By Rob Shaul
Over the past decades, I’ve made several mistakes. These are my biggest programming mistakes.
Not Getting Sport Specific
I made this mistake on both the mountain and tactical side. In Jackson that first year, my Dryland Ski program emphasized maximal leg strength – heavy back squats, heavy front squats, heavy lunges. Skiing is all legs, right? We had strong legs.
Then that first day at the resort, I lasted about 2 hours. My legs were hammered. And the next Monday in the gym, I was met with angry athletes.
What went wrong?
Alpine skiing is not a maximal leg activity. It’s a leg strength endurance activity. Further, the type of strength is primarily eccentric strength – not concentric like we had trained. In general, gravity bounces the skier down the hill like a ball – and the legs absorb each bounce, and push off for the next hop.
I hit the books looking for sport-specific programming, found none, and began my own experimenting and testing.
The next year I deployed the Mini and Full Leg Blasters as the cornerstone of my dryland program. These evolved into the Quadzilla Complexes we deploy now.
Many other coaches have adopted Quadzillas as a key component of alpine ski dryland training.
On the tactical side, we avoided rucking and any serious attention to endurance in the early years of Military Athlete’s daily programming. I’d read where heavy rucking, and especially heavy ruck running was super impactful and perhaps even dangerous. I did include it in our early selection programs but did not give it the attention it deserved. Fact is, movement under significant load is a reality for not only the military athletes we serve but also many of the fire rescue athletes – both urban and wildland.
My stubbornness dissolved, we purchased some ALICE packs and began experimenting with rucking and ruck running. Instead of injuring our lab rats, rucking and ruck running seemed to “tighten everything up” – and develop bomber knee, ankle and foot joint, and connective tissue strength. Further, short, hard ruck run intervals are an incredible work capacity training mode. Now, not only do we deploy rucking in our programming, but have also conducted extensive research on the activity.
Part of the issue was no one else had developed solid programming for mountain and tactical athletes. Looking back, this was a blessing. We were able to start with a blank canvas, develop an innovative programming process, and become thought leaders in these areas.
Before I started strength and conditioning coaching professionally, endurance was a key part of my personal fitness. I ran trails and went on long car to car loops and peak bagging trips in the summers. In the winters I ran the roads and nordic skied.
But when I started coaching, endurance programming was an afterthought, despite endurance’s significant importance in outside performance for the mountain and tactical athletes I was trying to serve.
Why? I knew it was important but wasn’t confident enough as a coach to tell my paying athletes not to come to the gym, but rather run 5 miles on their own that day. As well, endurance work simply wasn’t as sexy or exotic as garage gym training in those early days.
Now, endurance programming is not only a key part of our sport/season/event training plans but also one of the cornerstones of our Military, Fire/Rescue, and Mountain Base Fitness programming. We’ve even developed our own run and ruck calculators, and methodologies for programming dreaded step ups.
Finally, as a multi-decade gym rat myself, I find it simply enjoyable to spend time outside working on my mode-specific aerobic base and speed over ground.
Over the past decade, every time I’ve been righteously against some training idea, exercise or piece of equipment, I’ve always eaten my words.
Super Squats strength progression and foam rollers are great examples. When a coach first suggested we try Super Squats I thought it was the dumbest progression I’d ever seen.
Now, our version of Super Squats is one of my six go-to strength progressions and could be the most efficient strength improvement progression in our toolbox.
Foam rollers? Never!!
Now, most of my daily sessions include 5 or 10 minutes at the end of foam rolling. I’ve even developed a Mountain Tactical Foam Roll Complex.
Believing in “One Solution for Everything”
My first mistake here came with CrossFit-inspired multi-mode work capacity efforts. Though I never drank the CrossFit Koolaid, I did attend a CrossFit course in 2005 and was impressed with what I saw (remember Annie, Chem Girl, and Admundson?).
I always did and still do believe CrossFit-inspired multi-modal work capacity events are potent general fitness training tools. What CrossFit has done for gym-based training is incredible. Further, these work capacity fitness improvements do have solid carryover to multiple sports and outdoor activities.
But just like every other training methodology, at some point, repeatedly completing these events only helps you improve at these events, and stops improving outdoor performance.
To really push outdoor or any sports performance, you simply have to get sport-specific with your training.
My harsh lesson with this written-in-stone rule of fitness programming came the first year I seriously worked with rock climbers prior to the Spring desert climbing season.
My programming had little rock climbing-specific finger and forearm strength work, and bunches of these general fitness multi-modal work capacity events.
April 1, some of my climbers, went to southern Utah to climb, and April 15th back they came pissed at me.
Turns out bunches of light squats, box jumps, and burpees don’t do much to improve your rock climbing performance – especially when your fingers and forearms are weak.
Another lesson came with the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). Gray Cook, who developed the FMS, claimed it could identify non-contact injury risk to great accuracy. I flew to Phoenix and attended and FMS seminar where he went through the components of the screen and pointed to a study completed on several hundred USMC OCS Candidates he said backed up the injury-predictive ability of the FMS.
By God, I was convinced, and purchased a couple of the FMS kits, and administered the screen to all my athletes the following week.
My first doubts crept in during the following weeks when I began deploying Cook’s geeky corrective exercises in my programming. First, they were super specific and hard to deploy with any group bigger than 1 athlete. Second, we’d drill them for weeks and my athletes would improve their FMS corrective exercise performance, but showed no real-world improvement in their loaded squat movement. The corrective exercises just made them better at the exercises – and sometimes, improved their FMS Score.
Despite my doubts, I stuck with the FMS. The NFL Combine had adopted the FMS and I figure those guys must know what they were doing. But then I began reading conflicting studies that confirmed my doubts. Successive studies found the FMS did not predict injury in D1 collegiate athletes, or in 18-24-year-old competitive runners, or in gymnasts.
Finally, I looked up the Marine OCS Study Cook had referenced at his FMS seminar. Turns out the FMS score alone did not predict injury risk. Only when it was paired with 3-Mile run performance on the PFT was there any predictive value.
How far have I moved from the impact of great movement and mobility on durability? Here is my current durability equation:
Durability = 98% Total Body Relative Strength and Sport-Specific Fitness + 2% Mobility.
Until Fall/Winter 2015, our programming often deployed lightly or moderately loaded, high volume squatting and lunging movements. We used these movements for a couple of training modes – multi-modal work capacity and stamina.
But pain and arthritis in my own knees have caused me to question the utility of this wear and tear on knee joints.
I’ve come to wonder if light and moderately loaded deep knee flexion squats and lunging movements are dead-end exercises like kipping pull-ups. They don’t make athletes any stronger, aren’t directly transferrable outside the gym, and could just wear out your joints.
Now I work to avoid programming these “garbage reps” as I call them. I’ve replaced “garbage reps” in my work capacity events with shuttle sprints, and other modes that perform as well, or better, in the work capacity role.
I’ve still determined the replacement and need for these squatting movements when it comes to training stamina.
Finally, some of our sport-specific work still uses lightly loaded deep squats and lunges. Examples include the Quadzilla Complex for eccentric leg strength and loaded step ups for short people.
Sophisticated Design. Complicated Exercises.
“Sophisticated” design is immature. Not in the sense that the person who did the designing is immature, but the design itself is young, and will “mature” as it ages.
Maturing = getting simpler.
As I’ve gone back and updated training plans, I’ve wondered how dang complicated some of them were. I’ve made them better by cutting complexity, reducing exercises, and eliminating complicated and exotic exercises.
We’re currently on Version 5.0 of our Ruck Based Selection Training Plan and the current version looks nothing like Version 1.0 – it’s much more sport-specific, it no longer requires a fully equipped gym, and the progression is simple and direct.
The exercises page on the website is populated by many fitness and durability exercises we no longer use in our current programming. Gone are the complicated, geeky mobility exercises. Gone are the exotic barbell exercises. The exercise menu I pull from for current programming is small and getting smaller.
Looking back part of the blame for sophisticated design and complicated exercises was my own insecurity as a coach. If I could just wiz-bang my athletes with my obvious brilliance demonstrated by design I barely understood and exercises I could barely demonstrate, my reputation would hit warp speed, I mistakenly thought.
It didn’t take long to learn – all that matters is outside performance. And the key to mission-direct fitness programming is an eraser to cut out the complicated and unnecessary.
Fitness program design is creative in many ways like writing. Writing always gets better when you cut stuff away. Same with program design.
Ignoring what my eyes were telling me.
When teaching new coaches to program I extol that they “program in pencil” and don’t become so wedded to their program design that when things are obviously not working, they can’t change it.
Early on I ignored what my eyes were telling me, and would let my faulty programming persist out of stubbornness, pride or simple coaching insecurity.
Now, when things aren’t working, I stop everyone and fix the programming at that moment.
Again, all that matters is outside performance. Embracing this simple goal liberates me from falling in love with anyone’s programming – especially my own.
Falling Into the Circle Jerk
Early on I was mesmerized by the “celebrity” strength coaches commonly quoted in articles, interviewed on podcasts and co-authoring books on Amazon.
But after a while, I started noticing that the same circle of coaches was interviewing each other on their own podcasts, quoting each other in magazine and website articles, and writing prefaces for each others’ books.
It was a big circle jerk.
The Fitness Industry isn’t alone in manufactured circle jerks. I’ve seen them in the business advice industry, self-help industry, and backcountry hunting industry.
All Circle Jerks the same geography: 1000 miles wide and an inch deep. Avoid them.
Now I search hard for genuinely new ideas, contrarian thinking, and courageous approaches. As a result, my professional reading and learning have improved greatly in quality and efficiency.
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