What does it take to be a well-rounded athlete? Find out below!
Perhaps you are into training or know it’s important, but what if you don’t have a particular goal? What if you just want to move better and look good naked in the process?
How can I know what to focus my training on if I don’t have a goal?
That’s where this interview with James Cerbie will blow your mind. He has carefully designed a training plan that builds all the essential performance qualities one needs to be a healthy human being.
In this podcast, you’ll learn:
- What life proofing is, why it’s important for your health and performance, and how to build it.
- The 5 fitness attributes you need to become athletic as can be
- Which metrics are useful to measure fitness qualities, and how to adjust your programming based on testing
- Has your progress stalled? How can you pivot your training to keep the gains going
- There are 4 categories of athletes, how does training differ for each?
- How can you build athleticism with minimal gym equipment?
- Is the performance vs health dichotomy really a thing?
If you are ready to push the envelope with your training, become more athletic than ever, then you definitely need to give this a listen.
Convinced that this training program is for you? Sign up for the Apex Athlete Team Training, which is open from January 11th-15th, 2021.
You can sign up for it here.
Missed the deadline but still want to hop on the gain train? James and the folks at Rebel Performance offer coaching year-round.
Work with Rebel Performance Coaches here.
Look below to watch the interview, listen to the podcast, get the show notes, and read the modified transcripts.
and the audio version:
Learn more about James Cerbie
His website: Rebel Performance
Facebook: Rebel Performance
James Cerbie is the founder and head coach at Rebel Performance. He can be found lifting, drinking coffee, roaming in the mountains, reading research, or watching superhero movies.
Here are links to things mentioned in the interview:
Costa Rica Underground S&C 2018 Retreat Review – This was an awesome performance retreat that James and I spoke at a few years back. So much fun!
Elevate Sports Performance and Healthcare – The spot in Vegas where ya boi works.
Ryan Patrick – An excellent strength coach out of the Cinncinnati area.
Tim Ferriss – One of the best bloggers out there. A person who learns things quickly and interviews high performers.
Alpha Brain – A nootropic supplement to help you be focused AF.
Train Heroic – An interface used for coaching
Rebel Performance – This is where you can find James
What is life proofing?
James: I’ve been an athlete my entire life, that’s very much how I think of myself, my self-image.
I can remember there being this moment of crisis when college ended, and I was fortunate to play baseball in college. So, I was always on a team, I was always training, I was always competing, it was always underneath this umbrella of being a well-rounded stack across the board athlete. When college ends maybe for some people with high school or some people that are lucky enough as professional.
It’s the Thanos finger snap moment where this thing you’ve known your entire life disappears.
Fortunately, I had fallen in love with the weight room along my journey of planning sports. And so, I looked at the landscape said, you know, I’ll be fine. I’ll go compete in something like powerlifting, maybe I’ll try bodybuilding. CrossFit was a thing at that point. Strongman existed. I’m gonna go try these things. I’m sure one of them is going to definitely do it for me, that’s gonna be my thing.
So, I started dabbling and trying all these things, just to come to the realization that none of them were for me. Just really frustrated in that journey in that process. Because I love training, I love throwing down but I couldn’t find the right avenue or outlet for what I wanted. I wanted a blend of what these things gave me. Like, I don’t want to just be a powerlifter.
I’m not attacking any of those sports, they are all each incredible on their own, right? They just weren’t the right thing for me. I’d get to about eight weeks into a powerlifting program and I would feel like a refrigerator. It’s like I can’t sprint, I can’t jump, I don’t move. Like, I just hated the tradeoffs that I was having to make.
And so, I said, all right, there has to be a better way of approaching this so that I can get the outcome I want, and then I’ve got to figure out how to make that competitive. So, I can still have a competitive outlet, I need to have a team component to this thing as well. And so that’s where I started playing around with this concept of being Life Proof, or this concept of being Apex. It’s kind of saying, okay, I want to be well-rounded as an athlete. And I think if you’re a human, you should want those things as well, right?
Because, in my mind, if you’re a human, you’re an athlete. And what that means in my definition is I want to give you kind of five attribute bars:
- Movement IQ
If I can give you all five of those, if you have all five of those, then I think you are pretty Life Proof. You’re gonna be able to handle whatever life throws at you. Exactly how high you want these attribute bars to go will differ from person to person.
How much time do you have to train, how much you want to make your life revolve around being in the weight room and lifting? But I don’t care if you’re a 55-year-old CEO, I want you to have all five of these things so that you just do well in life. If you want to ramp that up to a much higher level, then we can do that as well.
Are you the 23, 24, 25-year-old kid who wants to spend two hours training, you want to make your life will revolve around eating, training, sleeping, etc. We can bump those attribute bars up significantly higher for you. But regardless, I want all five and that’s the point is I want to give you all five of those things. If you have all five then I think that you’re probably pretty Life Proof. You should be able to handle just about anything that you’re going to tackle in life. If you need to lift something heavy you can, look like a superhero, go rock in the mountains, do Matt Condon medleys, jump, sprint, throw. you have all your bases covered.
Zac: Do you think powerlifters get triggered and offended with your disclaimer?
James: Nothing against the sports I think they’re all incredibly they do shit that I could never do. It’s just not for me. And I have found that there are a lot of people out there who have dabbled and tried these other sports and feel the same way I do so.
Zac: You sacrifice things
James: A lot.
Zac: I remember when we went to Costa Rica, there are these big dudes at the retreat that we went to, and they absolutely destroyed the weightlifting competitions we had. But then you go hiking and it’s a struggle. Or we play a sport, frisbee on the beach. You’re not gonna get picked first by any means.
James: And that was the tradeoff that I wasn’t comfortable with. I still need to be able to go sprint, jump, cut, do athletic things. for me, that’s where power lives.
Olympic lifting is cool. It’s great. If you want to use it, awesome. Just not my interest. I would rather sprint, jump, throw, and cut.
Zac: Yeah. And I think as social animals, unless you’re going to be spending all day every day in those, you know, doing Olympic lifting, which is fine. I’ve watched people do that. But sometimes you might meet up with friends and go play something Spike ball as we’ve been doing a lot at Elevate. You’re limited in your capability of doing that and enjoying that. So, I think this concept is very useful.
I also think that having a baseline you need at least this amount of a given attribute, and then you can expand upon whatever you want to depend on your task is very effective.
I think a lot of people think that they have to push X number of weight in order to have success in whatever it is that we have in our movement realm. But that’s most certainly not the case.
When you came up with these five qualities, do you feel as though it filled that void of not having baseball in your case? I went through a similar crisis with running. Now obviously, I could have kept running because that was my sport. But I hated it. I only did it because I was decently fast at it. But did you feel as though it gave you similar satisfaction in pursuing that compared to baseball?
James: Yes. So, the key there was in actually finding the other people, finding your tribe, finding your people who felt similar, who wanted to train in a similar way. And so, then you actually were able to get the team-based component back. So, it did successfully fill that void.
And the first experiment that I essentially ran with that was The Silverback Training Project. It was a very big success for the people that we got on board. We saw improvement across the board. We have people hitting 50 to 100-pound PRs in the big three! I’m not talking about going from 100 to 150 pounds either. We’re talking people squatting 500 for the first time, people deadlifting 600 for the first time, people who were in pain who are no longer in pain and feel good. 30% improvements on 10-minute assault bike challenges. And all these other met cons we we’re testing. They’re putting on muscle, they feel good. We’re hitting three, four-inch PRs in verticals, broad jumps, we’re doing better on 10-yard and 15-yard sprint tests.
To go back to the attribute bar analogy, we’re essentially taking all the attribute bars, and they’re all getting moved up. And so that was a nice reassurance to see. One, conceptually, my thoughts on a whiteboard, when actually given to humans worked. Because there’s always that thought that I’m gonna sit down and write a program and it’s just not gonna work. But it does. Contrary to what a lot of people think, you can actually get a lot of progress across the board if you’re smart in how you implement these things.
But the biggest one was just seeing how the people came together. You filled that void for them, they got to compete again, they got to have a team. And so, it was a lot of fun to watch that transpire. We did it for a couple of cohorts, just to make sure it wasn’t an anomaly the first time. And you see a similar thing happen every single time. So yeah, that was the first big win into that realm. Now we just need to spread the word and find more humans that believe in this concept.
Zac: It’s kind of what CrossFit was trying to do. And there are some CrossFit boxes that probably implement this successfully is you want to be well rounded in all of these qualities. But then the issue is that because you’re varying the workout so much, you don’t get that progressive improvement in specific qualities. Whereas you’re advocating that you can get improvement in all these qualities, but you have to apply the concepts of progressive overload in order to make that happen. And it sounds like you also measure each of these qualities to let you know, where we have to tweak the program to improve even further.
The best tests to measure athleticism
James: Strength is pretty straightforward. We don’t use one rep max very often just because it’s so skill and technique based. So, I use more three, five, and ten rep maxes. I want to see strength improve across a range.
Hypertrophy is a much more difficult one to measure, I don’t have a great performance-based metric for that. I think your performance on higher rep stuff or timed sets would probably be a little bit of an indicator, but we’re probably going to use more just vanity metrics. Take a before and after picture. Do you look more jacked? Are you happy with this outcome? You could also test body composition.
Looking like a superhero just comes with the territory when you do what you’re supposed to do training-wise and in the kitchen.
Endurance is easy, we use a 10-minute assault bike challenge. You go as hard as you can for 10 minutes, and let’s see where you’re at. Four miles seems to be a pretty good threshold. I’ve had a couple people push five, which is outrageous. These dudes are freaks. They just have engines for days. We will also look at the resting heart rate and see if there are any drops.
Zac: I can’t push volume on a bike for whatever reason. And it’s not because of the lack of the ticker. It’s because of the local muscle fatigue for me.
It’s the same for lifting. Although I’ve gotten significantly better at tolerating more volume with a single move, which I need for a training effect, I have to vary the. exercises to train enough. I might do an Arnold press and only get four sets of whatever rep range. And then I just I cannot output anymore. But then if I change to an incline, then I’m right back in action. we’re back.
The cardiac adaptations are there, it’s just the supporting structures aren’t there to carry it out. So that’s where a lot of my training has been going because that’s what I know is the rate-limiting step.
James: It’s those capillaries and mitochondria, bro.
On the power attribute bar, I’m looking at jumps, sprints, and throws. Vertical, broad, lateral. I want to see multiple repeat jumps as well. 10-yard sprint, 15-yard sprint, maybe out to a 40 or 60.
I don’t have Olympic lifts in my model. It’s not because they don’t work, I just choose not to use them. I think that jumps, sprints, and throws are more effective and less technical.
Movement is obviously really hard, so our measures are subjective; things feel easier, pain reductions, getting muscle fatigue instead of joint pain, etc.
Oo the endurance side of the coin, are resting heart rates dropping?
If I can get actual numbers, I want to get actual numbers. This allows us to see where we need to focus our efforts. Say all qualities but endurance are improving. We may potentially change volume or something else in their template.
Zac: Then would you do things to maintain the other quality, so perhaps, you’d increase volume to potentially improve endurance components, but then you’re just adjusting maybe it’s less volume, less volume on the power components or, you know, you’re doing less volume of the strength work?
James: Yeah, I’m a big block periodization fan, physiologically. That just makes a lot of sense to me. And it works.
So, I talk about all five of these attribute bars, but we need to appreciate that I’m not hitting the Go button on all five of these all the time because that can’t work. It’s more of how you stack the blocks together in a sequential fashion, that allows you to get this good development across the board. And so that’s the biggest thing. It’s making sure that we have you in the weekly training template for whatever type of athlete you are. And we can talk more about that.
And then from there, it’s just making sure we sequentially have a block of training that makes sense. What am I focusing on for these four to six weeks, and then what am I going to focus on for the next four to six weeks while I maintain these other things?
So, when I have maintenance with progress, you are slowly bumping these things up over time. If you only zoom in acutely, you may only see one or two attribute bars going up. But when you zoom out and look at what happened over 12 to 16 weeks, we’ve got all qualities to improve. And that’s what we’re chasing.
Zac: To be everywhere, to be nowhere.
That extends to not just fitness qualities, but all things. You can’t be an expert in all things mitochondria and real estate at the same time. Your outputs in each domain wouldn’t be as high as if it were a focused effort. So too with training.
But where I also think you are doing a far superior job compared to other people is you don’t build one-trick ponies. You allow for adaptability. Mastering only one quality can help if pursuing a specific sport, but it puts you at risk for bad things to potentially happen when you have to call upon those other qualities.
James: Yeah, and if you have a highly specific goal, and you want to be the best in the world of that highly specific thing, then you have to be a one-trick pony. And that would be good for you. If you want to be an elite level powerlifter, if you want to step on stage for bodybuilding, if you want to compete in Olympic lifting, I think all those avenues are incredible. And if that’s your thing, and that’s what lights your fire, go do it. That’s awesome.
But if those things don’t light your fire, then maybe we think about training in a different way.
Zac: Once you’ve established a life proof baseline, where do you go next?
James: This is where it depends on what avenue are you in? Are you in a one on one training experience where you’re getting a dedicated coach with individualized coaching? Because those conversations happen pretty often, and we get pretty detailed nitty-gritty into the weeds.
Or you’re doing more the team-based approach, where you’re getting into a pre-written training template that you’re funneled into based on your goals. So those go through more pre-determined cycles. We essentially will go through waves of hypertrophy, work capacity, focus block of training, and then we’re going to go into a more strength, power, etc., focus block of training.
If we decide on improving a specific quality like strength, we may lower the rep ranges and have that be the main focus. Then, we’re blending power and throughout that with jumps, sprints, throws, etc. Endurance is getting thrown in there as well, whether or not we’re doing a short to long, longer, shorter approach, etc. It kind of depends.
But again, I think what we do first is we try to funnel the athlete into determining what is your specific archetype? Because the concept of life is very broad, so we need to narrow that down.
We’ve found that people generally fall into one of four categories:
- Base athlete
- Stacked athlete
- Strong Athlete
- Tactical athlete
A base athlete cares most about movement. They want to move really well and feel good while sprinkling other pillars on top.
These athletes will use more of a sensorimotor-based approach. Your big squat might be a heel-elevated Zercher squat because movement is the highest priority.
Stacked athletes want the five attributes to be as level across the board as possible. They want to be the middle linebacker of humans.
For them, we’re more aggressive at how we’re chasing performance outcomes. They get put on a three training split: three lift days, two low conditioning days, one high conditioning day.
The strong athlete cares most about strength and hypertrophy. Fantastic. You can put on a four-two training split into four lift days and two easy conditioning days.
You’re not going to get the hard conditioning day, because there’s nowhere to fit it into your scheme. Plus, you don’t care that much about that outcome. But we still want the two low conditioning days because we need that at least low-level aerobic ability and capacity to feed into everything else that you’re doing.
The tactical athlete cares most about endurance. They have more met-cons and medleys, rucking in the mountains.
These athletes also are put on a four-two split as well. So, they have four “lift days” and two easy conditioning days.
Their lift days are a bit different. They’ll first have two big lifts (e.g. squat and press, hinge and pull, etc) and instead of accessory work, they’ll do met-cons or medleys. These exercise choices fall somewhere in the hypertrophy and endurance realm, so it helps them out.
How people should train who have general fitness goals
James: I would say the vast majority of people we get in this team-based programming training approach have very generalized outcome goals. They just want to see the attribute bars move up.
For these people, we bleed in competition throughout the program, allowing them to train for something. Whenever we can get away with it in 2021, we are going to do some events in-person.
Zac: In Salt Lake?
James: Yeah! There’s a really cool facility up outside of Salt Lake. It’s an old airplane hangar. And it’s gutted out, and a gym. It opens up onto an outdoor rig, which then goes on to about a 40-yard field, and there’s a sand volleyball court. So, it’d be the perfect place to do it. And you got the mountains as the backdrop.
We will likely split this meeting into a competitive and general division. The reason why is because we have people of various performance capabilities that believe in the concept. Some can squat 500 pounds, some just want to feel good, but we’re all on the same journey.
Just show up with the mentality, attitude, and desire to get better. That’s all we want. We are very fortunate to have a community of people where we don’t have egos. We just want improvement. We just want you to get better.
Improving athleticism with minimal gym equipment
Zac: How do you adapt the thought process in the life proofing concept to someone who has minimal equipment? Especially during these home-gym COVID times?
James: We have three tiers of options for people that want training. So, the top tier is you come in, you get a one-on-one coach that’s totally personally dedicated to you. And it’s totally customized.
Then we have the Apex team, which is one that we’ve been talking about, which is a team-based programming approach. We put way more of an emphasis on the community, the competition bit, and you’re plugging into just really, really well thought out, science-backed and tested programming that is going to work phenomenally well, for the vast majority of people.
For both of these tiers, you need to have access to equipment. So, I tell people that I write the programming assuming you have access to the same garage gym I do. So, my garage gym has a rack, a single cable machine, an assault bike, a rower, a ski erg…
Zac: A ski erg in your garage gym? That is badass.
James: Yeah, so I don’t use a skier very often just because that’s a weird one. Most people will have a bike or rower. And then assuming that you have access to most of the dumbbells and kettlebells. Assuming you have access to most of those things, we can make adjustments within the team training.
For the people that don’t have any equipment, if you’re the I have a dumbbell, maybe I have a kettlebell, I have a few bands or just my bodyweight, then we have pre-written programs in our program shop that are built for just at-home training.
To respond to gym closures, we added several different training programs that you can do at home. You don’t need anything more than your body weight, maybe a dumbbell, kettlebell, or some bands.
However, training without equipment is not a long term strategy. We hope we can maintain during what is hopefully a short term problem.
Zac: Progressive overload in most things is really tough unless you have some degree of equipment.
Zac: However, there are people who exist who can get pretty big, doing just bodyweight things. Do you ever go on those YouTube benches of what was a guy called Kali Muscle?
James: Oh, yeah.
Zac: He was just massive; doing just a bunch of stuff at playgrounds.
James: I’m always curious about what exogenous aids exist in those situations. Yeah, that’s the first place my mind goes, just because I know there’s gonna be some limit on what we can accomplish with just bodyweight and maybe a pull-up bar.
I have a program in there called Apex athlete at home, it assumes you have access to nothing. We rely on a lot of tempos and metabolic stress-type training such as timed sets. This works in place of mechanical tension and load.
Fortunately, you can still do jumps, you can still maybe do sprints, we can get outside. So, the power component we can still have, the conditioning stuff, we can probably still get in there.
Zac: Basically, your goals have to somewhat shift during this time period.
James: Yeah, we actually it was funny, I was talking to my buddy, Kevin Horton the other day who coaches with us at Rebel, and he was talking about some of his clients how it actually ended up working out in their favor.
He’s working with a 40-year-old New York lawyer who’s very type A. Gym closings were actually the best thing that could have ever happened. Because he didn’t have access to a barbell, he had to focus on other qualities.
Armed with only a kettlebell, some adjustable dumbbell, and bands, he focused on movements he wouldn’t normally tackle over a three month period. Lot’s of sensorimotor work. He felt so much better once he got back to the bigger, sexier lifts; hitting tons of PRs in the process. He thought it was totally weird because he wasn’t focusing on these qualities.
He finally addressed the foundation that he never spent time on. And so, once he actually put that in place, magical things happen. It’s like a pyramid; the larger the foundation, the higher the peak can be.
Zac: I’ve seen that a lot of times with many of the big lifts. With most of the people who I work with, the first few blocks, especially if there’s someone who’s a little bit more beat up or they need a bigger movement foundation, we stay away from hinging. It doesn’t extend movement options well enough for most people. Instead, we emphasize more squatting and other activities that increase movement capabilities.
Without fail, I see most people when they do go back to deadlifting, even if they haven’t touched that for an extended period of time, numbers shoot up, it feels better, and/or they pull faster.
I think it really carries back to the concept that you’re talking about James of you have to build up all of these bars to some degree, because there’s just so intermingling between developing all of those qualities.
Zac: Even the person who says they want to powerlift. I really liked that you’re still emphasizing aerobic components for them because they still have to recover. They still need to be able to attain enough movement so they don’t hurt themselves from the very heavy loads.
James: It’s interesting because I think we have people who will go do powerlifting comps, and strongman meets and all this other stuff, yet they don’t view themselves as those types of athletes. They simply spend time building their attribute bars, then eventually tweak their program to emphasize the quality they need for the given competition.
It’s wild because they go win powerlifting meets and they win strongman contests. But that’s not really who they are. They don’t train that way all the time. We’re just building all these attribute bars, and then we peak for a meet, and then they come back in right where we were. You might not be the best in the world, but you can still be pretty damn good.
Zac: It sounds like the key is to have the capability of doing pretty good in anything by starting with a robust foundation.
James: You can go and show really well both of those.
James: Which is awesome. , I think that’s so cool.
Zac: Tim Ferriss would always talk about how it doesn’t take much to get up to the 80th percentile in anything if you just spend a little bit of a dedicated amount of time to a specific thing. I think in the movement realm, or the performance realm, it’s the same thing as long as you have that foundation to build on.
James: We have another guy who’s in the Apex team who had competed in the CrossFit Games. He eventually ran into the problem that I’ve seen from a lot of former crossfitters, which is things start to break down. It wasn’t a sustainable training style for him.
We had to do a lot of work on the front end of cleaning up a lot of movement deficits; focusing on baseline foundational work. He totally bought in! He messaged me the other day saying that he was better than ever, even compared to when he was a CrossFit athlete.
Granted, if we throw Olympic lifts or gymnastic stuff at him he may not do as well because we don’t train those movements. he’s gonna get towards it because we don’t do either of those. But he was mashing on squats, dead, and bench; hitting huge PRs in the process. His work capacity and engine is through the roof, his body composition is as good as it’s ever been, and he feels really good. God forbid, you can actually perform well and feel good at the same time.
That was an interesting message for me to get because he’s the one who’s kind of getting ready for the competition roll around. He’s totally bought in and plans to train this way for the rest of his life!
Performance vs health
Zac: It seems as though the concept of the performance versus health divide is something we don’t talk about as much as we used it. It’s such BS.
James: I think the only place it rears its head is at the very, very, very far end of the bell curve.
James: And I think that the bell curve is far larger than people want to give it credit. Because it used to be that you can’t have both, but you really have to push to the far ends of performance to make that a thing.
If you want to be a world-class triathlete, a world-class marathon runner, if you want to be Thor and go be the strongest Strongman in the world, those pursuits likely aren’t healthy. The sacrifices you have to make to accomplish what those people do results in some tradeoffs. But that is so far to the extreme end of the curve. People get lost in that conversation for some reason.
Zac: The reason why it is so far right on the curve is that you are literally are pushing your body to its physical limits.
But most people cannot output to that degree, whether it’s the inability to coordinate their bodies the way they need to, not built for the task, etc.
Some cars can’t go 100 miles an hour. And you’re more prone to have a violent accident if you can go 100 miles an hour as opposed to 30.
And I think the same thing applies to us humans. I don’t know if I’m going to ever pull 600. That ship likely sailed when I pursued endurance running. For the overwhelming majority of the population, you can pursue a lot of the performance qualities that we’ve been talking about this whole time with few ramifications.
James: If it’s done well, it can work. If it’s implemented poorly, it won’t work.
Zac: Yeah. And I think most people just don’t have an idea of how to do it well. Because there is an inherent risk when you’re chasing these qualities. If you don’t have technical mastery, if you don’t have intelligent planning, you may be at risk for an injury.
It’s not like learning a musical instrument where there’s an inherent negative feedback loop when you don’t hit the notes well.
James: I’m very upfront in saying that, if you look at all five of those attribute bars, those five pillars, I can find you numerous coaches that are far better at me at any one of those attribute bars. If you just want to focus on strength, there are people way better at that than I am. If you just want to focus on power, people way better at that than I am. If you just want to focus on hypertrophy, just endurance, just movement. There are coaches that specialize in those pillars, and they are far better at that than I am.
I haven’t met many people who are as good as we are at actually taking all five of those and blending them together into a comprehensive plan that makes sense, and that works. Because I found that that’s where people really struggle is in putting it all together.
People have ideas or concepts, but they get stuck. They overthink things. They second guess stuff. They develop shiny object syndrome and jump from program to program. And it’s simply because it’s hard to put all that together in a way that works and makes sense. That’s where I find that people really struggle.
Zac: And that’s why I’m excited that you have put this together. Because I would agree with you 100%. It’s really hard to coordinate a lot of concepts into one thing and it goes back to the conversation we were having about developing expertise in a given thing. But if you can get good enough at several things, that just leads you to be more enriched, adapted, and being able to do a wide variety of things.
- Life proofing involves increasing your power, strength, endurance, hypertrophy, and movement over the course of a block periodized training program.
- One can better specialize when one builds a bigger foundation.
- Though harder to build fitness, power, movement, and endurance can be improved with minimal gym equipment.
- The divide between performance and health only exists at the extreme ends of the bell curve, and most people can pursue high levels of performance with few ramifications.