FFF 026: Training NFL Athletes, Coaching & The Benefits Of Single Leg Training – with Nick Winkelman


Nick Winkelman is the Director of Education at EXOS where he oversees all mentorship education courses and is a full-time strength and conditioning coach.


He also lectures nationally and internationally on all topics pertaining to exercise science, strength & conditioning and personal training

In this episode of the Food For Fitness podcast, Nick chats all about coaching cues. What are they and you’ll learn the difference between internal and external cues and when they’re best used. Nick explains how someone’s physiological makeup can affect their ability to perform certain exercises and how he allows for this when designing workout routines.

We’ll cover Nick’s favourite cues for teaching the deadlift, squat and the hip hinge. He shares why single leg or unilateral work is so badass and why more people should be doing it, his thoughts on sprint training for the general public and why he thinks it’s perhaps too dangerous. He talks about why group training is so effective and his thoughts on Crossfit.

Whether you are a recreational lifter who wants to improve your technique or a personal trainer who wants to develop how to coach your own clients, you’re going to love this episode!


Scott: Hey Nick, welcome to the show.

Nick: I’m so glad to be on, thanks for having me.

Scott: It’s my pleasure. So Nick, give us a bit more background in full about you: who are you, what do you do, how did it all begin and why are you so awesome at it?

Nick: I hope you have enough time for me to answer it so I’ll try to give you the elevator pitch on that one! I have been in the industry for roughly 15 years. In fact, my very first job, when I was 15 years old, was working in a gym, so I have really known nothing else but this industry so I am incredibly honoured that I have lasted this long.

My pathway, the long and short of if it, is I went to Undergraduate at Oregon State University and got a wonderful Degree in Exercise Sports Science and met an incredible practitioner out there named guido van ryssegem who is still, to this day, a great mentor of mine and he got me into professional baseball, college baseball, helped me start to work in personal training, so really guided me across a diversity of paths so I could figure out if I wanted to work in pro sport, private sector or some combination thereof. The most important thing he did for me is he told me about a man named Mark Verstegen and a place called Athletes Performance which is, as you will soon see, now today called EXOS so in 2006 I always joke then I spent 3 years of my undergrad preparing for this internship.

I interned in Phoenix Arizona at Athletes Performance. At the time it just had two major facilities but really what Athletes Performance was, and still is today is it was a private sanctuary, if you would, for pro elite athletes whereby we had massage therapists, physiotherapists, nutritionists, strength coaches, sports psych and then outsourced medical chiropractic as needed. Going into a place like this, as a young strength professional, I really looked at this to be an opportunity to step into a real incredible high performance environment. I was lucky enough, by the end of 2006, to get hired right before the internship ended and now, fast forward, I have been with Athletes Performance, now called EXOS, going into my tenth year. In doing so, again I have been a strength and conditioning coach working with a diversity of athletes from American football players in NFL, major league baseball, hockey, basketball, national soccer teams and everything in-between so it has been quite a wonderful ride.

In addition to being a strength and conditioning coach, I also have been very honoured to run and manage our education department which now we are running these week long education courses, that we call “mentorships” in about 22 different countries. We are doing quite a bit as well in Ireland and in the UK and around there so I kind of wear two hats, if you would, at the company right now: overseeing our NFL Combined Development Programme as the Head of Human Performance in that regard; and then overseeing our Education Department which delivers both live as well as online education courses.

Academically, since then, I have kept that passion moving forward getting a Masters in strength conditioning through Edith Cowan University and I am in the final months, thank goodness, of finishing up the PhD with an emphasis in motor learning and sprinting so, as I’m sure we’ll talk about, I’m very interested in the elements of coaching, coaching science and how to influence our athletes and our clients’ ability to learn and flourish with what we’re teaching them.

Scott: That’s pretty cool. When in your base in Phoenix, how often do you have people running up Camelback mountain? We were in Phoenix last year and we did a hike up it and it was absolutely boiling, it was so hot!

Nick: Yeah no matter what time of year it is, everyone knows about Camelback, it’s a staple in the middle of Phoenix in Scotsdale. It’s a wonderful thing to do. In the summer you have to be brave because even if you go at 5am, I can tell you it’s not going to be easy because right now when I walk out at midnight, it’s a blow drier when I’m opening the door to let my dogs out so it’s you’re not going to get a remedy from that heat.

Scott: Let’s look at coaching in general then. When you are coaching an individual, whether you are helping them deadlift better or improve their sprinting or taking plyometrics, there are what we call internal and external cues. Can you explain, Nick, what is the difference between an internal and an external cue?

Nick: That’s a really good question. Just to give a little bit of context for the listeners as to why you are even asking me that, I started looking at cues and instruction about 10 years ago and the simple reason was I noticed that mentors and great coaches versus coaches that were just emerging, really the number one thing that defined them was less than programmatic differences, but more how they communicated, how they engaged their clients and how they helped them learn.

Inevitably, fast forward about 6 years ago, I came to find that the science of cueing, as we might want to call it, is actually called “attentional focus” and that science was really put forth in 1998 by a gal name Dr. Gabrielle Wolf and Dr. Gabrielle Wolf very simply put it, as you just articulated Scott, she called cues one of two things, they either can reference the body through what we are calling “internal cues”, therefore you might ask someone to squeeze their glute, you might ask someone to focus on moving through a joint segment such as bring your scapula closer together or extend your knee, or you might reference some combination thereof, i.e. squeeze your glute to get better hip extension during that deadlift or during that sprint.

Conversely, she had another category cue which she called “external cues” and you can probably guess what those are. Those specifically either reference the outcome of the movement, meaning jump as high as you can, or run as fast as you can, jump towards the ceiling, push the ground away, or within those reference the actual environment, so snap under the bar, snap the bar to the ceiling, drive off the lines, sprint towards the gates in front of you; so you are simply drawing the client or the athlete’s attention towards some kind of environmental feature or outcome which is meant to be if you would the intent of the actual skill in the first place. If we look at clues in that category then the listeners are probably thinking “well I use both. Sometimes I am referencing the body and sometimes I am referencing the goal” and like many people, I thought both likely had their place but when we fast forward now to today, at last count there is just over 150 papers, if you can believe this, scientific papers, that have evaluated this simple concept and they have looked at it from the simplest tasks like balance, all the way to complex tasks like changing directions, sprinting and shooting a free through or golfing.

In doing so, they looked at men and women, individuals with and without disabilities, young and old, novices and experts and all the data points towards a very salient fact and that is when you reference external cues, you reference the outcome or the intent of a task, we not only see an improvement in the context of practice but, most importantly, we see retention of that skill and I know every trainer has had that session, countless sessions, myself included, where we are coaching the heck out of a client, we have a breakthrough session and they come back 48 hours later and it’s as if men in black have come into their house and erased their memory and they don’t know how to do the skill at all anymore.

So in doing so I started to be able to tie the science to practically what I have been seeing and fundamentally what is often sometimes referred to as an “art”, there is still artistic freedom does have some scientific ground and at the end of the day it starts to logic out quite simply. If we are jumping and I am telling you to squeeze your glutes or focus on extending your hips or just telling you to keep your abs tight, I am asking you to focus on one piece of a much larger puzzle so, Scott, within this, if I ask you to squeeze your glutes when you are jumping as high as you can, I am actually asking you to do two things: I am asking you to focus on squeezing your glutes in the context of still focusing on doing the whole task, which means literally you have to focus on more things versus if I tell you to explode off the ground, or I give you some kind of visual clue such as touch the ceiling or touch this point, now I am defining the intent entrusting that the motor system can self-organise to achieve that attempt.

There are some people who say “what if my external cues are not getting the technique that I want”, well you still have to look at the body: do they have mobility? Do they have stability? Do they have adequate strength? They still might have deficits, it doesn’t mean that the cue is wrong. It might mean that they do not have the resources to achieve the outcome but still the main point is that when we cue utilising things that don’t reference the body, so analogies, metaphors, intent on the outcome or the environment, that is the way to win in this battle of improving technique and motor learning in a way that is sticky and that’s what we want, we want to see retention.

Scott: OK. What are some of your favourite cues, either internal or external for some of the major lifts that you think – when people start thinking about that cue, they suddenly go “ah ha”. It’s almost an “ah ha” moment like with a hip hinge or something when you are teaching a beginner to squat, you say “let’s go for this”. What are some of the most successful ones that you have encountered?

Nick: Absolutely. So let’s start with something like a snatch for example. A lot of people do variations of the snatch. So the reason I bring up the snatch is because it involves the barbell, so I can reference the barbell. Obviously I am in a room so I can reference the ceiling or I can reference the ground so I have these three different points that I can use to triangulate the movement of the client.

For one, if we have a client that’s not sitting under the bar very well, we might tell them to snap under the bar, or sit under the bar or put them together: snap and sit under the bar. Conversely, if we’re not getting the client to get enough acceleration on the bar, we might tell them to snap the bar towards the ceiling. Now if you want to make that even stickier, let’s say they have a brother or a sister, let’s say “I want you to snap the bar to the ceiling just like you used to whip your brother or sister with a towel or like you used to get whipped”.

So we add in that analogy to just bring it back to an experience that they can relate to so now they have that sense of the whipping action of the wrist that we are going for as they grab that bar and sit under it. Similarly, when we talk about things like a squatting pattern, we use a lot of analogies to bring that to life. Imagine that there is a chair behind you, we want you to sit down and into the chair. Literally in some cases, Scott, we will bring a box behind them and ask them to sit down and towards the box and when they feel just that flush of the box, stand back up.

Now what we’ve done is we’ve turned that external cue into a kinaesthetic feel – they’ve literally sat down and felt that feeling of reaching back towards the box. Now we can remove that box and reiterate the same cue: sit down just like that box was behind you. So all the time, any time that we can’t find a cue that the person understands because maybe they don’t have context, we’ll bring forth kind of a physical feeling, make it kinaesthetic so they actually have something to refer back to and then we’ll use the cue again. When it comes to squatting, often it’s times of knees-in versus knees-out. That’s always a troublesome one and we might not want to say, well push your knees out because Nick said that internal cues are not good so what we’ll do is put the mini band around the knees, again give them a kinaesthetic feel and say “hey, as we squat down, I want you to keep good pressure through that mini band” and now the next time they come and do that squat, we can take the mini band off just like a band-aid, they don’t need the band-aid anymore, and we’ll say “we want you to squat down like you’re keeping pressure on that band the entire time”.

We can further that by “hey, we want you to squat down, have a sense of almost splitting the floor, keeping your technique really, really wide”. Let’s say we’re doing a front squat, right, similar version, elbows are down, people often say chest up, elbows up, well let’s think, what’s something they can do with the bar that forces them to have that high elbow position during the front squat, we can simply tell them, “hey drive that bar back towards the wall behind you”. The function of driving the bar back, we know it’s into the neck where it should be, but tell them to drive it towards the wall behind them meaning keep it outside their body, they fundamentally have to lift their elbows.

So in doing so, all we are trying to do is come up with really keen ways for them to understand how to move in space.

Now, Scott, I want to be very specific here, when you are setting up a deadlift or a squat, can we say feet shoulder width apart, hands outside your knees, or grab the bar here relative to your shoulders – absolutely. I call those “set-up cues”. The key thing I want the audience listening to understand is that when we are talking about the value of internal and external cues, it’s when we open our mouth to communicate an improvement or an aspect of the dynamic nature of the movements. So cueing how they are sitting down into the squat, how they are coming off of the floor, how they are pulling the bar into the hip pocket – that’s when I really want to be utilising external cues, if you would. When it just comes to orienting the body in space, setting them up for a drill, it’s not critical that an external cue is used in that regard because you are not necessarily referencing how they are moving, you are just trying to set them up for success. Hopefully that makes sense.

Scott: Yeah, and following on from a deadlift, when I’m in the gym and I see people doing deadlifts, two of the main issues seems to be, in beginners this is, the rounded back scaredy-cat deadlift, or if they are maybe more of an intermediate lifter, they find that their hips scoot up really early which again can be limiting. So what are some of your favourite cues for getting the neutral spine to prevent the scaredy-cat rounded back and stopping people’s hips scooting up because by saying that, some people might go “I don’t even know what he means by hips scooting up”.

Nick: When we talk about the hips scooting up too early and obviously therefore the chest and the shoulders not rising in a relationship to the hips as you are referring, a couple of things will be to say “pretend you’ve got a 5 on your shirt, I want you to keep that 5 parallel or forward facing towards the sky or towards the mirror in front of you”.

Similarly, we’ll say “imagine you’ve got on a compression shirt, we want you to stretch the front of that shirt as much as possible”, so rather than saying “pull your shoulder blades back” or “pull your shoulder blades into your pockets”, we’ll say “we want you to stretch the front of that shirt as much as possible”. Let’s kind of reinforce that upright position, but again, if you were to say shoulders down, chest up and the movement hasn’t started yet, I’m not going to penalise you. I think that’s still a set-up cue. The key one that you are referring to is that once the bar starts to move off the ground, are we seeing that relationship of the hips and shoulders, bar dragging up the legs versus the hips pumping to the sky.

One of the best cues I have ever heard is obviously push and anchor into the ground but take the bend out of the ground because often times people try to pull that bar off of the ground too quickly, whether it’s a deadlift, it’s a clean or a snatch so asking them to purposely try to take as much bend out of that bar as possible as they drive into the ground and simply what I like to call “drag the bar to the belt buckle”, or bring the bar to the belt buckle. Imagine as my hips go up, I am taking that belt buckle. Literally, imagine if they were wearing a belt, I am taking that belt buckle and I’m pulling it away from the bar.

Conversely, if I say I want you to anchor in, take the bend out of the bar and I want you to drag that bar up and into that belt buckle, we have provided them with a proper analogy, now just intuitively it makes sense that I that to be the shortest path possible and in doing so they are less likely to bring those hips up because now the emphasis is getting the bar into that hip pocket in that triple extended finish position. So those are just two examples that I feel are very focused cues that help people with the initial set up, the initial pull and in making sure that those shoulders and hips are rising in the correct fashion versus the hips sky rocketing to the sky.

Scott: Awesome, and I have one more on this left – looking at the hip hinge, so sometimes people struggle to get this action and whether it’s for setting up for or parts of a stiff legged deadlift or anything that’s involving pushing the bum back towards the wall is one cue that people say or imagine you are looking over the side of a cliff – what are some of your favourite cues for coaching this hip hinge?

Nick: I love those two, those are two fantastic ones. With the hip hinge, it’s a very difficult one and sometimes the best way to improve the hip hinge is not to provide a cue by itself but to again provide a cue with some sort of a kinaesthetic feel. I’ll continue to reference that because an external cue is only as good as your client’s ability to understand what you are saying, and not just understand it in a cognitive sense, but understand it in a kinaesthetic, physical sense. So often times when I am teaching the hip hinge to someone who is having difficulty, especially if it’s a single leg RDL, which is where we typically start in teaching the hip hinge, I will often at times utilise a long band, so I will have that band, if you would, go under the individual’s foot, and then I’ll wrap it around that same side’s shoulder, so if it is the right side it goes under the right foot and up over the right shoulder, or to even provide a little more kinaesthetic feel it will go under the right foot and then we’ll wrap it up around the left should behind them.

In doing so, it reinforces not only that I need to hinge, but I need to stay parallel to the ground because that band is trying to pull me out of that providing kinaesthetic feeling where I want to be. In doing so, all I need to do in that regard is tell them to focus on driving that band back at the wall behind them and that becomes the major cue. The one that I probably most notably say is from head to heel, even although I am referencing the body initially, strong as steel – and that’s the one I really, really love. Similarly, we’ll tell them that I want them to imagine that from head to heel, your body is a chain, right, it’s a bunch of chain links and as we’re doing this hinge, I want you to make sure you are pulling on both of those chain links as hard as you can, and in doing so I always ask them to focus on taking the bottom of your shoe and reaching it as hard as you can at the wall, the mirror, whatever is behind them, give them some kind of tangible outcome to push towards.

I also tell people, I want you to go to a table-top position, right, I’ll tell individuals imagine you are a wheelbarrow. To move a wheelbarrow forward, the handles have to get picked up first. Imagine your leg is that handle – your body doesn’t move down unless that handle lifts up. So again, it just comes down to what’s their past experience, what cue are they going to most relate to and just find something that reinforces length and it’s typically driving the top of the head or the top of the arms forward as we are taking the bottom of the foot, really the bottom of the shoe, and driving it back. I am a big believer in utilising the band.

Scott, the other thing I really like to do is imagine if we are going to take a soccer ball and you have them let’s say on turf or on a carpet so therefore the ball is not going to shoot off too fast. Now they are in a good, tall position and they are going to do an RDL, put the ball right behind the right heel because let’s say the right leg is the one that’s going to go back in the hip hinge during the RDL and ask them to try to keep their foot or the heel, slowly pushing that ball backwards for as long as they can and then inevitably they are going to feel the bottom of that shoe roll right over the edge of the soccer ball until the foot comes all the way off the ground.

That does a couple of really interesting things, one: it reinforces that the down leg is slightly bent, as you know allowing us to get more range of motion activating that glute, similarly it reinforces in a literal sense that it is that back leg which is keeping that good connection from head to heel driving the motion rather than breaking at the hips or breaking at the back. So again that’s another example of bringing in an outside implement, in this case a soccer ball, I’m sure most people in the UK would resonate with that, and just adding something fun to it and putting a kinaesthetic feel to your external cues.

Scott: Gotchya. Earlier on there, you said that one of the first movements you taught was the single legged stiff legged deadlift – are you are a big fan of single leg work because if you go into a commercial gym, it’s something that, unless the person is getting a personal training session, you see hardly anyone do any single leg or any unilateral work at all. Do you think it’s something that the general public could do with doing more of?

Nick: Absolutely. At the end of the day, I think single leg work just allows more natural variability in the motor system. It allows for more degrees of freedom and it allows us to activate the body in a manner that is similar to how we move and navigate the world around us. All the while we are on one leg, we are getting more overload, if you would, for that one leg than we are in a bilateral stance so it allows most of us to get greater loading and greater effect without necessarily having to overload the body too much when we are talking about injuries in individuals that are in a deconditioned state, those are all positives. So for us at EXOS we are always trying to initially generate stability and protect stability before we go into more of these robust bilateral movements.

Now mind you, when we have elite athletes, it’s not an issue to start with both of them, but I think for general public – absolutely, it makes sense for them to do a lot more single leg work. But let’s be honest, why don’t they do it? It’s more difficult. If you have no training background in this industry, why would you choose the thing that you keep falling over on? The thing that looks like you need to be in the circus to master. You are going to pick the most stable exercise that intuitively allows you to lift the most weight because if you don’t have a background in this industry, frankly that’s what makes the most sense.

So that’s why I think when you’re not with a Personal Trainer and you don’t have that background, it might not be intuitive to go towards these more variable, difficult exercises. They are not locking it out and connecting the dots between the weight room and function in life the way a trainer might. So it makes sense to me why we don’t see it done but for all the reasons that I just said and obviously everyone listening knows, it’s a huge benefit to help build symmetry and function in the body.

Scott: So how would someone go about it, so say someone who is listening has a good bit of experience in the gym and can certainly do some of the major compound lifts and thinks “I don’t do any single leg work” – do you just suggest doing single leg stiff legged deadlifts or front squats like a front loaded barbell step-up on single legs or how would someone start incorporating it? What are some of the big winners for single leg work that gives them a big return on their investment?

Nick: Absolutely. So when we talk about designing a programme in the weight room, and I’m going to get to the single side single side single arm answer here, we think of it in four quadrants, and I think this is important for any listeners who are applying this to themselves. We think of it as upper body push, upper body pull, lower body push, lower body pull.

So first and foremost, I think whether you are training once a day or one time a week, two times a week, or four times a week, our goal is to create movement balance. That is always number 1, whether you are doing bilateral work or single leg work. So for us, some of our big winners would look as follows: on a Monday I would want to see you do some kind of upper body push, lower body pull, right, we are kind of getting that balance. So with our upper body push, we use this with all of our athletes and clients We are always recommending that you literally do one arm dumbbell bench-press work, or at least alternating dumbbell bench-press work because that instantly adds in a rotational quality all the while improving chest/arm related musculatory that people want out of a bench-press.

From there then, Scott, absolutely when we talk about lower body pull, we are going to give typically one of three options out of the gates. We are going to do a single leg, whether we call it a stiff leg deadlift, we typically call it an RDL because we want that bottom knee just slightly bent, and we are going to load it one of three ways. Day 1 the easiest way to load it is have two dumbbells in hand, so now you have a nice balanced loading for that single leg, it’s going to be much easier. From there then if we want to start loading it in a little more of a variable way, we will go to actually one dumbbell which you can still get fairly heavy but the way we are going to start, is whatever leg is down, that’s the side of the body that is going to hold the dumbbell and we call that ipsilateral and that’s going to be a little bit easier.

The final progression, which is a little more difficult but starts to relate to function and how we run and move, is what we call consolateral loading by where again the left leg is down, the right arm is going to have the dumbbell but now, as someone doing this or coaching this, we have two things at play: the second we load that, you are more inclined to want to break at the spine or break at the hips not keeping that table-top position; and two, when loaded in a consolateral way, you are more encouraged to rotate.

So again, kinaesthetically, we want to be able to counter these positions to keep a good neutral position. Day 2 then we flip it, we’ll look at a lower body push, upper body pull. From a single leg stand point, we really will do lower body push one of three different ways. We’ll either do more of a lowering single leg squat where we’ll have a bench behind them, stack a couple of pads using range of motion initially as the variable we are manipulating and simply have them sit down and back, tap without sitting the bench and stand back up. As we gain more range of motion then we can add more of a front loaded type position with a kettlebell or add in some kind of weight vest.

Similarly, we also can do a step up. A step up is great if you want a little bit more load because we can obviously hold two dumbbells, we can put on a weight vest and if you are feeling ambitious we can even do a barbell if we safely execute it. So step ups now allow us to get maybe a bit more range of motion and load it a little bit heavier.

Finally, we are massive fans of doing your split squat oriented progressions, whether it’s slide board, whether it’s rear foot elevated or just good old fashioned forward/backward lunges. I think all of those have a play, it just simply depends on how much you want to load it. The single leg squat down to the bench you can load the least and is usually a good starting point for people.

Finally, upper body pull, we’ll do quite a bit of one arm/one leg rows. So we’ll have an individual holding on to a rack of dumbbells, attain that RDL finish point so, if you would, their body is making a T with the ground cable top position, if my left leg is down, that’s the side that’s grabbing the dumbbell and now I’m going to have to do my rows. So, again, I’m still loading the back and the arm musculature the way that you would want out of a row, but all the while I’m getting the ancillary benefit of rotary stability which is critical for all human function.

So that right there, Scott, is a perfect example of what a first month foundational programme might look like for a youth athlete or might look like for one of our general population athletes and inevitably people get surprised, you can load those quite heavily and we still see good transference to the bilateral patterns, you may want to work on a heavier phase 2.

Scott: OK, so are you saying then that for, say again, general public, someone who exercises several times a week who does have a reasonable amount of experience that they would, assuming that they are not training for power lifting, Olympic lifting or trying to put on as much mass as possible, say they are training for just all round athleticism and generally aesthetics, would you say that there is probably then more value in doing single leg or unilateral work than there is doing the bilateral stuff?

Nick: I think what we’ll find when we are doing unilateral work, is absolutely you are less likely to see injuries which means you are more likely to see the person in the weight room. When I talk about injuries I’m not talking about the person being injured in the weight room but we all know that with bilateral movements, over time we can load them exponentially more and from a joint standpoint, soreness standpoint and achiness and the potential loading issues that could resolve or cause an injury, I still think single legs/single arm work is the best bang for your buck for general population and can get incredible value and fitness effects if you add it with a proper energy system or cardiovascular programme and proper nutrition – absolutely, I think it’s safe, I think it’s effective, it supports function and it can help every general population client achieve their goals.

Scott: Fantastic. Are there any exercises that are suited to certain individuals based on their genetic make-up more than others? So, would you say when you are looking at someone, say you have someone who is very tall, slim, long limb length, are there any exercises that you wouldn’t give them a lot of versus someone who is maybe shorter in stature, shorter limb length, or do you think that that’s maybe overrated, I won’t bother with that, everyone can do all exercises but their ability will obviously differ? Or what’s your approach to that one?

Nick: That’s a really good question and funnily enough, I have to deal with that quite a bit when we are working on sprinting and the ability to teach someone to get into a start stance.

Their stature, their limb length, even their ratio of femur to lower limb tibia length that effects how we set them up. So similarly we can obviously apply that same kind of conversation to the weight room. I think when we look at people, you know, if we make a generality with height, if they are tall, especially if they have very long legs, typically squatting can be an issue for those individuals, especially if we see an individual with a very long femur relative to their tibia length, simply because that hip to knee joint the lever arm ends up being so long that we see that person have to flex forwards so much to counterbalance it, which means they are exhausting their hip range of motion, their hip flexion too early and therefore we don’t see them being able to obtain those deeper squat positions that maybe we all have become accustomed to like, especially with seeing things like the functional movements screen.

I think when we look at tall individuals utilising the hip hinge – phenomenal; utilising a deadlift, especially with a higher hip position, you know if they have long enough arms and they can get at least low enough – fantastic.

Typically, the way we would modify a deadlift for a person that’s a little bit taller – we’re big fans of utilising the trap bar deadlift, put some more in a, call it an ergonomically effective position, the suitcase type position and because with the trap bar, for those that haven’t seen it, the handles can be a little bit higher and that allows us to not be in quite such a low position. Similarly, I think doing a lot of step up work, a lot of lowering work, utilising split positions such as a rear foot elevated split squat, these are all great ways to load an individual that maybe is a little bit taller. Front squats over back squats, again because we have that load now being the counterbalance meaning they don’t need to exhaust their hip flexion or their ankle dorsiflexion nearly as much.

I think there are ways around it but really, Scott, for me, height is more of a function of what is your limb length ratio, because you could still have someone who is shorter in stature but if they have really long upper leg versus lower leg, that still could cause the same issue.

But, generally speaking, if an individual is shorter, their ability to effectively get into these deeper squat positions usually is not as big of an issue so again traditional deadlift, traditional squatting whether it be single leg or bilateral definitely a back squat would be easier for them, but still front squat position – fantastic, and if you do have that longer upper limb, from a leg prospective, it’s going to make it easier to squat down because that load is causing the counterbalance versus my body having to hitch forward, if you would, because of the back squat position. So I think it’s tough, Scott, to make it a generalisation. I would say the only thing height-wise, I think we’ve captured it, but really limb length as well given the general sense of that also provides further insight, whether they are tall or whether they are shorter in stature.

Scott: OK, cool. We’re going to have to go right back again to looking at a coaching question. At EXOS, do you find that coaching in small groups is more effective compared to one on one training because small group PT is something that’s starting to get more attraction over here, more gyms are starting to embrace it. What’s your take on it? Do you prefer coaching someone individually? Obviously there are pros and cons of both but which do you think is the best for perhaps different populations? Do you think small group is better for beginners? One on one is better for the more advanced? What’s your take?

Nick: I think generally speaking, working with small groups is going to be preferred for a number of reasons over one on one. Obviously, if we look at the initial push for small groups, especially I’m sure in the UK and North America, was that for trainers it was financially more of an efficient manner to drive revenue but also to impact more lives.

I think as we start looking at it from a coaching perspective, there’s a lot of motivational attributes that can be driven through small group training that you simply cannot get one on one and the number 1 attribute that I think drives motivation from a small group standpoint is the whole concept of relatedness or what we call “social relatedness”.

One of the theories that we believe in at EXOS, and many do, is called “self-determination” theory which basically says that for a client or an athlete to be motivated, there are three key attributes, psychologically speaking, that need to be fulfilled and those are: someone needs to have a sense of autonomy or choice in their life, they need to feel that they are in fact part of the process, that they are driving towards their goals within; number two, they need to start to feel that they have greater levels of self-advocacy or competence, or confidence, however you want to put it, obviously we want to have a sense that we are getting better at what we are doing within this process; and then finally, social relatedness or just relatedness in general is what I call “the X factor”, it’s the one that makes the whole thing sticky, and together the three of them create what I like to call “the motivation molecule”.

I doing so, when you are in a small group setting, you are driving that quality of relatedness. If someone is having a bad day, they have their fellow trainees in that session that can pick them up, so rather than it being based simply on the success or the failure of any one person, that group dynamic literally takes on a group personality and it’s about the success or the failure of the group. In doing so, usually when you are in a small group, you are going to have a very nice balance of people having a successful day and maybe people having some level of purposeful struggle so that always counterbalances one another. Similarly, now I am not only accountable to show up for my coach or my trainer, I am also accountable to these other individuals and the fact that these other individuals are going through the same struggle, they are seen more as friends, they are seen more as a support system because that individual is not paying those other people to be in the group, they are paying the trainer, so there are certain expectations which come with that financial engagement. The other people in my group, they don’t owe me anything but yet they are going to be giving me positive feedback and we are going to push each other and because of that collective struggle, that creates a common bond.

I think as a coach, as a trainer, you have an ability to architect motivation, architect the cooperation of that group to push them forward as one entity which in many cases takes some of the individual ups and downs and averages it out because we are also going to have individuals that are having a great day. So in doing say, giving a motivational message is much easier when you are speaking to a group of individuals than when you are speaking with one individual, so I think your ability to prime the focus for that day, provide an overarching theme, to challenge these individuals as a group, to push forward, it all makes it easier when you are dealing with a small group or a moderate sized group setting.

For me, whether I am dealing with athletes or clients alike, I believe that group setting allows for motivation to emerge in a much more sustainable fashion, you have more accountability check points and when you are working with a group of individuals you can relate to, there are huge areas of science that point to the benefit of observational learning, especially when you can physically relate to the person you are observing.

Therefore, whether the person you are observing is doing better than you or worse than you, it’s been shown that both of those observational engagements allow for improved actual skill learning of the person themselves. So there is a balance of motivation, there is a balance of motor learning and skill acquisition, and obviously, from a coaching business perspective, it’s a financially sustainable model.

Scott: I agree, I think the whole idea of group accountability is such a big deal and I’m a big advocate of community and getting like-minded individuals together for reasons that you mentioned, but I think one of the interesting reasons for resistance over here when trainers try to advocate the small group PT method that people think that they’ll get less attention but then you can use the counter argument and say well look, if you look at a high risk situation like children in a swimming lesson – it’s one instructor to 25 children, and it’s all about the quality of the coaching and they’re all working together and again you get the competitiveness in the swimming lesson and the kids not wanting to lose face in front of their peers. That’s just one example but you’ve given far more.

Nick: I think, Scott, in all fairness, if you are dealing with an individual that has any level of social anxiety, it’s going to be hard enough for them to walk into the gym and want to get a trainer in the first place, I think there are definitely psychological signatures. I don’t want to necessarily label just as personality types but there are specific psychological signatures and we’ll pick them up, especially if it relates to anxiety and social settings, that person probably out of the gates is not going to function well in a group setting, especially, if they are not used to functioning in a group setting in other aspects of their life. But one of the things I think you can do if you work at a gym and the trainers kind of look at the entire gym as one community, even although you each have your own individual clients and you each have your individual small groups, still I believe a healthy psyche for a gym is that we want to treat it as one large community and inevitably, if you are working with that client one on one, maybe you introduce that person to the client you have in your next session during transition or you introduce them maybe to a small group after that one on one session and you introduce the group to that person and they come up and they embrace that person and say “how is your training going”, “oh it’s fantastic”, and then they see each other down in the coffee shop or maybe by the shake bar and they say “oh how did your session go with Scott today?

Our session went phenomenal. Hey, we would love to have you in our group”, and I think if you allow it to occur organically like that, and I’ve heard a lot of trainers who do that, you know they work with someone one on one and then they simply, for free, invite that person to one of the group sessions, say “hey, I know we have our three one on one sessions this week, but you know I also have a small group and you know what I think you’d really fit well within that and I think you’d find the comradery and the motivation and the push from it would really help you achieve your goals. I just wanted to throw it out there, if you want to come to that session, no cost at all, we’d love to have you”. That’s just such a different way to go about it, but initially we have to gain that trust with that person who maybe pushes against it and then introduce them to this other opportunity.

Scott: Nice. One thing we haven’t touched upon Nick, is looking at sprint training and we’ve talked a lot about what happens in the weight room but, if again, we are looking at this for general public, do you think that sprint training is beneficial?

I mean, there’s loads of studies, we know, that shows that high intensity work like sprint training is excellent for conditioning, reducing body fat and loads and loads of things like this but some people say that the actual process of sprinting is too high risk for people who haven’t been trained in actually sprinting, so do you agree with that? Would you say that you shouldn’t really sprint unless you’ve been coached and if you want to get those benefits from high intensity intervals, then stick to doing it on a bike or in a swimming pool or with a jump rope, something other than sprinting.

Nick: That’s a really good question. You know, theoretically, if we were all living 500-1000 years ago, we would be sprinting our entire lives, whether we’re sprinting towards our food or away from something that wants us to be food, so I think physically we can level set and say absolutely sprinting is a human capacity, it is our primary form of movement from A to B and it’s our internal Formula 1 car so ideally I think that all humans would want to retain and have the ability to express the possibility of sprinting all the way up until old age until it is completely limited.

We are living in a completely different world today so I think that rightly so, just saying that everyone should sprint, absolutely is not by itself the recommendation we want to make, but, as you pointed out, sprinting allows and reminds our body to operate at the highest level, not only in terms of the energy system output and the benefit we get from the amazing anaerobic effects, not to mention lean body mass improvements, drop in body fat composition and a number of other hormonal attributes that comes from training like that, but also just the physicality with which you have to maximise your range of motion, through the shoulders, through the hips, it’s a beautiful, for lack of a better term, cornucopia of everything that the body might have to do from a mobility, strength, speed and energy system perspective.

I believe with athletes, athletes that are well conditioned and well sprint trained, are less likely to get injured, but, with that said, if someone has never done any sprint training before – absolutely. I believe it’s in the trainers best interests and their responsibility to initially create a level of conditioning within the weight room, whether you are doing circuits or utilising various implements such an elliptical stair step or whatever it might be, to develop that baseline so that they are just fit enough to tolerate the training necessary to teach them how to sprint.

From there – 100%, once you have energy systems locked, once you feel they’re strong enough, they’re healthy from a joint perspective and you have cleared them in that regard, I think then teaching a general population individual how to do a two point start, how to do 5 meter or 10 meter sprints with proper techniques, starting them very simply with wall drills or light harness drills. These are great ways to start to teach and integrate the technique into the context of a movement preparation session before you go into the weight room.

I think that there is nothing stopping a trainer or a coach from slowly but surely integrating sprint training within the session and inevitably, if the client likes it, getting them out to the field and using interval type sprint training as a primary form of physical development but also energy system development from a commissioning perspective. But I think you need to use a progressive approach to get them there.

And just as a side note, in Dallas, Texas, there is a group called “Tribe Called Sprinters” and they actually are exclusively running general population programming utilising sprinting as their primary mechanism of training and while a certain group is attending those sessions, they are general population and the feedback thus far has been amazing, not only in results but just the community and the mental benefit these individuals are getting from using their body at the highest level.

Scott: That’s fantastic! So final training question before I move onto a couple of quick, short, mind-set general concluding ones – what do you think of cross-fit?

Nick: Oh, of course – good question. You know, a couple of things about cross-fit – prior to cross-fit, we called that circuit training, so for me it has always existed. When I looked at people calling that cross fit, like anything in our industry, someone has renamed something that we already did. I have seen great cross-fit programmes. I have also seen ones that I might question if they were going to be given to a person on day one.

Scott: That’s a very diplomatic answer!

Nick: If someone was well trained, some of the craziest, if you would, cross-fit programmes might be fine for them. At the end of the day, I think it is something that took forth and leveraged something that you and I already talked about, Scott, and that is they brought forth community, they brought forth unity and they did it through this mechanism of physical fitness and you could have likely done this with many other training methodologies, but they chose to use one that is really focusing on metabolic circuiting so you and I both know that if you can survive the workouts, you are going to drop body fat, you are going to harden what lean mass you have, maybe lose a little bit of it to get through those workouts, but nonetheless you are going to look fit if you can avoid being injured.

I think individuals like Kelly Starrett and some of the other individuals out there who are cross-fit advocates but they are looking at it programmatically on how to make it progressive, how to make it safe, how to integrate regeneration, how to integrate proper nutrition – I think that there are those that are doing good. So what I maybe would have told you 6 years ago is different than what I would tell you today.

I believe that there are those that are doing cross-fit right, but at the same time, because it is so widely accessible and individuals are getting into the franchising game that don’t have the background like you and I do Scott, I do still believe that there are plenty of pockets, where unbeknownst to the individuals running these gyms, they are likely, potentially, doing more harm than good in certain cases so I really can’t make a generalised statement. I know it’s coming across as political because I have seen it done very well and I’ve seen it done very bad so for every bad thing that we hear about it, I know that there are places that are changing lives and using it for good and at the end of the day, because it is unregulated, fundamentally, we are never going to be able to make it unanimously all in that good category. So that’s my two cents on it.

Scott: I agree with you 100% in that it gets a lot of bad rep but there are loads of sports – traditional body building, power lifting, weight lifting, any different form of weight lifting that if done poorly, can lead to injury and conversely, if done correctly and coached properly, it can be excellent. But I think with cross-fit, I don’t think that there has been anything in the last decade that has brought so many people into a form of a weight room and started lifting weights, so I think from that respect from the view of the community and the results it’s getting, I think it’s fantastic so I think there are many, many pros of it and it’s just the cons that seem to be getting the attention. I mean, I’m not a cross-fitter, this is just my two cents on it.

Penultimate question – and this is a super short one and I only want you to give me one sentence, and if not I’ll let you go to two max – with regards to any aspect of training or coaching, what do you know now, or the biggest thing that you know now, that you wish you knew when you started?

Nick: The number one thing that I know now, from a coaching perspective, is the utterly critical importance of being present during your training sessions and truly seeing and hearing your athletes and your clients so that you might better understand them.

Scott: Fantastic. Before I come onto the last question for you Nick, I just want to say to the listener that if you are enjoying these Podcasts then please do give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher as it really helps out in the reviews or if you are a new listener, if you’ve come over to listen specifically because Nick’s on the show or you’re part of his tribe, then please do subscribe to the Podcasts because we have loads of evidence based practitioners like Nick coming on, on a weekly basis. So Nick, last question – what’s on the cards for you at the moment and how can the listener find out more about you?

Nick: What’s on the cards for me at the moment is I’m 4 months away from trying to knock out a PhD and we’re kicking right back into our NFL Combine Development in January and planning for that starts right now so that’s going to take me through the end of the year, on top of my beautiful new son who was just born 7 weeks ago, so that’s what’s on the cards for me right now. In terms of how to find out more, I keep my Twitter handle constantly populated with great insights on coaching and research and that’s @Nickwinkleman and then I’m always on Facebook as well providing similar information but if you really want to stay in touch with us, visit our EXOS Education Community page and join that on Facebook where we’re providing daily updates, facilitating conservation, always from the standpoint of evidence based practice from mind-set nutrition movement and recovery.

Scott: Superb. Well Nick, this has been an absolute education for, not only me but I’m certain the listener took home a load of great advice from it. We could have talked for ages, this is probably one of the longest recorded Podcasts that I’ve actually done and I’ve only got through half of the questions that I had planned for you so I think we definitely need to get you on again in the future if you’d like to come on, but it’s been fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Nick: Cheers Scott, thank you so much.


Thanks for listening and the support – if you enjoyed this episode, I hope you can leave the podcast a rating and review on iTunes, and if you haven’t subscribed yet, this is the best time to do that too. This will help the show to get up in the rankings.

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.