My training career was an evolution.
Thankfully there weren’t any massive screw-ups but there were definitely moments that I’d take back. I wrote Ignite the Fire and built this site to help accelerate your evolution so that you don’t toil making the same mistakes that I did for years.
I’m going to try to explain why I was led to believe that certain things were true that weren’t, why I gave my clients bad advice, and what I suggest you do to avoid my mistakes.
I Shouldn’t Have Passed The Test
I was 18 years old the day that I became certified. I shouldn’t have passed because I didn’t know what the back muscles were called and, when prompted, I couldn’t show the examiner a stretch for them.
Yeah, that was my introduction to this beautiful industry.
Aside from the test basing my pass/fail on whether I could show up on time, it also reinforced bad cueing and narrow-mindedness.
“Show me an exercise for the back” – My examiner prompted.
Proudly, I walked over to the seated row and showed one of the two back exercises I knew, the seated row. I repeated the 3 cues from my book, “chest up, shoulders down, and squeeze” before demonstrating the requisite two reps and instructing my client to try a set.
Check, check, check, on to the next one.
No independent thought or assessment was needed. Apparently all clients should train the back with the seated row because everybody is the same.
The entire exam involved repeating 2-3 cues for one exercise per body part from the 14pt font, 80-page book.
After the exam I was certified to train an 80-year-old woman with arthritic knees and 16-year-old guys who want to look good naked. Apparently everybody trains the same and the back is one muscle that can be trained from the same angle; at least this was what I believed at the time.
The Girl, The Deadlift, and the Injury
She just started working at the club that I had been at for close to a year. She was beautiful, so naturally I wanted to impress her by lifting a lot of weight poorly.
Already a trainer at the club, I didn’t think it was allowed for me to ask questions because I was supposed to know anything.
I’d done a conventional deadlift before. Heck, I’d even taught it poorly to some clients. So two plates go on the bar, I huff and I puff and…
…I snap my shit up.
After seeing 3 doctors and countless physical therapists the official diagnosis was a damaged facet joint between L4 and L5. I still don’t quite buy it, but whatever the injury it forced me to take a month off of work (costing me $3,000+), missed the season of hockey (which was my sanity at the time), and I couldn’t workout for 4 weeks before slowly getting back into it.
That injury was the best thing to happen to my career–bet you didn’t expect that huh? It scared me into studying so that I stopped training people like a complete idiot.
I spent that time studying weightlifting but more specifically, the deadlift, It took 1.5 years but I rehabbed my injury and to this day have not re injured it.
After the rehab, I got strong. I knew everything there was to know at the time about the deadlift. Weighing 150lbs I pulled 400lbs at my peak.
(Corollary: My goal was actually 405lbs so that I could tell people that I pulled 4 wheels but I missed that lift and didn’t want to do another entire deload and peak to re-attempt it afterwards).
But I Still Wasn’t a Good Trainer
I was a good lifter (not knowing it at the time but I had pulled the Canadian record for my weight class without a belt) and a terrible coach.
Everybody had to fit into my mold. Every one of my clients did conventional deadlifts. Nobody did sumo, single leg, or this whacky variation called the Jefferson that you’ll hear about in a bit. One of my clients fit perfectly into it and he got strong.
The others just couldn’t get good form. Their deadlifts stayed the same, fitness didn’t progress much, and, despite all types of foam rolling and mobility, just couldn’t get it.
I Also Wasn’t a Good Teacher
It was around this time that I started hiring and training trainers. As a perfect example of doing what I thought an interviewer should do and not critically thinking about it, I would ask all applicants to demonstrate me a squat. If they didn’t give me the cues I was looking for (chest up, knees in line with toes, heels down) I wouldn’t hire them.
Every trainer that I tried to hire was forced into the same mold even though I knew that it wasn’t the right way to train clients.
This came to a head one day when I witnessed a trainer instructing a client on a sumo deadlift after reading an article about it online. He set her feet out wide but her form was atrocious. The reason was that her arms were on the outside of her knees not inside like they should be for a sumo deadlift. He had wrongly assumed that all deadlifts were the same in all aspects.
I had taught him that close-minded pattern of thinking. Below is a great video from my friend Bret Contreras instructing the sumo deadlift properly.
No Two Clients are the Same
There is no normal.
In 1998 Weishaupt and Boos et al. put 60 randomly selected people with no history of back pain through an MRI. 24% were diagnosed to have a ‘disc bulge’, 40% had a disc protrusion, 18% had disc extrusion.1
This study (and others like it) warrants another entirely different discussion. For the purposes of this article I use it to illustrate that no two anatomical structures are similar. As a result, blindly telling people to deadlift with legs a touch wider than shoulder width and feet slightly externally rotated is ignorant and ultimately irresponsible.
Everybody needs to perform the deadlift pattern and the only way to be a great trainer (and train well yourself) is to understand all aspects of the movement. To add to the complexity of uniqueness amongst individuals, variations in tissue quality, stress, and mental awareness all contribute to daily fluctuations that must be taken into account when it comes to form and intensity.
How can we possibly take into account the variability between individuals if using “good form” isn’t enough?
If it’s true that everyone is different then the form for every individual must be different as well. What if we could know how appropriate an exercise, or a form cue is for each person right at the moment they are doing it?
My friend David Dellanave uses a technique at his two facilities in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area that does just that and it’s called Biofeedback Training. Biofeedback is a fancy sounding term for a very simple thing. Basically, it describes the process of giving a person information about how their body is reacting and enabling. It then uses that information to make decisions on form or change what they’re doing.
A simple example that you have probably used before is a heart rate monitor.If you’ve ever looked at a heart rate monitor and decided that the heart rate displayed was too high or low, and then acted accordingly to either rest or work you have used Biofeedback.
What David does is he teaches his clients to use their own Range of Motion (ROM) to assess the same thing. They might do a goblet squat, check their range of motion, and then do a barbell squat and check again. Whichever one results in the greater range of motion is the better exercise for the day. It sounds a little weird, but there is some evidence to back up his practice – and he has hundreds of clients getting amazing results.
He’s been able to increase his deadlift from 245-05lbs and become the World Record Holder in his weight class. Aside from never being beaten in a deadlift contest, Dave has achieved triple-bodyweight deadlifts in 4 variations, went from 168lbs to 205lbs at 10% bodyfat, and places like Men’s Health and T-Nation often publish his work on deadlifting.
Not only that, but I personally know of several people in the fitness industry who credit David with teaching them how to use Biofeedback testing to get themselves out of back pain. Using this method has allowed them to figure out exactly what the right positions are to move in – even if they don’t look like exactly what we think of when we think of proper form.
Remember – proper form is based on everyone being the same but we know that it’s just not that simple. And if you can help a client with their chronic pain, they’ll be a client for life. How much is that worth to you? $5,000? $10,000? More?
Until recently, David has been keeping this information pretty quiet other than helping his clients reach their goals, and quietly teaching fellow industry professionals.
When I heard that he was releasing a book on the deadlift I was very excited, because not only was I curious to learn more about this Biofeedback Training method, but I wanted to learn about different types of lifts like the single arm deadlift and Jefferson.
Here’s Dave instructing the Jefferson deadlift (to be fair, the beard adds at least 10lbs to the lift):