Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.
In the business world, mentoring is a huge part of the culture, where it functions as a support system, providing a diverse perspective on academic, career, and personal development. While mentoring programs are typically designed for the benefit of the mentee, mentors also benefit from the relationship by ensuring the continuation of a high level of professionalism for their chosen field, as well as enhancing their own leadership and management skills.
Unfortunately, within the past few decades, mentor/mentee relationships in the strength and conditioning field have diminished significantly. Due to the considerable ease of disseminating information worldwide through the internet, experienced strength coaches have resorted to hoarding training information, in a protective effort to maintain their relevancy and financial income. And unfortunately, this severe compartmentalization of the strength and conditioning community, has made it remarkably easy for charismatic fitness charlatans to prey on an unassuming public.
In the long run, by shunning the time-honored tradition of mentoring, we place at risk the professionalism of future generations of strength coaches. My own strength training and consultation career has been greatly assisted and shaped by two mentors, each with a background the complete opposite of the other.
Everyone has their “list of first” events which they recall fondly: their first girlfriend/boyfriend, their first car, or in Wolfgang’s case, seeing his first Rambo movie. As for me, the first time I walked into a weight-room, remains one of my fondest memories. It was 1985, the bodybuilding craze of the 80’s was in full swing and it seemed as if every strip mall in the U.S. had at least one gym.
Body Builder’s Gym was a small gym located in my home town of McAllen, Texas. Owned by Gilbert Fierro, a firefighter and friend of the family, he ran the gym more as a club house for wayward meatheads, than a business. The gym itself, was a study of the natural selection process at work. The lack of air conditioning, combined with summer temperatures easily reaching 100°F/37°C, weeded out the weak and required a high level of testicular fortitude when training between 10:00 am-5:00 pm. Gilbert’s training ethic mirrored his work ethic, and anyone who didn’t exhibit the same level of dedication and respect, placed their gym membership at risk of cancellation.
The three biggest lessons or rules I learned from Gilbert are still applicable today, as they were over twenty-five years ago.
The Fierro Rules
Deadlift before the Squat: Gilbert believed if your spinal erectors didn’t possess the strength to pull heavy weight from the ground, then there was “no way in hell,” you could support both your bodyweight and a loaded barbell across your back. Upon joining his gym, I trained the deadlift for three months before being allowed to squat. And this was his only standing rule for all new members, no squatting until after performing between two and three months of posterior chain envelopment.
The concept of 8: Gilbert’s most unusual training protocol, was based on an 8 day cycle and was reserved for lifters experiencing strength plateaus. The concept is simple, you perform the same lift for a high number of sets and after four cycles, you retest your 1-RM.
Lift seven days – one day off
Lift six days – two days off
Lift five days – three days off
Lift four days – four days off
Upper Body 2:3 Rotation: Out of everything that I witnessed at Body Builder’s Gym, the one thing that stands out, was the lack of overtraining or injuries. Despite the large volume of training and the extremely heavy poundage lifted year round, I can only recall one injury occurring at the gym…when someone dropped a 45 lb. dumbbell onto their foot. I attribute the lack of injuries to Gilbert’ s obsessive insistence at everyone training with barbells for only two weeks, followed by dumbbell training for three weeks, and keeping that rotation indefinitely. Regardless of the training cycle, everyone was expected to follow the 2:3 framework.
According to Gilbert, the 2:3 rotation:
- limited the amount of training performed with barbells, which he believed placed greater demands on weaker limbs, leading to injuries
- relieved boredom due to the frequent change in training implements.
- Prevented overtraining due to the variations in performance of the exercises between barbells and dumbbells.
While Gilbert possessed the unique capability of applying the appropriate technique when needed by a particular trainee, his true talent, was his ability to extrapolate information from the most meager of sources. While others might have selected bodybuilding magazines for their training information, Gilbert devoted his time to reading the works of Peary Rader, George Hackenschmidt, and Arthur Saxon. Additionally, It was his “working man’s, no BS” mentality and ability to remain objective, which I used as the foundation for my own strength training philosophy.
Nearly twenty years later after my first mentor, I was about to meet my second, who would first appear as a client. As I was soon to find out, Greg Gardiner was not your average training client. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he attended Georgetown and Fordham University, earning a Doctorate in Physical Chemistry. At the time of our meeting, he was in private practice, consulting for numerous pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as a partner in a venture capital fund. But his most interesting position, and the one which provided the basis for numerous lengthy discussions, was his management of Pfizer’s worldwide drug discovery program. During our training sessions, he shared numerous stories of his worldwide travels, searching for exotic plant and herb specimens to study for potential medicinal properties.
And while my mentoring relationship with Gilbert provided me with an education beyond the classroom, Greg Gardiner further expanded on my career and education by granting me access to the numerous professional relationships he established over a life time of pharmaceutical research and development. Case in point, when we first began training together, Greg felt my familiarization with the endocrine system was “lacking,” and at our following session he brought one of his endocrinology text books for me to study. I had five days in which to study and learn the material before being subjected to an oral exam. Exactly five days later, Greg called me and asked if I was ready for my exam, I stated I was and then heard another voice on the phone. Turns out, Greg had set up a conference call and the other voice on the line, was one of the authors of the endocrine textbook I had just studied. My oral examination was to be conducted not by Greg, but rather by the author of the textbook. After the oral exam, I was able to ask the author the numerous questions his textbook had raised and in return, was provided with an educational opportunity available to a select few.
I share that anecdote with you, not to impress you, but to impress upon you, that mentoring relationships provide opportunities which might not normally be made available to you. By being a mentee, you are automatically given access to not only the information and practices your mentor has acquired over his professional career, but to the professional relationships they have developed. A mentor acts as a catalyst to your academic and professional development and actively guides you on your path to a successful and rewarding career.
What About You?
Are you a mentor? Why not? By mentoring the future generation of strength coaches, we ensure a high level of knowledge and professionalism remains in our field long after we’re gone. Why leave our profession at the mercy of late night infomercial “experts?” Additionally, a mentoring relationship can reinforce or remind you of techniques you may have long forgotten and even ignite the desire in you to be a better coach.
Have you asked anyone to mentor you? Why not? A mentor can save you a significant amount of time, effort and money. A great mentor, will allow you to look in his “playbook,” showing you what works and helping you avoid what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to ask anyone to mentor you, the vast majority of people you could ask, would be extremely flattered.
However, be prepared to have your dedication and sincerity tested. The first time I was asked to be someone’s mentor, I had the potential mentee meet me at the gym every Saturday morning at 4:00 am. If someone won’t invest their time in pursuit of their goals, why should I? Another strength coach I know, ask his potential mentee to write him a check for an undisclosed amount of money. If the trainee ever fails to meet any of the previously agreed upon benchmarks, the mentor donates the check to a charity.
For all you strength coaches reading this, leave the strength and conditioning community in a better state that you found it.
Exploring the questions brings more wisdom, than having the answer.
-A Course in Miracles