I’m excited to share this interview with Israel Halperin – an MMA & Thai Kickboxing athlete, trainer, and researcher. He’s competed, trained, and studied internationally with many prominent figures in his field.
Israel’s perspective is a balanced one. While remaining practical and relevant for his athletes, he keeps his biases in check through his humbling research experience. I’m proud to know him personally. In this short but informative discussion Israel shares some of his insight on training athletes.
I’m proud to introduce my good friend Israel Halperin; an athlete, trainer and a researcher. Israel, how about you introduce yourself to the readers.
Thanks for having me Tony. To begin with, I started practicing martial arts at a young age and knew from the start that I wanted to make a career out of it. I trained in Israel, Thailand, U.S and Europe and competed in mixed martial arts and kickboxing. During this time I was also involved in training professional fighters. Then, about 7 years ago, I decided that I had enough of competing and teaching martial arts, and I moved on to my second career as a strength and conditioning coach. The transition from a competitive athlete to a coach was immediate, and in no time I found myself training athletes again, but this time as their strength and conditioning coach. I was lucky enough to have been involved in the training of quite a few professional fighters including world champions in Thai boxing, grappling and boxing. Along the way, I obtained my B.Ed in physical education and I am currently approaching the end of my studies for an M.Sc degree in Kinesiology.
Champions come from all over the world, and you’ve been lucky to see how many of them train. What are some major insights you’ve gained from this experience? For example, what are some similarities and differences between how you’ve seen people train?
Good question. Before I begin, I think it’s fair to let the readers know that my experience is mainly limited to martial arts. However, I do feel that my answer is valid for other sports as well.
Let’s start with the differences. Based on my experience, champions around the world train quite differently from one another. Some run sprints and others run long distances, some lift heavy weights and others have never touched a dumbbell in their lives. Particularly, I have noticed that in North America coaches emphasize the power and Olympic lifts, and typically advocate heavier loads. In contrast, in the parts of Europe that I visited, coaches favored exercises performed in various planes using predominantly light weights and bodyweight. Lastly, in Thailand they do not follow either of these paths. Aside from steady state jogging, a few sets of push ups, pull ups and sit ups, all they do is practice their sport. Interestingly, the Thai’s completely dominate Thai/kickboxing.
Every top level athlete I have trained with had a unique and different approach to training, yet somehow they all excelled. Why is that? This brings me to my observation concerning the similarities between them: incredible genetics combined with intense and consistent training. In every country that I traveled to, those who excelled trained with unimaginable intensity. They trained long hours, and rarely missed a training session. To me – that was the key to their success. This has led me to believe that what you do for training matters less than how you do it.
Interesting! Many strength and conditioning coaches would insist that athletes who do not practice the basic lifts (squats, deadlifts, benches etc.) could have been better if they did. What are your thoughts on that?
Based on what I see and what I read, the one thing you HAVE to do to get better at your sport is… practice your sport. Sometimes I feel that this basic notion is not as widely recognized as it should be. Otherwise I don’t think there is one group of exercises that an athlete must do in order to improve. For example, when I design a training program for a particular trainee, I take into account his/her exercises preferences. We can debate if heavy squatting is mandatory or not, but if a particular athlete hates heavy squatting, and complains that they make him/her feel stiff and slow, then we avoid heavy squatting. Simple as that. If the trainee does not feel comfortable with the coach’s program then it’s just a matter of time until their relationship goes sour, and consequently, hindering the effectiveness of the program. So coming back to your original question, I believe that exercises should be matched to an individual athlete based on their individual needs and preferences, and I don’t think there is a group of mandatory exercises guaranteeing athletic success.
How has your more recent experience as a researcher shaped your interpretation of training, research, and overall thinking?
Conducting research on my own has reinforced my perceptions about individualized training even more. For example, in my thesis study I noticed that the maximal isometric force the participants exerted with their elbow flexors differed quite a bit from day to day. This was surprising as one might assume that the day to day variations would be relatively small under such carefully controlled conditions. Particularly since the participants were highly trained and the exercise was simple. Surprisingly, the variations were significant. This finding reinforced my doubts about the practice of devising a training program based on early performance measurements, such as a 1RM.
Additionally, my thesis study has led me to appreciate how difficult it actually is to conduct research. It makes you realize firsthand the importance of an experimental design: sample size, randomization, normalization, etc.
To sum up some important points, give a few words of advice to trainers out there who work with athletes
If you are able to get the athletes to train hard and consistently, while keeping them motivated and maintaining their confidence, then you are most likely doing it right. Particularly if you are able to rationalize your decisions. To this end, I recommend you constantly seek the trainee’s perspectives and opinions about the program and exercises selection. Their inputs contain valuable information for us coaches. It is also important to keep in mind that our role as S&C coaches is not to get the athletes to lift heavier weights, get sore, or throw up. Rather, it is to help them get better at their sport. For example, if I helped a professional boxer to improve his bench press performance, and consequently weakened his right cross, then I failed as his coach. Lastly, we should bear in mind that athletes have a finite amount of time and energy at their disposal, and most of it should be directed towards training in the sport they specialize in. With all of this in mind, try to keep the training sessions short, intense, and simple.
Finally, what are your plans for the future? Any idea? More research? Or are you going to keep it a secret for now?
Generally, I hope to find a middle ground between training athletes, teaching workshops and courses, and pursuing a PhD in Kinesiology with a focus on exercise related fatigue. Whatever I end up doing, I will always continue to work with athletes. I enjoy it too much to give it up, and I think it bridges the gap between the academic and practical worlds. Additionally, athletes make excellent participants for my studies ☺ I have been also thinking of writing a book on the physical preparation of combat athletes, and hope to start working on that soon.
I’d like to thank Israel for such a great interview – and wish him the best of luck as he moves forward in his career.
Keep your eyes peeled for his future work!