Today, we have Travis Pollen joining us for a brief Q &A. In no particular order, Travis is an amputee, personal trainer, graduate student, and fitness writer. He holds two American Paralympic swimming records, maintains a popular blog on resistance training, and is hard at work on his master’s thesis on the biomechanics of the lower leg during gait. In the gym, he specializes in “functional” training but isn’t afraid to kick things powerlifter, bodybuilder, or CrossFit-style. You may have seen him on MensHealth.com, T-Nation.com, or around social media performing various one-legged feats of strength.
James: What made you decide to work in the fitness industry?
Travis: To boost my performance in the pool, I enlisted the help of a personal trainer the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. Through working with her, I found out there was a lot more to resistance training than simply bench press, bicep curls, and leg extensions. I also discovered I had a real passion for learning about the human body, which led me to pursue my diploma in personal training after I finished my undergraduate degree. Personal training was a bit of a departure from physics, but my graduate studies in biomechanics have really tied everything together.
James: What are some of the difficulties of working as a trainer with an amputation? Some of the benefits?
Travis: I’m definitely not able to demonstrate a lot of lower body exercises (squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings) as well as I would like. On the plus side, though, I think it’s made my verbal cueing stronger, since I’m unable to “show” and must rely on my ability to “tell.” Also on a positive note, I can do some pretty insane things with my upper body and on one leg, so in the end it all balances out (see what I did there? ;) ).
James: What tips do you have for less experienced lifters in terms of the biomechanics of common exercises like deadlifts, squats, and chest press?
Travis: For the deadlift, engage your lats (the muscles under the armpits – think squeeze as if trying to crush an orange in your armpit) to pull the bar as close to your body as possible. Every centimeter the bar drifts away from the body amplifies the mechanical disadvantage the muscles that extend the hip are at. If the straight barbell tends to cause your upper back to round, switch to trap bar deadlifts for a while to groove the hip hinge while simultaneously working to strengthen your upper body. The trap bar allows the load to flow directly through the body’s center of gravity, instead of out in front as with the barbell.
The goal of the squat should be primarily to strengthen the quads. For this reason, the more upright your torso, the better. All too often, inexperienced lifters “good morning” their squats by bending their torso and relying on their low back and hamstrings instead of their quads. Front squats or Goblet Squats are great options because they limit the compressive load on the spine while still conferring a major stimulus to the quads.
For chest press, keep your shoulder blades pulled back (pinned to the bench) at all times to put your pecs in the best position to be worked. Always balance the amount of bench press you do with an equal volume of push-ups, during which the shoulder blades actively protract (pull towards the front of the body) at the top end of the push-up.
James: What tips do you have for gym-goers looking to get the ass-kicking feeling of a CrossFit workout if they’re not conditioned or ready to do tons of olympic lifting?
Travis: High-intensity interval training has been around a whole lot longer than CrossFit. I actually wrote about this topic when I first started blogging. I really like CrossFit for myself, but there are plenty of other safe and effective ways to “feel the burn” without having to incorporate kipping, ultra high reps, and technical lifts in the presence of fatigue. One of my favorite CrossFit-style circuits is 25 reps each of inverted rows, push-ups, bodyweight squats, and straight leg sit-ups. Break the reps up as needed, but don’t move on to the next exercise until all 25 reps of the previous one are complete.
James: What are some challenges you’ve found in using traditional gym equipment such as machine-based exercises for a good workout?
Travis: Machines really aren’t the one-size-fits-all solution that they claim to be. Even given adjustable seat heights and pad placement, the fixed axis of rotation of a machine just can’t account for the vastly different leverages of a short old lady compared to a gangly young man. For this reason, I prefer free weights for most clients, though I will throw in a machine exercise from time to time. There’s one machine at my girlfriend’s gym – the “glute kick-back” – that’s really phenomenal for single leg hip extension.
James: What are your academic and training goals for the future?
Travis: Right now, I’m on the fence about continuing on for a PhD in biomechanics or returning to full-time coaching. I can see myself enjoying both routes. The idea of working in an athletic performance setting really appeals to me, but I’ve also loved my research on gait and prosthetics. The technology is fascinating and fun! No matter what, I definitely plan to continue training and writing in some capacity forever. Especially with social media, it’s awesome being able to help a lot of people, as well as interacting with other like-minded fitness enthusiasts like you, James!
James: What accomplishment as a trainer are you most proud of? How about in your own training?
Travis: As a trainer, the accomplishment I’m most proud of is helping an older woman (in her eighties) do stairs again for the first time in years. At the beginning of every session, we would practice step-ups on an short aerobic step next to the Smith machine. (See, the Smith machine is actually good for something!) Gradually, we built up to the step on a riser, then two risers. Then one day, the elevator to the gym was broken. The woman was a few minutes late to our session, but she managed to make it up the stairs on her own accord. Just a few weeks prior she would have had to turn around and go home.
In my own training, I’d have to say my gold medal at the 2010 Paralympic Nationals takes the cake. After that race, I felt like I was on top of the world. I was the fastest one-legged swimmer in the country. With two years to go before the 2012 Games, I felt like I was on the fast-track to Paralympic glory. Things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to in that regard, but I’ll always look back fondly on that race and all the hard work it symbolized.
James: What’s an overlooked exercise that you think everyone should be doing?
Travis: I don’t think people tout the benefits of face pulls nearly enough. My favorite way to do them is for high reps (15 or more) with the tricep rope in a half-kneeling position, though the suspension trainer is another excellent option. Face pulls are perfect for strengthening the posterior deltoid (back of the shoulder) and scapular retractors (muscles that pull the shoulders blades back), which helps correct that hunched-over-at-a-desk-for-eight-hour posture so many of us have. Plus, with all the pushing movements that people do in the gym (push-ups, dips, bench press, overhead press), face pulls are a great addition to the pulling arsenal to supplement rows and pull-ups/lat pull-downs.
James: Do you still work with a trainer even now that you are one yourself?
Travis: When I first got my diploma in personal training, I thought I suddenly knew everything about exercise and that I no longer needed help. I’ve come to find that everyone benefits from having a trainer, even trainers themselves. In my case, I’ve gotten a lot of one-on-one help addressing my lower body asymmetry from the instructor of the school I got my cert from (Barry Fritz, NPTI Philadelphia). Even us trainers struggle to be objective when it comes to our own fitness. We tend to do stupid things when we program for ourselves. Plus, after spending so much time and energy coaching others, it’s sometimes nice just to let someone else do the thinking.
James: True story about trainers needing trainers, too. What do you think is the best way to combat bad trainers who have people doing what appear to be silly and/or dangerous exercises like squatting on swiss balls, etc.?
Travis: I do believe that most trainers are well-intentioned and really do want to help people. With that said, a lot of them are still pretty clueless. I think the best approach is to engage them in conversation privately (never in front of the client!) about their methods. I might ask them what the benefits and risks are of, say, squatting on a swiss ball, how it’s helping their clients reach their goals, and if there might be any better alternatives. And then politely provide them with links to your and my websites. If the situation doesn’t improve after such a conversation, then consider getting management involved.
A big thanks to Travis for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions and take this photo.
He took hundreds and this one landed the final decision. America's Next Top Model, here we come.
If you’re interested in learning more about Travis’ training and history, check out his website at Fitnesspollenator.com or his Facebook Page where he posts tons of great content, including handsome models photos like the one above. You can see it at Travis Pollen - Fitness Blogger.
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.