Photography by Alise Cua Photographer
Had it not been for an ACL tear, would the NASM Optimum Performance Training™ model exist? Fortunately, the world of human movement science will never know, because that college-football injury changed the career trajectory of Micheal A. Clark, MS, DPT, now known as the creator of the NASM OPT™ model.
“In college [at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin], as a football team member, I saw the captain tear his ACL,” says Clark. “I witnessed his entire experience [with] surgery, physical therapy rehab and strength- and-conditioning pros. Originally, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, but I [discovered I] preferred physical therapy because of the relationship between the athlete and the trainer.” These powerful impressions also sparked Clark’s mission to create a system not only to improve but to optimize, an integrated approach to enhancing athletic performance. Developing and implementing this system of “integrated training” became his life’s work.
From an initial focus on training athletes at the professional and elite levels, Clark systematically expanded his reach to include the education of fitness professionals seeking to become more effective trainers and, later, laypeople pursuing a wide array of health and fitness goals.
“Everyone is an athlete—a fitness athlete, a lifestyle athlete or a competitive athlete,” says Clark today. “Being an athlete is a mindset. [It simply means that] you want to be your best.”
Driven by his own ethic of constant improvement, “Dr. Mike Clark: The Human Performance Expert” (as he is known on drmikeclark.com) has been named “Health and Fitness Visionary of the Year” by Men’s Health magazine and is one of the top physical therapists in the world.
“Mike Clark has been an educator, innovator, practitioner and friend, and when I say that, I mean the best in each of those categories,” says Aaron Nelson, MS, ATC, CES, PES, vice president of athletic care and head athletic trainer for the Phoenix Suns. He knows whereof he speaks: The two have worked side by side for 15 seasons since Clark joined the Suns as the team’s physical therapist. “It’s hard to put Mike in one silo and say, ‘This is what he does’—he has more silos than anyone I know,” adds Nelson. “He brings them all together to make the [world of] sports medicine and human movement science a better place.”
Education and Creation
Fortuitously, Clark’s first job after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, in 1994 was with Patrick McKenzie, MD, team physician for the Green Bay Packers. Not only did McKenzie inspire Clark to further his education (beyond his initial bachelor’s degree in physical therapy), but he also introduced Clark to Melissa “Mel” Mueller, who would later become his wife.
Driven by curiosity sparked by the ACL incident, Clark began an astute analysis of the methods used for training and rehabilitating athletes. Soon, he observed that, while each of the pros in the system contributed, the process was not effectively integrated. He also noted that the experience was directed by the medical doctor; this seemed unusual to Clark, as this was the professional who had the least amount of involvement in activating the athlete’s performance. Clark intuitively knew that a better system could be created. Developing and implementing this system, which he then called the Optimum Performance Training system, laid the groundwork for the NASM OPT™ model. Melissa played a key role, too.
“[Mel], an elite pole-vaulting athlete, served as the first model for the OPT system,” says Clark. “From movement assessment and manual therapy through corrective exercise, training and recovery, she worked through all the elements as she looked toward the 2000 Sydney Olympics.” Seeing proof of concept through his work with Mel, Clark was inspired to dedicate his master’s-level study to the emerging field of human movement science. During those early years, he had also met Jim Gould, MS, PT, and George Davies, MEd, DPT, who founded the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. They, too, provided mentorship and encouraged Clark’s pursuit of research in human performance.
In 1997, Clark pursued advanced studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC is a leader in human movement science studies and had established its research laboratory, the Center for Human Movement Science, the same year. After graduating in 1998 with a master’s degree in human movement science and sports medicine, Clark moved to Phoenix, where he started a performance business within a physical therapy center. There, he began applying the OPT system to the training of football players, Major League Baseball™ athletes and the Phoenix Suns. As a sports medicine and physical therapy provider for the Suns, Clark began to implement what he referred to as “integrated functional training.” Clark’s goal was to optimize functional strength, neuromuscular efficiency and dynamic flexibility. It was, at the time, a novel approach to rehab and training—and it soon became evident that it worked.
Through hands-on application of his system with athletes from diverse sports, Clark was able to clinically validate the value of systematic integrated functional training. His method included multiple aspects:
- core stabilization training
- neuromuscular stabilization training
- reactive neuromuscular training
- integrated functional strength training
- functional flexibility training
The resulting success in preventing injuries, speeding recovery and optimizing performance of these athletes soon attracted the attention of the professional sports community. It became clear that Clark’s methods were helping athletes get bigger, stronger and faster.
REPUTATION, CERTIFICATION AND SPECIALIZATION
As Clark’s reputation grew and the new millennium dawned, the fitness equipment and education company Perform Better!® invited him to speak to fitness trainers. He also began meeting fitness industry professionals, including Neal Spruce, who was then owner of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (and is now CEO of dotFIT). “I had purchased NASM in the mid-’90s with the primary goal of bringing credibility to personal trainers through evidence-based education and protocols,” says Spruce. “When I first met Mike Clark, I was sure I’d found the solution. Mike’s mastery of human movement allowed him to combine athletic training, physical therapy and fitness into a new exercise paradigm.”
Spruce persuaded Clark to join NASM in 2000 as the CEO, marking the formal launch of the NASM OPT model and the initiative to create an online arm of the fitness education company. Before signing on, Clark discussed his views on fitness education with Spruce, as he recounts here: “You must have an evidence-based approach, based on principles of human movement science, human performance, and exercise and sports science. For example, the principles of functional anatomy, functional biomechanics and neurophysiology will not change. This is the foundation. Then, you need a system to organize and deliver these principles.”
This, says Clark, is the power of the NASM OPT model: It organizes complex scientific principles from these disciplines into a system based on steps (organized into distinct levels and phases). Once trainers understand this system, they can follow the steps to provide an evidence-based solution that enables clients to get predictable and desired results, such as weight loss, enhanced fitness, increased performance or improved recovery. Just as Clark’s initial OPT system provided game-changing results for pro athletes, the NASM approach has proven to be successful for clients of NASM-CPTs.
“Fitness and personal training education could be classified as pre-Mike Clark NASM and post-Mike Clark NASM,” says David Van Daff, who was senior director of personal training and education for Bally Total Fitness® when Clark joined NASM. (Today, Van Daff works with Clark at Fusionetics®, where he is the senior vice president and general manager of facility operations.) “Mike revolutionized personal training education with practical evidence-based solutions that were applicable to people in conventional fitness facilities. With systems he developed for NASM, personal training certification became a career-starter that thoroughly prepares students for success.”
In 2001, under Clark’s leadership, NASM delved deeper into the areas of performance enhancement and corrective exercise, launching two specializations to address them. The PES was created to help trainers apply the NASM OPT model to sports performance (e.g., elite and pro) clients, and the CES applied evidence-based methods to identify and improve muscular imbalances and faulty movements in order to prevent injuries.
As the fitness industry got wind of these new training advancements and protocols, NASM quickly emerged as a leading provider of personal training education and certification. Van Daff says, “In the mid-2000s, Bally had over 450 clubs and over 5,000 personal trainers. We evaluated all current and former personal trainers to find our ‘ideal candidate’ and make better hiring decisions. We discovered that NASM Certified Personal Trainers were the most productive, highest-rated and longest-tenured compared to trainers with any other certifications or degrees.”
In 2006, Bally, Life Time Fitness™ and 24 Hour Fitness® all partnered with NASM, thanks to the consistent success they had experienced with NASM-CPTs.
Evidence-Based Foundation and Application
Fueled by his commitment to evidence-based programming, Clark pushed to improve programs and methods by strengthening NASM’s evidence-based foundation. In 2003, to that end, NASM partnered with Clark’s alma mater, UNC, to establish the NASM Research Institute within the department of exercise and sports science. Building on Clark’s commitment to evidence-based research, the Institute continues to explore areas of fitness, performance, rehabilitation, corrective exercise, nutrition and behavior modification, among others.
“At UNC, we [have] biomechanically mapped the body. We know what muscles are tight and what [muscles] are weak,” says Clark. “We also know that if you follow the right corrective exercises in sequence, we can fix movement impairments and reduce the risk of injury by 50%–70%.”
This research was accomplished with state-of-the-art technology. For example, in the motion analysis laboratory, researchers at UNC are able to study 3-D kinetic data and muscle activities of human movement, using statistical analyses and biomechanical modeling. Within the NASM Research Institute, Clark continues to support research efforts and remains committed to evidence-based systems as he expands applications to reach and help more people.
Evolution, Expansion and Inspiration
As the fitness industry continued to evolve, so did Clark’s role. He oversaw many important transitions and further expanded his role to include outreach to the general public. Clark served at NASM until 2013, then moved on to become founder and CEO of Fusionetics, a company that represents the culmination of 25 years of his life’s work.
Not surprisingly, Fusionetics itself is an integration of all of Clark’s experience. As a performance health system, Fusionetics integrates sports science, clinical application and technology (including web and mobile apps) to deliver solutions that decrease injury, optimize performance and enhance recovery. And it offers solutions for all of his audiences—healthcare, fitness and sports professionals, plus their clients.
Like the NASM OPT model, Fusionetics is assessment-driven and solution-focused, based on movement patterns and goals. “We can give you an injury prevention, fitness or performance training program,” says Clark. “Then we have recovery, where we focus on sleep, stress, nutrition, hydration and movement quality.”
There’s no doubt that Clark will continue to expand the reach of his systems-based solutions to optimize human performance. Paul Winsper, vice president of athlete performance for Under Armour®, says, “Mike’s track record of working with athletes at the highest level speaks for itself, but what continues to impress me is Mike’s passion to create evidence-based solutions for all athletes. His enthusiasm is infectious. He still gets in the trenches, but his ability to go big-picture strategic-thinking to pull concepts together is remarkable.”
In short, Clark’s reach seems limited only by the number of people on the planet. In fact, if you were to meet Clark, you would get the impression that he is not going to rest until every human being is moving as well as is scientifically (and humanly) possible. It just might be that this is the best outcome to ever have stemmed from one man’s college football injury.