Today, we have Dean Somerset, a renowned expert in the field of Post-Rehabilitation and Exercise Mechanics. He is also an international speaker, presenter, and writer for magazines and websites like T-Nation.com, Theptdc.com, Bodybuilding.com and Men’s Health Magazine US and UK.
Dean has also had a major influence in the training industry on how personal trainers are able to keep their clients injury free and continuing to see uninhibited progress in the gym. Through his fantastic series of videos on things like Ruthless Mobility, Post Rehab Essentials 2.0 and Muscle Imbalances Revealed: Upper Body, trainers and trainees alike have learned how to get stronger, develop higher level movement quality and be able to target specific pain and exercise dysfunction and fix them with simple and concise training protocols.
Dean is here to answer some questions that will hopefully help you to understand how to get the most out of your training and perhaps answer a couple of questions of your own.
Without further ado, Dean Somerset.
(Summary of key points at the bottom)
James: Why did you choose to work in the fitness industry?
Dean: So this is the part where I talk about my Batman-style backstory, right? Well, after my billionaire parents were brutally murdered in a back alley by a man with a limp, I became fixated on movement dysfunctions in a Nietzsche-like affectation with my tormentor. As I spiraled out of control into madness created by the dissection of gait patterns of random strangers walking the streets, I knew the world wasn’t safe until this man with a limp was disposed of, and set on my course to rid the world of any and all muscle imbalances.
Yeah, none of that actually happened.
I’ve always been interested in fitness and athletics, playing many sports in school. I’d love to say I was a good athlete, but I was a bench warmer at best. The best part of coming from a small town is try-outs are a shoe in for most teams because there’s not a lot of kids so you pretty much make the team by default.
Part of being a terrible athlete was being injured a lot. I spent a lot of time in physiotherapy clinics and loved the fact that the body could heal itself and that certain exercises done certain ways could help that out. Initially I wanted to go through physio school, but after doing some job shadowing, decided I would rather work in a capacity that involved more squat racks and dumbbells than treatment tables, so I started a degree in kinesiology.
When I graduated I got a job working in a health club, expecting to work with people who wanted to gain muscle and lose fat. I quickly found that everyone coming in to me for a consultation had a shoulder or knee or back injury, and because I wanted to help people as best as I could, I started to learn more and more about what would develop into Post-Rehabilitation, which is where I spend the majority of my time.
After working with a few hundred clients, i wanted to start teaching some courses to help other trainers who maybe hadn’t worked with an injured or post-rehab client pick up some additional knowledge, plus not every trainer had gone through a degree so I figured I had something to share with them. It ballooned into teaching a lot of courses for the continuing education calendar for the company, and then expanded to speaking at conferences, and eventually my own blog to pursue writing. That then lead to writing opportunities for T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Men’s Health, and other publications.
James: Who and what would you say are some of your biggest influences and mentors when it comes to research and furthering your knowledge base?
Dean: I’ve pretty much become the Artful Dodger of fitness, in that I’ll openly steal from everyone I can. I always give credit when possible, but I will involve teachings from everyone I can and see what works. There’s been a lot of well-known people in the fitness industry whom I can say I’ve stolen a lot from, including Dr. Stuart McGill, Bret Contreras, Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, Mark Cheng, Charlie Weingroff, Gray Cook, Craig Leibenson, and Vladomir Janda to name a few. Some less known individuals are Evan Osar, Patrick Ward, Jeff Cubos, Peter Twist, Shirley Sahrmann, Jonathan Goodman, Joe Dowdell, Mike Reinold, Ann Wendel, Jessi Mundel, Greg Nuckols, and a bunch of others. The ones whom I’ve probably learned the most from are professors in university, and also a lot of medical practitioners and professionals whom I’ve shadowed and let me look over their shoulder and ask copious amounts of questions to get a more real-world understanding on how the body works.
James: Dean, can you tell us a bit about some of the common principles you use to train high level athletes that can applied to the everyday lifter?
Dean: In many ways they’re the same, except for small differences here and there. Many elite athletes are genetically gifted to do well at their sport, so their training program doesn’t have to be incredibly advanced except to work within their tolerances. Many programs would do well to work on simply keeping athletes healthy instead of taking undue risks.
I have a friend who works at a facility with some Olympic athletes, and he wanted an opinion on an exercise for one of their athletes. It was a weighted box jump with a guy who had a history of lumbar spine issues. I said the exercise was a risky one for the individual and the benefits could be better achieved elsewhere, and within a couple weeks the word was out that this particular athlete suffered a disc herniation in training, likely during a weighted box jump.
With most people, training programs should be challenging and look at helping a person move better and achieve more in terms of strength and work capacity. Some will need more work on mobility and some will need more work on stability, some will benefit from a heavy strength cycle and some may never come close to a max lift in their life, but as long as the program allows them to see progress and challenge, it’s going to work for them whether they’re a beginner or pro athlete.
James: What could you recommend to someone looking to increase the sprint power and speed that can be applied to developing a higher anaerobic threshold?
Dean: For the first part, sprinting and anaerobic thresholds are two different aspects of training. Sprinting is a speed determinant based on neural drive to the muscles, available creatine phosphate storage and use, and ability to generate quick muscle contractions with very rapid recoveries, whereas anaerobic threshold is the point at which an individual goes from burning less oxygen than they’re taking in to burning more oxygen than they’re taking in, and at a decidedly lower intensity level than sprinting. Anaerobic thresholds are typically a concern for distance runners and athletes that are highly oxidative in nature like hockey, basketball, mixed martial arts, etc.
So let’s say you want to get faster for sprinting. There’s a couple of ways to go about this, but they always come back to the actual act of sprinting. The goal is to use relatively short distances (usually 10-40 meters) and cover the distance in as short a time as possible, and ideally with a timer.
The intensity of these sprints should be mind-numbingly high as you’re trying to max out your bodies ability to send a neural impulse to your muscles to contract as hard as possible, and it should be over and done with in between 4-10 seconds. The recovery time is incredibly important before doing another sprint as inadequate recovery will increase the neural fatigue and reduce the performance ability of the sprint. Usually between 3-6 minutes is required to recover between sprints, the longer time is for the more advanced sprinters who are using a much higher percentage of their maximum neural drive and velocity.
If you’re looking to build up your anaerobic threshold, most of that will come down to interval training of different intensities and modalities. For running, finding the speed for your anaerobic threshold is very important, and once determined you simply work on spending time at intensities above threshold with recovery below.
An example would be you run at 6.0 miles per hour, but your threshold is actually 6.5 miles per hour. Spending time running below this threshold will not actually increase your anaerobic capacity, so you would have to spend some time running above, like 2 minutes at 8.0 miles per hour with 2-3 minutes recovery at a walking pace, or even 30-60 seconds at 9.0 miles per hour with 3-5 minutes of walk recovery. Repeating these intervals 3-10 times can help to increase anaerobic threshold.
James: What do you believe to be the most important aspect of someone’s training program, whether they are looking to get stronger, lose body fat, or gain muscle while being able to reduce their risk of injury?
Dean: Simply working within their tolerances is a huge aspect to consider. Many people try to accomplish a new exercise they saw on Youtube because it looks cool, regardless of whether they have the mobility or control to do such a thing. They also try to lift way outside of their technical capability simply because they have never learned how to do a specific movement before and have no idea whether they’re ready for that exercise or not.
Take a deadlift for example. I’ve seen more than my share of rounded back question mark resembling spines under load to last me an entire lifetime, but no one wants to hear how they’re not ready to do something physically until it’s too late. I could easily tell someone “Dude, just strip a plate off either side and work on keeping your spine from doing all of the work,” but all that person would hear is “ALL YOU BRO!!”
James: What books would you recommend for people who want to start in PT world? What are your top 5 books (all topics)?
Dean: There’s so many great books out there that can be an awesome resource for fitness professionals, but I’m a big fan of understanding the basics first, so I would say the best places to start are a solid anatomy textbook, a good exercise physiology textbook, a biomechanics textbook, followed by a book to actually teach people how to coach common lifts and then at least one business book because this is actually a business and far too many trainers have zero business acumen.
Gray’s Anatomy is a fundamental resource for anyone working with the human body. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance by McArdle & Katch is an awesome resource for beginner trainers to get some fundamental understandings, although you would probably want to go through a biochemistry text (or class) to get more out of it. Basic Biomechanics by Susan Hall gives some solid overview of some of the concepts and math involved in determining force lines, torque, movements and moment arms. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is an awesome book to outline how to accurately coach and troubleshoot the big strength movements in the gym. For business, The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss is a stakeholder in a lot of successful people’s lives and is a definite read for anyone in fitness.
James: Are there any benefits to having your feet on the bench when doing a chest press?
Dean: The only real benefit from it is in someone who has an extension intolerance in their low back and can’t get into a position whereby they can use hip extension drive to increase power in their bench. In many ways raising your feet up actually robs you of strength for the lift, and can actually increase thoracic flexion, increasing the risk of shoulder injuries. In many ways, the bench press is a total body exercise that requires a lot from the feet and glutes to get enough stability for the press as well as increase the neural drive through the entire system.
James: As someone who had been able to work up to nearly 500 lbs on the deadlift and been able to perform the splits after a fairly severe SI Joint injury (which you can expand on), what are some tips you could give the readers to being able to gain/maintain optimal mobility while getting strong as f*ck?
Dean: The biggest tip I could make is focus on technique as much as possible. When I was starting off on a journey to see what I could deadlift, I was at about 225 and painful reps at that. I decided I was going to film every rep of every set to hold myself accountable and to analyze how I was doing the lift so I could break down the movement and figure out what to do to make it better. I found my stance was off, my upper back was weak, and my shoulder position was all over the place. Videoing myself helped to give me more of a technique, which translated to more strength, less chance of injuries, and a better overall time with the lift.
If you don’t know what to look for with technical proficiency with a lift, find someone who does. There’s a lot of amazing coaches out there who could take you on in person, or with some small technological breakthroughs could do distance coaching for a fraction of the price and still give you insanely beneficial advice on how to overcome any limitations you may have.
Lastly, some people are structurally not built to deadlift from the floor, or they’ve incurred some injuries that will always prevent it from happening. Being honest with yourself in terms of your movement capabilities and what you can do or not do can in a sense be incredibly freeing and keep you from constantly banging your head against a wall trying to fit a movement into your repertoire that just isn’t happening.
James: I find that my shoulder has become quite weak and feels unstable after I dislocated 2 years ago. It clicks when I try to do shoulder presses or handstand push ups and feels very restricted afterwards. What are some of your suggestions for helping to strengthen my shoulder and allow it to become more mobile again?
Dean: Without seeing you or doing an assessment, it’s tough to say what would be the best course of action, but in many cases dislocations are a significant loss of stability through the joint. If it’s happened more than once you may need some surgical intervention to restructure the stiffness of the capsule, but if it only happened once I would say work on regaining some stability through the joint with some reduced range of motion pressing work, like floor press or pushups, loaded carries, some dynamic stabilization exercises (like band holds), and lots and lots of rowing.
James: What are some of the common reasons somebody might present with shoulder problems, such as “winged scapula” and how would you go about working with someone who has it?
Dean: Classically winging scapula has been blamed on a weak serratus anterior. That’s likely, but what about the other muscles that are involved in the process? Are they all strong and it’s just the serratus that’s the problem child, or are they all actually weak as well? In many cases, the serratus isn’t actually weak, just not being used properly. The lower traps are also pretty weak, the rhomboids suck, and the lats aren’t doing their job either. It’s essentially a global strength issue for the shoulder, which means the shoulder has to be approached in a global strengthening manner, not trying to isolate one specific muscle.
For many people, it also comes down to becoming aware of their position and posture, and trying to make sure they are working the muscles that need to be worked versus just doing an exercise to get in the reps. Endurance in these areas will commonly be low, so one to three reps of a very high quality contraction will usually be more than sufficient to get someone to a fatigued state, so ensuring you’re working towards technical proficiency and not past the point of fatigue related breakdowns in technique will be incredibly important.
James: How would a layman (non-fitness professional) begin to seek resources to help him/herself rehab minor issues?
Dean: Some of the best options would be to go to a professional for a breakdown and assessment on what’s going on. It’s like trying to fix your car. Sure, you could Youtube it and hope to get the right answer, but in many instances it’s so much easier and cheaper to go to a mechanic you trust and who has the specific skillset to diagnose and repair any issues that come up, plus they have the fancy tools to do it.
From there, find people who give specific information but don’t promise the stars. Many very qualified professionals will put out free information on a wide variety of topics and through a lot of different mediums, so look for the people who discuss the specific things you’re experiencing.
James: Should I be concerned that my shoulder makes clicking and popping sounds when I move it around? It doesn’t hurt, this is more of a precautionary question.
Dean: Swimmers get this a lot after their careers, and is usually a sign of either an alignment issue, some tendinopathy, or instability through the shoulder. By itself the clicking isn’t an issue, but it is a symptom that something isn’t quite moving well or there’s some lasting issue from a previous injury, but as long as it’s not something that stops you from doing what you want, don’t worry about it too much. Also, don’t try to make it click either.
James: Some of our viewers want to know what inspired you to leave your original career of male modeling and how has his remarkably good looks impacted his fitness career?
Dean: There was a surprising lack of work for a big goofy Canadian with a fivehead and crooked smile, which was somewhat Darwinian in the need to do something else. I’ll never forget my time in Maury Ballstein’s agency.
James: Are there any beginner to intermediate online training programs that you would recommend to someone looking to get in better shape without much knowledge about fitness?
Dean: Mike Robertson has a great resource in Bulletproof Athlete, which is set up to help people become more athletic and not just lose weight or gain muscle. Similarly, Eric Cressey has the High Performance Handbook, which is set more for intermediate lifters looking to take their game to the next level.
James: What are your top 3 tips you could give to personal trainers to better improve the quality of the fitness industry?
Dean: Focus on coaching first. Become a lot better at finding greater benefit from the technical improvement of the exercises you’re getting people to do and pay more attention to them while they’re doing them. If you see someone doing something wrong, STOP THEM. Break down the movement, explain what you’re looking to have them do and get them to try again. It’s not the end of the world if you stop a set after a couple reps to help them do the exercise better the next time, and in many ways it will increase the value of what you’re doing.
Remember you are your own business, and everything you do is a reflection of that business, even if you work for a chain gym or on your own. If you’re relying on others to bring in business for you, you’re not taking ownership of your own income or potential. If you choose to show up late, leave early, not have programs prepared, and insist on only working during “regular” business hours when you won’t have consistent clients, it’s not going to take long for you to be out of business. Be willing to work for the career you want.
Education is either an expense or an investment, depending on what you do with it. Obviously travelling to a workshop on the other side of the continent, paying for registration fees, travel, accommodations and lost time at work are all expensive endeavours, especially if you do everything exactly the same when you get home. If that’s the case, no wonder you can’t afford to attend a seminar! However, if you take what you learn and actually use it, and that information helps you to keep one client or to get on new client, it just paid for itself, wouldn’t you say? So there would be an example of education being an investment in yourself and your future. You choose whether it’s an expense (useless cost) or an investment (cost that pays dividends down the road).
James: One last question for you, Dean. What are some of the essentials you should be aware of when you’re trying to make good progress in the gym without pushing yourself over the line, into pain?
Dean - The best things are just understanding what your body is telling you. A burning sensation in the muscle that subsides when the exercise is over is good, but the same burning sensation that occurs when you’re not exercising or when you start feeling more joint related pain or discomfort, or waking up with undue soreness that doesn’t get better within a few minutes of being vertical, would all be indicators that something is messed up with how you’re moving. If you’re training in pain, you’re essentially going to sensitize yourself to more pain and make it much easier to be sore following even basic movements, even without the presence of a painful stimuli. You can reduce pain by working out with exercises that simply don’t cause pain and allow the body to heal up and reduce sensitivity to pain.
To sum up some of the common themes throughout this post:
Learn from everyone, give credit where credit is due
Train for higher quality of work, not to see how much punishment your body can handle. Which means decidedly training for what your body needs, not something that just looks cool and may be way out of your current skill set
Training to be better at sprinting and just trying to fast to build up your running speed and capacity are achieved much differently. Know this and train according to it
Want to be a really good trainer? Learn the basics, engrain them and work your way up from there. A textbook is used in schools for a reason
Focus on technique over everything, use a video camera if you need to, and if you can’t figure it out, hire someone who can
Listen to your body, most injuries come down to lack of stability or trying to go overreach your current mobility level. Work with what you have, make it stronger, and create mobility from a stable joint. Look at the whole mechanism if there is an issue, it’s likely not just one muscle that is having issues, it’s a pattern that isn’t strong, look at issue as a whole, not an isolated muscle. Work on creating stronger, more resilient muscles.
Focus on being a good coach, don’t be afraid to take a step back and reteach or regress an exercise. You are more valuable if you tell the whys, not just the whats to your clients
Work as if you were you own boss, relying on nobody to build your business, show up prepared and exceed expectations
Use what you learn, otherwise you wasted your money
He is Dean Zoolander – formerly of the Maury Ballstein Agency
I want to throw out a big thanks once again to Dean for answering everyone’s questions, some serious and some silly. Dean has been a tremendous help, not only for myself, but for thousands of other trainers through his seminars and online video series. I have been fortunate enough to be able to train with him in person and quick get tips here and there outside of our workouts, and have gotten more out of a 10 minute conversation with him than hours of reading on my own. He has the smarts.
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.