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18 Things I learned in 2018 (Part 2)

Updated: May 14, 2020

10.) Training Density

There are 168 hours in a week. For most strength coaches, at least in the private sector, we’re lucky to see athletes for 3 hours a week. Three hours per week equates to roughly 2% of any given week, or in other words- not very much time. In a perfect world, we would be able to have boundless time with our athletes, and never feel rushed or as if we’re having to make sacrifices based on training need. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the reality.

A term that I found myself heavily emphasizing throughout the year was “training density”. To me, this simply means “instead of cutting certain things from programming, find other ways to integrate them.” This was a big turnover for me. To that end, what this all boils down to is being as efficient as possible. We simply have the time we do to work with our people, so it’s on us to be creative and thoughtful when engineering our training. Here are some minor adjustments I used to create training density:

I.) Intra-set work built in during primary exercises (i.e. bench press, back squat, deadlift, cleans)

  • Paring bench press with t-spine mobilization drills, back squat with dorsiflexion work, deadlift with deadbugs, etc. We all know that mobility and tissue work are vital, but sometimes it’s tough to justify 30 minutes of such work. What I’ve done, is take 1-2 drills and pair them with primary lifts. Not only does this check a box of something we need, but it does so without taking away from the big lift.

II.) Drop sets, clusters, complexes

  • These are far from new training concepts, but frankly something I didn’t do much of prior to this year. For auxiliary work, find ways to pair exercises (2-4 exercises) in a complimentary fashion, without taking away from the primary goal for that day. Give them a designated time block (i.e. 12 minutes) to complete as many sets as they can to finish the session. The added bonus to this is that they will definitely "feel" like they did something when they finish their session. This is a crucial point a lot of people miss.

III.) Be more specific with autonomous work

  • “Finish up with a few minutes on the bike” becomes“I want 12 minutes on the bike, first 8 minutes above 80 rpm, last 4 minutes below 60 rpm.” Have confidence that your athletes will push themselves, but at the same time, make sure they are clear on your intent. If you want them to get some conditioning at the end of a session, make sure they get just that.

11.) "People aren't time slots"

You know that feeling you get when you hear certain things, that feeling of the hair on your arms standing straight up and chill down your spine like it was the perfect metric of timing, content and context? Yea, that was the case for me with this one, which came straight from my man Vern during his podcast episode with Mike Robertson back in April (

I have a tendency to rush things, both personally and professionally. Adding to that, I have a susceptibility to being distracted, especially when I’m fatigued. or anxious. What that would ultimately create for me, is not being fully present for some of the people I was working with, especially towards the end of the days and ESPECIALLY when I was coming down the stretch with my thesis. Sure, I was still giving them a workout, sure they were still breaking a sweat, but was I really coaching them? Probably not. At least not to the standard I expect myself to meet.

When I heard this from Vern, it was a swift kick in the ass and hit directly to the core. One of the primary differences between working a regular job and working with people is that every hour has to be the first hour. As a coach, we can’t be in and out (mentally) throughout our day. Whether it’s the soul crushing 5:30am client, the 2pm client when the afternoon lulls normally set in, or the coveted “last one” at 6pm, you must be on your game. These are people, not time slots, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.

12.) “Simplify, amplify, and never intrude” – Keith Jackson

For those who don’t know him by name, would surely recognize his voice. The late, great Keith Jackson was a renowned sports broadcaster who is credited for nicknaming the Rose Bowl as “The Granddaddy of them All”. After he passed earlier this year, Sports Center ran a special on his life in college football, and in a candid moment during an interview after being asked what his thought process was during his broadcasts he said “simplify, amplify, and never intrude.” This absolutely rocked me when I heard it.

As basic as this may seem to some, I find a tremendous amount of power behind this simple phrase. Taking this and applying it to the coaching world, I can’t think of a better way to surmise my words if I were to give a young coach one piece of advice. It is so damn easy to manifest complexity in anything, but especially in what we do as coaches. Everyone wants to have their athletes do the sexy shit- which hardly ever has an ounce of practicality. Everyone wants to be the proverbial voice of reason when talking their athletes through things. I’m as guilty of these things as anyone; but what I’ve learned is, not only is it perfectly fine to hammer the basics, but it’s also sometimes best to just shut the hell up and stay out the way. Illuminate their positive moments and achievements in training and make that the focal point of your input. Don’t ignore the bad, but it doesn’t need to be harped on.

13.) Social media matters. Like it or not

It took about 6 months of influence, borderline coercion, from Vern to get me to set up an Instagram account. Throughout the entire time of him pushing me, I fully understood the prudence and necessity for me to do so… I just straight up didn’t want to. To this day, I’m not much a fan of Instagram, so much of it is horrendous content and I feel it undermines the work we do as strength coaches. But Vern had accrued an enormous social media following by this juncture and felt strongly that because of how it had served as a springboard for his professional development, we should do the same.

Well, I’m here to say he was he spot on about the whole thing. My social media has grown exponentially within the last year, and it has been awesome to see the influence I can have within the coaching industry simply by posting what I’m already doing day in and day out. An added note on this, it has also helped my confidence with disseminating exercise-based content and challenged me to push the boundaries of conventional exercises. Or, as he likes to phrase it- “explore the corners”.

14.) Move the plyo boxes when you vacuum.

So this isn’t exactly a 2018 lesson, but it is one lesson that I will never, ever forget, and is always relevant.

I got hired at VHP back in 2016. Coming out of a dark time in my life, about 4 months away from marrying the absolute love of my life, I had just finished my undergrad up and was aimless with where to go. After I had gotten word of VHP and encouraged by a mentor of mine to inquire about job opportunity, I shot them an email one day and had no clue what would materialize from that.

The guys I work for are some of the greatest men I’ve ever encountered in my life. One I consider like a father figure, the other an older brother I never had. I can’t even begin to express the respect I’ll always have for these guys. Anyhow, before I was officially hired I went through a 3-month unofficial “internship” to prove my worth and ultimately earn a position as an assistant strength coach. So of course, I was overzealously focused on things like programming schematics, exercise selection and variation and so forth. Never once did I think to myself “man… I better clean the fuck out of this bathroom if I want to be here long term.”

After the fact, about a year or so after being on staff, I was having a conversation with the guys and it was brought up about what the deciding factor on my hiring was. Much to my surprise the input I received was “you moved the plyo boxes when I asked you to vacuum.” I was stunned. Nothing about my certifications or degrees, how much I knew, or the way I coached. Simply, that I gave a shit enough to move some plyo boxes when I was asked to vacuum. Consider this my version of “sweep the sheds”, if you will, but this will forever stick with me, and something I still do my best to follow through with.

15.) ABA- Always Be Assessing

Athletes are the greatest physical compensators on the planet, bar none. When you’re conducting an initial assessment or examining an achy shoulder after a bench press set, it is an unconscious behavior for them to “tighten up” and mask whatever ailments they may have. Even though we are able to see past a lot of the cover ups, we aren’t human x-rays, so things will inevitably slip through the cracks.

When they first walk through the door, examine their body language and facial expressions. When they’re doing their warm-up, watch from a distance for a little bit. Maybe nothing is even physically wrong that day, but maybe their body language and energy is in the shitter that day. Point being, you’ll unveil some of the most important analytical observations on your athletes when they aren’t rehearsing.

16.) Evaluating is either the most important, or most meaningless thing you do.

Almost any strength coach you come across will put a premium on evaluations. Why? Well, because it’s what they’re supposed to do, and we’ve all been bludgeoned over the head with it from the time we picked up an Essentials book or stepped foot in an exercise science classroom.

The problem is, a lot of what I’ve observed over the years has been nothing short of a rehearsal for nothing more than the sake of formality. Moreover, I feel like once a coach finds their routine for evaluating athletes, it will be the exact same protocol for years and years thereafter. We are constantly challenging and changing training protocols, recovery protocols and so forth, why does the evaluation never seem to garnish the same attention?

The evaluation is the single most important, or the single most meaningless thing you will do with your athletes. I view coaching as a puzzle, and the evaluation is akin to opening the puzzle box and seeing all the pieces fall out. For some athletes, it kind of just makes sense and seemingly “falls in to place”, whereas others, you need to break out the magnifying glass and buckle up. The point being, this is the single opportunity to you get to see exactly what you’re working with- see the flaws and abnormalities the athlete has, carefully observe injury sites to assess level of risk, and also to set the tone between the two of you. Don’t feel the need to play pseudo doctor and make the evaluation tense and uncomfortable. Let them know what you’re doing, what you find, and be fully transparent. Remember, you’re not here to diagnose a damn thing, we’re simply looking at what we have to work with and setting the table to engineer the most efficient plan possible.

Evaluate your current evaluation protocol. See where you can improve efficiency, make sure it is properly organized, and make sure you have a good idea of what you’re looking at or for. One tip I can provide on this one is to do your best to do some work ahead of time. Before someone physically gets to you, give them a call or shoot them an email to get a general idea of who they are and what they’re looking for. This will not only make the eval itself run smoother, but also give you some time to do homework in advance in case they have an injury or ailment you’re not familiar with.

17.) Green jacket, gold jacket… who gives a shit.

I’ve never had another career, so I’m obviously biased and have no clue about the innerworkings of other professions. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine that other professions drag and shit talk their peers the way strength coaches do. It’s remarkably pathetic how often I see grown adults bickering on social media platforms about shit like “high bar vs low bar back squat”. But I digress…

One of the premiere difficulties of our industry is that so much of what we are seeing and doing is still so new. Most of what we feel is the unequivocally optimal way of doing something is still unchartered waters, and truthfully is just “the best way we know… so far”. On top of methodologies, is the vernacular or semantics we use to describe certain things.

What I call alactic you may call anaerobic, what you call a stiff-legged deadlift I may call an RDL. You say French Contrast, I say potentiation circuit. I could go on and on, but what I’m getting at is who gives a shit!? Social media has been tremendously valuable for our industry, and I know for a fact I’ve benefited more than I’ve regressed or been detracted by it. But we have got to get a grip on bastardizing any fucking thing that we don’t do or even may not agree with. As long as the issue isn’t egregious or putting someone in direct risk of injury, then let it fall to the wayside. You go your way, I’ll go mine. Constructive criticism is one thing but arguing like children on Twitter over semantics has got to go.

18.) Progress is self-diagnosed, performance is peer-reviewed

When’s the last time you were able to scroll Twitter or Instagram without seeing how hard someone is GRINDING #TeamNoSleepNoDaysOffNoRestForChampions. Here’s the deal, in their own mind, EVERYONE is “grinding”, because it’s a subjective view of a relative concept. Everyone will always convince themselves that they’re working harder than they once were, and in all likelihood convince themselves they’re working harder than they really are.

Progress is relative, and it always will be. Only you can truly observe progress, and nobody will understand how much or little progress you’ve been making. Progress is the mundane, unglorified daily task work that eventually accumulates in to something over time. It’s all the things that nobody will acknowledge, and less will care about. These, without question, are also the things that will ultimately feed into performance and outcome. So my advice on this, is simple- create objective, tangible goals, and create unique ways of holding yourself accountable to these. Nobody will care, and nobody should, progress should never be externally motivated anyhow.

Performance on the other hand, works in the complete opposite fashion. Everyone is watching when it comes time to perform, and most will watch with a critical eye. Think about it, we obsess over our own victories, and (usually) obsess over other’s shortcomings. My belief is that you are the last person who should analyze your own performance. Why? Because battles are won or lost before they start, so if you’re not satisfied with the outcome, the aforementioned “progression” items are where you should turn your attention to. For coaching, the expectation for outcomes should inherently be success. Of course this won’t be the case, failures are inevitable, but the expectation should never be anything short of valor. Not because you are impervious to defeat, but because you have obsessed over saturating your day-to-day practices and put every ounce of effort you have in to everything leading up to the performance markers.

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