4 reasons strength is awesome

Here at Strength System, we love getting folks stronger. While everyone’s programme might look different, we are always looking to gain or at least maintain strength.

‘But why, you ask? Because strength is the foundational physical quality.

What is strength?

Here are a couple of boring textbook definitions:

‘…the ability to overcome or counteract external resistance by muscular effort.’

‘…the ability to produce force against an external resistance is, in essence, the ability to effectively interact with the environment.’

That last bit is the most important – ‘the environment’ is everything outside of our own bodies: it’s other people; it’s that endless uphill walk; it’s that large, awkward suitcase; it’s that heavy barbell that wants to be lifted.

If you want to have better interactions with the outside world, then get stronger.

StrongFirst and fms Coach Brett Jones’ definition of strength really tied everything together for me when I first read it:

“Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do.”

For the more visually-minded, here’s an expert illustration:

Why is it important?

Whole books can (and have) been written about why strength is important, but here are the important parts:


Let’s start with the important stuff: the weaker you are, the more likely you are to die. Strength was measured in this case by grip strength – every 11 pound decrease in grip strength was linked to a 16% higher risk of dying from all causes.

And grip strength doesn’t mean being that over-friendly person who attempts to crunch bone with every handshake.

It simply means being able to handle your own bodyweight (think hanging from a bar) or carrying heavy weights in your hands without dropping them (deadlifts, carries, rows).

Retaining and gaining muscle (AKA Swoly-ness)

There’s an epidemic called sarcopenia, and it’s particularly prevalent in adults over 40. It’s nothing more than the age-related loss of muscle mass (and hence strength). The average adult can expect to lose 5% of their muscle mass for every decade that they age.

Think of muscle mass as your armour against whatever the world throws at you. The less muscle you have, for instance, the greater your risk of falling, getting hurt from that fall, and the slower your recovery process from that fall.

So how do you fight sarcopenia? A strong dose of iron.

In other words, strength training is not only for the young and healthy. I’d argue that the older you are, the more vital it is that you strength train.

Fat loss

Let’s get one thing straight, getting stronger won’t automatically guarantee fat loss. You still need to eat like a sensible adult, and not like a castaway at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But assuming your nutrition is in check, strength training is great at helping you not lose muscle while you attempt to lose fat.

This will make more sense if you look at it from an evolutionary perspective. The human body is essentially miserly – it wants to use the least possible resources for the greatest possible benefit. Muscle is expensive to hold on to, so your body would happily get rid of it if it had a chance.

The moment you start eating less and cutting calories, it’s going to be a toss up between losing muscle and fat, and muscle will probably lose…


You strength train. Think of it as the ‘switch’ that forces your body to maintain its muscle mass. If you give your body a reason to retain muscle, it’ll keep it.

Mental health and wellbeing

While it’s not the most popular subject for research (especially when compared to aerobic exercise), there is some evidence that strength training alone reduces anxiety symptoms, improves self-esteem, and reduces symptoms of depressions in those diagnosed with it.

While it’s not a substitute for actual professional help, I do think (sensible) strength training can be a valuable outlet and a great way to start feeling more confident in your body and its abilities.

So there you have it. 4 damn good reasons to get strong!

Hack away the unessential

As 2019 rolls in, I’ve been taking stock of what’s important to me and clearing away the clutter. I am not someone who enjoys being content with the status quo, but for me to stay sharp and focused on my goals, I need to take Bruce Lee’s advice and hack away the unessential.

One of the areas that I want to improve my mastery in is ‘mental real estate’, a phrase stolen from coach Bryan Krahn. In today’s world where we are constantly bombarded by screens and information, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that everything we consume has on our state of mind, our actions and our decisions. We are a product of what we willfully or mindlessly consume. And just like with food, a lack of deliberation can lead us to unwanted and potentially poor results.

So what can we do? Control the obvious:

  • Which Instagram profiles do you follow? How do they make you feel? How much time do you spend on the app? Can you reduce the time, or better curate the profiles you follow to ensure that you are exposed to only content that inspires, educates or has some genuine value to you? Instagram has an ‘activity tab that allows you to see how much time you are spending per day on the app. The number might shock and astound you.
  • Are you randomly watching YouTube videos, justifying it to yourself as ‘education’ or ‘learning’? Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible YouTube channels that offer incredible value and a high quality of information. But consider your return on investment. As YouTube videos get longer and longer, 2-3 videos can take up to an hour of your time. Consider the value of this time, what it means to you in your life and whether your returns are in proportion to the time you are investing in it.
  • How often do you check your messaging apps every day? Yes, I understand it’s crucial. You are a parent and want to ensure your child is safe. You run a business and want to ensure there are no fires that need taking care of. But consider how you feel when you are checking your messages. Is there a sense of dread? Is there a sense of loneliness, or anxiety? If this is the case, it might be a good idea to give yourself some time at least once a day, even if it’s just a minute where you don’t check your phone for messages.
  • Download an app like Stay Focused or RescueTime. Both great apps that allow you to monitor and control your cell phone or device activity. It can give you some great insights into how you are currently working and can help you stay accountable to yourself.
Do not underestimate the impact that controlling your mental real estate can have on your health, fitness and fat loss goals. More clarity of thought and less clutter in your head will make it easier for you to refuse your colleague’s birthday cake, or to remind yourself to eat your vegetables or to drink 10 glasses of water today.

What is the one habit you would like to develop or eliminate to control your mental real estate?

This flu season, give sinusitis the finger

It’s the time of the year again. Here come the seasonal changes, and with them, the death knell of your ability to breathe for the next week. The constantly blocked nose and watery eyes, the brain fog and inability to focus on anything for more than 5 seconds, the sensation of being underwater as your ear passages close up. Time to pop antihistamines like M&Ms and shove your face into a bucket of steaming water. And if it gets worse, hey, nothing a quick dose of antibiotics cant fix.

Sound about right? If you have ever suffered from sinusitis, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I was diagnosed with sinusitis at a pretty young age, and growing up, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have a cold at least once every couple of months. And this wasn’t just your regular cold. It would be accompanied by fevers and an inability to function for at least a week each time. The only way it would subside each time is after I went through a 5-7 day course of antibiotics. It wasn’t until much later, when I joined the fitness industry and learnt more about the body’s immune system and good nutrition practices was I was able to understand what was going on, and how I could address it.

Here are the 3 biggest things that I learnt that worked wonders for me in addressing my sinusitis:
[Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. These recommendations are from my personal experiences with what has worked for myself and my clients, and from interpreting articles written by people who know their shit way more than I do. ]

You might be allergic, but you don’t even know it.

I tried to make that rhyme. But yes, there might be foods that you are consistently putting into your body that are not agreeing with you, and you may not even know it. The reason is because your body’s immune system produces T-cells that dampen the symptoms that your body is showing to this food over a period of time. So perhaps the first time you ate this food, you might have had a runny nose, or a light cough, but after a while, the T-cells make them stop. The problem with this is that if you continue to consume that food on a regular basis, your immune system is constantly working to suppress the effects of that allergenic food, and is unable to muster the resources needed to fight invading bacteria/pathogens in your environment that could make you sick.

So by removing this allergenic food, your body can save its resources to fight off the pathogens and keep you from falling sick.

What this means

Now, because almost anything can be an allergen, I recommend testing your tolerance to the foods that have been known most commonly to cause allergic and respiratory issues – gluten, dairy, nightshades (tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant, brinjal) and egg whites.

For me personally, it was gluten (all wheat products) and dairy. To test if said food is an allergen, you remove it from your diet completely for 6 weeks to allow your immune system to stop working overtime, and then reintroduce it. If your body is allergic to that food, it will show some kind of symptom – a headache, a runny nose, bloating, etc. If it does, you want to lay off that food group as a consistent part of your diet. No, eating a slice or two of pizza once in a while won’t kill you, but maybe switching from roti to rice for dinner would be a good idea.

All roads lead to gut health

While not nearly enough is known about gut health and how healthy gut flora influences everything from your immune function to blood pressure and kidney function, it seems for certain that taking care of your gut bacteria has positive effects on your body overall. The problem with this is that most people who suffer from any kind of sinusitis are almost always prescribed antibiotics. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against antibiotics when you need them at all, but they do wreak havoc on your gut and in turn, your immune system. This means that, while in the short term they do help your body fight off the invading bacteria/pathogen, in they long run, they also make you more susceptible to future infection.

What this means

This means 2 things:
  1. Increase your intake of natural probiotics – Kefir, kimchi, kombucha and other fermented foods (no, beer doesn’t count). If you absolutely need to, you can consider a probiotic supplement.
  2. Get off the antibiotics – At some point, you will need to get off the antibiotics. For me, this was initially an uncomfortable process. But the interesting thing was that the longer I stayed off antibiotics, the quicker I recovered from my bouts of sinus infections.

Lift weights

Exercise of any kind improves your immune system, but the type and intensity need to be appropriate to you. Exercise of moderate to challenging intensity is great at improving immune response, but overly intense exercise can actually make things worse.

Personally, I am biased towards weight training because with good technique, and a good training program, not only do you improve your immunity, but you also minimize inflammation that can be caused from beating up your joints from performing hundreds of reps as with with cardio or HIIT based training programs. Also, one study pointed out that older people with more muscle mass had more immune cells than their less swole counterparts.

What this means

Lift weights as part of a structured and progressive training program, with the goal of getting stronger and building lean muscle mass

Bonus tip

There are a few specific vitamins that also help boost immunity, that are pretty easy to supplement with:

  • Vitamin C – Get your lemon juice/concentrate in either by drinking it or cooking with it.
  • Iodine – Most table salts contain iodine, so as long as you are cooking with it, you’re in the clear
  • Selenium – This one is a little trickier, especially if you are vegetarian. I would recommend getting a supplement for this one.
  • Vitamin D – By now, most of us know that we are deficient in vit D. Ask your doctor to recommend a dosage for you based on your blood tests.
So that’s it. Those are my top 3(ish) tips to tackle your sinusitis this flu season. Do give them a shot, and let me know what you think in the comments below!

Further reading:

My year with Greg Robins

After my first visit to a powerlifting gym back in 2015 (Total Performance Sport, MA), I knew I wanted to compete in the sport at some point. Even though I had back squatted, deadlifted and benched (where I hit bodyweight the first time I ever tried!) a bunch before the visit, most of my learning came through YouTube, training partners, popular strength programs and self-experimentation.

It didn’t take too long for me to reach out to coach Greg Robins (who I had met at Cressey Sport Performance back in 2015, where he currently coaches), and ask if he would program for me. (I still don’t know why I decided to email him and will probably never do, but it was the best decision ever. I do have a video of him watching me front squat at Cressey Peformance last year – maybe that was it)

Its been exactly a year since I started working with him, and I’m fairly certain I’m going to continue working with him for the rest of my life. How much I’ve learnt this past year about training, programming, coaching, and just good old lifting heavy stuff is overwhelming.



To summarize what a good year its been, here are some numbers:

2015 October 2016 October
Squat – 70 kgs x 3 – 5 reps Squat – 90 kgs x 1 rep
Bench Press – 45 kgs x 1 – 3 reps Bench Press – 60 kgs x 1 rep
Deadlift – 100 kgs x 1 rep Deadlift – 117 kgs x 2 reps

Here are some of my top learnings from the past year, which I think a lot of us can benefit from:

  • Train more than thrice a week: You’ll live, I promise. One of the first things that he asked me even before we started working together was if I had the bandwidth to train 6 days a week. In the limited time that I had spent in the fitness industry, I had been told multiple times that training thrice a week was adequate, and that it was important I don’t train more than that so my body could recover between workouts. But considering that I’m a training junkie, I was more than thrilled at the thought of having just one rest day. For the past year, except when my city had massive floods or the once or twice I’ve been sick, I have been training 6 days a week. I am still alive and kicking, with all my joints intact and have made the most progress I ever have with my training. However, while for me this meant lifting 6 days a week because my goal was to eventually compete in a powerlifting meet and just get stronger, it doesn’t have to be that for everyone. With some of the women I coach, this gave me the confidence to programme 4 strength days in the gym and encourage them to either play a sport or pursue something that they enjoyed like running or zumba, on other days, without constantly worrying about overtraining.
  • Grow, grow, grow your back: I’ve been doing some sort of pulling/ rowing movement at least twice a week, especially these last few months. Not only do I do them twice a week, but I also do what was a  previously an unimaginable number of sets for me. Apart from the fact that my back looks like a (very sexy) road map right now, I’m also able to maintain some solid upper back tightness on the deadlift, get a much better bench set up and my grip strength has gone through the roof!
  • Strength is a skill: I have obviously always paid attention to technique and have constantly worked on getting better at various lifts and using different tools. But learning to pay attention to finer details that potentially play a big role in how and how much I lift is something I’ve developed recently. Videoing all my sets and watching them over and over again, consciously ‘practicing’ some of the things my coach has asked me to fix are good examples of how I treat strength as a skill. And the more I do this, the more and better I’ve been able to lift.
  • The bros are on to something, train upper body more than once a week: When I recently met coach Robins, he said something very interesting – that it was important to train upper body twice a week, just like we train two lower body days (squat and deadlift). Even though I have been doing two upper body days for the last year, it never occurred to me that this is what I was doing. Upper body muscles are also better at recovering when compared to larger lower body muscles. So recovery is not usually an issue when it comes to training upper body lifts more frequently. Here’s what my training  week has looked like for most of last year:

Sunday – Sprints and plyometrics

Monday – Squats

Tuesday – Bench

Wednesday – Active Recovery

Thursday – Deadlift

Friday – Bench

Saturday – Rest

  • Cycle your key lifts: If you have spent long enough training the big three (squat, bench and deadlift), you should be well aware of some of the drawbacks of using those lifts consistently in the long run – muscular imbalances, repetitive joint stress, CNS (Central Nervous System) fatigue are some common examples. In having worked with coach Robins, I quickly learnt how I don’t have to conventional deadlift week after week to get stronger on the conventional deadlift. I’ve done the sumo deadlift, deficit deadlifts, low setting trap bar deadlifts, banded and pause deadlifts, and my deadlift has gotten nothing but stronger. Same deal with squats and the bench – incline, decline, pause, close grip, banded and Spoto bench and Safety Squat Bar, front and pause squats are some of the variations I have trained. I think this plays a huge role in me not developing any major muscular imbalances and staying injury free, while continuing to make massive progress in terms of technique and load on the bar.

  • Be ready, be aggressive, attack the bar: I rarely feel like I don’t want to train. But on days that I do, I usually feel extremely guilty for feeling that way, push through my training and end up having an overall shitty session. Recently, I discovered the importance of readiness, and how that determined how my training goes. Times when I haven’t been able to hit the numbers my coach has wanted me to, assuming technique was in place, it was usually because I wasn’t feeling up to it (mostly because of bad prep or recovery). I’ve now learnt to take a nap or eat a meal or complete things on my to-do list before I train, because those are the things that usually get in the way for me personally. Another lesson has been the importance of being aggressive, especially on the deadlift. Apart from always ensuring I have Metallica/ Mumford and Sons/ the Max Mad theme song (depending on the workout) on high volume, I’ve worked on being more efficient with my set up and deliberately reducing the time I have to think before lifting the bar.

As my coach would say, train with a purpose!


What’s the hurry?

Fitness and having a good physique is commonly viewed as an end result. You work hard for X number of days, you do A, B and C and boom, in 90 days, you look exactly like that movie star in that poster.


Its okay, we’ve all  been there.

For the longest time, I approached fitness the same way. I needed to find the perfect workout, the perfect diet, and do it perfectly for a set amount of time and I would be jacked to shreds just like the fitness models I followed on Instagram. This, unfortunately, didn’t quite work out for me. I was constantly burnt out and had to force myself to get in most workouts. I tried to eat right, but always got frustrated with the lack of – or minimal – progress in 3 months (where’s my 6-pack at, dammit) and gave up. I was never happy with where I was, and more importantly, with who I was.

About 6 months ago, I started working with coach Bryan Krahn (thanks to the encouragement of my awesome business partner, Prashanti). Obviously, I ‘screwed up’ and cheated on my nutrition the first couple of weeks. He was very kind about it and gave me some helpful advice about what to do, and then he said something game changing – ‘This is a skill, and skills take YEARS of practice to master’.



This blew my mind. I was caught in the trap of trying to find secret exercises, workouts and diet plans that I was sure that all these people were doing that made them look that way. The truth was far from it. All the people who looked the way that I wanted to look had several things in common – they ate right 90% of the time, they trained hard and looked forward to their workouts and listened to their bodies. They also took care of sleep and stress outside of training. And most importantly, they had been doing this for many, many years.

Fitness and getting jacked, is a skill. Just like art. Just like sports. You have to fully experience and enjoy every second of it you want to be good at it. You HAVE to love the process. You can’t just drudge through your workouts and your diet and see results. You have to respect that everything about the way that you’ve lived your life so far, not good or bad, has led you to looking and feeling the way you do right now. To change that is a huge transformation that is probably going to take you as long as it took you to get here.

Contrary to feeling depressed about that or going into denial (which is what I did), take a moment and think about it from a different point of view. There’s no pressure now. No end point to get to. The goal now to enjoy the fuck out of your workouts, enjoy the process of eating right and take care of your body, in order to enjoy the way that you feel every day. And the better you get at that, the better you will look. Isn’t that awesome?


So get comfortable, breathe and enjoy the ride.


2016 – The year of fitness, fun and fat loss!


There is a certain magic to group training, the energy generated when a group of people commit to a cause and honour it by pushing themselves is electric. It allows them to surpass their individual shortcomings, and overcome their fears and doubts. It allows them to do the most important thing when it comes to fitness – just showing up.


After much thought and careful planning, Strength System is proud to bring to you the FitBox.

FitBox is more than just a group or a bootcamp class. It is a 12-week journey that will act as your first step into fitness. These 12 weeks will not be easy, and the results that you get at the end will be hard-earned.

Here are some of the features and fun things we have planned:

  • Constantly changing workouts that can be scaled to challenge any fitness level.
  • A specific focus on general fitness and fat loss to leave you feeling amazing at the end of each workout and awesome at the end of three months.
  • Many toys to play with like kettlebells, trap bars, medicine balls, TRX suspension trainers, gymnastic rings, valslides and sleds.
  • Gamification of workouts to keep training fun and intense.
  • Nutrition tips, tricks and hacks that you can implement right away.
  • No gamification is complete without rewards. So, prizes for most consistent, most improved, etc.
  • ..and much, much more!

That new year resolution for fitness that you make every year, let’s make it count this time.. 2016, let’s get started on the awesome!

Enter the Landmine

My name is Sandeep, and I have bad shoulders. A childhood spent in front of the computer playing videogames, and an early adulthood ambition to do a lot of pull-ups resulted in terrible shoulder mechanics that have caused me pain and frequent bouts of neck spasms. At first, I figured this was a unique problem. I told myself I had a long neck, weak shoulders and all other kinds of rubbish. But it wasn’t. The more folks I coached and saw move around me, the more I noticed that everyone suffered from some version of this problem.

What am I talking about? Obviously, not everyone has shoulder pain or some kind of neck issues. But be it due to our modern lifestyles and all the sitting hunched over, our propensity to being chest breathers or even one too many ‘chest days’, most of us lack the ability to reach over our heads without compensating elsewhere in our body. The most common version of this is a lower back arch. If overhead pressing hurts your lower back, this is probably why.

At the Strength System, before every overhead pressing day, we test our trainees’ range of motion in flexing their shoulder joint (taking their hands overhead) using the back-to-wall shoulder flexion drill.

Here’s a great video by coach Eric Cressey on how to do it –

If their thumbs hit the wall, boom, let’s press. If they don’t, as is common with folks with a hunch or with tight pec/lat muscles, we have them substitute the overhead press with a landmine press. This allows them to comfortably press in the range of motion that their body allows them without creating compensations. This is a movement that, in addition to teaching good shoulder mechanics, allows us to load them up and continue training the pressing pattern, while we also simultaneously work on their shoulder mobility through corrective exercises such as YTWs, lat and pec stretches.

If you’ve been having shoulder pain or back pain when you press, we highly recommend trying out this approach to it. Test, and if you fall short, try the landmine press.




SMFR 101

Bro, do you even Self Myofascial Release (SMFR)? Even if your tongue protests at having to pronounce that, you’ve definitely done it at some point if you’ve ever trained with us at Strength System. Remember the foam roller and the lacrosse balls? We like to have all our trainees start their sessions with about 5 minutes of SMFR using these tools. If you have a desk job, or lead a generally sedentary life (and yes, working out 3 days a week and doing nothing else is sedentary), or spend a couple of hours every day driving, you will probably benefit from some SMFR.


A quick primer: fascia refers to the layers of connective tissue that envelop the body all the way from the toes up to the skull. Most relevant for us, fascia also envelops our muscles (hence the term ‘myofascial’). Theoretically, SMFR helps to break up ‘adhesions’ that develop in our fascia from overuse, imbalances, and the general stresses of life. This prepares our muscles and joints to move through a larger range of motion than they previously could. While the science behind why SMFR works is still hotly debated, we’re just happy that it works.

While specific problem areas depend on the individual person, we typically find that most people will need to prioritize their glutes, upper back, chest, lats, and hip flexors. As a general rule, make about 5-10 slow passes up and down each muscle group that you’re targeting. If you find a tender spot, pause on it, and take a couple of slow, full breaths, and think of sinking your body slightly into the roller.

Just one warning: don’t expect the foam roller or the ball to cure all your mobility ills. You can’t roll out your thighs, hop off the roller, and do a split for the first time ever. At best, it gives you a short window of opportunity to use your new flexibility superpowers to work on your basic movements. And always remember the 80% rule: you should be in significant discomfort, but never in pain. Bro tip: if you’re holding your breath, don’t!

-Varun Srikanth

What’s your passion?

When we emailed Steve Pulcinella of Iron Sport Gym way back in December based on Alexander’s recommendation about visiting him during our trip, he didn’t have much to say. He cracked some jokes and invited us to come over, but what we were intrigued by the most was his honesty. We were two complete strangers from another country and he didn’t hesitate to warn us that it was a pretty slow period for Iron Sport and that most of his members had just only recently quit.


His story is moving. He started in a roughly 1,500 sq.ft garage gym – a facility that he put together mostly so he had a place to train at. With a highly successful powerlifting and strongman career, he needed a place that wasn’t a regular commercial gym, and there was no better solution that starting his own place. Iron Sport was one of the first few gyms to have great equipment for powerlifting and strongman, and allowed you to do things like lift heavy weights that most other ‘health clubs’ frowned upon. If you enjoy lifting heavy and like to try out cool stuff in your training, this would have been your dream come true. And as expected, it was for many in and around that area of Philadelphia.

Everything was going well – people who understood the value of and respected the space were showing up. In fact, it was going so well that Steve Pulcinella was now forced to consider growing, therefore shifting to a bigger space. A much bigger space.  And so he did. By early 2,000, Iron Sport was now functioning out of a 7200-sqft space, now with added weightlifting platforms!


When Iron Sport was clearly leading the race, the American fitness industry started to evolve – CrossFit, among other trends came in, and even some of the more loyal Iron Sport members wanted to check out what else was out there. To stay on top of things, Stevey P decided to go all in – they added more strength equipment and weightlifting platforms, discarded the cardio stuff and became more niche. Unfortunately for him, this meant his audience was now a lot more limited to those who subscribed to a style of training that could be done with purely the tools and equipment available at Iron Sport. And as you can imagine, that number might not have been too big.

Despite the fact that it was now a lot harder for him to pay his bills, let alone make a profit, Steve Pulcinella was someone who wasn’t willing to give up his integrity, he was someone who would go all the way to stand behind something that he strongly believed in – the sport of strength. He was someone who wasn’t willing to sell out for the sake of making more money and he wasn’t going to change who he was.

As people who are on the verge of setting up a gym, Sandeep and I have had to ask ourselves some hard questions based on the lessons we learnt at Iron Sport. What sort of gym do we want to be? Who do we want to cater to? Will we be forced to pick between keeping our integrity and selling out – even if just a tiny bit?

We know that answers to those questions will show up as we grow, both personally and professionally. But one thing is certain – we want to strive to be like Steve Pulcinella. We want to always be honest about what we’re made of.


Perform Better Series – Manipulating Movement with Nick Winkelman

Its always a challenge to present at the end of a seminar, especially if you are trying to say, or teach in this case, a lot in a considerably short amount of time. Despite being put in such a situation, coach Nick Winkelman made so many thought-provoking points of as part of his presentation titled ‘Coach like a caveman – How the environment shapes our movement’ at the Perform Better seminar in March, that I am still trying to wrap my head around most stuff. 

With coach Nick Winkelman
With coach Nick Winkelman

Most of his presentation centered around the concept of implicit (thinking about something before doing it) and explicit ((learning from/by doing) learning , and how those two ideas can be used in the context of coaching an athlete. But what he spoke right at the start about ‘manipulating movement’ is what could be immediately applicable to those of us who either train on a consistent basis or train others. For instance, a coach manipulates movement when he ‘cues’ a trainee to do something. ‘Breathe into your belly’, ‘knees out’ are examples of such cues that helps a trainee perform a movement differently to make it better. 

Coach Winkelman’s focus, however, was on how environmental factors can affect, and therefore manipulate movement. If there’s a chair, you want to/ can sit on it. If there’s no chair, you will not be able to. The chair is the environment here that’s garnering a ‘response’ from your body.   

Tying this idea with other parts of his lecture, my conclusion is simple – if I understand that I can manipulate movement by getting my body to respond to the environment, the option of ‘creating’ an environment that could promote optimised learning should definitely be possible. In other words, we now have the option of creating an environment purely based on what we want to learn or teach. 

Now, an environment can mean two things. It can either just be the training space – does it have a psychological effect on the trainee where he/ she feels safe and secure and are other such fundamental questions answered? Secondly, an environment could also means tools and drills. These tools and drills can be used to reinforce the pattern we are trying to teach/perform or help us better a movement pattern, among other things. Not only does this minimize conscious effort from the trainee’s end, but it also makes the learning curve self-limiting, that is, room for simple errors are restricted through immediate feedback.

An example that coach Winkelman provided was getting an athlete to stay upright on a high knee drill. A coach can keep drilling the cue ‘stand tall’ or something to that effect to a trainee and the trainee can try over and over again, thinking that’s what they’re doing. But without effective proprioception, that just isn’t going to work. His idea was to just have the trainee hold a light medicine ball over his head instead, and by changing the basic premise of the environment, we are manipulating the trainee to maintain a more upright torso. In essence, we are in a way forcing the trainee to be more aware of an increased verticality. 

Personally, I’m going to start including a day of stair sprints in my training moving forward. I have always been very comfortable running on a track or any flat (safe) surface. But when we hiked in Sacramento with coach Chip Conrad back in February, I realised how I struggled to move through not-so-smooth terrain and there was this constant fear of miss-stepping and tripping. By trying to respond to the stairs, I will hopefully be able to manipulate my movement to adapt better to unpredictable terrain. Using different flight of stairs or changing the number of stairs I step on each time could maintain the unpredictable nature of this training. 

 In conclusion, the environment does not only play a role in how we learn a movement, but also how we change and adapt movement.

 (Note – This is part two of the Perform Better series, covering the Learn By Doing seminar that took place in March, 2015, in Boston. Part One can be found here.)

 – Prashanti