By Alan Bishop
As a college athlete, my love for the weight room was greater than my love for the game it was preparing me for. When it came to strength training, it was the process that got me hooked. Being able to drive the human body’s progress with something as simple as percentages, sets, and reps was incredible to me. As I learned more about the intricacies of the human body and the principles of physical development, strength and conditioning became my passion.
There is a great quote from the character Bane in the movie The Dark Knight Rises:
“Oh, you think the darkness is your ally, you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man; by then, it was nothing to me but blinding! The shadows betray you, because they belong to me.”
This quote speaks to me on many levels, but from a training standpoint, it touches my soul. I get emails regularly from kids who believe S&C looks fun and are thinking about getting into it. My advice to them is to do something else.
You’ve got to be built a little bit differently to thrive in this environment. You’ve got to absolutely love the process, and the grind is part of that process. I don’t know a single aspiring coach with hesitations or reservations who ended up lasting very long. Most people spend years interning and most never get a full-time job. Those who do have a high divorce rate, typically make a salary well below their education level, and rarely retire as a coach.
Then there are the coaches who do get full-time jobs but can’t ever seem to find a “work-life” balance. Work-life balance is a fallacy because there is no such thing as “work-life.” There is only “life,” and coaching is a lifestyle.Work-life balance is a fallacy because there is no such thing as “work-life.” There is only “life,” and coaching is a lifestyle, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
There is no glory in poverty, and there is no honor in neglecting your family. Many coaches have found great success “balancing” their work, finances, family, religion, etc. Many haven’t. You better be absolutely convinced you can make it all work before diving into this profession.
Going back to the Bane quote—for me, every aspect of being a strength coach makes sense, and it is probably because I was born into the iron game. I was doing military-style PT tests (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, etc.) when I was a kid. My dad is a retired 30-year Army veteran, and as far back as I can remember, I mimicked his training. He had a policy that we’d get baseball cards if we improved our totals by five reps on push-ups and sit-ups. I remember him teaching me to do push-ups against the wall when I couldn’t get any more reps on the ground. Looking back, I’d consider that the most simplistic introduction to mechanical advantage drop sets in the history of training.
When I was 10 years old, I saw guys Olympic weightlifting. I started sneaking onto my neighbor’s back porch to use his curl bar to mimic what I saw. At 12, I was sneaking into the fitness center on base to use the dumbbells and bench press. In high school, we had a small weight room with a whiteboard that our football coach wrote workouts on. Every day started with what he wrote, but we turned it into a 1 rep max contest before the hour was up. Our 1 rep maxes went through the roof because we worked our asses off in a highly competitive environment, but we weren’t training, we were just lifting hard and letting puberty do its thing. Newbies can make progress doing just about anything, but once you get a few years under your belt, you need structure.
Once I got into the collegiate setting and got a taste of real programming, progressive overload, periodization, and coaches who were absolute savages at teaching kids how to train, I was hooked. Every semester I’d train with the earliest lifting group of the morning so I could start my day in the weight room. I had coaches who put together great programs and coached their faces off.
I made incredible gains as a collegiate student-athlete, and that is a credit to the coaches because, looking back, I made that progress in spite of what I did off the field, not because of it. Everybody has a story about why they didn’t make it to the next level. For me, I just wasn’t good enough at the actual game of football for anybody to pay me to do it. I was a very average athlete with an above-average work ethic. That combination was just enough to help me occasionally see the field.The incredible gains I made as a collegiate student-athlete are a credit to the coaches because that progress was in spite of what I did off the field, not because of it, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
My biggest “regret” from my playing days is that I was so beat up by the time I finished, my progress in the weight room and my development on the field stopped. Not only did it stop, I regressed.
Injuries are multifaceted, and make no mistake about it, I was beat to hell from years of playing football, but I didn’t do myself any favors from a career longevity standpoint with my approach to training or my off-the-field habits. I’m not talking about drugs or alcohol; I’m talking about really poor recovery and nutrition. Experience is the best teacher, and my mistakes as an athlete have greatly influenced my teaching philosophies as a coach.
The biggest takeaway from mistakes in my own training as an athlete that has shaped my approach to training student athletes is: “Health drives performance.” As long as you’re following this advice with every decision you make, it’s really hard to go wrong. I could write an entire book on what not to do, but here are four big things I messed up as an athlete that I now preach with solutions as a coach.
Chasing Quantity, Not Quality
This is the biggest mistake I made in my training. I was so concerned with putting up big numbers that I sacrificed range of motion and rep integrity to stack more plates on the bar. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve put up some big numbers, but I never got great at training. I got great at stroking my ego.The biggest mistake I made in my training was being so concerned with putting up big numbers that I sacrificed range of motion and rep integrity to stack more plates on the bar, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
A wise man once said, “Show me a man who constantly cheats technique, and I will show you a man with joint problems.” By the time my senior year hit, I was sputtering to the finish line. Five years of college football had taken its toll. My feet, knees, groin, hip flexors, and low back were in constant pain. This, coupled with years of chasing numbers, left me beat up. When I hung up my cleats, it took me about two years to finally feel “good” again.
When you cheat technique, you create structural imbalances and compromise connective tissue integrity. Check your ego at the door and get great at training. When you chase quality, the numbers will always follow.
Failing to Listen to My Body
This is one that I still struggle with. The way I was raised, you put your nose to the grindstone, you shut up, and you get the work done. If you’ve got problems, you outwork them. As an athlete, it didn’t matter how banged up I was from practice, how little sleep I’d gotten while working on a paper, or how badly my knees hurt during a team run—I showed up early, I put my head down, and I got to work.
The problem with this approach is that I had some of the best S&C coaches in the game, and I didn’t let them help me manage the stresses on my body or in my life. If I’d have pulled any of them aside and explained that I’d been walking down stairs backward for the last two years because my knees were in constant pain, or I was working security jobs at night because I couldn’t pay my bills, they wouldn’t have thought I was soft, they would have adjusted my training.
Instead, I kept my mouth shut, took a few more scoops of pre-workout, and popped a few more ibuprofens to manage the pain. By the time I finished playing, I was taking at least 400 milligrams of caffeine (and who knows what else) before every lift and a minimum of 1,600 milligrams of ibuprofen daily. Masking the problem in the short term increased the problem in the long term.
I once heard a coach say, “Before 30, guys train with their balls; after 30, they train with their brains.” While crude, it is true. I was a dopamine-driven meathead, and I loved every minute of it. BUT training is a marathon, not a sprint. The athletes who stay consistent in their training will have the best long-term results. Getting injured or constantly being banged up is the quickest way to derail training and ruin results. Quit fighting through injury and take care of your body.
You need to know when to back off. Athletes are built differently. We love the grind and aren’t afraid to put in work. But sometimes the best thing to do is take two weeks and recharge the batteries. As an athlete, I never took training sessions off during Christmas or summer breaks. Not once. It was a huge mistake. The physical and mental benefits far outweigh missing a few days in the gym.
Valuing Body Weight Over Body Composition
At 13 years old, I was 155 pounds. At 23 years old, I was 295 pounds. I embraced weight gain and I ate every meal like a man who just got out of prison. I loved every second of getting big and strong. Looking back, though, I was chasing numbers on a scale, and I should have been more concerned with my body composition. Fat don’t flex, and after 275–280 pounds, the weight gain didn’t have any carryover to the field. In fact, I performed worse because I was just getting fatter, and my knees always hurt.
Again, I’m a firm believer that health drives performance. Caloric intake is really important if all you’re worried about is gaining/losing weight. But if you’re worried about packing on muscle mass, your hormonal profile, staying healthy, and most importantly, PERFORMANCE, then food quality, nutrient timing, and avoiding chronic inflammation become a huge part of the equation. Numbers on a scale are not indicative of health.Numbers on a scale are not indicative of health. When it comes to food, chase quality, and the scale will usually take care of itself, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
When gaining weight, all calories are not created equal. If they were, 3,000 calories from Oreos and Pepsi would give you the same results as 3,000 calories from steak and sweet potatoes. When it comes to food, chase quality, and the scale will usually take care of itself.
When it comes to gaining weight the right way, start with a minimum of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, get 20% of calories from healthy fats, eat vegetables and fruits at every meal, and then fill in the rest of your caloric needs with quality carbohydrate sources.
As an athlete, I went through 8–10 RTDs a day and ate pizza and ice cream at night because I was “burning so many calories and really needed the fuel.” I gained a lot of weight, but I also left college as a pre-diabetic. To quote another movie (Dodgeball), “It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off…”
Body weight, especially in a game like football, is important, but it should never come at the expense of health.
Burning the Candle at Both Ends
When I was an athlete, I lived off of five hours of sleep (three hours if I was working security that night), trained like a maniac, took an average course load of 15 credits every semester, took six credits every summer, and had a part-time work-study job. After five years of school, I was two semesters away from a master’s degree, and I was debt-free. However, I felt physically and mentally drained to the point that I was no longer productive at anything else.
Being so far ahead in school was great, but I was there to play ball, and that is something I can never get back. Being good at school and good at sports are not mutually exclusive, but there needs to be an intelligent approach. That approach needs to start with eight hours of sleep every night.
The top two predictors of injury are previous injury history and lack of sleep. It is no coincidence that I was constantly dinged up and constantly sleep-deprived. Sleep is the greatest performance-enhancing drug on the market, and it is both free and legal. We need to drive this message home to athletes constantly.Sleep is the greatest performance-enhancing drug on the market, and it is both free and legal. We need to drive this message home to athletes constantly, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
If you’re training hard, you need to recover. Getting ahead in school and paying your bills are important, but you need to be smart and adjust your day accordingly. Get some sleep and train later in the day. Catch up on sleep over the weekend and on off days. Turn off the TV and go to sleep.
Health Drives Performance
As coaches, we have the benefit of drawing from past experiences to help shape our training philosophies and influence our interactions with current student-athletes. For me, I was an athlete who loved the weight room and wanted to do everything the right way. But I often got in my own way because I didn’t understand how to approach training, nutrition, and recovery in an intelligent manner.
There are many principles that guide my philosophy on training student-athletes, but at the heart of it there is one standard I refuse to deviate from: Health drives performance. Sports are not inherently healthy pursuits. The body breaks down and injuries happen. But one thing that will never thwart your training progress is emphatically chasing health in and out of the weight room.