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Ultimate athleticism with coach Shank

As we landed in San Diego, I thought about how we almost didn’t do this part of our trip. The plan was initially to go straight from San Francisco CrossFit to my sister’s place in Austin, TX. Coach Max Shank was a last minute addition to our epic pilgrimage. Although he’s been around for a long time, he does seem to keep a somewhat low profile on the fitness interwebz. But when his awesome book ‘Ultimate Athleticism’ came out, he seemed to be everywhere. I came across him when I read his guest post on Tony Gentilcore’s blog, and I had this faint feeling that I had seen him somewhere. And then it hit me. He was this guy:


He was that crazy model for the photos in Convict Conditioning. The book was filled with pictures that made me go, ‘No way. Definitely Photoshop!’ in my head, and this was definitely the worst offender. A one-arm handstand push-up.  I’m pretty sure that this is a feat that less than 1% of human beings on the planet are capable of doing.

What made it even more nuts was that coach Shank openly admits that when he was 18, he couldn’t bench 95 lbs or do a single chin up. It made me realise the magnitude of focussed, methodical and intelligent work that had been consistently applied over 10 years. This was no accident. Coach Shank was a seriously smart dude, and we had to visit him.

Visiting him at his gym, Ambition Athletics, in the city of Encinitas near San Diego, we were not disappointed. Coach Shank is.. ahem.. a little smaller than he looks in the photos and videos. But he’s built like a pitbull. He looks like he could crush my chicken neck with his pinky.

The plan was to spend an hour with him personally to learn about his training, programming and how he runs a fitness business, and then jumping in to one of their group classes after so we could experience the magic first hand.

Coach Shank is a big proponent of Bruce Lee’s minimalist teachings, and it shows in everything he says to us. His speech is lucid and he seems to have incredible clarity of thought. We hang on to every single word he says and frantically take notes as he explains to us how he organises the different classes at Ambition Athletics and how he programs for them.

His focus for himself and his clients seems to mostly be skill-strength acquisition. They spend a lot of time in the 1-5 rep range and work at a high levels of relative intensity. This combined with his absolutely genius 80% rule (terminate the set when you need to work at more than 80% effort level), seems to produce an uncommon level of strength that is scale-able to a group class.

Another big part of his programming seems to be the mobility work that he incorporates into almost every aspect of the class. Coach Shank is Functional Movement Screen and Z-Health Performance certified and has come up with/made popular again some really cool mobility drills. His thoracic bridge and medial nerve flossing videos have changed my life and resolved neck and upper back pain that I’ve been suffering with since my computer gaming days.

After the private session with him, we workout with the noon group class folks. Our coach is Holly Mersy, whose journey in the fitness industry sounds real similar to our own. She started off as coach Shank’s first intern and then worked her way up to a coaching position. Although the class is pretty big and consists of folks of very different fitness levels, she handles it really well all by herself. It’s a really fun class and a great training environment.

The brief time that we spent with coach Shank was incredibly educational, and we’re really glad we didn’t miss out on the opportunity.


– Sandeep

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