The Five Pillars of Training

I always joke that the coach who trains himself has an idiot for a client. I was self-coached for years. So, if you studied math or logic, I fully admit I am an idiot. The problem with self-coaching is that it is so hard to study the person in the mirror and see the whole picture. Sure, you can look over your shoulder, but the reflection is going to be twisted.


Friends can help. John Price used to remind me daily that “you are only as strong as your weakest link” and we would search and seek them out. Every preseason, I would chart out my weak points and note them. Then, I would ignore them.


Hiring a personal trainer gave me the great insight: I simply don’t have enough energy or free will to work on my weak points in favor of not only what I like to do, but what I am good at doing.


I’m not alone.


As I saw my own success improve under the guiding hands of others, I came to these simple conclusions about success in training.


The Five Pillars of Successful Training


Proactive, not reactive


As important as movement is in embracing fitness, a few minutes of planning each meal for the upcoming days is just as valuable. Therefore, we will take a few minutes each workout to “X” out those upcoming parties, festivities and general dietary disasters that await us each week. Our goal will be to face these events with a body full of clear water and clean food. “Thou shalt not go to a all you can eat dessert bar with a hungry belly!”


Also, a review of the food journal of the past week will give some clues about how to deal with upcoming events. Remember, the more honest you are in your food journal, the more success you have on your journey towards your goals. It is tempting to write “Small Salad with an apple” versus “Two pizzas,” but, long term, success rises with honesty.


Master my movements


There are basic human movements (Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Loaded Carries, and “Floor” work) and life demands that we use these daily and, hopefully, more often than that, too! All the terms tossed around in the fitness community from flexibility and mobility to cardio and core spin around the basic concept of “movement.” Mastery of movements brings back the spring and joy of youthful play.


“Practice will make you good at anything you do. And…we are practicing all the time.” George Leonard


Strength is the glass


When in doubt, get stronger. Absolute strength is the master quality. Imagine a large glass and a small glass, like a shot glass. Absolute strength is the glass and every other quality (mobility, flexibility, cardio and all the glorious rest) is the liquid. The bigger the glass the more liquid you can hold.


If you or your client has a tiny glass, you need to keep an eye on every calorie, every nibble. But, If you have a pitcher, you can enjoy an occasional good time and know that the large load that you have will have to deal with in the gym is going to strangle those extra calories. If there is a truth in training it is this: the stronger you are the easier it is to achieve all your other goals.





Not now, later


Never say never. Cookies, cake, beer and bagels are not “off” your low carb diet. It’s just “not now” time. Experience teaches us this: if I tell you that all your dreams will come true if you simply stop eating rutabagas, I promise you I know what is going to happen next. I’m not a prophet; I am a coach. You may have never eaten a rutabaga in your life, but from now on, you are going to crave, demand and insist upon rutabagas. Change rutabagas to anything you like but know this truth about human nature: not now, later.


Whatever it is that you need to put off in terms of diet, time or short-term pain and discomfort, you need to remind yourself that “soon and very soon,” you can submit yourself to a virtual orgy of feasting. The funny thing is this: that day may never come as you realize that this temptress has long been forgotten.


Celebrate Success


If there is a forgotten art in the fitness industry, it is taking a moment to enjoy achieving any and all goals. Now, I am the biggest sinner of all when it comes to this point, but please learn from my mistakes here: celebrate any and all successes. Now, it is true that in some elementary schools we tend to go far overboard with any and all achievements. Simple goals need at least a moment of congratulations or a small ceremony of ritual. If I could do it all again, I would have celebrated every minor victory and every tiny win.


Dance and sing with every success as you go through the arduous challenge of training yourself to and from health and fitness. Enjoy!

The Eagle


I enjoy an “Intentional Community” of like-minded trainers. Each morning, we agree to gather at 9:30 and train together. Often, we eat meals after the session but every session is encouraging and educational.

Recently, one of the guys who frequents our sessions had a client do a very difficult workout, “The Eagle.” The problem was this: he had NEVER done it. We all called him out and insisted that he finish it before he ever considers this to be a workout for a middle-aged client again. There are many lessons to this story: don’t eat before doing an Eagle and never listen to someone who tells you “I know how this feels” unless they know how this feels!

A few years ago, I discovered the combination I call The Eagle. The school mascot where I was teaching at the time was the Soaring Eagle, so the name was a natural. It combined the simplest of the loaded carries—the patterning movement of the farmer walk—with the basic grinding squat, the double-kettlebell front squat.

I am going to say ‘simply’ here, but the workload is incredible. Simply, the athletes do eight double-kettlebell front squats, then drop the weight to their sides and farmer walk for 20 meters, then do another eight squats and repeat until completing eight circuits.

That goal was often not met.

There are some hidden benefits to this combo. The athlete needs two kettlebells and never puts them down. The metabolic hit is accelerated by the grip work, the wrestling with the kettlebells and the sheer volume of carrying the load. It was this Eagle that made me think about the ideal combos.

There is nothing magical in the choice of exercises; it is the patterning movement of loaded carries mixed with the grinding movement of squats. For whatever reason, those two kettlebells are also a sign from heaven that this is going to be a hard workout.

If two bells are an issue, you can do a simpler version of this with the Suitcase Carry and the Goblet Squat. This will take only one bell; in this workout, you can use Kettlebells or dumbbells or whatever you have with a handle.

The Goblet Squat became famous in an article I wrote for MH a decade ago. Hold the bell with both hands, descend until you can push your knees out with your elbows, squeeze and stand up. The Suitcase Carry (it’s funny to think that this was the third article I published in MH after the Deadlfit and the Goblet Squat) is simply walking with a bell in one hand, like a piece of luggage.

Strive for eight squats again and keep switching hands on every walk. This workout is about a third as hard as the actual Eagle. It can be used anywhere and I have done it on beaches and parks without any problem. If you have a bell, you can do the workout. This variation, let’s call it the Goshawk for fun, is much more appropriate for a typical fitness client.

The Eagle is a great prep program for a football player or fighter. Keep that in mind when you attempt the challenge.



Just as I began my first workouts, an interesting exercise was slowly slipping from the gyms, weightrooms and spas of the world: the swing. As the era of Universal and then Nautilus machines pushed kettlebells, fixed barbells and gymnastics equipment from the floor, one of the best overall “fat burning athlete builders” also disappeared. Many European and Australian coaches continued using this in their training programs, but basically the movement went the way of Nehru Jackets (this is the 1960s).


Then something amazing happened: Pavel Tsatsouline brought kettlebells and kettlebell training back in the late 1990s. If you have seen a KB, you have Pavel to thank for it. If you know someone certified to teach KBs, they owe Pavel a letter of thanks. The swing is so popular now that monthly 10,000 swing challenges appear on social media as often as memes with sarcastic Willie Wonka.


Sadly, swings are very easy to do wrong. Let’s go through a short list here to make you swing better and not look like an idiot…or worse.


  1. The Swing is a hip hinge snapping into a plank. Nearly every problem comes from missing this point. When you hinge, your hips bend maximally, but your knees only bend minimally. In other words, don’t squat your swing! (The squat is both hips and knees bending maximally).


  1. After a swing workout, you should feel sore in your hamstrings, although I will allow your butt to be sore, too. If you feel it in your lower back, you are doing it wrong! Wrong. Generally, people who swing into a sore back are not hinging. The weight should be aimed at your zipper and you should wisely let it miss. In the hinge, reach deeply straight back with your arms like you are deep snapping to a punter.


  1. The top of a swing brings you to a vertical plank. Your shoulders should be packed down (no shrugging at all), your butt cheeks and quads should be squeezing, your lats should be tight and your feet should be pushing straight down. The bell doesn’t have to come very high (it is okay to “float” a bit) so with a heavy bell it might not get up to your belt height. The crown of your head should stretch straight to Zenith and you should look like you are planking on the ground (except you are standing).


  1. Don’t TRY to be stupid on swings. Keep your eyes locked in one place and I recommend “eyes on horizon.” Find a spot on the wall that would basically be the horizon and keep looking at it throughout the move. NEVER look down or, worse, back, no matter how famous the person telling you to do this compromising position.


  1. The swing is all about generating a lot of power in the strokes. So, hinge and explode (like a tackle in football), snap into the plank and throw it back at your zipper. The swing is different from its cousin, the snatch, in one simple way: in the KB snatch you are thinking of throwing the bell upwards, like in the Highland Games Weight Over Bar. In the swing, it helps to think that you are throwing the bell forward (think it, don’t do it). I actually have people occasionally throw the bell in swings just to get the sense of this violent move.


  1. For most of us, the two handed swing is going to be enough. Moving to one handed swings has a great valued for grip strength and cardiovascular work, but all too often, people twist and sway with the one handed movement. Yes, I would love for you to do this right, but if you can’t get competent coaching, stick with the two-hand swing.


  1. Swings work very well with a variety of repetition schemes. Although we start each workout with five sets of fifteen swings (followed by goblet squats, marching in place then a flexibility move), rarely do we do the same rep scheme back to back. Two variations that work well and have been well tested by me and my group with 20,000 swings:


Variation One:

10 Swings

15 Swings

25 Swings

50 Swings


The 50s are tough, but the nice thing about this variation is that you have just done 100 swings. Do this five times and…well, you can do the math. The 50s are tough.


Variation Two:

15 Swings

35 Swings


We moved to this after realizing that 50 swings five times a day, five days a week for four weeks was really hard. So, this little compromise gives us an easier set followed by a harder set. It’s fifty quick reps and we like to mix in strength and flexibility movements between each round.


You can certainly do any combination you feel like doing, but we tested out lots of variations and these worked best.


  1. Do NOT do that swing style where the arms go above the head. Just snap the swing forward and somewhere between belt height and shoulder height (as long as the crown of the head is driving to Zenith), actively toss the bell back to the zipper. I just realized that “Zipper to Zenith” might be coaching cue to consider.


  1. Pick up the bell “like a professional” and finish the set in the same way. I spend time on every set getting my feet positioned and firm, hinge back, tighten the lats then find my point on the horizon to focus upon. Finishing, put the bell down maintain your back position and strive for a quiet landing on the ground. I like no sound at all, actually.


  1. Finally, I use the swing in warm ups, athletic prep, and general training for all populations. If you want to do them correctly, hire a RKC certified KB instructor. There are plenty of regressions and corrections that can be added to your program to clean up your movement, but no article or video is as good as hands on coaching. Obviously, I believe that about all training ideas, too.


Hopefully, the swing is here to stay. It remains dear to all of us who want a simple, effective training tool that addresses so many issues. Swing away.

Killer Apps

There is a documentary about computers that shaped the way I coach. Very simply, it was thought that the world would probably only need five computers. There is a great scene in the movie, Apollo XIII, where all the guys in white shirts and skinny black ties pop out their sliderules to calculate the trajectory of the lunar module.


This all changed one day when a programmer asked his friend, “Does this have value?” His friend, the head of an accounting firm, answered: “I hire 400 people a week to do what you say I can do with the push of a button?” “This” was the spreadsheet and it changed the demand for computers. This was the “Killer App” and the reason you MUST have a computer to keep up.


I began looking at equipment in a whole new light after seeing this show. I watch these idiotic youtube videos where people use equipment to do all kinds of odd and strange things. My favorite was a guy who tied himself to a tree to practice sprinting (the rope held him in place). One could also sprint without being tied to a tree, for clarity’s sake. People are fighting right now for your freedom to do any stupid thing you can think of but let’s honor them by doing the right moves with the right tools.


Barbell: I love the barbell and I have been using them since 1965. Here is why you NEED to have one: the Press family and Deadlifts. A typical barbell can be loaded with enough 45 pound plates to sneak up to 700 pounds. That is a lot of weight. You can also get the bar to jump from 55 pounds to 60 pounds if that is where you are at today. I have argued for years, that if all you did was press (military or bench) and deadlift, you might have most of your training locked in.


Moreover, you are going to compete in Powerlifting (Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift) or Olympic lift (Snatch, Clean and Jerk), a barbell is a must.


TRX: my knock on the TRX for a long time is that the information on how to use it including running in place, lunges, and a lot of this and that. My question was “why” should I have one. Here is why: the T, Y, and I Pulls, the Single Arm Rows and the Double Rows target the area of the body that often gets missed and ignored. That whole area of the upper back and rear shoulders is probably the most underdeveloped area of most people I work with in the gym. I have attempted odd variations of planks, dozens of pulls with other equipment, but the TRX answers these issues smarter and faster.


Kettlebells: I love the kettlebell. Like my intern said the other day, it just looks like your training even if you are carrying them out to the car. Three moves make the KB irreplaceable: the Goblet Squat, the Swing and the Turkish Get Up. Yes, you can use other things for these three moves, but the ease of transition and the feel of having the correct load in the right place (off center in the TGU and Swing) just makes a good KB worth having in your gym.


Mini-Bands: I never understood why you would use these until I was told to do one simple movement. The Lateral Walk with a mini-band around the socks (you really need to wear socks!) is the perfect way to light up and train the Glute Medius. A set of Swings followed by a set of Squats followed by a long Lateral Walk with Mini-Bands will teach you more about your butt than an anatomy class.


Ab wheels: For ten dollars, you can do the best “anterior chain” ever invented (outside of a perfect pull up). I don’t know of a workout, program or plan that couldn’t be improved a bit by rolling out on one of these devices. You will notice they rise and fall in popularity, but here is my theory about why you don’t see them used much: it is really hard.


Dumbbells: you can do a lot of things with dumbbells, but we all know the knock on these in a gym. No matter how many are there in a rack, someone complains to the owner: “Hey, you have 35s and 40s…why no 37.5s?” I like dumbbells for Farmer Walks. All those really heavy dumbbells at the end of the rack that are covered in dust are perfect for walking around the gym and training literally every muscle in the body.


Killer Apps can be a perfect program, if there is such a thing:


Military or Bench Press (Barbell)

T-Y-I Pulls and Rows (TRX)

Deadlifts or Swings (Barbell or KBs)

Goblet Squats (KB)

Farmer Walks (Dumbbell)


Ab Wheel Rollout (Ab Wheel)


Get a limited amount of equipment and get back to simple and successful training.



Bigger Better Deal

An interesting thing happens every time I write an article on the Internet. It’s not exactly criticism, but it is what we used to call “one-upmanship.” In full candor, William Shakespeare faced a different kind of criticism; his poor work led to the audience throwing vegetables at him, so I should be careful here. What happens is this: no matter the topic, no matter the point, if there is a “feedback” or “comment” box after the article, someone is going to post a BBD.


“BBD” stands for “Bigger Better Deal.” When I discuss a year long approach to losing simply one pound in 365 days (better than what 99% of us will do in a year), I will see a post that says: “I lost 16 pounds in three weeks doing the RX45!” Often, the people posting are directing you to their affiliate site so they can make a little extra cash, but I digress: absolutely, no question about it, no matter what you do, no matter how well you do it, someone is going to tell you a better way to do it.


If you want to have a fun plane ride, sit between a Vegan and a Paleodiet person. My standard joke line is this: “How do you know someone is a Vegan? You met them five minutes ago. How do you know someone is a crossfitter? You met them ten seconds ago.” Throw a world record and someone is going to give you a hint about how to toss farther. I am sure that somebody told Wilt Chamberlain that if he would have shot better than 36 for 63 he would have easily scored more than 100 points that night in 1962.


A lot of BBD is caused by the overwhelming amount of information that is available today. I was told that if you read two books a week on Amazon that discussed diet (not including cookbooks), it will take you 65 years to finish them. I can’t prove this and I will die happy not fulfilling this task.


The interesting thing is this: if you took every diet, every Way of Eating, and smashed them into a Venn Diagram, I don’t know if any single one would not agree to do the following:


  1. Don’t eat Frankenstein fats. (Those created in a lab)
  2. Don’t eat Cardboard Carbs. (Foods that are in boxes and appeal to you when stoned)
  3. Eat colorful vegetables.


If we put together each and every training method, you might find some argue one set of exercise versus multiple sets of exercise. Some methods ask for whole body days and others split the body into parts. Some argue that we should train the lungs and the body will follow or we should train the legs and the lungs will just have to keep up. But, if there was a secret, the happy connected area of the Venn diagram, we tend to find this:


  1. Move without pain, move well, and move often.
  2. Intelligent, repeatable workouts over years trump injuries and surgeries.
  3. Recovery is the time when adaption occurs, so plan it in.


Like a Paleo guy told me a few years ago, the key is to: “Live long and well, then drop dead.” It’s not bad advice about life.


So, here is the key: explore new exercises, equipment, and programs. Enjoy the process of learning which might be the Fountain of Youth. Just don’t ignore your excellent progress because somebody BBD’ed you. And, they always will.


My daughter, Lindsay, need to register her car, so I went with her to the local station. On the way, she reminded me of a story that shows what I think is the key to training.


Years ago, I taught at Judge Memorial Catholic High School. Judge is famous for a lot of things, but it is locally famous for its total lack of parking spaces. As a veteran teacher, I had a prime designated parking space, Number 27. The downside is that, as a family, we were struggling financially and I didn’t have a car to park in the spot. For the young people reading this, we were called a “One Car Family.”


I made an offer: if anyone wanted my space (which I defended, by the way, to the death; it was a bad idea to park in my space), one merely had to pick me up from my house about two miles away and make sure I got home. Soon, each morning, we would have people sitting in my living room waiting to shuttle me off to school.


This is “win-win.” Of all the tricks in my coaching and training career, “win-win” is probably the least appreciated idea. Recently, I have been writing about my approach to daily training called the Intentional Community where a group of us all agree to meet every day to train at a specific time. I provide the equipment and location and everybody else provides energy and enthusiasm.


You see, I am not always excited about training. But, when five or six people are knocking on your door to “get going,” it is pretty easy to get going. We have several rules that might help your training:


First, show up. Simple to write, simple to say and simple to follow but very few people adhere to fitness programs for the “simple” reason they fail to show up. Even if you go to the gym or walk over to your fitness equipment and just wave a few things around for thirty seconds, I think you are far better served than staying on the couch, bed or computer chair. Trust me, if you just show up, you will do more than just a few waves.


Second, finish the program. No matter what thing you say you are going to do, whether it is a two weeks to bigger biceps or six weeks to ripped abs, I want you to finish the program. Charles Staley noted years ago that “the best program is the one you are not doing.” This simply means that the diet you are going to start on Monday is miles better than what you are doing today and the groovy thing you just read online is far better than the program given to you by the world’s finest trainer.


And, that is fine, of course. Just finish the program you are doing. You might want to remind yourself that just a few weeks ago, THIS program was the greatest workout ever devised.


Third, in a community, we are a Band of Brothers. Shakespeare says it best:

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


So, as we shed our blood, but I do expect a bit more: if I look stiff or slow, point it out. If you are underloading or overloading, I will point it out to you. We are a group that also keeps an eye on each other hoping to make us all a little better.


There is also a great method of training in the “win-win” mentality. Usually, we all call it “I go/You go” and it is a simple way to get in a lot of work, some coaching and appropriate rest periods. I do my set of exercises and put the load down. Immediately, “You” begin your set. This continues for as long as we need to get our full amount of reps and sets. This can also be done with more traditional cardio work providing an element of interval training into one’s usual routine.


Once you apply the concept of “win-win,” use this as a mental training trick for everything you do. It is a trick I learned from Thomas J. Stanley’s book, The Millionaire Mind. Whenever you meet someone who has successfully shed weight, finished a rough diet, or had success in fitness or sports, cheer them along. Give them honest praise and really feel some excitement. This little mental shift will make you more focus and disciplined in your program and diet adherence.


In every problem you face in fitness, health and performance, seek out a “win-win” solution first. Invite friends and family to help you solve it. When you see others succeed, gladly celebrate their success. You will be the winner long-term.