M&F Mick Aaron

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MUSCLE & FITNESS - August 2012
Mick Clegg and Aaron Cook
The Maverick and The Master
Aaron Cook is on day one of what he hopes will be his final countdown to the London Games. He has just had a fortnight off after winning the European Championships and is now back to begin an intensive 10-week training programme leading up to the Olympic taekwondo welterweight competition, which takes place on August 10th.

“It’s crazy,” says Aaron. “You train for months and months yet your fitness goes in a few days.” If he isn’t feeling good then the next few hours could be painful. Aaron is about to be put through his paces by Mick Clegg, Manchester United FC’s former power development coach who now trains elite athletes at his Olympic Sports Gym.  Mick’s methods are probably unique among Olympic coaches. They combine old-fashioned weightlifting techniques with some of the most modern equipment in sports performance and a healthy dollop of earthy northern humour. “Sex, sex, sex,” he playfully berates Aaron as they start. “I bet that’s all you’ve been doing this last two weeks. You’ve drained yourself.” Aaron smiles. The bond between the baby-faced black belt and the maverick former club guitar player is clearly strong although they’re totally different characters. Aaron is a polite and quiet 21-year-old; Mike, 54, never stops talking.

They united in unusual circumstances last year. Aaron, who reached the semi-finals of the last Olympics at the age of 17, had just suffered a crushing first round defeat at the World Championships and felt his training had gone stale.  He made the difficult decision to leave GB Taekwondo academy in Manchester, a move that cost him about £100,000 in funding, and find his own coaches. He had just been profiled in MUSCLE&FITNESS—in the same edition, by coincidence, that we featured Mick, who we christened the ‘patriarch of power’ because of his family’s amazing sporting achievements.  Eldest son Michael played for Manchester United and is now the Strength and Conditioning coach at Sunderland AFC. Next oldest Steven played for United reserves; third son Mark became an international weightlifter and strongman and youngest son Shaun, who is just 18, is an outstanding international weightlifter.

All have one thing in common: speed and power. They mastered the rudiments of Olympic lifting soon after they could walk to set them in good stead. In recent years the family gym has also become a centre of excellence for new brain-training technology that improves athletes’ ability to react more quickly.  Mick is a firm believer that speed of movement begins with speed of thought. “The brain is the Seed of Speed” as Mick likes to say.  After reading about the Cleggs, Aaron’s dad, Nigel, made the short trip from their home in the Gorton area of Manchester to the Cleggs’ gym to see if the methods that helped the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United could help his son.  Mick had never heard of Aaron and knew little about taekwondo but agreed to help. “I could see what he really wanted was speed and power,” he says.  At first he wasn’t impressed. “I did some tests and didn’t rate him highly,” he says.  “He had done some Olympic lifting but was technically poor.”

That was in May last year. Since then Aaron has won nine tournaments and regained the world number one ranking.  Neither Aaron, nor his taekwondo coach Patrice Remarck can speak highly enough about Mick. “I could see the benefits straight away,” says Aaron.  Patrice adds: “Mick is a genius.” The workout we’re here to witness will shed some light on his methods. It begins with a warm up on a stationary bike but not just any old bike—it has a video screen that allows Aaron to simulate racing outdoors. It’s fun, innovative and competitive: hallmarks of Mick’s approach.

The academy approach, Mick says, suppressed Aaron’s competitive instincts. “Aaron is absolutely merciless in the gym and wants to be the best at everything,” he says. “I wouldn’t say he would shoot his own mother to win but I have rarely met anyone who wants to win so badly.
What we do constantly tests him.” Aaron begins with a light dead lift and squat superset using about 30 kg to activate his main muscles. He then does a superset consisting of 5 press-ups, 5 chins and 5 dips, with the press-ups performed using a Milo Kit suspension system for extra difficulty and to develop stability.

Then he does another superset of five dead lifts, high pulls and power cleans using 30 kg. The cleans are completed with a jump back. Footwork is integral to taekwondo and many of Mick’s exercises are adapted to incorporate it.  After a short rest he does three more power cleans with a jump back using 35 kg followed by three static jumps forward on to a pommel horse. It’s fast, varied and intense.

After grabbing another short breather Aaron presses 30 kg for three reps on the Olympic bar. During the press movement he splays both feet to the side. He does another set of three reps using 35 kg followed by another set of three 35 kg presses but this time he thrusts his right foot forward and left foot back for the first rep, reverses this for the second rep and thrusts both feet to the side for the third rep. He then does three more straight presses using 40 kg before immediately executing a set of three vertical jumps on to the pommel horse. It’s highly dynamic stuff in short, intense bursts.

“We’ve been firing the big muscle groups,” says Mick. “Now we’re going to target smaller parts of the body, like ligaments and joints.” They go to the Dynavision D2, one of several pieces of kit in the studio worth more than £50,000 in total.

The D2 is designed to improve peripheral vision. Random lights appear on a screen. Aaron has to touch as many as he can in a set time. Anyone can do it but the crucial thing is speed. Aaron aims for 65 in 30 seconds but only manages 59. “Rubbish,” he says. He then does 121 in 60 seconds and still isn’t pleased: he used to hold the gym record with 133 and is desperate to get it back.  They move on to an I-Span machine, which consists of three metal poles, each with two green lights attached.  When the lights fl ash randomly Aaron has to place his foot over them to activate a sensor and repeat this as many times as possible in a set time. He manages 40 in 32.3 seconds. The data shows his fastest reaction time was 0.203 and his slowest was 0.678.  Patrice, who has been living with Aaron’s family so he can train at the Cook’s home gym, looks on approvingly.

“Decision-making is very important in taekwondo,” he says. “You have to be able to see things early, process the information and react. These machines are perfect for this.”

Aaron then gets gloved up for the speedball. Because taekwondo is overwhelmingly about kicking, and doesn’t allow punches to the head, many competitors don’t use speedballs but Mick says they’re good for learning to avoid getting hit so Aaron works it for 30 seconds.
Afterwards they move to another I-Span machine with more flashing random lights but for this one Aaron has to run his hands, rather than feet, over the sensors when the lights appear. “I hold the gym record for this one,” he says.  He does a 35-second set followed by a 25-second set, with the lights set to fl ash more quickly during the second set.  It requires concentration, agility and speed and by the end he is shattered but content. “I love coming here,” he says.  “It’s so different. Normally taekwondo is repetitive. Here I can challenge myself all the time and it’s fun. Everything is like a game. My agility and reactions have got a lot better.”

Soon he is putting his gloves back on for some pad work. He does 30 seconds throwing single punches then another 30 seconds throwing combinations.  Again, it’s not an obvious exercise for a kicking sport but Patrice agrees it helps.  “Aaron has become more aware of his upper body and better at blocking and moving,” he says.

We cheekily ask Mick whether Aaron punches harder than Wayne Rooney. For once, he has to stop and think before saying how thickset and powerful Rooney is. In other words, probably not… but god help the England striker if Aaron were allowed to use his feet. A YouTube video showing him knock out American Steve Lopez, arguably the greatest taekwondo fighter of all time, with a kick to the head demonstrates how lethal his legs are.

Next, Aaron spends a minute standing on a balance board followed by another minute balancing on his knees on a Swiss ball to strengthen his core, hips and joints. Then he stands on a VibroPlate while Mick, just a few feet away, hurls a football very hard at his head. It’s a good exercise in concentrating on two tasks at once—staying upright and catching the ball—as well as self-preservation.

After a short rest it’s time to go back to basics. Mick puts fi ve different coloured cones on a mat then holds the pads for Aaron to hit. At random interludes he shouts a colour and Aaron has to touch the corresponding cone before resuming sparring. “It gets him thinking about agility, speed and peripheral vision,” says Mick. It is possibly the most gruelling exercise so far—and the most old school. 

Aaron and Mick move upstairs to the weights room, alongside which is a turfed 35-metre running track. Holding the window frame, Aaron starts driving each of his feet into the floor, toes first. It seems an odd thing to do but Mick explains that it replicates the initial movement for sprinting. The exercise is repeated but this time Mick claps first so Aaron gets used to reacting to a stimulus.  “We’re now going to do a routine that Ronaldo did at Manchester United,” says Mick. This involves Aaron stamping his feet down as before until Mick says ‘go’, at which point he sprints for 10 metres. It aims to improve speed from a standing start—something useful for footballers and taekwondo fighters.  Mick says he can still see evidence of this fast feet-training method in Ronaldo’s staccato running style. Gradually the drills lengthen as more obstacles are added to the turf. First, Mick places two small rope ladders, each containing four rungs, on the floor.  Aaron stamps his feet then on the word ‘go’ sprints through the rungs one step a time. “It teaches speed and control of movement,” says Mick.

Mick adds another five-metre sprint and a third rope ladder to the course; after Aaron completes the distance he adds three small hurdles, which Aaron has to hop over on one leg; then he adds two more hurdles, which Aaron has to leap using two feet. Then he adds another rope ladder, another two-foot hurdle and two more hop hurdles. The longer the course gets the more it becomes about speed endurance. Mick eventually adds a vault over a pommel horse at the end of the course and after Aaron has done a set including this he adds another two pommel horses for Aaron to vault. Then he’s finished.

The entire workout has taken about an hour and included incredible variety. They do this or a similar routine five times a week.  Mick has data recording Aaron’s progress since they started together. For instance, his scores on the neuro-tracker, a machine he didn’t use today, that improves cognitive processing skills have improved by 71%. “It means he has improved his ability to multi-task,” says Mick.  Aaron’s Dynavision scores have improved by about 50 per cent, which shows he’s getting faster.  Mick now works with a range of sportsmen and women, including Blackpool goalkeeper Matthew Gilks and Sheffield Wednesday defender Lewis Buxton, plus speedway riders and golfers, some of who wish to remain anonymous.  Aaron’s testimony is glowing. “Mike is going to be my strength and conditioning coach until I retire,” he says. “We have an amazing relationship and I’m happy with everything he has done. I will always owe him if I win an Olympic gold medal.  “He’s a really nice guy; down to earth; says what he thinks and expects 100%. It helps that I support Manchester United as well.

“Before him I did general weight training and agility work and I wasn’t getting better.  We did everything the same. It works for some people but taekwondo is an individual sport and I need something a bit different and innovative. I’m a totally different athlete now.”
It just goes to show what reading MUSCLE&FITNESS can do… M&F


M&F Interview Mick Clegg and Aaron Cook

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