Although many people in the strength & conditioning world don’t know of Rob Panariello, he’s one of our industry’s legends. I got to know Rob a little bit by reading his brilliant posts on StrengthCoach.com and find him to be one of the most informed and intelligent guys on the scene. As you’ll see in Rob’s response to question one, he has a ton of experience as a strength coach and physical therapist, and he’s made friends with many of our industry’s “founding fathers” in both the U.S. and Russia. Here’s the interview:

1. First off thanks for the interview. Rob, you have a ton of experience in many different fields. Please discuss your various experiences, mentors, degrees, certifications, and occupations.

Bret, I would like to thank you for having me on your site. Based on the content of your website my answers to your questions will apply specifically to the field of Strength and Conditioning/Athletic Performance Training.

To answer your question regarding my background and certifications, I am a Licensed Physical Therapist, NATA Certified Athletic Trainer, and NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. I have two Bachelor’s Degrees, both are from Ithaca College.  My first Bachelor’s Degree is in Physical Education/Athletic Training; the second is in Physical Therapy. My Master’s Degree is in Exercise Physiology from Queens College.

I have had many valued experiences during my professional career. Specifically in regard to the field of strength and conditioning, as far as acquiring information/educating myself to be a better coach, my trips to the former Eastern Bloc to study at the National Sports Training Institutions and with the Coaches, Teams, and Athletes of the USSR, East Germany and Bulgaria were a once in a lifetime opportunity. Presently now that the “wall” is down I do not envision the experience would ever be the same.

I’ve also learned from so many people, too many to list but I really value all of my friendships and especially the time I spent working through the years with both Johnny Parker and Al Miller, especially during their tenure with the NY Giants.  I also value my time spent through the years with Don Chu and Al Vermeil. These gentlemen are my mentors in the field of strength and conditioning.

I have also acquired a wealth of information, especially in regard to program design, from a former Soviet Weightlifter and Coach with whom Johnny Parker and I spent approximately 4 years named Gregorio Goldstein. At our Performance Center we have another former Olympic Weightlifter and Coach named Stan Bailey who provides us with a great deal of information as well. I also can’t speak highly enough of my time with Charlie Francis as I now regret not spending more time with him. His protégé Derek Hanson is a good friend and an outstanding coach who has also taught me a great deal. I am of the opinion that Derek is one of the outstanding coaches in our field who will make an impact in our profession for a long time to come.

As far as the” practical application” of these “educational” experiences, my 10 years as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at St. John’s University here in New York as well as my tenure as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach with the World League of American Football NY/NJ Knights and WUSA NY POWER of the Women’s Professional Soccer league are very valued and memorable experiences for me. I still am involved in the training of athletes at our Performance Center here in Long Island.

2. Wow! I’m not sure if I’ve seen a more impressive background. Moving along, how does your Physical Therapy and Athletic Training knowledge make you a better strength coach?

My opinion is that it’s a two way street. An important component in sports rehabilitation is exercise prescription. In the field of strength and conditioning we as coaches prescribe the best exercises to enhance our athlete’s performance. Why can’t we take these same exercises, modify them if necessary, and apply them to our patients?

The physical therapy/athletic training background provide an enhanced understanding of anatomy, biomechanics, etc…. Working in the field of sports physical therapy a clinician is aware of various orthopedic pathologies and conditions, as well as the surgical techniques utilized to resolve these conditions. In addition, knowledge of the healing process, damaging stresses such as inappropriate shear, compression, etc… forces, exercise loads and volumes etc… are important as not to exacerbate an orthopedic condition or disrupt a surgical repair. Once an athlete with a history of pathology or surgery has returned to performance training, this clinical knowledge “carries over” to  allow for the exercise modification that may be necessary as a training “adaptation” due to their medical history, to prevent further risk of injury to the athlete during both the training process as well as during athletic participation.

3. Rob, you have a very impressive knowledge of Biomechanics. I’m always impressed with your knowledge of moment arms, resistance arms, and resulting joint forces, along with complicated topics such as the stretch-shortening cycle, and parallel and series elastic components. Where did you obtain this knowledge and how does it help make you a better Strength Coach.

In regards to Biomechanics, that knowledge comes from of variety of situations. Initially college Physics and Biomechanics classes “opened the door” to this area of information. As previously stated in question 2, the necessity of educating oneself about the joint forces that occur during specific exercise performance is critical so that further exacerbation of an orthopedic condition or the disruption of a surgical repair is avoided. My experience and involvement in research during my tenure at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, as well as the process of publishing manuscripts in medical journals has contributed to my knowledge as well.

As far as my knowledge on various other subjects, I’ve always believed that you do not leave things to chance. A coach needs to know, based on scientific evidence/research, whether or not a technique works. This is not to imply that experience does not play a role in coaching, but a baseline of proven scientific evidence is necessary for a coach to understand why a “technique” works as well as to support a specific theory or exercise’s implementation into a training program. With the appropriate baseline of knowledge, not only can a coach incorporate a specific successful technique into an athlete’s training program, but just as important, have the ability to progress this “technique” as well. Often times calluses on your hands from a bar is not enough, it is also necessary to acquire a callus on one’s butt from studying as well.

Speaking and spending time with the established coaches previously mentioned, as well as my association and friendships with other researchers, physicians, surgeons, coaches, physical therapists, and bio mechanists, has assisted in my “education” as well. These individuals very often provide me with the information of their own recently completed research, much sooner than waiting for this information to arrive to me as a publication.

4. You’ve mentioned before that most exercises are worthwhile for certain purposes, but that improper application or programming is often the culprit for pain or injury. Can you expand upon this? Is there a place for leg presses, behind the neck presses and pull downs, upright rows, sit-ups, good mornings, etc…?

In my experience as an S&C coach it is usually not the exercise that injuries the athlete, it is the coaches application of an inappropriate exercise and/or program design to a specific athlete/situation that often results in injury. Every exercise presents a risk during performance training.  We as coaches are “overloading” and “stressing” our athletes through a process of “adaptation” for the desired end result of enhanced athletic performance. If there was truly a 100% safe exercise, “adaptation”, for athletic enhancement would most likely not occur. The coach needs to evaluate to determine what is appropriate for application to the athlete’s training program based on the needs of the athlete, and should also be familiar with the stresses of the applied exercise/load upon the athlete. The cliché of risk vs. reward is to be determined during this process.

Exercises are” tools in our toolbox”, so to speak. Depending upon the specific situation presented, an appropriate tool(s) is/are utilized that should address the situation both as safely and appropriately as possible. Some exercises will be utilized more often than others, but there surely will be situations where an exercise that is rarely utilized may be the best selection for the athlete to perform based on the specific (and possibly rare) situation presented.  All exercises are “game” it just depends upon the needs of each specific situation that will determine the best tool/tools selected at that time.

In regard to the topic of program design, programs with too high/excessive exercise volumes performed through the training cycle may also potentially place the athlete at risk of injury. Excessive exercise volume results in fatigue which may have a consequence of a negative change in the athlete’s biomechanics during exercise performance. There certainly is a reason why is there is a “pitch count” in baseball. Athletes who present with poor biomechanics during exercise performance performed over a prolonged period of time may be placed at a higher risk of injury.

5. Here is a pretty direct question. I am of the belief that many coaches and trainers are too ignorant to know that their particular belief about a certain topic is a matter of opinion. Do you agree with this statement? Furthermore, what are some of your favorite journals that have helped you be more “evidence based”?

That is a pretty direct question! I honestly do not think that very many people are, as you state, ignorant. These individuals are professionals in a professional field. I am of the opinion that the process of spending the necessary time to investigate why a technique is effective or not, based on the scientific evidence/research does not occur as often as it should. This is where a subject matter may become more based on “opinion”. Now with that said, there certainly are times when “experience” plays a role as there are many successful coaches who incorporate specific techniques that have been successful for them with or without any real explanation of “why” these techniques are so successful. This situation of “experience” does also occur in many different professional fields as well. However, this should be the exception and not the rule. I do believe that all components of the program design and selected exercise performance should be based on sound scientific evidence.

I have also found that some coaches instill techniques/philosophies for the simple reason that another very successful coach employs these same techniques/philosophies with their athletes. The concern here is that athletes are different, what works for one athlete may not work as well for another. Another problem is if the foundation of knowledge for the basis of why these exercise techniques/philosophies are successful is unknown, not only does the coach not know if they are appropriate for their athlete, but how does an appropriate and safe progression of the technique/philosophy occur?

Journals I typically read are the NSCA Journal, NATA Journal, JOSPT, Medicine and Science and Sports and Exercise, American Journal of Sports Medicine, The Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, as well as various other journals and books of interest to me.  Most of my “education” so to speak is through direct contact and conversations with my peers. I also attend three “Grand Rounds” per week at different medical institutions, attend cadaver dissections in anatomy labs, and travel to visit the individuals whom are feel are the most superior in their professional field of choice.

6. In the future of Strength and Conditioning, do you see a “merging” of Physical Therapy, Biomechanics, and Strength and Conditioning? In other words should tomorrow’s strength coaches be well-versed in Physical Therapy related topics and should Physical Therapists be well versed in strength training topics, or do you believe there should always be a strong separation or “specialization”?

Although I very strongly believe there is a “positive” association with the professions of physical therapy, athletic training, biomechanics, and strength and conditioning (as I have utilized all during in my career) for many reasons i.e. political, professional qualifications in regard to specific populations/situations, etc… I do not see a professional “merging” of these related fields. I do believe there is strength in knowledge and that the professionals of these professional fields of specialization would benefit from “educating” each other.

However, I do believe that there should be a separation or “specialization” of these professionals as each professional field is a specialization in and of itself. Unless a person is a qualified professional, they should not partake in a professional field beyond their specific specialty. A weekend course does not make one an “expert”. Unfortunately I have witnessed on more than one occasion, professionals of different occupational specialties “over step” their bounds by involving themselves in a situation where they were certainly not qualified to do so. It’s not what is best for the coach, bio mechanist, physical therapist, etc… it’s about what is best for the athlete/client. The professional that is appropriately trained and is most qualified should be the professional most involved and is best suited for the various specific situations that will ensue.

7. Let’s say you’re training a star athlete. The first rule of thumb is to keep him or her healthy. Let’s say you’re also training a minor leaguer who will do whatever it takes to make the pro’s and get a contract. He or she would like to” roll the dice” and accept more risk. Does the training differ between these two individuals?

I do not believe that you ever place an athlete or anyone for that matter at excessive risk. To do so would increase their risk of injury and once injured then where are they? If “the first rule of thumb is to keep him or her healthy” why would a coach ever place their athlete at increased risk?

The performance training of different athletes should be based on such considerations as the athletes assessment, needs/goals, gender, sport of participation, specific sport position played, prior training history, injury/medical history, time available to train (weeks prior to pre-season) to name a few. The athletes training may be very similar or very different from those of their peers based on these and other factors as well.

8. I am of the belief that one-on-one training is much more effective than team training for athletes and a good coach can “individualize” an athletes programming to maximize results. With all the different psychological, physiological, and biomechanical factors that affect athletic performance such as confidence, mobility, muscle cross section area, eccentric strength, strength-speed, speed-strength, rate of force development, and reactive strength, in addition to complicated programming considerations such a periodization and general vs. specific  training, how in the world do you begin to design a program? Is it important to have a “philosophy”, including a system of assessment and a basic  template to work off of and then just tweak it based on the individual?

Bret the answer to this question one could go on for days but I will give you my brief opinion on some points made in your question. I do believe that one-on-one training is more effective vs. the training a high number of individuals at the same time. Not that the “team” training is not effective, but it is obvious that a greater amount of individualized attention does occur in the one-on-one scenario. It’s similar to classroom education vs. being tutored one-on-one. There are also many other factors that may effect “team” training, i.e. the number of coaches available, NCAA rules, equipment and facilities available, etc…

The key here, in my opinion, is to have a proven philosophy of training. A coach needs to perform an assessment to determine the needs of the athlete, once these needs are determined, they will then have to be addressed in the athletes program design, exercise selection and overall training.  Some additional considerations in the training of an athlete were stated in question 7.

I also believe in the necessity of the development of GPP, especially in the younger athletes prior to focusing on specific training techniques. The athlete needs to be prepared with a good physical base prior to the incorporation of intense specialty training.

I do not find anything wrong with a coach having a “formula” with regard to the development of their program design. It is the needs of the athlete that differentiate the various program designs from one athlete to another other i.e.  Strength-speed vs. speed strength, general vs. specific technical training, etc… What is probably the most difficult task for a coach with regard to program design is the eventual incorporation of multiple methods of training, i.e. weights + plyo’s/med ball + running, as well as the progression of the athletes program over time when incorporating these various training  methods collectively.

9. This is a very touchy subject, but what is your thought process regarding the training of the lumbar spine? Obviously it needs mobility and stability, but how should we train the CORE? All CORE stability or is it OK to involve spinal movement?

I believe as a coach this is a matter that is based on an individual preference. I return to the topic of education as there certainly are both “experts” on this subject matter, as well as published evidence to support both non-flexion based as well as flexion based exercise for the spine. A coach should investigate both methods of training the spine and based on the (scientific) evidence available; determine the method of training that they believe would best suit the coach’s philosophy and athlete. There certainly has been success utilizing both methods.

During athletic participation the spine is placed under high stress in various postural positions as well as at various velocities of impact. When the athlete is performance training they are “stressing” their body in a controlled environment (Weight room/Performance Center/Track) resulting in the body’s adaptation and enhanced performance in preparation for an environment that we cannot control, the athletic playing field which is the environment of ‘Chaos”.  This is also necessary and true of the spine. The spine, as with other parts of the body requires stress for adaptation during training, but stress must be applied appropriately and safely. The training methods utilized are a decision of the strength coach and should be both appropriate and effective to match their philosophy. A review of both non-flexion and flexion based evidence will assist the coach in making an “educated” decision that is scientifically supported.

Many coaches and training philosophies are different. We all don’t have to agree, as there is nothing wrong with being different. The fact that as coaches we are different is one reason we continue to learn from each other. We as coaches just need to remember not to place our athletes at unnecessary risk.

10. Thanks again Rob I appreciate your time. Where can my readers find out more about you?

Bret it has been my pleasure. I don’t have my own website or blog but can be reached at RPanariello@professionalpt.com

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