My Amazing Athletes Teach Me So Much

We recently launched our new guide, Mash Files.

When we were talking about writing this book, we started talking about our mission. That’s kind of a trendy term at this point, but it’s worth talking about. I know one thing I definitely consider a mission: to leave the coaching world a bit better than I found it.

I want all of you who take the time to read my work and listen to my podcasts to benefit from our content. In this case, if you’re a coach, I want to teach you the exact method we are using to individualize our programming. Our process has led to some outrageous recent results.

We have so many success stories in so many sports, and we want to pass that success on to all of you. I don’t care about keeping my “secret” method to myself. That doesn’t help anyone but myself, and I promise that’s a lonely world. If I can help one of you create a program that allows one of your athletes to get better, then that is real change. That’s a life worth living, and the older I get I realize that’s more important than any personal victory.

My Family

Every time we drop a Mash Files book (yes, that’s a hint there will be more), I am going to write an article like this one explaining why we chose each athlete. In doing so, we hope to add to the information in the book. So why did we choose the athletes that are in the book? That’s a fun question to answer.

My athletes are extensions of my family, so this will be like bragging about my kids… just bear with me. Here are the athletes in the book:

  • Hunter Elam (Senior World Team Member Olympic Weightlifting)
  • Jordan Cantrell (Senior World Team Member Olympic Weightlifting)
  • Crystal McCullough (Silver Medalist USAPL Powerlifting Nationals and 41-year-old mother and wife)
  • Tommy Bohanon (starting Fullback Jacksonville Jaguars)
  • Nathan Clifton (CrossFit Games 4th Place in the World Teenage Division)


Principles and Real-Life Case Studies on How a Master Programmer Customizes a Program to the Individual

Peek inside Travis's brain... and learn how to individualize your own programs to fit an athlete's strengths, weaknesses, age, gender, sport demands, and unique response to training.

Hunter Elam

Hunter made the book for obvious reasons. Last year, she wasn’t on anyone’s radar to make a Senior World Team. Last year, she hadn’t even medaled at a National Event. I started working with her at the beginning of the year, and she responded like a charm to my programming. After a few months together, she medaled at Senior Nationals taking the Bronze Medal.

At that point, she became a believer. We decided to work on every aspect of her game as a weightlifter. She took control of her nutrition by hiring Jacky Simeone, Mash Eat What You Want Nutrition Coach, and hiring Lee Howard, DPT to be in charge of her recovery. Then the world of weightlifting was nuked with the new weight classes.

The announcement left us with having to make some decisions. We had to decide:

  1. Stay at 71kg for a year and then go up or down.
  2. Immediately gain up to the 76kg class
  3. Immediately drop down to the 64kg class

We decided to approach the decision with a scientific approach. I sent her to my friend a longtime chiropractor Lawrence Gray, D.C. to have her body fat measured. We found out that we had plenty of room to move down to the 64kg class without losing any strength. This was of course a controversial call with the whole world of weightlifting wondering if we were crazy. It was funny how many coaches told me that was a smart thing to do after we made the world team. Just an FYI coaches, if you tell me that after the fact, I am going to lose a bit of respect. I prefer honesty up front if you want my respect as a coach.

Then came the controversial call at the AO Series that was heard round the world. Her snatches didn’t go as planned, so we were facing a 121-kilogram clean and jerk to lock in a position on the world team. We didn’t go to the AO Series to win the AO Series. We were there for one reason and one reason only – and that was to make a world team. We decided to open up at 121 kilograms, which was a lifetime PR. Two of my good friends, Sean Waxman and Spencer Arnold, helped me make that decision – but ultimately it was up to Hunter and me. It was an easy decision.

Once again, I was actually told about the coaches in the audience who thought I was being crazy. I was told that some even called me stupid. Of course they are the same coaches who will be at home watching the live stream of the World Championships on their couch, while Hunter and I will be hanging in Turkmenistan battling the best weightlifters in the world.

We had so many obstacles to overcome. The biggest was confidence. Hunter is very athletic with an immense amount of experience with team sports. However, weightlifting is an individual sport. It’s just you out there on that platform with the three old referees staring at you along with the crowd. Well, she made some amazing strides with confidence and performance.

I learned a lot as a coach as well. Coaching Hunter has been a welcomed challenge. This challenge led me to reading Brett Bartholomew’s book, Conscious Coaching, which explains the scientific approach to getting buy-in from your athletes. Here’s what I learned from Hunter: she’s a true “technician” as explained in Brett’s book. Technicians want to understand what they’re doing, and why it’s important to their sport. They want to know what’s going on.

Once I started explaining the process of strength training, Hunter was able to perform without a lot of stress. I had to explain that I am purposely giving her more stress than she can handle to cause the body to adapt and get stronger. I explained that at times she would go backward as the body strived to keep up. Just the other day during the peaking phase, she had a great day at practice just like I anticipated. She looked at me and said, “You want me to say that you told me so, don’t you?”

I just laughed and said, “No, but that’s what I am thinking in my head.”

We both had a laugh, and she continued to practice. The workout in the book is the very workout that she used to total 215 kilograms at 64 kilograms, which was a lifetime PR total in a weight class down. She actually lost 9 kilograms (she had a little too much fun after Nationals) in all and added 5 kilograms to her total. It would be cool for all the haters to admit they were wrong, but I am not holding my breath.

Jordan Cantrell

Jordan Cantrell was an obvious pick for the book. He was a lot like Hunter at the beginning of last year. Nobody was really picking him to make a world team. Heck, nobody was talking about him medaling at Senior Nationals. But by the end of last year, he was one of the best weightlifters in the country. We added 30 kilograms to his total in 28 weeks, which is unheard of in an athlete already at a high level.

Jordan is a lot of fun to work with, and a challenge at the same time. The biggest challenge is that he has mild form of spina bifida, which is a small separation or gap in one or more of the bones of the spine (vertebrae). It doesn’t really affect him that much, but we have to stay away from back squats. We also have to find creative ways to strengthen his back that won’t cause any flare-ups.

Our main focus is on the front squat, and it doesn’t really affect Jordan as long as we are smart about our approach. It’s a lot easier to get an athlete stronger with back squats, but we’ve progressed at a nice and steady rate with front squats only. The key is using all the different variables to stimulate the body like:

  • Varied repetition ranges (we use undulating periodization)
  • Different lengths of pauses
  • Pausing one or all of the repetitions
  • Chains or bands
  • Box
  • Tempo

As you can see, the variables are endless, so his body has never completely adapted. Therefore, we’ve noticed a nice and steady rate of growth. I’m leaving next week to meet Jordan and the rest of my athletes at the Senior World Championships in Turkmenistan. I’m excited to watch them battle it out with the best weightlifters in the world. Jordan is definitely one of the good guys who are easy to cheer for.

Tommy Bohanon

Tommy Bohanon is the athlete I chose for athletic performance. Tommy’s story is a real American tale of overcoming. He played three years with the Jets before getting cut after a coaching change. He sat out a year and returned to the NFL via the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s been of fire since being with Jacksonville.

Tommy is the hardest working football player I have ever coached. He loves the weight room, and it shows. He’s used strength training to build an incredibly powerful physique, which is crucial for the fullback position. This year, we switched things up a bit. We peaked his absolute strength early on, and then peaked him for the football season with a velocity-based program focused on speed-strength and strength-speed. This strategy ensured that he would enter the season powerful and fast.

That’s the very program we included in the book. If you’re an athlete (football, basketball, or soccer), this is the program I would recommend for optimal performance. I talked to Cal Dietz, associate director of athletic performance for the University of Minnesota, a few days ago. He told me that they peak their athletes in this manner. It totally makes sense for the speed and power, and it makes even more sense due to the lower load giving the joints a break right when athletes need to feel the freshest.

Crystal McCullough

Crystal McCullough is the athlete we chose to highlight for powerlifting and super total. She took silver at last year’s USAPL Powerlifting Nationals, but there is something even cooler about this athlete. She is 41 years old, she’s a mother, she’s a wife, and she works full-time for Mash Elite. She represents the working adult who is still able to make waves in the world of strength.

Crystal is the mother of our incredible man-child, Morgan McCullough. Obviously, he gets his incredible strength from Crystal. She squats 360 pounds, bench presses 200 pounds, and deadlifts an incredible 400 pounds. She loves teaching the Olympic lifts, so she normally follows a super total program that is technique focused in the snatch and clean and jerk. You guys are going to be inspired by the program of this hard working lady.


Principles and Real-Life Case Studies on How a Master Programmer Customizes a Program to the Individual

Peek inside Travis's brain... and learn how to individualize your own programs to fit an athlete's strengths, weaknesses, age, gender, sport demands, and unique response to training.

Nathan Clifton

Nathan Clifton gets the comeback of the year award. Last year in the CrossFit Games teenage 16-17 category, he didn’t quite make the cut. This year, he not only made the cut, but he also ended up fourth overall in the world. Nathan has a built-in engine that simply never ends. However, he needed some work in the strength category – so he came to me for some help.

All of you functional fitness junkies are going to love this program. It’s actually two different programs. The first is the off-season program that helped him peak for Junior Nationals. The second program was his pre-season program that focused on maintaining the absolute strength we built and maximizing his ability to move light to moderate weight as fast as possible. Strength endurance is also a goal for preseason CrossFit.

Nathan has now fallen in love with weightlifting, and his goal is to make an international team. Obviously for me, it’s exciting to watch an athlete go from wanting to get a little stronger to wanting to be the strongest young man in the world. We are having a lot of fun perfecting his technique. I am looking forward to this year’s Junior Nationals.

I hope this article has given you all a lot to think about when designing your own programs. A general program will yield general results. An individual program will maximize those results. There is nothing wrong with a general program in a class-based setting. People will see results from this type of program.

However the athletes that I referenced in my new book, Mash Files, are not into typical results. They desire to be the absolute best that they can be. As you can tell from their results so far, we are on our way to achieving greatness for each of them. I hope that this article will help all of you do the same.

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