Training Bias: What is it? Do you need it?

Training Bias: What is it? Do you need it?

In February of 2009, an article titled “CrossFit Strength Bias” was published in the CrossFit Journal. This was, as far as I can remember, the first attempt at a codified program designed to emphasize specific areas of training, in the context of the development of all-around fitness as required and developed by CrossFit. My recollection of the details of the program is hazy, but that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I want to talk about the concept of “biased” programs in general – what a biased program is, what it should look like, and how you can tell if you need a bias in your training.

What is Training Bias?

When a program is designed for any given sport, it is presumably created with a specific end-state in mind (the state of the athlete attaining the highest level of sport specific fitness, at the right time). That end-state is made up of a mix of different elements. In the case of fitness sports, such as CrossFit and Grid, the elements include (but are not limited to) cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular endurance, strength, power, speed, etc.

Training bias is a fairly simple concept. A program is biased when certain elements of the desired end state are emphasized more than others – sometimes even at the expense of others – in the interest of maximizing the athlete’s end state performance. Creating bias in a program effectively is more nuanced. An effectively biased program is designed in such a way as to bear in mind that the goal of the bias is to enhance the end-state (of maximal sport specific fitness), rather than to maximize the qualities being emphasized by the bias. A well written biased program should meet the following criteria:

(1) Improves the qualities being emphasized, while also…
(2) At least maintaining, if not marginally improving, the other qualities necessary for maximizing the desired end-state, and…
(3) Becomes less biased over time as the athlete’s development allows.

If a biased program feels to meet (1), the problem is obvious to any objective observer. But failures of (2) and (3) can be hard to spot until it’s too late. This is mostly a problem of perspective, and it’s why the understanding elucidated upon above is crucial. The coach and the athlete must enter the biased state of training with the understanding that the purpose is in the end-state, not in the bias itself. The bias is a means to an end, and must be viewed as such.

What Should Training Bias Look Like?

Armed with a theoretical understanding of the purpose of training bias, we are led to ask what it looks like in practice. There will be three main features of a biased program:

(1) Increased volume and/or frequency in the areas of emphasis
(2) Decreased volume and/or frequency in areas of interference
(3) Schedule changes to accommodate the stress differences caused by (1) and (2)

As an example, let’s envision modifications to squat training in a strength-biased program. (1) can take the form of more volume and/or frequency in the primary means of strength development, more volume/frequency of accessory exercises, or both. For example, program may have squats three times per week rather than once or twice, or it may include leg strength accessories after heavy squatting (such as unilateral work or another, lighter squat variation).

(2) would result in a reduction of volume in non-strength building movements and modalities which stress the legs, e.g. long runs may be made shorter, reps or weights of squatting movements in metcons may be reduced, etc.

(3) would, for me, result in greater consolidation of stressors than I may implement in less biased programs, i.e. the program would end up having more of a body part split feel, wherein the hardest squat days also include the most volume on the legs in non-strength building modalities, and other days leave the legs alone completely for more recovery between sessions (you can read more about consolidation of stressors in Chad Smith’s great articles on the topic: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

To see this in application, you can take a look at a week of TZ Strength Base Programming as it compares to the same week (2018 Season – Macrocycle 1 – Mesocycle 1 – Week 1 of TZ Strength Strength & Power Biased Programming.

Should Your Program Be Biased?

The short answer: probably not.

Most athletes who contact me for programming are under the impression that they need a biased program. It certainly is the case that some athletes will benefit from biased training, but for many, the bias needs to be smaller than they think. It should be noted that putting in a little extra work on your weaknesses – something nearly everyone needs  is not sufficient to constitute training bias, as it does not impact the core design of the program. So how can you tell if your program does need significant bias? There are two main areas to asses:

(1) Level of Development
(2) Absolute Performance

(1) references your level of development relative to your own genetic potential. It is entirely possible to have an athlete at a low level of relative performance (that is to say, they do not perform well against their peers in competition), but still be at a high level of personal development (that is to say, they have trained hard and intelligently for an extended period, and are no longer novice trainees.) True novice trainees almost never need a biased program. They just need balance and consistency. So if you qualify as a novice trainee, this is usually an immediate disqualification from needing a biased program.

(2) is about your actual performances, and must take into account not only your times/scores, but also your individual limiting factors. Two athletes may have the same absolute score on a workout, but the factors which prevented them from having a better score may be totally different. For example, take this workout from the 2016 CrossFit Games Regionals:

3 Rounds For Time:
400m Run (TrueForm)
40 GHD Sit-Ups
7 Deadlifts, 405#/275#

There is a wide array of potential limiting factors here, including, but not limited to: maximal strength, strength endurance, muscular endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance. Each of these may be subdivided into more categories (by muscle group, movement pattern, format, combination, etc). If, over the assessment of a large battery of disparate events, an athlete is consistently limited by the same fitness characteristic (or subtypes thereof), that athlete may be a good candidate for a biased program.

The needs of every athlete are, by nature, individual. But individual needs do not necessarily call for a biased program. If, on assessment, it seems that an athlete does in fact need some type of training bias, it is crucial that the program continues to look at long term development, takes into account the nature of emergent properties, and stays focused on the ultimate goal of developing the desired end-state of maximal sport specific fitness.

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If you’re interested in learning about TZ Strength’s program offerings, which include both biased and unbiased programs, check out the Competitors Programming page and get in touch!

By | 2017-04-22T21:24:08+00:00 April 12th, 2017|0 Comments

Making Excuses versus Acknowledging Circumstances: When Mental Toughness Works Against You

Making Excuses versus Acknowledging Circumstances: When Mental Toughness Works Against You

Can an athlete be too tough?

Reaching one’s potential in any sport requires a certain degree of grit. An athlete must be willing and able to tolerate varying kinds and degrees of discomfort, both physical and psychological, and keep coming back for more of the same for years on end. But I hasten to answer my own question: like just about any characteristic, there is a point where an athlete can be too tough for their own good.

My experience with athletes – particularly athletes who are already fairly experienced, and have been training hard for an extensive period – is that they are more likely to have too much toughness than too little. Much as it can be difficult to get an athlete to train less rather than piling on needless volume, many athletes will be prone to tough their way through circumstances which, by their very nature, will not yield to mental fortitude.

Recently, a frequent topic of discussion between myself and many of my athletes has been the distinction between making excuses and acknowledging circumstances. For the sake of clarity, I will here define the way I am using these terms:

An excuse is a reason, proposed by the athlete, which, if true, bears at least partial responsibility for the athlete’s inability to execute the task at hand. Excuses will often be amorphous (the athlete may change the nature of the reason based on the context in which it is being offered), centered around factors tangentially within the athlete’s immediate control (tangentially is key – the athlete will be able to make a case for why they are not in his or her control, even if they could be), and the athlete will seek external validation for their excuses (on some level the athlete knows that they could be in control of these factors, and will often look to people who confirm the athlete’s preferred belief that the reasons they cite for their failure are valid.)

A circumstance is a reason, external to the athlete, which, if true, bears at least partial responsibility for the athlete’s inability to execute the task at hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, circumstances are in many ways the inverse of excuses. They will be unchanging regardless of the context in which they are offered, they will center around factors mostly or entirely outside of the athlete’s immediate control, and they require no external validation – they are obvious to any reasonable onlooker.

Although there certainly are athletes who are prone to making excuses, I think that most serious athletes – at least those I am fortunate enough to work with – lean hard in the other direction. It is crucial to be able to distinguish between excuses and circumstances, because when the athlete conflates the two, they will treat a problem which should be treated analytically emotionally instead. When a circumstance is keeping an athlete from training as effectively as possible, the athlete and coach should scrutinize the problem, determine a strategy to work around it, and execute the new plan. If the athlete instead chooses to try to deal with the problem internally – as one would deal with an excuse – and simply tough it out, their success will be limited, because no amount of mental toughness is sufficient to eliminate external conditions.

Do you work 60 hours a week at a high stress job? Do you have a newborn who doesn’t sleep well, keeping you up at night? Are you dealing with emotionally challenging personal trials? These are circumstances, not excuses. Acknowledge them, analyze them, and make a plan which takes them into account. The hammer of mental toughness is an important tool, but cannot replace the careful measuring of critical analysis and strategy.

By | 2017-04-22T21:24:28+00:00 April 4th, 2017|0 Comments

Variety Is Specificity: Fitness Sport and the Nature of Emergent Properties

Variety Is Specificity: Fitness Sport and the Nature of Emergent Properties

A long time ago, in a galaxy before the CrossFit Games, my first coach and training partner, the now infamous Russ Greene, told me about one of the tactics he used to keep his pace up during hard running workouts: “I just keep telling myself that at least I’m not doing high rep squat cleans.”

Russ had made two important observations about his training. First, that high rep squat cleans are truly miserable. Second, that high rep squat cleans had a bigger impact on Russ’ ability to maintain his running speed than virtually any amount of running did. More interesting was that even as Russ increased his squat clean maximum, and got better at high rep squat cleans, and became a faster runner, his ability to run when coupled with squat cleans improved only marginally, nowhere near the rate of the components themselves.

At the time, we didn’t give it much thought – or at least I didn’t. It was CrossFit, that was just how CrossFit was. But with a decade of experience and learning, I have finally come to see what it was that Russ had identified with that comment. He was identifying the emergent properties of fitness sport.

Emergent properties are properties which can be observed in a complex system, but not within the individual components of that system. A classic example can be drawn from chemistry: although table salt is made up of sodium and chlorine, those two elements do not necessarily taste “salty”. The flavor profile of table salt is an emergent property of the compound NaCl.

Emergence is the reason that the NFL combine isn’t strongly predictive of success in the league. It’s the reason that leg pressing and deadlifting isn’t sufficient to maximize your squatting strength. And it’s the reason that improvements in running, max squat cleans, and high rep squat cleans in isolation were insufficient to create the same rate of improvement in Russ’ ability to perform workouts which coupled the two movements.

In better understanding emergent properties, there are at least three major implications for training.

First, the need for variety is made more clear than ever. If the events the athlete will face in competition will require the athlete be able to exhibit and withstand hard-to-predict emergent properties, then the athlete’s training should expose them to a wide variety of formats and combinations of movements, so that the odds of the athlete being prepared for any particular event are improved.

Second, we must learn to be selective in our repetition. Consistency is required for improvement in any given skill or capacity, but in order to get the most out of that consistency – and to avoid making our training so repetitive that we fail to include sufficient variety – it’s important to determine which elements (be they specific movements, formats, or combinations of movements) are likely to produce the best carryover to the most things.

Third, and perhaps most important, our training must be sport specific. It is easy to fall into a trap of reductionism – breaking down the sport into its constitutive components, and training each of those components for maximal development in isolation. To some extent, this type of training is necessary. Depending on the athlete and the time of year, it may even take primacy. However, we must always keep our focus on the long game of developing the highest level of sport specific fitness – and that requires regular and year round exposure to sport specific training elements.

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By | 2017-04-22T21:25:11+00:00 March 27th, 2017|1 Comment

170325

Today is the final (yes, final!) day of free programming posted on the TZ Strength website.

If you wish to continue following TZ Strength into the off-season and beyond, be sure to go here and get in touch with me ASAP so that you can get started on Monday!

Regardless of whether you choose to stay on board or not – THANK YOU for choosing TZ Strength to be part of your journey. Be sure to keep checking the blog for educational content.

Weightlifting

Power Clean & Jerk 65%x1x3

Strength

Back Squat 4×2, use 65% of 1RM

Gymnastics

Chest-to-Bar Pullup 1 x Max Reps

Endurance

2 Rounds:
2:00 Assault Bike @ 6
2:00 Run @ 6
2:00 Row @ 22-26 strokes/minute

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By | 2017-03-24T23:02:19+00:00 March 24th, 2017|0 Comments

170324

Ouch.

I actually did not see this coming. I thought to myself, “I know we’ve never had an Open without double unders, but I just don’t know if they’re a week five movement. I don’t think they have the kick.”

Sometimes I’m a real idiot, but hopefully I can still help you get through 17.5

Output Management

Today’s strategy post is a bit different. This is a relatively simple workout, and the most important advice will come from the analysis of Sigmundsdottir’s performance, rather than the subsequent recommendations.

I more or less flipped a coin to pick which athlete to follow, but I’m glad I ended up tracking Sigmundsdottir, as I think her performance tells an important story, which we can flesh out to our advantage.

Round Thruster Double Under
1 14.6 22.59
2 16.81 21.96
3 16.3 24.02
4 17.01 25.5
5 17.73 22.33
6 19.86 23.02
7 18.58 23.23
8 18.66 24.07
9 18.79 21.53
10 17.26 0:40
Mean 17.8* 23.1*
Final 6:56.2

Notes
Split times include the transition into the movement, i.e. I stopped the clock on thrusters when Sigmundsdottir completed the 9th rep so that her double under time includes the transition from the bar to the rope, and vice versa. This is why the first round of thrusters is so much faster than the rest.
*Mean splits do not include first round of thrusters or tenth round of double unders.

As one would expect, Sigmundsdottir’s pace was quite consistent, showing slight and gradual degradation in the thrusters and a very slight undulation in double unders with no real degradation – until a massive dropoff in the final round.

Understanding that dropoff is important. From the outside looking in, what appears to have happened is this: Sigmundsdottir picks up the bar for the final round of thrusters and realizes she is now neck-and-neck with Davidsdottir. She speeds up her thrusters in order to gain an edge. She succeeds – by my timing, it’s the fastest her thrusters were since round four taking a little over a second and a half off of the previous round, and about a half second off her average.

But, there is a cost. She gets back to the rope, and after nine near perfect rounds, has several misses. She comes in 17 seconds over her average split time, for an improvement of only a second and a half.

I am making a few key assumptions in my assessment:

(1) That Sigmundsdottir intentionally pushed the pace on the last round of thrusters to gain a lead on Davidsdottir.

(2) That the faster pace on thrusters was a major contributor to the decrease in pace on the subsequent double unders, rather than it being a relatively minor contributor compared to trying to push the pace on the double unders.

I think (1) is a very reasonable assumption, and while (2) is slightly less strong, I believe it illustrates the point I’m trying to make regardless of which movement ultimately led to the breakdown of her double unders: the point is that an attempt to sprint, even in the final round, will bite you in the ass.

The reasons are threefold. First, neither movement is particularly conducive to fast pacing. You’re just not going to increase your per rep speed by that much, no matter how hard you try. Second, the attempt to do so will result in an exponential increase in fatigue. Third, the increase in fatigue correlates with a much higher chance of missing on the double unders – and this is the mistake we cannot afford.

I had one of my athletes perform a quick test to illustrate the combined futility/risk of sprinting the double unders. He performed two sets of 35 double unders. The first set was done at his normal “working” pace, fast but smooth, no sprint, and the second was a max effort. Both sets started at a heart rate of 97. The first set took 19 seconds, brought his heart rate to 137. The second set took 17 seconds, and brought his heart rate to 147.

Two seconds faster, a difference of 10 beats per minute – and that’s one set. In short, the risk is high, and the reward is low. The best bet is to move at a challenging but sustainable pace for the duration of the event – even the final round.

Thruster: The goal here is to go unbroken, and athletes of intermediate level and above should be able to do this without trouble. If you cannot go unbroken, I would suggest that you use lockout speed as your guide: if you sense that you’re going to have to squeeze the rep out at the top, terminate the set prior to that happening.

Double Under: Unbroken, fast but smooth pace. If you’re going to have to break these up, break the set before you have to. Often, missing double unders occurs subsequent to a sharp increase in fatigue in the shoulders and forearms, and elevated respiratory and heart rates. If you already know you’re going to have to break your sets, do it at your own behest, not when your body forces you to.

Technical Considerations

Thruster: When performing light thrusters at a relatively fast pace, it can be extremely easy to short your lockout. In my experience, there are three places this is most likely to happen: the entire first set (you’re fresh and trying to go quickly), the first rep of every set (you’re trying to find a rhythm), and the last rep of every set (you’re already thinking about the next movement. For this whole workout, but especially at these points, make it your mission to lock every rep clearly, if quickly. You don’t have to pause at the top, but make sure your judge is totally certain that every rep is good, This is especially important on the final rep of each set, because it is quite likely that you will drop the bar before you figure out that the rep didn’t count.

Double Under: Shoulders, chest, and arms relaxed. Stay tall, focus on breathing. If you get to a point where you’re totally out of control of your breath, that’s a good sign that you’re going to fast.

The way you drop the rope matters here. Letting go of it while it’s still in the air is a big mistake. If your judge didn’t count your last rep, the rope is now out of your hands. And if you release the rope while it’s moving, it’s likely to fall in an unpredictable place and position. Instead, upon completing the final double under, wait until the rope is lying on the ground unmoving, and then drop the handles straight down from arm’s length.

Finally, double unders are a difficult movement to judge and count. Have your judge watch a few sets of 15-20 during your warm-up and count them, to make sure you’re on the same page. If they’re way off, get a new judge – this workout presents three hundred and fifty opportunities for poor judging to mess you up. Don’t let that happen.

Other Notes

Set-Up: Obviously you want the rope and the bar close together, but always be aware that if you’re too close and at the wrong angle, you could end up catching the barbell and messing up your double unders. I would suggest performing the double unders profile to your barbell, i.e. whichever way you’re facing when you do your thrusters, you should step back a couple of feet and turn 90 degrees to do your double unders, so that your shoulder, rather than your chest or back, is facing the barbell.

Obligatory: Read and reread the standards. Go over them with your judge. Charge your batteries, empty your memory cards, make sure people know when and where you’re filming, etc.

Warm-Up

1) Assault Bike 10 Minutes @ 6

2) 3 Sets:
40 Single Unders + 10-15 Double Unders
10 Goblet Squats w/Pause, 24kg/16kg
5 Kettlebell Push Press/side, 24kg/16kg, pause final rep at top for 5 seconds

3) EMOM 8, alternating:
a) 6-7-8-9 Thruster, 95#/65# (add one rep each set)
b) 20-25-30-35 Double Unders (add five reps each set)

4) Assault Bike 0:10 @ 9/0:50 Rest/0:10 @ 9

Rest 2-3 minutes, and kick 17.5 in the teeth.

CrossFit Games Open Workout 17.5

10 Rounds For Time:
9 Thrusters, 95#/65#
35 Double Unders

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If you’re a TZ Strength athlete and want your programming to continue uninterrupted, or if you’re ready to become a TZ Strength athlete and want to make sure you get started on Day 1 of the off-season or Regionals prep, make sure to go here and get in touch with us today!

By | 2017-03-24T03:09:33+00:00 March 24th, 2017|0 Comments

170323

Endurance

Assault Bike 10 minutes @ 6
Run 10 minutes @ 6
Row 10 minutes @ 22-26 strokes/minute

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By | 2017-03-22T21:07:04+00:00 March 22nd, 2017|0 Comments

170322

Just a few more days of the Open remain, and just a few more days of free TZ Strength programming. Here are the answers to a few questions:

When do I need to sign up by?

If you want your training to continue uninterrupted, please make sure to go here and fill out the contact form no later than Friday, so that I have time to get you set up before Monday! However, there is no deadline – you can get signed up whenever you want.

Same goes for Affiliates – if you want to get in on the next macrocycle, go here and contact me by Friday for best results, but you can get on board at any time.

What will happen to the TZ Strength blog?

Don’t you worry! The blog will still be active, but the focus will shift to providing helpful content about programming, training, and coaching. Stay tuned!

Weightlifting

1) Clean 75%x1x5
2) Overhead Squat 1 @ 7, 1 @ 8, 1 @ 9

Sport

3 Rounds For Time:
10 One Legged Squats, alternating
10 Box Jump Overs, 24″/20″
10 Dumbbell Hang Power Cleans, 55#/35#
10 Back Extensions
10 Pushups

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By | 2017-03-22T00:35:28+00:00 March 22nd, 2017|1 Comment

170321

Strength

Back Squat 1RM

Notes
Plan your attempts, be smart, minimize volume to maximize output on the top effort. If you miss, you’re done. If you decide to take a bunch of cracks at various weights, or to keep going after you miss, it is going to impact your performance on 17.5. Prioritize.

Gymnastics

Muscle-Up 1 x Max Reps

Sport

21-18-15-12-9-6-3 For Time:
Row Calories
Assault Bike Calories

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By | 2017-03-21T01:27:11+00:00 March 21st, 2017|2 Comments

170320

Thus commences the final week of free-of-charge TZ Strength programming.

Beginning Monday, March 27th, all programming will be subscription only. There are three programs available:

Base: This is the programming which has been available on tzstrength.com since 2013. The program is designed to treat all areas of fitness equally, with an emphasis on sport specific development.

Strength & Power: This program is designed to bias the development of hypertrophy, top end strength, and the Olympic lifts, within the scope of improving the athlete’s sport specific fitness by bringing up these areas.

Endurance & Gymnastics: Essentially the inverse of the Strength & Power program, this specialization is designed for the athlete who is relatively superior with heavy weights, but needs to improve their gymnastics strength, skill, and capacity, as well as their general and sport specific endurance.

The S&P and E&G programs are all inclusive. The Strength & Power program includes your endurance and gymnastics training. The Endurance & Gymnastics program includes heavy lifting. Rather than layering unrelated programs on top of one another, these programs allow you to bias your training towards your weaknesses, while still focusing on the sport as a whole.

If you’d like to learn more or get signed up, go here to do some reading and drop me a line.

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A new macrocycle of TZ Strength Affiliate Programming also begins on the 27th. If you’re looking to provide your members with programming that is equal parts inclusive and challenging, varied and consistent, serious and fun, all while saving yourself hours every week, fill out the contact form here to get started!

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Weightlifting

Snatch 75%x1x8

Strength

(Optional)
Push Press 2-3×1 @ 90% of 3RM load

Sport

1) “Helen”
3 Rounds For Time:
Run 400m
21 Kettlebell Swings, 24kg/16kg
12 Pullups

2) 5 Rounds For Time:
7 Overhead Squats, 165#/110#
21 Double Unders

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By | 2017-03-19T21:49:06+00:00 March 19th, 2017|2 Comments
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