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10 Lessons From SummerStrong 16

10 Lessons From SummerStrong 16

SummerStrong brings together some of the top minds in fitness and performance—and we were there for it.

Why it matters: These 10 pieces of advice can help you train and live better.

First, some housekeeping:

  • Remember that 2% is my misogi to change the landscape of health journalism. Here’s why I launched this project.
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Onto today’s topic. Last weekend I spoke at SummerStrong 16, hosted by SORINEX.

SORINEX, for the unfamiliar, is to strength equipment like barbells, plates, racks, and rigs what Rolex is to watches.

Their strength tools are timeless, bombproof, and the best (their Center Mass Bells are particularly cool for garage gyms). The brand’s bread and butter is building large custom weight rooms for professional team and NCAA athletic facilities. Here’s a sampling of the teams who use SORINEX equipment.

Sixteen years ago, SORINEX’s founder, Richard Sorin, thought that for his 58th birthday it would be fun to get a bunch of people together at SORINEX HQ in South Carolina. They’d lift weights, swap ideas, eat, and drink. SummerStrong was born.

The event is now in its 16th year and brings together around 700 people. There were strength and conditioning coaches from professional and NCAA athletic programs, military operators, outdoor athletes, and more.

My experience at SummerStrong was a great reminder of why Zoom sucks. I had way too many fascinating, unplanned conversations. Here are 10 things I learned.

1. Find your next edge

From: Yohance Boulden, retired soldier, and performance junkie

After many emails and IG messages, I finally met my friend Yohance Boulden in person.

Yohance did five tours as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a relentless experimenter. The type of person who selects some far-out physical task and goes all in to see where it takes him.

One day he ran a marathon at a weight of 225 pounds. In the military, he once rucked 125 pounds 22 miles. Bodybuilding is his current project.

Trying different physical tasks is a great teacher. Beyond learning new skills, research suggests new adventurous experiences can shift our perspective and improve mental health. You take the good, leave the bad, and walk away changed from each experiment. Never stagnant.

For example, Yohance’s takeaway from bodybuilding: “I learned that I’m good at it but hate it,” he said. “But I also learned new levels of discipline and how to pay more attention to details.”

Yohance’s next project: Seeing how much he can increase his VO2 max. After his bodybuilding competition, he’ll take a VO2 max test. Then he’ll train specifically to improve his VO2, then re-test.

Yohance plans to document his VO2 journey and what he learned from it for 2%. Look for that story in a handful of months.

2. Suffocate purposefully

From: Brian Peters, retired pro football player, performance consultant

After his NFL career, Brian went down the rabbit hole of how to make other pro athletes better. He now focuses on teaching pro athletes to breathe more efficiently to improve their performance.

Here’s an exercise Brian uses to teach athletes to reduce their stress response when their oxygen is low:

  • Take three to four long inhales and exhales.
  • On your last breath, blow all the air out of your lungs.
  • Hold your breath and pinch your nose.
  • Now walk as far as you can before you have to stop. You can also carry a weight or wear a ruck while doing this.
  • Remember how far you went. Walk back, rest a moment, then repeat.

“Your goal is to beat your previous distance every time,” said Brian.

What it does and why it works: “The goal of the exercise is to expose your system to higher levels of CO2 and fear and stress to build tolerance,” Brian explained. A higher tolerance to CO2 can help you control your breathing and stress response during a challenging workout or situation.

The exercise is uncomfortable. “But it teaches us that we can experience mental stress and fear, feel it, and demystify the emotional responses to it. We can build a tolerance to stress and anxiety and move past the limitations of what we thought we could previously handle,” said Brian.

3. Find your tribe of weirdos

From: Three giant men

Ryan Crouser spoke before me. For the unfamiliar, Ryan won the gold medal for the shot put in the 2016 and 2020 summer Olympics. He’s the current world record holder in the shot put—basically the Michael Phelps of shot put.

After Ryan’s talk, a couple of other shot put throwers in the crowd approached him to ask questions.

Their conversation evolved into a sort of strange dance. Literally.

One at a time, they’d make strange swooping motions with their arms. Then bizarre turnings of their hips. Imagine three men, all over 6’5”, weighing a collective 900 pounds, doing a sort of miniature ballet in sequence.

This was not some odd track-and-field mating ritual. They were demonstrating and dissecting all the movements it takes to properly throw a shot put.

Some of the best conversations we can have in life are on niche topics, with others who are just as obsessed with the topic as we are.

You probably have some strange interest that captivates you (and if you don’t, maybe find one).

When you get around other people who are just as obsessed with a topic as you are, magic can happen. You learn. You stoke a fire that only you and a small tribe of others can stoke together.

Find those people. Talk shop. And when you do, sometimes act it out with weird ass movements conducted in public.

4. Lift heavier kettlebells

From: Jen Jones, Director of Sports Performance at Auburn University

Most weight rooms are all about heavy barbell exercise. Kettlebells tend to be reserved for workouts where you use lighter weights to work on movement patterns or do faster reps to increase your heart rate.

But Jen said that heavy kettlebell exercises can be equally effective as barbell exercises with less risk of injury. It’s helped Auburn’s teams perform better and clear up strength imbalances. “It compliments and supplements our barbell training,” Jen said.

Two interesting exercises came from their talk. Try them.

  • The pistol grip kettlebell swing. It’s a normal kettlebell swing, but you hold the kettlebell handle like a pistol. It looks like this. It allows you to keep your feet closer together. “The stance mimics the deadlift stance,” Jen said. That foot placement is more athletic, and it transfers well to other exercises and sports. You also have to “own” the weight more, which improves core strength.
  • The kettlebell front squat. It forces you to lock down your core harder and tends to be easier on your wrists than a barbell front squat. Try it one-handed, which will work your core relatively harder. Do four sets, switching hands each set.

5. Let your kids be feral

From: Lesley Sorin

Lesley’s husband, Bert, is the CEO of SORINEX. Which means Lesley runs a lot of the background operations.

Throughout the event, Bert and Lesley’s daughter ran around, climbing and swinging from the weight racks. She occasionally climbed high enough that falling would likely have hurt—a height that would send most helicopter parents into DEFCON 1.

But Lesley isn’t a helicopter parent. The Sorins are actively thinking about how to raise kids that learn through experience. They’re protective but not so protective that they smother healthy development.

Their kids are some of the best socially and culturally adapted I’ve met. They’re kind, curious, healthy, and interesting. I’ve noticed this in other kids whose parents resist helicoptering.

Mental health problems among young people began to grow significantly after 1990, which is when helicopter parenting rose. They’ve only gotten worse since then. And new research is proving the downsides of helicopter parenting.

But it’s not just helicopter parents. It’s helicopter schools. And helicopter societies. And expectations that kids should be filling their schedules with the right activities by second grade to get into the right college a decade later.

After researching this helicopter parenting phenomenon, I’m convinced kids would be better served if we landed and retired the helicopters.

Parents are likely unable to control all the helicoptering at school. But allowing kids to go outside, be wild, do mildly risky things, and just be kids when they aren’t at school is critical to healthy development. We need a name for a new parenting style. Let’s call it “feral parenting.”

This is, obviously, not easy. As a parent, you’re inclined to (over)protect your kid. And now there’s social pressure around it, where other parents may see you as negligent. Seriously, some states have had to pass free-range parenting laws. These are laws that ensure parents won’t be charged with neglect if they, for example, let their kids walk to school. This is not a joke.

But kids are resilient, and the world is safer than ever. We can either accept a handful of physical bruises, bumps, and maybe even a broken bone or two now or wait for more serious mental health issues to develop later.

6. Realize that you contain multitudes

From: Aaron French, Strength and Conditioning Coach at Xavier University

Xavier has one of the top athletic programs in the country. They punch far above their weight for their size.

Aaron told me that designing training programs is only a fraction of his job.

Aaron explained that many college athletes build their entire identity around their sport. They see themselves as “a basketball player” or “a tennis player.” That and only that.

And it makes sense. College athletes have built their entire life around their sport since they were young. “Being” their sport is how they’ve gotten positive reinforcement. It’s given them a community to be a part of.

It’s good because it builds fitness, dedication, and leadership skills.

But there are about half a million NCAA athletes. Roughly 2 percent of them will go pro. Research shows that mental health issues rise when college athletes retire, partly because an identity they’ve had since their early teens evaporates.

“A lot of what I do is helping athletes realize that they aren’t only their sport,” Aaron told me. “They’re so much more than that. I try to help them identify with all the other things and people they are and build on all the other areas in their life that will be important when they graduate.”

Why this matters: We all identify with what gets us positive affirmation. Maybe it’s being a mom. Or our work. Or some game we’re good at. But kids grow up. Jobs change. Our bodies change.

Leaning into all the different things we’re capable of can help us weather those changes.

7. Squat and eat lots to gain weight

From: This nightmare.

Before I gave my talk, the SORINEX crew reminded the crowd to sign up for Squatoberfest.

I first visited SORINEX in the summer of 2021. I at the time was 6’1” and 170 pounds. Only at SORINEX, which hires a lot of former athletes, is someone that size one of the smallest people in the building.

Being so comparatively skinny gave me something of a complex. I decided to gain some muscle to see what that might do for my fitness.

I signed onto SORINEX’s annual Squatoberfest. The idea is simple. You sign up, and each day in October, the Squatober instagram feed releases a workout.

As I did Squatober, I also did the Whole30. I ate what felt like “a lot” at every meal. (Note: the Whole30 asks you not to eat past satiety, so I broke a guideline there. But I realized I needed to do that to gain weight. The Whole30’s design, however, meant I wouldn’t grossly overeat because I was eating minimally-processed foods, which are inherently more filling.)

I gained 10 pounds in basically a month, mostly muscle. I got so much stronger that I couldn’t properly re-test my one rep max zercher squat because I ran out of weight plates in my garage gym. I’d guesstimate the lift went up by 50 pounds.

Lots of squats and food. That’s the muscle program.

8. Find a psychological misogi

From: Me.

I speak frequently at corporate events. A Misogi for the average American worker should be outdoors and physical. Like, say, a 15-mile hike for someone who’s only hiked 5 or 6 miles.

The SummerStrong crowd was different. They were a bunch of people who do and think about physical tasks for a living.

So I got a few questions after my talk, like “What should I do as a Misogi if I feel like I’m pretty comfortable doing physically uncomfortable stuff?”

My answer: What is the opposite of what you’re really good at? What’s something that scares you?

For many people who charge hard physically, exploring psychological challenges can be a change-maker. It might be spending a few nights backpacking alone in the wilderness. Or a meditation retreat (some people are terrified of sitting silently with their thoughts).

9. Carry what you kill

From: Luke Day, Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach, University of South Carolina

It was great to see my friend Luke Day. We talked a lot about carrying.

After Luke read The Comfort Crisis, he started including more carrying workouts in the University of South Carolina’s football team training.

He calls one of their training days “carry what you kill,” inspired by the fact that humans of the past carried the animals they’d hunted great distances back to camp.

Once a week, he has his team do a conditioning workout consisting of lifting and carrying GORUCK sandbags.

Try it yourself: Get something heavy and awkward and figure out a bunch of different ways to carry it over 30 or 60 minutes. Get creative. It’s a new training stimulus that can make you far stronger and more resilient to injuries. Harder to kill. Think farm-boy strength.

We’ll get Luke on the ringer for the full details soon.

10. Know connectors

From: Bert Sorin, CEO of SORINEX

There is a reason my job involves sitting in a room alone and sorting my thoughts on a page rather than vocalizing them to another human. I’m not anti-social, but I’m also not super-social. I don’t actively seek out social stuff as much as most people.

But I also know the social stuff is important for me. I need it and always feel great after connecting with others. So how do I get there?

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell described various personality styles, one of which is the “connector.”

Connectors are “people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances … (they) link us up with the world, (and are) people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”

That’s Bert. Case in point: SummerStrong, the ultimate event for connection. It mixes a bunch of interesting people from all different backgrounds into one big idea and exercise soup.

When a cool connector like Bert invites you to do something, say yes. Because they may have invited 699 other interesting people, too.

Thanks to Bert for pulling me out of the writing cave and into the world of SummerStrong.

Have fun, don’t die—and be feral.


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