Chris Holder: Achieving Training Goals — The Devil is in the Details

What are the training goals we hear about?

Seven-minute abs!

Eight weeks to a ripped, sculpted physique!
Thirty days to a brand new you!

All this sounds good, but the reality is that anything good, lasting and course-correcting takes time. What determines how much time is your attention to detail. Because of the complete saturation of fitness coaches on social media, and our need to have this and that done yesterday, the details are the first thing lost.

What do I mean by details? In this day and age of mobility routines, restoration programs and many of us needing a general understanding of elementary physical therapy, we coaches find ourselves cleaning up the mess of the masses. Young athletes, our desk-shackled personal training clients and everyone in between are showing up to our door steps wanting us to either fix them or make them a champion.

Most of them don’t understand that with the crappy lifting routines they have been performing, along with lifestyle issues that work against them, they have single-handedly created a Rubik’s Cube of issues that we must solve. The lifting, if you want to call it that, has cemented in movement problems and other disharmony throughout the body, all because of their haste. Learning how to train over Facebook, or its equivalent from the old days, the muscle magazines, is the kiss of death.

The lack of movement vocabulary, understanding nuance and a total lack of body awareness is setting these folks up for eventual failure. It’s a complete and total lack of detail.

Is it their fault?

Yeah, it is. That is why I’m writing this. I don’t care what age you are, it is your responsibility to fully understand the entire ins and outs of what you are doing. Weight lifting (in particular) and all fitness endeavors require a degree of “skill” that is mandatory for safe passage and effective training. Long gone are the days where the information was bottled up and reserved for only the most dedicated members of this gym or that lifting club. Nine out of ten times, in any Google search, you can postulate a question about anything training and find something useful in the first page of your search results . . . or at least a link to somewhere you might find the answer.

I hinted at it above, but it is worth repeating. One of the concepts that we all must embrace is the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle. This one miracle of nature can either be your biggest ally, or your worst enemy. What SAID provides for us is a path to efficiency. It’s the organic reason behind the “10,000 hours to mastery” idea. Repetitions, of anything, command the attention of the brain. If that stimulus starts showing up more frequently, or in the case of lifting, accompanied by a tremendous load (how much weight is on the bar) the brain scrambles all of its magic to prepare the organism for the next time this stimulus appears. It’s the fundamental mechanism behind how and why weight training works. It is the sole reason we get strong. The brain wants efficiency at all times. When you train, the brain takes impossibly detailed notes and then makes the adjustment for you so that the next time you see that stimulus, it will be easier.


The SAID principle is the lone reason that your attention to detail must be locked in when you train. It is the reason you must make sure that you have a solid understanding of technique in any and all exercises you attempt.

To take this idea of adaptation to a deeper level, your intent for each set, and each exercise must be well established prior to entering into your training.

If you don’t, what happens is exactly what I said in the previous two paragraphs. Regardless of how crappy your movement is, your brain doesn’t equate quality. Think about that: Your brain isn’t the quality police. Your brain spends its entire existence, over the totality of your lifetime, being reactive to what it is presented. Therefore, if you bench press with your elbows flared out, hammering your shoulders over the long haul, your brain could care less. We are going to adapt to THAT, independent to what THAT is.

If you perform an absurd version of a squat and during the motion you clap your knees together five times on the way down and five times on the way up . . . your brain will organize it’s neurological army to make that ridiculous version of a squat more efficient for the next time.

Look, I know that none of us walk into a training session with the intent of F’ing ourselves up. It’s quite the opposite. We all want to leave the gym better than when we arrived. But in a lot of cases, this is not the reality. Our poor technique, misguided programming and utter inefficiency is setting us up for something unpleasant down the road. An injury, chronic movement issues (inflammation) and training plateaus you can’t get beyond are just a few of the unwelcomed outcomes you can expect.

We all need to become students of training.

When I was coming up, my thoughts were exactly that: I’m going to read anything I can get my hands on about training and I’m going to get as big as a house. Unfortunately, the first 10 years of my lifting career were steered by Flex Magazine, Musclemag International and Ironman (all of which have their place and, from time to time, had some really valuable information.) Most of the time, though, it was a picture fest of some of the most beautiful bodies we have ever seen with a complete inundation of supplement ads that was “fake news” before there was fake news. They were great publications for motivation and stoking the training fire, but I still ended up at the gym attempting exercises for which I had little understanding of how to perform any of the suggested movements with any degree of accuracy.

I eventually graduated to full lifting nerd by spending my first two years in college burning all of my free time in the library studying each and every Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research I could get my hands on. It was an incredibly eye-opening time, drinking from a “science” fire hose, but what this really did for me was fill my head with facts and statistics that did little for me. Again, I had next to no understanding of what to do with any of it.

The more I read, the further away I got from knowing the truth: Lifting with any degree of safety coupled with a strong, direct, purposeful stimulus for the brain to adapt to is the name of the game.

Let’s take something that I feel is one of the most effective, transferrable, useful exercises an athlete or physique-minded person can perform, the kettlebell swing. Because I admittedly know nothing about girevoy sport, I will focus on the hardstyle swing taught by the RKC.

My first question for most of you is what is the hardstyle swing good for?
Power development?
Speed strength?
Glute development?
Ab strengthening?
Quad strengthening?
Cardiovascular fitness?
Fat burning?
Jumping improvements?
Hip extension?
Sprinting benefits?

The answer to all of the proposed questions (and many others) is, YES.
Why are you doing it? Any one of those answers would suffice.

Let’s take ab strengthening as our topic to dissect. Many of you probably didn’t realize that swinging, and swinging really, really hard, is one of the best ab exercises you can perform. If you are swinging with all of your might, there are a ton of forces that you are going to have to manage over a successful rep, and even more so over the entirety of a set. Since we can agree that the hips (especially the glutes) are the primary driver for the exercise, we must build in failsafes to ensure that the body can generate enormous amounts of force, and then diffuse all of it throughout the system, down through the ground and most importantly, out to the bell.

The quads and the abdominals create this failsafe that we are attempting to build. If those two muscle groups do not engage in a big way, what we end up seeing is someone who is literally trying to snap themselves in half, backwards. Walk around any gym on the planet where kettlebell swings are happening and you will see iterations of the swing that make your low back ache simply by watching.

Again, this is assuming that the athlete is giving some semblance of effort.

I tell my athletes is the quads and abs create a wall for the hips to run into. If the lifter is bringing it, the hips should suddenly and powerfully go into full extension. Therefore, the quads and abdominals must contract with the same level of urgency to act as a brake for the hips. This allows the lifter to apply as much force as they can muster with the hips knowing that the above and below muscle groups will come to the party and stop the motion, thus saving the low back from inevitable injury.

Additionally, we don’t want to dump forces throughout the kinetic chain, leaking the energy we are producing by the effort by having soft parts for the power to escape. Think of shooting pool with a rope. It truly doesn’t matter how much oomph you push the end of the rope you are holding due to the inherent lack of structure and laxity of the rope itself. This is why we use a pool cue. Firm. Stable. Strong. So even the slightest push from the hand transfers directly to the tip of the cue, and eventually to the ball.

Your body is either that pool cue, or the rope. The kettlebell is the ball. You want your swings to have choreographed power, where the body not only generates tremendous forces through the feet via hip drive but also becomes a rigid, tension filled conduit, so this force can reach its destination — the bell itself. We must lock down every single joint so we can direct that energy into the iron. Softness anywhere begins to rob the exercise of the transfer of power that we are looking to create.

The abs are the facilitator of not only the braking force we mentioned, but they also lock up the entire upper body, protecting the spine from these forces (shearing forces—some of the most damaging and scary ones out there) so the energy of the effort can safely travel up the chain, out the arms and into the bell. If you think about your biggest, baddest friend getting ready to slug you in the gut, the bracing you create to accept the punch is the same bracing needed for a gnarly kettlebell swing. Now, perform 10×10 of two hand hardstyle swings with maximal effort, and now you have one of the most kick ass abdominal strengthening exercises known.

That level of detail was just to make an educated argument for why a kettlebell swing could potentially be useful for getting your abs right. How many others did we have up there . . . and how much time do you have?

Now I understand, I have a very unique set of circumstances where I need that level of understanding of the swing. I coach hundreds of athletes a day so I’ve been given countless opportunities to not only watch people swing but also write, rewrite and write again the reasons for this and that in my head. Trust me, it’s a hot mess in here. But what we’ve created here at Cal Poly is a true school of strength. And, without sounding like a total jerk, I can give you similar rundown on any exercise I teach that includes the microscopic nuances of each individual movement, intent, etc.

What I challenge you to do is understand your whys for what you are doing. Then take those whys and research them. I’m benching because I want big pecs. Great! So go and look at techniques for benching, and then read about basic physiology and the body’s response to volume training. High reps. Learn about it, so you understand it, even if it is on an elementary level.

The more detail you can grasp, the better your training will be, the safer your training will become and the faster your training goals will be acheived.

As for you trainers and coaches. You have no business working with anyone if you can’t supply rich detail to any question your athlete/client might have. You need to know this stuff, all of it, inside and out. If I were to ask you what the hip adductors role in sprinting is, you should know it . . . cold. If you don’t have this level of understanding of all of it, keep studying. Attend more workshops. Get your game tight so there is no detail left unattended.


Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.


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