By Rob Shaul
Fifteen years ago when I founded Mountain Athlete, I learned a hard lesson about training athletes who use their fitness for real stuff outside the gym – If the fitness they’ve gained doesn’t transfer to outside performance, I wouldn’t be in business long.
At that time there was little literature, research or books written on programming for mountain athletes, so when I started coaching, my programming was heavily influenced by classic strength training methodology, sports-performance or “functional fitness” teams sport programming (Boyle, Verstegen), with a little Glassman (CrossFit) thrown in.
I started the gym in the winter, and the mountain guides, rafting guides, high level rock and alpine climbers, freeski pros, mountain bikers and others I started working with during those initial cold months with all had great gains in the gym.
Their 1RMs went up, bodyweight max reps improved, work capacity event finish times dropped, etc.
Then they all disappeared in early April for Spring Break down to Moab to climb and mountain bike, and arrived back two weeks later pissed at me.
It turns out that heavy dead lifts, short multi-modal work capacity events, and impressive push up numbers don’t transfer that well to mountain biking, rock climbing, canyoneering, or anthing else outside the gym.
Fitness wasn’t a “sport” for the athletes I wanted to train. It was a tool to improve their outside the gym performance.
“All that matters is outside performance” – and I went quickly to work building mountain sport and event-specific programming for mountain athletes from scratch.
Key to this process was a lot of reading outside of the usual fitness literature, and the development of our “lab rat” system, where I tested programming of sacrificial “volunteers” to see if it transferred to outside performance before applying it on my paying mountain athletes. I was my own, best “lab rat” and suffered through the bad programming alongside the others.
My initial attempts at sport/event programming were dense with multiple exotic exercises and complicated progression techniques even I had difficulty understanding. Often while in the middle of one of these training sessions I’d stop everyone, say “this is just stupid” and change the programming on the fly.
But my programming changed, evolved, and worked better – outside performance improved – but it was overly sophisticated and complicated. It was “immature.”
I needed to make much more direct and focused. I needed to identify the specific fitness demands of the sport or event, identify the exercises which trained to these fitness demands, and deploying them with simple, easy to understand and follow progression.
I needed to significantly simply my programming. It needed to go from “sophisticated” to “simple.”
Sophisticated design is immature. Simple program design is seasoned, focused, and most important, effective.
Most of this is common sense. It turns out that if you want to improve an athlete’s fitness for hiking uphill under load, the best way to do this is to have him hike uphill under load.
Wow! What a revelation!
The next trick was to develop an exercise and progression to do this in the gym. The answer – loaded step ups – perhaps the most direct, simple, exercise there is and one we use to this day to train uphill movement under load. Loaded step ups are pure drudgery, but they work.
My work with tactical athletes started in 2008-9 when I began receiving emails from soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who were following my programming for mountain athletes and wanted specific programming for military athletes.
Initially I resisted, but when President Obama announced the surge in Afghanistan around 2009-10 I began receiving many messages from soldiers downrange who arrived in Afghanistan wholly unprepared for fitness demands of mountainous patrols. At their urging I build our Afghanistan Pre-Deployment Training Plan and gave it away to any NATO service member with deployment orders. This was literally thousands of soldiers and Marines including over a dozen Battalion Commanders who implemented the program with their entire battalions prior to deployment.
The Afghanistan was super simple, focused and effective: loaded step ups for uphill movement under load, leg blasters for the eccentric leg strength needed for the downhills, rucking, sandbag getups and founders for core, and a few push ups and pull ups.
No complicated olympic lifts or fancy equipment needed. Just simple, hard, work, which transferred to the mountains of Afghanistan.
“Sophisticated Design is Immature” – doesn’t mean the program’s author is immature. The design itself is.
Great program design is everything you need that transfers to outside performance, and nothing you don’t.
One of the realities of working with athletes who can, and sometimes do, get severely injured or even die doing their sport or job is the responsibility that comes with the fitness program design. If my programming doesn’t work, it can have real world, life threatening, consequences far beyond losing a game or coming in second in a sports competition.
This responsibility, and the focus on outside performance, has been liberating for me.
First, MTI programming is based not on the athlete, but the event, job, mission or sport.
There’s no special, easier, summit of the Grand Teton for out of shape, 55-year old men vacating in Jackson for a week. The summit is the same for everyone and so are the fitness demands. So my programming is the same for this athlete, as it would be for a super fit, 19-year old college freshman just coming off soccer season.
Likewise, the fitness demands, and danger, of a deployment to an urban area in Syria is the same for everyone …. and our Urban Combat Pre-Deployment Training Plan doesn’t accommodate for overweight soldiers, lingering injuries, or senior officers. Everyone has to do the same work to be prepared.
Second, I don’t need to be concerned with keeping the athlete interested or entertained. Sometimes I’ll receive complaints from athletes completing one of our event or mission-specific plans that they are sick of doing the same thing, every Monday, but just more of it. They want variety, and change, etc. My response is that it is their decision to go to selection, or complete a specific mountain event, and neither the selection cadre, nor the mountain, care about keeping them entertained – so neither do I. The work and the exercises and the progression in the plan are specifically designed for the fitness demands of the mission.
This has put off some athletes, more accustomed to “working out” than “training.” The semantics is important and there’s a reason I label our daily programming a “Training Session” and not a “Workout.” The difference? “Training” is working towards a specific fitness goal. “Working Out” is just doing some type of daily exercise for general health and fitness. At MTI we “train.”
Third, this focus on mission-direct programming has resulted in a significant reduction in the number and type of exercises I deploy in MTI programming. It’s easy in this fitness world, or any other, to get distracted by cool-looking exercises, fancy new equipment, or the latest theory, and sometimes this still happens to me. But I’ve gotten better at “working inside the box” of the exercises and progressions that have proven to work at MTI. The result is that my programming from 2012 had a lot more exercises in it than my programming in 2022.
Finally, I’ve come to learn that convention isn’t physiology. In other words, just because it’s always been done that way, doesn’t mean the programming is the best for fitness improvement and performance.
This has proven itself most directly in our endurance programming. “Conventional” endurance programming for sporting events always begins with a long “base” building period, followed by shortening distances and increasing intensity. As well, there’s this overall concern in conventional endurance programming about recovery – and thus an avoidance of programming at moderate intensity – even though this has the best bang for the buck in fitness improvement.
Finally, even though most endurance events are distance-driven, conventional endurance programming is time related, i.e. run for 90 minutes at a specific heart-rate-determined pace – and there seems to be this assumption that magically this time-based programming will translate into completing a race distance. I’ve never been comfortable with this – a marathon isn’t a “run for 4 hour” event, it’s a run26.2 mile, event – even if it takes you 6 hours. So, MTI endurance programming is distance, not, time, based.
Perhaps no strength and conditioning coach in the US has written the breadth of fitness programs that I have – everything from SOF selections, to triathlons, to big wall rock climbing, backcountry skiing, rescue swimmer schools, fitness assessments, pure strength, bodyweight only, sandbag programming, limited equipment, ultra running, football pre-season, etc.
But even for me, the initial draft of a new program I’m working on is often overly sophisticated, and “immature.” I have to go back, and cut exercises, simplify progressions, fix schedules, and otherwise make it more simple and direct.
More often than I like to admit, I’ll review some of my programming and still say to myself, “this is just stupid” and get to work fixing it.
I’m still learning.