Primetime at the gym, the music is pumping and the familiar sound of clients crushing their workouts is audible. You are leading the class to victory against mediocrity, your cues of “Fast!” and “Drive!” can be heard as you Spartan-kick excuses out of your domain.
Pop quiz hotshot: one of your members, one who never misses their appointment, in the middle of the workout you are so proud of designing…starts to cry. Something has taken their body hostage, something you have no control over and did not plan on. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?
If you take the analogy from the 90’s movie SPEED literally, you already have the answer. It happens to be the same answer as the rest of the fitness industry. You “shoot the hostage” with more emotional intensity, more screaming – turn the speaker volume to 11! You ignore the warning signs, single the client out, and yell at them to push harder. No pain no gain, right? While Keanu may agree with sacrificing the athlete’s health for the workout of the day leaderboard standings, this is not a viable option. “It depends” is not a box office strategy that will eventually land you a John Wick role, but it is a more accurate representation of the actions you need to take . Before you know where they need to go, you need to know how they got there. How did this client’s life manifest itself during their workout? There are breadcrumbs, gluten-free if necessary, but they are there. The client has an entire life outside of the workout. Think outside the gym box.
Welcome to the Concrete Jungle
In Robert Sapolsky’s insightful book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he thoroughly depicts the effects of chronic stress on the body. Increased heart rate, blood pressure, hormonal response (increase in adrenaline and glucocorticoids released directly into the bloodstream) are all natural evolutionary responses to life-threatening scenarios. However the body does not know the difference between a life or death situation or the stress of everyday life. Consider the following event:
(Feel free to read the following scene in your best Crocodile Hunter impression)
Exterior. Afternoon. Serengeti. Watering hole
A Zebra approaches the watering hole, the tall grass of the adjacent embankment rustles, the Zebra hesitates momentarily and then continues on toward the water. The crown of a lioness’ head becomes visible above the grass line, the Zebra recognizes the fatal danger and performs a 180 degree turn bucking back just as the lioness leaps toward it. The lioness grabs the Zebra’s backside but cannot sustain its grip, the Zebra sprints away, leaving the lioness defeated in the dust behind.
And….scene. Yes, it was a harrowing experience for the zebra, whose body reacted with the appropriate fight-or-flight response for the situation. Yet the zebra was back to living its peaceful life while the camera crew that shot the scene had to worry about editing, narrating, and publishing for their network to subjectively judge as worthy-to-sell advertisement space. Stress response is intended to be an acute response to a temporary stimulus.
However, as a result of modern lifestyles the acute response is now on a chronic level. The camera crew felt the effects of the same stress response for much longer than the zebra. Redlining the body in such a way creates long-term health consequences; zebras do not have chronic stress, but they do not have chronic success either (25-year average life expectancy). There is no zebra training montage to ensure they are better prepared to handle the next lion attack; it is completely left to chance. They do not get ulcers, but they also do not get jobs, mortgages, bills, debts, and they do not spend their entire adult gym life trying to relive their high school sport careers. Clients are not zebras, they are real people with real stresses. Their performance during the one-hour session will be affected by the other 23 hours of the day.
Understanding that stress is consolidated, regardless of source, is crucial to the success of both the coach and the client. Without this consideration, a client’s breaking point is inevitable. Sapolsky lists possible consequences of chronic stress: Learning/memory deterioration, insomnia, depression, pain perception impairment, compromised immune system, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol. These are the Jenga blocks pulled out of the tower when the client walks into the session, their system is compromised.
Most certifications on training and coaching make this mistake. The training protocols prescribed within the vacuum of the exercise lab fall apart in the real world of stressors, resulting in a frustrated coach, and more importantly, a client with a Charlie Brown attitude toward exercise. The full athletic life cycle of the client is the top priority. While short-term goals are the forefront of the industry, the client’s long term outlook toward exercise is at stake.
The coach’s responsibility is to reprioritize the client’s long-term empowerment: the entire industry is trained to sweat out the stress, have the client blow off some steam with whatever high intensity trending workout program and the problem is somehow magically solved. There is a major flaw with this line of thinking: exercise is also considered a stress by the body. Compartmentalized as a “good” stress or eustress, exercise is beneficial in the long term, but that does not change eustress’ suffix. Movement is medicine, but so are laughter and antibiotics; dosage and strength are of consideration – side effects will vary.
How to Coach Clients to the Top of the Food Chain
Recommendations of exercise as a stress reliever are often touted by medical organizations but without considerations to relative intensity or the competitive nature of the individuals involved(Mayo). Recommendations are usually set for low intensity, but anyone trying to elicit change needs to operate at a higher level. Recommending an individual to “find what they love” in exercise has the same useless tonality as every book in the self-help section that, in a flowing glossy script, encourages the reader to pursue their passion. It is a vague platitude that confuses and frustrates more than it helps. The reality is that clients generally do not want to find what they love, they want to find results. For a client, achieving goals in the gym is often another stress on an already stressed system. For a coach, understanding the client’s mental energy and cognitive stress load are paramount in designing their program. The stress load that a client may be under can dictate not only performance, but also their susceptibility to injury.
The research article “Effect of Physical and Academic Stress on Illness and Injury in Division 1 College Football Players”, authored by 2018 Power Athlete Symposium speaker Dr. Bryan Mann, highlighted the effect of outside stress on training and the need for its consideration. He compared the injury rates between 3 different conditions: low academic stress weeks (regular season without exams), high physical stress weeks (preseason) and high academic stress weeks (midterms). He found that while high physical stress was a consideration for injury, the athletes during high academic stress weeks suffered more injuries than during low academic stress weeks, especially the players that started at their position. The players required to perform at a high level at game time, the ones with more at stake, were more susceptible. Dr. Mann concluded that stress, regardless of its source, is systemic. In addition to the client’s workload, their social circle, family life and peer group are important.
These stressors take on even more significance if the athlete cares about their performance. This study was performed on college-age athletes but the implications are directly relatable to the coach’s predicament. Coaches who spend an inordinate amount of time cheerleading rather than coaching are creating a two-fold problem: they are coercing the client to care more about their supposed performance markers while simultaneously not programming for the consideration of outside cognitive stress.
The purpose of the coach is to empower the client to better their own physiology regardless of the unpredictability of the world around them. Clients are not zebras and should not be trained as prey animals, victims to their environment. The coach should be able to develop a strategy for their client that incorporates their outside stressors as a consideration and design a program that works to build their resilience.
And that strategy is…to be continued.
(Fade to black)
YOUTUBE: Power Athlete Symposium 2018 – Dr. Bryan Mann
PODCAST: PA Radio Episode #249 w/ Dr. Bryan Mann
BLOG: The Day One Size Up by Don Ricci
BLOG: Rehab to Performance – How Pain Affects Movement by Dr. Matt Zanis
EDU: Power Athlete Methodology
1. Mann, J Bryan et al. “Effect of Physical and Academic Stress on Illness and Injury in Division 1 College Football Players.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 30,1 (2016): 20-5. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001055
2. (Mayo Clinic Staff)Exercise and Stress: Get Moving to Manage Stress. 18 Aug. 2020,www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-s
3. Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: the Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. Henry Holt and Co., 2004.
Starting his training career assisting in the Biomechanics lab at San Francisco State, Cheyne’s focus on movement, posture, and position have been the foundation of his coaching. His clientele ranges from injury rehabilitation patients to professional athletes, and he has been able to consistently tailor strength and conditioning programs toward specialized needs. As a personal trainer in commercial gyms from California to New York, his hands-on experience gives a unique perspective as to what will and what won’t work in the real world. Since graduating the Block One Coach curriculum in June 2018, Cheyne has utilized the Power Athlete Methodology for developing and fostering athleticism in his clients. Cheyne credits the Block One Coach curriculum for the improvement he has seen in his clients’ body composition, strength, endurance, fitness and overall aesthetics.
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