I’ve tried to learn as much as possible over the last 10 years with regards to optimal training and longevity. Trends have been and gone, the way we look at athletes has vastly changed as well as our outlook on rest and recovery.

However it’s easy to jump down the rabbit hole and get overwhelmed by all the content out there telling you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. The type of training you do is irrelevant as long it meets your goals and requirements and you enjoy it. Obviously if you’re training for a specific sport or performance marker then of course, the type of training has to be a bit more focused but again there are many tools that will work in each situation, there is no right or wrong way to train.

That being said I thought I would go through some of my most important tips to help maximise your potential in whatever training regimen you subscribe to and improve health and performance.

1) Get Assessed: If you’re truly interested in health and performance then your first step is to get assessed. Any good coach should be offering some form of assessment to see your current level with regards to movement quality, mobility and fitness ability. If you’re not being assessed, then the rest is just guesswork.

2) Earn Your Positions: An assessment isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if you don’t follow through on improving where required. Struggle to get overhead without excessive rib flare? Can’t keep a neutral position during a deadlift or squat? Your coach should be directing you on how to improve these or refer you to someone who can. You should also accept that if you have less than optimal positioning then certain movements may not be suitable for you AT THAT TIME. You want to stay injury free right? Take the advice, work on the problem areas and earn your right to incorporate those movements into your training.

3) Don’t Skip The Warm-up: You don’t need to spend 30 mins foam rolling and another 30 mins stretching, but your warm-up should be focused and relevant. It’s your chance to prime the body for the session and un-do some of the nasty postures and positions from your working day. Check out my article on warm-ups here.

4) Breathe Correctly: A lot of us live in an extended posture, which can lead to poor overhead position, lack of contribution from the posterior chain during hinging patterns and lack of core strength. Learning how to use correct breathing patterns including full exhales can help you get back to a more neutral position over time. It ain’t sexy or fun, but it works. Check out my article on breathing here.

5) Build Solid Foundations: I’ve seen time and time again, people skipping the boring foundational work to get to the fun, exciting throw heavy shit around stuff. It catches up with you. In my opinion, every athlete should spend time building

– Solid aerobic base: The better your aerobic capacity, the more efficient the heart and lungs will become. This leads to less contribution from the anaerobic systems as well as improved endurance and recovery. Read more here.

– Basic bodyweight strength: Everyone should be able to do strict press-ups, pull-ups and dips. In my perfect world, I would also have you doing a 1-arm pull-up and 1 arm press-up but the basics will suffice. It sets the stage for more advanced movements such as muscle-ups and handstand press-ups. It teaches you body awareness and control as well as building great amounts of core strength, which most people lack. I understand if someone is carrying some excess bodyweight this may not be possible……. yet, but once bodyweight has been reduced, build the foundations.

6) Don’t Ignore Assistance/Accessory Work: Anyone who says isolation exercises are useless is telling you lies. Have a sticking point in a lift? Struggling with stability or co-ordination on a movement? Assistance work can develop those weaker muscles and could help improve performance on your weak lifts. Now that doesn’t mean you stop doing the lift itself as you still need to build that pattern to efficiently recruit all the right muscles, but strengthening a weak area alongside can give you some great gains. I’ve seen a woman get strict pull-ups just by adding bicep curls into her training. Every exercise has a value when used in the right context.

7) Grease The Groove: Stolen from Pavel Tsatsouline, he talks about regular practice to improve efficiency and quality. Use an empty bar/pvc pipe/light DBs or KBs and slow the movement down. Feel the muscles firing in the right areas and make the movement become as natural as possible. Apply this to your heavier efforts to improve neural efficiency and therefore performance. Do it regularly, even some press-ups at home or work can go a long way to achieving this mastery.

8) Use Weighted Carries Frequently: If you have read anything by Dan John then you know how much he puts stock into weighted carries and drags. Grip strength is hugely overlooked when it comes to progressing training. Add to that the postural and core benefits when done correctly and you have a highly valuable exercise. Use DBs, KBs, Farmers Handles; whatever you can get your hands on. I also like bottoms-ups KB carries for shoulder health as well as grip training.

9) Build A Strong Posterior Chain: Glutes and hamstrings are typically inhibited and weak in most athletes. Movements such as bridges, hip thrusts, hyperextensions, hamstring curls and single leg work can really bring these muscles back in line and help improve health and performance. Bret Contreras has done some great studies on the effects of hip thrusts on glute activation/hypertrophy.

10) Don’t Cherry Pick Your Sessions: Ignoring your weaknesses will always come back to get you. Whether it be having to scale a workout or creating imbalances such as pressing over pulling or squatting over deadlifting. Yes training should be enjoyable but if you want to be able to become a well-rounded athlete, you need to develop the less enjoyable skills too!

11) Don’t Train Through Pain: Just don’t. If something hurts, you’re either doing it wrong or there is pathology somewhere. Assessments and good coaching should help you sort it. However that doesn’t mean you have to stop training and wish your life away at home. Work around the issue whilst fixing the cause and come back even better.

12) On the flipside: Don’t get scared of every ache and pain you experience. Again, consult a coach if unsure. Training is tough work, you are literally breaking your body down so it adapts and rebuilds stronger and more robust. It’s not always going to feel comfortable and if you want performance, you need to accept this. Listen to your body and ask questions if required.

13) Enter a Competition: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sport, fitness comp or endurance event. The buzz, the butterflies and the adrenaline of a competition environment can really teach you some lessons about your body and mental toughness. This stuff is invaluable and can really help you take the next step on the performance ladder. Even if you only do it once, compete.

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This list is by no means exhaustive but I’ve covered some in gym tips with regards to training. Lets look at some tips for outside the gym.

14) Water: Again, overlooked when it comes to implications for training especially in the age of addiction to coffee and all that jazz. Aim to drink 2-3 litres per day. Simples.

15) Sleep: Hormonal balance is a delicate thing and one of the biggest disruptors to that balance is lack of quality sleep. Not to mention its effects on recovery after training. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night in a dark, cool room. Stop using screens at least 30 mins before bed to start to unwind or at least use an app like f.lux to alter the background colours of the screen.

16) Recovery Plan: Adaptation and therefore improved performance takes place out of the gym. Training is the stimulus; rest is where the magic happens. You should be incorporating rest/active recovery days each week. From there, every 6-8 weeks you should use a de-load/recovery week where you reduce volume or have it as rest/active recovery. Your body will thank you and the gains will continue.

Also think about getting a massage once a month or during your de-load phase. Salt baths, contrast showers, meditation and yoga all have their place on your recovery protocols. Utilising HRV can be another way to auto-regulate your training and keep on top of recovery/training intensity. Check out my articles on HRV here and here.

17) Nutrition: I’m by no means a nutritional expert, but the basics seem to work well with most. Manage your calories in and out, have some good pre-workout nutrition in place and you’re good to go. No restrictions, no ‘diets’, just wholesome food the majority of the time and the rest in moderation. Drop me an email for our free nutritional guide.

18) Supplements: Various supplements are useful for different people and are not always required. However, fish oil, zinc, magnesium ands vitamin D seem to work well. Examine.com are doing some great studies on the effectiveness of the majority of supplements out there.

19) Get Involved!: Get involved with the community at your gym whether it be socials, competitions, events or taking part! It adds so much more value to your training and helps the gym feel less of a chore.

20) Motivate Others: Encourage fellow athletes, congratulate them, and give them a high five or a fist bump. It sounds cheesy but again it builds a more positive atmosphere and makes it that little bit easier to get there when you have close friends training with you.

21) Take Responsibility: You might have a coach or trainer who sees you an hour once a day. Do you really think that’s enough time to get everything done that you may need? Yes they will make the programme as effective as possible in the time they spend with you, but chances are you may need more. More mobility training, extra skills work developing things like your bodyweight exercises, more aerobic work using zone 2 heart rate zones.

I’m sure you don’t want to pay someone to watch you foam roll or spend 30 mins on a treadmill do you? Take responsibility and put in the extra work to help take you to the next level. Not sure what you need to do? ASK! The coach/trainer is a resource to tap into. I love it when athletes ask me for help as it shows a dedication to their training beyond showing up for an hour and going home to forget about it all. However we can’t help you if you don’t ask us.

22) Consistency: All of the above don’t mean a thing if you don’t show up. Consistency is king when it comes to results. You could have the world’s best programme, nutrition and recovery plan – but this means nothing if you’re not consistent. You should be aiming to train at least 3x per week if you’re serious about progress/performance and at least 2x per week for more general health. Just get through the door and the rest will take care of itself.

Training isn’t about suffering through the grind and hating your life every session. Training should be a lifestyle choice and something you want to do rather than something you feel you have to. With so many ways to get fit and strong available the first step is finding something you are excited about doing then start to implement some of the strategies outlined above.

Here at Warrior we offer comprehensive assessments and fitness testing for members and non-members alike. We can also help you direct your training in the right direction to unlock your true potential. Interested? Email info@warriorstrength.co.uk to find out more.

If you missed part 1 of this series then check it out by clicking here. As a quick re-cap we spoke about how heart rate variability (HRV) is your way of testing the robustness of your nervous system and in terms of training and fitness, when you should push hard or back off.

I touched on how your HRV usually comes in the form of a score of 0-100 and usually the higher the better. This is pretty much where part 1 ended and part 2 kicks in. Your HRV score isn’t as straight forward as the higher the better; there are also frequency markers that need to be correlated to that HRV score. If you remember we talked about how the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems need to work together to deal with stressors such as exercise. This nervous system balance can be shown through monitoring the low frequency (LF) and high frequency (HF) values when taking your daily reading. Ideally, you want these two numbers to be as close together as possible and the higher the better. What you may find though is you have a super high LF number meaning you are sympathetic dominant i.e. in a stressed state. So even though your HRV may be ok, if your LF is high and way higher then your HF, you could be doing more harm than good if you train.

Monitoring those 3 values is your first step into analysing and improving training, however they are just numbers if you don’t start to correlate them to training sessions, stressful events, sleep, hydration etc. The reason is that your HRV can be sensitive to all the above and more, even breathing, so if you test one day and have seen a drop in your score, it may be something as simple as not drinking enough water the day before. If this were the case then I would argue that normal training should go ahead. So its not always as cut and dry as low HRV = don’t train and high HRV = go ahead and train. Add to that a high score combined with a chronic sense of low energy or fatigue could mean you are in a state of overtraining (very unlikely for most).

In short HRV~ is a simple way to measure readiness for training providing its taken in context and applied intuitively. Now that we have looked a bit deeper in to HRV and how to use it, we obviously want to know if there are ways to increase our score right? These suggestions aren’t all backed by research and may just cause acute (short term) increase in HRV, but they have been shown to increase it nonetheless. Most methods also have many other benefits to health and performances so are great for anyone who trains.

1 – Rest. Obviously. If you find you have as low HRV then you are in a higher state of stress and inflammation within the body. We want the parasympathetic nervous system to begin the recovery process so if you start piling on more stress i.e. exercise, then you won’t fully recover. This will also lead to a low HRV score over the long term.

2 – Green Tea. In studies conducted on the effects of green tea on diabetes, it was shown to increase HRV and reduce hyperglycaemia. Granted the study was conducted on rats, but we already know about the restorative qualities of green tea so it can’t harm to try. If you don’t like green tea, L-Theanine , one of the compounds can be bought in supplement form.

3 – Fish Oil. As mentioned before, stress can lead to an inflammatory response in the body. Chronic inflammation has been associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer and other nasty issues. Fish oil has already been touted as being great at reducing this inflammation along with other benefits. In some studies it has also been shown to increase HRV providing the dose was high enough (3.4g/day).

4- Yoga/Meditation/Relaxation/Controlled Breathing. Now I’m not grouping them all together because I think they are the same, I’ve grouped them merely because they look to achieve something similar – mindfulness. Clearing your mind, relaxing your breathing and living in the now. All methods have been shown to improve HRV as these exercises are great at activating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response. I personally like to use box breathing as prescribed by Mark Divine (creator of SealFit) as a way to relax or even as recovery after a tough workout.

5 – Foam Rolling. Not only does self myofascial release (SMR) give acute increases in flexibility, it has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels (inflammatory stressor) and increase HRV. Click here for our article on SMR.

I’m sure by now you are seeing a key trend in how to increase your HRV. It mainly revolves around de-stressing and rest. I know that this is easier said than done, but even a few minutes a day doing some foam rolling and breathing exercises can make a big difference. If you don’t want to subscribe to the idea of breathing, rest, meditation etc. then at least take on board this final way to increase your HRV. Take a de-load week every 6-8 weeks. De-load means a reduction in total volume i.e. sets, reps and length of session decrease for a whole week. Intensity can remain the same, you just do less. A good time to recover, work on skills and efficiency of movement and feel ready to hit the next cycle hard.

In summary, there is a reason why more and more professional athletes and teams are using HRV and with todays the you can get the same benefits providing its utilised correctly. Add to that the health markers that can be gained from HRV and you potentially have one number to monitor your health and performance. While a piece of electronic equipment will never replace an athletes own instincts and experiences of their own body, it’s a great way to help you make an informed decision on your recovery status as well as those objective factors.

As always if you need help or advice on products, monitoring or analysing don’t hesitate to get in touch.

 

Heart Rate Variability: Part 1

We all love to train, and train at high intensity. Of course we do, otherwise you wouldn’t be here reading this post. However everyone has good days and bad days whilst training. We’ve all been there – you get to the squat rack and load up a nice, comfortable warm-up weight and you’re left in a daze at how heavy it felt. What if you started to feel like that most training days? What if when you’ve trained all that energy, that get up and go drive, was missing?

Your nervous system could be playing a part in this constant feeling of fatigue. More specifically, the strength and flexibility (someone say 10 components of fitness?) of your nervous system to recover from life’s stressors, such as exercise, which yes, does include CrossFit. The ability to deal with this stress correctly has a huge impact on our ability to recover for the next attempt at Fran.

Everyone knows that it’s important to take rest days and to incorporate de-load weeks into their training routine, right? How many of us actually do it? What if we could track the state of our nervous system to tell us when to train hard and when to back off? This is where Heart Rate Variability (HRV) comes in. HRV is one way to identify nervous system health and is easy to use and accessible to all for relatively low expenditure.

What is HRV?

If you’re not a science-y person, you can skip down a few paragraphs to the easy-to-follow pictures explanation, or what I like to call the Shut Up and Squat version. For the rest of you, don your propeller hats and geek out.

HRV is the variation in the time intervals between heartbeats and is measured by the variation in beat-to-beat interval which, despite common belief, doesn’t beat in a perfectly uniform manner, and varies beat to beat. So rather than saying you have a fixed pulse of say 60bpm, the beat rate will actually vary between something like 55 and 65. So HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring irregularity in heart rate.

So what does this have to do with your nervous system?

Our nervous system is broken into two parts: autonomic and voluntary. We are concerned with the autonomic nervous system which controls the body’s functions such as heart rate, digestion and breathing. Within this system we have two ‘pacemakers’ or sub systems, known as the sympathetic, or ‘fight or flight’, nervous system and the para-sympathetic, or ‘rest and recovery’, nervous system. These two sub-systems are what make you feel ready to PR your deadlift or end up making you want to go home and lay in a corner after your warm-up.

HRV is an indicator of your nervous systems’ ability to respond and recover from physical or psychological stressors. In short, when the HRV levels are high, you have a robust nervous system and are able to deal with stress adequately and recover quickly, whilst a low HRV is the complete opposite. Still with me?

So in terms of training, if your HRV is high you can train as normal and hit it hard. If your HRV is low, then take a day off or keep the intensity levels down.

In relation to the para-sympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, when you train your sympathetic nervous system kick starts a reaction to this stressor, and then an equally powerful response from the para-sympathetic system comes in when it’s time to recover and rest. This means that your nervous system is at optimal health and in balance. HRV is your tool to track your nervous system health and in turn offer reliable markers of fatigue. [While the above statement is true for the most part, there are some more deeper and technical issues hiding behind that HRV score such as frequency domains which we will delve into in Part 2.]

This was shown in a study conducted on middle distance runners who trained hard for 3 weeks followed by 1 week of de-load. The HRV score dropped dramatically during the heavy loading phase. However, this change reversed during the recovery period and actually the athletes ended up with an overall increase in HRV, showing the true importance of de-load training and this increase in ‘rest and recovery’, or para-sympathetic activity has shown to be directly correlated to VO2 max. values.

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To finish Part 1, let’s look at how we can actually monitor our own HRV. There are many ways varying in cost such as Bio Force and Omega Wave at the top end, to simple apps that connect to a heart rate monitor. The app I use is called Sweet Beat, for the iPhone and iPad. The app costs around £3, and the heart rate strap and wireless adapter cost around £30-40 together. From there it’s as simple as putting on the heart rate monitor strap, start the app and let it record for 3-5 minutes. It will then churn out some graphs and a number between 0 and 100, which is your HRV score. Remember the higher the number, the better. Again there are other details and numbers recorded, and if you truly want to understand and track your nervous system, wait out for Part 2.

In summary, HRV analysis appears to be an appropriate tool to monitor the effects of physical training loads on performance and fitness. In time the hope is to use this tool to prevent over training states and help people listen to their bodies a bit more when there is a number screaming in your face saying ‘NO, don’t do a heavy thruster and pull-up couplet!’. HRV has the potential to help us be smart about training.

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