I’m writing this because as an athlete, it’s something I need to keep in mind. And as a coach, I know many of you need to keep it in mind as well. Here’s to getting better.
Today’s Front Squat session was objectively awesome. I managed 565×1 @8.5 RPE. This ties what I did last week — which is one of my best Front Squat reps of all time. Only twice have I gone heavier — and even then only 5lbs and 10lbs respectively. And those lifts ware a LOT slower.
Training isn’t everything…
But…let’s rewind for a moment.
Most of us know we need to train really hard in order to get stronger. That’s not news to anyone. But for some reason, it seems like a constant theme I keep seeing in my coaching practice (and in myself) is this mentality of ‘more is better’.
Let me know if this sounds familiar to you.
You look on social media, you see your competitors posting their lifts and you think…I must do more. You then ignore all other guardrails you’ve set for yourself and train harder. But, then suddenly, you realize that this level of training isn’t sustainable. You might be feeling beat up, washed out, or just thinking of quitting. That only then fuels your frustrations when you see the highlight reel of your competition.
I get it. I can relate.
A few years ago, I was working part-time for Reactive Training Systems and working full-time in the corporate world. I was a leader in that organization and put in some pretty long hours. I also have a wife and three kids. From time to time, I would pick up side personal training jobs too. I slept 4-6 hours a night and consumed more caffeine than anyone should. But, I still trained hard and thought I could out-train my lifestyle. And…..I was wrong.
What I failed to see was that I was neglecting all of the other inputs that drive my outcomes from training.
Ross Leppala said it best on a podcast I did with him a few months ago: “You don’t get stronger from training, you get stronger from recovering from training.”
Thankfully, I had an awesome coach/mentor (Mike Tuchscherer) who encouraged me to pull back on training a bit. This was after having some aches and pains and an overall downward trend in performance and mental resilience.
“You don’t get stronger from training, you get stronger from recovering from training.”
I have to admit, I thought “Am I going to lose my gains?”
Nope. Didn’t happen. In fact, reducing my training from 4 days to 3 days a week actually made me stronger. I said that right…I got stronger by doing less. I wasn’t ‘burning the candle’ at both ends trying to out-train my lifestyle.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting you cut your workouts short, skip your accessories, sit on the couch and THINK about getting stronger, and somehow, magically, you’ll get stronger. That’s just not the case.
At the same time, sometimes LESS is MORE. Remember, BETTER is BETTER.
My training sessions were shorter, more intense, and certainly more focused. Sure, I had to make some concessions about how many movements I could do in a week (Curls got the ax? Nope! There is always time for curls just like there is always room for dessert).
I’ve changed the way I think about training stress balance over the past few years. Instead, of just thinking about how much training I can do, I’ve been reflecting more on how I can control all of the inputs of my life to improve my training satisfaction.
Here is a self-assessment that I take every so often and encourage my lifters to do as well:
Be honest with yourself about what’s going on in your life. Here are some questions to help you get started:
Be in Control
You get to decide on how you spend your time and mental effort. Shift your mindset to what YOU have control over. That includes setting boundaries with other people and with yourself. A few questions to ask yourself:
While comparing yourself to your competitors can help increase performance, it can also lead to negative emotions. Here are a few self-assessment questions to see if your comparisons are self-defeating:
Remember, training is only one input that drives outcomes. Don’t neglect the importance of sleep, nutrition, mindset, and stress management. Their influence has a tremendous impact on your progress. If you want to get the most out of your training (who doesn’t) then you owe it to yourself to take these other inputs just as seriously as the next time you get under the bar.
John joined RTS as an assistant coach in 2018. Prior to that, he coached athletes through Strength is Life, LLC. which specialized in working with powerlifters and bodybuilders. He has worked with athletes at the local, state, regional, and national level from Collegiate to Masters 3. He also competes in USA powerlifting as a 74kg lifter, is a professional natural bodybuilder in the NGA, DFAC, and ANBF, and serves on the board of the ANBF as a drug test advisor.
This article is for the coaches…
It’s not that athletes have nothing to gain from it. It’s just that if you’re an athlete interested in evaluating your coach it should be primarily on two factors — results and enjoyment. If you are getting results and enjoying the process then I would recommend that you stay where you are. If you are not getting results or not enjoying the process then it may be time to reevaluate.
Yes for the coaches… I have some questions to ask you.
1) Do you have an Athlete-Centric approach?
The athlete absolutely must be central to a well-designed training process. On that, I can accept no negotiation. Of course, planning paradigms, exercise science, and all other sources of general knowledge are important. But their proper place is supporting decision making in an athlete-centric model.
What does it mean to be athlete-centric? It’s not got anything to do with corporate-style policies where you state that the customer is always right. It’s a description of your processes. Athlete centric processes start with the athlete in mind — their experiences, their goals, desires… Their life. Things that are not athlete-centric (like planning models, exercise science, your experience as a coach) then influence what you should do. The process starts with the athlete, then adjusts. It doesn’t start with a stock plan, then seek to tweak it.
At the bottom, this is a process question and an epistemological question. If the processes that we use in real-life miss the mark and don’t satisfactorily prioritize the athlete experience, then the output cannot be ideal. If there is a compromise where the plan is prioritized ahead of the athlete response — whether known or not — then the output can’t be ideal.
Those of you familiar with RTS over the last few years will be waiting for the emerging strategies punchline. And it’s no secret that I think that Emerging Strategies is the best system of planning training. If I didn’t think that I wouldn’t be using it for myself and my athletes. However, I recognize it is not the only way to solve this problem.
As long as these problems get solved it does not matter to me very much whether the planning process fits the emerging strategies mold or otherwise. But if we’re going to take seriously things like cognitive biases and the influence of systems on people, then we have to take them seriously in the coaching setting as well. That means systems that give us incentives to “stick with the plan” — even when we know we shouldn’t — ought to be reduced or eliminated. It means we should avoid systems that nudge us to make decisions that may be counter to the athlete’s response.
Related to the athlete-centric approach is reducing programming noise so you can better see the signal. Constantly changing the program is something I used to do (whether planned or otherwise). I felt as if I was earning my pay if I was *doing* something. But this is a bias. The job isn’t to change training. The job is to build effective training (among other things). Sometimes that effectiveness is maximized by a strategic change to some training variables. Sometimes it’s maximized by sitting still and letting the situation develop.
2) How do you go about customizing the training you write?
If you’re a coach, then I presume you offer “custom training”. It’s even nonsensical to offer “static coaching”. Coaching isn’t static. All coaching at least on some level intends to be customized.
So by what process do you make the decisions that result in this customization? This was a question I asked for YEARS of my coaching career. And almost nobody had an answer that I found satisfying. I’ll happily grant that it’s not that they don’t have a process for customization — it’s that the process isn’t explicit. They know how they do it but aren’t able to describe it in a sufficient enough way that other coaches could effectively emulate it.
Oddly enough, this is the same thing that led to me adopting the RPE scale to Powerlifting in ~2005; the best lifters could do a thing, but not describe it adequately so that it was accessible to the masses.
It also just so happens that emerging strategies is a highly teachable system of justifying training choices for coaches who may not have systems of their own. It makes minimal reliance on things like “spontaneous coaching observations” and “planning models” that guide the progression. Instead, it encourages users to “follow the trail of athlete response.” It’s a system that can arrive at conclusions that are very different from the starting position of either coach or athlete. And I think that is critically important.
3) Do you struggle with Imposter Syndrome?
Every coach I know has impostor syndrome.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it usually comes from an honest place. It comes from introspection and questioning one’s own knowledge and beliefs. From asking yourself if you are sure that you are providing as much value to your clients as you can.
The absolute best coaches in the world have this feeling from time to time.
I don’t propose to have a solution to all brands and flavors of imposter syndrome. But one thing that I have done that has helped me gain a lot of confidence in the training I write is justifying my training choices. It’s not coaching a certain number of lifters or producing lifters of a certain caliber — that hasn’t helped. It’s the internal justification of the choices themselves that have made the most difference. Further, a quality justification goes beyond “pause squats usually build bottom end strength”. That is a statement — and it may be true. But it’s not a statement that ultimately answers the question of “what is the best thing we could be doing right now”.
Some of your uncertainty in writing training might stem from a lack of knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts. Maybe an athlete is showing excessive valgus in the squat and you’re not sure how you should address it. But very often I see it as a result of this nagging sense that the facts that you have aren’t really answering the most important questions.
From the standpoint of planning training, the most important question is something like, “What is the best thing we could be doing right now.” And to adequately answer that question requires an athlete-centric approach, plenty of information from the athlete, and some creative problem-solving.
Knowing facts about “X training gets you Y effects” is important. But then you need a reliable framework for applying those facts to specific situations and recognizing whether or not that is applying as-predicted in this particular case.
4) Is your system of training robust to your own blind spots?
Now I’ll say upfront that I don’t think it’s possible to be perfectly robust to our blind spots. But we can work to reduce them. This reduction takes humility — the acceptance that even coaches don’t have all the answers. And if we take that seriously, then we must at least try to discover these answers.
One way that this manifests for me is in a thought experiment. Are my systems robust enough that if I got an athlete who truly responded best to the training I was biased AGAINST, would we still be able to find the right answer and program effectively for that athlete?
Think it through. Think about a system of training that makes no sense to you at all. Now imagine that you get a new athlete and you peer into your crystal ball and notice that the best training for them is precisely this system that you think makes no sense. Would you be able to find that answer WITHOUT your crystal ball? Are you equipped to plan the best training for that athlete?
Now some of you may point out that this kind of unorthodox training intervention isn’t necessary for most lifters and that’s true. But isn’t our job as coaches to get the best results we can for all of our lifters and not just those with an orthodox response? Static programs offer a great center-of-the-bell-curve solution. Coaches can do so much more. What’s more, is that an athlete may have a very average volume response, but not intensity. Or RPE. Or rest intervals. Or exercise selection. Or in frequency. Or the SRA cycle. There are enough important variables in a training plan that I haven’t noticed anyone responding in a very average way to all things. So although most people are average, few if any individuals are average at everything. And prescribing average training when better options exist is a disservice.
5) When it comes to developing training, where do you spend the greatest amount of time?
I have to say since we developed Emerging Strategies as a planning framework, we have spent considerably more time on every program that we write, not less. At first, glance that may come as a surprise since it usually utilizes repeating microcycles to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. But when you consider that the bulk of your time planning training should be spent studying the athlete’s data and communications… then coming up with creative solutions to often difficult problems, it’s not surprising. The main task of planning training isn’t typing.
Most coaches I encounter got into this as a way of helping lifters get stronger. Chances are that purpose is much more effectively realized by solving athlete problems. If time is spent on a plug-and-play model or worse — repetitive typing — then that’s less time that can be spent on more important, meaningful tasks.
Of course these questions I pose to you highlight many reasons why RTS has chosen an Emerging Strategies approach. If you’d like to learn more about it, please check out our YouTube channel where we dive into the nuts-and-bolts of it.
Additionally, our free Online training log is designed to help you implement Emerging Strategies in your training. It’s free for everyone to use whether you work with RTS or not. Or if you’re interested in working with one of our coaches to get stronger and build your own Emerging Strategies training process, please look into All-Access Coaching. But most importantly, take time to think and improve your processes as a coach. That is our sincerest desire.
by Mike Tuchscherer, 16 March 2020
With many gyms around the world now closing for the next several weeks due to COVID-19, we’ve had several of our lifters suddenly without a place to train. Over the last few years, I’ve often found myself on the road for various reasons also without a training facility — just making due with what I could carry in a suitcase and do in a hotel room. In the case of my move a few years ago, I kept this up for basically a couple of months. While this isn’t the same thing as what lifters are facing now, I do feel it’s given me perspective on what a powerlifter could do in a situation like this to make sure this bump-in-the-road has minimal impact.Read more…
By John Garafano, 16 March 2020
While it may be great to have an expensive power rack with lots of add-ons, various specialty bars, and numerous name-brand machines in your home gym, the fact is that many people have built their elite-level strength on very minimal equipment setup. Try to resist the urge when first putting together a home gym to want to buy ‘everything’ and ‘the best’. Just know that over time, you can build your home gym up while you collect equipment (and pay less since you can buy used or take advantage of yearly sales). If you are a powerlifter, you can get by on this minimal setup:
By Mark Robb 02 February 2019
In the quest for strength, it seems that I (we) sometimes lose sight of the big picture, and the importance of various factors unconsciously shifts, without notice. This may not be an issue for some, but I think that I can safely theorize that anyone that is goal driven, that has numbers in mind, is susceptible to what I’m about to explain. If you’re a competitive athlete, this probably includes you.Read more…
By Mike Tuchscherer 19 November 2018
We all want athletes to have the proverbial “perfect technique”. Some astute coaches even say “THEIR perfect technique” – to emphasize that “perfect” is relative to the individual athlete. But how do we get there?
So I’ve been talking about Emerging Strategies for a while now. If you’re not sure what that is, you’ll want some background before proceeding. I suggest this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdGP120e4B0
Naturally, a question to arise from a concept such as ES is something like, “Which is better, ES or a more traditional approach?” Of course if I’m advocating for an ES model, then that’s my answer. But I also think that it depends on what you mean by “better”.
IPF Classic Worlds 2018 is underway in Calgary. We have 16 lifters competing this year — a point of pride among RTS coaches and athletes. As such, this seems like an ideal time to write in a bit more detail about how we taper for competition.
I recently came across this review article: https://www.
I quickly noted that they ranked massage as one of the best recovery modalities around. And if course then I remembered that I wrote an article last year saying that (n=1) I got no real results from it. You can read that article here: https://articles.