So you wanna be a pro….?

When was the last time you told the new start at your gym that they were ‘shit’ because that 20kg backsquat PR they just got was nowhere near as heavy as the 80kg backsquat you got on the same day…did you tell them they ‘weren’t good enough’ when they got their first set of ring rows because you can do kipping pull-ups? If your answer is yes you can stop reading…your a dickhead, for everyone else Im gonna ask you this..

 

If you wouldnt say that to someone else then why are you saying the same things to yourself when you see Elite athletes making all kinds of gains???

 

With the rise of CrossFit and Weightlifting and the easy access to some epic performances via Social Media, we can (and do!) find it easy to beat ourselves up that we’re not hitting the same numbers/time/qualifiers that our #fitspos do. Surely training for an hour once a day every day (after an 8 hour shift in the office, heading home to a nice dinner, cleaning the house, minding the kids, doing homework etc) is enough to qualify for the CrossFit Games Regionals right??

 

WRONG!

 

12572994_1691266487783258_3458196114658732670_n  Emma McQuaid – CrossFit Regionals Qualifier

12339212_1010077419013509_6765686956998466198_o Hilary Riordan – CrossFit Regionals Qualifier

531840_10151977255357320_277589602_n Sean Brown – European Weightlifting Championships Qualifier

 

All household names in CrossFit and Weightlifting…these athletes have the talent to get them all the way to the top of their Sport but is it just that? Do you just need raw talent and excellent genetics? Do these rare breeds train for an hour a day, 6 days a week, hit up a competition and then BOOM first place??

 

I had the pleasure of chatting to Emma, Hilary and Sean’s Coaches to find out what really goes on behind the scenes of that 15 second Instagram ready PR or that podium at the many competitions they enter…what does it actually take to be the best of the best and how can we ensure we stop comparing ourselves negatively..

 

6c0a1-P11083_2-184Neil Laverty – Head Coach/Owner of CrossFit 8020 and Emma McQuaid’s Coach

 

Can you give us some insight into a standard day for Emma?
The days vary dependent on the time of the season, the volume she needs, competition schedule etc. so there is no real standard day. However at the minute she is training quite a bit of volume with regionals only 5 months away, so I’ll give you her Monday session this week. She’ll probably train a triple. First session at 8am – 10am with me. This will normally be strength session really focusing on her specific needs, we’ll also train specific CrossFit movements in this session, either in single format or mixed in EMOM (every minute on the minute) style. We focus a lot on efficiency, learning to move the barbell faster with less energy, getting better at things like Muscle Ups and Handstand walking under fatigue.
The second session will normally be around lunch time, early afternoon, again we’ll focus on her major limiting factors, what she is worst at. Then we’ll do some interval work, normally very high intensity and short, trying to train her to get faster at workouts and not just always training at the same pace.
The last session will normally be in a group setting, training with the other guys in the gym and doing traditional CrossFit style workouts.
Add in warm ups and all her maintenance / mobility work and you have a pretty full on schedule.
What differs in your approach to Emma’s programming? How much time do you as her Coach need to invest in her, where do you need to focus, how do you choose what to focus on?
Emma’s training is very specific to her needs. She works 80% of the time on things that are designed specifically to elicit the right response in her body, based on how her system works. At her level she can’t follow a generic program, she needs to really dial in her weaknesses to make them strengths and do the training that will make her a better overall athlete. 20% of the time she will train with the group workouts etc, this is great to get that competitive aspect and also it’s nice to train with other people.
As her coach I probably spend 12-14 hours with Emma every week. Sometimes more if we can schedule our training together.
We focus on always making her better at the things she isn’t good at, while at the same time, trying to make her strengths really solid so they can be the advantage that can give her the win in competition. We always ask the question ‘What would you least like to see come up?’, from there we know what to work on, as long as that list is getting smaller we are moving in the right direction.
We have a good working relationship and over the years have learnt to be open and give feedback. We discuss a lot of things and normally get a plan that we are both happy with. It’s great that she questions things and talks about the program, when she understands why we do certain things she is much more committed to the process. More athletes should talk in depth with their coaches.

What commitment do you need from an athlete to actually achieve the goals you set out together? Can ‘life’ get in the way? If it does then what?
Every athlete has different goals, so the commitment is different for each of them. In elite level CrossFit the commitment is huge. It’s probably 15+ hours of training per week and often more. Emma probably commits 20+ hours per week at the minute. Add in the travel, physio, massage, extra sleep needed, diet etc and it soon becomes a full time job. It’s not something you can take lightly and life can get in the way, but if your family and friends understand and are supportive of the goals then it helps massively. Emma has a great support structure, her fiancé Dave is fully behind her and couldn’t be more supportive, that is such a blessing and vital if she wants to get to the top level – The CrossFit Games.

Is being at the top of your game just about being in the gym? Does Emma need to invest in nutrition/supplements/mobility etc
The gym is only half the story, sleep and nutrition are just as important. I always say she needs to do 20-30 mins of maintenance / mobility work per hour of training. So on big training days this can be another 60-90 minutes of effort. We are lucky that Emma has some great sponsors for her supplements and nutrition, so that really helps. It’s taken a while, but we have the recovery dialled in now.

Often we (general public) can ‘beat ourselves up’ if we’re not as good as the athletes we look up to, you head up one of the largest CrossFit box’s in the Country – how do you and your Coaches keep your members motivated and focused on realistic goals?
That’s a tough one. CrossFit is a young sport and people still get to train with the elite, they get to train alongside the athletes they look up to. This is really cool and I love that part of it, but it can lead to unreasonable expectations. Like any other professional sport, the athletes at the top of CrossFit are genetically gifted, and people shouldn’t compare themselves to them. Just like we don’t compare ourselves to Usain Bolt or Mo Farah, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the elite level CrossFitters. The reason 99% of us do CrossFit is for health and fitness, it’s so we can move better, get stronger, feel better and keep fit and healthy in a really cool, fun way. We shouldn’t lose sight of that – it’s a hobby, a community and a cool place to hang out and keep fit. CrossFit allows us to have happier, healthier lives, to build friendships and enjoy the training environment. CrossFit shouldn’t be looked on as a sport for most of us. If you are genetically gifted, if you are winning every workout in your local box, and finishing in the top 250 in your region, then you should chat to your coach about training for CrossFit the sport, if you aren’t then go back to the reason you started and focus on that goal, chose local scaled competitions to focus and train for, and just enjoy the process.
11219702_10153263426612737_4596144706912326106_nColm O’Reilly – Owner of CrossFit Ireland and Sean Brown’s Coach

 

 

You’ve produced one of Ireland top International Weightlifters, what made him different to everyone else? What work does an athlete like Sean have to put in to enter International Competition. How much time do you need to invest in him?

To be a high level athlete, the reality is firstly you need to be “genetically” talented. What I mean by this is you have to be “gifted” enough that you’re naturally stronger/faster/fitter than the average gym goer by far to begin with. This may not be apparent on day one, in fact they may suck on day one, but they do need to have something. That could be grit, or toughness, or work ethic (Most likely all of the above)
I use inverted commas because having a training background in sports from a young age, parents that support, nurture, and develop you, and the environment to excel. I could have been the world’s greatest lacrosse player for all we know, but that’s not going to happen growing up in South Dublin.
After all that we can NEVER tell where an athlete will end up, as we don’t know when they’ll peak. So in addition to being gifted you need to be adaptable to training. Very often you see coaches get excited that someone comes in and is naturally strong. But they never develop much past that initial strength they had.
Seanie had played a reasonably high level of golf and rugby before I started coaching him, and had had experience in CrossFit before I started programming for him.
Coaching Seanie has always been fun. But remote coaching an athlete is very difficult. Since they don’t get feedback during a session you need to be super precise with what their focus should be. And the feedback has to be given in such a way they can remember it and use it. I remember once when Sean came over before a comp in 2014. We were training out in The Performance and Fitness Academy. His snatches had been a little off the last while. In a one on one session we figured out the cue was “UP” (We’re very sophisticated in our cueing). This would have taken 10 or so Coach’s Eye videos to get correct, given angles, delays, trial and error etc.
Sean has actually performed better the more conditioning and gymnastics he does, rather than a “traditional” weightlifting/barbell template. If structured correctly, it aids in their ability to tolerate increased volumes in training, builds strength in the joints, and keeps them within their weight class.

When you programme for an elite athlete – does that differ from programming for your members in CFI, if so how? Why? And the ultimate question – in your opinion should WL’s do CF?
As for programming for “elite” athletes, Sean needs to be more muscle snatches/snatch pressing and pulls than your “regular” gym goer. If you’re a CrossFitter doing pulls, you need a slap. You’ve to deadlift once every 10 days or so, clean once a week, and probably end up hitting powers or hang cleans in a metcon. You do not need pulls on top of that!
While we’re here, it’s not that there’s two types of lifters, or CrossFitters. There’s not regular folk and elite level athletes that are completely different. It’s a spectrum of ability and levels. That shit hot monster in your gym is nothing at a local throwdown. That beast at the local throwdown can’t make Regionals. The country’s best hope at Regionals doesn’t even make the finals. That person who destroyed their Regionals is forgettable at The Games. Please don’t think I’m being facetious or disrespectful. I’m trying to use extreme terms to highlight that these Fitspos are just people. Small things add up to immense differences over time. An extra second each and every metcon. An extra kilo every max out session. Taking your fish oils every day instead of every couple of days. Getting a sports massage once a week. Sleeping an extra 30 minutes, in a slightly darker room. Resisting that second snickers bar. It’s easier to say they’re different and reduce it to that, but it’s a combination of about a million small different changes that add up to a HUGE difference in results.
For Sean, he’s gonna do the full lift once a week, hangs once a week, powers once a week, and then accessories depending on what he needs. He’ll follow the same squat programme more or less than CFI for 8 months of the year.
A Weightlifter spends approx 1 minute in total on the comp platform – how much work behind the scenes does he need to put in to make those lifts count? How many days/months/years? What happens if on game day it all goes wrong?
Game Day is funny. Sean did his first competition all by himself. That’s when I knew he was special. I had the aim of him completing 6 for 6 and building towards qualifying for European U23s. Sean had a rival and decided to psych him out and even hit a new PR on the platform in his first comp!
There’s no coaching on game day. We don’t focus on anything or try to fix anything. We might reiterate a focus point like “finish”, “elbows” or “reach”. Interestingly, I haven’t put Sean on my patented sing and dance routine which has proven 100% effective. A lifter needs to approach the bar with 100% confidence. That’s just a fact. They need to believe that they’ve made the lift before they put their hands on the bar.
With that in mind it’s more about trying to instil belief in them before they approach the bar. Not an easy task and part of the game. Particularly in lifting, when you’ve got one shot, and a millimetre can be the difference between a good lift and a bad day at the office.
Alas (I like using that word) even if you do prepare as best you can, sometimes the lifting gods decide otherwise and things don’t go as planned. It could be that the lifts themselves don’t go well, or that the other lifters interfere with your rhythm and routine (something you just have to deal with and is part of competing). Someday you’ll bomb. Apparently you’re not a real lifter until this happens. It sucks. It hurts. Everyone telling you it happens doesn’t help. But it’s part of the game. You’ve got to let an athlete grieve for it.

I suppose carrying on from that. It is possible to do everything right and give all you have and still not reach that elite level. It’s possible that you can give your all and not win. That’s the cruel element of sport. I doubt I’ll ever back squat 300Kg, as much as I’d like to. Heck, 200Kg might be out of my reach. Dan Bailey is a devoted CrossFitter, but if I had to call it, I’ll say he’ll never make The Games. Julie Foucher was everyone’s pick to win The Games but an unfortunate break made that not happen. I know I’m a bummer saying this but I think it’s important to state for two reasons. One, just because you work for something or want something doesn’t entitle you to have it, and you need to be okay with it. Secondly, and this is the balancing act, you need to realise you’re more than just an athlete and you entire worth isn’t solely tied up in your ability to ‘make it’.
You’ve coached at the CrossFit Games – how did those athletes differ from an everyday CrossFitter? What are they doing every day that we’re not?
The Games was surreal. Again I’m not immune to getting caught up in the idea that these aren’t people, but ELITE FUCKING ATHLETES. I met one of the athletes I was working with and the first thing she said was “I just hope I don’t come last”. So they have the same fears of embarrassment and insecurities over ability as the rest of us.
Their life over those days basically consisted of warm up; compete; recovery row/bike; ice bath (both while trying to get calories in) sleep; wake up; eat more; massage if lucky, warm up, go again. That’s it. But that’s their life, really. Eat. Sleep. Train. Repeat. There’s a big difference between going to the gym to train as your stress relief/health/therapy/socialising and when it’s your job. Hitting up Romwod in the evening because it helps you unwind is vastly different when you HAVE to do it every day or you’ll fucking seize up and get injured.
The mental strain of taking something you love and turning it into a career is something that’s very rarely addressed. Everyone thinks athletes have the life but they can’t coast. They pay for it in a lot of ways we don’t see. Strain on relationships, socialising, money, all add up.
Alot of us (general public) can beat ourselves up if we’re not hitting the same lifts as the elite athletes (or even the intermediates!) you brought CF to Ireland and own the top CF Gym in Dublin – how do you keep your members focused on realistic goals and achievements?
The reason why we beat ourselves up is we don’t see a lot (any really) behind the scenes of someone else’s life. We’re wired to be comparative animals, so we naturally compare ourselves to our peers in the gym. Our brain basically reasons like this  – They’re in the same environment as me, so they must be the same as me, so I should be able to do the same as them. This all comes from when we ran around in groups of about 30 people. We would all be the same group back then, so there wouldn’t be much differences in circumstances and genetics. Now, we come from wildly different backgrounds, and are at massively different points in our journey. So this is where the disheartening feeling can come from.
It has it’s positives as well. When we walk into a gym a fresh faced beginner and see girls bust our chest to bar pull ups and 100Kg squats we think it’s normal, so we’re far more likely to achieve a higher level than if we walked into a gym and the attitude was girls were “weak” and only doing ring rows and light dumbbell squats.
So overall it’s a balancing act between being inspired by those who are “better” than you (man, I use quotation marks a lot) and also realising that they’re a different person and your journey is yours alone. There’s hundreds upon hundreds of instances that add up in deciding whether you’ll get to the light band on the pull up or bust out 20 unbroken bar muscle ups. We never see these because all the factors aren’t immediately apparent and don’t have an instant impact.
Above all else, my advice would be to be like Jason Khalipa. Stay positive and present. Coach yourself like you would your best friend and you’ll get your best results.

Any final thoughts?

Above all else, in my opinion, beyond the formulas that coaches use to come up with programming, to the gifts an athlete may or may not have, is that there’s a relationship between coach and athlete.

The athlete has to trust the coach, and the coach has to believe in the athlete. At the start, that trust may be based off reputation or just that the athlete doesn’t know squat (see what I did there?). But the trust needs to come from something more than that. Sure, it’ll be built by the coach ‘getting’ the athlete results, but there’s going to be tough times in the athlete’s training. Weeks when they feel like dog shit, and possibly months when they feel like they’ve gone backwards. They may even scream that their numbers ‘prove’ it.
Sean has shown immense trust in me during these times. He’s silently down a shit ton of pressing snatch balances, which he hates and make him feel weak. He’s sat on the rower and busted out 5Ks, and during the darkest days of his squat cycles he’s missed 100Kg lifts (his current 1RM is 134Kg). It’s during these times he’s trusted me that it will come good.
We took a big risk at Leinsters 2014, and when that didn’t pay off we went balls to the wall for 6 weeks to build for Nationals. Even in the warm up, when he missed 110Kg (TWICE!) and 115Kg he had the trust in me and I had the believe in him he’d nail his opener at 120Kg. And he did. That right there, those 20 or so minutes leading to the platform, was a microcosm of the coaching relationship.

11894546_10153511524820600_785583429474164513_oBrendan Walsh – Owner of Guerilla Fitness and Hilary Riordan’s Coach
 

 

With the rise of CrossFit and the availability of videos on Social Media its easy to look at athletes like Hilary and think ‘I can do that’ – we then try out the CrossFit Open or a pull-up and realise its much tougher than we thought. We tend to go on and decide that the athletes on Social Media are genetically blessed, what we don’t see is the work behind the athlete. Could you give us some insight into a standard day/week for Hilary? Just how hard does she have to train?

I love where you are going with this. It’s very easy to look in from the outside and think some people are genetically gifted and dismiss the hard work, but also on the flip side some people think getting to the top level in this sport is relatively straight forward and anyone can go from zero to regionals by just following some special program.

I have many thoughts on this, firstly I would like to address the genetics side of things. There is no question that each athletes genetics and muscle fibre make up plays a massive role in determining the success of an athlete, but hard works beats talent when talent doesn’t work and in Hills case she is the HARDEST working athlete I ever met and I have worked with Olympic athletes too. Her mental fortitude and will to push through pain is incredible. With that engrained in her she was always going to do well. She has always done well in sports and excelled in gymnastics as a kid, show jumping, hockey and anything she took up she was always the best at it and represented Ireland in 4 different sports, but that is totally down to hard work and commitment 100%. When I first got her into CrossFit and weightlifting, she couldn’t squat 40kg and it took her 3 years of blood sweat and tears to break 100kg in a back squat, to this day, 6 years after starting weight training with me, her best back squat is 120kg and this is after several off season strength cycles. Naturally, she isn’t strong (stronger than most yes with over a double BW squat – but not for the top level in her sport). In contrast I have got several girls to break 120 in the gym inside two years for example, another element is some conditioning pieces she really struggles with such as rowing and sprinting, what she can do for max efforts is nowhere near what she needs to be doing, It may look impressive to an average gym goer, but up against the top regional athletes she lacks in every department bar bodyweight strength.

So no her genetics have not brought her this far, she is not naturally talented when it comes to fitness, sport maybe, but not fitness. She is naturally an average athlete. However, she is not an average athletes she is a two time regional athlete and competed at various International level weightlifting comps including Euro’s and what has got her there is her mental strength to out work her competition and hurt like no one else is willing to.  However, on the flip side I have another two athletes that at the time of writing have (Unofficially)hit the necessary standard for the European championships (One week away from being official,  all going to plan on the platform) in weightlifting inside 3 years of training with absolutely no prior weight training or even athletic experience so certainly genetics plays a key role, but this needs to be backed up with serious dedication and hard work.

An example of Hill’s typical week at the moment looks as follows (Note last year she did do more double and triple days, but this is no longer the case)

Monday – 2 x 90 min session

6.45am Coach

8.00am – 9.45am – Am Training of Lower body strength work + Accessory + 15-20 min hard EMOM

10am -11.30 Coach

Mid Day nap for one hour

3.30pm – 5.00- PM Training of Oly lifts, high end, + barbell cycling + Met con + Accessory

5,30 – 7.15 – Coach

8.30pm – 10pm coach

Tuesday – 2 x 90 min session

6.45am – 11.00 Coach

11.00 – 12.30 – Aerobic / monostructural piece

Mid Day nap for one hour

3.30pm – 5.00- PM Training of heavy pulling, + Met con x 2 + Accessory

5,30 – 8.05 – Coach

Wednesday – 1 X 90 min session

Sleep in

Mid Day nap for one hour

3.30pm – 5.00- PM Training of Gymnastic skill work + Gymnastic met con + Accessory

5,30 – 7.15 – Coach

8.30pm – 10pm coach

Thursday  – 1 x 90 min session

Sleep in

9.45 – 11,00 –

Mid Day nap for one hour

3.30pm – 5.00- PM Training of Open Prep

5,30 – 8.05 – Coach

Friday – 2 x 90 min session

6.45am Coach

8.00am – 9.45am – Am Training of Lower body strength work + Accessory + 15-20 min hard EMOM

10am -11.30 Coach

Mid Day nap for one hour

3.30pm – 5.00- PM Training of Oly lifts, high end, + barbell cycling + Met con + Accessory

Recovery in Spa

Saturday – 1 x 150 min session

11.45am – Max Effort barbell work + Met Con x 2 + Accessory.

Sunday – Rest day.

Hills will tally 14 hours of HARD training in a given week on top of easily a 40 hour work week and I feel 14 hours is not enough in this game anymore, but she cannot give any more effort or time and will soon start training daily for enjoyment and not competition.

So to answer your question in a long winded way, Hills works incredibly hard, harder then anyone outside of a seriously competitive CrossFit athlete could understand.

Does she have to manage her food/her supplements/anything else?

Yes and no. Hilary manages her nutrition well but not every macro is counted as she is a creature of habit and eats the same If not similarly every day and she know what her body needs and how to fuel it. Coming up to weightlifting event she will have to watch her weight as she walks around at 58-59kg so she cuts her portion sizes a week prior to ensure she gets into the 58kg class.

 

As a Coach how do you approach programming, how do you decide what Hilary needs to do?

Hilary is first of all my fiancé and soon to be wife (lucky me ;)) this makes programming and coaching for her both easy and hard. I can’t treat her like I would one of my other athletes and be black and white because I have to live with her at the same time so it has its challenges, but these are rare and the benefits of being her partner is massive as I know when she needs to back off, I know when she can do more etc. We used HRV last year but we both found that by listening to our bodies as opposed to data actually was more useful so that’s what we do. I set out a training block and 50% of it is a template i.e. so then on the day depending on how beat up she is we fill in the template as we go if this make sense. So for example she will have strength work and Oly lifts programmed and she follows them to the letter to each % but then if I have planned a barbell met con, I will write the met con that day depending on how her session is going and how she is feeling and what I am trying to elicit or she might have an EMOM and if she is feeling fresh it’s a hard EMOM of maybe 50 seconds of intense work with little rest or she may have an aerobic piece so if she is beat up it could be a long steady state piece at low intensity and if not it may be interval work etc. So we stick to the template but fill it in as we go depending on how she feels.

Is programming a one size fits all? Just how much time does an athlete need to put in to ‘make it’?

I strongly believe that programming is massively important and you cannot follow a generic program and any competitive athlete’s needs to be individually programmed for. Why? Because no two athletes are alike, no two athletes react to the similar volume the say way, different athletes have different weaknesses and need to concentrate on those weaknesses more so. All these elements cannot be achieve when following a generic program, no matter how good it is. Anyone of the many programmers you can buy from or follow online are totally bullshit in my opinion, they are just competitive versions of .com – how and why should two athletes one who is able to squat 200kg but has 5 muscle ups and one who can squat 140kg but has 20 muscle ups follow the same program with the same goal in mind? I don’t think they can and need individual attention to work their weaknesses more so then a generic program which covers everything.

Regarding time, for an athlete to get to regionals they need to put in 15+ hours of training and work less than 20. In order to get to the games I think you need to be training 20+ hours a week and training full time with no work commitments, so you can focus more on recovery between sessions.

Can life get in the way? If so, then what?

Absolutely, for Hills and myself anyway, as of late our focus has had to shift to our business, without knowing it, we ran it as a hobby previously barely making ends meet, now we aim to run it as a profitable business and that has to take priority. We are also getting married and that is time consuming too. Of course life gets in the way, but its how you react to it that ensure you keep your training going well.

CrossFit is a largely unpaid sport – unless you win huge comp’s you’re not getting paid and you certainly can’t live off the money you would earn from being a CF athlete – how does this work in real life? Is this sustainable?

The way I see the sport going is that in order to be seriously competitive you need to have loads of support and money cannot be an obstacle. Your average Joe cannot give up his income and pay for programming, gym membership, workshops with specialist’s coaches, physios and nutritionists etc week in week out for a few years. Top athletes can spend upwards of €10,000 per annum. You don’t get good sponsorship unless you are competitive at games level so long term no I don’t think it’s sustainable. People might give it a 1-2 years max to make it and then if they have not got to the top then I think they quickly revaluate their priorities.

Id like to say a MASSIVE thank you to Neil, Colm & Brendan for taking the time to chat to Me and give us such insight!

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