The Top 3 Things Physical Therapy School taught me about being a Strength Coach

Mark Clevenger

Over the last 3 years I’ve had the unique experience during Physical Therapy School (PT) of simultaneously operating part-time as a freelance strength coach for Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman, and Powerlifting. While I’ve had one foot in each discipline for 3 years I’ve noticed a lot of parallels between these two fields, but I’ve also noticed there’s also a lot they could learn from each other. Now I could go onto write a big long article covering every detail on this two-way topic, but something tells me most people wouldn’t read it (TLDR). So I’ve chosen to spare you computer screen space and only discuss what I feel are some of the more important topics that need to be covered with regards to what PT school taught me about being a strength coach.

Complete the Puzzle

In PT one of the most important first steps we take when working with a new patient is the evaluation. In PT we break the evaluation down into subjective history, systems review (cardiovascular system, ect…), objective findings, assessment, goal setting, and a plan of care. While much of this information may or may not apply to this person and what brought them to you, we still need all the puzzle pieces to try and understand the whole picture of the patient. I equate it to having a jigsaw puzzle with more pieces than you need, you can still put the picture together as opposed to an unsolved puzzle due to several missing pieces.

This evaluation was the first thing about PT school that I carried over to being a strength coach (SC). How am I supposed to help an athlete if I don’t know everything about that athlete? Injury history? What’s their typical day look like? What is their warm up and cool down consist of? Nutrition? Sleep? Goals? Compensatory movement patterns? Movement constraints? Weaknesses? Motivation level? Overall health? Any question you can think of to give you more information about your client as it relates to their life, sport, and body, the better.

This is definitely something I feel is lacking in the strength training community from a coaches perspective. Too often I’ve seen coaches take on new clients and only ask them about their max’s and training goals. Don’t get me wrong that’s important to know but it leaves too much off the table and really tells you nothing about the client. I get it, we get busy and want to narrow everything down to the simplest of questions but the initial client interview is the foundation that everything else you do for that client is built on. The more information you have, the better a plan you can create for that client, the better their outcomes will be, the better a reputation you will earn. So take the time on the front end with your clients to ask a lot of questions and really listen to all of the puzzle pieces they give you.

Training should not be Spaghetti Thrown at a Wall

When I started my first outpatient clinical rotation I felt like I needed to fill every session to the brim with exercises to fix whatever issues my patients had. I would seriously do 6-8 different exercises in a treatment session. After a few weeks when I started seeing success with various patient outcomes, and feeling like I was hot stuff, my clinical instructor sat me down to review some of my patients’ cases with me. He asked me to pick out what exercises I had selected for each case had the biggest impact on that patients outcome? I honestly had no clue so I told him all of them. He asked me how I knew? I told him because the patient had positive outcome measures. He told me that patient outcomes were an important part of practice but how we got there was just as important.

The point he was making, one that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until my rotation was almost over, was that treatments were not a matter of throwing the kitchen sink at a patient hoping for a good outcome. It was about implementing exercises or changes one at a time and assessing their impact on patient performance. Learning what selected exercises worked and which ones didn’t so you could focus all of your attention on those things that actually worked. Looking back on it I can’t help but ask myself how much extra pointless work I was having patients do that wasn’t really making them better? How much faster could their positive outcomes have been if I would have learned what worked best so I could focus all of our attention on those things?

The point for us strength coaches is this: Find your clients signposts; those exercise signs that tell you what direction to take their training. We all remember those teachers in High School that assigned busy work for the hell of it and nobody liked those teachers. Don’t be your most hated High School teacher to your client, assign meaningful work that you know moves clients towards their goals or strengthens their weakness, not because you think it does but because your programming experience with them tells you it does.

A Balanced Athlete is a Healthy Athlete

            One of the biggest lessons I learned in PT school and clinical rotations is the value of being physically balanced. Think about it, how many pathologies do you see as a result of an imbalance to a bodily system(s)? Poor posture plus lot of heavy pressing equals shoulder problems. Weak hamstrings and glute complex plus deadlifts equal lower back pain. The point is I began to see a correlation between the overall musculoskeletal health of an athlete and number of physical imbalances they had. This could range from specific muscle weakness, to joint range of motion, to energy systems utilized in training. This sold me on the belief that the better balance we can bring to our athletes the greater their longevity in their sport of choice and healthier they will be.

Let’s be honest, how many of our clients are amateur lifters and how many are pro’s getting paid for what they do? For most of us the answer is the former, we have to keep that in mind. These are clients who recreationally compete and whether they want to hear it or not it’s just a hobby. These athletes have full-time jobs, families, and other life commitments that they need to be able to physically perform for. From a parent playing with their kids to a firefighter saving lives during a 24-hour shift, they have other physical demands that must be accounted for in training that we must keep them healthy for. By keeping athletes balanced through intelligent programming we can keep them happy in their sport with personal records (PR’s) as they get stronger, as well as keeping them happy in their everyday lives because those PR’s aren’t costing them anything from their other life commitments.

While I’ve had my hand in two baskets for the last 3 years I’ve learned how to take the lessons learned about the career I’m preparing for and parlay those into my passion for coaching strength athletes. While these three topics are not an all-inclusive insight to everything I’ve carried over from PT to coaching, they are the three biggest lessons I’ve noticed and implemented. Maybe some of these ideas help you, maybe not, maybe they’re something you already do, by any account I hope you take something positive from it for either for your athletes or yourself.

Strongman is a Jealous Lover

Mark Clevenger

I’m not going to lie, if “Strongman” were a woman, and you met her at a bar, she would be a solid 10. She would be incredibly hot, love to eat, lift heavy, and would confess that she “never does traditional cardio.” You’ve got to go for it, right? I mean, what could possibly be wrong with her? All of these first signs feel so right and then you figure it out… she’s a stage 5 clinger. If you don’t spend your every waking moment thinking about how you are going to incorporate “Strongman” into your life giving every ounce of your energy and time to her… I promise something bad is going to happen to you.

If she catches you thinking about another form of training she’s gonna key your car. Don’t have time to spend with her this weekend because of work? You’ll come home to your Playstation 4 and all of your games burning in the front yard. With all of this said, you should be asking yourself, “is she even worth it?” If so, how do you keep this stage 5 crazy at bay so you can enjoy this beautiful 10 on a daily basis?

Forgive me for sounding like a misogynistic pig while I’ve tried to illustrate a point about the sport of Strongman. The thing is, training and competing in Strongman can be the most appealing, fulfilling, and exciting sport on the planet, but only if you give it a prime spot on your priority list. This is going to mean devoting the time and attention needed for training, recovery, nutrition, and implement-specific technique work. Here are the top three things you should be ready to do to keep this dime piece happy.

Commit to her, there can be no one else

There can be no one else. If you think you can train for Crossfit, Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and water polo and be safe competing in Strongman you’re wrong. Every sport has its own unique set of sporting demands that must be addressed in training to prevent injury. The more sports we compete in the longer the list of sporting demands that must be addressed becomes, but there are only so many training hours a week that we can fit in or recover from. Eventually, things on this important list get neglected and it’s not too long until the injury fairy ends up paying you a visit. If you’re going to compete in Strongman, commit to Strongman.

Eat

If you wanna wear skinny jeans and have ‘cut abs’ all the while being able to deadlift cars and run with hundreds of pounds on your back, you’re obviously in the wrong sport. Training for Strongman is hard and requires the proper fuel to keep doing it day in and day out. If your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs to recover, guess what? It’s going to break.

Active and passive recovery

When you’re not in the gym training, or eating to be in the gym training, you should be focusing on recovery. This includes 8 hours of sleep a night, lots of water all day every day, using a lacrosse ball or foam rolling problematic body parts every day, getting on a regular massage schedule, and going for regular walks on both training days and rest days. If you don’t focus on recovery, recovery won’t focus on you and that’s how you end up hurt.

It may sound like I’m trying to make this an all or nothing scenario, but I’m really just trying to stress the importance of sport specific training.  Do some athletes dabble in multiple sports and do just fine? Yes, but think about how many players you have you seen on the show ‘Cheaters’, that is generally the exception and not the rule. What I don’t understand is, why dabble with a 10, when you can simply have a 10? In the end, if you’re a weightlifting player who wants a side chick, Strongman is not the one to just play around with.

Commit to her or you’ll regret it.

Active Lifting vs Passive Lifting: The Key to Training Longevity

Mark Clevenger

There are two types of lifters in this world, those who primarily lift with active structures and those who lift primarily with passive structures. In order to understand what type of lifter you are we need to give some definitions to these concepts. I define active structures as contractile tissues, or skeletal muscle. This tissue is the driving force of all biomechanical motions in lifting. Passive structures I define as connective tissues that help facilitate the movement produced by the active structures. I’ve chosen to grossly oversimplify each tissue type for the sake of keeping this article form being too nerdy or technical. I want the bigger picture painted with broad strokes in order to make the concepts easy to understand and apply. So hang on to your seats as we discuss the concepts of active and passive lifting, determine what type of lifter you are, and how becoming one type of lifter over the other will increase your lifting lifespan.

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with great form and technique we will call active lifting. This is where joints are stabilized and moved through active structures in order to execute a given lift. In this scenario, the active structures are the pure driving force of motion with the support of passive structures helping them do their job. I equate the active structures to someone driving a car from one destination to another while the passive structures are Google maps telling the driver where to turn step by step on the journey. Google maps aren’t driving the car, you are. You are in control from point A to point B, Google maps is just telling you how to get there.

“…there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting.”

The idea that the body lifts, or moves, an object with bad form and technique we will call passive lifting. This is essentially where some point in the kinetic chain is inactive while contractile components around this snow birding segment are creating an area through the inactive segment where motion is primarily being facilitated by passive structures. A good example of this the Ninja Turtle rounded back in a deadlift. The spinal erectors and lats have turned off and now the leg muscles are generating pull through the passive structures of the lower to mid back while your arm muscles and traps are holding onto the bar for dear life. Here Google maps in the lower to mid back is driving the car with you in it… and we all know apps can’t drive cars, Google maps is not Skynet and Terminators haven’t time-traveled to stop a robot induced apocalypse… yet.

So why does our body assume the passive structure posture in certain lifts? The answer can be as simple as a muscle weakness. The muscle giving out is not strong enough to hold the position or perform the task it’s asked to perform while a given weight is being moved. The correction for this should be obvious, strengthen the weak muscle (or group of muscles). Sometimes the answer is a matter of mobility, the athlete is not physically capable of assuming the position it’s being asked to assume so the muscles required to prevent passive lifting are never active to begin with. Maybe the problem isn’t one or the other but a combination of both.

“A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation.”

The mobility scenario is more often than not a cop-out for many athletes and coaches who are not skilled enough to coach complex movements or adapt movement patterns to allow a lift to be performed with active structures over passive structures. While true examples of this scenario are less common, when they do occur it’s usually due to postural changes that have occurred over long periods of time (protracted shoulders, shortened hip flexors/hamstrings, ect…) or are purely anatomical in nature (excessive anteversion of the femur). In the case of postural mobility restrictions, start doing soft tissue work and exercises to correct the defective posture. For the anatomical problem, get creative and find a pain-free way to perform a given lift. An example of creativity would be having an athlete with anteversion perform sumo deadlifts from low blocks which clears the hip of impingement in most anteversion scenarios.

So how do you know what type of lifter you are since there are so many different lifts and endless strength deficits or mobility scenarios that can apply to all of these lifts? My best advice is to find an experienced coach to work with. A good coach has eyes for both gross motor function and muscle activation. I know everyone cannot afford a quality coach so for these athletes simply set your fancy smartphone up and record the lifts, record them from different angles, then watch for both gross motor function and muscle activation. The internet is full of great sources to teach us how to perform almost any lift imaginable and what muscles are doing what at each phase of these lifts. Watch the video and ask yourself, am I using the muscles I’m supposed to be using to move this weight? Do I look like a Ninja Turtle when I deadlift? Do I do the chicken wing when I bench? Coach yourself through intrinsic (I feel something) and extrinsic (I see something) feedback into a perfect movement pattern. When finding a weakness this tells you what muscles need more attention in training. When you find yourself unable to get into positions, figure out why and address that mobility problem when applicable. If the problem is suspected to be anatomical in nature get it checked out from a medical professional then get creative and find ways to keep lifting pain-free.

“…passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty.”

By becoming an active lifter you’re improving your quality of movement and increasing the shelf life of your passive structures. I tell people all the time that passive structures are like a fully loaded AK-47. You only have so many bullets to use before you’re empty. If you waste all of your bullets before you’re thirty, you’re going to get to the performance battleground of your 30’s without any ammo and will hurt yourself. These passive structure injuries take a long time to heal which will keep you from training/competing, and what fun is that? No one want’s to dish out copays, visit Dr’s, and go through surgeries that will leave you on your rear end for weeks or months… Plus that whole time you’re out of the gym the weights will miss you. So train to become an active lifter and keep the weights company so they never forget who you are.

Over the course of this short article, I’ve tried to simplify a complicated subject to make a point that there’s essentially a right, and wrong, way of lifting. One way is the long game which leads to a lifetime of training and all of the health benefits that come from it… like looking good with your shirt off. The other way is a sprint where short-term gains are sacrificed for lifting longevity which keeps you from a full life of the health benefits of lifting. I think we can all agree which of these two scenarios is ideal. So go forth and lift with your active structures carrying that full magazine of passive structure ammo with you throughout life, never having to worry about whether or not you have enough ammo to make it through a training session or competition.

The PR Hangover

By Mark Clevenger
October 20th 2016

PR’s (personal records) are the reason most people train and compete. To do something you’ve never done before is one of the most exhilarating feelings we can experience. Unfortunately as we get older we learn that sometimes these PR’s come at a price. It’s like binge drinking. When you’re 21 you can go out drinking all night, get 4 hours sleep, get up and go about your business no problem. When you’re 31 it takes 2 full days to get rid of the hangover and you burn at least 1 PTO day trying to recoup. The gym PR’s are no different, their hangover can sometimes put you on the couch for the next two days.

Why is it that hitting a big PR takes so much out of us? Doing something you’ve never done before requires your body doing something it’s never physically done before. Our bodies are terribly inefficient at things it doesn’t know how to do, requiring our nervous system to work in hyper drive to accomplish the given task. Our nervous system is highly metabolic and is subject to fatigue like all other metabolically active tissues in our bodies.  This hangover (overly tired, insatiable hunger, total body soreness) is the physical display of neural fatigue.

When our nervous system attempts to activate muscles to complete a movement at a weight it’s never done before it doesn’t know how many times it needs to discharge a signal to the muscles involved, how frequent those signals should be, or the correct sequence of motor unit activation. This causes it to go into hyper drive and is the cause of neural fatigue. Once the nervous system figures out the recruitment patterns and how much activity it needs to achieve sufficient force for that particular movement at that particular weight, then that lift (and weight) starts to feel easier to accomplish. Your nervous system now knows it doesn’t need to throw the kitchen sink at the muscles to complete the lift.

So the next time you go on the weight room equivalent of binge drinking and do something crazy like set a 300# PR on a tire flip (cough, cough), you’ll understand why you feel like the walking dead the next day. At that point burn a PTO gym day, get some rest, eat some good food, and get ready to make a hero’s return to the gym because everyone was talking about your awesome lift while you were gone.

References:

  1. MacIntosh B.R. Gardiner P.F. McComas A.J. Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Second edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2005.

The 5 types of strongman competitors you’ll see at your fist novice competition

By Mark Clevenger
September 10th 2016

The following are the 5 most common strongman competitors you’ll see at your first novice competition.

  1. The guy/girl that doesn’t belong: This is the athlete who crushes every event and obviously should have been an open competitor. How they got to compete in the novice division is still a mystery of the universe. Their mastery of the implements and timing of the details suggest this is nowhere near their first rodeo. You watch and learn as much as you can from them all the while hating the fact that you have to compete against them.
  2. The guy/girl that doesn’t belong, part deux: This is the athlete who zeros almost every event. Why they decided to pay money to compete in something they are physically unprepared for baffles everyone there. Fellow competitors give them tips and cheer them on because that’s what this sport is all about. When it’s all said and done we just hope they fall in love with the sport, learn from the experience, hit the weight room… hard, and come back when they’re a little more prepared. Mad props to this athlete for putting themselves out there though.
  3. The strong Crossfitter: This athlete is strong (by Crossfit standards, take that however you want) and pretty good at Crossfit. They thought this success would parlay to success as a novice strongman, and most of the time it does. They have the mental toughness required to attack each event with 100% of themselves, they have the strength endurance to repeat this effort in multiple events throughout the day, and they are generally good at both overhead and lightweight deadlift events. They are not as good at the more traditional strongman implements like farmers walks, atlas stones, ect… Their strengths in the overhead and lightweight deadlift events generally carry them through pedestrian performances in the other events to the podium.
  4. The naturally strong athlete that never really works out: This athlete claims to never really workout. They do manual labor all day for a living and decided to compete on a whim because it sounded cool. You believe them when they say they never train because they look like a baby giraffe trying to walk when they touch any barbell or implement. They generally come out the gate doing reasonably well in the first two events and then either get hurt, or their bodies tank, because they are not used to repeating maximum effort for multiple events in a row. You watch them jealous of their natural talents and wondering how good they could be at this sport if they worked at it.funnylifting
  5. The athlete who has committed to the sport but not ready for open competition yet: This was me. I trained in strongman every college football offseason because I was a blocking tight end and my strength coach was an ex-strongman competitor. By the end of every season I lost so many of the gains I made that the cycle just restarted for the following season until I graduated. These athletes are fairly strong overall and have a good grasp on the implements because they are part of their regular training regime. They truly love the sport, are always in the hunt for the podium, and perform fairly well in every event. These athletes generally make the jump to the open division shortly after they start competing in the sport.

This list isn’t all inclusive, there are other ‘types’ of athletes you’ll encounter. These are just the 5 most common that I have seen. Ask yourself if you fall into one of these categories. If you fall into the first, do everyone a favor and compete in the open division. Kicking kittens isn’t cool and the other athletes won’t appreciate you dominating a division below where you belong. If you fall into any other, you have a good idea of what to expect based on the type of athlete you are. Either way go enjoy the experience, learn from the vets, be a good sport, then go out and connect with your fellow competitors after the contest for burgers and beer.