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Strength and Conditioning: What I Learned in 2013

Written on February 5, 2014 at 7:22 am, by Eric Cressey

This is the eighth time I’ve recapped some of the bigger discoveries of the previous year in an article.   As I look back on the previous seven years of content, I notice a number of key observations that have immeasurably improved the way that I coach and program for athletes.  To that end, I hope that the 2013 recap offers some solid pearls of wisdom you can apply right away.

1. Frequent soft tissue work throughout the day works best.

We might not know exactly why soft tissue approaches – everything from foam rolling, to massage, to instrument-assisted modalities – work, but we do know that they help people feel and move better.  With that in mind, we’re always searching for ways to help people get faster results with less discomfort.

Earlier this year, Chris Howard, the massage therapist at Cressey Performance, was flipping back through an old massage therapy textbook and found a little pearl: a suggestion that shorter, frequent exposures to soft tissue work throughout the day is likely more effective than one longer session.  And, it certainly makes sense; our bodies “learn” and adapt better with frequent exposures. 

Candidly, it always drives me bonkers when I see someone foam roll for 30 minutes at the start of the session.  You aren’t going to magically fix everything in one session; you have to be patient and persistent.  In fact, Thomas Myers (an authority on fascia and bodywork), has commented that prominent changes may take 18-24 months to set in. 

Nowadays, when we have an athlete who is particularly balled up in one area, we heavily emphasize repeated exposures.  We recommend that they split massage therapy sessions up into shorter appointments throughout the week.  And, we’ll have them hop on the foam roller 5-6 times per day for 30-60s, as opposed to just grinding away at the same spot in one lengthy session.  It’s not convenient, but the results are definitely noticeably better.

2. Understanding an individual’s movement learning style can improve your coaching effectiveness instantly.

I’ve always divided folks I coach into three categories, according to their dominant learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.

Visual learners can watch an exercise be performed, and then go right to it.

Auditory learners can simply hear a cue, and then go to town.

Kinesthetic learners need to actually be put in a position to appreciate what it feels like, and then they can rock and roll.

ECCishek

While most individuals are a combination of all three categories, one invariably predominates in every single case I’ve ever encountered.  With this in mind, determining an individual’s learning style during my assessment is something I started to do in 2013.  If you can streamline the cues you give, athletes will pick movements up faster, and you’ll be able to get in more quality work from the session.

I should also note that no one of these three categories is “superior;” they’re just different.  I’ve had professional athletes from all three categories.

3. External focus cues rock.

Building on the coaching cues theme, the best presentation I saw this year was Nick Winkelman’s Perform Better talk on external focus cues.

As a brief background, an internal focus cue would be one that made you think about how your body is moving.  Examples would be “extend your hips” or “tuck your elbows.”

Conversely, an external focus cue would have you focus on something in your surrounding environment. Examples would be “rip the bar apart” or “drive your heels through the floor.”  The bar and the floor are points of external focus.

Most coaches use a combination of the two – but with a greater emphasis on internal focus cues.  As Nick demonstrated with an extensive review of the literature, we out to reverse this trend, as external focus cues almost universally lead to improved performance and technique when compared to internal focus cues.

With this research in mind, evaluate the cues you give yourself before each lift.  When you deadlift, are you telling yourself to “keep the chest up” or are you reminding yourself to “show the logo on your shirt to the guy in front of you?”  Sometimes, relating things just a little bit differently can yield dramatic changes.

4. You should learn as much about recovery as you do about training at an early age.

Every decade in life seems to come with new “scare tactics” to make you think that your body is going to fall apart when you hit 30, 40, 50, 60, etc.  I turned 32 in 2013, so I’ve now had almost three years to stew over this.  Recovery just isn’t the same as you age, not matter how great you are with diet, sleep, and monitoring training volume, as degenerative changes kick in faster.  I can tell you this and I’m only at the start of the gradual downslope!

I’ve heard that, on average, strength peaks at age 29.  Obviously, this can change dramatically based on training experience.  However, in my line of work – professional baseball – the “prime” for players is widely regarded as ages 26-31.  Effectively, this constitutes just before the peak, the peak itself, and then just after the peak.  The higher the peak, the longer a playing career a player has.  This is one reason it’s so important to establish a strong physical foundation with athletes early in their career; it’s what will likely sustain their skillsets for longer.

It is equally important, however, to learn about what recovery strategies work well for you at an early age.  In fact, I’d say that not paying more attention to recovery in my younger years was one of the biggest mistakes I made.  It would have not only made my progress faster, but just as importantly, it would have prevented accumulated wear and tear for down the road (i.e., now).

Everyone responds differently to various recovery protocols.  I have guys who love ice baths, and others who absolutely hate icing.  I’ve seen players thrive with compression approaches, and others who saw no change. 

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Some high-level athletes can do great with seven hours of sleep, and others need 9-10 each night. Recovery is a 100% individual thing – and it’s constantly changing as you age and encounter new training challenges.

For that reason, don’t just get excited about the latest, greatest training program on the market.  Rather, try to get just as excited about finding a way that you can bounce back effectively between sessions.  It might be nutrition, supplementation, manual therapy, movement schemes, or initiatives like ice or compression.  The sooner you learn it, the better off you’ll be when you start hearing more and more of the “scare tactics” about age.

Conclusion

These four items were just the tip of the iceberg, as the strength and conditioning field is incredibly dynamic and new information emerges on a daily basis. Luckily, it's easy to stay up to speed on the latest cutting-edge information.  If you're looking for an affordable online resource to help you in this regard, check out Elite Training Mentorship.

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  • http://www.biohacks.net Stephan R

    I can definitely attest to frequent soft tissue work. It’s almost like greasing the groove.

  • http://www.personalbestpersonaltraining.com kathy ekdahl

    E-
    Great post today(as always),but for me and my clients, this post particularly hits home. For older clients, older trainers, the messages of frequent soft tissue work, recovery based on individual needs,and tailoring cues to fit an individual’s learning style are universal and always good to hear. Thanks for providing content that works for us 50ish ish ish people. I hope I am around in 25 years when you youngsters get to my age and we can chat about how things have changed for all of us with the aging process.

  • Alan McNally

    Hi Eric
    Love the blogs on every aspect of training.

    As an older athlete (46 years young), I split may training days into 3 week cycles. 4 on, 3 on and then 2 on, to try an maximise recovery. My sports were boxing/karate and rugby, hover all i do now is strength and conditioning with superb local trainer and some boxing training.

    Do you think at my age I should have a complete full week off truing with just foam rolling and other recovery protocols.

  • http://www.impactsportsperformance.org Rich

    You can also roll your tricep on the “fat” part of a barbell in a squat rack

  • EMS

    Excellent lessons to pass along, Eric. Regarding #1, the idea of more frequent, less lengthy soft tissue work makes a lot of sense. (Whether it’s for athletes, desk/car jockies, or go-get ‘em homeowners tackling strenuous projects.) If tissue quality impairs movement in the weight room, do you recommend scaling back the exercises impacted by same? How do you manage this while maintaining motivation (of both the athlete and the trainer)? That 18-24 months of training while reeducating potentially multi-site issues in the chain could be a long haul.

    Great job educating the younger generation. It’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks though. Thanks!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    EMS,

    You’ll still want to keep training.  You can make improvements in both strength and soft tissue quality simultaneously as long as you’re patient and persistent – and training with correct technique.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Hi Alan,

    I don’t think you necessarily have to take a full week off, but rather, just a significant decrease in one or more of the intensity, volume, and frequency variables.

  • Kathryn

    I’ve noticed external cues help more and more with my clients too- plus visual ideas (like get stiff with zombie arms before deadlifts or Tony Gentilcore’s squash oranges under arms). I love idea of more frequent mobility, especially since it works well to find 5 min to move throughout day instead of an hour block.

  • Cory

    Hey Eric,

    Could you talk a little more about what you do during your initial assessment with an athlete to determine what learning style they use? Also could you point me in the direction of some more info on creating a comprehensive initial assessment for the general population.

    Thanks,
    Cory

  • Daniel

    I might need more recovery time at 51, but then again I have more wisdom, right?

  • Bill

    Really appreciate these insights! Just today after training, my 14 yo son remarked how much better and quicker he is recovering now with his training. In addition to being a pitcher and all round ballplayer he is a springboard/platform diver. Until only recently, his “tower days” would throw him into some serious discomfort for days. Now he recovers so much better. In fact his training volume has significantly increased this year AND his recovery is improving along with his performance. Now if I could learn to recover better myself.

  • http://www.jackhammerstrength.com Nathan Jordan

    Great tips. I especially like the triceps foam rolling. I am going to set it up on two boxes later. I am wondering what is the best set up for rolling your calves? On your deadlift you might want to get a stronger bar soon.

  • Matthew Ibrahim

    Hi Eric,

    Another great post!

    You mentioned that Chris Howard found a “little pearl” from an old massage therapy textbook that suggested shorter and more frequent exposure to soft tissue work. Could you tell me the name and author of that textbook?

    Also, you mentioned Thomas Myers and his work on fascia and bodywork. Are there any books of his that you highly recommend?

    I am someone who has been training for a handful of years now, and will be entering graduate school for physical therapy soon. Any textbook suggestions would be awesome!

    Thank you for your time,
    Matthew Ibrahim

  • http://drsampt.com Dr. SAM

    Great stuff as always EC. Yes, I have seen clinically that my patients will actually do more frequent bouts of soft tissue work, rather than longer sessions. One factor is time, and the other is pain. More frequent bouts tend to be ‘more doable’ for people’s busy schedules and less pain when only working for shorter periods.

  • http://www.PFAfitness.com Dave coggin

    Love the external cues, professor Wulf at UNLV gave this pearl to us from her research on the matter. Made everyone in the room question everything they have been teaching for years. Baseball has always relied on such cues without knowing why (reach out and touch the glove, belt buckle towards target, right center, up the middle, replace glove with the ball) it’s great to have some research now to back it up.

  • http://dwntwn64@me.com David

    I really connected with this article. As a 50 year old, foam rolling for the last year has been really helpful as far as helping with the aches and pains that go along with staying active and getting older. Reading Eric’s blog is where I got turned onto foam rolling, and over time, I have seen good results.

  • http://www.garage-gyms.com John B

    I couldn’t even imagine taking a full week off without a reason like an injury or being sick. Talk about stressful.

  • Sonny Hunt

    Hi Eric,

    In particular I have found #3 to be excellent as sometimes the day to day cues can get boring. So therefore when an external cue is implemented it brings an extra target to focus on.

  • Paula DeMarkey

    Enjoyed this post!! Valuable practical information we ALL NEED!!! Thanks Eric!!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey
    Hi Matthew,

    It was just the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. It’s a solid, cost-effective options that was just updated with a new edition.

    I’d recommend Myers in seminar over a book, if you ever have the chance!

    Best,

    EC

  • http://rippedbody.jp Andy Morgan

    That soft tissue work tip is gold. Just had a chat with our gym receptionist (who is also Mrs Japan) and she said she’s found the same thing. Same with a professional sprint cyclist (Keirin) mate of mine.

    Cheers Eric.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Nathan,

    For calves, I think seated with the leg on top of a ball is the best bet.

  • Peter

    I’m another plus-50 guy and, like others, I do a lot of soft-tissue exercises before a workout (ball and foam work is essential). I couldn’t do weight training without it. At this stage of my life, exercise is about maintaining good health and the energy level I need at work to stay sharp. As you younger guys pass 40, you’ll notice these things don’t come easily anymore and it takes focus. Diet is also critical as you age. The hardest thing for me as I get older? Getting enough rest.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Cory,

    I do a combination of general (movement skills) and specific assessments (joint ROM, provocative tests).  General might consider of overhead squat, shoulder abduction/flexion, overhead lunge walk, etc. – and specific might be shoulder internal rotation, ankle dorsiflexion, etc. 

    We’ll also do static posture assessments and go over a health history.  It may be appropriate to do certain strength/power/conditioning tests as well.

    I cover our assessments in great detail in two products: The Fitness Business Blueprint and Assess and Correct.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Also, Cory, with determining learning style, you don’t have to do special tests.  The information is all there; it’s up to you to notice it and modify your cues accordingly.

  • Dave Wilkinson

    Great post Eric thanks. I recently got Assess and Correct and it has helped me finally determine what has caused me some nasty back spasms over the last year. I have a lateral pelvic tilt and the corrective exercises in your program are really helping so would certainly recommend it to others.

    I also have an externally rotated hip which doesn’t seem to be covered in depth in A&C. I am currently working on foam rolling the IT band on that leg, stretching the outer hamstring and piriformis, and consciously keeping that toe pointing more forward rather than out to side. Any other tips?
    Thanks!


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