| | | Training Adaptive Athletes: Part 2

Author / John

In Part 1 of Training Adaptive Athletes, we became more familiar with a cross section of athletes who face unique challenges.  Travis Pollen is an adaptive athlete himself – a congenital above-knee amputee, coach, author, and former competitive swimmer.  His numerous accolades and publications on the subject have made him somewhat of a pioneer in the field.

In Part 2 of my interview with Travis, we dive deeper into the “how’s” of training Adaptive Athletes.  As Travis explains, developing the skill set to work with these challenges is sometimes just a matter of viewing a movement pattern in a fresh way.  A little creativity and an appreciation for the context of a given exercise, can make the difference.  No one athlete is exactly like another so why should their training be identical?

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As a coach, is there a particular progression to assessing these athletes when they enter your facility? 

As I alluded to [earlier], really, we’re all “adaptive:” everyone has their asymmetries and movement restrictions, whether it’s the result of an old ankle injury or, as in my case, a prosthetic ankle with limited range of motion. So, as with any athlete, I’ll assess things like a plank, squat, hip hinge, push-up, inverted row, lunge, and vertical jump in order to figure out where they fall on these continuums of movements. Of course, not every adaptive athlete will be able to perform every one of these movements, so the assessment is necessarily modified to suit the individual’s physical difference.

Another important consideration is that the best version of a movement may differ from person to person. For example, the best squat for an amputee may high by most standards, but that may be perfectly okay given their situation.

Can you provide examples of load bearing exercises that will strengthen the system of an adaptive athlete that are potentially “outside the norm”?

Very few people really “invent” new exercises; it’s generally more a matter of variations on a theme. Take my reaching single-leg stiff-legged deadlift, for instance. On my sound limb, I perform it normally. On my affected side, because I can’t maintain single-leg stance, I modify by using a “B-stance,” or staggered foot position, where my affected side does the brunt of the work and my intact leg is just there for support.


Another way we might modify an exercise would be to reduce the range of motion to cater to mobility restrictions (i.e. high box squat, rack pull). We can even elevate a bar on blocks for an athlete in wheelchair to perform cleans. Again, bands, hooks, and chains are our friends in terms of jury-rigging equipment.

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Any go-to modifications for things like squats, deadlifts, power cleans or other full body movements?  

Personally, I perform high box squats (goblet or back), rack pulls, and power cleans from the hang position. Every adaptive athlete will be different, of course. Those missing an arm often benefit from the use of goodies like hooks and bands for upper body and lower body pulling movements. For deadlifts and Olympic lifts, extra tape in the middle of the barbell can also ease the grip demands for one-armed athletes. Additionally, some athletes may do better with dumbbells or kettlebells than barbells.

What would you say to a coach who is afraid they will injure an athlete further by incorporating training into their rehab/PT work?

As the old saying goes, “If it hurts, don’t do it.” Beyond that, though, there’s an obvious need to bridge the gap between rehabilitation and training. For instance, wounded veterans looking to return to active duty following limb loss can’t suddenly go from pelvic tilts and side-lying hip abduction to carrying a hundred pound pack around a desert on a prosthesis. They need to train! All too often, there is the fear that more intense training will result in injury, but as long as the imposed load is intelligent and progressive, it will only help the athlete.

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Where can coaches go to find more information on training adaptive athletes?

In the last few years, we’ve witnessed a positive trend towards higher quality training information for adaptive athletes. From my own archive, I have a blog post entitled ‘Lower Body Training for the Amputee and Able-bodied Athlete Alike . Other resources I highly recommend are the Challenged Athletes Foundation, USA Paralympics, Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, and I Am Adaptive. I know that one of the future goals of I Am Adaptive, in particular, is to create resources and certifications for coaches of adaptive athletes.


Where can adaptive athletes go to find out how to train and compete?

The same resources as above also apply to the athletes. Moreover, I encourage athletes to seek out good coaches who are willing to experiment and think outside the box. Network with other adaptive athletes on social media, and attend (and compete in!) adaptive athletic competitions like the Working Wounded Games in November – Arlington, Va. 

A special thank you to Travis Pollen for taking the time out to educate not only myself, but many others on working with adaptive athletes.  We are stoked to have Travis on Episode 110 of Power Athlete Radio where we elaborate on his passion for training, coaching, and empowering others through strength and conditioning.


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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.

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