May 2012

All posts from May 2012

Conditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out!

by Matt Jordan on May 20, 2012 , 3 comments

I am a big fan of combative sports, and I have always taken a special interest in training fighters.

Recently, I was asked some specific questions on how I train one of my athletes.  I think they were hoping to hear about some flashy out-of-this-world exercise or a unique training device that had never been seen in the fitness world.

Unfortunately I have nothing to share in this department because generally speaking I stick to the basics.  I am a firm believer in trying to affect the physiology of the athlete, and I do not attempt to mimic what I see happening in the sport.

I let the sport take care of the specificity and I try to improve the physiology whether that be maximal strength, maximal muscular power, elastic (reactive) strength, structural tolerance and motor ability, the power of the anaerobic glycolytic system, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max), or the maximal power of the aerobic system.

– If an athlete needs maximal strength development we squat heavy weights for less than 5 reps

– If an athlete needs maximal muscular power we lift moderately heavy weights very explosively

– If an athlete needs elastic strength we bound and jump

– If an athlete needs structural tolerance we link with a good therapist and focus on mobilizing areas of restriction and activating sluggish muscle groups

– If an athlete needs to develop the anaerobic glycolytic system (20-90s) we do high intensity intervals

But what if an athlete needs to develop the power of the aerobic system? Then what?

Well the personal trainer in your local gym is going to tell you that if you blast off a high intensity circuit focused on full body strength exercises you will develop your “cardio”.

If you read an issue of the most popular fitness magazine they will tell you to NOT do long aerobic capacity training because it will decrease your muscle mass and increase muscle catabolism. (By the way, this is a total fallacy – I can promise you this. I have tons of athletes who do lots and lots of aerobic training combined with the right type of strength training and put on lots of muscle).

If they saw the world of human performance through my eyes they would start by asking “how do I best affect an athlete’s physiology?”.

If they scoured the scientific literature and interviewed the world’s best coaches the answer to this question would be: “Focus on the basics and focus on training strategies that work – don’t worry about bells and whistles like breathing through a straw or buying a $10,000 tent – focus on basic training methods that are hard, effective, and proven in sports that demand this form of energy production”.

As I mentioned above, I’m all about the basics.  My belief in the basics is rock solid but this weekend, after spending time with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team,  the rock solid foundation just got reinforced.

My day on Friday started out with a skate ski in Mount Bachelor.  As I was stumbling around the 5 km loop I realized that the metrics a strength coach uses to judge his athletes is so myopic.  These skiers are in incredible shape and their sport demands muscular power, maximal strength, and extreme cardiovascular power and capacity.

They are phenomenal athletes who do more in a single training day than many of us will do in 10-days.  They have power.  They have strength. But most impressively they can absolutely haul ass anywhere for anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes.  It’s actually incredible.

At the start of this blog I mentioned that I was asked how I approached the training program design for a combative athlete.

If we take boxing, athletes fight 10-12 x 3 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.  An MMA fighter fights anywhere from 3×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest up to 5×5 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.

Let me tell you that the 1 minute rest is doing nothing for your physiological recovery.  If you are gassed after 5 minutes, I can promise you that at 6 minutes you will still be gassed – it’s merely enough time to get the blood wiped off your face and to have a sip of water.

If you are doing the math you are probably saying: “How can a combative athlete produce as much power as possible over 15 to 36 minutes so that the first round’s power output is the same as the 5th round?”

When I say power output I’m referring to the power of the aerobic energy system.  I’m not talking about maximal muscular power (e.g. a maximum power clean or vertical jump).

I’m also not talking about the anaerobic energy system because no matter how hard you train, this energy system is limited.  If you’re blood lactate goes above 10 mmol it doesn’t matter how fit you are you will fatigue.  The key is producing big power outputs but also being able to keep your blood lactate levels to a minimum.

When I approach this problem I look to sports where the cardiovascular demands are similar.  What parallels 15 to 36 minutes of continuous high intensity full body cardiovascular energy production?  I’m sure there are a few answers to this question but a standout in my mind is cross country skiing.

As luck should have it, I happened to run into one of the world’s top cross country ski coaches this weekend in Bend, Oregon.  His name is Tor Bjorn.  He’s coached Olympic Medalists in cross country skiing, and he has an impressive pedigree in high performance sport.

And there’s one more thing… he’s a huge MMA and combative sport fan.

After we finished our ski session I started picking his brain on how he improves an athlete’s power output for a 5 to 25 minute event.  The reason I asked him this question is that he is an expert in this department, and he had surprising insights into what he thought a fighter should do.

I just need to remind you that the Norwegians are powerhouses in the sport of cross country skiing, and the approach of top coaches like Tor Bjorn are all about affecting the athlete’s physiology.  Improving VO2 Max is critical, and interval sessions focused on the power of the aerobic system are the cornerstone of the training program.

Contrary to interval sessions that are typically seen in the fitness world, which are very very intense and involve substantial strength endurance, these sessions are carefully prescribed, and are carefully progressed within and between training sessions.

In fact, as I sat and watched Tor coach an interval session I suddenly realized how much detail was going into every aspect of the session.  I always thought I was particular and specific about how an athlete was to perform an interval session.  I am very strict on ensuring the intervals are done according to plan.  However, Tor took this to a completely different level.

This interval session had so many layers.  There was a psychological layer, a competition specific layer but at the heart of the session was the physiological layer.

According to Tor each properly performed interval session offers the potential of a modest 0.25 ml/kg/min improvement in VO2 Max. Using this scientific estimation it could be said that 12-15 interval sessions are required to result in a noticeable improvement in VO2 Max.  Done at a frequency of 2x/week, this means a training block has to last somewhere between 8-20 weeks.

As we discussed the training methods that are often shown in TV documentaries he quietly scoffed at what he has seen.  He has heard the claims about altitude training, high intensity intervals and all sorts of other methods, and what he observes are athletes who still gas out too quickly.

Why does this happen? Well in Tor Bjorn’s world, the athletes lack one critical ingredient: power in the aerobic energy system.

His formula for training an MMA fighter would be quite simple:

1. Improve efficiency and technical ability.  This means it doesn’t cost you a ridiculous amount of energy to do your sport – so, plan specific sessions that really tax your ability to be efficient.

2. Improve maximal muscular power and maximal muscular strength. By improving these qualities you give yourself another gear, and this in and of itself improves efficiency.  It’s obvious as well that most combative athletes would benefit greatly from being strong and powerful.

3. Improve VO2 Max.

Improving VO2 Max is a key in his mind to making sure you have the gas tank to last 15-25 minutes.  Without a huge VO2 Max you are starting a fight 20 meters behind your competition, assuming your competition has trained properly.

As our day wrapped up in Bend, Oregon I felt as though my approach to sticking to the basics had been validated.

However, the key message is that the basics need to be done properly.  You can’t get the program 80% or even 95% right.  It has to be done 100% correctly each time for the benefits to be gained.  Skipping out will result in sub par results.

As far as I see it, the basics rule the training world…. you just need to make sure the basics are done perfectly.

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Matt JordanConditioning for MMA and Combative Sports – How to Not Gas Out!

Back to the Blog

by Matt Jordan on May 18, 2012 , No comments

For those who follow my blog entitled Training Insights I apologize for not being more productive recently.

My lack of productivity is three-fold.

First, you may notice that the look of the blog has changed.  iWeb, my former blogging application is nearly extinct.  This has left me searching for the ideal application but my search quickly led to procrastination.  So, I purchased a keyboard for my iPap, kept it simple, and chose an application that I can use across all my devices in the hopes that this would increase my opportunities to write.

Second, I have been heavily involved with data collection for my PhD.  For anyone who has done research you will know that a tremendous amount of time goes into setting up your research methodology, collecting and analyzing data, and reading related research.

The reality is that with my professional obligations I’m left with very little time to get this done.  The end result is that when I’m having coffee, out for a run, or if I get some time to myself, my brain is usually on a rapid simmer as I strategize on my research, which has reduced the time I have to just write for the sake of writing.

I realize that some may see this as a boring way to spend one’s time but I couldn’t disagree more.  I love it.  I think the pursuit of new knowledge and understanding is one of the greatest things that humans can do.

Obviously this can come in different forms from reading about another individual’s work, attending seminars and simply being a careful observer of one’s own work but to truly test your assumptions and beliefs in a systematic and scientific manner is the epitome of generating new knowledge.  I’m definitely not the smartest guy on the planet but I’m incessantly curious, and I find the process of systematically answering a question fascinating.

Finally, all of my Olympic bound athletes are gearing up for another training season as they enter the pre-Olympic year leading to the winter Olympics in Sochi 2014.  While this is not the same as the pressure cooker all the London 2012 athletes are currently experiencing, the pre-Olympic year is critical in an athlete’s development.  As such, all of the athletes and sports with whom I work have turned up the intensity as have I.

In fact, as I write I am sitting on a plane en route to Bend, Oregon for a few days with the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team.  The next few days will include lots of time on snow in the mountains just outside of Bend, and some close collaboration with Shayne Hutchins, the team’s soft tissue therapist, as we fine tune our approach with each athlete.

The fact that my office for the next few days will be in the mountains of Bend for some skiing, and collaboration with one of Canada’s best therapists for the sole purpose of helping Canadian athletes achieve the dream of an Olympic medal is something that does not go unappreciated.  Very few get to pursue a goal for the sake of the goal, and very few get to help out in this process.

Opportunities to work with guys like Shayne are rare, and there is no doubt that much of what I have learned in my career has been through the eyes of others.  The reason for the rarity is that guys like Shayne are rare.  He has a powerful mind and he is exceptionally skilled.  He also has an ego that is in check.

In general terms my impression of the world of human performance is that skill set or maybe the outside perception of skill set is directly proportional to the size of the ego, and indirectly proportional to the health of the ego.

True professional collaboration demands an exceptional skill set and a healthy ego because the risk of being wrong is extremely high.  A healthy ego is what permits an individual to not take “being wrong” personally, and to instead see it as a learning opportunity.

The reality is that many of the truly impacting professionals in human performance and high performance sport aren’t known on the internet or in blogs because they are too busy in the trenches using their craft and expanding their understanding.

It’s not their style to talk about what they know because you will often find these individuals talking and obsessing about what they don’t know.

Not only am I fortunate to have had a career that rarely feels like work but I am also fortunate to have a strong network of likeminded professionals who have kept me humble and on the straight and arrow.

So, on that note, I plan to get back into my groove with the training insights I gather along the way from the weight room, the lab, and from the experts that surround me.

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Matt JordanBack to the Blog

Reactive Strength Development – The Biomechanics and Neurophysiology of the Jump

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

Reactive strength development (RSD) is a critical speed strength quality for the elite athlete.  It can also be tied into fitness goals and can even benefit the aging human.  In this article, I am going to review the different phases of a jump, and some of the biomechanical and neurophysiological considerations for the jump.

As I wrote in my first article in this series entitled Plyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Phrase in Training, reactive strength development (RSD) is often incorrectly referred to as plyometrics.

As I explained in this original article, plyometric (pliometric) refers to muscle lengthening actions, miometric refers to muscle shortening actions, and isometric refers to muscle actions with no change in muscle length.  To be scientifically accurate, I won’t use the word Plyometric as it is conventionally used but feel free to bastardize our profession and continue using this word as you wish.  I won’t hold it against you.

In its pure form jumping, which is a staple movement for RSD, involves movements with a rapid pliometric action (eccentric muscle action) followed by a rapid miometric muscle action (concentric muscle action).  This cyclical movement is often referred to as a stretch-shorten-cycle (SSC), and SSC’s are a big part of sport and life.

For example, take the sports of running, hockey, and slalom skiing.  All sports are very distinct in terms of the direction of the ground reaction forces, the corresponding joint torques, and the speed of the movement but one common thread is that they also include movements that require a rapid switching between muscle shortening and lengthening actions.  It is for this reason that jumping movements are often used as a training method in the physical preparation process for a whole range of sports.

Further analysis of a SSC reveals the following distinct phases.  The first phase is often referred to as the Initial Momentum Phase.  This is the phase in which the athlete’s centre of mass is moving with the force of gravity as their centre of mass descends towards the ground.

The second phase is the Ground Contact Phase.  The ground contact phase represents the initial touch down on the ground, which is immediately followed by the Amortization Phase in which the athlete produces a pliometric (eccentric) muscle action to effectively break the continuation of the initial momentum phase.

Following the amortization phase, the athlete performs a rapid miometric (concentric) muscle action.  This explosive and rapid muscle shortening leads to the Final Momentum Phase where the athlete overcomes gravitational forces and leaves the ground.

I’ve provided a visual of these phases.  Figures 1-3 are pictures of an athlete going through each phase.  Figure 1 is the initial momentum phase, Figure 2 is ground contact and the amortization phase, and Figure 3 is midway through the final momentum phase.

For those of you who are a bit more scientific, I’ve also included the ground reaction force of a subject performing a countermovement jump on a force plate (Figure 4).  The ground reaction force (the curve that you see) can be looked at as the resulting forces measured where the foot contacts the ground.  This is the sum of all the muscle forces from the different joints involved in the jump (hip, knee and ankle).

Some of the important observations include the phase in which muscle forces are produced to absorb energy (amortization phase), the phase in which muscle force is produced to overcome gravitational forces (miometric phase and final momentum phase), and the flight phase where the athlete is airborne. You will also notice a large spike in force when the athlete returns to the ground, which represents another initiation of the amortization phase.

Further analysis and consideration of this graph reveals the following important technical considerations for a jump:

The Amortization Phase

The amortization phase is critical to the proper execution of a jump.  This phase is often referred to as the reactive ability or the ability to rapidly switch from a muscle lengthening action to a muscle shortening action.

The important physiological contributors are: the storage and return of elastic energy in connective tissue, spinal reflex mediation (e.g. stretch reflex), and muscular strength.

In most circumstances the total time of the amortization phase is to be kept as short as possible.  This allows for the the greatest contribution from the release of elastic energy and spinal reflexes, which essentially add to the muscle forces to further increase the jump height.

The amortization phase needs to be addressed with proper cueing and technical development.

Total Impulse or Area Under the Curve

Another important observation is the area under the curve.  This represents the impulse.  Through the impulse momentum relationship, the net impulse gives the take off velocity of the subject.  The net impulse is a very important performance variable.

The impulse at various segments of the jump also provide an excellent metric for monitoring neuromuscular fatigue.  I may address this in another blog but the truth of the matter is this is very complicated and advanced.  If you are interested in this for your athletes, contact me to take an advanced course in monitoring and assessing neuromuscular fatigue through my internship program!

Total Ground Contact Time

The ground contact time (GCT), which is the sum of the amortization phase and the miometric phase, is a very important component of a jump.  In fact elastic strength development and jumps are often classified according to the ground contact times.  Long contact jumps are ones with a contact time of 300-500 msec, medium contact jumps are ones with a contact time of 150-300 msec, and short contact jumps are ones with a ground contact time of 150 msec or less.

Often the periodization of elastic strength development is done such that the volume of jumps (often referred to as “The Number of Contacts”) is organized with respect to the ground contact time.

The largest volume of long contact jumps occurs early in the preparatory period, and the largest volume of short contact jumps occurs in later in phases of the preparatory period (i.e. specific preparatory phase).  However, within a microcycle (5-10 day period) short contact jumps are generally performed first as this type of jumping requires that the athlete be in a more rested.

The final consideration is the large ground reaction force that occurs upon impact after the jump.  This peak ground reaction force upon landing provides evidence in support of proper jumping technique and physical preparation to prevent jumping related injuries.

To put this in layman’s terms: muscle lengthening actions (pliometric/eccentric) are associated with large muscular forces. Without proper mechanics and physical preparation injuries often ensue.  These injuries include stress fractures, tendonitis, lower back pain, patellofemoral pain syndrome, and lower leg compartment syndromes.

In summary, reactive strength development and its most commonly used exercise (jumping) is more complicated that it may seem.  There are many considerations that go into the jump from a technical and cueing perspective, to a program planning and periodization perspective, and lastly to a biomechancial and neurophysiological perspective.

What I attempted to show in this blog are the distinct phases of the jump: the initial momentum phase, the amortization phase, the mimometric and final momentum phase, and the flight phase.  All aspects of the jump have their nuances, their important technical considerations, and can be trained individually with various exercises.

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Matt JordanReactive Strength Development – The Biomechanics and Neurophysiology of the Jump

Plyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Term in Strength & Conditioning

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

Jumping is a normal part of human movement, and it was and still is an essential skill for survival.  Jumping is also an excellent training method to develop lower body power and explosiveness, and it’s a fundamental skill for many different sports.

With the shear simplicity and beauty of the “jump” in human performance and function, the training methods and terminology that surrounds jumping are confusing and in some cases very inaccurate.  This classification of exercise is often referred to by several different names including: elastic strength development (ESD), reactive strength development, plyometric training, and stretch shorten cycle (SSC) training.

The common thread with all these terms (except for one) is that they reflect the involvement of lengthening and shortening muscle actions.  With that said, the most popular term and the one that does not reflect its true definition is the term plyometric training yet plyometric training is the one most commonly used.

Here’s why the term plyometric training is inaccurate and inappropriate:

The word plyometric or pliometric was first coined back in 1938 by two muscle phyisologists by the name of Hubbard and Stetson (Hubbard et al., 1938).  They observed that a muscle contraction, which is essentially an all or none phenomenon, occurred with respect to three conditions: miometric or shortening, isometric or no change in length, and pliometric or lengthening (Faulkner, 2003).

A muscle contraction at the ultra-cellular level is more or less the same regardless of whether a muscle lengthens, stays the same or shortens.  This is why they didn’t use the phrase muscle contraction and instead opted for the phrase muscle action when referring to the direction of the muscle contraction.

In all cases the direction of the muscle contraction (i.e. it’s action) is determined by the external load.  It is the load that determines whether or not the muscle shortens (miometric muscle action), stays the same (isometric muscle action), or lengthens (pliometric muscle action).

Fast forward to the year 2011 and we know how the story unfolded.  The word isometric stuck with sport and fitness professionals, the word miometric was replaced with the term concentric muscle action and the word plyometric morphed into this category of exercise that involved lengthening and shortening muscle actions such as jumping.

Now, you can say that I’m splitting hairs but I think as fitness and sport performance professionals we should use the words that best describe and reflect what we are trying to accomplish.  The textbook definition of concentric is “of or denoting circles, arcs or other shapes that share the same centre”, and the textbook definition of eccentric is “a strange and unconventional person or an object not placed centrally.”  Nowhere in those definitions does the concept of shortening or lengthening arise.

So the question is this: why did isometric muscle action stick, miometric muscle action vanish into obscurity, and the term plyometric become synonymous with a form of training designed to improve the ability to switch from a lengthening muscle action to a shortening muscle action?  I’m not sure I have the answer for you but many prominent muscle physiologists, biomechanists, and strength and power researchers have advocated that the terminology be changed and that we strive for accuracy in our definitions (Faulkner, 2003).

With all that said, I’m going to suggest that the preferred terminology for the category of exercise under which jumping type movements fall is either Elastic Strength Development or Reactive Strength Development.  Both terms have popularity in fitness and sport performance circles, and both do a better job of describing what is actually being targeted and accomplished with this form of training.  You may think that this is meaningless in the grand scheme of things but as an academic and a strength coach, I strive to be as accurate and precise as possible with the words that I use.

I realize I’m not going to change the entire culture of strength coaches and personal trainers but for those of you who take pride in what you do, and want to be as accurate as possible with the words you throw around, I strongly suggest you think about stopping the use of the word plyometric to denote training involving shortening and lengthening muscle actions.

In my next blog I will expand on jump mechanics and the considerations for Elastic Strength Development or Plyometric Training for those of you who just plan to stick with convention regardless of the obvious inaccuracy in the term.  For a more detailed review on the history of these terms and suggestions from an expert, see the article authored by John Faulkner that was referenced in this blog.

Hubbard & Stetson. J Physiol. 124: 300-313. 1938

Faulker. J Appl Physiol. 95: 455-459. 2003

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Matt JordanPlyometric Training – The Most Incorrectly Used Term in Strength & Conditioning

Variability in Human Movement – Thinking Outside the Box

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

As you may have noticed, my blogging rate has diminished this week.  It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about blogging.  It’s been on my mind a lot but I’ve had a hard time thinking about how to approach the article you are about to read (note – I’ve included some practical coach’s tips to help you apply some of the concepts).  I had to remind myself several times of my goals and mission.

Goal #1 is to provide credible, honest and unbiased information on health, fitness and performance.  I think we all need to be prudent about those who spread mistruth for financial gain, and unfortunately this is quite common in the fitness industry. I think it’s important to have a source to turn to for some truth especially when it comes to your health and fitness goals, and hopefully I can be a part of this process; Goal #2 is to teach you how to think like a sport scientist so that you can become the expert.  From my experience, the more an athlete or client knows the better equipped they are to overcome challenges, and to adapt their training to meet the new fitness and health goals that emerge over the lifespan.  It’s like the old adage “give me a fish and I eat for a day, teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime”. 

A big part of this is learning how to assess the relevance of information and data.  Just because a scientific study finds something novel or interesting doesn’t make it a truth, and furthermore there are many different ways to analyze and assess data from the natural world.  For example, I’m a big proponent of individualizing the training and nutrition process.  I described one way of approaching this in a previous blog on the responder-factor, which generated a lot of interest with those who have been following my blog.  Briefly, the responder-factor involves the clustering of individuals in a population into an extreme-responder, responder, and non-responder group.  As the science around genetic testing emerges, I can guarantee you this will be a major consideration for health professionals because it is becoming increasingly evident that our genetic makeup greatly affects whether or not a particular medical treatment will be effective.

Responder Factor

Coach’s Tip

In addition to the responder-factor, I think another tendency in assessing data is to focus solely on whether or not a particular variable improved in response to a treatment.  Take vertical jump for example.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, vertical jump is often considered as a performance measure.  Often a coach or trainer will evaluate the effectiveness of a training method for improving vertical jump and may find that vertical jump decreased so they will conclude the method was ineffective.  However, vertical jump is very sensitive to fatigue and tends to have considerable variability over a training cycle, and a depression in vertical jump may actually reveal that a training method is working!  In fact, evaluating the variability of vertical jump over a training cycle can provide tremendous information to the coach or sport scientist for peaking strategies and for evaluating an athlete’s adaptive potential.

Vertical Jump

Coach’s Tip

Variability is a significant part of the natural world, and can often be an indicator for health or peak physiological function. For example, it has been shown that elite pistol shooters display considerably better end point stability (i.e. gun control) than novices; however, the elite shooters display considerably more variability in muscle activation compared to the novices.  It has also been shown that individuals with patello-femoral pain syndrome and lower back pain exhibit considerably less variability in muscle activation compared to their healthy counterparts.  I went into great detail in my blog from Day 4 at the ECSS Conference, and you can hear Matt Price and I discussing the importance of this for elite sport in our powercast available on iTunes.

In my recent presentation on the Quotidian Movement Screen (QMS), I also discussed how an athlete’s quality of movement is highly variable and sensitive to training stress.  Our group at the Canadian Sport Centre-Calgary integrates the QMS movement screen into our daily routine, and we use it to properly prescribe activation and mobilization exercise.  It adds a further layer into our assessment of an athlete’s adaptive potential.  In this instance movement screening is not seen as a “pass/fail” test as it is in so many movement screens but instead is assessed with an expectation that movement will change in response to training stress, and that detecting this change is a critical part of the training process.

Coach’s Tip

Looking for trends in the normal variability that can be observed in the natural world can be complex but it’s applications are seemingly endless.  A great example of this is the science of Fractal Analysis, which was pioneered by a famous mathematician named Benoit Mandelbrot.  Mandelbrot expanded on his observation that many physiological processes and aspects of the natural world with seemingly chaotic patterns could actually be described mathematically.  In simple terms, an object with a fractal dimension has an element of self-similarity from a large scale down to a small scale.  Consider a small branch of a branch on a tree in a forest.  Upon first glance, the little branch appears to be nothing more than a random set of bifurcations but when examined with respect to a fractal dimension, not only is this branching pattern similar for the entire tree but also for the surrounding area around the tree.  This gives ecologists a tremendous advantage because by studying the branching that occurs on a small scale, which is relatively easy, it tells them about what is happening on a much larger scale in the forest, which is relatively hard to do (for more information on this, check out the PBS Series Nova, and the episode on Fractals, Hunting the Hidden Dimension).

The self similarity in branching of a tree is also paralleled in the human body where the branching of blood vessels and capillary network in organs has been shown to have a fractal dimension (Figure 1).  Interestingly, if a cancerous tumour is present, the tissue loses this fractal dimension, which gives physicians a powerful tool for detecting cancer.

Figure 1. Representation of the fractal dimension, and the application to human physiology [From: Glenny et al., (1991). Applications of Fractal Analysis to Physiology. J App Phys]

In addition to blood flow, many other physiological variables possess a fractal dimension.  For example, heart rate displays considerable variability, and the analysis of heart rate variability (HRV) can help detect morbidity, and even overtraining and overreaching in elite athletes.  Postural sway also has a fractal dimension.  To get a picture of postural sway, stand up and close your eyes.  You will notice that you don’t stand still, instead there is a gentle sway in your position.  If you were to stand on a force plate and measure this sway, you would obtain a very random looking pattern (Figure 2).  Interestingly, individuals who have sustained a concussion lose this fractal dimension, making the analysis of postural sway of interest to those returning from concussive injury.

Figure 2. Postural sway measured on a force plate.  Analysis of this sway reveals a fractal dimension, meaning there is self-similarity across multiple scales of magnitude [From: Duarte & Zatsiorsky (2000). On the Fractal Properties of Human Standing. Neuroscience Letters]

In summary, it’s important to understand how to look at data regardless of your level of fitness or performance.  Let’s face it, we are bombarded with all sorts of information on a daily basis and making educated decisions for ourselves is key.  Finally, remember that the variability that occurs in our seemingly chaotic and random world can actually have great meaning, and can provide us with tremendous insight into the adaptive process.

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Matt JordanVariability in Human Movement – Thinking Outside the Box

Training Your Mind Tips – Lessons from Elite Sport

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

After 8 week hard weeks of training for many of my athletes and over 10 years working with the world’s best athletes, I thought I would take a minute to reflect on some lessons that I’ve learned from Elite Sport.  All too often, the lessons and thoughts I throw out are about training and physical performance but in this blog I want to focus on some important thoughts on training your mind and your spirit.

So here they are, in no specific order:

  1. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable – fear of being in an uncomfortable position keeps us from achieving success… it’s ok to feel uncomfortable… in fact you should welcome the opportunities that make you feel uncomfortable because they teach you about yourself
  2. Just because it’s hard to do the right thing, it doesn’t justify you doing the wrong thing – it’s hard to do the right thing sometimes but it’s still a choice to do the wrong thing…. don’t let the difficulty in making the hard but right choice be your justification for making the wrong but easier choice
  3. Plan backwards – know where you want to end up, and work backwards from their in your planning
  4. Be grateful for the opportunities you have been given in life, and come back to this realization when you are feeling down – feeling down about life is normal but after you’ve had your moment of sadness or disappointment, cultivate feelings of gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation for all the little things you get to enjoy in life that so many other people in this world will never enjoy
  5. Impermanence – nothing is forever and change is constant… when the good moments are here this makes you appreciate them to a greater extent because the good moments are fleeting but when life is challenging and hard it reminds you that the hard times won’t last for ever and time has a way of making things better
  6. You gotta let people just BE who they are – you can’t change people, and you have to give people the space to be who they are
  7. Be ok with delivering a hard message that comes from the heart even if the message is not well received by the other person – now I’m not talking about being mean, hurtful or lacking tact, but sometimes we have to deliver the message and communicate our sincere feelings regardless of what others will say about it
  8. Don’t worry about an instant in time.. instead focus on trajectory – too many people evaluate their lives, profession, or sport based on how they are feeling in a particular moment…. focus on your trajectory… you may be at the top of the world and spiralling downwards or at the bottom of the world and working your way up… trajectory tells you more about how things are really going than a snapshot in time
  9. Look people in the eye, ask them how they are doing, and listen to what they say – not much to add on this one… I just know I need to do a better job of this
  10. Make a list of what’s important to you, and what your values are…hard decisions are a part of life but when you know your values and what’s important it brings clarity when things seem confusing and chaotic – One caveat on this one: don’t bullshit yourself… you need to be honest about what’s important to you even if others will judge you.  However, if you say something is important then mean it!

There you go… a few thoughts before you start your long weekend….tomorrow I’ll be remembering how lucky I am to be Canadian, possibly with a Canadian in hand.

Happy Canada Day friends.

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Matt JordanTraining Your Mind Tips – Lessons from Elite Sport

Oral Allergy Syndrome – The Truth About Food Sensitivities

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

I’ve trained hundreds of elite athletes ranging from Olympic medalists to up and coming development athletes.  Invariably, elite athletes will come across a range of experts throughout their careers, some of whom bring excellent advice and wisdom, and others who lack the education and knowledge to provide sound training advice.

Nutrition and supplementation is undoubtedly one of the biggest sources of misinformation for an athlete.  This industry for the most part remains unregulated.  Furthermore, many certifications and diplomas in nutrition are very easy to obtain and do not provide the student with the same underlying education in physiology, biochemistry and statistics that is often mandatory in more formal university curricula.  This fundamental lack of training can not only lead to recommendations that are largely ineffective and useless for performance but in certain circumstances can also pose a health risk.

The industry that surrounds food allergies and sensitivities is a prime example of this.  The reality is that so many individuals in our society are run down and tired, and generally feel crappy.  Instead of looking for 99% solutions like changing lifestyle, learning to cope with everyday stressors, increasing physical activity, reducing caffeinated beverages, taking a meditation class, and cutting out evening computer work, which as been shown to disrupt deep sleep patterns, many seek out 1% solutions or worse yet magic bullet solutions to solve their problems.

Enter the pop culture nutritionist to administer a bunch of bogus tests and prescribe an endless list of supplements and misguided nutrition advice.  After returning from a pop culture nutritionist, I don’t need to have a meeting with an athlete to know the likely recommendations.  Cut out wheat and dairy, go on a cleanse, introduce a live greens product, drink water that has gone through filtration processes only understood by PhD’s in chemistry, eat only organic produce, eliminate all forms of processed grains and sugar… the list goes on and on.

Now I’m definitely not taking a knock at good nutritionists who provide some or all of the above mentioned advice when these changes are clearly needed for bettering an individual’s health but I find it strange that almost everyone ends up with the same issues and recommendations.  The reality is there are many other sources for an individual’s fatigue or health issues some of which include food sensitivities.  There are also situations where some of the seemingly universal recommendations made by the pop culture nutritionist can be dangerous.

With the seasonal allergy season upon us, I thought I would talk about Oral Allergy Syndrome and a related condition called Pollen Food Allergy Syndrome, which is an allergic reaction that occurs upon ingestion of certain vegetables, fruits, nuts, and common ingredients in nutritional supplements in individuals who are sensitized and allergic to environmental sources of pollen (Nowak-Wegrzyn, 2011).  These food and ingredients are often a part of the family for common environmental allergens.  For example, an individual with a ragweed allergy may have a reaction to melon or zucchini, and those with a birch pollen allergy may react to soybeans or celery.

The more mild symptoms of pollen food allergy syndrome are often benign and resolve quickly.  These include an itchy mouth and throat, burning lips, and other symptoms associated with the environmental allergy such as a runny nose.  However, under the right environmental conditions such as the start of allergy season, if these food are ingested and the triggering proteins make their way to the gut and intestines in tact, more serious reactions can occur such as vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension, and in rare cases, anaphylaxis.

Now in most cases, the symptoms are mild because the the offending proteins in the ingested food are broken down as soon as they hit the stomach.  The cooking process also breaks down these proteins and can reduce the chance of an adverse reaction.  However, supplements that contain grass or pollen ingredients can pose a significant risk to those with pollen food allergy syndrome as the allergen that is encapsulated in the vitamin pill or supplement can enter intact into the intestinal system.  Examples of these ingredients include wheat grass, spirulina, and bee pollen.  This can definitely pose a significant risk to sufferers of pollen food allergy syndrome, and can end up leading to the opposite of what was intended with symptoms such as low energy and stomach upset.  Additionally, while there is not a large amount of scientific information on the chronic effects of pollen food allergy syndrome, it appears that certain chronic conditions associated with other food allergies, such as eczema, may exist (Ballmer-Weber, 2006).

In closing, pollen food allergy syndrome is a significant issue for many individuals, and in my experience, is often overlooked by the pop culture nutritionist.  I mean who would have thought melon or zucchini might not be good for everyone.  If you suspect you have pollen food allergy syndrome, it is best to stop eating the offending food and to consult with your physician.

To the rest of you who are searching for a magic answer to your issues, remember this: food allergies and sensitivities are definitely a real issue but include way more possibilities than wheat, dairy, gluten, and the clean water pouring out of your taps.  Finally, pay attention to how you feel after eating a particular food or taking a supplement.  If the food is right for you, you will feel energized and focused.  If a particular food leaves you feeling bloated, spacey, fatigued, or with any other odd symptom, chances are this food doesn’t work for you so cut it out of your diet!


Ballmer-Weber (2006). Cutaneous Symptoms After Ingestion of Pollen Associated Foodstuffs. Hautarzt.

Nowak-Wegrzyn (2011). Clinical Manifestations of Oral Allergy Syndrome. Up to Date.

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Matt JordanOral Allergy Syndrome – The Truth About Food Sensitivities

10 Lessons in Vibration Training

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

Over the past few years, I have received a lot of questions about vibration training.  For those of you who are new to vibration training, it involves the use of mechanical vibration to stimulate the neuromuscular system.  Researchers of vibration training have shown benefits on strength, power, vertical jump height flexibility, balance and muscle soreness (Cochrane, 2011).

My journey into the world of vibration training started when I studied the effects of whole-body vibration on muscle function for my Master’s Thesis (Jordan et al., 2010).  As with most graduate students, I started off a little lost and totally unsure about what I was going to study.  All this changed one afternoon when two of my most significant mentors and advisors on my thesis committee, Dr. Dave Smith and Dr. Steve Norris, approached me about a presentation they had just seen.  Joachim Mester from the German Sport University in Cologne presented some unbelievable results on the effects of vibration on muscle strength in an elite skier.  Needless to say they were very enthused, and encouraged me to pursue my research in the area of vibration training.

I knew absolutely nothing about vibration training so I began reading as much as I could.  I came across three papers published by a group out of Israel who had also found impressive gains in strength and flexibility after vibration training, and by a completely strange coincidence, I found out that one of these guys happened to be at the University of Calgary for his sabbatical.  I couldn’t believe my luck, and when I sat down with this guy I expected him to tell me I had found the holy grail of training methods.  I was shocked that instead of enthusiasm, he spoke with extreme caution and skepticism about vibration training.  As I sat there in disbelief, he carefully went down the long list of very well known health risks of vibration exposure, which include everything from detached retinas, to motion sickness, to debilitating nerve and blood vessel disorders (Griffin, 1996; Handbook of Human Vibration).  This led me to lesson #1 about vibration training: the risks of vibration training, if used improperly, could be significant.

He definitely took the wind out of my sails but after some further thought, I decided to take a trip to Europe to visit Dr. Mester and one of his former PhD students in Munich.  They took me to several training centres where vibration training was being used extensively, and once again, while some of the results had been staggering, they also expressed concern about the potential risks for vibration training.   I experienced this firsthand when they threw me on a vibration leg press and had me perform a few repetitions.  It was one of the most intense exercises I had ever done, and at the risk of hyperbole, it literally felt like someone had taken a jack hammer to my spine.  As I researched more about why I found this such an intense movement I started to learn the complexity in the response of muscle to vibration, and that vibration could possibly cause the re-recruitment of acutely fatigued motor units.  To put this into layman’s terms, this could allow you to potentially work beyond your normal capabilities, which on the one hand could lead to a substantial training effect but on the other hand could push you to the edge of the injury precipice.  So, lesson #2 about vibration training was that intense resistance training, combined with vibration, represents a substantial and intense training loadSubsequent scientific research confirms that vibration training can in fact lead to the re-recruitment of previously fatigued fast-twitch motor units (McBride et al., 2004).  Despite the possible contraindications, I think the use of vibration training in this manner is very intriguing, and is definitely on my research radar.

After my trip to Germany, despite the somewhat mixed opinions on vibration training my advisors and I made the decision that there was too much potential with vibration training to ignore it. By the fall of 2000, I had what I believe was Canada’s first whole-body vibration platform.  It arrived from Italy, and after ripping open the packaging I stood there a bit dumbfounded deciding where to start.  To start the process of understanding this training method, I decided to do what most responsible strength coaches would do and I got my other strength coach buddies to stand on it to see what would happen.

Stu McMillan, a long time friend and great strength coach was the first guy to experience some adverse effects.  Against my subtle warnings, Stu cranked the machine up to 60 Hz, which was the maximum intensity, and stood on the platform for one-minute.  He didn’t look overly good when he stepped off the platform.  His ears were ringing, and he had some pretty wicked vertigo, which passed after a short time.  The rest of us who were experimenting with the platform were responding without issue, and some of us were even feeling pretty good after we stepped off.  We all learned our third lesson: the frequency of vibration along with parameters such as the duration of exposure, amplitude, and what you do during vibration training are critical, and more is definitely not better (Jordan et al., 2005).

About two weeks later, after nothing but smooth sailing in terms of negative reactions to the platform, another friend of mine Andre Benoit, who is also a fantastic strength coach, noticed that if he relaxed his muscles while standing on the platform the vibration wave would travel up his body, and when he contracted his muscles the vibration wave would travel back down his body.  This was my fourth lesson that muscle dampens vibration, and incidentally, this is one mechanism leading to increased muscle activity during vibration training.

The fifth lesson happened about 10-seconds later, and this was when Andre’s body went into complete full-body resonance.  I’ve never seen someone shake like this in my life.  He stepped off the plate, and just like Stu, he didn’t look or feel very good at all.  Contrary to Stu’s symptoms, Andre complained of some serious gastrointestinal upset that persisted for a couple of days.  The fifth lesson was that the internal organs and many other systems such as the eyes and inner ear are very sensitive to vibration, and that standing on the platform in relaxed postures that limit the muscles’ ability to dampen vibration can be a really bad idea.

As I completed my Masters research my understanding of vibration training increased dramatically.  I was evaluating the effects of vibration on the ability of subjects to activate their muscles, and I was fortunate that all of my subjects were ex-athletes who could give me a maximal effort.  When I went back to analyze my data, one thing stood out: there were responders, non-responders and extreme responders.  In order to get my data published I looked at mean changes for the group but the responder-factor always stood out in my mind.  Here is lesson #6: there is great inter-individual differences in the response to vibration.  This was confirmed for me years after completing my Masters when I had a chat with expert track and field coach Dan Pfaff, and he told me about observing very explosive and fast twitch athletes who had lost “feel” after vibration exposure.

During the early years, I focused on using vibration to improve muscle strength and power, and as I experimented with its use, I refined my approach to use vibration in combination with plyometric or elastic strength development.  It was interesting to note that certain athletes had disrupted movement patterns, and as I referred back to the scientific research to explain the findings, I came up with lesson #7: the proprioceptive system, which includes length and tension receptors, pain receptors, and receptors that detect touch and vibration, is very very sensitive and responsive to vibration.  This is interesting because the proprioceptive system is heavily involved in regulating physiological responses like pain, the passive stiffness of connective tissue, flexibility, and balance.

Indeed, if you turn to the scientific literature, vibration training has been shown to affect all of the above mentioned responses.  A few of the more significant studies in this area is one demonstrating a significant improvement in flexibility in trained gymnasts (Sands et al., 2006), and that others that show decreased muscle soreness following intense eccentric exercise (Bakhitiary et al., 2006; Broadbent et al., 2008).  Interestingly, Broadbent et al., 2008 found that vibration also affected the biochemical inflammatory response following intense exercise demonstrating that vibration exerts its effects across many different physiological systems.  Lesson #8 and #9 are that vibration training is a great tool in warm up for acutely improving range of motion and flexibility, and it can be used very effectively as a recovery modality.

The broad range of vibration on the human body highlights the potential usefulness for vibration training with other populations such as the general public and those who are unable to exercise with high intensity but here’s a caveat: vibration training by itself is certainly never going to replace hard work and good nutrition for improving fitness and strength.  However, vibration training may be useful for offsetting age related bone loss in older populations and for improving strength, power and balance, which can reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls (Verschueren, 2004).  Lesson #10 is that vibration training may be a great training method for those populations who are unable to engage in regular physical activity; however, it won’t change your body into that of a Greek God.

So to summarize, I’m definitely a big believer in vibration training.  While the scientific research remains equivocal as it does with lots of novel training methods, I really do believe there is value to be found in vibration training.  My top uses for vibration training would be:

  1. To enhance recovery following intense exercise that may result in excessive muscle soreness.
  2. To increase the training effect from resistance training in well-trained athletes by superimposing vibration during regular resistance training exercises.
  3. To improve flexibility and range of motion.
  4. To acutely improve strength and power when used in combination with plyometric training or explosive resistance training.
  5. To improve muscle activation and eccentric force production when vibration training is used prior to exercise.
  6. To improve strength, power, balance and bone density in older populations who are limited in their ability to engage in regular exercise.
  7. To condition athletes who encounter large vibration loads in their sport (e.g. alpine skiers) when they are in a return to sport stage after injury.  My good buddy Matt Price, strength and conditioning coach with Alpine Canada, and I have used this a lot with our skiers over the years (

If you are interested in more information, stay tuned to my website as I will be releasing a video and Ebook on Vibration Training for athletes.

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Matt Jordan10 Lessons in Vibration Training

When Does Program Variety Become a Sales Pitch??

by Matt Jordan on May 17, 2012 , No comments

When I first started out in the strength and conditioning field, I was always amazed at how simple the top strength and conditioning coaches made their training programs.  Their training programs covered all the basic movements, and prioritized a couple of key physiological objectives.  Nowhere is this more evident than the training program design for elite weightlifters and powerlifters.  For example, weightlifters for the most part perform cleans, snatches, and squats as the main focus of the training program along with a few assistant movements to work on technical issues or physiological limitations (e.g. maximal strength, hypertrophy etc..).  I also observed this first hand when I would travel to shadow Dan Pfaff, one of the world’s leading track and field coaches, who’s training programs were always very simple and devoid of fancy, “flavour of the month”, exercises.  Instead of injecting pointless and fluffy exercises into his program that lacked effectiveness, Dan chose to focus his attention on programming the basic movements more effectively, and on understanding the complexity of human movement so that he could coach more effectively.

I am fortunate that my mentors along the way instilled a similar philosophy in me.  The fitness industry, however, often seems plagued with flavour of the month trends, exercises, and training programs.  Some of this I chalk up to a sincere attempt to improve observed weaknesses and deficits that are observed in the athlete or client.  On the other hand, I also see a lot of trainers who mindlessly scour the internet for the latest and greatest exercise in an attempt to win over clients and athletes with bells and whistles that ultimately end up doing a disservice to the person’s physical preparation.

The frustrating part of this reality is that we are training human beings, and any athlete stands to get bored with a seemingly monotonous training program that lacks creativity but is actually tremendously effective.  To further highlight this reality, I once had a conversation with a muscle physiologist who told me there is no physiological basis for variety or periodization.  In some sense he is absolutely correct.  Theoretically, a muscle fibre needs sufficient mechanical and chemical stress for adaptation so other than progressively increasing the training load over time, there should really be nothing else needed in a training program.  Despite the fundamental truth in this statement, I think most strength and conditioning coaches would agree that despite what the basic science indicates, the right type of variety is an essential part of the training process.  A perfect example of this is the pattern overload that can occur by continually performing maximal effort movements in the same plane or at the same angle.

So, this leads me to the following question: when is variety needed for optimal physiological and biomechanical adaptation, and when is variety counterproductive to training and simply there to appease a client or make a trainer look a heck of lot smarter than he or she really is?  This is a huge question so let’s start with a basic component of most if not all effective training programs.  If you look at most movements in sport and life, a common factor is often the involvement of the legs and hips as key power generating muscle groups.  Simply YouTube Mike Tyson training, watch Federer coming out of a 1/2 squat to complete a forehand, talk to a speed skating coach about the key elements for an effective start, or talk to a researcher studying the effects of aging on muscle power and the incidence of slips, trips and falls, and you will gain an appreciation for how ubiquitous hip and leg power are to life and performance.

There are several extremely effective exercises for developing this quality: the Olympic style lifts (cleans and snatches), the squat, the trap bar dead lift, the jump squat, the single leg squat etc… If you examine the research, there isn’t necessarily one movement that prevails over another.  The common thread for obtaining improvement is that the athlete works hard against heavy loads for the appropriate number of repetitions and sets, and with sufficient regularity over a training cycle.  It’s really quite simple;  as long as an athlete has this basic element, he or she will likely improve.  Performing squats with elastic bands or chains, doing box squats instead of an Olympic style squat, or any other subtle exercise variation are really inconsequential to the overall training adaptation providing the athlete works his or her butt off.

Let’s take this a step further.  I once had an athlete, who will remain nameless, who decided to seek the assistance of a personal trainer, who shall also remain nameless.  In order to appease this particular athlete, who happened to dislike strength training, the trainer gave her a movement that required her to hold onto a pulley with one hand, and perform some sort of awkward twisting squatting motion with light weight and in a rapid fashion.  He sold this as a movement that could help her leg and hip power while connecting the core and challenging her balance.  Guess what happened?  She loved it! She thought it was a novel, creative, and fun exercise.  It was so much better than the program I had given her with power cleans and full squats.  Guess what else happened?  She gained absolutely zero strength and power because that movement was absolutely ineffective and nothing more than a random flavour of the month exercise.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own approach to training program design but in my opinion, this guy was way more concerned with whether or not the athlete was happy and liked his program rather than if he was doing the right thing for her physical preparation.  Incidentally, I am a strong believe in doing what I think is right for an athlete not what I think will make them happy.  If you have conviction in what you are doing and saying, and it’s coming from the right place, you should be able to put it out there to someone and to be at peace whether the other party accepts or rejects what you have said.  It is slippery slope if as a trainer or any other professional working with people, you are more motivated by being liked than doing what is in the best interest of the client.

To summarize, regardless of whether you’re talking about improving body composition, upper body strength, core strength or aerobic endurance the general principles outlined above hold true.  Most effective training programs are usually quite simple and contain a few essential elements.  Work hard with the right intensity and training load, perform the movement with sufficient regularity, and don’t be conned into thinking a subtle variation on an exercise is going to make or break the program.  Ultimately it’s a matter of sifting out what really matters and what is absolutely irrelevant.  Remember, a lot of variation is often there to do nothing more than fend of boredom or worse yet to entice clients into an ineffective program.

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Matt JordanWhen Does Program Variety Become a Sales Pitch??