Today’s post is an interview with Aaron Schwenzfeier. Aaron is a really smart guy who calls it how he sees it. I really like guys like Aaron because we need people like him to serve as “bullshit detectors” in the industry. Aaron has a ton of experience and knows what works and what doesn’t. Enjoy the interview.
1. Please introduce yourself to the readers. Include how you got started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.
Thanks Bret for allowing me the opportunity to do this interview with the one and only. I first got interested way back when, as a young farm kid from a small town training for athletics (mostly football). Reading and hearing about guys like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Eddie George, Cris Carter, Gregg Lloyd and the likes were my early motivations (I would by sport magazines and scour every article, just for that one tidbit of training information, sometimes just a sentence in a five page article); plus of course reading every bodybuilding magazine under the sun, but especially “Muscle and Fitness” (particularly the annual M&F Strength Team which I believe is still rolling), “Men’s Health”, Bill Phillips’ “Muscle Media” (after Muscle Media 2000), and “Muscular Development” when it was owned by Twinlab before it was sold and became hardcore bodybuilding magazine. I especially remember important article from Muscular Development in which motor unit recruitment was highlighted; this was hugely enlightening for someone like me as a young high school athlete (about 10th grade).
From Muscle Media, I really liked Charles Poliquin’s column in and an article featured in that magazine titled something like “The Running Man” highlighting highlighting Terrell Davis, and the Broncos when they were kicking ass. I also believe guys like Charles Staley, Pavel Tsautsoline, Mauro Di Pasquale did some writing for the magazine.
From there I had the opportunity to play college football and be a part of a very solid strength and conditioning program, learning through immersion. I also had a great opportunity in gaining a degree in physical education from some pretty good professors. After college my first real coaching experience was coordinating a high school strength and conditioning program and coaching football which lasted over 2 years (probably still one of my more cherished experiences). I was very raw (still am) but I had decent knowledge from my college experience and education, and my training obsession growing up that I figured a few things out. It was a great experience as the high school kids brought energy and enthusiasm, and we got strong and in shape.
From there, my wife got a new job and we moved. Hey, she was making more money (still is) and I would have been left out on the streets. So from there I used my undergraduate degree picking up some substitute teaching, refereeing some football (yeah I wore the stripes), and also began doing some personal training on the side. Slowly the personal training grew and was enough for me to quit the other part-time jobs and was able to start a small personal training business. Personal training was a great experience as it exposed me to a multitude of challenges and really brought to light some of the glaring issues we have with health and fitness in our society right now. Along with personal training I was also fortunate to meet a bright guy who has been one of my mentors in coaching, Greg Lanners. Greg’s an extremely smart guy, who has basically done it all with years of coaching experience in strength and conditioning and football, of 7 years at the Division I level to many more at the high school level, and with the general population. Greg got me involved in working with youth athletes in hockey and teaching at a technical college in a health and fitness program, during the time I was personal training.
After that, I had the opportunity to come back to my alma mater, the University of North Dakota, and work as an assistant strength and conditioning coach, where I’ve been since. Here I work with athletes in swimming and diving, track and field, soccer, and football. I also have been fortunate enough to have some teaching responsibilities within the physical education/exercise science department, a lecture class and strength training application class, both of which I enjoy thoroughly.
As far as certifications; CSCS, FMS, Z-Health Level I & II, and CSCCa (Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association).
2. Okay now let’s get down to the nitty gritty. I’m noticing a trend in the industry where some trainers and coaches seem to be acting a lot more like physical therapists these days. Is this a good thing? Are we getting bored and chasing dead ends? Are we starting to lose focus of “what works?” Are strength coaches mixing roles or overstepping their bounds?
I think we are noticing a trend of those with a media ‘presence’. I don’t think this is the case the world over, but here in the Western world, we like our media and our media (specifically the internet) does definitely seem to be going this direction.
My fear is that it has become a “can you top this?” as far as information goes. Who can rehash the best, most ‘scientific’ information immediately becomes the expert. Then when all a person reads is rehabilitation material, they become hypnotized to only see things through that type of lens; reading about dysfunction begins to make you see dysfunction. I wrote a blog post about this a while back.
Is it a good thing? Not sure. We could argue yes and no. I am not totally sure what it is, but I think there is getting to be a bit of a problem. I mean, heck, if there is such a need for coaches to become therapists, then maybe we should take a different approach. If people are really this messed up, that we need all these little rehab exercises that may work for the extremely sedentary, maybe we need to pin-point some causes and look for more sweeping solutions. And to speak of causes… that’s another thing; as we as coaches and trainers have liked to criticize out-dated doctors, trainers, and therapists for looking at the site of pain and not assessing what’s going on up or down the kinetic chain for the “cause”. Basically us ‘in the know’ don’t look at the symptom, but are looking for the cause. Well my concern is that looking at the hip or ankle with someone who has a knee issue is still looking at the symptom. Taken further, looking at the entire body, is still pretty much looking at a symptom. We need to keep ‘zooming out’ from our microscopes and start to look at the environment that surrounds the individual; their social situation, the culture, and the ecology. The state of our society’s current human is a product of the environment. Maybe our efforts at addressing causes might do better to work at changing our physical culture in the country as a whole or even within our small circles in which we work; finding solutions that might put the person in a better ‘position’ to not jack-up their knees, backs, bodies, minds to begin with… To me, all the rehab is like pissing into the wind if we aren’t assessing the entire situation people are living in, minute-to-minute, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and on.
My wife is an occupational therapist and she is big on the day-to-day stuff that effects the clients/patients she sees, so I get some insight from her as to how she approaches things in her work. I also enjoy studying the paleontology/anthropology/biology side of things; looking at origins and commonalities across life as we know it. This gives one some good insight into how things maybe came to be and possible, necessary solutions to many of our predicaments, whether they are really feasible or not.
Don’t get me wrong as I am all for the details of things, but holy cow, we have a major crisis on our hands in the U.S. with regards to health and I don’t think coaches playing as therapists is going to do a darn thing. We already have people trained as therapists, let’s educate and find more/better ways to just get people moving. Again, I am not saying understanding the therapists information is a bad thing, quite the contrary, but what’s the real pressing issue? I’ve blogged about this in the past, but if we as coaches, really care about developing great athletes, it’s got to start with educating parents and targeting youth and making a huge emphasis in this country and culture on quality physical education. This also goes as far as improving a wide range of qualities that are not just physical.
That’s just my little humanitarian rant… a little off on a tangent of the original question but…
3. As a collegiate strength coach, do you see any incongruence with how the players are moving on the field, what their needs seem to be, and how the strength training industry is going about training these players?
Everything can’t and shouldn’t be done in the weightroom, because the weightroom is such a small part of the process. For what we do, the weightroom is accessory work; cleans, squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups, lunging… but it’s the field/court where the real “core” of the work is done; sprinting and running come first which sadly seems to becoming a lost skill, plyometrics such as bounds forward/lateral, all the different skips, jumps (1, 2 feet), agility training with different cuts (speed/power/spin) working on deceleration and reacceleration, backpedalling, rolling, crawling, shuffling, all the basic stuff… moving athletically! Athletes complain about torso soreness after some of these days; should we be spending lots of time on direct torso work? Some cases may warrant it (no absolutes), but most not. The last problem we need is groin, hamstring, or quad pulls in pre-season because of lack of specific fitness in the athletic environment, my feeling is that most of the “corrective” exercise should come in the form of on field/court stuff; teaching running mechanics, posture, foot contacts and drill this stuff over and over. This way you can coordinate more natural, specific movement. Because a little activation, prehab, and isolated movements in the weightroom I don’t think necessarily carries-over to the field, ice, court, pool. My main concern is that I am teaching the athletes how to better ‘own’ their body; teaching movement, teaching necessary feel or lack there-of, through ambulation of all forms. Time spent moving fast, slow, low, high, forward, backward, sideways, rotating, all the things that we would wish young children to do on a consistent basis. We work on refining this athletic movement and just keep practicing; continuing to develop the coordination of great athletes. There gets to be so much concern of static positions, but how well one coordinates it is the real key. Take someone who presents a little knee valgus; sure we can do all the weightroom corrective stuff with the foot/hip/core, but I’ve seen female athletes that may present some things in static weightroom movements (structural mostly), but I have little concern over them because they can coordinate it well in sport movements. Maybe I should be more concerned, but if they’ve developed their abilities and have been consistent with their moving, then they probably ‘own’ there postures. It’s never black and white with regards to posture and movement, most of it is gray and it’s knowing the difference that’s important.
It’s just so important to train athletically to be athletic. It seems that many are into doing slow, static exercises in which they are supposedly trying to activate certain movement and breathing patterns, muscle ‘firing’; lying on the floor, or doing exercises like chops and lifts. What happens if we don’t do those exercises in training, but do everything else (O-lift, squat, deadlift, lunge, push and pull, sprint, change direction, jump) really well? Will there be a difference? Or can we not get athletes to do the basics well, without reverting them back to the crawling patterns that they did as babies? I keep asking myself, what’s the right answer here?
So much of what all the experts talk about is based around the weightroom or rehab/prehab exercises. I would love for some experts to come stand on the sidelines of a DI football game and see what we, as coaches and players see (or feel for that matter). Are the PNF patterns of some cable exercise really what’s necessary? I understand there are different demands for different sports but doesn’t getting really strong, powerful, fit, and fast work anymore?
In my case we are limited on time and there are competition dates looming. What really should we be focused on? Many will say you can plug these small exercises into the warm-up or post-workout. Sure, but does that even do anything, at that low of a volume? My understanding of biological adaptation is that it’s either high volume or high intensity, or a combination of both that causes serious changes. Would this ten minutes that it takes, be better spent on nutrition education? Or how about 10 minutes of reading a good sports psychology book? Or even better yet, 10 minutes more of dynamic movement on one’s feet.
Athletes simply need more time spent in their bodies, being challenged by difficult, high speed ground based tasks. The coordinated athlete is going to have the compliance to take the big hit or more importantly the athleticism to react and adjust to what’s occurring in the action of play. I am not talking in absolutes for sure, as there is a time and place for the remedial work, but it’s my same fear of all focus on minute details that came from, again, a therapy book, and nothing on the entire painting itself… And some athletes may not have the time to wait to “clear” a screen (maybe I’m just not that good with the “corrections”); the season’s fast approaching, we have battles to choose and fight, but we want to ‘win the war’. We must do our best, do what we can with the little things, but make sure we nail the big things. We can say health is the most important thing (and it usually is) but if these kids are competing in athletics… well… that’s not always a ‘healthy’ endeavor. Everything is on grades or levels, just as we may argue that eating Skittles is bad for our health in one domain, but may just be enough to keep a starving person alive in another.
A huge area of emphasis for me is athlete conditioning and basic general fitness. Being in great overall shape, but especially having powerful cardiovascular ability I think is hugely important. I think it’s a reflection of our society and culture, and the fact that many of our athletes come directly out of that society and culture. It is ignorant to not think that our standard of general fitness has dropped collectively. The recent research says that something like 50+ million Americans are now considered sedentary and something like 70% of Americans fall into the category of being overweight or obese. Sure this is probably based on the bad reference of Body Mass Index, but when I look around I can visually see the problem, and many of our other disease related statistics, ironically, correlate with the sedentary and obesity statistics. This alarms me drastically, because, of those folks that fall into the sedentary and obese categories, most of them think walking a flight of stairs is a high intensity workout. What does this do to our collective perception, as a country, of what it means to exercise or be active? If the entire team thinks doing 2 conditioning shuttles is extremely hard work and I personally do 1 more, does that make me exceptionally better? Compared to what? The de-conditioned team? This stuff again goes beyond the physical. Combined with the hyper-parenting culture, the media’s hype of danger, our aversion or lack of exposure to nature and physical frailty, we a quickly becoming a “Nation of Wimps” (stolen from the title of Hara Estroff Marano’s important book). You have no further to look than the law enforcement or military standards. These have continually dropped since World War II… but I suppose if everybody else sucks that much, then I guess we don’t need awesomely fit personnel protecting and serving; Chief Wiggum should be able to get the job done. But that is another tangent that I don’t have a sure solution for so I’ll quit there.
Conditioning isn’t real fun and most definitely isn’t one of the more ‘sexy’ topics, but it is vital. I am not necessarily just talking just sport-specific conditioning which is usually the anaerobic type, but also aerobic capacity. Again drawing from biology and paleoanthropology, most scientists in those fields will agree that humans evolved on covering some 10-12 miles per day in mostly an aerobic state; our physiology is built for aerobic activity and when you start to take away what’s natural to us, things start to not function quite right. Just maybe the old-school coaches who advocated building an aerobic base first, weren’t that far off. I am not advocating “slogging” miles upon miles, but a longer run/walk once or twice per week might do well for a lot of athletes. There are many benefits to this, which I am not going to discuss here, and there are many creative ways to attack this without just using running, but I do think it’s important for athletes to have some aerobic capacity, because we are in an environment that is extremely lacking in the necessity to get aerobic activity. A big challenge here is time because volume is important for this type of stress.
Plus, conditioning both generally and specifically is huge towards injury prevention. We can talk about quality movement (whatever exactly that is???) all we want, but if an athlete struggles to get through a warm-up, we have bigger issues on our hands. De-conditioning is a red flag, which makes the athlete a liability to themselves and their teammates. It’s my feeling that athletes should not be allowed to play/practice until a certain level of conditioning is met… ahem… Mr. Haynesworth. Whatever this standard might be should be determined by the training staff and coaches. I don’t see this followed by all coaches, but it’s something I am working on.
4. How do you screen/assess players, and how to you go about fixing any problems that pop up?
I am going to take this a different route, as screening/assessing never stops, and I have nothing novel to share in this area. How do I fix problems that pop up? I assess the situation, try some different solutions whether it be coaching cues or specific drills to enhance awareness, whatever it takes to remedy the situation or just completely outsource the problem to someone more qualified.
However to continue on that different route, the assessment of the player is also a player/coach dynamic in which as a coach I need to get to know the athletes on a more intimate level. What’s their personality type? How does it fit within the team dynamics? How does it mesh with the vision of the team? I hate to say it but in some situations we have to take the ‘sense of entitlement’ (maybe work them to into the ground early) out of the athlete real early, just so we can get the effort and focus for training down the road. It’s not simply a matter of that we get a body and it (in material sense) is ready for us to train. We are looking at multiple different personalities and life backgrounds which have dramatically shaped character. I know John Wooden was big on saying that sports can’t build character but they reveal it, and I know this to be very true and maybe even more revealed in training where athletes are daily asked to get out of their comfort zone… way out of their comfort zone. But at this time of revealed character, I think there is time for lessons that I think can help to reshape character that fits better to with what we are all trying to accomplish, if that makes any sense?
Many coaches are adamantly against the idea of developing “mental toughness” through working athletes to the bone, and most times fall in to this camp… but there are times when I feel there is opportunity in really ‘driving’ athletes to their breaking points. I think it needs to be skillfully and artistically managed through types of bodyweight drills that present extreme discomfort but are relatively safe. It’s at this point of doing team drills in states of extreme discomfort though, that I think the situation needs to be handled with care; the message of why we are doing what we are doing is continually ‘hammered’ and the vision of the team needs to be emphasized. It’s not a matter of the coach screaming negative words into the athletes’ ears of who are nearly drowning in their own sweat, but it’s the coach reinforcing a message of such clarity that the athletes gain an absolutely black and white view of the situation and what’s expected and their role within the team. Because I know we get many athletes who are very talented but really have just floated along in life and never really had direction and been pushed to levels they were not aware they had. Our job as coaches is to help athletes reveal to themselves what they really might be capable of. So in essence I am sometimes a fan of just doing things that suck, just because they suck… but only when necessary. This type of stuff only goes for certain sports though, particularly team sports. Trust me, I am not cussing and degrading athletes, but talking in a very direct tone without raising my voice too high. No meat-head one-liners or chest beating, but matter-of-factly presenting the information needed.
I know many will say negative things about Crossfit type training, but this concept of extremely grueling training is similar and I think that type of “hard” training does have a time and a place. I look at situations where I, and other coaches too, have utilized some very, very uncomfortable training circuits (more bodyweight) and I wouldn’t have done them any other way. I think some, probably many, would argue, “well that’s not ‘training’ athletes, that’s just trying to make them barf”… but I still stand by what we are doing or did. The athletes even comment on it as something that in hindsight they felt really pushed them to some realizations. Like I said it’s a matter of skillfully and artistically doing it in a way in which no harm is done and a very articulate message is taught.
Just to be certain, we don’t do “death” circuits all day, every day. I just wanted to touch on a topic that isn’t always clearly addressed and many say is bad to do. I know I’ve said lots about the society and culture in this interview, but I don’t think we’ve gotten ‘harder’ physically, quite the opposite and sometimes it takes action to reveal “toughness”, not a little lip service about how we need to apply more effort.
I do agree though with much of what Coach Vern Gambetta has said on the whole “mental toughness” debate and that it is much more of developing “mental discipline” by doing the necessary things right on a consistent basis; following through on the details of the day-to-day, month-to-month.
So this type of stuff is part of always assessing teams and athletes, along with the movement and performance type things. Other factors are; how do they listen when being coached? What kind of “sense of purpose” or “energy level” do they have when going through the warm-up? Are they always “goofing” with their teammates, or do they tend to keep to themselves? This will dictate how I might approach a certain athlete about certain things. Do they need a little bit of a “verbal lashing” or an “arm around the shoulder” talk? Because so much of it is, as Carl Valle and others have said, not what you know, but what you get your athletes to do?
So much is predicated on getting to know the athletes you work with and this is as big of an assessment as any physical stuff. Athlete’s personal stories reveal a lot more than can be visually seen and measured, and as Theodore Roosevelt said, “”People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.
5. What’s your take on foam rolling, static stretching, mobility drills, activation work, and breathing patterns? Do you have time in your training to incorporate them into your arsenal?
Foam rolling is an option for post-workout. We sometimes use static stretching post-workout as well, done as a group for specific times. I make a huge emphasis with static stretching used prior to bed; a series of stretches done to calm the nervous system and to try to get a relaxation effect (parasympathetic shift) prior to sleep.
Mobility drills, nearly everything we do incorporates range-of-motions throughout the joints of the body. Only in necessary situations will an athlete be given specific joint mobility drills to do, such as those with the ankle or the hip. Otherwise, one of the main goals every training session is to take all joints through full ranges throughout everything we do.
As for “activation” work, nothing like glute bridging, glute medius stuff, “inner/outer unit” stuff. Again, my big thing is get them moving athletically, doing it well and often. If we have enough variation in this area we tend to keep things nicely “activated”. For a specific example, lateral bounds are great for working on hip abductor function in a much more dynamic nature. The hips are working to concentrically to propel the athlete, while they are challenged eccentrically upon landing to slow and stabilize the movement. Lateral bounds are easy to use with no need for special equipment and the athletes are on their feet, actually being athletes. For progressions we simply use shorter bounds, progressed to longer bounds and do the same with progressing the speeds. Move them athletically often!
6. Do all of your players follow the same routine, or do you differentiate routines based on positions, needs, abilities, etc. ?
I plan according to phases of the year, pre-season, in-season, off-season, but nothing much specifically in advance of something like 2-3 weeks at a time. The athletes use similar routines, with minor tweaks and exercise variations or substitutions for different athletes. This is where really knowing your athletes helps, as a movement screen may or may not show something, but high volume or high intensity or a bit of both will for sure start to present some things as far as ‘problems’. A big emphasis in what I do is athlete education. I want the athletes to have a very clear and thorough understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, hence why I began having some “classroom” sessions last year. In these sessions we discussed everything from the science of what we were/are doing, to the psychology of training and athletics, to nutrition and recovery strategies. What I found was that this education led to some very open and clear dialogue between me and the athletes. The athletes felt they had a better grasp on things, and began to look at me as less of an expert and more of a team member, which allowed them to feel free to openly discuss things that they felt were not of benefit, things that were, and some possible recommendations for change. So what this allowed was an even clearer picture of who needed what based on the regular feedback they were giving me, leading to better exercise selection, volume and intensity for certain individuals. With that being said, there are certain things that everyone will do which is the same, with just minor tweaks as I see necessary.
7. Are there any things that piss you off about the strength training profession?
Nothing really pisses me off as I have a job and an opportunity to coach daily… other than lazy, “entitled” athletes; so life is pretty good. Things do definitely amuse me though, such as all the focus on “micro” techniques and concepts. I am just not buying it that some of this breathing stuff and different “neuromuscular” techniques makes much of any difference in young athletes. If there is research validating some of these things, it’s usually done on older, dysfunctional subjects.
The other amusing thing, actually more annoying, is the infomercial tone a lot of the marketing of products has taken. There are no secrets and no one has the right answer because the answer always changes with different contexts, different athletes, and different coaches. So for everything I’ve argued for or against in this interview and in past blog posts, I am totally wrong, or totally right, or usually somewhere between the two. There are some more correct solutions and some less correct solutions, but absolutes can rarely be correct… so really, there are no true experts, just marketing gurus.
8. Quick Responses:
Where were you born? Hallock, MN 56728.
Top 3 favorite exercises? That’s difficult as it changes for different sports and different individuals. Sprinting, jumping, lifting heavy objects (cleans, squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups)… wait that’s more than 3, sorry.
Top 3 favorite strength training books? I don’t really have a top 3 for this.
Top 3 favorite movies? Gladiator, Avatar, 300, Back to the Future series, and Dumb and Dumber. (Man, that’s 7. Sorry again)
Top 3 favorite things to eat? Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and anything off the grill.
Top 3 biggest influences in the profession? That’s difficult as so many people have and do influence me in so many different ways and at different times. Many folks who I am sure no one has ever heard of.
9. Thank you very much for the interview Aaron! What does the future have in store for you? Where can readers find out more about you?
For right now, all I can see is more coaching and teaching. I am really enjoying what I do and just hope to continue to help build a strong culture with the athletes who I am fortunate enough to work with.
For me personally, I just really enjoy physical culture, I am a fan and will continue to be an active participant in many different sports, and also have a secret obsession with physical challenges like street running/parkour, skateboarding, mountain biking, BMX racing, adventure racing, different forms of triathlons, extreme endurance events, different forms of dance (which I don’t do, I just appreciate those that can). Anything that takes the human spirit and will to its’ edges of suffering (in a voluntarily pleasant way, hahaha!!!) and/or involves lots of creativity. Basically any type of play works for me, as long as it involves more than just the head and hands. And best of all, being a father to two wonderful young children (Eva and Reggie) and good husband to my lovely wife, Margo. My family has taught me so many things, and will continue to, as our adventure moves on…
To find out more about me? I blog once in a while at www.aaronschwenzfeier.blogspot.com.