PSM Interviews: James Phillips

In this interview Paul Welford talks to Strength & Conditioning Coach James Phillips

Strength and conditioning coaches possess a varied skill set, with expertise in sports performance, exercise prescription and high-end rehabilitation. PSM has been instrumental in introducing this expanding profession to a wider audience.

So what is life like as an S&C coach and what’s next for the profession? Strength and conditioning coach James Phillips answers the questions that you wanted to ask!

James, thanks for talking to us. So how did you find yourself on the path to becoming a strength and conditioning coach?

Actually, it happened by chance. Training was already part of my life through my experience in athletics before and during university. By the time that I finished my degree in sports science at Loughborough University, I knew that I wanted to work within sports performance. Well, my sister was at a dinner party and got talking to the CEO of Saracens (rugby club). He got in touch and kindly offered me a weeks work experience, to see what their S&C department was like. About two months later they offered me an internship. 

Can you tell us about your work placement at EIS?

That followed on quite naturally from my placement at Saracens. I realised at that point that I didn’t know very much! I was keen to learn and decided to apply for a placement at EIS in Lilleshall. I found myself working with very different sports from rugby: Archery, football and athletics. As you can probably imagine, strength and conditioning is pretty well established in rugby whereas it’s not in archery! At EIS they are very good at applying research and generally making sure that you know what you are talking about, so it was a great learning environment. 

It must have been quite a transition to leave a rugby club and start working with archers… What was that like?

Difficult! Saracens was a lot of fun. I went from working within the first team and with younger rugby talent to working with a really different group of people — individuals who aren’t your typical athletic type. You might describe many of them as gamers’ rather than jocks. They didn’t necessarily move well naturally and certainly weren’t familiar with S&C coaches. Their training requirements were also quite different to other athletes that I have worked with. It’s not always about grunting weights! 

I am interested to hear a bit more about what it’s like to be an S&C coach. It’s not a profession that I knew much about until I worked at PSM. When I was younger and considering a career in sport, the options seemed limited: sports scientist, physio, PE teacher?!… So why do you think strength and conditioning has grown so much in the last 10 years?

I think that a lot of young people dream of working in sport — especially those who are actively involved in it as athletes. Sports science has grown massively over the last 20 or 30 years. There is more funding for sports science and generally more jobs becoming available in sport. I wouldn’t be surprised if aesthetics also plays a part. A lot of people go to gyms now and want to learn more about exercise. 

What are your top three pieces of desert island S&C kit?

A barbell, two adjustable dumb bells and a green or red powerband. 

Very traditional…

Yeah, I guess that’s in keeping with my philosophy on S&C.

OK, now imagine that you’re in Canary Wharf and Brad introduces you to a potential client. The chap is telling you that he wants to run a marathon and has just found a celebrity endorsed 12-week training programme online. What do you say to him? 

It’s important that any programme is tailored to the individual. There is a lot of history to take into account when developing a training programme. This principle is deeply ingrained in every S&C coach. Of course, there are a lot of generalised programmes out there and I’m sure that a lot of coaches and physios do have their favourite exercises’. With 12 week running programmes, training increments will occur rapidly and this results in plenty of people coming in with injuries. Most often it’s simply that someone started their training too late.

If our potential client has completed a marathon before and is a regular gym goer, he could already be quite well conditioned and there may be no harm in following a generalised programme. Even so, that doesn’t mean that this particular programme will be optimised to meet his training requirements. Also, a plan can look perfect on day 1 but, in the real world, plans sometimes need to change. Our celebrity’s programme may meet his own requirements perfectly but wouldn’t necessarily fulfil our potential client’s training needs. 

Other than leaving too little time to train before race day, what other areas for improvement do you commonly identify in your clients’ programmes?

A lot of people simply do the same thing. They get used to doing the same thing and like doing it because they get better at it. But variety is often the best tool to gain adaptation. The other two common errors that I see are people doing too much and not resting, or not training often enough. At Canary Wharf the attitude is often work hard, play hard’. But there are also those who are happy to throw money at the problem’ but not much more. At the end of the day we can only advise; people need to be willing to put the effort in. It can be difficult finding the right balance to allow training adaptations to occur. 

For the people who simply want to get bigger’, difficulties can arise in what they have read on the internet. It’s often down to training volume and people rigidly following what they have read online.

What challenges have you faced making the transition from EIS and the professional sporting environment to working in the private clinic at PSM

A big difference is that my work here is all one-to-one, whereas a lot of my previous work was group based. Another difference is that while the people that I see here are paying for my advice, they don’t necessarily take it all on board! My clients here are often 30 to 50 years olds who are not used to taking advice from other people and treat exercise as a de-stressor’. But people expect to see results after their sessions with me, so a lot of my work is trying to change exercise habits. One of the biggest challenges for me can be trying to change the mindset of a highly driven person. 

What do you find yourself doing more often — pushing someone forward or reining them in? 

Generally, I am more cautious and prefer to work towards longer-term goals. I always avoid throwing someone in at the deep end’; Habit change is much more important. In the sporting environment, things are different. There is generally a specific goal that someone wants to achieve and the focus shifts more towards improving performance. It’s all about effort and striving to achieve that goal quicker. In fencing, for example, an athlete might want to improve her lunging distance. In private practice, the goals are often much more vague, like injury prevention, for example. 

I asked one of your colleagues about current controversies in S&C and he talked about functional training’. I have seen this concept promoted heavily but also ridiculed brutally. So what is functional training and is there a role for it in high-performance sport?

A lot of people cringe at the word functional training’ because no one really knows what it means! You’ll hear people say, I did a really functional session”. Functional for what?! I never really know what people mean by being functional’. In my head, a really functional session” would be very specific to what an athlete wants to achieve, but actually, I don’t really believe that doing something strength-based is going to be specific to any performance indicator. Typically you might call an exercise functional if it involves every physical characteristic that you could hope to improve: balance, strength, coordination, flexibility. So yes I do struggle with the term functional’ because I don’t think anyone can really say what it is! I think it’s just a bit of a trendy term – a fad. 

What about CrossFit? 

Some people might call CrossFit functional… I think the idea of CrossFit is really good. A group of people coming together to train together; to exercise, have fun and challenge themselves in a hard-working environment. One issue that I do have with CrossFit is the volume that CrossFitters have to go through in order to finish a WOD’ (a workout). Sometimes people can also be rushed into performing complex movements — before they are ready and under extreme fatigue. This is why we see high injury rates. Other than these issues I think that CrossFit is actually pretty good.

What measures do you find most valuable for evaluating sports performance? Should these measures always be sports specific outcomes, or do you find physiological assessments such as VO2max or lactate threshold useful? 

I think that these are useful measurements to assess whether someone is improving or not. They can help to measure what effect (if any) your current programme is having. Of course, it always depends on what sports you do. If we are talking about a 1500m runner, then something this specific is going to be helpful. If your sport is very much skill-based, then improving your physical performance won’t necessarily impact on your performance – at least not as much as in a sport as raw as, for example sprinting or powerlifting. 

So I think the measure used should generally reflect the skill level of the sport. For example, the testing batteries used in a highly-skilled sport like rugby are extensive, and should always be sports specific.

Are there any assessment measures that you rely upon heavily in your current role here at PSM

It does depend on the individual that you have in front of you. I think that measuring power or the ability to jump is important in sport, so I use a jump mat here. In terms of strength tests, it doesn’t really matter what the strength test is. It could be a 1RM back squat, a 5RM front squat or a single leg squat. The important thing is to use a test relevant to the sport and where the person has come from. 

Do you use a functional movement screen?

If a client’s goals are vague (as is often the case here at Canary Wharf) then yes, there are some things that I’ll always look at in the gym. First I look at an overhead squat then a single leg squat. So I’ll look at someone statically on two legs then on one leg. Next, I look at jumping – how he or she lands on one or two legs. Then we look at other areas based on what I find. 

This interview wouldn’t be complete without using the terms training load’ or load management’. So how do you implement these concepts at a practical level?

I think these principles are useful for educational purposes with people who train a lot. Reducing training load down to a single number makes things easy for people to understand — the idea that if you keep your training within a range of numbers that you’ll be fine. I often use this principle with runners from a (training) volume point of view. The concept is pretty easy to get across and can help the client buy into what you are trying to achieve and take ownership of their training. 

What are your views on strength training in adolescence? How do you progress training programmes for younger athletes?

Compared to what kids get up to in everyday life – running and jumping around in playgrounds – these forces going through their bodies are normally much greater than the forces that we see in the gym. When I think of training in adolescence, I wouldn’t particularly call it strength training’; perhaps movement training’, because the focus does tend to be on balance and coordination. You aren’t loading an individual up too much and do need to be aware of when they are growing. Often they are bambis’, with long bones and everything is happening very quickly. So I will get them doing all sorts of different movements with their body, but for me, the emphasis is more on learning how to move than on increasing strength. In terms of deciding when to move their training forwards, I focus on an individual’s growth and maturity along with the quality of their movement rather than using any particular age cut-off.

One question that I hear from patients (and that one of your S&C colleagues encouraged me to ask you): What does an S&C coach provide that a personal trainer doesn’t?

If we take the question: what is the difference between a personal trainer and an S&C coach, I would say that the main difference is whom they are training. Personal trainers tend to work mainly with Joe public rather than with athletes. The focus is often on aesthetics – guys who want to get bigger or tone up, girls who want to drop a dress size – whereas S&C coaches tend to work more in a performance or clinical environment. The way that we work shouldn’t necessarily differ; it should be based on the individual and his or her goals and on testing. So I think the difference is in the individuals that we work with; it is this that changes our approach. 

Finally, where do you see S&C going in the next few years? 

There will always be S&C coaches within elite sport – that’s where it started – but there are also more people heading into private practice environments. 

Looking at the current job market in the UK, I think there are currently a lot more people becoming qualified than there are jobs for S&C coaches. At the moment, this means that there are a lot of S&C coaches working as personal trainers. There are also a lot of S&C coaches starting to work in schools; especially private schools, so we’ll see strength and conditioning starting to filter into PE within schools. I think we have a great role to play in working with adolescents so I hope this does continue. Perhaps an S&C module with a PE course. I find that a lot of my work here at Pure is about picking up the pieces. If one of my patients had had access to an S&C coach 20 years earlier and learned how to move well, I’m sure that would help them later on. 

Thanks very much for talking to us James and all the best for the future!

If you want tobook an appointmentwith James or one of our other strength and conditioning coaches, you can do so by following the link or calling your preferred clinic.