The Gains Temple - Nugget 2 of 3: “Do What Matters”

What’s up legends!

This particular nugget is about focus. Once you’ve (throwback!!) got your basics down to an acceptable standard, you will get the best results executing (at the edge of your comfort zone) movements that are as specific and tightly paired as possible to the movements you want to improve most on-field. If becoming a greater Ultimate athlete is your sole purpose for attending the gym, then any exercises that don’t work towards that goal can usually be safely discarded.

To draw a parallel: past a certain early point of competency, players who want to excel as throwers (looking to stop getting called a ‘gumby’ at club level or above) will be ill-served by continuously going out and throwing largely mindless, automatic reps while talking shit about university ultimate or their next IOU article. It takes a more deliberate form of practice to improve significantly from that point - working systematically and mindfully with specific release points, shape, touch, pivot angles, obstacles and so forth.

Your conditioning, lifting or otherwise, should follow this same methodology. Over the long term, comfort should be treated with caution. Willingness to continually explore and exceed your limits of load and speed, undertake deliberate practice and analysis of your lifting, and incorporate new and more specific exercises is often frustrating, exhausting, and slow. But over time, it’s what will matter most to your physical capacity and result in the most significant on-field gains.

The most insidious trap is focusing on what’s easy to learn, track and get your numbers up on, rather than what matters. What seems easy or comfortable will very rarely be the best method to bring out the best in yourself athletically through lifting.

Some examples of the easy or comfortable option include:

  • Self-imposed plateaus: “I’m pretty happy squatting my body weight, I’ve been at it a few months now and I don’t think I could do any more”

  • Aversion to learning: “Single-leg exercises are hard, and I’m always losing my balance.”

  • Numbers being the whole story: “If I can bench my body weight, why should I waste time with the pink dumbbells doing rotator cuff exercises? Surely my shoulders are strong enough.”

The creepiest thing about these mindsets, apart from their cruelly shallow representation of some cardinal vices (looking at you, pride & sloth), is that they won’t feel like the easy option at the time. Lifting weights is an intrinsically challenging activity, and odds are you’ll still feel the burn if you’ve been in that groove for so long it’s become a rut.

If you feel like your strength & power development is plateauing, ask yourself:

Is what I’m doing challenging enough, and what’s stopping me from doing better?

If your answer is ‘no’ or ‘nothing except this flimsy prison I’ve built for myself in my own mind’, the good news is that there is always a new way to challenge yourself.

In a similar vein to the previous Nugget™, here are some of my recent favourite exercises you can use to substitute or supplement current elements of your program in your quest to do in your lifting what’s most important to your flatball. Each is based on my current feelpinion on what matters most to Ultimate players in the weight room. They come served with a huge dollop of personal bias and a little blurb on why you would care about the exercise. As always, when, not if, you notice glaring and unforgivable errors or omissions, please drop a steamer into the comments. If they’re suitably sick additions or terrible mistakes, I’ll add them or remove them, respectively.

What: Rotator cuff stability

Why: Protect shoulders against injury from high throwing load, occasional impact

How: Internal & External Rotators: These should be done in a light-load, high-rep way. These are highly accessible; you can execute them with resistance bands, cable machines or small dumbbells, either in a standing position or lying on your side. They offer a low-effort super set for something more strenuous like squatting or deadlifting. Check the ego at the door and move some pink dumbbells around.

What: Hip power

Why: Putting a truckload of force into the ground with two legs is good. Being better able to do it with one leg is better suited to Ultimate specifically and running in general.

How: Rear-Leg Elevated Split Squats (RLESS): A versatile and high bang-for-buck lift, these can be done in the squat rack with a barbell, with a dumb/kettlebell in both hands in a goblet grip, or with a dumbbell held conventionally in each hand. These are a step up from a conventional squat, and require a lot more balance and ability to control the weight throughout the whole movement.

What: Knee stability & power

Why: Our knees are a crazily sub-optimal joint for the forces shearing through them every game. Improving the associated musculature to better absorb and generate force is going to further prevent injury.

How: Rear Lunges: Similar to the RLESS, this can be done with either a barbell, two dumbbells, or one dumbbell/kettlebell held in both hands. This is an exercise with a good mix of effort spent stabilising through the descent and in exploding upwards out of the bottom of the movement. If you’re feeling fresh, try doing the second part predominantly through the front leg.

How II: Skater Squats: These are a true single-leg exercise, and I’d recommend nailing them with no weight before adding a single dumbbell held in both hands (though adding a dumbbell can help your balance if you’ve got bad ankle mobility). You can do them as blindingly fast or as agonisingly slow as you’re capable of and reap versatile gains. A personal favourite is the 3sec down, hop up into a full single-leg jump as a plyo exercise - advanced players only.

What: Torso rotation

Why: This one’s for the throwers. Your ability to rip hella throws is not solely contingent on your arm power and shoulder flexibility. Rotation through your torso also contributes a bunch, especially on the backhand.

How: Half-Kneeling Cable Chops: Possibly the most ludicrous-looking exercise I recommend, but very applicable to the backhand stance and motion, especially given how tweakable they are - from the video, my own preference would be to switch legs and bring the origin of the cable lower. The only reason you would do this is if you were powerfully obsessed with making it as ‘backhand-y’ as possible.

What: Single-arm power

Why: Throwing power, and the upper-body component of sprint acceleration.

How: Lever Single-arm Shoulder Press: This is a great exercise that ties a strong arm push through the upper body, including a slight rotation component, while still requiring some stability effort on the part of your lower body being in an upright lunge stance.

What: Lower leg force absorption

Why: The ability of our calves to both produce and absorb the aforementioned truckloads of force we pound into the ground is a crucial component of both acceleration and deceleration. Get you an exercise that can do both.

How: Eccentric Calf Raises: These bad boys check the above boxes, requiring two-legged explosive force production and then a slower descent on one leg. These are also great for the health of your achilles tendon, something I particularly struggle with. You can do them in any calf raising machine or rack, or just a step. You can superset them with practically any other exercise, but I’d recommend pairing them up with a high load/intensity one - like most predominantly eccentric exercises these take a bit of time, so you can use that time to rest of from a big deadlift set.

What: Eccentric hamstring strength

Why: Hamstrings are one of the most common, oft-recurring, and annoying injuries for field athletes. They’re all the more brutal because they often occur just as you’re really getting into your full stride - when your knee is approaching full extension. As such, you want to strengthen your hamstrings by loading them while they’re in that stretched state.

How: Single Leg, Straight Leg Deadlifts (SLSLDL): Largely self-explanatory but difficult in motion, this combines single-leg balance, hip drive and a lengthy boi of a hamstring in one delightful package. This is one of those exercises where, if every Ultimate player did it, we’d see dramatically fewer hamstring injuries across the sport.

To wrap this up, if you want to grasp for your athletic potential with both calloused hands then go hard and go smart: whatever your goals are, do what translates and matters to them. The little toolkit of exercises I’m writing of could help propel you towards those, or not. The mindset to do what matters is what’s most important. It pays to be critical of your methods to achieve your goals in the hope of improving them and hitting those results that much faster.

If you’re lifting just to check a box or get your teammates off your back, it’s your prerogative to go about it in an automatic and stagnant manner. Go churn out those robo reps. But if you’re doing it to go harder athletically, get used to being uncomfortable. What matters usually isn’t what’s easy. Relish the challenge and you will continue to exceed your own limits.