The Barbell Shackle

Kit hammers through a set of wall ball slams during Part (2)
Kit hammers through a set of wall ball slams.

By Rob Shaul


Part of our hiring process for a new coach here is a programming assignment. The candidates who make the first cut – a resume review – are sent a programming task and given a week to complete it.

We work with such a unique set of athletes, the programming assignment is inevitably something the coaching candidates have never seen before. What we’re looking for in their programming is the ability to break out of the stick and ball sport/weight room focused programming they studied in college and at other facilities, and approach this unfamiliar assignment with innovative thinking.

Most recently, the assignment was to design a 6-week sport-specific training plan for the Alpinist Fitness Assessment. In the past, we’ve used a training plan for Operator Ugly.

Most candidates struggle. Unfamiliar exercises like step ups, sandbag get ups, and running under load throw them off. Many, coming from college weight room experience don’t know how to program for endurance. Others have no concept of sport-specific programming.

What we generally see is candidates who “re-tread” the stick and ball programming they’ve done in the past with a few minor changes, and submit it as a focused programming. These candidates don’t advance in the hiring process.

In general terms, these coaching candidates, and many other strength coaches wear “barbell shackles.” Their entire world of strength and conditioning revolves around the barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells and other gym-based equipment, and this limits their programming freedom.

Early on we learned the hard way that gym numbers mean nothing, and all that matters for our athletes is outside performance. At first, this focus on outside performance seemed a burden. We struggled to make barbell and traditional gym-based exercises translate, without much success. We were forced to experiment with innovative exercises like the sandbag getup, step ups, ruck run intervals, and other exercises and protocols to meet our goals.

Exercise substitution was just the start. Soon we began to rethink traditional athletic programming, experiment, and eventually develop our own mountain and tactical-specific training approach and programming. This process continues.

Now, through the Mountain Tactical Institute, we’ve begun to send researchers to the field, to observe and document our athletes at work. This job task analysis will result in a very accurate list of fitness demands, which we can then design exercises and programming to address.

Looking back now, we realize the focus on outside performance was not a burden, but rather, a liberating opportunity which causes us to continually evolve as we learn more and get better.

Today, many of our sport-specific training plans actually take the athlete out of the weight room, to focus laser-like on the specific movements and modes they’ll face during their season, selection or event.

We certainly still use the barbell and classic exercises, but it seems as we continue to evolve my barbell/gym focused exercise menu grows smaller and is limited to Base Fitness programming cycles.

For non-power lifting or Olympic Weightlifting coaches, a barbell is a fitness tool, not the end goal. However, many struggles to realize this.



Weary of the Barbell & Want to Try Something New? Get a dose of Humility.

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