This January, I pulled the plug on my career in politics to go full-time strength and conditioning coach. I went from politicking to weightlifting. I went from cushy corner office with a view to a basement weightroom. I went from a salary and benefits to no pay except for free breakfast. I went from suits, ties, and dress shoes to shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers. I went from low energy lunch briefings to heavy metal lifting sessions. I went from receptions with gladhanding, free food, free booze, and fake smiles to, well, none of that.
Why did I make this switch? To follow a passion, to make a difference in people's lives, and to develop a useful skill and knowledge base. In sum, I was really passionate about politics in my early 20's, but I felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill and making no progress -- a few people were making decisions and no matter how hard I tried, no progress was made. When my boss lost reelection in 2018, I didn't look for another job in politics.
Driving home for the holidays, I was listening to a Power Athlete HQ Podcast featuring Ryan Horn, Men's Basketball Strength Coach at Wake Forest University. This cat was on fire for his profession and he talked about how he hustled to get his first internship. I was like, "Man, I gotta get serious about this if I want to make it happen -- I want to be a great coach, but I don't know much and have minimal connections." So I shot Ryan Horn an email explaining my situation and if he knew anybody in the DC area I could connect with. That lead me to emailing Todd Hamer, the newly hired Strength and Conditioning Coach at George Washington University. We exchanged emails, arranged a time to meet, and for some reason he rolled the dice on a 32 year old to be his intern.
My internship experience was awesome. Hamer and his team basically through me on to the weightroom floor with the teams and had me assist their lifts -- they did the programming and explaining, but I went around and cued, encouraged, gave alternative lifts, and led warm ups. It was freaking awesome. What a breath of fresh air to get to coach in a weightroom, jam out to loud music while hooting and hollering with student athletes, getting hyped to get better at their sport. I've always been loud and full of energy, now I got to actual express those attributes, channel them in to something bigger and in a consistent direction for career growth.
The Strength and Conditioning staff at GW were all amazing. Each were extremely knowledgeable and cared about their profession, their athletes, and their colleagues to the highest degree. Each staff member took time to invest in me, to teach me, and to just bullshit with me because there wasn't much going on. They gave me latitude to actually coach. From day one, I was on the floor cuing better squats, helping with power clean technique, and getting feedback from athletes and coaches alike. I'm deeply thankful for that latitude (and when they needed to bring the hammer down on me for pulling on that long leash just a little too hard).
In addition to coming from a world of politics, I also came from a different world of lifting and exercise. Previously, I had only ever really trained Crossfit style. I fell in love with it after college because it was intense, full body, and they used bumper plates like I did in High School football training. I still love Crossfit, too. But this internship opened my eyes to different styles of training, and different purposes of training. Here are just two of many important lessons I learned about training from Todd Hamer and the crew at GW: 1) Strength training is different than Crossfit training, 2) "Well, it depends" is a dependable answer.
NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE A "WOD"
Coming from the Crossfit world, my workouts had been the Workout of the Day or "WOD" from Crossfit.com, the Crossfit box I was attending at the time, or one that I had made up. For those unawares, WODs are high intensity functional fitness performed across a broad modal domain. In normal speak, they are usually a combo of weightlifting and gymnastic movements with a time cap or rep scheme designed to force competition and thereby force intensity and efficiency of movements. That's all well and good, if your objective is to be good at Crossfit and there is definitely carryover of Crossfit style training to D1 athletics, but D1 athletics' goal isn't to be good at Crossfit, it's to be good at their sport. While Crossfit style workouts have their place in D1 sports -- probably in conditioning athletes and setting up a little competition for them -- it can't be the entire training program.
So what to do instead?
To use Crossfit parlance, perform functional fitness. Do squats. Lots of squats. Do deadlifts and pull ups and cleans and dumbbell bench press and medball slams. Do all the things Crossfit does, they just don't have to be done in reps of 21-15-9 for time. The movements can be couplets or triplets in three different groups: A Block, B Block, C Block, and D Block (I don't know if we'll have enough time!). Each block can achieve a great stimulus. While this may be elementary for some readers, it was mind blowing for me and I'm excited to have it in my trainer's tool box.
Here is a quick example of what a workout
Med ball slam 5x5
Weighted Lunge 3x6 each leg
Paloff press 3x20 each side
DB Row 5x10
Plank 5x :60 hold
Hit some arm curls on your own
These movements help build strength, speed, and healthy joints without compromising the athlete. This can easily be done in under an hour, which provides a stimulus of intensity and building better stamina. But it is not done so fast that form breaks down, that each rep can be focused effort to get better at their sport. Would 21-15-9 reps of Overhead Squat and Muscle Ups hit the same muscle groups? Yes it would, but do you want to put that stress on an athlete who has two hours of practice afterward?
"WELL, IT DEPENDS" IS A DEPENDABLE ANSWER
"Hey coach, what should I do to (insert goal here -- increase my vertical, put 20 pounds on my clean, have better agility, prevent another hamstring injury)"? .... "Well, it depends."
A huge lesson I learned while at GW was to be contemplative and intentional about answering an athlete's question or putting their programming together. There are lots of factors affecting human performance -- genetics, bone structure, diet, recovery, amount of fast twitch fibers, willingness to suffer, what their training currently looks like, what it looked like before?
Realizing this was very important. There is not a one size fits all answer for a group of athletes, let alone a team, let alone an individual athlete. There is not one stretch that will get their mobility just right to enable them to hit depth. There is not just one exercise to make the whole team faster (well except sprints, squats, and deadlifts). As much as that would make the job of a strength coach easier, it just isn't so. With that in mind, how should a strength coach approach programming and goals of athletes?
Try to get to the bottom of things: What is the athlete's goal? Why are the athletes in the weightroom? What benefit should they get from the time there? First, programs should be safe -- coaches should purposefully write programming to aid the athlete, not hurt them in the weightroom. Second, programs should build resiliency on the field, help reduce the likelihood of injury in their sport (like increasing hamstring strength in soccer players). Third, programs should build frickin' hammers for athletes -- build more muscle to allow players to run faster, cut harder, recover quicker, and jump higher.
Your athletes are going to have a baseline of strength, stamina, and agility, but the strength coach's job is to increase that baseline over time. You can't do that by repeating the same 3 week cycle the entire year. The body adapts to workouts (duh, that's the whole point) so you need to keep your progressive overload in variation. You also don't need to totally wreck them; maybe the athletes just need to move well and confidently before heading in to a big tournament -- so drop the number of sets or reps or weight and have them absolutely crush a workout without it totally crushing them.
What should a program look like then? Well, it depends. Are they in season or out of season? Have they lifted with barbells before? Are they seniors or freshmen or every class?Do they have a previous injury? What are common injuries for the sport? What does the sport demand?
Yes, being a 32 year old intern was a great experience. Yes, it was worth the massive shift in career. Yes, it was humbling and I learned a lot. The internship went too fast and I feel like I could always keep learning from the folks at GW. Thanks for the opportunity Hamer!