Interview With Mike Robertson

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EFS:  How about the Cliff Notes version of your evolution as a strength and conditioning coach?

Mike Robertson:  Well, I got my Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University.  When I was at Ball State I began powerlifting and learned the basics.  I spent three years at Athletic Performance in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  This is where I learned a lot of rehab.  I am currently the director of Custom Athletics and President of Robertson Training Systems in Indianapolis, Indiana.

EFS:  How has your training as a powerlifter influenced the way you train your athletes?

M.R.:  I learned that most, about 90%, of athletes need to get strong.  I really didn’t know what strong was until I began powerlifting.  Strength is such a basic thing and most people do not possess this.  This doesn’t mean they have to be powerlifters, but they do need to get stronger.  There is a difference.  I also find that weak coaches generally have weak athletes.  I think it’s very important to have some first hand knowledge with your program.

EFS:  What strength coach or trainer has had the most impact on you and why?

M.R.:  Eric Cressey has had the biggest influence on me as a coach and athlete. We share many similar ideas, but our competitive natures push us to learn more and train harder. As well, it would be rude not to mention Dave Tate, as his Westside seminars changed the way I looked at training and opened up my eyes with regards to what real training was all about.

EFS:  Give us three training tips that you took from the Dave’s seminar that you think have helped you most.

M.R.:  I learned about intensity during the training sessions; not just going through the motions, the need for constant coaching and feedback and the technique of the major lifts.

EFS:  You are exposed to a lot of training ideas and people in the industry.  What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see being made?

M.R.:  I see a lot of mistakes but here are some of the most annoying. –

The first is jumping on the bandwagon. If it’s new, cool, or Trainer XYZ is using it, it must be good. The exercises that produce results really haven’t changed all that much in the last 100 years, although some of the applications have. I mean, squats still get you jacked up legs, so why mess with that? However, applications to sports such as powerlifting have changed, especially with the implementation of bands and chains. You don’t necessarily have to change what you do to get better; instead focus on doing what you do better or more efficiently.

My biggest pet peeve is the current trend for people with no strength and conditioning experience passing them off as strength coaches. Now, the only people who are going to get pissed here are people who fall into this category, so here goes. These people really have no business working with athletes outside of a rehabilitation setting, so they make whole workouts designed around prehab, rehab and posture. They do 20 minute core workouts, make sure those glutes are firing to the Nth degree, and then proceed to do a  bunch of “functional” training to make sure those athletes never get hurt. Problem is, they spend so much time doing this stuff that they never get to the good stuff! As a strength coach if you aren’t getting your athletes stronger, you aren’t doing your job. Now, if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you’ll know that I incorporate these things into my programming, but it’s not the ONLY thing that my programs revolve around. Remember, strength and conditioning is no longer about just strength & conditioning OR just injury prevention, but the integration of the two. Remember, the pendulum swings both ways, and typically the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

The only thing worse than the functional Yoda’s are the people who don’t train hard in our industry, or worse yet, don’t train at all! If you think I’m joking, just take a tour of your local fitness facility and see how many trainers actually look like they train. The results may shock you.

EFS:  On the same note, what mistakes have you made as a strength coach or trainer?

M.R.:  I think in the beginning it’s easy to get mixed up with all the different opinions out there, and there’s a natural tendency to just adopt one system without looking at it critically. Instead of looking at the pros and cons of each system, you simply take what the author says for granted and roll with it. My biggest mistake was not trusting my own instincts in the beginning and putting together my own system. What I’ve done (and what I would suggest any aspiring strength coach to do) is read up on the best possible literature in the fields of strength, power, flexibility, mobility, recovery, nutrition, rehab, posture, movement, etc. and roll it into your own specific training program. Take all those pieces and mold them into something of your own; something that’s in-line with your personal philosophy of making the best athletes possible.

EFS:  What advice would you give a high school coach or parent that wants to improve an athlete’s performance?

M.R.:  It’s funny that you mention this as I recently had this discussion with a gentlemen who wanted to improve the performance of his 16 year old son, a high school football player. I told him if I can do only two things for my athletes, I would work to improve their dynamic flexibility and their strength. Now, let me explain why I chose these two. First off, I’m convinced dynamic flexibility is hugely important, and I’m surprised it’s taken us so long to get up to speed with regard to training it.

In fact, Eric Cressey and myself just put together an entire DVD on the topic entitled “Magnificent Mobility,” simply because we were somewhat shocked that no one had broached the topic in-depth until us. Regardless, so many kids now spend their entire day sitting at desks, in front of computers, or in front of their new XBOX 360 that when I get them for 1-1.5 hours, it’s no wonder they are tighter than banjo strings. You can imagine how greatly their risk of injury is increased when they are this tight, but there’s the other side of the coin too: When you get them looser, they run faster, jump higher and lift more weight!

If athletes took just 15 minutes each day to go through some of these drills, we’d see fewer injuries and better performance. As I stated above, I’m also surprised at how many strength coaches no longer focus on getting their athletes stronger. As the pendulum has crossed the mid-line, everyone now is simply worried about keeping their athletes healthy via prehab, rehab and posture programs. Again, I’m all for the implementation of these exercises, but aren’t we doing our kids a disservice by not getting them stronger? Aren’t they still at risk for injury if we put them on the competitive field and they are significantly weaker than their competition? And finally, isn’t this our job?

EFS:  What are the major problems you see in athletes?

M.R.:  Again, dynamic flexibility is a huge one. However, weakness in the posterior chain is going to continue to be a problem until people learn that deadlifts don’t have to hurt your back and that leg curls pretty much suck. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I really think we’d have 75% less (and maybe more) hamstring strains if every athlete out there performed glute-ham raises instead of leg curls. No, I don’t have any research or studies to back this up, it’s just what I’ve seen with athletes I’ve coached and trained.

EFS:  How often would you have an athlete perform glute-ham raises?

M.R.:  At least two times per week.

EFS:  Is there an acceptable alternative to this exercise, or do you feel that they are the #1 hamstring exercise for athletes?

M.R.:  I feel that the glute ham raise is the exercise for the hamstrings.

EFS:  Give our readers a list of exercises that you feel are most beneficial for athletes.


  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Presses
  • Rows
  • Chin-ups
  • Lunges
  • Bulgarian Squats
  • Step-ups
  • Single Leg Squats

There are certainly other exercises that work for 99% of the athletes out there, but this list I can say I would give to anyone. And yes, I’d even let my pitchers do bench pressing; it doesn’t necessarily have to be with a barbell to get some benefits from the movement.

EFS:  What is the biggest obstacle you have to face as a strength coach or trainer?

M.R.:  Working in the private sector, the biggest issue is beating down the posers in the industry that give us all a black eye. It’s sometimes hard to convince people that your basic, no-frills program is better than Tommy Trainer’s wobble-board and injury prevention program. He’s going to convince a lot of moms that his smoke and mirrors program is going to keep her little girl from blowing her ACL, which sounds great.

To be quite honest, like most Americans, she thinks that if it looks cool or innovative, it must work. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. I will stick with my program that includes dynamic flexibility work, strengthening of the glutes/hamstrings and that teaches proper deceleration techniques any day over his. As well, people are a little put off by people like myself; if you are bigger than the average human being, are confident in your training/coaching ability and know your shit, some people are just going to be flat out intimidated. Deep down they want a trainer they can “relate” to, so if Tommy Trainer looks like them and says the right things, they are probably going to work with him. It’s a sad but true fact. Please note that I’m probably the smallest writer on here as well as the least intimidating, but that’s what people perceive me as. Remember, perception is everything: Just ask O.J.!

EFS:  Have you encountered any resistance from coaches or parents with your programs?

M.R.:  I’ve been very lucky in the fact that every coach I’ve worked with has given me free-reign with their athletes. The hardest to convince was one of the coaches at Ball State, but once I produced results, he was very supportive and always let me do what I needed to do to improve their performance. If you are having problems with a coach, the best advice I can give is to educate the hell out of them and prove to them you know what you’re talking about. They specialize in their given sport, so most will automatically assume they know about strength training for their sport as well. If you come at them with the right attitude and prove you know what you’re talking about, most are willing to work with you to improve their program.

EFS:  What advice would you have for those wishing to become a part of the industry?

M.R.:  The best advice I can give is to 1) get your ass in the gym, and 2) learn everything you possibly can, from the best in their respective industry. I knew when I started that I wanted to be a great strength coach, so who did I learn from? Dave Tate and Louie Simmons. I read every article they wrote. I went to seminars. I trained at Westside. Now, do I blindly accept and use everything they say? Hell no. And if I did, Dave would probably smack the shit out of me and tell me to wake up. The great thing about the Westside template is its allowance for an individual to adapt and change the program to make it suit their needs. I’d be willing to state I don’t think there is even a true Westside template any more; it’s kind of morphed and changed into a basic set of principles that you can use and apply to your given situation.

EFS:  Do you think that it’s important to explain to an athlete why they are doing something?

M.R.:  Regardless of what some coaches say, I think it’s really important to explain, to some extent, why you are doing what you’re doing. If a kid comes in every day and does dynamic flex, but doesn’t know why he does it, is he going to work hard at it? Or stick with it when you aren’t there? I would venture to say no. Now, what if you take that same athlete and tell them they’re going to run faster, jump higher, lift more weight and get injured less, do you think they’ll do it then? I would hope so (and if not, this probably isn’t the kind of athlete you want to coach anyway!)

There are times when I’m just starting a new topic or training section that I’ll sit the kids down before practice and explain exactly why we are doing what we’re doing; speed work is a great example here. You need to teach them how what you’re teaching is different than what they’ve been doing, as well as why it’s better and finally how to do it properly. In my opinion, you simply can’t do this on the fly. Now, with flexibility work, you can typically teach them the movements, and while they are doing it, explain how certain stretches will lead to improved performance. I guess it really depends on what you’re teaching, the level of athlete you’re working with, and how much information you feel like they can handle. While I feel most kids want to know why they’re doing something, you’re always going to have those that just don’t care; they just want to get better at their respective sport.

EFS:  Thanks for your time, Mike.


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