There’s a saying in the RKC that what we do is an inch wide but a mile deep. What we mean by that is that we focus on a few key movements and work like hell on them to not only understand them better but perform them better. We know that a higher level of ability in these few big moves has a massive payoff.
Recently in a conversation with a sports therapist he told me what the Swedes thought of as the secret to elite success in cross country skiing. Their idea is to find a talented athlete at fifteen years old and then have them train twice per day, seven days per week, all year round, for ten years. If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell you’ll recognise that as the same amount of hours to get to that magic ten thousand, which is usually the tipping point for elite performance in any field.
As I said in this post about spotting fakes and bad trainers the amount of experience a trainer has is vital. In fact, I’d put experience above all the rest of their qualifications. Nothing scares me more than when I hear of someone who has about a year’s experience and has been to five or six different types of courses over the last year. While I applaud their desire to learn more the fact is that learning and understanding these things takes time.
For instance, before I went to the RKC back in 2009 to learn the best way to train with kettlebells I had already been using them for two years. During that time I had gotten rid of everything else I was doing and was only using kettlebells. Apart from a very few performance based clients I had also transitioned the rest of my clients onto using nothing but kettlebells too. For the next three years I did nothing but use kettlebells in my own training and that of my clients, save for a few deadlifts and pull ups. All that time I was perfecting both my own use of kettelebells but also improving my teaching of others in the use of kettlebells. I didn’t go to the RKC, finish the weekend and think to myself, “I’ve got kettlebells now, what’s next?” In my opinion that’s like going to a martial arts school learning a couple of kicks in your first few sessions and assuming you’re black belt standard.
But the fitness industry is made up of white belt trainers who do exactly that. In comparison to the RKC “inch wide but a mile deep” these guys are a “mile wide and an inch deep”. This superficial knowledge and inability to stick to anything long term enough to actually get good at it is exactly why the industry is largely falling to pieces. Because the unspoken link in the 2 x 7 x 52 x 10 theme is that obviously you need to be working on just a few things for it to work. If you’re doing barbell Olympic lifts today, swimming tomorrow, kettlebells the next, boxing after that and rock climbing the next day while you have got an interesting lifestyle what you’ve really got is a low level of skill at any of those things. Like the trainer I know who did the FMS course and then, after seeing it a grand total of once, went back to his studio and taught his staff how to use the system. That he thought he had mastered the fundamental concepts of the course in just a few hours was a sign of massive arrogance, and probably a foreshadowing of injury for his clients. That’s a white belt trying to teach a black belt level skill.
As humans we crave variety yet the only way to actually make great progress is to avoid variety. Find a few exercises that really do good things for you and stick with them for as long as you can. When they stop working and you stop improving change them just a little. This is a great example of what we call specialized variety or the “same but different” approach. If you’ve been doing barbell back squats for sets of five and your progress stalls changing it up slightly will help. Maybe this means changing to sets of ten. Maybe this means swapping to front squats. The goal isn’t to change completely but to change the squat only enough to continue forcing adaptation. A sign of a good trainer is one who knows and understands this and avoids appeasing your need for entertainment but keeps you on the course. A good trainer shouldn’t get bored watching you do the same thing over and over. Imagine if Ian Thorpe’s coach got bored watching him swim freestyle and changed it up every session?
This applies to trainers too in their own education. There’s no need to go and do fifty different courses. A few well selected ones will do. In my nearly twenty years I have really only done a few things. Those things were areas that I specialise in – kettlebells, strength and conditioning training, boxing and corrective exercise. That’s it. Not a very big list, is it? Yet I’ve never once had a client in front of me that I couldn’t help because my knowledge of those few things is so deep. A well selected course is one that gives you room to grow. For instance choosing to start your kettlebell education and specialise in them you might start with the Hardstyle Kettlebell Certification (HKC). You’d learn more at that kettlebell certification and finish as an instructor than you would from any other one day course run in Australia, but you would probably still want more. So then you’d go to the Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC). And at this point, hopefully, you’d start to realise some things.
At this point I see two big distinctions in types of people. I see one group of people, who don’t know that their knowledge and experience are quite limited, who wander off aimlessly to do another course and add bits of paper to their filing cabinet. The other group take the red pill, realise that there is so much more to learn, both in terms of instruction and personal ability and diligently keep practicing those few things they were doing pre-RKC. Eventually those people will probably choose to do RKCII and learn even more, and usually by then they’ve really understood how much more depth there is within these few skills and they reapply and refocus again and go to even greater heights in terms of their own abilities and understanding. Honestly, with the amount of content provided in the courses, anything more than one of these certifications per year is pushing it for most people. In many cases you could make that one certification every two years and there would still be large gaps in understanding due to simply not having had enough experience at performing the skills.
And this gets me back to my 2 x 7 x 52 x 10. A good trainer is working hard both on their own skills as well as training others which is giving them some time towards their eventual ten thousand hours of mastery. And that’s one of the main reasons why most people make faster progress with a trainer. Let’s say your diligent and disciplined with your training. You train five times per week – an enormous amount of exercise for most people – giving you about two hundred and fifty hours per year of learning. Following that process it’s going to take you a long time to master training – like forty years – but when you get in front of a trainer who has specialized and spent all their hours on a few things they’ll have their own five hours per week of training as well as all the client hours they run. Even if they’re just training ten hours of clients each week – a low number for most personal trainers – that’s still three times more understanding of the same exercises each year than you’ll have solo.
But if the trainer is busy being the mile wide, inch deep guy they won’t have that. They’ll be doing a thousand different things with clients – sandbags, ropes, TRX, kettlebells, barbell work…and end up with only spending a few minutes on each per week. So looking for a good trainer all comes back to the same thing as it does when looking to make progress on your own – you need to specialise in training. Not in the sense that you should only train for a few activities, because well constructed functional training aids performance across the board in a host of activities, but in the sense that you should only be using exercises that teach skills to the body that are transferable to other activities.
But traveling the 2 x 7 x 52 x 10 path isn’t easy. Many will mistakenly assume that every workout needs to be the same. Even including the concept of specialized variety won’t help you get there if you just run at every session flat out. Training twice per day is where big gains are made but you need to be smart. Most modern humans are so soft around the edges they can barely tolerate even three hard sessions per week, like my client who told me he thought he was over training on that number of sessions per week. Beginning the process of double split training is easy – make the second session of each day easier than the first one. Think of it as active recovery and to begin with do nothing but move around a bit, maybe even go for a walk – yes, we’ll count that. Make every other day easy too so that a heavy session Monday morning is followed by a walk Monday afternoon and then a light session Tuesday morning that is similar to Monday, just lighter. Take another walk that afternoon. Feel free to train harder on Wednesday if you want, but play it by ear. I often find that Thursday is my best day of the week – you’ll soon find your own rhythm as you go.
As I wrote here one of the big keys to actually getting in real shape – the kind of shape needed for any serious goals to be achieved – is to train more. That simple addition of more sessions will quickly help to get you in better shape. My advice is simple – seek out a specialized professional who has a solid background in helping people achieve your goals then work like hell training as much as you can handle until you reach them.