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“If Only:” 7 Lessons from a Record-Setting Paralympic Medalist

Written on August 26, 2014 at 4:13 am, by Eric Cressey

Today, we've got a great guest post from accomplished Paralympic swimmer, Travis Pollen, who shares some wisdom to help up-and-comers avoid the same mistakes he made. Enjoy! -EC

During my Paralympic swimming career, I set two American records, won a gold medal at Nationals, and finished just one spot shy of making the team that went to London. A good deal of my success can certainly be attributed to hard work in the water. In addition to the pool sessions, though, I’m certain I owe much of my speed to weight training. I’m also certain – now that I’m both a personal trainer and graduate student in biomechanics – that my gym experience could have been even more effective had I done just seven things.

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Let’s first rewind to the summer after my first season of high school swimming, when my iron journey began in the smelly basement of the local YMCA. I’d recently stumbled upon Getting Stronger by bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl at the library. This text, though hardly “sports-specific,” became my bible.

My workouts consisted mostly of single-joint exercises performed in random order for 3 sets of 15 reps. Despite the haphazard program design, I realized significant newbie gains, and it showed in the pool. I dropped serious time in all my races the following season.

Over the next few years, I practically “maxed out” on library rentals on topics ranging from plyometrics and isometrics to active-isolated stretching and sports nutrition. Nevertheless, my progress in the weight room stalled. I eventually hired a personal trainer, who helped me get “huge,” in the words of my teammates.

But was size what I really needed? How about body-part splits, crunches, and unstable surface training? Looking back on my program, I see a ton of room for improvement. If only I had known then what I know now – if only I had done these seven things – perhaps I would’ve realized my Paralympic dreams after all.

1. If only I had adopted a training split more in line with my goals...

Although I believed I was lifting weights for performance enhancement, I was unknowingly training like a bodybuilder all along: chest and triceps on Monday, back and biceps on Wednesday, leg (singular, since I’m an amputee) and shoulders on Saturday. Muscles, not movements, were all I knew.

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In hindsight, I was more “show” than “go,” with hulking but stiff muscles. Full-body workouts utilizing techniques like supersets (push/pull) and alternating sets (upper/lower) would have been far more time-efficient. Moreover, they would have left me suppler and with more in the tank for afternoon swim practice, as compared to having two completely smoked muscle groups from my morning body part lift.

2. If only I had prioritized strength and power…

In my prime, I could do 80 consecutive push-ups, yet I could barely bench my own bodyweight. Until I obtained my personal trainer certification, I had no concept of a strength protocol. In fact, I was under the impression that the lower the reps, the bigger you get, end of story. So for fear of getting overly bulky, I spent most of my time in the 12-15 rep range, with a heavy dose of unstable surface training thrown in, since someone I (mistakenly) trusted told me that was how you get strong.

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As a sprinter, my longest race was over in less than a minute. What I really needed was not muscular endurance, but rather power. And power can only be realized, of course, with a solid foundation of strength.

3. If only I had addressed my weaknesses and asymmetries...

I’ll admit it: I skipped leg day. Often. When my schedule got hectic and I missed my Friday workout, instead of going back and making it up, I usually just started fresh on Monday with my bread and butter: chest and triceps. These workouts were the shortest – not to mention the most fun – and I had physics homework to do! I also usually saved “abs” for last, and I almost invariably ran out of time.

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Even when I did do legs, since I didn’t use my residual limb much in the water, I decided not to waste time strengthening it outside the pool. Boy, did my blind eye towards symmetry have a negative effect on my low back. Nowadays, I’ve added bilateral rack pulls, good mornings, back extensions, and hip thrusts in an effort to even out the imbalance. All in all, more of an emphasis on my lower body and core undoubtedly would have provided a performance-enhancing boost.

4. If only I had emphasized closed chain compound lifts for my lower body...

As an amputee, it was important that I play it safe in the gym. My earliest memory of a barbell involves a crowded high school weight room, the less-than-watchful eye of the athletic trainer, high pulls, and – you guessed it – crippling low back pain the next day. After that incident, when I didn’t skip leg day, I stuck mostly to machines (and single leg balancing on a BOSU ball, of course).

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Unfortunately, the leg press and leg extension don’t offer nearly the same carryover to swim starts and turns as squats, deadlifts, and cleans. As it turns out, with proper coaching and lots of practice, I can actually perform all the aforementioned big lifts on one leg – and pretty darn well, at that.

5. If only I had trained my core for three-dimensional stability...

Swimming is all about slicing through the water with as little drag as possible. A floppy midsection that snakes from side to side with every stroke not only leaks a ton of energy but also creates serious drag. Unfortunately, ask most swim coaches, and they’ll tell you the way to a strong core is a few hundred crunches, V-ups, and Russian twists daily. These movements are minimally sports-specific, however, as the only time flexion occurs in swimming is during the flip-turn. And even then, several muscles in addition to the abdominals help generate the movement.

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To create the rigid, canoe-like core that’s truly needed for swimming (and all sports, really), core stability work is the key. Anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion exercises, plus rotational medicine ball work, surely would’ve afforded me a gold medal trunk and hips.

6. If only I had foam rolled and dynamic stretched...

Warm-up? You mean jogging to the gym and static stretching before hitting the leg press? For some reason, despite the fact that I routinely observed the college track athletes doing stick work, butt kicks, and lunges with a twist, I – along with the rest of the swimming community – failed to make the connection that these very same tools could benefit me. If, instead of endlessly stretching my triceps to no avail, I had just done some soft tissue work with The Stick each time I hit the gym, I’m positive it wouldn’t have taken them two hours to unknot every swim practice.

7. If only I had logged my workouts and practiced progressive overload...

We all like to be sore, but the reality is that soreness is not the best barometer for a good workout, especially when it detracts from performance in the target sport. I vividly remember a workout in which I did so many pull-ups I was unable to bend my arms for several days afterwards. Needless to say, this made swimming incredibly painful.

A much better way to assess the merits of a workout is through comparison to previous ones. By simply jotting down my weights, I could have actually tracked how I was doing from session to session and season to season. A workout log would have eliminated the guesswork and provided an impetus to add weight each week, instead of hovering at a 115-pound 10 RM bench press for years on end.

Until Time Machines Are Invented

Each item on the list above seems like a no-brainer now. At the time, though, I believed myself to be decently well-versed in training methodology – or at least as best I could be given the library’s offerings. Even if I didn’t know everything, I assumed my trainer was up-to-date.

If I could go back in time in my quest for Paralympic glory, I’d take with me The High Performance Handbook and get to work again that first summer. But until time machines are invented, I’m happy to settle for educating up-and-comers so they don’t repeat the same mistakes I did.

About the Authortravis7

Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware. He maintains a blog and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website, www.FitnessPollenator.com. You can also find him on Facebook.


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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training – Installment 5

Written on August 21, 2014 at 9:08 pm, by Eric Cressey

This week, I've been working my way through Mike Robertson and Joe Kenn's new resource, The Elite Athletic Development Seminar. It got the wheels turning in my brain, and the end result was a new installment of Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training. Here goes...

1. Experiences are more important than stuff.

I had a good text message exchange with one of our pro athletes yesterday where we discussed how long-term happiness was really much more about the experiences you have than it is about the stuff you possess. When you're on your death bed, you'll look back a lot more fondly on time with family, lives you've positively impacted, and things you've accomplished. You won't be thinking about the nice car you drove, or overpriced watch that you wore.

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I wish that this is a mentality that more young athletes would apply to their long-term athletic development.  An amazing coach and great camp can literally change a young athlete's life. As an example, I'm always psyched to see our young athletes getting the opportunity to "rub elbows" with our pro and college athletes, who have a ton of wisdom they can impart.

On the flip side, I can't say that I've ever seen an athlete's life change dramatically when he bought an expensive new bat or glove. Don't get me wrong; appropriate equipment and apparel are super important for athletic success. However, does a 12-year-old kid need a new glove and bat every single year? It's not like he grows out of them like he would a pair of cleats, and those funds could surely be better devoted elsewhere.

It goes without saying that many young athletes (and their parents) have limited financial resources. I wonder if they'd be in a better position to succeed if they applied the stuff vs. experiences logic to how they managed these resources in the context of long-term athletic development.

2. The process is often more of a reward than the destination.

This is an awesome video that does more justice to this point than anything I can write. These kids will take away important life lessons even though they might not have won their last game. Kudos to the head coach for a job well done.

3. People are asking the wrong questions about weighted baseball throwing programs.

At least 3-4 times per week, someone asks me what I think about weighted balls. I've written about this subject in the past (here), and while my approaches have evolved substantially over the years, I'm still a fan of weighted ball programs - as long as they're implemented with the right athlete, at the right time.

There is actually a ton of research supporting the efficacy of weighted ball programs; they've been around for a long time now, but only caught on in popularity in recent years. What's different about the ones out there now, though, are that they are much higher volume (number of throws) and performed with significantly heavier and lighter balls than ever before. If you crank up volume and use more extreme intensities, you'll get more extreme results - both in terms of fantastic improvements and in throwers who actually get hurt.

So, the question shouldn't be "do weighted balls work?" Rather, the question(s) should be, "Am I physically prepared enough to take on an aggressive weighted ball program, and how can I best fit it into my developmental calendar?"

If you're a 16-year old kid who just finished a 120-inning competitive year and your rotator cuff strength is terrible, weighted baseballs aren't what you need; rather, you need rest from throwing, and quality strength training work.

If you're a professional player with a perfect 14-16 week throwing progression spanning the course of the off-season, you have a great 8-12 week block with which you can work to "get after it." Using Indians pitcher Corey Kluber as an example, we started his 2013-14 off-season throwing program on December 9, and then integrated more aggressive weighted ball work in weeks 5-9 of his off-season throwing program. The big league off-season is so short that you can't get a ton of quality work in without compromising rest after the season or mound work going into the season.

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Conversely, many of our minor league guys will started throwing November 25, and got in about eight weeks of weighted ball work (as part of comprehensive throwing programs that also worked in long toss, flat grounds, and bullpens) before heading off to spring training. Each case is unique, so each program needs to be individualized to the player.

4. Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) drills are an "equalizer" for strength and conditioning professionals.

You've likely heard me allude to the Postural Restoration Institute here on the blog in the past - and with good reason: incorporating PRI drills into our training has been the biggest game-changer in our approach over the past 4-5 years. One of the key principles of PRI is "resetting" individuals to a neutral posture prior to training. We're all asymmetrical, but many folks take this asymmetry (and/or heavily extended posture) to an extreme, and we have to get their alignment back closer to "normal" before we squat, deadlift, sprint, jump, or take on any of a number of other athletic endeavors.

Historically, when folks were deemed to be "out of neutral," we'd need a manual therapist to do soft tissue work, joint manipulation/mobilization, or various hands-on stretching techniques. As Robertson noted in his first presentation of the EAD Seminar DVD set, PRI changed the game for strength and conditioning professionals by enabling them to re-establish neutral in clients and athletes with non-manual techniques, specifically positional breathing drills. Effectively, these drills provide for "self realignment."

Sure, PRI is just one of a few tools in the toolbox nowadays that can be used to accomplish this goal, but it's the one where I've seen the quickest changes.

5. Avoid movement redundancy within the training session.

One point I've made a lot in the past - and Robertson reiterated in one of his presentations - is the fact that many young athletes have a "narrow functional movement base." Basically, they've specialized in a particular sport so early that they've missed out on gross movement competencies (or lost ones they already had from early childhood development).

While we might not be able to change the tendency toward specialization, we can change how we manage athletes who do choose to specialize. In particular, we need to expose them to a broad range of activities that create a rich proprioceptive environment when they come in to train. Key to success on this front is making sure that there aren't redundancies within the training session in terms of movement challenges. For instance, you wouldn't want to have a half-kneeling overhead medicine ball stomp, then a half-kneeling landmine press, then a half-kneeling cable row, then a half-kneeling cable chop, and a half-kneeling cable external rotation. Rather, you'd be better off mixing and matching with tall kneeling, split-stance, standing (bilateral), and even single-leg.

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The same "redundancies" should be avoided throughout the training week, too, but I've found that if you do a good job of making sure there isn't this kind of overlap in each specific training day, the longer training periods seem to take care of themselves. If you look at how Joe Kenn structures his tier system style of training, you see that redundancies just don't happen because he rotates among total-upper-lower exercises in each of his training days. I'm a firm believer that exercise selection is the single most important programming variable, and this illustrates one more reason why that's the case.

Speaking of Kenn and Robertson, their Elite Athletic Development Seminar DVD set is on sale for $150 off through tonight (Friday) at midnight. I've really enjoyed watching them, and would consider them an outstanding investment for any strength and conditioning professional. It's an experience, not just stuff! Check it out HERE.

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Bear Crawls vs. Crab Walks

Written on August 19, 2014 at 9:27 pm, by Eric Cressey

Yesterday, I posted on Twitter that I was a big fan of bear crawls because they get you great serratus anterior recruitment, more scapular upward rotation, improved anterior core function, tri-planar stability, and some awesome reciprocal arm/leg activity. They're one of my favorite warm-up and end-of-workout low-level core activation drills.

For some reason, though, every time you mention bear crawls, someone asks about crab walks. Candidly, I don't think so highly of crab walks. In fact, I have never used them - and that's why I didn't have a video on hand of them. As such, this demonstration took place on my kitchen floor at 11:15PM:

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Keeping this position in mind, here are a few reasons that I don't like crab walks:

1. Bear crawls drive more scapular upward rotation by putting the lats and scapular downward rotators on slack as the athlete reaches overhead. With a crab walk, the arms aren't just at the sides; they are actually behind the sides. The lats are as short as they can possibly be - especially if the athlete is allowed to slip into lumbar extension (an arched lower back posture). Most folks lack scapular upward rotation regardless of whether they sit at a computer all day or throw a baseball for a living; we don't need exercises that feed into that problem even more. Additionally, the scapula is generally anteriorly tilted unless it's an experienced athlete with great body awareness. Anterior tilt is an issue we work to combat in just about every population - athlete and non-athlete alike.

2. Crab walks are brutal on the anterior shoulder. For the same reasons I outlined in my article, Are Dips Safe and Effective?, I dislike crab walks. As the humerus (upper arm) is "hyperextended" behind the body, the head of the humerus (ball) glides forward relative to the glenoid fossa (shoulder socket). This puts a lot of stress on the anterior capsule, biceps tendon, and nerve structures that pass along the front of the shoulder. And, it makes the rotator cuff work overtime from a mechanically disadvantageous position.

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3. You don't walk around like a crab in any sport that comes to mind! Seriously, this is the position you're in when you got steamrolled by a running back, or you tripped over yourself! While I get the school of thought that says it's good to be somewhat prepared for just about every potentially injurious situation you'll encounter, we've got a limited amount of training time to deliver exercises that give athletes the most bang for their buck. And, even in young athlete populations, there are literally thousands of other movements we can use with kids to create a rich proprioceptive environment with safe movements they'll actually be able to utilize on a regular basis in life. And, the bear crawl is one of these movements.

Can a lot of athletes "get away" with doing crab walks? Absolutely! However, we never know what kind of long-term structural changes are going to be in place - and we can certainly never truly appreciate what kind of missed development is in play from not including more effective exercises.

To learn more about some of our approaches to assessing and improving upper body function, be sure to check out Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 8/18/14

Written on August 18, 2014 at 9:44 am, by Eric Cressey

It's time for another installment of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

The Elite Athletic Development Seminar - Mike Robertson and Joe Kenn just released the DVD set of the recording of a seminar they filmed a few months ago. There is a ton of combined experience in the strength and conditioning fields here, and it'll be worth every penny - especially at the discount introductory price that's in place this week.

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Exercise When You're Sick - I contributed to this great compilation Ryan Andrews pulled together for Precision Nutrition.

The Challenger Sale - This is the book that I'm currently reading on the suggestion of one of the baseball agents who represents several of our athletes. I'm a firm believer that everyone "sells" in their life - whether it's actual products/services, or just their ideas (as is the case with coaching athletes). This book talks about the most effective kind of salespeople - and the research shows that it's a stark contrast to who has been most effective in the past.

Also, just a friendly reminder: we're coming up on the early-bird registration deadline for the third annual Cressey Sports Performance Fall Seminar, which takes place on September 28. For more information, click HERE.

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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training: Installment 4

Written on August 1, 2014 at 6:57 am, by Eric Cressey

In light of the recent launch of The Specialization Success Guide, I feel like there have been a lot of posts on the site lately on the topic of powerlifting. With that in mind, I thought I'd shuffle things up with a bit more discussion about training in a broader sense, so let's talk some general athletic development.

1. We don't any regular barbell bench pressing with our baseball guys, and it's even pretty rare for us to use dumbbell bench pressing in their programs. This is, in part, because we want to utilize movements where the scapulae can move freely, as opposed to having them pinned down on a bench. In light of this exclusion, we're often ask: what do you do instead?

The answer, as many of you know, is landmine presses, push-up variations, and cable press variations. However, what a lot of people might not realize is that another good option is to simply replace a press with some kind of overhead hold variation, whether it's a Turkish get-up or bottoms-up carry.

One other variation I really like is the kneeling overhead hold to stand. I'll often use this with beginners who might need a little stepping stone before they get to the Turkish get-up. In addition to getting some great reflexive rotator cuff work, we're driving scapular upward rotation in a population that really needs it. Still, that doesn't mean that everyone is ready for it. Watch the video to learn more:

2. It's not uncommon at all to see medial (inside) elbow pain in lifter. This usually comes from the tremendous amount of grip work one does in combination with lots of loaded elbow flexion. Usually, when these issues pop up, cutting back on lifting volume and modifying exercise selection is imperative.

However, what a lot of folks fail to appreciate is the impact that supplemental conditioning work can have on the overuse pattern. Just imagine how much abuse your common flexor tendon is taking when you hop on the rowing machine for 20 minutes to log a few thousand meters, or add in some barbell or kettlebell complexes. These are very grip-intensive approaches and need to be incorporated carefully - and certainly not all the time. Cycle them in, and then cycle them out.

As an example, I'm someone who deals with medial elbow irritation here and there, and most of the time, it's when I'm doing more work on the rower. As such, I've learned that one rowing session a week is really all I can handle if I'm doing my normal upper body training workload.

3. Having a good hip hinge is a huge contributor to athletic success, and to that end, we include toe touch progressions with a lot of our athletes. Without a doubt, the biggest mistake I see with athletes doing a toe touch is the substitution of knee hyperextension for hip flexion. Here's what that looks like:

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You'll notice that there really is absolutely no posterior shift of the center of mass, and he stays in plantarflexion (calves don't stretch). This is something you'll see really commonly in athletes with very hypermobile joints. I've demonstrated it before with the following video; you'll notice that this loose-jointed athlete can actually get a crazy toe touch without any sort of hip hinge, as he's blocked by the wall. Hypermobile athletes will always try to trick you!

Every time you allow them to use a faulty hip hinge pattern, you're giving them two opportunities to work themselves closer to an ACL injury. First, you're putting them in a position where the glutes can't control the femur, and where the hamstrings are too overstretched to really help stabilize the knee effectively. Second, knee hyperextension is commonly a part of the typical ACL injury mechanism (especially in contact injuries where an opponent tackles an athlete low); do we really want to be going to this dangerous end-range over and over again in our training? With that in mind, when coaching the hip hinge, you want to ensure that the athlete establishes and maintains a slight bend in the knee; the "soft knees" cue usually works well.

4. I've often heard people talk about how prone bridges (front planks) are useless if you can already do quality push-ups. While I can certainly appreciate this line of reasoning, I think it overlooks two things.

First, most people rattle through push-ups pretty quickly, so the time under tension may actually be considerably lower than what one would get on a prone bridge.

Second, you can make a prone bridge considerably more difficult via a number of different means, and my favorite is adding full exhalations on each breath. This is something that's very difficult to "sync up" with push-ups, but the benefits are excellent: more serratus anterior recruitment, better posterior tilting of the pelvis, better anterior core engagement, and relaxation of overused supplemental respiratory muscles.

So, don't rule out bridges just yet! I love them as a low-level motor control exercise at the end of a training session - and after the loaded core work (chops, lifts, etc) have been completed.

Have a random thought of your own from the past week? Feel free to post it below; I'm all ears!

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 7/30/14

Written on July 30, 2014 at 6:36 am, by Eric Cressey

It's time for another installment of recommended strength and conditioning reading; here goes!

Lean and Lovely - This great product from Neghar Fonooni is on sale this week at a hefty discount. If there's a female in your life who needs some direction on the training side of things, this is an outstanding resource for that special someone.

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The Paleo Problem - This is an excellent, comprehensive post from the Precision Nutrition crew. If you have questions about the Paleo Diet, this is a great place to start.

Which Strength Sport is Most Likely to Cause an Injury in Training? - Chris Beardsley introduces a comprehensive review of the literature on injury rates with strength training, and which approaches are the most "high risk."

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Exercise of the Week: Dumbbell Reverse Lunge to 1-leg RDL

Written on July 26, 2014 at 6:28 am, by Eric Cressey

If there's one thing I've learned to love in working with older athletes and lifters, it's "joint-friendly" exercises. Obviously, these drills lower the injury risk, but taking it a step further, these are options that allow us to create a great training effect with minimal loading. This exercise of the week is a perfect example - and it also affords some great benefits in terms of building mobility.

Keep in mind that this isn't a "beginner exercise." Rather, you need to be proficient with both the reverse lunge and 1-leg RDL components before you attempt to combine them.

My apologies in advance for how sore this will make you!

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Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 2

Written on July 24, 2014 at 3:48 am, by Eric Cressey

In the first installment of this two-part article, I discussed why "Follow Your Passion" isn't usually very good advice in any realm, but especially in the fitness industry. In case you missed it, you can check it out: Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 1.

To briefly bring you up to speed, author Cal Newport emphasizes that acquiring "rare and valuable skills" is far more important to long-term job satisfaction, as we're more likely to enjoy careers in which we are wildly proficient. These skills are known as "career capital," and we can "redeem" them for improved quality of life - whether it's better pay, more influence within a company, more flexible hours, working from home, or a number of different benefits. As Newport's title related, you need to be So Good They Can't Ignore You.

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Newport's points got me to thinking about what "rare and valuable skills" one needs to be very successful in the fitness industry. I think it's a particularly interesting question, as there are a ton of people that make career changes to enter the fitness industry because (and these are just a few factors):

a) A lot of people love to exercise, so being around exercise all day seems fun.

b) It's perhaps the starkest contrast to a desk job, which many people abhor.

c) Wearing workout clothes to "work" sounds cool.

d) Fitness jobs generally provide more flexible hours, albeit it inconvenient times (you work while others play).

e) There is very little barrier to entry in the fitness industry; anyone can be a personal trainer TODAY, if they so desire.

While a lot of people are able to make enough to "survive"with this transition, it's a big stretch to say that a lot of people THRIVE. Folks who make a ton of money and have outstanding job satisfaction are few and far between.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people fall flat on their faces with this career change. It's usually that they can't get a sufficient, sustainable clientele off the ground, or that they just realize that the new career isn't what they expected it to be. What separates those who manage to succeed, though? Here are the "rare and valuable skills" I see as tremendously valuable for "sustainability"in the fitness industry.

1. Professionalism

This matters in any industry, but it's especially important in the fitness industry, where it's tremendously easy to differentiate yourself because there are so many remarkably unprofessional trainers out there. There are trainers taking calls on their cell phones during sessions, and others who refuse to wear sleeves while training clients. There are coaches who have been using the same program for 25 years, and others who are sleeping with clients. Heck, I once had an intern show up for his first day of work in a Miller Light t-shirt! You really can't make this stuff up.

Call me crazy, but if you want to make a living as a fitness PROFESSIONAL, it might be a good idea to actually act PROFESSIONALLY.

Professionalism isn't something that comes in a day, though. I didn't really appreciate what it meant when I was just getting started in the fitness industry; my views on it have changed over the course of the past 15 years. Image - both your own and that of your business - evolves over time. As an example, it might start with showing up on time and looking the part early on in a career, whereas 15 years later, it might be making sure that your staff doesn't say anything stupid on social media to detract from your professional image. So, you could say that you're actually cultivating a specific kind of professionalism within the fitness industry - and no matter how good a person or hard a worker you think you are, it takes time to build.

2. Versatility

I think this might be the single-most important factor governing success in the fitness industry.

Being versatile enables you to make friends with introverts and extroverts alike. It helps you to work with kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learners. It makes you to be accessible over multiple communication medius: email, phone, text message, and Skype (to name a few). It assists you in managing different personalities on your staff, if you wind up in a leadership position. It makes evolving easier in a very dynamic field. It's what allows you to acquire new skills and become a bigger contributor to a team. One of our Cressey Sports Performance staff members, Chris Howard, is a great example. He can evaluate athletes, write programs and coach - but also has a master's degree in nutrition and is a licensed massage therapist. And, he can make friends with anyone. He's built versatility capital.

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I should note: don't confuse versatility with trying to be everything to everyone. It just means that you'll be able to get better results underneath the specific umbrella where you're most qualified - and chances are that there will be more "umbrellas" under which you can choose to fall. Yes, you can redeem your versatility capital for the ability to pick what you enjoy doing (and that's what Chris has done at CSP).

3. Perseverance

Again, perseverance is important in any career, but it's particularly vital in the fitness industry, where you will have to pay your dues early on. This might include unpaid internships, brutally long hours (including the dreaded AM/PM split), and standing around on hard floors for 12 hours each day. And, you have to realize that in that last hour of the day, no matter how much your feet hurt and you want to go to sleep, you have to deliver the same quality product to clients.

This is why I always laugh on the inside when I hear an up-and-coming trainer complaining about having to work "floor hours" at a commercial gym. They don't realize that every single second they spend on that gym floor - even if they aren't actually training a client - is building a little toughness that'll sustain them over the long haul. It's better to build a callus (have plenty of exposure to being on the floor) than it is to develop a blister (jump into a training position cold turkey, only to wind up with knee and low back pain and a cranky demeanor by the end of your first day).

As an aside, I'll never hire anyone I hear complaining about old bosses or jobs....ever. If that's all that you can think of discussing during a job interview or in a cover letter, you have a negativity problem, lack the ability to walk a mile in another's shoes, and don't really understand how true learning and professional growth takes place.

4. Unique Expertise in a Specific Population

I'm a firm believer that the fitness industry is getting more and more "niched." Athletes are specializing earlier, and winding up with more "specialized" injuries that require specific preventative and rehabilitative training approaches. People are more overweight and unhealthy than ever, and it's given rise to entirely new industries. If you need proof, just consider how many more bariatric surgeries and hip replacements we are doing now than we did 20 years ago! The world is changing, and becoming more specialized. As the somewhat hackneyed saying goes, "generalists starve while specialists thrive."

Here's the problem, though: you have to be a generalist before you become a specialist. It takes years to acquire a skill set broad enough that you can select the areas where you're particularly proficient and leverage them to create a sustainable (and enjoyable livelihood). It's why doctors do residencies and fellowships after they've finished med school course work and clinical rotations! Nobody gets to go directly to a fellowship just because they have an undergraduate degree; they have to earn that right over time. Effectively, they're redeeming career capital to pursue a specialty.

Fitness works similarly. If you haven't taken the time to learn structure (anatomy), function, dysfunction, assessment, and programming in a broad group of clients/athletes, you'll never be prepared to handle a specific population. There is a right and wrong way to move, and you need to appreciate it before getting to how specific individuals deviate from it.

Once you get past this general education stage, though, you can really change the game. Candidly, most of the resumes I encounter for internships and jobs look very much the same. What jumps out at me is when something has a unique specialty that jumps off the page; they demonstrate that they have the potential to add instant value to our business. When they can do that AND fill an existing need we have, it's a great fit.

On our staff, Greg Robins is a great example. When he initially applied, I loved his military background, which made him an instant leader and someone that could oversee our internship program. He also had a track record of building successful bootcamp programs (and got ours off the ground at CSP).

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Since then, he's gotten heavily into powerlifting, attended multiple Postural Restoration Institute courses, and taken a particular interest in hip dysfunction cases and sprint mechanics. He's expanding his skill set in particular realms without diluting the general foundation he'd established. You can't build a pyramid without a strong foundation, but once that foundation is in place, you can do some cool stuff - and cool stuff earns you career capital.

5. A Mental Library

If you haven't heard of Dr. James Andrews, you'd be wise to look him up. Suffice it to say that he's the most renowned sports orthopedist of all time.  I've been fortunate to interact with him at a few conferences and over the phone when he's provided second opinions on MRIs over the years, and he's as good a person as he is a surgeon. Dr. Andrews is widely renowned not only for his surgical skills, but also for his tremendous bedside manner and accessibility.

However, what I think is perhaps even more remarkable - and what makes Dr. Andrews such a sought-after consultant - is the fact that he has an absurd number of case studies compiled in his brain. No matter how ugly and atypical your shoulder, elbow, knee, or hip MRI is, he's probably seen 500 just like it over the years. He can speak to whether these issues respond to conservative treatment, and if so, what the best course of action is. If not, he can speak to whether surgery is warranted, and if so, what procedure is the right fit. You just can't get that with the small town orthopedic surgeon who does two rotator cuff repairs each year, and treated one ACL tear back in 2002. Interacting with a lot of people builds a lot of career capital in your memory "bank."

If you need any proof that being good at what you do is a great predictor of job satisfaction, Dr. Andrews is 72 years old and still going strong. I don't imagine that he needs the money at this point, and he actually does a lot of pro bono outreach work to try to combat overuse injuries in youth sports. Compiling and redeeming career capital put him in a position pursue this mission.

Again, there are parallels in the fitness industry. At risk of sounding overconfident, I get to interact with over 100 throwing shoulders/elbows every single day, so I've built a great sample size from which to draw over the past eight years.

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Some trainers have seen dozens of post-pregnancy cases, cardiac/pulmonary rehab folks, or NFL Combine prep cases . The only way to acquire a fully loaded memory bank is to encounter a lot of people in a specific population.

Closing Thoughts

These are just five examples of where one can acquire career capital in the fitness industry - and there are certainly many more ways to do things. Additionally, under each one of these examples are many specific actions that can build to create a "wealth" of knowledge and experience - "rare and valuable skills" - that can someday surely be redeemed for a career you'll genuinely love. That same success and job satisfaction aren't guaranteed if you simply "following your passion," though, so be sure to take that advice with a big grain of salt.

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Career Capital in the Fitness Industry – Part 1

Written on July 22, 2014 at 7:02 am, by Eric Cressey

I just finished reading a fantastic book, So Good They Can't Ignore You.

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In his book, author Cal Newport goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how terrible "follow your passion" is as career advice. It's a compelling read, especially for those who are working hard to develop a career they genuinely enjoy.

Newport argues against the "passion" approach, as it can lead individuals down a road that may not be financially viable; just because you enjoy something doesn't mean that you'll be able to make a living doing it. This may be because there isn't sufficient demand in the market for it, or because you might not have sufficient "career capital" to be successful enough early on to actually stay in business. "Career capital," according to Newport, consists of "rare and valuable skills;" you need these to acquire the "traits that define great work." And, as the author also points out, being very good at what you do is actually more closely linked to job satisfaction than income alone.

Newport continues with several case studies to support this "Career Capital Theory:" people work long and hard to acquire rare and valuable skills (don't forget Malcom Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Theory) that give them more and more control over their careers by making them coveted and/or indispensable in their field of study. This control doesn't just afford them more compensation and flexible schedules, but also enables them to gradually test the waters to determine whether one specific avenue or "niche" is best for long-term career satisfaction.

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This is a stark contrast to the fitness industry, where many folks have lost their life savings opening gyms because they enjoyed exercise - but didn't have the rare and valuable skills required to be successful in the fitness industry. It leads to the question: why are some people very successful in the fitness industry - even with mid-life career change - while others fail miserably? What are the "rare and valuable skills" that allow them to succeed?

Before I answer these questions, though, I thought I might shine a little light on how Newport's theories spoke directly to me. To be candid, growing up, I never expected to work in the fitness industry. In fact, it was quite the opposite: I went to college thinking I was going to be an accountant.

However, around that time, I had some health problems, and as I got healthy, had to learn a lot about proper training, nutrition, and recovery so that I could put weight back on and get my strength back. I realized that it was something I enjoyed, and learning in this realm came somewhat naturally to me. After much deliberation, I decided to transfer to a new school to pursue exercise science - but I still "hedged my bet" by doing a double major in sports management and exercise science. I had two years of business school under my belt, and wanted to continue to nuture my entrepreneurial spirit (and avoid losing a lot of college credit).

Over the next two years, I worked for $7/hour at a gym to learn everything I could about the industry - all while I was taking classes. Simultaneously, I was rehabbing my shoulder from a chronic tennis-related condition, so I was "accidentally" finding a niche within a niche. Without even knowing it, I was building career capital while testing the waters to make sure it was actually what I wanted to do. I might not have gotten 10,000 hours under my belt by the age of 22, but I was definitely well on my way - and it put me in a position to know that I wanted to go to graduate school for exercise science.

At graduate school, I had the opportunity to "feel out" what I wanted to do without much risk. I got involved in the human performance laboratory to see if research was for me (it wasn't). It was only when I volunteered in varsity strength and conditioning that I found something I genuinely enjoyed, and I recognized that I could do well and be very happy working in collegiate strength and conditioning. Interestingly, I spent most of my time working with soccer and basketball players while I was there.

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As it turns out, I tested the waters in the private sector when I first left graduate school, and enjoyed working in that realm. Over the subsequent few years, I trained as many people - athletes and non-athletes alike - as I could possibly fit into my schedule. I honed my skill set, learned about what I enjoyed the most, gradually created more and more autonomy in my schedule, became financially stable, and recognized a sustainable, underserved population (baseball players) where I had unique expertise. Without even recognizing it, I had built career capital and started to "purchase" the coaching life I wanted.

That was 2007, when we founded Cressey Sports Performance. I've had seven more years to acquire career capital in a number of different contexts - actual training knowledge, interactions with athletes, managing employees, cultivating business relationships, evaluating opportunities, and a host of other areas - to put us the position we're in (opening a second location in Jupiter, FL).

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Back in 1999, I had no idea training baseball players would be my ideal job. And even if I had known, I probably would have fallen flat on my face if I'd tried to follow this passion. I didn't have enough rare and valuable skills to be successful at that point.

Fast-forward five years to 2004, and my current business partner and I watched the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series together. It was an awesome moment for us as baseball fans.

Another five years later, we owned a business and were training two of the athletes that were on the 25-man Red Sox roster that won that World Series. It was an awesome moment for us as business owners who'd earned and redeemed career capital.

"Follow your passion" IS horrible career advice; "build career capital" isn't. In Part 2, I'll discuss what "rare and valuable skills" one needs to be successful in the fitness industry. In the meantime, I'd strongly encourage you to check out Newport's book, So Good They Can't Ignore You.

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5 Deadlift Technique and Programming Lessons

Written on July 19, 2014 at 7:27 am, by Eric Cressey

Yesterday, I deadlifted 600 for three reps for the first time.  This is a number I've been after for quite some time.

After the lift, I got to thinking about some good lessons I could "teach" in light of this milestone for me. Here are five quick Saturday morning thoughts:

1. Personal records sometimes happen when you don't expect them.

I honestly didn't feel particularly great when I started the training session yesterday. In fact, if you'd asked me prior to the lift if I was going to be setting a PR in the gym that day, I would have said, "Absolutely not." However, a thorough warm-up and a few extra sets of speed deadlifts on the "work-up" did the trick.  Make sure to never truly evaluate where you stand until you've actually done your warm-up.

2. It's really important to take the slack out of the bar.

If you watch the video above, you'll notice that I pull the bar "taut" before I ever really start the actual lift. Every bar has a bit of slack in it, and you want to get rid of it early on. Check out this video on the subject:

You can actually get a feel for just how much slack there is in the bar if you observe how much it bends at the top under heavy weights. This doesn't happen to the same degree with "regular" barbells.

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3. Don't expect to accomplish a whole lot in the training session after a lifetime PR on a deadlift.

Not surprisingly, heavy deadlifting wipes me out. Interestingly, though, it wipes me out a lot more than heavy squatting. From a programming standpoint, I can squat as heavy as I want - and then get quality work in over the course of the session after that initial lift. When the "A1" is a deadlift, though, it's usually some lighter, high-rep assistance work - because I mostly just want to go home and take a nap after pulling any appreciable amount of weight!

4. Percentage-based training really does have its place.

For a long time, I never really did a lot of percentage-based training for my heavier work. On my heavy days, it was always work up, see how I felt, and then make sure to get some quality work in over 90% of my 1RM. As long as I was straining, I was happy. Then, I got older and life got busier - which meant I stopped bouncing back from these sessions as easily. Percentage-based training suddenly seemed a lot more appealing.

I credit Greg Robins, my co-author on The Specialization Success Guide, with getting me on board the percentage-based training bandwagon. He was smarter than me, and didn't wait to get old to start applying this approach when appropriate.

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5. You've got to put force in the ground.

This is a cue I've discussed at length in the past, but the truth is that I accidentally got away from it for a while myself.  Rather than thinking about driving my heels through the floor to get good leg drive, it was almost as if I was trying to "just lift the bar." It left me up on my toes more than I wanted, and my hamstrings got really cranky. 

I took a month to back down on the weights and hammer home the heels through the floor cue with speed work in the 50-80% range, and it made a big difference. I've got almost 15 years of heavy deadlifting under my belt, and even I get away from the technique that I know has gotten me to where I am. Technical improvement is always an ongoing process.

Looking for even more coaching cues for your deadlift technique? Definitely check out The Specialization Success Guide. In addition to including comprehensive programs for the squat, bench press, and deadlift, it also comes with detailed video tutorials on all three of these "Big 3" lifts. And, it's on sale at the introductory $30 off price until tonight at midnight. Check it out HERE.

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