As a trainer and coach I tend to read a lot of stuff written by other successful trainers and coaches in order to try to make me better at my job. Throughout the years there has been one main theme I have seen that I thought I’d point out to the rest of you, trainers and potential clients alike.
Newer trainers and coaches tend to think they need to reinvent the wheel in order to make themselves more marketable or stand out among the crowd. They try whatever the latest fad trend is with the hopes that it will cause the client to be impressed. Eventually (with any luck) they realize that a coach is only as good as their results. Doing something showy and flashy in order to create a temporary response is usually a sales tactic – anyone can push someone really hard, as I wrote about previously HERE.
This means whatever the client goal is they need to be working towards it and making constant improvement. For my strength clients, this is being able to generate more force or move more weight. For my running clients it is being able to run greater distances, faster or both. If you coach a sports team, then they should be increasing their skill levels at whatever position they are performing in and also hopefully using that to win games.
So what is the key? Throughout history of successful coaching, it really comes down to one word: fundamentals.
Successful coaches can make people better at things that they should already be doing well. For a strength coach, this can mean the basic lifts like squatting, deadlifting, pulling and pressing. For an athletic coach this can mean things like power, agility and coordination. For my runners, it means being more efficient with every foot strike, which in some cases means starting over again at the beginning.
Throughout the sports world, high level athletes will tell you that they spend hours upon hours practicing fundamentals. Basketball players practice foul shots. Cyclists ride their bikes for hours a day. Swimmers swim lots of laps. Baseball players take batting practice daily for hours. Often this has no major goal beyond building the fundamental mechanics or strength they need in order to improve.
Just two months ago I started working with a post surgery client who had recovered but had shin splints daily. When her basic walking gait was corrected and she started to use the proper muscles again the shin splints disappeared. The same thing tends to happen for back issues when the person learns how to deadlift and squat properly. Some trainers would call this “correcting an imbalance”. I’d rather call re-educating the client (and their tissue) on something they already know how to do.
Your body is a very smart thing. It learns based on the input it is given. As I always say, crappy information IN means that you will generally get crappy information OUT. If you overwhelm your nervous system from the get go it doesn’t have a chance to adapt and make improvement. This means spending weeks (for some people) practicing simple things until they have them down.
So what are the fundamentals? Well, it really depends on the person. For some people, walking properly is hard enough. Throw in a few activities of daily living like sitting down, picking things up and climbing stairs and they might be done. I’ve had to reteach these things to hundreds of people over the years, and more often than not when they are practiced and put into place little painful issues tend to resolve very quickly. Same with high level performers. Often with my athletes they simply need to be coached on how to perform a movement they have forgotten how to do properly. This can be as simple as a squat (for a powerlifter) or as complex as an ankle mobility movement for a soccer or football player.
Most movements can be broken down into basic primal movement patterns, which is echoed by both movement gurus and athletic trainers alike. Deadlifting. Pushing and pulling. Spinal flexion, extension and rotation. This is generally what 95% of my clients start with, even if it is completely de-progressed like a basic box squat within a range of motion their hips, knees and ankles can perform at without deviation.
In fact if you’re a reader of fitness magazines, you can see this plain as day. Any program that tells you how to get a BIG LEGS has a squat in it. BIG CHEST means lots of bench pressing. Not a one armed dumbbell press on a Swiss Ball. Stick to fundamentals and you are guaranteed to see progress. Another of my mantras is that you EARN THE RIGHT TO DO MORE. This means if you can’t do something basic you have no business doing a progressed version of it. Most high level coaches adhere to this.
If you have run into a coach or trainer who tells you that you need to perform some sort of elaborate system in order to improve a simple movement, maybe you should think twice. There’s a time and a place for breaking down movements to isolate weak points, but it should not be the primary focus of any workout. There always needs to be a goal, and in my opinion that goal should be centered around the fundamentals.
So the next time you read about some amazing NEW system that is going to explode your gainz please put down whatever article you’re reading (unless it’s mine) and go deadlift. Or do some pullups. It’s probably what any decent coach would tell you to go and do anyway.
Recently I was asked if sitting on a Swiss Ball at work was a good idea for the average office worker. The theory behind this whole phenomenon is that if you sit on the ball you will be forced to maintain proper posture and it will “strengthen your core”. Let’s explore the history of the Swiss Ball and see if this really holds any water.
In a nutshell, a woman named Joanne Poser-Mayer began to instruct physical therapists in the use of these things for rehabilitation purposes in 1989. From the Canadian Physiotherapy web site:
The power of stability ball training and its importance to core strength cannot be underestimated. Various muscles contract to help produce movement, balance the body, stabilize the spine and hold the body in a safe, neutral position. All of these muscles working together reduce the compression that contributes to disc degeneration.
The words “cannot be underestimated” really fly out at me. I can get into all sorts of discourse about this statement, but the underlying fact I’m illustrating is that Swiss Balls came from physiotherapy modalities. Now thanks to athletic trainers and practitioners they have morphed into this ridiculous following where people claim that doing things on an unstable surface makes it “better” because your body has to work harder to achieve the movement on an unstable surface. Again, from the web site:
Sitting on stability balls both within and outside a fitness environment has been found to be highly effective in engaging the core muscles. And since most of the body’s movements are initiated and supported with the core muscles, good back health is ensured.
Well, that’s a bit of a blanket statement, isn’t it? Good back health is ENSURED.
So here’s a simple statement I’m going to make and hopefully you understand where I’m coming from:
If your body can’t engage muscles properly while it is in a supported state (ie on a solid surface like the floor or a chair) what makes you think it’s going to be able to do it on an unstable one?
Most people when they are at work exhibit poor posture, mostly as a function of what they have to do all day. I’m going to sit (taking tension away from things like hamstrings and glutes), put both hands internally rotated, lean forward slightly and put my head down – all day. This, to be blunt, sucks for your body. We do this for 40 hours a week or more and wonder why at the end of five years our body defaults into being internally rotated, leaning forward and weak in all of the muscles that we don’t use. Then we also wonder why, when we want to do something that is externally rotated, requires firing of your posterior chain and support from your lower back (like a LOT of stuff) the body protests.
Much of what I do especially with office workers is getting their muscles to be stronger to fight against the tug of war that we encourage with our poor work environments. This also includes things like standing desks, moving around more during the day and even changing position entirely. Being aware of how you’re sitting all day is important as well. As is having a proper strength program to work on the muscles that don’t take a lot of load for many hours a week so they don’t become deconditioned.
So what’s the answer? Well, it isn’t sitting on a Swiss Ball at work. If you have poor posture (which is forced and a function of the equipment you need to use) sitting on a surface that has less support isn’t going to make it better, it’s just going to tire out the muscles faster that are already either overworked or weak. Then your poor unsupported body is going to be even more tired and sore from working harder than it needs to.
By the way, this also applies to squatting, bicep curls and shoulder presses. If you are doing this on a BOSU or sitting on a ball, stop wasting your time and learn how to do it well with both feet on the ground please. Too many times I see poor clients being treated like circus animals by trainers who want them to “feel their core”. News flash: most of these trainers don’t even know what a “core” is.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of core strengthening. They’re called deadlifts. Squats. Pullups. Things that require the spine to hold tension under load. Things with spinal rotations, extension, bracing and flexion that involve more than one part of the body moving. I’m willing to bet that if you can become strong enough to pick up your body weight then you’re not going to have a problem with your lower back. And I’ve applied this over and over again. Funny enough, it works.
So as you navigate this fitness world, remember that trends come and go. Trust things that have been proven to work over time. As always, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to reach out.
This is another success story I’d like to share with my readers and anyone interested in what I do. This case really illustrates the gradual use of resistance to create tension and hold positions for spinal issues and how they can be improved.
Randi came to me through a referral from one of my local MAT practitioners. Often when these people are receiving treatment they require someone who has my skills to help increase their strength once their body is able to fire muscles properly again. Having this combination is a really great way to enhance your gains in strength and allow your body to develop at a much more rapid pace. By the way, I highly recommend MAT to anyone looking to improve their physical self, you can find more about it HERE.
When I first assessed Randi it was a challenge. In a nutshell, everything we tried caused pain in her back, localized mostly around the right SI joint area which was indicated as the main issue. This had been going on for almost eight years and caused her to give up a lot of things she enjoyed doing, like hiking, cycling and even caused her problems while walking her dog. She had trouble with simply standing in proper posture, which put pressure in areas that her back “didn’t like”. This became a frequent gauge of her pain levels during our first few sessions.
Doing what I do, I will at first admit that I miscalculated and didn’t realize how much Randi’s back would react to my initial movement pattern assignment. After our first session she was okay, but after the next couple her back was sore for four days to the point where she couldn’t do normal everyday activities. This is after doing much movements as simple hip flexion, mild bracing, some basic extension (ie hip hinging) and trying to integrate her hips with her shoulder girdle. I was surprised, but glad that Randi (after she recovered) allowed me to try again.
The lesson here for both you and myself, is that you can reduce any level of force to an appropriate one for any person. So what did I reduce to? Randi started out most of her subsequent sessions with postural holds (bracing in a standing position), walking in proper alignment, and then going through various drills and movements unloaded in order to teach her body to facilitate coordination without any load. Loads were added eventually, but using angles of her body and longer ranges of motion, not weights. This Is a very broad description, but it worked. Before long, Randi’s body was to the point where she could endure long car rides, do sustained long activities she enjoyed like cooking and was able to think about buying a bicycle for her main goal.
Randi’s main goal was to be able to bike 26 kilometers for her trip to the Canadian Rockies, something she had wanted to do for a long time. The first step was to get her back on a bike again. She lasted for only 45 seconds the first time we put her on one. Then, through gradual application and increasing of mileage not only did we get her back onto a real bicycle (after finding one her body could tolerate) but we got her to the point where she could bike for over an hour (with breaks) and while her back was tired, she was able to recover quickly and function normally afterwards. Progressions were done weekly and she was also given specific technique rules and ways she could approach what she was doing on the bike to take tension off of her back. With some movements, it is a matter of reteaching the body how to move.
One interesting weekend Randi pushed herself a bit too hard, not realizing that a 15km route (which was prescribed) was actually a 20km route with hills. Her back reacted accordingly, but the great thing was that she recovered fairly quickly. Recovery time is always a great marker for performance improvement. Normally what would have done her in for a week had her sore for a couple of days, which is fairly normal when you’re doing something you haven’t done in eight years.
I’m happy to say that Randi has made incredible progress. Not only did she successfully ride the trail in the Rockies, she is now dead lifting up to 50 pounds, performing movements like lunges and pulldowns and planks, and is able to recover from workouts quickly. Her MAT therapist has seen a significant change in the way her muscles hold onto position. This is all in a period of about six months.
Once of the best parts of my job is helping people like Randi and sharing in the results. Here’s a picture she sent me of her on the bike out in the Rockies accomplishing her goal:
Randi’s goals have moved away from reducing pain and into more typical goals like weight loss and strength gain, which is fantastic. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the great benefit that I tell my clients is that if you can teach your body to tolerate forces, then it will always improve. If you have any specific questions about my work with Randi (or anyone else) feel free to contact me through this site or at email@example.com. I’m always willing to help if I can.
In June of 2012 I ran a 5k after training with my learn to run group from the gym I worked at. I performed okay considering everything, took 3rd in my age group and placed 39th out of 215 people overall. I ran a 4:30/km pace for the race, which was not a PB but decent.
Four weeks later I couldn’t run for three minutes. No one has ever been able to explain what happened but my suspicion is that during a swimming race with my wife I had a mild heart attack because it knocked me for a loop for a couple of days. Then the next week I got on a treadmill and couldn’t run. Nauseous, pressure in my chest, pounding, etc.
Once I got my echocardiogram and stress test it finally got figured out. I had not only a faulty heart valve (which I had my whole life and didn’t know it) but something called a dilated aortic root. Not completely severe requiring open heart surgery, but enough to affect things. In case you’re wondering what that is, it’s a swelling at the base of my aorta, the largest artery coming from the heart. If the swelling ruptures, then I’m dead. In minutes. Gone.
So what did that mean? No working out. No increased blood pressure. No exertion. Too risky, they said.
Imagine all the things you love suddenly getting ripped away from you. All the things you do that make you feel strong and accomplished. What you do for a living.
For months I tried to grasp it and had a really hard time. Workouts fell away. No idea what I could do to help myself. I felt weak and like a loser for not being able to practice what I preached. I’d try to lift weights and have to stop after ten minutes, even mild stuff. I could walk, but jogging for more than 5 minutes made me feel awful.
And I was scared. I had a little girl on the way and now I have another. I didn’t want to leave my family alone because I was too prideful to let go of the fact I wasn’t an athlete any more. I was scared of dying. So I stopped living.
Then I found out I could walk. That was a start. Got into race walking and did a ½ marathon walking in 2:45. 18 months ago. I remember I was very emotional at the start line. I was actually wearing a holter monitor at the time just in case anything happened. I never thought I’d be able to do that again but I was okay. And maybe, just maybe that meant I could do more.
So maybe if I can do that, I can start to jog. So I did. Started with 3 minutes jog, one walk. Like a beginner. Built up, one minute at a time. 6 minutes jog, two walk. 7 minutes jog, two walk. Every step I was paranoid about what might happen. I had to tell my wife exactly where I was going in case I didn’t come back. I had to work out at my studio only if someone else was there so if I collapsed they might be able to do something. But at least I was still working.
About a year ago I finally went to a respirologist who finally decided to red line my heart and see what happened in the hospital where I was safe. My VO2 max was still above 40 and I could push 195 watts on an ergometer (for about 20 seconds). After two years of not exerting myself. And I was good – tired, but good. That gave me hope. I got on the bike at my gym religiously, building up from 20 minutes bit by bit to 45 and then starting to push power numbers. Still afraid to run, plus it was winter anyway so I wasn’t about to start. Got to 245 watts for 20 minutes, or 3.0W/kg – not bad for someone my age who hadnt worked out hard for two years.
Why am I telling you all this?
Today I ran 6k. Continuous. For the first time in three years. The final 2k was uphill. And it felt fucking amazing. When I stopped at the top of my street and walked home there were tears in my eyes and I was pumping my fist. You know why? I never thought I’d be able to do that again. And this is from a guy who has run two marathons and over a dozen half marathons.
Three. Years. Imagine someone telling you it would take that long to be able to feel strong again. To feel like you were an athlete again.
I’m going to declare right here on my blog that I have entered a 5k race in September, and you know what? I’m going to beat that time I set three years ago. I’m not just going to beat it, I’m going to crush it.
How did this happen? Careful progression. Not taking my body for granted. Listening to it and backing off when I have to. But never, ever, ever stopping. Can’t do that? Find something else you can do. Not progressing? Change things up. Try. Try. Try. And try again. Just don’t stop.
Like one of my favourite motivational speeches says, life is this game of inches.
And I know, if I’m going to have any life anymore, it is because I’m still willing to fight, and die for that inch. Because that’s what living is. And I know when I add up all those inches, that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing. Between living and dying.
Fuck you heart disease. Fuck you faulty valve. Fuck you doctors who told me I can’t.
Nothing can beat you unless you let it.
So what are you going to do?
I’ll see you in September.