Catching Up with Chris Peil, Movement Coach to Eddie Hall and Zydrunas Savickas

The age of gigantic immobile strongmen is over. Long live even bigger, more athletic strongmen. While strength might be the name of the game in strongman, there is much more to the sport than just being able to pick something up. Today’s best athletes must be the complete package to even place, able to not only lift these incredible weights but to take them through an exaggerated range of motion week after week, competition after competition.

Which is just one of the reasons why the likes of Eddie Hall, Zydrunas “Big Z” Savickas, and the biggest names in the game are turning to Chris Peil of The Movewell Project to get that competitive edge. Chris probably isn’t the sort of chap you’re expecting when you think Movement Coach. He’s straight talking, quite possibly a strength savant, and most importantly isn’t deluded around the role of mobility in heavy lifting.

Without any more prelude, I give you my interview with Chris Peil.

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your athletic background?

I have a world silver medal as a kettlebell lifter and a British gold. I’ve competed recreationally as a strongman, an Olympic lifter and an indoor rower. One of my main bugbears with industry ‘experts’ is the  fight between purely theory nerds and purely ‘university of life’ experience types. I feel you need both, and ideally a track record with clients too and even an education background before you really ought to expect people to care what you say.

I’ve attended many disappointing seminars and workshops with sports stars where it’s become very clear they have little to offer except a ramble of ‘what I did’ under instruction. Kettlebell sport is a weird fringe sport, and I’m not amazing at it, but what the world medal does demonstrate is the experience of going through numerous focused training cycles, competitions, set-backs and successes, physically and mentally that give you a real practical basis from which to help others.

Zydrunas Savickas (left) and Chris Peil 

As you’re not trying to change their lifting ,and I can’t imagine you wanting to or getting Eddie doing Ido Portal-style movement, what are you doing with guys like Eddie, Luke, and Big Z?

All are different and individual. With Ed all I have really done is assess and advise Ed on where the results in terms of available movement are/were likely to be limiting performance. The guy is a genius so he took that information to his existing hands on therapists and ran with it. They helped him restore those ranges.

For Big Z, he came with a specific injury that was no longer acute but has become a stubborn, chronic problem. I assessed and looked at underlying causes that would likely have led to the injury and that rectifying could theoretically speed recovery and minimize risk of reoccurring. I gave Z some self-management work to do, and from there it’s now with him.

Luke is more typical of what I’m doing with most clients. Assessment and regularly re-assessment him giving him warm up routines that help maximize performance in training and restore lost ranges over time to facilitate further progress. Specifically for Luke it’s about getting his immense strength accessible in more positions that are required in the sport so that weaker guys can’t beat him in some events with greater efficiency.

I would say the real reason that I’ve had some success in this area is that my system really does work in practice. In addition I don’t pretend to be a strength coach and I don’t tell the guys who are top level athletes not to lift. That goes a long way.

What are some of the common issues that you come across in strength athletes?

This is different for everyone. Most people, athletes or otherwise, have problems with hip extension, hip rotation, pelvic alignment, scapula mobility, and shoulder rotation. That said, the devil is in the detail, which is why I won’t do generic, everything is individual and assessment-led. Shortened muscles are most likely to tear so getting muscles longer helps there. Joints are at more risk close to end range or with limited stability so longer muscles can make that worse, there’s an intrinsic conflict and that’s why ‘yoga is the answer’ is fundamentally wrong. That means the ‘solution’ is balance across the muscles and joints. You can’t improve balance without knowing what is and is not a problem, you can’t guess.

As examples, there’s one test that impacts shoulders that 95% plus people fail. Eddie sailed through. The same test Zydrunas failed yet he passed a different test that affects shoulders that 95% plus people fail. I don’t think it is any coincidence the two greatest pressers in history have much better than average ability to get into a mechanically strong pressing position, however they do so differently. What they need to do to maintain, improve and manage their situations is therefore different.

Eddie Hall (left) and Chris Peil

Is there a point of diminishing returns with mobility?

Absolutely. I think my main success has come from being able to relate the mobility work with the athlete or person’s needs. Greater joint range of motion beyond what you need may well increase injury risk. In addition it comes down to NEED. Aaron Page (allegedly) has a 200kg log from a (relatively speaking) pretty poor strict press. That indicates to me that he may have some minor areas of improvement with movement but nothing major that affects overhead. He’s pretty much getting the best from what he’s got in that lift  already.

Someone who has a massive strict press, particularly seated with a back support, and then a relatively poor log or no leg drive overhead can get a huge amount out of mobility that affects overhead. So it’s down to a needs analysis for the client in terms of both their individual mobility and stability needs and also their overall need to improve in this area. What I will say is that it’s quicker and easier in general to get movement improvements to unlock and display hard-earned strength than it is to build the brute strength. We all know that strength is a long haul.

So mobility is just part of the puzzle, not the be all and end all?

I don’t see mobility as a goal in itself really. Mobility work is there to FACILITATE doing what you want or need to, in sport and/or daily life. The trend in the fitness industry to crawl on your belly and act like an animal to ‘work on mobility’ is stupid. The crap gymnastics trend is also stupid in my opinion. Handstands, handstand walking etc are cool displays of mobility and stability but are pretty daft. We’re not evolved to walk on our hands, that’s why our hands and feet are different.

(Author’s note: We did this interview by email and I’m ashamed to admit I was in a handstand while reading this. I didn’t stop.)

What should we be doing?

I have a general belief that predominantly your training should match with what you actually need. For non-competitors that might look like horizontal pushing movements being closed chain as that’s the reality of how we move, so press-ups and dips, climbing movements, over bench presses. Overhead they ought to be open chain, so overhead presses being better handstand press-ups as again, that’s how we move. For pulling the opposite, overhead pulling is a climbing movement so should be closed chain, choose pull-ups over pull downs.

The opposite for pulling from in front. Again, for bodybuilding purposes or planned overload of certain muscles and movements there will always be exceptions but often coaches aren’t even really thinking as to ‘why’. CrossFit is amazing and has done loads for the industry, but some of the gymnastic movements are absolutely not about being the ‘fittest.’ In reality, they’re about creating a spectacle and one where the competitors need to be ripped as that is a good sell too…

If you could add just one thing to a strength athlete’s routine to make them move better, what would it be?

Lunges. As a really simple progression step ups, static lunges/split squats, back lunges, and walking lunges. Start with step ups, and if they’re easy to do in good form move up the progressions. When you get to one you can’t do we’ll stay there until you can before progressing. I’m a big believer that in general lunge patterns are neglected. No need to even add weight for most people, just do them so your bilateral strength will cross over into unilateral applications, so sport and real life! I’d pop a set or two in warm-ups AFTER doing your normal warm ups but before lifting.

Let’s go back to kettlebells. A world silver medal is no small feat, what are your thoughts on the way kettlebells are currently used in strength?

I see kettlebells as just a tool for anyone outside kettlebell sport and useful for low skill explosive work mostly. The throws I like in strongman, I like a test of explosiveness. The kettlebell is insignificant though really, the event is much the same with a keg for

CrossFit is just what it is, a great spectacle, phenomenal athletes, great business model and a bit daft in parts. Kettlebells is one of those daft bits. I don’t know what the ‘American swing’ is meant to be other than a direct attempt to impinge the shoulders. I can’t see why a snatch wouldn’t be better? I think kettlebell snatch would be a better choice for high rep explosive tests than the high rep Olympic lifting derivatives, too, but I’m a realist. If I had my way tinkering with the CrossFit workouts, it would be much safer, more sensible and much duller and less successful…

Do you encourage the use of kettlebells amongst strength athletes?

I do encourage the use but mainly explosive ‘hard style’ swings for patterning and activation as well as conditioning work with the added hip extension benefits. As with anything though it’s not as simple as saying ‘use kettlebell swings for activation’, it’s about assessing to find the need, then facilitating better hip extension, then and only then practicing using it with swings for activation purposes.  

The efficiency techniques from kettlebell sport have little to no carry over to other sports or GPP for them, in the same way sport-specific powerlifting techniques are largely pointless for athletes in other sports using the power lifts to improve their sport.

I’ve heard you’re a man to talk hip extension to…

It’s a huge problem in modern living. Full hip extension only really takes place in sprinting, jumping, throwing those kinds of things. So after people aren’t forced to participate in such things, from mid high school for lots of folk, they lose it. ‘Use it or lose it’. Gym work is often a problem too as you can avoid full extension.

Do you have benchmarks or tests of good mobility that a strongman or powerlifter should be able to strive for or achieve?

The assessment system has benchmarks for each major joint and each  major joint action. That said as you say they are only there to try to get to maximized performance with minimized risk. For clients to test  themselves is not realistic but if you’re unsure try these three things. Try sitting on the floor cross legged. Try with legs crossed both ways. It being difficult or painful is a warning sign. Do a backward lunge. If you can’t hit 90 degree angles in front and rear knees with an upright torso then that’s an issue. People need to be careful just doing that though it can be risky. Finally try to touch your fingers behind your back, one hand over, one under. If you can’t both ways, pain free that’s an issue. Those three easy self-tests give you a good idea if you need help or not.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.