...gain train, bro.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Feast On This...Powerlifting Insights With Nick Israel

It's been almost a month since the last addition, with good enough reason.  I've been wanting to put together quality, collaborative articles and interviews with a number of highly qualified individuals; oftentimes, it can be challenging to get all parties on the same page and get everything compiled, considering how busy these guys lives are.  Things are now coming together on various collaborative endeavors and this coming month should bring forth some quality material.  This week, I'd like to offer an incredibly insightful and thorough interview with powerlifter Nick Israel.  I've known Nick since 2009 and have always been impressed by his strength and his humble nature.  Nick has competed all the way up at 198 down to 181 and more recently has been performing incredibly well at 165; he's now making the move to compete at 163 in USAPL, which I'm certain he will continue elite status.  Without further delay...


PJF: Nick you’ve been lifting for quite some time.  In fact, you were at my first powerlifting meet in 2009 and had already been training seriously for some time. How long have you been seriously training and what was the initial spark that got you hooked?

Nick: Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out to talk to me. I started powerlifting at the end of my senior year of high school. My senior football season got derailed by an offseason ACL tear. My physical therapist was a former powerlifter who turned me on to the sport once football wasn’t there. I have been powerlifting pretty much ever since. Besides a second ACL injury that  sidelined me for a year and the 2 years I spent training for olympic lifting, I have been powerlifting ever since.  There is just something about pushing my body to its limit and beyond that just resonated with me.  I am competitive by nature and I’m never satisfied with being ok at something. I want to be the strongest person in my weight class ever, period. That is what drives me and that’s why I won’t ever stop. There is always more weight to be lifted.

PJF: You’ve progressed quite a long way in the last few years; did you have to go through a lot of experimentation and try different approaches, or did you know what worked early on and stick with it?

Nick: I have tried every training and dietary approach under the sun. I am always trying to find new way to improve my training and nutrition to optimize my performance. I have recently settled on certain training methods and dietary approaches that I feel work best for me and have being using them for the past couple years.

PJF: It seems like higher frequency training and undulation seem to be very popular approaches nowadays with regards to both powerlifting and bodybuilding.  What are your thoughts on training frequency with regards to gaining strength?
               
Nick: Higher frequency training has been around long before it reached its current popularity. Most training approaches are all just different ways to package similar loading paradigms. I personally utilize a high frequency undulating approach to training. My rationale is simple, if you want to be really good at something you have to do it a lot. This is a fact in any and all sports. People don’t bat an eye when football players practice 5 days a week. If you want to perfect a specific movement and be proficient at it, then it takes countless reps over a prolonged time. The old adage of practice makes perfect holds true in my opinion. There is also research to support that higher frequency training can produce superior results. There is some conflicting evidence but I am a firm believer in a higher frequency approach. In addition to this, your overall volume often dictates your level of adaptation. If you squat 4x a week it is much easier to accumulate higher total volume.

PJF: Keeping in line with the topic of frequency, would you ever consider something on the extreme end of things, such as squat every day protocols or bench every day etc?  What are your overall thoughts?

Nick: I have actually taken my bench and squat up to 6x a week a week in certain phases of training. I don’t feel that the majority of natural athletes can recover adequately to follow something along the lines of maxing every day, but if loaded appropriately there is no reason a person couldn’t eventually work up to squatting or benching every day. The main reason it becomes an issue is people try to increase the frequency of their training without taking into account overall volume. I generally advise people to take your current volume and divide it among the new amount of total training days for at least a week or 2. If you currently do 100 working reps over 2 days then spread that out over 3 and see how you react before increasing your overall volume. After you adjust to the increased frequency you can start to up the total volume. People all too often throw in an additional squat or bench day and end up getting injured because they increased their training volume too much too fast.

Safe to Say Nick Understands Effective Fat loss
PJF: You recently cut a substantial amount of body weight over a decent period of time and managed to maintain a lot of your strength and actually end up pound for pound much stronger?  What do you believe were some of your most integral methods which allowed you to accomplish this?  Many struggle with strength loss during even relatively conservative calorie deficits…any advice you can give them?

Nick: My biggest advice is to just commit to your weight loss goal. Put strength on the back burner for a bit. You are going to get weaker. It is not physiologically possible not to. The change in leverages alone will make your lifts drop. I cut around 70 pound over the course of 5 years. That’s a pretty substantial time and it was a slow gradual process. Around 35 of the 70 came in the last 1.5 years or so. I took my time and kept training but I realized my lifts were going to suffer. It is easy to get discouraged when you can’t hit your same numbers but that is how this works. My lifts all dropped when I initially lost the weight, but I have been able to work my way back up to close to the same numbers at 30 pounds lighter. That took me from being a pretty good lifer in my weight class to an elite level lifter in my weight class.

PJF: How do you tend to periodize your training?  Do you utilize “blocks” where you focus on more volume, or more intensity etc?  

Nick: I generally alternate between volume and intensity blocks following a block periodization model. I train high frequency, daily undulating within each week but the overall block has a set purpose. I tailor the overall volume and average intensity for each training session based upon the particular type block I am in.

PJF: In addition to the previous question, do you include a lot of accessory or isolation exercises?  How do you balance your main lifts with accessory work?  

Nick: I do very little accessory work. I utilize exercise variations in my training to help address specific deficits in a movement pattern but the bulk of my training is the competition lifts.  I do some upper back and shoulder work at the end of most session or on off days as active recovery more than anything. I use accessory work as a way to try to keep my joints healthy.

PJF: Many lifters make good gains regardless of their training for the first 6 months to 1 year; however, most find it difficult to continue progress in that intermediate state after and often times quit.  How would you go about setting up a training protocol for an intermediate lifter?  What kind of approach would you use and what would a sample training split look like?
               
Nick: All too often people get frustrated because their gains stop coming as easily. People seem to have some strange notion that they will be able to add 10 pound every few weeks to their max indefinitely and destroy every record around. Once that pipe dream ends and real training begins many give up. I think it’s the unrealistic expectations more than anything else that cause people to get so discouraged. If getting to elite levels were easy we would all be there. I generally try to reiterate this to intermediate lifters. I would generally set them up following a similar progression to what I use myself. The only major difference is that it will take them less time to progress than myself so I adjust their progression accordingly. I find beginners can progress every session or every week. I like to give Intermediate lifters a more structured block approach where they are seeing progress every month or so.

PJF: On the topic of nutrition…Do you think a serious lifter can or should simply eat sensibly and focus on protein or would you recommend a more meticulous approach, such as tracking macros and calories?  Some reserve the refined tracking for meet prep or when they need to make a certain weight, while others are OCD enough to track precisely year round?  Give me your thoughts.

Nick: This is going to be highly individual based. People need find something they can stick to long term. Some people need to know exactly how much they are eating all the time. Others are ok just eating more sensibly and making adjustments as needed. However, I can give you what works best for me.  I will generally track year round just because I have been doing it for so long it is just second nature at this point. In the offseason I am not nearly as strict with sticking to exact macros.  I continue to have specific macro goals but if I’m over or under I am not generally all that concerned. If my bodyweight or fat level starts to creep up to unacceptable levels I will tighten up the strictness for a bit then go back to a looser approach.  I need to be much more meticulous during my meet prep to make sure I am at weight during my training. For me to lose weight I often have to dip into very low calories so I need to make sure I am getting my macros appropriately.

PJF: I know that you’re involved in Physical Therapy, so give us some insight into what you do; also, do you feel as though your knowledge of PT has helped you as a powerlifter and how so?

Nick: I am in my final internship for my Doctorate of Physical Therapy. In general I have been trained in the rehabilitation of everything from ACL tears to traumatic brain injury. Orthopedics and sports rehab is my primary passion. I enjoy working with that patient population the most. I also have a BS in Exercise Physiology. These two degrees have been pivotal in my career as a powerlifter. Having a Physical therapy background allows me to address injuries in appropriate ways to minimize time away from training. It also gives me the ability to determine if certain injuries are ok pushing through of if time off is required. I can also determine if I am having a biomechanical issue regarding a lift and determine the appropriate course of action to take to decrease the likelihood of developing overuse injuries.

PJF: Lastly, what are your long term goals in the sport?  How far do you plan to take it?

Nick: My main goal like I said before is nothing less than the all-time drug tested world record for my weight class. In addition to that I plan to win an IPF world title in the near future.

PJF: If you offer coaching services or would like readers to contact you, please let them know how:

Nick: I do offer one on one training as well as programming for all levels. I can program for other sports, but my primary focus is powerlifting. I can be reached by email at nickisrael.pt@gmail.com

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fascination with Stimulation; A Look at Caffeine Usage for the Athlete


Heads Up: You're looking at roughly 1500 words on the topic of caffeine.  Enjoy.

Whether it's right or wrong, justified or not...caffeine is the only drug I can think of that gets a free pass in our society.  The majority of Americans consume caffeine; more than 80% consume the drug regularly.  Yet, most don't even really view it as a drug, despite the fact that it is a stimulant and a potent, effective one at that.  It isn't respected as much as it should be and its usefulness, as well as its possible adverse effects are further confounded by the polarity in which it is presented by either zealous proponents or stark critics.  Despite the plethora of research, information and misinformation out there, the majority share a silent agreement in their love for this substance; athletes not excluded.  The goal of this piece is to uncover some basics of caffeine, take a deeper look at its possible usage in athletics and offer personal account.

Numerous athletes have touted caffeine as a means of improving physical strength, power output and endurance performance. But, what does caffeine do and how does it do it?  First of all, I'm not a neuroscientist, I'm not a doctor and I'm not a master of pharmacology; however, my reading has, at the very least, conferred a basic understanding of caffeine mechanics.  Let's take a very basic look at your brain and nervous system.  The neurons in your brain are constantly active and a byproduct of neuron activity is adenosine.  Adenosine is a naturally occurring nucleoside (a nitrogenous base attached to a 5-carbon sugar, typically ribose) which serves as an inhibitory neurotransmitter.  As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, adenosine acts as a CNS depressant and confers sleepiness and reduces overall arousal.  Typically, the harder your neurons fire, the more adenosine is created as a byproduct, which is at least part of the reason for fatigue.  Adenosine receptors serve to monitor these levels in your brain and body; as levels rise, so does your bodies feelings of sleepiness and fatigue...telling you to cool it.  Caffeine has the unique ability to fit comfortably in your adenosine receptors (particularly A1 receptors).  The key here is that caffeine does not activate those receptors like adenosine does and therefore, blocks the activity of adenosine at the receptor site.  This allows for dopamine and glutamate to do their work as natural CNS stimulants.  So, it isn't that caffeine is directly stimulating, like amphetamines or other stimulants, rather it allows for your brain to stay stimulated depending upon the levels of your own excitatory neurotransmitters at the given time.  Also worth mentioning, there is some research to indicate that caffeine can amplify the effect of dopamine, but the majority of effect is due to adenosine receptor antagonism.  Just based upon this fact, caffeine is limited as to how "wired" you feel from its presence.  You cannot dose caffeine higher and higher and expect to feel more and more energized, unfortunately it does not work that way.



The above effects are also influenced by individual differences between people; genetic factors and individual tolerance to name a couple.  Tolerance is a big one here.  I don't believe it is fully understood as to how and why we become increasingly tolerant to caffeine, but we can agree that it does happen.  Habitual use does indeed diminish much of the "first time" effects, such as euphoria etc; once tolerance reaches a certain level, usage will only confer the benefit of reducing feelings of sleepiness.  An unfortunate, however unique property of caffeine is that this tolerance is considered "insurmountable".  That is, taking in increasingly higher levels of the substance will not confer those previously felt effects, no matter how high you decide to dose.  Which leads me to an important point that most (including myself) often times fail to heed: caffeine is best used sparingly if your desire is to feel those near magical effects like increased fat burning, increased strength and power output and of course, euphoria. 

Now that we have gone over some of the basic mechanisms of how caffeine works (and stops working), we can now get into its application in performance enhancement.  First of all, caffeine can confer the previously discussed benefits in a relatively virgin or infrequent user at doses as low as 70-100mg.  However, the typical starter dosage for increasing lipolysis and/or deriving some athletic benefit tends to be right around 200mg.  Some research indicates that those looking for significant increases in strength output may need to dose even higher, towards the 400-500mg range.  Now, there are some implications with regards to size of the individual, body weight and just basic genetic predisposition, but those are general starting points.  It is worth mentioning that much of the research utilizes dosage protocols around 4-6mg per kilogram of body weight.  Again, it must be stated that this is basically a moot point if the individual is already very accustomed and tolerant to caffeine through regular or daily usage.  Therefore, the above dosage recommendations best work in a situation where the dose is used sparingly, perhaps once per week.  I'm not alone on this recommendation of decreasing the frequency of usage, as there are numerous well-educated experts in the field, such as Sol Orwell of Examine.com, who has stated that performance benefit is largely impacted by individual tolerance.  So, we are only doing a disservice to ourselves by downing caffeine before each and every training session by way of pre-workout powders, coffee or caffeine pills; particularly, if the goal is acute performance enhancement.

Now that dosage and frequency has been discussed, let's tackle the applications of caffeine in specific athletic instances.  We will begin with power output, since the majority of readers are mainly interested in weight training.  Caffeine does increase strength acutely and this is backed by research, as well as the multitude of anecdotal accounts.  Personally, I simply feel stronger and can push heavier weights with more ease under the influence of a good dose of caffeine before training.  Although some research has shown to be inconclusive with regards to increases in 1 rep max strength.  Wingate testing has shown definitive increases in power output of muscle cells which may imply otherwise.  The research is pretty conclusive with regards to more sub-maximal loads, such as those around the 60% of 1 rep maximum range.  At this level of load intensity, research has indicated approximately 10% increase in workload.  It should be stated that the dosage used was around 6mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight.  Looking at the above, the strength athlete can definitely benefit from utilizing caffeine at the prescribed dosage before training.  I believe this would apply to all disciplines as well; this would include bodybuilding, powerlifting and olympic weightlifting.  The reasons for these performance benefits could be explained by a possible reduced perception of pain or exertion and/or more efficient mobilization of calcium within the muscle cells themselves. 

Caffeine can be useful for increasing performance in endurance sports as well.  With regards to anaerobic endurance sports, such as sprinting, improvements in exercise performance are notable.  Research has shown improvements in sprint times when athletes consumed roughly 6mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight.  One study has shown a reduction in sprint time by 1.4%, which is significant.  On the subject of aerobic endurance, caffeine seems to work very well at improving performance.  The time to exhaustion for athletes utilizing caffeine at doses as low as 3mg per kilogram of body weight, has been shown to confer an almost 1.5 fold increase.  Interestingly, this increased improvement in time to exhaustion was only seen in those naive to caffeine usage; these effects were not seen in those that identified as regular consumers of caffeine.  For those of you who are "Why?" people and would like to know exactly how caffeine exhibits these performance benefits in endurance activity...there really is no definitive answer as to why and how, but there are theories.  Some have presented the theory that caffeine works to improve aerobic endurance by increasing fatty acid usage and therefore, reducing the rate by which glycogen is depleted.  Basically, caffeine could allow for the individual to use his/her own body fat stores more efficiently and not need to tap into glycogen to use glucose for fuel.  However, this is far from conclusive, as it just hasn't been proven through the literature.  Another theory presented is that caffeine effectively increases adrenaline release, which would confer endurance benefits.  Again, this is not conclusive either, as the literature has not been able to definitively prove such.  Perhaps the increases in performance could be explained by the previously stated reduction in perceived effort; perhaps it is by way of another mechanism that we have yet to uncover.  Despite the why and how...one thing is for sure: it works.

This wouldn't be complete without touching upon the topic of safety.  Assuming the individual is free of preexisting medical conditions, particularly related to the cardiovascular system, one would need to consume a rather large dose of caffeine to experience toxic effects.  According to the literature, a dose of 20-40mg per kilogram of body weight would be considered toxic.  There are actually some documented and researched health improvements indicated with consistent caffeine consumption and regular coffee drinkers.  This is an entirely different beast, which won't be tackled in the confines of this article; just know that there may be actual benefits to regular, moderate consumption, which you may care to look into on your own time.

And that just about covers the basics of caffeine and its use in improving athletic performance.  One point that I feel is of prime importance, is the notion of utilizing caffeine sparingly and within the effective dosage range.  As much as we would all like to be caffeinated every day and enjoy all the benefits that caffeine has to offer, it simply does not play out that way in real world application.  The negative implications of tolerance on the desired performance and cognitive benefits should not be ignored.