Let’s set the scene: a client walks in and inquires about personal training. Unbelievably, he gets blessed with me doing an initial consultation. Call it a stroke of fantastic luck.
He’s in decent initial shape having played sports throughout his life and lifting in college, but now, he’s labored with poor flexibility and a back ache.
Just how poor? Like bend over and touch your knees poor.
So, you talk about improving flexibility – it’s obviously part of the back problem.
That’s exactly where I found myself three months ago with a client that came looking for help.
So I laid down an ultimatum, I would get him to touch his toes in three months or else (“else” could have included a myriad number of things like quitting training, forcing me to push a prowler around the facility, or shoveling down a box of donuts). More than that, we would work to alleviate the majority of his back pain throughout the process.
So the gauntlet was issued, and we embarked on a three month journey that took us to September 19th, 2012 – a date which will long be remembered as the day that Alex touched his toes.
So, where do you start with a guy that has the flexibility of a 2×4 but still wants a kick-ass workout?
Unlike most clients that are eager to get straight to the bench pressing and heavy squats, Alex was receptive to the whole programming idea – starting with stability and ultimately progressing to more strength-based moves including deadlifts.
Now, before I get crucified by suggesting deadlifts to a guy with tight hammies and back pain, let me clarify by saying that not all deadlifts have to be full range of motion. For Alex, we simply worked on the hip hinge – a pattern that he had great difficulty with at first.
Let’s get back to the program design. When Alex and I initially started working together, we set our sites on developing stability, coordination, and core control from the ground up. The first workouts centered around things like bodyweight squats, single leg glute bridges, and standing chest presses. Here’s what an initial workout may have looked like:
1A) Goblet Squat 15 reps
1B) Single leg balance 15 reps
1C) Plank 30 seconds
2A) Assisted Pull-up 15 reps
2B) Single leg balance with row 15 reps
2C) Side plank 30 seconds
3A) Lunge stance cable chest press 15 reps
3B) Single arm push-up position plank 30 sec
3C) Roll-out 10 reps
And just imagine, all this was done while sprinkled with rehashes of SNL Celebrity Jeopardy episodes and an outlandish amount of Robert DiNero quotes combined with Mitch Hedberg stand-up.
The point is not to have a Darwinian debate nitpicking exercise choice and rep range for every single facet of the program. The idea is that he started at a relatively basic level. He was willing to take on the notion of starting from scratch.
As I’ve already given away the huge secret, we successfully got Alex to touch his toes within the three month timeframe. Not only that, but he’s now deadlifting 135 lbs comfortably from below the knee. Combo that with the fact that he also nailed his first set of weighted pull-ups like a boss (video proof below), and I’d say the training has been a success. Not only did he nail the pull-ups, but he knocked out 4×5 reps with five pounds around his foot in his first workout with weighted chins.
So, how did we get from point A to point B? Am I a superhero trainer? Maybe. Do I have superpowers? Probably. Is Alex just an awesome client that just happened to have an inclination to being incredibly successful? Likely.
At the end of the day, we didn’t do anything special. Sorry to burst your bubble. I don’t have the magic spell that automatically boosts your bench 30 lbs in one day or gives you the flexibility of Gumby.
The Most Consistent Approach Always Works
One of the key elements of Alex’s program that allowed him to be successful was a consistent approach to training. By working out frequently (three times a week), he was able to make constant progress within his training routine. The progressions weren’t ground breaking.
We transitioned from two legs to one leg for stability exercises. Progressed his core moves by removing parts of his platform. Manipulated training intensity and volume – and voila, you get results.
The flexibility was the real issue here. Alex was already accustomed to lifting weights in his past so he picked up exercises very quickly. He had a natural coordination that made single leg training much easier. Where he excelled in athleticism, he lacked in flexibility. We focused a majority of our sessions learning the hip hinge pattern to actively recruit his glutes and hammies rather than aggravate his lower back. He learned the bracing technique to engage his core during lifts. We worked on breathing to further strengthen his abdominals. When it came time for actual flexibility training, we looked at three critical elements:
- Soft tissue work. When it comes to gaining extensibility in tissue, it’s hard to replace foam rolling and lacrosse balling. These elements were key to Alex’s progress.
- Dynamic mobility. We worked through a series of dynamic drills at the beginning of every session starting with slower movements and working up to larger, more global patterns including this awesome drill from Tony Gentilcore. A sample progression would have looked like this: Hip hinge pushing the hips diagonally back —-> step and bend with initial range of motion —-> sumo squat with ground reach —-> soldier walks. The key is not in the specific exercises, but rather the application. Start slow, work towards quicker, more explosive moves.
- Partner assisted stretching. At the end of our session or after a long warm-up period, we included variations of partner stretches including PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation – mostly because it sounds hi-tech) and active-isolated stretching. We also included some work on the Power Plate which can work wonders as far as flexibility goes.
Now, I admit that the PNF and super-geeky sounding stretches at the end may not be part of the “typical” approach. I don’t think the type of stretching matters nearly as much as the consistency with which we progressed his program and attacked the muscle demanding greater range of motion.
But the Normal Approach Isn’t Always Cool…
I hear ya. It’s not always the hippest thing in the gym to do static stretching after a workout. Many trainers and coaches are probably scoffing at the idea of holding a stretch and referring to me as a bumbling neanderthal dragging his knuckles around the gym.
Would it have been better for Alex to get daily massages and work with an MAT specialist to recruit all of the right muscles followed by active isolated stretching and an ice-cold contrast? Hell yeah. Is that remotely possible? Not really.
Alex was able to see such success for two primary reasons. First off, he’s simply just a badass. Second, we worked within a comfortable range of techniques that he could consistently apply. He picked up a foam roller to use at home. I taught him some awesome stretches like this one for his hammies and posterior chain.
We learned the basics – not the coolest thing in the world, but it works.
Far too often, we complicate things in our industry by introducing the latest and greatest techniques. Out with the old, in with the new. By constantly reinventing the wheel, we’re sabotaging our own progress. If you try a different stretching technique every week, you won’t ever be able to find out what actually works.
So, stick with what works. Stay consistent. Try something for at least three to four weeks before you make a judgement call. Clients will care about the results, not necessarily the techniques used to get there.
Do you think the emergence of so many fitness trends has caused mass hysteria leading to a totally confused population? Me too. That’s why I’m writing an e-book about it. It will be released completely FREE. Just make sure you subscribe in the box below.
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