Play-Doh Coaching

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I’m sure for many reading, you’d be hard pressed not to think back to your childhood and not remember a time where you’d spend hours on end with a vat of Play-Doh making various shapes and figures that, despite knowing better, you’d eventually either stuff up your nose or try to eat.

Okay, maybe that was just me.  But suffice it to say, for many who reminisce about their childhood, Play-Doh was the shiznit back in the day.

Admittedly, it’s been YEARS since I’ve even touched a can of Play-Doh, but as I was coaching a new client through his deadlifts the other day, I couldn’t help but think that, in many ways, I play with Play-Doh everyday.

Hear me out for a second.  I promise, things won’t get weird.

As a strength coach, a fair potion of my job is, well, coaching.  As such, I’m not one of those coaches that just stands there, twiddling his thumbs, counting reps, and otherwise looking completely disinterested in his surroundings.  Walk into most commercial gyms and observe the personal trainers, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

On the contrary, on an almost daily basis, when I’m on the gym floor, I’m constantly touching, adjusting, pushing, poking, pulling, and otherwise following a Play-Doh philosophy to coaching.

Using a real life example, just the other day I was working with a new client taking him through his first session of deadlifts.  Now, just to give a little backstory:  this guy is an ultra-runner; meaning, a “light” run to him is 20 miles.  Kind of bad ass, right?

Not surprisingly, he walked into the facility a little beat up.  And by a “little beat up,” I mean the guy was/is a walking ball of dysfunction.  Literally, you name a joint, and he could name the time, date, and race he hurt it.

Nevertheless, he’d finally seen the light and recognized that (proper) strength training could, in all likelihood, keep him from breaking down even further.  As we always say at CP:  strength training CAN be corrective in nature.

So, we walked over to the trap bar station and I said, “Let me see how you would set yourself up to pick that up off the ground.”

He walked over, bent down, and well, lets just say it didn’t look pretty.  In fact, I blacked out, it was that bad.

A few adjustments to the bar, however, along with several verbal cues, and we got it looking somewhat better.  It wasn’t until I actually started placing my hands on him – adjusting his neck, pushing his t-spine into position, tapping his chest with my finger to keep it tall – that we got it to look like an actual deadlift.

Likewise, I did the same thing when we moved over to perform some standard planks.  I literally stood over him and tapped his stomach to teach him to brace his core.  I tapped is tush (yes, I just said tush) to get him to learn to squeeze his glutes so that he would’t drop into lumbar extension.  Additionally, I adjusted his hips and neck to make sure that he stayed in proper position the entire time.

After the first set he noted: “Man, I never knew planks could be so hard!.”  Well they are when you actually do them correctly!

And this, more often than not, is where I see many personal trainers (and coaches) miss the boat entirely.  Whether it’s due to inexperience (acceptable), insecurity (acceptable, kinda), or just sheer laziness (absolutely un-acceptable), many are scared to put their hands on clients.  Given we live in a very litigious society, I can’t say that I blame many for not wanting to be so “hands-on.”  But lets be real:  there’s a fine line between being a coach and Creepy McCreepypants about it.

Nevertheless, if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post, it’s that you need to COACH!!!!!!  Standing there only to count reps and not correct form is just downright lazy.  Unfortunately many trainees lack the kinesthetic awareness to get themselves into proper position, and as such, you’re job is to help them do so by being a bit more hands-on.

Again, lets tone down the creep factor.  Slapping the glutes of a new female client without first building some sense of rapport probably isn’t the best approach.

To that end, try to take a more Play-Doh approach to coaching and learn to mold your clients into deadlifting and planking freaks!  Or, squatting and seated rowing freaks.  I don’t care – it’s all good.  The point is, be more proactive.  Not only will you become a FAR better coach, but your athletes and clients will benefit as well.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.

Comments for This Entry

  • Nia Shanks

    I love this post, Tony! I always get weird looks in the gym when I work with a client because I get very hands on with my clients just like you mentioned (with permission, of course). It kills me that other trainers either A) Don't have a damn clue how to coach an exercise or B) They just don't care; all they want is to get paid. You're awesome.

    August 25, 2011 at 7:29 am | Reply to this comment

  • Michael Gray

    Great post. I completely agree that some hands on coaching is vital to getting people in proper position. Two of my favorites are: my hand across the upper back and lightly push a clients shoulder blades down to help them feel what it's like to "tuck" them down. 2. place my finger on a clients spine during rows and tell them to pinch my finger with their shoulder blades. (I said "pinch", not "pull") Also, I used to eat Play-Doh as much as I played with it. That bit of information has answered a lot of peoples questions about me.

    August 25, 2011 at 7:33 am | Reply to this comment

  • Molly Galbraith

    Awesome post! We always warn clients from the very beginning that we are super hands-on with them and always them then know that if they would prefer me to correct them (as opposed to my male partner Jim) to let us know, or if they are uncomfortable with anything we do, let us know that as well. Like Michael said about, I always place my finger on their spine and have them "pinch" it when they row, and when doing inverted rows or band pull-downs, sometimes I grab their shoulders and actually pull them back to help them feel what its like to seat their scapulae or get their chest out at the top of the row. Finally, my absolute favorite is when they are doing planks and they can't get their chests out... I actually hold/support their hips for a second so they can drop their chest towards the ground and really get that "tall" "chest out" feeling in the plank. Of course when I let go they can only hold it a few seconds, but they start to get that feeling and it works wonders!! Thanks for another awesome post! =)

    August 25, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply to this comment

  • Stephane Robert

    Awesome post Tony. I find that as you get better at teaching a lift, your own technique tends to improve. You begin to notice things about your own technique that would have otherwise been missed had you never taught the lift.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:13 am | Reply to this comment

  • Bret Contreras

    Good stuff Tony. I'm a glute molestor. Funny story - my professor had me train these three guys last week and teach them all the various glute exercises. I'm poking, prodding, and repositioning the guys all over the place. After the session I ask my prof who they were and apparently two were pro strength coaches (one Cricket and one rugby) and the other was the best ruby player that NZ's ever had. Anyway all three told my prof that it was one of the most valuable training sessions they've ever had. Being hands-on is a huge part of my M.O. So I couldn't agree more with your post! -BC

    August 25, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply to this comment

  • psistarpsi

    I'm one of those people who ABHORS being touched! But there are certain things I'd never have learned how to do without a little hands-on-ness. I'm fortunate to have a coach who does this well (i.e. without being creepy or triggering the i-want-to-punch-you-in-the-face-don't-touch-me reflex). The right verbal cues are very helpful too, but for the WTF-are-you-telling-me-to-do? stage, nothing beats being a little handsy at the right times.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:40 am | Reply to this comment

  • Guy

    English nazi alert: repoire = rapport.

    August 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    I feel deprived: You never touched me when I visited CP. Oh, well, your "implicit glare" was all I needed. RS

    August 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Anna

    "Literally, you name a joint, and he could name the time, date, and race he hurt it." - Yep, that's what ultra running has done for me too! Fortunately I've also seen the light in strength training.

    August 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rlinton

    Great website Tony! You're articles are great and very inspiring. However, I don't understand you're hate for commercial gyms? Where should the masses train?

    August 25, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Reply to this comment

  • endz

    I agree 101%. It's must MUST read for strenght coaches.

    August 26, 2011 at 3:06 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Nia: no, no. YOU'RE awesome.....;o) @ Michael and Molly: great insights, as always. Thanks for sharing! @ Stephane: TOTALLY agree.

    August 26, 2011 at 5:36 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Bret: that doesn't surprise me my man. You're an awesome coach, and they're lucky to have you! @ Guy: well played, sir. Well played. Fixed! @psistarpsi: again, it comes down to someone who knows how to coach. Thanks for chiming in!

    August 26, 2011 at 5:38 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Rlinton: hahahahah. I know it comes across as such, but I really don't "hate" commercial gyms that much. Hate is such a strong word, anyways. How about an "affinity for a high level of dislikeness?" I know there are PLENTY of great trainers out there in commercial gyms who do it right (ahem, Dean Somerset), but they're definitely few and far between.

    August 26, 2011 at 5:40 am | Reply to this comment

  • Miles

    Hey Tony, Love the blog. Read regularly, comment rarely. I train at a small gym in RI so we're not too far from you guys. I'm a student currently and I work as a trainer at the school's gym which is admittedly, an epic job for a college student. However this does raise a dilemma sometimes that I'm always interested in getting input on: A lot of my clients (read: 90%+) are female. They're also college age so they're basically girls. Occasionally they're wicked hot (awesome) but more often than not they're overweight and insecure about their bodies on some level. I am a large, reasonably muscular man in a position of power. AND the gym can be an intimidating environment. I think that putting your hands on someone can obviously be helpful. Anything that requires flat back, core or glute tightness, chest up, planks etc I find the hand really useful. My question is how does one draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate? I've had women that literally jumped when I put my hands on them whereas others seem fine with it. I always operate by the idea that "it's not inappropriate unless you make it inappropriate" but at the same time I'd still like to hear your advice.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:03 am | Reply to this comment

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