I was recently asked by the Precision Nutrition crew to answer a few questions one of their members had for me. It’s something I like to do: help people out. I started out only planning on giving simples answers but since I just can’t shut up it turned out to be a pretty interesting piece if I can say so myself.
I thought that it would be nice to share it with my Thibarmy readers who can also benefit from my answers and will get a chance to know me a bit better.
How long did the process to become a top strength coach take, and what did you do to get there?
Honestly, I consider myself lucky in that regard since I had a few breaks really early on.
I’ll tell you my story, it might be easier to explain it this way.
I started training very early on; I was 11 and did it mostly to get better for football. Heck, I probably started even earlier because I remember doing crunches, push-ups and body weight squats when watching TV as an 8-9-year-old kid. I would do reps during every commercial break.
When I got to high school, I started training in the school’s gym every lunch break. I was playing receiver my first 2 years, so I thought that I only needed to train legs because I only wanted to become faster. I’m probably the only teenage boy who started out only training legs!
I trained for football from 12 to 19. When I stopped playing, I switched to Olympic lifting.
My first break came when I was 20. I started coaching high school football for my mentor who also happened to be pretty much the only strength coach in our city (that’s more than 20 years ago in a small Canadian town). I started working for him, doing research (the internet was starting out, so I would print out everything I could about training for him) and supervising the athletes in the gym.
After a year, he got a job at the high school and was responsible for the sports program and didn’t have time to keep training the athletes, so he “gave them” to me.
So, I started out in this field at 21, while still in college, training 30+ athletes, many of them lower level pros.
I got another small break around the same time. Few people know this, but I used to compete in golf. My coach was a training buff and physical education teacher. His daughter was a figure skater and as a strong believer in strength training for sports, he started a strength and conditioning program for the skating team.
I joined him because he needed someone to teach the Olympic lifts. I had the opportunity to work with two national champions (Marian Dubuc, junior champion and Joannie Rochette, who went on to win a silver in Vancouver).
My second big break came when I got a contract writing for T-nation. That was in 1998, I think. The way it happened is that I was already writing for my own website (that was a big thing back then). I ran it with Joachim Bartoll, who later went on to be the editor of Ironman magazine Sweden, and Eric Hesse, who went on to work for MuscleTech. We were pretty popular, even though we were a bunch of amateurs.
T-nation was the number 1 weight training site in the world at the time. Poliquin was there, Ian King, John Berardi, a lot of big names. My dream had always been to have an article published on T-nation. So, I decided to submit an article about the power snatch. And much to my surprise they ran with it! Even more surprising is that a week later I received a check in the mail, payment for the article.
So, I started to send more in and they published all of them! After about two months, I received a phone call at my parent’s house. It was from Biotest/T-nation owner Tim Patterson who asked me to join the team as a staff writer. To this day, I have no clue how they got the number, which always made me a bit scared of Tim.
Anyway, they gave me a good amount of money, in advance (one payment for the whole year). At first, I wanted to buy a car, but I decided to self-publish a book (which would become the Black Book of Training Secrets). Understand that e-books didn’t exist back then, so few people were publishing stuff.
I spent 30 000$ to have a professional company print out 2000 copies of my book.
I stored all of them in my parent’s basement and handled the shipping myself at first. I sold them pretty rapidly, but more importantly, it gave me more credibility which allowed me to get more athletes.
Then, it just developed from there. All in all, I have trained athletes from 28 different sports (if you include bodybuilding and CrossFit). I’m likely the only coach in the world who has trained an athlete who as competed at the Olympics, one in the NFL, one in the NHL, one who competed at the Mr. Olympia (and Mrs. Olympia) and one at the CrossFit Games. I actually have more than one in each category, but you get the idea.
Now I’m, focusing more on education, giving seminars across the world (and for the GoodLife chain in Canada), as well as writing articles for T-nation and thibarmy.com.
What did you focus on?
Developing positive relationships with everybody. But that’s part of my personality profile: I’m the guy who wants to get along with everybody. I also do not want to be the leader. I was able to build a lot of good, helpful relationships because people didn’t see me as a threat or competition.
And I have a moto: “you never know who will be in a position to help you in the future, treat everybody as if you knew that they could help you in the future“
That’s also why I’m approachable. Heck, it happened more than once that someone would ask me a question by Messenger, and instead of typing an answer I called them and talked to them for 90 minutes out of the blue.
I did the same thing when I started out coaching. I coached a lot of clients for free, young athletes who just didn’t have enough money. A few of them turned out to be pros and it helped me gain a good reputation. Furthermore, when you start out as a coach; if your goal is to train athletes you must train athletes!
A pro or potential Olympian will not put his future into your hands if you have no experience training athletes. So, when I started out I tried to work with as many athletes as I could, even if I wasn’t making a ton of money. This gave me tons of experience but also allowed me to develop my craft as a coach. Learning to interact with people, read them, motivate them, etc.
Training-wise I’m a jack of all trades. I’m not the best bodybuilding coach, I’m not the best Olympic lifting or powerlifting specialist, and I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert in speed training. But I’m pretty good at everything. This allows me to have many different tools in my tool box and I can use whatever is necessary to fix a problem that a client might have.
Who were your mentors?
My first mentor is not known by anybody. He was the first coach who gave me a chance. Jean Boutet. Jean worked with pro hockey players, track athletes, football players and some other sports as well. He was old-school and very much like Mark Rippletoe in the way he coached and in his beliefs.
That’s where I learned to focus on the big basic lifts. His go-to methods were sets of 8 for hypertrophy, sets of 5 for strength and Russian contrasts for power (contrasting a heavy and an explosive exercise). That’s how the periodization plans were built.
I also learned from Pierre Roy (former National weightlifting coach) from whom I learned more about Olympic lifting technique and especially the teaching sequence. His periodization model was doing a phase of sets of 6 for 4 weeks, sets of 3 for 4 weeks and 3/2/1 waves for 4 weeks. He also taught me about the benefits of doing eccentric accentuated work and isometric exercises.
But my main influence has been Charles Poliquin. He is the guy that I modeled myself on, at least career/knowledge-wise. And I would say that even though we are different people, he is the one with whom I share the most commonalities with as far as training is concerned.
And since I’m not someone who needs to be no. 1 and I’m not competitive, we are always on good terms (even when we disagree) and speak often. I might be the only guy with who he has had a 15+ years relationship and has never had a conflict!
What support network did you have?
I didn’t have much at first. I was in a small town in Quebec (Trois-Rivieres). Pretty far from the action. My only support system was when I started to have a relationship with Poliquin. Especially since it was when he was at the peak of his influence. He helped me get a good job training pros in the US and also provided support many other times.
Also, writing for T-nation really helped because of the volume of traffic they got (and get). I think since many of the top coaches in the world wrote for the site 10-15 years ago, it really helped with my credibility.
What worked for you, from a nutrition standpoint?
Here’s the thing: my belief is that provided that you aren’t doing anything stupid, every type of diet can potentially work. If you are focusing on whole foods, consume enough protein and control your energy intake you can get results whether it is muscle gain or fat loss.
I think that the key thing is finding a nutritional approach that fits your personality and neurological profile. Some people will do better on a low carbs diet (people who have more serotonin for example) while others will need more carbs (those who are more naturally anxious).
Some people will prefer smaller, more frequent meals while others (like me) prefer larger meals. That’s why intermittent fasting works well for me: I have no problem not eating for 16 hours, but when I eat I need to feel satisfied.
My personal profile is one that requires variety. I’m like that with training, nutrition and life in general. With me everything works; but nothing works for a long time. When something becomes boring or routine I lose motivation. For example, I went keto for 5 weeks.
Felt great and had okay body composition results, but after 5 weeks I got bored and had to do something else. Same thing with intermittent fasting: worked great and I used it several times in the past, but rarely for more than 4 weeks. If I have a photoshoot it’s different though. I can be a machine and eat the same thing over and over.
Who was your favourite client (without naming names), and why?
It’s far from anybody you would expect! I’ve worked with pro athletes, Olympians, National champions, pro bodybuilders, figure competitors. But my all-time favorite client wasn’t an athlete. He was a 45-year-old father of 5 kids with his own business. He worked up to 60-70 hours a week and travelled out of the country frequently.
He had never trained before. His wife bought him a 3-month package of 3 weekly sessions. When I tested him for structural balance he failed to close-grip bench 125lbs!
Long story short, less than a year later he was bench pressing 315 and doing a front lever on the gymnastic rings. He also had monster arms and forearms. After the initial 3 months, he started training 6 days a week at 5am. Heck, one time we had a snow storm and I told him that I couldn’t make it to the gym because my car was snowed in. He showed up at 4:30 at my house, driving a plow truck (he was plowing driveways on top of his business) and we drove to the gym in his plow!
I have never been starstruck by athletes. And honestly out of all my favorite clients, very few, if any were athletes. I value effort. And to me it’s a lot more rewarding to take someone with average genetics and get them great results than to train a genetic freak who would be great no matter what.
Who was your least favourite client (without naming names), and why?
Well, I had quite a few. From pros that just whine all the time to people who just don’t want to put the effort in. But I would say that my least favorite client was a female I worked with. She wanted to be home before her kids would wake up in the morning, so I trained her at 4:30 (my next client was at 7:30) and she always complained that I wasn’t cheerful.
She also always complained about aches and pains and questioned every element of the workout. At the time, it really pissed me off, because in theory the gym only opened at 6am so I was doing her a favor and I’m not a cheerleader to start with.
How did you deal that least favourite client and get them onside/working how you wanted them to/getting results?
Honestly, at the time I didn’t do much. I didn’t understand what I know now. What I am teaching is the impact of the psychological/neurological profile on training and nutrition. Now I know why she acted the way she did: she was anxious.
People who have a high level of anxiety ask 10 000 questions, not because they don’t trust you, but because they need to know all the details to decrease their anxiety. And in retrospect, she didn’t want to train at 4:30 to get back home before her kids woke up but because she didn’t want anybody else in the gym. And she needed me to be a reassuring presence, which is why she complained that I was not cheerful.
People with more anxiety have an increased perception of pain. Furthermore, anxiety increases tightness in the flexor muscles, which actually increases the risk of injuries.
People who are like that will have a much harder time to progress because they constantly pump out cortisol. It is important to decrease their anxiety as much as possible if the client is to get results.
My coaching style at the time, which included a lot of training variation, was not adequate for such a person: when someone is not passionate about weight training, excessive variation causes even more anxiety. It’s much better for them to stick with the same exercises for a lot longer and play with the
What coaching techniques work best for you?
Clusters: using 88-92% of the 1RM for 4-6 reps with 15 seconds of rest between reps
Rest/pause: doing 6-8 reps, resting 15 seconds and doing as many additional reps as possible with the same weight
Wave loading: I personally get my best strength gains from 3/2/1 waves. The weight is increased from set to set. A wave has 3 sets (with full rest between sets) if you complete a wave (1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1 is a wave) you can start a new one, but it has to be heavier than the preceding one. You stop when you can’t complete the wave. I also like 6/4/2 waves for size and strength.
Heavy partial lifts:These have always been in my programs with advanced lifters. Normally, I use them on the bench press, squat, deadlift and military press. I start them from the safety pins most of the time.
Isometrics: I’ve always been a big believer in isometrics. Either all-out overcoming isometrics for 6-9 seconds (trying to move an immovable resistance, pushing as hard as possible) which is very effective for strength, especially to fix a weak point; or yielding isometrics in which you hold a weight in position for 30-60 seconds. I also use isometric holds during a set. For example, holding the peak contraction on a seated row for 20 seconds followed by 8-10 reps, great to improve mind-muscle connection.