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4 Steps You Might Have Skipped in Your Strength Training Career

Written on August 1, 2013 at 6:00 am, by Eric Cressey

After he read my blog post from earlier this week, Mike Robertson reached out to me with this great guest post, which highlights in more detail how to be "smart from the start" with your training career.  Mike's new resource, Bulletproof Athlete, has set the new gold standard for safe and effective training for beginner lifters.

As EC discussed earlier this week, a lot of things can go right for beginners, but a lot of things can go wrong for them, too – even if these mistakes aren't perceived.  These problems aren't as simple as dropping a weight on one's foot or misloading a barbell and having it come crashing down.  Rather, they're usually acts of omission – meaning you skipped something (either intentionally or unintentionally) that needed to get done to ensure optimal long-term progression.  Here are four steps a lot of people skip along the way:

Step #1: Developing Quality Mobility and Stability

This is probably the most notorious offender on the list, and yet I think this is the point to which people are the most unwilling to listen.

Case and point: think about how your lifting career started. I can tell you how mine did. Here goes…

The summer before my junior year, we got a bunch of strength training machines at our school. We also got a bunch of hand-me-down barbells and dumbbells from Ball State University. With this mish-mash of equipment, my lifting career started.

Our upper body days were grueling – 5-10 sets of various bench presses, no upper back training, and biceps and triceps work until the cows came home.

And legs? Pffft – well, our leg training left a thing or two to be desired. We didn’t squat – ever – because we didn’t have a rack. And, because they were obviously bad for our knees. My leg training consisted of leg presses, leg extensions and leg curls. Do you see what I’m getting at here?

For most of us, our basic movement foundation is so screwed up, it’s no wonder we’ve either plateaued or ended up injured.

The Fix

Go back to home base. Rebuild your movement foundation via smart mobility and stability training. Teach yourself to squat, push-up, lunge, etc., with good technique and quality movement.

Don’t worry about things like load for now; just get yourself moving better. When you go back to lifting heavy things, not only will you be far more efficient, but you’ll be stronger as well.

Step #2 – Integrating the Core

Let’s quickly return to my first years in lifting.

We had tons of machines, which were great at isolating specific body parts. But we also know they’re virtually useless if you want to coordinate movement like you would in sports, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or any ol’ activities of daily living.

Mike-Robertson-Deadlift

In my “main” lower body lift (a leg press, at the time) you have a built-in core. No wonder you can throw so much weight around when you’re totally supported and just allow your legs to do the work!

And my main upper body lift (like any young, American male) was the bench press. Again, great for developing the upper body, but not so good at integrating or “tying together” the upper and lower body.

What we’ve ended up doing is training either the upper OR the lower body, but not focusing on exercises that integrate the two.

The Fix

You’re probably already smarter than me early on, so keep doing those compound lower body exercises instead of isolated garbage.

On the upper body training sessions, put an emphasis on upper body exercises that unite the upper and lower body. Push-up variations are awesome here, as are inverted rowing exercises.

Step #3 – Jumping Right Into Deadlifts

I don’t know two guys who love deadlifts more than Eric Cressey and me. Well, maybe Konstantin and Andy Bolton, but we’ve got to be pretty darn close!

ec_660dl

Here’s the thing: if you watch enough people move, you realize that most aren’t ready to do a conventional deadlift on Day 1.

First off, most people these days have zero body awareness. ZERO. You ask them to hinge at the hips and all they really do is extend their back into oblivion.

Then, to make matters worse, they talk about how deadlifts (and hip hinging) “hurts their back.”

The Fix

I like to ease my clients into the hip hinge pattern. If they’re really dysfunctional, we may start with something like a hip thrust to teach them how to extend their hips first.

From there, I want to get them on their feet so they can start to put the pieces together. Whether you choose a Romanian deadlift (RDL), pull-through, or rack pull is irrelevant.

The goal is to get them hinging with a neutral spine, often with a reduced load and through a shorter range of motion than they would a traditional deadlift. Let them groove this pattern and get confident for a few weeks (or months, depending on the client) and then slowly progress them back into full range of motion pulling.

I love deadlifting as much as the next guy, but they may not be appropriate right off the bat.

And along those same lines, here’s one more thing to think about…

Step #4 – Back Squats

I’m pretty sure if I haven’t already gotten my powerlifting man-card revoked, it’s definitely gone after I say this.

Not everyone is prepared to back squat on Day 1.

I know I’m not alone in this sentiment, either. Gray Cook has gone on record as saying, “train the deadlift, maintain the squat.”

I know EC is a big fan of the front squat as well – not just for himself, but for his baseball guys as well.

The bottom line is, the back squat isn’t an easy exercise to master. Does that mean we just forget about it? Absolutely not – I love squatting, and it’s actually become my favorite lift over the years.

But again, that doesn’t mean we should jump right into back squatting Day 1.

The Fix

First and foremost, get that movement foundation first.

Once you’ve got that foundation, then start to re-build your squat technique. I love goblet squats (ala Dan John) and front squats early on in a program. Not only do they lock your spine into an upright position, but they maximize and reinforce good mobility through the hips, knees and ankles.

Plus, if you’re building a rocking posterior chain with your hip hinging exercises, it’s okay to blast those quads a little bit with a really quad dominant squatting variation!

Summary

We’ve all skipped steps along the way. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to find an amazing performance coach when you’re young and start working with them!

However, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the facts.

If you skipped any of the steps above, now is the time to rebuild your foundation, once and for all.

And if you want someone to outline all this for you, pick up a copy of my Bulletproof Athlete program. It’s on sale this week ONLY, and I guarantee you’ll be leaner, stronger and more athletic after you finish the program.

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  • Sam

    “My leg training consisted of leg presses, leg extensions and leg curls. Do you see what I’m getting at here? ”

    I would like to see any research that shows that free weights are superior to machines for improving athletic performance or reducing the risk of injury. I do not know of any.

  • Doc

    I’ll add one more fix to the mix. Get an excellent physical education program in place K-12 and make it as important as math, science and English. I’ve read the Convict Conditioning books and read the article on Dragon Door by the MovNat owner and I thought “We did all this in school when I was growing up for free”. Why are people having to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to learn it now. I played on very competive high school and college baseball teams and I cannot remember one shoulder or elbow problem. Unfortunately the things that you write about are necessary today and I appreciate the time and effort and knowledge you impart to the rest of us, but I think many of these problems could be avoided or minimized by learning to do them in school. I realize this is a very general viewpoint but I do believe it is valid.

  • http://awakenedwarriors.com/how-to-build-muscle/ Brandon Cook

    Awesome Mike! That’s exactly what I’m focused on right now… rebuilding my foundation from the beginning. After pushing myself too hard over the years and injuring my rotator cuff and adductor because of muscle imbalances… I realized that I did skip a few steps and that the only way to progress further was to take a few steps back and make corrections.

    When you realize that the foundation is cracked… you can either keep building and hope it doesn’t collapse or tear that sucker down and repour the concrete. Great advice guys.

  • http://brainbodybelly.com Mark P

    Honestly, I think this post is THE template people should use when coaching other people. Great post, Mike.

  • http://www.phillystrength.com Michele Rogers

    Thanks for the post. These are rules I myself swear by, but most trainers, even the seemingly good ones, don’t even think about or even know about. I have one bone to pick however….your goblet squat video. I think I see just a teensy bit of posterior tilt at the bottom of his squat, which means he’s gone below his range of motion and is no longer “maintaining” his squat. That inch at the bottom range where most people start to lose control of their gluts and spine leaves neutral for just a second is often overlooked and unnoticed. Unless folks develop an awareness of that moment, they’ll carry that form into their heavier lifts until they slowly degrade the lumbar spine. Maybe you can post on that if you haven’t already!

  • Ben

    on the subject of using exercises that involve the “core,” don’t forget that the overhead press (and any overhead barbell lift) is great for this. For lower body exercises, the squat, deadlift, and farmer’s/sandbag carry work well.

  • Greg

    Can’t agree with not using isolated equipment. Being a former body builder I knew nothing about FMS, RKC, SFG, primal etc.. I still rely on basic joint function for one main reason and thats limb balance. Although clearly cannot be compared to a snatch but try doing SL ext yes on the machine and tell me both legs are equally strong. If ever be the need would be the lying hamstring leg curl. There’s a reason these machines are found in rehab facilities which are the maximal range of motion attained for optimal muscular efficiency. How else would one get a strong knee flexion? What if the closed chain method is too demanding? These are just a few reasons that go undermined that I have to stick too especially now when I’m noticing more and more injuries occurring at the highest level of performance.

  • Alex

    Machines for atheltic performance? It’s like saying you don’t need coordination do perform in a sport. You need muscle inter and intra coordination. These machines are used (and mis-used) in rehab to regain function and not performance. Although, a properly scaled closed-chain exercise will always be safer than an open chain. ie: leg extension for an ACL injury or femoro-patellar syndrome? Bitch please.

  • http://www.ayapt.nl Merlijn

    I guess this information is so valuable! I really like this shift in approaching weight training. It’s simple but overlooked a lot! Already using it!

  • Vincent Brunelle DC

    Eric
    I like to take a client through the desired movement pattern first, have them sense the sticking points then have them either perform some soft tissue release, patterning exercise or breathing patterns then revisit the desired pattern. If good to go then lift if not explore more soft tissue or much like you suggest seek an alternative exercise to groove pattern.
    Vincent Brunelle DC

  • Emil

    As I’ve gotten older, even though I may not have gotten much wiser, I’ve realized the importance of mobility. Agree with most of the points here.

    @Sam: Not aware of any research to that effect either (although I will admit to not having looked for it) but I challenge you to find one movement of, for example, the knee in an athletic situation that doesn’t involve the hip. Any time we play sports it’s all multi-joint movement and stabilizing. (Unless you count chess as a sport…)


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