Brandon Simpson – Student, Teacher, Coach

This week, we sat down with Brandon Simpson, a strength and conditioning coach, Crossfit instructor, former high school teacher, and perpetual student of all things. Brandon is a Clemson graduate who currently works at Swamp Rabbit Crossfit here in Greenville.

Brandon works with people of all physical activities, day in and day out. So he knows a few things about what makes the body work properly and how to make it perform better. One especially vital part of making your body work to it’s fullest extent is sleep. Brandon has a great saying he often uses when coaching new clients, “Train like an athlete, eat like an adult, and sleep like a teenager.” Fantastic advice when you really think about.

When we asked Brandon how he likes to workout and recover, we found that Brandon’s sleep goal is about 8 or 9 hours a night. He usually trains about 3-6 times per week, which involves powerlifting, bodybuilding, heavy weights and some long or slow cardio, depending on what he’s getting ready for. He usually just doesn’t “exercise” – he’s usually preparing for some kind of event.

So we learned a few interesting things about Brandon, what he does, how sleep affects performance, and what excercise can do for you.

What gets you up in the morning?

I’m curious and I like to learn. So if you’re not awake you can’t do that. I also have a wife and a kid and another one on the way. I get up early – sometimes between 3:30am and 4:00am. If you don’t get up early, then there’s no time to do what you want to do, before you have to start your responsibilities for other things.

On top of that, I like to learn because I’m a teacher. I enjoy learning in order to help people live better lives. I believe in the power of just one idea. So if I taught you to do certain things (exercise, etc.) then your grandchildren might live better lives because that one thing stuck with you. If you ask most people, there was this one person or this one idea that just stuck with them – or maybe it was a book – and this one idea was a turning point for them.

So that’s really why I like to get in front of people, in the gym or on our podcast. Maybe it changes your perspective today, which can change the course of your life.

What keeps you up at night?

Nothing. I go to bed early on purpose so I can get up early and worry about what needs worrying about. So getting up at 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock means going to bed at 7:30pm or 8pm at night. I try to prioritize getting into bed so I get up feeling refreshed. Because when you get up at 4am, by the end of the day, you’re usually pretty tired. So I try to save the evening mental space for family or fun, rather than really being dug in. It’s nice knowing that I can wake up super early and take a crack at the things that need work.

How did you become a Crossfit instructor?

I started lifting weights for sport when I was about 13 or 14. So it’s been 18 years of working out at this point. Early on, I got my information from Muscle and Fitness magazine – the internet wasn’t out at that point and there wasn’t a lot of information available. I had trainers at school, but never really had any great strength coaches back then (probably because they didn’t have the internet!) There wasn’t as much information available as there is now. Strength and conditioning as a “trade” is only about 40 years old. So it’s pretty new in terms of sport science.

People just used to “work” instead of “work out.” It’s kind of ironic. Now, calories are so cheap and easily available. It’s only been since the 50’s or 60’s that you didn’t have to worry about running out of food in the winter. People used to have cellars in the house to stock food because they needed to have it to eat through the winter. Now you can get calories so cheap that it’s easier to get fat than not get fat.

Paying someone money, to workout in a gym, to burn the calories that you shouldn’t have eaten in the first place, and feel good and be happy – it’s a little redundant and silly. It’s a little different if you’re training for some kind of athletic endeavor, but I kinda laugh at the, “I just exercise so I can eat” mentality.

I really enjoyed working out more than I liked practice when playing sports. So there was a natural proclivity towards that. In college I got connected with the strength and conditioning guys at Clemson, through a friend of a friend, and did some of the training that the football team went through. They gave me some training manuals and I did some of that stuff. I always thought it was more interesting to train – to lift heavy weights, run faster, jump higher – than just to “exercise.”

I had a job at a university after college and got a little heavier than I wanted and I had a few brushes with Crossfit. I heard some decent things about it, but I wasn’t totally convinced, so I went to and did the workout of the day for about 10 months. I’m an all or nothing type of guy. At the same time I picked up the Zone Diet, which at the time was what they were selling as the “Crossfit diet.”  Basically, you just weigh and measure your food for the optimal amount. I was probably under-eating at that time.

In the process of all that, I decided to get certified in Crossfit in June 2009. In August 2009 the WOD was to run a 10K. I did that run, came back, and jumped in the pool and decided to quit doing the Crossfit workouts. I decided I wanted to gain weight. So over the next 3.5 months I put on 80 pounds and added 150lbs to my back squat. So Crossfit was kinda my “gateway” drug into powerlifting – I didn’t even know it existed until Crossfit.

Since then I have always enjoyed coaching it, because I think it’s probably the most useful workout if you don’t have any sport goals. I wouldn’t say it’s the best way to prepare for something like football, but I do think it’s the best way to be fit and comfortable in your body and have a greater capacity to live life on a day-to-day basis.

I’ve always enjoyed coaching Crossfit because it’s not just machines and so on. I’m teaching you how to move your body effectively and to take care of your body more effectively. So that even if I weren’t here, you’re better educated than the general exercising public. So if you’re out of town for a week you can find a smart way to workout even if you don’t have access to a fancy gym. I feel this is better than the typical folks who go to the YMCA or “Globo-Gym” and can’t do a workout if they don’t have their machines.

How important do you think sleep is to an athlete – and your everyday person with a desk job?

I think it’s the most important. It’s when you do the most recovering – you get the biggest doses of the hormone IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor), testosterone and melatonin (which is your body’s best antioxidant). So most of the good stuff happens when you are asleep. I like to tell people to train like an athlete, eat like an adult, and sleep like a teenager.

Most sleep cycles are about 90 minutes. During your 8-9 hours of sleep, the first half you spend in non-rem sleep. The later half is spent in REM sleep. The non-REM deep sleep is where you do most of your physical recovery. The second half of the night (still important for athletes and us “job” folks) is where you consolidate motor patterns, memory and different things like that. So if you’re studying for a test, studying a playbook, or learning new motor skills, you want to get your sleep.

Everyone has had those short nights where you wake up stumbling around and have trouble putting sentences together. That doesn’t work when you want to snatch a new PR (personal record) at the gym the next day. It just can’t because your brain is fried.

Overall, sleeping is almost more important than eating when it comes to recovery. If I had to pick sleeping or eating – I would push you to worry more about sleeping than eating, because all the special stuff happens when you are asleep.

Do you see companies offering fitness options into jobs or compensation packages in the future?

I think it would be smart for companies to do this because healthcare is expensive. And I think it’s only going to get more expensive as legislation pushes things that way. There’s definitely no advantage for the working class person to be out of shape.

If I’m an employer and I realize that I may only get four hours a day of focus from my employees, for whom I am paying for 8 hours of work, then it makes sense. Exercise is basically neuro-protective – it keeps your brain healthier when you’re training. Good habits with training lend themselves to better habits with sleep, which can lend themselves toward better habits with nutrition and hydration. Your brain is inside your body, so if your body is “junk,” then your brain is not going to work as well when you have a healthy body.

To learn more about what Brandon is up to, check out his podcast. To get a great pillow that will help you recover from strength training sessions – check out the HIBR pillows.