It feels great to finish a hard session on the rowing machine, crank out several sets of pull-ups, or do some heavy deadlifts. But real life takes place outside the confines of the gym, whether you’re playing with your kids or grandkids at a park, hiking with your significant other, or on a beach vacation with friends. In this article, we’ll explore how training can enhance your ability to live a rich, adventurous life, enjoy your favorite activities to the fullest, and become more capable and confident in whatever environment you find yourself in.
As much as I enjoy moving heavy weights, challenging my aerobic fitness on the Wattbike, and boosting my power output with plyometrics, I look at these as mere preparation for my real athletic passions, which are mountain biking and hiking. Similarly, when new clients at the Performance Ranch share their goals with me, they talk about being able to trek for longer into the wilderness, handle steeper and more technical descents safely, and – regardless of their outdoor pursuit – go faster and have more fun.
It’s affirming to master new exercises, reach a certain weight or body composition target, or get stronger, but it’s the big, ambitious lifestyle aims that really get people excited and keep them motivated. For example, one of our clients recently shared that she and her daughter are planning to climb Mount Rainier, which at 14,441 feet is the 6th highest mountain in the US lower 48. I’ve helped prepare many people to meet such challenges in the years since I first started coaching in 2003. Along the way, I have come to see the gym, not as an isolated entity or the fitness be-all, end-all, but rather as a collection of tools that allow you to enhance your abilities, learn new and transferable skills, and develop the capabilities you need to reach and even exceed your goals.
General Physical Preparedness
Before zeroing in on developing existing skills and learning new ones specific to a certain aim, it’s essential that we help everyone build sufficient strength, mobility, power, and aerobic fitness to be prepared for what they’ll be doing during subsequent training, in everyday life, and, eventually, during the mountain climb, marathon run, Ironman, or whatever their singular challenge might be.
Before we begin training toward where someone wants to go, it’s important to know what they’ve done before and where they’re at now. This is why it’s standard practice at the Performance Ranch to hold a one-on-one strategy session before someone starts training with us. In addition to learning about their training age, injury history, and so on, we want to hear how their prior experiences match up with their future goals. If there’s alignment, then it’s easier to create and execute a simple, more focused plan. But if there’s a wide variance – such as a newbie cyclist wanting to compete in the Leadville 100 – we’ll need to close the gap by developing their baseline fitness first.
In either case, we have each new client do a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) assessment. This allows us to see what level of competence they have in basic human movement patterns that they’ll be exposed to in the gym, sports, and outdoor activities. We break these down into the hinge, squat, lunge, push, pull, carry, walk, and run. Once we have an FMS score, we now know their movement literacy level and what they might be lacking. Often, limitations are rooted in a poor hinging pattern, so we go back to the basics of this pattern and help improve the client’s postural awareness with simple cues like standing taller, retracting their shoulder blades, and getting them out of the anterior pelvic tilt position that can limit their ability to hinge. They soon get better at separating their hips from their low back.
As soon as they’ve got hinging down pat, our initial four-week on-ramp continues this process of refining fundamental movements. Once someone consistently demonstrates competence with unweighted variations, we begin to challenge the integrity of their patterning by adding load. We also assess and then help improve their walking and running mechanics, allowing them to move more efficiently. A new client can go from not being able to touch their toes to safely performing a trap bar deadlift during this short period. If an athlete is inexperienced, has a low training age, or is coming back from injury, we might extend the amount of time that they focus on GPP to two or three months or more.
Once a client has established a firm fitness foundation through our on-ramp process and sufficient GPP training, we can start to shift our focus. Their body is now ready for the challenges of technical training that are directly relatable to their sporting or activity goal. The lady I mentioned earlier is a longtime client who’s already very fit. But she’s also in her late fifties and needs to be able to withstand the challenge of not only climbing an imposing mountain like Rainier but doing so with a 40-pound pack that contains ice picks, crampons, and other technical gear. The load is around a third of her body weight, so she will need to get used to carrying the extra weight. This is an example of increasing intensity. As the trip will take place over multiple days, she will also have to develop her endurance by extending the duration of her training hikes and upping the density with consecutive training sessions.
Such consistency is key with training for any activity. A client’s goal might involve a one-off event, but it’s the accumulation of sessions across multiple days, weeks, and months that will set them up for success. It’s difficult to perfectly recreate the environment that a client will eventually find themselves in, but we can go some way toward mimicking its demands. Back when I took the Performance Enhancement Specialist certification through NASM, I had to research the physical characteristics of each sport so I could accurately complete athletes’ intake forms. Now that I’ve participated in so many myself and carefully watched many more, I have a good blueprint for sport-specific demands that are baked into Performance Ranch programs.
For example, we do a lot of split stance exercises with our mountain bikers. They perform these with their feet positioned to mimic the distance between the pedals. Plyometric exercises help them to better generate and absorb the kind of forces they’ll experience when not only having to control their body weight as they go over jumps, but also the extra 20 to 30 pounds that their bike weighs, plus the demands of varying terrain. They might also have room for improvement in their actual riding technique. We watch how they pedal on a Wattbike and often see that a client is pushing so hard that their quads cramp up, while under-utilizing their hamstrings and posterior chain. If this is the case, we’ll have them focus more on the pull phase of the cycling action so the overall circular motion is more efficient.
In my own MTB training, I’ve also found it beneficial to develop grip strength in a very activity-specific way. As my index finger works my brake levers, I’ve modified my farmer carries so that I’m only gripping the dumbbells or kettlebells with the other four fingers in a kind of pistol grip that mimics what I’ll be doing on my bike. Hikers often only think about going uphill and so like to do a lot of step-up variations. These have their place, but we know that they’re often ill-prepared to handle heading back downhill. So we improve their ability to tolerate eccentric muscle contractions by having them also perform weighted step-downs.
All of these techniques come back to the philosophy of using the gym as a way to become capable, strong, and durable enough to handle everything life throws at you, reach specific goals, and get the most out of your favorite activities. As such, we want the Performance Ranch to not only be a place where you develop physical capabilities, grow lasting friendships, and receive responsive coaching, but also somewhere that equips you with everything you need to thrive when you walk out the door. That’s why the final sticker on our Milestone Wall is called “Live Life Beyond the Gym Wall.” It’s not just a slogan, but a core component of our mission.