Track coach Charlie Francis competed in the Olympics as a sprinter. Lakers coach Phil Jackson played professional hoops in his youth. Vince Lombardi played university and semi-pro ball himself before he began coaching.
Name a sport and you’ll probably find that a lot of the best coaches began as players, and then worked their way up through the coaching ranks. They didn’t read many books on the subject, and they didn’t study the latest research journals. No, they lived on the playing field, in the locker room, in the gym… in the trenches.
T NATION coaches, trainers, and nutrition experts are the same. Every one of them has spent a disproportionate part of his life in the gym and under the iron. They’ve competed, coached, and worked with people from all walks of life, from professional athletes and bodybuilders to chubby executives just trying to get healthy.
This in-the-trenches experience has given them things you just can’t get from textbooks. Things like insight, practical know-how, and yeah, maybe even a smidgeon of wisdom.
So we gave them an assignment: Tell T NATION readers about a client or athlete of yours who had a problem that was holding back his progress. How’d you spot it? How’d you fix it?
In other words, tell us a story from the trenches. Here’s what they had to say.
Dave Tate: The Bench Presser
I had a guy who couldn’t lock out his bench press. He pushed into it too fast and would stall out after 80% of the lift was completed.
The first thing I did was rule out any technical issues that could be causing it, such as leg drive and loss of upper-back tightness. His form was solid, so there was no issue with either of those. There were also no preexisting injuries such as a pec or triceps tear that may have affected it.
He told me he initially had trouble getting the bar off his chest, so he began doing speed work to fix it. But then his sticking point changed to his lockout. I had him do a set and looked to see if the bar drifted forward, backward, or down. All these can mean different things. In his case, the bar was stopping and then would come back down before the spotters would take it.
I determined that his issue was lack of triceps strength. To solve this, the first thing we did was cut out all supplemental and accessory triceps work! If his problem was due to too much work or overtraining, this would solve it right away. It also established a clear baseline to start from.
I knew what he really needed was to cycle high board presses (three, four, and five-board presses for heavy sets of 5 and 3 reps), but based on his raw bench of 475 pounds this would’ve increased his workload by 8000-9500 pounds if we just tossed it onto what he was already doing.
So here’s what we did:
1. Triceps work dropped for one week.
2. Triceps work added back in with dumbbell extensions for two weeks. (Two times per week for 4 sets of 8-12 reps, trying to break a weight or rep record every workout.)
3. The extensions were then replaced with JM presses for two weeks. (Two times per week for 2 sets 3-5 reps, trying to break a record every workout.)
To perform a JM press, use a narrow grip and lower the bar in a straight line down to about an inch or two off your neck. Now rock it back about a half inch, then perform a triceps extension back to the starting position.
4. The JM press was replaced with dumbbell floor extensions one time per week (3 sets 6-10 reps) and 3-board presses the other day (2 sets 5 reps, trying to break a record each week.)
5. Those were both replaced with light triceps pushdowns on the first day (a few sets of 12-15) and 4-board presses the other day (3 sets 3 reps, trying to break a record each week.)
The result was a 500-pound bench press!
Bret Contreras: The Football Team
Several years ago I made friends with the strength coach for the Saguaro High School football team. He saw me doing hip thrusts in the gym and asked me if he could send his players to me once a week to train their posterior chains. (I had a garage gym back then.)
He told me that he’d train them one day per week with squats, Bulgarian squats, and power cleans but he wanted me to train them one day per week with hip thrusts, reverse hypers, and glute-ham raises.
I obliged him and the players quickly became extremely strong at the hip thrust. They even coined the term “The Secret Weapon” for it. The entire team was eventually repping out with between 225 and 365 pounds.
A couple months later, the coach told me his team’s 40-yard dashes improved dramatically and that the linemen were manhandling their opponents like ragdolls. Saguaro won state that year.
The moral is this: Exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges are rightfully a mainstay in any athletic training program, but you should also include exercises that train the posterior chain in a different way: things that are expressed in sprinting and pushing an opponent backward.
Scott Abel: The Bodybuilder
A guy writes to me complaining about his shitty leg development. He’s totally frustrated. He thinks he’s doing everything right, but after leg day all he ever has is a sore back and aching knees.
So I get him to send me a copy of his training journal and, sure enough, it’s a mess. All he records is insignificant “data” but nothing about immediate and residual biofeedback cues. (I’ll explain that stuff below.)
First mistake: 5 sets of 3 reps starts every workout. I knew I had a lot of re-educating to do.
I met him in the gym and explained to him what’s wrong with his training log and also how to “target train.” I told him to switch his thinking to “train the muscle” not “train the movement.”
In other words, don’t do squats to see how heavy you can lift; use the exercise to work the legs. It’s totally different thinking because bodybuilding is not strength training.
I showed him how to do an extended set. When he notices a force decrement at around rep 8, I have him lock out and re-oxygenate. We repeat this process for every successive force decrement to the point where he’s doing lock-out singles. So, even though he starts to fail at rep 8, he cranks out 22 reps for that set. And in the next set he gets 17 with the same weight. (Our goal was actually 5 sets).
Then I explained to him about proper biofeedback. I have him record the “experience” of the workout, not just sets/weights/reps. He writes how he had to lay on the floor between sets and how it took about five minutes just to control his heart beat again. He records how his legs collapsed twice while going to get a drink of water, and how even though he hardly ever drinks during a workout, during this session he downed over two liters of water.
These are all indicators of “immediate” elements of training focus, and this feedback more accurately reflects target training and how close he can get to optimum work capacity.
The next day he records how he can hardly walk from yesterday’s leg workout, but this time it’s his legs that are sore, not his back. This is recording “residual” elements of biofeedback.
From here on, he understood the notion of target training, and how to properly keep a training log. He also understood firsthand what I was getting at when I told him earlier to switch his thinking: that it’s the muscles that work the weights, not the weights that work the muscles.
With these key concepts firmly in place, his education as a bodybuilder could begin.
Christian Thibaudeau: The Multi-Sport Competitor
Nick Demers is a renaissance man. He plays semi-pro hockey, boxes, and recently decided to try his hand at bodybuilding and powerlifting. He has very strong legs yet his squat was stuck at 385, a weight that’s way below his strength potential.
His problem was that he had a tendency to bend forward and lose his lower back arch when going heavy. The solution we found was to combine specific band work with tons of posterior chain work.
The band work was done on all his squat sets for three weeks. We’d loop Jump Stretch mini-bands around the back end of the power rack and attach them to the bar so the bands were parallel to the floor, pulling him forward during the squat. He did sets of five reps this way with a relatively slow eccentric and an explosive concentric, ramping up the weight at every set.
We then did seated good-mornings and good-mornings starting from the low position on pins. We used sets of five reps, ramping the weight with each set. He finished by doing bodyweight glute-ham raises for three sets of as many reps as he could do.
Seated good mornings, bench version. These can also be performed with your butt on the floor.
Three days after his squat workout, we added a posterior chain session. This included barbell hip thrusts for sets of five reps, co-contraction leg curls (holding the weight for ten seconds a few inches from the starting position, contracting the quads forcefully then releasing and perform 5 leg curls), glute-ham raises for max reps, and back extensions for loaded sets of eight reps. We ramped the weight on every exercise.
In three weeks he squatted 425 pounds, and in six weeks he went up to 455 pounds without a belt or knee wraps!
Eric Cressey: The Young Powerlifter
Back in March, I received this email from a 22-year-old powerlifter who was a month out from a competition.
“I’ve been lifting for 8 years and in recent years my bench and deadlift have increased significantly but my squat has stalled, even went down.
“During the past 2 years I’ve noticed significant ‘clicking’ in my right knee and simultaneously in my right ankle. I have a tendency to rotate in a counterclockwise fashion, with my right shoulder going forward and left shoulder going backwards during the squat.
“I think it may be caused by my right foot pointing out about 15 degrees more than my left foot naturally. Also, the day after I squat, the most sore muscles are my lower back muscles and hip adductors running the entire length of my upper leg. This has to be some kind of strength or flexibility imbalance and I need to fix it.”
When I met this guy in person, he presented with zero degrees of hip internal rotation — and when I checked it, he just about jumped off the table. He also couldn’t flex his hip above 90 degrees without a pinching sensation, and his supine FABER (flexion-abduction-external rotation) test elicited pain.
This wasn’t all that surprising given his history as a hockey player (stuck in external rotation) and wide-stance squatting. What was surprising was just how awful his squat looked. Keep in mind that this was a 400+ pound squatter, and this is just 135.
It was a pretty cut-and-dry case of femoral acetabular impingement, which is a newer-age diagnosis that essentially amounts to bony overgrowth of either the femoral head (ball) or acetabulum (socket) that makes your hip hate you at 90 degrees or more of hip flexion — in other words, squatting! I told him to go see a doctor and get a hip x-ray done, and sure enough, it was verified.
There isn’t a whole lot he was going to do to fix up the hip short of surgery, which he’s having soon, but in the interim he did work around it with some single-leg exercises and deadlift variations that kept him above 90 degrees of hip flexion. And he got cracking on regaining his hip internal rotation with a knee-to-knee stretch, which kept him in a pain-free hip flexion zone. Squatting was out, of course.
Tony Gentilcore: The Female Client
Not too long ago, one of my female clients expressed her concern over her lack of progress in the fat loss department. She travels 45 minutes (both ways) to train with us on the weekends. The rest of the week she’s at her local gym and following a program that I write for her.
I asked her to time how long it took her to complete her training session from the time she touched a foam roller to the time she completed her last set. You can imagine how far my jaw dropped when she told me it took her a little over two hours. She was taking twice as long to complete her session as was programmed! No wonder she wasn’t making the progress she’d hoped for.
The very next training session, I took her through the exact same training session that she would normally do on her own, but decided to implement a time limit of 75 minutes, more than enough time to foam roll, warm-up, train, and yell “Protect this house!” a few times.
As extra incentive, I included a “punishment” of ten burpees for every minute she went over the time limit. Result? The first time through, she went eight minutes over. Eighty burpees and a few “looks of death” later she learned her lesson.
Fast-forward a few weeks. She’s seen a drastic improvement in her conditioning and has lost a significant amount of fat in the process!
The lesson? Just because you “show up” doesn’t mean you’re going to get results. There’s something to be said about holding yourself accountable and going to train with a purpose in mind.