Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Christopher Sommer, founder of GymnasticBodies (GymnasticBodies on Instagram/Facebook) and former US national team gymnastics coach. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. And welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss show where each episode it is my job to deconstruct world class performers to tease out the lessons, routines, habits, breakfasts, favorite books, etc., that you can use and borrow from world class performers. Whether they are military strategists, chess prodigies, athletes, actors, politicians, or anything and everything in between. And this episode, we have a very exciting guest with whom I’ve been spending a ton of time, Christopher Sommer. Christopher Sommer, you can find him on Instagram and Facebook — I highly recommend checking it out, Gymnastic Bodies is the account name — is the former US National Team gymnastics coach. He’s also the founder of Gymnasticbodies.com, a training system that I am currently testing the hell out of.
And I have no affiliation with it insomuch as I get no kind of affiliate anything, payout, whatever. I’m just fascinated by body weight training and reached out to Coach Sommer to try to finally practice gymnastics as a 38-year-old. And I’ve learned a lot. We’ve been toying around with things for about six weeks now, as of this recording. And we’re doing 90 day custom test. So I hope to have some very interesting before and afters for you guys. So we will be doing a Round 2 follow up. As a world renowned Olympic coach, Sommer is known for building his students into some of the strongest, most powerful athletes in the world.
And you’ve got to check out his Facebook page. He features a lot of these athletes. It is bonkers. During his extensive, 40-year coaching career, Coach Sommer too, meticulous notes on his training techniques, his wins, failures, and so on so that he could translate the best elements into a superior exercise system for both high level and beginner athletes.
His four decades of careful observation led to the birth of gymnastics strength training, not vocal strength training because I’m failing in that department, otherwise known as GST. In this episode, we cover a ton of stuff. And I think it’s going to light up the internet because everybody has a strong opinion these days. But Coach Sommer is very well qualified to have the opinions that he holds. We talk about the biggest mistakes of self taught hand stands, why recreational athletes who try gymnastics get injured. Most commonly, we talk about the three to five exercises everyone should be doing.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of some of them. We talk about mental prep for athletes who are going into big competition. The questions you should ask a coach before sending your kid to gymnastics. We get into what is wrong with yoga handstands. The questions or opinions that he might pose or have related to kipping pull ups in cross fit and elsewhere.
And I asked that question because a mutual friend said if you want him to lose his shit, ask about kipping. We have the determination of GST, this gymnastics strength training goals. If you could only pick one, what would it be and why? Who are the best coaches he’s met? What characterizes them? It just goes on and on and on. If you want to build mass in the biceps, how you can utilize straight arm work. And why you must turn your hands out past parallel when training the rings. Why is that important? How does it affect muscular development and strength development? Why do you need to fix the lats to fix the shoulders? It does on and on and on.
This is a very in depth conversation. We get into the weeds. And I would just say be patient. There are a lot of gems here. And similar to the Dominic D’Agostino episode on ketosis and the end of cancer and so on and so forth, we really get into some nitty gritty detail. And that is why many people listen to this podcast.
So just bear with me. If you’re like what the hell are these guys talking about, give it 30 seconds. Chances are that we’ll zoom back up to 30,000 feet or change topics. So stick with it, and please enjoy this very wide ranging, intense conversation with Coach Christopher Sommer. Coach, welcome to the show.
Coach Sommer: Thanks, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: I am excited to finally have you on the show. We’ve had so many conversations in the last month or two. And I’ve been so impressed with the subtlety and nuance of the training that you do. So I’ve been very eager to have you on the show to explore all things gymnastics and gymnastics strength training related. So thanks for making the time, first of all.
Coach Sommer: My pleasure. Looking forward to it.
Tim Ferriss: And I thought we could start with just some definitions. So how would you define gymnastics strength training, GST?
Coach Sommer: That’s a good question. In a nutshell, gymnastics strength training I’d define as high level body weight strength training. So none of the technical training that we do for world class performance or the acrobatics or technical gymnastics, just purely the strength, joint prep, and mobility components.
Tim Ferriss: And one example of what not to do, perhaps, or how gymnastics strength training might differ from the esthetics that some people I’m not going to say compromise with but choose, we were talking about doing a pike handstand press or holding that position. And the example, and feel free to correct my recollection, but was of how a lot of folks kick their hips way out to counter balance instead of doing what? What would the gymnastics strength training version of that look like?
Coach Sommer: A good example. So what we see, and this is kind of getting into some handstands, some skill training, but handstand done correctly is a reflection of physical preparation that athlete either has or does not have. So if they lack strength, if they lack mobility, then, of course, their technical handstand is going to lack refinement. So in terms of that pike handstand, if they lack middle trap, if they lack lower trap strength, then, they’re going to try to counter balance by really arching the chest out, sticking the butt way back behind them. Goodness, I’m not even sure how to describe it like a pike and an arch at the same time.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry to interrupt, Coach. Just for people, I realize I should have probably defined some terms myself. So pike, for people who are not familiar with this, the easiest way to visualize it if you don’t have any background with that is imagine you’re sitting on the floor. It’s kind of like PE class. Legs straight and together bending at the waist towards your toes.
Coach Sommer: Bending forward.
Tim Ferriss: Bending forward towards your toes. So if you were to imagine you’re sitting down with your legs out in front of you, hypothetically, at a 90 degree angle, then, you put your arms up over your head, let’s just flip you upside down so you’re in a handstand position. That’s, effectively, what we’re talking about.
Coach Sommer: Exactly what we’re talking about. And to hold that because center of mass is way out in front of the body then, in order to hold that, the traps are what’s responsible to keeping the back and the shoulders straight. So if you’re not strong enough, and some people say it’s just skill training. Well, everything builds upon everything else. So we’ve got Olympics coming up. People are going to be pumped. They’re going to see our Olympic team. They’re going to see the other monsters around the world competing on rings. And they’re going to go I want to do that. And they’re going to jump right up.
I’ve got friends who are former Seal Team 6. And the first thing they did is jump up and, of course, they failed utterly. And then, they come see us because it’s like anything. You don’t jump right into calculus. You learn to count. Then, we learn addition.
We learn subtraction. Yada, yada, yada. With enough time, enough layers, enough progression, then, we get to advanced math. So advanced ring strength is the same deal.
Tim Ferriss: And I remember, we were talking not too long ago about the importance of pacing when you’re dealing with connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments, which is something I’m not particularly well known for in terms of patience and pacing.
Coach Sommer: I’ve noticed that.
Tim Ferriss: But many of the guys who say do outdoor bar workouts, some of which are very impressive physical specimens, will jump up on the rings. And they’ll be doing I’m not sure what they would even call them. They’re kind of what would be looked at as like a typewriter on the pull up bar when you move back and forth from one arm to the other.
Coach Sommer: Side to side pull up?
Tim Ferriss: And side to side pull up. And they’re like I was feeling fine, coach. And then, suddenly, I tore my bicep or I tore my pec, and it was fine until it wasn’t. What are some, if you look at the muscles or types of strength that most non gymnasts will not have, even if they consider themselves reasonably athletic, what would be on that list?
And we already mentioned one, which is mid and lower traps. And, of course, I would like to think I came to the table with kind of hat in hand because I recognize how hard a lot of this is. But the more I practice it, the more I’m astounded at how unprepared my body is for these movements. As someone who has done a lot of pulling from the floor, for instance, who has decent dead lift, I would like to think, I was just astonished at how weak my mid back was. It blew my mind. It was completely flabbergasting. What other muscles or movements do you find normals just cannot perform, even if they view themselves as athletic?
Coach Sommer: For the lifters, the one that always jumps out at us is their lack of shoulder extension.
So if I’m standing upright, and I lift my hands forward, that’s flexion. And I can go all the way up to my arms or over head. If I’m picking my hands up behind me that would be shoulder extension.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So just to paint another picture for folks, if you stand up, and then, interlaced your fingers behind your tailbone with your arms straight, and then tried to lift them up towards the ceiling keeping your back straight. So the shoulder extension.
Coach Sommer: And what we find is – and a lot of what we’ll get sometimes from people is, well, I don’t want to be in the circus. I don’t want to be an acrobat. I’m not interested in skill training. I want strength. And what they don’t understand is if you want to achieve world class levels of performance, technically, that comes first from having a solid foundation of physical preparation, which means correct range of motion, good mobility, good connective tissue. So a shoulder extension becomes – so for example, a lot of people fail.
They can’t do muscle ups because they can’t do shoulder extension. They think, in their head, that a muscle up is a chin up, a little bit of transition that they don’t understand, and then, a dip. What really happens is we do a pull up, we get our hands to our chin, and then, the elbows pull back behind the torso behind them, and there’s their shoulder extension. If they can’t do shoulder extension, now, they’re stuck. And they have to spend all of this time working technique and doing rep and doing rep. And what they’re doing is they’re treating the symptom and not actually the problem.
Tim Ferriss: Well, so just as some background for folks, the way that we connected was I, at 38, finally decided enough is enough. I’d been fantasizing about trying to learn gymnastics in a structured way for 20 plus years, much like my postponing of getting a dog for 20 years, which is like why did it take me so long to do this. And I was in Venice. I’m going to give these folks a shout out. So there is a cross fit gym there named Paradiso Cross Fit.
And I just love the folks who run the gym, and I would go there to train because they would let me use chalk and do all the things that a lot of gyms will not allow me to do. And I met a gent who was doing a body weight work out. He was the only person doing a body weight only work out. And he suggested that I follow Gymnastic Bodies on Instagram. So I started following your company on Instagram and saw older, let’s just call it middle aged men, sort of my demo, as it stands right now, who had started from scratch doing impressive things. And I had used age as my crutch and excuse for not pulling the trigger in the last few years.
So I reached out to Robb Wolf who was kind enough to introduce us. And then, we’ve collaborated in this experiment that we’re currently doing, which is roughly 90 days with a handful of goals that we’ll get to.
But I want people to understand how we connected. So I’m I the middle of training right now. And I have to say, I feel better than I’ve felt, with the exception of a little bit of elbow nonsense that is not from this specifically, it’s a recurring thing, I feel better than I have in years.
Coach Sommer: That’s good to hear just from this little bit already we’ve done.
Tim Ferriss: Just from the little bit that we’ve done. And the follow up question to that is, for instance, when people are training for handstands at home, so self taught, what are the biggest mistakes that they make?
Coach Sommer: Well, they won’t like the answer. And this is a little bit of national team coach attitude coming out. People tend to want what they want when they want it. And that’s fine if I’m looking for mediocre to average results. If I’m looking to really do best effort, then, I’ve got to back shit up, and I’ve got to take care of my business.
And for most of the adults, it’s going to be they have severe compromises in their mobility. Their shoulders don’t work well. Their hips don’t work. Their knees don’t work. Their elbows are shot. Their forearms are tight from all of the desk patrol. Their calves are like piano wire from sitting all of the time. We won’t even talk about hip flexor. Their scaps don’t move. Their scapula have no motion. They can’t protract. They can’t retract. Their spine is locked in just a flat or kyphoid. So they’re hunched over. Their lower back is continually arched. And they’re just kind of frozen in this position.
And then, they want to try to move their body. Now, the common one that we get from people is these are extreme ranges of motion. These are artificial ranges of motion. And actually, these are your natural range of motion. The problem is they quit using it. And so it just atrophied.
So we’re not doing anything special. We have to recreate that natural range of motion first. We’ve been doing, gosh, I don’t know now, maybe since 2006, working with the adults. And the thing that we keep having my nose rubbed in it over and over and over again, every time I think I have it down, I find I need to take it further is just the complete utter lack of joint prep and mobility they come to the table with. And if we do – even your own case is an excellent example. We haven’t done anything advanced yet. We’re doing all the basic. We’re doing fundamental stuff. And you’re already feeling better than in years.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with two things, if I’m trying to self diagnose. The first is identifying musculature and motor pattern that I simply had not developed properly previously. Even if I had a passing familiarity like let me frame this in the form of a question.
So how do most people – can you define what the hollow position is, why it’s important, and how do most normals do when they do a say hollow body rock? Maybe you can explain that, too.
Coach Sommer: So most people, when they think of abs, they think lower abs, they think upper abs. They’re not going to think about obliques at all, and they’re not going to think transverse abdominis at all. So lower abs are easy, upper abs easy, obliques, okay, they understand the sideways. They don’t understand how obliques wrap around into the lats, into the lower back. Okay, that’s fine. But transverse abdominis, they’re like excuse me. Was that English? They don’t have a clue. And that’s what supports the body when it’s in a straight body position.
For example, ab rollers, we don’t use them in our program, but just as an example, ab rollers were getting a bad knock that if you do an ab roller, you’re going to hurt your lower back. Well, yes and no. You’ll hurt your back if you’re doing it wrong, if you are arched in your lower back.
So for definitions, if my lower back is arched, I’m in anterior pelvic tilt. If I’m the opposite movement, and my tailbone tucked under, my lower back is flat, that’s posterior pelvic tilt. When my body is horizontal, then, my back is supported when I’m posterior pelvic tilt. If I’m arched, it’s unsupported by the musculature, and I’m hanging by the disk.
Tim Ferriss: Which is true for a tone of exercises that we do. If I feel it in my lower back, almost universally, when I send you videos, the feedback is more PPT, posterior pelvic tilt.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. It should just be a mantra.
Tim Ferriss: And for people who need a way to visualize this because I realize a lot of this vocab is new, and Coach, feel free to interrupt at any point, but an easy way to think about and remember anterior pelvic tilt is imagine your waist is the top of a wine glass.
If you have anterior pelvic tilt to the front, you’re going to be pouring wine out the front of that glass, basically, out of your belly button. If you have posterior pelvic tilt, you’re tucking that tailbone; you’re going to be pouring wine, basically, down your sacrum, down the back of your body. It’s just an easy way for me to remember.
Coach Sommer: That is clever. I’ve got to say, 40 years of national team, and I’ve never heard it described that way. It may be our go to definition from now on.
Tim Ferriss: You know, I can’t do the gymnastics. So I’ll have to stick with refining my definitions, although I’m making progress with the fundamentals.
Coach Sommer: Yes, you are.
Tim Ferriss: And I’d like to talk about the assessment that we did. So I flew out to a great gym, Awaken Gymnastics in Colorado. And we met up.
Coach Sommer: That’s our GB master affiliate. We only have one in the world, and Awaken in Denver is our No. 1 GB affiliate. They’re the best at what they do.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s a fantastic gym.
And we did quite a few hours of various assessments. If somebody wanted to try to self assess or videotape themselves to have someone qualified in gymnastics assess them, if you were to do an 80/20 analysis, which movements or exercises give you the most data?
Coach Sommer: The most bang for the buck? Let’s see. So what we went over with you, we checked hanging leg lift. Hanging leg lift automatically is going to tell me dynamic range of motion.
Tim Ferriss: And that’s with some back support, is that right? That’s like on a stall bar. You don’t want to be free swinging.
Coach Sommer: Could be. Whatever they can do. To my eye, as soon as I see it, or staffs’ eye, they’re going to know right away whether or not that person has adequate – it’s going to tell us your core strength, and it’s going to tell me hamstring flexibility. That will do that in one bridge. Bridge is a huge one for adults. That’s been one of our – we have thoracic bridge core stretch series.
And that’s been one of our best selling products.
Tim Ferriss: That’s what I’m doing this evening.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. Notice, guys, that Tim is real happy right now. That will change in just a few.
Tim Ferriss: This is a really important question. What characterizes a good bridge? And for people who are thinking of bridge, imagine you’re lying on your back. You put your hands down by your ears, let’s say, feet flat on the ground, and then, you go up into an arch. I was extremely surprised and found it quite hilarious how bad my bridge was. I mean, terrible in the assessment.
Coach Sommer: By your standards, yes. By what I see on a normal basis, yours was medium.
Tim Ferriss: It was like a D+. It was on the verge of passing. But I realized, despite all of my many years of wrestling where we did tons of bridges, almost all of my bridging comes from bending at the low back, so my lumbar bend.
Coach Sommer: Which is a huge issue.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So what does a good bridge look like?
Coach Sommer: A little background?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Coach Sommer: Okay. So the lumbar, the lower back, is not designed to have a ton of movement in it and a big arch. Your thoracic spine, your upper and middle back, they’re designed to have a lot of movement. They’re designed to rotate. The lower back is not. But when most people do their bridge work, they’re so compromised now – even back up a little bit more. They’re so compromised in range of motion of their upper body because they’ve been hitting the weights hard. They’ve been doing just a lot of high intensity training. Now, to preface that, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
If you weren’t one of God’s gifts when you were born, you’ve got to do something to make up the deficit. The problem is when they do all of that weight training, they’re not doing it in balance and maintaining their mobility. If they had, they wouldn’t have the issues that they ran into. So if all you do is strength, strength, strength, strength, and you can always tell someone who they’re the curl king, and they’re the bench press king.
And they come in, and they’re hunched over. And their elbows don’t straighten. Their arms don’t go behind them. And they’re like my shoulders are killing me. Most of the time, what we found is their shoulders are completely F’d up. I agree. But their biceps are crazy tight also. And that bicep runs up through the front of the shoulder. And it’s manifesting itself as a shoulder issue. So kind of all of these come together, long story short, to cause them a huge problem being able to get into a proper bridge, which should be all upper body, no lower back almost at all. But people are doing the exact opposite.
They hurt their lower back. And they say, man, these bridges are dangerous. No, the bridges aren’t dangerous. Doing them half assed and wrong without vetting your source of information is dangerous.
Tim Ferriss: And I found it incredibly therapeutic as someone who has had, basically, a frozen thoracic for God knows how long, 10 years.
Coach Sommer: And we were worried about that. I remember. We were like I wonder if we’ll work through this.
Tim Ferriss: Tim has the upper body mobility of a Lego figure. What are we going to do? But just the progression of doing – and of course, people should look for visual references. And I’ll point them to a bunch of –
Coach Sommer: Exactly. And they’re in all of our courses.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll point them to a bunch of resources in the show notes. But can you walk through the check boxes? Because I know we’ve done this even recently. The concept and I don’t know why this didn’t even occur to me, but of helping to take the lower back out of the equation by elevating the feet.
Coach Sommer: Elevating the feet, and elevating them as high as necessary. Some people are so tight that they, basically, start in a handstand. And it is what it is. The main thing that we try to always hammer with students is they’re always in a hurry. I’ve got to get it right now. Even our conversation, you remember way back when, started that way.
And I was like, dude, this – if you can handle it, we need to change gears here. We need to go slow now in order to go fast later.
Tim Ferriss: You said if you want to be a stud later, you have to be a pud now, I think were your words.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. That sounds like a smart ass remark I would say.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good one. I wrote that down.
Coach Sommer: I’ve corrupted you. All of your great podcasts, and I’ve corrupted you.
Tim Ferriss: And so what are the other check boxes? So let’s say they get their feet up, and they’re like okay.
Coach Sommer: Feet elevated to the point where they’re not feeling stress on the lower back. Then, now, it will depend on pressing strength also. So if they’re very weak in the shoulders, then, they’re going to have to start from the handstand and work their way down. But we’ll assume they’ve got feet elevated, hip high or higher, if necessary. Doesn’t matter a bit. Then, from there, we’re going to work on most people are going to be up.
They’re going to have bent elbows. So we’re going to work on straightening the arms.
Tim Ferriss: No matter how close they are. They could be wide.
Coach Sommer: They could be wide, yeah, because, gosh, I had one Special Forces guy who came to me years ago, a tough, tough, guy, first name Mark. And he had gained 80 pounds of muscle. It was just like holy moly. And he was just a beast. But he had completely F’d himself up because all he did was gain strength without mobility. And athletically, unless my sport is just purely lifting, unless I’m a power lifter, unless I’m an Olympic lifter, then, maximal strength is not my sole criteria for being successful. In fact, usually, the strongest athletes in the weight room are not the best athletes on the field of play.
In fact, I don’t know a single exception. There may be one there somewhere that someone can share with us and let me know. But I’ve been around world.
I won’t say as many people as you know, but in 40 years of world class gymnastics, I’ve met a ton of people. I’ve never seen an exception. He couldn’t even hang on a bar anymore with his arms straight without hitting his head.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Coach Sommer: You think your shoulders are tight. Poor Mark, he was like, Coach, what can you do for me. And for once, I was at a loss for words, which is rare for me. I think you’re screwed. I don’t think I can fix this one.
Tim Ferriss: And so what did you do with him in the bridge? Was he just stuck?
Coach Sommer: This was hanging on a bar. We couldn’t even get in a bridge. It was impossible. What we would do with someone like that and Mark – so just to give the audience some feedback, I went into Tim’s assessment expecting medium.
And Tim was much more mobile, much more athletic, much more well prepared than I had anticipated. So I had spent a lot of time putting a custom program together for Tim that because he did so well on his assessment, I had to throw the whole damn thing away and start over from scratch because, basically, he was too advanced for what we had assumed he was coming to the table with. Someone who is crazy compromised; we’re going to have to sneak up on it. We’re going to have to get in there, and we’re going to have to first do pec minor. We’ve got to loosen up pec minor.
We’ve got to get in there, and we’ve got to work on the bicep tendon. We’ve got to get the bicep tendon going. We’ve got to work on forearms, get forearms loose. We’ve got to break the scap so there’s some motion there. We have to do all of that. And it’s not high intensity work, but it’s got to be done. And as you heard Tim say, the body thrives on it. It’s like a tonic for the body. The body feels so much better because it’s what the body is supposed to do.
And it’s not – what the word I want? A lot of people don’t care for it because it’s not the high intensity, sexy work. But it’s that fundamental work that makes the high intensity, sexy work possible later.
Tim Ferriss: Not only possible but safer, which –
Coach Sommer: That’s a good point because I think one of the questions people asked – Tim asked for questions on Twitter. And what would you like me to ask Coach Sommer? And some of the people came with I know someone who is a gymnast, and they’re just beat to shit. And my answer to that is simple. They weren’t my athlete. They weren’t my athlete. We don’t train through pain. As a national team coach for a long time, physical preparation was always our No. 1 priority. We built the physical structure first because, if you think about it, it’s kind of silly.
And we see this a lot with people who are getting into weight lifting, they’re cross fitters. They’re Olympic lifting, and they’re enthusiastic. They’re excited, and they want to get that weight on the bar. And they’re trying to build technique with a flawed range of motion, which, of course, gives them F’d up technique, and it doesn’t work. And then, they get hurt. Or you hear someone, oh, I changed my shoe, and I blew my knee. Seriously? Your knee is that tight that because your heel of your new shoe is a fraction of an inch higher or a slightly different angle that your knee blew? In our training program, we call everything you need an optimal surplus range of mobility, range of motion.
You need an optimal surplus of strength. You need an optimal surplus of stability. You need what you need to perform and a little extra for when things go south. Not if things go south, when things go south. And if you’re just riding the edge of what you’re capable of, and they hope nothing will go wrong. Well, it is going to go wrong.
It’s absolutely going to go wrong. And so you prepare the body for that ahead of time so that, when it does go wrong, it’s like that didn’t hurt. Nothing is injured. Moving on, next turn.
Tim Ferriss: One of the questions that you’ve asked me multiple times when we’ve been going over different workouts and I would mention, for instance, I felt it in my bicep. I felt an extreme stretch in my bicep. So for instance, there’s a movement that we’ve been calling a German hang. A lot of people would call it skin the cat, perhaps, very similar where you would hold on to a bar, or rings in this case, and I’m going to simplify this, of course. But tucking up, going back in between the rings, and then hanging down with as little of a pike at the hips as possible.
Coach Sommer: Nice flat back, nice straight hips.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. And sort of palms facing towards the ground. And I was saying I really felt an incredible stretch in my biceps more than in the shoulders.
And your question would be, and this is applied to different body parts, where did you feel it in the bicep. This is getting back to the not training through pain comment. And can you describe why – you’re like if it’s in the middle, I don’t really care, and same for the abs. We can smash those all day long. If it’s at the attachment points though, then, I want to know about it.
Coach Sommer: Then, I want to know.
Tim Ferriss: So why is that?
Coach Sommer: Real quick, most people – I’m going to sneak around to it. Most people, when they do their training, they, meaning well, and I’m not slamming anyone by any means, and the only reason that we know this and are able to share is because all of these years I’ve been doing this, I made the same F’ing mistakes that they make, we just survived my stupidity and learned how to do better.
Tim Ferriss: That’s the story of my life.
Coach Sommer: The story of all of our lives.
I used to tell my athletes there are stupid gymnasts, and there are old gymnasts, but there are no old, stupid gymnasts because they’re all dead. But most people, most beginners, they want to base all of their training off muscular fatigue, which is a problem. It’s problematic because muscle tissue regenerates about every 90 days from end to end, all of the cells, everything is done in 90 days. That’s fine. But connective tissue takes 200 to 210 days. So we have a huge gap. So if I get in, and I’m not a big fan of beginners training to failure simply because their structure isn’t mature enough yet to handle it safely. And by mature, I simply mean enough productive, well structured hours under their belt.
Tim Ferriss: Particularly if it’s in new ranges of motion, right?
Coach Sommer: Particularly if there are joints. If it’s a muscle belly, like you said, if we’re doing core, we’ll beat your core down all day long, and I’m not worried about it a bit because it’s just muscular fatigue. But as soon as we get joints involved, everything changes. And it’s actually really easy for people to verify because they can think back over all of the injuries they’ve had over their training career and their athletic career, playing around with the kids in the backyard. The vast majority of those injuries are all joint related, almost always.
It’s extremely rare for someone to have a muscle belly injury. It just doesn’t happen. Yet, their training, especially in the beginning, is all skewed just towards muscular develop and not connective tissue development. And that’s where they get into trouble. So when they come to us, the first thing we like is for them to spend – and is it going to be boring? It is. You know, 200 to 210 days, we’re talking 6 or 7 months of dial it back, guys. Dial it back.
Tim Ferriss: And I think that it’s important to emphasize, too, that dialing it back doesn’t mean – it means that you’re not rushing. But it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience a lot of progress, if that’s fair to say.
Coach Sommer: I think that’s crazy fair to say. And you found that yourself. But what happens is some of them, we run into this, maybe you have also, is we get some people who are addicted to the rush. They’re addicted to the adrenaline rush. They’re addicted to laying there in a pile of sweat. They want to do the sweat angels. They want to crawl out of the gym. And the problem with that is, if you’re a world class athlete, you can’t do that because I have to be back in the gym the next day and train again. I can’t afford to destroy myself or the special operations guys we work with. We’ve got to be able to do both.
They’ve got to be operational and increase their performance through their training. But it has to go hand in hand.
And so it’s only in beginners that we see that they think, somehow, they can cheat time. And it can’t be done. Connective tissue is going to take 200 to 210 days. There’s no supplement. You can’t paint yourself blue. You can’t dance under the moon. There’s nothing you can do to speed that up. It’s going to take what it takes. And so we work as hard as we can within those parameters. If there’s joint pain, we shut it down. It’s like your elbow is a good example, years ago, pushing too hard. Now, if we tweak that elbow a little too much, it flares up on you. We’ll repair it, and it’s going to take time.
But it takes much longer to repair it than it does to avoid it in the first place.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. And just a couple of notes, and then, I’m going to swing back to the diagnostics, how people can assess. But another conversation topic that came up, I think I’m sure I brought it up, at dinner once was the use of anabolics or any type of growth agents.
And the point that you had made, which makes perfect sense, is that would just increase the likelihood of having connective tissue problems in gymnasts because the muscular strength and growth would outpace the development and the adaptation of the tissues.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. It completely would backfire, huge backfire because a lot of our power comes – where students make their greatest gains in strength is to be able to do dynamic plyometric work and straight arm ring strength. Those are your two biggest bangs for the buck. And what we have learned the hard way, the main difference between working with young, developmental athletes and full grown adults is the order in which we need to present the material. As a young athlete, I can do all physical components at once.
I can do plyometrics. I can do straight arm. I can do their mobility, bent arm, it doesn’t matter a bit. I can do it all at one time. But an adult who is now fragile from years of making a living sitting a desk day in and day out. As they get a little older, the kids get bigger, levels of activities drop, drop, drop, and they’re compromised. So we have to build these things in a different order. We have to first go rebuild mobility. Then, we have to rebuild core. The core I’m talking not just abs but obliques and lower back. Most adults, a lot of their lower back pain isn’t lower back related. It’s oblique related. And we have to go in, and we have to correct that.
Then, we can worry about regular strength. Once those things are done, then, we can get to the money maker, which is their dynamic strength. But with an adult, especially a strong adult who has been athletically inactive, so they’ve been doing strength training but not out moving, doing sports, being active outside of their conditioning.
Or let’s say, for example, all they’re doing is squats, and they’re very linear in the path of their knee. And there’s no meniscus work. There’s no MCL work. There’s no ACL work. Then, they go outside, they play a little softball. We hear it all of the time. When I was playing softball, I blew my knee going around first base. Really? How many kids blow a knee running around first base?
Tim Ferriss: Well, the supplemental knee exercises that look whacky as hell when you first look at them that you’ve had me do, and maybe we can show some of this to people in the show notes, even in the span of three or four weeks, I’ve seen a huge difference in knee stability improvement because I haven’t ever performed these types of targeted movements before. Coming back to the diagnostics, we talked about the bridge. We talked about the hanging leg lifts.
Are there any other movements –?
Coach Sommer: Shoulder extension will be huge.
Tim Ferriss: So shoulder extension would be sitting on the floor.
Coach Sommer: Sitting on the floor, mm-hmm, sitting in that pike that you described earlier, hands touching behind them. And then, without letting the hands move, trying to scoop the butt as far forward away from the hands as they could. And so just that one movement right there is going to let us see – it’s going to show me their scapular health. Can they protract? Can they retract? It’s going to tell me how tight their pec minor is. It’s going to tell me how tight their bicep is. And it’s going to tell me how tight their brachialis down by the elbow is.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, the brachialis.
Coach Sommer: Yes, your favorite.
Tim Ferriss: My good friend the brachialis. And also, and this relates to kind of daily living, a lot of people who have back pain, myself included quite a few years ago, if you’re wondering if you have a tight pec minor, you can just Google pec minor to figure out where it is, but basically, think right under the clavicle, get a lacrosse ball and go on the wall and try to roll out your pec minor with a lacrosse ball.
And if you have back pain, you don’t always fix that back pain by just focusing on the location of that pain.
Coach Sommer: That’s a good point.
Tim Ferriss: And you start addressing the pec minor, and a lot of that stuff is just alleviated. And I wanted to throw one thing out there just for people who might be interested. And that is I think part of the reason I seemed or was better prepared for the assessment than I would have been otherwise is that I started doing really just one thing, one type of new exercise, which was compression strength training in that pike position. And I did that for just maybe two times per week prior to doing the assessment as I was traveling.
And for people who are wondering what this is like, if you really want to feel humbled, as I did, I was traveling, I was in Columbia. And a very close friend of mine almost got to professional rugby in New Zealand. He’s a beast. Athletically, extremely strong, extremely fast. He’s always going to be one of the top performers in the gym when he walks into a weight room. And he saw me doing pike pulses. And so I’ll explain what this is to folks because he was kind of laughing at me. And he’s like, “What kind of Jane Fonda bullshit are you doing here?”
Coach Sommer: I love that name.
Tim Ferriss: And I said, “All right, big guy. You’re such a tough guy. Let’s see you do these.” For those people who are interested, so you’re sitting in this seated pike position we’re talking about. You’re sitting on your ass on the floor. The upper body perpendicular with the floor and your legs out straight in front of you, and point your toes, kind of tense your quads to push the back of your knees into the floor.
Then, reach forward and stretch forward as far as you can. Get your fingers out on either side of your legs as far out as you can. And then, just try to lift your heels off the ground keeping your legs completely straight and just pulse it up and down like 3 to 4 inches if you can manage that. And just try to do 30 of those. And my buddy could not lift his heels off the ground and just fell over laughing. And he’s like, yeah, those are hard. But that compression, if you think about the range of motion that most people train for core, they’re doing sit ups, or maybe they’re doing hanging leg lifts up to like an L sit.
So their legs are getting up to kind of parallel height. Well, that last 90 degrees, especially the last 45 degrees where you’re bringing your thighs towards your chest, is so hard. I mean, I had zero strength there prior to doing just a few weeks of this stuff. It just amazed me. And for those people also, we were talking about the transverse abdominis, Coach, feel free to veto this, but I think it’s also nicknamed the corset muscle, if you’re trying to think of what it might look like as it wraps around the abdomen.
So if you cough a lot or laugh a lot and get really, really sore, it’s engaging that transverse. But let me ask you, so you mentioned cross fit. You mentioned a couple of things, drenched in sweat doing the sweat angels. What are your feelings about kipping movements, kipping pull ups?
Coach Sommer: You had to open that can of worms.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I was asking a mutual friend. I won’t name him. And I said what should I talk to Coach Sommer about. And he said kipping pull ups. He’ll lose his shit. So I said, okay, I’ve got to ask.
Coach Sommer: So I was the original gymnastics guy for cross fit way back in the early 2000’s and ended up leaving.
I was there before there was the first cross fit affiliate when all there was was Glassman working out of that little gym in Santa Cruz. I left just because to do GST, like anything, a dichotomy that I always find curious people, especially the cross fitters, is they will be so on point with dissecting everything they do in terms of their Olympic lifting. My pull is here. My pull is there. My knee was a quarter inch this way. They’re just methodical. And they don’t bring, and I shouldn’t say just cross fitters, and other people, they don’t bring that same degree of attention to detail to their body weight work.
So one is supposed to be meticulous, and one is somehow just supposed to be thrown together. Yet, they expect the same quality results. So if we look back in the day, their lifting was nothing by national standards.
Now, they get people who are qualifying to go to nationals. Fast forward all of those years in terms of their gymnastics strength training, and they’re not even remotely close. They don’t match the national team. They don’t match a state level athlete, let alone a national level, let alone an international level. They’re not even in the same ballpark. And part of the issue is because the kipping pull ups were a huge, big deal. It was a money maker. I’ll be straight out. I’ll piss some people off.
But it was a money maker as advertising for a program, they could bring someone in who has never been able to do a pull up, have them hold their chin by the bar, and let them fall, hit the bottom of that movement, bounce back to the top. And the person’s eyes light up. They’re like this is the best F’ing thing ever. I’ve never done a pull up in my entire life. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. And they’re pumped.
What they didn’t realize is that this person has compromised basic strength and compromised shoulder flexion. They don’t have mobility in their shoulder. So they’re hitting the bottom of that movement with multiples of body weight. So they weren’t strong enough to do a regular pull up. So now, we’re going to drop them on connective tissue with multiples of body weight. That’s got to go somewhere. So it’s going to force that shoulder to open further than it can handle, and I’m going to bounce off that connective tissue like a trampoline back to the top of the bar. And then, to pour salt on the wound, now, I’m going to do a shit load of reps at the same time.
And I’m just going to crank on it. And they were getting people who were coming in, and cross fit, there’s no proof. Bullshit. You guys can live in a dream world all you want. It was blowing people up. And now, the good thing, and to their credit, it took time, there was a denial, no, it has nothing to do with it, but now, we’re seeing a recommendation of we’ve got to start getting some basic strength built first, some basic mobility.
And then, at that time, kipping pull ups, absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with it. They’re good to do on a healthy shoulder joint with a good foundation of basic strength. But a beginner doing kipping pull ups, really, that’s insanity. That’s just pouring gasoline on a fire.
Tim Ferriss: So kipping then is the finishing addition. It is not the starting of all of it.
Coach Sommer: We would never – we started working with adults. We do seminars all around the world. We spend a lot of time doing hands on. And our very first one we did, I don’t know, 2007 or so, and we’ve got all of these people. We’ve got all of these beasts here, and they’re strong. And I tried to do my entry level plyometric group and some floor work with them. And the stronger the athlete, the faster they went down. Knees, lower back, ankles, baby stuff. We’re not talking anything hard. We’re talking about standing in place and, with knees straight, being able to bounce down the floor using just your calves.
No way. Their tissues couldn’t take it. They hadn’t done anything like it. For example, how bad mobility was, we had 15 minutes on the schedule to stretch, nothing hard, nothing intricate, nothing intense, just an easy, basic stretch. Get them loosened up for the day. That stretch took an hour and a half to complete. And it was an hour and a half. There were bodies lying everywhere. It was like I was in Vietnam or filming a war movie. And I turned to my staff, and I’m like what the fuck am I supposed to do now? They failed warm up. They failed warm up.
Tim Ferriss: Now, in fairness, this stuff is really – you would look at it, and just like my friend who was like what is this Jane Fonda bullshit. And I’m like hey, man, why don’t you try this for 10 minutes? And it is really taxing.
I mean, I remember doing one of the stretching routines, which I’ll note I think might be of interest to people is I’m hitting each once per week. So there’s one that is front, split focused, so very hamstring focused. There’s one that is bridge focused and another that is adductor or middle split focused. And the point that you make is doing this twice a week will not double your progress. It will cut it in half. So you’re only really hitting each of these once per week. There are different daily limber protocols.
But I remember doing, at the very beginning of one of these workouts, I believe it was absolutely the front split work out, for me, a shit ton of calf raises.
Coach Sommer: I remember you moaning about that.
Tim Ferriss: With different foot placements. It’s like 180 calf raises later of different variations.
I was like okay, and I’m only three minutes into this hour long stretch sequence. And I know we’re bouncing all over the place because I want to give people kind of a buffet sampling of how this training differs. But one of the reasons I respect the programming that you put together and the nuance that you bring to this is that the observation then is, and correct me or you can elaborate on this if I’m missing something, but that a lot of the hamstring flexibility issues or limitations that people perceive are at least, in part, due to lower leg issues, including the Achilles.
Coach Sommer: A huge amount of them.
Tim Ferriss: So in this particular progression, in the beginning, you’re engorging and then stretching the insertion point, basically, around the heel and then again at the knee and working your way up to the hamstrings. And there’s an athlete who has been on the podcast, Amelia Boone, one of the most successful obstacle course racers in the world.
And she’s, basically, pointed out the same thing. And she said, yeah, you can take somebody who is really inflexible in their hamstrings, have them roll out their feet with say a lacrosse ball or something like that. And all of a sudden, they gain 2 inches in their descent with the hamstrings.
Coach Sommer: Because it’s all connected. We found, by accident, so we never intended this, and we’re very – so part of what maybe helps people understand the layers of complexity that I approach training with is that, for years, my bread and butter was to produce best athletes in the country. That was my job. In order to have a job, I had to produce some of the best athletes in the world. And we had to do it from scratch. And so it becomes an issue of 1) an injured athlete is no good to the United States. It doesn’t matter how talented he is, how strong he is. If he can’t go out on the floor with USA out on his chest, we can’t win a medal with him.
So he’s got to be healthy. And then, the second caveat that goes with that is that we have to – what’s the word. I have to describe it correctly. We’re trying to find a way to make the best better. These athletes are already the best on the planet. And you’re going head to head with other athletes who are the best. So then, how do you find a way to make something, which is almost already perfect even closer to perfect. And if you do what everybody else is doing without kind of going out into the jungle, if you will, into Indian country and learning new things, then you can’t get a leg up on your competitors.
The way knowledge – we have PhD’s who come through and this and that. And we always give them major shit because the way people think the world works is that they do their research, they write about it, they publish it.
We learn about it, and we implement it with our athletes. That is not how the way the world works. The way it really works is you’ve got high level, world class coaches who are super bright, decades of experience. Just my last senior athlete alone, I had 16,000 hours into training Alan, 16,000 hour spread over 12 years.
Tim Ferriss: What is Alan’s last name?
Coach Sommer: Bower. So you guys got to celebrate Alan. He just won national NCA championships again, major blow out by the largest margin in NCA history.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. That was, as of this recording, very recently.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. That was just the weekend of the 15th. So I think we’re scheduled here to come out sometime in May. But yeah, very big deal. But to go back to the other, so we’re looking for an edge. And so we don’t know why some things work.
We just know it works. And I started getting notes from therapists around the world because, for example, therapists are taught that they should have a neutral spine. They should have a neutral spine. I was getting people from around the world, and they were writing me. But athletically, I’m sorry, I’ll be direct, but neutral spine athletically is the biggest load of horse shit I’ve ever heard in my life. You can’t run with neutral spine. You can’t throw with neutral spine. You can’t climb with neutral spine. I can’t swim. I can’t do anything with a neutral spine, except lay in a box dug in a hole when they get ready to bury me.
That’s the only thing I can do with it. There’s nothing athletically I can do with a neutral spine. So we know just automatically, to produce athletes, we’re not going to do neutral spine because, torso wise, there are only two movements. I can go from an arch snap to a hollow, or I can be hollow and snap back to extension to the arch. Those are the only two movements the torso is capable of athletically. Everything else is a variation off of that. You can add rotation with some throws and some this and that.
But that’s all there is. So we spend a lot of time building power for that. And these therapists around the world started taking our really gentle introductory work, and they trained it on themselves first. And they’re like, just real similar to what you said, Tim, I feel better than I have in years, Coach. And this is completely different from what I was taught in school.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry to interrupt. But maybe we could use an example that we’ve discussed before, which was a new movement for me, which is the Jefferson curl.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. They were having some fun with that. So we look at Jefferson curl right now, so it wasn’t that many years ago that if you squatted below parallel, it was heresy. If you went below parallel, the knees couldn’t possibly adapt to it. You’re just going to blow your knees. Your knee caps were going to just pop off the front. It’s going to be shrapnel, knee shrapnel.
But everybody accepts now that, you know what, there is nothing wrong with the body being exposed to its natural range of motion. Do you have to build it up gradually? Yes, obviously you do. But the Jefferson curl falls into that. So how do we explain Jefferson curl?
Tim Ferriss: I can give it a shot.
Coach Sommer: Yeah, you’ll be better at it.
Tim Ferriss: This will be a good exam review for me anyway. So Jefferson curl is a gradually rounded, stiff legged dead lift. That’s the simplest way to visualize it. So if you’re looking at an athlete from the side doing a Jefferson curl, they will, most likely, be standing on a box holding onto an Olympic barbell right in front of their hips/legs. So it’s just the very top of a dead lift position. But when they start the descent, and it’s elevated so that when you have plates on and whatnot, there’s room for it. But when they come down, they’re going to tuck their chin.
And then, vertebra by vertebra round their back down all the way into the bottom position where the objective would be, or one of the objectives would be to get, basically, your wrists to the front of your toes, or at least –
Coach Sommer: In a perfect world, if you’re advanced enough.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, in a perfect world. And, of course, doing this very gradually with supervised attention from somebody who knows what they’re doing, and then, reversing that. And, again, going from this sort of vertebra by vertebra rounding up until you end up in that top position, and then repeating. Is that a fair description?
Coach Sommer: Fair description, yeah. The easiest is just think of it as a string of pearls. And we’re just curling one pearl at a time. We’ve been having some fun with that one. So we have done Jefferson curls, I don’t know, 12 or 15 years now. Expected standard is body weight for us.
Tim Ferriss: Note to people listening, do not try this with body weight right out of the gate.
Coach Sommer: No, don’t. For example, one of our senior students in Australia, in his training, physical therapy, has his own clinic, doing really well. And he tried it with just the empty bar, the 20 kilo bar at first. Trashed him. He dropped all the way down to I think a kilo or two, which is completely fine. And we’ll talk about why in just a sec. And then, he built up. And last time I checked with Mark over the course of, I don’t know, I’m forgetting, there are too many students, but around 12 to 18 months, he built up to either three-quarter body weight or maybe up to full body weight now. And the back feels better than it ever has.
But the key there is people have got to understand is that this was a gradual process over 12 to 18 months. It wasn’t just go. Now, we’ve got a very good – I’ll throw Quinn out. I’m going to butcher Quinn’s last name. Quinn is a PhD in physical therapy, Quinn Henoch, does some really good work.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell his last name?
Coach Sommer: You had to ask me that.
Tim Ferriss: We can get it for the show notes.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. We’ll get it for the show. We chat a lot on Facebook and that. And Quinn likes to stir the pot, if you will, stir up some shit. And he’s experimented with Jefferson curl himself for I think going on about three or four years now and feels wonderful. And he’ll toss it out. And so one of the things that will always come up is the McGill experiments where they would take connective tissue from a pig cadaver and put it under such and such amount of strain. And if we put it in this position with this much load, it snaps. And everyone runs around, and the sky is falling, the sky is falling. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
Don’t bend your spine. Stay neutral. What everyone kind of missed, the big elephant in the room was the pig was fucking dead. The tissue was dead. It can’t adapt. It’s dead. It’s no longer living.
And it wasn’t exposed to very gradual loads so that there could be progressive adaptation, which is what our bodies are really good at. So they kind of overlooked all of that. So if I take this completely unprepared tissue, and I do this to it, it will break. So, some very interesting discussions right now. And, obviously, everyone is fine. We’ve got athletes doing great, adults who are doing wonderful. And the physical therapist will come around simply because it’s healthy.
Now, they’ve got to understand, and other people who are listening should understand also, is that the weighted mobility work needs to be approached with a different mentality, a different level of intensity than conditioning work because connective tissue has one-tenth the metabolic rate of muscular tissue. So it heals slower, it adapts slower. So you have to kind of come to the table with a very patient attitude, or as I consider myself, I’m extremely impatient naturally. But I’ve learned, in order to get what I want and to go where I want to go, I’ve had to learn to be patiently impatient.
And if I give into the urge, then, I get hurt, athletes get hurt, we fall apart. And nationals and Olympic trials are every four years. Nationals are once a year. And you don’t get another nationals. You don’t get another Olympic trials if you blow it. You’ve got to be on point that day. So it teaches us – and our environment was actually a blessing because it’s very much practical. It’s very much results oriented. There is no room for opinion. I think, I feel, I prefer. It’s it works, it doesn’t work. It produces results, it doesn’t produce results. You are the best in the country; you aren’t the best in the country.
It’s very clear. And it can’t be argued with. And that was actually something, when we segued into kind of the fitness world, if you will, where you come out of national team, and then, everyone knows who the studs are.
In the fitness world though, everyone is proclaiming they’re the stud. Everyone is proclaiming they’re the national champion. And there’s nothing to support it. There are no results. There are no great athletes. There are no great abilities that have been generated. There’s just the marketing. And that was hard to wrap my head around because, the national team, that doesn’t exist. You can’t go to the Olympics, and the guy who talks the loudest gets the medal. It doesn’t work like that. I have the loudest voice. I’m champion.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s national politics right now. Oh, wait, different podcast.
Coach Sommer: I did want to ask you how your visit to the White House was, but I figure we’ll save that one.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll save that for another time.
Coach Sommer: Yeah, Tim went to the White House last week, guys. So I’ll pick his brain for you later.
Tim Ferriss: So I interrupted. But yeah, you get to the fitness world, and another one of the differences that you pointed out for me, which I really liked, was that, in the fitness world, it’s exercise and diet. Whereas in your world, it’s always been eat and train, right?
Coach Sommer: Eat and train. Because what the people are trying to do, and I’ll throw a little blurb in here, we have an outstanding nutrition program. The guy who wrote it, former Seal Team 6, when he started was back in the day, he was 140, 145. And then, Jeff got all the way up to 220, just shy of 225 solid muscle. And his waist was the same size as when he was thin. And he looked two Vikings, two shoulders on top of his body. He came walking out, and I was like what the fuck. And it had been a couple of years. What the hell did you do? And it’s these basic nutritional concepts that we teach.
But what we try to do with the adults is they’re trying to stay ahead of a bad diet through exercise. They’re trying to outrun a bad diet. And it can’t be done. And then, what happens is, if they somehow find this crazy combination of massive amounts of cardio, and they can kind of keep their weight in check a little bit, and then, they stop that cardio, the immediately start gaining. Weight gain, weight loss, all of that should be separate from your conditioning. You’ve got to get your nutrition dialed in. If your nutrition is dialed in, your body is going to find its natural, healthy weight that it’s going to operate at. Now, if you want to be the giant muscle guy, and that’s not your phenotype, which is your body type, tough shit. Deal with it. It’s not going to change. You’re not going to change your phenotype. You’re not going to change your body’s genetic expression. That being said, you can maximize what your potential is. What we hammer through to our students is you’re not responsible for the hand of cards you were dealt. You’re responsible for maxing out what you were given.
So who knows what your strengths will be. Maybe it will be more endurance. Maybe you’re going to carry easy muscle mass. Maybe you’re a max strength guy. Maybe you’re very skill oriented. It doesn’t matter. Maybe you’re very explosive. But whatever it is, make the most of it.
Tim Ferriss: So on that point, and then I want to come back to I want to ask you, I wrote this down during our assessment, Tony Fey “no routines.” That’s all I wrote down. So that’s a queue for a story I believe that you told me that we’ll come back to. Does that make any sense? Or is that just a cryptic 3:00 a.m. note that I wrote to myself? I don’t know.
Coach Sommer: You’ve got to stay away from the wine, dude.
Tim Ferriss: Never. Vino veritas. We’ll get back to that.
Coach Sommer: Oh, I kind of know what it is.
Tim Ferriss: I think I can actually queue it up.
Coach Sommer: Is that the basics?
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to come back to you in one second. The question I want to ask first is one that came up a lot from listeners of this podcast, which was, and I’m going to create sort of a composite of these questions, but if someone is 35 years old, let’s just say, former athlete, does basic gym work, diet is okay, not terrible.
They feel reasonably athletic, but they’re not competing in anything certainly, have never done any gymnastics, what would good goals be for such a person? And what would bad goals be maybe at the same time?
Coach Sommer: Well, without question, bad goal would be for them to jump right in to kind of full body weight, straight arm strength. For example, a back lever, which doesn’t require a ton of strength, but they love to do it because it looks so cool. It’s kind of like their first thing they can do like wow, look at me. The problem is that it puts them in extreme load while in shoulder extension.
Tim Ferriss: Can I paint a picture for people? So back lever, just to create the image, and, Coach, correct me if I’m wrong, imagine you’re laying on your stomach on the floor, arms by your sides. And then, you turn your hands palm down so that your thumbs are pointing out away from your body. And then, you lift your arms off the ground as high as possible with your arms straight. And then, place a bar in your hands. And then, lift your body off the ground.
Coach Sommer: Off the ground and kind of hold yourself there. Body would be horizontal. And what they don’t realize is that when the shoulders are in shoulder extension like that is that the biceps are under maximum stretch. So it’s not a problem to do it being strong enough. The bicep is too low, and they’re going to tear a bicep, so for a young adult, not a problem at all. And we’re lucky. We have a lot of people who use our material.
But some of our material, no, Coach, you’re too conservative. Coach, it’s a new world. Coach, we don’t have time. I had someone who was 21 or 23 once, Coach, I don’t have time to take my time. I’m already 23. I was like, okay. All right. I think you’re misreading this. But they want to jump right into their strength training. And they do well, but they don’t do the mobility work. So it wasn’t last year, I think it was the year before. I think maybe the street work out community, five of their top guys around the world snapped biceps. And these are crazy strong guys. We’ve seen them. These guys are beasts. They’re doing one armed chins.
They’re doing this and that. And they all snapped them on back lever stuff because the mobility wasn’t in line. Now, we all know, when you’re young, you can get away with a lot of stupid shit because the body heals so fast luckily. I certainly wouldn’t have survived being 21 if it wasn’t the case.
But as an adult, the structure is mature now. And I think maybe a better way to look at it is people think I’m getting older. Ligaments are breaking down. Tendons are breaking down. Joints are getting brittle. And, actually, that’s not the case because, if we go back in time when you were a little guy, when I was a little guy, when all listeners were little guys, we ran around like mad men. It wasn’t today, I’m going to ride my bike 3 miles. It was the sun was up, go jump on my bike, and I’m gone all day. And I’m running, and I’m jumping, I’m climbing. And we’re just being crazy little guys.
Then, we have this huge matrix of activity that the body is used to. Then, we hit high school. And for most people, that’s our first exposure to structured athletic training. And the body does well with it. Now, the mistake is thinking that the body did well solely because of that structured athletic training. What they’re overlooking is all that activity, the matrix of activity that occurred for those years prior to that.
Then, if they’re a high enough level athlete, structured training might continue into college, graduate, time to get a job. I’m young. Hormones are pumping. I’m going to go to work, and then, I’m going to go play basketball with the guys. I’m going to hit the gym, this and that. That goes good for a couple of years. I’m getting by, having fun on weekends. Weekends are full. Then, you meet the cutie. You meet the love of your life. You get married. Suddenly, I can’t go play basketball every night now. So we do this and that. And a little at a time, our levels of physical activity outside of conditioning are dropping down. And they’re dropping down a lot.
Then, kids come. Well, there’s another huge chunk of time gone. Then, before you know it, you’re 30, 35, you haven’t been hitting the gym very often. There is certainly no time for just playful activity or doing sports or this or that on a regular basis for most people.
And they spend most of the time hunched over that desk. And now, the body wants to be healthy. It wants to be healthy. You’re a prime example. We feed it the right movements in the right dosages, and it blooms. It blossoms. It’s like weeding and watering a garden. The body wants to be healthy, but we have to do it in the right dosage. And so, for example, those street worker guys, they hurt themselves because it was the wrong dosage. They wanted to go too hard too soon without the mobility. So for an adult, to come back around to answering that question a long way, a 35-year-old, the very first thing we’ve got to do, we’ve got to fix joints.
We’ve got to repair joints. We’ve got to get that range of motion back.
Tim Ferriss: If you were to look at all of the adults that you’ve dealt with, let’s just say 35 year olds, if you had to pick, and, of course, this does not cover all of the bases, but if you had to pick say three to five movements or exercises or stretches for addressing the most common deficiencies, getting those joints back into play, what would some of your selections be?
Coach Sommer: So just for joints, I think we’d put Jefferson curl at top of the list. The Jefferson curl is going to let us – because remember, we have multiple sections of the spine. We’ve got the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. That’s going to come through also into glutes. That’s going to go down into our hamstrings. That’s going to hit our calves. That’s going to hit our Achilles as well. So for one, that’s a lot of bang for your buck for one exercise. Even if that was all you did, you just did Jefferson curl, a lot of aches and pains are going to go away because of that. Next one, that’s tough. It’s always hard to boil it down.
We took care of pike. We’ve got to get extension. We’ve got to get some thoracic extension. I’d throw elevated bridge in there if arm strength was sufficient to handle it.
If not, we can scale it down to some weighted work with some bars or some barbells, either some dowel with a plate. We’ve got to get shoulder extension in there because a lot of the conditioning work exposed to his all front delt heavy. It’s all anterior delt. And the pecs get tight. The anterior delts are getting tight. And we start pulling our own shoulders forward. We create our own impingement. And it doesn’t matter. I’ll do more exercises. I’ll do more exercises. Well, no, you’re just making it worse. What the problem is is there’s not balance in the shoulder joint. There’s no retraction.
And it’s easy to tell. What does their posture look like? What do we see with everyone now? They even have a term now, texting neck.
Tim Ferriss: Is that just –
Coach Sommer: Kind of that turtle forward, distended forward.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like the Wally powered down look, I guess.
Coach Sommer: The scary thing there, and, again, we have some PT’s who use our stuff around the world with a lot of success.
And they’re the ones who come in and educate us. They’ll say we notice this. And teach us, to the limit we can because we’re not professionals, they start teaching us the mechanics of what is really going on. So we have a very good student, Wesley Tan, runs one of our affiliates. He’s a full time osteopath in the UK. He runs another one of our GB affiliates, Forma GST. And Wesley is the one who taught me that there’s a point, Coach, where if you abuse the body, it’s not going to come back. And so for example, you see some older adults who are extremely hunched forward, neck distended forward, chin up because they’re trying to see where they’re going.
And it’s not that they have bad posture, and they could fix it. It’s that they can’t fix it because the vertebrae are rectangle. And after spending years of hunched forward like that, it compresses the front edges of that rectangle until it becomes a trapezoid.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Coach Sommer: And that doesn’t come back. Once that happens, it’s done. It’s over. It’s done. The same thing happens with the muscle bellies. So people who get frozen shoulder or impingements in this, that is if you’re not using the muscle belly, the body doesn’t want to support it because muscle tissue is expensive. By expensive, the body looks at it as it’s expensive to feed. It’s expensive to maintain. So for example, your body isn’t a painting. You can’t get to a certain degree of muscle mass, mobility, athletic ability, endurance, whatever you want to say and then just stop and have it continue to exist like a painting you did.
It has to be maintained because, if you’re not using it, it costs too much resources for the body to continue to keep it. So it’s going to start breaking it down. And you get a few days, and then, you start losing strength.
You start losing mobility. You start losing wind. Easiest physical attribute to build, endurance. Simple. Super simple. Endurance is what? Endurance is simply strength repeated over and over at a lower load. No big deal. That’s a six to an eight week process. Simple. No problems at all. Mobility is going to take some time. What’s the easiest one to fix? Muscular strength. No problem at all. It’s super important then that we use that muscle mass because if it’s not being used, you’re not only going to lose the size of the muscle mass, the body is going to start doing deposits of collagen on it.
And it’s going to start shrinking that muscle belly. On the traps, for example, going back to those older adults we discussed, it’s going to shrink until a lot of it is connective tissue on the edges. Now, what people need to realize, and they don’t, is that when they see an adult who is hurting, they’re older, they’re shuffling, they can’t pick their knees up, their hips are frozen, they’re hunched over, their neck is displaced, they weren’t that way when they were younger.
And this is all the result of inactivity and poor progressions in their exercises. And it didn’t have to be. And then, they need to take the next step of connecting is that if it happened to that guy or that woman, it can sure as hell happen to me also if I go down the same road that they went down.
Tim Ferriss: So returning to the shoulder extension because I noticed, in our assessment, I had terrible shoulder extension. And I had kind of accepted it and written it off with stupid reasons like well, I’ve done too much dead lifting. I had huge slabs of muscle in my back. I can’t do shoulder extensions. Total horse shit.
Coach Sommer: I did notice those huge, massive slabs of muscle.
Tim Ferriss: The imaginary lat syndrome that I have. And that was just blown to smithereens when I met let me make sure that I get his name correct, Paul Watson. Is that right?
Coach Sommer: Oh, yeah. Big Paul.
Tim Ferriss: In New York City, who is gigantic and extremely flexible. So as soon as I hung out with him, I was like, okay.
Coach Sommer: And to let people know, Paul is 6 feet 230.
Tim Ferriss: And he’s about 40, I want to say, and just probably walks around at 6 percent body fat and can do a flat chest to ground pancake no problem. Can do dislocates with a weighted dowel or barbell no problem with all different types of grips, which I can’t do at all, even though I’m making progress. The shoulder extension, what is your preferred way to work on shoulder extension? Is it the sitting down, arms behind you, scooting the hips forward? Is there something else you would add to that mix?
Coach Sommer: We have to sneak up on that one a little bit. So sometimes, we can’t even work shoulder extension at first if the elbows are deconditioned.
So if brachialis just inside the elbow is weak, if the insertion of the bicep tendon is weak, then, when the arm is extended, as they stretch, there might be some discomfort. So if that’s the case, we have to give that time to adapt. So that’s one of the questions I’ll ask is how does your brachialis feel? How does your bicep feel? How does your elbow feel? Because we never push through pain. You can, but have you noticed that the guys who push through pain, they’ve got a shelf life of somewhere between two and four years?
And then, the body is so beat up and so painful and so chronically injured that it’s just easier to be a fat slob sitting on the couch and have at least my pain drop than to try to continue pushing through and being a stud. It’s so common. And it’s also unnecessary. For example, and I don’t get this one a lot, because where there’s a lot of people – and don’t get me wrong.
I really like weight lifting. I think the Olympic lifting is sweet. There’s a lot going for it. I think the way that it is approached her in the states is not as efficient as it’s approached in China, for example, or in Russia. For example, in both of them, before there’s any weight added at all, they build complete mobility throughout the body. They can straddle their legs, chest on the floor, sit with legs together, pike. They’ve got bridge. They have all of this basic mobility.
Tim Ferriss: Including ankle flexibility and mobility. We talked about this as it related to –
Coach Sommer: Huge. And especially, exactly. You watch Klokov.
Tim Ferriss: Dmitry Klokov. People should watch this guy, check out some videos.
Coach Sommer: He is such a beast. But what they also need to do is not just watch the weight he’s putting up. They need to watch his warm up in the training hall and look at how amazingly flexible and mobile he is. Now, what’s important to understand is, at a world class level, resources are limited.
Energy you have for training is limited. The amount of time you have for training is limited. The amount of time you have for recovery is limited. You have to maximize these things because you’re going it’s one thing to be the best stud in the town. It’s another thing to be best stud in the state. It’s another one in region, another one in the country. Completely different animal to be the best in the entire world, to be the best at what you do out of billions of people. We’re talking slivers of difference between the very top guys. So with all of those restrictions and all of those parameters in place, if the best in the world are stretching their ass off in order to get strong, why aren’t you?
Tim Ferriss: Agreed.
Coach Sommer: And not you personally.
Tim Ferriss: Damn, put me on the spot, Coach. No.
Coach Sommer: You as in all of us.
And what will happen is people just kind of get blinders on. They want to watch technical. They want to watch progressions. What did he do for this and that? And then, they’ll blow off the mobility work that they do early not realizing that the mobility work was the gold nugget they were looking for. They just didn’t brush the dirt off in order to see that it was gold underneath. They just thought it’s just another rock. Who cares? No, it was the gold. That was the sweet, and they missed it.
Tim Ferriss: So if we’re looking at, again, this 35-year-old former athlete, maybe never was super competitive but has kept in decent shape, maybe does some form of exercise two or three times a week, in terms of an understanding that the mobility and working with J curl, elevated bridge, shoulder extension, etc., those are going to be ingredients in the recipe in their progression to gymnast of some type, what would be –
Coach Sommer: Not even gymnasts. I would say –
Tim Ferriss: Or functional human being.
Coach Sommer: Functional human being, right.
I like to point out to people we don’t train gymnasts. We do gymnastic strength training. But I just got off of the phone with our Olympic coach today, Kevin Mazeika, we had a great conversation. But regardless of how good you are at rope climbs and planche and this and that, I wouldn’t hold my breath that Kevin is getting ready to give you a call and say please come and be on our team this year. I saw your rope climbs, and you are kick ass. You are the one for us. We’ve got a uniform waiting here for you. We’re departing for Rio in July, man. Be ready. Pack your bags. It’s not going to happen, guys. Functional human being covers it all.
Tim Ferriss: So let me just jump to the punch line question, which is if I wanted to give someone a stretch goal to inspire them to train consistently, so the mobility might not be enough. But if I wanted them a light at the end of the tunnel, so I know this shoulder extension stuff I going to be very unpleasant, maybe not super exciting, but this is the objective.
This is what you might be able to do in three, six, nine, twelve months from now. The back lever, we’ve talked about, is not necessarily a good goal because you might think you have the strength, and perhaps, you do.
Coach Sommer: They’ll definitely have the strength almost without question.
Tim Ferriss: Right. But they don’t have the mobility. So snap goes the bicep.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. There’s a nasty surprise waiting in that box.
Tim Ferriss: What would be a good gymnastic strength training goal to have or goals? And just as context for people who are wondering, after trying to do my best to survey the landscape and figure out what might not be the stupidest goals, I’m not saying they’re the best goals, but I decided strict press handstand, which we can define in a second, seems like a good one. And it just seems like a sweet thing to be able to do.
And then, front lever. And then, straddle planch. We can talk about what each of those are. But would the press handstand, for instance, be something that incorporates the strength, the mobility in all of these pieces? If you had to pick one –
Coach Sommer: If you had to pick one that would be the one.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Coach Sommer: It’s going to have all strength, all mobility, balance, agility, everything rolled into one movement.
Tim Ferriss: Do you want to take a stab at describing what does a perfect press handstand look like, in your mind?
Coach Sommer: The perfect press handstand, so I’m just trying to keep it simple. Bend over, hands on the ground by your toes. And put your palms on the floor so they’re just in front of your toes, shoulder width.
Tim Ferriss: Legs straight.
Coach Sommer: Legs straight. If they needed to bend, we could. But we’re talking about a perfect world. So hands on the floor.
Shoulders directly over the hands. And then, no jumping using just the middle back, just the traps because everyone thinks traps, traps, traps. And they think traps just for shrugging. Your traps are a huge muscle. And they don’t just lie on the top of your shoulders. They’re in the middle of your back and down towards your lower back as well. They’re a giant muscle. And they’re capable of a huge amount of power. And when you fix those, a lot of shoulder pain goes away. A lot of lower back pain goes away. But to go back to our other, hands on the floor, shoulders over the hands, using that middle back, those traps, pull the hips back on top of the shoulder, maintain that flat back position.
Then, we continue on with lower back finishing the legs up to the handstand.
Tim Ferriss: And so a couple of things that make this particularly challenging. So 1) obviously, you need to have the flexibility in the hamstrings and everywhere else.
Coach Sommer: Have the mobility.
Tim Ferriss: Have to have the mobility.
You have to have the compression strength like we were talking about doing those murderous, embarrassing pike pulses, which look like they should be easy, and they are not. Bringing your legs, basically, to your chest in that last 10 to 12 inch range, really challenging. And then, I think where you see a lot of people online do this incorrectly, at least from the standpoint of having the objective of gymnastics strength training because there are all sorts of ways you can cheat with this stuff to make it biomechanically easier. But if we’re trying to do it strictly –
Coach Sommer: And why do it – maybe this is a nice thing to throw in because people say it’s just a matter – it’s personal taste, Coach. You do it this way because you prefer this form. No, we do it a particular way because this is what builds the most strength that’s transferrable to other activities. For example, I’ll continue. So who have I pissed off so far today?
I’ve pissed off cross fitters. I don’t know. I’m going to piss off yoga right now. And I like yoga. Don’t get me wrong. But their approach to handstand is flawed. They want to go bone on bone. So they want to have their shoulders depressed so they’re bone on bone.
Tim Ferriss: Can you elaborate on that?
Coach Sommer: So shoulders can elevate. So, if I’m standing upright, and I elevate my shoulders that would be like me shrugging my shoulders to my ear. And then, doing the opposite is the other direction. Well, when we do a handstand, and if I describe it this way, it’s going to make sense, I want muscle and connective tissue to be doing the work. I don’t want bone grinding on bone. That’s not a recipe for longevity. It’s not going to work. But the easy one is they’ll say there’s a yoga handstand, and there’s a gymnastics handstand. My answer to that is you’re almost right. There’s a gymnastics handstand, and there’s a fucked up gymnastics handstand.
Those are the only two there are. And here’s now we evaluate it. A gymnastics handstand done with nice flat back, all being a smart ass aside, we’re going to look at it just from a purely practical viewpoint. Which one leads somewhere? So if I do a yoga type handstand, with that arch and the flexed shoulders, I’m not going any farther than that. I can work on duration. I can do some other things. But I’m not going any further. If I do a gymnastics handstand where it’s flat, now I have nice range of motion in the shoulders. I have strength through the middle back, through the traps.
I’ve got good core strength. I’ve got good compression strength. Now, I can move on to good press handstand work. Why? We want to get stronger. That, in turn, allows me to go on. If I’m in the mood, and I want to do more, I can go into more advanced, one armed handstand work, pirouetting work, all those things are results of a proper, nice straight line handstand that you can’t do with the flawed approach.
It’s not esthetics. It’s being practical because we don’t do anything in gymnastics that’s just purely esthetics. Why do we do things a certain way? It lets us generate more power. Why do we want more power? It lets us get more air. It lets us do more flips. It lets us do more twists. It lets us do harder things on rings, which means more points, which means more gold medals.
Tim Ferriss: And let me throw out a couple of observations, and you can correct me if this is wrong. But one of them, an example of something that people might think is esthetics, and there is an esthetic appeal that is a side effect but not the reasoning behind it, would be a strong point in the toes, right? A strong point in the legs.
Coach Sommer: Very good.
Tim Ferriss: So you see a lot of people doing handstands, and I was guilty of this, certainly. And they have kind of what I heard one acrobat called tofu feet.
They’re not fully dorsiflexed. They’re not pulling the toes back to the knees, which I think looks terrible, also pretty common in yoga. But they don’t have that, and they don’t have a strong point. And so their, at the very least, quads and their adductors aren’t really fully engaged.
Coach Sommer: They’re loose.
Tim Ferriss: And so they’re leaking energy in all sorts of directions. And it makes –
Coach Sommer: I like that leaking energy. That’s a very good description.
Tim Ferriss: I think I probably stole it from [inaudible].
Coach Sommer: Paulo is a good buddy. Paulo is a good friend of mine. I like Paulo.
Tim Ferriss: Paulo is great. And what is the consequence? There are consequences, one of which is you’re wasting energy. So you’re not going to be able to train as efficiently. 2) Is you’re not going to develop the proper balance and alignment because you’re going to be flopping all over the place and having to correct more so than you should. And so just that pointing has a huge impact on your ability to train the handstands.
It’s a really strong point. And the other point I wanted to make is because, in the attempt to try to work on this in the past, which failed, and I’ve made a ton of progress in the last few months, but when doing it solo, I would watch videos online. And, of course, not all videos are created equal.
Coach Sommer: You’re preaching to the choir on that one.
Tim Ferriss: And you would see people doing a press handstand, but they would planch really hard. In other words, you’d see people that put their hands flat on the ground in front of their toes, and then, they shoot their head really far forward, so their shoulders travel. If you were to drop a plumb line like a string with a weight on the end from their shoulders, it would hit the floor say at 8 inches in front of their hands.
Coach Sommer: Six to eight inches in front, sure.
Tim Ferriss: And then, they do up into the handstand, and they have this arch in the back. And maybe their feet are pointing straight up. And what does that look like? It looks a lot like what was the gold standard in sort of muscle beach Venice or Santa Monica like circa 1960’s.
Coach Sommer: In 1940, 1950, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. But that’s going to place a lot more structural strain on the spine. So then, what does the proper version look like roughly, right? Your ears are roughly in between your shoulder blades.
Coach Sommer: In between your arms and up.
Tim Ferriss: Fully shoulders extended up, or not extended. What am I looking for here?
Coach Sommer: Pressing down through the ground and keeping the shoulders directly on top of the hands.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And for people who want to just do a little experiment, obviously, do it safely. But I was blown away the first time that someone showed this to me. If you do a normal say kick up to handstand on the wall, just the way that everybody does it, so you’re kind of flipping up, and you end up looking away from the wall. Let’s say you do that. And then, instead of doing it the way you’ve always done it, before you put your hands on the ground, you start with your arms overhead in the position that you want to assume on the ground.
And shrug your shoulders up as high as possible trying to get your deltoids to the sides of your ears. Maintain that position, and then, go up. And the stability is just a world of difference.
Coach Sommer: It’s night and day.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a completely different movement. I have to ask this because a million people asked, since we’re on a roll here. We’ve already checked off yoga.
Coach Sommer: That’s true. And guys, I like everything else about yoga, except your handstand, so only a small amount of hate mail for the handstand.
Tim Ferriss: And some of the coaches, and it doesn’t have to be in gymnastics, but it certainly could be, some of the coaches who have impressed you the most. And I took down, in between my bouts of handshaking and accidentally getting chalk in my mouth during the assessment, and when I could bend my arms and do something, I took these cryptic notes.
I wrote down one name, which was Alexander, world champion male and female. Does that ring any bells?
Coach Sommer: Yeah. So I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career. I have just a multitude of friends who are world and Olympic champions, world and Olympic team members, world and Olympic coaches. And for a long time, because that’s your environment day in and day out, it just kind of becomes your norm, and then, after a while, you kind of stop and think. One day, I was at a competition. And I was visiting with some friends of mine. And I came back. And my oldest daughter was maybe around 12 at the time. And she was like, “Oh, my God. Do you know who you were talking to, dad?”
And I said, “Yeah, sweetie. They’re my friends.” She says, “That was the Olympic champion and that was the world champion.” I said, “Yeah, I know, babe. I know.”
And she was just like, “Oh, my good God.” Well, Dmitry Bilozerchev is a good friend of mine. And Dmitry won world’s in ’83 at 16 years old. Just unbelievable. Then, he won again in ’87. What a lot of people don’t know is, in between there, Dmitry, obviously Russian, had a car accident and broke his left lower leg between the knee and the ankle in 42 places. So basically, it’s powder. And they put him in, he’s unconscious. He’s on the table. And he’s covered up. And they’re getting ready to remove his lower leg. They’re going to take it off. And the surgeon pulls the sheet down because he’s prepped for surgery. He’s out. And he sees it’s Dmitry.
Now, this is Russia in the early ‘80s. So it’s not warm, friendly Russia. And the doctor immediately is like holy shit, I am not cutting this leg off because the surgeon who takes Dmitry Bilozerchev’s leg off is probably going to lose his hands shortly thereafter also. A national hero. So they save his leg. And Dmitry comes back from it and wins world’s in ’87. Goes to ’88 Olympics, does great, medal, gold medals. Dmitry was lucky enough where, at different training camps and that, Dmitry was my roommate. And Russians are Russians. It takes a long time for them to warm up to you.
So it took I don’t know how many years. But we started getting along real well after some years, and we started sharing some stuff. His leg is trashed at the ’88 Olympics. And I said, “Dmitry, how the hell, dude?” He said, “It only lasts for a few seconds.”
“I can do anything for a few seconds.” And I said, “I don’t know, dude.” Well, he’s a legend in gymnastics. If we get together with a room full of world and Olympic champions who are Russian, they will all defer to Dmitry. He’s that big a legend. And this is in room full of massive egos. There’s no shortage of confidence here. And if Dmitry is in the room, they treat Dmitry awesome. It’s a very, very cool thing to see. Well, we go forward, gosh, I’m going to forget my name.
Tim Ferriss: Not Alexander.
Coach Sommer: Well, Alexander, the reason – my Alzheimer’s is kicking up. Anyway, we had a world champion from the Russians on the women’s side who won world’s. And Dmitry’s coach, Alexander, was responsible for training both of them. So Alexander is the only one in history who produced a male world champion and a female world champion.
He’s the only one. And Alexander, right now, is down coaching the Brazilian team.
Tim Ferriss: Is that his first or last name?
Coach Sommer: I always screw up all of the Russian pronunciations. And all of my Russian friends are going to laugh because they’re totally used to me butchering this. But it’s like Alexander Alexandrov or something.
Tim Ferriss: I got one of those.
Coach Sommer: When I’m with my Russian friends, I just say Alexander, and everybody knows who I mean, so I don’t have to embarrass myself.
Tim Ferriss: What do you think allows him –?
Coach Sommer: Makes him him?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. What makes him different?
Coach Sommer: What makes him him is the ability – so it starts with depth of knowledge. To have enough depth of knowledge that you can look at an athlete and plan what you need to be doing four years from now, eight years from now, and then reverse engineer all of it to today. All the training cycles, the strength, the deloads.
It was from Dmitry – so back in ’83, Dmitry was the only gymnast, and I think today probably one of the only ones, who every fourth week was a deload week. Why? To give the body a chance to recover. Now, there are a lot of people who talk deload. But way back then, the training – if you visit with Dmitry, it’s always, Chris, it’s mathematics. It’s all mathematics. To them, you take these correct pieces, which would be like doing the correct numbers. That creates your equation. If you put the equation together correctly, and then, you solve it, there’s your answer. And your answer is the physical preparation at the end in a successful competition.
So Alexander is great at knowing we’re going to just be consistent over this training block. So an Olympic cycle is four years long. So we’re getting ready to finish this Olympics. And then, the next cycle starts. So it could take, for example, to get someone to 75, 80 percent of their genetic capacity, with a good coach, a good world class coach, it’s going to take three to four years.
It’s going to take three to four years just to let the body grow and adapt to get –
Tim Ferriss: Do you think that’s also true for training an adult?
Coach Sommer: I do.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Great.
Coach Sommer: No, that’s a healthy adult. So to get through our whole curriculum should take three to four years. If they’re severely compromised, and we have to do damage repair, we’ve got to heal some injuries, we’ve got some chronic things because what’s a chronic injury? A chronic injury is simply an injury that you kept abusing until it became semi permanent. That’s all chronic injury is. It means you slammed your hand in the door, and it hurt. And your response to slamming your hand in the door and hurting was to keep slamming your hand in the fucking door.
You kept slamming it in the door. And you said, “God, my hand really hurts. What should I do?” Well, quit slamming your hand in the damn door, and it will get better. People don’t think that way. They’re just like but I really, really like doing this. And we get people coming to us really beat up because we’re taught no pain, no gain. We flip that around. We say no brain, no gain. We’re not talking about the pain of fatigue. The easy way to know the difference between fatigue and injury is simply the sharpness of the pain and some experience also.
So if you’re feeling pain, and maybe it’s from a core workout, and you stop, you’re doing hollow body rocks, whatever. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, sit ups. You stop. If it’s fatigue, it’s immediately going to start to lessen. As soon as you stop, the pain starts going away. If it’s an injury, and you stop, it’s immediately going to begin increasing.
That’s your oh shit moment. That’s I have screwed myself up. And so you kind of have to ride that. We want to work to where the body is working. But we don’t want to work so hard it’s like, for a long time, it was a big thing for people doing kipping pull ups to take pictures of their hands being raw and bloody from their rips. And they were looking at it as a badge of honor that I worked so hard. And in the short term, for that moment, yes. Yeah, they worked really hard. Now, I looked at it differently. I looked at it as you stupid shit. What are you going to do tomorrow now?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Coach Sommer: Because there’s no amount of work you can do today that could offset the amount of progress you could have made throughout a properly structured week. It can’t be done.
Tim Ferriss: You see that with kettle bells a lot, too. I remember when I was really deep in kettle bell training; you take yourself out for God knows how long and rip all of your calluses off.
Coach Sommer: But they mean well. We tend to use two terms with our athletes. We have immature athletes and mature athletes. And the definition, and it’s not an age deal, it’s an attitude deal. So an immature athlete is someone who wants what they want right now. A mature athlete is someone who is willing to do what needs to be done now to get rewarded for it later, delayed gratification. And it’s the mature athlete that, in the long run, always comes out on top. They’re always the ones with the greater longevity and the greater success. The other ones, the immature ones, if they’re really talented, they may stay ahead for a while.
But, eventually, you’re going to get so dinged and broken and beat up that they have to step aside. And the mature athlete or woman, they’re just doing their thing day in and day out. It’s like writing a book that has 365 pages in it.
If I ask you tomorrow, “Tim, go home tonight and write me a book with 365 pages,” you’ll be like, “Chris, you’ve lost your fucking mind.” But if I say, “Tim, I want you to write me a single page every day.” In a year, we’ve got a book with 365 pages. And if you picture that thickness of a novel, that’s a lot of pages there. But if I look at that thickness of a single page, it’s so thin that it seems negligible. It doesn’t even matter. It’s like why did I bother? It’s the consistency that adds up over time. And that’s where you see these great athletes. You’ve got to understand, you see a world class athlete, they did not start training yesterday. This is a multiyear process.
Tim Ferriss: Also, I think there’s a behavioral modification and component of this, which if you wanted to dig into the research is supported, at this point, which is doing each day less than you feel maximally capable of is a fantastic, positive reinforcer. And this applies in sales. This is what IBM did way back in the day when their sales force was slaughtering the competition. They had the lowest quotas in the industry because they wanted their sales people to be unintimidated to pick up the phone. So we could substitute intimidated to pick up the phone with intimidated to go to the gym or start a session. You could also apply it to writing.
Coach Sommer: Leave a little in the bank, right?
Tim Ferriss: Leave a little in the bank. There were two examples, off hand, as it applies to writing. A friend of mine who is very, very consistent, prolific writer, and he said, “My key is every day, I write less than I feel capable of.” And a guideline I was given was two crappy pages per day. That’s all you have to do, two crappy pages. And sometimes, you overshoot that. And you have a great work out. And you’re feeling, as you put it, froggy. You’re feeling fantastic. And you just blow through it and set a bunch of PR’s.
But you didn’t go into the work out with the pressure of having to achieve PR’s in every exercise. And Hemmingway, maybe not the best life model, but was a prolific writer.
Coach Sommer: Still a stud.
Tim Ferriss: And he would end mid sentence. He would end still feeling like he had more to say in a specific paragraph or sentence so that he had a place to pick up the next day. And so on the point of consistency, and, actually, I want you to finish your last thought because I totally hijacked the conversation. But you said –
Coach Sommer: Yeah, what’s up with that, dude? You hijacked my thought.
Tim Ferriss: You said three to four years to get them to what percentage of their genetic –
Coach Sommer: And this is ballpark, 75 to 80. And this is just an example to people because the body will not let you run at 100 percent. Won’t do it. There’s not enough optimal surplus that we mentioned earlier. Three to four years to get to 75, 80 percent. It will take me another three to four years to get to about 90 percent.
And then, after that, it will take me another three to four years to get to about 95 percent. And that’s me riding hard on them. That’s my standards. Because, remember, it’s easier for me to maintain that immaculate standard because I’m not the one feeling the fatigue right now. It’s very difficult for a world class athlete to train themselves. And it doesn’t do a world class coach any good to have all of that knowledge, and it takes a partnership. It takes both of them working together to create this great athletic animal. But the interesting thing is another three to four years to get to 95 percent.
And as soon as they ease up, the body drops back down to that 75 or 80. That’s where it likes. Now, to build back up won’t take nearly as long as to build it in the first place because the structure is already in place.
The nervous system is already developed, yada, yada, yada. But that’s where the body is comfortable. So as far as adults are concerned, does a 35-year-old need to be able to produce at 90 percent? No. They don’t. Do they need at 95 percent? No. They’re not full time professional athletes. They don’t have time for that. Can they produce at 75 or 80 percent? Yes, they can. And the interesting thing is will that put you on the Olympic team? No, absolutely not. Are you going to be close to it? No. But will it put you being better than 99 out of 100 people around you? Absolutely.
Absolutely it will put you there. And if we put a percentage on that, that means that just by being consistent, putting some consistent years of training, and that puts you in the top 1 percent of the human population in terms of physical ability.
That is not a bad conciliation prize.
Tim Ferriss: No, it’s not. And I want to underscore the consistency point because I’ve always been an intensity guy, for the most part, because that’s my default mode. And it serves me well.
Coach Sommer: And everybody’s, right?
Tim Ferriss: Sure. And it’s served me well. But there is a point where the sword cuts both ways. And you sent me an email recently. I’m going to replace the name, unless we decide to –
Coach Sommer: I was going to say or maybe take out the profanity just in case.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll take out the F bombs. Dear You Lazy Bastard. No, that’s not how it starts. So, because I want to talk about older students who have picked up gymnastics. So there are a lot of people who are rightly or naturally skeptical of the ability of say a 35, 38, 40 plus year old to acquire the skills that are associated with people who start when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old.
So I’m going to replace the name with Frank. So I was having a hell of a lot of trouble with tuck hops. And to just explain that, I fully plan for everyone listening to put a lot of video examples in the show notes, so you will have visual reference for a lot of this. But tuck hops is a great exercise. And there are different ways to practice this. But a tuck handstand is, instead of having your body ramrod straight from your hands all the way to your pointed toes at the very top, you’re basically bringing your knees to your chest or rib cage while you’re in the handstand position with your feet still pointed but your heels kind of touching your ass. Is that a fair description?
Coach Sommer: I agree with that.
Tim Ferriss: And I was having a lot of trouble with range of motion. I just couldn’t get low enough. And so coach sent me an email, which was Frank is one of my senior students. Here’s a video of him working his tuck handstand compression. While it’s not exactly the same exercise, this does provide a nice visual example.
Now, the part that stands out for me is what follows the video because I watched the video, and I was like that’s pretty solid. And you said he started roughly two years ago out of shape, weak, and rather pudgy on his first work out. I believe that he failed three times 12 seconds bent hollow body hold.
Coach Sommer: There are people in wheelchairs that are stronger than that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And I’m not going to do this exercise justice, but a bent hollow body hold is, effectively, imagine if you’re in a crunch position on the floor. And then, you put your arms –
Coach Sommer: Just kind of pick your feet up like you were going to do a sit up, except don’t sit up. Shoulders up a little off the ground, feet off the ground a little, and then, just try to rock back and forth.
Tim Ferriss: That’s it. So he couldn’t do three sets of that times 12 seconds.
Coach Sommer: Couldn’t do it, not a chance.
Tim Ferriss: Fast forward two years, and he’s a beast.
There are two points here that really left a mark on me. So the first was he’s very consistent. We’ve talked about that. But here is the part that I really liked. So he never rushes through exercise. And every time he gets stuck on a progression and is not able to break through that particular plateau, he simply drops all the way back to the first progression and begins working his way up. So I want to try to illustrate this because, most people, myself included, will just bang their heads against a wall with the plateau movement.
Coach Sommer: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s take the press handstand, which we’ve been talking about as a great kind of bang for the buck objective because it incorporates so many different elements and attributes that you need to develop. What would a series of progressions like four or five progressions for that look like? And does it literally mean that if he couldn’t get through Movement 5 that he would drop all the way back to No. 1?
Or would he go back to No. 2 and No. 3?
Coach Sommer: No, he’d go right back to No. 1. Now, he might not start with the very Week 1 programming of 3 x 1 rep. He might drop back to Week 11 where we provide the programming where it’s 5 x 5, and you demonstrate mastery. And the next work out, bump. But, basically, what he’s doing is if he failed on that exercise that means there was a chink in the armor somewhere. There was a hole in the preparation. There was some deficit that had been overlooked or some part of the body that had not yet super compensated.
So basically, we want people to go through, when they’re in training, to just be super simplistic. We want their training to go through a period of overload where whatever they’re doing is kicking their ass.
It’s hard. It’s intense. And then, without changing reps or sets, we want the body then to go into a period of load where that same amount of work, that same load, same exercise, same reps, same sets feels moderately difficult. So it’s feeling easier because the body has gotten stronger. And then, where people always cut it short, where they undermine themselves here is they don’t go into under load. So to be super simplistic, under load is where damn, I’m just not feeling like I’m working very hard. You’re moving the same weight. You’re doing the same reps. You’re doing the same sets.
But you’re just cutting it short. What people tend to do is they want to ride that razor’s edge. I did this much today. I’m going to do more next week that typical 5 pounds on the bar. Okay, that’s great. If that was the case, I remember my first weighted pull up work out, I was excited. Way back when, I was a teenager. I came home.
I did my 5 pounds. I pulled out my calendar. I did 5 pounds. I’m going to do a pound every week. Holy shit, I’m going to be pulling 1,500 pounds in a year, man. I’m world champion in the making. Linear doesn’t work that way. So what happens is that you hit that point of where you’re maxed out currently. And then, you got to step off. And we’ve got to give the body a chance to accommodate. So for example, you mentioned Robb Wolf. Robb is a good buddy. Robb is super sharp, for those of you who don’t know. He’s a nutrition guru. Check out his stuff.
Tim Ferriss: R-O-B-B.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. He’s got two B’s there. Robb is a high intensity guy like you, Tim. And so I shared with him the year Alan won national. So a national champ. Imagine, you’ve defeated the entire country. There’s one champion, and you’re it. Everyone, you kicked their ass. Unbelievable feeling, extremely awesome.
Well, that year, I didn’t change anything on Alan’s conditioning the entire year. Not a damn thing. I didn’t change an exercise. I didn’t change a rep. I didn’t change a set not for that entire year.
Tim Ferriss: So you mean that for the progressive resistance purists out there, there might be another way?
Coach Sommer: Well, but, remember, he wasn’t a beginner at this point. Because a beginner, it wouldn’t do any good if I can do a wall push up inclined on the wall. Alan was strong. He was already doing hollow back presses. Rope climbs were for maintenance and healthy elbows, yada, yada, yada. But for that year, I didn’t change anything. All that changes was work out that took an hour got to the point where it was taking 40 to 45 minutes at which point do your stretch and get out because the less time you’re in the gym the better because it’s less wear and tear on the body.
When I hear what you mention people who love to be high intensity, it’s cool. But the analogy that comes to mind is someone who wants to be high intensity all of the time is like having a new set of tires. And every time you come up to a stop sign, you don’t gradually brake, you slam those brakes hard. You skid to a stop every single stop sign. How long is that pair of tires going to last? It’s going to wear out pretty quick. Now, the body is not like tires. It can rebuild itself as long as you don’t put it too deep into a hole or physically break the structure, damage the structure beyond repair.
So as long as you show some degree of care, you rebuild yourself. But if you keep skidding to that stop every single day, it’s a matter of time. It’s not if, it’s guaranteed.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s throw out a couple of, I’ll use another automotive metaphor, let’s switch gears.
And I will ask just a couple of questions that I think people would love to hear answers to. The first is someone listens to this, they’re extremely excited to do gymnastics strength training. And maybe they go out, and they’re sampling different things from all sorts of different places. And, of course, I should say with full disclosure I have no business association. I’m not getting any kind of affiliate anything from you. I just am a real fan of how you train. So I think people should check out your training programs. But what exercises should people not attempt or just remove from consideration for the first say six months of gymnastics strength training.
Coach Sommer: Such a good question. I would say muscle ups.
The issue becomes, there’s nothing wrong with the pull, there’s nothing wrong with the dip. The shoulders will adapt relatively quickly. They’ll get up on rings at first, and they’re shaking. And that’s simply because the stabilizers aren’t used to the load. That will adapt within two weeks, four weeks. They’ll be fine. The issue they run into is because their shoulder extension is weak. They can’t get the elbow behind the torso. So instead of doing a dip with body weight, now, they’re trying to do a triceps extension with body weight, completely different animal. Their elbows are trapped at their side.
And now, their hands are in front of them, and they’re just trying to press themselves up. Of course, they’re just trashing their elbows. Some people, we do see it, some people have incredible joints that you can just pound and pound and pound and pound, nothing happens to them. Run them over with a car, all you’re going to do is hurt your car. Everyone assumes they’re that guy. They’re that woman.
The reality is you’re not, guys. You are not that person. If you were that person, I would see you at training camps right now, or you would be a celebrated professional level athlete. So accept the fact that you’re human, and those are not your joints. And so you can’t take that approach and have longevity. It’s not going to happen.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So muscle ups go out.
Coach Sommer: Now, how do they get around the muscle up because their elbows hurt? And they can’t do it slow. To build strength, we got to do it slow. How do they get around it? They do the kipping muscle up. Okay. Well, that gets me on top of the rings. But where I get the benefit of muscle ups is through that transition as I’m going between the pull up through my chest up above, and that’s where cross is. That’s where planche is. That’s where maltese is. That’s where all advanced ring strength is. It’s that strength.
When you see a gymnast, when you see them this summer at the Olympics – and just as an aside, guys, we’ve got some podcasts coming out, For a Gymnastic Body, sorry, Tim, competing with you here.
Tim Ferriss: That’s all right.
Coach Sommer: And we’re going to talk some training with some of our Olympic guys. And when you see them, you are going to see this massive musculature. And it didn’t come from pushups. And it didn’t come from dips. It came from that advanced ring strength they do. So if you’re doing a kipping muscle up, and you’re going from below the rings to on top of the rings, and it’s gone, you just skipped the most beneficial part of the muscle up. It’s gone. You wasted it.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask a related question because, of course, every four years, I watch gymnastics. I love watching gymnastics, as do a lot of people. And they go holy shit, if I can get arms that look like that by hanging from a bar for an hour a day, I need to start hanging from a bar. How much of, and we talked about the rings, how much of the musculature in the upper arms, biceps specifically, comes from straight arm work versus some form of bent arm work?
Coach Sommer: Excellent question.
So the majority of the massive biceps they see is going to come from the straight arm work. So for example, when the guys would, at that level of training, at that level of strength, rope climbs, for example, so my guys had to do a triple on a 7 meter rope. So all rope climbs are done with no legs. In GST, we do ropes without legs. We get some people saying the rope is used for transportation. As soon as they take out the escalators in a mall, and they put ropes in place of it, or they take the elevators out and they put ropes, I’ll buy that argument that we use a rope for transportation.
Until that happens, a rope is used for getting friggin’ strong. And that’s the point of having a rope. So in five minutes, they would do a triple on a 7 meter rope, get in the back of the line, do a double on a 7 meter, get back in the line, and do another. And that would be about five minutes worth of work.
Now, for them, what we did notice, and a lot of people missed this, we’re going to do two things here at once. So for the maximal strength component of it, it’s the straight arm work, maltese work in particular. Just blows the body up.
Tim Ferriss: And people listening, don’t just go into your garage and try a maltese on your rings.
Coach Sommer: You can. You can totally because I don’t think maltese will hurt you. But your landing on the concrete on your face underneath the rings is probably going to hurt. The maltese won’t. It’s the sudden stop at the end. That will be uncomfortable. But now, what we found out with the guys though is we did, over the years, the weight vest, the weights, the heavy weighted rope climbs, pull ups. Nothing put better mass on a bicep secondary from the ring strength than high volume rope climbs, nothing. Nothing blew them up.
Now, the key though is, for everybody listening, if you go and you jump right into ropes right now, and you haven’t built a foundation of rows, pull ups, multi plain pulling, and then get to rope climbing, you’re going to give yourself a raging case of elbow tendonitis.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, your elbows are going to just disintegrate, yeah.
Coach Sommer: Like anything else, you’ve got to pay your dues. But if you go through the proper steps, and you’re prepared to do rope climbs there is nothing better because the bicep is an endurance muscle. That’s its job. Now, it can do this, but its primary function is not to how much can I do the heaviest load for one rep. Its primary function is go out and kill something, pick it up, and carry it a long ass way back home. That’s its primary job. So it just blossoms from high volume work. Now, the key is that it’s got to be high volume with reasonably high load, which on the rope climbs is body weight.
But we’ve got to build to that.
Tim Ferriss: So two things that I’ll throw out there just because people might find it interesting. So the first is you can build extremely muscular biceps, this is not gymnastics related, but with purely straight arm, heavy pulling in the dead lift. Let’s just say you had one day of heavy pulling. And by heavy, I mean two to three reps to the knees. Kind of like the Barry Ross protocol in the Four Hour Body.
Coach Sommer: Sure, I like Barry Ross’s stuff.
Tim Ferriss: No eccentrics, drop it. And then, let’s just say you do that on Mondays. And then, on Fridays or Thursdays, whatever it might be, you do high rep, two armed kettle bell swings. You get really, really muscular arms without doing any bent work whatsoever.
Coach Sommer: See, there you go.
Tim Ferriss: And also, when we were talking about –
Coach Sommer: And easy enough to switch that high rep kettle bell work to throw rope climb on Friday, if you’re advanced enough.
Tim Ferriss: If your elbows are bullet proof enough, which mine are not, as an example for folks.
I’ve done plenty of rowing, but here is the difference though. When I have a parallel grip, if you’re like I can pull, fuck that. I can do bent rows with a barbell with 225 pounds and whatever, and you think you’re the king of pulling, if you don’t do a lot of parallel grip work or fat bar work, and then, you go to a thick rope, you’re in for a surprise.
Coach Sommer: Maybe we should touch base on the difference real quick between the various grips.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, please.
Coach Sommer: Okay. So guys, in terms of GST specific strength, if you’re doing just pull up work, your parallel grip is by far going to have the greatest return on investment simply because that parallel grip hits the brachialis so hard down in the elbow. The reason we need that is when you climb a rope, you’re going to have more of a parallel grip.
You do that parallel grip pull up. Obviously, you’re developing that. When we’re on the rings, and we’re on top of the rings because everything is aimed for, eventually, getting onto the rings to build strength. So when you’re on the rings, we need the grip turned out past parallel. Now, back in the day, Greg Glassman and I, Greg is a super bright guy, founder of cross fit. But he just didn’t understand why we would turn the rings past parallel. He thought it was just esthetics. Coach, it’s just esthetics. Well, the problem is if I’m on the rings, and I do a dip, I do a muscle up, I do whatever, and I straighten my arms, and I don’t turn the rings past parallel –
Tim Ferriss: Now, Coach, I apologize for interrupting. Just for people to visualize this. So let’s just say you’re on dips. You’re up on rings, and you’re doing dips. And you’re in between the straps. And correct me if I’m wrong here, Coach, but when you get to the top, that means –
Coach Sommer: Top of the rep, arms are straight.
Tim Ferriss: Top of the rep and your arms are straight that the rings themselves –
Coach Sommer: And turn the thumbs out slightly.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. So instead of having the rings parallel pointing straight ahead –
Coach Sommer: Or turned in, which is what most people do.
Tim Ferriss: Or turned in, they would be at say 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. or something like that.
Coach Sommer: Exactly. And it will vary. As long as they’re out. The reason is what’s the weak link in straight arm strength is the elbow. The weak link is the elbow. And what a lot of people will do is we’ve had people who were taught elbow pain is just part of doing ring strength. No, it’s not. Elbow pain is an indicator that your ring strength is F’d up, and you need to do better programming. It hurts for a reason.
Tim Ferriss: And I took you off track there just because I wanted people to visualize the proper thing. So you were saying to Greg that when you get to the top, the issue is it’s not just esthetics. When you get to the top –
Coach Sommer: It’s esthetics. You’ve got to turn past parallel so that the brachialis is activated. There’s a reason that after all of these years of cross fit being on rings and doing thousands upon thousands of kipping pull ups and dips and all of this stuff that there are no iron crosses, unless they were previous gymnasts.
There’s no homegrown cross fitter who has an iron cross. There’s no homegrown cross fitter who has a planche or a malt because, right from the beginning on those very basic movements, they didn’t turn past parallel. They didn’t turn the rings out. The brachialis wasn’t trained. The brachialis is what supports the elbow when it’s straight. So if it never got trained, they can never move forward into the money making exercises. So that’s why on those pull ups, if we use a parallel grip, and it’s easy enough to do some, just do a set.
Do a nice parallel grip work out, and then compare the soreness that you feel on the inside of the elbow from fatigue compared to regular chin ups and regular pull ups. It’s night and day. Then, we would do chins and then pull ups.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. So the other exercises to remove, if any, so we have muscle ups, back lever, any you would add to that list?
Coach Sommer: You know, this one is a little unfortunate. And I don’t know that it’s so much of a removing as –
Tim Ferriss: Deprioritizing?
Coach Sommer: Yeah. A cautionary tale. So it takes time to rebuild connective tissue. And it’s connective tissue, through the ligaments and the joints, that generate power through the body when they’re doing plyometric work. So there was a rash of Achilles ruptures when they were doing deads, I believe, with 225 pounds. And then, that was coupled with box jumps. And they were doing that for rounds. And there’s not a problem with either one of those in isolation.
The problem came when it was in a competitive environment with mostly adults who were in their later 20’s and 30’s. The typically people who are working out. And because it’s a race, the box jumps turned into jumping down also, which turned into rebounding a plyometric off the floor because I’ve got to get these done. I’m in a race. So they had pre-fatigued the Achilles with the dead lift and then went into the plyometric of the box jump. Nothing wrong with either one of them. But in combination, it took some people out. I think there were nine ruptures that year, which is one, okay, it happens. Ivankov had his Achilles.
He was one of the leading guys we were looking to from Russia. Ivan Ivankov, former world champ. He was the top guy that was favored to win the gold at the ’96 games. His Achilles popped walking across the parking lot.
Now, is it because walking across a parking lot is a dangerous thing, and we should all avoid parking lots? No. It just happened to be the last straw. And it had been damaged prior to that, which, a long story short, you went back to the front split series. That is the very reason that there is that high rep calf work there to promote Achilles health because there is connective tissue. The tendons in that do not have their own blood supply. So they get fed. They heal. They strengthen through the muscles moving around them and gravity. That’s flushes the area. So if we only do very high intensity, low rep work, there’s not enough blood flow for them to be healthy.
And this isn’t mine. A friend, a Bulgarian Olympic coach for the ‘70s and ‘80s is a good friend of mine, genius at programming and makes me look like a tottering idiot who should be sat in the corner and no one talk to me.
Tim Ferriss: What’s his name?
Coach Sommer: I can never pronounce Ruman’s last name.
You guys can look him up, Bulgarian Olympic coach for the women, ‘70s and ‘80s. I want to say our bastardized American spelling is R-U-M-I-N or M-A-N. Sadly, Ruman had a really heavy accent. So a lot of the American coaches, they didn’t want to take the time to talk to him. But I was a linguist in the military way back when, not as good as you, Tim, but accents don’t bother me. And he was an older gentleman. And I would keep this guy up late so many days in a row. He’d be, “Chris, I’ve got to go get some sleep.” “That’s okay, just one more question.” So our knee series that we do came from Ruman, the one that –
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no kidding. That I’ve been doing with the skiers and inside squats.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. He saw Alan when he was 8, and Alan was incredibly powerful at 8 years old, just unreal. And he was getting too powerful for his frame at that age. And we were starting to hit a preliminary growth spurt.
And Ruman gave me that knee series. And it was about a week, week and a half, his knees weren’t hurting. They were starting to get slightly uncomfortable. Ruman showed us that, boom, knee issues gone, never again, nothing with knees ever.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So we could talk for hours and hours more. But I want to be respectful of your time, and we could always do a Round 2 some time if you have the willingness and if the audience wants more. But I do have a couple of questions before I get into some of my usual rapid fire that I’d love to ask. Do you still have some time to chat?
Coach Sommer: You’ve opened a can of worms. I’ll talk training all night.
Tim Ferriss: Here we go then. The next question is, from one of my listeners, and it’s, quite simply, how do you mentally prep your athletes for big competition when you’re down to that – you go the nationals or any competition, but specifically big competitions?
And by prep, I mean mentally prep the day of. Is there anything in particular that you do?
Coach Sommer: It’s very different. It starts with repetition. So we talked a little bit about training. In a nutshell, and we’ll come back around and fill this out, so in the preparation prior, successful repetitions. It takes a certain number of repetitions to lead to competence. And it’s competence that leads to confidence. And that’s what leads to a successful competition. So as Americans, we tend to be in a rush, be in a hurry. We don’t want to take a lot of reps. We want to get something. We do it correct a few times, and then, we want to bump on. Completely different from the Chinese approach.
Completely different from the Russian approach where they’ll literally do hundreds of repetitions before they move on to the next drill. And they’re not upset about it because they understand it’s a process. As Americans, it’s both a good thing, and it’s a curse. One, it’s a good thing because it forces us to be so creative, we’re so hard charging, we get so many things done. Physically, sometimes, it kind of works against us because we don’t give the body and the nervous system a chance to stabilize. So if you want to be confident at a competition, you have pay your dues and prep. And that’s mentally and physically.
For example, ’72 Olympics, and I was talking about this with Dmitry Bilozerchev, my friend, world and Olympic champ. So in ’72 Olympics, Olga Corbett was, by all accounts, going to crush everyone at the games. She was going to crush everyone.
In training, as they went back, and the Russians went back, and they reviewed all her training, she had over a 98 percent hit rate on her routines. That meant she was almost perfect. When she went to the games, she had a major meltdown. Now, the question, of course, raises how was it possible for someone who was this perfect for this long in training to go to the competition and just fall apart? As they dug into it, they found out the error was not in physical preparation. The error was in mental preparation. So as Olga was cranking at home, she was the one who decided when to go. Coaches waited on her. Judges waited on her. Everything was structured on her.
She was very comfortable. She didn’t start until she was ready. Equipment, she’s ready for it. Lighting, she’s ready for. Matting is familiar. Everything is good. When you get to the world’s, and you get to the Olympics, judges don’t give a fuck if you’re ready or not.
When they raise that flag, it’s brutal. It’s brutal. In fact, to give everyone a little taste, the warm up gym is not there. The warm up gym might be 10 minutes away, or it might be a 5 minute walk down this concrete hallway. So you go and you warm up, you walk down this hallway, and then, your ass waits there. And then, the flag goes up, and you got to go to 100 percent within 30 seconds. You’ve got 30 seconds to be on the equipment. Massive head game. So they went back, and they found out that Olga’s problem was that everything had gone her way.
Tim Ferriss: She controlled too many variables.
Coach Sommer: Too many variables, and they were too easy. They were too accommodating. And so what they did is the Russians changed their training just to screw with people. So if I’m coaching someone, and there’s going to be a mental component. I’m going to fuck with them. I’m going to tell them – and not in a mean way. But you’re up, and then walk away. Leave them waiting.
Let them get antsy. Make them go when they’re not ready. Make them do a cold set. Any and every thing you can. Have a crowd of people around them trying to mess with them, any and every thing. And I will also say it’s much harder for women than it is for guys simply because women are more caring and nurturing than guys. A guy goes out to compete, and he’s worried about one thing. He’s worried about kicking ass. The girl goes out there, and she’s worried about kicking ass also. But she’s also worried about not wanting to let anybody down. Are they going to be disappointed with me? Are they going to like me?
She has this whole range of other emotional burdens that a guy doesn’t give a shit about. They just don’t care. I’ve seen girls who are just amazing in training and get out there and just because they have this other load that they place on themselves that guys don’t have to deal with. And the way you handle that in training is we just have to get more reps in. You’ve got to have more reps and do everything you can to put them in a situation to where, for example, 2004; I was doing some of the prep.
I was doing some of the floor and the tramp and helping with volt and doing the physical preparation for a girl we had trying out for the Olympics. She did not make it. You had to be top six, she was ninth. Carly, fantastic girl, great girl. Their approach though for mental training I thought was flawed. They brought someone in. And I won’t say names. I’ll just say I disagreed. And they were trying to be really, really positive. So 30,000 square foot gym, big, giant yes signs everywhere. Yes, you can. Yes, it will be great. Yes, it will be wonderful. And the reality is it’s not going to be wonderful.
It’s going to be stressful. It’s going to suck. When you are in a competition at that level, the pressure is crushing. It’s a physical pressure that you feel on you. And you still have to produce performance at a world class level.
And the only way to handle that is we have to try to replicate that in training so that the pressure is not going away. The error that was done with Carly was trying to downplay the pressure. I would say do the exact opposite. You should go to the training, to the competition, and hopefully, competition is less pressure than what you go through in training. Now, that’s not going to be true at Olympics and such. But at most things, it should be the case. It should be the case. So mentally, if you’re scared, let’s say if you’re feeling unconfident, if you’re feeling threatened, uneasy, your preparation was flawed.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that brings up an anecdote that I heard from Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H, the professional wrestler who is also an incredible business executive for WWE. But he visited; let me get this right, why am I blanking on his name?
I’ve caught whatever you were dealing with earlier. A very famous boxer, Floyd Mayweather, that’s it. And he visited Floyd maybe an hour before a huge title fight for a championship belt or to retain his belt. And, at one point, Paul said, “I’m going to leave. I don’t want to interrupt your prep.” And he goes, “Why would you interrupt my prep. If I’m not ready now, nothing I do in the next 60 minutes is going to make me ready.”
Coach Sommer: I love that attitude.
Tim Ferriss: Feel free to hang out. He was watching basketball or something. And also, you brought up this Seal Team 6 members and so on earlier. That’s, I think, a great example of a parallel track in the sense that they very much want to sweat more, in some cases, bleed more in training so that they can avoid dying in real battles. And the simulations are extremely brutal and intended to be along the lines of, I’m not really up on my ancient name pronunciations, but I think it’s Archilochus who said, “We do not rise to the level of our hopes. We fall to the level of our training.”
Coach Sommer: Perfect.
Tim Ferriss: So making the conditions equivalent.
Coach Sommer: They were so well trained, no stress. How in the world you can be in 145 gun fights and not feel stress when you’re heading out to another one. You just fall asleep on the helicopter, get out, do my thing, and get back on. Seriously? It’s like yeah, gosh, just another day in the office.
Tim Ferriss: So on the day of, assuming you’ve done the requisite preparation. You’ve conditioned them to perform well under stressful circumstances, any type of –
Coach Sommer: Change nothing.
Change nothing. Where people fail – so this is an important lesson not just in competing but in everything. So a lot of people psyche themselves out of doing as well as they could have by prematurely comparing themselves to the people around them instead of just go out, take care of your business, do your best, and see where it falls. If you’re going up against the best who has ever been born, you’re not going to beat them. There’s not going to be a miracle. The sky is not going to open. God is not going to reach down and bless you with extra athletic ability. It’s not going to happen. So you just ignore that.
You go out, and you just stay in your own head, do your thing. Now, psychologically, people handle it differently. Some people, we have the same chemistry on Olympic teams, some people like to be left alone. Let me go do my thing. And they’ll come together for the team.
But then, when they’re prepping for their set, they’ve got to go off on their own. There are other guys where they feed off that interaction. They want people coming around them getting them pumped up. And then, there’s all in between. None of them right and none of them are wrong. It just is what it is. And it’s important to just deal with who you are. Same in training. There are some people who thrive on multiple training per day. And they just blossom. They do awesome. There are other people who have to train just a few times a week. It doesn’t matter. There have been Olympic champions who trained both ways. It just depends on what your body does best with.
Tim Ferriss: If you were sending – I’m very curious to hear the answer to this. This was from it might have been a mother, I think it was a father who said what questions would Coach Sommer ask a gymnastics coach at a nearby facility before sending his own 5 or 10-year-old off to train with them?
Coach Sommer: Yeah. And I went through that. So I didn’t coach my daughter. I wanted to be dad. And I didn’t get involved. Were there things I would have done very differently? Yes. But her happiness in the process was more important to me than her success. And she was state champion. But that was more important to me than stepping in and making sure everything was world class. I didn’t want to go there. The first thing I would do, if I’m reviewing someone, because have you noticed that the Bell curve is reality. The Bell curve shows that there is a huge majority of people who are average. There are a few who are at the top, and there are a few who are at the bottom.
But if you talk to someone, you’ve never met anyone who says I’m in the middle of the Bell curve. Every fucker you talk to is exceptional, every single person. Every person is another millionaire in the making. They’re going to win the Voice. They’ve got Academy Award, it’s coming.
Nobody says, yeah, I’m average. And it’s the same thing with gyms. So the first thing I would do is look at competitive record. How have they done and at what level have they been successful? Are they successful at a local level, at a state level? How have they done in terms of regionals? How have they done in terms of nationals? Are they on national team? How consistently have they been on national teams? Is it year in/year out? Was it a onetime deal? After I look at that, the very next thing I’m going to look at is I’m going to look at injury rates. How healthy and successful are these athletes?
Tim Ferriss: How would you find that data, or would you just ask them point blank?
Coach Sommer: If they’re a world class coach, they’re always going to be straight with you. The only people, in my experience, who talk shit are the wannabes.
Tim Ferriss: That’s consistent in everything that I’ve experienced.
Coach Sommer: So 2003, I’m at a training camp.
And Paul Hom has just won the world championships. He’s just own world’s. And Alan is a little guy. We’re at a training camp. And Paul’s coach, Stacy Maloney, is there. And we’re at a technical meeting. And it’s on round offs, of all things. And so Stacy comes, and he sits down next to me. He says, “Chris, what do you think about this?” In my head, I’m thinking who gives a fuck what I think about this? You just won world championships. I want to know what you think about this. But he asked my opinion. I’m not going to be rude to Stacy. But in my head, I’m thinking that.
So we talk about it for a little bit. And then, Stacy gets up, and he goes around the room visiting with other coaches that he respects. And he wants their opinion, and then, he makes his own opinion. He had just won world’s. It would have been so easy for him to be kind of aloof and snooty and arrogant. I’m this and that. But the point is that that’s the reason that Stacy won world’s that he was a coach of that caliber because he was always open to learning more. He never said I know everything.
And like you said, I’ve never met an exception. It’s the ones who aren’t at a high level who think I know everything. There’s nothing left to be learned. And it’s just not the case. So I would check that, check around, talk to people, watch the athletes in training. Go and watch some workouts. How does the coach handle it? Is there a lot of tears? If it’s a guy, and there are tears in the work out, he’s got a broken leg. And girls are girls. I’ve got two daughters, a wife, and even my dog is female. There are tears here constantly. It’s just part of being female. So if it’s an occasional tear, no big deal.
But if there is a lot of crying all of the time, there’s a problem. I’d move down the road. But if they’re happy – healthy doesn’t mean a free for all. Healthy and happy doesn’t mean indulging.
There should be structure. There should be accountability. But it should be pleasant. Kids, or any athlete, adults as well, will either live up to the standard you set, or they will live down to the standard you set. So just kind of go in, try to get a feel. Is the competition record good? Is this an environment that I’m content with my child being in? If you get a good feeling, okay.
Tim Ferriss: As an adult, if you are assessing a gymnastics coach for yourself, and you could observe a work out, let’s just say you could only watch the warm up, what would you look for to be there or not be there? Or what would the characteristics be?
Coach Sommer: Do they take the time to warm up the joints? Or do they jump right into work? Do they actually take time to mobilize? Are they doing stall bar work? Are they doing Jefferson curl work? Are they loosening up their wrists and their knees and their ankles?
Are they loosening their back before they get going? Are they doing some type of pre-strength? Are they doing lower level strength elements to get the muscles warm and firing before jumping into the hard work? You can tell a lot from how a program warms up.
Tim Ferriss: No, that’s why I was asking.
Coach Sommer: Great question.
Tim Ferriss: And there’s a movement that also, from an evolutionary standpoint, makes a lot of sense. Just like we were talking about the biceps and high capacity for volume, the QL walks, which you introduced me to, which, if you really want to have people laugh at you, this is a great move to do. Although, you had mentioned, and this doesn’t surprise me at all that you’ve seen high level power lifters doing this.
Coach Sommer: That’s where I got it from.
Tim Ferriss: Holding onto kettle bells with a goblet squat type of grip. So what this looks like, folks, we already talked about this seated pike position. So you’re sitting on your ass, legs together, legs straight.
So basically, keeping your legs completely straight, if there are other elements, please let me know, Coach, technical points. But, basically, you’re walking your ass cheeks across the mat back and forth.
Coach Sommer: You look like a retard doing speed walking sitting down.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great description. That’s exactly what it looks like. And QL refers to the
Coach Sommer: The quadratus lumborum.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, quadratus lumborum, which is sort of the Grand Central of all sorts of muscles and fascia in the back. And it’s incredible how much that loosens up my entire lower back and hips doing this very, very simple QL walk.
Coach Sommer: I’ll pick up sometimes 3 or 4 inches.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah.
Coach Sommer: Just from loosening up from those first, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And how long should a proper gymnastics warm up take?
And one more, which is warming up the joints, are there any specific movements that hit the shoulders from any angle or perspective that would indicate a better warm up for gymnastics strength training than others?
Coach Sommer: It would depend on duration of the work out. So if you’re in there for an hour, I’ll preface it, say you’re in for an hour. I would say probably 10 to 15 minutes is reasonable. Now, at the same time, if I have significant mobility deficits, then, perhaps the majority of the work out needs to be mobility work. So it could kind of shift possibly as high as a half hour if I have a multi hour training coming up. It’s complicated enough. And we’ve tried this over the years.
There are enough things to address that should be addressed on a semi regular basis that you can’t really get everything in to a single warm up. So you’re probably going to have two or three variations. If you’re doing advanced work, you’re probably going to have two or three variations in order to get to everything. For example, ring strength, before a good, hard ring strength, it’s very nice to do thera band series for the shoulders. Different shapes and pulls and circles and all of these things with thera band are really great for warming up the interior of the shoulder. On other days, do I need to do that as much for shoulder?
No. It might be more weighted shoulder work is appropriate for other days. Is it necessary to do all of them at the same time? Most of the time, no. We have one senior student, really, really good. Matt started training with me in his late 40’s. He’s now 52, beast. Press handstands, planches, front levers at 52, ridiculous shape.
And he went through a period where, just for shoulders to feel better, he did every shoulder prep. We had all of our integrated mobility – our courses are set up very unusually. For our introductory courses, the adult students come in, alternate an exercise with an integrated mobility because we want them 50/50. So we found if I told people how important stretching was, they always blew me off. But if I required it, do a set before your next set, you have to do this stretch, then back and forth. And we just had great results. So Matt is this crazy, maniac, still skateboards, still water skis, does his GST.
And the shoulder would get a little finicky, so he just did extra mobility, and it just fixed his shoulder right up.
Tim Ferriss: I was introduced to an exercise by a masters cross fit competitor, actually, that really helped with shoulder warm up more than mobility.
But for pressing exercises, even in GST, including any type of hand balancing or handstand work, which you have to have a decent amount of grip strength for this. But I was very skeptical of this, even as someone who has done a lot with kettle bells. But I’ve never been a huge fan of the bottom’s up work with kettle bells, meaning –
Coach Sommer: Yeah, it’s got it flipped up, gripping it by the handle, the bell on top.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. But I was like, screw it, I’ll try it with a light weight. I started with say 15 or 16 pounds. And I’ve increased that. I use 35 now, but a little bit of chalk goes a long way here. But you would, basically, swing it up to a clean, and then press it overhead. And then, you just do rotations. So doing side to side rotations. And it’s incredible how well that activates the smaller musculature –
Coach Sommer: Destroys the shoulders. Wonderful, isn’t it? We didn’t do them with kettle bells. We’ll do them with light dumbbells. So basically, what Tim is describing is take a dumbbell, push it up overhead, turn the thumbs externally rotated just a bit, and then, just do outward circles. And keep a flat back, shoulders open, no arching. And do them for time, one to two minutes. And good gracious, wonderful warm up. And then, something we didn’t address, and I’ll throw it in just real, real, real quick, I know we’re running out of time, but some people who are experiencing shoulder issues in terms of mobility have nothing to do with the shoulder or necessarily the bicep. But sometimes, it’s because the lats are so strong and tight.
Tim Ferriss: That’s an issue that I have, absolutely.
Coach Sommer: Exactly. Because a lot of the lifters, too, because those lats are working hard. You guys are moving some serious weight. And those lats are, of course, working. And if there’s not corresponding mobility going with it, it’s real easy for those lats to kind of get chronically contracted and lose their mobility. So a lot of times, you get in there and just stretch the heck out of that lat and automatically get relief on the shoulders.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, Coach, I am going to do a couple of rapid fire and then a couple of closing questions. And then, maybe you and I are talking quite a bit these days, so we’ll consider doing a follow up. And I definitely want to share the results of our experiment with people also. So we’ll certainly be in constant contact. But the first rapid fire question is, and the answer doesn’t have to be short, but it certainly can be, when you think of the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind for you and why?
Coach Sommer: Wow. Good question. It’s not Obama. Piss all the people off out there. Someone I have admired for years and years is Tony Robbins.
He would be very high on my list. I tend to be very eclectic. I’m not trapped just in athletics. But what I found in terms of business, arts, politics, it’s all the same. When people get to that level of success, they all have the same attitudes. They bring the same tools and attitudes to the table. And I found it surprising that I can sit down with you, Tim, and visit. I can sit down with special operators and visit. And I can sit down with world class ballerinas and dance and artists and that. I just did this weekend visit with a world class artist.
And you would think there’s no common ground there, but there is common ground because what’s required to achieve success in all of those requires the same skills. You’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to master the basics.
You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to constantly reinvent yourself. Look for a flaw, a hole in the preparation, fix it, move forward.
Tim Ferriss: You also have to be very observant. And I think part of training yourself to be observant is asking questions. So I think that’s why –
Coach Sommer: And be willing to hear the answer.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. That’s why you take a bunch of people who are the best at what they do, and you put them in a room. Generally speaking, they’re going to get along just fine.
Coach Sommer: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Now, why Tony Robbins. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Tony Robbins. He’s been on the podcast, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. But I want to just hear your reasons.
Coach Sommer: I firmly believe, especially in the US, I firmly believe that if someone isn’t as successful in any arena you toss it out, whether it’s professionally, personally in your life, financially, if you’re not as successful as you would like to be or making progress towards that, it’s out own fault.
We have so many opportunities here that so much wealth of knowledge that a lot of times – for example, when GB got started, there were two years, a year and a half or two years in the beginning where I was doing 18 hour days and didn’t make a nickel, nothing. And everyone around me was like what are you doing? Well, I’ve got plans for this. And we’d talk about it a little bit. And they’re like well, if you need some extra money, you could go get a job. Think about how much further ahead you’d be right now. But you have to have that vision. And then, once you have the vision, you’ve got to be able to put practical steps to it.
And then, everyone is good at that. People outline stuff all of the time. But then, can you stick with it because when you run your business, Tim, when I run my business, there’s no one telling us what to do. We’re the ones to monitor ourselves. This needs to be done.
I’m going to get it done. And it’s kind of that difference between letting someone else being in control of your life and you choosing to be in control of your own life. And I know some people are going to get upset. Coach, I’m a single mom, this and that. I can’t do everything I want to do. And I get that. I get that. I’ve been there. I’ve gone through that. I’m certainly not saying there are quick fixes because these fixes can take years. But I think if someone is willing to put the time in, there is so much opportunity. And they’re willing to do that for years, it’s kind of a big, giant blank check.
A lot can change. You really have a lot of control. And so that was a message. And I didn’t say it nearly as well as Tony Robbins does. And I am going to twist your arm so I get an introduction some day to Tony. That’s high on my list.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I threw a little jam session for the people who were on the podcast. So, both of you will be invited.
Coach Sommer: Totally awesome.
I’m so looking forward to that. But way back when, poor as could be, hadn’t made national team coach yet, was just getting started in my coaching career. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. And here is this guy saying just think clear, plan ahead, and be willing to work. And that resonated with me. And it’s like I just had this discussion with someone this morning. You’re young. It’s so challenging and so difficult to be patient. When you’re 35, and you’re starting to get back in shape again.
And the hardest thing they need to do is they’ve got to, especially if they were a good athlete previously, you’ve got to set that attitude of having been a stud before aside because that body you have right now is not that stud’s body you had previously. It could be again. But it took time to build it the first time.
It’s going to take time to rebuild it this time. Or personally in your life, if things aren’t where you want them to be, it’s going to take time to build it there.
Tim Ferriss: I had this Olympic weight lifting coach who I think you guys would hit it off famously, especially if you were both a couple of drinks in, but very similar approaches. And he said you have a Ferrari engine and a Toyota Corolla chassis.
Coach Sommer: I love that.
Tim Ferriss: He said you can’t just slam on the accelerator and expect good things to happen. But Tony is very tactical and practical. And I apologize if you and everybody else can hear metal bowls being spun around. That’s what my dog, Molly, does when she’s trying to tell me that she’s hungry. She licks the empty bowl and sends it spinning. And I’m like yes, I get it. I know you’re hungry.
Coach Sommer: She’s being subtle.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, being very subtle. What book or books have you given the most to other people as gifts?
Coach Sommer: I like that one. It’s not so much – I’m a big fan of Robert Heinlein, science fiction.
Tim Ferriss: Stranger in a Strange Land.
Coach Sommer: Just all of them. I come back to those over and over again, the theme of self reliance. I came from a really, really humble, modest family background. And so I think that instills a hunger and a work ethic. It’s kind of embarrassing, actually. It’s a little bit of a Charles Dickens theme there. It’s a frustration thing. Things weren’t where we wanted them to be or where I wanted them to be. And then, how big a price, how hard are you willing to work in order to change it? One I’m enjoying right now, and I’m just getting into it, is The Obstacle is the Way.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, by Ryan Holiday, a very close friend of mine.
Coach Sommer: You’re killing me, dude. You’re killing me. I’m just going to hang out in your living room so I can meet all of these people.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. You and Ryan would hit it off. That’s a great book. This is a really small world. So I actually produced the audio book for that.
Coach Sommer: Are you kidding me?
Tim Ferriss: No.
Coach Sommer: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: And when you were talking about preparing your athletes for the stress as opposed to painting it over with yes, you can and positive psychology and really kind of sowing the seeds of their own destruction by doing so, I was thinking about stoic philosophy. So it doesn’t surprise me that you’re reading The Obstacle is the Way, which has become an extremely popular book among professional sports teams and coaches. I mean, Patriots, Seahawks, they’ve all read this.
Coach Sommer: Someone else that caught my eye who had read it and led me to it was Schwarzenegger.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, amazing.
Coach Sommer: He comes to the states with no money in his pocket and then becomes world champion in athletics, becomes a millionaire in business, becomes a movie star, and becomes a governor.
Success in four different arenas in life. Good Lord. So he said he liked that book, and I was like good enough for me.
Tim Ferriss: Arnold is an impressive unit. So two things, I know we’re bouncing around here, but two things that also astonished me when I interviewed him for the podcast was 1) I didn’t’ realize, in doing the research, until I did the research, that he became a millionaire before ever had his first starring role in real estate.
Coach Sommer: Yes, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: And that gave him the ability to only audition, not out of financial necessity, but for the roles that he wanted. So he could say no. And that his highest grossing film of all times, for him personally, was Twins because no one wanted to make it. And so he took a cut on the upfront payment for the salary, per se, in exchange for back end points that were abnormally large for the film industry at that point.
Coach Sommer: I love that.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s see. Do you have any particular morning rituals? What are the first 60 minutes of your day?
Coach Sommer: The morning rituals I’m supposed to do?
Tim Ferriss: The ones that you actually have or don’t have.
Coach Sommer: I tend to find, as I’ve gotten older because I’m in my early 50’s, as I’ve gotten older, I find that, by far, my most productive times are early morning. That’s when I’m sharpest, I’m clearest. So I’ll tend to get up pretty early before everybody else in the household is up.
Tim Ferriss: When do you get up?
Coach Sommer: It varies. I’ll get up somewhere usually between 4:00 and 5:00. My girls get up in a few hours. And that gives me a chance for that two or three hours of just clear thought. Maybe it’s working on a project. Maybe it’s a new manuscript. Maybe it’s just I indulge in some reading.
The house is quiet. And then, I do my best stuff after that. The girls head to school, and then, I get my work out in. And if I’m consistent with that, then the rest of my day is usually pretty golden.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You’ve already won. I remember somebody said to me, if you win the morning, you’ve won the day. I’m still working on it. That’s a work in progress. But I definitely agree with that. Do you drink coffee? Do you eat breakfast? Do you drink coffee?
Coach Sommer: I went for years, and I’m not a coffee drinker. I’m one of those few, I think, where it just tastes like cough medicine to me. And so it’s not me being virtuous. It’s just me despising the taste. But my wife is a big coffee drinker. She loves it. So she’s got her gourmet grinder and all of this stuff. But for me, no way. What was the second question, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: Do you eat breakfast?
Coach Sommer: I found, as I got older that I do best if I don’t do breakfast.
I used to be heavy, heavy protein. And then, after I got over 50, and this is me personally, would it work for younger athletes who are training? I doubt it. It’s a bigger engine, need more fuel. But for me, older, it’s slowing down. I find that not doing breakfast, reasonable lunch. My protein sizes are so much smaller now. Mostly veggies, have a good, healthy starch. Usually, it’s rice or potatoes. Reasonable, a little protein there, some fat at lunch. Do the same at dinner. And I’m done. I’m good. I was amazed at how much I was overeating just from habit.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, eating by the clock. I’ve noticed the same thing for myself. And I’ve been amazed at how many people I’ve interviewed for this podcast who are the best at what they do who do not eat breakfast.
Coach Sommer: You’re kidding, really? I thought I was alone.
Tim Ferriss: Paulo, his answer was coffee, Tim, I keep it simple. And then, Wim Hoff, the same story. You look at former General Stan McChrystal, same story. And it just goes on and on and on. It’s a good third of the men, specifically. I’m not sure if the female body responds as well to it, although, I’m sure there are intermittent fasting people out there who would say that women respond in the same way. But very high percentage, I’d say maybe a third of the men that I’ve had on the podcast do not eat breakfast. Now, specifically, these are men probably over the age of 45. So I don’t know.
I would imagine their diet has probably changed over time. And interestingly enough, if you do dig into the literature, or if I wanted to be a nerd, there are data to suggest that, as we get older, it is possible that we absorb protein more effectively when we have larger doses of protein less frequently.
Coach Sommer: That is interesting. That is very interesting.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Coach Sommer: Because I find myself, every once in a while, getting a big steak. Once a week, once every two weeks, I’ll go, and I’ll just get this massive thing of protein. And then, I’m good for a while, just very modest.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So this bolus of protein for older women, I think I saw one particular study, it could have been an observation – no, I doubt it if they were trying to standardize the protein amount. But it was some large amount. It was like 70 or 80 grams of protein in a single feeding was absorbed better than that same amount split over several meals in the day. Really fascinating stuff. What would you put on a billboard if you could put a billboard anywhere? What would it say?
Coach Sommer: Just what’s on top of my mind right now?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Coach Sommer: What’s at the top of the head, we’re not looking for universal truth, but just what’s – I would say probiotic.
I don’t know if it was a history of, I had to cut them out, too much margaritas. And it’s kind of funny. As you get older, it starts creeping in more and more and more. But I went through a phase where it didn’t matter what I ate, if I ate fat, if I ate low fat, if I ate veg, if I ate high protein, terrible digestion. Just terrible digestion. And I happened to come across something that said if you have blah, blah, blah; it might be a probiotic issue. And so through a good buddy, I had a laboratory grade. These particular ones were from Klaire Labs, so you kind of need a prescription for them. But they’re a laboratory grade probiotic.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell Klaire?
Coach Sommer: I want to say it was K-L-A-I-R-E.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Coach Sommer: And no, I’m not paid by them, guys. And they’re a son of a bitch to track down because you need a prescription for them. And you’ve got to get them at a health provider. But hooked me up in 12 hours. And so I was like holy moly because I had been uncomfortable for months.
And in 12 hours, this took care of it. Contacted a buddy of mine who is great at nutrition. He went on to say, “Coach, you should go ahead and probably take two or four weeks and just really hit these probiotics hard and repopulate the gut.” Years of too much margaritas, too much protein, not enough vegetable matter to feed the good bacteria. And son of a gun, night and day difference. I bet simply because of that, I dropped eight pounds.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I bet. I’m currently taking VSL 3 and a few other probiotics. But one of the points you made that I think is really worth underscoring is the vegetable matter and prebiotics. So providing the food that creates the environment in which bacteria that you want to grow can grow effectively, whether that’s through foods where I think one of the ways – I had this biologist tell me, at one point, he said I think slow carb is going to be vindicated because the beans and lentils and so on are vilified by paleo.
But they provide the perfect vehicle for a prebiotic environment that can foster the development and growth of these various bacteria in the gut. And if not that, if you are paleo purist, you can also consume something like phos for [inaudible] or inulin or any of these other things. But wow, I had no idea that you had that experience.
Coach Sommer: It was shocking. Prior to that, I would have said No. 1 supplement was emulsified vitamin D drops.
Tim Ferriss: How much were you consuming, just out of curiosity? And, of course, the amount you take depends on what your levels are.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. Just a little background there. So I was at our winter nationals seven years ago. And just kind of the environment, national team, kids everywhere, middle of the winter.
It’s always in February. And I would just get sick really bad kind of bronchitis like sickness once or twice a year for, gosh, decades. And at one of these, I was half dead. And my assistant coach is trying to run my athletes. He’s doing his best, but it’s not going real well. I’m trying to coach hanging over a railing. And I’m visiting with Robb Wolf later that night. And I’m just like this is ridiculous. And Robb is the one who tagged. He said, “Coach, it’s always in the middle of the winter. Try some vitamin D.” And I started the liquid vitamin D. If we don’t count food poisoning in Hong Kong, I have not been sick since.
Tim Ferriss: That’s outstanding.
Coach Sommer: Yeah. And that’s quite a swing. Once or twice, pretty serious, per year to nothing for seven. And the only thing that changed in that time was the vitamin D.
So I’m pretty practical that that was the one variable I changed and that was the result, boom, that’s the door step I put it at.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a particular brand that you use for that?
Coach Sommer: I want to say, I’ve looked at it so many years, I just kind of pick it up off the shelf, and I want to say it was Bio Test perhaps. And so I can’t swear about other ones. I just know I’ve always used that particular one. I’ve done, gosh, all kinds of different protocols from one or two drops a day – it’s like a runny Elmer’s glue for those who haven’t had it. The taste isn’t anything to get upset at all. My daughters, when they were young, disagreed. They said it was the worst thing in the world. It’s not bad at all. We’ve done daily a few drops all the way up to once or twice a week with eight to ten drops and just mix it up. It just seems like as long as you’re consistent, it almost doesn’t matter.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So I’m guessing each of those drops is probably an IU, one international unit.
Coach Sommer: It seems like, and I’m tied to the computer right now, or I’d go grab it for you, it seems like the dosage is surprisingly high in each drop. And I’m a big fan, especially as you get older; you’ve got to go get blood work. And anything else is guessing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You need to get blood work period. If you get your car checked out more often than you get your blood work done, then you need to rearrange your priorities. So last question, and this is where I’d like you to certainly, among other things, point people to where they can learn more about you and Gymnastic Bodies, but what ask or request would you have for my audience for the people listening?
Coach Sommer: I’m not understanding the question.
Tim Ferriss: So they’re actually kind of two separate things. So one is outside of Gymnastic Bodies and the work that you’re up to and pointing people to that, do you have any asks or requests for the people listening?
There are going to be hundreds of thousands, at the very least, in the first week, maybe millions of people listening to this. What would you like them to think on, do, or consider?
Coach Sommer: Okay, very good. Actually, I love that question. I would like them to consider two things. I would like them to consider where is the fire? Where is the rush? Why are they trying to accomplish everything, their current goals, yesterday? Why not slow down a little bit, not saying not to work hard, but why don’t we just slow down a little bit, a little more reasonable pace, some more consistency? So that would be No. 1 ask. And then, the second one is mobility. Whether it’s my material, whether it’s just the stuff that Tim posts for you, whether it’s someone else’s material, it’s fine with me. But we’ve got to get those bodies moving. We’ve got to get natural range of motion back again.
That alone, if we did the hierarchy what would increase quality of life the fastest for them is going to be mobility first, then core, then your more conventional strength, your arms, your shoulders, yada, yada, yada.
Tim Ferriss: And where can people find you online, on social media, etc.? What would you recommend is the next step for somebody who has never done gymnastics anything who wants to dip their toe in the water?
Coach Sommer: First thing, go to Gymnasticbodies.com. We have a special landing page for your listeners, Tim, with a nice discount for them. But we have a nice introductory program. That’s just gymnastic bodies, G-Y-M-N-A-S-T-I-C B-O-D-I-E-S.com/Tim. And we got a nice discount there for you for a nice intro program. It’s about a 24 day program, gentle introduction to kind of the language we speak, get started on some mobility, some great follow along videos for them. Kind of hold their hand, make sure they get started off on the right foot.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s been a tremendous learning experience for me so far. And it’s only been really a handful of weeks that we’ve been digging into this deeply, although we had some prep time and talking about it prior to that. And definitely, guys, if you are like I’m so busy, I’m doing this, that, and the other thing. Take a look at the program, but at the very least follow Gymnastic Bodies on Instagram. And every time you see a video from a student who seems to throw one of your excuses out the window, take a second.
Just admire what someone has done from scratch like Matt who you mentioned who started in his late 40’s because one by one, if you just watch that [inaudible] for a week, you will run out of excuses very, very quickly.
Tim Ferriss: What about else on social media, is there anywhere else people can say hi to you?
Coach Sommer: Our Facebook page is Gymnastic Bodies.com, a little more proper there. My personal page, Christopher Sommer, S-O-M-M-E-R. A little more no rules there. And I’m not insane, but my interests are wide ranging. So if you come to my page, you’re taking your chances what I’m going to torture you with that day. It might be conditioning, or it might be I think such and such is kick ass, and I like it, so you’re going to like it, too.
Tim Ferriss: And you do throw up some ridiculous, in the best way possible, videos of just monsters doing some absurd stuff. I mean, who is the gent you encouraged me to check this out, this guy who was going from – you were trying to explain the, let me get this right, I want to say plate planches that I was doing a while back, which are kind of like a front raise holding onto a plate with the shoulders super, super protracted and the massive posterior pelvic tilt.
Coach Sommer: Oh, I sent you that clip of that world champ on rings.
Tim Ferriss: You sent me one of Van Gelder on rings. And then, you sent me one of this guy on parallel bars going from –
Coach Sommer: That was Van Gelder again.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Going from the handstand to the straight body planche. Oh, my God.
Coach Sommer: We do it with 10 or 25 pounds. He was doing it with full body weight.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my God. How do you spell Van Gelder?
Coach Sommer: So it’s Yuri Van Gelder. I think he’s from Netherlands, if I’m remembering right, former world champ. V-A-N G-E-L-D-E-R.
Tim Ferriss: Just a monster, oh, my gosh.
Coach Sommer: So crazy strong.
Tim Ferriss: And doesn’t look like a small guy either.
Coach Sommer: He’s a big boy. He’s got like two peoples’ backs. He has got a wide back.
Tim Ferriss: So people should check that out. And I’ll link to everything in the show notes. Coach, thank you so much for the time. I know it’s precious. And I think people will get a real kick out of this. And we crammed a lot into the talk.
Coach Sommer: We did talk a lot. It was good.
Tim Ferriss: So I look forward to chatting again soon, which I’m sure we will do. And to everybody listening, you can find all of the links to everything that I can track down and that my team can track down related to all of the topics we covered, links to coach everywhere, Gymnastic Bodies everywhere in the show notes. That will just be at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast. All spelled out, fourhourworkweek.com/podcast. And as always, and until next time, thank you for listening.
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