Posted February 13, 2015

Common Themes Between Out Of Shape Clients and Pro Athletes

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a wide variety of clientele over my career. Everything from cardiac rehab and even one transplant, to cancer survivors, joint replacements, metabolic dysfunctions and all the way up to professional and semi-professional athletes. One even won her second Olympic gold this past winter. I’m also fortunate enough to know some people who spend their entire time working with specific niches of clients. I have friends in town who work at hip and knee replacement clinics and that’s all they do. I have friends on the other side of the continent who specialize in certain sports and train the entire range of ages and abilities in those sports, and I’m fortunate enough to pick their brains if I need some help.

A funny thing happens when you start looking at this wide variety of clients with different goals, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are pretty similar in a lot of ways. I wanted to break down some of the global things that might surprise some people when they look at the very extreme ends of the population, referring to both elite professional athletes and the very deconditioned “Average Joe.”

1. They’re usually successful at something

If you looked at a pro hockey player, they’re not likely to be beaten in a skating event any time soon, and not many people will out maneuver them on the ice, but ask them to do certain activities that they’re not used to and they may struggle, just like everyone else.

For instance, in hockey 99.9% of the time the athlete is playing in a bent over position, with their stick on the ice and usually in some form of kyphosis. Shoulder motion is typically not that big of a concern as the players rarely involve end range internal or external rotation, and would rarely bring their arms over their head except after scoring a goal. In the Edmonton Oilers case, this is a rare event.



I’ve yet to work with a hockey player who has seen significant ice time in a contact league where they don’t have a bilateral AC joint separation. In many cases, this many be a beneficial adaptation to their sport, as excessive shoulder motion could be considered a risk factor for shoulder injuries down the line. Additional to this, they play in skates that are usually solid formed to the players foot and ankle, which will significantly limit ankle dorsiflexion. An overhead squat assessment will produce a whole lot of poor movement patterns in this specific population due to the limitations imposed by the sport. If you had someone who was hitting a solid overhead squat for depth, they either aren’t playing much, are still very young, or likely are susceptible to some contact related injuries.

You can see repeatable patterns in any sport. Baseball players, especially pitchers, will have a deformation in their throwing arm that allows them to reach much higher degrees of external rotation and reduce their internal rotation, and be in an asymmetric manner to their non-throwing arm. Eric Cressey and Mike Reinold do an awesome job discussing the specifics in their video product Functional Stability Training: Upper Body, so I’ll let you check that out for more info on that topic.

In the deconditioned population, they’re in a similar boat. They can make do with what they have to do on a daily basis, and have adapted positively to help them consistently do those activities day in and day out. In many instances, they can develop similar structural abnormalities to help them, such as an office worker who shows signs of disc delamination through the thoracic spine to help them sustain a kyphotic posture with less effort coming from the thoracic extensor spinae group. They’ll also see thickening of the upper traps and wasting away of the lower traps. The upper trpezius is useful to keep the head held in an anterior position so it doesn’t fall forward, whereas the lower traps are just kind of hanging out there with nothing to do is the spine is in kyphosis and the shoulders are protracted, so they just pack up and leave town.



Quadriplegics have a similar adaptation through their legs after spending considerable time in a wheelchair. Contractures cause the muscles of the legs to atrophy and be held in a permanently shortened and stiffened position, even though they have no neural signalling to the muscles to cause them to be anything less than floppy. These contractures can also produce spasms through the muscles if they are stretched out, even if they’re stretched slowly.

In many ways, the two have had specific adaptations to their imposed demands, and the body has found ways to become good at what it’s been required to endure.

2. Neither Might Not Know What They’re Doing Outside of Their Specialization

A great example for this would be a swimmer. I’ve worked with a bunch of swimmers before, and tried to get them to perform a squat, even with bodyweight. They can’t do it. If you take a kid who has only swam as their sport or activity and try to get them to do something that doesn’t involve using their legs in a straight and toe pointed manner with a mild flipper action, it’s usually not going to go well. Sure, they may have shoulder mobility for days (and random clicking with basic movements), but legs aren’t their forte.

Similarly, weightlifters may not be good at dancing. Anything that involves more than 3 steps could be a challenge, so if I get someone who needs a lot of lateral reaction quickness and speed, getting some people to do something like an ice skater is a bit of a challenge for them to process.

And don’t even get me started on something like a hip rotational flow.

For someone who is deconditioned, they’ve found a way to do the things they want to do in their daily lives, but not much else outside of that. Even if they have significant dysfunctions and painful sites of injury, they can develop a limp that allows them to still exist with minimal side effects. A limp is essentially the bodies way of still accomplishing a task, even in the presence or perception of pain.

To ask someone who has never done a squat before, or at least not in the past 30-50 years, is going to obviously produce a movement that isn’t quite confident and strong. Given enough exposure to reps of the movement, everyone will see improvements, and it’s not due to the sheer genius of a program, but rather to the bodies ability to simply learn.

I remember working with one guy who was a collegiate football player and asked him to show me a deadlift. Seeing as how he was in a collegiate program I had assumed he had some exposure to them, and likely to olympic lifting. What he showed me bordered on abuse to my eyes as they almost leapt out of my head and ran out of the room. He’d been shown what a deadlift was, but never coached on how to do them. Not surprisingly, he rarely did them because they always hurt his back, and after some simple corrections and coaching him through the stages of the lift, he went from looking like a rusty hinge with 135 pounds to easily pulling 405 without even really working that hard.

On the field he was awesome, but that didn’t mean he knew what he was doing in the gym. A specialist is good only at their specialty. Most runners are only good at running, which is why that’s all they do. A select few can do other things, but they’re not the majority.

One way for people to pick up on skills relatively easily is to not be a specialist and be more involved in different activities. The athletes who tend to have a varied athletic background tend to get injured less, have better transferability of skills, and pick up on new things relatively easily. A great example of diverse skillsets and athleticism is kids who were raised on farms. “Farm Strength” should be a new program where people pay to go and do manual labour that people used to be paid to do back in the day. It would be way more effective than anything out there, and be so much more productive than hitting a tire with a hammer for no reason other than to hit a tire with a hammer.farmer

Kids who had to do chores on a regular basis and who grew up doing a variety of tasks seem to have a lot more control over their bodies and more developed total body strength than any kid who specialized in one sport all year round because their parents thought they had a chance to go to the Show at the tender age of 8.

3. They all want to see results, but may not always want to put in the work

Some general population clients are workhorses, willing to do every single rep of every diabolical exercise thrown their way with a shimmering focus on their eyes that screams “FEED ME MORE!!!” But then there’s those who show up 10-20 minutes late, swagger in like they haven’t a care in the world, take longer rest breaks than prescribed, do their own stretches to procrastinate, talk with everyone in the gym, and simply do the minimum they can get away with. They’re still there, and happy to continue coming back.

Athletes can be the same way. They could be the most talented kid on the field, but they could also be putting in the bare minimum work, showing up last and leaving first, dogging it during conditioning, and saving everything for “when it’s important.”

Some athletes are going to be the ones who everyone looks at as the benchmark for what hard work looks like. It may not even be the guy who is busting butt to come back from injury because the coach is tracking his check ins!

The similarities don’t just stop with these three: the anatomy and response to exercise is the same, the need for recovery is similar, their emotional and physical wellbeing is often in similar situations (although most office workers can still go to work if they have some turf toe), and many others. They also want to see progress, and can come in with similar knowledges of health, fitness and nutrition, meaning as a trainer how I approach each isn’t entirely different, but the outcome may be.

In many ways, we all want the same things when it comes to our fitness programs: to be safe, see results, and enjoy the process just enough to want to do it again tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if you’re securing a multi million dollar contract or looking to pick up a golf ball without back spasms, the basic outcome is the same. Work hard, get strong, and stay awesome.

  • Seth G

    What an interesting comparison! It totally makes sense. Even with people that don’t “specialize” in anything, they may just be specializing in just doing their daily tasks and thus lose range and function in everything else. I would say that I specialize in rock climbing bug have also realized that be able to lift heavy things correctly will be more beneficial in the long run than just climbing. I also enjoy exploring movement and finding where I might be missing something so that I can try and address it.
    Thanks for that hip flow drill! Awesome.

  • Travis Pollen

    Very cool comparison, Dean! Only thing is, I love hitting a tire with a hammer for no reason other than to hit a tire with a hammer.

  • James Bassett

    Totally rings true. 18 months ago I did an ultra-distance race walk – 85 miles. I thought I was the fittest guy on planet earth. A couple of weeks later a friend called me to say they were a man short for their regular weekly 8-a-side football (soccer) and could I fill in? No problem! Ha! I ached EVERYWHERE for a solid four days afterwards. My friend later confessed he’d asked his brother-in-law (a decent tri-athlete) to help out in the past and he’d suffered the same thing and now refused to play. Which is why he called me.