Thriving vs. Surviving

Survive and advance has become the motto of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.  However, I believe the teams that thrive, not survive, are the one’s that advance.  Surviving suggests doing just enough to get by, while thriving suggests owning an opportunity and being better off because of the circumstances.

The term survivor is used to describe many who have made it through adversity: cancer survivors, Holocaust survivors, and sexual abuse survivors to name a few.  While surviving is certainly the first step in overcoming adversity, perhaps thriving should be the focus.  Allow me to explain.

He is considered one of the greatest hockey players of all time.  In 1993 he had a streak with at least one goal in 12 consecutive games and was on pace to lead the league in points, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer.  He missed two months of play and his team struggled.  However, on his final day of radiation he returned and scored a goal and an assist.  Even while missing two months of play he ended up winning the scoring title by 12 points.  Following his return, the team went on to win 17 straight games.  He went on to play for a total of eight more years, while coming in and out of retirement.  Today he is co-owner/chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been one of the best organizations in sports during his ownership.  Mario Lemieux is not just surviving.  He is thriving.

In 1944, because he was Jewish, he was placed in a work camp in Auschwitz where he became inmate “A-7713”, which was tattooed on his left arm.   He was separated from his mother and his youngest sister, who were killed in gas chambers, while his father was beaten to death at a work camp.   After living in France he moved to the United States where he has written over 40 books (57 total in his life).  In 1986 he received the Nobel Peach Prize.  He has received the Congressional Gold Medal, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and serves as a Professor at Boston University.  He received an honorary knighthood in London.  Elie Wiesel is not just surviving.  He is thriving.

Starting at the age of nine she was molested by her cousin, uncle, and a family friend.  The abuse eventually led her to run away at the age of 13.  From there she went on to earn a full scholarship to Tennessee State University.  Since then she became the host of her own TV show and became one of the premier interviewers in the world.  She is an actress, producer, businesswomen, writer, philanthropist and publisher.  She currently has her own TV network, magazine, and radio channel.  Lastly, she is a billionaire and one of the most powerful women in the world.  Oprah Winfrey is not just surviving.  She is thriving.

These examples are not meant to minimize the tragedies that each experienced.  All of them had to battle to get to this point in their lives.  Yet their ability to thrive in the face of yesterday’s adversity allows each of them to be great today.   The old saying, “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”, certainly rings true for all of them.  So, when your time comes and adversity hits, as it does for all who live, how will you react?  Will you be satisfied with surviving and advancing or will you challenge yourself to thrive?  Surviving isn’t always a choice, but thriving is.

How to Build a Monster Grip

Athletes involved in grappling sports are a special breed. I'm talking about the wrestlers, judo players, jiu jitsu players, MMA fighters, etc. To compete at a high level these athletes need a special blend of strength, endurance, mobility, balance, and a just touch of insanity. Additionally, an impressive trait that almost all good grapplers tend to have is ridiculous grip strength. I competed in the Copa Nova Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Fall Championships over the weekend, and after my matches my forearms were on FIRE! A big part of the game is getting a good grip on your opponent while keeping their grips off of you, so it's important to have some hands that you can rely on.

However the benefits of a stronger grip isn't limited to the grapplers. Working on grip strength can improve shoulder health, increase performance in other sports, and make activities of daily living easier. And we all know big forearms are cool.

So how do you build the vice-like grip of a grappling champion?  The solution is simple, go wrestle somebody everyday.

I'm just kidding (for most of us). But here are some tips to really challenge your grip within your lifting program.


Using towels for many of your pulling exercises will make you grip harder than normal. If you relax your grip even for a moment it could slip out of your fingers. Towels can be used for pull-ups, chin-ups, cable/band rows, inverted rows, face pulls, and shrugs.

Bottoms Up KBs

I haven't tried any bottoms up kettlebell work until recently, and it was definitely more challenging than I thought. Even with what I thought was moderate weight it was difficult to control. The bottoms up position can be used for pressing variations but also for weighted carries. Try some weighted carries with a KB in a bottoms-up rack or overhead position. If you've never tried it before your forearms might be in for a surprise.

Heavy Farmer's Walks

Load up the implements and talk a stroll. With these don't worry about using a towel or finding another way to make it specifically harder for your grip. The weight alone should do the trick. Chalk up your hands if you need to, but don't use straps (duh).


Picking up heavy things is one of the best ways to build up your grip. When using a barbell, try to go double overhand as long as you can when working up in weight.

Use these tips to feel better, open the tightest of pickle jars, and build a crushing handshake you can be proud of!

Lessons the Shirt Taught Me


Things got real weird on Friday night training with Ryan. What was scheduled to be a regular heavy bench session turned into my first time putting on a bench shirt. I have helped Ryan with his powerlifting gear many times before, but I've never really experienced first-hand how it feels to be in a squat suit or a bench shirt. Lesson #1: It's Not Comfortable

I learned very quickly that it doesn't feel too awesome being in the shirt. Getting it on was a pain, but I knew that was coming. I was used to being the guy on the other side of the shirt trying to force the shirt onto another human being, so I expected some discomfort. Luckily however, it was Ryan's old single-ply shirt and his enormous gunzzz stretched out the sleeves pretty nicely, making it a relatively smooth process to put it on. By the time we got the shirt on and got the sleeves and seams exactly where we wanted them I already wanted to take it off. It's super tight and forces you into a weird mummy-like position with your arms dangling out in front of you. You can't really do much about this situation until the shirt comes off.

I found myself rushing the rest periods between sets because I was more focused on getting the final set over with so I could take the evil thing off.

Lesson #2 I Couldn't Keep My Arch

The arched back seen in bench pressing is often demonized as being a flaw in technique or disadvantageous when trying to target the pecs. Whatever. I use an arch when benching because it helps to keep me tight on the bench, allows for better leg drive and provides better leverage overall to perform the lift. When benching "raw", I feel pretty confident about my arch, and I can keep it tight during the entirety of the lift. When benching in the shirt, however, I found myself losing my arch midway through the descending portion of the lift. This leads me to lesson #3...

Lesson #3 My Upper Back Is WEAK!

The shirt exposed my deep dark secret that my upper back is not up to par. When bench pressing in gear, the bar will not come down to your chest without a fight. You literally have to PULL the bar down while forcing yourself to maintain a proper arch. This takes some serious upper and mid back strength that I just didn't have. I could feel my arch collapsing and my once tightly packed shoulders becoming... not so tightly packed. Even when benching raw I always remember the cues to "row the bar down with the lats" and "keep the upper back tight," and I felt that I understood. The shirt let me know that what I originally thought was "tight enough" was an epic fail waiting to happen.

Although the shirt made me feel like a total n00b I walked away from the session with a lot to think about and a lot learned about my bench technique. I probably got some pretty good "overload" stimulation from the heavier weights that the shirt enabled me to use as well. Until next time, I'll just keep hammering away at heavy rows and pull-ups.

For your entertainment, here are a couple videos from the Friday night bench party.

Running & Wrestling: Like Oil and Water?

I have this very special file on my computer that is titled "Master Programs" and inside are all the important tidbits of information that have helped define SAPT's training approach and the template variations we have created. Looking through it is like taking a trip through time, as I remember where I was and who I was working with when each variation was put through its paces. There are a number of sub-folders with names like: 400m Training, Agility, Assessment, Healthy Knees, Intensity Tools, Nutrition, PL/WL (that's powerlifting and weightlifting), and Sport Specific. Within the Sport Specific folder I found an old document I put together in 2007 where I polled a number of other active D1 strength coaches regarding their approach to conditioning (specifically running) and wrestling.

To give this a bit of context, SAPT was in its infancy... I think the company was like 2 months old, and I had somehow convinced a high school wrestling coach to let me take his team through a 6-week pre-season training (thanks, Jack).

At one point we touched on the idea of running and wrestling. My stance was (and still is) that long distance running would actually do more harm than good for a wrestler. WELL, let me tell you this was not well received by the guys. So, in case I was crazy, I polled these other coaches. Here were their responses:

What’s the deal with running?

Responses from a variety of collegiate coaches…

“The majority of the AU wrestling conditioning is done on mat. The running is predominantly sprint work on the track at distances of approximately 30m, 60m and 100m. The long distance runs are primarily for recovery or for dropping weight. You need to explain that to those parents as best you can. Maybe you can use this to help you: "Due to the previously discussed increased risk of injury during periods of fatigue (30), designing the injury prevention program to incorporate metabolic system training proves essential. Specific to wrestling are activities that require high levels of anaerobic power and muscular endurance (8, 22, 54). Over the course of a 2-minute period, an explosive attack occurs approximately every 6 to 10 seconds (35). Simulating the metabolic needs of practice and competition is best accomplished through interval training (33). Intervals involving periods of intense resistance exercise, running, or biking interspersed with periods of relative rest should be considered the ideal training method to achieve physiological responses similar to wrestling. If possible, injured athletes should continue conditioning programs that also mimic the physiological needs of practice and competition (Table 3) to prepare for return to competition after adequate healing occurs."


Terry L. Grindstaff PT, ATC, CSCS, *D and David H. Potach PT, MS, CSCS, *D;, NSCA-CPT, *D. 2006: Prevention of Common Wrestling Injuries. Strength and Conditioning Journal: Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 20–28.

Or check this article out:

Zsolt Murlasits MS, CSCS. 2004: Special Considerations for Designing Wrestling-Specific Resistance-Training Programs. Strength and Conditioning Journal: Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 46–50.”

Email response from Jason Riddell, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at American University

“LSD for wrestlers depends on why they're doing it.  For performance gains it's worthless, it's like having your sprinters do it for greater speed improvement.  But, for improved aerobic capacity to aid in match recovery it has a small place, and I think there are much better ways to improve this capacity rather than going on long slow runs or staying on a bike for a long time, so I would say on occasion it may be okay but not as a regular activity.  Last, and probably the one most wrestlers use as their excuse for wanting to do LSD is for weight loss, cutting weight.

There are a lot of variables to this debate, LSD or no LSD?

LSD has been proven to cause:

Decrease in strength and power

Decrease in anaerobic power

Decrease in muscle mass

Last time I checked wrestling relies pretty heavily on all three of those, and a decrease in them will ultimately cause a decrease in match performance.

I prefer the Tabata method of HIIT (high intensity interval training) and this is what we had our wrestlers doing.  But, there were always those guys that went on the LSD runs to cut weight.

I hope this answers your question.

Give my best to Handy.

I look forward to meeting you some day.  Feel free to come down and visit when you have time.


Email response from Greg Warner, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at JMU

“First of all, thanks for being an avid reader of Elite.  Funny you asked this question, b/c we just had this conversation with our wrestling coaches.  They were all about these long distance runs and once we finally explained it to them in a way they could understand, it clicked!

Here’s how we explained it.  You know how wrestlers get “heavy leg” syndrome?  Well, that’s due to lactic acid build-up.  The more that they are trained at lactate threshold, the better their bodies will get at getting rid of and recycling the lactic acid.  Running long distance is aerobic.  It won’t help them at all when they are in the third period and their muscles are “heavy” or filled with lactic acid.  Some longer recovery runs are beneficial on days in between hard workouts or hard practices.  We typically do a “2 minute/ 3 minute routine”.  Two minutes of running (either done on a football field where they have to make a certain number of yards or on a treadmill at a certain speed…. Heavy weights and light weights are different, of course), then 3 minutes of recovery (walking).  This is the longest running we will do with almost any of our athletes.  They do need to have some aerobic training, but not 5 miles straight, know what I mean?  Most of our training is done in shorter intervals (30-60 seconds).

I hope that helps to explain it.  Once we explained it in terms that the coaches could understand (they understood “heavy leg syndrome” not lactic acid build-up), then it made sense to them and they were more open to changes.

Let me know if you have any more questions.”

Email response from Julia Ledewski, Assistant Director of Sports Performance at New York University at Buffalo

“Ok, here is my advice......GOOD LUCK!!!  Seriously, this is a tough battle to fight, and one that I think very few can win.  Why, because they have been doing it for so long that they are convinced it works.....yet too close-minded to acknowledge that there might be a better way.  Also, as I have learned since coming to UTEP, people in athletics really don't like change.....even though if you don't change you will never get better.  If you have Jason Feruggia's book, "Tap Out!!!", he gives an excellent description that may help you fairly early on in the book.

#1.  I remember when I was wrestling in high school that we did distance runs for the first couple weeks of training, but after that never ran anything that lasted more than 2 minutes.  And, these were sprints.  How long is a period in wrestling?.....2 minutes.  We also had one of the best wrestling teams in Missouri.  In fact, after I left they won the state championship 3 years in row.  They also place in the top 6 nearly every year.  Several of the guys I wrestled with went on to wrestle at the D1 level.  In fact, one guy competed at the international level and was expected to go to the Olympics, but had a few distractions.  In high school, you don't get to recruit your athletes, instead you have to train the ones you have.  For me, that's enough evidence to say that wrestlers don't need to run long distances to be good.

But, to play devil's advocate, what did nearly all of us do on our own after practice?  We went for a long distance run.  But, that was more to keep our weight down than to stay in shape.

#2.  If you walked into a wrestling meet, and had to bet on one of two wrestlers, which one would you bet on?  One wrestler looks like a marathon runner....thin, frail, no muscular development, and slow.  The other looks like a sprinter.....lean, hard, muscular, fast, explosive.  Knowing nothing else, except what you see, which one would you bet on?.........Here's a hint, most high caliber wrestlers have more similar characteristics of sprinters than marathon runners.

#3.  Running long distances requires you to be slow.  Why would a wrestler want to be slow?  Sprinting requires you to be fast.  Don't wrestlers need to be fast and explosive?

#4.  They might like this arguement.  Have the athlete run six 400 m sprints at a challenging pace (1 min 35 sec or less) with only 5 minutes rest, then on a separate day have them do a 1.5 mile run at their normal distance pace.  Then, ask them which is harder and requires more mental toughness?  If they are being honest with you, and running hard on the 400s, the answer should be obvious.  By the way, which one is more similar in energy demands to a wrestling meet?  In high school a period lasts 2 minutes, and there are 3 periods per match.  Furthermore, I would be willing to bet that you could increase the distance run to 3 miles and it would still not be as hard as the 400s.  *(The time I listed is what one of my soccer girls ran her 480 yd sprints in, so it may need adjusted for a male athlete who is only running 400 meters).

#5.  You can try explaining the energy systems to them, but I don't think you will get very far doing this.  They will not understand, nor do they want to understand science.  Even if they say or they think they believe in science, their "honest" opinion is that there is no science in athletics.  The only thing they will see is results.  And, some are sold on hard work, but carry it WAY TOO FAR in that they will actually tear their athletes to pieces before backing off.  These are the people that blame losing on not working hard enough, so that after a loss they kill their athletes in workouts so they are too tired to perform in the next match, and lose again.......from here it is a downward spiral.  Again, it all comes down to results that they see (W-L).  If you do your running, and they win, you are a genius and they will be sold on your ideas.  If they lose, it will be your fault and they will never buy into your ideas, regardless of whether you are right or wrong.

I saw the Thinker's response.  That arguement will go nowhere with the people you are dealing with.

All the weights on our racks are in kilos, so I don't bother to do the math on anything I don't think is close to a PR.  Also, if I do want to do the math, seeing it in kilos first distracts me from the depressing number of pounds I am lifting, in that doing the math is so fun that it takes the focus off what I actually did.  By the way, how can you say "stay" strong when you know how much I am lifting?  Shouldn't you be saying "get" strong, instead?

yes, it is depressing,


Email response from David Adamson, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at University Texas at El Paso

“Thinker: How much value (or lack of) do long slow distance runs bring to the table of conditioning for wrestlers? I'm trying to dispell myths among parents and athletes... running seems to be a VERY hot button for them! Thanks so much for your help!

Hello Sarah, Let's consider this from a physiological perspective:?? Long slow runs are certainly a viable means of developing oxidative capacity; and running in general provides a great deal of latitude in terms of how it may be manipulated (intensity, duration) in order to develop a multitude of capacities (developing cardiac power, pushing the anaerobic threshold, developing speed strength, sprint speed, speed endurance, etc).??The question, however, is: is long slow running the optimal means of developing oxidative power for the wrestler???Sarah, the answer is no.?? The oxidative power may much more effectively be developed via the performance of exercises that also develop the local strength endurance of the muscles of the legs, trunk, arms, and shoulder girdle.??These exercises may be performed with the most rudimentary of apparatus (bodyweight calisthenic/gymnastic, barbells, dumbbells, med balls, kettlebells, etc)??The key, however, is that the exercises are performed via the appropriate method (such as circuit or serial), the appropriate resistance, for the appropriate durations, and at the appropriate speed of movement to yield the targeted adaptations (in this case oxidative power). A heart rate monitor is an exceptional tool for regulating such a form of exercise.??In regards to developing oxidative power, most of the literature suggests that heart rate zones 60-70% of the maximum are ideal for recovery purposes and at the higher end (70-80%) you will begin to develop the power of the oxidative system. At you progress into the 70th percentile you are still beneath the anaerobic threshold and continuing to develop the power of the oxidative system. ??So, essentially, any form of exercise beneath the anaerobic threshold (which must ultimately be quantified in the laboratory or with technology like the Omega Wave) is stimulating the oxidative process (the lower the intensity the more the restorative the stimulus- the higher the intensity the more developmental the stimulus to the power of the oxidative system)??Specificity to sport is then imparted via the exercises performed and the work/rest intervals.”

Response from Pitt Performance Department

I have to say, it was pretty cool getting such thoughtful responses from so many of my mentors at the time. The take-away here is whether you are a wrestler or not, you should always examine the reason(s) why you are doing the conditioning you are doing. Is it actually helping you gain a performance improvement? Or is it actually hindering your peak? SAPT's tremendous coaches can, of course, help you reach that peak.

Parental Control

I am fortunate to work with a number of adolescent athletes ranging in age from 10-18.  While the adolescent is always my primary client, the parents are often just as important.  Parents often struggle with how to help their child maximize their potential, while still maintaining their number one priority, which is to be a parent. I often pass along this article written about Doc Rivers (Boston Celtics Head Coach) and how he has stayed away from coaching his son, Austin (10th pick of the 2012 NBA draft).   In the article Coach Rivers said, “I’ve been great. I stay out of it, I give him advice about humility.  Other than that ... go play basketball.  The coaches will coach you and I’ll be your parent.”  If one of the greatest coaches in the NBA can learn how to separate his role as a parent and his role as a coach, then every doctor, lawyer, and businessman/woman should strive to do the same with their children.

Every client I have ever worked with has had parents who show these three characteristics:

  1. Support:  I have never worked with an adolescent client who doesn’t have parental support.  The reason my phone rings from a parent is almost always a result of the parent’s desire to support their child.  While the motives often vary, the common thread is always support.
  2. Challenge:  Good parents almost always challenge their children to be better.  A parent’s job is to teach their child morals, hard work, and to ensure that they don’t settle for anything but their best.
  3. Embarrass:  No matter the age or environment, parents will always embarrass their children in one-way or another.  It exists in every parent-child relationship and there’s no way around it.  Embarrassment, intentional or not, is a part of being a parent.

With these three characteristics spelled out as “standards” amongst parents, it’s important to figure out which of them a parent should direct most of their attention to.

Support is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child, and that’s exactly what parents need to focus on when interacting with their adolescent athlete.  Taking a supportive role and letting the coaches be in charge of challenging the child, will allow the child to enjoy their sport, learn from their sport, and give them the best opportunity to be successful.  Coaches inherently are supposed to challenge, so as Doc said, “the coaches will coach, and I’ll be your parent.”  So parents should make sure to support, coaches should make sure to challenge, and children will let the parent know they are embarrassing them.  Trust me, I told my parents last night.

Chronicles from the Intern Experience

At SAPT we've been pretty fortunate to have some wonderful interns since we began taking them only a couple years ago. One who completed his time with us in the spring, Tadashi, has now had a fairly complete look at athletic performance training from three separate sources. Here are his thoughts: I can now proclaim I have been an intern at three different strength and conditioning sites.  While this accomplishment is a great addition to slap on my resume, I actually learned a thing or two in the process and gained a lot of experience.  What’s special about my cumulative experience in particular is that I have had the chance to work in three distinctly different environments: A D1 school in a mid-major conference, a D1 school in a major conference, and SAPT (a privately owned training facility).  Although these are all programs with similar goals of making people big, strong, fast, and athletic, I found that there are some pretty significant differences between the sites.

At the college level, both major and mid-major, time is always a critical factor.  A common mantra in the collegiate field of strength and conditioning is “get in, get out.”  There are typically multiple lifting groups per day so scheduling and timeliness are crucial.  Also, the athletes have class, practice, meetings, homework, and oftentimes jobs, and they simply cannot afford to spend hours in the weight room every day.  This means training sessions need to be quick and efficient.  In a collegiate team setting there simply is not enough time to go from athlete to athlete and break down exercise technique in intricate detail.  Instead, it becomes necessary to choose your battles and address faults that seem to occur across the board.  It would be awesome to pull an athlete aside during squats and go over belly-breathing techniques because he/she isn’t bracing correctly, but in a collegiate setting the team might be on their next set and the athlete falls behind.

This was especially true at the major level because the absolute number of athletes was higher, resulting in a disadvantageous coach:athlete ratio per session.  We are always maintaining supervision across the weight room floor and keeping a close eye on those we might feel are at a higher risk, such as those coming back from injury, but we can’t catch everything.  For example, as I make sure an athlete with shoulder issues is performing dumbbell rows correctly, out of the corner of my eye I might see an athlete on the other side of the room pulling cleans from the floor with a rounded back (and I die a little inside…).

What I found with my experience in the private sector is that quality control and attention to detail become the priority over most other factors.  With a better coach to client ratio and much higher standards in terms of execution of movement, very seldom do technique flaws go unnoticed and uncorrected.  Well respected strength coaches like Mike Boyle have advised having only one “coaching intensive” movement (think squats/deadlifts/Olympic lifts) per training session, but at a facility like SAPT even a push-up position plank becomes coaching intensive.

I believe a lot of the differences boils down to the fact that in a collegiate setting we are training teams, whereas in the private sector we are training individuals.  I feel that there is a level of responsibility for a collegiate athlete to keep up with the program laid out for the team, while in the private sector clients are paying for an individualized program fit for their personal needs.  You’re a D1 athlete and your shoulder feels funky?  Well, the team is bench pressing tomorrow so let’s hope you’re ready.   You train at SAPT and your shoulder feels funky?  Time to take a look at your program and see if we need to make some modifications.

There were many other differences I could talk about such as style of programming, exercise selection, testing methods, warm-ups, conditioning work, and so on, but these differences were more a result of the individual coaches’ preferences and not inherently due to the nature of the program (i.e. D1 major conference vs private sector).  My experience with these three internships reinforced the fact that this field really isn’t black and white.  When I have a question I turn to the experts, but what happens when the experts disagree?  Olympic lifts?  Linear periodization?  Westside?  Kettlebells?  Barefoot training? Foam rolling?  The beauty of having experience in multiple environments was that I could actually see these methods applied firsthand, and come to my own conclusion of what I thought was effective.

For those of you interested in strength and conditioning I highly recommend going out there and gaining some experience with many areas of the field.  Whether your interest currently lies in working with elite level athletes, collegiate athletics, children and young athletes, strength sports, endurance sports, etc., jump on every opportunity to work with anyone.  You will learn something from every experience, and you might even find your interests shift as you are exposed to different population groups and programs.  Even an experience in what you feel might be a “bad” program will teach you what not to do, and will help mold you into a better professional.