Training and Sports Are My Language
As I've gotten a little older and minimally wiser, I've wanted to give back the same way my mentor Darren Llewellyn did with me when I was a kid. So, a few years ago, I opened up my garage weight room to local high school kids.
Living in a small town in Ohio has its advantages as an adult, but as a youth you can see the limitations and lack of opportunities.
While sports are important here, they're not a huge priority. And consequently, training is even less of a priority.
While I don't have any grand illusions of the importance of what I do, training and sports are my language and this is how I'm able to communicate the lessons that were taught to me. Here's the story.
It may surprise people that my main goal isn't to make them amazing athletes or help pave the road for another great lifter.
If that's the road they take, so be it. It's not my place to show them where to go. However, I do believe they'll be better at whatever they do if they're stronger people.
I have three goals when training kids:
A good training program addresses three main areas: strength, conditioning, and mobility/flexibility.
Now, many people need more, namely competitive athletes, but no matter what you do, whether you're a professional athlete or an accountant, you must be physically fit and strong.
Having a strong body, at least how we define it here, isn't about deadlifting 800 pounds, but by being physically better today than you were yesterday.
In addition, I hound the kids that consistency is the key. Quick fixes have no place in training.
I take countless training questions from kids, sometimes offering direct solutions like, "Yeah, don't do that" to sometimes trying to make them use their head: "Why do you think that would be a good idea?"
One thing I learned from my mentor is that you have to give people the principles and tools to make good decisions regarding training. This comes from three things: experience, common sense/critical thinking, and having a role model.
While I can simply tell kids what to do, teaching them training principles is what really matters. This is what carries over to training and ultimately to life.
I have a three year old. To anyone that has kids, you know that things such as patience and empathy can and should be taught. Being mentally stronger or tough is no different.
Now when I say "tough" I don't mean wearing a leather jacket and picking bar fights. It's about being comfortable while uncomfortable.
We naturally seek comfortable situations. However, when presented with a situation that's uncomfortable or challenging, that's when you show your true colors.
Whether or not the lifter is a competitive athlete or not, I stress the importance of a total training program, one that stresses speed (box jumps/throws), mobility, strength (main lifts), hard conditioning (Prowler/sled), and relative strength (assistance work).
While this is hardly all encompassing, I've found that developing these attributes makes almost everything else easier.
We have three training days. Two of them are spent in the weight room and one, the Viking Day, is spent out of the weight room. We lift on Mondays and Wednesdays and we plunder and pillage on Thursday.
Here's a basic overview of the lifting:
- Agile 8
- Box Jumps or Med Ball Throws
- Assistance Lifts
- Agile 8
- Box Jumps or Med Ball Throws
- Assistance Lifts
The main lifts are cycled in 3-6 week cycles, all using a 5/3/1 program. We use four basic set and rep variations for the main lift.
- Week One: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 90% TM
- Week Two: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 85% TM
- Week Three: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 95% TM
Note: I use a training max (TM) for each athlete and it's not based on a percentage of the one-rep max but rather on how I perceive their bar speed.
- Week One: 5's progression and 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70% TM
- Week Two: 5's progression and 5 sets of 5 reps @ 65% TM
- Week Three: 5's progression and 5 sets of 5 reps @ 75% TM
Note: 5's progression is explained in Beyond 5/3/1. It's simply the usual 5/3/1 rep percentages, but you just do 5 of everything instead of 5 reps, 3 reps, 1 rep.
In the examples above, you end up doing 50 total reps of each lift, but rep records are attempted on week three.
- Week One: 5's Progression, 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70% TM for squat/deadlift and 50 total reps at 70% TM for bench and press
- Week Two: 5's Progression, 5 sets of 5 reps @ 65% TM for squat/deadlift and 50 total reps at 65% TM for bench and press
- Week Three: 5's Progression, 5 sets of 5 reps @ 75% TM for squat/deadlift and 50 total reps at 75% TM for bench and press
All lifts are done with standard 5/3/1 program with 5's Progression. We attempt to set a personal record (PR) or to hit goal reps on the final set. We then drop down to the poundage used on the first set and do the same thing.
- Week One: 70x5, 80x5, 90xPR or goal set. 70%xPR or goal set.
- Week Two: 65x5, 75X5, 85xPR or goal set. 65%xPR or goal set.
- Week Three: 75x5, 85x5, 95XPR or goal set. 75%xPR or goal set.
Before every set, I make sure everyone is fully aware of pushing each rep hard and as fast as possible, but under total control and mastery of the lift.
Two things that Darren taught me in training and in the discus were to be methodical and "slow is fast." The lifts have to be done violently but under total emotional and physical control.
The lifter must also own the weight, not the other way around. "Control is strength!" is something I say over and over again. By being under total control, the lifter invariably moves the weight faster without really trying.
This energy is always more powerful than if the lifter screams and spazzes out during each rep. I firmly believe in quality over quantity, and this all starts with being mentally ready and focused for each and every rep.
The teaching of these mental techniques doesn't really come into play until we try for personal records or shoot for a rep goal. That's when a lifter is uncomfortable and his body will want to shut down.
By being relaxed and under control, he'll learn to fight through this without throwing a punch. This is what I strive to teach: Control under pressure or while being uncomfortable.
No exercise teaches this more than squatting. Presses and deadlifts are easy when compared to squatting.
Squatting with a bar across your back gets very uncomfortable. Your lungs, legs, back, abs, chest, and arms all get fatigued. So while we push all movements, nothing shows the soul and guts of a lifter more than a PR set of squats.
Jumps and Medicine Ball Throws
We aim for 10-15 total jumps or throws per workout. The jumps are almost always box jumps and we use a variety of medicine ball throws, including overhead, backwards, and chest throws.
Occasionally we'll do the Prowler on training days. This is done with light weight for 8-10, 40-yard sprints with 60-90 seconds rest between sprints.
All assistance work is done with bodyweight or no added weight: dips, push-ups, chins, pull-ups, fat man rows, and leg raises. We use a total rep count that's based entirely on the athlete's strength.
I chose this name because everyone thinks Vikings are cool. At least most males do. Who the hell doesn't want to have a beard and wear a killer helmet and animal pelts?
The Viking Day consists of three things: Prowler, sled, and the thick rope. There's nothing fancy about how this is set up. We just sit outside and have fun. I set up some chairs in the driveway, make some water available (beer for me), and we all have a go.
We attach a 110' rope to the sled. We all do two sets of a very light weight and two sets of the heaviest weight we can move. These sets aren't easy and more often than not require the athlete to stop during the set.
Rope pulls are a great way to strengthen the arms and back, but if the rope is thick enough, your grip is also stressed.
I've found doing sled pulls with a strap attached to a belt to be pretty much useless. Instead, I purchased a strongman pulling harness and use that for all the forward pulls. The heavy weight forces the athlete into an almost bear crawl position.
After one light set of pulling forward, we again use the heaviest weight possible and pull the sled about 50 yards. We then attach a strap to the sled and walk backwards while holding the strap.
This is also done for about 50 yards and done with the heaviest weight possible. Like the rope, many have to stop during the set, but they quickly learn that losing momentum isn't a good thing. I keep telling them, "An inch is progress – keep moving forward!"
The last part of Viking Day is the Prowler. We do no warm-up for this and everyone has to do two 50-yards pushes with the heaviest weight they can handle.
This is always the last straw for many of them, including myself. The Prowler has a strange way of making everyone want to quit.
The Viking Day is no doubt a great way of strengthening the legs, hips, back, and arms, but more important is the mental strength you need to get through these sets. While squatting is the best way in the weight room to build mental strength, sleds and Prowlers and hills are the best way to build mental strength outside the weight room.
There are usually three phases one goes through when pushing their conditioning:
1 The Aggressor
This is typical in first timers. They waste their mental and physical energy by yelling, screaming, and being incredibly tense. They tend to hold their breath way too much because they don't know how to breathe.
I love training with these people as they make me feel like I'm in terrific shape. I could out-condition all of these people even if I had a pack-a-day habit.
2 Going to the Darkness
This is where people use mental techniques such as, "If I don't get this, my mom is going to die," or they draw upon some criticism that was directed at them.
This helps them push through and is a huge improvement from the Aggressor as they're much more relaxed.
But while this may seem like a good thing, they're still relying on emotion to get through the set. This is not ideal – emotion will drain you.
3 In the Moment
This is what I consider the apex of the conditioning mind and one that takes a lot of time to get to. Like weight training, it's about relaxing and understanding that pushing "easy" is how you push hard.
Your mind should sound like a Portal song. This is similar to what Bruce Lee said in the movie Enter the Dragon: "I do not hit. It hits all by itself."
While learning to relax while training may seem a little odd to most and probably far from the "If the bar ain't bendin', you're just pretendin'" crowd, this lesson of relaxation has served me well since I first learned it in high school. It took me years to understand it.
When I was a junior in high school, I learned a simple relaxation technique that took about a year to master. I'd hold my finger and thumb together, similar to the "OK" hand symbol.
You hold your fingers like this and practice relaxing your breathing and letting your entire mind and body relax. Just go numb and black.
After about a year of daily practice, all you have to do is hold your finger and thumb together and your body automatically relaxes.
Fast forward 20-plus years, and all I have to do is think about my fingers touching and I completely relax. This is how you want your mind and body to be when you do conditioning work. Obviously your body is moving and your muscles are tense, but there's a fluidity to your movements.
While this is important to your training, the carryover is huge. Knowing how to relax and be in the moment is so important in taking tests, public speaking, dealing with your kids, job interviews, or any situation that can be stressful.
We condition hard for the body, but we also condition hard to teach the kids how to relax under pressure when their breathing is compromised.
It's also important, however, to let them go through the phases themselves and learn from experience. You can get coached and read all the articles and books you want, but nothing will ever take the place of experience.
Just like you have to first learn to be slow and controlled in order to be fast, you have to first learn to fail before you can succeed.
It's easy for me to say that everyone I've mentored has gotten stronger. After all, they're high school kids and getting them stronger isn't hard. However, the best evidence of their progress is the reaction from teachers and parents.
The kids all walk differently. They carry themselves with pride and all of them are stronger people.
Whether or not they'll one day pass the torch I received from Darren, I don't know. That's their path to choose. At the very least, I've planted the seed of strength and hope they continue that journey no matter what road they choose.