An Interview with Strength Coach Dave Orton

Matt Martin, one of Orton’s clients

I had the chance to speak to Dave Orton, a strength coach from Windsor, Ontario, last week. Dave trains professional athletes from a wide variety of sports (in addition to us everyday folk at Lifestyle Fitness). He trains several NHL players, including Zack Kassian of the Vancouver Canucks and Matt Martin of the New York Islanders.

Our interview touched on a wide variety of sports-training and overall fitness topics. We went into detail on Kassian’s summer of training, and that part of the interview will be published elsewhere in the coming days.

Read on to find out Dave’s thoughts on training a wide variety of clients, how he creates programs for his top athletes, the benefits of MMA conditioning, how he implements corrective strategies, fixing some common fitness misconceptions, and much more.

Angus: What would you say is your overall training philosophy? 


Orton: I have always trained with the philosophy that everybody should train like an athlete. I did that before there was such a thing as the term sports specific training.

If you look at what athletes do when they play sports, I don’t care if it is hockey, football, lacrosse, wrestling, tennis, whatever, all that they do through the sport are the same movements that every day people do, just faster.

Let’s take a football player for example. One of my athletes down here, he plays for the Cleveland Browns. Everything he is going to do is just faster and more intense than a 45 year old mother would do. So, all you do if the outcome is the same just at a lower intensity, the variable is intensity.

I started applying that philosophy ,and before I knew it I was the head strength coach for the Windsor Clippers [the Lacrosse team in Windsor, and Central Combat Sports, which is the biggest MMA team down here, so I started off really dealing with athletes in a small environment like that, and then once everybody started to notice that all of the people under my care were really athletic, word starts to spread, and it is one of those things, especially with hockey players, that once you get a hook into one of them, and they impress everybody else, then they all want what he or she is doing.

Kind of like Gary Roberts with Steven Stamkos?


My biggest pet peeve in this business is that people complicate things.

Whether it is macro or micro with program design or exercise selection, it is almost like being a chef. My fiancée graduated from chef school, so the analogy I use for people is that training athletes is like making a pizza.

Pizza is pizza, what is the difference right? Well if you have ever had good pizza, you know the difference. The trick is – wherever you bought that pizza, can you have a conversation with the guy and ask him exactly how he made it? A lot of guys in this industry can’t explain things.

People lose sight of the fact that, yeah, you have to provide people what they want and they have to enjoy it, but at the same time I’d rather get it from somebody who knows exactly how to make it.

There is a term that Gray Cook came up with called ‘coddled conditioning.’

People assume that the term coddled conditioning means that you are too nice to somebody, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It just means that you aren’t over indulgent, whether it is to be too easy on them or too difficult on them.

And unfortunately a lot of hockey players, or athletes for that matter, think that if you don’t bury them, than it isn’t a good workout.

So not only do you have to make sure these guys are getting better, but you have to make sure they know how they are getting better, and why they are getting better, so that way if a trainer comes along with some magic new fitness routine, the player is armed to say, “You know what, that doesn’t make any sense, and you can’t explain to me why I am doing.”

So it’s kind of like concurrent education as you are training them.

Yeah. One thing about hockey players is they want to get better and they want to see it. So you show them. When we started we were here. And when we were done we were here.

That is why I am big on corrective strategies. Because guys come out of the season and they have hip flexor problems, they have psoas problems, any number of pelvic problems, just because of the nature of hockey. So we have to fix those things before we start squatting heavy and dead lifting heavy. 

So now most of my guys who are two-to-three years in with me know that that is how it is going to work. They come in and know that the first couple of weeks are going to be pretty slow and passive.

At first I had arguments with guys, and I had to explain the why over and over again, but now, when the new guys come in, they don’t even get into the argument, because what happens when they start grumbling about something they don’t like is that they are usually put in line by one of the senior guys.

You can train hard all you want but at some point you are going to get injured if you neglect the corrective stuff.

100%. A lot of people, not just athletes, have this weird concept that if a muscle isn’t sore the next day, than they didn’t do anything.

A common misconception.

I had this discussion with a wrestler’s dad, and this kid is probably going to go Division-1 next year in wrestling, which is rare for a Canadian. And his dad, when he first brought him, said, “My son did his core routine and his abs didn’t hurt the next day.”

And I said they shouldn’t have, that isn’t the intent.

The three scariest letters in the English letters for any trainer that isn’t worth his weight in salt are w-h-y?  If you let some of them talk long enough you will figure out they are full of it.

And if you don’t like the answer to something, move on. I over explain, because I want them to know there is a reason behind everything.

There has to be reasoning behind it, and what happens is all of this collection of philosophy and simplifying what I do is what has given me the credibility with these guys to trust me to be the guy to help them.

With corrective strategies, do you use rely on the Functional Movement Screen? 

What we did, we took Gray Cook’s FMS, and we also took the TPI screen, and me and my assistant strength coach, we are both TPI certified, and most of the TPI is all rotational power and stability, which is what you want in any sport.

So we took the standard FMS, and then we implemented some of the movements from the TPI, and and then we have other performance evaluations that we do as well.

We do have sport-specific testing modules, and that is only because we see a lot of common problems relative to each sport.

We will take our model, and if anything comes up that we don’t like, we send them to Steve Radovich, another guy in our performance group. He is a chiropractor, and we send them to him, and he applies the SFMA, and then he sees if we might have missed something.

And that gives us a full picture to look at, and that way when we start applying the corrective strategies, we know exactly what we need to do to fix the problem.

How do you work conditioning into your athletes programs?

After we finish the phases of off-season training, conditioning is integrated into the lifting days. We have a three or four exercise matrix [a circuit, essentially], and their rest is a high capacity rest. So they will do a dominant lift, some type of a strength lift. And then the will unload that lift [with an antagonistic movement].

And then I am looking for just shy of failure. And then they are going to unload that. Like a row for a pushing movements. Just to unload the joint. And then they are going to do some type of a corrective strategy as the third movement, and then some functional core movement, body saw, ab wheel, Turkish get-up, that sort of thing.

And then they go into some type of high capacity output movement. It could be the mountain. Three sets of 20-10 sprints, as an example. And then they get off, and they go at an easy walking pace to the starting station. 

We try to use something that is going to be antagonistic to whatever the dominant movement is. We don’t want to use a rower on a day that the lift is pull-dominant, for example.

And in that phase we tend to input what we call variable work capacity (VWC).

What that VWC is, nobody else has taken the chaos of it and streamlined it – we took the concept of random fitness, and on our off days, so if we lift Monday/Wednesday/Friday, which is generally the routine, Tuesday and Thursday are our VWC and power days.

Those days will feature a full dynamic warm up, and cleans or snatches for power, and then we follow that up with a quick 15 minutes of VWC. We pick a certain movement – battle rope, sprints on the track, sled pushes, to ball slams, TRX jumps, you name it and we have it. We have 56 different exercises that we use that are all anaerobic capacity type movements.

And it’s on a timer. They go on the beat and stop on the beat. That is our way of getting rid of over training. Because it is different every single time, the guys have to pick an exercise from each category, but it can’t be the same as any used before.

If we end up running or sprinting on off days, they are going to overuse hip flexors or blow out their glutes.

So this way we found it kept them away from that overtraining, and it gives them late programming that is the opposite of the start. We want to break them at the start, but with this, they enjoy doing it. It is always different; they can work hard as a team, because they do it at the same time. It gives them that psychological reward towards the end.

And they are going to be in a lot better shape than they were earlier in the summer as well.

Absolutely, and they get to see that feedback.

Thanks for the interview, Dave.

We talked in greater detail about Kassian, and look for that to be posted later in the week or early next week.

Previous Strength Coach Interviews: