Interview with Dave Dellanave
by Steven M. Ledbetter
12 minute read
David Dellanave has a radical answer. It’s not The Answer, he qualifies, but it’s certainly the best answer he knows for helping people improve their general strength. “I’ve done my job if I’ve gotten that person to lead themselves.” Mr. Dellanave’s answer might even ruffle a few strength-coaching feathers, but that’s not obvious looking around his gym. The Movement Minneapolis has the tools of a typical gyms, including pull up bars and various heavy metal things, however the radical answer Mr. Dellanave has come upon is not the gym. Rather, I posit, the radical answer that Mr. Dellanave has deduced after years of trial and error is a fundamental change in the roles of clients and coaches that was necessary to accommodate Mr. Dellanave’s programming at The Movement Minneapolis. Based on Biofeedback, a relatively new programming protocol that has been promoted by Dellanave, Frankie Faires, Craig Keaton, practitioners of The Movement use simple testing protocols to help teach people how to listen to what their body is telling them. However complex that sounds, “it teaches them to trust themselves,” Dellanave simplifies. And it works day in and day out.
It’s necessary to understand a little about Biofeedback training to understand the reasons for the radical shift at Mr. Dellanave’s gym. Clients come in the front door, put down their bag, and immediately start answering questions. More to the point they immediately start asking themselves a series of questions and put in the answers on a computer at the front desk. Here is a screen grab of what the clients are asked to reflect on.
Then they receive a printout with columns for movement, a scratch area for sets and reps, total sets and reps, and time. On the back of that printout is their previous 16 workouts so the client can see the loads they’ve been using. On another screen in the gym is a recommended workout with recommended reps and sets, except every movement has at least 3 variations. For example, it might read, “Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, or Jefferson Deadlift.” Then “class” begins and everyone starts testing. By touching their toes.
They test what movement they should do (reach for the ground and stop at the first sign of resistance. Do a movement. Reach for the ground again. Same, better, worse? Do another movement. Same, better, worse? Repeat until you find the variation on the board that results in the best Range of Motion). They test how much weight they should do (Test. Do the recommended reps. Retest. Same, better, worse? Add weight. Retest. Same, better, worse? Repeat until you find the weight that results in the best ROM). They test how much rest they need (Wait. Retest. Same, better, worse? Retest until the ROM returns or improves). During working sets, if the weight feels light or heavy for the recommended range, they might test an increase or a decrease. If the sets start feeling like too much, they might test if it’s time to stop (Do another test. Retest. Same, better, worse?). They they’re done. “Sometimes we have an untested finisher or something, but that’s basically it.” They fill out the sheet, enter their movement, load, sets, reps and the total time it took them to do the workout into a computer on the way out, and go home.
Looking at this programming, the question that Mr. Dellanave gets the most is “Does BioFeedback really work?” Mr. Dellanave will answer to that question but in light of the fact that there has been no Randomized Control Trails on BioFeedback strength training, he usually prefers people just try it out. Taking him up on that challenge for a few months, I can say the result for me was Goldilocks. Nothing too hard, nothing too easy. Every session was ‘just right’ and I always left feeling better than when I started. Like Dan John’s Easy Strength, Even Easier Strength, or Pavel’s 40 Day program, it all feels too easy, but I just kept getting stronger. In fact, according to Mr. Dellanave, you can and should set a personal record every time you train. Every day you look at what you’ve done for the previous few weeks and ask yourself Mr. Dellanave’s fundamental question: “How can I PR today?”What movement am I going to do? Can I do more load? Do it more times? Can I do it in less time? When I tested my options, listened to my body and thought creatively with this system, I improved a little bit each workout. To any strength coach’s definition, BioFeedback programming works. But I wanted to find out if it “worked.”
When I tried out BioFeedback, I was intrigued with the system but ultimately not concerned that the programming would get me stronger because after all, everything works (until it doesn’t). I was more interested in finding out if the program “worked” better than traditional programming for getting me to show up. Did BioFeedback training make me feel like training? Or to put it more scientasticly, did training this way satisfy what Self-Determination Theory calls “basic psychological needs?” Did it promote my perception of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others? Much like how Mr. Dellanave has redefined “PR” to make it more useful, I define a program “working” as getting and keeping clients excited long enough for the training to become a habit. This was by no means a scientific examination, but rather a phenomenological anecdote that I hope will promote other people to give this radical idea a try. Especially because it wasn’t long into the training when I noticed many benefits that coaches and gym owners could use in their own practices, if they have the courage to get out of their clients’ way.
From my experience, BioFeedback training is awareness training. And like a good meditation retreat, The Movement Minneapolis has no programming, no outcome goals, no dogma, and no gurus. It’s all suggestions. “The joke in the gym is that we have a built in cop-out for everything. People can always say, ‘that didn’t test well,’ and they don’t have to do it.” In addition, the only goal that matters when people walk through the front door is the daily goal of “How can I PR today?” To a coach steeped in goal-setting, periodization, and being the expert, this can seem like potential anarchy. The structure and the relationship, however is there. Just different. “We make suggestions. Everything is up to the clients’ bodies. We just help them connect the dots faster.”
By introducing BioFeedback as a skill and a structure for how to do things, the radical change in coaching and confidence comes from the way that clients have to answer the question, “am I doing this right?” Instead of looking to a coach, the feedback all comes their body. The standard answer at The Movement for, “should I do…” is, “have you tested it?” It is essentially teaching people to become autonomous and trust themselves to the progression of their own training. In reality, this can be scary at first. I was constantly mistrusting my own testing (especially as I got more desperate to to do certain movements that just weren’t testing well). So the role of the coach in a BioFeedback environment is focused on what dozens of studies on long-term motivation site as the most important role of the coach: honest feedback, encouragement to stay on task, and suggestions for possible ways forward. It can be a difficult shift for a meathead who’s used to doing workout plans, but in a community based on this system, it becomes second nature. “We used to slowly introduce the testing as people got more comfortable, but then we just dropped it on them on Day 1. Then people started going, ‘oh, I guess this is the way I do things now.’”
This system of support and focus is especially important in an environment with only process goals. One of the biggest problems that I cite in the fitness industry is the terrible state of goal-setting in a world where people have no idea what they actually want and are often sold things they don’t want with fear and shame. We watch people throw themselves at health and fitness with no real skills to work on the underlying problems and most of the real questions that should be asked are none of our business. “It’s pretty far out of the scope of practice for a strength coach to tell a person they shouldn’t live with their mother,” Mr Dellanave wisely informs. “We can only meet them where they’re at.” The Movement circumvents the problem of people not knowing what they want by giving everyone a very simple process goal and never letting people take their focus off it. The only goal at The Movement is to do a little bit better than yesterday, and never more than your body is willing to do. “Ultimately, the goal is to want what your body wants more than what you want.”
BioFeedback training hits a lot of wickets for my definition of “working.” By placing the entire decision-making power in the hands of the clients, it is the most autonomy-supportive ways of strength training I have encountered. It also manages to do this with a very clear structure and feedback on clients’ increasing competence. Instead of having “progressions” and “regressions,” the clients test out different movements and see which one is best that day. This is much more rewarding to a client’s sense of competence than a coach telling them they move like crap and need to do something simpler before they hurt themselves. And furthermore, the clients are PRing every day! What is more motivating than that? Finally, in a class-setting where everyone is using this system, BioFeedback provides a great deal of relatedness to others. I don’t have access to the necessary participants, but I predict that if we gave the members of The Movement the Behavioral Regulations in Exercise Questionnaire-2R (the gold standard in Self-Determination Theory measures for psychical activity) and compared it to demographically similar clients who have been working out for the same amount of time in other gym-settings, we would see higher reported levels of self-determined motivation and need satisfaction. In addition, with a laser-focus on process goals, I predict that clients would be more likely to persist in strength training until it became a habit than those in other gym-settings. These results would prove to be a radical improvement over the status quo and lend a lot of plausibility to Mr. Dellanave’s answer to the question, “Does it really work?”
If this article sounds like a ringing endorsement of BioFeedback in all general population training, I would be remiss. There are some reasons I only did BioFeedback for a few months. First of all, it is a lot of paperwork. It took a lot of willpower for me to record everything I did which eventually proved my undoing. Using a pen and paper became quite burdensome rather than becoming habit so I must commend Mr. Dellanave for making that part of BioFeedback training as easy as possible for his clients. His software, Adaptifier, really helps lower this barrier to entry and he coded it himself to suit his gym’s needs. Plus, as soon as members join they get into the habit of recording things and asking themselves how they’re feeling. For people who are already in the habit of journalling, I predict this part of BioFeedback will be less of a burden. Second, some of my favorite parts of training is working in a group all doing the same thing. I have learned a lot about the downsides to this thanks to my experience with BioFeedback, but frankly coming up with fun workouts as a group is one of the most enjoyable parts of training for me. I have begun to integrate some testing and flexibility to my own “Coyote Point Kettlebell Club” training template and look forward to seeing how this merger of styles develops as a way to reap the benefits of both systems. Finally, Mr. Dellanave points out the most unexpected downside of this radical change in coaching. “It makes it a lot harder to market. To do that, it’s a lot easier to be a guru.” It seems few Zen masters make a fortune selling entrance to the Gateless Gate.
My major takeaway from BioFeedback programming was that while it might be baffling to a fitness nerd who has lived and breathed traditional programming for years, from the point of view of the client it’s still just picking up heavy things in a gym with other people in spandex. Much of the skepticism I had was simply tradition. As a coach, the relationship to the client in BioFeedback is far more radical than the programming itself, and I think for the better. It works as an excellent system to promote self-determined motivation and eventual habit formation and might be more effective than similar systems for promoting client confidence that they can do this stuff themselves. “The person that leaves after they’ve been here for a year can’t help but learn something,” Mr. Dellanave concludes. And if what they learn is how to trust themselves, then I can’t think of a better outcome.