From the Pool to the Power Rack: Travis Pollen, Master of Fitness

Travis PollenBy Matthew Canning, Become Better at Everything Founder

Today’s guest post is by Travis Pollen, an accomplished Paralympic swimmer, personal trainer, and biomechanics graduate student. Travis has been featured on T-Nation.com, Schwarzenegger.com, and MensHealth.com. He also blogs and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website, www.FitnessPollenator.com. Be sure to like him on Facebook.

Travis’ insights about training, accountability, habits, and goal setting apply universally to almost any goal or practice.

From the Pool to the Power Rack

I wasn’t always a prison-chiseled American record holder. In fact, for the first fifteen years of my life, I struggled to find a physical activity in which my missing left leg didn’t put me at a huge disadvantage. The only “sport” I was remotely decent at was ping-pong—until my opponents discovered that I couldn’t turn left, that is. (Cue Zoolander reference.)

After years of searching, I finally discovered competitive swimming my sophomore year of high school. The rest is history – the records, the medals, the washboard abs. Yet my transformation from zero to superhero certainly didn’t take place overnight. In fact, it took years of daily practice (sometimes even twice a day!) to develop my über speed and strength.

Travis with Blind Boy

I still swim from time to time, but nowadays I focus most of my efforts on resistance training. Fortunately, the lessons I learned in the pool have had tremendous carryover to the weight room. Here are just a few quick tips I’ve gathered along my way from the pool to the power rack.

1. Consistency is everything.

There’s a reason elite swimmers train so much: it works. This isn’t to say that in order to see results, you need to do 550 workouts a year like Michael Phelps. But it does mean that you should strive to be active most days of the week—even if it’s only ten minutes of high-intensity circuit training. It’s actually the accumulation of weeks, months, and years of training that leads to real changes in strength and physique—not just a hard workout here and there.

2. Short-term goals breed long-term success.

The thought of years of training can be a little intimidating. I know it was for me back in 2007 when I set my sights on the 2012 Paralympics. In order not to lose track of my ultimate goal, I set short-term goals along the way—goals as large and small as breaking an American record, completing a certain number of repeats of a given distance in practice, and beating the kid next to me (even if he didn’t know we were racing).

Likewise, having short-term goals is crucial for resistance training, especially when the long-term goal is a change in physique. Weight loss (or gain) tends to creep along at a discouragingly slow pace. For this reason, I attempt to set a new personal record every workout for the amount of weight I can lift for a given number of reps. I also constantly challenge myself to master new feats of bodyweight strength (and post videos of said feats to YouTube).

By setting short-term goals unrelated to the number on the scale, longer term body composition change comes as a mere byproduct of other more tangible and consistent successes.

3. Less is more.

High Fives or Chives?This is especially true when just starting out or returning from a long layoff. I still remember the aftermath of my first high school swim practice. When I went to put my shirt on the following morning, I could barely raise my arms up over my head. Needless to say, this made swim practice the next day a challenge. What good is one really brutal workout if it prevents hard training for the next three?

Instead of making yourself puke midway through the workout and crawling out of the gym at the end, aim for the “minimum effective dose:” just enough hard work to elicit the desired response and not a smidgen more. Always feel like you could do a little bit more if you wanted. After all, there’s always tomorrow. Make it your goal to leave the gym feeling better than you did when you walked in.

4. Group training rules.

During my summers home from college, I was lucky enough to get lap time free of charge at the community pool. The only downside was that it was at 5:30 a.m. I was often able to recruit friends to swim with me, but not always. When it was just me swimming all by my lonesome, I always managed to get all my laps in, but never at the same intensity as when I had my buddies beside me.

Whether it’s in the pool or at the gym, training with a team, small group, or even a single workout buddy is always better than training alone. Firstly, you’re held accountable just for showing up. Then there’s the competitive aspect, where you just push harder to do one more rep or lift five more pounds than the next guy. Finally, it’s just more fun when you can share your fitness with others.

Teammates5. Great coaching and training information yields great results.

Outdated and suboptimal training methods can seriously inhibit progress, regardless of whether you’re an Olympic hopeful or a forty-something mother of three. In order to take my training to the next level for the six months leading up to Paralympic Trials, I signed on to train under the best swim coach in the area. I had good coaches growing up, but this one in particular had a history of producing Olympians. His tutelage was invaluable; I only wish I’d started with him sooner.

The right information makes all the difference. Seek out the advice of the best in the business, not the “one weird trick that really works” touted by some self-proclaimed YouTube fitness expert. Check out the works of guys like Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Bret Contreras, Mike Robertson, and Nick Tumminello. Oh, and read my blog, too!

6. Starting is the toughest part.

I always hated the first dive into the water. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I knew how much the next two hours would hurt, or perhaps it’s just because I really don’t like being wet. (Ironic, right?) Once I was in, though, the damage was done, and I never failed to give it my all.

Human FlagThe hardest part of working out now is still getting started. Sometimes when I’m not really feeling it, I’ll do a little psychological trickery on myself, promising a short or easy workout. Once I’m at the gym and going through my warm-up routine, though, something inevitably clicks. I get in the zone and I wind up staying for an hour and working hard. Afterwards, I’m always glad I did.

Final thoughts

I didn’t wake up one day able to swim lightening fast and perform muscle-ups and human flags. On the contrary, it took years for me to achieve such high levels of speed and strength. Along the way, I had tremendous teammates and mentors who taught me the value of consistency and goal setting. But I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I never started.

So shut up and dive in.