Why I’m Hiring a Coach

Since the very beginning of last year, I’ve done all my own coaching and programming. Of course, I have people whom I trust and like to bounce ideas off, I keep reading and keeping my eyes on new ideas, and I like to experiment with different things, but for that whole time, I’ve been in the driver’s seat. I’d had a kind of vague notion kicking around for a while that I might hire a coach, but my time in Minsk at Worlds this year really brought that to the fore, and I finally decided to act on it. I approached a coach there who I’ve got a lot of respect for and kind of vaguely know via social media and asked if he had room on his roster for one more athlete.

So, what are the ideas that finally made me take that step?

The primary reason for me wanting to hire a coach is to have someone who isn’t as close to my problems as I am to help solve them. When you’re right in the middle of something it can be hard to step back and take a proper look at what’s going – I’m sure everyone reading this has had some experience where some problem they’ve been looking at for hours or days has been solved in minutes by a fresh set of eyes! I seem not to have this problem when I’m doing things for other people (which is part of the reason I consider myself to be better at coaching than actually lifting), but when I program for myself, I seem to write in part with my ego despite all efforts not to.

So, reason #1 for hiring a coach: fresh eyes.

My second reason for choosing to hire a coach is to learn from someone much better than I am. I’m sure there are hundreds of ideas I’ve never had about meet day coaching, and thousands of ideas I’ve never had about how to program or manage athletes out-of-competition. Being able to pick the brains of someone far more experienced and knowledgeable about this sport is both incredibly valuable, and something I’m very excited for.

There aren’t many coaches (especially in New Zealand) with real international experience, fighting for podium finishes and discipline medals, and other than simply having more experience doing it (which is hard to come by), the next best way to learn these things is via an experienced handler. Along the same lines, every coach programs in a different way and has had different experiences in the past, and that colours they way they see and think about future problems.

Reason #2 for hiring a coach: learn from the best. 

Finally, reason #3 for hiring a coach: I’m going to try something new shit. Watch this space.

I’m not expecting this to all be super easy. I’ve had full control over my own programming for a long time, and there are definitely set ways I like to do things. I’ve got strong opinions on things like maximising strengths vs. improving weaknesses, microcycle structure, and macrocyclic planning. Quite often I look at a program (or part thereof) and wonder what the overall plan is because I don’t think it’s sufficiently clear. Giving up the control, and possibly not being able to see the entire picture, might be a tough change for me.

Having said all of that, giving up that control might give me more time to focus on my own athletes, and it might even be a relief to not have to stress about my own stuff!

I’m hoping to learn a lot over the coming months. From a programming perspective, I’m hoping to learn some seriously nerdy shit (feel free to skip the following list if you’re not that into programming.)

  1. Ratios of primary to secondary to tertiary (to quarternary? Undecided on this breakdown still) lifts, and how it changes within and between mesocycles
  2. Macrocycle layout. How far ahead do other people plan, what are important details to consider?
  3. How the fuck do you sensibly structure a resensitisation phase?
  4. Maximise strengths vs. minimise weaknesses, and why? Or perhaps this isn’t even a binary thing, maybe there is some intermediate stage I’ve yet to consider.
  5. How do other people like to think about intensity? How does average intensity vary?
  6. How steep do mesocycles ramp, and do they follow a similar structure microcycle to microcycle?
  7. How many focuses does an athlete have at a time? Is this different at different times?

I’m fairly certain that a literal essay could be written on any of the above topics, or maybe even a book, but just seeing how other coaches think about these things will be very interesting and informative.

On totally different aspect of coaching – I’ve never really done the online coaching thing before. Everyone for whom I currently program I know in person, and have known in person since well before we started working together. I’m watching the processes we go through very closely. What’s the onramp system? How do updates work? How frequently are we communicating, and what about?

Finally, and this might actually be the most exciting point for me – we’ve agreed to set aside some time each month to talk coach-to-coach (as opposed to athlete-to-coach) about things beyond the normal week-to-week interactions. I’m hoping to use that time to talk about the processes of coaching, and I already have a list of about 20 questions to ask.

So, that turned into a bit of an essay about what seemed originally to be a pretty straight forward topic. Have you ever had a coach? If so, were there any particularly good or particularly bad experiences you’d like to share? I hope everyone’s training is going well, and I’ll see you all next time.

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Meet Report – IPF Classic Worlds 2017

On Monday, I lifted at the IPF Classic World Powerlifting Championships. The day was a blur – an amazing meet, surrounded by the best lifters in the world, in a country I never imagined I’d ever visit. If you’d told me three years ago that I’d ever represent New Zealand at an international sport, I’d tell you that you were crazy, but here we go. This week has been a massive inspiration for me – I’ve been here in Belarus 7 days now, and all I know is that I want to get back on that platform, in a black soft suit, again.

Water Cut and Making Weight

Although I’ve done a couple of practice water-cuts in the past, I’ve never had to cut to make weight, in that respect, Worlds was a novel for me. Before leaving New Zealand, I was up around 96 kg, and even up until 2 days out I was waking up around 95 kg. I used water, carb, and salt manipulation to make weight, and my recomposition strategy consisted mostly of Powerade and as many carbs as I could stomach!

Although it was always the plan to come into Worlds a few kilos over and water cut in, it was actually a little stressful, especially because my weight was dropping much more slowly than I expected. I ended up going to bed the night before weighing 93.8 kg, and expected that I’d wake up around 92.8 to 93.2 kg. I actually woke up at 91.22 kg. I really struggled to keep weight on throughout the day. I was eating and drinking, and weighing myself every hour or so, but only managed to get up to 92.7 kg, and then by the time I weighed in I had fallen back to 91.66 kg (202 lbs) again.

So that didn’t exactly go to plan, but at least I made weight, and now I know that I can drop a significant amount of weight through carb and salt manipulation if I ever need to.

setting up to squat

Setting up to squat my third attempt

Squats

Squats have been my bugbear lift since forever, and if you’ve read some of my other recent meet reports, you might have noticed that I’ve ended on a 202.5 kg squat 3 meets in a row.  Given that, I was incredibly nervous coming to squat on Monday.

It turns out I needn’t have worried because squats went essentially perfectly to plan. My warm ups felt a little sluggish because my quads weren’t really doing anything, but we opened on 195 kg, which moved a little slowly, so took the plan B jump to 205 kg (2.5 kg comp PR.) I think my quads were just a little sleepy, because they seemed to wake up on my second attempt, warranting a 7.5 kg jump to 212.5 kg (468 lbs) third attempt, for a 10 kg competition PR.

In the hole squatting 212.5 kg

In the hole with 212.5 kg

Bench Press

After squats finished, I was shaking like a leaf (which was probably some combination of nerves and caffeine.) Nonetheless, we only had a 9 lifter flight to turn around, so there wasn’t a lot of time to try and chill out and stop shaking. Bench warm ups were snappy (much snappier than squats.)

We opened my bench on 142.5 kg, which was easy and smooth, so jumped straight to 150 kg (1.5 kg competition PR, 331 lbs) on my second, which was a little slow. It felt good to finally get the 150 kg monkey off my chest (pun intended), but I really expected to be able to hit 152.5 kg on the day, but it didn’t happen. My back cramped up during my third attempt, but fortunately some Voltaren Gel meant that I didn’t lose any time warming up to deadlift.

On the plus side, I didn’t leave any kilos on the platform here – by taking the smallest possible jump, I didn’t miss out on anything on my total.

Deadlifts

deadlift lock out

My third deadlift attempt at IPF Classic Worlds 2017

I was so excited to deadlift – I’ve been itching to have a run at 265 kg since messing up my third attempt at Auckland Champs a couple of months ago. We decided to take a slightly more conservative opener than we have in the past, opening at 237.5 kg. I honestly don’t remember how the lift went, but it must have gone okay because Angus bumped me to 252.5 kg for my second attempt. After that, I didn’t let him tell me what my third was, I just went out and made it look as fast as possible. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t use nose tork before my last deadlift, which I think was the right decision, as I kept my position well and actually made it look like I know how to lift.

I found out a few minutes later that there was only 257.5 kg (568 lbs) on the bar. It was a little less than I had hoped for, but there was nothing to be gained by taking a bigger jump, and it locked in a nice PR and an 8/9 day (which for a Worlds debut, I’m stoked with!)

Summary and Take Aways

I went 8/9 (missing my third bench attempt), totalling 620 kg at 91.66 kg body weight (1367 lbs at 202 lbs), giving me a 393 Wilks. I set a 10 kg competition squat PR, 1.5 kg competition bench PR, and a 2.5 kg competition deadlift PR, for a 15 kg total PR. The numbers weren’t quite what I’d hoped to hit, but for the first meet I’ve done outside my own country, with all of the associated complications that come along with that, I’m beyond happy.

I had a few things I want to fix from my last meet. The first was that I was too light, and that I needed to get more reliable scales in order to help fix that. Although I was still too light this meet, I had been as heavy as 96 kg, and I still made weight without compromising my performance, so I’m going to say that I succeeded on that front. The second point was that I was struggling to drown out the random background noises when I was trying to get my head in the game. I’ve got some sweet noise cancelling headphones now, and they worked perfectly (and are now covered in chalk). Finally, my last point to fix from my last meet was poor glute activation while squatting. I’m not totally sure that I’ve fixed that, but I do stay a little more upright and my knees cave less while I’m squatting, so I’m definitely making progress on that front.

I’ve got a few things to fix going forwards. Foremost in my mind is my bench. I’m not totally sure what’s holding it back, but there must be something I’m doing wrong because it’s only moving incredibly slowly. I’m going to track down Avi Silverberg and pick his brains for a bit, and see if he can help me. Secondly, I just need to get stronger, but there’s nothing new there!

Before I sign off, I have to say a huge thank you to my coworker, handler, and friend, Angus Blair. It would have been a totally different day without you dude. Anyone who tells you that powerlifting isn’t a team sport is playing a different game.

There have been so many other cool things about this trip (including getting adopted by the Canadian team), but they can wait for another blog post. For now, good luck for all of your training, and I’ll see you all next time!

How Much Coffee is Too Much Coffee?

One could probably argue that I have something of a caffeine addiction. Two double-shot espressos in a day is a light day, and a higher use day would be more like 4 double shot espressos and a 200 mg caffeine pill before training. This begs the question – how much coffee is too much coffee? Instead of littering this blog post with links to boring research papers, I’m just going to leave a link here to the examine.com page on caffeine, which has a great summary of the effects of caffeine and links to most of the relevant research.

By the way, this post is totally not just an attempt to justify my addiction. I swear.

Coffee Beans

Examine.com lists “liquid crack” as an alternative name for coffee!

How much Caffeine?

So that we’re all on the same page – how much caffeine is actually in coffee? That’s a trickier question than it first appears because there are a lot of variables which come into play. Different beans have different caffeine contents, which affect the final coffee, brewing time, water pressure, temperature, and so on all affect caffeine content too. Having said that, the rule of thumb I go by is that an espresso shot is about 80 mg, and a cup of plunger coffee is about the same.

In research, caffeine dosing is usually quoted in terms of “mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight” (mg/kg), usually something like 4 to 6 mg/kg. If you happen to read the research, be careful! A lot of the research is done in rodent models, but because of metabolic differences, rodents can handle much higher relative doses! You would have a pretty bad time if you were giving yourself 10 mg/kg more than occasionally.

 Effects of Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant and has all the effects you’d expect from any stimulant – elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, increased power output, increased time-to-exhaustion in aerobic exercise, increased serum concentrations of adrenaline and noradrenaline, increases in fat oxidisation and acute cortisol, improved reaction time, increased training volume, decreases in perceived exertion… Unfortunately, there are some negative effects too. Obviously, if you’re hypertensive or pre-hypertensive, increasing your blood pressure isn’t a good thing. If you’ve got high intra-ocular pressure, caffeine will increase your intra-ocular pressure even more. One of the main effects of caffeine is increased wakefulness which is great if you’re about to go into an exam or boring meeting, but much less great if you’re about to go to sleep.

Dosing for Effects

Most of the beneficial effects of caffeine start at relatively low doses. If you’re caffine naive (i.e. don’t use it a lot) then as little as 100 mg will give you the energy boost that you’re probably looking for. For peak athletic performance, you’re looking at more like 5 mg/kg body weight (which means for someone like me, I’d be looking to have about 450 mg before the competition, and maybe top that up with another 200 mg after a couple of hours.) The biological half-life of caffeine is something like 5 hours (depending on individual differences) so if you’re competing in a long event you do need to top up.

The bad negative effects don’t start until much higher doses. I’m guessing a little (because it’s unethical to do this on humans!) but I suspect something like 12 mg/kg or more would start being pretty uncomfortable, and about the point where the shakes, high blood pressure, and anxiety that results from caffeine consumptions start to outweigh the improved power outputs. It’s pretty hard to overdose on caffeine – the LD50 is about 195 mg/kg, which for most people would require you to just sit down and eat a jar of caffeine pills.

Cycling Caffeine?

Until recently, the conventional wisdom regarding caffeine was that it needed to be cycled, as it would lose effectiveness with repeated exposure. A recent study (which I can’t seem to find, please let me know if you can find a link to it!) showed that this doesn’t seem to be the case, so there really isn’t any need to cycle off caffeine. I plan to continue to cycle my use, but non-performance reasons.

The examine.com page on caffeine hasn’t yet updated with reference to the new study and still suggests cycling caffeine (which isn’t harmful!)

Stimulants as a Skill

Bear with me here. I have a working hypothesis that using stimulants is (in part) a skill. When you haven’t done it before, it’s just weird and scary. If you drink coffee, try to imagine you had never tasted it before. You drink this weird black liquid that smells amazing but it kind of bitter, and 20 minutes later your heart rate is elevated, you’re kind of anxious, and you’ve started sweating non-stop. That’s fucking weird, and it’s probably going to stop you from being able to fully take advantage of the improvements in power output that you might otherwise get.

Think of it like wearing knee wraps, or a sling-shot for the first time. It doesn’t add anything to your lift, you might just fall on your face, and it’s mostly just a lot of new stimuli all at once. By the time you’ve used it a hanful of times, you’re much better at using it effectively.

So what am I saying with this? Basically, I’m suggesting that you don’t start using caffeine the first time on competition day – use it in training at least a few times before you get on the platform caffeinated to your eyeballs!

So… How much can I take?

As far as I can tell, excessive caffeine will make you uncomfortable a long time before it becomes dangerous, so unless you’re taking caffeine sufficiently close to going to sleep that it is going to keep you awake, take as much as you feel like you want. If you’re taking it for performance reasons, starting with a dose of around 5 mg/kg on competition day seems to be a good bet. Your milage may vary.

That’s my thoughts on caffeine. Have I missed anything important? Do you use caffeine, and if so when and how much?

How to Buy a Belt for Powerlifting

This is a question that I get asked surprisingly often, so I thought it might be a good idea to write out a proper post about how to decide what you need. Although the title here specifically says “powerlifting”, think of it as how to buy a belt for any hard resistance training.

There are a set of questions you’ll need to be able to answer in order to decide what sort of belt you’d like.

Question 1 – Do you need an approved belt?

The IPF and IPF affiliates have strict regulations about what is considered acceptable equipment, right down to and including the brand of the belt. Here is the most up-to-date IPF Approved List. At the time of writing, that limits you to Iron Tanks, Best Belts, Lifting Large, Wahlander, Eleiko, Bukiya, Beast Genetics, Strengthshop, SBD, Metal, Titan, and (my choice) Inzer.

Approved belts are usually way more expensive than non-approved belts, but a good belt will probably last longer than you will, so it can be worth investing up front. If you’re even thinking about competing, it’s probably worth double-checking the requirements of your local federation before you drop any money.

 

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Don’t these Bukiya belts look awesome?

If you don’t need an approved belt, save your cash and get an unapproved one. If you happen to live in New Zealand, the Kiwi Strength Belts are well priced and good quality.

 

Question 2 – 10 mm or 13 mm?

Honestly, I don’t think this makes too much difference, but these are the two standard thicknesses. 13 mm is usually slightly tougher and might bruise your ribs a little more, and take longer to soften up. At a guess, I’d say a 13 mm belt probably has a slightly longer life-time too, but that’s just speculation. Not all belts are offered in both thicknesses so it might be a case of taking the available options!

I chose a 10 mm belt.

Question 3 – Tapered?

Sometimes belts are tapered (the front is narrower than the back), which reduces the amount of surface area you have to brace against. Unless you’re really short, you probably want to avoid getting a tapered belt, as there isn’t really any benefit. If you’re looking for a bench belt (used for keeping your bench shirt in place only), some companies (Inzer and Titan, I think) produced 5 to 7 cm wide belts for that purpose. (I just bench in my regular belt.)

 

 

Unless you’re really short or looking for a bench belt, you probably want a belt which is 10 cm wide through the entire length.

Question 4 – Lever or Prong?

There are pros and cons of each, so it largely comes down to personal preference.

Lever – Easy to get consistently tight (huge plus), and super quick to put on and off. Downside? You need a screwdriver and a few minutes if you want to change the setting.

Prong – Harder to get consistently tight, and can be hard to get in and out of if you like to wear it tight. On the flipside, if you like to adjust your belt a lot (e.g. you’re losing a lot of weight, or wear it looser for deadlifts) it’s much easier to do so with a prong belt.

If you go down the prong route, you’ll need to make a choice between a single and double prong. In theory, a double prong belt provides more support, but in practice I’ve never seen a belt fail because of the prong before, plus double prong belts can twist and make it really hard to get out of them (true story, I got stuck in a double prong belt for this very reason before.)

SBD makes a snazzy belt which tries to combine the best of both worlds by having an adjustable lever mechanism, but honestly I’m unconvinced. I’ve seen them pop open a couple of times, and that seems even worse than needing 2 minutes to change the setting.

 

I wear a lever belt, because I like the consistency, and I just carry a small screwdriver in case I end up too bloated for it to be comfortable.

 

Question 5 – What about those velcro belts?

No.

In all seriousness though, I can see why these are attractive. They’re cheap and readily available, and probably much more comfortable than a thick piece of leather. Unfortunately, they don’t provide any wear near as much support as the other belts I’ve talked about. These velcro belts might be more appropriate if you’re doing more dynamic workouts (e.g. Crossfit or Olympic Lifting) because they’re lighter and don’t restrict your mobility as much but for traditional resistance training, they aren’t the way to go.

My Belt

I wear a black 10 mm Inzer Forever Belt, with a lever. I’ve had it about 2 years now, and aside from the buckle becoming a little tarnished, it looks essentially like new. I honestly think it’s one of the best belts on the market, and has a Forever Warranty (not even “lifetime!”). Realistically, if I ever decide to go up a weight class, I’ll need to replace it, and will probably buy either the same belt again, in the 13 mm version.

My only complaint with this belt is that Inzer has the worst customer service on the entire planet, and it took 3 months for my belt to arrive. Caveat emptor. Too bad they make such a high-quality product.

If you’ve got any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below, and I’ll see if I can answer them. If you already have a belt, what do you have? What do you think of it? Hope everyone’s training is going well!

Meet Report – Auckland Champs 2017

Yesterday I competed in the Auckland Powerlifting Champs at a 93 kg junior. The day didn’t quite go the way I wanted, but I’m not unhappy and I learned a few important things. I decided to use the Auckland Champs as a dry run for Worlds, and a few important points fell out throughout the day for me to learn from, so I definitely walked away feeling like I’d won.

Squats

Okay, I was actually pretty unhappy here. I came into squats feeling great – my knee didn’t hurt, my back felt great, and my warm-ups were super smooth. I wanted a win on squats because in my last two three lift meets I ended on 202.5 kg, despite having hit lots of (seemingly) important PRs in the mean time. I’d hit PRs in every rep range coming into this meet too but just couldn’t deliver. I hit 190 kg for an easy opener, jumped to 202.5 kg according to plan, but 202.5 kg wasn’t very good, so opted for a more conservative jump than originally planned up to 207.5 kg. Unfortunately, I ran out of gas about halfway up and had to get carried back into the rack (thanks for the save, Corey.)

I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry about missing a lift as that squat. Having now had some time to think about it, and looking back at the videos I can see a few problems that I’m going to need to address coming into worlds, most notably my apparent complete lack of glute activation in deep hip flexion.

Bench Press

Bench Press was meant to be my lift, and even though I didn’t get the number I wanted (150.5 kg), I think we played the smart game and came out on top. I opened on 140 kg, and had planned to go 145 kg then 150 kg. Unfortunately, the ‘press’ commands were pretty ruthless (though admittedly I was pretty loose on my chest for the 140 kg)  so we opted to take 147.5 kg for my third. I think I was the only lifter in my flight to hit my third, so that stands to me as evidence of smart decision making, and we managed to claw back a lot of the lead that I’d lost from the squats.

I think this also justified my switch into benching in flat shoes (check out those white Adidas Originals?) Normally, I struggle to keep my ass down when reps get hard, but my ass stayed firmly planted and still managed to get some leg drive going. I’m going to stick with the flat shoes going forwards.

Deadlifts

I was just 0.5 kg behind the lead coming into deadlifts, so at this point, my handling team went off to play strategy games while I talked smack  relaxed and refuelled.

Deadlifts went off more-or-less without a hitch (except the bit where I didn’t lift the weight.) I opened on 240 kg, and jumped straight to 255 kg, and it felt so good – I swear I thought I was good for 265 kg then and there. My handlers ended up submitting 263 kg in an effort to force another lifter into making a mistake, but I missed the lift and ended up placing second.

I didn’t miss my deadlift due to weakness (nor due to grip, which is kind of what it looks like in the video), but because I was out of position and wasn’t going to be able to save it. I used ammonia for that third deadlift, which is normal for me but I suspect is actually a mistake. I think that on the performance-arousal curve that I’ve mentioned before, I nailed it for my second, but took it too far for my third and got sloppy. No more ammonia for me for deadlifting.

Conclusion and Summary

I totalled 605 kg at 91.1 kg body weight, for 384.88 Wilks. That was a modest PR, but considering not peaking, the long press commands, and the gamble of a third deadlift, I’m happy with it.

There were a few things that went basically perfectly. My eating was on point; at no point did I feel tired, nor bloated, nor unwell, which was awesome. My handling team are amazing, and it was the first time we’ve all worked together at once and I’m stoked that it came together the way it did.

Three distinct points for improvement fell out too.

Firstly, I was way too light. 91.1 kg?? I could have made the 83 kg class if I’d wanted to 4 weeks ago. My own personal scales said I was 94.0 kg the night before and 92.6 kg before leaving home in the morning. Easy solution – get more accurate scales, and try to get up to 95 kg by June.

Secondly, my earphones were inadequate. Although I’m not one to shy away from conversation and the long-held tradition of shit-talk in the 93 kg class, sometimes it’s important to be able to drone out the background noise. I’ll get some noise cancelling headphones so that when it’s time to get my head in the game, I can create my own little world of concentration when I need to.

Finally, the aforementioned lack of glute activation when squatting. This is slightly harder to fix, but I’m going to do everything I can here.

IMG_9889

The Performance Lab Powerlifting Team

Before I sign off, I want to thank my teammates in Performance Lab Powerlifting. You guys are awesome, and I’m proud of everyone’s performance over the weekend. Angus, Amie, and Carli – you guys did a great job of handling my diva-ass out the back and I don’t think I could have put together the same performance without you. I’m looking forward to competing again with you soon!

That’s my meet report for regionals this year. Remember there’s just 9 days left to buy your Two White Lights tee shirts, so get in quick. Have you competed recently? What did you learn? Share it with me in the comments down below! See you all on the platform soon.

Two White Lights Tee Shirts

I got a really exciting email yesterday. It had a bunch of attachments, some of which were very boring, and some of which were rather more interesting. Here’s the first part of one of the attachments.

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So, I guess that means I’m officially going to the IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships! What better way to celebrate than to kick something off that I’ve been thinking about for some time now?

Back last year sometime my sister made me a sweet “Two White Lights” tee shirt (and also a #benchmoretobenchmore shirt!), and then at the Oceania Powerlifting Championships in December my entire family showed up wearing them! A few people asked about where we could get them, so I decided to do a limited run.

 

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My family and girlfriend wearing TwoWhiteLights tees (featuring IPF legend Geno ‘The Pirate’)

So here’s the deal – if you want a tee shirt they cost $30 NZD + shipping if you live in New Zealand, or $35 NZD + shipping if you live elsewhere (~21 USD or ~19 Euro). Shipping will be $4 NZD within NZ, $8 to Australia, or $14 to most other places. I’ll happily combine shipping for any number of items for no extra cost.

All orders need to be in by the 18th of April, and production and shipping will take 2 to 3 weeks from then.

To purchase, fill out this form (one form per tee) and I’ll email through Paypal or Direct Deposit details.

Thanks for your support!

 

 

Avatar Nutrition – A Full Review

Avatar Nutrition (AN) is a web-based diet coaching AI; it prescribes macros for users, monitors their responses, and then suggests updates based on those changes. It’s the collective brain-child of Layne “Biolayne” Norton, Mark Springer, and Katie Coles, and they have a small team of experienced diet coaches on board. The level of knowledge you have access to is a steal for 10 USD per month.

Disclaimer – I don’t have any ties with AN, and I’m not getting anything from reviewing them (well, Layne Norton liked one of my Facebook comments once, and that counts for something.) 

I’ve been using AV for 6 months now through three different diet phases (cut, maintenance, and then mass), so I feel that I am in a pretty good stead for providing an in-depth review of the services that they provide. I also understand that AN have some new features in the works, so as major changes take place I’ll make sure to keep this review up to date.

What does it look like?

When you sign into AN you’re greeted with a page that looks like this.

Avatar Nutrition Home Page

This is the page you do most of your navigation from. Most importantly, it shows my macros for the day and my current data. “Next Weigh In: 4 Days” is replaced with “Weigh In NOW!” when you’re due/overdue to weigh-in (you’re meant to weigh-in once per week, but you can do it as frequently as every 5 days or as infrequently as you like.)

Scrolling a little further down you’re met with a set of charts summarising what they refer to as your “Fitness Progress”, however, I think it should be relabeled as “Body Composition Progress” or similar (as a powerlifter I would say my “fitness progress” is reflected in my Wilks score or my total, not my body fat percentage.)

an_fitnessprogress.png

When you weigh-in, you’re presented with a pop-up like the one below. It requires to enter your weight for the day, your body-fat percentage (allowing you to enter your own if you own bioelectric impedance scales or similar, but it also has the Navy Body Fat Calculator built in if you prefer), and if you stuck to your macros for the preceding week.

an_weighin screen.png

To be clear, AN does not offer a tracking service, only the associated coaching. It does offer integration with MyMacros+ though (a little on that later.)

That’s probably enough about what AN is and how it looks, is it actually any good? There are a few components to AN, so I’m going to break it down into 2 major chunks for reviewing purposes; the core AI, and the other things you get access to.

The AI

I’m not going to lie, the AI is pretty fucking cool. There are some things that I think could be improved, but I’m going to start with the good stuff and go from there.

The automatic adjustments to your macros are great; weighing in is really simple and quick, the macro adjustments are immediate, and you get a short paragraph explaining what the adjustments were and why; it’s context sensitive, so the feedback varies depending on your goal, your compliance, and what actually happened to your body.

There is plenty of potential for individual adjustment, but the AI refuses to give you dumb coaching advice; you can choose to increase your protein (at the cost of some carbs or fats), but they won’t let you drop it below what they recommend, for example. There is also a fats/carbs preference slider, which is great for people who have strong preferences, or dietary requirements not reflected in their macros.

There are 4 goals you can choose from; muscle gain, fat loss, maintenance, and reverse diet. For each, there are some sub-settings; so you can choose rapid fat loss, slow muscle gain etc. For maintenance this means you can set how tightly you are maintaining your body-weight; for example, I am currently maintaining 93.5 kg +/- 0.9 kg (personally, I’d like that band to be tighter, but that’s the tightest it goes.)

I’m not a nutritionist, dietician, or a student of either of the above, but from what I’ve read the recommendations given by AN line up pretty well with the evidence that exists in the literature. AN advertises itself as being the evidence-based dieting option, so I’m happy to see them live up to that (good news if you’re used to having to choke down an entire chicken breast at every meal to hit your protein requirements.)

I do have a couple of (little) complaints about the AN core AI, mostly User Experience (UX) things. The first one that comes to mind is that it’s a pain-in-the-ass to change your goal; you need to dig right back through half of the original set-ups to confirm the change. I think it almost needs to be a change that you can do at the same time as a weigh-in. I guess this isn’t a big deal because most people won’t (and shouldn’t) change their goal very often (now that I think about it, this might almost be an intentional move to discourage people from switching goals too often?) My second complaint is also pretty small; I’d like to be able to set my maintenance weight band more tightly than I currently can. At the moment it’s +/- 0.9 kg for me (this might vary person to person), but really I’d like to keep it a little closer, possibly +/- 0.5 kg or +/- 0.3 kg.

My final complaint about the AI is a little less cosmetic. I would really like to have the option to enter my actual macros for a weigh-in period, not just a checkbox of compliant/non-compliant.

The Other Stuff

When you sign up to AN, you also get access to a bunch of other stuff, of varying value. I’ll talk about each thing in a separate paragraph.

The Facebook group – There’s a private Facebook group you can join if you’re an AN member. It’s pretty cool; Layne and Mark and Katie are there, answering questions, making posts, and generally interacting with the group. I’ve noticed Stephen Manuel poke his head up a couple of times too, and I’m sure there are other names I would recognise if I cared to look. There’s sometimes some really good conversation there; unfortunately, there is often some points that could easily be addressed using the search function or reading the FAQ.

The Articles – There are a bunch of articles on AN about compliance, hitting your macros, using the system and so on. The articles are infrequently updated, and are quite superficial (I’ve rarely got much from reading them). Not impressed on this front.

The Recipes – To be perfectly honest, I’ve never made any of the recipes on the website, but they look awesome. Check out the red velvet doughnut below! …and only 50 calories each (6P/1F/4C)! I might have to make some of these over the weekend…

 

Avatar Nutrition Red Velvet Doughnut Recipe

I can only imagine that this looks like heaven deep in a diet.

The Videos – there are some good, educational videos about nutrition and dieting, and especially on Reverse Dieting (which AN is really big on.) Definitely worth having a flick through here when you have some downtime if you’re a member.

 

Integration with MyMacros+ – I don’t take advantage of this because there wasn’t a native Android app at the time when I signed up (I used MyFitnessPal instead). A synthesis of the comments I’ve seen on the Facebook page might be “it’s comparable to MFP; it works well with foods found in the US but you’ll need to manually enter everything otherwise.” The advantage if you use MM+ is that your daily macros get imported each day, so you can literally just log and go, whereas MFP is a little more manual. MM+ isn’t free, but the app seems to be a cheap one-off cost.

Conclusion

After writing such a complete review, it seems odd to try and give a score out of five or ten for a service, so I’m not going to. What I am going to do is give it a binary score; a yes or no. I think that the core AI is pretty awesome and takes all the manual work out of figuring out my own macros, but that the extras aren’t particularly compelling. At the end of the day, the best recommendation is where you put your money, and month after month I’m happy to pay for AN. So on my binary, yes or no, scale, I give AN a solid 1/1.

If you already use Avatar and want to let me know your thoughts, let me know in the comments below. If you don’t, what might you want to see from an AI diet coach, what would compel you to start using one? If you were on the fence, I hope that my review has helped you to make a decision.

That’s enough of writing about dieting I think, back to powerlifting next time. See you all soon!

In Defense of IIFYM

Every now and again I come across some article arguing that tracking your macros is not a good way to diet. Most of the time, these arguments don’t have much of grounding in… well, any kind of evidence, but I thought I’d take a few minutes to put my two cents in. I’m going to explain why I like tracking, and then address a couple of the most recurrent arguments against it.

I’d like to preface this by saying that I do track my macros; I use Avatar Nutrition (which I’ll review in full at some point) to set my daily goals, and MyFitnessPal to track my intake. Neither system is perfect, but the total effort on my part is pretty low, and it largely allows me to both take control of what I’m doing, and get on with my life. I don’t think that everyone should be tracking, and I don’t think that everyone who tracks, should track all the time. Whether one should track or not depends on one’s own circumstances, relationship with food and so on.

Note that I am not a dietician, a nutritionist, a doctor, and I’m barely even a coach. I’m mostly just a guy who knows a thing or two about science and likes numbers. Take any advice you get from random people on the internet with a huge grain of scepticism. 

Why Tracking is (sometimes) Useful

I think that tracking your food intake is one of the most useful things that you can do to take control of your own body. At some stage, almost everyone (especially people who are interested in powerlifting enough to be reading this blog) will want to change either their body weight or the way their body looks; it’s a totally normal and (mostly) healthy thing to do. One of the reasons that tracking is good for this is that is has a built-in adjustment mechanism.

Let me explain. There are literally dozens of ways one could create the caloric deficit required in order to lose weight. Someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing might start with running twice a week without adjusting their diet at all, another might cut out alcohol, yet another might start WeightWatchers, the Slow-Carb Diet, paleo, or anything else.  The problem with most of these methods is that if you don’t understand how it works, and it stops working, then you’re back to square one. This is part of the reason that people can end up in a continuous loop of “lose a little weight -> plateau -> get frustrated -> regain weight -> get motivated -> lose a little weight”.

Tracking macros can provide a way to break the loop. Understanding how your weight works takes away the mysticism of dieting and allows you to control if yourself. You’re losing weight and don’t want to? Bump up your calories a little. You’re losing weight, but not as fast as you’d like? Cut your calories a little. (WeightWatchers actually gives you something similar, and it’s one of the reasons that I quite like it, as far as organised dieting goes.)

I think there are a lot of psychological benefits to tracking your macros as well. Some diets will make you feel guilty for wanting to eat the “wrong foods” or will prevent you from going out with your friends because the Mexican place down the road doesn’t serve steamed chicken breasts on broccoli. Sure, it can take a little forethought, but it is liberating to essentially be able to eat what you want.

Caveats

There are some caveats about IIFYM. The first one, I’m going to illustrate using a diagram I stole borrowed from Renaissance Periodization (if you haven’t, check out their blog and books, they’ve got some of the best evidence-based information around.)

This diagram shows the different components of your diet and their relative contribution to your body composition change and/or performance. By far, the largest two are calorie balance and macronutrients, which purely eating foods which fit your macros will nail. These two don’t tell the whole story, though, only about 80%. There are still some small gains to be had by hitting your nutrient timing, food composition, and supplementation (assuming, of course, you’re actually complying with your diet.)

nick-shaw-chart

What this means, in real terms, is that if you made up all of your macros just by eating different types of ice-cream, you would be leaving some gains on the table, versus eating a diet which includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, a couple of different protein sources, and healthy fats. You would also be leaving a little on the table if you didn’t space your protein intake out throughout the day, or only ate fats peri-workout.

To be honest, I don’t think that this is a huge problem. While some people who have been dieting a long time might feel inclined to binge on every manner of snack food when they first get given their macros, the truth is that when you eat like that you feel like crap, and you’re going to end up hungry as hell, so people tend not to do it.

I think that IIFYM, paired with some guidelines along the lines of getting enough variety, eating their vegetables, and a little on nutrient timing is the best diet for performance.

There is one last caveat that I’d like to mention. Although in theory, any food can be fit into macros (most of the time), some people struggle with self-control. If you’re the kind of person who can eat either zero cookies or twenty cookies, but not one or two, then it’s probably a good idea to not even try to fit them in.

 

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If this is you, consider not eating cookies. 

 

Common Arguments Against IIFYM

There are a few common arguments against macro-tracking being your main method for controlling your nutrition, some with more merit than others. I’ll address a few of the most common ones here.

“You can’t make gains if all you eat in pop-tarts.”

Well, you’re not wrong. If all you ate was pop-tarts (I couldn’t eat pop-tarts even if I wanted to, they don’t sell them in New Zealand, but whatever) you would have zero fibre in your diet, you’d be seriously lacking in micro-nutrient variety, and you’d be hungry all the time (though your body weight would still change favourably.) The problem with this argument is that it assumes that everyone who tracks their macros eats like an asshole; living off McDonalds and pop-tarts because a gram of carbohydrate is a gram of carbohydrate regardless of where it comes from, but (most) people simply don’t eat like that. Especially if you’re in a caloric deficit, most people are going to chose calorie-sparse foods simply because they’re going to be hungry otherwise. What that means is people eat fewer pop-tarts and burgers, and more oats and vegetables.

This is a bit of a strawman argument. There are far more people who eat a healthful diet by tracking their intake than survive on pop-tarts.

“A calorie isn’t a calorie because…”

There is actually some merit to this one. I’m going to break it down into some sub-categories.

Thermic Effect of Food – To consume energy, you need to burn some energy. This is called the thermic effect of food, and it varies by macronutrient. There is also some variation within macronutrients. While this is true, it’s reasonably consistent and is always less than the calories consumed. The result is that, on average, your thermic effect of food day-to-day doesn’t really vary.

People Poop – Yep. Not every calorie you consume is actually absorbed. Sometimes, you can even massively decrease the transit time of food, which means fewer calories are absorbed by your body. This isn’t a long term thing though, which means, on average, it doesn’t vary enough to be worth considering.

I saw this study where… – The vast majority of literature that I have seen points to a calorie being a calorie. Because of the way statistics is handled by most scientists, one of out every 20 studies where nothing happened, it looks like something happened, so occasionally you will see something to the contrary. In the mean time, the weight of evidence still points to calorie balance being the primary determinant of weight change.

“You’ll need to weight everything for the rest of your life!”

Again, it’s not for everyone, nor for all the time. Maybe you track your macros one day a month just to make sure that you’re on track. Maybe you track your macros just when you want to see a significant change. Maybe, you’re one of those people for which guesstimating everything you eat isn’t a burden, so you can just do it indefinitely. Maybe weighing things just doesn’t work for you at all, and you need to find another way to regulate your body weight. All of those are fine.

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That’s my take on eating according to macronutrient guidelines. Hopefully, if you’ve tracked your macros now or in the past you feel a little vindicated. If you haven’t, and you feel like you’d like to learn more, I’d point you towards the videos Eric Helms did on his nutrition pyramid. Regardless, I’d like to hear what you thought, down below.

See you all soon.

This blog post brought to you by too much coffee, and some smooth, smooth jams by The Notorious B.I.G. 

 

Meet Report – Asia/Oceania Championships 2016

Yesterday I got back from my first ever international powerlifting meet, and my first time representing New Zealand (at anything.) Despite an average meet, it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. I made some friends, met some incredible lifters, and spent the entire week hanging out with some of the people I like and respect the most in the world.

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The author and some friends; Victor Liu (Instagram), Yani Zhao (Facebook, Instagram) and Angus Blair (Instagram.) Yes, Yani got into a club wearing jandals (“thongs”)

I feel reinvigorated after this meet. Although I don’t think I forgot why I enjoy competing in powerlifting, Oceania’s reminded me what it’s really about.

I compete as an under 93 kg Junior. If you’d rather watch a video than read my verbose meet report, here are all my lifts from the three-lift meet.

By The Numbers

Tuesday – Bench Only

I actually lifted twice at the Asia/Oceania Champs, once as a bench-only athlete, and then again in three-lift three days later. It was a bit of an experiment, never having done both so close together. I weighed in at 89.95 kg, and basically sat around eating oats for two hours before lifting.

Lifting was moderately disappointing; I opened on 142.5 kg, and it was probably the slowest that weight has ever moved. I made the jump to 147.5, and it was slightly better. I took a final jump to an ambitious 152.5 kg for my third, but I wasn’t even close to being able to lock it out.

142.5 kg (314 lbs) – three white lights
147.5 kg (325 lbs) – three white lights
152.5 kg (336 lbs) – three red lights

That gave me third in my class (it was a small class), and I guess you can’t complain at a medal in your first international meet! Unfortunately, I don’t have the videos of these lifts.

Overall, I was a little dissapointed here, but walked away feeling confident that I had a second shot at that bench PR on Friday.

Friday – Three Lift

I (mistakenly) thought that having done bench only three days earlier, I would be less nervous for the main event, having lost my international virginity (so to speak.) Man, was I wrong. The more I watched, the more nervous I was. I barely slept the night before, racing through a combination of final deadlift attempts and hypertrophy microcycles in my head.

I weighed in at a cool 90.05 kg, and again spend my time eating oats, drinking Powerade, and enjoying the best (well, only) coffee I’d had in nearly two weeks.

Squats

I consider myself a pretty terrible squatter, and I had tweaked my back (physio suspects a bulging disk, but no MRI to confirm) and didn’t expect to be able to go over 90%. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my squats weren’t moving too badly on the day. Angus wasn’t as happy as I was, and dropped my opener to 187.5 kg (good move) at the last possible second.

I ended up taking 202.5 kg on my third, which is an equal PR, and faster than last time (plus pain-free.) Although it wasn’t the 210 kg I was aiming for three months ago, I’m can’t even bring myself to be annoyed by it. I went 3/3 on my worst lift, equalled my PR (maybe with a little in the tank) and didn’t hurt myself.

That actually means that I haven’t missed a squat in competition all year and adding a total of 17.5 kg since this time last year. I came away from these squats feeling pretty good, and with a plan to make my squat somewhat less of a national embarrassment by next year.

187.5 kg (413 lbs) – Three Whites
197.5 kg  (435 lbs) – Three Whites
202.5 kg (446 lbs) – Three Whites

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Post meet smiles

Bench Press

If I could totally forget about bench press, that would be cool (but then I might not have learned anything either.) Bench press was, in a word, shocking. I was pretty fried from the bench-only meet three days early, and it showed in my performance.

I opened on 142.5 kg and made it look really hard. As Tuesday’s opener had looked kind of similar, we made the same jump to 147.5 kg on my second. I was surprised by a pregnant press command, ground out a slow and sloppy rep, and lifted my ass off the bench. By the time I retook 147.5 kg on my third I was so fried that I could barely get it off my chest.

MEDIOCRE.

So, aside from being kind of disappointed (my new Australian friends would say I was devvo), I learnt a few things here. The main one is that the SRA curve for max effort bench press is much longer than I had hoped – definitely not 4 days, possibly more like 6 to 8 days. Whilst I can’t say that I’m hugely surprised, it’s good to know for sure.

Learning things doesn’t add anything to your total on the day, and I feel like I left a lot on the table here compared to what I’m capable of while fresh. Also, interesting fact – I’ve missed 6 lifts in competition this year, 5 of which have been bench press attempts (3 in three-lift comps.) That suggests I need to reconsider some aspect of my training or attempt selection (in fairness, two of those failed jumps were 2.5 kg or less, so I didn’t leave anything on the platform by missing.)

142.5 kg (314 lbs) – Three Whites
147.5 kg (325 lbs) – Two Reds
147.5 kg (325 lbs) – Three Reds

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are a dark horse. How do they work? Do deadlifts respond to peaking more than bench or squats? Is ammonia the secret to going Super Saiyan?

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Seconds before a dramatic failure

For context, in the block leading up to Oceania’s, I missed 237.5 kg from the floor, 250 kg from the floor, 250 kg from blocks (twice), 260 kg from blocks, halved the volume of everything I did, and hurt my back (not all on the same day). Despite that, I had a not-bad deadlift day on the platform. After a poorly timed fire alarm (I was four lifters from my opener when it went off), I opened at 237.5 kg reasonably smoothly. 250 kg proved to be a bit of a tough second, though I locked it out (eventually.) We decided to take a conservative third that would lock in 5th place if I hit it (257.5 kg), but I wasn’t patient enough and lost position off the floor. As soon as it dipped above my knees I dropped the bar.

The 250 kg was actually enough to give me third place in deadlifts, and that makes me really happy. I’ve identified my main deadlift fault (losing position off the floor) and I know how to fix it, so I can come back with an even better pull next year.

Another fun fact – this is the first time I’ve failed to lock out my final deadlift in a meet.

237.5 kg (523 lbs) – Three Whites
250 kg (550 lbs) – Three Whites
257.5 kg (568 lbs) – Three Reds

Conclusion

Although by the numbers this meet was (much) less than stellar, I came away from it feeling great. I learned some important things, identified some weaknesses, and had a great time (and let’s be honest, in amateur sport that’s the main thing that matters.) I have a plan for the next 12 months, but more on that another time.

So that’s the story of my first international meet, and what a week it was. If you ever get a chance to go to a meet like this, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Hope everyone’s training and/or competitions have been going well. Hope to see you all soon.

A7 Fitness BarGrip – A Full Review

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen A7 Fitness somewhere on social media (or in real life) in the past 12 months. In case you haven’t, A7 makes a line of shirts which feature a textured pattern on the back (and sometimes sleeves), which is intended to stop the bar slipping on your shoulder, or your shoulders slipping on the bench. I’ve been using bar grip products for about a year now, and I really like them, so it seems appropriate to do a full review.

I currently own two Bar Grip shirts, one meet tee (no bar grip, approved for use in IPF meets), and one Bar Grip hoodie. I’ve also got one more tee on pre-order.

 

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The author getting his bench press on. Thanks for the photos, Dominey Nothnagel.

 

Disclaimer – I’m not a sponsored athlete, and I don’t make any money from this stuff. A good friend of mine is the A7 Oceania distributor, though, and I she occasionally gives me stuff for free or at a discount. Mostly I just think BarGrip is a great idea. 

What I Like

The Shirts

Okay, so this is probably the most important thing (everything else is icing on the cake.) The grippy stuff is really cool. I need to use way less chalk now. Although they are marketed to stop the bar slipping on your back, I find them much more useful for benching. So many of the benches that are available in commercial gyms are too narrow and slippery, and the bar grip totally bypasses that problem. I don’t think my shoulders have slid at all while using Bar Grip, even at maximal loads.

Some people would point out that because you can’t use Bar Grip in meets, you shouldn’t use it all the time in training because it limits the specificity of your training. While that is true, in a meet you also have a sharp Eleiko Bar and a decent bench, so I really don’t see it as a problem. If it really bothered you, you could just not wear your shirt on days when you had heavy bench singles.

Finally, the shirts are reasonably stylish and comfortable! I frequently wear mine to work, around the house, and out and about during the weekends.

Service

My first contact with A7 Fitness was buying two shirts as gifts, but I got the sizing wrong and asked if I could exchange them. Jasen (co-owner and founder) emailed me back directly and helped me figure it out. He also included hand-written notes on everything I bought, which is a really nice touch. That was the point that actually sold me on the company, and I immediately got myself one too.

My interactions with the new Oceania distributor have been just as positive!

Community

A7 International and Oceania have both done amazing jobs of community building. A7 International have a private Facebook group for people who have bought their products, which is well frequented, a host of sponsored athletes, and were even one of the major sponsors at USAPL Raw Nationals this year.

A7 Oceania have been extremely active in the New Zealand powerlifting community. Every meet that I’ve been to, I’ve seen them there chatting to the lifters and spectators, coaching, and getting involved. They’ve hosted fundraisers, sponsored events, and generally done a great job of helping to build a positive strength training community in New Zealand. They’ve even helped to come up with a special edition NZ shirt (which I have pre-ordered and am looking forward to receiving!)

 

A7 Limited Edition New Zealand Shirt - Mens

This image was stolen from here.

 

(I can’t speak for the Asia or Europe distributors, as I’ve not interacted with them at all.)

What I Don’t Like

There aren’t too many things to dislike, but I’ll list them out here.

Price

Whilst not prohibitively expensive, these definitely aren’t cheap either. Don’t expect to by wearing a different colour every day of the week.

Sizing

Admittedly, this one is mostly my own fault. Although there are size charts available, I never checked them and just grabbed the sizes I normally get. A7 have gone through a range of suppliers over even the year that I’ve been using them, and as a result, the sizes can vary between different styles. Caveat Emptor. 

Shoulder Patch

Some of the Bar Grip shirts have a patch of Bar Grip on the shoulders, for front squatting. It might just be the way my one fits, but that patch is just in totally the wrong place for front squatting, either in a front rack position or in an ‘arms-folded’ positon.

Summary

Although kind of pricey, I own two Bar Grip tees, a meet tee, and a hoodie. I wear all of them every week, and I’ve given a couple of Bar Grip products as gifts. The only sticker on my laptop is an A7 sticker. If you want my verdict, it should be pretty clear. If you’re serious about your training and if you’re serious about building a supportive strength community, you should be looking at A7 Fitness gear. They’re definitely a brand I’m happy to support.

Where to Buy

A7 International (US Based)

A7 Oceania

A7 Europe

A7 Asia

Once again, it’s been a long time since I’ve made a new post. I have a few ideas for some posts for the coming weeks, so keep your eyes open. If there is anything that you want to see more or less of, let me know in the comments below. Hope your training is going well!