The Lost Art of Simple

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What’s our obsession with making things hard or complex?

 

I remember when I was a kid all I needed to entertain myself was my bike. I’d ride around pretending I was Knight Rider talking to my bike as if it were KITT.1

“Turbo boost KITT.” And then I’d pedal faster.

“Oh snap, we’re under heavy fire and need to perform counter measures.” And then I’d swerve back and forth between trees avoiding every heat seeking missile sent in my direction.

“KITT, eject, eject.” This is when I’d point my bike in the direction of some sweet jump I’d have constructed, and, well, this would happen:

 

Nowadays you ask a kid to go outside and play and they’re looking at you as if you have three heads and wondering how that’s even possible without an iPhone in hand. It’s almost as if there has to be some form of technology or gadgetry involved. A frisbee? no way. A wiffle ball and bat? Pfffft, whatever. A tree? Hahahahahaha.

The simple days of simple games are long gone. I mean, I know they exist, and I know there are kids out there still playing hide-n-seek, kickball, and pick-up basketball. But it’s few and far between. Pokemon Go, seemingly, has replaced the playground.

The Lost Art of Simple

I can’t help but notice the same parallel in the fitness industry. People (on both sides of the fence: fitness pros and non-fitness pros alike) seem to be under the impression that fancy or complex is somehow better than simple. And maybe even more tragic: many believe that better results are always a result of adopting complex methodologies over the simple ones.

Sometimes this is true. Oftentimes it’s BS.

Since I’ve opened CORE I’ve had several coaches come in to shadow and observe for a few hours at a time.

core

It’s always an honor and I am more than willing to accommodate. Sure they could spend their time reading Mike Boyle or watching Kelly Starrett videos, but no, some choose to come in on a Saturday to watch people deadlift and listen to Annie Mac on Electric Area radio. What’s cooler than that?2

One theme I am becoming more cognizant of is how surprised some coaches are about how “simple” my programming is. There’s very little glitz and glam or shiny bright objects to pivot from the fact that all I really want is for my clients/athletes to become unapologetically brilliant at the basics.

People squat, people hip hinge, and people perform these things called rows, push-ups, and Farmer carries. You may have heard of them. Antiques to some, I know. Further, is my assessment process. The idea of simple starts there. Unless someone is coming in with a lengthy injury history or is training for something super specific like, say, I don’t know, the Mime Bombsniffing Olympics, what advantage is there in making the assessment more complicated than it has to be?

Taking a more global approach – like the FMS – is a fantastic starting point for many people. I like to weed out other “red flags” by plopping people on a training table and taking a quick peek at hip IR/ER, hip flexion/extension, and other things like overhead shoulder mobility.

In a sense I’m trying to see what their passive ROM is, are there any limitations, and if so, 1) does it match their active ROM and 2) are there any test/re-test strategies I can implement to see an improvement? To a larger degree: stealing a quote from my friend, Roland Fisher:

“Can you do the thing that you want to do? Yes. Good. No. Let’s fix that.”

Here’s the Thing: 80% of my assessments are done on the gym floor. There’s only so much poking and prodding I can do on table before A) shit starts getting weird and B) the client starts feeling like a patient. In reality the assessment should be a watered down training session. I want to see them squat. I want to see them hip hinge. I want to see them Dougie.

 

I can glean way more information watching people move. And too, they get a taste of what a typical training session will be like with me.

It’s a very simple procedure that, when some coaches observe, comes across as super-duper minimal, and it throws them off. As if to say, “Really? That’s it?”

Yep, that’s it.

People want to train. They could give two flying shits about their big toe dorsiflexion. Trust me.

Funny Side Story: I was once given a “bad” review at a conference I spoke at because in my topic, “Shoulder Assessment,” I didn’t demonstrate anything “new and innovative.” To which I was like, “Well, since when does shoulder assessment need to be new and innovative?” Why not take the mindset of doing the “boring” screens well?

Note to Self: Consider adding a flame thrower into the mix

Going Back to Programming.

This is another component where I feel simplicity has its benefits. The never-ending game of oneupmanship on social media many fitness pros play is exhausting. This is a conversation for another day, but the LOOK-AT-ME vibe many take is absurd. I watch some of the videos people put up and all I want to do is say “Riiiiiigggghhhhttt.” I also want to throw an ax into my face, but that’s besides the point. Comparatively speaking my Instagram feed is probably batshit boring to some people.

My client, Sara, hitting a back squat PR of 145 lbs. She smoked it, and I was tempted to have her go higher but called it there. Why? It was PR, which meant she took her body to a level it’s never been before. That’s a win and no need to risk missing a rep for no reason. She hit what we wanted to hit, and we moved on. Plenty in the tank to hit another PR in a week or two. I love helping people get stronger. She’s also approaching a 2x body weight deadlift. Strong. #becauseheavythingswontliftthemselves

A video posted by Tony Gentilcore (@tonygentilcore) on

I can hear the cacophony of “BFD” comments now. “Wow, cool Tony. You have your female clients squat. What’s next a set of chin-ups? No, wait, Pallof Presses!?!?!”

Actually, yeah. Probably. Besides, I’d rather educate and provide a rationale for putting up certain videos/pictures (cute cat pictures aside) than worry about whether or not I’m earning some fake social media credibility.

What’s more, you wanna talk about boring and vanilla? Grab two back-to-back programs of any client of mine and it’s a safe bet you’ll see more of a linear periodization approach, which is about as vanilla as things gets. Take my client Sara for example (the woman in the video above).

On the days she trains with me at CORE we tend to focus more on the coaching-intensive exercises like squats and deadlifts. We’ll first hit one of the two hard (generally, lower reps/mid to higher intensity loads) and follow suit with “everything else.”

Here’s how we approached her squats and deadlifts the past two months.

October

Sumo Deadlift (Weeks 1,3), Back Squat (Weeks 2,4)
Week Sets Reps Load
1 5 2 85%
2 Hit 135×1 then 3×5 115 lbs
3 3×1 @90% then 3×5  75%
4 Hit 140×1 then 3×5 120 lbs

November

Sumo Deadlift (Weeks 1,3), Back Squat (Weeks 2,4)
Week Sets Reps Load
1 4 5 75%
2 135 x (2×1) then 3×3 @ 125 lbs
3 5 5 75%
4 145×1 then 3×2 @ 130 lbs

If you pay particular attention to her squat progression, it’s more or less me ensuring she was doing more work each week. Nothing magic or advanced at all. And it worked. She smoked a PR of 145 lbs this past Monday. While listening to Lil Kim. Because that’s how we roll.

Program design doesn’t have to be complex. All it really comes down to is ensuring you’re coaching your clients well (<– a lost art in of itself) utilizing stances and grips and bar placements that suit their goals and anatomy…and that they’re placing a premium on doing more work over the course of several weeks/months.

Side Note: you should also be able to explain the WHY behind what you program.

Simple and boring. It works. I’m willing to bet your clients will prefer a simpler approach (if not thrive on it) once you give it a fair shot.

  • People tend to not need as much novelty as they think. Muscle confusion is a stupid concept. People need consistency in order to master movement.
  • You don’t always need to increase load. People need to earn the right to increase weight on the bar. Staying within a certain range for several weeks and accumulating volume is often a undervalued way to progress.
  • Try not to make assessment to much of a thing. Granted, if someone has a lengthly injury history you may need to go down some sort of rabbit hole to figure out what exacerbates their symptoms. And then attempt to address it. But more often than not people will appreciate you not putting them under a microscope. If you treat the assessment as more of a training session and not some sick game to point out every miniscule dysfunction and how much of a walking fail someone is, they’ll be less likely to think you’re a douche.

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  1. Funnily enough, I say “when I was a kid,” but I still did this when I was 30.

  2. Well, for starters, eating a steak would be pretty cool. Or, I don’t know, watching a Lord of the Rings marathon? Taking a shower?

  • A trainer for a number of high level MMA fighters told me at a seminar: “Look, we squat, deadlift, push pull and sprint. Then when the cameras roll out for the all access show we bust out the bane masks and stuff we never do. Its all for show.”
    Just because you see someone doing some crazy thing, doesn’t mean that crazy is what they do.

    • james Bix

      Deadlifts, squats and bench press on there own in a program would give fantastic strength and muscle gains provided nutrition is in check. My personal believe is though some isolation exercises help with with muscle definition. Nowhere near as many benefits as compound exercises though.

      • As Dan John says “the goal is to keep the goal the goal” This guy trains high level athletes in a weight class sport (mma). 100% of their focus is being strong and conditioned as possible in the selected weight class. Definition, or appearance at all doesn’t factor in to their training. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t factor in to yours.
        Also, In my experience bodybuilding isolation type exercise tends to interfere more with skill training because it tends to illicit more muscle soreness.. which is not to say never, but I rarely use it with the BJJ guys I have worked with.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Wait, you mean, what we see on the internet isn’t always the truth? Fuck you John!

    • ronellsmith

      A) John, you should create a book of quote. For REAL! B) I’m still amazed that when I preach the value of NOT having tremendous amounts of variety in a program, people look askance, as if they should do everything BUT squat, deadlift, push, pull and carry.

      Luckily, my wife—who was for years the biggest skeptic—has come around to seeing the light. Now she preaches it to her friends, all of whom think Crossfit is the ideal regimen for beginners.

      RS

      • Thanks Ronell.
        It can be a quandary. People lose interest without variety, and they get discouraged if they don’t see results. Variety is the worst way to see consistent results.

        We have to either figure out which the client values more, and run with it, or try and find the best mix.

  • james Bix

    Quality read. I see you kept Sara’s program the same so she could master the movements, as well as keep track of the weight which she was lifting. How long has she been training with you. You don’t believe in muscle confusion. I wondered after a year or 2 would you then make any changes at all to her program if the the gains starting slowing.

    • TonyGentilcore

      She’s been training with me for 6-7 months. And, this isn’t to say I don’t change things up to break the monotony, I do. However, I just try to keep Dan John’s famous quote in the back of my head at all times: “the goal is to keep the goal, the goal.” She wants to squat and DL more. Sooooooo…….

  • Steven Pinto

    Spot on as usual. The funny part is people are so involved in their triple bicep curls and forearm jackhammer specials that I’m constantly questioned about the “crazy” exercises I do. All of which are the aforementioned squats, hip hinges, push/pull and carrying things. Like lots of other things, the internet has damaged the fitness business in that everyone wants the “secret” because the basics are old school and we must have evolved from that as a fitness community. The problem with that is that there’s a thousand “gurus” that are more than happy to feed into that phenomenon and cash huge checks from the uninformed masses. Just keep doing what you do, because eventually as they learn and mature, they will find there way back to the true professionals.

    • TonyGentilcore

      True. I get that some of the process is to have fun and to do shit you want to do. To each their own, ya know? However, if someone is going to hire me to help them go from Point A to Point B……it’s likely the road will be very vanilla (with a sprinkling of cookie dough chunks or bicep curls here and there).

  • PJ Striet

    Excellent

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks my man.

  • Lisa

    I’ve done the same basic program for over 2 years. Squat, deadlift, pushup, pullup, farmers walks. 3 days a week. I do other stuff, too, but this is my bread and butter. The other stuff is only if I have time and energy after that. As a 50 year old woman, I’m in the best shape of my life and have the best physique of my life. Simple works!

    • TonyGentilcore

      That is amazing Lisa. Thanks for chiming in. More people should heed your message!

  • Shane Mclean

    Clients don’t need fancy, they need the basic and they need results. Great post my man. Your programs are based around simplicity but I know first hand that they’re not easy.

    • james Bix

      If you want fancy go and stand on vibration plates for 30 minutes and kid yourselves you’ve had a great workout

  • Max Fischer

    Teaching others is a learning experience in itself, now you don’t have to be fancy in your solutions for others. Like you said keep it simple, but only as simple as it needs to be! the task of modifying a workout for someone who has disabilities or deteriorated health can be all but simple sometimes. Becoming very dynamic and creative in your own workouts can insure you have a plethora of adjustments for the beginner to the most advanced athlete. The goal is to help as many people as possible right? Well what if someone isn’t responding well to a certain regiment, just because it is simple doesn’t mean it is or them. one of the most common reasons people tell me they have a hard time staying with it is because it gets BORING! The simplest solution might be a very diverse dynamic workout to keep them having fun and staying focused.
    check out more ways to stay motivated here: http://abetteruniverse.com/?page_id=111&preview=true

  • Tony Warpecha

    Wow man this is the exact same thing I tell everyone who asks me for advice and they look at me like I’m crazy. It’s the same with the supplement industry too. Everyone thinks there is some magic thing they need to take, when in reality getting results comes from the basics like you are saying: sleep, nutrition, consistency, and form. Not only that, ronnie coleman and arnold said they used the same workouts and exercises for years. Sure variety is great since we are all built differently, but you are 100% right in that the basic movement patterns (Dan John’s basic human movements) should never change. I love this post so much, I’m going to share it.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Tony. Glad to hear it resonated with you.