The Best Coaches Teach Fundamentals
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.
Peace With Inches
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.
Ultimate Motivation – The Case Study of Nadia L
I thought I’d share this story as a way to show people what real dedication can get you. I’ve had the privilege over he past eight months to work with a woman who had the ultimate motivation towards getting healthy and losing weight and wanted to see if it might inspire others like it inspired me.
Now, before I begin I realize that motivation is often a struggle for a lot of people. I often cite the scene in the movie Fight Club where a man holds a gun to another man’s head and tells him to go follow his dream or he’s going to shoot him. Motivation is the ultimate struggle for many of us when it comes to changing your lifestyle, but when you have no choice but to do something then it is pretty hard not to. This is where my client Nadia comes in.
Nadia’s mother had liver disease and needed a new liver because hers was failing. Unfortunately a transplant from someone else wasn’t likely to happen any time soon, so Nadia decided to get checked and found out she was a match. The only problem was that she was 60 pounds overweight and also had a fatty liver. So in order to save her mothers’ life, she had to lose a significant amount of weight and also get extremely healthy. The problem was that it basically needed to happen as soon as possible. Her mother’s life was at stake.
So Nadia got to work. She got my name through a referral from one of my successful clients. When she contacted me I was honestly a bit overwhelmed only because she had a very short timeline and a very big goal to reach. I was also very honored to have the chance to help her. We got to work immediately and she flew into changing her lifestyles completely. She was in the gym dedicated 5 days a week following a strict program and completely overhauled her eating habits. We put her on a carbohydrate cycling protocol, something I wouldn’t normally do with a client because it is aggressive, but this was ordinary circumstances. And the pounds and inches started to come off.
In terms of exercise, part of the problem was her losing weight and inches, but also maintaining strength for a potential surgery. We worked through a couple of phases of training from introductory strength and moving into heavier lifting, then changing into higher intensity once her joints had the strength and integrity to handle it. Her nutrition stayed spot on and the pounds came off steadily.
To make a long story short, within eight months Nadia was down 60 pounds and many many inches. In fact, the first time I did her waist measurements I was astounded only because it was down over 10 inches just in that one area alone.
Nadia busted her ass – literally. She worked incredibly hard and suffered through a lot of stress. In short, she was a complete rock star and did exactly what it took in order to get to where she needed to be. She had setbacks and pushed through them, even doing her last six weeks on bariatric shakes totaling 900 calories a day because her liver fat needed to come down faster in order to be healthy. In my fifteen years I have rarely seen this type of dedication towards a goal, and the result was obvious.
Nadia and her mother had their surgery (successfully) a couple of weeks ago and she is now recovering. She will be out of commission for a couple of months and then is looking forward to getting into maintaining her new body and hopefully doing some really cool things that she might not have been able to previously. We’re going to work on maintaining her strength and then setting new goals for her new body. She has told me that she never wants to go back to the way she was before and the good thing is, she doesn’t have to. Nobody does as long as they stay consistent.
So I’m not writing this as a big pat on the back for myself. On the contrary, Nadia did 96% of the work on her own. She planned her meals, she did the workouts (which I designed), she went through all of the ups and downs she needed to (with the occasional support email needed). In fact, she only saw me about once every few weeks to make changes and adjustments to her programs. Only towards the end when things needed to become more supervised did she see me even once a week. You don’t need to spend a lot of time with a trainer if you’re willing to put in the work on your own, as I have said many times before.
My true point with this article is about motivation. So many people get into exercise and health without having a really clear picture of what they want. Having that picture and really, really wanting to do anything that you need to in order to make it happen virtually guarantees success. Nadia had that. So ask yourself this: if it was your mother, if it was another family member or if a doctor told you that you had to make changes, would you do it? I hope that the answer is yes. Think about that the next time that you want to skip a workout, or stop what you started, or eat another really crappy meal. What if you didn’t have the choice to give up because someone else was relying on you? Well, I can tell you that someone probably is. You.
Life always comes down to choices. You can choose to do what it takes or keep on cycling through what you have always done. All you have to do is find the motivation that Nadia and countless others have found in order to completely change how you feel, look and perform on a daily basis – not only now, but years from now.
I’m very honored to have been a part of this transformation, and I’m also hoping that by writing this it inspires more of you to get up, get going and find that part of you that will never give up. Good luck with whatever fitness journey you are undertaking and if you are ever looking for help feel free to contact me.
The fundamental truth about changing anything in your life is that it takes time and effort. I have talked about this many times before and constantly have to talk people down from expecting things to change overnight. In our society we are used to getting things right away, whether it be email, text messages, fast food, even watching a movie can be done instantly online thanks to modern technology. We forget about the fact that advancing a career, learning, growing a family and relationships take time and effort, like anything in life.
But in our society people rush into relationships and when they aren’t instantly happy they get divorced because it is easy. We take up workout programs and diets over and over again because they are really easy to start – but somewhere along the way we lose momentum because we expect this massive change within a short period of time and when it doesn’t happen, instead of continuing for some reason we just stop. We consume crappy things because it makes us feel good for the moment, but then the negative things that happen afterwards just stall our progress.
By just continuing on the path, even if the results don’t happen as fast as you like you’re going to be far better off over time than if you stop and start something different. Ours is a society where we don’t finish what we start. We give up way too easily. We needlessly over-complicate things like health and nutrition and exercise when most tried and true methods are always accomplished given enough time and effort.
So as a message to take away for today, remember that even making one simple change – today – can fundamentally alter the way that your future unfolds before you. Today you always have a choice as to what you want to do, eat, drink, how you want to sleep, what you want to accomplish. The world is in front of you, but we as humans always allow what is behind us to guide our path rather than just moving forward. Once you realize that each day doesn’t have to be affected by what you did the day before it can be a very liberating feeling. Just because you have missed 5 days of working out doesn’t mean that you have to – today. Just because you ate a pint of ice cream last night because you were feeling depressed doesn’t mean you have to do it again – today. You skipped yoga yesterday, but you can find another class to go to – today.
Our lives have an immense duration. Who you were five years ago isn’t who you are now and who you are now isn’t going to be anywhere close to who you are five years from now. You might have a different job, city, partner, spouse, and this can all be guided by making that one simple choice and then doing it consistently over time. Remember, even the Grand Canyon started as a little stream at some point. But it had to start. And all of us can start whatever we want to – today.
So say it out loud – “I am going to do (whatever you want to get done) today.” Make a choice and move forward. That’s the only way to possibly change over time.
If you’re looking for a good book, I recommend The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. It’s what inspired this post and is an easy read. I hope you enjoy it.