Sports Performance Training Secrets Revealed

I was honored to be interviewed by Mark Watts of regarding my approach in working with my sports performance athletes and personal training clients here in Pittsburgh.  Here’s the interview in it’s entirety.  You can go here to view it on their site.

Here are some quick thoughts in this revealing “cats out of the bag” interview.

How Important is Energy System Training?

I finally discuss what we’ve been doing in Pittsburgh for the past four years.  Our athletes are tested and evaluated to provide specific training based on their own physiological make up.   Without utilizing a heart rate monitor (which is an inexpensive tool) in training the bioenergetic systems(cardio or conditioning) of ANY athlete it is simply guess work.  Evaluating strength is easy because weight on the bar goes up.  Evaluating “explosiveness” is “easy” as well because it’s seen on a vertical jump testing mat or a tape measure for broad jumping.  The athlete can also see how much further or higher their medicine ball throws are progressing.  Speed can be evaluated via a stop watch or optimally via an electronic testing system.  Some do most, most don’t do anything but take before and after pictures of the athletes physique, but very very few do all.

If the athlete is improperly conditioned which happens at all levels because we have a very poor understanding of the bioenergetic systems of the human body.  Physiology isn’t a class requirement to coach a sport in the US.  (Actually, there isn’t a requirement to coach.) What does this all mean and what does it mean to the athlete in the competition?  An athlete can be strong as an ox and freaky explosive but is essentially useless if they are fatigued.  Maximal performance is unattainable if the athlete is tired.  Fatigue drastically increases the risk of injury both in games and in practices.  If “you’re doing it wrong” it’s effecting your performance in all aspects of  competition  Practice time is wasted and games become a practice of managing fatigue in order to display a portion of ones ability and skill.  “That’s not me!  I don’t get tired”.  Really?  Ask yourself how this can be confirmed?  How hard can one push if you don’t know how large or efficient your “gas tank” is?  Honestly, do you know that you have a “gas tank”.  In preparing my MMA fighters, I frequently “punch/kick them out” for various reason using a variety of methods/tools.  One major reason is show them (using a heart rate monitor) how much larger and efficient their “gas tank” has become.  It provides a HUGE confidence boost in justifying their training has worked.  Not only do they experience the ability to go longer and harder for more rounds but the heart rate monitor provides instant feedback in displaying their superior conditioning.  “I don’t dig on” guess work.  Frankly it is unacceptable for an athlete to have to accept “thinking” that they are as well prepared as they can be.  Training and methodologies must be justified and proven.  If not, it’s simply unproven dogma!

At the end of the day, my job as a physical preparation coach is to leave the competition performance up to sport skill and tactics which is the specialty of the sport coach.

In this interview I reveal some very high level methods in working with advanced to elite athletes.  Please check out other posts related to youth training and youth development for future stars.

Three Questions with Sports Performance Coach Scott Umberger


Mark Watts

Published: November 15, 2013Posted in: CoachingInterviewsSports TrainingTags: 

Three Questions with Scott Umberger


The three-question series is designed to provide valuable insight from some of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the field. These coaches spend a great deal of time and have an unbelievable passion for helping young athletes achieve their goals. These coaches are “in the trenches” working with athletes around the clock and year round.



Scott Umberger

Umberger Performance

Mug Shot!

After walking in the front door of Umberger Performance in Pittsburgh, it only took a minute to see that this place was serious about getting their athletes better. Scott Umberger is all business and his passion for developing the best possible system to train athletes is evident.

Umberger’s coaching influences started while interning with Buddy Morris at the University of Pittsburgh. He also worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach with Todd Hamer at Robert Morris University after competing as a two-sport athlete for the Colonials (football and track). Umberger dedicated an enormous amount of time and effort researching the best possible methods to improve athlete performance. By integrating training methodologies from Charlie Francis on speed and programming and Louie Simmons on strength and tying them together with the help of James Smith on Soviet sport science, Umberger has truly created a scientific approach to training athletes.

Mark Watts (MW): First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Why don’t you give us a little bit of background on what’s been going on with you and Umberger Performance?

Scott Umberger (SU): First, I’d like to say thank you for contacting me. It’s an honor to share with my peers some of the things that I’m doing. I’ve been reading elitefts™ for many years and it’s humbling to even be contacted by you to “talk shop.” I’d like to talk a little about what I do on a daily basis before I get started so that the readers will understand where I’m coming from. I also want to establish that I’m not an internet guru who spends more time playing with my mouse than working with athletes. I’m not a Division I football strength coach with ten staff members and a 50,000-square-foot football facility nor am I Todd Hamer of RMU handling six hundred athletes across twenty or more Division I sports in a small weight room with a limited staff and budget. Yes, Hamer does it and does it well.

I do own a 8,200-square-foot private facility, and I’m pretty Spartan. I don’t do gadgets and overspeed treadmills. I actually don’t have a treadmill in my facility. Being private and with such a large facility, I have to run other things like adult boot camps (we offer three levels of fitness classes with the most advanced one being a safe version of CrossFit) and personal training in addition to training athletes, which is my passion. We work with athletes ranging from eight years old to high school athletes to twenty-year-old NHL guys. Our oldest athlete is a 36-year-old NHL vet.

I’m not a personal trainer (or physical trainer, a term the public sometimes uses that’s like nails on a chalkboard). I’m not a strength and conditioning coach. I’m not a weight coach. Despite the phrase/title being frequently misused (including by myself several years ago), I consider myself a physical preparation coach or a sports performance training coach. There isn’t anything wrong with those other titles, but my approach is very specific, which your questions should uncover. By being private, I don’t have to deal directly with a sport head coach who’s practices center around beating the hell out of their athletes.

I’d also like to say that this is the first time that I’m publicly speaking about my approach in regards to technology. It’s a weird situation because I want to better the industry, but being private and in an oversaturated market, I have to “keep the lights on” at my facility. My wife and I are involved in the arduous process of adopting right now. I have a lot of overhead, which my competition doesn’t care about. I also would like to not have to work eighty hours a week at some point. My father was awesome and I intend to offer my children that.

There are over fifteen “sports performance facilities” in my market. If you want to count some guys who are “experts” training athletes out of their home garages, then make it 150. We have 25 CrossFit gyms in my market as well. To my knowledge, none of the facilities use heart rate monitors or use them correctly. I haven’t talked about any of the technology I’m utilizing on my website or social media because things tend to get copied pretty quickly by the competition in my market. Pretty soon my website will be “get updated.”

To justify that I’m not a hypocrite, I have heart rate variability (HRV) numbers from 2011.

Research done at Umberger Performance with real athletes

This was from one week out of the summer when I took data from 16- to 35-year-old athletes. These are just cut and pasted with the names removed. Additionally, I have heart rate numbers (max/average overall, max for shift and recovery from shift, and reps) from the past three to four years from every shift done on every one of my four slide boards from my ice hockey players. They are currently on paper, which annoys me, so I’m in the process of creating a database to collect the data via an iPad. I have those same stats back to 2006 from my cousin and business partner, RJ Umberger, who is an NHL guy. Some of my “anal retentiveness” stems from his “OCD” in wanting precision. It started with RJ and has grown through our older athletes. I’m not talking shit about the need for it, and I’m not doing it on a daily basis. I’m just a guy trying to get as much useful information as I can in order to confirm that what I’m doing is working. I’ve found that with most of the ice hockey athletes, I needed to change the workouts up every two weeks. They simply adapted too quickly, which leads to the third week being more like a deload. This can be good or bad depending on what the rest of the day/week looks like.

MW: Scott, you are heavily influenced by the Eastern Bloc methodologies and have incorporated these methods into training. You’ve also collaborated with James “the Thinker” Smith, specifically with energy systems and bioenergetics. Could you explain how James has helped with your programming and training?

SU: James and Buddy’s misfortunes at Pitt turned into my intellectual breakthrough and almost ended my relationship with my now wife. I had contacted James when he was still at Pitt and had asked him for some help with my block training program design for my upcoming powerlifting meet. I had stopped by to talk shop with him and Buddy a few times over that year, but I never really sat down with James to personally pick his brain for more than a few minutes.

James had used my facility for his own training over the course of three to four months before he landed a job on the left coast. We became friends over that time from late night conversations (when I should’ve been home instead of rolling in at 9:30 p.m., which made the wife unhappy). It was literally a Matrix “red versus blue pill” situation. It was extremely frustrating because everything that I had learned was essentially being used incorrectly. I was a weight coach who knew my way around a weight room, but I was failing my athletes with my focus on weight training. I own and have read all the “training bibles” like every other guy. I own what seems like a library of translated manuals, presentations, and hundreds of articles/research papers from the Soviet Union, but I didn’t really understand them. I was like Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump. I could read the material from “Mother Russia,” but I couldn’t truly understand it. The problem was that I had iron on the brain. You can’t incorporate sports performance research on athletes and force it into the very limited scope of a weight room. Louie Simmons extrapolated strength training information from the Soviet weight lifters and applied it to three specific lifts. Weights to weights. Concepts definitely transfer and can run parallel, but they aren’t absolute.

The conversations with James were like talking to Bruce Lee. He coached me through the process. I got a whole lot of “it depends.” It frustrated the hell out me because I wanted specific answers. The problem was that my ability to understand the complexity of the training question was limited by my lack of knowledge of the big picture. I’ve found that the more I know, the less I really know. Ignorance is bliss, right? So James would make me think and figure it out on my own. It was a perfect storm actually. I was pissed off because I was clueless but hungry to learn, and I had James to discuss daily “lessons.”

During this time, I was also reading both volumes of Transfer of Training from Bonderchuk. They couldn’t have come at a better time because of the underlying theme of our conversations, which was the transfer of the training to the playing field. If that doesn’t happen, why are we training? What the hell are you coaching? Better yet, define transfer?

Carl Lewis won nine gold medals and one silver and barely touched weights. Ben Johnson was a damn freak squatting 650 pounds, benching over 450 pounds, and bent over rowing 315 pounds at a body weight of 165 pounds. So if Carl Lewis would have squatted (box?) more maximal weight, would he have won more medals?

This all ties specifically into the training of the bioenergetics systems of the body for sport. James recommended that I read Joel Jamieson’s book 8 Weeks Out. It was a game changer for me and launched my first real understanding of the bioenergetics. It wasn’t the “stuff” that I learned in undergraduate classes. I still use Joel’s model to evaluate and train my professional and amateur MMA fighters (and none of them have lost since they started training with me a few years ago).

How many teams actually test the athletes in ways that are in anyway transferable or relatable to their actual sport? A 300-yard shuttle test is a complete waste of time for just about every team sport. What does it determine besides mental toughness? The test is lactic. How many sports besides wrestling and some track events are legitimately lactic dominant? Not many and even less in the United States. An American football play lasts about five seconds. What the hell does a 25-yard sprint shuttle test done over 40 seconds determine in regards to a player’s ability to perform on the field?

A strength coach friend had his Division I ice hockey team wear a GPS system during one of their games and he confirmed that without a doubt ice hockey is an alactic/aerobic sport. Another colleague literally lactic tested his NHL players as they were coming on and off the ice during the game and retested them as they were returning to the ice after an intermission. Same results. I know of two NHL teams (easy top ten organizations) that perform testing on their players in camp that lasts forty seconds or more and has them traveling at speeds between 75 and 85 percent of full speed. Based on the prior data provided, how does this make sense? At that level, if you need to check for “balls,” you’d better start making tee times in the pre-season for the soon to be nonexistent post-season.

How many coaches use heart rate monitors? Basic models can be purchased for $60–70 and can determine max and average heart rates. I understand that certain situations in colleges don’t meet these expectations. When I was at RMU, Hamer and I handled over five hundred athletes in one small weight room. We simply didn’t have the man power to handle that volume with minimal resources. That’s a huge problem within our industry. As one coach recently put at a presentation that I attended, “Sport organizations consist of coaches with minimal education in human performance (specifically zero education or knowledge of physiology) coaching players with minimal education with the athletic trainers, physical therapists, strength coaches, and medical staff (highly educated) stuck in the middle!”

I would like to see the education of our industry change so that we are viewed by the sport coaches and medical staff as being more than weight coaches. The colleges and universities need to change the curriculum, and the sport coaches need to be familiar with it as well. That way there isn’t a “me versus you” atmosphere between the highly paid sport coaches and the strength and medical staff. Let’s face it—the head coaches get hired and fired based on wins, which further complicates the situation.

Strength and Sports Performance experts at

MW: Scott, it was evident from our visit that Umberger Performance is doing a lot to help athletes achieve at the highest levels and that maybe other sports performance facilities aren’t doing those things. Can you elaborate on how you use technology and heart rate variability to monitor athletes’ recovery and track performance?

SU: From a technology standpoint, it starts with the basics and goes from there. I don’t body build athletes with the slight exception of some bodybuilding influences in GPP. Cable crossovers and triceps kickback are outlawed in our facility. I train sport athletes like sport athletes and strength athletes (powerlifting, Olympic lifters, and Strongmen) like strength athletes. Everything is a tool that I use where appropriate. I’ve been using heart rate monitors for several years along with heart rate variability (HRV). I “got into” HRV early and have worked through some of the hiccups associated with this new technology. When I say “new,” I’m referring to taking data via a smart phone. HRV isn’t new, as the brilliant Henk Kraaijenhof was using HRV in the late 90s.

There are several options available in the United States as well as all over the world for collecting HRV. After going back and forth with some friends and having used a few systems personally, I’ve settled on using Ithlete and the cardiosport bluetooth chest strap. I find it virtually foolproof. Eliminating the “dongle” has been a huge step in making the data collection process seamless. I also have a dashboard where my data is collected and I’m able to view all my athletes each morning on a daily basis. My biggest challenge is daily compliance with my high school and collegiate athletes. I’m a guy who wants 365 readings a year, not 250. Having a dash board and the ability to show large color charts to justify how missing several days in a month makes interpreting trends more challenging has been pretty successful.

HRV has been gaining popularity in our field and is leaning toward being overused or misused. Taking a player’s readings a few times a week and hours after awakening is pretty much useless. I’ve had several conversations with and through professional athletes concerned with the “head f*#k”(their words) that HRV can be. From the players, “If my HRV is red and says that I’m shit, how is it that I played well, and when I’m glowing green, why do I sometimes feel like crap?”

I’ve personally made the mistake of not coaching the athletes on what/how the tool is going to be used. I failed to set appropriate expectations. As Henk has said several times, “HRV is a tool.” I personally use it to determine the overall daily health of my athletes. It helps show them how important nutrition and sleep are to recovery and progress. As I’ve said more times than I would like to recall, “My workouts are only as good as your body’s ability to recover from them.” Combat sport athletes, hockey, and football guys really want to work hard. HRV has helped them understand the value and role of recovery (sleep and nutrition).

Weekly trends are also imperative for in-season monitoring because the athlete needs to be as close to 100 percent as possible on game day in order to display his specific skill sets. Collegiate team sports and junior ice hockey teams are typically playing two games in a weekend, obviously for travel reasons. AAA club hockey (U-18 and under) can play six games in a three-day weekend, typically playing three games in three days on the road. Football players at all levels are playing one game a week. My professional MMA fighters are working full time, training with me, and working on various aspects of their fighting skills almost every day and dealing with their families. As you can see, this monitoring is a nightmare. Technology has really helped with the collecting and analysis of that data as well as communication with the athletes about their restoration and recovery means.

I’ve starting using blood analysis for my more advanced athletes and have only begun to scratch the surface of how I can use that to prevent injury and improve performance. I’m using Inside Tracker, and they have been great. It’s a learning experience for both the coach and athlete but well worth the investment. Every professional athlete should be blood testing on a quarterly basis. Again, technology has really progressed the collection and use of the data. It’s a major starting point for customizing diets to fit the specific needs of the athlete at specific times of the year.

If you aren’t tracking basic trends like HRV, resting heart rate, and body weight, you’re simply guessing. That stuff is very cheap. I understand that staff and budget are limited in some situations, but everycoach can track body weight. That’s what interns are for. (That sure beats spit shining equipment until the paint comes off.) Blood testing is more expensive but is a drop in the bucket if you’re getting paid to play. Jumping on Swiss balls, posting before and after pictures of athletes with their shirts off after body building them and pumping them with supplements, classifying “speed and agility work” as using a speed ladder, and running on an overspeed treadmill aren’t improving the in-game performance of athletes. Getting an athlete strong enough is easy. What happens when he’s strong enough and has obtained an appropriate mass for his position and age? All that stuff is sexy on a website or a YouTube channel but doesn’t result in improving the athlete’s performance. Trust me. I used to be “that guy.”

To sum it up on HRV, it’s a tool that reveals the “general overall health” of an athlete. It starts specific conversation with athletes and confirms if they’re feeling off. HRV is also a way to confirm that my athletes are doing what they should be doing in-season. Recovery methods, sleep, and nutrition all effect HRV scores and trends. HRV helps deal with the “I’m busy” or “it’s hard to eat right and sleep.”

I’m also using the Check System to monitor my central nervous system directly. In laymen terms, HRV is a central nervous system reading through the cardiac system. The Check System is directly utilizing a neuromuscular response in 15 seconds. I’m using one of the few units here in the States and haven’t been using it very long. I plan on comparing the data with and against HRV along with my blood data after I’m back to training and have enough data. Right now, I’m taking it after my morning group. After competing in a Tough Mudder a few weeks ago, I’m getting back into competing in powerlifting, so my findings should benefit the elitefts™ crowd.

The delay in my response was because I was trying to get my NHL guys pressure mapped both in the ice and on land. Due to logistics and the NHL strike wreaking havoc on summer schedules, it didn’t happen. Even if we don’t have enough data on enough skaters to provide useful initial feedback to the player, having the benchmark is a great tool if there ever was an injury similar to tensiomyography (next question). In other words, we can compare tests to track inconsistencies.

Training at the Elite Fitness Compound in Columbus Ohio

MW: We were discussing the role of technology in sports performance and the tensiomyography (TMG) procedure for athletic performance. You felt that this was the wave of the future in the country. Could you expand on the procedure and how sports performance professionals can utilize it?

SU: There are a lot of things to discuss with TMG, so I’ll make a few comments on a few bullet points. TMG was invented in Slovenia. It’s a highly researched tool. There have been something like fifty plus studies, not three studies, that happened to be paid for by the VC company who is funding the TMG company.

First off, TMG is expensive and not currently FDA approved (hopefully this year). There are only a handful of units in the United States. A few players were tested at the NFL combine this year. It’s a weird thing with young athletes. It’s groundbreaking, but our ignorance will prevent its use in developing young athletes. How and why? TMG will determine an athlete’s muscle fiber type of each individual muscle group. TMG will do it in under 45 minutes and do it non-invasively. No muscle biopsy here. For example, a player in soccer plays a position best fit to help his team win. So a fast twitch dominate freak might be playing a mid-field position, which is more apt for a more aerobically dominate athlete and vise versa. Sure, it makes sense to have the best player touch the ball as much as possible, but what does it wind up costing the athlete if he’s gifted? At this point, it’s wishful thinking because our youth coaches are volunteer parents whose best qualifications are that they maybe played the sport in high school or college. They hopefully can teach the game but have zero knowledge of physical fitness or youth development.

I’m using TMG in a few ways:

  • To determine improper muscle imbalances
  • To determine if a muscle or muscle group is firing improperly
  • To pinpoint injuries and determine their severity

I feel that TMG could be a huge bridge between the medical staff and the performance coaches in professional sport. The physical therapists and athletic trainers are stuck in the middle between the doctors and surgeons and there’s a large gray area. The coach and management don’t give a shit. They want the athlete to play. There’s a lot of politics and everyone wants “the pro job.” As a Pittsburgher, if you’ve ever worked for the Steelers, you’re automatically considered a deity even if it was for one year and you killed fifteen athletes. Seriously though, there’s a lot of benefit in carrying a professional team’s affiliation here in the United States. TMG serves as a perfect means to evaluate whether or not the treatment is working or worked. The use of TMG will quickly weed out the pretend manual therapists and physical therapists who aren’t doing their jobs. I expect more from them outside of “stim and ice” as I do from our industry and chiropractors. I see potential in finding out if a surgery was successful as close to the operation as possible because not even the surgeon knows how successful the surgery was until rehabilitation has been completed. If used correctly, TMG can be the ultimate ego killer and team builder in an organization.

In rehabilitation, there are clear cut objectives for the athlete to “get back” to playing or back to training. Sure, the athlete has obtained adequate range of motion and stability, but what about using the injured body part like he’s supposed to (dynamically and explosively). The brain needs to be remapped, and TMG can determine if the appropriate muscle groups are firing correctly. If not, the athlete will be compensating in some fashion, which could lead to another injury because he was either rehabbed improperly or forced back too soon. Does a baseball player or two come to mind? The physical therapist is dealing with an athlete who wants to get back and management who wants them back as soon as possible. TMG could be a huge scientific tool to properly rehabilitate the athlete.

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