Sometimes Heroes Fall

This is a post that has been bouncing around in my head for a few days. I usually write white hot, preferring to let the message figure itself out along the way. This time, however, even I couldn’t figure out what I meant to say. Now I feel that while I could jump straight to the point, it would be incomplete without describing the evolution of the idea.

Originally I wanted to discuss how situational fitness – and perhaps life in general – can be. I meant to open with a comparison of what a 100kg / 225lbs squat looks like when done by a 6’2″ powerlifter-type versus when done by a lean 5’8″ calisthenics disciple. Either way, it’s an objectively impressive weight that doesn’t change regardless of how large the man hefting it may be. Both men deserve and receive some kind of acknowledgement and praise. However, while the former is certainly impressive, the latter seems to defy physics, earning a greater or otherwise different level of recognition.

Even then, though, we don’t know enough of the story to really make the call on whose lift was more impressive. The big guy could be on the last of ten sets, while the smaller man might just be testing his 1-rep max. The big guy could be in a deload (read: light recovery) week, while the smaller man could be focusing on pure strength.

If we go beyond programming, there are even more reasons that the larger man might “only” be able to lift the same weight as the smaller. He could be returning from an injury, still re-learning how to move heavy weights. He might have had too little sleep and feels doubtful of his strength under the bar. He might simply be having a bad day and doesn’t feel up to the pressure.

On the one hand, this may seem like I’m trying to excuse this person’s apparent lack of ability in comparison to another, which – based on certain entries in this blog – would seem out of character. On the other, however, I am well aware that one cannot go 100% all the time.

To put it another way: maybe this guy could, if pressed, squat a much heavier load than 100kg. That doesn’t mean he always will or would.

The fact that you have done it, doesn’t mean that you can or could do it over and over again.

A major part of fitness is figuring out how hard you can go for how long. Say you can run a kilometer in less than five minutes – could you do that for half an hour? You can deadlift 140kg – can you do it ten times?

And even if you could do both those things, could you repeat them the next day? And the day after that?

Hopefully by now you can see where I’m going with this.

There are limits to strength and power. No one can be at their best – or even close to it – around the clock for an indefinite period of time without risking serious collapse. If we fail to heed the warnings – to check our speed, our effort – we stand to lose more than we can imagine.

This happens to the best of us as often as to the rest – perhaps more often, given their predispositions to give their all. To borrow a line from Supergirl,

Sometimes heroes fall.

It’s scary to admit that: to say that someone greater than we are can fail is to concede that we are just as likely to break down. We ignore that truth because doing so allows us to similarly ignore our own weaknesses. By pretending we have no limits – just like our heroes – we can pretend that our vulnerabilities don’t exist, or aren’t dangerous enough to threaten us.

Part of understanding that we are different is accepting that we have different limits. We have different goals, and different ways by which to reach them. Some of us can go farther, faster, longer, harder – even if by doing so, we risk more and more. It doesn’t mean anyone is better or worse, just different.

This is knowing yourself at the most painful but most honest level. This is the hardest, yet most useful form of comparison. Knowing you cannot do what others can do means accepting that you will not succeed the same way or to the same degree. On the other hand, you can go hard and fast in a way that others may not even be able to comprehend. Your strengths and weaknesses are different. Your limits are different. Your success will be different.

In training, we adjust different variables to address weaknesses. We change loads, duration, rest, leverage, and complexity to improve. We do this because we understand enough anatomy, physics, and similar topics to do so.

What do we need to learn to do the same for life?

 


 

Workout – Strength, Strength/Power Endurance

30x each Jumping Jacks, Front Jacks, Twist Jacks, Seal Jacks

Circuit

3 rounds

5x Pull-up

10x Pike Push-up

15x Close Squat

Pistol Work

5x Pistol Squat

5x Pistol Squat @ 15lbs

3x Pistol Squat @ 20/35lbs

5x 4m Pistol to SLRDL to Lunge @ 2x25lbs

Circuit

21/15/9

Double KB Clean @ 2x16kg

KB Front Squat @ 2x16kg

Push Press @ 2x30lbs

Final Work

10-1x Feet-to-Hands

5min Foam Rolling

5min Stretching

Notes

  • I used to be able to hit the walking combo with a pair of 16kg bells. One step per leg, true, but still hit it, while this one had me struggling to make 4 steps with a pair of 25lbs. My single-leg ability has deteriorated. 
  • I was surprised to find that my forearms were what caused me difficulty with the cleans. I’ve read about forearm strength endurance being a limiting factor with long kettlebell work, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m actually a bit out of practice – it’s been a while since the last time I went for more than 10 reps with a kettlebell. 
  • The Feet-to-Hands / Toes-to-bar ladder remains one of my favorite ab workouts, and a good indicator of where I am strength endurance-wise. If I’m sore the next day, I’m behind on my core training.

5 Workouts That Challenge the Mind

Everyone who’s ever taken on a fitness program has at least one really terrible workout that they wouldn’t repeat if their life depended on it. Originally this post was going to be my Top 10 list of those workouts – the ones that leave you barely conscious and completely broken.

A quick Facebook chat with someone, however, made me rethink the list. These workouts are terrible, yes, but they aren’t special because of that. They’re special because there’s something beyond the physical exertion that sets them apart. Perhaps it’s some kind of epiphany partway through, or the real gut check needed to finish. Either way, I’ve decided that this isn’t going to be about the ten worst workouts I’ve ever done.

Instead, this is a list of 5 workouts that hit the mind as hard as the body, if not more so. Most of them you will need to train for: without a strong base of strength and power endurance, and solid technique, these will become physically impossible to complete. All of them, however, will demand more from you than an average weights session, Zumba class, or a 10-kilometer run.

Other than the psychological factor, one thing these workouts have in common is simplicity. Nothing has more than three exercises, albeit for multiple rounds or considerable distances. Complexity is the enemy of physical challenges: the obstacle here has to be the effort required, not the presence of mind.

 

 

5) “The Triathlon”: 50x Burpees + 5km Ride + 500m Row for time

I previously described this as a “power endurance fuckfest” based on the Gym Jones workout of the same name. Lacking a SkiErg and fan bike, I improvised. A fairly fit person can burn through the 50 burpees in a couple of minutes. The bike part will take maybe 8 minutes if you go hard all the way, and the row will be over in less than 2.

For someone who hates cardiorespiratory work – partially due to his relatively weak, asthmatic lungs – this is a real bitch to struggle through. I finished in less than 10 minutes, barely able to breathe by the time I dropped onto the rower. You’ll be tempted to rest during the transitions, and that’s where your time is put at risk. Do you take the hit in exchange for a breather, or do you sigh and keep going?

4) 4 sets of Push-ups to failure

This is something I had trainees tack onto their workouts as a finisher called ‘Burnout’. The exercise itself depended on the trainee’s goals: the girl whose goal was 5 pull-ups did TRX or band-assisted pull-ups, while the one who wanted to be able to do full push-ups did them on lower and lower surfaces. That being said, I prefer push-ups because there’s no way to completely unload the weight without total form failure, which makes for a better mental battle. Planks are also a good choice, although nowhere near as terrible.

This is a test of what Mark Twight calls “Can’t or Won’t”. For most people, going to failure means going until you feel tired and decide to save yourself. Some, however, understand that failure means you shouldn’t be able to do a single additional rep, however sloppy it may be, without some rest. I took a sick kind of pride in proving just how little people understood that by tricking trainees into one, then two, then three reps past the point when they claimed to be hitting failure.

Here’s the simple key: if you really went all the way in your first set, you will not be able to hit that number again any time soon, and certainly not within the allotted 2 minutes of rest. Think you can drive yourself that hard? Hit the floor and find out.

3) 2000m Row for time

On the surface, there’s nothing special about a timed 2000m row. In fact, it’s a pretty standard challenge in plenty of so-called functional gyms, with a time of 7:30 considered respectable.

What makes this one different is that it’s too long to go all out, but too short to justify careful pacing. The first 500 meters feel easy, and your target time will seem within your reach. The last 500 meters are perhaps easier to throw yourself at: it’s easy to put all your energy into the final seconds. It’s the middle kilometer that puts you in a bad place. That’s where your lungs give up, your arms start shaking, and your legs seem too heavy to keep kicking. If you’re still able to keep your eyes open – and that’s not a given – you’ll watch in dismay as your target time slips away second by second.

It’s especially difficult to maintain a high level of effort when despite your best efforts, you realize your goal has slipped out of your deadening fingers.

The real test of the 2000m Row isn’t whether you hit the final time, but what you do when you hit that point of despair. You can give up right then and there – or you can pull harder.

2) 100x Back Squats @ body weight

This is from the Mass Gain Phase of Gym Jones’s Man of Steel training program. There is obviously a considerable strength endurance requirement to supporting your own bodyweight in iron on your back for however long this takes, but the duration makes for an intense cardiorespiratory effort as well.

The hard part about this is the penalty: every time the bar leaves your shoulders before finishing the 100, you need to hit a 250m row (In the original version, you did 20 burpee pull-ups, but hard rowing scares me far more) as fast as possible before picking it back up. Take a breather if you want, but keep that bar on your back unless you want to make it far worse.

The trick to administering this workout is making the penalty more terrifying than pushing through the 100 reps. Every time you start considering reracking the weight, the fear of having to do the penalty will shove you back on track.

That being said, I had to pay the penalty several times. Either the 250m row wasn’t as scary as I thought, or I just needed to prepare myself more. When I administered this test to my trainees, no one had to pay more than two penalty rounds. I think I got it right with them.

There is a similar workout scheduled a week after this one, only using front squats instead of back squats. That version also removes the penalty, probably because the increased complexity of front squats increases the probability of failure without the trainee necessarily giving up.

1) 20s Thrusters, 10s Rest, 15 rounds using 35kg / ~77lbs

This absolute nightmare is from the Leaning Phase of Gym Jones’s Man of Steel training program. You need some solid shoulders and powerful lungs to keep going. As if it wasn’t terrible enough, there’s a stipulation that during the 10-second rest periods, the bar has to stay on your shoulders – no real rest here. 35kg doesn’t seem like that much weight for a strong guy, and 7.5 minutes – the total time of the circuit – isn’t that long.

Combined, though, the two make for an absolute hell.

The first few rounds, I averaged 7-8 reps. By the fifth, I was struggling to hit 5. The last few rounds were barely triples. Once the timer beeped on the final interval, I dropped the barbell and promptly collapsed to the floor, where I lay for about an hour trying to recover.

This workout needs a serious gut check to finish. The rest periods feel useless – the weight of the bar keeps your chest from fully expanding and bringing in much needed oxygen.

Like #2, it also feels like those periods in life when there’s so much weighing on you that you don’t really have time to cool off. It’s a struggle to finish each and every rep, let alone stay true to the “rest”. Once it’s over, you need a nice long nap just to feel vaguely human again.

But there’s the glorious after-effect that many of the Man of Steel workouts produced: once you know how hard you can push, you will have discovered your strength and find the future much easier to take on.

 


 

 

Workout – Strength Endurance

30x each 4-way Jumping Jacks

Push Press Interval

1 block each @ 2×15, then 2x20lbs / 2min between blocks

Do 5x Pull-up after each block

2x 30s Push Press / 30s Overhead Hold

Round Interval

Complete 1 round every 3min for 15min (i.e. 5 rounds)

5x Close-grip Chin-up + 5x Handstand Push-up

4x Close-grip Pull-up + 6x HSPU

5x Close-grip Chin-up + 4x HSPU

4x Close-grip Pull-up + 4x HSPU

8x Close-grip Chin-up + 10x HSPU

Superset

10 rounds / 90s-2min rest

5x Close-grip Chin-up

5x DB Press @ 2x45lbs

Final Work

5×10 One-arm Press @ 16kg / 30-45s rest

5min Stretching

Reading List

I have never been asked for reading recommendations as much in the rest of my life as I have in the past few months. It says something good, I think, about the people I’ve been spending time around.

Reading recommendations cannot be made lightly, though. It seems odd to filter one’s reading list, but necessary to ensure some sort of connection is made to the material. I cannot offer a thought-provoking piece to someone who just wants a brand new strength program – he doesn’t care and won’t appreciate it in the least. On the other hand, fitness professionals seeking a new approach don’t necessarily want a new program or technique, but a new point of view on something tried and tested.

I’ve mostly listed Internet sources here for convenience, divided into the two main sections of fitness literature: training for the body, and training for the mind.

I’ve added a separate list for books, but those tend to be more difficult to acquire.

The list is in no particular order – I wrote each entry as it came to mind.

Fitness – The Body

  • ExRx.net – A nifty online fitness resource that includes a well-sorted exercise database, multiple exercise calculators (including 1-rep max calculators), and articles on programming.
  • Bodybuilding.com – An online fitness resource and store. Although it’s obviously geared towards weight training and bodybuilding, the site has a lot of useful and even insightful articles. The latter are mainly interviews with guys like Duffy Gaver and Mark Twight.
  • T-Nation – This website mainly caters to those seeking strength through iron, but does have a good mix of information to offer from guys such as Dan John.
  • Breaking Muscle – A far more diverse training resource site offering articles on strongman training, bodybuilding, functional athletics, bodyweight training, and many more.
  • Be A Game Character – A fun site filled with workout programs inspired by video game characters. Ever wondered how to develop Sam Fisher’s athleticism? Try this guy’s suggestions and see what comes out!
  • Kemme Fitness – A good site focused on movement-based, minimalist fitness. There are a couple of free foundation programs that provide a nice base of movement training.

Fitness – The Mind

  • Gym Jones – This is the realm of Mark Twight – former lunatic mountaineer and revered/hated coach. You need to pay a membership fee to access the entirety of what this place has to offer, and even then you might not get it. The site has several training plans and a daily training calendar, but I’ve specifically linked to the “Knowledge” section for the insights presented by those articles accessible to the public or those with a free account. I recommend passing over Rob MacDonald’s writing – I respect the man as a trainer, but his writing just isn’t as rich in insight.
  • Grit and Teeth – Michael Blevins is a disciple of Mark Twight who moved to L.A. to take on a new training challenge. His writing is similar to his mentor’s, if less venomous. His main purpose is introspection – which, as a friend pointed out, isn’t dissimilar to my own writing. Blevins also has a “Training” section, but its contents are too technical for anyone with less than two or three years of hard training experience.
  • Paul Chek’s Blog – Paul Chek is probably the ultimate expression of the phrase “holistic health and fitness”. Chek draws connections between physical exertion and mental or emotional well-being – certainly a good way to keep training interesting. That being said, I find his writing and beliefs a bit too New Age for my taste, so I don’t hang around here quite as much as the domains of Twight and Blevins

Book List

  • You Are Your Own Gym, Mark Lauren – An excellent bodyweight training book including multiple progressions and regressions for various exercises, as well as detailed training programs for different levels of trainee.
  • Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe – Basic barbell training supposedly for beginners, although I disagree with the inclusion of the power clean. May be too technical for the lazy reader/trainee.
  • Kiss or Kill, Mark Twight – Either annoyingly angsty or too easily relatable, this collection of Twight’s essays from various points in his climbing career displays the mentality needed to paint the line between impossible and merely extremely, perhaps needlessly difficult.

 

Take and use these recommendations as you will. A beginner would probably do well to restrict himself to the science section – or better yet, find a trainer and come back here in a year or so. More advanced trainees and coaches would, I have found, benefit greatly from exploring the mind driving the physicality.

 

 


 

Workout – Recovery

5000m Row @ moderate pace (finished in 20:57)

2×1-5 Pull-up (focus on getting chest to bar)

Core Work

5 sets / 90s – 2min rest

10s L-Sit, transition to 10s Tuck Planche

Final Work

5min Foam Rolling

5min Static Stretching

 

Notes:

  • Originally I meant to take it easy on the row, but I felt encouraged by my ability to hold ~2:05/500m for ten minutes without yet feeling winded. It turned out to be a very good session.
  • My static core strength is surprisingly good, considering how little time I’ve spent directly training it lately. I imagine this is a by-product of all the unilateral and hanging work I’ve been putting in.

Carryover

Something that I will always bring up in a serious conversation about training is the concept of carryover. In designing a program with a certain objective, I will always look for the exercises and systems with effects that transfer to a wide range of results. For example, if I were looking to put muscle mass on someone, most of that person’s workouts would involve multiple sets of compound movements. A client requesting mass gain can expect to work up to 10 sets of 10 reps of bench presses, or timed sets of front squats. This would ensure that all major and most minor muscle groups would be trained without having to work through a billion different exercises per workout, as an isolation-training mindset would entail.

Similarly, it would benefit someone to train movements with results that would positively improve others. It takes some understanding of exercise science to do properly, but it’s a very good way to improve one’s fitness.

Take the deadlift. There are enough articles on the benefits of the exercise that I won’t bother listing them here, so I’ll just say that everyone could use a little deadlifting in their program. It’s a good measure of overall strength because it requires the use of so many muscles: the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, spinal extensors) are the prime movers, the quads provide assistance, the upper back and biceps have to tense up, and the forearms have to be able to hang onto hundreds of pounds of iron.

Because of this, the deadlift benefits greatly from improving other exercises. Pull-ups are an excellent exercise for strengthening one’s forearm, bicep, and upper back muscles, which minimize grip problems. Single-leg work such as pistol squats are a weight-free way to build lower body strength – including strength in the posterior chain, which obviously improves one’s deadlift.

To prove the point, I pulled 160kg / 352.64lbs yesterday despite not having deadlifted in over a month. My previous 1RM was 145kg, meaning I added 15kg without actually working on the movement. In that month, I focused on bodyweight strength, mainly pistol squats and uneven chin-ups. Now this isn’t the heaviest I’ve ever deadlifted, but the last time I pulled 160kg, I weighed 85kg. This time, I weighed 75. Pound for pound – or kilo for kilo, as the case may be – I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been.

This is something worth reflecting on outside the gym as well. When was the last time you developed a skill that helped out somewhere unexpected?


 

Workout

30x 4-way JJ

“Little 55”

Alternating 10-1 ladder

Squat

TRX Row

TRX Chest Press

Roll-up

“Big 55”

Alternating 10-1 ladder

Pull-up

Bench Press @ 2x60lbs

TRX Row (deep as possible)

Handstand Push-up

 

Notes

  • This workout is an abbreviated version of something I did in late 2013 as part of my Man of Steel Mass Gain experimental program. It’s one of the best upper body pump workouts I’ve ever done, but requires a considerable level of strength endurance. Worth a look now that – while I appreciate my strength – I am trying to put some mass back onto my arms and shoulders.

The Metric Systems

One thing everyone who walks into Fitness First does is step onto the Tanita Body Composition Analyzer. This neat little device uses electric signals to determine body fat percentage, specific fat and muscle masses, metabolic age, and a couple of other health indicators. Every member will at some point have a trainer sit them down and discuss what these numbers mean for their health. In fact, at least three people have signed up for memberships after being frightened by my explanation of their readings.

Most trainers also use the Tanita readouts as progress trackers. Weight loss is commonly checked, but the focus lies more on fat loss, muscle gain, and metabolic age improvements. At least one member has her body composition checked every single day.

Now I do think the Tanita is pretty nifty, and I see the value of using the readings as a measurement. However,  I find it to be an incomplete measurement of a person’s health and fitness. I think body composition – while certainly what most people seem to want to track their progress by – doesn’t say enough about what a person can do, nor do I think better numbers on that tiny strip of paper should be the goal of everyone on a fitness regime.

This is one of the reasons fitness is interesting. Find a dozen trainers and ask how they measure progress, and you’ll hear multiple answers. In the club, for instance, most trainers use muscle mass gain and fat mass loss for their clients, who generally are looking to lose extra weight. Some, however, have clients who already fall into the ranges considered healthy, and so their progress cannot be so easily measured by the machine. They turn to another set of numbers, this one performance-based.

Even here, we find multiple measurements. The runner tracks his fitness by mileage and speed. The powerlifter chases poundages. Duffy Gaver – trainer of Chris Hemsworth (Thor and the rest) and Brad Pitt (Troy) among others – measures his clients’ progress through their exercise performance.

I tend to agree with Duffy: the man who can do twenty pull-ups looks very different from the man who can’t even manage three. For reference, my own list of metrics required the creation of an Excel spreadsheet to track everything.

The main thing here, though, is that your metrics have to make sense. Except for bodybuilders and gymnasts, athletes don’t need to pay attention to body composition. Conversely, a middle-aged housewife doesn’t need to be able to do ten pull-ups, nor would she probably want to look like she could. A key to progression is developing a personalized list of goals and means of tracking, which will be far more exciting to improve than some bit of paper.

Figure out what’s important to you, and the rest will follow.

 


Workout

Circuit

3 rounds

5x Pull-up + 2x per round

10x Push-up + 2x per round

15x Close Squat + 2x per round

Walking Combo

Combination of Single-leg Romanian Deadlift into Pistol Squat into Lunge per step

10m @ no weight

2x10m @ 2x6kg

2x8m @ 2x8kg

2x4m @ 2x10kg

Power Work

5 rounds / 2min rest

1x Kipping Muscle-up

5x Behind-the-back Clap Push-up

Cooldown

5min Stretching

 

Notes:

  • I really hate that SLRDL-Pistol-Lunge combo – it leaves my legs barely functional and sore to an incredible degree. I need the balance and unilateral work – which is probably why I hate it so much.
  • I told myself I wouldn’t make it a habit to practice my stilll-sloppy muscle-ups with a kip, but I find it requires so much explosiveness from my lats that I don’t need to do more than 1 rep at a time to feel the effect. Also, my form is improving – by keeping rep count low and rest relatively high, I’m able to almost hit the smooth glide Stephen Amell has in his (at least in Season 1 – nowadays he can still hit good numbers, but they aren’t as clean).

Train the Mind

I spent the last hour of last night’s shift chatting with a member who hasn’t been able to frequent the club due to a busy schedule. It started with a casual remark about her having been sat in the same spot for about fifteen minutes: “You’re either really tired from working out for about 3 hours, or you’re thinking of something very deep.”

Initially she denied either one, but eventually it turned out to be the latter.

I won’t give specifics, since it isn’t my story to tell, but the conversation involved a lot of reflection on goals, transformation, and self-worth. It’s the kind I like to have, and one I don’t have very often, since most people are either not introspective enough or unwilling to open up to that level.

Coincidentally, the previous day, I’d also had a long (though not quite as much) talk with a member that similarly touched upon the ideas of transformation and self-worth. Both these people reflected on the psychological changes that came with physical transformation, wondering how much more they could have done before had they known what they could do.

That has always been one of the key elements of a fitness journey for me. People seek out smaller waistlines, slimmer tummies, and lower weights, but the actual difference on which others comment is a difference in how you carry yourself. There are physiological reasons, yes – your back is straight because your spinal erectors and shoulder retractors are stronger, and you walk differently because the imbalances between your external and internal hip rotators have been addressed – but there’s also a newfound confidence that comes from knowing how much you can do when pushed.

Once you’ve undergone a dramatic transformation – dropped half a foot from your waistline, gained kilos of muscle, learned to pull 385lbs from the floor – you will have learned how far and how hard you can push yourself. You can face new challenges and be assured that whatever you decide to do, it will lead you somewhere better.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the path ahead will be any easier, just that you are far better equipped to handle it. Regardless of the means at your disposal, you have the internal drive – and that’s what counts.


 

Workout

30x 4-way Jumping Jacks

KB Complex

3 rounds @ 2x12kg

6x Double Swing

6x Double Clean

6x Front Squat

6x Double Jerk

KB One-arm Complex

Work through 4 total ladders of 2/4/6, alternating arms after each rung

Use a 16kg KB if you’re me today, 20kg if you’re me from 2 years ago

One-arm Swing

KB Snatch

Offset Front Squat

One-arm Row

Final

10×30/30 Plank

What is a Trainer Worth?

“You shouldn’t be here.”

These were the exact words spoken to me by a club member when I told him what degree I’d earned and from which university. He went on to say that someone with my qualifications and abilities was wasted minding gym equipment and training housewives. I suppose it was a weird kind of compliment, but it made me think of the way people view trainers, and educators in general.

What is a trainer? What skills and knowledge would a trainer presumably possess? For that matter, how much is a teacher expected to know to do his or her job properly?

The answer is: everything you could possibly imagine necessary. During our Foundations training, we were taught biomechanics, anatomy, exercise physiology, and movement assessment, among many other things. Later workshops taught communication, plyometrics, and myofascial release. We’ve got Red Cross training coming up, as well as equipment-specific modalities.

How is it a waste of intelligence to take on a job that requires learning all this and more?

More important perhaps than the requisite ability is the scale of responsibility that is placed on educators.

Take grade school teachers. They are the people to whom you entrust the intellectual development of your children. You expect them to teach math, science, and language. You also expect them to instill basic values such as honesty, diligence, and self-confidence. In short, a large part of the development of the world’s future is in the hands of someone who is overworked, underpaid, and vastly under-appreciated.

Similarly, a trainer’s responsibilities range from entertaining a doctor’s idle wife to bringing a rehabilitating athlete back to high-level competition. Yes, some trainers simply hang around dingy gyms and give the occasional spot to a bencher. Others are responsible for people’s careers and dreams.

It takes a great deal of skill to successfully fill the role, but also a great deal of courage not to buckle under the pressure.

Yes, there are those in the field who refuse to take the job so seriously. The same can be said about just about every career in existence. Their existence doesn’t diminish those who lead the charge.

So am I wasting my expensive college education in a low-paying rank-and-file position that has me working nine-hour shifts six days a week? It may seem so right now, when we have no clients or classes to handle, but I know from experience that once we start changing lives – making dreams come true – it’ll all make sense.

The point of every life is to contribute positively. This is an excellent way to do it.

 


 

Workout

5min Row @ progressive pace

5x10s hard / 50s moderate Row

Barbell Complex

3×6 @ 35kg

Push-up

Deadlift

Bent-over Row

Hang Clean

Front Squat

Push Press

Back Squat

Round Interval

1 round per min for 10min @ 45kg

2x Power Clean

2x Hang Clean

1x Thruster

Deadlift Buildup

3x @ 100kg

2x @ 115kg

1x @ 125/130/135/140/145kg

Fuckery

5 sets / 2min rest

5x Deadlift @ 115kg

10x Split Jump

Calf Work

5×20 Seated Calf Raise @ 90kg

5×15 Single-leg Seated Calf Raise @ 45kg

5×15 Single-leg Rocking Calf Raise @ 10kg

Final Work

10-1x Decline Roll-up @ 10kg

10min Stretch to cool down

Open Your Mind

Amateurs think in absolutes. Pros think options.

One major advantage of having worked in a minimalist gym is that I became very creative with what equipment we had. The TRX suspension trainer was our main gear, and I developed several ways to use it that have to date not appeared in any TRX training course that I am aware of. Weight plates were used for complexes training all three planes of motion, ViPRs were used as barbells, and even foam rollers were brought into play to train unilateral strength.

In short, I became a very good lateral thinking trainer. I can now look at a single piece of equipment – or even something as simple as a door – and come up with multiple ways to train with it. Some credit does go to my degree in Development Studies, where the key skill was thinking on multiple levels and in different directions. We never once said anything like “This is the only way to do it” because we knew that the issue of development has been tackled in multiple ways in multiple areas.

In contrast, a lot of trainers I meet seem to be unable to think laterally unless given exact rules that explain such thinking to them. Yesterday, during our SX-B (suspension training basics) course, several people expressed surprise at the different ways a suspension trainer can be used. It was the same as when I took my Group Suspension Training certification back in 2013: some people asked whether the TRX could be used in the same session as weights, or whether it was meant for stretching. On both of these days, the trainers in charge answered very professionally that there were few limitations on how the equipment could be effectively used so long as it was in the hands of a creative and capable trainer.

The difficulty as I see it, then, is how to develop this creativity. There simply isn’t time enough to master every bit of fitness gear in existence, so taking courses in everything isn’t a plausible option. Furthermore, it isn’t what I did. I would say that one way to do it is focus on a movement-based foundation which can then be expanded as necessary. As long as I know how to push – which muscles are involved, what joints and joint movements are used – I can find different ways to develop strength in that area. Barbells, suspension trainers, and the floor are all possible training aids.

Another issue is the limited way in which people tend to look at certain aspects of fitness. Strength can only be developed with heavy weights. Cardio can only be done with long-distance steady-state runs or bike rides. The focus is on the application rather than the underlying principle. Rap – yesterday’s trainer – demonstrated the difference very well by pointing out to my bodybuilding classmate that if bodyweight training couldn’t develop strength, he should have been able to do handstand push-ups given the weight he could press overhead (Hint: he couldn’t). If one looked at the overload principle of strength rather than the common technique of shifting a heavy barbell, one would see that a high degree could be developed with any tools.

I think that the fitness world is shifting to a more holistic, open approach to training. I do have to give at least some credit to CrossFit for proving how an elite athlete can be developed using multiple modalities, but I believe this multidisciplinary training model has actually been long recognized by the elites of sport. NFL players know the value of heavy weights and sprints. Gymnasts know how to master bodyweight moves alongside heavy carries. Marathoners know how to deadlift heavy as well as run.

What has to be done now is bring this understanding into the mainstream. This is not the job of elite coaches, but of people like me who work at commercial gyms and deal with office workers and weekend warriors. For us to effectively help them reach their vastly different goals through different means, we must step back from our specialties and modalities – strength through iron, weight loss through cardio – and focus on mastering the basic principles that can then be expressed.

This comes back to my earlier question: How do we train the creativity necessary for this?

I don’t have a solid answer except that if you want to be a good trainer, you should never approach a single piece of gear with the belief that it can do exactly one thing. Weights, bars, machines, suspension trainers, medicine balls – these are tools, nothing more. How much use you can get out of it ultimately comes down to you.

 


 

 

Workout

30x 4-way JJ

Circuit

3 rounds

3x Pull-up + 2x per round

5x Pike Push-up + 2x per round

10x Squat + 2x per round

AMRAP

Max alternating 2/4/6/8/10 ladders in 10min

Pike Push-up

Jump Squat

3min rest

AMRAP

Max alternating 1-4 ladders in 8min

Pull-up

V-Up

Know Thyself

Note: I’ve just finished a five-day training course as a pre-requisite for starting as a trainer at Fitness First. All that’s left is to take the exam on Monday (and re-take on Wednesday if I should fail), and boom.

This is yesterday’s reflection.


I don’t like group exercise.

I don’t like having to crowd into a room with people I don’t know while trying to follow shouted instructions that no one can perfectly follow.

I especially dislike classes with music, particularly loud, booming beats that add to the difficulty in listening to the instructor.

But most of all, I dislike group classes because I know from experience that they are at best of limited efficiency in developing high levels of physical capability.

Now this is obviously subjective. I know many people who are perfectly happy with group exercise and the results. Positive is positive, after all. Many are also there not for the exercise, but for the sense of community. They don’t need to watch their numbers improve week after week, or feel their physical capacity growing, so long as they have fun.

These are the points made by my classmates when I said I disliked teaching group classes.

The main difference I see, then, is what kind of trainer you want to be. Or more accurately, what kind of trainer you can be.

I am an introvert by nature. I dislike crowds, am tired by long interactions with people unless I get along with them very well, and am quite happy to be alone at home or in the gym on a Friday night. I don’t look for a sense of belonging from a community when I think about what kind of training or work I want.

When I look at fitness, I think of it as a personal journey of progression. I couldn’t care less how many people are with me, and I won’t be put off by doing the work alone. What I want is not a trainer who gives basic instruction and cursory corrections, but one who will stand over me and fix every little issue. I want a customized plan made by someone whose attention is, at least for that session, entirely on me. I want improvement, not new friends.

I’m not saying people who prefer to teach group classes are necessarily worse than those who prefer conducting personal training sessions. A sharp eye and excellent communication skills are important to both, and certainly either way there will be clients. An excellent point in favor of group classes is that it’s much easier to earn off them; unless you’re Dan John, you’d have to take on five or six clients a day to maintain a decent income stream.

I am, however, a personal trainer. I do my best work in intimate, controlled sessions with people who trust me enough to place their personal development in my hands, just as I did in the summer of 2010. I prefer seeing a single incredible transformation to multiple decent improvements mixed with disappointment. Maybe it’s because I have high expectations, and group classes simply prevent the level of control necessary to meet those. Maybe it’s because I don’t like being in big groups and just don’t get how people can prefer it.

Whatever the reason, it’s useful to know what you’re good at. It’s not a question of skill or even comfort, but one of efficiency and effectiveness. Yes, you can improve by working on your weak points – but if the challenge is contribution, then you meet it best by throwing yourself into situations where your strengths are in play.


Workout

30x 4-way Jumping Jacks

Circuit

5 rounds

5x Pull-up

5x Divebomber Push-up

5x Jump Squat

5x Roll-up

Ladder

15-1x Burpee

5x Pull-up per rung

Plank Series

30s each / 3s transition

2 total blocks / 2min rest between blocks

Plank

Side Plank

Plank

Side Plank

Notes: It’s been just over a year since I returned from France. There was a gym in town, but it had weird operating hours and was closed on weekends. Thus, I did a fair bit of training in my room or out and about – a nearby playground had some nice monkey bars. This particular workout was done on a cool Saturday morning when I was feeling twitchy but wanted an excuse to gorge on a kebab platter.

Plank

The Weight of Responsibility

Note: I am currently taking a 5-day course as a pre-requisite for starting as a fitness trainer at Fitness First. I wanted a blog entry at the end of each day, but I was staying at a place with terrible Internet access. Now that I’m home with a stable connection, I can throw in yesterday’s reflection. Today’s will just have to wait until tomorrow.


We had another quiz today.

It was the second so far. We’ve been told to expect another one come tomorrow – the final day of the foundation course. Today’s test covered joint movement, flexibility, and mobility. Tomorrow’s will be about cardiorespiratory training.

Neither of the tests so far had a 100% passing rate. I scored high on the first, but just passed the second. Some of the people taking the course with me failed both, and not by a small margin – one of the guys who will be assigned to the same branch as me, scored barely 50% today and just over that last Tuesday.

I’m used to classmates failing quizzes. That’s the reality of the classroom, and I certainly can’t truthfully claim to have passed every test I ever took in school. Heck, we don’t even need to pass – the final exam on Monday will be the sole basis of whether Fitness First certifies us as trainers. Failing these smaller tests is – at least on the surface – of no consequence whatsoever.

The thing is, the stakes are much higher now than they were in Economics 101. The men and women in that room with me will take charge of people’s lives. Someone’s safety and development will become dependent on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Thus, knowing half the material in a foundation course – a course meant to instil the most basic but essential knowledge – is essentially knowing only half what experienced trainers would consider the bare minimum to do the job properly.

It’s a little scary to me that even one person in my class might only have half the skills he needs. Personally, I guess it’s irrelevant to me even if we wind up in the same branch. Any problems caused by his inadequacies are his to deal with. However, we as trainers – as people to whom others entrust their physical and occasionally mental health – are obligated to be every bit as good as is possible.

As potential trainers, our responsibility is perhaps less intense, but more crucial: are we able to actually do the job?

This is where soul-searching and introspection must come in. While outright failing 40-item quizzes doesn’t necessarily prove inadequacy, it’s worth considering when looking at a job with so much responsibility. Anatomy, biomechanics, and the like are all topics that a competent trainer must know, even if he’ll never have to recite them to his clients. If you cannot grasp them to a reasonable degree, should you really be taking on the position? Shouldn’t you be thinking first and foremost about the ones who might actually suffer the consequences of your failures?

This is, I think, the hardest part of being thrust into a leadership role. You will be forced to contemplate whether you are suited to the task, and if you can handle the consequences of your failures. In fact, you’d be lucky to have to face that question before actually being handed the responsibility.

I’m being magnanimous in my opinion by holding off on saying these people who fail spectacularly – and based on our workouts, aren’t particularly fit either – are not meant to be trainers. It is, however, a possibility, and one I believe should always be strongly considered before heading into such a role.

I know I’m doing it.


Workout

30x 4-way Jumping Jacks

Shoulder Tri-Set

3 rounds @ 2x15lbs / 90s rest

10x Front Raise

10x Bent-over Reverse Fly

10x Lateral Raise

More Work

1-5/1-4/1-3/1-2/1x Pull-up

Push Press Interval

2 blocks / 2min rest

Use 2x15lbs

2x30s Push Press / 30s OH Hold

“Big 55”

Looks like 10x Push Press + 10x Ring Row + 10x Diamond Push-up + 2m Rope Climb, etc.

DB Push Press @ 2x35lbs

Ring Row

Diamond Push-up

2m Rope Climb per rung

Superset

5 sets

20m Farmer Carry @ 2x28kg

10x Biceps Curl @ 2x25lbs

Final

5min Stretching