Principles of Human Performance Series (Part 1- Training Fundamentals)

Change is an interesting dynamic of life. While a necessary, and yes, an inevitable component of our world, change can be imposing and uncomfortable to navigate. There is assumed risk with everything, to include being complacent. But we have a funny way of analyzing change and risk taking, mostly due to the assumed expectation of maintaining status quo and meeting social norms. As people age, they become more inclined to avoid risk or change altogether, largely because we’re gravitated towards the comfort we see in what’s familiar. Even if we’re moderately satisfied, we will temper dissatisfaction and become content with what is because this appears more desirable than the possibility of the unknown, and this is a tragic way of experiencing life.

As I’m sitting here typing this, I am about 72 hours away from my last day at Virginia High Performance, which has been my home for six years. I’ll be writing a separate and more complete article on this so I can keep it brief here. But I cannot write this series without first acknowledging the immeasurable appreciation and gratitude I have for everyone at VHP, most notably Alex Oliver. When I stepped into VHP in 2016, I entered with next to nothing to offer in terms of value or experience, and this man gave me a shot. Ultimately becoming an opportunity that changed my life on many levels. Coming out on the other side six years later, I feel as if I got the opportunity and education of a lifetime for “how to pursue excellence and figure shit out”.

I have been so humbled by the individuals I’ve met. I’ve had the profound opportunity to gather perspective and insight from some of the greatest hero’s and leaders our world has ever seen, and so early in my career. I’ve had a very high expectation set for me, that was continuously backed by support and guidance. I take my professional career with the utmost sincerity, and my work means a great deal to me. If not for Alex and the individuals at VHP I have no idea where my career would be at this point, but it’s hard to imagine anything that could have prepared me or benefited me the way my experience at VHP has.

There are approximately 260 working days in the American calendar, and for six years & some change I averaged 10 hours/day at VHP, with just one sick day (yea… that’s a subtle flex). Meaning over that six years I spent roughly 15,800 hours in VHP. The 10,000-hour theory, which I patently ascribe to, was popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers, one of few books that fundamentally changed my view on life. This theory states that it requires about 10,000 of experience in a high-performance setting to accrue mastery. While I’m tremendously proud of the impression I’ve made on VHP, I don’t know if “master” is something I can proclaim for myself yet, but I can say I’ve learned some things throughout all those hours.

Bringing us to the point, I will be putting together a four-part series in which I will share what I’ve taken from the place that has given me so much over the last six years. This series will be presented in somewhat of an eclectic manner covering a variety of subtopics, with each part of the series having its own theme. But now that we’ve gotten the lengthy feel-good intro out of the way, lets dive into the first of the Principles of Human Performance series and kick it off with S&C fundamentals.

I have dramatically changed how I view the human body and how we should go about training it over the last six years. Most of my perspective for high performance training has been shaped around navigating injuries and complex situations. I believe this is something that has inadvertently become a tremendous asset for me. Working with complex injuries forced a deeper understanding of anatomy and prompted me to investigate a wide range of modalities and applications, certainly things I never would have crossed into had I taken a more conventional route.

Among the handful of frustrations with the S&C industry at large, probably at the top of the list is the performative, theatrical mascaraed that is expected of strength coaches. This is especially pervasive in the football and military sectors of S&C. Having energy is great, having charisma is great, but you do not need to assume this fake tough guy/girl role and be inclined to seeing yourself a disciplinarian because you’re the strength coach. Our job is to stress our athletes, not strain them. We want to guide them to the edge of the cliff without ever shoving them off. Exhaustion will happen, but it should be a biproduct of a particular day, not an intended goal.

The problem with the performative mantra is that often bleeds into poor decision making for the exercise programming and selection itself. When we are viewed as punishing and unforgiving with our training in an effort to “set a tone” we’re forgoing an opportunity to make a genuine human connection. We’re guiding our athletes towards independent progress, not fear mongering them into vomit inducing conditioning. The goal should not be to annihilate your athletes while you’re with them, it should be to stress them appropriately- no more, no less. You are an extension of their success, meaning you should take pride in being calculated and measured in your approach because you’re committed to their outcome, not your authority.

The underpinning of effective exercise programming is manipulating stress inputs to promote specific adaptations, and stay ahead of your recovery. Recovery is similar to hydration in that when its responsive it's too late. You must build restorative elements into your program. From there, stressors (training inputs) are fluctuated throughout the year depending on sport calendar and extraneous circumstances. Stressing our athletes is fundamental for creating positive adaptations but straining them is fundamental to injury. This requires the coach has some level of daily autoregulation built into the training model. You must be able to pivot from your excel sheet when it’s needed. In time, athletes will be able to progressively tolerate more load, volume, or overall demand, but it must be earned along the way. Push them, don’t punish them.

The three cardinal planes of movement is one of the most misleading principles we’re fed in strength & conditioning development. Look, I get it, as a comprehensive reference we use to illustrate teaching concepts there’s no harm in the three cardinal planes. However, because of how enrooted this is into our thinking, it carries over into the observation of movement and exercise selection when students transition to professionals. It has been truly shocking for me to see how many coaches (to include good and experienced ones) that are just so oblivious to multiplanar movement. Having something as complex and as sophisticated as the human body and trying to reduce it down to three linear planes will impair ability to adequately analyze sport/movement. I’ve found tremendous benefit investigating the fascial system and biotensegrity principles for this reason alone.

Down to a cellular level, everything about human anatomy is helical, or spiraled, in nature. There is nothing linear about the arrangement of our anatomy, or how we move it. Nothing about our biomechanics or kinetics is linear either, joints never move purely in one direction. I could go on and on, but takeaway point being, while we need to load those conventional planes, we also need to find ways to move and load in all kinds of vectors. Do so with variable load, speed, and movement conditions. There are an abundance of movements/actions that occur in sport, three lines isn’t going to prepare for that.

I know this may sound like hyperbole, but nothing has helped me more than breaking away from our conventional anatomy framework and detaching myself from the siloed musculoskeletal view. Developing a deeper understanding of other biological systems, namely the fascial system, has in a sense provided me answers to the areas where the conventional sciences begin to breakdown. But also, while I talk extensively about the fascial system, it too is simply a piece of a grander puzzle; it just happens to be the one we know the least about and I’ve found value in. Beyond the fascia though, the nervous system (which is the true governor of all things movement and function), the cardiopulmonary, respiratory, lymphatic, and endocrine systems are all areas that are largely overlooked for strength coaches as well. These areas are critical to understand and doing so only broadens your understanding of how everything functions together. Relationships are key for problem solving efficacy.

The empirical root of human anatomy is this- multiple systems/structures all performing independent duties that collectively produce one unified outcome. And beyond that, these systems are working to keep us at homeostatic equilibrium and, well, alive at all times. If we are myopic to just what muscles do or basic energy system splits, we’re severely missing the point. It’s not a matter of just memorizing a bunch of single terms or functions so that you can regurgitate them on a test. The goal is to know the isolated information well enough to be able to understand how it all interrelates. The coalescence of systems, functioning as one.

This point ties into the one above, in that I believe the origins of S&C development are too centric to weight training. Once again, yes, this is a part of what we do, but it is not the only thing we do. You really need to ask yourself the simple question of “what am I trying to make them better at or for?” If the individuals you work with are powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, or even body builders, then yes… they need to exclusively be proficient at lifting maximal weights. But we need to train athletes to be better at sport, not better at lifting weights or showing good improvements on pre-post testing for a spreadsheet. Understand that S&C is a medium, one in which we are using to provide an array of tools, modalities, and applications to apply stress to the body. In lesser terms, I believe that there is much more pragmatism to variation than what most of our field currently believes.

My approach is to still load heavy and progressively on your primary lifts, but then start to build in more variation for accessories and auxiliary work. And of course, context is highly important here. I believe with young, developmental kids, you can get the majority of your improvements from simple, compound movements that are linearly and progressively overloaded. But beyond that population and return to play, particularly as athletes advance in skill and mature in training age I believe we should shift the emphasis towards things other than pursuing heavier compound lifting.

Ditch the redundant accessory work once you’ve developed your foundation for strength. If we analyze the dynamics of sport, there are far too variables to be considered to reduce programming down to things like RDL’s, DB bent row, and so forth. I think we get much more value out of emphasizing open chain movements, with variable loading, low constraint, and movements performed with velocity and across multiple planes and ranges of motion. The primary reason why I feel this is so important is so that we can better manage the balance between contractile and connective tissue. Muscle tissue and connective tissue do not respond to all training stimulus proportionally. If our approach is purely driven through the pursuit of maximal force output, we will inevitably create a disproportionate outcome that inadequately prepares the connective tissue. If you need evidence on this, just take a quick look at injury rates over the last 10 years across the NFL.

Another one I’ve spoken about quite a bit, the significance of the feet is another one of the more profound takeaways I have from VHP. I believe this is largely tied to the injury side but seeing how dramatically limited someone is or becomes due to problems below the knee is astonishing. When there are problems below the knee, nothing- literally nothing, can function at full capacity up the chain. Albeit to lesser degrees, athletes with no formal injury history but still present “aberrant” patterns such as excessive pronation, limited big toe extension, or an inability to eccentrically splay their foot will also see compromised upstream return. These aforementioned deficits may seem innocuous when viewed in isolation, but often can become considerable for kinetic integrity or mechanical relationships.

The biggest frustration from my end as a “pro train your feet guy”, is how damn simple it is. There is literally zero additional time, effort, or really even thought required. Just have your athletes start performing warm-ups and accessories out of their shoes. Start light and start slow. Doing this alone will show its value. There are several benefits from training out of your shoes, but to give you a shotgun list of the primary reasons- improved sensorimotor & proprioceptive function, improved midfoot stiffness, improved foot compliance, more stimulus for connective tissue surrounding ankle/midfoot, and an improved ability to load the medial arch and achilles.

The foot is effectively the lock and key for kinetic integration and the foundation for force. If we are able to properly position and distribute pressure across the feet accordingly to the task at hand, we are fundamentally in a better position to have more complete kinetic integration up the chain. Another consideration is the rate at which force can be produced and tolerated when we are more grounded. The ability to properly eccentrically splay the foot is critical for sport performance. And a primary component to eccentrically splaying is having the requisite foot compliance to create more space to load through. Think about force interactions at the foot like a channel or a dam… narrow channel, higher force with less surface area to manage it. Wide channel, greater opportunity to evenly distribute volume or force. Ditch the shoes, watch force go up and soft tissue injuries go down.