Guest Post: The Difference Between Training an Athlete and Average Joe

Adam McCarthy is a strength and conditioning coach from Cobh, Co. Cork.  He is currently working out of Steve McGrath Health and Performance working regularly with multisport athletes and recreational trainers as well as being an assistant tutor with Setanta College on the Resistance Training module. I was lucky to become good friends with Adam in college and rate him very highly as coach and hope he will continue to contribute to the site.

Adam speaking at the ISCS conference last year as society chairman

By Adam McCarthy (@AdamMacCork)

I would first like to thank my friend and colleague Ed for asking me to write for his blog. I am privileged to be asked to do so as Ed has featured many world class coaches thus far. Getting hold of the likes of Colin Griffin, Ciaràn Keogh and Keir Wenham-Flatt and extracting their best information is not an easy feat.

I would like to say that what Ed and Anthony are doing is exceptional in terms of blending the Strength Coach and Physio roles together to deliver simple advice to people who are seeking quality information. In my opinion there is still too much of a divide between the strength coach and therapist, this is the way forward people!


Ed has asked me to write about my experiences in which I coach a diverse selection of people from general health and fitness people like accountants, mothers and tech workers to sports people like intercounty/club gaa players, rugby players, mountaineers, runners and also some rehab clients . I shall try keep it as practical as I can to coaches. If you are not a coach but indeed a sports person reading this then you might pick up a thing or two as well.

The biggest thing people ask me is “what do your sports guys do in the gym? Do they do all the sexy looking plyometrics and jump squats with fitrodynes?” The answer is no. Then some people ask me what I get my general health clients to do in the gym. My answer is pretty much that I do the same with both sets of clients. Despite for a few individual differences both sets of clients will work on the basics.

The reason they will both work on the basics is that many of the amateur athletes these days have the same training age as general health clients…like zero! The athlete may have better kinaesthetic awareness and maybe better core stability but other than that they can share similar dysfunctions and compensations i.e. low back discomfort/pain, very weak and underactive glutes and pretty poor posture. Before we break out the chronojump to test their elastic index or bosco profile we are generally going to get them feeling and moving better.

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A great line from Jim Wendler is that you can’t go wrong by “squatting something, deadlifting something, pushing something and pulling something”. This holds true to many of my programs with athletes and also general health and fitness people. With my general health client, I am going to do some variation of a squat with them and some hip hinge work like a kettlebell deadlift perhaps. I will have them working towards being able to perform push ups, chin ups and some single leg work like a split squat. Those clients are merely looking to climb a ladder every now and again to paint their house, be able to cut the grass and play with their kids, nieces and nephews. My athlete wants to be able to go through the entire season feeling strong and mobile. Despite these obvious difference they both need to:

  1. Have a decent level of movement ability and ROM
  2. Have a decent level of strength and ability to express it

After that, they can branch outwards, and the athlete can maybe work on some ‘more advanced’ things.

Let us set the scene, I have a middle aged lady, say…40, is that middle aged? (Sorry if I have offended anyone!) Anyway, she comes in looking to get healthier, fitter and maybe a little stronger, I have found that ‘toned’ is probably the word she will use to describe these attributes. Then there will be a mid 20’s GAA guy who is just looking to do dome pre-season gym work and build some strength and some muscle.

Depending on her training status and your assessments of her then her program is most likely going to consist of a warm-up with some targeted foam rolling, mobilisation and activation exercises followed by her strength block, then her ‘toning’ block i.e. hypertrophy block to you and I, and then finish up with a few conditioning exercises. That’s generally how things will run in her program. She has a little bit of everything in there to keep her happy and also challenged.

Adam training in Steve McGrath Health and Performance in Cobh, Co. Cork

So for the big question, what exercises is she going to perform?

It is common to think that a middle aged woman should be using those light pretty pink dumbbells for 30+ repetitions and doing swiss-ball exercises until they might become bored and stop training a few years down the line. If you like that training then that is perfectly fine too.

I work with a few women who have massively demanding jobs and families and they are able to rap out nearly 10 chin ups, some with weight attached whereas I also work with a few high level sports guys who are unable to do one chin up. Everything is relative to the individual.

There are no boundaries as to who should do what in the gym. The only boundary I have come across in terms of getting the average person stronger is whether or not they actually want to do chin ups or deadlifts or squats.

So in that clients’ program the warm-up will probably have some rolling of the thighs, some shoulder and hip mobility exercises then some glute and core activation exercises. The strength will be some form of a squat, deadlift or a push or pull movement so maybe an inverted row or push up variation.

The middle block we’ll say is a 4 exercise block with 2 lower body and 2 upper body exercises so maybe a prone row, then a few bridges, some dumbbell chest presses and some split squats.

The conditioning block can be some form of a timed block (I have found that timing things gets everyone a bit more pumped up even if time is irrelevant for the training itself). A battle rope tabata let us say, 10 on with 10 off X 8 or adjust as needed.

Here is what the work part of the program might look like…

Exercises Sets Reps
A.     Goblet Squat 5 5
                 Deadbugs 6 each side
B.     Prone Row 3 12
               Bridges 10
               Chest Presses 8
               Split Squats 6 each side
C.     Battle Rope Tabata 8 10:10 On:Off


That is our program for a general health client looking to get fitter and stronger for life; you are giving them what they want (to sweat), what they need and then also what they may not like just to make them feel like an animal.

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Now, what will our sports program look like?

It will look similar to that of the general health client above. Things can change depending on time if the athlete is in-season or out of season or injured perhaps. The main things that will change are the intensity of the training and also the variation of the exercise.

Obviously if your athlete is in-season then the conditioning block might be taken out as their conditioning is being given to them on the field. They might need just a bit of strength and some lean muscle maintenance.

The bottom line is that training a sports person is similar to training your average weekend warrior. There is no need to go crazy on unstable surfaces or do all the things NFL teams do on youtube.

Unless you are working in elite/professional sport where the margins can be as little as 0.1% then stick to basic compound movements. Get your clients and athletes good at them. I can guarantee you that helping a client to perform 1 cleanly executed push up will provide more satisfaction to them than 3 or 4 rotten looking ones. Dispense of the assumption that because a person plays sport that they are automatically physically superior than your general health client…they’re not!


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