An interview with Scott Umberger

An interview with Scott Umberger, personal trainer & physical preparation coach

Talk to Scott Umberger for a minute and one thing is clear: He’s passionate about what he does. The personal trainer and physical preparation coach has learned from the best and shares it with the athletes who train at his gym in Pittsburgh

And it’s not just any type of training. Work with Scott and you’re gonna work. It may tougher than you’ve ever worked – train optimally, not maximally – but it’s data-driven and personalized for you. His goal: To make you a better athlete, inside and out.

“Everything changes with me,” Scott says.  

Tell us about your background and your approach to training. 

Without a doubt, my approach to training is my desire to get better. In the early 1990s, the internet wasn’t the vast array of useless performance information that it is today. Even today, only the most elite coaches are “in the know.” In the U.S., we’re finally using technology that’s been used in football and rugby for more than a decade. 

And thanks to Facebook and social media, I’ve learned and been “in the know,” connecting with some of the best and brightest in the field. Their willingness to share information has turbocharged my knowledge. I can honestly say that the elite human performance world’s a small one.

Buddy Morris of the Arizona Cardinals has been one of my biggest influences. His willingness to share what he’s done and currently doing is what brought Westside Barbell and Charlie Francis into my life. That knowledge was a game changer. 

James Smith was pivotal, completely changing my coaching philosophy. He opened my mind to the real Soviet sports science and to other elite scientists and coaches, including Carl Valle who was also a Charlie Francis guy. At this time, I was trying to confirm my training. He helped me analyze the data. I was also using heart rate variability (HRV) with Ithlete to uncover my programming and how it was affecting my athletes’ daily trainedness. 

Carl also introduced me to many great coaches and minds, including Henk Kraaijenhof, Dan Pfaff, Ralph Mann, Hakan Andersson, and Randy Huntington. These guys have consistent success in a validatable sport, like track, over periods of time with various athletes. 

How has your approach to training/nutrition changed over the years?

My education is in large part from outside the U.S. – Australia and Europe, and from AFL, rugby and soccer. Some techniques include IFT and yoyo tests. 

  • An IFT is for a baseline of aerobic capacity so I have numbers to train on. 
  • Yoyo tests involve 20-meter back-and-forth sprints with a rest period that stays the same. The time from start to 20 meters varies, getting shorter and shorter so you must run faster and faster. 

I’ve studied a lot of track athletes and coaches because what they do can be validated. It’s harder with team sports because there are so many variables. The more I learn, the simpler and more specific I get with training. Train optimally, not maximally. 

Do the athletes you work with have any misconceptions about training when you start working with them? Do their views change after working with you? If so, how?

Most of them have never really “trained.” They may have done some strength training, but not specific to them as an individual. They’re survival experts used to surviving at sub-max intensities for way too long and way too often. They’re continually crushed by coaches and can’t perform maximally. After 4-6 weeks of training with me, things start to come together. And then they’re 100 percent. 

Most people also don’t understand that they don’t eat enough. Eating 4,000+ calories a day for most athletes blows their minds – especially after logging what they eat for a few days. That’s a huge wake-up call. And they start eating more. Then a “miracle” happens: They start to lean out while gaining some muscle mass. 

Sleep is another issue. Convincing athletes of sleep’s importance and recovery is a slow process. Drinking alcohol effects quality sleep, too. 

Many athletes also struggle with being aware of their weekly and monthly schedules. This is a must – especially in the summer when they’re juggling training, work and a social life. Missing a training session on Monday destroys their week if they’re going out of town and miss Friday’s session. 

To summarize, everything changes with me. My biggest concern is the other 22 hours of their day – the time they don’t spend with me. And athletes work their butts off when they’re with me.

What’s the easiest thing to correct?  What’s the hardest thing to correct?

Only a few of the athletes I’ve worked with aren’t quad dominant. Between sitting all day and never learning how to move, most are “knee benders.” I can help athletes balance out, but it’s a tough issue to overcome. 

The bigger issue is the lack of foot and ankle health, or lack of dorsiflexion. Thanks to some slow-motion video, I captured some startling dorsiflexion issues during the gate of a few athletes.  

Valgus is a strength and motor control issue that varies between athletes. It’s not a big deal if I can work with the athlete a few times a week for a few months. Once they understand that their knees collapse when they jump or decelerate, I can show them what they should be doing. The changes are initially mechanical, but become more natural as they progress. 

How important is the psychological/mental side of training? 

It’s everything. You have to give each individual what they need without crossing over too much. I’m a big believer in mental imagery. And in tricking your mind. For example, a D1 hockey player who shows up on time and works his ass off. That’s what you’re supposed to do, but is he ready for all scenarios? 

Grit has been a hot topic. We have an entire generation of softies – we’re less mentally tough and strong. Good training and putting yourself in uncomfortable positions allows you be grittier. For example, learning how to deal with lactate. Learning about that discomfort helps you learn how to push through it. Through good training and coaching, you can learn how to deal with that – and when to back off what you need to.

What are one or two main things athletes can do to help prevent injuries? 

Take care of yourself. Don’t burn the candle at both ends. You’ll be at a higher risk for injury if you’re working 100 hours a week and stressed. 

Track your nutrients. I’m a big fan of InsideTracker and Sound Probiotics. 

Eat well and get enough sleep. What’s going to happen if you go to bed at 11:30 p.m. and have to train at 6 a.m.?  

On your website you mention the importance of the need for training outside a sport. Why is that important? How does that help prevent injury? 

Proper preparation for a sport should be all encompassing. The best lessons are learned on the practice field and while preparing for the competition. I’ve worked with all sorts of “non-traditional” sports, including motocross, figure skating and equestrian. Because our education in exercise science, biomechanics, kinesiology is so lacking in the U.S., even those who have degrees don’t truly understand performance. The academic focus is on repairing an injury or imbalance to baseline. 

At best, the coach has expertise in that specific sport. Their experience in preparation for that sport consists of what they learned from other coaches without any form of human performance background. It’s the “that’s what we did” form of education. 

Rather than using my knowledge to teach an athlete who’s seeking more outside what they’re getting in gym class or with their team, I teach them fundamental athletic movement. Over 15 years of working with athletes, only a handful didn’t have terrible running mechanics. Even gifted runners need tweaks to make them faster. 

My point: I fill in the blanks with each athlete. And it’s different for each athlete and each sport. Our current system lacks development and education of our youth. That has nothing to do with athletes.

How important is recovery for an athlete? Do you have any good at-home strategies to help athletes recover faster and better? 

Put down the cell phone. When you’re attached to it, you can’t unplug and get away. It’s a constant stream of information in your face. So put it down before bed. Create a space where you’re going to sleep better – and that could include going back to an alarm clock (vs. using your cell phone).  

Other good recovery strategies:

  • Float tanks
  • Relaxing music 
  • Mediation
  • Sleep with earplugs and a mask
  • Blackout blinds in your bedroom
  • Eat well – meal prep on Sundays to set yourself up for success, and have good food around

Do athletes come to you with an understanding of gut health? How do you teach your players about gut health?

In general, our country knows nothing about diet and nutrition. Learn how to us MyFitnessPal. Use it for a couple weeks to get your nutrition numbers and where you’re at. And get in tune with your body. I strive for balance and recommend a diet of 30-35 percent carbs and 150 grams of protein. And remember to hydrate – being dehydrated is bad for your body. 

We’re also pretty ignorant to gut health and have no idea how many times a day we should be going to the bathroom. The more you’re aware of food prep, the better your gut health is going to be. And it’s better when you take a probiotic. Your body’s a machine, and the better it works, the better you’ll feel. Would you put cheap fuel in your Ferrari? No – and you shouldn’t put cheap fuel in your body. 

Connect with Scott on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his website