Teddy Willsey: Move Better for Life (Podcast)

Today we’re talking to Dr. Teddy Willsey, a sports rehab and performance specialist who works with athletes of all levels in building strong, resilient movement patterns. Dr. Willsey is one of the go-to specialists for helping people exercise smarter, and we touch on many of the misconceptions around optimal training and rehab today (including the types of thinking that can actually do the most harm to athletes in the longer term.)

We want to give a big shout out to this episode’s sponsor, BSN. BSN has been around for nearly 20 years, and they’re a global leader in sports nutrition. From their protein powder — including their partnership line with Cold Stone Creamery — to preworkout, protein bars, and more, BSN has won more than 35 sports nutrition awards over the last few years. 

In this episode of the BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao talks to Teddy Willsey about:

  • What Teddy finds MOST interesting in strength and conditioning right now (2:33)
  • The ‘high tech’ recovery techniques that will become more mainstream (5:22)
  • Misconceptions on performance and recovery (8:19)
  • What Teddy Willsey LOVES about CrossFit (12:30)
  • When Teddy got ‘distracted by the gains’ (15:27)
  • The types of athlete Teddy likes working with most (19:50)
  • Habits Teddy is passionate about instilling in younger athletes (23:30)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

I have a responsibility to really analyze things before I suggest them to people. Oftentimes, we use this…It’s called the “do no harm” fallacy. We have this idea if it’s not hurting…Nobody’s ever gone to the hospital at least that I know of. I don’t want to be quoted on this, but I don’t think anybody’s ever going to a hospital or had a serious injury from cupping. At the same time, if they’re using their resources to do that instead of something that could potentially be more helpful, then it is doing harm.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I am your host David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to Dr. Teddy Willsey, a sports rehab and performance specialist who works with athletes of all levels in building strong, resilient movement patterns. Dr. Willsey is one of the go-to specialists for helping people exercise smarter.

 

We touch on many of the misconceptions around optimal training and rehab today, including the types of thinking that can actually do the most harm to athletes in the long term.

 

I do want to give a big shout-out to this episode’s sponsor, BSN. BSN has been around for nearly 20 years. They’re a global leader in sports nutrition. From their protein powder, including their partnership line with Cold Stone Creamery, to pre-workout protein bars and more, BSN has won more than 35 Sports Nutrition Awards over the last few years.

 

My personal favorite of their flavors is the Birthday Cake Remix Syntha-6. I literally hid some in my desk to keep the rest of the BarBend team from using it all. That’s a true story.

 

Also, I want to take another second to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the “BarBend” podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.

 

Teddy, thanks so much for joining us today. I just want to dive right into it because I know you’re a man with a lot of different interests in the health and fitness space, to put it lightly. What is an area of strength and conditioning that you find most intriguing or interesting right now, and why?

David, thanks for having me on. I would say that the area of strength and conditioning that I find to be really intriguing right now is the use of data and analytics in general. That spans from the popular term of sports science to more just measuring players’ readiness on a daily basis.

 

We’re using a lot of different metrics. We’re trying to figure out what’s helpful, what’s not. The classic term “paralysis by analysis” always comes up in this conversation. It’s a fascinating area, and we’re measuring a lot right now. The dust will settle, and we’ll figure out what’s important or what should we not worry as much about.

David TaoDavid Tao

I know that’s a very broad scope and I like how you put that, “We don’t have all the answers right now. That’s why we test and experiment and test hypotheses and things like that.” What are some particular data points or sets or metrics that you find have potentially a lot of promise to measure sports preparedness, recovery, and performance?

The most important things to monitor, and I call these the “low hanging fruit,” are the basic things that you can track with pen and paper. How a lot of Renaissance people these would do it would be on a Google Sheet. It’s your steps per day. It’s what you did in your workout. It’s tracking your training. It’s your hydration levels and your nutrition.

 

A lot of those things take time, they take discipline, and they take consistency. If you’ve ever logged everything you eat in a day for any period of time, it’s a job in and of itself. The only way that it’s not is if you just follow a pretty boring plan. Those are the most important first things that anybody should address if they’re trying to make improvements in their life.

 

From a consumer standpoint, there are a lot of products out there — Whoop is a big one — and they are products that measure people’s heart rate. They look at your heart rate variability. They look at trends over time. They try to tell people, “You had a higher strain today.” They look at sleep too. Obviously, sleep is a really important topic.

 

The compilation of all of this information together creates a very powerful metric, a recovery metric. You have to call into practice, “How are we measuring this heart rate variability?” Are we measuring it through the wrist, which isn’t as accurate? Are we measuring on a chest strap? Is somebody wearing that chest strap all day? Most likely, no.

 

There’s a lot of different ways that you can go with those metrics. The best place to improve your quality of life is to start with the easy ones.

David TaoDavid Tao

We often see a trickle-down effect when it comes to performance, technology, and recovery. Starts with the elite athletes, the pro-sports teams, the people where a lot of money is on the line, people on teams where a lot of money is on the line based on their performance.

 

Then we see those things trickle down to your average Joe, the everyday consumer, the weekend warriors. That technology becomes something that’s a little more accessible to the average person, just looking to get fitter, exercise better, and recover smarter.

 

What are some of the maybe higher-tech things or some of the things that might seem, in your experience, not quite attainable or measurable for the average consumer right now, that you could see becoming a little more mainstream over the next decade or so?

I think it’s that daily readiness and monitoring. In a typical pro performance setting, the athletes are going to be wearing chest straps the whole time and we’re going to be measuring their heart rate, their heart rate response, their heart rate recoveries, which is how fast your heart rate drops after a bout of cardio or a hard exercise.

 

They’re going to be measuring and they’re going to be looking at these things over time and plotting them against what your normals are, what your norms, because for this type of physiological measuring, you can’t compare against a standard. You have to compare against yourself over time.

 

I think that this type of data will be much more commonplace. The other factor here is that it already is out there, it’s just expensive. Being a physical therapist and a strength and conditioning coach, and somebody that people come to for me to help them with their injuries and their body and recovery and feeling better…

 

If I’m working with a high-level athlete and I think, “You would probably benefit just as much from this overall lifestyle…l don’t want to say reboot, but you would benefit from paying more attention to your lifestyle and as you get older, getting into your 30s, you want to optimize everything.”

 

I would tell a pro athlete, “Go get this. Use this all day.” Whereas an everyday person, I don’t know that it’s always necessary. I think down the road, hopefully they’ll be more affordable, they’ll be more accurate, and they’ll be something that people can incorporate more often.

 

For right now and for the foreseeable future, I think the easiest is going back to those basics, the things I mentioned earlier, the things that are boring, tracking those everyday routines.

David TaoDavid Tao

What’s boring for some people might not be boring to you and me. We can nerd out on training and recovery all day.

 

Right, right.

David TaoDavid Tao

When working with clients, whether it’s on the physical therapy side, or someone who’s just generally in the space, trainer and working with athletes of all different levels, what are some of the common misconceptions you think athletes have these days when it comes to performance and especially recovery?

I think that people are always looking to add. They’re like, “What recovery workout can I do? What stretch am I missing? What soft tissue release protocol am I not doing correctly?” I think that oftentimes when we really look at the larger physiological sense of recovery, it comes down to stress and how your body handles the stress.

 

I think the thing that a lot of people are missing, a lot of athletes, regular people in general, are… I’m kind of a cynic. I like to really question things until they’re proven. I think that’s part of the nature of science. The most important things that we know work really well are dialing in the basics.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

What else triggers the inner cynic in you, in the health and fitness base? I want to dig in on that.

You can’t just say you’re a cynic and not have me follow up with, what do you want to be cynical about?

There’s just the misconception. I said everybody likes to add. There’s always the new shiny ball that people want to try out, that people want to experiment with. Oftentimes, that new modality, that…

 

After Michael Phelps showed up to the Olympics with all those cupping marks on him, everybody was asking me, “Do you do cupping? Can you do cupping?”

 

People are always looking for that magical quick fix, but it just doesn’t exist. That’s where the cynicism part comes into play because I have a responsibility to really analyze things before I suggest them to people.

 

Oftentimes we use this…it’s called the “do no harm fallacy. We have this idea, well, if it’s not hurting, nobody’s ever gone to the hospital, at least that I know of, I don’t want to be quoted on this, but I don’t think anybody’s ever gone to a hospital or had a serious injury from cupping.

 

At the same time, if they’re using their resources to do that, instead of something that could potentially be more helpful, then it is doing harm. We always have an opportunity cause. We only have so many minutes that we’re awake each day and so many days to recover and to train. We want to optimize all of that time.

 

If we’re spending time doing things that are really for…They’re popularized because they’re companies, they make money, they’re trying to sell things. That’s where the cynical part of my mindset comes into play. I think a lot of my colleagues in this field have the same views. We’ve seen a lot of things come and go over the years.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

What is something that maybe surprised you, with its staying power in the Health and Wellness Industry?

That’s a great question. I would have to say CrossFit.

David TaoDavid Tao

Really? When did you first come across CrossFit? Just to give context to this answer.

 

2007, 2008.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

What was your first impression?

I saw people doing workouts in the…I was a senior in undergrad at this time. I saw these guys that used to be more powerlifter types doing these workouts, where they were clearly just going to fatigue. Doing a lot of reps in a fatigue state and doing some different types of movements, all combined in a way that I hadn’t seen before.

 

It was circuit training is essentially what it looked like. I thought to myself, what are they doing? They’re going to get hurt.

 

At this time, this was years before I was ever in physical therapy. I didn’t go to physical therapy school for a number of years after I finished undergrad.

 

I was in the strength and condition world and a lot of us strength and conditioning coaches, it was snobbery and I don’t think people should be proud of it, but they stuck their nose up to CrossFit saying, “Oh, these people are going to get hurt. They’re doing too many things in a row. They’re not resting in between their Olympic lifting sets. What the hell is that?”

 

I thought that it would burn out. But, the beauty of what CrossFit has done is, they brought camaraderie to the fitness space.

 

Instead of everybody showing up and working out in these big, 25,000 square foot Gold’s Gyms and all being on their own. They show up to a 5,000 square foot box without equipment, with beautiful sight lines across the whole place, and they all get to know each other and work out together. They do the same thing.

 

I think that CrossFit is, really, its sociological evolution is what’s caused the popularity of it. They’ve evolved and adapted. There are a lot of gyms where a new member comes, they’re not ready to hop in, they they’ll have a system in place. Hey, let’s do 10 personal training sessions and get you ramped up for this. Let’s come to this class, which is a little scaled back.

 

They pivoted. They did a really good job, like any business and company has to do to meet their customer base.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s take it back to…You talk about your education and not going to physical therapy school right out of college. I’ve talked to a lot of physical therapists where, that’s what they know what they want to do.

 

They get an undergrad degree, might be related to wellness and fitness, It might not. Then they go directly to go work toward their DPT. What was your path like? Why did you want to pursue this particular educational path and career?

 I had an idea that I wanted to do physical therapy from the beginning. However, I just got caught up in strength and conditioning, infatuated by the gym and the idea of making gains. The way that we had this control over our body and we could change our function and our body over time.

 

I was just infatuated by that. In hindsight, I was big into strength training from the time I was in middle school and high school. I just have always been fascinated by it. Once I had the strength and conditioning experience and I got that taste, I was like, I don’t want to go back to school for physical therapy. I don’t want to go wear khakis, and work in a dimly-lit office with brown carpet, and trade that for the gym.

 

That I eventually did. That brought me to where I am now, where I’m in the gym practicing physical therapy. It’s best of both worlds.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

You can’t. You’re not wearing khakis in the gym. You’re not rolling into leg day wearing khakis. That’s the image I had in my head.

 

No, no. [laughs] No Absolutely. I work for myself, I get to wear what I want and still practice Physical Therapy. It’s pretty cool.

David TaoDavid Tao

Just to clarify, that’s definitely jean short cutoffs, right? In the gym. You’re not training if you’re not wearing a jeans.

 

Daisy Dukes. Just to let you know.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I’m only joking a little bit. You can see Teddy on social media. He’s only wearing those sometimes.

Teddy, your own pursuit of strength and conditioning. You said that you were distracted by the gym, you were distracted by the gains. Who hasn’t been, right? Who hasn’t been daydreaming about working out? At least people listening to this podcast, probably understand that feeling to some extent.

What was your individual pursuit of fitness like? Were you working toward max strength? Were you working toward putting on muscle mass? How did that evolve over time?

That’s a good question. I feel like my evolution was probably similar to a lot of people my age. I’m in my mid 30s. I started off with the bodybuilding exposure, because that’s all there really was when we were younger, that and Strong Man. You saw guys like Bill Kazmaier and Magna Sorenson doing Strong Man, then you saw bodybuilders.

 

You figured, “Well, Strong Man’s not really accessible. Where am I going to get my hands on an Atlas stone or a car?”

 

I’m going to do bodybuilding instead. You start off, you want to gain muscle, put muscle on your body. I was a high school football player. In terms of my own fitness pursuit, I was influenced by bodybuilding. But, at the same time, for the first six years or so, it was more focused on performance and being a football player. At the same time, I didn’t really know the difference.

 

That’s something that evolved over time. I get to my college age and I’ve already had one shoulder surgery at this point. I already had this interest in Physical Therapy, and rehab, and staying healthy.

 

At that point, it’s all about bodybuilding, putting on muscle. Did that for a couple of years, and then I get to my strength and conditioning career, and I’m exposed to powerlifting for the first time.

 

I’m seeing these guys that are smaller than I am, lifting weights way heavier than I’ve ever touched. I’m like, “Man, this is kind of cool.” I got into powerlifting, and that’s really what has driven my pursuit of strengthening of my own fitness, to this day is my love of pushing heavy weight.

 

It’s more of a power building approach. I think that’s what a lot of people probably do that are in this space, but they’re not necessarily trying to compete on the regular basis. Squat bench deadlift and all your accessories. For me too, I’m currently doing a fat loss plan with a coach.

 

I’m trying to dial in the physique side of things, which is something that I haven’t really done as much in the past. I’m about three months into that. This has been a fun ride so far. It’s just new goals to try to challenge myself.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m curious. What kind of fat loss or physique goals do you have? Are you trying to hit a particular body fat percentage? Or are you just trying to lean out in a way you haven’t done in the past?

 

Yeah, the latter, just trying to lean out in a way that I haven’t really done. I’ve never really sustained a sub-10 percent physique. I figured, “Let me give it a try and see how it feels.” It’s honestly just a challenge for myself.

 

I got the idea right when quarantine started. I was like, “You know what?”

“I’ve been talking about doing this for years. I don’t see myself going out to dinner and drinks with friends anytime soon, so let’s roll with this.”

 

My wife has competed in physique in the past. I did her macro programming for her.

 

She understands what I’m doing, and she support of, but I decided to hire a coach so that I could leave the thinking side of it up to him, and I could just do the execution.

David TaoDavid Tao

 It’s difficult to be objective about yourself. This is something that I’m sure you face with clients all the time. They think they know what’s best, but it’s like, “We don’t really know what’s best for ourselves.”

[laughs] Yeah. I had a colleague of mine programming my strength training for six months, from August until like February or something like that. It was great. I was like, “Why are you making me squat so much?” But I got strong as hell. He said, “You know what, you’re a strong bencher, you’re going to go three months without benching.” I was like, “All right, fine.”

 

All I did was squats and overhead presses and deadlifts. It was a great shock to the body. I’ve my overhead presses stronger than it’s been in four years. I think that sometimes no matter how much you know, no matter how much you do, especially if it’s something that you do, hiring somebody else to look objectively from the outside can be immensely helpful.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Who were some of your favorite athletes to work with? I don’t mean name names. I’m not saying, “Hey, give me your client list.”

But what sort of athletes? Could be a particular sport. I have asked this a physical therapist before. Some people are like, “Oh, I love working with Olympic lifters, or I love working with CrossFitters, or I hate working with XYZ.” I won’t name names on the negative side, but what types of athletes really intrigue you, and you like getting hands-on with?

I would have to go more towards a personality dimension when I think about this, as supposed to the sport that they perform.

 

Selfishly, having had two shoulder surgeries and going through that myself, I can help overhead athletes a lot. I do enjoy working with them from a biomechanics, from a strengthening standpoint.

 

Any CrossFitter, any weightlifter, swimmers, I work with a lot of swimmers locally here in the DC area. I love working with younger athletes that still have a lot of room for growth. That’s where the personality metric, I was going to mention, comes from.

 

I like working and I enjoy the teaching role. I like working with these athletes that I can make a difference for them for the long term. I can teach them ideas about that low-hanging fruit that I mentioned earlier, about recovery and what it means.

 

Hopefully, give them tools to use for their careers going forward and then for their lives after they’re competitive athletes because the majority of our life, we’re not competitive athletes.

 

I use the term exercise IQ. Hopefully, I’ve had a positive impact on their exercise IQ, and help them to better understand their own bodies, how to move their bodies.

 

That’s the group that I love working with. I just get fired up working with these young kids, high school, young-college age.

 

Besides that, it’s the same answer for almost anybody in the coaching, therapy, and rehab world. It’s people that are intrinsically motivated. People that want to be there. They make it fun. At the same time, I welcome the challenges of people that are in need of more behavioral change and help along the way.

 

I turn myself a behavioral and movement interventionist because I do view that behavioral change and habits are such a big part of what we do. I like helping people figure that stuff out a little bit too.

 

It always helps me. We don’t always listen to our own advice. It always helps me to reinforce things as I’m telling other people, “Hey, you should do this.” [laughs] I used to do that. I’m going to start doing that again. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I was talking to Dan John, who is one of the people in the fitness industry I respect the most, on a podcast a few weeks ago. Dan very famously tells athletes a few things. He’s like, “Train like this, don’t overcomplicate it, get sleep, and brush your teeth.”

Floss your teeth, it’s floss. It’s like there’s this element of behavioral coaching. Encouraging habits and routine that permeate everything Dan puts out there.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about that. I’m not sure if that’s influenced by Dan or if it’s just something that two very smart people come to independently in the fitness space. There’s that thread there of influencing positive behavioral change and habits.

What are some habits that you’re really passionate about helping to instill or encouraging, especially in younger athletes?

I would say, consistency and internal feedback. Those aren’t habits that you would see listed on, “Hey these are good habits to be successful.”

 

The consistency one is, if you commit to do something, do it regularly. If you’re not all in, if you don’t have time to make that intervention a part of your routine, then don’t do it yet. You got to wait until you’re ready.

 

The internal feedback is, because of the context of where I’m working with these people, let’s say I’m working with somebody who is recovering from an ACL. Not everybody is Adrian Peterson who famously came back after five months after surgery.

 

A lot of people are Carson Wentz who took over a year to come back from his ACL and still didn’t look very good. There’s a lot of athletes like that.

 

The habit that I try to develop with them is checking in with their body and improving their internal feedback mechanisms. If they struggle with that, or if they struggle with self-regulation, autoregulation, which a lot of us do, then I try to get them to start charting things.

 

Be consistent with a journal, even if it’s just at the end of each day, a one, two, or three for how you feel. In the context of how I work with people, I find those to be very effective habits.

 

Even if an athlete isn’t doing that a year from now, but they start to feel some other injury, hopefully, it’ll rev up some old ideas that they had about, “Oh, I was monitoring my body before. I’m going to start monitoring again.”

 

That internal feedback mechanism, and I’ve talked to people about that from day one. I tell them it, point-blank. I’m, “I want to help you develop your internal feedback mechanism and be more in touch with how your body’s doing.”

 

The other piece of that, too, and this is…I won’t go on too far of a tangent here, but the other piece of the internal feedback mechanisms is that it’s not always a break. It doesn’t always tell you to slow down.

 

A lot of times, let’s say that you’re working with somebody that maybe they’re a little bit too cautious at times or they just don’t need to be as cautious as maybe they’re being. That internal feedback mechanism can actually mean, “Hey, go, go, go.”

 

It can mean, “Yeah, your knee was a little sore. You had some DOMS or your back was a little tight after deadlifts. You actually felt better after the day you squatted. You woke up that day feeling a little stiff but you felt better after you trained.”

 

When we start to chart these things, we can also show people we can use it both ways. We can use it as a break or as the gas pedal. I just find that internal feedback to be immensely powerful in terms of teaching athletes how to work within their own bodies.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Is there a realm of strength and conditioning? Could be a knowledge base, a particular methodology, even a movement practice that you are really excited to learn more about in the next stage of your career over the next few years?

 

That is a good question. You’re just full of good questions, David. I’m stalling over here because I’m, “What is this next realm, this uncharted territory?”

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I’m a professional question-asker, man. That’s what I do.

[laughs] It’s great. No, I think I’m going to approach this as an area that I have room for growth in.

 

That is, work with kettlebells and 3D motion. It’s something that I’ve always been interested in, back from the Gray Cook reaching days. Getting into triplanar motion and some influences from PRI, and all that.

 

I think that I definitely have room for growth in that field. People call them the Primal Movers. The folks that are out there swinging kettlebells in different directions, and doing these catches.

 

A lot of my training over the years has been focused more on how can I develop the highest amount of force with the most weight? I think that as I get a little bit older, my body is going to thank me for learning a little bit more about movement without high-loads all the time.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

That’s certainly something that as…In my own aging experience, I can certainly relate to it, certainly feel the impact of, especially during this quarantine period where I haven’t touched a barbell in months. I’ve been doing a lot of movement in planes that might not be so normal to me. I got to say, I actually feel pretty great.

Teddy, where is the best place for people to keep up to date with the work you’re doing, the knowledge you’re not only putting out but accumulating yourself as your own practice grows?

 

I would say Instagram’s probably the place that I’m most easily recognized and where I am on the most often. My name is @strengthcoachtherapy on Instagram. It’s all one word, strengthcoachtherapy.

David TaoDavid Tao

Teddy, thanks so much for joining us today. I really appreciate the conversation. It sounds like you treat every day as a learning experience. The hope through this podcast is that our listeners could do the same, talking to interesting people like yourself. I truly appreciate your time. Thanks for coming on.

 

Thanks for having me, David. It was a great conversation.