Chris Chase on The Trainable Exercise Menu


Note from MR: When it comes to training, I love Chris Chase’s approach.

Here’s a guy that’s coached at virtually every level, and who has a truly pragmatic approach to training.

In this article, he talks about why we need to get away from the idea of “correcting” clients movement, and instead, to focus on expanding what he describes as the “Trainable Menu.”

Intrigued? Good – here’s Chris…

A coach’s measure of success can change over the course of a career as he or she learns and gains experience. Establishing what matters and determining best practice, based on athlete centered goals, is the framework from which the trainable exercise menu forms.

An exercise, or any other challenge placed upon an athlete, is trainable when it can be performed in a manner that maximizes intended beneficial consequences.

Intended beneficial consequences will vary depending on what the person views as positive and negative, in relation to his or her goals. Every exercise or movement challenge, no matter what the strategy used, has both positive and negative consequences.

Negative consequences may be accepted because of the belief that the beneficial performance consequence will lead to wins, championships, etc.

It is clear then that methods of exercise are not always conducive to overall health and wellness, and may simply be catering to an individual’s goals.

A great physical therapist once said, “acute demands trump chronic costs.”

There is high risk and potentially high reward associated with playing a sport. The athlete accepts that risk knowing the sport may be the vehicle to achieve a positive goal, even though the chronic costs may be detrimental to overall health later in life.

An athlete’s strength and conditioning practice must be low risk. Take chances in your sport, not during performance work.

The trainable exercise menu assumes that the strength coach practices using a solution based approach. This necessitates critical thinking, referencing unbiased, science based information to determine the proper intervention.

Unfortunately the strength and conditioning profession has a tendency to feed off of polarization. Polarization is the enemy of open-minded progress, as we cannot help but swing the pendulum from end to end, always needing a method associated with a tribe.

Thankfully, the realization that there are many shades of grey between right and wrong is beginning to expand the menu for many coaches. Less conversations about squatting to parallel have led to more conversations about determining the right squat, for example, that maximizes the positive.

Consequences that are considered to be positive depend on the goals that are first established. Positive consequences are maximized when principles are adhered to and the strategy used is deemed essential to achieve the goal. Use of any periodization becomes a matter of plugging in a challenge from the trainable exercise menu into the plan.

Moving Away from the Correction and Progression Concepts

The use of the word correction, and the extent to which one can be made, has often been overstated. Much more respect should be given to how hard it is to make any sort of correction, especially with those who have matured and may have already specialized in a sport.

Corrective protocols take time and effort and may yield limited transferable results. Instead of fitting the person with the exercise, the trainable exercise menu is meant to custom fit the exercise strategy to the person.

The trainable exercises are formulated based on the understanding and acceptance of any current limitations.

The goal is to create a version of a challenge that, when executed using the pre-determined movement strategy, will target the appropriate muscle activity.

This challenge is trainable when it can still be performed using the desired strategy under any amount of intensity, volume, or fatigue. Under the system, strength and conditioning coaches are challenged to critically think. Coaches create versions of exercises that facilitate use of a movement strategy that works around joint limitations, current motor control issues, etc.

If no limitations are present, it is encouraged to include as many valuable exercises as possible on the menu. The idea that we must correct and progress through increasingly complex versions of exercises, seems to be an endless pursuit that loses sight of the athlete centered goal.

If it is determined that a complex exercise, like the barbell deadlift from the floor, can be added to the menu and will contribute to achieving a necessary outcome measure, then train the hell out of the barbell deadlift from the floor.

But what if the barbell deadlift cannot be added to the menu?

Well, try to mimic that same hinge pattern using a kettlebell, landmine attachment, trap bar, cable column, etc. and see if the athlete can better adhere to your principles. Train the hell out of that version of the challenge, and realize you may never be able to make the barbell deadlift trainable. Using correctives to chase exercises usually leads one astray from the athlete centered goal.

Use the thing that is trainable, not the thing that is adding variety for variety sake.

Desired Execution of an Exercise is Rooted in Principles

Good principles are established by first acquiring an intimate knowledge of the biomechanics, joint demands, execution, and cueing of an exercise or any other challenge.

It is important to understand that principles are not standardized. The goal being worked towards determines principles, which is why exercises under the same name can be executed so differently from person to person.

Why, for example, is a deadlift not cued the same for everyone?

Well, one person may have a goal of competing in a powerlifting meet, while the other may be utilizing the deadlift as a part of a rehab program. The powerlifter finds advantage from creating as much tension and stiffness as possible to perform 1 rep of a deadlift by any means necessary.

Depending on too many variables to count, this powerlifter may be subjected to negative physical consequences, based on how he must execute the deadlift in order to succeed. This athlete is accepting the risk of negative physical consequences, placing the importance of winning the competition above all else.

The person using the deadlift in a rehab program to re-establish a motor pattern will likely adhere to different principles and use different strategies. The goal of this person may simply be to pick things up around the house without experiencing back soreness the next day.

Both examples utilize the deadlift as a means to achieve a goal, but it is important to know there are principles shared by both, reserved for one but not the other, and vice versa.

Establishing Principles

Taking time to establish principles for each movement, exercise, drill, conditioning session, etc. makes it easy to build any individual’s trainable exercise menu.

Classify your movement challenges into things like squat, hip hinge, upper body horizontal press and pull, sagittal, frontal, or transverse plane, etc. Each classification has its own set of principles, no matter what the exercise is or whether it’s performed on one or two legs.

The Coach’s Menu vs. the Individual Menu

It is important to have a Coach’s Menu that includes all versions of exercises you happen to like, using all types of equipment that you will have an option to use.

These are exercises that you believe to be beneficial, have established principles for use, and that you are comfortable coaching.

The Coach’s menu is used first as a reference for all options available. Based on goals, assessments, skill, movement strategy prescribed, and desire, the menu is filtered to only include what is trainable. Movements are graded during training to determine if exercises can be added or taken away from the menu.

There is an openness in this system to abandoning an approach instead of risking valuable time acquiring the movement skill and correcting limitations. Do not let skill in a particular movement challenge be a limiting factor for too long. If the athlete is continuing to have trouble with a challenge, reference the next best option on the individual’s menu and plug it into the program.

Exercise = Movement Challenge

The thing that works is not always the thing that everyone else is doing.

The adult, specialized athlete commonly presents as a complex biomechanical challenge. Too often the coach takes a plug and play mindset when formulating the exercise program. Success can certainly be had when taking this approach, but I challenge more coaches to apply critical thinking to come up with the right solution for that individual.

Movement strategy becomes the differentiator.

Play the semantics game for a second and think of exercises instead as movement challenges. Guided by athlete goals and a foundation of principles, coaches can formulate a movement challenge by manipulating position and strategy of execution.

For example, a coach may determine that a beneficial position for an athlete would be standing in a split stance position, showing ankle dorsiflexion and knee flexion of the front side leg and ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, and hip extension of the back side leg.

First thought may be a set up for split squat. If that were the case, someone’s principles may say that the coach would be cueing an upright torso.

Instead, based on what was determined to be a need of the athlete, he or she is cued to show more hip flexion, or forward lean, on the side of the front leg. Not only is hip flexion cued, but also trunk rotation toward front side leg, looking to maximize hip and core engagement in addition to the already challenged anterior chain.

From this position, the movement strategy is created.

Let’s say we are applying stato-dynamic concepts to this exercise. This method is characterized by moving at a slower controlled tempo during the eccentric and concentric phases, avoiding any sort of rested lock out at the top in order to maintain tension throughout the set.

On paper, the method itself can facilitate positive consequences, but movement strategy determines the size of the negative consequence slice of the pie.

Using the challenge described above as an example, we would want the athlete to feel grounded, direct the push upward, not backward, maintain torso position and stability, avoid using muscles of your back as drivers for extension or “finding upright”, track knee over foot during the eccentric portion of the exercise, solidify hip extension on the backside without tipping a pelvis forward, etc.

Each rep and each set are successful because the strategy you facilitated stays trainable for the athlete. If a rep is executed in a way that does not fit the strategy, then we know the positive consequences are not being maximized. Therefore, the support for good technique is a necessary one.

Put another way, support the strategy that the coach has deemed necessary in order for the athlete to achieve individual goals.

The athlete is the show. My job is to subject them to a stress, via an intervention, that is trainable and leads to positive outcome measures.

Sometimes that intervention is not going to be the thing that you like to do yourself, or the thing that is going to win the most badass training highlight video of the year.

Seeing through a dogmatic lens blinds you to the show. We are not an industry that should speak in absolutes, as they are only absolute to others stuck with that same dogmatic view.

About Chris Chase

Chris Chase is currently an NBA Strength & Conditioning Coach. Previously, Chris served as a S&C Coach for the University of Rhode Island and Univeristy of Southern California, catering to a variety of Olympic sports.

See and hear more from Chris on Instagram @fit2perform_training.

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  1. Chris , I really like the idea of doing another version of a movement rather than get stuck into correctives to bring up another version of the same movement. Smart thinking.

  2. I appreciate your idea. I love the way you created “Trainable Menu” very hyelpful and effective. Thanks for sharing.

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