| | | 7 Unconventional Changes To Improve Training

Author / John

“Nothing endures but change.”-Heraclitus (540 BCE – 480 BCE)

Ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, was onto something big.  Although the quote has been translated in a number of ways, the theme remains the same and encompasses one of the major aspects of the human condition. Ultimately we cannot prevent change, therefore, we are driven by not only the necessity to endure it but also to attack it head on. The same is true in training. We do it because we welcome and embrace the evolution that occurs as a result of our hard work.

Regardless of whether or not your goals are performance, aesthetics, behavioral therapy, or social inclusion, you start at one point and transition to another. That act of changing in an athlete is essential for successful development and is not dictated solely by the physical demands imposed. Other outstanding variables exist in a training environment that are responsible for continued growth.


I like to think of Heraclitus as a thoughtful beardsman complete with flannel tunic.

Now, here’s my mantra:

“Those that change, endure.”-Cali (AD 1984 – Currently alive and typing this.)

I love change, almost to a fault. I can appreciate those that enjoy the day-to-day routine that allows for a degree of certainty and predictability, but in the grand scheme of things, change is good. Without question, our bodies physiologically respond to the changes imposed upon them in a training setting. We have the recipe for promoting continuous physical adaptation through tools like micro, meso and macro cycling, undulating periodization, various program emphasis (conjugate, accessory, speed/strength). But, there are many other variables in the gym that affect performance in a far less traditional way.

I’d like to examine some of the other components that are key in stimulating significant progress in a training environment. These unconventional approaches are effective in getting your athletes to stay engaged in a way that does not require any change to their actual programming.

1) Take a tip from housewives everywhere.  Rearrange your gym.

For this one, I draw from our friend and strength and conditioning guru, Raphael Ruiz. Legend has it that every four to six weeks, Raph changes the entire layout of his facility. Want to feel the excitement and renewed vigor of training in a new gym?  Make it look like one.


-Rearrange all the equipment in you current facility. It can be time consuming and tiring, but that sounds like good old fashioned exercise to me. Even if it’s just one piece at a time it will be worth seeing your athletes problem solve while looking for dumbbells, bands, or other mobile equipment.

-Add a mirror or take one away.  Mirrors are not the enemy, people who abuse them are.  They can be excellent visual tools but can also become crutches.  Determine which change is appropriate for your athletes.

-Paint a wall a different color.  Did you know that certain colors or views can increase pain tolerance, decrease depression, and even improve longevity?  Having a view of nature has been proven to suppress feelings of suffering so get those garage doors open or take the pain train outside.


2) Don’t get used to a rhythm. It’s not dancing, it’s training

Ben Oliver is the owner and head coach of CrossFit Balboa and when I attend classes there, I am consistently impressed with his unique approach to this. It’s often paired with an element of humor as he leads me through an iso hold and I feel I’m nearing the end only to hear “aaand 3-2-1-keep going”. This one gets me every time. I didn’t know I couldn’t simultaneously cry and laugh. Ben also uses an unconventional approach to cuing up things like EMOMs. This is where the idea of changing the tempo of a drill or movement just to avoid “getting into a groove”. Oftentimes you’ll see this in footwork, ladder type drills, or warm up cadences.


-Instead of doing EMOM’s according to a clock, do them on a coach’s cue, maybe holding various positions for an undetermined period. “Power Clean. Setup. HOLD. (wait, wait) PULL.”.

-Don’t tell the athlete what is coming. The programming for the day may be intentionally vague to the athlete but planned by you. If the work states “OHS” maybe you are playing simon-says, (“Quarter squat. Half squat. Full squat. HOLD. UP.”) working on stability in the bottom position with a sub maximal weight.

-Something as simple as changing a rep scheme to 11 reps instead of the traditional 10 or making a tabata 22 seconds with 8 seconds rest is not enough to change the physical stimulus dramatically, but can prove to be a great mental toughness tool.


3) Music is like booze. If you’re always drunk, consider taking some time off.  Never tried it? Things are going to escalate quickly. 

If you are used to blaring music in the background of your workouts, try going without. You might notice feeling more centered and less distracted by the ambient noise. Conversely, if you usually train in silence like a zen Jedi Master, consider banging weights to evocative tunes. You might find your arousal at an all time high.

4) Stop finishing eachother’s…sandwiches.  Find new ways to cue. 

This is one of my personal favorites. If your brain is attuned to certain cuing commands, it’s time to switch things up. For instance, when working with something as important as reaction time, attention is everything. If an athlete becomes adapted to a sprint start or lift by “3-2-1-Go” they are anticipating. In sport, we do not have this luxury. Instead we rely heavily on our ability to react like a “bullet out of a gun”. Try a new cuing system that forces a greater attention to detail or combination of senses.


-Have your athlete react to the sound you choose. If it’s a clap, stand behind the athlete and make a stomp noise to confuse the athlete. Clap and watch observe their response.

-Use visual cues. Face the athlete and do the flinch drill. Fake them out by articulating your body but only allow them to take off or perform the required task when your feet actually move.

-Test their ability to respond to a grouping of decoy words and a designated cuing word. Tell your athlete you want them to GO when they hear a word that is not a fruit. “apple, banana, grape, milk, watermelon, orange”. The athlete should go on “milk”. Remember to follow up your cue word with more decoys otherwise your silence will indicate your expectation of them to move.


5) Demand coachability.  It’s time to break a mental sweat.

This tests your athlete’s ability to be coachable and handle critical thinking under stress. It is a demand of sport that can be replicated even in training and the confines of a gym setting.


-Sprinting short distances shuttle style with designated cone numbers. Explain to the athlete the cone numbers and then have them react instantaneously to cone commands like “2-1-3-1-4-GO”. On go, they must run to the cones in the sequence given without hesitation. If numbers become easy, name the cones.

-During appropriate exercises (isometric holds are good) have the athlete tell you what he/she should be feeling -or- points of performance. In the deadbug “chin tucked, bellybutton to the floor, etc”.

-If doing interval training, have athletes do a mental challenge in their :30sec rest. “write your last name backwards”, “add these numbers in your head” Or be creative and integrate sports specific cues or questions to drive their mental capacity and concentration under stress.

6) Let’s get weird. Switch up training partners.

This is a biggie. We adapt to our training partners like we adapt to any predictable piece of training equipment. We know where they are strongest, weakest, active and passive. The person you train with can be one of the biggest variables in your performance.


-Don’t let athletes get into a groove with teammates, brothers/sisters/sig-o’s, or friends. Pit them against and with formidable companions who will test them or challenge them in some way. Know what your athlete needs and then switch up the pair configuration regularly to see that those needs are being met.

-Do not let all guys or all girls train together exclusively. Certainly this will depend on the situation, but what I’ve found is that if you can mix up training genders, you’ll see both sexes trying to impress each other. There is no complacency when pride is on the line. There are so many benefits to doing this that are also physical – athletes will rest the appropriate amount of time because they are having to switch weights, each will also appreciate and learn from eachother’s physical prowess – for females its generally mobility and body position, for men it’s usually strength and willingness to suffer.


7) Change temperature, time of day, and lighting.

This one is sort of a no-brainer.  Some athletes aren’t going to take kindly to these changes but your job description does not include coddling.  If you need to, good-cop-bad-cop this one with another coach.  If  your athlete’s sport requires competing in various temperatures and the elements, you need to set aside time in their training to replicate this.  This also goes for time of day and lighting.  Occasionally train or test on off times or workout in very dark environments.  These are often overlooked components of performance that can be developed in your athlete, providing confidence and even improved physical preparation.

Amateur athletes and novice general population type members are not going to need a lot of this variation at the onset of their training. The training itself will provide numerous new stimuli, both mental and physical, to keep the brain and bod “guessing”. However, a time will come when the above will be necessary to breathe new life and in turn, new challenges and progress into their training. Take the examples provided as a starting point for all of the different ways in which we can view our role as “coach” in a multidimensional way. Our athletes are only as dynamic and multifaceted as we demand them to be so make the most of your time with them by creating layers to their athleticism through unique approaches to variation.

Those that change, endure.

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Ingo B on December 3, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    I actually thought about using “Decoy Words” during the sprint drills at the Cert a few weeks back, but decided against it, for fear of people thinking I was screwing around too much. Whoodathunk this is an actual concept?

    Some fantastic ideas in here. Some will be a challenge to implement for us friendless lone wolves, but I’ll see what I can devise.

    • CALI on December 3, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      First change…get friends.

  2. mickyt on December 3, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Great read Cali!
    I’m in the process of opening my own gym.. I’ll definitely take these on board.

    • CALI on December 3, 2014 at 8:06 pm

      Boom. Glad to hear it!

  3. Gavin on December 3, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    @ingob: Cali used decoy words during the cert in October, and it destroyed us. She’s brilliant!

    • CALI on December 3, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      It’s true. I took an online test. I also found out which Sex and the City girl I’m most like. Turns out, I’m a ‘Carrie’. So there’s that.

  4. Steve (a.k.a. Prof. Booty) Platek on December 3, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    @cali you forgot humidity! god damnit! you forgot humidity!!!
    seriously, great article – change is so good. Even though some think it’s unfortunate that I am forced to train in my garage a few days a week, I find that the change can be dramatic: some days I crush shit in the garage to the sounds of children playing in the streets; other days I long for the gym. Change is to be embraced – there is good data suggesting that those that find change challenging, and that adapt poorly to change are more likely to develop dementia. And if we view dementia as a degradation, degeneration of the brain we can use that parallel in training – those resistant to change are doomed to experience degradation and/or degeneration of the maximal and or optimal training, or desired training effect.

    Good stuff as always!

    • CALI on December 3, 2014 at 8:11 pm

      -“What are you training for?”
      -“Not dementia.”

  5. johnny beers on December 3, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Great article, I’ll be looking out for decoy words at the cert this weekend!

    • CALI on December 3, 2014 at 8:13 pm

      @Luke may or may not use them. And if he does, he will most certainly tell you it was his idea.

  6. dtadams0210 on December 5, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Love the Music is Booze comparison. But you are right, the second you turn off the music people get upset quick. I like training without music sometimes because it allows you to avoid distractions and really focus on the movements. There have actually been a few interesting studies that I found a little while back about this. Specifically when you look at the rate of force production/power output.

    • CALI on December 5, 2014 at 11:53 am

      So, So, SOOO true. Music is background noise, and by nature, background noise is distracting to varying degrees. That’s why they play it in elevators, in waiting rooms, and on the phone when I call my bank. That kind of distraction is great for grindy metcons, prowler pushes and iso holds. However, I agree with you. I think it can hinder concentration during RM’s. This does NOT mean I don’t listen to music when trying to PR but I do have a routine that gives me the best of both worlds. I’m sure I’m not alone on this one…

      1. Sit or lay on the floor. Headphones in.
      2. Pick the appropriate music – this is key. If I miss a lift bc of technique, I pick music with a lot of treble and a steady, faster beat. If I miss because of pure lack of arousal, I go hard on the bass and the angrier the better.
      3. Close my eyes and visual my lift twice to the music. First seeing the lift in slow-mo then in the fastest speed possible.
      4. Hop-to. Headphones OUT. Lift in silence. PR.

      *Maybe having a routine means that it’s time I make some changes myself… 🙂

  7. Ingo B on December 5, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    I actually lift better with music, specifically to anything from this guy:


    I detest detest DETEST the TV. The asshole mid-life crisisers love to watch their ESPN or CNN while doing half reps on the Nautilus leg press or strolling on the recline bike. The incessant repetition and unnecessary yelling about nothing from the talking heads drives me nuts, which is why I usually get in 30-45 min earlier (they have a routine…) and plug the Ipod in. /end rant. Sorry.

  8. shredalert on December 6, 2014 at 4:33 am

    Great read Cali. I like your suggestion in using different cues and changing up the EMOM. I shall use this next time during our dead bug iso work, which everyone “loves”.

    • CALI on December 7, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      Thanks! Don’t tell them where you got the idea… I get enough hate(r) mail.

  9. Nick41 on December 7, 2014 at 5:56 am

    Sick article Cali! I’ve actually been thinking about incorporating Kim’s games before a lifting session. Get some random objects, take a minute to obeserve, cover them back up and train. Then, describe each object in detail on paper, and see how much detail about each object I can recall. We used to use it to improve operational awareness and observational skills. Its fun to see who usually bitches about change only to come back and thank you for it later. Keep up the great articles and ideas!

    • CALI on December 7, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      Thanks dude!

  10. shredalert on December 8, 2014 at 3:40 am

    Will do!

  11. menacedolan on December 9, 2014 at 3:10 pm


  12. Ingo B on January 4, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    FYI, I tried the “decoy words” technique (specifically, “3-2-1…keep going) during the Symposium a few weeks ago. Everyone loved it.

    And by “loved it”, I mean they all wanted to kill me.

  13. Zigg on January 14, 2015 at 7:03 am

    People freak when they see tabata @ 22 w/8 sec rest, they ask “why 22? i thought tabata was 20/10” I always tell them they thought wrong it is whatever we want to make it.
    I also like the inverse tabata when getting people to lift a little heavier than “tabata” style weight (i.e. deadlifts/back squats/front squats). They learn to appreciate how long a 20 second rest is when you make them go balls out.

    • CALI on January 14, 2015 at 11:19 am

      Hell yeah. Sounds like we need a new format for fight gone bad… 1:15?

  14. Zigg on January 14, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    1:15 with heavier weight, narrow it to 4 movements

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