My Favorite Answer: Why?
I spend a lot of time in gyms. A lot of time. I have great opportunities to see a variety of coaches and trainers work with clients of differing shapes, sizes, leverages, and personalities. I often think to myself, “why didn’t I think of that?”. Many times, however, I just think “WHY?”
Let me qualify that as referencing those who are working with a trainer or coach. If someone is out there on their own, making it work without the formal knowledge that a trainer (hopefully) possesses, then they cannot be expected to know better. Its when I see a trainer or coach putting their clientele through something that seems stupid, or worse, dangerous that I cringe.
If you work with a trainer or coach and you ever have a question about some part of your training, you should ask them why? Why we selected this movement, why we are mobilizing for this movement, why these movements fall in this pattern in the programming? If your trainer/coach can’t answer your why, then you should find a new trainer. No question.
However, I think a lot of people out there who are training themselves could stand to ask why they are doing things as well. I’m not saying that everyone needs to spend the next 3 months studying anatomy or taking a biomechanics course but just some basic questions could do a lot to further your training knowledge.
The Biggest Losers
Maybe loser is a bit harsh. But hey, it's the internet, hyperbole sells. The biggest offenders that I encounter on a daily basis tend to fall into one of three camps. Now, these can be trainers and coaches who tend to prescribe random workouts or regurgitate whatever it is they saw on Instagram last night or it can be trainees who just don’t know any better or worse, know just enough to make them dangerous.
1. The Mobilizers
You will recognize these coaches/trainees as the ones who insist that everything that is wrong in your life can be fixed with a band and a lacrosse ball.
Having trouble with your overhead squat? Must be tight shoulders. Here, wrap this band around your wrist and yank your already dodgy shoulder out of the socket for the next ten minutes. If it doesn’t completely dislocate you should be able to set a WR snatch.
Suffering from a rounded back at the bottom of your squat? Must be tight hamstrings. Here, roll around on this foam roller until you have lengthened the fascia in your posterior. Hint: it's gonna take a looooong time (it’s also gonna take an amount of pressure that will probably tear all of the flesh from your leg and crush your bones into a fine powder, but that’s neither here nor there). Bonus points for making an O-face and groans that make everyone in ear shot super uncomfortable.
KIds acting up at home? Here, shove this double sided lax ball in your rectum and roll around. It won’t do anything about your kids but I saw it on YouTube and figured that their behavior was somehow caused by your excessively tight asshole.
Now, I am not wholesale dismissing the concept of mobility exercises; I take issue with application. Mobility should be a targeted approach to address a specific problem.
As an aside, it is also necessary to define mobility. Mobility is strength in a range of motion. If you just want increased ROM then you might actually be looking to improve flexibility. If a client does in fact need to strengthen their position in a specified range of motion then strength work in that unstable ROM is actually what is needed.
Many times, however, the prescription is given in absence of a proper diagnosis. I have witnessed many a group class be lead without there having been a prior assessment of movement. If there is no dysfunction there is nothing to remedy; mobility work literally becomes an exercise in futility.
This is where the use of targeted mobility usually gets thrown out the window.
Whenever I hear a session start with, “We are going to do some hip flexor stretches to loosen up your tight hips to get ready to squat today”, I die a little bit inside. We have yet to see a single person in that room of 10-15 ppl squat.
How do we know that anyone has trouble getting depth in their squat?
How do we know that anyone has tight hips?
This is all in addition to the fact that, in my experience with newer trainees the tendency is to have hypermobility and lack of stability and not lack of flexibility. Even in those who fail to reach a proper position initially, the best course of action tends to be proper coaching/cueing and loaded reps to get that person into position, not stretching. Attacking perceived limitations without prior proof is like trying to perform surgery with a shotgun.
There also tends to be a trend of forcing positions through active mobilizing. Lack of mobility might well be occurring in this population for either anatomical or body preservation reasons.
Take for instance the band distraction. The intent (I assume) is to create a greater range of motion by “loosening” the musculature of the shoulder. Now, there is a litany of issues to address here but I am just going to start with the most obvious. I have yet to meet a client, either athlete or desk jockey, that needed any help being more mobile in the anterior shoulder. If anything, I would work towards increased stability in that position, better scapular control, or posterior strengthening, but not a greater range of flexibility.
By pulling an already unstable joint (the shoulder) into an even less stable position (the humeral head forward of the socket) you are putting the client at risk of a variety of injuries. Seeing as most of the people I work with enjoy activities like Crossfit, softball and weightlifting they are already at a higher risk of shoulder dysfunction. By adding stress to the joint in a warmup we are not doing our due diligence. I like to adhere to that whole “do no harm” philosophy.
Let’s assume that this client has difficulty achieving a neutral overhead position. It could be any number of issues from pec minor tightness to an actual physiological block in the shoulder socket. I actually can’t think of a single instance when anterior pulling of the humeral head from the glenoid cavity would be beneficial. Of course, I am not a Physical Therapist so there could well be a good reason that I am just not qualified to speak on. If so, I have just yet to find it.
What To Do Instead
Now, the first course of action when a client exhibits pain in a certain position is to avoid that position. Duh. In an overhead position, many times the simple short term solution is to avoid pressing movements until the source of the pain is identified and a proper course of action is laid out. Which leads us to an important lesson in the life of every great trainer/coach:
Unfortunately most certifying bodies must skip this chapter in their texts because few of the younger trainers/coaches I work with seem to have grasped this concept. If you are new to the field or even if you are a vet, I would recommend establishing a relationship with a qualified physical therapist, MD, and/or occupational therapist. Having these professionals at your disposal will prove to your clientele that you are not only a consummate professional and the hit of social gatherings, but also that you are so confident in your strengths that you know where scope of practice begins and ends.
I know that it can be intimidating to admit to a client that you don’t have all of the answers but I can guarantee you that your honesty will garner you more long lasting relationships than faking it ever will.
If you or your client are not injured and instead looking to improve shoulder stability I would try these things instead of ripping the glenohumeral joint into 18 pieces.
2. The Isolationists
These tend to be trainees more often than trainers, almost always men, and spend hours reading about muscle while never having gained any. These are the ones who forever put the horse before the cart and see frustration at every turn. You will find them in the weight room of any globo gym; headphones on, weight belt tight (regardless of exercise selection), performing countless sets and reps of curls and calf raises.
This, my friends, is a textbook isolationist. Like Dynastic China and Pre-WWI Etats-Unis, these lifters prefer to ignore global influence and instead focus on the smaller mechanisms of a greater system. Also, like the aforementioned societies, these lifters must someday change their outlook or forever be doomed to a flaccid and weakened role in this world.
Where a lot of trainees make a wrong turn is by reading the lifting routines of advanced bodybuilders or movie stars. Most of these routines are either completely fabricated by a fitness writer or designed to work on details of an already world class physique. The idea that you can look like your favorite action star by mimicking their current training regimen is ignoring the 10, 15, 20+ years of work that it took to get them there.
When these trainees come to me it is sometimes an easy transition and sometimes it is a long, slow transformation in mindset to get them to change. I understand that because I did the same thing. I never knew any better. It is counter-intuitive to think that the best way to spur growth isn’t targeting specific muscles (just as targeting problem fat areas won't help in fat loss). With all of them I try to establish a base set of rules that they can abide by.
1. Perform Compound Lifts
The majority of my programming will prioritize variations on the classic compound lifts. Some type of squat, hinge, push and pull will always be present. Heavy is relative. For some, bodyweight pullups could constitute a heavy pulling exercise while for another it may be 400lb barbell rows. The selection is solely based on intended outcome.
If you are trying to build muscle mass (even if you are chasing fat loss, building muscle should be a primary objective but that is a separate article), you should base your programming around the classic lifts (or their variations).
If general health is your main goal, or even if you are chasing that lean muscle- movie star look, you can utilize a combination of bodyweight and kettlebells/dumbbells to build an excellent program. Goblet squats, RDLs, all variants of pressing, rows, pushups, and pullups. Don’t fall under the guise that a barbell is necessary to build a great physique. If you ever visit NYC just take a walk down to Washington Square Park and look at the builds on the guys and gals who only do bodyweight work. They look incredible (and that is actually the physique that most of my clients are chasing).
In my professional opinion it would behoove every person, regardless of fitness goals, to master bodyweight movements such as the squat, a perfect pushup, and unassisted pull ups. Mastering one’s own body weight is a surprisingly difficult endeavor and can be very rewarding on its own but is also an important precursor to heavy lifting. All of my clients must exhibit mastery of body weight in order to perform loaded movement and will continue to see bodyweight exercises in programming at all levels of progress.
2. Utilize a Strength Bias
The basic premise of form follows function. Create an environment that forces the body to adapt and it will. The most efficient and effective way to do that in younger and newer trainees is to build strength.
By placing the majority of focus on building strength we are not just forcing adaptation, we are also creating a trackable data set. Weight is a consistent number. It is not dependent on outside factors (though your training on any given day most certainly is). 200lbs is always 200lbs. If we can add weight or reps, while consistently performing in the desired range of motion and with good form, we are making progress. While that progress may not always be linear, there should be an upward trend over time.
The great byproduct of building strength is an increase in muscle mass. If you can amass a 2x bodyweight squat, 2-3x bodyweight deadlift, and a 1.5-2x bodyweight bench no one will question whether you lift. It will be immediately obvious by your towering traps, granite legs, and lats that block out the sun.
While I will place the focus on absolute strength for those clients who hope to gain serious amounts of muscle, relative strength is often a marker for those looking to lose fat or “tone”.
Relative strength is strength relative to your bodyweight and I usually measure it in movements such as pullups, pushups, dips, and handstand pushups. While I still encourage pushing weight in our core movements, we can achieve some great physique changes and measureable progress by increasing relative strength. Plus, a vast majority of my female clients really like increasing their pullup numbers.
3. Perform Loaded Carries
Nothing has shown a greater impact for my clients physical profile than heavy, loaded carries. The fact that a very heavy weight must be stabilized and held on to requires recruitment of every muscle in the body as well as a shitload of central nervous system recruitment. The reasons for loaded carries are many.
The Shock-and-Awe Crowd
Muscle confusion, unknown and unknowable, random bullshit. Whatever you like to call it there has been a trend over the past decade to move away from directed and focused training into a spaghetti approach. You know, throw a bunch of shit on the wall and whatever sticks…
For someone who just wants to get sweaty and raise their heart rate without getting bored this is a fine approach. They most likely won’t see any progress in their physique and minimal changes to their health but as long as they are not working towards those goals I could not care less.
Where I do care is the clients that come to me frustrated by their lack of progress in strength gains and/or body composition. They see top competitors in the sport of fitness and assume that they are performing random workouts and eating like cavemen. In reality, these competitors have an insanely focused and data driven training program and an equally insane energy output that requires a targeted nutrition approach.
The idea that your muscles should be confused or surprised by a workout or training session sounds like it makes sense. If you are doing something new it is hard and makes you sore and that is what improves your physique, right?
Not exactly. Soreness is an indicator of, well, soreness.
One of the laws of physical fitness is the Law of Specificity. In a nutshell, this states that in order to improve at a given task/ exercise/ energy system one must perform said task in their training and with some regularity.
People are shocked when I put 100lbs on a client’s total (in some cases just on their squat) in less than 6 months. I would love to say it’s because I am a genius and have a super secret hack that turns regular fitness junkies into super heroes but in reality I just focus on the basics. In my beginners powerlifting group we do some sort of squat variant 3x/week, a deadlift variant 1-2x, and some type of press and row 3x. I throw in some single leg work and loaded carries and there you go.
The simple act of practicing squatting takes a rank beginner, someone who is squatting at or just above body weight to 2x bodyweight in no time.
ake Alyssa for example. She had been Crossfitting for a couple of years when she came to me. She had been stuck at a 200lb squat for a while. Within 6 months she had competed in her first powerlifting meet squatting over 300 lbs, deadlifting almost 400lbs and qualifying for the USAPL National Championships. All while on a caloric deficit and losing 30lbs.
Bottom line, if you want to get better at a skill you must practice that skill. Strength is a skill. Remember that.
The beauty about strength training is that we all start out as beginners. Being new at something is scary and exciting and fun. At some point, though, you will need to progress from that beginner status and move into intermediate level if you hope to improve. That progression involves self examination.
In order to achieve anything you must start to question things.
Start asking why.
If you never try to learn more about the why you will never reach as far as you are capable.