has been a saving grace. Their sport requires for them to spend the majority of their events under load and they have the right mix for survival during their competitions. But, every other athlete, in nearly all sports, isn’t under load. Even football players spend time where their bodies are doing something “athletic” without contact. If we are running around, kicking a ball, sprinting, turning, swinging a bat and throwing, do we want a fixed spine? Again, let me introduce you to the voices in my head.
Change of Direction
One of the program features that I’m most proud of here at Cal Poly is my change of direction program. Besides track and swimmers, all athletes live in a world where acceleration, deceleration, redirection and acceleration is where the money is made. We have refined teaching protocols to the point where I would gladly sit next to anyone in the industry and coach circles around them. We understand the nuances of turning, of where the feet should line up, shin angles, head and eyes, arm swing, etc. I can see an athlete fall from across the field and tell you in detail why and where the breakdown happened—all without taking a breath.
My real understanding of the very intricate pieces of this aspect of running actually happened away from the field and all the running drills. It was in my years of training baguazhang, one of the major Chinese internal martial arts. Bagua is a beautiful discipline that is equally gruesome. It works off of spirals. Coiling and rotating is the name of the game and the most vicious of breaks and strikes root from the idea of coiling. The more and more I practiced, the more and more I realized that power, true power, can come from a spine that is moving. I was able to assimilate many of the qualities of my bagua practice with how I taught our change of direction program and the end result was and remains something that is very special.
Turning happens as a combination of where your feet are in space, and believe it or not, where your head is. Turning does not happen from the ground up, it happens from the head down. Anyone who is super shifty, who can juke you out of your shoes, knows this. Again, it was the marriage of bagua’s coiling and years and years of trial and effort to get my program where it is now.
David is an old friend of mine. And any of you who know him know his mind is next level. He’s the quintessential mad scientist. We’ve been buddies for over a decade and our fondness of the Chinese arts is what initially brought us together. It was the chasing performance variables that has kept the respect high and communicating for all of these years current. David is a trail blazer and when it comes to balance, there’s nobody in the industry who can hold his jock. He’s the inventor of the BOSU Ball, and Founder of BOSU Fitness. He’s got a beautiful “lab” in San Diego called WeckMethod and this is where many of his ideas are born and tested.
In late November, my assistant Chris White started looking at some of David’s work on the deadlift. We have a track team here who we’ve been dead lifting for a long time and no matter how refined we have coached things, we still get some incidences of low back issues. Chris started messing with David’s WeckMethod Deadlift in his own training and was getting some pretty incredible results. He asked me to get in contact with David and see if we could go and see him in San Diego and spend some time with him. After a Skype session, we decided that a visit was in order. What we were going to hear was something that might revolutionize how we look at sprinting.
The Spinal Engine
Remember, I’ve known about how the spine helps multi-directional athletes for years now. I know we teach things in a way that nowhere else in the country does. But, what I was going to hear come out of David’s mouth on this fateful visit was going to change the way I looked at linear speed.
When you look at sprinter run, most of our eyes are drawn to their stride length, the turnover rate and the how their feet are contacting the ground. People have made entire livings off of dissecting straight-line speed and coaches all over the world for nearly a century have been finding out ways to make speed athletes faster. What I was about to hear, and more importantly see, was a justification for the spine and its enormous contributions to straight-line speed.
When we met, David’s first piece of business (after the ceremonial hugs) was to pull up a handful of videos of the fastest athletes on earth. Bolt, Chris Johnson, Tyson Gay, and Flo Jo, to name of a few were featured in these videos. There was something that Weck has coined Head Over Foot that each of these exceptional speed athletes were doing. As the off-ground leg of these folks went into hip and knee flexion, all of these athletes shift their heads over the unweighted foot. That body position allows them to strike the ground with what David calls “tensional balance” and provides the ideal environment for the body to express power. Over and over you could see the head shift from side to side to give the runner the most ideal weight distribution and balance points so he or she could run fast.
What’s even more intriguing is when you strip this “quality” down, you realize that the Head Over Foot positioning happens from the spine. It’s the combination of the spinal flexion and rotation (shoulders down and back, hips up and forward) that allows the athlete to access the heightened level speed and power. Much of what David was talking about played right into what I have always known about change of direction work.
David went on to show us an entire lifting system he has created around this very principle. Everything centers on this position and developing large amounts of lower lat strengthening. From a mix of what looks like ab exercises to variations on both the deadlift and the kettlebell swing, Chris and I left San Diego with a brand new tool kit.
I had a big decision to make.
WeckMethod and Cal Poly Strength and Conditioning
On my drive home from San Diego, I had to decide whether I wanted to take the leap of faith and implement some of David’s ideas, or play it safe. We have a proven product, we know how to get kids fast, strong and explosive.
But the idea of getting them really fast was too much to resist.
If you know anything about Cal Poly Athletics, particularly football, you understand that we are a triple option team who lives and dies by our speed. That is partly why I make such a perfect fit here. I’m a speed guy and this team needs someone like me who thinks this way. We are always going to be the smaller of the teams on the field, so we have to win with speed.
The moment we returned to campus from the holidays, we got to work. I decided to push my chips all the way in and we were going to see huge results or we were going to have wasted nearly 12 weeks of training. I instituted much of this work with my football team, and all of it with my women’s soccer team and NFL Combine/Pro Day athletes.
The outcome? Nothing short of remarkable.
Watch for more from David and me. We are excited to bring you more on Head Over Foot training to give On Target readers an insider’s look at the system, the ideology and the proof.
Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.
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