What Makes a Great Coach: Progressions and Regressions

In an attempt to hone in on What Makes a Great Coach, over the next several posts I will outline some concepts I have learned over the past several years while coaching both music and fitness. While this list will not be exhaustive, it should be a good start for those interested in improving their coaching skills, whether in CrossFit, martial arts, yoga, or even drum corps.

What Makes a Great Coach: Progressions and Regressions

To begin, it is useful to consider the subtle differences between the trainer–client and coach–athlete relationships, especially because they can be blurry at times. Trainers typically train one or two, maybe three clients at a time, whereas coaches typically have larger groups of athletes to manage at once. Trainers have to be aware of their client’s needs, wants, and desires, because ultimately the clients are the ones paying the trainer’s bills. Coaches, however, typically have a bit more trust from their athletes to do what’s right, and it helps that the coach’s paycheck usually gets written by someone other than the athlete.

With this considered, a Great Coach has to be a master at managing a large group. He or she must be able to quickly scan the room and identify the most pressing issue to address at any given time. In 2006 I marched a group called The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps, and I remember vividly how well the staff was able to make one or two specific comments after watching us rehearse a long, dense chunk of the show. In a sense, this is a skill of knowing what to omit rather than just what to include.

Thus, in the group setting, a Great Coach has to masterfully employ the use of Progressions and Regressions. If you have a room full of CrossFit athletes performing squats, you need a large toolbox of options you can use to address the needs of each individual. Is Suzie coming up on her toes too much? Then regress to her a kettlebell goblet squat, or stick some tiny weight plates under her heels. Does Tommy have trouble getting low enough in the bottom? Perhaps instruct him to squat down to a box, and prescribe hip flexor mobility drills in between sets.

In music instruction when clarity and quality is the ultimate goal, this is a necessity. You cannot assign a particular exercise to a group of musicians if that exercise is above the average skill level of the group at that time. It would sound terrible, the musicians would become frustrated, and they would not improve! However, if you can figure out exactly where the group is at skill-wise, then you can choose an appropriate task that will both challenge them and help them progress.

Last example: handstand push-ups. Here is one possible sequence of regressions and progressions for a group of athletes of varied skill levels:

Hands-elevated PU -> PU -> Feet-elevated PU -> HS hold -> HSPU negative -> HSPU -> Full-ROM HSPU

This can be used as a warm-up before doing more advanced work, or it could be a road map for guiding your athletes on a more individualized path for their practice.

Hope this helps some aspiring coaches out there, and keep an eye out for another installment in the What Makes a Great Coach series next week!

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Pluralism in Health and Fitness

This past weekend I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina for a weekend-long workshop with Yuri Marmerstein, a Las Vegas-based acrobat and handbalancer seen here:

Attending the seminar were CrossFitters, Olympic weightlifters, yogis, acrobats, handbalancers, gymnasts, and martial artists. We spent two whole days practicing handstands and learning basic capoeira. The whole experience was fantastic, not only because Asheville is such a vibrant and unique place, but also because my fellow attendees implicitly understood something that most people do not: Pluralism in Health and Fitness is a beautiful phenomenon to be celebrated, not a matter for argument. There are way too many health-related issues, causing numerous troubles for people (one of such: http://sideeffectsofxarelto.org/what-did-johnson-johnson-and-bayer-hide/).

Here’s what I mean. Have you ever seen or heard two people arguing about eating Paleo vs. Vegan? Or what about one person trying to convince another to do CrossFit vs. Yoga? What happens is that we tend to over-compartmentalize certain camps in the health and fitness world. Yes, I understand that at times there are real, genuine differences between certain viewpoints. However, there is also plenty of overlap among various “belief systems” out there, and sometimes all it takes is a change in perspective to become aware of this.

Paleo or Vegan? Well regardless of what they might think about eating animals, I am willing to bet that both care about animal welfare, eat a ton of fruit and vegetables, and make food and nutrition a central part of their lives. Why not share some recipes, make some restaurant suggestions, or have a potluck? CrossFit or Yoga? Whether or not they choose on a barbell or shavasana, both groups prioritize their physical fitness, train to improve their strength and mobility, and do plenty of bodyweight movements for exercise.

Whether or not you think religious pluralism is a good idea, there are definite benefits to engaging with those in your community who may or may not practice the exact same habits that you do. My personal fitness journey has taken me from team sports in middle school to drum corps in high school and college to triathlon, yoga, and CrossFit as an adult. Nowadays a typical week involves a lot of gymnastics, some jiu-jitsu and muay thai, and a little bouldering. Throughout all these experiences I always learn something new from those who practice different activities from myself, and I always walk away with a better understanding of my own views.

If this post inspired you, then go out this weekend and try something new! How about a capoeira class, a sunrise hike, or cooking beef tongue? Just some ideas! Thanks for reading.

Review of Ben Musholt’s “Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia”

This past July I was on tour with my band in northern California when I came across an article on Breaking Muscle written by a Portland-based physical therapist and parkour athlete named Ben Musholt. The more I researched this guy, the more I liked him! A short list of his experience includes parkour, freerunning, gymnastics, martial arts, capoeira, trail running, snowboarding, and beyond. I greatly respect whenever a fitness professional is well-versed in multiple disciplines instead of just a single domain or speciality. Check out some of Ben’s skills from his American Ninja Warrior Regional Semi-Final in 2012 (ignore the title, the name is wrong):

I also learned that Ben was raising funds for an exercise encyclopedia he was planning to release in October called Mad Skills300+ pages of workout movements with over 700 illustrations on disciplines ranging from bodyweight to kettlebells to barbells and more? I’m in! I made a donation and have been eager to see the finished product ever since. Here’s the book trailer from Ben Musholt’s Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia (available on Amazon here):

Having donated to the fundraising campaign, I was afforded the opportunity to read through an electronic copy of the book this past weekend, and in short, I love it! There are so many positives to how this book was put together. First off, in the Introduction Ben writes, “The broader array of movement skills that you train, the better athlete you will be.” Sound familiar? In my “What Are We Really Training For Anyway?” post I concluded something very similar: “Train to learn new skills, gradually and progressively, so as to become capable of and masterful in more complex movements.”

Second, this book achieves exactly what it set out to become: an exercise encyclopedia filled with brief descriptions and illustrations of movements; not some sort of esoteric treatise on movement philosophy. Because of that, Mad Skills is an invaluable resource for personal trainers, CrossFit coaches, martial artists, and athletes of any sport. Heading into the gym to do squats today? Check out Ben’s chapter on leg strength (aptly titled “Pillars of Steel,” love it!) to get some ideas of possible subtle variations on your routine. Or do you need some ideas on programming for your athletes? Ben includes an entire chapter on push-ups, so there’s no reason to stagnate, plateau, or get bored in your training anymore.

This book is also very comprehensive. It is quite a daunting task to set out and list all the possible exercise movements that are out there, and I can only imagine that it must have taken Ben years to compile all this information. Here’s a brief list of the variety of entries in Mad Skills: shadow box, ginga, cossack squat, plate pinch curl, bodyweight chest fly, zercher lunge, neider press, barbell sit-up, double KB windmill, KB bear crawl, sandbag overhead squat, plank push-up, breakdance push-up, handstand leg raise, cocorinha squat, precision jump, archer pull-up, towel drag, quadruped skiers, stability ball bird dog, fireman carry, scorpion downward dog pose, revolved side angle, rectus femoris stretch, levator and scapula stretch. Phew!

Lastly, the last chapter in the book, titled “Cooking it up,” is a very straightforward, to-the-point summary of how to construct an exercise program. Ben mentions general athleticism vs. sport specificity, sets and reps, variety, social support, recovery, and the bottom line, which is that “movement is the answer” and “just go play.” And it is important to note that throughout the book Ben is able to do just that: keep it playful. We’re talking about exercise people… moving your body and external objects through space because, in one way or another, we want to do it! As a resource to be referred to time and time again over the next few decades, I highly recommend Ben Musholt’s Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia to all human movers.

How Does Training Apply to Real Life?

I was speaking with another trainer at my gym the other day about squatting for better Olympic lifting performance, and he said, “That’s the idea: do certain things so that you get better at other things too.” In the gym that makes sense in some very straightforward ways: increasing your strict pull-up strength will get you closer to being able to do a muscle-up, increasing your squat should help with cleans and snatches, and gaining more overhead shoulder mobility will help with… everything.

What if we step back and take a 30,000-foot view of the situation and ask, “How Does Training Apply to Real Life?” That is, your real life outside of the gym. Many people, especially in the world of CrossFit, get so caught up with WOD’s and PR’s that they rarely stop and reflect as to whether or not their toils in the gym are paying any dividends outside in “the real world.”

cali hs

How Does Training Apply to Real Life?

If you were to ask the average gym-goer this question, they would most likely respond with some clichés about discipline, hard work, sweat, and maybe even that saying “pain is weakness leaving the body.” I’d like to argue however, that there are way more benefits to physical training than simply learning discipline and hard work.

1. Do what you say you will do.

One of the best pieces of advice I could give to someone growing up and becoming more mature is, quite simply, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” In the realm of physical training, this can be translated into, “Do what you say, and say what you do.” If you walk into the gym with a realistic intention of squatting 300 lbs that day, then you better do what you say you will do. Similarly, if you leave the gym and only hit 295 lbs, then you better say what you did, no more and no less.

By committing to a regular fitness program, you have the opportunity to reinforce this habit every day, and that can have multiple benefits outside of the gym. Did you tell your boss you are going to get that project done by Friday? Great, now follow through and do what you say you will do. What about that time you had a few too many drinks and told your best friend that you actually want to quit your job and follow your passion into a new career? Ha! I challenge you to do what you say you will do, in all aspects of life, both inside the gym and out.

2. Digest information, plan, and chunk.

It is very easy to get intimidated by workout routines nowadays. One of my coaches recently sent me an outline of one week of training, and it was about 7 pages long! Many people in this situation might get frustrated, freak out, and think, “Where do I start? How do I begin? This is too much!” However, this is a golden opportunity to practice useful life skills like digesting information, planning, and chunking. In a CrossFit setting, this is directly applicable to long workouts like a 20-minute AMRAP or a multiple-round chipper. Figure out what the task at hand is, make a strategy, and then take it step-by-step.

This triad of skills might be most relevant when you start a new project or job. There’s so much already going on, and you barely know what to do. If you have years of physical training under your belt, however, then you should have had plenty of opportunities to practice digesting all the information that is available to you, planning so as to create a basic strategy of attack, and chunking things out so that you can start achieving small steps towards your end goal.

3. Stay calm in stressful situations.

The ability to stay calm in stressful situations is what separates the men from the boys when sh*t hits the fan, so to speak. Anyone who has ever practiced jiu-jitsu knows this, at least indirectly. Your opponent sweeps you, gets to mount, and is now putting his entire bodyweight on your chest. You can barely breathe, and he’s attacking your arm… what do you do?! Stay calm, slow your thoughts down, breathe in, and play some defense on that arm.

The ability to stay calm in stressful situations is perhaps most applicable to scenarios where something goes wrong during travel. For instance, you arrive at the airport only to find out that your flight is canceled, thus causing you to miss your connection and be late to your seminar. Or maybe you are in the middle of a 12-hour car trip when you get a flat tire and don’t have a spare. In either of these situations, the damage is already done, and stressing out will not help a damn thing. Rather, those who stay calm in the face of stress will be better equipped to make clear, rational decisions about what needs to happen next in order to solve the problem at hand.

Okay that’s it for today, thanks for reading!

Top Five Coaches You Should Follow

Keeping it simple with this Monday’s post: the Top Five Coaches You Should Follow, along with brief commentary about my experience with each one. I hope this will inspire you to pursue some of their educational offerings!

1. Charles Poliquin

I had to list Charles Poliquin first because he has probably influenced everyone else below in some capacity. Although he recently separated from the Poliquin Group, he is now building his own brand called Strength Sensei. My experience with Charles was initially through his Poliquin International Certification Program, and both Levels 1 and 2 which I have completed were chock full of great quality information. Another thing that really stands out when you attend a Poliquin event is that they have seriously high standards for everything that they do. Taking an online exam? You have to score 92% or higher to pass. Doing squats at their gym? You will be prescribed split squats if your butt winks even the slightest above parallel. Drinking green tea from their café? It’s organic from Whole Foods. Charles Poliquin and his team are all-around health and fitness experts, so I recommend you follow them for advice on everything including strength training, conditioning, nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle.

2. Ido Portal

I would be completely remiss if I did not mention Ido Portal and his team on this list. A CrossFit trainer first pointed me in Ido’s direction online in 2009, and I have been hooked ever since. Let me try to do his work some justice with a few brief links: The Floreio Art and his Self-Dominance video, The Improper Alignment Speech, and the Raw Brahs Interview with Ido Portal. Movement is the central theme in Ido’s work, and movement can come in various forms, such as handbalancing, capoeira, gymnastics, weightlifting, dance, etc. I am currently working through some online coaching through Ido and his team (thanks Odelia!), and I am looking forward to meeting him at the Dynamic Movement in Sports Symposium in Rhode Island in November.

3. James FitzGerald, aka OPT

The bottom line is that if you coach CrossFit, you need to learn from James FitzGerald at Optimum Performance Training. Not only did he win the CrossFit Games in 2007, but he also has more experience both in the gym and in the research lab than anyone else I have ever heard of. His Coaching Certification Program will be the gold standard for fitness coaches moving into the future, as it includes modules on Assessment, Program Design, Nutrition, Life Coaching, and Business Systems. Furthermore, his Big Dawgs blog is probably the best example of group programming that’s out there, as he has different levels for different athletes. Having met James and heard him speak a few times, he is as passionate about health, fitness, and sport as they come.

4. Martin Rooney

I was only recently pointed to Martin Rooney and his Training for Warriors program, but after watching him speak a few times, I could tell he was someone I needed to learn from. The biggest takeaway from the Training for Warriors online certification I completed this summer was Martin’s simple yet profound commitment to walking the walk in addition to talking the talk. Not sure you can trust what your coach is telling you to do? What if he is also having his very own daughter complete the same style of training? That probably means he believes what he’s telling you is true! Plus it doesn’t hurt that Martin’s coaching background includes these guys from Brazil who do jiu-jitsu… oh yeah, the Gracies!

5. John Berardi

Last but certainly not least, is John Berardi from Precision Nutrition. It’s just impossible to argue against what John Berardi has accomplished through his career: multiple degrees in exercise and nutrition, coached athletes at the highest level (GSP, for instance), and developed the largest online nutrition coaching programs in the world. I would recommend reading his short e-book “All About Intermittent Fasting,” as well as his role in Nate Green’s hilarious journey “Bigger Smaller Bigger.” Currently I am about halfway through the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification program, and the textbook, workbook, and videos are absolutely top-notch.

That’s it, thanks for reading! Feel free to comment with any other coaches who have you inspired you.

Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting

With all the pro- and con-CrossFit articles coming out recently (here, here, here, and here), I felt the need to side-step the bullsh*t and just write about what it is that we actually do . . . train.

quality

Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting

So you’ve been doing CrossFit for some time now, and you have made noticeable gains in your fitness. That’s great! You should take some time to literally stop what you’re doing and reflect on how incredible it is that you are improving your body’s health and capabilities. Getting your first chin-up, muscle-up, or handstand push-up is an accomplishment worth celebrating!

I want to keep things very practical in this article. As you continue to progress in CrossFit, you might reach a point where you find yourself pushing harder and harder to get extra reps and rounds to the detriment of your form and technique. This is not the way to go! Rather, you should prioritize Quality over Quantity so that in the future you may continue to make gains in strength, work capacity, mobility, and overall fitness.

1. Breathe

What a simple thing that we all do everyday! However, mid-WOD, it suddenly becomes apparent that you have not been breathing adequately. How about this: focus on inhaling. Long, slow, controlled, and in through the nose. If you are doing a 20-minute AMRAP, then I want you exclusively breathing through the nose for at least the first 10 minutes. Heavy mouth breathing should be reserved for sprints, short efforts, and the ends of workouts.

2. Break up sets

Have you ever stopped and thought about why 21-15-9 is such an effective rep scheme? One reason is because each set can be broken up into 3 distinct sub-sets: 3 sets of 7, 3 sets of 5, and 3 sets of 3. Another great way to break up this rep scheme is: 11 and 10, 8 and 7, then 5 and 4. So the next time you do Fran, Diane, or Elizabeth, strategize a bit beforehand and see if that helps you set a new PR.

3. Rest between sets

Rest?! Aren’t you supposed to go all out as fast as you can? Okay, yes, I get it, the workouts are done for time. However, you might end up with an overall faster time (and thus greater work capacity) if you actually plan to rest between sets from the get-go. For instance, next time you do Cindy (as many rounds and reps as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats), try to do 1 round at the top of every minute. If you succeed, you will have accumulated 20 rounds! It will feel very easy in the beginning, and very not-so-easy at the end. (If 20 rounds of Cindy is out of your reach, then try 1 round every 90 seconds. Or, vice-versa, if your old PR is higher than 20, try 1 round every 45 seconds or so.)

4. Prioritize mobility

You know you’re supposed to do it, but somehow you only manage to hit the foam roller or grab that stretch band once or twice a week. How about this: you are not allowed to do a WOD unless you’ve first done your mobility work for the day. Have you ever set a timer for 5 minutes and then rolled out your thoracic spine? Or what about grabbing a lacrosse ball and hitting your entire shoulder girdle? Check out Kelly Starrett’s awesome MobilityWOD project for more ideas.

5. Scale movements and weights effectively

If you only take one principle away from this post, please pay attention here. You want to make optimal choices in your life, correct? If you could take 2 routes to your destination, but one of them was longer and riskier, what would you decide? You would take the optimal route, duh! Similarly, learning to scale movements and weights effectively is how you optimize CrossFit workouts to fit your individual fitness level and needs. Refer to Prilepin’s Chart (a guideline for what percentage of your 1 rep max to lift for each given rep range) when choosing what weights to do for WOD’s:

Thanks for reading! If you have any additional practical tips for how to prioritize quality over quantity in a CrossFit setting, please post to the comments!

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

crossfit-logo

A few days ago Medium.com published an article titled, “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret” written by a physical therapy professor named Eric Robertson. Professor Robertson’s article details a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which is extreme kidney malfunction due to excessive muscle damage. While he makes the case that rhabdomyolysis is commonplace in CrossFit gyms, I will argue that his position is exaggerated and perhaps even dishonest.

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

The first issue that we must address is the elephant in the room whenever you talk to experienced CrossFit trainers: there is no one single thing that you can point at and say, “THAT is CrossFit.” Due to Greg Glassman’s theoretical idealizations of general physical preparedness, constant variance, and functionality, you can make an argument for virtually any physical activity fitting under the CrossFit umbrella. A short list of activities that could easily pass for CrossFit includes weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, sprinting, calisthenics, kettlebell training, triathlon, running, and even certain types of yoga. Clearly, this makes defining the term ‘CrossFit’ very challenging.

Next stop on the debunking train: CrossFit gyms and trainers vary WIDELY from place-to-place. While some people may argue that CrossFit HQ has a quality control problem, it is worthwhile to consider that ANY large corporation runs into this issue. Have you ever been to a Starbucks that just “feels better” than another Starbucks? Similarly, there are plenty of yoga studios, for instance, that have much more experienced teachers than others. Thus, extrapolating an individual’s experience with one CrossFit gym to CrossFit as a whole is a bit misleading. There are CrossFit gyms, and then there are CrossFit gyms. Just as with any act of consumerism in a free market, the buyer must make a smart, educated choice when choosing a gym and trainer.

My main problem Professor Robertson’s article is that the title is overly sensationalized (just like a piece published on Salon.com in early September that was originally titled, “CrossFit embodies everything that’s wrong with America”). To write an article about one individual’s experience with rhabdomyolysis is one thing, but to then state, without evidence, that rhabdomyolysis is “commonly encountered in CrossFit” is just blatantly dishonest. To provide some perspective, I have been training in a CrossFit gym since June of 2009, and I have witnessed exactly ZERO instances of rhabdomyolysis in that time.

Lastly, this argument is from a commenter on reddit (hat tip to Brian Sawyer from CrossFit 908):

Let’s say, internationally there are 100 cases a year (pure guess – if there were more I’d imagine we’d hear more about it). There are probably 10 people at a WOD, twice a day, 5 days a week, at 6,000 affiliates. That means in any given week there are 600,000 WOD’s – and I think I’ve been fairly conservative there not including non-affiliate workouts. That’s 31.2 million workouts a year.

So we’ve got 100 cases from 31.2 million workouts. That’s a 0.0003% incidence, making up half a percent of all reported cases. Even if it was 10,000 reported Rhabdo’s a year, that would only be 0.03% of all CrossFitters, hardly “commonly encountered.”

Thanks for reading! If you found this post interesting, helpful, or even controversial, please share it! On Thursday I will be writing about some Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting.