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In my last entry, I mentioned that I’ve learned many valuable lessons in the gym that wouldn’t make sense on paper. I say this as both an athlete and perhaps more importantly as a trainer. There are times when it makes sense to go against the grain and do things that others may not understand. Success as a trainer depends on much more than your understanding of anatomy and kinesiology. The ideal solution to individual needs cannot always be calculated scientifically or determined mathematically. Often times, the temperament of the athlete will dictate the ideal approach.
As a boxing trainer, I look up to the legendary Cus D’Amato as perhaps the greatest example of this concept. Cus is most known for his work with Mike Tyson, but he was also instrumental in the development of other Hall of Fame fighters such as Jose Torres and Floyd Patterson. Cus was truly a student of the game and understood the inner workings of a fighter’s mind. He was the polar opposite of the clipboard trainers who have become so common today. Cus had brilliant insights into the sport and a deep understanding about the psychology of fear and discipline.
When Cus developed an athlete, he wasn’t focused solely on physical attributes. He did as much for the mind as he did for the body. There is no better example of physical and mental development than that of a young Mike Tyson. Tyson came to Cus D’Amato as a youngster who lacked discipline and was mentally unstable. He was far from the dominant force that he became as a young heavyweight.
Mike Tyson did not become the youngest heavyweight champion by accident. Everything that Cus did with Tyson was done for a reason. There was a method to his madness. Ironically, many of today’s keyboard gurus who have never trained anyone often criticize the workouts and regimen that Tyson performed. For instance, the internet is filled with discussions about Tyson’s routine as a youngster. Many question why he trained 7 days a week, or why he performed hundreds of repetitions of calisthenics. Others ask why he ran at such an early hour in the morning. Countless pencil pushers have stated that such frequent and intense work could lead to overtraining and was everything but optimal.
Cus D’Amato knew better however. He knew what he had in Tyson. Yes, he was naturally strong, but Tyson was also mentally fragile. You can see an example of this in the video below. You’ll see how he was plagued by fear and insecurities.
Cus knew of Tyson’s deficiencies and tailored the training accordingly. He had to turn Tyson into a conditioning machine for reasons that go far beyond the physical. For example, Cus stated the following in regards to a fighter’s development:
I get them in excellent condition… Knowing how the mind is and the tricks it plays on a person and how an individual will always look to avoid a confrontation with something that is intimidating, I remove all possible excuses they’re going to have before they get in there. By getting them in excellent condition, they can’t say when they get tired that they’re not in shape.
Cus also knew of the trouble that Tyson had been in as a youngster. Mike Tyson was far from a saint when he was taken in by Cus D’Amato. Tyson had been in and out of trouble his entire life. As a result, it is no surprise that Cus kept Tyson busy throughout the day. The last thing that you want a troubled teen to do is wander off on his own. Instead, you keep him busy even if it means having him do more work than it makes sense to do. Cus wasn’t just building Tyson’s body. He was developing mental toughness in someone who didn’t have it. He was developing discipline in a fighter who was young and reckless.
It was the discipline and knowledge that Cus gave Tyson that led to his success as a young pro. Sure, there will always be debates about the specifics of Tyson’s training and perhaps even exaggerated tales, but there is no denying that he worked extremely hard for several hours each day. And Tyson’s Spartan-like regimen continued as a young pro as is evident in the video below.
As for the success of Cus D’Amato’s methods, it is undeniable how Tyson’s career slowly fell apart when Cus died and after the firing of Kevin Rooney (who had been tutored by Cus). Once Tyson lost the discipline that Cus worked so carefully to construct, the physical force that Tyson was slowly came crashing down.
In summary, the development of an athlete often entails much more than the regimen you see on paper. To be a successful trainer, you must communicate with your athletes. You need to know what makes them tick. You need to know what distracts them and what has hampered them before. Don’t just focus on physical development, but also understand the significance of the athlete’s temperament. Analyze each athlete as the unique individual that he or she is. What works for one may not work for another.
Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you. Fear is a friend of exceptional people. – Cus D’Amato8 comments
Following the recent post about 100 burpees a day for a year, I noticed several questions that asked how it was possible to recover from such frequent work. I wasn’t surprised to see such comments as they typically follow any post that highlights an approach that is either unusual or defies conventional wisdom. After all, it isn’t every day that we run across someone who has performed 100 burpees a day for an entire year.
As I think back throughout the blog’s history, there have been many stories that elicited similar reactions. For example, I vividly recall when Stefaan Engels first announced that he would run a marathon every day for an entire year. The reaction on Facebook was that the 49 year old man had lost his mind. The keyboard warriors boldly proclaimed that it was physically impossible.
A year later, the keyboard clan was nowhere to be found when Stefaan Engels was celebrating his 365th consecutive marathon.
Similar comments also came in when I highlighted the exercise streak of another 40+ year old woman. I first mentioned Tara Scott several years ago after she had exercised 700 consecutive days. At the time, I recall several comments from readers who concluded that she’d never be able to maintain such frequency without decline.
I updated her story in December to highlight seven consecutive years of exercise. She’s now 46 years old and has exercised for over 2700 consecutive days. Tara continues to thrive and is in better shape than most adults half her age. If you missed her update, you can see her in action here.
Find Out Yourself
And while I could certainly continue with examples, I am not writing this entry to suggest that you perform burpees each day or train for 7 years straight. As I’ve mentioned before, several factors must be considered whenever discussing frequency. The ideal training frequency naturally depends on the individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that should be forced to the masses.
Therefore, I honestly don’t know how much work you can handle each day. For instance, I don’t know how you will respond to 100 burpees each day. What I do know is that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about things you haven’t tried. Far too many people err on the side of caution and never step outside their comfort zone. As soon as things get difficult, these people automatically assume that the work they are performing is excessive.
These individuals fail to comprehend the body’s capacity and potential to perform work. Hitting a bump in the road doesn’t always mean you need to turn around. If you ever wish to surpass the norm, you’ll probably need to ride out a few bumps and bruises along the way. The road to the top is rarely a straight line.
Whenever discussing frequency, I often think back to my early days in college. As a student, I worked construction on the side. My boss knew my position was temporary. I wasn’t going to continue after graduation. As a result, I was given all the jobs that no one else wanted. I dug holes, moved stones, worked the jackhammer, and swung a sledgehammer. I worked overtime all summer and took as many hours as I could during the school year. I didn’t get days off or periodize the time I spent working the 90 pound jackhammer. No one cared if I was tired or sore. There was a job to be done so that’s what I did.
When I first started the job, I remember walking into the boxing gym at night like a zombie. My body was worn out after laboring all day and now I had to train. For the first few weeks, I felt like my legs were stuck in the mud whenever I sparred. My trainer laughed about it. There was no sympathy. I had two options, either suck it up or get out of the gym.
Fortunately, I stuck it out. As the weeks passed, I began to adapt to the work and ultimately became stronger because of it. My perception about what the body could handle changed forever. One hundred burpees will take the average person 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Ten minutes of work is a walk in the park compared to a full day of physical labor under the hot sun.
And please note, I don’t say this to diminish the significance of performing 100 burpees a day. There is no denying that it is a tremendous accomplishment. When you look at the big picture however, you notice just how little time is required to perform such a task. Far more people are capable of such feats than most people will ever realize. Unfortunately, many never take the first step to find out. They’ve already been influenced by someone else who also hasn’t performed what he or she dismisses as impossible.
In summary, don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions about what you can or cannot do. No book or study has been written specifically for you. If you want to know what you can do, it is up to you to find out for yourself. Many of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in the gym came from trying things that wouldn’t make sense on paper. I had an idea so I took a chance. Not all of my ideas have panned out, but others allowed me to tap into strength that I wouldn’t have otherwise found.
Conventional wisdom is no wisdom at all. Conventional wisdom is taking somebody else’s word for the way things are… It’s the followers of this world who rely on assumption. Not the leaders. – Richard Marcinko16 comments
Below is a video of a woman who performed 100 burpees a day for an entire year. The hard work performed by this 40 year old mother is not only inspiring, but certainly led to an impressive transformation as well. You can see the before and after pictures within the video. There is a side by side comparison at approximately the 4:55 mark.
I first shared this story on Facebook after seeing it on my news feed. Upon sharing the video, I was surprised to hear from both of the individuals seen within (see here). I was honored to hear that they are past customers of mine who have been influenced by material.
More importantly however, I am happy to see yet another example of a low-tech exercise routine that has produced such amazing results. The type of work that Nikki performed could be done almost anywhere. Her transformation is a product of hard work and consistency. She did not need anything fancy to completely change her life over the course of a year.
As for the specifics of her routine, here is what she had to say when asked about the burpees,
“For those of you asking how I did the burpees I will say I definitely had to get creative. If there were some in one of our Boot Camp workouts I could count those toward the 100. Most of the time they were done in addition to my workout. At the beginning I did 10 sets of 10. Sometimes 5 at a time with only a couple of breaths. You can spread them out throughout your day. Just make sure to keep track. I have done 100 straight. My best time was 6:30. I have done 100 burpees flipping a tire – 10 burpees – flip tire – jump in it – over it – 10 burpees other side – and repeat to 100. I have done 25 burpees with a 20lb weighted vest – run half mile – 4x. I have many creative ways to do them! So if you are up to the challenge I am more than willing to share the crazy!”
Nikki clearly kept things interesting by varying her burpees throughout the year. Yet when I look at the big picture, my eyes aren’t focused solely on the fact that she performed burpees each day. And I don’t say this to discredit the burpee. If you have followed me for any amount of time, there is a good chance you have seen me perform the movement at one point or another. Burpees are certainly a useful conditioning exercise.
No single exercise is as important as consistency and commitment however. Yes, burpees were an important part of her routine, but the fact that she was accountable for a certain amount of work each day is what ultimately triggered her success. Nikki woke up each day knowing that there was work to be done and she held herself accountable for it. She also mentions how if she missed a day, should would need to make up for it the next. That alone is incentive to get the work done now, rather than waiting for another day. Therefore, Nikki wasn’t just consistent, she focused on the present. In other words, don’t worry about tomorrow when there is still work to be done today.
Unfortunately, it is that type of commitment that does not get enough attention in the industry today. And the reason for the lack of attention shouldn’t come as a surprise. Intangibles cannot be packaged and sold. As a result, these important qualities will never receive widespread attention. The industry’s focus will always be on the exercise or routine, as opposed to the willingness to perform the exercise or routine. Yet it is the latter that is significantly more important.
If you look through this blog’s history, you will see countless weight loss stories which share very little in common from a training standpoint. For example, there was a man who lost over 100 pounds through running alone. Another man lost over 200 pounds by riding a bike. Others have lost weight through calisthenics and weight lifting. Each story highlights an entirely different approach to training. What they share in common is that the individuals finally decided to remain consistent. No longer were there periods of inactivity. It was a matter of waking up each day ready and willing to work. The cumulative effect of such hard work and consistency is what ultimately leads to success. What you choose to do is of lesser importance than your willingness to keep at whatever you do as the days and weeks amass.
In summary, I am not sharing this story to suggest that everyone should perform burpees each day. Instead, look past the specifics and focus on what is truly important. Nikki is a tremendous example of hard work and commitment. Her willingness to consistently hold herself accountable is something that most could benefit from. Hopefully her example will inspire others to make similar changes if they have failed in previous attempts.
The secret of success is consistency of purpose. – Benjamin Disraeli13 comments
Following my recent outdoor conditioning video, I received a few emails from viewers who were surprised to see me working with what they described as basic exercises. For example, one reader was shocked that I still performed pushups and pull-ups. He was expecting to see more challenging variations. Another reader asked what could be done to intensify sledgehammer swings and hill runs. He continued by stating his assumption that I filmed these basic exercises to provide options for novice spectators.
Unfortunately, his assumption is false. I am not of the opinion that once we progress beyond certain exercises that such movements no longer offer anything in return. When performed at a brisk pace or when combined with other movements, I still find traditional calisthenics to be challenging and effective from a strength-endurance standpoint. I certainly don’t limit myself to traditional pushups and pull-ups, but I am also not beyond them. Occasionally working with less intense movements has proved useful to me for many years. I am still able to work at a brisk pace and receive conditioning benefits while my body is given a break from heavier, more intense loading.
As for the sledgehammer swings and hill runs, these are activities that rarely require elaborate modifications. I have performed both activities for over 20 years and I’m still challenged when I work at a fast enough pace. This isn’t to say that you can’t include variety on occasion, but there is no need to significantly alter an exercise or drill that is already effective. Sure, you can run faster or longer or swing faster and heavier, but complex modifications are rarely needed.
Unfortunately, many modern athletes and trainers shy away from useful exercises because they appear to be too basic. The fallacy is that basic movements must always be modified or intensified. Yet oddly enough, I have never seen anyone who has outgrown heavy sledgehammer swings or continuous hill sprints. These simplistic exercises have always gotten the best of me and I don’t expect that to ever change.
Flash vs. Substance
Perhaps it is necessary to remind certain readers that the relevance of an exercise or routine is not based on visual appeal. Speaking as a trainer, I admit that it isn’t very exciting to watch one of my athletes run up and down a hill. It is naturally more exciting to witness a physical display that captures your attention immediately. For example, if you lift a heavy load from the ground, spectators will instantly take notice. The same could be said of a challenging bodyweight feat. Conversely, if you’re running 400 meter repeats, I wouldn’t expect the same attention unless you are a Michael Johnson clone.
Continuous conditioning activities tend to lack visual appeal. It is not that exciting to watch the same motions performed over and over again. In fact, three of my preferred activities could be categorized as such (ie. effective, yet boring to watch). Sledgehammer swings, hill sprints, and heavy sandbag carries are prime examples. Each is challenging and effective, yet will never attract widespread attention.
And while the lack of attention may seem insignificant to some, I have noticed many athletes whose supplemental training has shifted away from fundamental movements and more towards visually appealing exercises. As a result, their supplemental training is based more on achieving certain exercises as opposed to using exercises to enhance their sport performance. The consequence is that the work performed does not always reflect the sporting needs of the athlete. The fact that you have progressed to a challenging exercise doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve improved in your sport.
And please note, I am not making these statements to suggest that athletes shouldn’t set challenging goals. I am also not suggesting that the attainment of a challenging feat offers nothing in return. There certainly can be benefits that assist the athlete. I simply remind athletes to focus their attention primarily towards exercises or routines that offer the most in return based on their sporting needs. For example, a boxer in a 6-week training camp will likely benefit more from hill sprints and sledgehammer swings as opposed to achieving a visually appealing bodyweight feat.
In summary, an athlete’s training is intended to improve his performance when competing. Athletes should seek attention when they perform, not when they train. Often times, it is necessary to work through exercises or drills that lack visual appeal. Don’t confuse the lack of attention for a lack of potential. You may not attract onlookers by continually running a hill or swinging a sledgehammer, but it is this type of work that will allow you to perform in ways that eventually attract the attention of fans in the crowd. Never assume that you are too good for the basics. A strong foundation that is built from the fundamentals will never outgrow the fundamentals.
The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether its proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing. – Michael Jordan19 comments
A young man recently asked why I share so many stories of older men and women who continue to exercise or compete. He then stated his preference for learning and observing from athletes in their prime. He finished by asking how it is beneficial for a young adult to observe an elderly person in competition.
My initial thought was that it is unfortunate a young man must ask what he can learn from his elders. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt however as I made my share of mistakes as a youngster. I suppose I had to grow older to fully appreciate how much we can learn from previous generations. I certainly cherish the time I spend speaking to my grandmother who is in her 90s and my aunt who is 101 years old. There is always something to learn from those with so much experience in the game of the life.
Unfortunately, experience in life is not always appreciated until after the fact. It is more common to praise experience as it relates to athletics or professionals in the work force. For example, the seasoned athlete is typically considered the more knowledgeable source when compared to the inexperienced rookie. Most seem to accept this notion yet tend to overlook the significance of experience in life.
Personally, I believe we can all learn from the examples set forth by those who continue to compete in the latter stages of life. A prime example can be seen below. Take a look at 92 year old Svend Stensgaard in a recent powerlifting meet. He deadlifts 286 pounds at approximately the 5:30 mark within the clip.
Svend is a prime example that we are never too old to pursue our passions. At 92 years old, he is more capable than many adults a fraction of his age. Meanwhile, I regularly hear from men and women in their 30s and 40s who are already complaining about old age. Svend on the other hand is willing to collapse to fulfill his goals. He actually falls to the ground upon completing the lift. To no surprise however, he gets right back up.
I also enjoy observing older athletes as they aren’t competing for anyone but themselves. Svend isn’t trying to convince the rest of the world to become powerlifters. And while that may not seem significant, it stands out to me based on how much nonsense I see spewed throughout the fitness industry. Too many experts preach a single approach at the expense of all others.
Svend offers yet another example that there is no single right or best approach. Almost anything works if the individual is willing to work. Throughout this blog’s history, we’ve seen older athletes involved in gymnastics, ultramarathon running, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and more. One example is not better or worse than another. Even opposing examples actually work together to reiterate that countless options do exist. For example, while one young expert dismisses powerlifting for the elderly, Svend provides a real world counter. While another expert dismisses aerobic training, we see two grandmothers running ultramarathons.
In each case, we see individuals who defy the odds and pursue their passions. They prove that it is never too late and that no one should ever pick your passion for you. If you want something, it is your right to pursue it. Don’t waste time trying to explain your passion to someone who doesn’t share it. Also stop assuming that you are too old to live out your dreams. Too many people act as if there are stop and rewind buttons in life. In case you haven’t heard, there aren’t. This is the only life you’ll ever live and the clock is always ticking. If you want something, start working to get it. As Svend and others clearly demonstrate, age is not the excuse that so many pretend it to be.
I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees. – Emiliano Zapata15 comments