Coach Kat’s Programming leading up to the Euro Champs - Coach Jenni
Ever since I met Kat, all of about three years ago, I have been in absolute awe of her diverse capabilities and impressive skill and strength as an athlete. As well as the inspirational passion and commitment she brings to her coaching. So you can imagine my excitement when James and Kat approached me to be part of the team to help Kat reach her goal of qualifying and placing in the Euro Champs.
James and I can both agree that Kat was an incredible athlete to work with!
Not only due to her outstanding aspects as an athlete, but also:
Her commitment to the sheer volume and intensity of the workload and level of challenges ahead.
Her approach to the training, a lot of it asked humility of Kat, where she needed to take a step back and rebuild strength and skill development on a level far below what she could already perform at.
Her trust and patience in the program’s design, Kat followed the layout of the workouts and their intended stimulus without a fuss and as a result, her training reaped results quickly.
Each coach specialised in their given task, James would take care of building Kat’s engine and hone her weightlifting prowess whereas I would be responsible for her gymnastic strength and conditioning as well as improving and stabilising any imbalances within the shoulders and core.
Although this allowed each coach to focus on their given area and give the full benefit of their knowledge and experience the individual programmes needed to complement each other in order to be successful.
For example, we could not ask Kat to perform a gymnastics session of strict straight arm work followed by heavy clean and jerk session. For one the overload on the shoulder could lead to a musculature or joint injury, for two the fatigue neurologically would be detrimental to recovery and growth.
As a team communication and feedback was essential, and this allowed us to ensure Kat was always progressing safely and with virtue.
Kat’s gymnastic oriented goals were to:
Redevelop her movement mechanics in order to flow through movements safely, efficiently and increase her upper body and core stamina to perform the skills competently at high reps.
She also wanted to be confident in the high-end CrossFit gymnastic skills such muscle ups and handstand walking. So that if these came up in a workout she would be able to perform the skills under fatigue without causing mechanical stress on the joints and muscles due to failure in form.
First of all, we took Kat through a few simple assessments covering mobility, stabilisation, muscular and postural balance and movement screening.
What the assessments brought to light:
Kat has some discrepancies in her strength ratios. For example, she was strong pressing in a horizontal plane yet struggled with pulling in a horizontal plane. There were also areas lacking in her ability to move her own body weight or an external load through any vertical movement.
These are common areas of strength imbalances in athletes and they restrict development as the body does not like to be out of proportion and so will stagnate. These areas lacking in strength and balance not only meant Kat would struggle with handstand work, muscle ups, kipping, toes to bar and pull-ups.
It also highlighted that her musculature build was imbalanced and that how the shoulder was sitting in the joint was not in a healthy state. Kat was extremely tight in the anterior shoulder and pec muscles which caused her trouble when trying to get into true handstand form as the shoulders would remain partially closed.
In a handstand, the goal is to stack the skeleton in perfect vertical alignment, which distributes the weight evenly throughout the body. If one does not have to mobility to achieve this perfect line the brunt of the weight will sit on the shoulders or lumbar spine.
A tight anterior shoulder and pec also hindered her muscle ups as they were uncomfortable and dangerous. The conditions of Kat’s shoulders did not allow for a smooth transition from the pull beneath the rings/ bar to the press over, also the deep dip position of the muscle up could have potentially resulted in a torn pec.
Kat’s poor mobility and instability of her shoulder blades were affecting her weightlifting as well, any load overhead caused her pain and her ability to lift more weight was hindered.
Not only were Kat’s shoulders in need of some TLC. Her thoracic spine did not have the prerequisite range of motion to flow through consistent kipping.
Making tense and solid shapes, the hollow and arch is what gives an athlete's kip strength and endurance. Whereas in Kat’s instance her thoracic spine blocked her from creating these shapes and resulted in her kip having a jarring motion which would break the momentum and therefore waste the energy she was trying create.
This coupled with her deficient straight arm strength meant a lot of Kat’s gymnastic skills such as bar muscle ups, toes to bar and chest to bar pull ups were gained through ripping through the movement, which inhibited her ability to perform these skills with volume and also instead of the movement passing fluidly through the joints they were forced through compromised motion.
So for the first four weeks, we focused on both Kat’s active mobility and stability.
Active meaning that they would have functional applications, such as moving smoothly and safely through muscle up transitions. As opposed to passive mobility, such as splaying out into the splits, although an impressive party trick, not exactly useful for our goals.
These four weeks were imperative to Kat’s success for a few reasons:
It would increase her natural range of motion and condition the joints to withstand the mechanical forces of performing CrossFit at an elite level.
It also would help Kat become aware of how her shoulder blades and core move and how best to place them according to which task they are faced with, for example, the way we set our shoulder blades in a handstand is very different to how set them for a pull up in order to achieve the best mechanical advantage.
3. We wanted to build an indestructible, powerful, flexible and agile athlete.
Strength and mobility when coupled together enhance one another. They need to be developed progressively and proportionately. Training strength and mobility together is important in order to develop power in full range of a movement.
And more so muscle is strongest at its natural length, one that has become shortened or lengthened due to posture or unbalanced training has lost its contractile potential, and so is less powerful and also more susceptible to injury.
The four weeks completed and Kat’s shoulders were in a much healthier state. Next step was to build on her raw, strict strength. Now that we had rebalanced her shoulder musculature structure it was vital that we designed the program so that Kat was developing strength proportionally in all planes of movement.
And maintain her mobility progressively to match as her strength increased. It was important to ensure Kat could perform strict movements with good mechanics before we introduced any kiping movements or high volume work.
So to begin with we broke down the movements into their separate elements and had Kat developing strength and awareness of movement quality in these segments. Such as to develop the strict muscle up we had Kat performing false grip vertical ring rows, pulling to the chest and full lockout at the bottom - and deep ring dips, focusing on elbows tracking narrow and a true finish at the top of the rep.
We had the same approach of developing raw strength with full movement completion with Kat’s chest to bar pull-ups, which had previously been hindered by a poor activation technique which did not allow for the shoulder blades to move smoothly with the movement.
Her handstand press ups and handstand walking, in which both it is important to be aware of shoulder blade placement and weight distribution. One needs to be able to load each shoulder independently in a handstand walk and maintain an active, stable shoulder. And in a handstand press, one must learn to load their weight between each hand and the shoulders to create a tripod effect which is a much stronger pressing technique.
And so for 8 weeks, Kat focused on building her strict strength in the broken down elements of the full movement until she could perform multiple reps with full range of movement.
Then we added the final piece of the puzzle, the transition phase of the movement. Which is a strength and technique in itself In the muscle up it is the technique the athlete uses to move themselves from beneath the rings or bar to above and over the rings or bar. It can also refer to how a sets themselves at the top of a pull-up rep to return back to below the bar and enter into the next rep.
It is important to drill the transitions as it conditions the joints to move smoothly through these tight ranges and so prevents injury. It also is an area that can cost an athlete efficiency and energy if executed poorly.
Having built up strength and perfecting movement mechanics in the segmented portions of the full movements, Kat’s progression time to achieve the full movement with the mastered technique was much shorter than if we had her performing the full movements right off the bat and hoping efficiency and improvements would come with time. Sometimes it is worth taking a step back and building up from the basics again.
Now that Kat could perform multiple sets of strict muscle ups, chest to bar pull ups and handstand press ups we could introduce kipping technique and strategy. There are various forms of kipping that can be used for its purpose, is it to be used for speed or endurance. Also different forms of kipping suit different athletes, according to their biometrics, strengths and weaknesses and how they understand or even visualise the movement.
In Kat’s instance, she needed to learn to use the correct sequencing of muscle activation through the kip and to not pull prematurely. To use the full potential of the lats and core to bring the body high enough to be level with the rings or bar before, pop the hips and then pull.
It is vital that an athlete learns to engage the lats and core in kipping, as these large muscle groups provide a lot more power and endurance potential and so will save an athletes arms and shoulders from fatiguing.
This brought us to the final three weeks before the comp and it was now time to include some high volume work in Kat’s training to ensure she could perform the skills under fatigue whilst maintaining efficient technique and not reverting back to old habits. At this stage Kat also needed to perform in a CrossFit applicable scenario, such as high reps of handstand press ups paired with heavy barbell work.
Kat’s performance on competition day was a true reflection of her dedication and persistence, not only to her training but her nutrition, recovery and mental toughness. Anyone who was part of her journey leading up to the comp can attest to her huge commitment.