My Conversations…what I am “listening” for…

(Quick note: I had someone mention that they couldn’t find the original of this piece. Here is a follow up, that I may or may not have posted here on my blog. This is part of my “Intervention Toolkit.”)
Everybody assesses and, as my friend Wil Heffernan says it, “if you ain’t assessing, you’re guessing.”

My tools are pretty simple. I am a huge fan of the Functional Movement Screen and I recently sat in a cold, dark auditorium for four days with Gray Cook and Brett Jones at the CK FMS workshop (Certified Kettlebell Instructor Functional Movement Screen). Although my skill set with the FMS is, at best, rudimentary, I insist on two of the basics for everyone I work with in the gym: the Active Straight Leg Raise and the Shoulder Mobility screens.

True, you could use all seven screens and strive for the mantra: “14 and no asymmetries,” the standard results for a “cleared exam.” In other words, someone with this score will statistically NOT get hurt doing their sport. The problem with our fighter or our football player: he puts bread on the table by contact so I am not comfortable saying: “Sorry, you can’t work because you have a tight calf muscle.” (Okay, that was a gross overstatement, but I think you get the point).

The reason I use the ASLR and SM screens are that I get an instant insight into what Doctor Mark Cheng calls the “Four Knots.” The shoulders and hips need to be in an interesting balance between tension, mobility, stability, strength and looseness. Like a knot on your shoelace, too loose and it doesn’t hold (bad) and too tight and you can’t untie it (bad). It has to be “just so.”

In just minutes, I can have a handle on the four knots. As Gray and Brett pounded into me, if there are asymmetries between Right and Left, that’s where we begin to work. We will be doing hip, shoulder and thoracic mobility work probably every day available for the next six months, so have some kind of basic starting point will be helpful.

Okay, so I am in two minutes and have a basic sense of how much time we need to spend on basic mobility work. It’s the next part that I take real pride in: Intervention!

The idea is based, of course, on the way some addicts are confronted by loved ones about their addictions. I actually see the same thing, in a sense, with athletes: we become some single focused on our strengths that we need to have a bunch of people point out our flaws.

The official title in my notes is this: “Best lifts…oral exam.” My fun little subtitle is
“Waddya Bench?’ from the classic SNL telecast. In just a few minutes, I usually can discover what the focus of the athlete has been and the glaring omissions!

I am NOT listening for the maxs, I am listening for this list:

1. Push
2. Pull
3. Hinge
4. Squat
5. Walk/Run/Sprint under load

The initial “intervention” is finding where the zeroes are in there training, then building the program from there!

What do I mean? Usually, and almost universally, the athlete is accomplished with “Push.” I’m talking about things like 90 pushups in a minute or a double bodyweight bench press. These are numbers that put the athlete in the top of the heap. With some athletes, this overwhelming “push” emphasis has also lead to mobility issues that I had just discovered in the SM screen.

What would a zero be for pushing? I don’t know as I have never seen one with an athlete. But, it would be something like the inability to do ten pushups or something along those lines.

Generally, fighter types in the past few years have been very good at pull ups. Maybe we can thank “Rocky” or the military, but most fighters seem to know how to do pulling motions. Of course, I have always joked that it is because of their chicken legs that they do rep after rep on the pullup. That doesn’t endear me to any of them, for the record. I always like Wil Hefernan’s standard vis a vis Bench Press and Pull Ups: if you can bench bodyweight for 15 and you can do 15 Pull Ups you have enough upper body strength for just about any task. Again, it is a rare fighter that needs work on the pull. Now, for throwers and football players (and most collision sports) this is going to be an area of emphasis as often the training program gives two to three pushes for every pull. Over time, that leads to problems.

“Hinge” is where we start having blank looks. “You know,” I will say, “Hinge movements.” “Huh?” I will stand up, put my hands in my hip folds, push my butt back and snap forward. “Swings. Snatches. Cleans. Deadlifts. Jumps. The most basic and most powerful and most important of human movements?”


This is not unusual to find out that an elite athlete has ignored the explosive snap movement throughout their career. I will say however, since the boom of the kettlebell, that many people are now doing dangerous and insane swinglike variations. This is going to be one of the areas that I will have great impact on the success of this athlete. The metabolic hit of a correct set of swings is going to be shocking and much more on the “conditioning” side of Strength and Conditioning. If all I can do is teach a proper swing and encourage some form of deadlift, I know that I will be making an impact on this athlete.

When I mention the squat, I usually get “um, well, uh,” or “aren’t squats bad for you?” If you haven’t figured it out, my list goes from most common to least common movements in the gym and one could argue from least important to most important. I’m pretty convinced that all five movements are crucial and having a “five” here and an “um, well, uh” there is pretty telling.

This is where I can really impact the athlete quickly but also make him very sore. So, we must really get in and start doing squat movements every day. Yes, we are going to be doing Goblet Squats each and every day possibly for the entire six months.

The final point is “Walk/Run/Sprint under load.” The first response is always “well, yes, I jog and I do the treadmill.” That’s not the same as dragging a sled, pushing a car or carrying a 75 pound pipe up a hill with a sled dragging behind. When someone asks “What muscle does this build?,” I like to lean over and fill a cup with sweat drops and toss it on them. I’m not as popular as I like to think.

This is probably the one area that I feel I have immediate impact in an athlete’s conditioning level. This, I guarantee will be the game changer for this athlete. It is NOT, however, an attempt to get the someone tired. Loaded walks and sprints seem to do more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I have attempted in my career as coach and athlete. It simply changes the athlete’s ability to handle more load in all the other areas.

Notice that I didn’t include any one arm or one leg stuff nor that “core” work thing. We will include a movement every day that will take care of all of this: the Turkish Get Up.

So, usually by now, I have a handle on how to help. The more advanced the athlete, it seems, the easier it is for me to program them. Simply, and if you have been following along you can see this, I label their omissions in training and make them do them.

Now, this is where “correctives” come into play. My good friend, Pavel Tsatsouline often comments that he hates this idea that correctives are just pulling on some bungee cords and twisting with a pink dumbbell. In my universe, correctives can be deadlifts, squats, and Farmer Walks to Death. Sure, it can be a stretch on the wall, but it is often a sled pull, too.

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