Needs Assessment and Results

About the Author: Eric Cressey

By: John Cowell

I doubt there are many readers out there who have gotten exactly what they want from their training. How many have ever really asked, “Why?” There are a lot of potential roadblocks to success in the gym – or anywhere, for that matter. One of the first questions I strive to answer when an athlete first comes to me is “Where is this athlete right now?”

If I put a blindfold on you, drop you off in the middle of nowhere, and then tell you to drive to your house, the first thing you’d have to do is figure out where you are currently. The same is true with training. If you don’t really know where you are, how can you possibly get where you want to go?

The initial assessment is paramount to the journey. You’ve got to know what’s going on with your body, from a mental, physical, and visceral perspective. Let me address each one individually.

I’m sure most of the readers of this article have heard of the “Westside” system. Well, I’ve never been to train with Louie Simmons or any of the other athletes at Westside, but I can tell you that the main ingredient to their success has to do more with the atmosphere and attitude of that gym than the actual training programs. There’s not much secret about what training protocols they follow, yet why isn’t it that other gyms can’t stack up with their level of success?

I’ll tell you why. Everyone is so busy dissecting the “Conjugate” method or “Reactive” training that they forget to address one of the most important components of the “Westside” system – and that is the mental aspect. When you read articles by Dave Tate and Jim Wendler, they will tell you that unless you’re training at Westside, you’re not training “Westside,” and that’s because they understand how important the mental aspect is to the game.

What would you say is the genetic difference between the world class and the national class? Probably less than 1%. So what separates the two? Likely, it’s mental. Visualization of one’s goals is essential to realizing one’s goals. A lot of strength athletes could benefit from the mental exercises employed by such athletes as divers, golfers, and gymnasts. These athletes know exactly what they want to do in their minds before their bodies execute the movement.

Once you’ve got your head on straight, can the body follow? It has been said by many elite coaches that you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe. How strong is your foundation? Your body is a structure like any other and if the foundation of your building is weak and the walls and floor aren’t square, the strength of the building is limited. Now if no one ever goes in the building or the building is only one story tall, then perhaps this isn’t much of an issue. The thing is, by strength training, we’re attempting to build a skyscraper.

All movements are limited by the weakest component of that movement. In the deadlift, if your back is weak, it doesn’t matter how strong your hip extensors are. If you are limited in your thoracic extension, you will begin experiencing shoulder pain long before you ever achieve your maximum in overhead movements.

I compare this balance to that of an automobile. If you are traveling from a stop sign to another stop sign 1/2 mile down the road, you’ll be able to stay on the gas for much longer if you know your brakes and suspension are good and can stop you quickly. However, if your brakes and suspension are shot, you’ll need to back off the accelerator much earlier to make sure you can stop in time. Your body works the exact same way. You may not be aware of it, but your nervous system is. If your nervous system knows that the stabilizers of the shoulder are weak, then it will instinctively weaken the prime movers of the bench press. Make sense?

This is all probably fairly intuitive but how about the viscera? How can one’s internal organs hinder athletic performance? Consider that all of the systems within the human body require energy. From a survival point of view, what is more important: the function of the elbow or the heart? When the internal organs are in distress, then the body will rob energy from the muscles to try to restore the function of the organ.

When you eat very poorly, you not only sabotage optimal body composition; you tax your body on the inside as well. A body can only look good on the outside for so long if the inside is screwed up. If the liver is toxic and the gut is constantly inflamed due to poor food choices, alcohol and NSAID medications (for instance), the outside of the body will show symptoms. The gut will look bloated and no matter how hard the athlete tries, he or she won’t improve in performance or aesthetics.

When the liver is overburdened with toxins, it has to outsource the storage of said toxins. Do you know where the body stores toxins outside the liver? Yup, bodyfat. Now, if you keep toxifying the liver to the point that it has to store toxins elsewhere, how successful do you think you’ll be in removing excess bodyfat? The answer is, not very! Your body will hold onto the fat as a place to store the toxins until they can be dealt with. Once the liver becomes healthy, only then it can begin to metabolize the stored bodyfat.

How about cortisol? That’s the ultimate four-letter word when it comes to bodybuilding. Well, what is cortisol and why is it in our bodies anyhow? Cortisol is, among other things, a catabolic agent and a vital part of our internal defense system and can become elevated in times of extreme stress. This is a good thing – believe me. You want the body to secrete cortisol when it needs to. Cortisol is our own natural, built-in anti-inflammatory. The problem is when our body is constantly secreting cortisol due to constant sources of stress. Stress comes in lots of forms but suffice it to say, the body needs time to rebuild and if it’s so stressed all the time, it can never return to an anabolic state.

As you can see, there are many potential roadblocks to success in the gym. The key is to identify and remove these barriers. The first part of any successful strength and conditioning program is to assess the current status of the athlete. Find out what is an obstacle; is it the mind, the musculo-skeletal system, the internal organs or any combination of the above? If you take shortcuts in this process, then you are ultimately short-cutting your chances for success.

About the Author

John Cowell has been in the fitness industry as an Elite level cyclist with the United States Cycling Federation and as a fitness expert for over ten years. Since dedicating his life to training others, he has worked with some of the best athletes in the world as well as extremely complex orthopedic conditions; and everything in between! He is an author of several articles on fitness as well as a hired consultant and lecturer on the topic. He currently owns and operated Conscious Fitness ( in Raleigh, NC. You can contact him at