Highlights of the episode:

  • How he started as a physio
  • The type of cues he use when he gives feedback to athletes
  • How he does programming
  • His fave movie or tv series or books that impacted him

#simonata #preparelikeapro #plplivechats #podcast #melbournestrengthcoach

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Interview Transcript

Jack: Welcome back to the ‘Prepare Like A Pro’ live chat show. My name is Jack McLean and tonight my guest is Simon Ata. He’s the founder of Simoster Strength, a calisthenics expert and physio therapist.

Simoster is a world leader in bodyweight training. Starting gymnastics at an early age, he became passionate about mastering control of the body and immersed himself in the world of bodyweight strength training. Expanding his skillset with training in martial arts, circus, and breakdance, his movements and teachings reflect a mixture of knowledge from each of these disciplines.

Really looking forward to this episode. For those new to the show, our mission here at ‘Prepare Like A Pro’ is to empower aspiring athletes and staff with practical knowledge from some of the industry’s most inspiring individuals. If you liked the show, please show support by finding us on Instagram and subscribing to the podcast. We are on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube.

Welcome, Simon. Thanks for jumping on, mate.

Simon: Thanks for having me.

Jack: Let’s dive straight into the beginning of your career as a strength coach and a calisthenics expert. At what age did you recognize that you wanted to help people with their fitness goals?

Simon: I think that’s something that developed quite late. I’ve always been passionate about calisthenics and kind of the high-level motor control exercises you see in circus, breakdancing, gymnastics. And then as I got older, I thought I wanted to be a physio. And I still am a physio, but now I predominantly work with performance. And rather than injury prevention it’s mostly about people getting the most out of their calisthenics training or strength training.

Jack: Awesome. And what about yourself? In the bio, the intro is gymnastics or something. You started at a young age. What did a typical week look like? And what age did you start gymnastics? 

Simon: I started gymnastics really young. My parents got me into gymnastics probably when I was seven or eight. I had an injury there. I ran into some parallel bars and I split my open and I quit for a few years. And they got me back into that when I was a little bit older, about 11 or 12, I think. And I always liked gymnastics. I liked the gymnastics skills, but I didn’t really like how structured it was and how rigid the syllabus was.

They also taught breakdancing at the same room I did gymnastics at. And I went along to a breakdancing class and I much preferred that. I liked a lot of those skills and I liked the freedom you had with breakdancing. To me, it’s ultimately gymnastics, but you can take it whichever direction you want to. It’s just floor gymnastics, but you can do whatever you want.

So, that’s where I made the switch and always did calisthenics to help with my breakdancing performance. 

Jack: Interesting. So, the calisthenics was accessory work for you and your goal was breakdancing. For those new to the gymnastics, calisthenics and breakdancing world, what would a typical day’s training involve? Is that a lot of volume? Is that long duration or is it an AM session and a PM session? Take us through a typical day.

Simon: As a junior gymnast, you probably do a few sessions a week, maybe two or three sessions a week, maybe two hours. An elite gymnast train a lot more, all the way up to a full-time training schedule. But as a junior gymnast, you generally do it two hours. You do a warmup, you do some skill-specific work on each apparatus, and then you do your last 30 minutes as a kind of strength and conditioning circuit.

With breakdancing, it was just one breakdancing lesson a week, where you’d learn technique and skills. Then you’d be on your own, to do the rest of your training on your own. So, what I would do is, as I found that I wanted to do that more and more, I would see other classes and just try and get a lift with people when I could or catch a train out to Prahran, to go to a few classes throughout the week.

So, once I made the switch to breakdancing, it was generally about two or three breakdancing lessons a week. And then I would just train at home in my room for about an hour of really skill-specific work. 

Jack: Right. And is that stuff that you were asking friends? Was there a coach? Did you have some influences or were you self-practicing different drills at home practice? 

Simon: There was a little bit of coaching, but a lot of it was self-directed. Because you’d have one lesson a week where you’d have a coach who would teach you something and then you’d practice those drills at home.

Breakdancing is fairly new, though, and there’s always new developments with it, new skills being invented in it. Once you’ve been doing it for a few years, you’re often working on things that the coaches haven’t done or can’t do, or aren’t sure about. So, you and your friends just try and work it out together and break down a skill and think about how you progressed towards that.

Jack: And you mentioned in your journey into the industry physiotherapy was an area of education that you undertook. Was that because you had an injury yourself? Or were there clients that you were thinking at that time to potentially open up a clinic? Take us through the thought process for physiotherapy.

Simon: My first exposure to physio was when I was probably 13 or so. I injured my wrist. So, I was doing a lot of breakdancing, a lot of handstands. I got a sore wrist and I saw a physiotherapist. And my mom’s a GP, so she’s a doctor. She recommended I see a physio.

And I was really impressed. I thought he had a really thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology and managing injuries. I thought that would be a really fun career. I didn’t really have any idea of what I wanted to do at that age. And I also thought, a bit of a selfish reason, but I also thought that’d be really good knowledge to have with what I love to do, with breakdancing and with calisthenics training. And that’s what took me there. I didn’t really have a goal to open a clinic or anything like that in mind.

And then, once I got into the industry, started working as physio a lot of it isn’t that kind of work. Even if you work in musculoskeletal physiotherapy in a private practice, a lot of what you see is not athletes trying to return to high-level function. It’s more the general public, trying to be able to have a day without pain. And it’s not as much of an exact science, as a naïve 13-year-old Simon thought it was. 

Jack: Yeah. You got to try these things out. I think that a large part of people listening to the podcast is exploring different things through this journey. And it’s probably one element of the fitness, these findings that we can all learn off each other in different domains. And you mentioned trying calisthenics, gymnastics and how that’s evolved into your philosophy, which we’ll talk about in a second, but is physiotherapy part of that, or the injury prevention side of things part of your programming? 

Simon: I think rather than thinking of them as separate disciplines, I think there’s a lot of overlap. Physiotherapy and strength & conditioning, especially at the low level, when it comes to rehabilitation.

But the physio is something that I’m really happy that I learned. I think it’s helped a lot with my training, a lot with my understanding, a lot with being able to pick apart BS on the internet about this is how you need to do something, don’t do this because you’ll get injured. Having that understanding of anatomy, physiology helps a lot to decipher what’s the substance and what’s just a gimmick.

Jack: Yeah. Have a good filter. That’s a pretty important thing for a coach.

And exploring, you mentioned, the fun element and being able to learn new movements and break down skills. If you try to get your first chin-up or any goal, pushups, dips of the basic level of body weight calisthenics before progressing the skills of development, how important is it to develop strength for, let’s just say, using dumbbells and barbell and how important is it to put time into learning balance and coordination and the skill, sort of the motor learning component of it? 

Simon: I think that there’s not really a one-size-fits-all answer and it’s really dependent on the skill you’re trying to pursue.

I think most of the skills you mentioned, I’d consider them to have a really low technical component. I know a lot of people mentioned that squats are really technical exercise and in the world of powerlifting and lifting weights it’s fairly technical, compared to something like a leg extension. But if you’ve tried skateboarding, handbalancing, breakdancing, gymnastics, it pales in comparison to something like trying to balance on one hand or trying to spin on your head or trying to coordinate a back flip with a twist in it.

And I think when it comes to the really highly technical skills, you really need to address the motor learning component. But when it comes to something like a chin-up or a pushup, as it’s quite a simple motor pattern, I think some specific work is important, but it often does come down to just being able to generate raw force output. And a lot of that you can achieve with really basic exercises. You can often unlock your chin-up with just building strength through things like lat pull-downs, pushups with any kind of general upper limb strengthening work should help you get there.

Jack: And let’s talk about the business side for a second. Simonster was a brand that, like my partner being in the yoga world and then myself, at the time I was CrossFitting, put those two words together and were aware of the work you would do in that space, calisthenics. And that would have been about five or six years ago. At what point of your career did you find out about the power of the online world, social media, YouTube, and start putting yourself out there? How did that come about? 

Simon: I started putting myself out there online fairly early, once I had a camera and was uploading things. I would often get inspiration from breakdancers and power movers, seeing what they could do on the internet, before YouTube was even around. So, when I could afford one, I bought a camera and started just filming my training and uploading some stuff. And there were a few breakdancing websites where you could see things from other people around the world and get ideas and get inspired. And that’s how it started. But I don’t think I really understood the power of it until quite recently, and especially through COVID, when the world just went online. 

Jack: That’s interesting. So, it was more from your own training development was the focus. Sharing videos was part of that community in breakdancing.

Simon: Yeah. When I was younger, my main interest was just trying to push the limits with what I could do and in the world of breakdancing, tricking bodyweight movement basically. Trying to see what I could do on one hand, how many times I could spin on my head, could I do a flip with a twist in it into another skill, all of those sorts of things.

And as I’ve gotten a little bit older, my focus has shifted a lot more to teaching. And I think part of that is that breakdancing is very much a young man’s sport. It’s very hard to do things like headspins indefinitely. But still very much enjoy training. So, my training shifted from the more explosive things and the things that are a lot more stressful on your joints to more traditional strength training, but in the form of bodyweight exercises. Because I’ve always really liked the skill component of bodyweight exercises.

And then another thing I’ve always enjoyed is teaching and breaking things down and trying to have a really deep understanding of the things I do. So, now that’s predominantly what I do is apply strength science to bodyweight training or calisthenics.

Jack: That’s a good segue for the coaches listening in. But you mentioned that the motor learning, the complexity of these drills is higher from a movement competency point of view, compared to the basic movement patterns that we typically do, like squats, pushups, grip pinch and pulling. Because of that what cues do you use with when you’re giving feedback for some of these movements? Is it more external cues? Is it a feel thing? Is it a video analysis? What’s your favorite way to give feedback when you’re trying to progress an athlete that you’re working with? 

Simon: As the goal of what I do tends to be performance, I generally don’t like internal cues. I think there’s a time and a place for them, but when it comes to performance, I think there’s a lot of evidence that external cues lead to better performance and also a lot of evidence that that can lead to better strength outcomes.

And I’ve found that when people dwell on internal cues, it might work really well for one person, but I don’t think it’s really generalizable. And I think part of the reason for that is everybody understands things in a slightly different way. Everyone feels things in a slightly different way. And you can’t say, ‘In your deadlift, you should be feeling your posterior chain activating.’ And I would say, in your deadlift, if you’re picking the weight up and standing up and fulfilling the requirements of a deadlift, it doesn’t matter if you feel things activating or not. As long as you’re making making progress.

So, generally, I like to keep things really simple, focus on external cues, focus on concrete outcomes. I do really like video analysis and video feedback, especially for calisthenics. A lot of the things are really technical. And when people are trying to refine their technique or their alignment, it’s really good to just elucidate points and say, ‘If we pause this video here, we can draw some lines on it. And you can see where or when your center of mass is falling outside your base of support, where you’re losing balance, and break down why certain things are happening.’

Jack: That’s great. And if there’s any listeners in that are either trying to get their first chin-up or trying to develop that maximum force production, like you mentioned, does it change for the simple cues of simple tasks or does the process stay very similar? 

Simon: The way I generally break down all skills, just to give a general principle, is I think every single skill or every single exercise requires some level of skill, a technique or motor control, just to define what I’m talking about there, and some level of force output.

So, something as simple as reaching for a glass and picking it up requires a level of skill and competency to be accurate with that and move your hand in the right direction, grip the glass and lift it up. And then some level of force output. And we generally don’t even think of that, because it’s such a small level of force output and requires such little skill. Everyone can already do that, unless you look at a toddler or you look at a stroke patient.

And what I like to do is then break down the strength or the force output and the motor learning requirements, and think about what do I need to focus on. So, often with a pushup, it really is a matter of raw force output. And just to make the point with something even simpler than a pushup, something like an isolated bicep leg extension that really is just a function of force output.

Almost everyone can coordinate straightening their knee and raw force output will just basically come down to how much muscle mass you have in your quads. So, the way to improve that is just build more muscle. You could do a bit of specific high-intensity work, but generally that’ll scale really well with muscle mass. So, I think muscle mass is your ability to produce raw force. And then it’s the motor learning component that allows you to put that force into more complex movement patterns, or motor patterns.

So, something like a pushup, relatively easy, people should do pretty well with some pushup regressions and just building some extra muscle in the pecs, shoulders and triceps. Something like a handstand pushup becomes a little bit more challenging. You can have somebody, who can overhead press their body weight or close to their body weight. They’ve clearly got the the force output to do so, but they can’t balance a handstand. So, where do you go there? And that’s when you would have a lot more work on just balancing a handstand.

Then you have these people in the middle who can balance a handstand. They can do a handstand pushup against a wall, but they can’t do a freestanding handstand pushup. And in that case, they’ve got the force output requirements, they can do it against a wall; they’ve got the balance to do a handstand. But it’s really this specific motor learning and lots of really high-level specific practice of that skill of the handstand pushup. I know that’s too specific to your question.

Jack: No, that’s great. You can see you’re a coach. The different clients that are probably popping up and how you pull it all together, and progress someone. How do people typically work with you currently in the business? Is it group coaching? Is it face-to-face? Is it online?

Simon: Most of what I do now is put programs out into the world. I do a few workshops and I coach a few clients, but not very many. And most of is remote, people in other countries, it’s basically all online with video review and Zoom calls and that sort of thing.

Jack: And who would be the typical client? Is it those folks on calisthenics? Is it gymnasts that are wanting to explore outside of gymnastics? 

Simon: It’s generally people focused on calisthenics, from all levels. I get a few people that say, ‘I’ve been working for a long time, trying to unlock the chin-up. I’m getting some conflicting information online.’ And other people who really want to hone in on a skill like the planche pushup, things like that.

Jack: And in your experience over the last, how long have you been in the industry for now, would you say, in calisthenics? 

Simon: I would say a long time, 10–15 years, but probably 5 years coaching continually.

Jack: Had it a huge spike with home practice, because of lockdowns and COVID? Has that increased the awareness?

Simon: Oh, sorry, with the online thing. With the online thing, I’ve probably been in five years or so. And yeah, there’s a huge spike during COVID. 

Jack: Okay. And then now that things are going back to normal and gyms are open, is it that people continue their practice? Or are they getting hooked into the sport and the methodology?

Simon: If anything, I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen a lot of people who move to calisthenics purely because they didn’t have access to a gym, especially here in Oz, where you had these really strict lockdowns. A lot of people were trying to just maintain muscle with calisthenics, but I think a lot of those people also enjoyed going to the gym. If I wanted to build muscle and didn’t love calisthenics, I’d probably go with the weights option. That’s easier. It’s easier to scale. It’s easier to target specific muscles.

So, I think a lot of people made the switch as they were forced to, just to have a way of doing resistance training from home. And now that they have access to a gym again, they’re going with the option they prefer more. That being said, there’s a few people who fell in love with it, and they’re now doing a lot more calisthenics. 

Jack: And in this context would be massive with any of these type of questions, but you mentioned planche and developing some of these more complex skills. How long does it take? Talk us through maybe your top three movements that you get requested outside of the basic ones of chin-up and pushup, but more on the complex skills. How long does it typically take someone who’s pretty dedicated to give it everything they’ve got and they follow your program? How long does it take to learn some of these skills? 

Simon: It depends on the skill. I think something like the muscle-up is relatively easy. If you can do a chin-up and dip or a few chin-ups and dips through a good range of motion, you can probably unlock the muscle up in a matter of a month or two months, for most people. Something like the planche, that’s a really long road and a lot of people who even trained for the planche never achieve a full planche.

I think a good analogy for the planche is probably like how long will it take me to squat 200 kilos. And for some people, they’re a little bit more anatomically designed to be able to squat more. They’re bigger, they’re heavier. They can squat more. You see parallels with calisthenics, like someone who’s 7′ is probably never going to hold a full planche. Whereas the smaller guys will get a lot quicker. Some people will work towards it a lot over the course of years and get close and hold the straddle planche, but never unlock the full planche.

But just for a ballpark figure, I generally say if you’re coming from a good foundation of bodyweight strength, like 10 to 15 chin-ups, 15 to 20 dips, the planche is probably something like two years away. The front lever probably a year to 18 months away. And the muscle up you can unlock really quickly.

Jack: Thanks for sharing. And you mentioned five years ago is when you made that shift to online and then started doing online programming. For those that are thinking about developing an online coaching business, maybe they’re doing personal training full time, or they’re doing group training, but everything’s face-to-face, and they lost all the work during lockdowns and they don’t want to experience that again. Or maybe they just want a more resilient business model. What were some of your early challenges and how did you overcome them when you shifted to more online? 

Simon: I’ve actually been really fortunate and I’m probably not the best person to ask that question to, because I wasn’t forced to make that shift. The way that came about for me, was I had a full-time gig performing, I really enjoyed teaching, breaking skills down and I was creating a lot of tutorials, just as a hobby. And then in response to that, I had some people reach out about coaching and how can I learn this skill. And there is also a pretty small pool of coaches that specialize in calisthenics. So, I was very fortunate in that regard. Unfortunately, I don’t have any right advice. 

Jack: I think that’s good advice. Like success leaves clues. And tutorials is a valuable thing that you were giving away. Like you mentioned, it was a hobby project, but people were obviously getting something from it and then wanting more and seeking your services. So, is that something that was pretty instant once you started the tutorials or did you have free content for awhile?

Simon: I gave away free content for a while and it’s something that built. But then again, the goal wasn’t really to get clients. I just really enjoy doing it. I liked trying to explain how to learn skills in a simple and concise manner.

And I thought it’s a gap in the fitness industry. So, if I wanted to learn about how to improve my bench press, there’s endless resources online. And a lot of great people, even a lot of research around that area. But if I want to learn how to planche, no one. It’s like the blind leading the blind, or five years ago, 10 years ago it was. You had a few resources, but I didn’t actually think they were great.

So, I created a guide about how to planche, some tutorials about how to planche. And the more I created, the more interest I got about coaching and one-to-one paid business in that area. 

Jack: Awesome. And when working with your favorite client, what capabilities and talents do they have from a physical and mental side? Like when do you recognize from maybe your first consultation that you think you’re going to see some pretty special things from this person?

Simon: I’m never really sure on a first consultation, because people can say they’re really motivated and that they’ll train really hard. But generally if somebody reached out to me about coaching, paid for a service, they do commit. I’ve been lucky to have good clients, who’ve trained really hard. And generally, it’s hard to just see how far someone would go straightaway and what their potential is. But over the course of the next few months, you can get an idea of what they’ll achieve.

I’ve coached some people from just kicking up to a handstand to handstand pushups. A few of the guys are doing straddle planche pushups now. One of the guys in his forties is doing ring muscle-ups, band muscle-ups, holding a flag for 10 seconds. But you see a lot of variation. The same with strength. You can have someone who’s just extremely gifted, can just lift a lot. They get under a bar and no matter what they do there, they lift up. And you have other people have to work a lot harder for it. 

Jack: And does lifestyle come in to it as well? If they’ve got a certain goal, do you say, ‘Well, you know, dropping five kilos is going to significantly help that goal’? Or is that something that doesn’t come up that often, usually people come to you and they’re already in pretty good shape?

Simon: They’re generally in pretty good shape. I haven’t had anyone that I’ve said, ‘You really should lose weight to achieve this goal.’ Not that I don’t think it’s important in certain circumstances. But generally it’s just been quite specific work. A lot of people have been in the fitness industry or coaching themselves and really just want to hone in on the calisthenic skills.

And that’s the way I like to coach is rather than saying, ‘Here’s your program. This is what you have to do,’ it comes down to, obviously, it comes down a lot to people’s preferences and a lot of it is talking about the why behind things. So, this is why we’re doing this exercise. This is why we’re doing this intensity, this volume, this order. And discussing concepts along the way. And I think that’s really useful because I think that the goal of coaching or part of the goal of coaching isn’t just to get someone stronger, it’s to empower them with the knowledge that they can get stronger indefinitely.

So, a lot of my coaching relationships are, I might coach somebody for say a year and then I’ll no longer coach them, but every now and then they’ll reach out with a question and say, ‘Hey, can you take a look at this? Here’s my progress since I spoke to you,’ or just send me a message and say, ‘Hey, just wanted to show you where my flag is now,’ that sort of thing. And that’s really nice to see. 

Jack: Yeah. It’s amazing what we can do with video now. And you can pretty much, like you mentioned, you work with a lot of people all over the world. The fact that you can have the capacity to do that, it’s pretty awesome. For the business owners and coaches out there, do you use Excel? Is it Google Sheets or is there an app that you use? Take us through the programming side of things. 

Simon: When I put a template or a general program out into the world, if I’m coaching somebody one-on-one, I generally will send them a questionnaire and do a Zoom consult, get a history, preferences, goals, those sorts of things. And then I generally write up a program with their input on Excel or Google Sheets and make amendments to that over a training block.

Jack: Cool. And then you would catch up with them on Zoom, is that a monthly thing or are they just booking as they go?

Simon: It depends. I think with calisthenics it’s a lot more useful to have more frequent feedback. So, I’ll often do video feedback weekly. But it’s very individual. It depends on the person. I think one issue with a lot of coaches is giving too much feedback. So, I try not to do that and just give feedback where necessary and just try to guide them in the right direction. 

Jack: That’s an interesting point you make. Let’s dive into that a little bit. Where can that go wrong, if you’re giving too much feedback, from the client’s point of view, do you think?

Simon: I think you see this a lot. If you just take the handstand for an example, I think a lot of coaches make the mistake of giving feedback every rep. And the point I generally use to show that this isn’t helpful is I’ll just say to that coach, ‘Well, okay, just stand on one hand now.’ and they won’t be able to do it. And they might have all the answers and all the tips and they’ll know exactly what they’re doing wrong, but they can’t balance someone out.

And it just goes to show that no matter what you say, it’s not necessarily helping. So, for example, if I try and kick up and bounce on my left arm, I’m going to fall over. If I have a coach there saying, ‘Simon, you bent your elbow. Simon, you fell to your left. Simon, you did this.’ I’m like, ‘I know. I’m trying to balance. It’s not helping. I just need hours and hours of practice to refine these small, precise movements to be able to correct my balance.’

And it’s not to say that coaching isn’t helpful. I think it is extremely helpful. And a coach is really valuable to point somebody in the right direction. I just think that too much feedback is redundant, not helpful. And I think it often demeans how important repetition and high-quality practice is. 

Jack: It’s such a great point that you make, both for the athletes listening, but also coaches. Because I’ve definitely fallen in that trap before. Especially if you’re booking a one-on-one and you know you’re not going to see this person for another week, you feel like you’ve got to give them the most amount of value and the most amount of help.

And like you said, exploring and self-learning is so important and taking ownership of your practice. But also athletes are going to have awareness themselves, they’re giving themselves feedback. So, if you’re adding more feedback on top of that, it can make it more complex, opposed to the simple philosophy. And you talk about trying to just keep it simple. And then there’s that, like you mentioned, you’re just steering the ship from time to time and keeping them on track and being a soundboard, but not overdoing it.

Simon: I think like capacity takes time to build as well. Like, if you look at my bench press technique, there’s nothing you can tell me that’s going to make me bench press 200 kilos. Or 150 kilos, something that’s achievable. But it would take a long time to get there. And a lot of that is just coming down to consistent hard work.

And another thing I’ll add to that is that what I’ve found is that I tend to give relatively little feedback to other coaches, because I think there’s a lot of value in just building capacity. So, if you see something like an arched back in the handstand pushup, I think a lot of that is just due to weakness. Somebody can’t push out in the hand. The thing of the planche or the 90-degree push-ups, you’re moving down to horizontal, just to make the point a little bit clearer.

So, if somebody’s arching their back in the 90-degree pushup and says, ‘Simon, I can’t not arch my back.’ If they’ve only got one rep, a lot of that just comes down to building capacity. It’s likely that they’re arching their back because they don’t have the strength to do it with a straight back, because that lengthens the lever arm of the body and demands more force from the shoulders.

So, you can assess them and see what their motor control of their trunk’s like and whether they can maintain straight body alignment with easier skills, with band assistance, that sort of thing. But quite often, it’s just like, ‘Okay, well, let’s get you to three reps and then reevaluate.’ And if you’re going to do three reps with an arched back, you can probably do one with a straight body, assuming that you have the motor control to maintain straight body alignment.

And I think a lot of the time coaches will chime in too soon and often make errors, like, ‘We need to work on your core.’ And it’s like, ‘No, we just need to build shoulder capacity. And when you’re stronger, you’ll be able to do it with a straight back.’

Jack: So, you’ve got to give it time. 

Simon: Yeah. I think a lot of things correct themselves. And, as I said, it’s more like a compass to direct somebody to a point than an exact map of how to go.

Jack: And going back to the basic movement patterns again, you mentioned off-air the controversial topic of using bands for movements like developing your first chin-up. Do you want to elaborate on that topic, that can be controversial in the industry?

Simon: I’d love to. So, I think the time you see this is when you have a beginner, who’s trying to learn a chin-up. And you’ll see a lot of people online, a lot of well-respected coaches slam band-assisted chin-ups or pull-ups and say, ‘This is a stupid exercise, or a useless exercise, or an unhelpful exercise, because the assistance that you receive means that the resistance of the movement doesn’t match the strength curve of the chin-up.’

So, generally people are strong at the bottom of a chin-up, they’re weaker at the top, and a band will assist more at the bottom and less at the top. And when I hear this, I totally agree with their point about the strength curves, but I think it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. But I think, okay, if somebody is working toward their first chin-up, they probably have a lot of new beginnings to make and no matter what they do, they should make reasonable progress. And you don’t need to make things too complicated and you certainly don’t need to make them fear an exercise and think that an exercise is useless.

And I think you actually do a lot more harm by telling them that band exercises are stupid and kind of paralysis by analysis. They’re putting in work and if they have just directed that effort, if you just put in hard work and you’re doing something challenging and you’re making progress, you will achieve your first chin-up. Your training doesn’t need to be as intelligent as an elite athlete’s who’s close to their ceiling. You can kind of just do anything and it should work. Just do something hard and test your capacity. And if it’s improving over time, what you’re doing is working.

And I think even with a really, really detailed understanding of strength curves and of exercise science and principles of building strength and hypertrophy, I still think it’s a really useful exercise. So, the first point I made is just, it’s not good to discourage people saying this exercise is bad or stupid. And it’s certainly not dangerous. You just want to encourage, you just want to build character as somebody who’s starting to train. You know, work hard, push yourself through or close to failure and increase the difficulty over time. And if you adhere to those principles, that’s most of what you need to do.

But even with a good understanding of calisthenics and exercise science, I still think it’s useful exercise. And the reason is, firstly, you don’t have to pick one exercise. So, if somebody is comparing negatives dimensionals, it’s like there’s great things about both of them and why not do both. They’re not in conflict. 

Another thing is you don’t have to match strength to build strength. And I think a lot of people who slam band chin-ups, don’t acknowledge that the resistance in a barbell squat or a barbell bench press don’t match the strength curve of the exercise. So, nobody says barbell squats are dumb and stupid, and it doesn’t match the strength. You need to do banded or chain squats to build strength. 

Everyone knows that squats build strength. And when it comes to improving your 1RM, what’s better than the specific exercise of the squat? And a lot of people don’t acknowledge that accommodating resistance isn’t actually superior and it can go wrong in the squat, if you’re just doing band or chain assisted work. So, you can add too much weight with the chains and you won’t be challenging yourself at the bottom of the squat adequately.

An exercise doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective. Band chin-ups can still improve a lot of other things, they can improve rate of force development. So, even if it’s not really challenging at the bottom, you can just use a lighter band and just use all the power from the bottom to help you get to the top. It’s easy to scale. It’s simple. You don’t need a lat pull-down machine. You don’t need to hang any fancy equipment or make a harness system. It’s better than having somebody spot you, because you can actually get a consistent amount of assistance each rep. You can progress to thinner bands. If you do an extra rep, you know it’s because you got stronger, not because your coach helps you more, or the band helped you. It provides the same assistance each time.

And if you eliminate band assisted chin-ups, it’s like: what are you left with that’s simple to add a lot of volume? And you could say, ‘I’ve been through lat pull-downs.’ But if you’re training at home, it’s something that’s really simple that you can do at higher reps. And if you’re just doing negatives, you’re leaving that higher reps work out, and probably progress. You’re not going to build as much muscle doing singles, as you will doing more reps. You’re not going to get as much skill practice of actually doing the chin-ups if you’re just doing negatives.

So, I think my main problem with it is that it can be really discouraging to a beginner. But I also don’t think exercises need to be perfect to be effective. And I think a lot of people who slam particular exercises have some cognitive dissonance or double standards when it comes to other exercises.

Jack: That makes a lot of sense, mate. And, I guess, common sense isn’t that common sometimes. It’s like we talked about before, like everything needs a skill at the end of the day, even if it is a simple one. So, if you’re not getting the actual movement pattern, how are you expecting to get better at it?

Simon: Yeah. I’ll actually just make one extra point. I kind of headed in that direction, but didn’t complete this train of thought.

I mentioned that accommodating resistance can actually be harmful. Take the example of improving your one rep max squat. Accommodating resistance isn’t really better for improving your one rep max squat, because you’re still challenging the sticking point of the squat to the same degree. So, the sticking point of the squad is relatively close to the bottom. Chains are just going to build superfluous strength higher up in range and not challenge that point more than a standard squat.

And, in fact, if you mess the accommodating resistance up a little bit, you mess the weight on the chains up a little bit, you won’t be challenging that portion as much. So, let’s say the challenging part or your max squat out of the whole is like a hundred kilos. But you can squat like 150 for a quarter squat and you just put a ton of weight on with chains, it’s all chains. And at the bottom of the squat, you’re only doing 80. It doesn’t have the same stimulus for strength gains at that point as just doing a hundred kilos.

And I think this is something that people neglect to realize when it comes to band assisted chin-ups. Because if the part that you’re failing with is the top, the band assisted chin-ups is great. Because even though this part’s easy, there’s going to be less assistance and therefore it’s going to be challenging that sticking point, the part we really need to build strength. And if you had assistance that worked in the other direction and you had not much assistance at the bottom and it was really hard, and then too much assistance at the top and it was really easy, you’re going to build superfluous strength down the bottom, and you’re not going to adequately challenge the top part where you need it to unlock your first chin-up.

Jack: But you do see a bit of that with people’s first chin-ups. Getting that actual chin above the bar can take some time.

Simon: Exactly. And a band chin-up is great, because even if this part is easy, it’s still challenging that portion. As long as it’s challenging, that’s going to be probably the hardest part. So, just back to that point, a lot of people would just make one point that might sound intelligent at face value, but when you dig a little bit deeper, you realize that, things don’t need to be perfect to be effective.

Jack: And what about in your own journey? What are some of your favorite ways to develop your philosophy over your time? Is it reading books, reading research, listening to podcasts, YouTubing, or speaking to other practitioners, workshops? Talk us through that. 

Simon: I think probably my favorite resource, I get no endorsement from them, I just use their resource and I find it really valuable, is MASS, so “Monthly Applications in Strength Sport”. So, Greg Nuckols and Co. are doing that. I find that really valuable, so I subscribed and I try to use that to keep up to date with the strength science research.

I like to read generally more academic articles and resources. So, occasionally I’ll read articles outside of that, things that friends send me, things that pop up on social media, that I want to dig a little bit deeper in. But probably the main thing, the most consistent thing is that MASS resources.

Jack: We’ll add a link for those listening in potentially to a podcast. We’ll add a link in the show notes, so you can refer to that later on. But we’re coming to the close now, mate. Thank you so much for sharing your journey and your philosophy with calisthenics development and coaching, as well as your own training and what’s worked well for you. We’ll go into the personal side of the podcast, the get-to-know-Simon segments. So, the first one is which movie or TV series has impacted you the most and why? We can throw books in there as well. 

Simon: Books? Okay, I can tell you books. I would say, when it comes to books, ‘FreeWill’ by Sam Harris was probably my favorite. I don’t know if you’ve read that, but that can cause a little bit of distress for some people. But I found it really valuable and I think it’s got really useful moral implications. Another book of his is ‘The Moral Landscape’, that’s really good.

For movies, none come to mind. But I like Tarantino movies. I like ‘Fight Club’. When you mentioned that question, the first thing that came to mind with TV shows, the one that’s impacted me the most would be the ‘Game of Thrones’ because I thought the ending was terrible. And I was just so gutted that I’d made such a huge investment watching the show for so long and it felt so let-down at the end.

Jack: It is a big investment. That’s a good point. I actually have forgotten the ending now, it feels like a while ago. It’s been a Netflix series. There is a feeling of there must be another series coming or something. 

Simon: Yeah. What’s your favorite movie or TV show? A book? 

Jack: I would say recently the Michael Jordan documentary was pretty good on Netflix. That was pretty impressive. And I always loved like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Gladiator’ type, feel-good, inspiring movies as well. So, that’d probably be my favorite couple that spring to mind. Favorite inspirational quote or life motto?

Simon: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head in terms of, I’m not a big quotes person. I actually heard, just to follow on from what we were talking about earlier, I heard, I don’t know where that term originated or if it originated with him, but I heard on Greg Nuckols podcast, ‘The Stronger By Science’ podcast, I heard him talking about ‘not chasing the ghost of optimal, because you’ll never really know where optimal will be’. And if you’ve ever got there, you wouldn’t actually know that you’ve achieved optimal. So, you’d be better off kind of chasing progress or chasing improvement rather than perfection. And I think that’s a really good point. It’s related to the things that we’ve been talking about.

Jack: Absolutely.

Simon: Otherwise, I think simplicity is a really good value, something Occam’s razor, which is: if something’s simple, adequately explained, choose the simplest path, rather than adding extra assumptions in. I’ve butchered that razor, but it makes the general point.

Jack: Okay. And then what about in your work life, what are your pet peeves? What makes you angry? Like clients?

Simon: No, not much. I think I’ve been pretty lucky in my work life. Everyone’s pretty good and pretty upfront when they don’t do something or can’t do something. What about you? I’m going to throw the same questions back at you. Give me a quote and give me your pet peeves.

Jack: I think as I’m getting longer working in the gym world, I think not putting your gear away at first didn’t really seem to bother me. But I think I do see that as a pet peeve now, if you don’t put your own equipment back. 

Simon: Yeah. I think that’s a very much a written and an unwritten rule. You’re right. Get your weights

Jack: Yeah, get your weights. I think, that’s probably one that springs to mind. And that probably is just showing respect for others. Favorite holiday destination in the COVID-free world?

Simon: I really like Japan. Tokyo, Osaka. I love the culture there. The people there.

Jack: And what about, also in a COVID-free world, which we’re pretty much in now, favorite way to spend your day off? 

Simon: I really like training. Training with friends. Some of my best memories are training with friends.

Jack: Well, thank you so much, Simon, for jumping on and sharing with us your journey. But for those interested in finding out a little bit more and/or maybe hitting up with the question, where can people find you? 

Simon: The website is simonsterstrength.com. And the same handle on social media or Instagram.

Jack: We’ll add them in the show notes, guys. And what’s on for the rest of the year, mate? What are you excited about for the rest of 2022? 

Simon: I’m going to head to Vegas for a few months. 

Jack: You were saying you were performing there last year, was it? 

Simon: Yeah, before COVID. And then later in the year I’ll be teaching workshop in Nirvana Strength in Bali. There’ll be a workshop with some other calisthenics guys. So, that should be a lot of fun.

Jack: It’s good to hear Bali’s back on the map for Australians again. People going over there. That will be awesome. Is that booked out or can people still book in for it?

Simon: I’m not sure if they’ve even announced it yet, but I think it’s confirmed and they should announce it soon. So, that should be in October. And you will be able to find details about that through Nirvana Strength. So, their website, social media. 

Jack: Okay. We’ll add all the links, guys, that we’ve mentioned in the show notes. Thank you for everyone that’s tuned into this live show as well. If you tuned in late, it will live on our YouTube channel. So, you can and I definitely recommend watching it from the very start. Simon’s kindly offered us some good gems all the way through from the very beginning. And if you prefer to listen in the podcasting world, this will be related next Tuesday on our podcast. You can listen in your favorite podcast directory.

And our next live chat will be next Friday, the 17th of June. And that will be with Stephen Kelly, who’s head of development at the Sydney Swans Academy. I’ll see you guys then.

Thanks again, Simon. 

Simon: Thank you.


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