Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Lonesome Polecats.

When venturing deeper and deeper in the waters of the Quadrants, see “Easy Strength” for details, a lot of people become confused nearly instantly as there is a perception that one Quadrant is better than another. As I always argue, this isn’t moral theology, there is no good or bad here. The Quadrants are an attempt to clarify the IMPACT of the strength coach and strength training on a given activity.

So, here I am over here with a fat loss client and a shot putter (QIIIs) and both of them made the mistake of turning on the TV or reading the Internet or looking at a magazine. If you have ever trained anyone correctly, I define that as dealing with what they need rather than what they want, you know what’s coming next: “Why can’t I train like SEALs/300 actors/UFC fighters/Rugby players and load wheelbarrows full of squids and juggle monkeys (or whatever)?” Well, it’s a good question: why don’t we do everything even if you don’t need it? Let’s talk.

If you train like some superhero from another Q, it might be great and awesome and Zing Bang Boom (cue the 1960’s Batman series with Adam West). But, so much of one’s time and effort doing things that honestly don’t support the goal set is more than just a waste of time: you are dissolving your precious recovery and maybe even causing your nervous system so much noise that you are death marching yourself in the opposite direction.

“Noise” is a term I first learned in Doctor Robert Hoover’s World War II class. He and Doctor Glatfelter (a star of some of my favorite college stories) taught a four-day a week course with Friday’s devoted to watching “You Are There!” films and other newsreels. On Thursday nights, each of their students were given two tickets to special screenings of just about every famous movie ever made about WWII from Hollywood. So, if I took you on a date in the late Seventies to a movie, well, I didn’t pay for the ticket because I had no money! On a side note: they both admitted on the last weeks of Spring, as the class went for three quarters (Fall, Winter and Spring!) that they felt they had only touched on the basics of the conflict.

As always when discussing the attack on Pearl Harbor, somebody raised their hand and said: “Didn’t FDR KNOW that the attack was coming? He had been told!” Doc Hoover then explained “noise.” When in a position of power, so many things are told to you, so many notes and letters come across your desk, you hear so much, you can’t listen to it very well. FDR had probably had a memo a week slapped on his desk that somewhere some country was massing to attack. Soon, you can’t hear it. Most of the time, for the record, ignoring it is exactly the right thing. Sadly, there are some Sundays in December that ignorance of the facts can lead to tragedy.

Noise is also the term I use when training athletes. Once, I watched, baffled to be honest, as a Sixth Grade Football coach went over, in great detail, just before the game what to do “if” the opposing team lines up in an unbalanced formation. The sixth graders were so confused as the game began that the opposition ran for several easy touchdowns before these poor kids got their balance. That’s noise.

Noise is all those extra skills we toss in the athlete’s soup to insure everything from balance and mobility to fighting boredom. Now, it might have value, but, usually, all of this noise takes away from the person’s ability to focus on the task at hand.

You know this. Think about the first day you start a diet: You buy all the stuff, then in the check out line you see that some Hollywood bimbo is eating kale and miso soup. Instantly, all your research on Atkins or Paleo or Ornish goes out the window. Welcome to noise. Elite athletes learn usually the hard way, those in QIII and QIV, not to dabble with noise at all.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the best Olympic lifters in the world only do the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, with a little Front Squatting, in their training. Nothing else carries over! Juri Sedych was surprised when he found out that I threw the discus, shot put and hammer in college as this would cause “Negative Transference.” I think he might have been right: too much noise!

But, there are areas where noise is part of the game. The skills learned in basketball tend to carry over into football. In fact, the best way to improve your football program is get them all to wrestle for a season. Sure, there is a lot of noise, but this noise carries over. Why the disconnect? Look at the Quadrants. This is the eternal problem with QII: in the realm of collision sports and collision occupations, you need literally dozens of qualities honed at a high level. I remember playing high school football and learning from harsh blind side hits to keep my head on a swivel. At the same time, I had to read my keys, watch the ball, appreciate the team aspect, and sprint to the ball carrier. Football has 22 players, up to seven officials, lines, fans, flashbulbs and extremely high expectation. That is noise.

If you want to really get an insight about noise, read Bud Winter’s “Relax and Win” and get some insights about the stress level of WWII pilots. There are many television shows that give insights about the number of things that go on in a dogfight including this thing called “gravity.”

So, learning to deal with noise is part of the whole Quadrant approach to training. Few will be surprised to learn that some Qs have more issues than others and QII is probably going to be the one where I am going to say “Yes, you also have to deal with a lot of noise and confusion at this level.” Pretend I just said it.

There is also another issue with doing ANY thing that doesn’t support your goal: recovery. I’m always at a loss when it comes to the discussion of recovery, to be honest. If you perfectly nail training load, volume and intensity, the only recovery one needs to worry about is post-competition. So, I guess no one really nails training load, volume and intensity or…

It could also be all that other junk you are doing. When I see a fat loss client doing balance drills I always wonder if focusing on fat loss will improve balance. It makes sense. I know that certain kinds of flexibility moves improve with weight loss, try to bend over with a 60 inch waistline, so I think that fat loss, our favorite QIII activity, should focus on adherence to diet and inefficient exercise. When a discus thrower is doing agility work or running laps, I know that recovery from this waste of time is going to be more complex that from lifting and throwing (all a thrower needs, for the record).

Famously, when I first met Gregg Glassman of Crossfit fame, he thought discussing recovery was a waste of time. There is a certain logic here: if your workout is four minutes long (Bottom to Bottom Tabatas, for example), you have 23 hours and 56 minutes to recover for the next bout. I struggled with this for quite a while. As Crossfit now offers its own Games, it will be interesting to see whether or not the athletes use performance drinks, goos or potions. It later occurred to me that most people doing Crossfit were just doing workouts and not competing. Many at Crossfit HQ took offense when I noted that there wasn’t a focus on sports specificity, but this was my insight: like someone doing Zumba or Jazzercise, training for training is NOT the same as training for competition. It’s funny as there used to be a Crystal Lite sponsored national fitness dance championship and I am sure that training and competing for that would have caused one to consider recovery as part of the big picture.

Part of reason that my experience didn’t line up with Gregg’s insight may be fact that Track and Field (or any athlete really) people need to lay it on the line on Saturday morning at 9:00. Moreover, in Track and Field, we are expected to either break our own personal records or come amazingly close. Nothing makes me laugh more than when an announcer is disappointed that the athlete missed a world record or American record by this or that.

I would love to see someone comment that Wilt Chamberlain had a subpar performance after he scored his magical 100 points in a game with a mere 60 point effort. That’s a “D” and he barely passed the class!

In college, I squat snatched and power cleaned heavy three days a week. I threw the discus, shot and hammer daily and began to notice that I couldn’t keep my weight up. I was sliding down from 231 to 226 to 218. Back then, the universities didn’t offer supplements or protein drinks as they do now and I was struggling to keep up my weight with three meals and a snack at night. I got some good advice from Kevin Brady: drink beer.

Oddly, and I doubt you get advice like this any more, it worked very well for me. Quickly, I felt good again in training and had the ability to lift the big loads and throw far again. Certainly, there were other options available, but this worked amazingly well for me and it got me focusing wisely on other simple recovery habits.

To compete in Track and Field where failure can be so slim it is truly shocking, you have to insure your recovery for both training and competition is in line. I was only doing basic O lifts and throwing, but the load, the reps and the intensity were very hard to keep up with using a normal diet. During that season, anything extra may have taken me down. Fortunately, Coach Maughan had seen his share of outstanding throwers and trusted that all I would need is the basics. He was a master of Managing Options and trusting the adage “Little and often over the long haul.”

Noise and recovery are hard to grasp, I know. The problem is human, or, at least, United States of American human. We tend to like shiny new toys. “Squirrel!” is the joke we use when we lose our focus on the here and now and let our sight shift off to another thing. Moreover, even though I don’t believe in it, we are also beset by the “Work Ethic,” the notion that we can all lift ourselves up by our bootstraps. Yes, it true: it does happen. I would prefer to be a trust fund baby though, THEN apply to a party school and demand to be on the intercollegiate team (I offer that to one of my young strength coach friends who deals with this situation each and every day in the gym; it was an attempt at a joke). So, it is hard to believe that I can’t magically recover from each and every session.

Avoiding idiocy helps. Noise and Recovery are just two of the issues of course. Another issue that emerges from the Quadrants and the misunderstanding of them has best been summed like this:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus (7th-century BC)

For a quick summary of this point about hedgehogs consider this:

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations: “You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs.” Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it. “Those who leave the biggest footprints,” said Bressler, “have thousands calling after them, ‘Good idea, but you went too far!’ “

Conversation between Jim Collins and Marvin Bressler, October 2000.

My good friend Pavel often remarks: “if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Sadly, many people think that Pavel can be wormholed into “the kettlebell guy.” Oh, and for the record: if you use or see kettlebells in most places, thank Pavel. No, really, just him. And John Ducane who had the wisdom to sit down and talk with Pavel in a coffee shop and decide to produce some bells and see where this would go.
Pavel uses barbells, bodyweight, pull up bars and kettlebells to teach the same basic human movements. The tool doesn’t matter, but, as all of us find, the key is in how you use. KBs are very good at teaching those basic human movements that you know but forgot. The barbell is good for load. Like most master coaches and trainers, Pavel is a fox.

Our industry is filled with hedgehogs. When the hedgehog is right, it works. When wrong, it fails mightily! I would suggest that the early Nautilus writers, including the one who tells everyone we never talked on the phone…even though we did, are hedgehogs. I’m telling you this: if you have only twelve weeks to get someone pretty strong, do Nautilus or HIT or whatever we call it this week. Six weeks to teach and build up some basic numbers and then six weeks to ramp it up with these machines is going to work well for anyone. It won’t work after that, no, but it’s hard to argue with that massive early rise in strength you get from machine training. The numbers don’t lie: you did “C” on your first workout and “Q” on your last workout, so, by definition, you are stronger. I know those aren’t numbers but that is the way they had them labeled at my old gym.

I made a nice bit of change, by the way, back in the day by selling the old machines as scrap. Why did we walk away from something as good as Nautilus?

Well, Week Thirteen was the issue. In addition, I have often noted that the company made enough money to fund an Olympic lifting team and a Track and Field team. They could have easily proved, on the fields and platforms of honor, that the system worked better than free weights. For rehab, I still think machines have value and taking a person from the couch to a training regime. This hedgehog was right for what it could do and absolutely wrong in what it could not do.

During my two years of Nautilus training, I noted in my journal that my arms had gotten bigger. I had never done any direct arm work in my career and my arms filled. However, my throwing spiraled down, down, down. For a discus thrower, it was nice to have a bigger arm, but I wasn’t throwing any farther, in fact, I was throwing less. I experimented through my career with High Intensity Training, including some summer training sessions with football players. Over and over, the results were the same: success in some areas for a few weeks, then stagnant. Now, for the fans of this method, I can assure you that I followed all the steps like reducing training sessions, changing into other modalities, and all the rest. I really discovered that it just doesn’t work as advertised after the initial burst.

Of course, and this is important, one will discover volumes of work supporting this and every other method. But, always look at two things in the science of lifting: first, and this is crucial, how many of these studies go beyond six weeks. Now, my friends at the university level tell me that it is really hard to do studies beyond this as the student volunteers have to fit this stuff into sessions, quarters or semesters. My cynicism thinks it is because everything works for about six weeks, so we can prove anything.

Second, as with those studies from the Sixties that proved that steroids don’t work, these researchers often use untrained people. Friends, everything works on untrained people. For about six weeks!

Crossfit and the various high intensity DVDs available 24/7 on television have taken a different tack: these are promoting that we train with a bit of confusion to keep the body off balance and provide stimulation over a wide band of fitness measures. I joked the other day that this approach is ideal if you are looking for men and women to look like 14 year old boys. As my good friend Dan Martin often says “What about Day Ninety-One?” If you survive a 90 day program, then what? Moreover, besides the injuries and burnout, I always worry about the fact that dropouts from these programs will find themselves in that rut of three hard workouts a year, usually the first days of January. As much as I don’t see the value of pure machine training for sports, I have to acknowledge that people tend to keep on keeping on for a while on these systems.

But, don’t ignore the genius of these hedgehog programs. Each exists on the far edges of the continuum with standardized machines with seat belts and multiple adjustments pushing the muscle to failure on one end and dozens of exercise variations and prodding the body to exhaustion on the other. If success comes from hard work, it is wise to do what I did and drink deeply from these methods. Or, trust my experience and realize that these lessons can be learned without two-year internships.

To repeat: “Those who leave the biggest footprints,” said Bressler, “have thousands calling after them, ‘Good idea, but you went too far!’ “ I think the Hedgehogs need sound and wise advice. Sadly, all you have is me, so let’s keep talking. I’m not saying that Foxes are perfect for our coaching metaphor either as I have done this myself.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. One year, I focused entirely on X because I went to a conference and the guy spoke about X. Next year, they said Y and that’s what I did. The following year, it was Z. We were all fired the next year. I blame the fans.

As I get around better and better coaches, I notice that they seem to grab a handle on something and tell the world “we are going to do this!” Now, there is some wiggle room here, about twenty per cent of what they do going to change. Most good coaches tell you that they steal from others and try a little. So, if about 80% of what you do stays with you year in and year out, you probably have it right. So, be a hedgehog about some things, but keep that bushy red tail available about part of your work.

This blog post was going to be about “Etching” versus “Reacting” in the mindset training that I believe Strength Coaches can do better than anyone. So, I have some homework for you. There is a video on YouTube from “Seven Brides for Seven Brother.” The song is “Lonesome Polecat” and it is amazing. It’s a fun song and the ax chopping is amazing. Watch it once or twice. I want you to NOTICE that once the two brothers carry in the log, the whole song, dance, ax chop, saw, step and movement is done with one camera in one take.

I want you to compare and contrast this with the television show, “Glee.” For the record, I am not poking fun at Glee! The Gleeks will fill this blog up a hundred times more than when I make fun of Crossfit! Here is my point: the cast has two amazing dancers. The female, a ditzy blonde played by Heather Morris, and the male, the man who taught the world about the “Asian F,” Harry Shum, Jr., are occasionally allowed to dance for almost three or four seconds without a camera cut. The rest of the cast is flimed in a different way, it is like watching a slide show on warp speed as the editor must be screaming “cut and paste, cut and paste” as fast as possible.

So, until next time, keep asking those great questions that MAKE me a better coach and writer.

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