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10 Ways to Sustain a Training Effect in Your Strength and Conditioning Programs

Written on October 25, 2012 at 4:39 pm, by Eric Cressey

I'm going to let you in on a little shocker: I really don't train as hard as I used to train.

Blasphemy, I know.  Every strength and conditioning coach is supposed to constantly be pursuing a mythical level of fitness at all times.  Because it's my job to make people healthier and more athletic, I, in turn, am expected to be able to bench press 800, vertical jump 40 inches, complete a marathon in under three hours, and be able to fart lightning at a moment's notice.  While I can make a decent run at the last challenge after a batch of my mom's famous calico beans recipe, I guess I'm just content with not making optimal progress.

Now, don't get me wrong; I haven't let myself turn into a blob, and I'm still training 5-6 days a week.  The goals, however, have shifted since my last powerlifting meet in December of 2007. Nowadays, I get a lot more excited about watching one of our minor league guys get a big league call-up than I do about a ten-pound squat personal record after a 16-week training cycle. I worry more about being a better husband, business partner, boss, and coach than I do about whether I'm 10 or 11% body fat, and whether it'll make my weight class. And, I certainly expect these priorities to change even more when my wife and I decide to have kids.

In short, I think I'm a lot like a solid chunk of the exercising population.  Training hard excites me, but it doesn't define me anymore.

Interestingly, though, I really haven't wasted away like one might expect. In fact, I've gotten stronger while keeping my weight about the same - or slightly lower, right where I want to be.  Just for the heck of it, not too long ago, I staged my own little mock raw powerlifting meet and totaled 1435 at a body weight of 180.6 (1396 is considered an "Elite" total, as a frame of reference).  I used the giant cambered bar for squatting, simply because my shoulder gets cranky when I back squat. Sue me.

A few notes on the mock/impromptu meet:

1. Thanks to the CP staff and interns for helping with spots, handoffs, and videos - and putting up with my musical selection (which I think, for the record, was an outstanding representative sample of modern training music).

2. I weighed in at 180.6 first thing that morning (about three hours before I lifted).  I didn't have to cut weight.

3. I had a scoop of Athletic Greens, three cups of coffee with vanilla protein powder, and five eggs with spinach, peppers, and onions for breakfast, then drank a bottle of water at the facility before I started.  So, I really didn't carb up for this "meet" (or really prepare for it in any capacity, for that matter). I did have an accidental open mouth kiss with my dog, Tank, while I was foam rolling when he licked my face while I wasn't looking.  I'm not sure if making out with a puggle constitutes ergogenic assistance? 

4. Speaking of Tank, he makes a great cameo during my opening squat.  He's eating air, in case you're wondering.

5. The great thing about squats in powerlifting meets is that they can look like good mornings to parallel and still pass.  Score!

6. I haven't free squatted with a wider, powerlifting style stance in about three years. So, you can say that I was a bit rusty, as evidenced that my stance width was a bit erratic from attempt to attempt (and especially narrow on the third squat).

7. The first squat and last deadlift were exactly 90 minutes apart.  Talk about efficiency!

All that said, I really don't think I could have even come close to this total back in 2007, and according to some research that says strength peaks at age 29, I should be on the downslope, especially if I'm not training as hard. So, what gives?

I suspect it has a little something to do with the fact that I have a pretty good idea of how to sustain a strength training effect. Much of it has to do with my experiences with in-season athletes; some of them waste away if they don't pay attention to detail and stay consistent with their training.  Meanwhile, others come back so strong that you'd think they never left.  Here are some of the factors that have surely helped me (and them) over the years.

1. Very little alcohol consumption.

My first date with my wife was April 22, 2007. She's seen me drink twice in the entire time we've known one another. I'm absolutely not going to stand on a soapbox and say that I don't think other people should drink; they can do what they want, but it just really isn't for me.

That said, if you're concerned with helping your strength training gains along (or simply sustaining them), simply have a look at the research on alcohol's negative effect on effect on endocrine status, sleep quality, neural drive, tissue quality, and recovery from exercise.  People who drink a lot feel and move like crap.  Sorry, I don't make the rules.

2. Early to bed, early to rise.

I find the 6AM world far more entertaining, refreshing, and productive than the 1AM world.  I feel better, train better, recovery better, and am an all-around happier person when I get to bed early and awake early without an alarm.  For me, 10:30PM to 6AM is pretty much the norm.

Now, for those who insist that sleeping 1:30AM to 9AM counts exactly the same, check out some of the research on night shift workers and their health; it's not good.  As a rule of thumb, one hour before midnight is worth two after midnight - and it certainly helps to try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day.  Post-Thanksgiving meal naps are spectacular, too.

3. A foundation of strength and mobility.

In talking with our athletes about the relationship between off- and in-season training, I use the analogy of a bank account.  During the off-season, you make deposits (work hard and acquire a training effect).  When you go in-season, you make withdrawals (play your sport). If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, you're in trouble - and that's why in-season training is so important.

Now, for the general fitness folks, this simply means that if you put a lot of "money in the bank," you'll be prepared for the day when life gets crazy and you miss a few days in the gym.  You have more wiggle room to go on a spending spree.

Mobility works the same way.  Once you've built it, it's hard to lose unless you really go out of your way to avoid moving for an extended period of time.

4. Regular manual therapy.

I'm very fortunate to have two outstanding manual therapists in my office on a weekly basis.  Chris Howard is a massage therapist and does a tremendous job with more diffuse approaches, recovery modalities, and some focal work with the Fibroblaster tool.  Nate Tiplady utilizes Graston Technique, Active Release, fascial manipulation, and chiropractic adjustments.  Along with regular foam rolling, these guys have made a big difference in me staying healthy, which leads me to...

5. No missed training sessions.

I'm fortunate to have been very healthy over the years.  Like everyone, I've had minor niggles here and there, but haven't pushed through them and let them get out of hand.  It's better to skip benching one day and do higher rep floor presses than it is to push through some pain and wind up with a torn pec.  If long-term consistency is your goal, you have to be willing to assess risk: reward in your training on a regular basis.

Moreover, training is a part of my life, just like brushing my teeth, feeding the dog, or checking my email.  It's not an option to "squeeze it out" because my calendar gets too full.  I make time instead of finding time.  Of course, it's a lot easier when your office is part of a 15,000+ square-foot gym!

6. Lots of vegetables and quality protein.

Call me crazy, but I'd take grass-fed meatloaf and spinach and onions cooked in coconut oil over a chocolate cake any day of the week.  I'm not making that up; I just don't have much of a sweet tooth.

In Precision Nutrition, Dr. John Berardi talks about the 90% rule: as long as you're good with your nutrition 90% of the time, you can get away with slip-ups or intentional cheat meals for the other 10%.  If you eat five meals a day, that's 31-32 "clean" meals and 3-4 "whoops" meals each week.  When I think about it in that context, I'm probably more like 95-98% adherent, and the other 2-5% is me grabbing a protein bar on the fly while I'm coaching at CP. I could certainly do a lot worse.

I'm sure Dr. Berardi would agree that if you get closer to 100%, you likely have a little wiggle room with your training program. For example, you might be able to cut back slightly on the amount of conditioning needed to meet your goals.

7. Great training partners.

I've been extremely fortunate to lift in a number of great environments, from my time in the University of Connecticut varsity weight room, to my days at Southside Gym, to Cressey Performance 1.0, 2.0, and now 3.0.  You've always got spotters nearby, and there are always guys to give you feedback on weight selection and technique.  We crack jokes, play loud music, and challenge and encourage each other.  I'm convinced that this factor more than any other can absolutely revolutionize the way many folks train; they need human interaction to get out of their comfort zone and realize what they're capable of accomplishing in the right environment.

8. Planned deloads.

I rarely take a week of training off altogether, but at least once a month, I'll reduce training stress substantially for 5-7 days to recharge.  The secret to avoiding burnout is to understand the difference between overload, overreaching, and overtraining.  The former two are important parts of the training equation, but if you are always seeking them 24/7/365, you can wind up with the latter. I talk about this in great detail in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.

9. Accountability.

In my opinion, one of the main reasons many people struggle to achieve their fitness goals is that they are only accountable to themselves - and that's a slippery slope if you aren't blessed with great willpower and perseverance.  It's one reason why we encourage our clients to tell their friends and family about their fitness goals; they'll constantly be reminded of them in conversation throughout the day.

Being in the fitness industry is a blessing because your peers and your clients/athletes are your accountability.  Fat personal trainers don't have full schedules.  Weak people don't become strength coaches of NFL teams.  And, in my shoes, it's magnified even more because I'm in front of thousands of people every single day through the videos on this website, DVDs that we've produced, and seminars at which I present.  Even if "tapping out" on my training was something that interested me, I have too much at stake.  Think about where you can find that level of accountability in your life to help you reach your goals.

10. Cool implements to keep things fun.

I live really close to our facility, so I often joke that I have the best 15,000 square-foot home gym you'll ever see.  We've got a bunch of specialty bars, bumper plates, slideboards, sleds, tires, sledgehammers, turf, kettlebells, dumbbells, bands, chains, farmer's walk handles, TRX units, medicine balls, a glute-ham, chest-supported row, functional trainers, benches, and a host of other implements that I'm surely forgetting.  There is absolutely no excuse for me to ever get bored with training, as I have an endless source of variety at my fingertips.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, "But Eric, I don't have anything cool at my commercial gym!"  My response to that has five parts:

a. If they didn't have what you needed, why did you give them your money instead of taking your business elsewhere?
b. Have you considered outfitting home gym?
c. They probably have a lot more than you might think, but you just need to be more creative and prepare a bit more.
d. Remember that there are many different ways to add variety to programming beyond just changing exercise selection.  You can tinker with sets, reps, rest intervals, training frequency, tempo, range-of-motion, and a host of other factors.
e. Have you used a strength and conditioning program written by a qualified coach? He or she may see the same equipment through a different lens than you do. 

These are surely just ten of countless factors that one can cite when it comes to sustaining performance over the long haul, and I'm sure that they'll change as I get older.  With that said, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section: what factors have contributed to you making (or sustaining) progress with your strength and conditioning programs?

Looking for a program to take the guesswork out of your programming?  Check out The High Performance Handbook.

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53 Responses to “10 Ways to Sustain a Training Effect in Your Strength and Conditioning Programs”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Great post, EC. Really bang on with all of your points.

  2. Barath Says:

    Awesome video! It’s funny how Tank gives exactly zero fucks about your 405 squat.

  3. Eric Cressey Says:

    Barath,

    Just an opener. He’s got better things to do, apparently! :)

  4. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Jeff!

  5. Sammy Says:

    If that’s not training as hard as you used to, I can’t imagine what “used to” was like!

  6. James Cipriani Says:

    Great post. I can completely relate.

  7. Alonso Herrera Says:

    Great post Eric, your actions truly make you an inspiration.

  8. Danielle Says:

    How nice to read the same thoughts I have in my head and see them written by EC! I would like to add in that having some daily “connection” with earth, to be able to hike, surf, ride, snowboard, or climb rocks and connect with earths circadian rhythm, our natural rhytmic biological cycles adds to my excellent health. I feel best when I’ve been outside whether training or hiking or gardening or doing chi gong, and then I can kick serious ass in the gym.

  9. Dan Says:

    Few Things…

    First, Awesome Playlist!

    Second, is that a gigantic beanbag couch you’re sleeping on?

    Third, keep up the awesome work in training, in your facility, & here online!

  10. Eric Cressey Says:

    Dan,

    1. Thanks!
    2. Yogibo.com!
    3. Thanks!

  11. Christian O. Says:

    Excellent post Eric, there is definitely a lot to learn from you.

  12. R. Smith Says:

    Eric,

    This is a powerful post, if only because it hits home with me on a number of fronts. I’m pretty solid (thanks to CP) on the training and nutrition front. And in the last year, I’ve learned the importance of sleep and came to understand competing demands, what with balancing the demands of a business and a family.

    Thanks for sharing.

    RS

  13. Brian Sabo Says:

    Eric, Look forward daily to your posts. Our group of HS coaches do vj,slj, stj, two types of throws, 10m-30m sprint during deload week. It is very relaxing, fun, and competitive all at the same time. At 38 I am better than at 21. Do you do many of your or other testing with your guys?

    Also would you consider a paid distance learning type talk, Q&A, with my HS fitness class?
    Thanks for the Knowledge!!

  14. Tim Henriques Says:

    Nice job on your lifts Eric, looking good

  15. Harry Clarke Says:

    Great post Eric. Very impressive with the lifting. Something for me to strive to. Your an inspiration.

  16. Rafa Alfaro Says:

    Great post eric, this stuff you say really helps me on enhancing the quality of my training. I can easily tell you really know your stuff

  17. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Brian. Yes, we work quite a bit of competition in to our training.

    Feel free to email me about the stuff with your HS kids. Thanks.

  18. Ellen Stein Says:

    Love this! Especially cause I pretty much do everything you mention on your checklist….

  19. Bob Says:

    Eric,

    Can you add in oly lifts to show and go? Are there variations that include them? I want mass, but to not lose my oly skills.

  20. Mark Reinke Says:

    Im not totaling 1400, but welcoming a child into the world and finishing graduate school at the same time killed any progress for me for some time. I was able to maintain strength by keeping all of my mobility work and keeping my workouts short. it usually consisted of just working up to a single heavy set of 3-5 on the major lifts every 5-6 days. The rest of my 2-3 workouts/ week were basically just done to feel good and keep me alert while writing.

  21. Eric Cressey Says:

    Bob,

    Yes, you can definitely do that. Just clean before one lower body session per week, and snatch before one upper body session per week. Then, drop one set of everything else in those workouts.

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Rafa!

  23. Stephanie Says:

    Awesome post! The bit about Tank made me chuckle.

  24. Greg Says:

    Eric, awesome post. This is my first comment after following for ~1 year. Sounds like I probably had more drinks during the Vikings game last night, than you’ve had in the last 5 years – and I know from reading this blog that many here are very high on the fitness scale &/or have many strings of capital letters and commas behind their names. That being said, for us “weekend warriors” – I mean, I found out about you from a slowpitch softball forum (we’re athletes, LOL) – your programs still ring true. 1400+ @180 is amazing! I just topped 1K, and am on a slow but progressing goal towards 1.2K. You’re methods (SnG, blog, etc.) are helping me get there.

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Greg!

  26. Elliot Says:

    Great post….back to basics.

  27. Chris Says:

    Eric – After struggling for quite a while with mobility and muscular balance I think I really need regular tissue work. I go the chiro every 2 weeks, and before I lift I regularly foam roll, use a tiger tail on some lower leg areas, and a lax ball for some upper body areas like pecs and around the scapula. But, it only seems to help minimally. If you’re just a poor graduate student what’s the best way to address tissue care that I’m not already doing? Unfortunately I just can’t afford regular message therapy (and don’t have Nate:)).

  28. Bob Says:

    Eric,

    Just to follow up. Would I do this on any of the programs? The 3 day or the 4 day versions?

    How many sets of cleans or snatches would I do before? Any sort of rubric here ?

  29. Eric Cressey Says:

    Bob,

    Should work best on the 4x/week program, but it would be okay to do it on the 3x/week program as well (do it on days 1 and 3). I’d go with 4-6 sets, fluctuating based on the overall structure of the program.

  30. Eric Cressey Says:

    Chris,

    Start thinking about why those changes aren’t sticking. Is it because you aren’t following the soft tissue work with the appropriate stabilization training? Is there some kind of pattern overload, faulty breathing pattern, or bad compensation scheme that’s causing it to stick?

  31. Derrick Blanton Says:

    Beyond impressive, Eric.

    If you were a scientist in the lab, and creating the prototype for a walk the walk strength coach, Eric Cressey would walk out of the chamber.

    You have mix of enormous knowledge, ability to implement it, tremendous heart and work ethic. (Not to mention humility, and the special secret weapon, Tank.)

    Very inspiring!

    PS: An underrated form of accountability is simply loving to train.

  32. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Derrick!

  33. Nick Says:

    That’s a insane deadlift at that weight!! BTW, did you get your new balance custom made?!

  34. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Nick. Those are actually a sneak preview of the Minimus 3.0, which will be out on December 1. I’m demoing them for NB and giving feedback. They seem to be working okay. ;)

  35. Constantine Says:

    A couple of comments to chime in!

    About the shoes: just putting it out there, but I love training in some of the vivobarefoot shoes. The running shoes are fine for normal lifting as they really have no sole to them and some of their sneakers are great too. A little pricey, but very stylish. I just ‘finished’ my first pair this week–where finishing means I finally wore a hole straight through them after wearing them for about 3 years. I think switching over to minimal footwear for day-to-day life and learning how to walk properly again is a great step towards long term lower body joint health and muscle function.

    With respect to working in o-lifting on an Eric-style training regimen I have a different opinion than Eric but I think it depends on how much volume you have time for in your schedule/what you want to accomplish. O-lifting is an explosive strength activity and both the clean + jerk and the snatch are very posterior chain intensive and a good jerk certainly requires upper body explosiveness. Also, because an O-lift happens so fast (you can’t really ‘grind out’ the process of flinging a barbell over your head and catching it) there are huge psychological and form components to making gains in O-lifting. On the other hand, even if you try to tweak the way you squat/deadlift/bench press to emphasize it towards explosive strength, it’s still more of a maximal strength activity once you get to close-to-maximal weights.

    For me, I don’t mix heavy o-lifting and heavy weightlifting too much–o-lifting is my sport and I do weightlifting to help me in my sport (and keep my healthy!). At the end of my weightlifting days, I do some ‘form work’ on my o-lifts at <70-80% of my maxes to get myself more comfortable with heavier weights under the bar and to really focus on form (in this sense, being tired from a weightlifting workout actually helps because I can't just 'muscle things up' anymore). On O-lifting days, I do some heavy o-lifting and then maybe some accessory work specific to o-lifting–high pulls, snatch balances, etc.

    So I 'lift weights' 3-4 days a week and do heavy o-lifts 2-1 times a week (so I train ~5 days a week) with plenty of form work on the weightlifting days. I'm still trying to figure out what programming really works for me though, and I wonder if Eric sees any obvious flaws with this approach! For me, I just feel like I could never spend as little time under the bar for my o-lifts as Eric suggests because of the psychological factors and the technical nature of o-lifts.

  36. ben Says:

    Eric, that was awesome. I think for most people into intermediate-to-advanced strength-training impromptu maxes like this are a good practice. Thanks for sharing these vids. You’re a strong man.

  37. Mark Koch Says:

    Eric – awesome lifts! Was great meeting you last Friday. Thanks for letting me visit Pat and work out at CP. It was really cool working out in the CP Space. I could do without the prowler sled however – a week later my left leg is still lame.

  38. Andy Says:

    Very impressive and I like the fact that you are self deprecating as well. Do you do any O lifts?

  39. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Mark! Great to meet you as well. Hope to catch up again soon; come by anytime.

  40. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Andy. I’ll play around with them here and there, but not consistently.

  41. kyle Says:

    Always a great read! thanks Eric..

  42. Gav Says:

    Damn, I wish I had that bodyweight-to-deadlift ratio! Awesome!

    Twice I’ve seen you mention/recommend Athletic Greens now, shame they don’t sell in the UK, I’d be tempted to give them a try.

  43. Dan Pope Says:

    Excellent article Eric, one of the best I’ve read from you recently.

  44. Eric Cressey Says:

    Gav,

    Thanks! I believe they are actually in the process of introducing Athletic Greens overseas, so keep an eye out!

  45. Emmy Says:

    Did you mean to write ‘that’s why in-season training is so important’ ?? Or should it have read off-season? In point 3…. Thanks

  46. Michael Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Love your work. I have been training to your philosophy and ive never been healthier nor stronger.

    Do you think you can write your next article on implementing sprinting in with strength training?

    Thanks,
    Mike

  47. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your kind words. Give this a read: http://www.ericcressey.com/so-you-want-to-start-sprinting

  48. Eric Cressey Says:

    Emmy,

    Nope, it’s supposed to be in-season. Just emphasizing that you have to continue to “make deposits” during the season.

  49. Aaron M. Says:

    Good read, Eric!

    I keep things interesting and fun despite a lack of good gyms in my area (total population: 10k) by doing strongman training at home in addition to traditional gym work. I’ve made a sled for pulls and pushes, and I modified two of my tractor tires to also be farmer’s walk and yoke carry rigs. My kids really enjoy going for sled rides year round too!

    Keep up the great work!

  50. Brian Ruffner Says:

    I only wish you were in Portland, OR so my son could train with you!

  51. Tom S Says:

    Great post Eric. It’s refreshing to see a another fitness professional see there are more important things in life and that one day, we all grow up and our priorities in this business change.

    For years, I have been preaching to my clients, LIFE is about BALANCE. We all at one point or another work to damn much and I have some it up to the 4 F’s (Faith, Family, Friends, and Fitness).

    We can be the best coach, trainer, etc.. but if our 4 F’s are not balanced in our life, then I don’t believe we really have the quality of life we all are striving for these days.

    Now, with regard to your tips on training effect, I like your 10 and here are a couple of things I have implemented over the years with my military background:

    1) Make sure you take your RHR before training, periodically during training, and post-workout. This was engrained in my head 20yrs ago in Army Fitness School. You have to be able to monitor soldiers or your clients. Knowing what their THR is or getting them to know what their MHR, THR, HR, or HRR is, helps them better understand are they getting the desired training effect, especially with any anaerobic or aerobic training.

    I don’t hear folks talking about this in our industry too often and unless you have a HR monitor device or watch on you, I don’t see how you can monitor your clients workouts, unless you have the luxury of using Joel Jamieson’s HRV program, which I have heard great things about.

    2) Assessments – Initial and Final. With this, the military has always been about testing. Whether with fitness tests, obstacle courses, or challenges, it’s a huge staple in our community.

    Since I retired, I continue to use these in my fitness boot camps, doing mini-obstacle courses, and giving an initial fitness test, and mid-term, and a final test. This not only helps me gauge a clients progress, but it helps them more importantly, especially with mindset. It shows them how far they have come. It’s a great way for them to see how there training has progressed or in some cases regressed, if they didn’t put the work in.

    Anyway, these are just a couple ways I see how folks can make for a great training effect in any program out there and continually strive for improvement.

    Once again Eric, thanks for the post and hope some of the young fitness professionals out there read it and take away that you too have change your priorities. BTW, when you do have kids, your world and priorities will change again. I have a 23yo boy and 10yo daughter and it just seems TIME just flies by, so if it’s one thing I learned after 20yrs of military and the fitness industry, my faith and family come before anything. In this crazy world of everyone trying to do more, I believe it’s not about making more money or working more, it’s about more time in our faith and with family. That’s me, everyone else may or may not have a different set of values or priorities out there.

    Thanks again and take care,

    Tom

  52. JOHN R. BALL NASM-CPT,CES Says:

    Hi Eric, thanks for the great post. Im a personal trainer, & the gym I work for moves to slow (no updated machines or equipment). They know something I don’t, obviously, they been in business 25yrs. I won’t to learn more & be better. I’m working on my own 5yr. plan, but in the meantime, when do you know & how it’s time to change facilities? Thanks

  53. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the kind words. Every situation is a bit different, so it’s hard to say for sure. That said, a good resource for you to check out would be the Fitness Business Blueprint: http://tinyurl.com/fitblueprint

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