As soon as you walk into the Ultimate Sport Center in Columbus, Ohio, you hear the intensity from the front left corner of the facility. Sitting behind a chain-link fence, The Spot Athletics houses some of the strongest equipment and sports performances coaches in the country. Yet, what makes The Spot Athletics truly unique goes beyond the durability of the equipment or the passion of its coaches. It is the combination of the two that helps foster one of the best training environments for athletes (and even coaches) to accomplish their goals.

I was welcomed to The Spot with open arms by JL and his staff. These young, aspiring coaches have the rare opportunity to learn from the best, especially in a facility that allows them to train large teams to the best of their abilities. Around 12:30 p.m., with the gates closed and the foam rolling and idle chatter stopped, it was time for the entire staff to train together. JL split us up into groups of two for dynamic effort box squats with average bands. The most impressive aspect of the day was that everyone coached one another on every rep.

After the main lift, the group split into various squat and posterior chain variations and concluded with grip work. From one session of Dynamic Box Squat, JL was able to increase my stability, improve my posture, and add more explosive reps for my squat. One of my greatest mentors in coaching, Jack Hatem, gave me this equation:

 Knowledge + Experience = Wisdom

When it comes to training and running a top-notch facility, JL Holdsworth has as much wisdom as anyone in the business. Here is a sample of that wisdom.

Mark Watts: One of the many things we talked about during my visit involved exercise selection, and that the most important factors were Energy Systems and Application. Can you explain further?

JL Holdsworth: These “gurus” writing articles in fitness magazines that proclaim “the best exercise for (fill in the blank)” are full of crap. This “better than” mentality gets people caught up in debating what exercise is the best and it’s stupid. Overhead pressing vs. bench pressing, cleans vs. squat…whatever the argument, I believe that there is no best exercise. It just all depends on application.

For example, I love the bench press. Why? ‘Cause I’m good at it. But I don’t think it is a great exercise for most athletes. It is, however, the best exercise if you are going to compete in the bench press—as in powerlifting. On the other side, I don’t ever put curls in any of my athletes’ programs. They get plenty of bicep work from all of the heavy pulling we do. So, one might look at my programming and presume that I think the curl is a bad exercise because my athletes never do it. On the contrary, however, I think it is an awesome exercise if you are a bodybuilder or if you want your arms to grow. Again, the exercise doesn’t matter—it is all about the application.

People see this or that “new” exercise on YouTube with some “guru” encouraging viewers to do it, and so trainers end up throwing it into their programs because it’s supposed to be a “good” exercise. Well, all exercises are good or bad depending on what your application is. When choosing whether or not to include an exercise, don’t go off of whether or not you think it’s good. Instead, choose based on your application and your desired outcome. The problem lies in the fact that most people don’t know how to do exercises properly (not to mention where to appropriately use them for a certain application).

A great example of this is the clean. Coaches often tell me that they do the clean for explosion and power. However, I then watch their athletes move maximal loads at a slow speed. Consequently, I try to tell the coach that it’s not power work, it is strength work. Any exercise done with maximal loads is strength work. Exercises done between 40 to 60% of a 1RM (roughly) is power work. The funny thing is that these same coaches don’t want their athletes using 60% because it’s too light. Therefore, they obviously don’t understand the equation for power, much less how to build it in an athlete. The squat and deadlift can be done quickly and explosively, and the clean can be done for max strength. You see, it’s not the exercise you choose that trains a certain quality, it’s about the application. You must choose a quality to train and then select the appropriate exercise and load to elicit the adaptation you are looking for.

There are a few rules no exercise can violate (or they just become way too dangerous but beyond the ridiculousness that you occasionally see), and all exercises can be great if used with the right application. Once an athlete gets to an elite level, you will start to find that one exercise works better for that particular athlete than others. However, this individualization cannot even start to happen until an athlete is at an elite level, and that is a whole other discussion.
Conditioning exercises are the same as weight training. The difference is that instead of choosing whether you want to train power or maximal strength, you must choose whether you want to train the Phosphagen, Anaerobic, or Aerobic system. Now, I could go into fast glycolysis, slow glycolysis, Acetyl-CoA, and mitochondria, but that is not the point here.  The point is that you have several different energy systems that need trained depending on the needs of a sport and the desired outcome. Most sports are a combination of all these energy systems in different percentages, and our job is to determine which ones need trained.

A brief tangent regarding this point that pisses me off is the whole “this energy system helps build that energy system” argument. Yes, they all rely on each other and work together, but you must specifically train the energy system that needs brought up in order to get the best training effect. It’s just like the strength vs. size argument Dave wrote about. If you want strength, train strength. If you want size, train size. Try to do both and you will be average at both. If you want to have the best Anaerobic energy system, then train that. If you want the best Aerobic system, then train that. Try to be great at both and you will fail. Can you be good at both? Yes. But if you want to be the best in the world…then no. My point is that anyone with decent genetics can be good, but you must train appropriately to be great. Obviously, these are just generalizations and not specific training protocols, but if you understand a sport and its energy demands, then you should be able to come up with the appropriate training.

The other side to remember, in regards to energy systems training, is that a huge weakness in one system will hold back another quality you are working. For example, if you are 150 pounds and you want to bench 600 pounds raw, then you better put on a lot of size. This may mean taking time away from the strength goal, but it’s a long-term sporting plan that builds success—not one workout, one week of workouts, or even year of workouts.

So, back to my energy system discussion. The exercise you choose makes no difference. It’s just like lifting—the application and the load make the difference. For example, a wrestler who needs to increase his aerobic capacity needs to train in a sub-lactic acid state so he maintains aerobic system training. He could do this by jogging at a slow pace, or he could do curls at a slow pace for 45 minutes (as long as it keeps his heart rate at a 130- to 135-type of range). Now, I wouldn’t prescribe curls as aerobic work for anyone. However, the point is that it really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are working the energy system that you are trying to work.

I would, on the other hand, prescribe squat to press on a time system, say every 15 seconds or so (tempo that keeps HR about 125 to 135) for 45 minutes. This would be easier on his joints, work the same musculature, and really even do a better job for a wrestler’s application. Not to mention that he could also do it in the inclement December weather that we have in Ohio. There are a million ways to skin the cat, but in my opinion jogging is one of the worst ways to do it. I hate jogging. I think that unless you are a marathon runner or a cross-country/distance track person, jogging should not be a part of your program. The only other acceptable reason to do it is if you just really enjoy doing it. I do a ton of shit that isn’t good for me and makes no sense, but I enjoy it. So I wouldn’t ever want to deprive someone else of his bad-for-you, no-sense activity. So jog if you like it.  People have pigeon-holed different exercises into different categories, and it’s stupid. All that matters is the energy system and the application, and you can use any exercise to fill your need. Not only does this open up your training tool box but it also stops the needless limitations that people have put on certain exercises.

Mark Watts: One of the most impressive things about The Spot Athletics is your staff of coaches and trainers. You have some unique requirements for anyone coaching at The Spot. Can you go through that process?

JL Holdsworth: All staff must start as interns with me before they can work with clients on their own. This process ensures that clients at The Spot are getting world-class coaching and training. All of my staff are also required to lift on a weekly basis. However, not only are they required to be lifting, but they must also be training for some sort of strength sport. I have several staff members who competed at Grip Nationals, one who did a powerlifting meet a month ago, one doing a meet next week, a guy who did a strongman show two weeks ago, and several who are training for a powerlifting meet in September. This ensures that all of my staff knows what it is like and how it feels to train for a goal, and they never lose sight that our clients are also training for a goal. Our athletes have a more time-sensitive goal than our adult clients, but either way they are training for a goal. If you are training people to reach special goals, and you aren’t training every day to do the same thing, then I don’t think you will be able to understand what that person is feeling and going through.

Mark Watts: We were talking about corrective exercises and getting athletes stronger, and one thing you said was, “If they can’t feel it, they can’t fix it.” What are some examples that have come up with athletes and clients to illustrate that point?

JL Holdsworth: The pelvic tilt and hip hinge are two big ones. These are very basic movements that set the stage for almost all lifts. If someone can’t perform a pelvic tilt, then it doesn’t matter how much glute work they do, they can’t feel what they are supposed to be doing. A hip hinge is the same way. If someone can’t feel where there body is enough to hip hinge, then they are not going to be able to squat properly. When you watch people squat, or do any lift for the first time, and you tell them all the things they did wrong, they usually have no clue what you are talking about. After a while, however, they start to understand what you are saying. Finally, there comes a time when they feel the things you are talking about, and when this happens they know they messed up before you even have to say anything. This is the point at which they now feel it, and shortly after this they will start to fix it.

This body awareness is very high in elite athletes, and that is why it is so easy to teach them movements. People who are not good with body awareness take forever to learn movements because they can’t feel where their body is, and that makes for some long coaching days.