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7 Insights From The World’s Top Strength Coaches


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On the left with the rope in his hands is Todd Durkin who was one of several top strength coaches presenting at the Perform Better Summit.

Two weeks ago I attended the 2012 Perform Better Summit in Rhode Island, which featured lectures and hands-on presentations from some of the top strength coaches in the world.

These strength coaches not only coach top professional athletes, but are thought leaders who are constantly refining and improving their exercise methods. It’s rare in the fitness industry to find people who walk the walk and talk the talk while boasting as much as 30 years of coaching experience.

I planned on sharing some of the nuggets I learned with you right after the conference, but just today I finally went through all my notes so I could distill them into this article.

The following are 7 insights that can help improve your knowledge of exercise and in particular strength training:

Insight #1 | The #1 Goal of a Training Program Is to Prevent Injuries During Training

If you find yourself getting injured during your workouts, something is very, very wrong. No matter what your goals are, the #1 goal of a training program is to avoid injury during training and then second is to help reduce risk of injury during a sport, or in everyday life. After that, you have increasing strength, muscle gain, fat loss, increasing performance, or whatever specific aesthetic, or performance goal you may have. Here are a few training tips courtesy of strength coach Mike Boyle:

  • Choose exercises based on risk/reward ratio
  • Use sound progressions (make each exercise more challenging in a systematic fashion)
  • Accept injuries as your own fault
  • You should ever get injured while training
  • Insight #2 | Pull More, Push Less

    If you spend a lot of your time in the gym pushing weights such as benching, or pressing weight over your head, try to flip that around by pulling more.

    In fact, Todd Durkin who trains Drew Brees and Ladanian Tomlinson went so far as to say a sound program should require pulling to pushing motions in a 2:1 ratio.

    If you are a working professional who sits in a chair and works on a computer most of the day, the chances are you will have common posture problems that include (1) tight pecs (2) tight hip flexors, (3) weak upper back muscles and (4) forward head posture. Your entire body is pulled forward. As you age, these problems can become more pronounced.

    So what exercises are the worst for someone who sits at a desk all day long?

    1) Benching (horizontal pushing)
    2) Curling/Crunching
    3) Cycling

    While these exercises are great assuming normal posture, they can become very problematic when not matched with exercises that help stretch the chest, strengthen the back, and loosen the hip flexors. And what exercises can help accomplish this? Pulling exercises of course!

    Insight #3 | The Evolution of a Strength Coach

    If you’ve been lifting for a while, the chances are you’ve followed a similar path as below. When I saw this slide during Mike Boyle’s presentation, I just shook my head:

    Bodybuilder => Powerlifter => Injured Powerlifter => Functional Training Guy

    When I was 16 years old, I was reading muscle magazines and doing bodybuilding routines. In college where I was an athlete, we did a ton of very heavy olympic lifts as part of our strength & conditioning program. Unfortunately, because my strength coaches were not nearly as astute as those at the conference and I was thickheaded, I ended up getting a serious back injury (herniated disk that required surgery) from a combination of movement efficiency problems and poor lifting technique while deadlifting.

    Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to change my ways. It took many more years of injuries over and over again before I truly appreciated the importance of functional training. If you haven’t gone through these stages yourself, just save yourself a lot of grief and become a functional training guy/gal right now!

    Insight #4 | 2 Rules of Exercise Program Design

    Rule #1 – Do no harm – I’m sure you are starting to notice a theme here, but the key is to reduce the chance of injury during and after exercise.

    Rule #2 – The tortoise beat the hare – Results don’t happen overnight. Developing a plan that lasts months, not weeks is the intelligent approach to maximizing results and minimizing injury.

    Insight #5 | Alternate Periods of Volume & Intensity

    Periodization is the strength training concept where an exercise program varies over time in terms of volume and intensity. For example, a basketball player should have different exercise programs off-season, pre-season, and in-season. Even if you are not an athlete, ideally the same would apply to your own exercise regimen; it will change over time.

    Increasing volume of exercise means increasing the total number of sets and reps and increasing intensity requires adding more weight and decreasing rest periods among other variables. Over time your exercise routine should vary between volume and intensity phases (aka accumulation and intensification) to help maximize performance and reduce the risk of injury and overtraining.

    Insight #6 | It’s All About Movement Patterns, Not Individual Muscle Groups

    When I first started learning about the importance of movement patterns several years ago, it took another several years (i.e. until now) for it to really sink in.

    When you complete an exercise, the chances are you think about the muscle group that the exercise is targeting. Instead, consider the movement pattern, which is what really matters. If you want a naturally lean and strong physique that is injury proof, the exercises you complete should be based on movement patterns, not muscle groups. I promise to explore this concept of movement patterns (and more generally functional training) in much more detail in future articles.

    As a final note, human movement is developed in patterns, not muscle groups. When you were a baby, chances are you started crawling, kneeling, then walking a few steps here and there. We learned how to exercise by moving through various patterns, not by focusing on our biceps. While there’s nothing wrong with a set of biceps curls here and there, this same concept of movement patterns should apply in our adult life.

    Insight #7 | A System to Address Movement Dysfunction is Critical

    Now since you are getting a feel for how important movement efficiency is toward reaching your long term health and fitness goals, how do you move better?

    Interestingly, roughly 1/3 of all the presentations at the conference were related to moving better – not to increasing strength, or increasing power, or even getting bigger. The best way to move better is to first get screened to see what movement dysfunctions you have, then address those dysfunctions with corrective exercises.

    The most popular screen is the Functional Movement Screen, which is administered by personal trainers and strength coaches who have been certified to do so. I’m going to consider creative ways to simplify the screens so you can do them yourself. Stay tuned.

    This one phrase helps sum up the conference and I hope you heed its significance:

    “You are as strong as your weakest link, and as efficient as your weakest movement”

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    27 Responses to “7 Insights From The World’s Top Strength Coaches”

    1. Peter
      June 15, 2012 at 12:56 am #

      This is really an insightful article. Very good indeed.

    2. vish
      June 15, 2012 at 1:43 am #

      Insight #3 had me shaking my head as well….along with a smile. I think you can put an Age-O-Meter along with it.

      16-21=bodybuilder. don’t know any better. 21-25=powerlifting or intense bodybuilding. coz it works. 25-30=realizing something’s not totally right as your belly moving horizontally. Shifting to cardio etc. 30+=functional and cardio. 40-50+= add yoga “coz you aint moving life before”. 60+=light strength + Walking + yoga. 70+=walking. 80+=walking 90+=walking with aid. 100+=time’s up.

      :-)

      Great site.

    3. novan
      June 15, 2012 at 4:56 am #

      great information marc,
      how about crossfit ? crossfit is functional movement and strenght training as well. the exercise like : squat , deadlift , pull up are natural. but most of the people go to the gym for the aesthetic reason.
      thanks to describe the primary goal of our exercise, so we can get the benefit from our training routine.

      thank you marc

      Novan

      • June 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

        @novan – Great question. Cross Fit deserves a separate post and frankly, it was not getting much love from many of the presenters who basically made fun of it, and these are hard core strength coaches. The benefit of cross fit is that it can help increase your anaerobic, aerobic, and flexibility to an extreme level, and much of it is based on movement patterns. The downside (which is a major downside for most non-athletes and non-military) is that (1) the workouts are completely random, which flies in the face of basic exercise science principles, (2) exercise form is generally not a priority, and (3) the exercises chosen require very high skill level where even professional athletes may not be able to do them correctly, such as a snatch, or clean and jerk. I’m a pretty athletic guy, and I never felt comfortable doing those lifts. Without significant mobility, they are very, very dangerous exercises. The risk/reward ratio is awful!

    4. Jason
      June 15, 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Great article! REALLY looking forward to the article on movement patterns.

      Cheers.
      Jason

    5. Priscilla L. Martin
      June 15, 2012 at 11:55 am #

      Hello Marc. I think the article is great. It has attention to the importance of nutrition, function, injury, as well as improvement.

    6. Michael
      June 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      Thanks Marc, I have been reading about improving strength and conditioning for a long time now and yet I always glean something useful and new from your articles. Good stuff!

    7. mj
      June 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

      Awesome read. I wish more trainers paid attention to movement versus specific muscle groups. It just makes sense. This is especially good for me as a woman, and as a person getting up in age. I like the way my muscles are looking with training, but I am more concerned that they are DOING what they were designed to do. Thank you so much for bringing back so much good stuff from the conference and sharing it.

    8. Colin
      June 15, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

      Marc

      Always like articles that precis good conferences. Thanks a lot!

      Interested to hear more about your disc herniation. L5/S1? Did you eventually return to deadlifting? Any lifts that you had to drop permanently?

      Regards
      Colin

      • June 18, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

        @Colin – I herniated my L4/L5. I permanently dropped traditional deadlifts, which is how I got injured in the first place. I do at times wish I could do traditional deadlifts, but frankly, even if my back was 100% healthy, I would either do sumo deadlifts, or trap bar deadlifts, which is what most strength coaches recommend. I find the risk/reward ratio is just not compelling with traditional deadlifts because all it takes is one bad rep and it’s over. I still do back squats, but I generally do not go below 10 reps and make sure I get plenty of depth and warm up for a solid 10-15 minutes. I do just about everything else include stiff legged deadlifts with DB’s, Overhead presses etc.

    9. Mike
      June 16, 2012 at 2:54 am #

      Thanks Marc, good article, food for thought.

    10. Don Pillay
      June 16, 2012 at 6:10 am #

      Hi Marc, firstly thank you or sharing these gems with us. WOW! This gives wellness and fitness a whole new dimension. Totally love the ‘movement’ concept.

    11. MJK
      June 16, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      Also a woman, I found this article very reassuring. I have been doing the ChaLean Extreme video program at home since I do not have access to a gym. Sometimes workout videos are poorly executed and one tries to mimick what the trainer is doing without any instruction as to form, leading to injuries. Or the content is devoid of real quality, instead it is packed with quantity. However, this particular program is ahead of its time! Put out in 2008, Chalene Johnson has every single one of the 7 insights above included in the make-up of each workout! This gives me the confidence to put those common doubts about my workouts aside, knowing that the quality I am looking for it there!
      Thanks for a great article!

    12. Seb
      June 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      Did you play football? Because I know football players lift weights to get big.
      I read on the internet that squats make you shorter and that squats stunt your growth? Do only squats with weights do those or do weight free squats do this?
      The sites were yahoo answers, and bodybuilding forums.

      Thanks and I’m sorry for all these annoying questions!

      • June 18, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

        @Seb – No evidence exists to my knowledge that squats make you shorter.

    13. Seb
      June 18, 2012 at 9:38 am #

      DIsregard my football question !!!! above.

      I do push ups, squats, bicycles, pull ups, different kind of pull ups and dips.

      Is this order bad, should I change it?

      I find it hard to do pull ups, more pull ups, and then dips, should I get rid of one pull up for example I would do push ups, squats, bicycles/crunches, pull ups and dips or should change the order for dips and pull ups or all the exercises?

      Because my arms are medium sore, yesterday I did 5 of each exercise, 3 sets with 5 minutes rest between set, is that to little rest, and when I progressive to ten 10 of each exercise should I add more rest time, and yes I stretch between rests/sets, and I drink half a cup of water like you said to do, then my fourth set I did “HIT” ( one cycle) and then stretched.

      Sorry for all these long questions , I promise this is my last question for a while!

      • June 18, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

        Hi Seb – This article should help you out 3 Reasons to Complete Challenging Exercises First. If I were you, I would do a workout like this, which is similar to the workout I have in my Get Lean Guide. 1a) squats 1b) jump lunges 2a) push ups 2b) pullups 2c) bicyles. Alternate between a and b exercises for 3 sets, then move on to #2 exercises. I would probably move the dips to another day if they are too tough for you. Another option is something like pull ups, then dips, then push ups, then rest for 1 minute. I wouldn’t recommend resting for any longer than a couple minutes during your workout, and as little as possible between pairs of exercises. Good luck!

    14. Teri
      June 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

      Hi Marc,
      It’s so refreshing to hear you give “props” to the Movement Pattern concept (Insights #6 & #7). Folks like Mike Boyle and Todd Durkin possess a wealth of information when it comes to Movement-based training. I’m sure you left the conference with your head spinning on the topic. Thanks for sharing these great tidbits as I look forward to reading more. Keep up the amazing work!

      Best,
      Teri

    15. Seb
      June 21, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

      SO for the first option i do squats first then jump junges and then push ups, then pull ups then bicycles?

      And for option two I do pull ups, dips, push ups then 1 minute rest then squats, bicycles. then rest for 2 minutes then do set 2 repeat and do set 3 ?

      Or will you allow me to email you my workout and you revise in the correct order?

      Thanks for answering my questions about squats , I finally have an answer!!!

      Thanks for answering my questions and keep up the good work that you and your team are doing!!!

      • June 21, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

        @Seb – Creating a workout is not an exact science. With all due respect, I’ve exchanged several comments/emails with you already, yet it doesn’t sound like you are even paying consideration to my advice. What I suggest is searching around BuiltLean for some workouts, or youtube where the workouts are designed by reputable trainers and do those. There are also tons of body weight workout blogs that will likely have a lot of information that can be more helpful.

    16. July 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

      Very nice and informative post. I thing in this post we get the free advise of the experts, so thank for this. I liked the idea of pulling and pushing ratio of 2:1. It really gets some sense.

    17. Seb
      July 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      you said do more pull so since i do dips, but I don’t want do them anymore/ I don’t like them what is another pulling exercise to help your arms get bigger/stronger besides pull ups?

      • July 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

        @Seb – Dips are a pushing exercise, not a pulling exercise. Consider DB rows, different variations of pull up exercises, and bent over rows with a barbell. Just some ideas, I would search around and see what you can find.

    18. Seb
      July 31, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      ok i thanks i meant to say dips are a pushing excercise and I want to get rid of them in order to do more pulling.

      i knew dips were pushing im just a bad essay writer and i don’t proofread thanks again i will look the internet and I will see what I can find thanks again

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