Training your body as a system rather than components

For the past 6 years, I have spent hours and hours each day reading research, writing papers for professors, and watching athletes work towards their goal of improving performance. I’ve learned from some wonderful people and read books by people much smarter than myself.

But with the amount of work I have devoted to the field of strength & conditioning comes a mental burden. Every time I go inside of a gym whether it be a commercial facility or private, I see things that make me cringe. Sometimes it’s seeing lifts with poor technique, sometimes it’s terrible coaching, but much more often it’s because of total ignorance for the way the human body works.

Mark Rippetoe is one of my favorite writers because of the genuine way that he writes and communicates his feelings towards a subject. The guy will tell you if what you’re doing is bulljive, plain and simple using other types of words. My dad was the same way and it really is the most efficient way to get to the point and get to fixing the issue. Recently, I was digging through some archives during my daily reading time and came across an article where Rippetoe sounds off on a huge training mistake. This huge mistake happens when people work the small components that make up the body, rather than working the body as a complete system. This is a problem with the world of “working out” and cannot be stated enough! START LEARNING THE WAY THE BODY WORKS PEOPLE!!! In the words of Ron Burgundy, “I’m sorry that I just wanted to shout it out from the top of a mountain”. You can read more about this article from Mark Rippetoe on T-Nation, check it out here. I want to discuss this topic using examples from what I’ve seen myself and the long-term effects I see in the future.


But seriously, how important is this concept? How many times do you as a personal trainer or strength coach deal with this issue? I see it all the time and want to strike up a debate with the person committing the workout foul. I completely understand the idea that anybody can do what they want and train however they think best. But if only they knew. If only they cared to actually see what a waste of time most of the exercises they choose are and how much more efficiency they could have. I am a really big on efficiency and making the best use of your time. I went through a grad program where I would be at a team’s workout from 6-7:15, run to class across campus that started at 8am, run across campus to class immediately after that, grab lunch in the 25 minutes that I had, run to another lift at 1:15, etc. When this schedule becomes the daily routine, it’s hard not to start figuring out where you could probably use your time more efficiently. I can’t help but carry this over to my profession and how I structure my time now.

I have worked in professional sports for the last 2 years and at times seem to lose faith in the way we perform our jobs. The direction that we develop our athletes, at times, completely goes against the way the body truly works. The body is an unbelievable system that can perform feats such as dunking a basketball or hitting a baseball 430 feet. The number of muscles, joints, and even neurons involved is ridiculous. And to think that all of the muscles located in different parts of the body all connect and coordinate in a systematic fashion to perform the thing we do when our brain says “jump”. Without trying to dig too deep into explaining how through neuromuscular properties, I just want to introduce the idea that after years of practicing a movement we take for granted how many different things are going on during this execution of movement. Jump shots, throwing a baseball, hitting a golf ball, kicking a soccer ball, and cutting in football are all extremely complex tasks we ask the body to do at an incredibly fast rate of synchronization. All of the parts of the body are working together as a system to get the task done. So why is it that when we go into the gym to enhance these tasks, we isolate each part and give that one body part an exercise that makes it work all on it’s own. Are we hoping there is some magic science connection in which that one part will pop back into working together again with more strength? By making this one part now stronger, could you have thrown the whole system out of wack and taught the new body part to dominate a movement that it isn’t supposed to? These are all questions that are the tip of iceberg that will cause us future issues advancing as a profession.

One of the biggest issues that really makes me upset and disappointed in our profession is that we neglect actually heavy strength training as if it’s not the answer to most problems. This athlete is “dysfunctional”, he can’t hold the proper position in his or her respective sport, and they are underdeveloped in certain areas. Let’s give them a 3 pound dumbbell and isolate the external rotators of the shoulders. Pull-ups aren’t the answer because they’re hard. Truth be told, this is the world of strength and conditioning now. There are still people out there who believe in true strength training like Mark Rippetoe and Dan John. There are even CrossFit gyms there helping their clients improve overall strength better than what we give our athletes. What if the fact they can’t hold a single leg squat during your assessment isn’t because of a hip dysfunction, but because they aren’t strong in their glutes? What if after a 6 month period of lifting they come back and can hold that position for you? Maybe the simple answer of “strength deficient” needs to be the answer more often than not. Is a 17 year old kid back squatting 400 pounds not strong in his “core”? If you say no, have you ever back squatted 400 pounds? If he has no injury history and is cleared of dysfunction, would improving his back squat not improve strength, mobility of the hip, and core strength simultaneously? But we don’t. We prescribe bird dogs, front bridges, and goblet squats with a 20 pound kettle bell.

So why would we as coaches do something like that? Because we want our jobs more than we want to help our athletes and because lifts that make you stronger and more powerful are harder to coach. That’s the truth. The kettle bell goblet squat is tough to teach to a completely green gym member and then it’s not. It’s hard for someone who has never seen it and then it is extremely easy to perform after that point. Exercises that improve a single muscle group aren’t hard to coach, but exercises that improve the system together involves a great eye and a deep understanding of biomechanics. These are things the average personal trainer do not have. The glute bridge, the single-leg pistol squat, and the movement you made up to address thoracic mobility won’t do jack for you if you aren’t on the field because you’re too slow to play. Understand that point.

light dumbbell

Safe is being defined as anything that doesn’t cause discomfort. I define safe as developing athletes to be strong enough to withstand the rigors of the torque in golf, the torque in baseball, the power to outrun the 250 pound linebacker in football, and the ability to jump higher in basketball. Will injuries happen? Absolutely. But physical contact or in-game injuries will happen forever no matter what new therapy move you create. In the meantime, kids are getting bigger out of high school and the need to get stronger in order to be on the field is increasing. You either get stronger or you don’t win. A good strength coach should be able to effectively coach the lifts that do that and coach them safely at the same time. It’s not as hard as the guru’s make it out to be. And they make it out to be because half of them don’t know how to coach the lifts themselves. So direct attention towards other things that are easier to coach, smart business move.

We don’t train with heavy weights to look like Sylvester Stallone, we do it because strength is what you need to produce force. More strength=more force output. Think of strength as your car’s engine and power or force output as the horsepower from that engine. If you want to play football, you probably want a Dodge Charger capable of lots of horsepower. Lifting with 10 pounds on the bar for 8 weeks straight means you will have the horsepower capabilities of a Toyota Camry. A fine car, great gas mileage, and definitely riding the pine in the context of this analogy. Train your body first by building a bigger engine and only then will you start to produce the horsepower you need to keep up. Coordination spawning from the whole system will allow the cylinders in the engine to fire correctly. Exercises using lighter weights are easier to coordinate, but we don’t need easy we need difficult in order to improve from our current state of coordination.

Don’t touch that barbell…your dysfunctional

x out

I want to go back and talk about the athlete that was considered “dysfunctional”. As my mentor used to say, “everybody’s really good at making the correct diagnosis, but only a few are good at making the correct prescription to fix it”. There are so many assessment tools and ideas out there to analyze what the athlete’s issues are. I think this part is great because it allows us to see what specific ways this athlete is different from the next and we should avoid and add to a program. But seeing these assessments with my own eyes I have noticed a big gaping hole at the end of them. Almost none of the assessments point to gaining more strength and power and actually how to achieve this. People are so wrapped up in their fancy assessment tools and diagnosing because they don’t really know what to do next.

Me: Hey man, cool assessment program you got on that computer…..does it tell you how to get his deadlift stronger?

Assessment Professional: Well, he can’t deadlift because he has right hip tightness and core weakness.

This is the dialogue that is happening all over the country.

Assessment Professional:”I just diagnosed him with issues, stay away from compound lifts because it will hurt him.”

And there lies the problem. If that athlete is “dysfunctional” working as a system, then why is your answer to work the problematic part in isolation only to throw it back into the system when you feel this problematic part has improved? Alakazam. Voila.

Listen, I don’t think someone with dysfunction should be loaded up on a back squat right now either, but that is the end goal of the program. We want them to deadlift, squat, and press heavy friggin’ weights because strength means more power and more power means you don’t get trucked every play. So if that athlete can’t squat now because of an issue with his lower back, everything we do is to fix this issue so that he can get to deadlifting and front squatting soon.

Assessment Professional : “I realized the one specific muscle in the rotator cuff was weaker than the rest, I worked it with a 5 pound dumbbell for 5 weeks, and now will work better with the rest of the muscles in the movement.”

Translation: The subscapularis was weak in assisting a movement, so I isolated and taught it to work as a primary mover in an exercise, and now I’ve thrown it back into the system to work assisting the same movement.

It’s not that simple. You don’t just pop out the fuel injector of your car and replace it with a new one. You need to teach it how to work together better as a system. If one part isn’t working correctly, it’s probably your poor coaching that has put them into a bad position and made a link in the chain get cranky. Look in the mirror and improve your coaching.

Majoring in the minors: The Muscle Imbalance must be banished

Time after time, this results in another injury in that athlete who is scratching his or her head in the training room wondering if they’re broke for good. We have become a profession that sets out to find every issue, termed deficiency or imbalance, and create a list of exercises to correct the problem. These exercises are called “correctives”. But I can sit you down and have you speak face to face with athletes who went through 6-8 weeks of corrective exercise programming only to have the same result and wind up injured again. I actually believe some correctives can serve a purpose if placed in the hands of a good strength coach. That is not at all saying I would use them frequently, but very minimally in cases that were exceptions such as after surgery. Instead of programming and coaching lifts that would fix a strength deficiency first and foremost, we attack small imbalances for 2 years with a client wasting important development time they could’ve spent getting faster. We are majoring in the minors.

What exactly are you going to fix by identifying all of these imbalances or asymmetries? One by one conquer them all and then throw some magic science dust on the person and they’re a better athlete? One great thing I was told during a talk with people who worked with athletes a lot longer than I have said that you need assess issues with athletes and decide which imbalances to fix and not to fix. There are times when athletes excel at their sport because of an asymmetry they have had their whole life. Your assessment will show an imbalance, but fixing this imbalance would take away the effectiveness. So what do you do then? You have know what to fix and what to keep an eye on instead. You do the assessment to record baseline’s and then wait and watch from there.

“You’re not firing your glutes”

I have heard this way too much times to not upset typing it. Someone coaching the athlete that is doing exercises prescribed for an athlete that can’t “fire his/her glutes”. When someone says this, they are referring to the nervous system not able to either contract the muscle voluntarily or more often do it efficiently. The nervous system controls muscular function and is extremely important for athletes. But as I said, most of the time the diagnosis is correct but the exercises prescribed are done incorrectly. I’ve seen a similar scenario like this in which an athlete with “poor glute activation” was given glute bridges and banded lateral walks to “improve glute activation”. While doing so, the person prescribing these things was pushing the target area saying, “Your glutes aren’t firing, you need to fire the external rotators”.

So let’s take a deeper look at this whole interaction going on. You prescribed someone who clearly just has a weak set of glutes that doesn’t allow them to run fast or jump high while standing up a pair of exercises requiring nowhere near the amount of force running or jumping requires. And when this athlete performs a bridge on the ground, you are telling me that they’re glutes aren’t firing? What are the glutes primary function? Hip extension and external rotation/adduction? Okay, so if they are in a bridge, that means the glutes are absolutely “firing”. Just because the contraction isn’t strong, doesn’t mean we call it “not firing”. Instead, you need to determine how to get the gluteals stronger. And if your honest prescription for weak gluteals is a bridge on the floor and a banded walk, then you probably won’t have much success with athletes getting better. They sure won’t get hurt bridging on the floor like that, but you can bet they will struggle when they need one of the most important muscle groups on the body that has such a major role in movements. Until you get serious and get them lifting, they will never fix that issue. And for pete’s sake, stop cueing people to “fire the external rotators”, and start giving effective physical cues like “push the knees out”. Not everybody went to school as long as we did and the athlete’s respond much faster to things they understand. I promise you they won’t think any less of you if you don’t explain how much you know about hip musculature. I bet if you get that athlete to work hard and squat 450 pounds that the glutes will be forced to fire.

Last word

Most of the issues I see now with young athletes arise not from too much strength training, but the abandonment of it by guru masters. We have made corrective exercise the primary focus and created a bunch of really excellent lifters with 55 pounds on the bar. This creates a strength and power deficiency that leads to injury under excessive forces caused during competition. Barry Bonds might have been aided by steroids, but don’t forget that steroids led to greater strength and power. How Bonds got the strength and power was illegal, but the newly acquired strength and power caused the ball to go further and allowed him to accomplish something big. The lesson isn’t to takes steroids, it’s to find a way to get that newly acquired strength and power without them. And the only way to do this is to strength train. Put down the 10 pound kettle bell and pick up a Mark Rippetoe book. Read authors like Dan John, Tudor Bompa, Verkhoshansky. The trends will come and go, but the thing that has withstood the test of time is gaining absolute strength through the barbell.


Cory Ritter, MS, CSCS



Published by strengthcoach7

Graduated from Florida State University with a Masters in Sports Sciences. Strength and conditioning coach, Sports Scientist, and passion to help people find their athleticism.

2 thoughts on “Training your body as a system rather than components

  1. Yes! It is a system! I was a CCU nurse for 15 years and I assure it that if you take away your lungs, brain, or heart you will perish! Therefore, none of your body is an “island “! Thanks, #thetrainer


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