26 Things I've Learned: Training Edition

Here are 26 things I've learned and/or mused over throughout the past year. Why 26? Well, it's one more than 25. By no means is this a conclusive list, but grab a cup of coffee, take a break from work, and enjoy:

1. Probably my most favorite exercise to program – and then subsequently watch in action – is the towel-grip farmers walk. Not only is it fantastic for developing the upper back, shoulders, and wrist and forearm musculature, but also fairly idiot-proof to perform. Not to mention, you can do it in pretty much any gym without needing farmers walk implements. Just grab a hand towel, loop it through some kettlebells or plates, and walk like your life depends on it.

Admittedly, the primary reason I love programming them is there’s just something mildly entertaining about watching someone try to walk from Point A to Point B while on the verge of dropping their belongings. Especially if they’re a high school male with a competitive spirit, and trying to carry a bit more than their grip can handle:

2. It’s funny how the hierarchy of your favorite exercises changes you as you obtain knowledge/experience, train more, and coach training more. If you had asked me what my favorite exercises were, in order, back in high school, I probably would have told you something along these lines:

1.     Flat Bench Press

2.     Incline Bench Press

3.     Decline Bench Press (noticing a pattern here?)

4.     Bicep Curl

5.     Some ab exercise (probably a sit-up variation)

6.     Look in mirror

Now, if you were to ask me, I’d probably say something like this:

1.     Deadlift

2.     Single-leg Work (this includes Sled Variations)

3.     A Horizontal Pull (it could be a Suspended Row, Cable Row, etc.)

4.     Pushup

5.     Pullup

6.     Other Exercises

It’s just crazy, if you actually take the time to investigate and experience good training, how quickly you begin to realize the exercises that will give you the most bang for your buck and actually deliver results. These exercises will not change over time, either. If it weren’t for boredom, most would be best served by only performing the first five exercises (and their variations) in the second list above. For the entirety of their life.

3. Muscle soreness. It’s not really an accurate indicator of whether or not you had a good workout. At least in terms of a workout that will produce the desired training effect. And, if you’re really sore in a particular body part, that doesn’t mean that body part is going to magically transform the next day.

I can think of a thousand ways to make someone sore. It doesn't really take a whole lot of brain power to do this. Here’s one: Perform walking lunges around an entire track while holding a weight over your head.

I used to say this as a joke and then a trainer actually made me do this during trainer evals in college. Not kidding. Not sure what he was trying to accomplish with me, but I couldn’t move for three days afterward.

Understand that muscle soreness stems from two primary stimuli: significant eccentric muscle action, and/or the exposure to a new movement pattern. The amount of muscle soreness doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship to looking like a greek god or goddess.

Personally, I feel an intelligent trainer can write a routine that will induce a sound training effect (fat loss, muscle gain, performance enhancement, etc.) while minimizing the soreness a trainee will feel the next day. This way, the trainee can still perform other activities, unhindered, throughout the week.

This is what we’ve figured out at SAPT, more or less: the correct exercise progressions and the optimal number of sets, reps, intensity, duration, etc. to give someone results without crippling them the next day. Now, some people need to feel some soreness in order to feel mentally satisfied. For example, women love feeling sore in their glutes and/or abs. We can make this happen, if needed :)

4. Beginners seeking muscle mass and strength really don’t need to perform more than 15 work sets in a given training session. They should also keep their training to 4x/week, maximum. In fact, 2-3x/week is usually best to start. Note that, unfortunately, this is much different than what the typical beginner will find when opening an issue of FLEX to determine what to do in his first gym routine.

5. Many more women would experience results from their gym efforts if the media didn't constantly throw nebulous terms and propaganda at them. It’s a constant battle to provide women with sound training advice, as they’re bombarded by fallacies everytime they walk down the magazine aisle. Females are told that lifting heavy weights will make them "big and bulky" (<-- the media loves that term), when the reality is this (lifting correctly) is often the key piece they're missing in their exercise program. In fact, JC Deen just wrote a fantastic piece on proof that lifting heavy will NOT make women big and bulky.

Understand that words such as "cellulite," "shaping," "toning," etc. have no physiological basis and these very words are loved by marketers in their quest to scare and sell. And I just can’t believe the archaic advice of hopping on an elliptical, going on endless runs, and doing sit-ups to achieve a lean midsection is still being handed out. 

Heck, just this past week, Tiffany dominated a 135lb front squat as she prepares for D1 college volleyball. I think you’ll find she’s far from the “bulky mammoth” women are told they’ll turn into if they touch a heavy weight:

6. One of the most important training principles is that of the minimum effective dose. That is, the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. In the context of training, the "dose" would be a training stimulus such as lifting weights, running, conditioning, etc.

The key is to always use the lowest intensity and the least amount of volume in order to incite adaptation. This way, you can save higher intensities and volumes for later in your training when they become essential for continued improvement.

Tim Ferriss gave a great example of boiling water: "To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 212ºF (100ºC) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive."

I see this all the time when beginners try to use methods that are way too advanced (and won't help them, anyway). They waste wayy too much effort and valuable time on powerful methods when they could save them for later in a way that actually gets them to the place they seek.

Applying the minimum effective dose is the most efficient and effective way to ensure continued success in the realm of athletic performance, strength gains, fat loss, you name it. The secret is knowing how to use it.

7.If there were one tip I could give to instantly improve your results in the gym, it would be to always move the bar AS FAST AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. This includes your warm-up sets. If you have 150lbs on the bar, treat it like it’s 300lbs. Move it FAST. Even when the weight becomes heavy, still lift it with the intent of moving it as fast as you can.

This will help better prime your CNS and tap into your high-threshold motor units -the ones that have the highest potential for growth and power.

I see way too many people just lollygagging along through their warm-ups, or, even worse, their work sets. Move the bar fast, every time. Then be amazed at your results. And, in case of confusion, I’m referring to moving the bar fast only through the concentric portion of the lift, or the portion in which you’re moving the load in the opposite direction of gravity.

8. One more quick tip on instantly enhancing total body strength: Increase your grip strength. In nearly every exercise, your grip is the first link in the chain. Strengthen your grip, and you’ll automatically be able to allow the larger muscles to contribute more, via less neural activity wasted on failing wrist and forearm musculature.

9. I never really understood the bravado surrounding the idea or action of puking as the result of a workout.

“Yeah, man. That workout was sooo intense. It made me puke. It’s only the second workout to make me do that. It was awesomeee.”

Stop it. Stop that right now. Your vomit in the trash can is a flashing billboard telling everyone that your body wasn’t prepared for the “workout” you attempted. If you puked, that means you were underprepared and you failed the routine.

I can think of a hundred ways to make someone puke in a workout. It takes little to no intelligence to design a routine that will induce vomit in someone. As such, I really don’t look up to anyone who writes a program with the intent of making his or her trainees puke, or even come close to it. And if you do puke, please stop bragging about it. That coughed up food on your shirt is a Badge of Fail, not honor.

10. Falling over after a workout. Similar to #9...avoid this pitfall. I’ll admit, this would happen to me on occasion after some of my most grueling sessions in the past. It seemed to be my body’s natural response. But then I spoke to Sarah and she told me how she took great pride in never falling over, or putting her hands on her knees, during/after a brutal conditioning session. This made perfect sense when I thought about it.

In the context of training an athlete, imagine if you let the athlete consistently put their hands on their knees, or collapse onto the floor, during a tough conditioning session. This conditions the athlete to display visual signs of defeat when tired. If an opponent sees this, it gives an immediate advantage to them by watching your athlete breakdown in front of them.

It takes a great amount of mental fortitude to stand tall when your lungs are burning and you feel as if you have no strength left in your legs. But it’s possible. Remember that when your mind is telling you you’re at 100%, your body is probably only at 60-70%.

11. I’ve rarely come across movement dysfunction at the lower extremity that cannot be at least partially remedied by strengthening the glute med. Strengthen the glute med, and you’ll find many problems to become attenuated.

12. Always be sure to train all three planes of movement throughout a given week. In day-to-day to life, and in many training programs, people tend to be very sagittal plane dominant. Basically, we’re always moving front-to-back or back-to-front. Running, swimming, deadlifting, squatting,, etc. all occur in the sagittal plane. Be sure you’re taking time to develop musculature and neural efficiency of the frontal and transverse planes, for purposes of both injury risk reduction and improved performance. An example of a drill focusing on frontal plane movement and stability is the lateral broad jump and stick, as Kieran is demonstrating in the video below:

13. Taking the shoes off and getting “slightly on the outside of the feet with the toes up” during most lower body movements is a surefire way of recruiting more of the glutes during the exercise.

14. Take caution if training lower body early in the morning. Your spine actually hydrates overnight, thus causing the intervertebral discs to swell/expand. This makes your spine less flexible, and also more susceptible to injury. As such, take great care if performing bilateral lifts early in the morning (ex. squats and deadlifts). Try to wait at least an hour before training, and spend a bit longer than you normally would during the warm-up.

15. The pushup is probably the most underrated exercise, and also the most commonly butchered.

16. Remember that your training and nutrition plan should enhance your life, not place you in a prison cell. I remember I used to turn down invites to friends houses, short getaway grips, and other festivities because it was going to interfere with my training session for that day. I even missed a dinner invite to a Pastor friend’s house because I had a session I “couldn’t miss” that afternoon. I also turned down an offer to play backyard football because I was worried it may make me too sore for my squat session later that day.

Outrageous, isn’t it? Before I knew it, my training was controlling me, instead of the other way around.

Not anymore, it was destroying me. Now, I’ll pick a gorgeous hike with my fiancée or some good buds any day over a training session. The gym will still be there, and it’s not like I’m going to backtrack. Or, if it’s a beautiful day, I may opt for some hill sprints instead of staying inside to use the gym.

Do you ever fear/avoid going over to a friend’s dinner because you worry about what they may be serving? Or turn down a trip to a restaurant with friends because of what the chefs may use in their cooking? While it is important to live a healthy lifestyle, remember that it’s important to livea healthy lifestyle. This means balance, and not placing yourself in a prison cell because you fear a gram of carbohydrate or losing an ounce of muscle.

If your training/nutrition plan is hindering the relationships you could be building with your family, friends, spouse, etc. then there is something wrong. That’s not healthy.

17. There’s a sublime sensation that can only be attained from training outside. I think everyone should make it a point to train outside more often.

On a recent Saturday, after work, I took my five fingers, homemade suspension trainer, and some bands to a local field.


I had a blast performing some sprints, crawl variations, and pretty much anything I felt like doing. It was awesome to enjoy the sun, feel my lungs burning, and not be interrupted by anyone for a change! It can be surprisingly refreshing to change your typical training scenery and perform an “unscripted” workout from time to time.

18. "Crack a walnut between your butt cheeks" may be the best cue to get someone to recruit their glutes during a hip bridge or deadlift variation. It's also a great way to break the ice with a new client and find out if they take themselves too seriously or not.

19. The body, when undergoing injury, will always take the path of least resistance. This is one of the reasons you rarely see an ACL tear in a young child; their skeletal system hasn’t fully matured so their bone(s) will break before their connective tissue goes.

20. I picked up a great tip from Alwyn Cosgrove regarding the topic of “getting back on track” with an exercise program. Many people feel that when they get sick, or unexpectedly miss a week of their exercise plan they have to overcompensate by doing a lot to make-up for what they missed. Or, perhaps some people feel they need to go crazy with exercise if they eat too much on a particular day/week.

Anyway, someone asked Cosgrove if they should ramp up their weight training + nutrition and go on overspeed to make up for lost days. I thought his response was great:

“Just get back on track. When you go off your plan - it's a "cheat" right? You won't get as good results. But going off your plan by doing extra work, or eating less/differently is still "off the plan" too. Just get back on track, don't do anything special.”.

21. Possibly my favorite exercise for someone with a cranky shoulder is the standing single-arm cable row. It aids in scapular retraction and posterior tilt (great for shoulder health), and VERY rarely irritates the person’s shoulder when performed correctly. As Cressey once said (slightly paraphrased), ‘If you’ve got a bum shoulder, and this exercise hurts, you can assume one of two things:

A.     You’re doing something wrong.

B.     You’ve got a reallllllly jacked up shoulder.’

22. The other day at SAPT I was talking with a parent about the demands and expectations that are placed on kids. It seems that with each passing year, children are less encouraged to have FUN and, instead, are nearly forced to spend the entirety of their week (and Summer!) working to become the next Michael Phelps, or world-renown scholar. Often they’re pushed to excel in just ONE sport and specialize in that from a young age. I don’t think many realize the negative impact this has on the development of the organism.

In fact, Mike Boyle released an EXCELLENT piece on this very topic, titled Summer Training for Nine Year Olds.

If a child is only 9-years old, they don’t need to be spending all Summer at speed camps or sports camps. Athletics should be enjoyable, not a job. Some of the best years of my life were spent competing in lacrosse, swimming, wrestling, and soccer. But some of those same best years were also spent camping, running around friends’ backyards, going to the pool, etc.

I couldn’t be more grateful that I was never forced (whether actively or passively) to play just one sport. It laid the framework for an extremely enjoyable childhood, and subsequent growth (mental and emotional) into adulthood.

23. Hill sprints may just be my favorite conditioning tool. They’re done outside, place minimal stress on the joints, develop the posterior chain, and allow you to perform a very natural, primitive, and basic human movement: sprinting. Sounds like a win-win to me. 

24. In training, there aren’t any right and wrongs, but there definitely are right and wrongs. What I mean is that there are many ways to get someone stronger, looking better, moving better, etc. provided you use the given principle appropriately and with great care and consideration. Upper/lower splits,  HIT, bodypart splits, avoiding bilateral squats, using a lot of bilateral squats, high frequency training, long distance running, sprinting, etc. can all work provided the one administering them is smart and pays attention to feedback from the client.

However, there are some things that are borderline asinine and are certainly wrong. Examples would be poor form (thus putting the individual at risk), progressing too fast, not progressing at all, having an obese person perform situps until their eyes bleed, running into a brick wall, etc.

People spend hours arguing on the internet about the “right” and “wrong” ways to do things. Do I feel certain methods work better than others? Yes. But I also feel that in many cases, the saying “different strokes for different people” applies. The reason I think there are so many strokes work. However, don’t forget that “methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change, but principles never do.” Never drift away from the tried and true training principles.

25. I never would have guessed how great a battle it is to balance giving the client what he/she wants vs. what he/she needs.

In my opinion, it takes a phenomenal coach to master this. The tricky thing is, the tools that are going to give someone the fat loss they seek, or the improved speed on the playing field, aren't the most sexy-looking and don't induce the "wow" factor in the majority people. However, it's also important to make training fun and not scare off the client. To balance education of the client, keeping their mental and emotional needs in check, while at the same time giving them what's actually going to help them, is more difficult than many would think unless they've worked in the field. Especially when you don't sell out or throw all the bells and whistles out there in hopes of winning someone's affections.

26. Consistency with training and nutrition will always trump a “perfect program” or “best exercise.” Every time. This doesn’t mean you have to be a nut case and filled with paranoia of missing a workout or meal, but the point is to stop looking for the quick fix and, instead, simply maintain a general track record of consistency.