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Never Forget the Plain Old Vanilla

By September 8, 2012January 11th, 2014Guest Blogs

Today’s guest-post is an excellent article from Rob Panariello, a regular guest contributor to my blog. Enjoy!

“Never Forget the Plain Old Vanilla”

Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York

As I was recently reading the book Treat Your Customers by Bob Miglani, an easy read with lessons in customer service realized during his younger years while working at his parent’s Dairy Queen ice cream store, I was especially intrigued with a chapter entitled “Never Forget the Plain Old Vanilla”.  Mr. Miglani, now a fortune 500 executive, recalls an experience that took place in the 1990’s as at that particular time many new and innovative flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt took the ice cream market by storm. One particular hot summer weekend his parent’s ice cream store had so much of an inventory of these new market products that he and his staff simply forgot to order the usual supply of plain old vanilla ice cream. As fate would have it, vanilla was the most in-demand flavor of the weekend and the ice cream store was out of it.

Mr. Miglani goes on to state that no one “talks about those crazy flavors” any longer and no matter how “hot” a new flavor may be most people just want plain old vanilla. He also states how throughout all of the decades that he has worked in the ice cream industry, vanilla ice cream has never been out of the top 5 flavors served at the Dairy Queen National Ice Cream Company chain. Mr. Miglani’s recommendation, “you should never lose sight of the product or service that is at the heart of your business”.

The Physical Qualities of Athletic Performance Enhancement Training


Throughout my career I have had mentors and valued associates in my two professional fields of occupation, Orthopedic and Sports Rehabilitation and the Strength and Conditioning of Athletes. These individuals have been invaluable resources for me and have certainly contributed to the successes that I have achieved. In specific regard to the Strength and Conditioning (S&C) profession, these S&C professionals have been great resources, some for more than 25 years, and have achieved unique levels of their own success as competitive weightlifters contending at the Olympic Games and eventually emerging as Olympic Weightlifting Coaches, World Champion Powerlifters, Olympic Track and Field Coaches (jumps and sprints), and Professional Team S&C Coaches who have won World Championships, including two good friends who have achieved multiple World Championships in their particular team sport of athletic competition. The achievements of all of these individuals are exceptional and certainly not attained by many (i.e. four of my close friends were elected to the USA S&C Coaches Hall of Fame).  Why do I comprise all of this information for those reading this article? Well if we may reflect for a moment, if a person was required to have open heart surgery, or was to be placed on trial for a serious crime, would this particular individual desire a cardiac surgeon or criminal attorney who is in their first year of practice, or would they prefer a highly experienced and successful surgeon or attorney with an outstanding and proven “track record”? When striving to achieve wisdom, knowledge, and instruction specifically in regard to the S&C profession and the enhancement training of athletes, why would the resource(s) ever be any different?

One common component of the numerous lessons I have learned from the experiences and successes of many of these outstanding S&C professionals, is that it is not only necessary for the athlete to develop the various physical qualities necessary for the enhancement of athletic performance, but the order of emphasis for the development of these physical qualities is as important as well. This ascending order of physical development, including the essential athlete evaluation and work capacity (athlete preparation) periods are demonstrated in Hall of Fame Coach Al Vermeil’s Hierarchy of Athletic Development displayed in Figure 1.

Once the athlete is evaluated and prepared for the work at hand (participation in the athletic enhancement training program), the next four ascending levels of this pyramid display the physical qualities of Strength, Explosive Strength, Elastic/Reactive Strength, and Speed. Target levels of all of these physical qualities are attained via a training progression where the optimal enhancement of a specific physical quality is contingent upon the meticulous development of the prior physical quality.

There may be some degree of exception and consideration with regard to the specific sport of participation, as well as the specific position played of the particular sport of participation; nevertheless it is speed that is ultimately the most important physical quality in competitive athletic participation. My point of view is based on the instruction received and experiences throughout my 30 plus year career in Sports Rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning, as well as an abundant number of hours of observation. If a trained athlete possesses the physical quality of speed, more often than not they will also possess the three other physical qualities that are necessary for the development of optimal speed capabilities. This may not be true of other physical qualities, as for instance; a very strong individual may not possess great elastic/reactive strength capacities or the ability to run at very high velocities. The S&C Professional should always note the importance of the relationship and optimal development of the physical qualities of both strength and explosive strength and their role as prerequisites for the athlete’s optimal speed capabilities to transpire.

The “Plain Old Vanilla” Exercises of Athletic Performance Enhancement Training


Ever since the commencement and evolution of the Internet, as well as the vast “explosion” of interest in the fitness community and industry, including those professionals who are involved in the physical enhancement training of athletes and/or the general public, numerous Internet sites, publications, and conferences are continuing to disclose new exercises to be performed by both athletes and clients on what appears to be a daily basis.  One should be cognizant to avoid the possible recurrence of the incident that once transpired to Mr. Miglani while working at his parent’s ice cream store, as the evolvement and presentation of  “new flavors” (i.e. new exercises) become the “hot” craze of the industry, and “Plain Old Vanilla” is often forgotten to be ordered. What are the exercises in the S&C industry that constitute “Plain Old Vanilla”? Well according to Mr. Miglani’s lesson, “Plain Old Vanilla” was a “top 5 seller” for decades and continues to be to this present day. He could depend upon this flavor for (financial) success. What exercises have been dependable for utilization, when appropriate, by various athletes of numerous sports of athletic participation for decades? The fundamental exercises of the squat, deadlift, Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch), overhead press and bench press, as some of these primary exercises have also been utilized both safely and successfully by athletes participating in various sports of athletic competition for more than a century.

When appropriate for utilization and incorporation into an athlete’s training program, these exercises assist in laying the foundation of Coach Vermeil’s Pyramid of Athletic Development. These “Plain Old Vanilla” exercises aren’t sexy, they aren’t romantic, but they have consistently induced training success and thus, have survived the rigorous test of time simply because they work! These exercises are effective because S&C Coaches are required to take the time to learn the proper exercise technique and exercise instruction, as well as the fact that these exercises simply require (a) hard work and (b) load (intensity). The bottom line is the proper execution of these exercises isn’t easy, and like everything else worthwhile in life, requires both effort and hard work.

I certainly am not insinuating that additional exercises should not be incorporated, when appropriate, into an athlete’s training program. Nor am I stating that the evolvement and presentation of other various types of innovative exercises aren’t valuable in the training of an athlete or client as well. Unquestionably the athletic performance enhancement industry, like any other industry, has evolved and will continue to evolve for years to come. However, what I am conveying is the possible oversight that may take place during the consideration of the incorporation (addition) of all of the new “hot”/all the rage exercises during the establishment of an athlete’s training program, which is the error to ignore the lessons (exercises) of the past that have been proven to be so effective.

With regard to the performance enhancement training of athletes, the S&C Professional should also keep in mind the following advise provided by legendary coaches Charlie Francis and Al Vermeil:

  1. Just because the exercise exists doesn’t mean you have to utilize it.
  2. Just because the exercise is difficult to perform doesn’t mean it has any value in improving athletic performance.
  3. The criteria for selecting an athletic performance enhancing exercise includes:
    • Reducing the possibility of athletic injuries
    • Prepares the body for the intensity (stress) of both the sport of participation as well as the athletic performance enhancement training program
    • Improves the efficiency of force application and control into the playing surface (ground surface area)

When the new exercise(s) and “hot trends” of the future arrive, contemplate to investigate them, however, also recollect the successes of the past. Don’t forget that “Plain Old Vanilla” is sold at every ice cream store for a worthy reason and a valuable lesson is learned from Mr. Miglani.


  • maureen says:

    Great article.I see so many funky new things being done by people at the gym. They look awkward and dangerous at times…I love vanilla with some sprinkles or choc dipped(hip thrusts,glute raises)keep it simple…

  • Karl says:

    Great article, when the primary goal is RFD in an athlete, it doesn’t get better than those lifts stated.

    Even as a cyclist, I have had fantastic success in incorporating cleans, deadlifts, squats, and ballistic leg presses into my training program to increase power output, and have improved 43km time trial time by over 2 minutes with an 6 week resistance training program.

    Great article to re inforce the basics!

  • Daniel says:

    You can also relate Vanilla to market share. Meaning how many elite athletes are there compared to the everyday person who needs functional strength. It truly is amazing the advances that have been made in exercise science and training, but what percentage of the general public really needs to know or utilize these techniques. The idea of staying active and eating a proper diet is the “Vanilla” of strength and conditioning.

  • Derrick Blanton says:

    Wonderful reminder, Rob. Plain old vanilla never stops being delicious! Al Vermeil’s pyramid is fascinating.

    Rob, I wonder if you have a “chocolate”, or “Tier 2” package of moves that you have also found to be almost as indispensable in your many years of practice? And do you ever have trouble persuading your athletes that the basics “have it covered”?

  • Joy says:

    Thanks for this Bret! Can’t tell you enough how much articles like this give me faith (as someone with less experience) to buckle down on the basics and make sure everything I do and recommend has a purpose and a need. Wish more highschool coaches understood the pyramid above. I have a hard time explaining the need for the steps that lead to speed, rather than attempting to train speed without anything else.

  • Rob Panariello says:


    My apologies but I am not quite clear on the meaning of your “tier 2 package of moves” statement? Coach Vermeil’s pyramid demonstrates a training succession for the development of the physical qualities that are essential for optimal athletic performance. Remember we are speaking specifically of athletic performance. To be clear, more than one specific physical quality may be trained at the same time; however, the emphasis is place on only one physical quality during the same training period of that specific level of the pyramid.

    As an example, the emphasis of training for the physical quality of strength is important for the future development of elastic/reactive strength qualities. Increases in the physical quality of strength (the bottom of the pyramid) will enhance muscle and joint stiffness, as well as tendon qualities (which will assist in enhanced RFD) that are requirements for the emphasis of optimal training and development of the physical quality of elastic/reactive strength (which is higher up on the pyramid) that will occur “further down the road” so to speak. During the time your athletes are strength training you may also include low to moderate levels/volumes of specific elastic/reactive type exercises, but the emphasis of the training is on strength for that specific period of training.

    The exercises selection to be incorporated for the athlete’s strength development will be partially based upon the information received from your evaluation, (and re-evaluation) as well as those exercises that you personally believe are the “cornerstone” exercises of your philosophy/program. The specific exercises selected for athletic performance training as well as the programming and incorporation of these “selected” exercises into the athlete’s training program is the art of coaching. This is why he “eye of the coach” is so critical.

    As far as your second question, my opinion is that different scenarios provide different challenges. For instance during my 10 years as the Head Strength and Conditioning at St. John’s University of New York, all of our teams were required to work out. There were a few athletes over those 10 years who just didn’t want to work out, i.e. the female athlete who didn’t want to “get big”. In the private sector you don’t usually have that concern as the athlete is seeking your services and is paying you out of their own pocket, which more often than not is quite different from the Institutional setting.

    We may then proceed to the next question of how do you get the “difficult” athlete to change their attitude and to work hard and believe in your system? The answer is simple; you have to “win”. To “win” may be something as simple as a PR or positive change in physical stature or as complex as the score on the scoreboard (by far the most desired standard) as well as everything else that falls “in-between”. If you don’t “win” why would the athlete (or any other athlete on the team) ever believe in your “system”? This holds true as a necessity for all athletes to believe in your training “system”. This isn’t just limited to the S&C Coach but this also holds true for every team assistant coach and head coach as well.

    Just my opinion

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      Rob, if you and I were chatting in a restaurant, it better be 24-hr. type joint, because your experiences working with high level athletes over 30-years is amazingly compelling to me.

      Poorly phrased question on my part…What I meant was your ‘plain vanilla’ package of the squat, DL, C&J, snatch, OHPR, and bench are proven money exercises across many athletic platforms.

      Is there a secondary list of exrcs. such as pull ups, rows, lunges, etc, that you would also tend to use almost as frequently?

      The Vermeil comment was unrelated, and just a point of intrigue for me…sorry, not very clear.

      This piece reminded me a little bit of when I used to read about bodybuilding legend Ronnie Coleman’s protocol, and if I recall correctly, he just did the same routine, the same money exrcs. just tried and true, over and over and over. Of course, who knows how accurate those articles were. A little bit of Dan John’s “one lift a day” protocol similarity, too. Vanilla works!

      Thanks, Rob.

  • Rob Panariello says:


    Learn from as many experienced professionals as you can. My experience does include working with high level athletes, but I ‘ve certainly have had my share of “lower” level athletes as well. Presently I have limited coaching availability, as I do not train as many athletes as I used to. My “spectrum” of clients is limited to a few pro/elite athletes, including a 100+ million dollar pro athlete and a High School lacrosse team. I mention this to inform you that the H.S. athlete is as important to coach and as enjoyable to coach as all of these pros including the $100+ M dollar pro (who is a great person). My performance staff trains most of the athletes at our Performance Center by far, as I still treat (rehab) patients/athletes as well, and in addition to the operation of our Performance Center, my partners and I also have 12 physical therapy facilities to operate as well. There is only so much time in a day.

    The more “elite” the athlete, more often than not, the more “physically gifted” the athlete. These “elite” athletes are certainly enjoyable to work with but if I may provide you with some advice it would be this. Be sure to work with high school and younger aged athletes. These younger athletes are usually not at the “elite” level, are often not physically gifted and therefore, require the S&C Coach to sharpen their coaching skills and instructional techniques in an effort to improve these athletes’ physical qualities. Often times these high school athletes are a challenge and if a coach can effectively coach them, they can coach anyone. Remember that H.S. training programs must differ from “elite” training programs and a mistake that is often made (in my opinion) is that the young H.S. athlete is trained as a “little adult” vs. being trained as a H.S. aged individual.

    At good friend of mine is the Head lacrosse coach at Garden City High School in Long Island. As you may or may not know Long Island, NY is “hotbed” for High School lacrosse. I work with his lacrosse team every year not only because he is my friend, but also because these kids keep my coaching skills sharp. These kids are very enjoyable and working with them is very rewarding as well. How rewarding? Garden City H.S. lacrosse finished their 2012 season undefeated, ranked #1 not only in New York State, but also concluded their season as the #1 ranked H.S lacrosse team in the nation. I’d love to take the credit for their season’s success but the reality is that these kids are a great bunch of kids, are well coached and frankly, picked their parents (genetics) well. Derrick be sure to work with the high school athlete, it’ll make you a better coach.

    Derrick I’m sure you can figure out both my philosophy as well as my selection of “main” exercises for utilization in my program design. Yes, there are times that I use the “Tier 2” (as you put it) exercises that you have mentioned. I consider many of these exercises “assistance” type exercises and their selection is dependent upon the needs and goals of the athlete. Sorry to be so vague but that is the truth of my particular philosophy and programming. Different athletes present differently physically, participate in different sports, play different positions, and have different needs and goals, hence the importance for an evaluation (level 1 of Vermeil’s pyramid) and it’s contribution to all exercise selection and program design.

  • Rob says:

    Great read! As a coach who works with high school athletes I’ve found that plain old vanilla works very well.

  • Rob Panariello says:


    As a high school coach I’m fairly certain you don’t get much, if any, “national recognition” however, if I had to bet I would bet you’re a pretty good coach.

  • Noel says:

    Coach Rob,
    I’m sorry if this is a stupid question but.. can you give us a timeframe on how long to do strength? elastic training? leading up to the season?

    Like, 4 months for str, 2 months for elastic, 1 month for speed. And can you give me a sample program that i can customize?

    Sorry but in my country, there is no good coach i can approach. You are my hope.


  • Rob Panariello says:


    This is very difficult to explain via the internet as you will see but here goes. Considerations need to be made for both the initial physical condition of the athlete and the amount of time available to train the athlete. These 2 factors certainly will affect the program design of a training program. If an athlete is fortunate enough to have enough (an extended period) time to properly train and progress their training that’s a big benefit. To try to keep this as simple and general as possible I would recommend the following:

    1. Prior to the initiation of training an athlete must be prepared to train. Why would we ever load an individual who lacks the necessary joint mobility, strength base, has poor exercise technique, poor work capacity, etc…, and thus is not prepared to be loaded? So the first thing to address is the athletes “Preparation” (level 2 in Coach Vermeil’s pyramid). A simple way to accomplish this, especially in the high school level athlete is the utilization of the Javorek barbell complexes.

    2. The “system” that has worked for me was taught to me by a former Soviet weightlifter who then became a Soviet weightlifting coach. Initially take the total period of time available to train and break that period into blocks of time i.e. strength, power, etc… but remember that you can train all qualities each training block/period, it’s just a factor of which quality that will be emphasized each training block/period.

    3. Next is to select the number of main exercises and assistance exercises that your athlete will perform each physical quality training block/period. This will be determined by both your training philosophy as well as the information provided as a result of your athlete’s evaluation.

    4. The next part is the most difficult. Unfortunately it is too detailed to explain via internet or e-mail but the exercises selected must have BOTH the zones of intensity determined and correlated to the total volume (reps) programmed for all exercises to be performed that particular training period/block. So if we select the physical quality of strength and let’s take a strength exercise such as the “squat”. Under the exercise category of the “squat”, how many total squat reps are to be performed for that training period/block, i.e. front squat, back squat, split squat, etc. The total number of “squat” reps is then correlated to how many “squat” reps performed in each zone of intensity. The total number of all squat reps performed, as well as the total number of “zone of intensity” squat reps should both equal the total number of “squat” reps predetermined for that particular strength period/block. Now that’s only 1 exercise to be performed in the “strength” period/block. You need to do that for every exercise performed and the total reps performed as well as the total reps for all zones of intensity should be equal to the total number of exercise reps that the athlete is to perform that particular training block.

    The reason we correlate reps to intensity is to avoid “overuse” injuries. This is why I’m a believer (where I’ve stated multiple times through the years) it’s the exercise volume that is the culprit to weightroom injuries. This does not mean you should ignore weightroom intensities as do so would be foolish. By having an accurate control upon exercise volume is, in my opinion, why athlete’s such a pitcher’s and other overhead type athletes can lift overhead, Olympic lift, etc… and not have concern for injury as long as these exercises are appropriate for such athletes and they are prepared to perform such exercises controlling the volume, as well as correlating the volume to the zones of intensity, greatly assists in reducing training injuries.

    Regardless of how long your training block is, you must also have “unloading days” each week and at least 1 “unloading week” in each training block so the athlete can both recover, avoid injury, and continue to progress.

    If I’ve confused you, I certainly understand as when I first learned this system my coach told me it would take be 40 hours (at least) to write my appropriate 1st program and he was right. Now, 20+ years later it’s much easier for me but it’s always a learning experience.

    In speaking to my friends (S&C Coaches) presently in the NFL with the new CBA limiting training time it will be much more difficult to prepare these players than it was in years past. My opinion is that the players are going to have to take on a greater responsibility of training themselves prior to arriving for “formal” off-season training, as well as the development of the process of continuing to progress the development of physical qualities during an in-season program (which can be done) will have to occur. If neither of these factors are put in place I am of the opinion you will see more and more injuries during the NFL season.

    I don’t know if I have helped you but this is my opinion and what has worked for me.

  • Bret says:

    Thank you very much Rob; your articles and comments are always incredibly appreciated. Cheers!

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