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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.
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?
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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Written on October 10, 2012 at 10:58 am, by Eric Cressey
Here’s this week’s list of strategies to get your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs headed in the right direction. This is a collaborative effort between Greg Robins and me.
1. Add amplitude to your conditioning.
Let’s face it: jogging on the treadmill and riding the elliptical or recumbent bike is about as fun as watching paint dry. While an exercise causing boredom doesn’t mandate that it be thrown by the wayside immediately, it does become concerning with this exercise modality doesn’t broaden the amplitude – or range of motion – that you encounter in your daily life. Moving better is about improving mobility, which is defined as one’s ability to reach a certain posture or position. For some folks, this means actually lengthening short tissues or reducing tension in overly stiff tissues, while for others, it’s about establishing stability in the range of motion that one already possesses. Unfortunately, while you’re burn some calories on these cardio machines, you aren’t going to do much to improve your mobility.
The solution is to implement variety in your conditioning, whether it means taking a bunch of mobility exercises and doing them right after another, or integrating several strength training exercises with lighter loads. Step-ups, sled pushing/dragging, side shuffles, lateral lunges are all ways to get your hips moving in ways they normally don’t.
In the upper body, innovative rowing and push-up variations can keep things fun while improving your movement quality.
The next time you’re planning to do some interval training on the bike, try substituting some wider-amplitude movements and see how you like it.
2. Get your Vitamin D right.
I’ve seen studies that have shown great benefits from getting vitamin D levels up to normal, but to my knowledge, those effects were most observed with respect to body composition, hormonal levels, and tissue quality. Interestingly, I just came across this study that showed a significant improvement in power production over four weeks in the vitamin D supplementation group, as compared to the controls. These results are tough to interpret, as the subjects were overweight/obese adults; ideally, we’d study trained athletes with smaller windows of adaptation ahead of them to see just how beneficial vitamin D supplementation is on performance. However, it certainly makes sense that if we’re improving body composition, endocrine status, and tissue quality, folks are going to get more out of their training and make faster progress.
Vitamin D is one of very few supplements that I view as “must-haves’ for the majority of the population. I’d pair it up with a good fish oil and greens supplement to cover one’s nutritional foundation. This is one reason why I’m a big fan of the Athletic Greens Trinity Stack; you can a high quality version of all three in one place.
3. Plan out regressions and progressions.
People like to be good at things. This is especially the case when they are surrounded by a bunch of other people. In the case of group exercise, your attendees are going to have a much better time, get better results, and stay safer if they are performing movements correctly. Group settings aren’t ideal from a coaching standpoint, though, as you can’t spend as much individualized time coaching technique. Therefore, exercise selection becomes paramount to these classes’ success. In other words, you need to have both progressions and regressions in your exercise library.
A common flaw in group classes is that each week, there are 15 new exercise variations on the agenda. The week before, it was 15 other ones, and the following week, it will be 15 more. I know, I know; people want you to “keep it fresh.” In my mind, by changing the exercises so often you are taking the easy way out.
Instead, have people become incredible at the basics. Have them squat, swing, push up, row – all basic movements. From there, set up progressions and regressions. This is much easier to do when you keep the original exercises basic.
Here are a few examples:
TRX Supported Squat > Counter Balanced Squat To Box > Goblet Squat > Double KB Front Squat > Offset KB Front Squat
Hands-Elevated Push-up > TRX Chest Press > Push-up > Feet Elevated Push-up > Push-up vs. Band
This is mostly for teaching purposes, as an example. The goblet squat is accessible to most people, and it falls in the middle, with two levels of regression and progression built in.
I’m a big fan of more work up front and easy sailing there out. You might need to take some time to develop your class program, but it will make for a better product and better results thereafter.
4. Use leftover vegetables in your omelet.
I don’t know about you, but leftover vegetables never taste quite as good as they do when they’ve just been cooked. They’re cold, and often soggy to the point that even heating them up in the microwave doesn’t really make them sound appetizing. Rather than throw them out and skip on your veggies for a meal, try adding them to your omelet the following morning, as the other ingredients – eggs, spices, oils, cheese (if that’s your thing), salsa, and ketchup – can help to liven up their taste. I’ve done this with previously cooked asparagus, broccoli, peppers, onions, spinach, kale, mushrooms, cauliflower, green beans, and tomatoes. Some vegetables – squash and turnip, for instance – don’t have the right consistency to make for a good omelet ingredient, though, so experiment carefully!
5. Learn to stand correctly before you even try to train correctly.
Many people think moving well is all about picking the right corrective exercises to get the job done. While that’s certainly part of the equation, the truth is that before you even talk about exercising, you have to educate yourself about how to simply stand with good posture. As an example, if you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis, you need to learn how to engage your anterior core, activate your glutes, and prevent your rib cage from flaring up up when you’re standing around. Conversely, if you do all your exercises in this aberrant posture, you just get good at sucking!
Have a great week!
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Written on March 1, 2012 at 7:28 pm, by Eric Cressey
My “random thoughts” pieces are some of my favorite writings that I’ve ever published, and today seemed like a good day to throw out some quick and easy ideas on how you can feel better, move better, lose fat, gain muscle, get strong, and – if you’re super-motivated – take over the world. Here goes…
1. Get a good training partner.
There are random dudes you meet at the gym who provide a mediocre lift-off on the bench press here and there, and then there are dedicated training partners. There is a big difference. A good training partner will tell you to get your act together and train hard when you’re slacking off, or even hold you back when your body is banged up, but you’re stupidly trying to push through it. It’s guaranteed accountability, motivation, expertise, safety, competition, and all-around awesomeness. To be honest, I often wonder if most people get the best results working with a trainer/strength coach for these factors more than the actual expertise the fitness professional provides!
2. Make your bedroom a cave.
One of the best investments my wife and I made when we bought our new house were reinforced window shades for our bedroom so that very little light could get through when they were down. They make a dramatic difference in terms of how dark you can make your room at night (especially if you have street lights near your residence) and were 100% worth the extra cost, as compared to regular shades.
Even if you don’t want to spend the extra few bucks on souped-up shades, though, you can still get some of the benefits of “cave sleeping” by blocking out light from cell phones, alarm clocks, and – if you’re a frat boy – bright green neon signs of your favorite beer in your dorm room. Also, do your best to shut the TV and computer off at least thirty minutes before you hit the sack as well, as it’ll give your brain time to wind down and transition to some deep, restful sleep.
3. Take Athletic Greens.
I’ve always been a non-responder to supplements. As an example, I never gained an ounce when I started taking creatine in 2001, and never noticed a huge difference in sleep quality when I started taking ZMA. Still, I pretty much trust in research and go with these supplements, plus mainstays like fish oil and Vitamin D and assume that they’re doing their job. It’s interesting how some of the most essential supplements we take are the ones where we might notice the most subtle difference, isn’t it?
Anyway, in 2011, I added Athletic Greens to this mix. I look at it as whole food based “nutritional insurance” use it in place of my multivitamin. I think it’s solid not only as a greens supplement (which, incidentally, doesn’t taste like dog crap), but also because it directly improves gut health to improve absorption of micronutrients. With loads of superfoods, herbal extracts, trace elements, antioxidants, and pre- and probiotics, I could tell that it would be something that would decrease inflammation and improve immunity (something I’ve viewed as increasingly important with each passing year as life has gotten more stressful with the growth of Cressey Performance).
Interestingly, one of our long-time athletes who is now playing baseball at a highly ranked D1 university, started taking Athletic Greens after we chatted about it this summer, and he sent me this note:
Hey Eric, thanks for the recommendation on Athletic Greens. I love the product! I have not gotten sick once since I started taking it 4 months ago, and my body feels better than ever. This is the first semester I haven’t gotten sick. Hope all is well!
I guess I’m not the only one who likes it! Check it out for yourself here.
As an aside, they do a pretty cool combination where you can get greens, fish oil, and vitamin D all at once at a great price, and the fish oil is excellent quality. We have several athletes who get everything in this one place for convenience.
4. Go split-stance.
Last week, in my popular post, Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?, I included the following video of forearm wall slides at 135 degrees, a great drill we like to use to train upward rotation, as the arms are directly in the line of pull in the lower traps. With this exercise, we always cue folks “glutes tight, core braced” so that they don’t just substitute lumbar extension in place of the scapulae moving into retraction/depression on the rib cage.
Unfortunately, these cues don’t work for everyone – particularly those who are super lordotic (huge arch in their lower back). A great “substitute cue” for these folks is to simply go into a split stance, putting one foot out in front of the other (even if it’s just slightly). As you have probably observed in performing single-leg exercises like lunges and split-squats, it is much harder to substitute lumbar extension for hip extension than it is with bilateral exercises like squats and deadlifts. Fortunately, the same is true of substituting lumbar extension for scapular movement on the rib cage. So, if you’re struggling with the exercise above, simply move one foot out in front of the other and you should be golden.
5. Get some assessments done.
Imagine you were about to embark on a cross country trip with a great vacation in mind in, say, San Diego. However, I didn’t tell you where you were starting the journey. While you might get to where you want to be (or at least close to it), it’d make the trip a lot more difficult. You’d probably blow a bunch of money on gas, sleep in some nasty motels in the middle of nowhere, pick up an awkward hitchhiked who smells like cabbage, and maybe even spend a night in a Tijuana jail along the way. Not exactly optimal planning.
A strength and conditioning program isn’t much different than this cross-country trip. If you don’t know how your body works – both internally and externally – you need to learn before you subject it to serious stress. Get some bloodwork done to see if you have any deficiencies (e.g., Vitamin D, iron, essential fatty acids) that could interfere with your energy levels, ability to recover, or endocrine response to exercise. Likewise, consult someone who understands movement to determine whether you have faulty movement patterns that could predispose you to injury. I think this is one reason why Assess and Correct has been our most popular product ever; it gives folks some guidance on where to start and where to go. Otherwise, the strength and conditioning program in front of you is really just a roadmap, and you don’t know where the starting point is.
These are just a few quick thoughts that came to mind today, but I’ll surely have many more in the follow-ups to this first installment. Feel free to post some of your own ideas in the comments section below, too!
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Written on November 4, 2011 at 9:56 am, by Eric Cressey
Last Saturday night, the power went out at our house thanks to a rare October snowstorm in New England. Expecting it to come back on pretty quickly, I went to bed Saturday night assuming I’d wake up to a normal Sunday morning.
Instead, I woke up and it was 49 degrees in my house. And, that wound up being par for the course through Tuesday at about 4pm. No hot showers, no refrigeration, no coffee in the morning: it makes you realize how much you take some things for granted.
It’s not all that different than what you’ll hear from injured and sick athletes. We always just believe that we’re going to be healthy – and it’s that assumption that leads us to put too much weight on the bar and lift with poor technique, have the extra beer, go to bed an hour later, or make any of a number of other small, but crucial decisions that interfere with our short- and long-term health, and the continuity in our workout “routines.”
I wish I’d foam rolled even when I wasn’t in pain.
I wish I’d done that dynamic flexibility warm-up even when I just wanted to get in and lift.
I wish I’d eaten my vegetables even though I was just trying to shovel in as much calories as I could in my quest to get strong and gain muscle.
These are all things I’ve heard from injured people. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Some of these decisions are made out of negligence, but often, they’re made simply because folks don’t know about the right choices. I mean, do you think this guy would really continue doing this if he thought it was good for his body?
Nobody is immune to ignorance; we’ve all “been there, done that.”
Almost a decade ago, I had no idea how much soft tissue work, high volumes of horizontal pulling, and thoracic spine mobility drills could do to help my shoulder. It’s why I stumbled through fails attempts at physical therapy with that shoulder back in 2000-2003, only to accidentally discover how to fix it with my own training in time to cancel my shoulder surgery.
Back in that same time period, nobody ever told me how eating more vegetables would help take down the acidity of my diet, or that Vitamin D status impacted tissue quality and a host of other biological functions. I never knew most fish oil products you could buy are woefully underdosed and of poor quality. Now, I crush Vitamin D, Biotest Flameout, and Athletic Greens on top of a healthy diet that’s as much about nutrient quality as it is about caloric content and timing.
In short, I didn’t know everything then, and while I know a lot more now, I still don’t claim to have all the answers. Nobody has all of them. So what do you do to avoid taking important things for granted?
Get around people who have “been there, done that.” Ask questions. Follow workout routines they’ve followed, and consult resources they’ve consulted. I touched on this in my webinars last week.
I also discussed this topic in a blog about strength and conditioning program design a while back. The best way to avoid making mistakes and taking things for granted is to be open-minded and learn from other people.
With that in mind, let’s use this post as a starting point. What mistakes have you made when it comes to taking things for granted? And, what lessons have you learned? Post your comments below.
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