Training to Cheer (not an oxymoron)

I’m teaching a strength and conditioning class right now, and on Monday night we went through the basics of how to set up a program. We went through how you modify it to help the athletes you work with in their sport be the best that they can be. It was a good time and got me thinking.

I know a number of people that read this are actual (or were) cheerleaders so this can apply directly to them or someone that they know. Also, this is just my logic of how I set things up/look at things and you can feel free to appropriate it yourself and use it with the sport you play. I hope this will make sense to everyone and please comment if you want me to go in to any component to a high degree for a later post.

Needs Analysis

First and foremost before you start writing the program you need to know two things about your athletes; where they are at, and where they need to be. Now this happens to bring up a wide variety of performance factors, but you can start to figure out where the biggest discrepancies of where someone is at and where they need to be. When you know that, then you know what needs to be focused on first in their program.

Take some time and watch the sport (and participate in it as well) and you will learn what is needed for the athletes to excel. The sport of cheerleading (let’s call it a sport for this post) requires a team to perform a routine that lasts about two and a half minute that will be filled with a variety of high power stunts, baskets, tumbling, and pyramids that also require strength, precision, and enough conditioning to be able to do each part (especially hit the end of their routine).

Different Roles

Now in cheerleading there are a number of different roles an athlete can have (much like positions in other sports like football or basketball). Each role has different requirements and priorities to do well. In my mind they break down in to three different roles when it comes to stunting and pyramids. Those three roles are:

Base – This is the person on the bottom lifting people overhead. It comes in various flavors such as coed where it is just one guy holding up a flyer or with all girl where you have three bases (main base, side base, back). If you are the base of a pyramid congrats you have someone standing on your shoulders (most of the time) (this is not a party), if not you are in charge of throwing the girl up there which has its own demands. A pro to this position is you can be as big as you want to be since you just have to throw yourself in tumbling (or not tumble) and throw other people in the air. This person needs to have enough strength to not only hold someone overhead but to potentially press them up, spin them, flip them, etc. So this athlete needs to be strong plain and simple.

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Example of Top girl, Midlayer, and Bases. Notice how the enthusiasm decreases as you go down in levels. Hope all is well Matt and everyone else from KU cheer.
old cheer nationals missouri state
Coed Bases and Flyers.
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Sisters that cheer at Eastern. One is a base and the other is a flyer. Notice the lack of any big difference between the two of them. However, notice the ravages of age for the guy on the right.

Flyer – These are the people that you see up in the air. Part of their “skill” is literally the ability to be small. That however, does not do justice to what they need to do in the air. They have two basic subsets of their role:

Midlayer – this is the girl holding the top girl (get to that in a second) in the air. They are typically small (but fierce), and need to be strong, specifically in their ability to hold a static position and sometimes hold another person overhead with their arms. This is an interesting combination in that you need someone who is strong (which requires muscle) and yet is still small (muscle is heavy).

Top girl – This is not a social status, this is simply where they actual are situated on the pyramid. Top girl is literally the one on the top. Typically this is one of your smallest athletes, and this is the highest risk position on the entire pyramid. Typically they are standing at least eight feet off the ground and when pyramids go down they have a long way to go. This position requires some strength (specifically to hold body positions), but the key here is body control and the power to get up in the air (the people tossing them have a huge part here).

From there you can have folks that tumble (do gymnastic moves), basket (get thrown in the air by three people and do flips and twists in them), and rock spirit fingers. Those all have their own demands, but I’m going to be lazy here and just note they exist and have their own demands.

So at the end of the day I think of most sport as revolving around five different basic components, which can be broken down further, but I’ll leave that for later posts if anyone is interested (comment if you are).

Strength

This is simply the ability to produce force, you need enough of this to get a human being off the ground (or yourself) and especially to hold them there. If you have to get a 100lbs. person in the air up to your hands and you are only strong enough to lift a 99lbs. person that 100lbs. person is not getting up there. Now that being said, if you are only strong enough to get the 100lbs. person in the air without an ounce to spare you aren’t going to get not just anyone heavier in the air, but you won’t be able to get that same person in the air twice in a row with a few seconds apart (like in a routine). So your goal as an athlete is to be not just strong enough to lift your partner, but to lift them for reps.

The same concept goes for all girl (3 bases), only now figure each person is taking close to a third (for time sake here, I’m being lazy). Now the issue with all girl stunts is that often you can find yourself in a situation where the top girl gets shifted to one side or another and now suddenly your third becomes more like half her weight or even all of her weight. Hopefully, you can see how having an excess of strength pays dividends for bases.

Having an excess amount of strength will allow to save stunts that don’t go right ask just about any girl that ever stunted with me about how bad my grips would be in games (sorry again to Morgan, Kat, Ally, and many more), but I was strong enough to often save the stunts and keep them up in the air. We have a group at Eastern right now that the ladies are so strong (collectively) they can make nearly anything you want hit (though we can’t promise it will look good).

Strength is also for the flyers since they need to be able to not only hold positions in the air, but sometimes hold up one another. Those with better strength can hold things longer, and fix stunts that don’t go well. This strength is very much so vertical in direction, so how much you bench is not that important unless you plan to stunt while lying on the ground. Things like military press, squats, and deadlifts will pay dividends here along with some pull ups just for a bit more of an ability to stabilize overhead.

Power

Now this is different from strength, in that it is your ability to produce force in a short period of time. Athletes that are more powerful can jump higher, toss higher, and hit their tumbling much more easily. Just like the arguments with strength, if you have an excess of power it is always useful in that you can easily toss up a pyramid or stunt.

Girls that can jump higher are easier to throw up in stunts or in pyramids, bases that are more powerful can throw their flyer higher in the air. The other positive of this is you then have more time to make sure you see their feet and catch the grip you want when you toss them higher. Girls in baskets have more time to throw their trick if their basket group is more powerful.

Power is reliant on strength, but the two do not perfectly correlate. So they must both be built, the good news is that stunting itself can be a way to build it, if you don’t have that available doing things like plyometrics, the Olympic lifts, and med ball tosses can be ways to help build it up.

Conditioning

This employs a wide variety of energy systems. Since cheerleading requires a two and a half minute routine it is very intensive on the anaerobic glycolytic system (without oxygen where you feel the burn), but the base underneath it is your aerobic glycolytic system (think working hard enough aerobically that it is getting hard to talk). Since you are working so hard in both of these systems you want to develop them both well enough, but the key is to develop the aerobic first then work on your anaerobic (specifically by running the routine over and over).  Develop the aerobic system by doing a wide variety of things, but steady state work for half an hour at a moderate intensity if a good place to start (3 times a week).

Mobility

This is simply the ability to move in the body positions required for your sport. Turns out you don’t need to be Gumby to be a base, but for some flyers this can be pretty useful. Having the mobility in your shoulders, wrists, hips, ankles, and upper back will allow you to put people in the air without risking your joints. Guys with tight shoulders (often lats) have a hard time with locking out stunts and getting their stunt placed directly above them and have to make up for this by arching their back. Flyers that aren’t flexible enough in their hip flexors and hamstrings have a hard time holding a heel stretch and have to pull it violently to get it to hit often. Being able to move well enough is key to health and movement efficiency so check this according to the role. This goes further than just stretching out in some cases, but doing movements that require you to work on your mobility and otherwise can help with this (things like Romanian deadlifts for hamstring flexibility, dead hang pull ups and leg raises to loosen up the lats a bit, etc.).

Coordination

This is your technique, you need this to do your job. Doesn’t matter how great any of the other variables are if you don’t have this you won’t succeed. This is also important in that the better you are with your technique the more efficient your movements become. This has a domino effect of helping you use less energy to perform your stunts, pyramids, etc. and not having to waste strength in fighting to save things. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE HAVING BETTER TECHNIQUE FOR PERFORMANCE.

Wrap Up

So this was a simple needs analysis for cheerleading. If people are interested (please comment if you are) I will write up the programming for what I would do with a cheer team to help them prep for cheer in general, much less for a competition.

Basics of how I set up my diet

In the same vain as my post on how I train, I’m going to cover this week how I set up my diet. Feel free to be bored. Just like my training, it has evolved with time. I definitely went through a stage where the only vegetable I ate on a daily basis was pickles. I will never live this down, so I’m going to own it. I would buy a big jar of full pickles and eat one a day so I could say to myself that I ate vegetables. I don’t think I even knew what fiber was at this time.

I’m still changing my diet and trying different foods so this is a work in progress. This is based on my experiences and tastes (or lack thereof) so take this all with a grain of salt (nutrition pun!). Turns out I’ll be eating right up until the day I die, so things like taste, preferences, goals, etc. change with time. This is how things currently look.

Basic Premise

I like routine. By setting up my diet with routines that I follow, I don’t have to waste mental energy on excessive planning or implementation. Yes, this can be boring, but I derive my enjoyment of my life from more than my taste receptors (being strong is freaking awesome). I also practice eating like an adult. Everything doesn’t need to be sweetened, and every meal doesn’t need a dessert. Also, it turns out that vegetables are good for you and you should be eating more of them.

I have some basic numbers I hit every day regardless if I am trying to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain my weight. The only thing that changes with that is literally how much time I spend hungry and how much more I eat. I also start hitting the carbs higher when I’m ramping up my training or really trying to gain weight, normally I just let the chips fall where they may.

Protein

I aim to get in about one gram per pound of body weight per day. The research really shows that this seems to peak out with how much muscle mass you will be gaining at about .9 grams per pound of body weight. I like meat so I’m not afraid to go over. When I let this number dip lower (.8 grams per pound or less) my muscle soreness significantly increases from training.

Fiber

As I get older not getting enough of this is a major issue. I’m typically aiming for about 30 grams or so a day. Yes, that might seem high to a lot of you, but there is some interesting stuff coming out about beneficial effects of high fiber diets. No, I’m not linking all of that here, but I’m doing some reading on it.

Fat

After making sure that I get this from good sources (not fried foods), I aim to get in at least 50 grams a day. I aim to get in at least 2 grams of fish oil per day (not to be confused with the exact amount of EPA and DHA I take in).

My Typical Day

Breakfast

Coffee immediately upon waking, or damn near it. I throw some coconut oil in there and I’ve been experimenting with throwing some butter in there too. Doesn’t seem to have the whole “bullet proof” mind effect, but it tastes good and has calories. I also have a protein shake and a handful of mixed nuts. This to me is simple and no matter where I am it takes little time to prepare and I can carry it with me.

Lunch

Some type of meat, two servings of vegetables and I’m out. Really not exciting, sometimes it is leftovers, but I’m sure to get some type of vegetable here (cooked or raw) and sometimes I just do a can of tuna in a pinch.

Snack 1

Quest bar or something like it. It has fiber and protein in it so that makes me happy along with it tastes good. Also a piece of fruit, I’ve been on a grapefruit kick of recent date. This might happen before lunch or after it, it all comes down to when I train that day.

Dinner

This is the meal that I typically go for broke if I’m going to stuff myself. I’m an ex fat kid and can throw down some food if I want. This meal is meat, some type of carb (typically rice, potatoes, or oatmeal), and some vegetables. The portions here is what is big (relative to what some people eat) I have a large plate which is really more a serving platter and I just pile that one up and go to town. Notice I haven’t talked about measuring things or portions so far, you need to figure out your only macronutrient needs and otherwise. Someone who is a hundred pounds bigger or smaller than I will need to change their portions accordingly.

Snack 2

This is normally after dinner and before bed, with a revolving choice depending on what I’m doing. If I’m trying to gain weight; it is often yogurt, maintain weight; cheese sticks or meat, lose weight; nothing and sadness.

Pre Training

I will either use whatever preworkout I have laying around (free samples, leftovers from previous studies, etc.) or I will just drink coffee and add in a bit of beta alanine to the mix. Simple and gets me ramped up a bit to train.

Post Training

This is a simple protein shake along with some type of fast carb, and about five grams of creatine (I buy the powder in bulk and add it in accordingly). Often this is when I will either consume some leftover candy or fruit (looking for carbs that quickly digest here). Today was literally orange juice, one cutie orange, and some leftover Valentine’s Day chocolate.

Wrap up

During times of focus (gaining weight or losing it) I will be more precise and measure my foods to make sure I’m having my desired effects. However, most of the time I just follow this basic layout and it keeps me feeling good and from becoming too fluffy. This is by no means the greatest diet and has room for being improved, but this is the basic template that I work from. If you have any questions or otherwise please just let me know. Thanks for reading.

The Basics of How I Train

A few people have been asking me recently about what my training program is. I kept telling them I am going to explain it to them at some point, but then I just decided I could write this all out here and be good to go. I’m going to try and explain the basics of why I do what I do, but at the end of the day remember some perspective on who I am (in a training sense). I have been lifting weights seriously for about fifteen years now (and I didn’t discover my lower body for at least the first five). I have long arms and legs for my height and a short torso (will explain some exercise choices), I have a few injuries from years of doing stuff, and I really enjoy training. My current block of training is now aimed more towards hypertrophy than anything else. I’m not really doing any conditioning (other than sets of ten), and I’m aiming to gain weight right now (about 5-6 pounds in the next three months).

My Split (Normally)

I train six days per week utilizing an upper body/lower body split. The basic split goes as follows:

Monday: Squat (start the week on your feet) (quad dominant)

Tuesday: Military press/Pull ups (vertical push/pull)

Wednesday: Deadlift (hip dominant)

Thursday: bench press/row (horizontal push/pull)

Friday: Single leg work and accessory lower body volume (lower)

Saturday: Upper body weak point work (close grip bench and upper back work) (push/pull)

Sunday: Rest

I then break each day into typically 5 movements (sometimes 6) and follow a basic loading scheme of week one medium, week two low, week three high, week four deload. So in arbitrary percentages this comes out to be about 80%, 75%, 85%, 60% to give you an idea of the loading average percentages. I find this to be the style of training where I still make progress, but don’t feel too beaten up. I picked up a lot of this idea from Jim Wendler (check out his 5/3/1 book) and Joe Kenn (check out his Tier System book).

Exercise sequence

The first movement for each day (or two movements) is listed in the day of the week above. For lower body I have started doing barbell snatch work first (five real work sets of two or three reps) (really for fun than anything really productive). The snatch movement is modified for each training day just to break things up (power, pause, high hang). After the first movement, when it comes to lower body I will do a slightly lighter movement for sets of normally around ten reps (five sets). For squat day right now that is safety squat bar work (my leg strength sucks compared to back strength, I hate that damn bar since it humbles me), deadlift day that is fat bar deads (because strong hands are awesome), single leg day that is glute ham raises (never can have enough hip and hamstring strength). I will then do some type of ab work (ab wheel, hanging leg raises, gravity boot sit ups) along with some type of prehab and assistance (typically reverse hypers, lunges, leg press, glute ham raises, sled work, etc.).

For upper body after hitting the main two movements (I like to work the opposing musculature and I take solid amounts of rest between each set), I will pick another pair of exercises so for military day it will be handstand pushups (because they are awesome) and sternum chin ups (holding at the top for a few seconds) (sets of 3-8 reps on those exercises) followed by Bradford presses and chin ups (sets of ten here) (aiming for hypertrophy). On bench press day I will go in to close grip inclines (feels good on my shoulders and challenges me) and dumbbell or meadows rows (balancing the strength) followed by dips and some type of row (bodyweight rows right now) (more hypertrophy work). Finally, on the assistance upper body day after close grip bench and chins I will do chest supported rows and some triceps work, followed by some upper back work with some more arm work.

Let’s be honest

There is nothing magical about what I do, I’m just punching the clock and having some fun while I do it. Every three months I will change up the exercises some. This is to both stave off boredom and to modify how I apply stress to myself. I’ll go walk my dog with my wife and occasionally hop in and play some type of sports. I’m not on any drugs other than lots of caffeine, but I recover pretty well from the amount of volume I do and honestly at the end of the day I enjoy how I train. I’m strong, but want to be stronger, so right now my training is aimed toward getting a bit bigger so that I can then use that extra muscle mass to help me lift heavier weights. I don’t have a set competition date in mind right now, but when that happens my programming will change to help me prepare to peak for that competition.

Previous cycles

My previous training cycle was much like this one, but I had added in occlusion work at the end and my other volume was slightly dropped down (only three or four work sets on the exercises). The cycle before that was for strength (that was the mock meet I posted in October) and I had trained up to that doing heavy amounts of work in the 5 rep and below range and peaking for that.

Where I’ve been

From 2000 until about 2005 I trained each body part once a week (sometimes two, but never legs twice (I was a bit of a bro)). In 2006 I switched to a Westside style which I would keep up until about 2008 when I would then do Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 with an added weekend day of total body training with Thacker and Tweak and follow up training like that until about 2013 where I started to do something along the lines of my current split template. This is a way dumbed down version of those things, but hopefully gives some ideas of what I’ve done. Some of this worked well, some of this didn’t work at all, some of it actually put me backwards (like when I did Mentzer’s heavy duty style training one summer in 2003).

This is Now

Currently, I’m doing a program called the “Bench Assault” that I first did with Carl Christensen back at Missouri State in 2006. I have modified it a few times over the years and I do that workout on Tuesday and Thursday. For my assistance work on Saturday I still do chins, but now I do some handstand pushups and handstand work (balance) along with chest supported rows and some light shoulder rehab work and then some light arm work.

Summary

This is what I enjoy and works for me. I’ve been doing this for a while. I find this programming works well for me. I keep things in perspective in that when I add something in, something must come out. With time you will be able to do not only more weight, but literally more work. It is not always necessary to do that extra work, but be sure to do enough work that you keep getting better. In the words of Buddy Morris: “The body is always right”, I used to do a third squatting day on Friday, but after a while my low back was feeling pretty beat up and I wasn’t moving forward. Now with switching that around to be a single leg day (built around barbell split squats), I’m making progress again and feeling good. Hopefully this made sense to you if you are reading this. Please comment with any questions you have or otherwise. Remember, this is what works for me, and I’ve been doing this for a while. I didn’t bother with the gritty details because they really don’t matter (weights, percentages, etc.) since you need to experiment with your own training to find what works best for you.

Iron Therapy

So the long and short of it, as far as I’m willing to write about right now is: I’m dealing with some loss. As much as I am a fan of being (well trying to be) stoic, sometimes you got to let some emotion out. This is the time where instead of heading to my cave to lick my emotional wounds, I head to the gym to slay some type of dragon. There are a number of reasons that I do this that I will go a bit in to. Bear with me if I’m not up to my usual snuff (mediocrity that is), but here are some reasons to get after it when otherwise you want to lay down.

Emotionally

So you are sad, angry, or otherwise. Training is a great way to overcome this. Sadness tends to abate when you get the blood pumping and you do get the added advantage of endorphins being released (regardless if you are striving for the runners high (running HA!)). Training is going to help your body feel better in general. On the other side when you have anger and frustrations about what life has recently offered you up, might I suggest maximal deadlifting. You shouldn’t hit other people (unless you are sparring), but you can attack a barbell as hard as you want. I would also suggest stone lifting or any other type of movement that harnesses aggression. Now of course don’t go too crazy here since training stress is stress and stress is cumulative. You might be already highly stressed from those life events so get in and get moving, but don’t bury yourself with volume (I wrote this sentence as much for you reader as it was for me to read it).

Control

You can’t control the shit that happens sometimes in life, but you can always control two things; your thoughts and your actions. Going in and training allows you to exert some control over your life and still maintain some semblance of routine. You don’t need to hit all of your typical volume or number of exercises, but sometimes just hitting the first movement and then leaving will at least give you some feelings of ease that you are following your typical schedule. You can’t control what life gives you, but you can control yourself and at least keep fighting in one form or another. The universe will never care that any of us were here, but you can fight you own fight and that’s enough for me sometimes. Last week I was about 75% done with my normal workout and just finished as set and decided I was done. I was just done with training for that day, and that’s fine. The key is that I went in there and did something for a while, plus I skipped arm work which who really needs that?

Hormonally

So when shit goes down in life you tend to release a lot of stress hormone (cortisol, epinephrine, etc.). Great thing for acute exercise bad thing for long term health. This stress response happens from things like training, to being scared by something (movie, friend, etc.). So you want to essentially do something with these hormones. Epinephrine (the fight or flight response) causes global vasoconstriction (total body tightening of blood vessels) this makes your heart work harder, unless you are exercising which causes localized vasodilation (greater blood flow to the exercising area). Exercising in this condition allows for the increased heart beat and blood pumped out to be sent and utilized in some area of the body. So doing something in this condition will help the body deal with the stress a bit better and take some pressure off your heart. Not to mention the cascade of recovery hormones that will be released from doing hard training (more resistance training here than aerobic) which help the body recover from stress (growth hormone, testosterone).

Socially

I get by with a little help from my friends. Seeing friends at the gym or having folks that you share the experience of suffering in the gym can help in times like these. This doesn’t mean that we group hug and get all “kumbayah” on this, but they can help focus you and get you to work through it with a group. The strength staff at EKU have been kind enough to not bring up what I’m working through, still give me shit about my training inadequacies (read: calves), and let me go psycho on inanimate objects and shout at it afterwards (barbells). Sometimes this just allows a great escape from what ails you. I’ll always remember one of my best friends deadlifting 600lbs. for the first time will we had Everclear’s “father of mine” blasting through the system. How amped and intense he would get when that music would play was both terrifying and beautiful to behold. I never asked him why that music amped him up like that, I had my ideas, but I didn’t need to know. It simply was and he used that emotion to do something positive with it.

Wrap up

Maybe this was all a catharsis or a rationalization for poor coping behavior, but I know what works for me. As they say: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. So when you aren’t feeling up for it, when life has kicked you in the teeth, get up and get after it. We might not be able to control what has happened to us or the people we love, but we can channel this emotion in to something or at the very least afford us a momentary escape from it. Thanks for reading this and if there is anything you would like me to write about please comment on this post.