By Rob Shaul
(4) Lab Rat Program
At a macro level, for a strength and conditioning coach committed to improvement, the programming journey has three distinct steps:
- You find individual coaches you respect, who’ve had success and do their stuff. Then you graduate to ….
- Combining programming elements from multiple respected coaches into your programming. Then you graduate too ….
- Developing, designing and implementing your own programming from the ground up.
MTI began as Mountain Athlete. I aspired to program for high-level mountain professionals and mountain athletes here in Jackson, Wyoming which is the Lower 48’s premier training ground for alpine climbing, freeskiing, and backcountry skiing. The Teton Mountain range is young, steep and rocky, and it rises nearly immediately from the valley floor – which means approaches to the vertical are minimal. It makes for a very efficient alpine sport classroom.
Understand I’m not personally an accomplished mountain athlete, but I am a quick learner, and my passage through period number one, above, was swift. I quickly learned that well established team-sports programming and emerging CrossFit WODs did not transfer well to mountain sports. I needed to get mountain-sport specific with my programming.
I didn’t have any in-gym lab rats initially, and made all my programming mistakes on paying customers.
Programming-wise, I shelved all my National Strength and Conditioning Association (team sport) textbooks, and bought the few rock climbing, skiing, and alpine climbing fitness training books available and graduated to step two in my programming journey – combining programming from other coaches into my program.
As well, I was determined not to make another programming mistake on paying customers, so I became my first “lab rat.” As my mountain endurance improved significantly, I enlarged the lab rat program to include committed and professional athletes I’d been working with for several months. In exchange for free programming, I got to test programming on these Mountain Athlete Lab Rats.
We had been posting our programming online, and it caught the eye of soldiers and Marines downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan, who soon began emailing me and requesting military-specific programming. As a result, I expanded my local lab rat program and added a military group, in addition to the mountain group. There were even fewer books and literature on mission-direct military programming than mountain programming, but I bought and devoured all I could, and began testing.
It wasn’t long before I graduated to step three in my programming for both mountain and military applications – developing, designing and implementing my own programming from the ground up. Key to the programming success was all the suffering my local lab rats – both mountain and military – did as I developed, implemented and tested programming. Looking back I had them do some pretty questionable stuff – sandbag getups wearing boots and alpine skis stands out – but we learned quickly, and weren’t so wed to my programming that we didn’t change immediately when things weren’t working out.
Just last fall I tested and tried a remote lab rat program – recruiting readers of our weekly “Beta” email newsletter. This has really worked out well, allowing me to run multiple lab rat “mini-studies” concurrently – all of which increases the programming data I receive, and therefore, hopefully improves the programming more rapidly.
Without Lab Rats, MTI programming would never had advanced as rapidly and far as it has.
(5) Endurance Methodology
At the start, MTI programming had a strong strength emphasis. As stated above, my first programming came from team-sports coaches – primarily football, baseball, and basketball. I learned quickly that heavy back squats transferred poorly to mountain endurance (uphill movement under load), and that I need to pivot hard and fast to endurance programming.
Again, I found coaches I respected and implemented their stuff. Much more research has been done into endurance programming than strength programming, and the most consistent and successful revolved around heart-rate based, linear programming for distance runners.
Early on, I implemented tried and true heart-rate based programming, but quickly ran into problems. First, the basic heart rate monitors we purchased for my lab rats were rarely consistent and often faulty.
Next, the entire system of first finding your max heart rate, then identifying your zones, then moving (run, hike, ruck) for a specific time in a specific zone is overly complicated for the athletes I was working with locally – and this is even without any technical issues – like inconsistent HR watches.
Finally, much of the standard heart rate-based endurance programming is built for full-time endurance athletes – not the multi-modal athletes (mountain and military) I was working. The standard training took so much time I had to quickly make short cuts so my athletes could train the strength, work capacity, and core as well which was key to our programming.
I had to find another way, and began looking. I came upon running coach Jack Daniels, who instead of heart rate-based training, used timed pace-based interval training, driven by an assessment. This was it!
Daniel’s overall approach not only replaced the complicated heart rate monitor with a simple stopwatch but also automatically “scaled” programming to each individual athlete – based on his/her assessment results.
We developed our own running and rucking calculators, and began testing the appropriate pacing for the intervals. It took several months, and many mistakes, but eventually we were able to customize Daniel’s overall approach to the multi-modal athletes we work with. We’ve since been able to develop calculators for swimming and rowing.
Most recently, I’ve found myself further simplifying our endurance programming by using perceived effort, instead of pacing, longer moderate and easy-paced efforts. Previously we’d let the calculator dictate pacing, but I found personally, and with my lab rats, it was simply a headache to monitor moderate or easy pacing and much easier just to define a “moderate pace” as “comfortable but not easy,” and an “Easy Pace” as “slow enough so you can speak in full sentences while moving.”
(6) Chassis Integrity
The quick version is we found standard, ground-based, bodyweight-focused, core strength exercises and programming did not transfer well to the field, and so we were forced to develop something different – which eventually took the form of Chassis Integrity.
We implemented three significant changes:
- Moving from ground-based exercises to mostly standing exercises
- Moving from bodyweight-mostly exercises to loaded exercises – especially sandbag exercises
- Moving away from flexion-focused exercises to total, rotational, anti-rotation and extension exercises
Our Chassis Integrity has been transformative to MTI programming’s effectiveness outside the gym. It’s improved mission-performance and durability across all our athlete populations – mountain, law enforcement, military, fire rescue.
Anecdotally, many of the positive programming comments I receive back from professional athletes – both mountain and military – include appreciation for the mission-direct transfer of chassis integrity programming – much of it focused on one horrible exercise = the Sandbag Getup.
A typical comment is, “I cursed MTI every day you’d make me suffer through 10 minutes of sandbag getups, but on deployment, my midsection was bomber and I’ve never felt so strong.”
I always respond that if it makes them feel better, no one has done more sandbag getups than me – I did another 40x this morning in my own training. The Sandbag Getup isn’t the only Chassis Integrity exercise of course – but is the only one celebrated with its own T-Shirt.
I wore mine to work today!
To be continued …
Questions, Comments, Feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org