Strongman Program Design with Dr.Davidson: Part 1 – Assessment

The recent exclusive articles from Dr.Davidson have been general in nature, dealing with overall perspectives on certain topics. The recent sports science roundtable was equally as big picture minded. Here in this edition we want to delve deeper into the specifics. The next several posts will be an exclusive look into exactly how Dr./Coach Patrick Davidson organizes and implements his program for strongmen athletes. The following are questions Dr.D answered:
Can you summarize the sport of strongman in one paragraph?
Why do I assess my athletes?
Who do I assess?
What do I assess?
What are the logistics of my assessment?
How is my assessment carried out?
What gives me the right to assess?
What do I do with the assessment results?
Do I change the program based on the assessment results?
What is my post-assessment?
Introducing the Sport of Strongman
     Strongman is a weight class based individual sport where competitors seek to gain the most points in multi-event contests. Points are awarded based on how you fare against your competitors, and the number of competitors. If you have 12 competitors in your weight class, the person who finishes first in an event receives 12 points, the person who was last receives 1 point, unless they were unable to complete one repetition, whereupon they would receive 0 points. Every competitor between first and last receives the number of points that correspond with their standing in the order. Things get tricky when there are ties because points start being split. Strongman weight classes are divided into the over 265 class, under 265 class, under 231 class, under 200 class, and under 175 class. Contests typically involve 4 to 7 events. Events usually involve at least one of the following, an overhead event, a deadlift event, a carrying event, a loading event, and a medley event. Overhead events and deadlift events sometimes involve single effort maximal attempts, and other times involve maximal repetitions performed in one minute. Carrying events are typically broken down into the categories of yoke carries, anterior carries, farmers walk carries, and duck walk carries. Loading events involve loading objects (most often stones) onto boxes, or putting them over bars. Loading events typically involve performing as many reps as possible in 60 seconds with a singular object, or loading progressively heavier objects in series.
Why Do I Assess My Athletes?
     I will keep this answer as simple as possible, and divide my response into two components. The first reason for assessment is to determine injury risk from training, and to try to identify problematic patterns that should not be loaded. The second reason I assess athletes is to identify glaring weaknesses that could lead to parking brake or energy leak situations.
     Kiesel, Plisky, and Voight (2007) found that NFL players who scored below a 14 on the FMS had a 51% chance of serious injury during the season vs. a 15% chance of serious injury with athletes above a 14. In Gray Cook’s book, Movement, he identifies that asymmetry is the second leading predictor of injury, only trailing previous injury. I believe that if someone gets hurt on my watch that it is generally my fault. I cannot say that the athletes who I train never get hurt during training, because there have been several incidents this year where injuries have occurred. I hate when this happens. It makes me feel like the worst coach in the world. I want to do everything in my power to reduce the chances of injury happening to anyone who I train.
     In regards to eliminating certain movements from a loading perspective in the program design, I have tried to keep things pretty simple. First, I have eliminated two foot squatting from the program design except from a mobility standpoint. Nobody on the team scored a 3 on the deep squat test. This means that there has to be some compensatory movement somewhere, and if I load that pattern, I will be driving forces into inappropriate tissues. I have not eliminated overhead work from the program design of individuals scoring 1’s on the shoulder mobility screen. There were a very high number of athletes who scored 1’s on their shoulder mobility test…quite frankly, an alarmingly high number. The sport of strongman always involves overhead movements in competition. I understand that there is increased risk of injury with overhead work for athletes who do not score a 2 on the shoulder mobility test, but you have to go overhead in the sport, so in a way it’s a catch 22. My hope and belief is that the elimination of 2 foot squatting reduces some of the same stressors that overhead work also brings on for individuals with shoulder mobility screen dysfunction (lumbar hyperextension compensation primarily).
     I’ve heard it said many times that good athletes train things that they are good at, and great athletes train their weaknesses. I look at every possible change that the body can go through as a stimulus/response phenomenon. If you provide the appropriate stimulus, the body will be forced to make an adaptation that should give you the response you were looking for. This stimulus/response phenomenon is something that takes place at the cellular level. The better developed a cell is, the less you can improve upon it. The more poorly developed a cell is, the greater the potential room for positive change. With regards to movement dysfunction, the cells that we may be talking about could range from local tissue cells (altered number of sarcomeres in series, ratio of collagen to reticular tissue) to neuronal cells lying anywhere along the pathways of the afferent, CNS, and efferent tracks. If I identify the most limited of movement patterns and then provide the athlete with the best corrective strategy I have available, I should be altering the cellular function of the myofascia from a piso electric flow manner (see Anatomy Trains), or trying to change the communicative capabilities in the nervous system (diminishing neural lesion somewhere in the PNS or CNS). The key to improving someone is to correctly identify their weakness, and then to provide them with the right stimulus that drives the adaptation that you are looking for. Of course this is easier said than done, but as I am getting better at assessment and corrective strategies the process is becoming more predictable and the changes I am driving into people are becoming more powerful. In a crude manner of speaking, you can summarize my philosophy as the following: Step 1: Find out where you suck the most, Step 2: Take the appropriate medicine to eliminate your greatest suck, Step 3: See if you reduced your suck, Step 4: If you no longer suck at that thing, find the next thing on the list that you suck the most at, Step 5: Wash, rinse, repeat.
      I said that I view corrective strategies as figuring out and addressing whether someone has a problem with parking brakes or energy leaks. Parking brake problems are problems of hypertonicity. Energy leak problems are stability or motor control problems. It seems like all of the smart people in the field consistently say that every exercise can be an assessment of an individual, so let me try to give some examples that way. The most common parking brake situation I see is with the overhead lockout motion. With some guys, the weight explodes off the chest, and then about half to three quarters of the way out it sort of stalls. This problem seems to be the typical upper-crossed syndrome phenomenon with these individuals. Overactive suboccipitals, upper traps, levator, pecs, and lats create a hypertonicity situation. The overactive traps and levator seem to be the two worst pieces for this puzzle. The scapula doesn’t protract and elevate properly. It sort of spins on trigger points in the upper trap or the levator. The elbows never get to the point where they look fully straight. The head is slow to get through. The result is something that looks sticky, painful, and frustrating. My most common energy leak siting is deep core control. A lot of people just cannot pull themselves out of extension. They go to conduct any movement you can think of and they immediately go into anterior pelvic tilt and the lumbar spine increases in lordosis. Their head shoots forward, they shrug, there’s probably a healthy dose of pelvic rotation thrown in there as well…it’s the same ugly stuff everybody else sees on a daily basis. Trying to get these individuals to feature a sternum to pelvis motion coupled with getting long through the top of the head, controlling their scapula, and taking a real breath is a challenge to say the least. The push-up is probably the easiest exercise to evaluate this with. I’ve also found the same individuals tend to be the ones who have tremendously slow dips on jerks, and the amortization phase between dip and drive takes a fortnight, and often involves lots of ugly knee repositioning. It’s the kind of dip and drive that just makes you cringe and start yelling about how they’re slow and not going fast enough. The reality may be that they’re going as fast as their brain will allow them to given the recruitment, muscle imbalance, and joint position situation that is going on in their body.
Who Do I Assess?
     I assess everyone. Why wouldn’t I assess everyone? I look at assessment as the basis from which all decisions are made regarding what to do with the training of an individual. I like assessing people. I feel like it gives me an opportunity to play the role of detective. I find the human body fascinating. Just when you think you are comfortable with predicting what people will consistently show you, someone comes along and throws you a huge curve ball, and you have to think hard and critically to try to solve this new problem. Every time I assess someone I learn something new, and I understand more of what other people in the field are saying. I also feel like I understand what the technical literature statements are saying to a greater extent from the practical experience I gain assessing people. I also have come to realize that whenever I have moments where I don’t know what to make of what I’m seeing in an assessment, that someone out there has the answer. I’ve developed a good network of people who I can ask questions of, and usually I get answers from them that educate me. So I think that even if you’re not the best at assessments you’ll still be providing the athlete with a great service by conducting them, and you are also ensuring that you will be educating yourself in the process.
What Do I Assess?
     Movement and exercise technique for the most part. I also assess state of mind and what kind of diet the guys are implementing. The last thing I assess is whether people are getting better in their contest standings. The primary goal that my athletes have is to win strongman contests. My primary goal as coach is to help these athletes become elite competitors who can win national championships, become professionals, win world championships, or whatever absolute level of achievement they can reach. As Dan John says, the goal should stay the goal. How do you get good at strongman? You train and compete at strongman. How can I assist the guys in their pursuit of training and competing at strongman? Clean up problematic movement patterns so that when they execute competition based movements they do them without insulting soft tissues, improve their quality of food selection and hydration strategies so that making weight is an easier process than it otherwise could be, see where their heads are at so they don’t go too hard when they’re feeling good and too soft when they’re in the dumps, and seeing if a change in program design may be necessary based on whether or not our competition results start to stagnate.
What Are the Logistics of My Assessment?
     Ah logistics, dreaded logistics. The logistical concerns I face are unique. The athletes I coach are also the people I train alongside. So I’m not on the floor coaching them during training sessions. In between sets if I see something egregious I will typically yell at someone, and if I see common patterns of terrible exercise performance I will address the matter after practice. So what does this mean from an assessment standpoint? I did assessments at the beginning of the year, and I haven’t done them since. Not good according to best practice coaching scenarios/advice, but I do have one advantage that many coaches do not have. I get most of my upper classmen in the classroom as well.
     Springfield College is a different kind of college. Everyone wears sweats and everyone seems to be obsessed with sports and training. Exercise science is looked at as being one of the preeminent majors on campus. At most other schools, exercise science is viewed as an obscure major of meatheads (just my opinion here). Here it is one of the biggest in terms of student enrollment. A lot of the kids I get to coach want to become strength and conditioning coaches in either the public or private sector. A lot of the kids I coach are obsessive about learning everything they can about training and nutrition. Getting to work with students like this is why I came to work at Springfield College. I think I have had nearly every upperclassman on the team as a student now. In the classroom setting I get to teach these guys the FMS inside and out. I get to teach them about the top tier SFMA side of things. I get to teach them the philosophy of test, intervention strategy, retest…see if you caused the result you were looking for…if not, try something new…if so keep riding that horse ‘til the legs fall off. I get to teach them corrective strategies. I get to teach them about the importance of a systems based approach. I get to teach them about breathing. I get to teach them rolling patterns. I get to teach them how every exercise represents an opportunity to challenge your posture in a static or dynamic setting. I get to teach them the short foot. I get to teach them every little detail of everything I know. I also get to teach them that they can do things like listen to podcasts rather than music on their iPods. Then these guys execute their training exercises with all those components. The freshmen and the newbies get to watch these guys train like pro’s, and they know that there is something different about the way the advanced guys execute every component of their training compared to the way they are doing things. This perks their interest in learning more and getting better.
      Now what we’ve got here at Springfield College, in particular with my Team Ironsports is that the guys hang out with each other when they’re not training and they talk shop. They’re constantly looking to learn and get better. They watch DVD’s with each other. They mess around with each other with some hands on stuff (I’ve got AT students and PT students). They test each other in their dorm rooms and try to correct stuff. We’ve made this thought process our culture at Team Ironsports. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got guys who are total messes who do the least amount of work possible to make themselves better movers and they don’t seek out knowledge, but every group has some stragglers. I’m going to give these guys time to find their way. Overall though what we’ve got is a small army of guys who are damn good strength athletes, who train HARD, who have good backgrounds from an educational standpoint, and who are constantly seeking to get smarter, stronger, and better. One final note here…for those people out in the field who are looking for good interns…well let me just tell you that you will not find college students who are more advanced than the guys I’m developing here at Ironsports.
How Is My Assessment Carried Out?
     Movement is informally assessed at all times. I call them out on any bad posture, any poorly performed exercise, any bad anything. Movement is formally assessed with the FMS and the top tier SFMA tests for the most part. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’ve started to really use the SFMA breakouts in the large group assessment standpoint. A few of my athletes are familiar with the breakouts and they conduct them on each other outside of training. I do assess breathing, but for the most part this assessment is a formality…none of them know how to breathe at first. Not a single one of them has taken a diaphragmatic inhalation or driven out a powerful abdominal exhalation in years most likely. They’re all chest breathers. They all lack core control. The assessment proves it to them so I use it. State of mind is something that I assess informally, but I don’t find this one to be too hard to do at this point. The guys love to lift and get stronger. When they’re feeling it in the weightroom they let me know. When they’re dragging ass it’s pretty obvious too. The other advantage I get with this is that I’m going through the same training with them, so I get to directly feel the effects of what they’re going through physically. Nutrition is something that I get to assess by eating lunch with the guys. I get to see what is on their plate. I walk around the dining hall and see guys from the team scattered around the tables, and I always inspect their plates. I usually chastise them about food selections that I feel are inappropriate. Competition performance is easy to track. Something you need to understand about strongman competitors and probably all individual athletes is that we are all obsessed with our contest results, and that’s pretty much all we talk about before, during, and after competitions. I’m going to hear every subjective and objective piece of information regarding contest performances from every single one of my athletes seven million times.
     To expand upon my appraisal of movement I would like to first point out that I consider myself a novice in regards to formal movement appraisal. I’ve read both of Gray Cook’s books and watched just about every single one of his DVD’s and I’ve listened to every single podcast including the Ask Gray/Ask Functional Movement sections. So I get the Gray Cook thought process. I know that the SFMA is the medical model, and the FMS is for healthy people, but I use both because I just simply want lots of evidence to examine. I’m starting to see why I don’t need to use both because the results are redundant, and I’m getting better at picking up a lot of things in the FMS quickly, but I’m a cautious man, and I don’t mind proving the same thing to myself over and over again. I also use the SFMA because I have found myself very interested in examining the motions of the cervical spine and the multi-segmental rotation test. We have a team massage therapist. The guys who do not do well on the C-spine tests are referred to him. The guys who don’t do well with rotation (locked up or asymmetrical) are the guys we focus on further examining with some PRI techniques for the pelvis. These tend to be the same guys who don’t do well on shoulder mobility, which is where I’m seeing the redundancy, but I’ve definitely caught a few people with rotation who I otherwise would have missed without including that in the testing. The other thing I’ve noticed is that there are some guys with great overhead lockouts who don’t have good shoulder mobility screen scores; however, these same individuals have good looking C-spine SFMA test results. I’m not ready to say that there is an absolute connection between these things, but I feel like I’m starting to see a trend.
What Gives Me the Right to Assess?
     Good question. I don’t really know what the scope of practice is for someone with a Ph.D. I also don’t really give a crap either. I’m going to use every tool that I know to make my athletes better. I’m also going to teach them everything that I know so that they can do it on each other. These guys are all training with me because they want to improve themselves and become champions. I’m doing this because I want to improve myself and become a champion. We are brothers on a common mission. I would basically do anything for these guys, and I know that they would do the same for me. How could I deny them the opportunity to figure out where their strengths and weaknesses are if I possess the knowledge to be able to help them? Besides, what is an assessment? It’s me looking at you and telling you what I think. I guess the one line that I don’t cross is the pain line. I’m not medically trained, and I understand that pain changes everything about movement. I sort of understand healthy movement, but I have a lot to learn. I’m not going to try to kid myself and pretend I know anything about painful/pathological movement. It takes more than reading some Sahrmann and Janda to be able to feel comfortable playing with people who are in pain. So if I’m dealing with joints and patterns that are not painful, I assess away. If I encounter someone in pain, I stop and I beg them to please get checked out by someone who is competent in the medical side of things.
What Do I Do With the Results of the Assessment?
     I email everyone on the team the training sessions. Attached to this are the top 3 movement problems discovered from that athlete’s assessment. Also attached in the email is the list of corrective exercises, and the description of how to perform each corrective exercise for the movement problem. The athletes are instructed that they are to only focus on the number one movement priority during the beginning of their training session. I am taking what Gray Cook calls the sniper rifle approach rather than the grenade approach to correcting movement. Identify the biggest problem, focus on it. Use the best corrective exercise in your bag for that movement pattern…identify the target, aim, one shot, one kill. The athletes know that if they improve the FMS or SFMA results to passing levels following their corrective exercise that they have opened up a window of functionality within the most troubling of their movements, and that perhaps all their movement patterns will have spontaneously improved. They are now ready to perform a variety of global patterns and have these patterns be functional (or at least better).
     Once the athlete can come in and own their number one pattern without preceding it with corrective exercises, this pattern is no longer their number one priority. Now the new priority is probably what was number 2 on their list. In the beginning of the fall we had a very large group that I was calling, “The Shit Neck Group”. We have moved everybody who was in that group out of it and onto something new. The goal needs to stay the goal. We aren’t in this to do corrective exercises all day. These guys are in this to be champions in strongman. We need to lift weights. I want them to be able to lift weights under the safest possible training conditions. If I can acutely remove someone from dysfunction, or bring a 1 to a 2, then I am reducing the likelihood of injury when we’re doing what we need to do.
Do I Change the Program Design Based on Assessment Results?
     I want to tell you that I have. I want to tell you that I’ve created an elaborate system of red lighting, yellow lighting, and green lighting exercises based on results. I haven’t. I give leniency to veterans who want to avoid certain movements, or want to work around some nagging problems, or want to avoid certain implements, swap out the straight bar for the trap bar, etc. With the rookies and new guys though, they follow the base program and I’m not pulling things out and inserting things in based on their individual results. The goal is that the corrective exercises, dynamic flexibility, and improved heat from movement skill and linear and multi-directional speed development that we do prior to lifting opens a movement window where they temporarily remove themselves from dysfunction to the point where they can adequately perform the loaded movements programmed in for the team.
     The movements that I select are based on contest demands for the most part. When we are in our base training facility at school, we do not have strongman implements. We have 4 big loaded movements that we perform. Two foot deadlifting, single foot deadlifting, two hand overhead jerking/pressing, and one hand overhead jerking/pressing. Normally, day 1 is two foot deadlift with one hand overhead. Day 2 is one foot deadlift with two hand overhead. The sets, reps, rest change depending upon phase. Sometimes we do things a little different to avoid stagnation and monotony, but that is the general methodology. 
      The guys I worry about are the guys who score 1 on the shoulder mobility screen, and as I mentioned before, I have a very high number of guys who are 1’s on this test. These are the guys who have parking brakes fully on during overhead movements. These are the guys who have to get their extension motion from somewhere, and a large part of that extension often -times comes from the lumbar spine. These are the guys who I try to stay up to date with regarding how they’re feeling physically. These are the guys who I’m really trying to spare by removing two foot squatting from the program. These are also some of my strongest guys. One thing that I have found to be very helpful for these individuals during overhead pressing maneuvers is coaching these guys to really drive hip extension. The extension that goes through the body during overhead lifting has to occur somewhere. I want to limit the amount happening in the lumbar spine. When these guys really focus on getting their hips through on moves like the push press it seems to spare their spines. This notion is a mantra that I try to live by with these athletes…how can I continue to get them stronger while sparing their spines? This is one thing that I believe is a solution at that point in time.
What Is My Post-Assessment?
     The first thing that I try to do post assessment with anybody is to educate them. I want them to know exactly what I think. I want them to be cognizant of the problems that I have identified. I then want to teach them the corrective approaches. I believe in trying to empower the individual. I think this is critical because I’m not going to have much time to work with this person. I have no idea what this person is going to be doing during the 22 to 23 other hours of the day when they’re not with me. I want to make the time they spend away from me as beneficial towards their physical development as possible. The only way I can do that is to get the athlete to understand the concepts as fully as possible. As I alluded to earlier in this document, I believe that my team has a great culture associated with it. The athletes are my students, and for the most part, they’re great students. We train together and then I get to teach them the theory of why we do what we do in the assessment, corrective block, dynamic flexibility phase, movement skill development phase, speed development phase, resistance training phase, and energy system development phase of a training session. It makes it a hell of a lot easier for me to coach them with this setup. I’m sure that many of you out there wish that you got the opportunity to lecture your clients or athletes about assessment, correction of problematic movements, training theory, etc. for hours every week.

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  1. Josh Heenan says:

    Dr. D/ Sam, great piece.

    I really like your view on what gives me the right to assess, I believe this is where the industry is going as a whole for better and for worse. 
    Thoroughly jealous of your exercise science inclined athletes, here at Sacred Heart we don’t get a ton of EX or AT majors that are athletes, but when I do get one they soak it up and really help progress our programs.

  2. Sam Leahey says:

    For sure Coach Josh. Be it in the public sector or in the private, having clients that are of similar formal education or affinities really helps to create buy in. Stay tuned for Dr.D’s next installment!

  3. […] our last installment with Dr.Patrick Davidson, he elucidated the specifics of his assessment process and how he […]

  4. […] installment 2.1 of Dr./Coach Patrick Davidson’s program design process. Be sure to first read Part 1 and 2.0 so you understand where he is coming from with some of these […]

  5. […] part 2.2 of Dr.Davidson’s strongman program design process. Be sure to read Part’s 1, 2.0, and 2.1 before getting into this part […]

  6. […] part 2.3 of Dr.Davidson’s strongman program design process. Be sure to read Part 1, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2 […]

  7. […] is Part 2.4 of Dr./Coach Davidson's program design series! Be sure to check out Part's 1, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 before reading this one so you're caught up with his thought […]

  8. […] 3, of Dr./Coach Davidson's program design series! Be sure to check out Part's 1, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 2.4 before reading this one so you're […]

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