March 2011: Rob Schwartz (Olympic Strength Coach)

by on March 24, 2011

JOHN: It is my pleasure to introduce this month’s featured interview Rob Schwartz. Rob, can you give my readers some background on what you do for a living, and what some of the things you are most passionate about in terms of training, nutrition, or whatever.

ROB: I am a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the United States Olympic Committee. I’m responsible for the all of the Combat and Acrobatic Sports, which include wrestling, boxing, judo, gymnastics, and diving, to name a few. My coaching background is rather diverse. I have been fortunate to learn several different methods from some of the best coaches in the field. To give you a brief overview, I started coaching with a Weightlifting (aka Olympic Lifting) Team under an International Level Coach, a year later was an assistant in a HIT program, coached in a program that focused on FMS/Corrective Exercise, have extensive experience with the Conjugate System and learned Kettlebells from a World Championship competitor. I not only coached those methods, but trained, read, visited with other coaches, and learned as much as I could about them.

Most importantly I learned from Scott Kellar how to be open-minded and then have a process for deciding if something gets used and how to implement it. There are a lot of great ideas out there, but none of them get into our program without going through that process. Our programs are designed to meet the needs of the athletes, not a one size fits all nor a cluster of everything I’ve learned.

As for nutrition, I read a lot and am certified by the International Society of Sport Nutrition. We are fortunate to have a world class staff of Sport Dieticians here at the USOC. So I’m always picking their brains or getting their opinions on new topics. I do the same with our Sport Psychology and Sport Medicine divisions.

JOHN: Did you grow up wanting to be a strength coach, or have other ideas? I am always curious as to how someone at your level got there. Did you dream about it and follow through, develop an interest through something unique etc?

ROB: Actually, my college program was very ACSM based and I was kind of funneled toward Cardiac Rehab. However I did have a class taught by the Strength GA and our text was the Essentials book from the NSCA, which really sparked my interest. I decided no matter what, I was going to do my internship in strength and conditioning. That was it; I knew what I had to do. Upon graduation I was offered 2 jobs; one paid about 50K in a rehab setting. I took the other for 6K (not a typo) to coach at my alma mater. No benefits or grad classes included. I’ve never regretted my decision.

JOHN: In terms of training, can you tell us a little bit about the process that you use to identify what techniques or methods might work with certain athletes?

ROB: Each athlete performs the Overhead Squat as a functional movement test and undergoes a postural assessment. From there they are given a corrective exercise program to address their needs. Next I consider their strength and conditioning experience, the demands of their sport and the frequency that they are going to train with us. We use a system based on movement progressions. For instance they will have mastered hip hinging prior to pulls and pulls prior to cleans and snatches.

JOHN: How do you know when they have mastered something and are ready to move onto the next? Is it based on their ability to execute perfect form, or show some kind of weight or rep progression too? What is an example of a hip-hinging movement you like?

ROB: It is completely based on technique. There is a difference between developing power and displaying it. Take cleans for example, a naturally powerful athlete may be able to throw up an impressive weight with bad technique, but that athlete is eventually going to hit a plateau they can’t overcome due to poor technique. Whereas, even if we have to lower the weight to perfect technique, the athlete’s body will be producing more power and with recruitment patterns more transferable to sport. Their potential for future gains becomes much greater as well.

Hip hinging is a term we use to classify exercises as those in which movement is at the hip, while the lumbar spine remains stable. For example; Dimel Deadlifts, RDL’s, Goodmornings, Back Extensions, Reverse Hypers, to name a few.

JOHN: Can you talk about what you might find on the assessment, and what you would do to fix? For all the novice lifters out there or even advanced lifters, what are a few things that they can also apply to their training that would be beneficial?

ROB: The most common issue I find with athletes is anterior pelvic tilt, which may lead to back pain, and usually some restriction in the shoulders. First of all, due to the athlete developing these issues over several years or even their entire lifetime, the corrective programs need to be performed a minimum of 5x/week, to see any progress. The more severe the issue, the longer it takes to fix. It fits in as part of the warm-up or extra work at the end of regular training/practices.

For anterior pelvic tilt, the general causes are tight hip flexors and a lack of glute activation. We foam roll the hip flexors and use a shot put on the psoas to reduce muscular tension prior to stretching them through a series of reverse or lateral lunges w/ twists and leans. We activate the glutes through quadruped hip abductions, circles, and scorpions as well as contra-lateral movements like swimmers and bloodhounds (aka birddogs). We also use a progression of back bridges.

JOHN: Is a swimmer just like it sounds, laying flat on the floor and mimicking a swimming motion (lifting the leg giving you the glute activation you desire?) What are bird dogs?

ROB: Both are contra-lateral movements, extending one hip and extending the opposite shoulder. Swimmers are in a prone (laying face down) position and Birdogs or as I call them; Bloodhounds, is from a position on all fours. Both are great for glute activation, abdominal stability and rhomboid activation. They also work diagonally across the core, which is a common demand in sport movements.

For the shoulders, it depends on the actual issue. I’m a huge believer that most of these problems can be solved with increased strength in the external rotators, mid & low traps, and rhomboids as well as increased flexibility in the pecs and lats. For strength some favorites are the YTWL series, band face pulls, rear flyes and a variety of rows. All these are performed with the scapula retracted and depressed. For flexibility we use prone chest stretch (with elbow bent at 90°), band shoulder mobilities, and side bends. Finally we add some thoracic mobility work such as quadruped t-rotation, the yoga move cat-cow, and Divebombers (also a great strength move).

JOHN: OK, what is a cat cow?

ROB: A cat-cow is a movement from an all fours position. The athlete rounds their upper back toward the sky while tucking their chin toward their chest and allows the scapula to pull apart getting a comfortable stretch. Then reverse the movement by pulling the upper back down and squeezing the scapula down and together while bowing the neck and looking toward the sky.

These aren’t the most exciting activities we perform, but you can’t replace how they positively impact our athlete’s health and performance.

JOHN: Can you give us some of your thoughts on how you train certain types of athletes such as wrestlers, boxers, gymnasts etc? What are primary focus points?

ROB: The most important aspects for any athlete are going to be their levels of discipline and intensity. In the competitive arena our athlete’s must be able to focus on their technique regardless of pain, fatigue or other distractions. We train them with that same mindset. Of course we modify our programs for injuries, but otherwise, it doesn’t matter if they’re tired, have the sniffles, the weight is heavy, etc… They have to perform the movements the way they’ve been coached and with great energy. The best athletes are the ones who not only accept this, but embrace it. It’s creating these great habits that will allow the physical gains of training to transfer into sport performance.

JOHN: With the kind of intensity and discipline that you see, do you make deloading a part of your athletes programs? Do you find that they benefit from refreshing their nervous system?

ROB: Absolutely. This is where you have to really pay attention to your athletes and be willing to adjust when needed. I use the 3 week ramp, 1 week de-load as the base model. However depending on the athlete and the other demands of their training, I adjust from there. I have some athlete’s that continue to make gains for 6 weeks before we de-load and others that may need a break after 2 weeks. Sometimes we keep the intensity way up, but really decrease their volume and/or frequency for a week or 2. It is always variable based on the situation. When in doubt, I would rather error on the side of giving a little too much recovery. Like I said we can train through a day in which the athlete is just not feeling well; and at times we over-reach on purpose, but there is always a strategy for when to supercompensate, thus improving performance long-term.

JOHN: You mentioned over-reaching. I have always felt like the best programs for advanced athletes would take you right up to that point, to your limit, and then back off. What are the signs you look for to indicate the athlete is overreaching? Is nervous system signs (increased resting pulse rate, etc) what you are looking for, our just general lack of strength, explosiveness, etc?

ROB: This is where the art of coaching comes into play. We do use certain physiological parameters, but it’s my job to get to know my athletes, how they train with us, how they practice, compete, their lifestyle habits, etc… I constantly evaluate how they are performing. I do watch their strength/speed/power levels as an indicator. I also get feedback from their coaches, sports medicine personnel, sport nutritionist, etc…. The more we train together, the more I know just how far they can go and when they need to recover.

JOHN: Can you talk about the mindset of the athletes you work with? Are these individuals who were brought up their whole lives to be Olympic champions, or do some develop skills later than others? Does it vary by sport?

ROB: It certainly varies by sport. Some sports have a culture in which the athlete’s have had constant structure since they were very young and other sports highly encourage creativity and individuality. Each athlete is going to develop at a different rate and for different reasons. It’s easy to tell when an athlete has had a parent, coach or mentor that would not allow them to rest on the fact they have talent. These are the athletes that take home the medals.

I have always found that the best athletes have common traits; they may just demonstrate them differently. For example some athletes demonstrate their work ethic by running themselves into the ground and begging for more while others demonstrate it with attention to detail then wanting to know how they can do it better.

JOHN: I am sure you have worked with many many athletes you really came to respect a great deal. If you had to pick out one athlete that you really enjoyed working with, and for whatever reason, who would that be?

ROB: That’s almost impossible to say, I’ve had more than a few that were amazing. I don’t think I can single any one out, as it would be unfair to so many others. What I will say, is it is always contagious amongst the team and is a reflection of their sport coaches. It really has more to do with the coach (or staff) than the type of sport. Coincidentally, the athlete or team’s success is typically representative of how they operate on a daily basis in all aspects.

JOHN: When athletes come to you, do you find that some of them are still making novice mistakes in their training regimens, and if so, what are the most common mistakes you see?

ROB: The 2 most common mistakes I see are the athlete trying to sacrifice technique in order to lift a weight they can’t handle. This is relatively easy to fix as our standards are non-negotiable.

The other major mistake I see is more in terms of training philosophy. Sport-specific or specialization has its place, certainly, but to maximize your specific development there needs to be sufficient levels of general physical prep first. Even the best athletes have weak links or inefficient movement patterns that need to be addressed. Can some gains be made in the face of these problems? Sure, but we aren’t interested in some, we are after maximal. Also, general prep is building an athlete that highly performs in the different aspects of athleticism; strength, speed, power, balance, coordination, flexibility, etc… It should not be confused with easy, it takes a lot of hard work to improve those areas to the elite/world class levels, that our athletes need. Once training does become more specific, levels of general prep are still addressed, just to a lower volume.

It’s important to understand that, unless the athlete is a Weightlifter or Powerlifter, sport-specific is different than mimicking sport movements in the weight room. Attempting to mimic movements with great resistance ends up decreasing performance. I use the areas cited by Dr. Siff in Supertraining (Chapter 1) as the guidelines for specific training.

JOHN: It is amazing how Siff has influenced training theory over the years isn’t it. For explosiveness, have you incorporated any kind of bandwork or chain work to your programs yet?

ROB: I’ve been using bands and chains in a variety of ways for several years. As for the traditional dynamic effort work like the powerlifts, I mostly cycle between straight weight and chains with the athletes. Bands are used more during bodywt movements such as resisted push-ups, inverted rows or jumps.

JOHN: I absolutely love bands and chains for not only strength, but for size, but feel like they do tend to break you down more, and isn’t something meant to be done every week for months on end. What has your experience been Rob?

ROB: I would agree with that. Just like any training method, you want to give it appropriate time to work, but be aware of the toll on the body and any decreases in performance. I can’t remember who said it, but I once heard; exercises (or methods) are like ingredients in baking, you want the right amount, just enough, but not too much.

JOHN: Well Rob, unfortunately I think our time has come to an end. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and allowing us to peak into the mind of an Olympic Coach! We hope to talk again soon!

ROB: You are welcome John! I look forward to it!