The Trainable Menu
Much in the same way people have food intolerances/allergies and can’t handle things like peanuts, fish, eggs, and/or, sadly, dairy1 without some degree of consequence – bloating, skin irritation, gut issues, explosive diarrhea, or worse case scenario, death – we can mirror the same sentiment towards training.
There are certain methodologies or exercises that aren’t a good fit for certain individuals and populations. It’s on us as coaches to figure out what, in the grand scheme of things, our athletes and clients are best suited for. What is going to get them from Point A to Point B in the most efficient and safest way possible? What do we need to do in order to address their ability level, unique injury history, and goals?
What is Their Trainable Menu?
Full Disclosure: the idea of the trainable menu isn’t something I came up with. I wish. It’s a term I stole from Atlanta Hawks strength coach, Chris Chase, after listening to his talk on Mike Robertson’s Physical Preparation Podcast.
In fact, when I heard Chris drop the phrase I pretty much had this reaction:
It’s such a baller term and something that compliments my philosophy with regards to writing programs and understanding that everyone is different. One of my biggest pet peeves in the industry is when coaches or personal trainers treat program design as this one-size-fits all phenomenon; as if it’s an Old Navy knit scarf.
It drives me bonkers.
To take the mentality that a 60 year old “computer guy” with a history of low back pain and who hasn’t touched a barbell since Dalton was practicing shirtless kung-fu and busting heads in the movie Road House should have the same “menu” as a 22 year-old college student with a few years of lifting experience is, well, dumb.
Likewise, while there are more similarities than dissimilarities, and taking things like injury history out of the equation, we can even make the case that a football player will have a different menu than a baseball player who will have a different menu than a basketball player who will have a different menu than a pirate.
Take for example basketball players. As Chris noted in the podcast, when you’re dealing with guys who are upwards of 6 foot 8, 6 foot 9 and up, it’s silly to hold them to the same standard as us less vertically gifted and have them deadlift from the floor or squat ass-t0-grass. Because of their anthropometry (long femurs, long spines) it’s going to be way more challenging for them to get into those ranges of motion, and frankly, will likely lead to injury.
They can still squat, deadlift, and perform single leg movements of course. However, the better fit will likely be box squats, rack pulls, trap bar deadlifts, and the like. It’s important to make things as joint-friendly as possible yet still elicit the training effect we’re striving for.
Bringing the conversation more into my wheel-house (baseball players), there’s a reason why I refrain from allowing my guys to OLY lift or bench/squat with a straight bar. There’s a reason why I pay such scrupulous attention to things like overhead mobility and the ability to upwardly rotate the scapulae.
It’s respecting the demands of the sport.
- OLY Lifts = Crazy amounts of joint distraction forces on the shoulders and elbows. Baseball players get more than enough of both by throwing a baseball. Besides, in terms of power development, the bases are covered with things like medicine ball throws, KB swings, sledgehammer hits, and sled work.
- Straight Bar Pressing – Baseball players can press. However, when you take into account the intricacies of the shoulder girdle and how avoiding excessive humeral internal rotation can help keep the area “healthier,” you soon realize that locking them into that very position with a barbell does them no favors. Why not use dumbbells or a “football” bar which allows for more external rotation (opens up the acromion space)? Moreover, exercises such as push-ups and landmine variations allow for waaaaay more scapular movement, which is vital for a baseball player.
- Straight Bar (Back) Squatting – Squatting is cool. Squatting is great. However, again, placing the shoulder in the “at risk” position of maximal humeral abduction and external rotation isn’t doing a baseball player any favors. Instead, sticking to variations such as Goblet squats, front squats, or even using speciality bars such as the giant-cambered bar or the safety-squat bar (which still allow for some back squatting) will be a better match and still provide more than enough badassery to get the job done. Moreover, we can also crush single leg work too.
A football strength & conditioning coach may look at a program that doesn’t include OLY lifts and back squats as a joke. Well, if we’re not talking about football players, what the fuck? That’s a completely different menu we’re talking about.
Are any of the exercises above inherently “dangerous?” No. Do I feel they should always be avoided by baseball players (I mean, is it really going to be the end of the world if they perform a few sets of bench presses here and there)? No.
But if I’m doing my job as a coach I’m taking into account the cost-benefit of everything. I’m helping to construct the most appropriate “Trainable Menu” for each athlete that will 1) prepare them for their competitive season and 2) also (hopefully) keep them healthy.
It’s that simple.
Something else to note, too, is that the trainable menu, especially within the context of injury, showcases what an athlete can do and doesn’t harp on what they can’t do. I love that. It’s a wonderful train of thought to keep in our back pockets as coaches.
What About Regular Folk? Should They Have a Trainable Menu?
I joke about this at times but… I want my clients to fire me.
One of my umbrella goals for every client I work with is to make them autonomous; to make it so they no longer need my services. If I can get them to the point where they’re able to not only know what’s on their trainable menu, but to have the wherewithal to know what to avoid or what not to put on it…I win.
Take my client Alexandra for instance. Prior to coming to me she had been experiencing some recurring back issues. To her credit she loves to train and loves to get after it. One of her goals is to increase her deadlift. However, it didn’t take long to figure out conventional deadlifting does not suite her well. Inevitably her back would end up telling her to eff off.
Instead we’ve been having a ton of success with trap bar deadlifts, a more joint friendly variation and one that allows her to reap all the benefits with less risk.
She’s getting stronger and her back doesn’t hurt. More to the point: She’s learned one of the main courses on her menu is the trap bar deadlift. With the occasional side of Lemonade, courtesy of Beyonce.
The point is: I know that if she’s working out on her own or traveling, she’s cognizant of what to avoid and to make appropriate substitutions. It’s beautiful.
I have another client, George, who has had double hip replacement surgery. Squatting past 90 degrees of hip flexion isn’t going to happen. Like, ever.
HA, just kidding.
However, he’s learned that his menu consists of box squats and tons of hip thrusts and RDL variations.2
Can you see the advantage here? How much empowerment this concept elicits? THIS should be the goal for every coach to aspire towards. Educate your athletes and clients to learn and respect their trainable menu. Sky’s the limit after that.