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Iron Sharpens Iron

Rick and I are in East Lansing Michigan this weekend to attend our first ever Michigan State University football game.  We have an infinity for the Spartans because we’ve been influenced and educated by MSU’s long time strength coach, Ken Mannie.  Below is a Fit Tip I wrote years ago about Mannie and his influence on me but I thought it was worth re-sharing.
Ken Mannie, the long-time strength and conditioning coach at Michigan State University had a profound impact on me very early in my career.  In college, I poured over his columns addressing every aspect of strength training, cardio-respiratory conditioning, speed development, and performance enhancement.  I can vividly remember watching videos of him speaking at clinics over and over again (and I eventually crafted the ability to do a perfect Ken Mannie impersonation).  My senior year, a close friend (and now a respected colleague) of mine and I decided to fly to Michigan to meet Ken.

The 2-hour discussion we shared served as the impetus for a relationship that is intact today, 11 years later.

Perhaps the most powerful and lasting message that I took with me from that initial visit with Coach Mannie was the mantra that serves as the foundation of the entire MSU Strength and Conditioning program.  It is visible on the walls of the weight room and on the apparel adorned by MSU athletes.  IRON SHARPENS IRON.  Mannie borrows inspiration from Proverbs 27:17, “Just as iron sharpens iron, one man must sharpen another.”  The concept is simple and profound.  I rely on another person to push me to help me become a better person and to reach my potential.  At MSU, this is the epitome of the team concept: We need each other to be successful.  On the window of Coach Mannie’s office is the quote, “We will not accept you as you are. We prefer to show you what you can be and help you achieve it.”  In my opinion, the principle of Iron Sharpens Iron is pervasive and has application to nearly every area of human endeavor.  Interestingly, it also embodies the most frequently over-looked and powerful components of any exercise program: Supervision.

Scientists, fitness professionals, and exercise enthusiasts alike are in constant pursuit of a new, improved, or better way of doing things.  As a fitness professional, I read journal articles and attend conferences where presenters drone on about the numerous variables of exercise: how many exercises to perform, what type of equipment to use, how long a workout should last, how often a person should workout.  And of course, these variables are important.  However, the element that is rarely discussed is the element of supervision.  When it is discussed, it is mentioned almost in passing and generally in reference to exercise compliance or safety.  “Work out with a partner so you stay motivated and so you don’t get injured.”  This mentality completely misses the mark.  Regardless of the type of exercise, the style of the workout, or the goals of the individual performing the workout (a type-2 diabetic or an elite athlete), the singular element of direct supervision always produces better results.  In research studies, two separate groups who perform the exact same workouts will have dramatically different results when one group has direct supervision.   Direct supervision always produces better, faster results.  This applies to chronic disease prevention, improved athletic performance, fat loss, and increased muscle strength/size.  Throughout my career, I have used the element of direct supervision as the cornerstone of the exercise program.  As a strength and conditioning coach with the Minnesota Vikings, we personally trained every single player.  We did this not because they didn’t know how to workout and not because they weren’t motivated; we did it because it produced better results.  As a high school strength and conditioning coach we had a strict rule that every student athlete must be partnered with another; and these students would personally train each other.  Again, we didn’t do this for safety’s sake; we did it because it produced superior results.  In my own personal workouts, I can count on one hand the number of times where I have strength trained without direct supervision.  I have always had access to great equipment, I possess the knowledge of what to do as well as how to do it, and I don’t think I lack motivation.  But I simply won’t train alone because I know I can’t stimulate or produce the same results as I can if I am directly supervised.

Of all the exercise variables we spend so much time debating, the well-intended exerciser is, more often than not, ignoring the single most powerful component.

Take Home Message: To enhance the results you experience from your fitness routine, add the element of supervision.  Just as Iron Sharpens Iron, one man must sharpen another.

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