By Dave Tate
EFS Classic: Under The Bar – Training Environment
Over the past few months, I’ve been asked repeatedly what I feel the most important aspect of training is. While there are many key areas that could be considered, I’ve found, in my experience, that there’s one that trumps all others. I’ve come to believe this for two reasons:
1. I’ve seen it with my own training experience, and I’ve seen its effect on the training of countless others.
2. It is ALWAYS one of the factors I’m given as the reason why a certain group is stronger than others.
What am I talking about here? Environment.
To illustrate, here is a composite conversation I’ve had with several people – a lot more than “several,” truth be told – over the years:
“Dave, the programming used by Gym X (this is usually one of five different powerlifting gyms) is flawed and can’t work.”
“Gym X is one of the five strongest gyms in the country,” I usually respond, “so they must be doing something right, no?”
“I know they’re strong, Dave, but this is because of the environment they train in.”
Thing is, many times I agree with the people I have this discussion with, but the one thing I never quite reconcile is this: if environment can trump programming, then why is so much time and effort put into programming, with little to no effort put into studying what the strongest gyms do to create the environment they have. If you were trying to create a stronger gym, club or team, I would think you’d want to know and perfect the one thing that can overpower the rest.
After one of these conversations, I got fired up about this topic and decided to take action. I sent an email out to a group of lifters, coaches and trainers who I knew have been, or are now, a part of groups who’ve achieved outstanding training success. The question I asked is this:
I have a question for you all.
Here is the deal. I’m sick of hearing “such and such gym is strong only because of the environment. They really have no idea how to program training.”
Given this statement, what would you say are the top five things needed to create a great training environment for strength?
A serious, no frills gym filled with barbells, dumbbells, a few other essentials and not much else. No TV’s, no lineup of cardio equipment and no shitty pop music (metal and hardcore hip hop only – preferably of the old school variety). This statement may get me in trouble, but I usually prefer to train in an atmosphere free of females and I know several people who share the same opinion. Training is a time to do stupid alpha male type shit like head-butting the bar, spitting on the floor, cursing, puking, screaming, scratching your balls and whatever.
Having a bunch of strong guys around instantly creates the right kind of environment to get strong in, but this is not always possible. If you are a coach, trainer or lifter just starting your own private gym or club you may not have a ton of strong guys right out of the gate. But if you do things right, you soon will. It is always better to train with someone stronger than you. It is even better to train with lots of people stronger than you.
If you can’t do that, you need to at least have a group of like-minded, highly motivated guys who will do whatever it takes to succeed and be the best. You needn’t all have the same training goals, but as long as everyone is there to bust their ass and continually get better, the whole crew will get better and everyone will be contributing to each other’s success.
You need coaches or advanced/experienced lifters to coach properly, watch technique, shout out cues and push and motivate everyone. Although all successful people are motivated internally, everyone has an off day here and there and needs someone to call them out on it and get them on the right track.
Tracking results and records also adds incrementally to the overall training atmosphere. It is a well known fact that what gets measured improves. So regularly scheduling testing days or strongman competitions or whatever else is a great way to add to the overall training environment and improve the overall results of everyone. If you train athletes, they will love regularly scheduled weekly or monthly competitions.
Keeping record boards is highly motivating because everyone wants to see their name at the top of the board and will try to get there no matter what it takes. Just adding this one element to an already intense training environment can instantly crank things up another level.
One final note I will add is that you should never accept anyone into the group or take them on as a client if they don’t fit the mold that you are looking for. As a private coach or trainer it is sometimes hard to turn down money but in the long run these people will cause you more stress and frustration than the money they are worth and they will piss everyone else off, which will take away from the training environment instead of enhancing it. If they bring nothing to the table and bring everyone else down they should be kicked out immediately.
1. Great training partners that are willing to make sure that you do everything you need to do to succeed.
2. Like-minded training partners. It really helps if they all compete. They’ll understand what you need when you’re getting ready for a contest.
3. Competition in the gym – to beat your own numbers and to be the best lifter of the day/training session.
4. A gym that makes you want to get better – music, atmosphere, etc. When you walk in, you just feel like it’s time to get stronger/better.
5. Be happy with what you’ve done, but it can never be good enough.
1. A group of crazy mofos that will do anything to be number one.
2. A hell hole of a gym with an intense feel to it that aids the lifter in getting into the right frame of mind to do what must be done.
3. At least one lifter and or coach that will call guys out for being pussies or for putting out less than 100%; someone that will push them beyond what they thought their limits were.
4. The training group must be like-minded and be on the same page when it comes to what they want to achieve.
5. Hate. There must be an overall feeling of great displeasure with where the trainees are in their training. Satisfaction breeds apathy and apathy breeds failure.
Having a great training environment comes from within. It can’t be faked and it can’t come from a coach or a teammate. You yourself must have heart and determination to get through the necessary training to be the best you can be.
If you are a complainer you will fail in even the best gym.
In my gym I hear many complaints and excuses. “The road to nowhere is paved with excuses” is a Super Training slogan that will be on my new t-shirts. Excuses are for losers, and if you are a loser you will not prevail.
I have trained hard since I was 13 years old. Training partners and gyms have come and gone, yet I still train. Even if I did not have a team around me I would still be strong – though not as strong – and I would still train hard.
So the first thing you need to have a good training environment is balls. After that, the rest is just a bonus.
1. A facility that is equipped with ”at least” the basic equipment needed to achieve strength (i.e. power rack, bench, plenty of plates, and good bars for starters).
2. A coach or top lifter that is willing to set the ground rules and lead by example. He/she is always on time, focused, and practices what he/she preaches. This lifter is not afraid to “pat someone on the back” for a job well done, but he is also not afraid to challenge someone and call them a “pussy” for not giving 100% to their assistance exercises or for quitting on a max effort lift. One thing you don’t need is a “cheerleader” for a coach! A cheerleader is someone who is always telling you what you want to hear and not telling you the truth! “You are the strongest guy in the world, that was easy, the WR will be yours at the next meet!” When in reality he should have said, “That was hard, slow, and four inches above parallel. You need to fix XYZ or you will not get a squat passed at the meet!”
3. An atmosphere that is intense, but focused and organized. Some people think that loud music, dirt and disarray make for an intense training environment. I believe that the gym needs to have an intense tone to it, possibly through music, motivating posters/pics, etc, so that lifters can get in the right frame of mind to get the job done. For many years, I trained at a “commercial gym” called Iron Island in Oceanside, NY. It was set up in such a manner that fitness training, bodybuilding, strongman, Olympic lifting and powerlifting coexisted under one roof. It was incredible! We had a team of 20+ competitive powerlifters that came from all over the tri-state area to train there because the equipment and atmosphere were second to none! It was an intense place, but it was also well organized and clean as could be!
4. The actual makeup of the group/groups is very important. I believe that everyone in the group must be goal-oriented, driven, and a competitive athlete. Everyone who trains with me has to compete in something – powerlifting, strongman, wrestling, etc – because when someone is willing to compete in a sport, they are willing to put their name/reputation on the line, and therefore are usually willing to do whatever it takes to be successful! I like to group lifters/athletes according to their ability or strength levels because it forces them to compete against each other every day! If you have any pride, you hate losing and will step up and give 110% when you have to! When everyone is doing this, week in and week out, the group is going to get stronger and they are going to surpass what they thought their limitations were. This grouping can often lead to a “hostile” environment and lots of trash talking, but if that’s what it takes to get stronger and break PR’s, then it’s well worth it. Dan Gable, the former head wrestling coach at the University of Iowa, once told me that he always liked to recruit twins because their competitive nature brings out the best in both of them. Competition is necessary if you plan on reaching your goals!
5. Camaraderie/Respect for each other/Pride in your club! Realize that your job is to make your training partners stronger through encouragement, coaching, etc, and that they, in turn, will do the same for you. Never put yourself above anyone just because you total more than they do! Everyone, from the Class 1 lifter to the Pro, is still trying to get stronger and perform better the next time around. Don’t forget where you came from! Be proud to represent your club both on and off the platform or athletic field.
1. A BELIEF in the program. Athletes must believe in their coach(es) program in order to give it 100%! If they have ANY doubt in your program, they will never reach their true potential.
2. You must be training for SOMETHING. If you’re just going to the gym for a ”workout,” you’re not going to work as hard as if you had real GOALS. One of the reasons I feel the atmosphere is so intense in my gym is because everyone is training for SOMETHING — whether it’s a college football player trying to make an NFL roster or a washed-up meathead trying to achieve 6% bodyfat for Memorial Day Weekend, everyone in my gym has GOALS that they’re trying to achieve, so everyone busts their ass.
3. Competition. You must create competition in your gym. For example, the record board in my gym is sacred – EVERY athlete wants to get on that board because it’s a badge of honor! We also implement mini competitions regularly; sometimes it’s a free t-shirt to the athlete who lifts the most weight; sometimes it’s a picture and a mention on my website for a great performance. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you create competition. Competition brings out the best in everyone.
4. You must train in a GYM! The physical appearance of your facility speaks volumes! I always made the best strength gains in warehouse gyms, garages, etc. This is why my gym is what it is today. When an athlete walks into my gym, he/she knows that there’s only one thing to do…WORK!! There are no TV’s, no fancy locker rooms, no juice bars and no distractions! You can’t create this environment in a “health club.”
5. Music. Music is a stimulant and it’s a MUST to create an intense, motivational environment. In my opinion, you must let your athletes listen to the type of music that gets them fired up! I have heard way too often that some strength coaches only play the music that THEY like. The problem is that the strength coach isn’t training when his team is in the weightroom – the ATHLETES are training! In my gym, I know that music can make a difference in an athlete’s performance, so I let each athlete listen to the music that motivates them.
This is a interesting question that can lead to a huge discussion down many different avenues. I have been wanting to write an article about training programs, but can’t seem find the time. My take on training programs is that they’re not as important as most people think. I have had the chance to discuss this in depth with a lot of top lifters and I’ve found that they all train differently. Have you have come to this same conclusion? Hell, there are even some bodybuilders that are strong as hell with very basic programs. I also know some strength trainers that can quote principles and talk theories for days, but can’t even come close to impressing me with their strength, or the strength of their athletes. If they dedicate that much of their lives to strength, wouldn’t you think they would use their own advise and accomplish something?
With all my ****ing problems (sleep, low hormone levels, compartment syndrome, etc) I have still managed to obtain a decent amount of strength. Did I do this by reading all those damned books or studying old Russian principles? Not really. I talked to the people that were doing what I wanted to do. I got a basic outline of what they were doing, and then I got to work. Getting stronger is a fairly simple thing, but it seems like everyone wants to make it more complicated than it is. They look for some miracle program, drug, or gear instead of listening to their body and doing the work.
I am going to give you a list of what I think the most important aspects of strength are.
Technique – the best and easiest way to optimize what God gave you and lift more weight without even getting stronger.
Change – what got you to where you are will not necessarily get you further. As you get stronger, things in your body change. Your body will learn to recruit more muscle fiber and your CNS will adapt by learning to flex your muscles harder. All this stuff will be more difficult on your body. As you get stronger and push your body to new limits, it needs more rest.
Try to learn from everyone – but don’t just accept it as truth. Think about whether it makes sense to you. Did the info come from someone who has actually been there and done something?
Accept that this is something you can not do by yourself - Every top strength athlete I have met has partners that they can count on.
Use your brain and learn your body - don’t just follow someone else’s program, or if you do, then keep track how it effects your body, then adapt it next time. You need to learn how your body reacts and solve your own problems. This will mean you have to have confidence in yourself and your abilities.
The absolute most important thing is attitude - you have to have a positive mental attitude. I could have given up at any time, using any of my problems as excuses, but I didn’t. I knew I could achieve great numbers in powerlifting, and I was going to do whatever it took.
On to training environment. I also feel this can be very different from lifter to lifter, but there is one common thread among all great lifters.
a. You need partners that are dedicated and will always be there when you need them. They may miss a workout here or there, but when meets are coming up, or big nights at the gym, they are always there.
b. Your partners should expect nothing but the best from you and you the same for them. They won’t give you none of this “rah rah, good job” shit. If it’s ****ed up, they’ll tell you.
c. I think it is good to have partners with different training ideas and theories. This keeps things lively and helps keep things fresh with new ideas.
d. All the partners should want to learn and put their two cents into the group. It’s like a team and a job. Succeed together.
e. There should always be one leader who has final say and control. It’s his job to make sure the team is always moving in a direction and everyone is doing their job. Without one top leader there will be chaos. This leader needs to respect the team and utilize the knowledge they have. He needs to listen to what they say. No one is perfect, and the team may see things he does not. It is also good to have multiple brains to help correct problems, or to come up with new ideas.
1. Like-minded people who show up to train and show up for the meets.
2. Minimal but quality equipment.
3. No distractions at the gym or drama from the old lady.
4. A leader who is more of a guide. A guy has to find his own path, but can be nudged from time to time in the right direction.
5. The will to carry on no matter what the circumstances or obstacles, but the capacity to know when too much is too much.
1. The environment (LMAO…sorry, but it’s true). You could eat like shit and train in the worst manner possible and you’d still get stronger if everyone around you was getting strong and of a similar mindset.
2. Lifters — this may seem silly but the hardest part about building a crew is finding people of a similar mindset – and once you do, having those guys keep their lives together long enough to make it to two training days a week is another challenge. Finding five guys is no problem. Passing the ten lifter barrier is another beast altogether.
3. Equipment – access to monolifts, competition benches, and decent bars, along with specialty items such as a reverse hyper, GHR, bands, chains, etc. More variation = more attentive and creative lifters.
4. A coach and a set of rules that everyone must follow. There needs to be a leader and someone to bring order out of the chaos of a bunch of meatheads. Without a leader, we are all just chickens without heads.
5. Great music.
1. An absolute must is training partners that compete – in particular,
training partners that compete at the highest level at which they are
qualified. I believe having partners that not only compete, but compete in
meets that almost always have higher levels of competition is a telltale
sign that the person a) isn’t afraid, b) has the ability to control and
manage anxiety c) is absolutely driven to become what they are around (i.e.,
associating and competing against the best in the state, country or world,
depending on your level leads to one becoming a product of that environment) and d) will do virtually anything to improve as it will eat them inside not to
progress. This will almost ensure that you’ll have partners that never
miss workouts, are committed, on time and have definitive consequences to
poor training: a poor contest and humiliation.
2. A confined space. This might sound odd, but I truly believe there is
something psychological or emotional here. At the gym where I train, we have a roughly 30’ x 16’ space in which we’ve had as many as eight people
squatting and or deadlifting. People are literally tripping over one
another, and as the workout progresses, people are getting agitated, angry,
aggressive and basically pissed off. These are obviously all emotions that if
controlled can lead to some serious lifting. Additionally, I believe this
makes everyone accountable. Meaning, there’s no place to hide. Someone is
about to deadlift and seven guys are standing within feet of them. Believe
me, even if they don’t feel like training that day, there’s no way they are
going to humiliate themselves.
3. Diversity. I’m not talking about race, but rather ideas, people,
creativity, age, sex, (one exception is to have all males). I truly believe
that in order to have a productive training environment, you also have to
have a diverse training environment. Diverse in the sense that your
training partners think for themselves and contribute ideas and thoughts,
feedback and input – and don’t simply “follow the herd.” Partners that
recognize their weakness and strengths and constantly bring forth training
ideas that have NOT been done previously. I’m not saying four or five
different programs….BUT…. a group of independent thinkers that
4. The right equipment and the right variety of equipment. I think this
ties back to diversity. The more equipment and variety of equipment, the
better the thinking and thought.
5. A leader. There really needs to be someone that takes charge and makes
everyone accountable. Whether it’s taking them to task and calling them out
for being lazy or a pussy….or not trying…. or missing workouts, a good leader sets the tone and helps manage the flow of ideas and thoughts, and drives the pace. I do believe this can change and leaders can change, BUT, one person definitely needs to lead the charge at times. Not everyone comes to every single training session 100% motivated or on fire, BUT, as long as at least one person ignites the group and drives it, it makes all the difference in the world.
1. Whomever is part of being in charge, they need to have knowledge and
experience for the application of the training principles they plan to
teach. Nothing takes the place of know-how. Not even great equipment. The
young tend use too much emotion and it blocks their progress. The older
lifter trains smart and prepares. The older lifters’ creed is “Just because
you can, doesn’t mean you should!”
2. There has to be a mission for the trainees collectively. If the group
of lifters does not have the desire to be the best they can, there will be
zero atmosphere. Powerlifters, football players and fighters need to be on
the same page with what is expected of them.
3. Competition must be the end to the means. If you do not compete, you do
not know if your training program is effective. Gym lifts count for shit,
so you have to perform on the platform if you want to gauge success.
4. All lifters need to arm themselves by being well studied in the training
principles and philosophies they are using to get strong. Many people just
do what they are told. Good lifters and athletes study and incorporate
sound training advice and knowledge. They toss out what does not work. If
this is not done, the environment of your facility will be training programs
based on inbred advice, passed down the ranks of hearsay and emotion. A
good lifter that has the ability to focus when it counts can overlook the
music and any other crutch that the weak-minded need to perform.
5. Every great training facility refuses to suffer fools. Atmosphere is
built around collective attitude. If any of your lifters bring an adverse
effect to the table, they need to go. Just because someone is strong, it
does not mean they are good for the group. A gorilla is strong, but I don’t
want to lift with one. Same with stupid strong guys. Cut out all burgeoning cancer from the flesh of your gym. Don’t give it a chance to grow. There is a fitness hotel for idiots and it is called Gold’s Gym. There are plenty of them and that is where they need to go.
In order of how it unfolded for me:
1. People that are willing to do what it takes to make their goals. I still remember at the beginning of the Siff Seminar when you held out a $20 bill and asked who wanted it. I walked forward and you handed it to me. Then you said, “You see what happened? Everyone here had the same opportunity and only one person took action.” This coincides with athlete education. It’s pretty hard to learn how to get strong with all the bullshit being fed to the general public. My new thing is to ask people in the commercial gym when I’m doing cardio how the **** they came up with whatever jerkoff exercise they are doing, where they read about it, or who told them it would be beneficial. It’s mind-boggling. The athletes have to learn to be resourceful and seek out knowledge. They have to educate themselves and the gym needs to provide these resources. I started from nothing and had to pass on everything I’d learned as people came in the door.
2. Competition. Always have people doing the same main exercise so they can push each other. Nobody likes to get beat. It’s also a good way to get your shit together when you don’t feel like being there. This also builds relationships, strengthens the team, and forces the new people to “become somebody.”
3. Equipment. You’re not going to have a 1000lb squatter training with a commercial gym bar and a ****ed up power rack. The game is way too advanced these days. You need competition grade equipment.
4. Exclusivity. You have to be willing to set boundaries and kick people out. I just kicked out one asshole who was with us for two years. It is a privilege to train at an underground gym and this must be respected. We have people quit all the time, so I’m trying to do a better job on the front end. In fact, I don’t even get serious with them anymore until they’ve made it into their second month. I conduct two phone interviews, and the first one is almost always, “Call me back in a week.” They might get the address in the second one.
5. I like what JJ Thomas and Clay Brandenburg came up with: “Believe to Achieve!” The notion of what can be accomplished shouldn’t seem impossible. You have to create an environment of possibilities where people get so far beyond what they thought they could do that nothing surprises them anymore. Our lightest member has done boards with over 500 and GM’s with over 400…and she’s a girl. She trains right alongside the guys and kicks ass daily.
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