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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 1/22/15

Written on January 22, 2015 at 8:27 am, by Eric Cressey

Looking for some good reading material in the world of strength and conditioning? Check these suggestions for the week out:

How to Raise a Tough Athlete - A tennis coach I know posted this on his Facebook page the other day, and I really liked the messages. I love the focus on empowering the athlete, emphasizing process and effort over outcomes, and creating progressive challenges - as opposed to just running an athlete into the ground. Great stuff from Gielie Hoffmann.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior - I recently finished this audiobook from Ori and Rom Brafman, and really enjoyed it. If you're interested in social behavioral work (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell, Chip and Dan Heath), this will be in your wheelhouse. The Brafman brothers talk extensively about why folks make bad decisions, and how to avoid these traps.

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Squat Mechanics: A Deep Analysis - Mark Rippetoe authored a fantastic, in-depth article on proper back squat technique for T-Nation. This is must-read material.

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The Most Important Three Words in Strength and Conditioning

Written on January 20, 2015 at 9:07 am, by Eric Cressey

From 2007 to 2009, I was a big sleeper stretch guy. All our throwing athletes did this stretch at the end of their training sessions, and we meticulously coached the technique to make sure it accomplished what we *hoped* it would accomplish. I featured it in the program in my first book, Maximum Strength, and this picture of me even shows up in the first row of photos on Google Images if you search for "sleeper stretch."

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Then, in March 2010, I attended my first Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) event and "saw the light." I left the course with some great new positional breathing drills that often delivered quick results in terms of improving shoulder internal rotation - without having to actually stretch the shoulder, a joint that doesn't really like to be stretched. Looking back, we were probably trying to "stretch" out an alignment issue - and that never ends well.

We've since progressed our approach, complementing PRI exercises with thoracic spine mobility drills and manual therapy at the shoulder in those who present with true internal rotation deficits. Only after they've still come up short following these initiatives do we actually encourage stretching of the glenohumeral (ball and socket) joint. And, even when that happens, it's gentle side-lying cross-body stretching with the scapula stabilized; this has proven safer and more beneficial for improving internal rotation.

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The three preceding paragraphs about my experiences with the sleeper stretch could really be summed up in three words:

                           I was wrong.

It's not the only time I've been wrong, either.

I wish I'd done more barefoot work and ankle mobility training with the basketball players with whom I worked early in my career.

I wish I'd not just assumed that all athletes needed more thoracic mobility when, in fact, there are quite a few who have hypermobile t-spines.

I wish I'd focused more on the benefits of correct breathing - especially full exhalation - with athletes sooner in my career.

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In my own powerlifting career, I wish I'd spent more time free squatting and less time box squatting. And, I wish I'd competed "raw" instead of with powerlifting equipment.

I've made some errors in the ways I evaluated, trained, and programmed for athletes. I've made dumb decisions in both my business and personal life. However, at the end of the day, I can attribute a lot of my improvements as a person and a professional to the fact that I was completely comfortable admitting, "I was wrong." Heck, I'm so comfortable recognizing my mistakes that I've written entire posts on the subject!

This is trait just about every successful strength and conditioning coach generally shares. Humility is an essential trait for personal and professional advancement, especially in a dynamic field like strength and conditioning where new research and training techniques emerge on a daily basis.

This isn't just limited to strength and conditioning, though. If you asks a lot of the best surgeons in the country, they'd admit that they were wrong in doing a lot of lateral release (knee) surgeries and thermal capsule (shoulder) shrinkage procedures earlier in their careers. And, they'd probably admit that they misdiagnosed a lot of cases of thoracic outlet syndrome as ulnar neuropathy. If they aren't willing to admit their past mistakes, you probably ought to find a different doctor.

If you're an athlete, the same can be said of seeking out a strength and conditioning coach. If the person writing your programs hasn't learned from his/her mistakes, are you really getting a "modern" or forward-thinking program that has been tested in the trenches? We've all seen those programs - both in training and rehabilitation - that have been photocopied so many times over the years that they're barely legible.

Likewise, if you're an up-and-coming strength and conditioning coach, you want to seek out mentors that'll admit their past mistakes and reflect on how they learned from them. Only then can they help you avoid making them, too. You're better off learning under someone who has 15 years of strength and conditioning experience than someone who has 15 years of the same year of experience.

Finally, if you're an established professional, the only way to grow is to get outside your comfort zone. Five years from now, if you're not looking back on your current approaches and wondering what the heck you were thinking, then you're stuck in the bubble on the left.

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You need to visit other facilities, talk with other coaches, and empower your employees/co-workers with a voice that challenges the norm. I learn a lot from my staff on a daily basis. And, looking back on that first PRI event I attended, I was the only "non-clinician" in the room. I was surrounded by PTs, PTAs, respiratory therapists, pelvic floor therapists, and ATCs. I got out of my element and it changed the course of my career dramatically.

Looking back on these experiences when I was clearly wrong, part of me wants to send individual apology notes to all the athletes I saw early in my career. By that same token, though, I feel like thank you notes might be more appropriate, as these mistakes played an essential role in my growth as a coach and person.

If you're looking for different perspectives on continuing education, I'd encourage you to check out our online resource, Elite Training Mentorship, which updates frequently with innovative contributions from various strength and conditioning experts, including the Cressey Sports Performance staff.

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Strength Strategies: Installment 1

Written on January 14, 2015 at 7:00 pm, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post - the first in a new series - comes from Cressey Sports Performance Coach, Greg Robins.

It’s been a while, and oh how I have missed the electronic pages of EricCressey.com. Quick and Easy Ways To Feel and Move Better was fun, but after 50+ editions, I needed something new.

To piggyback off the idea of quick useful, intelligent tips, I have decided to create a fresh new look. This time around I have decided to speak to the strength-training enthusiast in particular. In short, this new series will be devoted to those in the crowd who are most concerned with – above all else – getting stronger.

My aim is to keep this easy-to-apply and simple strategies to help you get stronger. I will organize each week into four categories, or “pillars of success” in the gym. They are mindset, planning/programming, nutrition/recovery, and technique (via a quick instructional video or photos).

Given that this is the first installment, I figured we’d start of with a BANG, so here are two in each category.

1. Mindset: success in strength training takes sacrifice.

I’ve been fortunate enough to reach many of my own goals, but also to spend time around others who have had tremendous success in their chosen endeavors. The list includes CEOs, professional athletes, entrepreneurs, elite level strength athletes, physique competitors, decorated military leaders, and a host of other “successful” individuals. There are a plethora of commonalities among these people, but the one I want to focus on is the extraordinary amount of sacrifices these people make to accomplish their goals.

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To be frank, none of us will attain the strength measures we want, the body we want, or the life we want without making sacrifices. While some may be afforded a hand-up, nobody who truly reaches an admirable level of success receives a hand-out (kudos to my girlfriend for introducing me to the hand-up vs. hand-out analogy).

If you want to do something out of the ordinary, you will make sacrifices on a daily basis that separate you from the majority of people. If what you wanted to achieve was doable by simply going through motions, showing up, and following the masses, it would not be considered extraordinary. I suppose this is common sense., but let’s face it: common sense isn’t so common anymore.

The real advice here is that one must be aware of why they are making sacrifices. Why are you choosing to get to bed rather than to watch the late night game? Why are you choosing to have one beer instead of seven? Why are you leaving early to make sure you can grab groceries before the store closes? As it is so commonly put, what is your why? Lose site of this and sacrifices become tedious chores, your goals become your master, and your life one of self-inflicted servitude. Choose instead to keep yourself focused on the goal.

2. Mindset: selfishness is a rather darker, but necessary, quality of the perennially strong.

There are a few darker truths to reaching uncommon heights. One of them happens to be one I mull around with in my head quite a bit. The truth of the matter is that in order to take extremely good care of oneself requires a degree of selfishness. In order to continually make progress, one must continually find ways to improve upon what they’re already doing. In terms of strength training, one must continue to train at a higher level in some capacity. This also means they must recover at a higher level. Training at a higher level may mean that more focus need be placed on the training sessions, including spending money on equipment or coaching, traveling further, staying longer, and so on.

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In terms of recovery, it most definitely means finding ways to reduce outside stressors, improve sleep, and dial in nutritional measures. Put in various situations, without enough regard for what YOU want, the aforementioned things will not happen often enough.

How often do we tell people with poor health to care for themselves more – to essentially put themselves, and their needs first, more often? At a much smaller level we are acknowledging that the health and vitality we want them to achieve will take some selfishness. It would be wrong to imagine that if someone wanted to achieve higher than ordinary levels of health and performance, it wouldn’t take more selfishness…because it will. It’s a darker truth, but one you can learn to communicate and help others understand so as not to appear to be merely self involved.

3. Planning and Programming: regulating on the fly.

Many informed gym goers have become savvy on following programs, utilizing technology to monitor readiness, and simply finding every way possible to “optimize” the training process. I must say, of all the strongest people I have ever been around, watched, read about, looked up to, none seem to rely on said measures.

Instead they understand the basic principles of training. When you understand the basics well – very well – you will be able to see the forest through the trees. When you see the big picture, regulating training on the fly isn’t over complicated.

Here’s a good place to get started:

You need to do more than you did last time. That’s the basic premise anyhow. With that, a plan can be formed by looking at the past training and improving on it. At a certain point, weight cannot be continually added to the bar in the same fashion. Therefore, training will revolve around two kinds of sessions. The first is geared toward the amount of weight on the bar. The second is either on the speed the weight moves, and or the amount of times weight is moved.

In any plan, there will be times when things don’t go as planned. At those times, simply keep in mind what the purpose of the training is. If the goal was to move a certain load, and you can’t do it for the planned amount, move it less times that day. If the goal was to move it fast and it’s slow, adjust to a weight you can move fast. If the goal was to move it a certain amount of times, lower the load, and move it the required amount of times.

4. Planning and Programming: unilateral stability is not limited to single-leg exercises.

Single-leg exercises are great if you want to get strong at single-leg exercises, or have some limitation that keeps you from doing bilateral exercises. Why would someone want to get strong on single-leg exercises? Pretty much for every reason possible, unless their overriding goal is to be extremely good at bi-ateral exercises! Simply stated, too much attention and energy must be given to these exercises in order to get them brutally strong that could otherwise be spent getting better on two legs, if that is your goal.

Single-leg stability, which for the sake of this tip I will differentiate from single-leg strength, is something everyone should posses. We do, after all, function in split-stance positions, kneeling positions, and on one leg all the time.

You do not need to do lunges, split squats, step-ups and so forth in order to gain acceptable levels of single-leg stability. This is good news for the squat and deadlift enthusiasts. You will want to keep a good level of unilateral stability so instead just focus more of your accessory exercise choices on movements that test single-leg stability. Examples include half-kneeling and split-stance anti-rotation presses, chops, and lifts, for starters.

Other ideas include carrying variations, and even simple things like low level sprinting, and – dare I say – walking more!

5. Nutrition: eat carbohydrates.

To my own detriment, I spent most of my lifting career still strapped in for the low-carb ride. That was really a big mistake. I initially saw great physique changes when I adopted a low carb approach, and thus I turned to it all the time. However, the truth is that what I really did was stop eating too much processed crap, and eating too much in general.

Carbohydrates are the fuel your body wants be a powerful machine. Simply put, fuel appropriately for the demand you are placing on it. If your goal is to be bigger, stronger, and faster, don’t trade in your oatmeal for a buttered-up coffee.

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That said, if your training is sporadic and uninspired, and your life outside of the gym mostly sedentary, then by all means, watch the carbohydrates. If you are training 4+ days each week and trying to progressively push the limit of what you can do, eat more carbohydrates.

6. Nutrition: invest in a rice cooker.

To build off my last point, I prefer to keep my carbohydrate sources as “real” as possible. I won’t lie, I like a good bowl of cereal, and cornbread is something I could easily live on. The majority of the time I stick to five major sources of carbohydrates, and while I’ll divulge them all eventually, the first one is jasmine rice. It tastes better, digests easier, and has a better consistency than any other rice I have tried. I easily consume upward towards 8 to 10 cups of it (dry measure) in a given week. That translates to a lot more cooked. And, on that note, I wouldn’t be nearly as excited about rice if I didn’t have a rice cooker.

This simple gadget will run you anywhere from $15 to $30 and is well worth it. Simply add one part rice to two parts water, press the button, and prepare the rest of your food in the 10 minutes it takes to cook. If that’s too hard for you, then there’s no hope for you as a chef. If you’re someone who struggles to put on size, make the rice cooker as routine as making coffee each morning. I’m willing to bet an added cup or two of rice to your normal intake will have you started back in the right direction.

7. Technique: keep the armpits over the bar.

8. Technique: understand the difference between flexion/extension movements and flexion/extension moments.

If you're looking for more strength insights like these - as well as in-person coaching on the squat, bench press, and deadlift - then you'll definitely want to check out Greg's upcoming seminar, "Optimizing the Big 3." Click here for more information.

Additionally, if you need some programming guidance to prioritize the squat, bench press, or deadlift, check out our collaborative resource, The Specialization Success Guide.

SSG

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Optimizing the Big 3 Seminar – March 8, 2015

Written on January 12, 2015 at 5:17 pm, by Eric Cressey

For the second time, Cressey Sports Performance staff member and accomplished powerlifter Greg Robins will be delivering his one-day seminar, "Optimizing the Big 3," at our facility in Hudson, MA. This event is a great fit for lifters who have an interest in improving the squat, bench press, and deadlift - and may want to powerlift competitively. And, it's also been very popular with strength and conditioning professionals. It'll take place on March 8, 2015.

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Overview:

"Optimizing the Big Three" is a one-day seminar geared towards those looking to improve the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Split into both a lecture and hands on format, the event will provide attendees with practical coaching on the technique of the classic power lifts, as well as valuable information on how to specialize movement preparation, utilize supplementary movements, and organize their training around a central focus: improved strength in these "big three" movements.

Furthermore, Greg will touch upon the lessons learned in preparation for your first few meets, to help you navigate everything from equipment selection, to meet-day logistics.

The value in learning from Greg is a matter of perspective. He has a wealth of knowledge, and experience stemming from various experiences as a coach and lifter. Greg will effectively shed light on how he has applied human movement principles, athletic performance modalities, and anecdotal evidence from working with a plethora of different populations to one main goal; optimizing the technique, health, and improvements in strength of amateur lifters.

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Seminar Agenda:

8:30-9:00AM: Check-in/Registration

9:00-10:00AM: Mechanics, Technique, and Cueing Of the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift - In this lecture Greg will break down the biomechanics of each movement, how to optimize technique, and what to consider both as a coach and lifter in teaching / learning the movements.

10:00-11:00AM: Managing the Strength Athlete: Assessing and Meeting the Demands of the Lifter - Learn what demands a high amount of volume in the classic lifts puts on the body, how to assess for it in others and yourself, and what you can do to manage the stress associated with these demands.

11:00-11:15AM: Break

11:15AM-12:45PM: General Programming Considerations for Maximal Strength - Take a look inside Greg’s head at his approach to organizing the training of a lifter. Topics will include various periodization schemes, and utilizing supplementary and accessory movements within the program as a whole.

12:45-1:45PM: Lunch (on your own)

1:45-2:15PM: Preparing for Your First Meet - Based off his own experiences, and knowledge amassed from spending time around some of the best in the sport, Greg will share some poignant information on what to expect and how to prepare for your first meet.

2:15-3:30PM: Squat Workshop

3:30-4:45PM: Bench Press Workshop

4:45-6:00PM: Deadlift Workshop 

Date/Location:

March 8, 2015

Cressey Sports Performance
577 Main St.
Suite 310
Hudson, MA 01749

CP3

Cost:

Early Bird (before February 8)  – $149.99
Regular (after February) - $199.99

Note: we'll be capping the number of participants to ensure that there is a lot of presenter/attendee interaction - particularly during the hands-on workshop portion - so be sure to register early, as the previous offering sold out well in advance of the early-bird registration deadline.

Registration:

Click here to register using our 100% secure server!

Still not convinced? Here is some feedback from previous attendees:

“The coaching I got was phenomenal; amazing experience!”

“Really happy with the content, and the coaching of the lifts. Definitely appreciated the appeal to reflect on training, and be able to defend all exercises you program. I had high expectations for this event and they were exceeded.”

“Honestly, I was really happy with the seminar, my only regret is I wish I asked a few more questions as Greg was really great about avoiding a dogmatic approach that is very common in this field!”

“This was awesome! I learned a ton about the big 3 and feel like I can pass on the knowledge to our clients.”

“I really like your approach to lifting and your lifting philosophy. I've been strength coaching for 20 years and I run a successful business; it's getting hard to find a good seminar. Normally, when I learn one thing I’m happy, but this last Sunday, I learned a lot. I'm really satisfied!”

“Very worthwhile and I would even attend the event again, especially for the hands on.”

“Very concise, while allowing the topics and questions to develop as the audience saw fit. It was very informative and engaging.”

“This was awesome. Definitely would attend something like this again!”

“I loved having the opportunity to actually lift, the coaching was phenomenal!”

Here is that sign-up link again. We hope you can make it!

About the Presenter

Greg Robins is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance. In addition to co-authoring The Specialization Success Guide, his writing has been published everywhere from Men's Health, to Men's Fitness, to Juggernaut Training Systems, to EliteFTS, to T-Nation. As a raw competitive powerlifter, Greg has competition bests of 560 squat, 335 bench press, and 625 deadlift for a 1520 total.


Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective – Installment 10

Written on January 9, 2015 at 6:30 pm, by Eric Cressey

It's time for the first trio of coaching cue suggestions of 2015!

1. Make a straight line from your heels to your head.

I'm a huge fan of inverted rows not only because of the great upper back training they provide, but also because they challenge core control at the same time. Unfortunately, a lot of folks will let the ribs flare up, head to slide into a forward head posture, or knees to hyperextend. All of these are extension-bias compensation strategies that can easily be cleaned up by just focusing on making a straight line from the heels to the head.

Typically, after providing this cue, I'll snap a photo of the posture as a good visual reminder for the athlete, too.

--> Related: 10 Ways to Progress Inverted Rows <--

2. Roll with your forearms, not your hands.

Foam rolling is great, but not if you spend the bulk of your time in bad positions. In my opinion, foremost among these bad positions is doing prone (face-down) rolling while being supported by the hands. The problem is that when you're supported by your hands, you're automatically in a position of heavy lumbar extension (low back arching) - comparable to the upward-facing dog yoga pose. With that said, simply dropping down to support yourself with your forearms is a much better bet for getting your quad and groin rolling in without throwing your back under the bus.

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Keep in mind, of course, that you'll still be in some extension, but it's much closer to the natural lordotic (slight arch) posture we have in normal standing alignment.

3. Keep the head behind the belly button as long as possible.

When we train rotational medicine ball drills, it's important to create a powerful separation of the hip and shoulders. In other words, the pelvis rotates in one direction as the torso rotates in the opposite direction; this stretch helps to create and transfer elastic energy for rotational power. If the torso "leaks" forward early, though, the separation is minimized and force production and transfer is reduced.

One way to prevent this energy leak is to cue an athlete to "stay back" longer. Unfortunately, many athletes don't grasp this vague cue. As such, I like to encourage athletes to keep the head behind the belly button as long as possible. In other words, delay the torso rotation forward a bit longer.

That does it for installment 10. Have a great weekend!

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The Best of 2014: Product Reviews

Written on January 7, 2015 at 6:26 am, by Eric Cressey

To wrap up my “Best of 2014″ series, I’ll highlight the top product reviews I did at this site in the last year. Here they are:

1. 2x4: Maximum Strength - I reviewed this resource by Bret Contreras back in early April, and it quickly became my favorite recommendation for a training program for folks to try after they finish my High Performance Handbook program. You can read my review of the program HERE, and Bret also authored a guest post for me during the week of its release: Squats vs. Hip Thrusts: Which is Better?

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2. Lift Weights Faster - Jen Sinkler created an incredibly expansive collection of conditioning workouts one can use in their training programs. I did a "pseudo-review" when I wrote up the post, 5 Characteristics of Successful Metabolic Resistance Training Programs. She contributed some additional insights on the process with her guest post, 5 Training Tips for the Busy Adult Athlete.

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3. Ruthless Mobility - This product from Dean Somerset was only released about a month ago, but it was definitely a big hit. Also, as I recently noted, his guest post, 5 Strategies for Quickly Increasing Your Mobility, was so popular that it temporarily maxed out my hosting capacity here on the site!

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4. The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training - As I noted the other day, I definitely plan to get more female-specific content up here on the site in light of the popularity of Molly Galbraith's post, The 5 Biggest Mistakes Women Make With Their Training Programs. In the meantime, though, this product makes for an excellent resource for women looking for direction with their strength training programs.

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There were certainly some other great products I encountered this year, but these four proved to be the most popular with my readers. Obviously, I also introduced some new products of my own in 2014, most notably The Specialization Success Guide and Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body. We've got a few more in the pipeline for 2015 as well!

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The Best of 2014: Guest Posts

Written on December 30, 2014 at 8:20 pm, by Eric Cressey

I've already highlighted the top articles and videos I put out at EricCressey.com in 2014, so now it's time for the top guest posts of the year. Here goes…

1. The 5 Biggest Mistakes Women Make With Their Training Programs - With this great post from Molly Galbraith, for the second year in a row, my top guest post related to the topic of strength training for females. I think it's safe to say that I need to feature more female-specific content moving forward!

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2. 5 Strategies for Quickly Increasing Your Mobility - This post from Dean Somerset only ran a few weeks ago, but quickly became one of the biggest hits of the year.

3. 5 Ways You've Never Used a Barbell - Greg Robins shares some outside-the-box thoughts on how to get the most of barbell training beyond "the basics."

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4. Squats vs. Hip Thrusts: Which is Better? - Nobody geeks out about glutes like Bret Contreras, and this article is a perfect example.

5. The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make With Yoga - Dana Santas goes to great lengths to apply yoga "the right way," and in this article, she talks about where many athletes and yoga instructors go astray.

I'll be back soon with the top strength and conditioning features from 2014. In the meantime, have a safe and happy new year!

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The Best of 2014: Strength and Conditioning Articles

Written on December 26, 2014 at 8:01 am, by Eric Cressey

With 2014 wrapping up soon, I’ll be devoting this week to the best content of the year, based on traffic volume at EricCressey.com. I’ll kick it off today with my five most popular articles from the past year.

1. 5 Things I've Learned About Mobility Training - This article only just ran about three weeks ago, but it still was the biggest hit of the year. Given the popularity, I suppose I should have written it a long time ago!

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2. Why We're Losing Athleticism - This was my favorite article that I wrote in 2014, and was especially popular among parents.

3. Should You Wear Olympic Lifting Shoes? - What started as a Q&A ended up being a lengthy post that kicked off a great discussion.

4. 6 Reasons Anterior Core Stability Exercises are Essential - We all know core control is incredibly important, but who knew an article about why would be a hit, too?

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5. The 10 Laws of Meatball Mastery - If you like meatballs, this article is for you. And, if you don't like meatballs, this article is still for you, as you'll surely find a recipe you like - and hopefully a lot more clarity for how to truly enjoy life.

I'll be back soon with another "Best of 2014" feature. Up next, the top videos of the year!

In the meantime, you might be interested to know that Rick Kaselj just put the entire Muscle Imbalances Revealed series on sale at a huge 60% off discount to celebrate Boxing Day. I'm a big fan of this series, so if you haven't seen it, I'd encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity here. You'll learn a ton!

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 12/15/14

Written on December 15, 2014 at 8:26 am, by Eric Cressey

Here are some good fitness and nutrition reads from around the 'net:

Elite Training Mentorship - In the most recent update, I provide two exercise demonstration videos, and Cressey Sports Performance coach Miguel Aragoncillo kicks off a two-part webinar series on energy systems development.

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Chocolate and All Its Health Benefits - Examine.com always does a great job of evaluating nutrition and supplementation questions folks have, and this quick but informative article is no exception.

Mastery - I'm currently listening to this audiobook and really enjoying it, as it takes close looks at how some of the greatest "masters" of all time got to that level of proficiency and success in their chosen crafts.

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One of my favorite quotes thus far is, "The very desire to find shortcuts makes you eminently unsuited for any kind of mastery." The author, Robert Greene, is a huge fan of "apprenticeships," and it goes without saying that these take time. The fitness industry is no exception.

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5 Strategies for Quickly Increasing Your Mobility

Written on December 11, 2014 at 8:02 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Dean Somerset, the creator of the excellent new resource, Ruthless Mobility. Dean is a tremendous innovator and one of the brighter minds in the fitness industry today, and this article is a perfect example of his abilities. Enjoy! - EC

Mobility is one of those nebulous concepts that get thrown around the fitness industry a lot. You either have it or you don’t, and if you’re one of those lucky Tinman stiff-as-a-board folks who can’t touch their toes without a yardstick, you’re told to stretch and do more mobility work, which seems akin to carving out Mount Rushmore with nothing more than some sandpaper. We might be here a while if all you have available to you is simply stretching to make your mobility improve.

What we forget to do is ask a very simple question: Why do you feel tight in the first place? Muscles are incredibly dumb and won’t contract on their own. They’re usually told to contract, and they’re good soldiers that do what they’re told. You could cut a muscle out of the body and hook it up to a car battery and have it contract until either the proteins are ripped apart or until you turned off the battery. Also, muscles can’t get confused, so let’s stop using that term while we’re at it, shall we?

Typically a muscle will tense in response to a few different things. The first is the desire to produce movement, which means the normal shortening response happens and people awe and admire the massive weight EC pulls on a daily basis.

The second is as a protective means. A joint that may be unstable or a step away from being injured could cause the body to contract muscles around it in a protective “casting” method that restricts movement in the joint and calls up muscles that may cross more than one joint. An example of this would be the psoas tensing in response to anterior lumbar instability. The runners with chronic hip flexor pain and a forward lean when they pound the pavement, but who stretch their hip flexors (usually poorly and into spinal extension) 3 times a day for 20 years and still have tight hip flexors are a prime example of this. They stretch but don’t improve stability, so the psoas continues to hate life.

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The third is in response to nervous system tone, specifically sympathetic and parasympathetic tone. Sympathetic is best exemplified by that one kid who is always bouncing and tapping their foot, can’t seem to sit still, and always wants to run and jump everywhere, whereas parasympathetic would be the stoner who looks perennially half asleep. If you’re constantly jacked up like a cheerleader on a mixture of crack and RedBull, flexibility won’t be a strong suit of yours, even though you could probably pull a tractor with your teeth or scare old women and small children.

The Ultimate Warrior was definitely NOT parasympathetic, nor was he likely to be hitting the splits anytime soon, but he could always bring the house down.

If you’re constantly a ball of stress, your muscles will be in a constant state of “kind of on,” which is to say their contraction is like lights on a dimmer switch. They’re not all the way on, but they’re not off either, they’re just “kind of on.” Being all jacked up all the time might sound cool, but in reality it tends to cause some issues if you can’t turn it down once in a while.

Lastly, and one of the most simple of all, is alignment. If you have a muscle held in a stretched position, it’s going to reflexively increase tension to prevent the muscle from stretching too far and potentially creating an injury.

I know it’s kind of counterintuitive that a chronically stretched muscle would be tight, but consider the effects of something like low back erector muscles and posterior pelvic tilt. If your pelvis is tucked under like Steve Urkel (I’m dating myself here, but it’s a fun game trying to confuse the 20 year olds), the erectors are already on stretch without having to do anything, plus they’re contracting to keep your spine from sliding further into extension. Trying to touch your toes will result in embarrassing results.

So now that you know why muscles can be tight, we can work on them and produce much better results.

Strategy #1: Change your breathing.

One of the first things I usually see when someone tries to stretch into a bigger range of motion than they’re used to is that they wind up holding their breath. This works against you in two ways. First, when you hold your breath, you crank up your sympathetic system, which drives more neural tone to all muscles of the body and causes reflexive tensing. Second, by not breathing you pressurize the entire thoracic spine: all of the intercostal muscles between your ribs, your diaphragm, and even your obliques tense to help increase intrathoracic pressure against that held breath. This causes muscles to hold tension even more.

In many instances, people will hit an end range of motion while holding their breath, and I tell them to breathe. They, in turn, gasp like they just surfaced from diving with Jacques Cousteau, and wind up getting another few inches into their range.

When trying to get range of motion, long deep inhalations and exhalations where you reach on the exhale makes a massive difference. The length of the breath increases stimulation of the vagal nerve, which is responsive to the heart and drives cardiac rate and parasympathetic stimulation into the medulla oblongata, and as a result muscle tension reduction through the whole body. Lower heart rates means a less energy demanding system, which is commonly results in lower arousal, meaning less tense muscles at rest.

Here’s a simple breathing drill you could do to help increase your overall mobility through your shoulders and hips.


Timely to give Eric a baby breathing exercise, huh?

Try this out: Test your toe touch ability and range of motion bringing your arms up over your head. Make a note of both how far you get and also how easy they both felt. One way to gauge overhead range is to stand against a wall, then bring your arms up overhead without arching your low back, and either mark the wall or make a mental note as to how high you bring your arms. Try the breathing drill and then retest your mobility and see whether it resulted in any changes.

Strategy #2: Build stability to create mobility.

As I noted earlier with respect to stability, if a joint is perceived as unstable and potentially about to be injured, the body will clamp down muscles around it. One way to see this in a graphic manner is to look at hip rotation and core function.

Try this out and see what happens: From a seated position, turn your hips side to side and see whether you have good rotational range of motion through both external rotation (where you look at the inside of your knee) or internal rotation (where you look at the outside of your knee). If you find you have poor external rotation, try doing a hard front plank and then retest. If you find you have a poor internal rotation, hit up a side plank and see what happens. Here's the test:

Here's the front plank:

Here's the side plank:

If you noticed a big increase in mobility, you likely had your hips putting on the brakes and donating some stability up to the lumbar spine. By reinstating some of that stability, the hips opened up and had lots of freedom since they weren’t working double time anymore.

Strategy #3: Change alignment from the bottom up.

Foot position can play a massive role in how well you move. Most people who tend to be flat footed wind up with tibial internal rotation, which results in internally rotated femurs. This rotation increases tension through the anterior hips and up the chain further which reduces the range of motion for overhead movements. It also reduces the force production capability through the legs, which makes you less awesome.

If you roll to the outside of the foot, more supination, you increase tension through the posterior aspect of the hip and pushes you into more external rotation, which reduces the amount of internal rotation your have available, and also reduces your ability to move freely down into hip flexion.

Use this little test and see what happens: stand up and roll your feet so that you put most of your weight on the inside, in line with the big toe, and bring your arms overhead and then touch your toes. Make a not of how high and low you go and also how easy they felt. Then roll to the outside of your feet, more weight on the baby toe side of the foot, and see what the movement results are looking like. You might find it’s different in each example, and will showcase how foot position can affect your overall mobility.

Strategy #4: Change alignment from the top down.

Neck position can play a HUGE role in not only arm movement but also hip mobility, and it plays down in a couple of simple anatomical means. For the shoulder, every muscle that holds the shoulder to the body and keeps it from falling down, is held up by the neck. If the neck is in a forward head posture, muscles like the sternocleidomastoid, scalanes, levator scapulae, and upper traps will be all jacked up. If you stand with your head jammed into the back of your neck, you’ll have some smashed up pteryhyoid and stylohyoid muscles, which will alter (not necessarily improve or decrease, but alter) the ability to move the arms around.

Sternocleidomastoideus

Secondary to this, head position will play a role in hip mobility due to the anatomical link to the spinal chord. The chord has the ability to slide up and down in the spinal canal in order to adjust for different positions. Since the nerves can’t stretch, they accommodate range differently by moving along with the rest of the body. When you’re in standing and you tuck your chin to your chest, the spinal chord moves up in the spinal canal. When you look up, your give some slack to the chord and it moves slightly lower.

What this means is that if you were to bend down to grab a bar for something like a deadlift, and you tucked your chin, your available range that the spinal chord could allow movement to occur before it was stretched would be less than if you had a neutral neck, and much less than if you were to look ahead slightly. Additionally, if you have any restrictions through areas like the sciatic arch, it will prevent movement of the nerve through this area and make your range of motion somewhat limited.

Try this out: stand tall and tuck your chin to your chest, then try to touch your toes. Right after, keep your head level with the horizon and try to touch your toes again and see where the change in range of motion comes from. If you noticed a pronounced change, it's time to get cracking on "packing the neck" during your training and everyday life.

Strategy #5: Clean up cranky fascial lines.

This is where some voodoo starts creeping in. The body is more than a collection of individual muscles that all connect to bones and do stuff. They have lines of action where multiple muscles along specific pathways will contract and relax together to produce movement. These pathways are visually represented through the work of Thomas Myers in his outstanding book Anatomy Trains, but can be shown in real time with some simple tricks.

One fun fascial line to work with is the spiral line. It’s a really cool powerful series of tissues and muscles that runs from one foot around the spine and connects to the opposing shoulder, both on the front and the back. By “tuning” fascia in the leg, you can see some pretty immediate changes in range of motion at the shoulder.

I showcased this with a live demo in a recent workshop in Los Angeles, where a participant had some shoulder issues. I had Tony Gentilcore of Cressey Sports Performance fame stretch him into external shoulder rotation, then applied some light pressure to his opposing adductor group to simulate what he would do with foam rolling. Within 5 seconds, he started to get more external rotation, all without me doing anything at his shoulder and with Tony only holding his arm in a position and letting gravity pull him down.

valgus

Try this out: If your shoulders are restricted through external rotation (like laying back to throw a baseball), foam roll your inner thigh, spending time hating life and breathing deep to try to get them to reduce tension and pain, then retest the shoulder external rotation. If you’re restricted through internal rotation, try rolling out your IT bands and see what happens.

Wrap-up

These methods aren’t guaranteed to work for every single person, but they are simple tricks that seem to work well with a lot of people. The good thing is if one of them works really well for you, you could use it on a regular basis to keep your mobility high and to use it in a new way you never had before.

Note from EC: If you're looking for more mobility tips and tricks - and the rationale for their inclusion in a program - I'd encourage you to check out Dean's fantastic new resource, Ruthless Mobility. Your purchase includes lifetime updates and continuing education credits. Perhaps best of all, it's on sale for 59% off through this Friday (12/12) at midnight.

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