16 ways training athletes is not like training regular people

Posted on August 12, 2013

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A common theme in the fitness world is using athletes as examples. Pimping supplements they use, their exercise routines, some space age equipment, whatever it is. The implication being “X athlete does Y, if you use Y you can be like X.”

As someone who started out in the exercise world with a huge emphasis on sports, and has transitioned completely out of that world, I can tell you this attempt to emulate athletes is one of the biggest pit falls of everyday people.

I’ve noticed this mentality becoming more pervasive. It’s not only the marketers who will say anything to make money, but the actual trainers / strength and conditioning coaches propagating this mindset. It seems more and more are going, “Everyone should train like an athlete!” And it’s not to make money, but it seems they actually believe it now too.

I’m going to bounce back and forth covering 1) Why your average person shouldn’t adopt this mentality and 2) Why your average trainer shouldn’t adopt this mentality.

Definition of athlete

We’re going to be very clear to start this off. An athlete is someone who:

  • Makes a living from their sport.
  • Someone who plays sports seriously at the college level. To the point they have a chance to go beyond college.
  • Someone who plays seriously at the high school level. To the point they have a chance to go beyond high school.

I’m sure there are other scenarios, but you get the idea.

I realize the Merriam Webster definition of athlete is different, but we’re not interested in a definition formed 500 years ago. We’re interested in what people currently think of when they hear the word athlete.

Think of it this way: When someone says “Train like an athlete!” what do you think of when you hear “athlete?” Do you think, “HELL YEAH SON! I’m gonna train my ass off just like that dude who plays rec softball twice a week!” No, you think of a professional / high level athlete. Somebody who likely fits one of the three descriptions above. The rec dude didn’t even cross your mind as an “athlete.”

Situations that do not qualify:

  • Making a little bit of money every now and then in your has-been / never-was league.
  • Rec leagues period. I don’t care if you play 6 nights a week. Playing a sport one or two hours a day is not the same as a professional athlete who does something sport related 8+ hours everyday.
  • You need to understand what we mean by the word serious.  If you play your sport for three months out of the year at a D3 school, you have a hobby.  If you’re on the track team because you want something to do after school, you’re a regular student.
  • You have a regular job.
  • Weekend warriors

We can make this even clearer. Do you spend ~8 hours a day / 40 hours a week on your sport? Because even if you regularly act like a moron screaming and ranting at your Wednesday night league, and you practice 5 times a week on your own, your regular job and life likely prevent you from hitting those amount of hours. Even in high school many serious athletes will hit around 6 hours a day on their sport.

The distinction is hopefully clear. Just because you do athletic things does not mean you are an athlete. Just because you once did athletic things does not mean you are still an athlete. And that’s ok. But we need to accept there is a difference between being an athlete and being an accountant who partakes in athletic activities. You don’t see athletes calling themselves mathematicians because they’re taking calculus.

Furthermore, not only do the majority of people not fit the descriptions above, but they don’t have a concept of how athletic the people they’re emulating are.

The rarest of the rare

In high school a teammate and I received letters from the NCAA. It was national signing day and we had signed with a small division 1 school to play football. The letter stated “Congratulations on playing college sports. You are part of the 5% of high school football players who will also get to play in college.”

Five percent.

Furthermore, we were playing division 1. What do you think the percentage of high school football players who play division 1 is? Maybe 1 or 2%?

And let me tell you, my teammate, who was also my roommate, was a much better athlete than me. In high school he won the state long jump competition as well as made all state for football. But you know what? Him and I were average compared to the athletes at a big program, like USC or Oklahoma. I know because I played against a bunch of guys like that in high school. Guys who, on a high school football field, looked like 40 year olds who ate babies in their spare time.

What do you think the percentage of high school football players who play at a top 25 school is?

Let’s say there are 100 players on each college team, 25 of which are freshman.

25 freshman on each time * 25 teams = 625 high school seniors become freshman at big time football programs.

According to the NCAA there are 316,697 seniors playing high school football.

625 freshman football players at big time programs  / 316,697 high school senior football players  = .002%

How many total college players make it to the professional level? 1.7%

How many total high school players make it to the professional level? .08%.

And which athletes get profiled the most, meaning which athletes are people constantly getting their recommended workouts and diet routines from? Those at big time schools and those who get drafted. People are emulating at worst the top 1% of athletic talent we have to offer.

And that’s just for the people who play! This doesn’t take into account all the people who don’t play sports because they knew at 5 years old athletics wasn’t for them. Or all the people who didn’t make the team. Likely bringing this percentage even lower.

There was a story about Julius Peppers in college. He hated working out so much he’d go over to the water fountain when his coach wasn’t looking, throw some water on his face, then huff and puff to make it seem he was working hard. Julius Peppers, who played football and basketball at North Carolina, who is probably a hall of fame football player, who is 6’7″, 280 pounds, and runs faster than 99% of people, hated working out. Does this give you a concept as to how gifted some of these guys are?

If it sounds unfathomable it’s because you likely have never been around someone like that. Literally. Based off probability, you have almost assuredly never been around the types of athletes you’re attempting to emulate. These guys are modern day Big Foots.

Before someone points out my bias in only looking at American football. Let’s quickly think about the biggest sport in the world: Soccer / conventional football. The most notable players are the ones playing for a country. As best I can tell there’s about 23 guys on a national team. 23 guys on a team the entire country would give it’s left testicle to be on. If anything, the percentages would be even less.

I’m going to end this section with a blunt statement: If you were not a good enough athlete to play at any college level, you were / are very likely a poor athlete. (There’s nothing wrong with that.) Sure, there are exceptions. But I can tell you this, I played with some guys who were average at their respective sports, but because they were good athletes, they were heavily recruited. Point being you can be a good athlete; not be good at your sport, and still play in college. (In college -not necessarily D1. There is a world of difference between divisions.)

I know one guy who as a freakin’ junior couldn’t start on our football team, yet was recruited by a plethora of division 1 schools. Why? Because he performed well at a high school combine. He was third on our depth chart, behind two guys who didn’t even play in college, one of which was the biggest pot head you could imagine, yet this guy got a full ride to a big time division 1 school.

If you were a good athlete and wanted to play a sport in college, you probably would have.

Common arguments why you should train like an athlete

“Athletes do short, intense workouts; so should you”

Kobe Bryant trains in the vicinity of 4 hours a day in the off-season. In season he has 45 minute strength workout and two hours of stretching and shooting. Oh yeah, that’s on GAME DAY! Meaning he does nearly 3 hours of working out, then plays a game for 3 hours. If he’s on the court for 40 minutes each game that’s about 3.5 hours worth of working out in season, and 4 hours out of season, per day.

From memory, here was a typical day in college while in training camp:

7am: Wake up

830am: On field for warm-up. (Stretches, light running, etc.)

9am: Practice. (Hitting, running, conditioning, etc.)

11am: Head back for lunch.

Noon: Lunch

2pm: Film

3pm: Either practice again or weight room (alternated each day).

530pm: Head back for dinner.

7pm: Film.

9pm: Team snack.

10pm: Study playbook.

Roughly 4-5 hours of physical activity each day. If you ever wondered what a group of 18-21 year olds on the brink of suicide looks like, go watch a college training camp.

Short, intense workouts my ass.

“Athletes are well rounded; you should be too”

Not applicable to all athletes. Many athletes at the pinnacle of their sport are awful at certain physical qualities.

  • Kevin Durant bench pressed 185 pounds at his combine.
  • Most basketball players in general are pretty weak, and are notorious for hating the weight room.
  • Marthon runners…umm…

skinny marathon runner

  • Many powerlifters are in such poor cardiovascular condition they wheez while eating.

  • Football players average about 4 seconds of moving around for every 45 seconds of standing around. After about 5 or 6 times, they then go sit down for 5-10 minutes. Not to mention the 335 pounds offensive lineman don’t exactly have much endurance.

Larry Allen

  • A golfer at the top of the sport can look like this:

Phil Mickelson

  • David Ortiz. Not exactly the epitome of physical perfection.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays

For Christ’s sake you can be an all-star in baseball even if you’re only able to only swing a bat. You don’t need to be able to run, jump, throw, catch, be in any kind of physical shape, NOTHING but swing a bat. That’s exactly what Ortiz has done this past year, and he was an all-star.

 Less talked about factors

Drugs

Based off how many athletes have either come clean or found to been dirty in the last decade, it should be clear how rampant drugs are within sports.

I don’t care about the drug debate. What I care about is the fact drugs make you able to do things you couldn’t do without them. You get stronger and faster, you can train harder, recover quicker, in many ways they are magic for people in athletic endeavors. What’s important to understand is if you don’t have the drug concoctions an athlete has, you absolutely cannot expect to train or eat like them. Or get their results.

Lyle McDonald ran this great series on his website years back detailing how you can very accurately calculate the upper limits of how much muscle a human can naturally have. Based off the numbers it’s about 180 pounds of lean body mass. So, if a guy looks pretty damn lean and he’s over 200lbs, there is a very, very good chance he’s on drugs.

Think about those numbers the next time you see a guy who is 260 with 15 abs. And think about how many guys in professional sports are lean and above 200 pounds. Hell, next time you watch a football game count how many guys are under 200 pounds.

Oh, and just because they’re under 200lbs doesn’t mean they aren’t on drugs either. See: Every notable sprinter of the last 30 years.

Body awareness

A common trait amongst all good athletes is great body awareness. They have a wonderful sense of how to move their body, change directions, balance, etc.

A common trait amongst your everyday clientele is being reminded of watching a newborn look at it’s hands for the first time and go, “What – the – fuck – are those things?”

"Where'd these come from?"

“Are these mine?!?”

"Uhh, mom?!"

“Uhh, mom?!”

Teaching an athlete to do a lunge will get you a, “Seriously?” look. Meaning, “Seriously, this is all you want me to do?”

Teaching your everyday client to do a lunge will get you a “Seriously?” look too. Meaning, “Seriously, you want me to do that shit?!”

It can take months to get an everyday client to be able to perform lunges in a healthy manner. And it’s not like you can just let them work through bad form. When a person has 3 past knee surgeries, a lower back which has been bothering them for over 20 years, 40 pounds to lose, and hasn’t exercised in a decade, you can’t risk them falling on the ground.

I want to reiterate here, there’s nothing wrong with being non-athletic or someone who has poor body awareness. The athletes are the abnormal ones. 

Being dialed in

Athletes, especially those performing at a high level, need every inch they can get. There’s a world of difference between being in the 99 and 98 percentiles. Because there’s only so long a window will be open for an athlete they cannot afford missed training sessions, crappy eating days, etc. Every single inch matters.

Whereas a regular person is really exercising for the rest of their life. There’s no rush for them.

So, while there’s less room for error in exercise technique for regular people (covered below), in many ways there’s less room for error in executing a training plan for an athlete. Especially considering the violence in many sports. Getting knocked on your ass will make you take the gym more seriously pretty quickly.

Amount of training effect needed

Very few athletes ever reach the point where they could say, “Yeah, I don’t really need to get any stronger.”

Many regular people hit that point very quickly. The fact of the matter is most people don’t run into situations where they need much strength. What’s the most a person might need to lift? 25 pounds? Is it great to get people stronger? Of course. But keeping them healthy is much more important.

The heavier a person lifts, the more likely form will break down. By powerlifting, olympic lifting, doing lifts with tons of weight, lifts where there’s a ton of form factors -e.g. complex exercises- you’re making it more likely form will break down. Who can risk this the least? Regular people. And who needs these types of lifts the least? Regular people.

Necessity of faster movements

If you’re an athlete your definition of dynamic is vastly different than a regular person. The fastest an everyday person has to move is normally chasing a kid. Regular people simply don’t need to be jumping over hurdles, throwing things, sprinting, etc.

Room for error with exercise technique

Because of things like poor body awareness and older age, you have less room for mistakes when training regular people.

If you have a 16 year old with some lower back pain, they’ve probably had the issue for at most a couple of years. If you have a 60 year old they may have had lower back pain for four decades. The latter person is going to have much more wear and tear. The 16 year old athlete could get away deadlifting with crappy form for another decade before really hurting themselves. The 60 year old might not be able to get away with one single rep of bad form without throwing their back out, missing a few days of work, being miserable over the weekend, and firing you as a trainer.

And who is more likely to have a bad rep or two? The 16 year old with good body awareness and better cognitive ability, or the 60 year old?

Acute versus chronic injuries

Many of the injuries athletes deal with are acute. Pulled hamstring, dislocated shoulder, torn ACL, ankle sprain, you get the idea.

Many of the injuries regular people deal with are chronic. Tendinitis, bursitis, disc bulges, arthritis, degraded tendons, you get the idea.

Managing the musculoskeletal health between these two groups is very different.

Anterior pelvic tilt versus posterior pelvic tilt / needing hip extension versus needing hip flexion

One of the biggest pitfalls in the corrective exercise world is everyone assuming they have an anterior pelvic tilt. Thus, everyone assuming they need to stretch the hell out of their hip flexors.

I’ve gone over numerous times on this site (here and here) how many people should NOT stretch their hip flexors. Many either have a posterior pelvic tilt, or they have an anterior tilt and extended hips. Either way, they need hip flexion; not hip extension.

You simply don’t see many regular people who need to stretch all of their hip flexors. Especially the psoas. Many regular people actually need to stiffen their psoas.

Cognitive / Memory ability

One of the ways training athletes / younger people is easier than older people is younger people remember things better. They remember exercise form better, they remember the exercises themselves better, they remember what time to show up, everything. Every week I’ll have clients where I ask them, “How’d you feel after your last workout?” and their response is, “…I don’t remember.”

This is also where the amount of cues you give a person comes in. It cracks me up every time I see a deadlift / squat / bench press article, WHICH IS EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE, declaring how everyone should do these lifts, then enumerates 20 things a person should be worried about. Not only are these lifts people spend years trying to nail the form down on, but you’re stating the 55 year old who forgot to bring her shoes to the gym, should also try to keep that much in her head at the same time.

Everyone has a limited amount of cognitive resources. A pool to draw from if you will. If nothing else, adults drain this pool more than younger people. The 23 hours an adult client is not with you is almost always more mentally demanding than the 23 hours a young athlete is not with you.

Motivation

Athlete:

“Working out is going to help me get stronger, which will help me get better at my sport, which can help me make an insane living, be rich, famous, shit, I could probably even kill someone and get away with it.”

Regular dude:

“Working out is going to help me lose weight, which will help lower my blood pressure, which will…A cheese burger sounds good…WHERE ARE THE CHEESE BURGERS?!”

Age of client

If you’re training athletes you are going to be working almost exclusively with people 21 years or younger. Because not only does barely anyone make it to the professional level (occurring roughly around 21 based on the sport), but if someone does turn professional, the chances they make it past 5 years is also nearly nil.

Even if you get some who are in their late 20s or early 30s, you’re pretty much guaranteed to 1) Not have anyone above 40 and 2) Have this be a very, very small segment of your business.

Meanwhile, the primary age of clientele in the regular world will be those over 40. I don’t think I need to discuss how different it is training a 15 year old compared to a 50 year old.

Age of trainer

When you’re someone who trains athletes you’re likely older than nearly all of your clientele. When you’re someone who trains regular people you’re likely younger than most of your clientele.

This absolutely matters. When I first started training full time I was 23 years old. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a shock when the majority of your day is spent talking to those 45 years old and above. What you talk about, how you talk, how you’re perceived, is all different. As a young trainer it’s common to hear, “Ah, you’re young, your body is great right now. Wait til you’re my age.” Meaning it’s very common for your clients to dismiss your approach -say, to helping their shoulder pain- because they think as young person you don’t know anything about pain.

Who’s paying you?

Most athletes parents / universities are paying for training services.

Most regular people are paying for themselves.

The most significant factor being people are much more willing to buy their kids things than themselves. Many parents keep their kids in better health than they keep themselves.

Other things come into play here too. I had a strength coach who had a great relationship with like 75 guys on our team. (The people he’s training.) He did not have a great relationship with the head coach. Who is in charge of his job? The head coach. Who fired him? The head coach.

Eating

With many athletes you’re trying to get them to eat more. With regular people you’re pretty much always trying to get them to eat less.

Personality

Athletes, especially good ones, are usually confident, well put together, and popular. Psychologically, they’re cake to deal with compared to regular people. Regular people, especially those with significant eating issues, body image issues, etc. often have other things going on. Never did I think I’d be researching narcissistic personality disorder, bi polar disorder, borderline disorder, depression, suicide, and the insane amount of medications that go along with these things. This is stuff you come into contact on a near daily basis.

It’s been said personal trainers often act as therapists, and in many ways it’s true. However, there are good and bad ways to deal with these personalities. I’m by no means an expert on this. If nothing else, you need to make sure you don’t make someone worse.

After a long day of sleeping in til 8am, 2 classes (art history and communications), bull shitting at lunch for an hour with his teammates, an athlete walks in and goes, “Coach, I don’t feel like lifting today.” Strength coach responds, “Don’t be a pussy. It’s time to get swole son!”

Probably not a good idea call your 50 year old client a pussy after they woke up at 5am, worked for 9 hours, commuted a total of 2 hours, have two teenagers they have to make dinner for when they get home at 7pm, while also suffering from depression.

Summing up

I’ve already gone on for a while with this, and could go on forever. Really, there are very little similarities between the two populations. Most of the similarities people mention are things everyone share. That is, being human and living in a modernized society. But saying “Both groups have family” is not a reason they should both be trained similarly. Once you look a bit deeper you see differences immediately. While both groups may sit a fair amount, how they sit is often drastically different. Athletes are normally taller so they flex their spine more, they rarely have two monitors, they’re not typing 8 hours, they’re not reaching for a phone 50 times, etc. Hell, the most they’re doing is normally playing video games.

Let’s close this up:

  • Pay attention to where you get your advice from. If it’s an athlete, are you also an athlete? Do you have their resources? Their genetics? If it’s a fitness professional, who do they train? Is it primarily teenage athletes? Are YOU a teenage athlete?
  • If you’re training like an athlete, you probably shouldn’t be.
  • If you’re being trained by someone like you’re an athlete, you should probably hire someone else.

If you’re a lawyer who plays in a rec basketball league 1-2x a week you shouldn’t train like an NBA basketball player. You should train like a lawyer who plays basketball 1-2x a week.

If you’re a manager who runs a few times per week, you shouldn’t train like you’re an Ethiopian marathoner. You should train like a manager who runs (jogs) a few times a week.

For a program dedicated to the everyday person and what they have to deal with, check this and this out.

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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Sports