What IS “Perfect” Form?

In “Supertraining,” Mel Siff makes a case for “imperfect training”: occasionally varying the balance of loads, stances, speed and others to better prepare an athlete for sport.


Older coaches will remember Paul Chek’s “balance” training for the “core” in the early 2000s. For years, parents visiting my gym would cite the value of “training the little muscles in the core” while talking about their kids. Heck, “core” is STILL a buzzword in training circles of lower educational average.


Obviously, the nature of sport is unpredictable. But can the training room best prepare an athlete for that unpredictability? Is the scope of unpredictability different for each sport, and therefore trainable only on the field or rink?


“Imperfect training,” in my mind, can be spread across a broad spectrum:
– inherently unsafe, with little value (risk > reward)
– inherently unsafe, with moderate-to-high value (risk = reward)
– inherently safe, with moderate-to-high value (reward > risk)
– inherently safe, with little value (risk + reward = 0.)

 

It’s irrelevant to our purposes to discuss activities which create no reward. But all training carries an element of risk. Small “injuries” – including muscle tearing, elevated blood pressure, glycogen depletion and exhaustion – are necessary to spur super compensation.

 

In that light, where is the line between “small injuries created on purpose” and “small injuries that are a side effect”? What about small injuries that cause no real limitation or long-term damage, like blisters?

“Imperfect” training raises the risk associated in training. BOSU balls were popular toys (but not with Siff, nor with me) for years. The unstable surface of a BOSU ball was argued to create more stability around the ankle and knee joints. Higher risk for a reward or arguable value.

Where do box jumps fit into the risk/reward picture? Low-rep box jumps done from on high? High-rep box jumps done from a medium height? Where is the “safe” line in either scenario?

The common answer is, “It’s the duty of the coach to know when to hold the athlete back.” But HOW do they know? Is it subjective? What experience — short of causing injury — tells the coach, “This far and no further?” With individual variations in back musculature, injury history and deadlifting exposure, how can a coach determine that any one posture is “bad” in the deadlift?

But exposure to success leaves clues: the *best* dead lifters do it with an anteriorly-tilted pelvis, extended back and elevated chin. Except for the ones who don’t, like Andy Bolton, the current world record holder. Yet no one would presume to say, “Andy, if you backed off the weight and fixed your form, you’d lift 1100lbs instead of 1008lbs.”

 

Most arguments in the fitness world sound like this: “Bad form is dangerous because it’s bad form.” It’s circular logic. When pressed, the fallback seems to be, “It’s just bad! Everyone knows that!”

 

Here’s Tony Budding explaining CrossFit’s perspective on “safety vs intensity” and what constitutes good form:

 

The problem for coaches making the “bad form” argument is that technique occurs on a spectrum. Danger occurs on another spectrum. What’s dangerous for one person can pose no threat to another person. Experience changes the spectrum; load and intensity change the spectrum. What a coach must consider when correcting technique isn’t variance from a hard-and-fast line, but the average of averages.

We can say that, on average, a lifter whose knees collapse inward will have less power in the squat. We can say that, on average, a lifter whose torso tilts forward will place more stress on their lower back; and a lifter whose torso stays too vertical will place more stress on their knee. But we cannot say that a barbell must be vertically placed at 64.3% of femoral length relative to the pelvis at the start of the squat, because your legs are longer than mine.

Without a clear and present “perfect” form, what range of variance is acceptable?

Is “good form” an arbitrary decision?

​What’s bad? What’s good? How do we know for sure?

The Scariest Answer We Hear

The Scariest Answer We Hear

We’ve been running our Gym Checkup for two years. Thousands of gym owners have completed it.

 

Most finish the checkup and book a free call with me to discuss their answers. Sometimes we invite those callers to mentorship.

 

Some of these guys are generating over a million in gross revenue per year. Some are looking for a lifeline to make it through the month. Most are in the middle. But almost ALL gyms, rich or poor, give us this answer on at least one of the questions in the Checkup:

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“I don’t know my goal for this business. I haven’t really thought about it.”

 

“I don’t know how long a client stays with me.”

 

“I don’t know what my coaches want.”

 

“I don’t know my profit margin.”

 

“I don’t know how I’m going to retire.”

 

….in fact, many gym owners bail out of the Checkup partway through, use the “phone a friend” button, and book the call anyway, because it’s obvious their business is out of control.

 

You manage what you measure. You control what you know.

 

As a coach, you’d never let an athlete post an estimated score. “I think I did Fran in under 3:00.”

You’d never guess at their body fat percentage. “I think you’re around 30%, and I think you used to be around 33%. Great work.”

You’d never accept a guess. “I bet I could lift 500lbs.” You would test, and retest. You would KNOW.

 

When you open a business, coaching isn’t your job anymore; it’s your service. Your business provides a platform for that service. Your job is to build that platform. That means it’s your job to know your ARM, your LEG, your profit margin. It’s your job to know what your coaches want: is to more work, or less? Has that answer changed in the last two months?

 

We can blame poor software options for our lack of knowledge, but they just report what their users ask them to report. We can blame HQ for lack of “best practices”, but most owners don’t record any metrics on what’s actually working. We can blame our teachers for bad math, preachers for bad prayers, banks for bad fees…

 

…but it’s our responsibility to KNOW.

 

The answer that keeps me up at night is “I don’t know”. It scares me because, in my efforts to keep this Movement going forward, I see gym owners being swayed by bad advice. Without data, advice is just a guess. And without data, the gym owner can’t tell the difference: we’re just pawns to their game.

 

The Checkup provides a piece of our data–the largest and most comprehensive data set in the world. Ongoing mentoring calls with hundreds of gym owners provide the rest.

 

Start here: take the Gym Checkup. It’s free. Write down the questions you can’t answer. Then start finding the answers, with these four taking priority:

  • Profit margin
  • Coach’s “Perfect Day”
  • ARM (Average Revenue per Member)
  • LEG (Length of Engagement)

 

Those are the four answers most gym owners tend to “guess”–or assume, or estimate–most. Guesses aren’t good enough anymore.

 

Full Transparency: Blood Tests and CrossFit Gyms

Full Transparency: Blood Tests and CrossFit Gyms

CrossFit effects its clients on every level.

 

We know, from dozens of stories, that coaches have the unparalleled potential to change cholesterol, blood sugar, cortisol and a host of other blood marker levels.

 

But how can blood testing potentially affect the business of coaching?

 

In early December, we decided to find out. Members of the TwoBrain mentoring team, as well as 10 coaches and clients from Catalyst, surrendered our blood to answer the question, “Could this help the clients of CrossFit gyms?”

 

I’m not the first one to experiment with blood testing in a gym. But my intention wasn’t to tweak the minute training of a Games athlete; mine was to answer the question, “Would this help CrossFit gyms keep members longer?”

 

First discovery: I’m not good at fasting. But I take the test more seriously because I’m forced to fast.

Clients and coaches lined up at 6:30am. I brought in a phlebotomist to take our blood. She set up a centrifuge in our Athletic Therapy office, and stacked rows of test tubes and syringes on my intake desk. The air in the waiting area was somber, as if we were waiting to see a doctor (and anticipating bad news). Most brought a snack for after the test; I already had my order in at the Workshop cafe next door.

It took around ten minutes per athlete. Then the phlebotomist packed up her things and the waiting began.

 

Second discovery: How I behave and think while wearing the client’s shoes.

Our results arrived a week later. An email notification arrives with “Your Blood Testing Results are Here!”

I clicked through, and away we went.

Here are some screen shots. I won’t share the name of the company we used outside the TwoBrain family, but you might catch a glimpse in the pictures.

My test was a full one; many of my coaches and all of my clients used a version around the $200 range, which wasn’t quite as comprehensive.

Most of my markers were in the “Optimized” range, so I’ll focus on the interesting ones–the “At Risk” markers.

Here’s how the 5 “At-Risk” markers were presented to me:


 

Nearly all were in the “Metabolism and Weight Control” category, so here’s a more detailed view of just those markers:

…if I clicked on the “LDL” picture above, I got this:

 

…and if I clicked “Shopping Basket”, foods and supplements that would help with my “At Risk” categories were sorted and prioritized this way:

(I’m not sure why it says “Fish Free”, except during the intake survey I clicked that I only ate fish once per week or less. I don’t dislike fish, but my wife does, so we rarely eat it at home.)

 

Just for fun, I clicked the “Cognitive” link and saw this:

 

Nothing crazy. But being on the other end of the testing put me into the client’s shoes. And when I analyzed my own reactions later, I chuckled a bit.

 

My first response was to justify my current behavior instead of asking, “What do I have to change in my lifestyle to fix these numbers?”

 

LDL cholesterol and cortisol levels were both high. The tracking service suggested I cut back on the intensity of my workouts. Since I’ve been scaling most of them lately, they’re nowhere near my usual level of intensity. So I pointed the finger at my stress level.

 

Now, I’m not stressed out. But I’m very busy: we happily add 4 new gyms to the TwoBrain family every 3 days. We just released our 2018 curriculum for gym owners, and compiling data to support what we teach was a LOT of work. We have three massive R&D projects running at major expense. All good things (eustress) but still: all.of.the.things. Our gym went through a management restructuring around Christmas time, and while we now have all the right people in all the right seats, their learning curve puts demands on my time that I don’t really have.

 

So I rationalized: cortisol and LDL are high because of stress; this stressful period will eventually pass; I’ll just do nothing and wait it out. And that’s how a client would probably react.

 

Next, I asked what the “hacks” were to solving the problem. What supplement can I take? What can I eat MORE of (instead of asking myself, “where do I need to cut back?”) Now, my friend and UpCoach mentor Craig Hysell has changed my view on “hacks”, so I immediately realized I was trying to avoid change. But most clients wouldn’t.

 

Finally, I tried to use my tried-and-true avoidance technique: “I might be unhealthy, but this is the price I’m willing to pay to feed my family.” This is a sticky lie, and I know it. More sleep and more time skiing instead of working will make me a better husband, dad and mentor. So why am I writing this review at 4am, and then working on another big project this morning? I don’t know the answer, but I believe our clients will do the same things.

 

In other words, they need a coach.

 

Third discovery: I automatically trust the people who provide the data.

When the guys behind the software said “Eat more rolled oats”, my first thought was “Wow, I’ve been wrong about that for a full decade.” I immediately mistrusted what I knew about myself because these guys have white lab coats.

 

The Zone Diet works really well for me. I focus on cognitive performance instead of physical performance, because winning the Games doesn’t help other gym owners (but mental acuity does.) I don’t eat rolled oats in the morning because even small amounts make me less sharp.

 

But when presented even a shaky chain of logic (my LDL is high; high LDL is dangerous; LDL is best controlled by diet; people who eat more rolled oats have lower LDL) my knee-jerk reaction was to buy into whatever the computer said. Never mind that not all of those things are necessarily true, or that correlation doesn’t equal causation (people who eat rolled oats are probably also more likely to exercise)–I was reaching for my grocery list before I even clicked the “Next” button.

 

Fourth discovery: I need an impassive expert to tell me what to do FIRST.

But most clients won’t look for a filter: they’ll just take the recommendation of the computer.

 

I emailed the results to my RD, who happens to sit in the office two doors down from mine. I’ll walk through it all with her on Monday. Then we’ll decide if I need to do anything different; I’ll probably add some aerobic work into my week (I usually ski all winter and bike all summer on top of CrossFit, but I’ve been missing it this year.) When the software said “Cut back on exercise intensity”, I said “Nah, the Open is coming up.” But I know many exercisers would see this as the golden ticket to the treadmill.

 

Conclusions:

  1. If your gym is operating under a Prescriptive Model (which we teach in the Incubator), blood testing could be GREAT. For example, if the client received the results of the test, and their COACH received the recommendations, that coach could filter and curate their knowledge to apply working solutions for the client. Under the prescriptive model, it’s totally fine to say “You need to come to CrossFit twice per week and cycle twice per week, instead of coming here every day”. But if you’re just selling group memberships, downgrading a client’s visits is a threat to your revenues. I believe this prevents a gym owner from making the best coaching decision for their clients, and will shorten their LEG (it’s certainly been true in my case.)
  2. Being the keeper of the data should increase LEG. If you base a client’s progress off their Frathey can go anywhere else, because everyone has a clock. But if you’re the only one tracking their progress through deeper means–like an Inbody test, or blood testing–they won’t be able to see their progress anywhere else.
  3. Blood testing can make the “invisible” changes–blood sugar levels, cholesterol–more visible to the client. That means more Bright Spots. And the way the data was displayed on the tester’s website was really appealing and exciting – I’ve gone back 5-6 times since. I can even project changes, which feels like a game.
  4. The price might deter some gym owners who struggle to charge what they’re worth. But objective data (from an InBody, blood testing or even measurements) will help the gym owner show the client what they’re actually providing, instead of just selling group exercise. I wrote about this at length in “Help First” (walking around the table).

 

Is this scalable? We’ll see–TwoBrain gyms could see a custom option from this testing company by the end of 2018. A few doctors are already being tested to give me their opinion. And we’d have to be very careful about scope of practice, but working with an out-of-state testing company might help there, too. Heck, in North America, most doctors don’t have time to take blood tests and sit down to review the results anyway.

 

How deep can the prescriptive level go? To the depth of the paper prescription pad–or a few millimeters beneath the skin?

 

Many of my Personal Training clients pay $15,000 per year for private clinic access. In Canada, our healthcare is “free” (but largely unavailable, or a dangerously slow process). So people who can afford better will enroll in a private clinic, and do testing twice per year. It’s mostly basic pushup tests and skin fold measurements, then a blood panel. They hire weekend-cert Personal Trainers to do the physical testing (and make them wear lab coats–no exaggeration.) Then they hire Registered Dietitians to prescribe the Food Guide (which, as we know, doesn’t work.)

 

WE CAN DO THIS–but we can do it RIGHT. The barriers are access to technology, and the mindset of the coach.

 

That first barrier is coming down fast.

 

Want to hear more from the scientists and developers of the blood testing regime I went through? Respond to this post in “Comments” or just hit “reply” to this email, and I’ll invite them to the podcast.

Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play

Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play

I remember when I was young enough to know everything.

 

I was 100% sure that my way was the ONLY way. I thought that MY experience should be the same as everyone else. I knew that what I liked was what others would like, too.

 

I opened my gym thinking dozens of local powerlifters would want coaching. They did not.

My first website was dark and scary. I thought all the hardcore athletes in town would want to do CrossFit. They did not.

I tried to attract local firefighters by criticizing P90X–which they were all doing at the firehouse. I thought they’d see the light because of my infallible logic and science. They did not.

 

Eventually, I got tired of making bad guesses about what other people wanted, and started asking them. I’ve refined the technique now, and we teach it in the Incubator: which questions to ask your coaches, clients and spouse to find out what they REALLY want from you.

 

Most of us opened a gym because we wanted to coach. A year later, we might have wanted something else. But we made guesses about our clients based mostly on what WE wanted, or what worked for US.

 

I like training in a group. Many of my clients don’t. That’s fine.

 

Some people prefer a private introduction to CrossFit. Some people do not. That’s fine.

 

The answer depends on the client. And that’s why so many real experts in ANY field, when asked a question, will answer with, “That depends…”

 

The only ones who are ever absolutely sure that their opinion is correct to the exclusion of everything else are the newcomers. The evangelists for one training style, or one business “best practice” are usually the newcomers. They’re also usually the loudest, because they’re so assured of their conviction that they’re comfortable shouting it from the rooftops.

Data? Not necessary. Experience? That takes too long.

 

A sure sign of maturity–as a coach, a parent or even a mentor–is the willingness to consider that all options COULD be right, depending on the situation.

 

Our job–as coach, parent and mentor–is to compare the starting point of our clients against the “gold standard”, and see what fits.

 

My gym does around $240k per year in Personal Training. Every client starts 1:1, because we’re selective about our clientele and, frankly, we can afford to slow our intake process.

 

A gym owner in Manitoba, Canada called me yesterday. She has a waiting list (rightly so!) Some of those people would prefer a 1:1 intake. Some don’t want (or need) it. Forcing 20 personal training sessions on those folks is counterproductive.

 

Establishing a set of “industry best practices” is my passion. That means careful (and very expensive) collection of data from a broad sample set (we have the largest in the industry.) In 2018, that will mean a total investment of close to two million dollars on my part–because it’s the right thing to do. And no one else is going to do it.

 

But even with ALL that data, we’ll never make a blind prescription to any client, because we’re not the same.

 

Your clients trust you to make the best prescription for them–not just give them the same prescription as everyone else in your gym. You can lean on science to make those decisions. There are reams of data supporting or contradicting the best and worst methods in fitness.

 

My clients trust me to do the same. My experience and context are merely the lenses through which I view REAL data about what’s working in the gym industry. I hate “opinion” given without that base of data and sold as truth, just like I hate the “super weight loss shake” zealots who want to sell crap in my city.

 

One final story about the power of asking people what’s right for them, instead of making assumptions:

A year into owning Catalyst, I thought a key staff member was close to leaving. I’d heard a rumor that he was going to open his own gym, as I had done in 2005. I called my partners in a panic. One said, “Have you asked him?”

I hadn’t.

That was 2006.

He’s coaching the 7pm group at Catalyst tonight.

 

Guessing doesn’t work. The fitness world has lots of data; your job is to translate it. The business of fitness is mostly lacking data; most can’t afford to collect it (or simply don’t want to.) We are. But in the absence of data, the most important question you can ask is, “What do you want NOW?”

 

First Principles of Fitness

Most of what we know is unproven.

In fact, we THINK a lot, but we really don’t know much.

Most of what we “know” is really just the opinion or thoughts of another person. We believe in certain ideas because they tell a compelling story, or support our worldview, or were said by a person we trust.

What do we really KNOW to be true? What’s incontestable? These are the First Principles on which we can build.

Here’s Elon Musk:

I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.” But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

When our beliefs are challenged, that’s heresy (exhibit A: Greg Glassman vs “The Scientists,” circa 2002.) Schopenhauer:

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Glassman challenged fitness dogma, and mostly won. But has “Fitness In 100 Words” replaced the OLD dogma? Are we simply singing from a new hymn book?

What do we KNOW to be true? Post your responses in our private Facebook group (if you ask, we’ll let you in.)
Other ways to think phrase the question:

  • What IS fitness?
  • What’s required for the development (if anything) of fitness?
  • What tools are available to develop fitness?
  • What harms fitness?
  • What dosage is required to develop fitness?
  • What dosage optimizes upside while minimizing downside?

Next week in UpCoach, Ray Gowlett will deliver his excellent seminar on finding truth from reliable sources. But don’t wait for answers; the goal of this exercise is to ask better questions.