So, Mike sat in my front room after a six hour drive from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City and asked a simple question:
"Dan, why do people ask you to coach them?"
Now, I thought to myself, "Mike, you're here for my coaching. Why do you come up from one of the most exciting places on earth to, well, Utah?" Still, it's a good question. Why do people pay me a lot of money for coaching that almost inevitably ends up with the athlete saying, "Yeah, you're right. I already knew that."
If everybody "knows" everything I teach, why do I have a job? Certainly, there are people who revel in ignorance. I read a review of one of my articles on another site that had one serious error: it was obvious the reviewer hadn't read the article. Small thing, but it can lead to issues of clarity.
And I'm not the only expert out there. There are dozens of 130 pound guys who are experts on gaining mass, guys like me who put on twenty plus pounds of fat and give advice on prudence and sacrifice, and coaches who train Olympic lifters but can't actually lift much more than the bar.
But I'm willing to give you my secrets. I'm comfortable giving them away because few people will really apply these simple points. So, to quote The Man of La Mancha,
"Come, enter into my imagination and see me as I truly am."
The Parrot Technique
In truth, the great secret of coaching is the same as watching Oprah or any movie with a psychiatrist: simply repeat whatever the guest/patient says. There you go: my best technique. And now everyone knows it.
Seriously, get a nice, soft couch and sit back and doodle while the athlete talks about his training. During this time, I draw fighter planes attacking dinosaurs, but that isn't the point here.
Here's the first question: "So, what's the problem? What's going on?"
Athlete: "Well, I just don't squat right. I hate squatting, but I know I need to do more. Any advice?"
Me: "Here's a thought. Maybe, just maybe, we could work on your squat and get you to do it right. Then, you could do more squats. What do you think?"
Athlete: "Wow, it's like you know me... You and I are connected."
Me: "Yeah, that's why you pay me. Oh, and by the way, could dinosaurs defend themselves with lightning bolts? I ask because I'm good at drawing them."
If you say "Polly wants a cracker" enough times, Polly speaks back to you!
Honestly, probably 90% of the time I work with people, they know exactly what the problem is with their training, diet, or recovery. Now, this is only true when I can actually sit down and talk with them. On internet forums where guys weigh 175 ripped and bench over 500, there seems to be another issue or two....
But, it helps to say the words out loud to another person. My job is usually to ask the follow-up question: "Is this important for your goal?"
I wrote an article about Dan Gable's famous quote, "If it is important, do it every day. If it isn't, don't do it at all." Generally, people seem to know what's important, like eating protein and veggies and less processed, calorie-filled food. Hell, we all know that. We also know smoking is bad, drinking and driving is bad, drugs are bad, and the list goes on and on.
The Parrot Technique addresses a simple issue: the athlete knows what to do, and often he knows the solution to whatever problems that have arisen, too. The issue? Let's look at the next "secret" technique...
The Lawyer Who Represents Himself
Yeah, we all know the opposite axiom to this point: "Physician heal thyself." Fine. Good. You win. Your cliché beat my cliché. But if I could identify the single biggest issue with most people's training, it's this:
The coach who coaches himself has an idiot for a client.
Even a good surgeon doesn't pull out his own spleen. A good coach can't coach himself. Listen, I tried it for years and here's the problem: you simply don't have enough RAM to do it yourself. Yep, that's the computer term. You simply don't have enough space in your brain to do what it takes to train yourself.
First, designing a program takes a level of honesty that people can rarely match. Oh sure, we can all see the obvious with glaring faults and issues, but the fix might blow up some happy little beliefs that you're afraid to confront.
Second, anyone can design a program or plan. I see it all the time. But, in coaching yourself, you have to follow this program. Will you give it the time to work, or like me, immediately begin to tweak and change it so that by week two, the original plan is completely lost? I know this by experience... thirty years of it! So, can you follow your own plan? Some can (like Clarence Bass) but most can't. Even Bass, by the way, changes quite a bit from book to book.
Third, do you have enough will to push through your own program and not find the easy way out? I'm a master of talking myself out of tough workouts and back into my rut workouts. Like Earl Nightingale used to say, "A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out."
Fourth, can you honestly address your weaknesses at the start of a workout, in a strange gym, or when other alpha males are training near you? The moment guys who look like frat boys start training near me, I front squat. I'm not doing sets of triples in the pull-up when these guys are working their heavy triceps extensions, bro. Sorry, my ego can't do it.
Now, I have another idea to help you with this, but let's continue to unpack this concept. Let's just say it the opposite way. On the Velocity Diet, I drank six shakes a day. Why? Chris said so. If I follow Alwyn's workout and you ask me "why?" I answer, "Alwyn said so." When Dick Notmeyer coached me, the answer was the same: "Coach said so."
"Said so" is genius. It completely divorces you – and I mean completely – from any responsibility for your training. Why seven sets of four? Coach said so. Why fish oil? Coach said so. It's an amazing moment of clarity: you can pawn off all your responsibility to someone else. It's genius.
David Allen talks about how a neat desk, a neat car, and some basic efficiency in life can literally free up your brain to take care of what's important. I tested this during the last two weeks (I finished the Velocity Diet and found new energy to tackle the world) and cleaned my garage, my desk, and my library.
Allen is right. All of a sudden I was finishing things that should've been finished during the Lincoln administration and taking care of business. I actually think this carries over into getting yourself someone else to take care of the program for you. I think that's the draw of all the "Westside" hybrids and the popularity of this site: Hey, do this!
I'm trying to listen to my own advice here...
These first two points usually go a long way in working with someone who comes over to try my coaching. Most of the time, the person knows exactly what's missing. My job is to come up with some ideas to incorporate these missing elements into a program.
Just giving me the right to tell them what to do seems to free up some new enthusiasm for training and the stuff they need to do in training. So, how do we implement these ideas?
Seriously, Go Home!
If there's a bit of advice that I could probably give every fitness enthusiast in the world, it would be to train at home... sometimes.
Okay, we decide that you've been cheating on your bench by bouncing the bar off your chest and raising your hips. I convince you to change your ways. Then, you go back to the 24/7 fitness center and all your buddies are benching with a big bounce and hips making sweet love to the ceiling. You unload most of the weight and insist on perfect reps. Or you tell your friends, "Don't count any reps unless they're perfect!"
Sure, that's what's going to happen. Yep, that's right, we'll all strip the bar and go lighter in front of friends, buddies, and the girls on the treadmills.
I'm also going to make you go deeper in the squat, use full movements in the pull-up, and challenge you to slash rest periods. It's going to be hard in a public setting, especially when you've allowed yourself to be comfortable. And we all know the Comfortable Workout:
• Treadmill watching TV (usually Oprah, but ESPN is fine, too)
• A couple of arm waves called "stretching"
• Several sets of benching and calling people "bro"
• A really long set of curls to make your 13 inch arms grow to 13 1/4
To move in another direction, I suggest a few pieces of equipment:
• A dumbbell. I like something around 25 pounds for most people, but go heavier if you like.
• Those push-up handles that cost ten bucks. It allows you to really drop down deep.
• A "doorway" pull up bar
• An ab wheel
The total investment here is maybe fifty dollars, although I've found that most people have this stuff in a closet or "find them" in a friend's closet. I have "borrowed" thousands of dollars of good equipment from my friends and neighbors that was usually found holding laundry or living in the back of a closet with shoes and other sports equipment that was never to be used again.
Here's a great home workout that allows you to train and work on the usual issues that I find ailing most people:
1. Right leg Bulgarian split squats with the dumbbell in the suitcase position: 10 reps
2. Left leg Bulgarian split squats with the dumbbell in the suitcase position: 10 reps
3. "Goblet" squats with the dumbbell cradled on the chest: 10 reps
4. Deep push-ups, chest touching the floor, with the push-up handles: 10 reps
5. Doorway chin-ups or pull-ups: 10 reps
6. Ab wheel: 10 reps
Try to do these six exercises one after another straight through without resting much between movements. Repeat this sequence, after a minute or two of rest, three to five times.
This short workout, a supplement to your regular training, will help with cardio, help with muscular development, and help with general training. But most important, it'll help you work by yourself on full movements and applying the lessons of coaching.
Training at home is the opposite, if you will, of having a coach. It demands some free will, it demands some integrity, and it asks you to monitor your own technique. But, without the peer pressure of the spa or gym, or the pressure that simply comes from trying to not look stupid in public, you can focus on taking the time to do things right.
Your dog doesn't care if you struggle for a few weeks with 25 pounds in the goblet squat... nor should you.
Look at What You're Missing!
"Hey guys, wish you were here!" I love vacation postcards. The picture on the front usually has blue skies and a sandy beach. Now, is it just me, or do you worry when someone sends you a "wish you were here" card on their honeymoon? Just wondering...
The idea of a good vacation postcard is to let others know that you're off having fun while they're at work. It's a level of "one-upmanship" that I appreciate. Look at what you're missing while you slave away at the worthless quarterly reports!
For most people, they also seem to miss a few things in training. Generally, I can fix a person's training with just one or two simple "hmmms" while reviewing their training program. The biggest issue? The most common, usually, is ignoring half the human body. Not a big issue if you weigh around two hundred pounds; you're only missing a hundred!
What do I mean? Well, let's break down the body by movements, rather than by muscle:
• Vertical Push: militaries, overhead stuff
• Vertical Pull: pull-up, chin-up, lat pulldown
• Horizontal Push: bench press
• Horizontal Pull: row and the gang
•"Posterior Chain" or Deadlift
• Quad Dominant Lower Body: squat
• Abs: crunch or ab wheel
• Rotation or twist and torque movers: Russian twists
• Single arm/single leg push/pulls: This can go on forever!
Now, we can argue about this all day. For example, I don't do any twisting motions because I've done them all and I've never seen any benefit. Let me add one more point: I'm going to be doing them again in about two months because I'm trying a new variation.
So what does this all mean? I'm not so sure rotational work helps rotation, but I believe that there's value in doing some anyway. Not clear? Neither am I, so refer to the point above about "having a coach tell you what to do." Why am I going to do them again? Coach said so.
I can help a guy who only bench presses simply by encouraging him to do military presses for a few weeks. The ego hit will be hard: a 400 plus bencher hates the first days of struggling with 135 to 225. But, it helps. I can make a good athlete who squats often run faster by adding the deadlift to his training. Give it eight weeks and boom, I'm a miracle worker.
So, how do you get yourself to do all or most of these movements? Well, a good coach can program these easily, but let me add one more point. Let me repeat Dan Gable: "If it's important, do it every day."
Do all the movements – or most of them – in the daily movement warm-up! I've stolen an idea from both Steve Javorek and Alwyn Cosgrove. Do complexes to warm up. Here's one of mine, only mildly stolen:
• Power Snatch for 8 reps
• Overhead Squat for 8 reps
• Back Squat for 8 reps
• Good Morning for 8 reps
• Row for 8 reps
• Deadlift for 8 reps
Do these all in a row without letting go of the bar. Rest a minute, a minute and a half, or two minutes, and do it again. Try three to five sets of this little complex. This particular one is ideal for a day dedicated to vertical or horizontal pushing. If you do five of these complexes, you've done 240 movements that cover practically all the other moves.
I like this approach for most people. It's certainly a "volume" answer to the question of covering all the moves and, generally, most of the athletes I work with would rather do more to fix an issue than less.
The other easy fix is to take a standard calendar (I use the free kind given out by the mortuary) and have the athlete take the last month or the next planned month and simply note when every basic movement was covered. For some of us, "never" is going to be an issue sooner or later.
If you find that you have a ratio of five push workouts to one pull, this could indicate trouble over time. Now, here's the thing: for some who read this article, you might not ever come up with these imbalance issues.
We all know guys with toothpick thighs and an upper body that's out of balance and "too big." We also know that this guy would be bigger with some leg work, but that just might not be a big deal for him. And, it's not wise (but you can do it) to train for years ignoring things like vertical or horizontal pulls and not get injured or, really, even bothered by it. But, for those of us who throw logs or bang into people or toss weights overhead, this is going to lead to issues.
A few minutes reviewing the calendar can really spotlight issues with your approach to training. Generally though, most of the athletes I work with already know what they're missing in their training. The nice thing about identifying these gaps is usually it isn't that big a deal to fix. Let's be honest, in a week of training, tossing in a few sets of pull-ups or rows or even deadlift variations just isn't that hard to address.
Now, after a few minutes of having the athlete tell me what's wrong with his training, convincing him to listen to another voice in program design, discussing some home training ideas for dealing with performance issues, and over-viewing long term training omissions, the athlete discovers that he already knows all of this anyway.
Now, there's a range of technical issues that I can help with to help the athlete with the squat, the Olympic lifts, and various other moves, but honestly, usually we've found the core issues. Sure, we'll continue to tweak things as we battle the greatest challenge: to master something, you have to do it over and over and over again.
My mantra: specificity works...but at a price. The price? Yep, doing something for a million repetitions incurs the wrath of injury and boredom. To be honest, I think the boredom is worse as we can address injuries with proper training, rehab and, my favorite, surgery.
Dealing with this challenge will probably need another couch session, some additional coaching, further personalized work, and some review of the program... and we'll give it a few months to see how it all pans out.
So now you know what you know and you told someone else to tell you what you know, so how can I help you? I don't know.