This is part 2 to Nick’s debut series of articles outlining how sheer obsessive nerdiness is the most powerful super power of them all. You can check out part 1 here.
There are a lot of enjoyable, pleasurable things in life that aren’t working on your health and fitness. These are often quantified as ‘bad habits’ — stuff like eating fast food or surrendering a whole weekend to your Netflix account (just to name two personal favourites). My conviction is that you can’t quit a bad habit. What you can do is build a good habit that becomes a priority to the point that it crowds out the bad habit. The great news is that most ‘bad habits’ become perfectly fine things to do once you do them a lot less — in fact they can become healthy recovery practices for your downtime between training sessions.
How do you build a good habit? It’s gonna mean getting over The Hump. The initial soreness, the fear, the distrust, the anxiousness of the new environment and the lure of familiar comforts.
I’ve gotten pretty good at getting new clients over the hump (I’m not perfect of course). My approach is very simple — I talk. Non-stop. I tell them exactly what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what results they can reasonably expect and when they can expect it. I invite their questions and when they stump me (rare but it happens) I don’t front, I go look it up.
Do my clients think I talk too much? Probably. I’m okay with that, since my clients tend to know more programming science than the average freshly minted personal trainer. They’re no more likely to perform a squat without proper form than a firefighter is to point the hose the wrong way. They just know better. The best part for me is that results are relatively normalised across my client base, whether they are ‘naturally’ hard-working or not.
Of course I’m not ignorant of the prevailing trends in modern gym training. I appreciate that there are modern exercise systems that present themselves as sport-and-training-system-in-one, and they take place largely in gyms. I’ll likely weigh in on this phenomenon more in a future column, but in the meantime let me clarify what I’m saying. I’m saying that Mental Toughness has become a runaway idea within gym culture and is frequently overstated in terms of its importance to athletic success. The focus on attitude as the be-all and end-all can be used as a smokescreen by mediocre coaches and just plain isn’t as effective as a knowledge-based approach.
Let’s take an example that’s close to my heart — say you want to get stronger. Let’s say much stronger, exceptionally strong relative to the population. If you’ve ever been on the internet or in a gym you might have seen this process related in quite dramatic terms — No Pain No Gain, Embracing The Grind, Paying The Iron Price or whatever else. At the very least, it has likely been presented to you as a matter of hard work and sacrifice above all else.
Well hard work is an essential component, though not in the sense of mindless grinding. Sacrifice too, technically, though that’s a bit overwrought; it just means you have to commit some time and also choose it over other athletic goals. Anyway, more determinant than both of those is the refinement of your goal to a specific definition of strength. Do you want to be functionally strong in your everyday life or in a specific sport, do you want to be competitive in a strength sport or is there a very specific physical action you want to complete?
Once you know what your goal is you can structure for optimisation — the exact amount of work per week to achieve your results. No more, no less. This should be expressed as a range with upper and lower limits to allow for the non-linear system that is the human body. Luckily we’re in 2015 and have access to decades of Eastern block training and research as well as the work of elite western strength coaches such as Louie Simmons and Glenn Pendlay.
Ultimately you can break your months, days and weeks down into optimal rep and set ranges across a minimum of effective separate exercises. Spoiler warning, it’ll involve some skill-intensive movements, often (but not always) performed at a weight heavy enough to demand technical excellence. Once this is all planned out you can go into every session knowing exactly which stimulus you’re targeting and whether your focus in the moment is on speed, hypertrophy or any of the other attributes of strength. You’ll also have the parameters to make the inevitable changes and adjustments that come which the unpredictable nature of the rest of your life.
Got pretty nerdy there, didn’t it? (Again, I just offered some heavy spoilers for future columns).
It always gets nerdy with me, because I can’t escape the fact that a lot of people have been doing this to a very high standard for a very long time. I’m not the guy who’s produced dozens of Olympic athletes, but the brutal truth is that I don’t have to be; that guy’s lifetime of knowledge is available for study and absorption by a spoiled Westerner such as myself. What excuse do I have not to know this stuff? Even though I’m decades of experience away from matching these guys as a coach and my clients aren’t training for a world championship they all still deserve the best possible programming.
I’ve taught proper lifting technique and programming to a lot of different people by now. Their dedication in terms of consistency and attendance has varied widely, but there’s two things I’ve seen born out 100% of the time:
- once someone knows how to train an exercise properly, why the technique is important, and what they’re getting out of it, they can’t bring themselves to do it the wrong way any more
- those clients that DO put in a longish period of consistent, structured training — achieving dramatic results without mishap or injury — will then keep going, farther and farther into advanced levels of physical transformation.
Of course this effect is cumulative. It can take a fair few sessions to build trust in a system and lots of questions to accept an information source. That’s the other big part of my job, building context and subject knowledge for clients as quickly as possible. It’s also the easiest part of my job, because I love to share this completely free information. ‘Cause I’m a huge nerd.
What’s my practical point? It depends who you are:
Gym-Goers — are you getting the results that you want? If you strip away your trainer’s charismatic persona, the friendliness and emotional support of your training partners and the rush you get from your sessions, is there still a sense of real progress? I ask because all those other elements are actually pretty easy to find, but real (and by real I mean sustained and lasting) physical transformation is a much rarer thing.
Trainers — look, I have no doubt your clients love you. You’ve nurtured and supported them through their ups and downs, you get invited to their birthday parties and they trust you with their deepest secrets. My (unfair) question is this — have you repaid their trust with real, lasting results? Do you regularly interrogate your own knowledge base to make sure you’re working with the best possible information? Have you given your clients the knowledge that will make them independently fit for life, long after you’ve moved away or been hit by a bus? Or have you hoarded the knowledge in a misguided attempt to increase its market value, or worse, to prevent it being subject to scrutiny or second guessing?
Gym Skeptics — It’s true, most gyms are cringe-worthy ego-mines full of Bros, Posers and Brosers. But the great thing about those people is that they’re so easy to beat at their own game. If you have average intelligence, a modicum of critical thinking skill and even a touch of nerdiness you can easily exceed the results of the gym junkies around you.
It all starts with well-tested knowledge and in my humble assessment, finding great teachers. The latter can take a bit of work, but the former has never been easier and my hope is that this site can be a portal to the high-quality information that lies just beyond the Valley Of Fitness Fads.
I’ll be beginning with articles that zero in on some of the concepts I’ve touched on above, both the nitty gritty structure of how to train and the broader issues of teaching and learning within the wide world of gyms.
I invite you to come back and check them out, but I won’t try and convince you with a big speech. Experience tells me that if you get something out of them, you’ll come back on your own.
Again and again and again.
NEXT TIME — A CASE STUDY IN SPORTS-SPECIFIC STRENGTH
Nick is that indescribable scent you smell right after it rains . He is available for Personal Training and instructs the Strength & Power and Freestyle Wrestling programs. Check out his personal site Form=Function.