Nick Tumminello is one of the most respected fitness professionals in the industry – and for good reason. In addition to owning a successful training company (a facility he calls “Performance University”), Nick also is a noted fitness blogger and author, and a coveted professional speaker. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Nick at length and found him to be an extremely knowledgeable and astute pro, someone who shuns fads and hype in favor of sound training principles. In short, he gets it. As such, I’m happy to provide him with a forum to share some of his opinions and thoughts on exercise training. As I’m sure you’ll see, he’s very passionate about what he does and isn’t afraid to express his views – a combination that always makes for an interesting read.
BJS: First, I’d like to thank you for consenting to this interview. Let’s start by having you tell us a little about your background as a fitness professional.
Nick: Sure. Here are some of my professional career highlights:
• Current presenter for IDEA.
• Past presenter for AFPA and ECA
• Taught workshops at international fitness conferences in Canada, China and Iceland
• A regular contributor to several major magazines such as Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health and Women’s Health, Maximum Fitness, Muscle Mag, FIGHT, Train Hard – Fight Easy and Oxygen magazine.
• Contributing author to two New York Times best selling books – The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises and The Women’s Health Big Book of Exercises.
• Referenced twice in the ACE Personal Trainer Manual, Forth Edition
• Produced 10 instructional DVDs
• Produced 5 Live DVD, CEC courses through Healthy Learning videos
• “Best of the best” trainer by Men’s health.
• Men’s health expert blogger
• Inventor of the Core Bar
• Hybrid Fitness expert coach for Team Jaco clothing
• Featured on the front page of Yahoo.com and YouTube.com
• I write a popular fitness training blog (directed toward fitness professionals) at Nicktumminello.com
BJS: How would you characterize your training philosophy?
Nick: At Performance U our philosophy is simple – Get results by using any means necessary! We use a hybrid style of training, which incorporates everything under the sun from bodybuilding to yoga to powerlifting to kettlebells to body weight training, etc: I have zero emotional attachment or personal bias toward any specific training style or system. Instead, I’m emotionally attached to getting my clients the result their after and keeping them having fun in the process!
BJS: In your view, what are some of the biggest mistakes trainers make when developing programs for their clients?
Nick: Several come to mind:
- Not using valuable training time as wisely as possible! My clients almost never stop moving during a workout. But, that doesn’t mean that everyone is doing “circuit training”. We give a primary (big rock) strength exercise. Then, during the rest period between sets of that strength exercise, we’ll throw in stuff like mobility drills, balance drills, rehab drill (if recommended by a PT), sports specific actions (like shadow boxing for a boxer), diverting exercise (lighter loaded movements using the opposing muscle involved in the primary strength exercise.
Here’s a great article I wrote about active recovery, Performance U style! – Big Gains with Active Recovery.
- Over use of unstable surfaces.There are certainly motor control benefits to using unstable base training. And there are benefits to ankle and knee rehab for using unstable base training. But, beyond that, standing on an unstable surface limits your ability to produce force and therefore overload your muscle enough to make any sort of gains in strength both physiologically (add muscle mass) and neurologically (increase motor unit recruitment and power).
Plus, there could be some serious dangers to using weight while on a stability ball. I covered these topics and the research in this blog post – Swiss Ball Training
At Performance U, we like to use unstable base training to overload the upper-body since the upper-body primarily functions in an open chain. So, we use moves like Swiss ball push-ups and various Swiss ball perturbation drills where the athlete tries to hold the ball still (prevent from moving) while we (the trainer) tap it in different directions. But, we rarely stand on an unstable base unless it’s part of a specific motor control re-training program that’s recommend by a PT.
- Not involving their client enough in the workout. We all like to be empowered. So, what we have found to be very valuable is to ask your client at the beginning of the workout “anything particular you’d like to do today?” You’ll certainly not throw off your entire game plan if you added in the one little thing that your client requested. Or, tell your client that the last 5 minutes of each session is up to them what they do. Now, that doesn’t mean sit and rest if they say so. But, if they say something like “let’s do some arm work,” then you pick what arm work they do. Not only will they love you for it, but involving your client in their workout shows you respect them, which is very empowering! Plus, those 5 minutes you give them are worth way more in the way it makes them feel then what you may feel that it takes away from your 60min game plan. They gave you 55min – You can certainly give them 5min – Especially if it make your client enjoy coming in more and feeling encouraged!
BJS: Do you implement periodization into your routines?
Nick: Yes! Put simply, periodization means “a plan”. That said, for athletes and physique athlete’s, we really emphasize a training plan that’s progressive and well documented. This plan also involves performance markers (PRs) quite often. But, for the average fitness client, we don’t emphasize this as much because this type of client usually doesn’t care about setting PRs and things like that. They just want to have fun, move their body and get a good seat! For some folks, we just keep them moving and give them a different workout each time. The whole “do programs, not workouts’ is great trainer talk. But, in the real world, some clients don’t want to “train using program”. Instead, they just want a fun workout that kicks their butt! Since personal trainers are in the customer service business, not the protocols business (like a strength coach or PT), we must deliver what the client asks for. Otherwise, we didn’t do our job! But, we must do it in such a way that we still have some sort of plan, we just don’t emphasize that to he client as much. Nor do we stay as strict with it as we would if it were an athlete.
Think about it like this: Trainers are like the custom car shop and Strength Coaches and PT’s are more like car mechanics. When you co into a car mechanic, you say “My car is not working right, please do whatever you need to do to fix it”. N other words, we don’t tell they mechanic what we want other than the desired outcome. But, when we go to the custom car shop, its very different. We tell them exactly what we want them to do to our car. We say “paint it bright red, put ground effects on it and a fancy front grill”. You better not return that car to the owner painted Blue with a spoiler and new bumper on it because you said “that’s what the car really needed”. I hope you understand my analogy.
BJS: What are your views on the claims by some fitness pros that spinal flexion exercises (i.e. crunches) are injurious to the spine and shouldn’t be used in core training?
Nick: I’ve read the research and I’ve heard the opinions extrapolated from specific individual’s personal interpretations of the research. My personal interpretations of the available information out there hasn’t convinced me to think that performing trunk flexion exercises (in good form) is dangerous, either in the short or long term. I’m not scared of a few mid-range trunk flexion exercises performed at normal doses, like any other exercise protocol. Doing 300+ crunches a day may be an issue. But, what movement wouldn’t be an issue if you did it 300+ per day, everyday?
At Performance U, we use dynamic trunk exercises to build trunk strength (i.e. controlled movement) along with static stability trunk exercises (to resist unwanted movement). That said, we don’t use crunches because I think it’s just too damn easy of an exercise. Almost anybody, even if you’ve never exercised before in your life, can usually bang out 50+ crunches before even getting remotely fatigued. So, the flexion exercises I choose to use are more difficult exercises. Therefore they’re performed at lower volumes as you would use to strengthen any other muscle group / movement pattern. The flexion movements I’ll use (with specific clients) are Swiss ball plate crunches, straight leg sit ups and Swiss ball pikes.
Speaking of Swiss Ball pikes – Here’s the toughest and coolest Fitness Ball Pike exercise variation you’ll ever try! The Single Best Abs Exercise. I’ve put lots of time into looking at the research on lumbar flexion and believe me, if I thought there was some concrete, conclusive evidence that it was “bad”, I’d cut it out yesterday! But, the only thing the research “proves” is that we still really don’t know a damn thing about back pain/degeneration. Everything else you hear out there on flexion is purely opinion. And, we all know what they say about opinions…
Most of our training at Performance U is geared toward reversing the sitting position. So, we don’t put a huge emphasis on trunk flexion movements. But, we still use them when and where we feel the client/athlete will benefit from it.
One major thing I’ve learned in that with the human body, there are no absolutes. There’s no black and white, just lots of grey area. With that tid-bit of common sense in mind, it’s important that we avoid speaking in absolutes when discussing exercise. I feel our industry will have much less confusion and much more camaraderie, when we get away from using cookie-cutter statements and over-generalizations.
It hit me the other day that “No flexion” is the new “TvA Draw in”! The current state of the fitness industry on trunk flexion exercises strangely reminds me of the industry’s TVA craze. Up until about 3yrs ago – if you weren’t “drawing in”, you were killing your back because you were leaving it “unstable” and without deep core muscle activation. We felt the TVA was magic solution to saving folks from back pain. We’ve now learned how off base we were and how much we overreacted and misinterpreted the TvA research. It will be interesting to see what we are saying about trunk flexion in 5 or 10yrs from now.
BJS: Are there any exercises you feel are better than others to optimize core development?
Nick: Any standing exercise, which forces you to use your torso to transfer force vertically, horizontally or diagonally from head to toe or vice versa! I’m a big fan of heavy loaded, unilateral exercises, where your torso has to work over-time in order to maintain optimal position while dealing with the off-set load.
At Performance U, we train the body from the center out. In other words, we prioritize standing exercises over seated or lying exercises. This way, we always make sure our torso can control the forces that our extremities can create.
BJS: The term “functional fitness” has become a real buzzword in the industry. What’s your view on the application of functional training?
Nick: Anything that helps you achieve your desired goal is functional in my book. There are really two ways to look at what’s “functional”:
One way is to look at the level of CNS demand. The higher the CNS demand, the more “functional” you could say the exercise is. An example of this would be a single leg squat, which is much more demanding on your CNS than a seated leg extension.
The other way to look at what’s “functional” is to compare how much carryover or how similar a specific exercise is to the given activity in which you’re training for. For example: A seated leg extension may be very functional for anyone looking to increase muscle size (hypertrophy) in thier quad muscles. But that same leg extension may not be considered highly functional for a rock climber. Here’s an interesting post I wrote called What Is Functional Training?
Here at Performance U, we use high CNS demand moves and lower CNS demand moves to ensure our clients software (CNS) is as up to date a possible. We also use exercises that look a lot like the activity we’re training for (this increases motor learning, bio-motor carryover), along with other exercises that don’t look anything like the given activity. This way we also ensure our clients hardware (their muscles) can do anything they ask of them through generalize strength work. Basically, all kinds of training have been shown to have benefits. So, we simply do it all!
BJS: Tell us a little about your new DVD called MAPS.
Nick: I can say with confidence that the MAPS DVD represents the most effective, cutting-edge training system ever designed for achieving increased joint mobility, pain-free movement and improved functional performance.
BJS: I assume MAPS is an acronym?
Nick: Yes. MAPS stands for Mobility Activation Paired Sets, and it was developed to increase the effectiveness of our mobility and muscle activation drills. Traditionally, coaches place mobility and muscle activation in two separate sections of their programs; but hundreds of clients and thousands of hours of practical experience have taught me that mobility and activation drills are both more effective when paired together as supersets.
BJS: What do you feel makes MAPS so effective?
Nick:After performing a mobility drill, its crucial to activate immediately after mobility work. Why? – because after doing mobility training, you’ll have gained new range of motion (DUH!) The problem is that you still haven’t taught your body how to control that new range; your central nervous system (CNS) hasn’t developed the motor control needed to keep that mobility and safely use it during functional movement. This is where the activation drill comes in: Performing muscle activation within the newly acquired range of motion allows you to build that necessary motor control and keep that new range, and your CNS can then “functionalize” your new-found mobility into active movement patterns.
BJS: Any final words?
Nick: If you’re a trainer/coach and you took the time out of your day to read this entire interview – You’re obviously passionate about your education and about being the best fitness professional you can be. Your clients are lucky to have you!
For more about Nick and his MAPS program check out Nicktumminello.com