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6 Questions to Ask Before Writing a Strength and Conditioning Program

Written on March 24, 2014 at 4:35 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Performance coach, Greg Robins.

Planning the training of an athlete is mainly a question of considering variables. The success of a strength and conditioning program is largely the result of how well a coach can manage these variables, as well as the implementation of the training program.

In order to effectively begin the planning process, a coach must ask himself six questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Many coaches instinctively weigh the answers to these questions in order to develop the training as a whole. I am no different. That being said, I recently watched a presentation from James Smith in which he organized common consideration into the familiar WWWWWH format. His acknowledgment of these considerations was the inspiration for this article, so thank you, James.

Who?

The first consideration must be the athlete with whom you’ll be working. Each athlete is different, and thus each athlete will need an individualized approach to his or her preparation. We are quick to label a program or exercise “sport specific,” but in reality, a good programs are exercise selection are “athlete specific.”

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Are you planning the training of a male or female? What is the athlete’s age?

The sex of the athlete may call for different training parameters. The same is true of the athlete’s age, as well as the interaction of the two factors.

Furthermore, what are their movement or orthopedic limitations, and injury history? This is a huge question in both the terms of exercise selection and workload. This consideration will also affect the answer of subsequent questions. Not to jump ahead, but the “why” you are training an athlete can be greatly influenced by their limitations.

Lastly, who is the athlete from a preparation level? This question can lend itself to the “when” as well as the “how.” However, an athlete’s “identity” is largely a product of their preparation to date. What is their level of skill or sport mastery, general and specific work capacity, limit strength, explosive strength, and exercise technique?

What?

The main question here is, “what is the athlete’s sport?“

The training plan must aid an athlete in attaining a high level of sport mastery. Do you as the coach understand the parameters and demands of the athlete’s sport?

How do the improvements of different categories translate to the improvement of the athlete in their sport? The special work capacity of the soccer player differs greatly from that of the sprinter. Limit strength, for example, may hold a higher priority to the football player than the baseball player.

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Also of consideration for some sports is the position or primary event of the athlete. Offensive lineman are a lot different than quarterbacks, and goalies have markedly different demands than midfielders. Obviously, this consideration weighs more heavily in some sports than others.   

When?

Asking “when?” leads us to series of questions based on time.

When is the athlete’s competitive season, and when is the off-season? The answer to this question helps us to form an idea of the length of any training stages.

For example, a Major League Baseball season consists of spring training, plus 26 weeks and 162 regular season games, plus a possible 20 additional post-season games. In other words, a MLB player spends more time in the competitive season than he does in the off-season. Factor in a block for restoration from the competitive season, and you have very little time to actually prepare the athlete for the following season. Now, ask yourself the difference in the length of the competitive season for a minor league player, college player, and high school player? Each offers different lengths of time for the coach to prepare the athlete. Therefore, while each athlete’s training should be geared toward producing the best possible result on the field, each athlete will be able to spend different amounts of time on improving certain abilities.

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Football, on the other hand, has a pre-season, plus a 17-week competitive season, and a possible additional 3-4 post-season games. The football player has considerably more time to prepare in the off-season.

Lastly, when will you be working with this athlete?

Will you have them for a few weeks, a single off-season, the next four years, or the next eight years? Furthermore, when will you be monitoring their training, and when will they be carrying out the training plan without your guidance?

These final answers MUST be taken into account when developing the strength and conditioning program of an athlete. A coach must train for the future, and knowing that you will influence an athlete for multiple years rather than multiple weeks greatly changes the approach.

Where?

Where are you receiving this athlete in their preparation and skill development timetable? While a coach may receive an athlete who has developed a high level of skill, they will not necessarily have a high level of physical preparation. The two are not linked.

Is this the first time ever dedicating any time to physical preparation as opposed to skill development?

Has the athlete acquired a high level of physical preparation, and lacks the skill development to move forward?

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The answers to these questions will help you as the coach better determine the means, and minimal effective dose, for this athlete to make improvements to their game.

To back track, you must also ask yourself where the athlete is in relation to their competitive season. If you receive an athlete one week after the close of business, as opposed to one month before the start of business, the training focus must be in line with the plan, regardless of what you see them lacking in on a global scale.

One month before the competitive season is not the time to makes gain on maximal strength, even if that is a weak link. Moreover, one week after the competitive season is not the time to place a majority focus on skill development, regardless of the fact that an athlete may be greatly lacking in this quality.

 

Why?

This may be the single best question you can ask yourself as a coach. Why are you working with this athlete?

The answer to that question is the sum of all the questions you have asked yourself up to this point. On a general level, the answer is the same: to improve the athlete’s sport outcome.

The real question you are asking is on a far more specific level.

You are not working with a professional athlete for the same reason you are working with a freshman in high school. Additionally, you may not be working with professional athlete A for the same reasons you are working with professional athlete B.

Each athlete will produce different answers to the questions of Who, What, When, and Where. Therefore, the “why” is different in each athlete’s case, and the training must be tailored to that individual’s needs.

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How?

How is the final question, and one that has many different answers. This is not an article on training philosophies, and so the answer to this question is different for each of you. That said, once you get to this final question, all pre-requisite variables have been established.

From here, you as the coach must form the training plan. How will you sequence the training, and what means, methods, amounts of volume, intensity, and frequency will you use?

In ending, qualified coaches will ask themselves these six questions before ever entering a single digit or exercise name into their template. Not doing so is to completely ignore the preparation process as a whole. Consider the training process on a much larger scale than just a single workout, or four-week phase. Instead, investigate where an athlete falls in the scheme of physical preparation and skill mastery on a career-long basis. Use the information gathered to enter the athlete into the proper phase of preparation and to focus the training to the needs of each athlete on an individual basis.

Looking for a program that helps you with individualization and takes the guesswork out of self-programming?  Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.

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Strength Training Programs: 3 Habits to Make You a Better Lifter

Written on February 12, 2014 at 7:35 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Performance coach, Andrew Zomberg.  Andrew's a fantastic coach and a great writer, so you'll be seeing much more about him around here in the future!
 

Habitual behavior happens unconsciously and compulsively. Daily activities like brushing your teeth or setting your alarm before bed are programmed into your brain simply because of the repetitive nature in which you carry out these actions.  You want to create the same kind habitual behavior in your lifting routine. But, building these habits requires specificity. In other words, it is not enough to say, “I want to be a more efficient lifter.” This big goal needs to be broken down into small, specific behaviors in order to make the change attainable.

Below are three important habits to establish in your lifting routine. These behaviors will pave the way to efficiency. Just know, reinforcing them will take time. According to a 2009 study from London’s University College, it takes 66 days to successfully adopt a new habit.  What does this mean? At first, you will have to work hard at implementing them into your lifting routine – so don’t get discouraged! Eventually, these habits will become second nature, and you will incorporate them without even thinking about it.

1. Create structure. Structure provides a baseline to achieve your fitness goals. By planning things out and establishing a purpose to be at the gym, you can ensure quality and consistency in your workouts. Structure also makes it easier to stick to a program long-term. But planning requires effort and discipline, especially in the preparation phase. To make structure and organization a habit, aim to:

  • Write everything down. This includes the load (amount of weight lifted), any modifications (regressions, progressions, etc.), and the settings (cable column adjustments, hand placements, stance, etc.). It is not practical to remember exactly what you did last week, so take the guesswork out. Keeping track of your workouts is also highly motivational. Tracking your progress provides positive feedback and reminds you just how hard you are working to attain the end goal.
     
  • Execute the program without deviation. Program designs are created for a reason. Exercise choice and exercise order aren’t just arbitrary recommendations that can be ignored. Sure, warm-ups can be boring, and of course it is easier to do a lat pull down than a chin-up, but there are no shortcuts to speed, strength and growth. So, stick to the plan!
     
  • Improve your accountability to minimize hiccups in your programming. If you have a work commitment, schedule your training session around it. If you have an injury, find a way to safely work out. If you often make excuses to skip a weekend workout, train with a partner to increase your accountability to get the gym.

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2.  Improve the proficiency of each lift. Awareness is underrated in fitness. Take single-leg work, for instance. Many “lungers” allow their knee to translate too far forward, which yields premature heel lift. Unbeknownst to their knowing, this redistributes the stress to unwanted areas and simply doesn’t target the intended areas (the hamstrings and glutes). It is so important to hone in on proper technique to ensure stability, proper body alignment, movement quality, and of course, safety. In order to improve proficiency in your programming, make a habit to:

  • Learn the right way to do each exercise. There are plenty of experts in the field who have mastered specific lifts from whom you can learn. However, please keep an open mind. Do not get caught up with just one individual. By learning from several enthusiasts, you are exposed to many different physical and verbal cues that will help perfect your lifts.
     
  • Practice lifts and all of their steps. There are several key components of a lift, including (but not limited to) the set-up, the tempo of the ascent/decent, and the lockout of the movement. Do not race through exercises. Take the time to execute the movements in their entirety in order to maximize results.
     
  • Figure out the limiting factors. These factors may include, mobility or stability restraints, lack of kinesthetic awareness or a pre-existing injury that is preventing the proper execution of a movement. There are several ways to reveal these issues.  Watch videos. Work with a training partner. Get assessed by a trained professional, like an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or chiropractor. It is essential to address limiting factors because if you continue to perform in faulty movements, they will become ingrained, which prohibits growth and could eventually lead to further injury.

3.  Add variations to programs and exercises. Variations are different ways of executing movements to increase or decrease the level of difficulty, eliminate monotony or simply expand your existing knowledge base. Adding variety to your programming will not only create the necessary adaptations for growth, but it will also enhance your level of expertise in specific lifts. Variations are effective on a monthly basis. To add variations in your programs, strive to:

  • Manipulate the volume. Changing your reps and sets by either adding more or less weight in your current program will provide the muscular disturbances needed for noticeable and consistent growth.
     
  • Add more exercises to your toolbox. Your muscles will not get stronger unless you force them to do so. By utilizing different exercises, you impose new stresses to the body, eliminating monotony and allowing for adaptation. This change leads to an endless list of benefits, including the improvement of cardiovascular health, the enhancement of body composition, and the development of quality of movement.
     
  • Play around with additional training variables. Alter your base of support (stance), create new ranges of motion (deficits or partials), adjust your grip placement or modify your tempo.  Changing the variables not only warrants growth, but also helps you avoid plateaus.  Remember, repetition allows the body to adapt to the repetitive motions, so mix it up – on a monthly basis!

Andrew Zomberg is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Performance.  You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewZomberg.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 47

Written on July 5, 2013 at 6:28 am, by Eric Cressey

Thanks for CP coach Greg Robins, here are this week's list of tips to fine-tune your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs.

1. Use old wrist wraps to rig up chains.

While there are some very solid products out there to rig up chains for deadlifts, sometimes you just don’t want to spend the cash.  In my case it is especially true when you only need them once every four months or so. Some people may get by just fine draping the chains over a bar, but I find they tend to move around and fall off too often when using them for reps.

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There is one very simple solution. You can use an old set of wrist wraps (or new ones, if you prefer), to hold the chains in place. It works out great, and is as easy as just tying the wrap around the top of the chains. If you find yourself having a similar issue getting the chains to stay in place, give this a try next time you pull against chains!

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2. Avoid elbow hyperextension on pressing exercises.

Many people, especially females, have significant joint laxity. When a joint has the ability to reach undesired ranges of motion, you will often find that folks use this end range as the preferred method of getting “stable.” Instead of actively holding positions, they will continue to move until they run out of room, and rely on a les than ideal positioning.  As an example, check out this picture of one of our boot camp clients on her first day doing push ups.

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Without assessing for this, or keeping an eye out for it, you will find many clients performing push-ups and other pressing exercises like this. Now that you are aware of it, fix it! If you notice them hyperextending the elbows, coach them to stop at neutral!

3. Consider these tips to make Turkish get-ups less tedious.

I like the Turkish get-up. It’s a great exercise, and it makes its way, in some form or another, into most of my programs. The only issue I have with it is that it can be very tedious. While the mind numbing length of doing multiple reps per side is one turn off, there is also another issue. Due to its drawn-out nature, many of our athletes will hit one rep with great technique and then rush through the next 2 or 3. While keeping an eye on every rep and ensuring proper technique is one solution, it isn’t always feasible, especially in a semi-private setting. Instead, consider these alternatives:

a. Program a single repetition per side: I like working the get up with only one rep at a time. It allows you to go heavier, which has the benefit of forcing you to be strict with your positioning. If you go heavy enough a single rep can easily last over 30-45sec. That length has a similar time under tension to other, more common, rep schemes. When you consider there are fourteen steps to a complete get up, doing one rep is actually a lot more involved than it may seem.

b. Litter the get-up within other exercises: One thing I love to do is start and end other exercises with a Turkish get up. Some examples include doing the first half of the exercise and continuing into an overhead carry. When you reach your desired carry length you can perform the other half. Another option is to perform a certain amount of overhead presses in the standing position, half kneeling position, or floor presses in the supine position.

4. Eat more raisins.

Raisins are chalked up to be a “kid snack.” However, they are a pretty darn good option for the active population as well, especially athletes who may be looking to bulk up with a convenient, calorically dense option. Raisins provide a great source of readily usable energy for intense training sessions. Furthermore, they are an excellent source of anti-oxidants. Furthermore, they are high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. Not to mention they provide a decent amount of fiber as well.

As noted in Jonny Bowden’s book The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth, the grapes raisins originate as are often highly saturated in pesticides. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to look for organic varieties. Next time you are looking for a good source of fast acting carbohydrates, consider eating a handful or two of raisins!

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5. Stay basic and specific when you’re unsure how long you have an athlete.

With all the information available today, it’s easy for us to jump ahead to more complex training protocols. There is no shortage of excellent programming out there, formulated by some of the brightest minds in strength and conditioning. However, many of these programs are not the right choice for the majority of the population.

While these methods have evidence to support their effectiveness, they are often used with highly trained individuals, and carried out over an extended/known period of time. In the private sector of S&C you aren’t always sure how long you’ll have an athlete.

Before you hop into contrast training, tempo training, or any other complex method, consider tapping out your potential with a more basic approach first. In many cases your end goal will be most greatly improved with a more basic approach that is specific to your desired outcome.

Take this recent study, for example. The School of Health Sciences, at The University of Ballarat in Australia studied “The Acute Effects of Conventional, Complex and Contrast Protocols on Lower Body Power.” The study looked at three different approaches to improving peak power output. The traditional approach included only counter-movement jumping. The other two included a mix of jumping and resistance training. The result favored the traditional approach for an acute improvement of peak power. This isn’t to say the other approaches wouldn’t be superior long term, but as I stated before, often times you will not have an athlete long enough to make changes with a more complex approach.

The take away is that you need to identify what you want to give an athlete by training with you. When he or she is only under your guidance for a short period of time, make that item a priority, do it often and do it well. That item may not be very specific to their sport, but the training needs to be specific to that item. In order to get an acute change in a certain quality your best bet is to give that quality the most attention.

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Now Available: Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body!

Written on June 17, 2013 at 4:10 am, by Eric Cressey

I am very excited to announce that my new product, Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body, is now available. This collaborative effort from Mike Reinold and me follows up on the first module in our Functional Stability Training system, FST for the Core, which was a big hit.  Since then, we've had a lot of inquiries about when the follow-up resources in this series would be available – and today's the day.

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FST for the Lower Body is a comprehensive program that combines the way Mike approaches rehabilitation projects with how I approach strength and conditioning programs.  We talk about a ton of topics that merge our philosophies.

The resource takes a hard look at the lower extremity and how to most effectively optimize function.  By addressing alignment, strength, mobility, and dynamic motor control, you can maximize your rehabilitation and training programs to reach optimal performance.

The lower extremities work in conjunction with the core to provide mobility, strength, and power to the entire body.  Any deficits throughout the lower body’s kinetic chain can lead to injury, dysfunction, and a decrease in performance.  FST for the Lower Body aims to help formulate rehabilitation and training programs designed to optimize how the lower body functions.

The FST for the Lower Body program can be applied to rehabilitation, injury prevention, and performance enhancement programs.

For the rehabilitation specialist, the information will help you restore functional activities faster.  For the fitness and performance specialists, the information will help you achieve new progress with your clients to maximize functional and athletic potential.  For the fitness enthusiast, the information will help you gain control of your lower body, maximize functional movement, and reduce wear and tear due to faulty movement patterns.

Here is the outline of presentations and lab demonstrations in the program:

  1. Reinold: Training the Hip for FST of the Lower Body
  2. Reinold: Assessing Lower Body Alignment and Movement
  3. Cressey: Preparing the Adductors for Health and Performance
  4. Cressey: Hip Internal Rotation Deficits: Why You Have Them and What to Do About Them
  5. Reinold: Training the Foot and Ankle for FST for the Lower Body
  6. Reinold: Understanding and Implementing Neuromuscular Control Progressions into Your Programs
  7. Reinold: How to Integrate Neuromuscular Control Progressions
  8. Cressey: 15 Things I've Learned About the Deadlift
  9. Cressey: Developing Lower Extremity Strength and Power Outside the Sagittal Plane

This video resource is available as a purely-online product, or you can also order the DVD set, if you'd prefer to have a physical copy for your library.  And, this week only, it's on sale for just $79.95, far less than you'd pay for even a half-day fitness or rehabilitation seminar.  For more information and to purchase, head here.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 43

Written on May 31, 2013 at 10:24 am, by Eric Cressey

Courtesy of Greg Robins, here are this week's five tips to help your strength and conditioning programs out.

1. Try this simple cue to maintain proper leverages with your deadlift technique.

2. Consider coaching a softer knee position in prone bridge variations.

The most important aspect of any prone bridge exercise is control of the spine. Gravity is working down on us, and creating a need to engage the anterior core to keep from over extending. Coaching a stiff, or locked out knee may be o.k. for much of the population. However, in some cases you are better off coaching a knee position that is slightly flexed, to just short of fully extended. More times than not, this slight regression will help trainees to a better feel for using the appropriate muscles, whereas before the hard locked out legs were causing a lot of compensation elsewhere. 

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3. Utilize "blocks" in your programming.

Block periodization is somewhat of a “buzz” word in the strength training community. It is viewed as a complex system reserved for the advanced training population. In reality, the general concept of block periodization is something that can be easily utilized by all strength training enthusiasts.

By now, you have probably heard that periodization itself isn’t the super cutting-edge concept some make it out to be. In fact it’s more or less just a way to say “organization.” Block periodization refers to organizing your training into specific periods of time. Each period can have a different length, and each should have a different primary focus. So how does this system of organization apply to you, and why is it worth considering?

For starters, organizing things into blocks helps you define a specific goal for a certain period of your training. Additionally, acknowledging different blocks in a training period helps you select appropriate exercises, use movements you might not normally know where to insert, and assign a quantity of work to a given exercise.

Normally, block periodization is synonymous with fancy words like accumulation, transmutation, and realization. For some, understanding these terms is beneficial. For many, it’s not necessary at all. Instead, you can assign whatever focus you want to a given block. However, I would encourage you to embody the theme of moving from “general to specific.”

What you do in the gym will work to either help you, hurt you, or in some cases have no effect whatsoever. Assuming you a have a specific goal in mind, everything you do in the gym should be done in an effort to aid you in achieving your goal.  All these things have a different relationship with your progress towards the end goal. Some have a very direct relationship, while others have a more indirect relationship. Each is important, but without planned organization, we tend to focus solely on those with a more direct relationship.

The issue there is that the time spent on an area with a more indirect relationship is still very important. Ignoring them for too long can cause a rapid change in your training out of necessity. Because you ignored these areas, their improvement has now become essential to you moving forward with the more directly related things. Now that this is the case, more time must be spent on improving the indirect things, and the direct things become stagnant at best.

As an example, the most direct correlation to improved sport performance will always be the training of the sport in question. If an athlete spends 90% of his time playing his sport, he has a greater risk of injury due to repetitive overuse of the body in relation the movements of the sport. For every one percent of time he spends on items more indirectly related to his sport performance, the better his oddGR262682_659447396708_1354528890_ns of avoiding an overuse injury. See Eric’s College Baseball: Is Summer Ball Worth It? article for a real-world example of this.

The same could be said for someone looking to improve a certain fitness category. If you want to squat, bench, and deadlift more – and all you do is these lifts, you, too, will combat the aches and pains associated with the exposure to the same movements over and over. Enter the block organization scheme.

With this concept, we can allot certain periods of time to being either more general, or more specific. In other words, they can be more indirect or direct. When you organize your own training, start incorporating this idea. Everyone’s blocks will be different, and completely dependent upon his or her goals. Here is a simple way to think about it.

Block 1 (4 – 8 weeks)

Most general, or indirect: 60% or more of what you do.

Less general, more direct: 30% or more of what you do.

Most specific or direct: 10% or less of what you do.

Block 2 (3 – 6 weeks)

Most general, or indirect: 20% of what you do.

Less general, more direct: 50% or less of what you do.

Most specific or direct: 30% or more of what you do.

Block 3 (2 – 4 weeks)

Most general, or indirect: 10% or less of what you do.

Less general, more direct: 10% or less of what you do.

Most specific or direct: 80% or more of what you do.

4. Add the band-resisted sled sprint to your arsenal.

Band resisted sled sprints are a great tool for a variety of reasons. Any sled sprint sprint offers the benefit of lower impact, and in this case you have the ability to move the feet very explosively with less ground contact forces than traditional sprinting. Furthermore, the trailing person can alter the resistance to meet the demands of either the training intensity or the output from the sprinter. Lastly, these are a viable option for people coming back from upper extremity issues who may not be able to push a heavier sled.

5. Take advantage of grilling season.

Up North, we have crappy weather, plain and simple. This year, it's been exceptionally awful. Unfortunately, that means our time available to grill is shorter than I would like. While the good weather is upon us, I make it a point to use the easiest food preparation tool short of the microwave as much as possible, and you should, too. Grilling is about as simple as it gets. You can cook meats, veggies, and even starches all in the same place. Plus, clean-up is virtually non existent. If you have been in a food prep rut, get yourself outside and on the grill!

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5 Ways to Avoid Boredom in Your Strength and Conditioning Programs

Written on May 3, 2013 at 6:29 am, by Eric Cressey

On Wednesday, my business partners and I surprised our staff and interns by blocking off a few hours of training sessions at Cressey Sports Performance - so that we could take them out to see the new movie, Pain and Gain. While the movie has a strength training theme to it, it doesn't even come close to qualifying as "continuing education" for our crew.

Rather, we had two reasons for taking the crew to the movies for a few hours.  First, we wanted to reward them for all their hard work during a long and busy baseball off-season. Second, we wanted to mix things up a bit for them, as things slow down a bit at the CSP during the month of April, and we still want to make coming to work fun even when the days might feel a bit longer.

It's easy to draw a parallel from this experience to what many people encounter with their strength training programs.  Good programs change before people adapt to them physiologically, but rarely do you consider that some people may have adapted to those programs psychologically much earlier.  In other words, some people get bored quickly and need to shake things up to keep training fun.  To that end, here are five strategies you can employ to make sure that you don't find going to the gym monotonous.

1. Get a new strength and conditioning program.

At Cressey Sports Performance, we generally change programs with our athletes and clients every four weeks.  With all of them on their own individualized programs, this obviously makes for a lot of program design responsibilities for our staff.  However, an individual gets excited when he or she receive a programs that isn't only new, but uniquely his or hers.

I often see people do the same programs for months and months upon end. There might be a small percentage of the strength training population who can tolerate it, but based on my interaction with thousands of the clients over the years, long-term results are far better when people are having fun.  So, if you've been doing the same program since 1994, you might want to consider shuffling things up a bit.

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2. Tinker with an existing strength and conditioning program.

It's not mandatory that you overhaul the program; you might just need to tinker with things.  Maybe you increase volume significantly in one training session or week to really challenge someone before deloading in the subsequent week.  Perhaps you modify exercise selection or the sets/reps scheme from week to week. The variations you can add are limited only by your creativity, but the important thing is that there is some variation in there, particularly if the individual doing the program is someone who gets bored easily.

3. Meet up with a new training partner.

I speak a lot about the importance of having good training partners and camaraderie in the gym. With this in mind, I'm convinced that the fact that people meet and train alongside new people every time they come to Cressey Sports Performance has a lot to do with our success.  While consistency is certainly a valuable qualify to have in a training partner, the truth is that people seem to work harder when they're surrounded by new people.  It may kick-start a little competitive fire or even just be a matter of people not wanting to be perceived as "non-hard-working."  Whatever it is, sometimes the people surrounded you during a training session can have a big impact on the effort you put in - and the excitement you take away from the session.

4. Try some new training equipment.

A lot of fitness enthusiasts complain when they go on vacation and check out the hotel gym for the first time - only to discover less than stellar equipment selections. I'm not sure how people got the idea that a vacation resort would make a power rack, glute ham raise, and 2,000 pounds of free weights a priority when designing a resort for the masses, but some people do have this expectation nonetheless.

I'm much more of a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, so I view vacation training as an opportunity to shuffle my training up with some equipment access.  It's not going to kill you to use some machines for a week, and you won't waste away if you do more body weight exercises for a few days.  Chances are that you'll make yourself really sore and - when you're hitting the dessert bar for the fifth time - you'll feel a little better about yourself knowing that you still worked hard and have the physical reminder of it.

Even if you're not on vacation, you can change things up very easily.  It could be as simple as throwing a pair of Fat Gripz on the bar or dumbbell, or using a specialty bar for some squats or lunges.

5. Compete with yourself.

One of the biggest mistakes I see among gym-goers is that they rarely track their progress.  It only takes a few seconds to write down what you did in a given session, but for some reason, most people don't log their training sessions.  If you can't remember what you've done, how can you determine if you're making progress in the direction of your goals?  This is one reason why I love Fitocracy; it's a quantifiable means of tracking exercise progress, and it also offers ways for you to compete with not only yourself, but others, too.

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There's something wildly motivating about seeing improvements from week to week - even if they're only represented by a few numbers on a sheet of paper.  If you find yourself getting bored in the gym easily, then I'd suggest that you start tracking things a bit more closely so that you can head off that boredom before it sets in.  Plus, you might actually find that there's a reason to celebrate progress instead of just loathing the trips to the gym!

These are just five strategies to help you keep your strength and conditioning programs and sessions from getting boring, and there are surely many more.  What have you done to keep the monotony at bay and keep things interesting?

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Engineering the Alpha: How to Find Your Unique Path

Written on April 15, 2013 at 6:21 am, by Eric Cressey

One of Yogi Berra’s most enduring quotes is: “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”

While the quote is certainly a comical one, it has a great underlying message: you’re going to have to make decisions in life.  You can’t just stand still and wait for someone to get things done for you, or life to magically unfold before your eyes. In other words, you create your own destiny.

The word “create” is what today’s post is all about.  There are a lot of things that have to take place for you to even get to those forks in the road that’ll shape your life – and certainly the ones pertaining to fitness.  Whether it’s your journey to get/stay fit or your aspirations of being successful with a career in the fitness industry, what you do now is setting you up to be in a better spot when those opportunities (forks) come up in the future. 

There isn’t a single path, though.  Let me elaborate with a story about John Romaniello, one of my best friends in the fitness industry.  It’s especially timely, as he is released a new book today that will likely end up on the New York Times Best-Seller list.

 

Roman and I met back in 2001 and immediately hit it off.  We were both guys who’d struggled with being overweight as teenagers, and had found fitness as something that didn’t just help rescue us from those frustrations, but also gave rise to the possibility of a career in the fitness world. We’d push one another with everything from training logs, to what we were doing in continuing education.  Eventually, with a few other fitness friends, Roman and I helped co-found Rugged Magazine (now retired) to get more opportunities to hone our writing abilities.  We though we were so cool that we wore sunglasses inside, too.

While we had similar goals of being successful in the fitness industry, and certainly enough in common to be good friends, our experiences in the early 2000s were dramatically different.  I got my undergraduate degree in Exercise Science and Sports Management, and my graduate degree in Kinesiology.  Roman’s undergraduate degree was in English/Psychology.

As we entered the real world as business owners, we went to working with different populations. I became a shoulder/elbow geek and specialized in baseball strength and conditioning, and Roman went to the trenches with the general population and focused his attention on helping people improve body composition (lose fat, gain muscle).

I caught the powerlifting bug, and Roman competed in bodybuilding and did some modeling.

I had one girlfriend in my four years of undergraduate studies, and one during my graduate degree. Roman probably made out with more attractive girls than I even spoke to over those 5-6 years.

My writing is more “sciency,” and at times very technical.  It’s also rated PG.  Roman’s approach has a more conversational tone; he isn’t shy about throwing in an F-bomb here and there, or using modern cultural references – movies, for instance – to make his point. And, he’ll even cover some controversial topics.

We’re both workaholics, but via different methods. I like to work consistently; I’m someone who fidgets when I don’t have something to do. Roman’s a guy who works in bursts, logging an absurd number of hours over a few days, and then does a better job of decompressing and enjoying life when the work is done.

In spite of these differences, we’ve both managed to turn out okay, both socially and professionally.  I’ve been married over two years to the love of my life, and Roman is engaged to his. We’ve both had successful in-person and online businesses. We’ve both written a ton of articles and books, and done some angel investing in start-up companies. We might have been great friends who supported one another, but our successes have been via remarkably different paths.

At risk of sounding narcissistic, I am often asked “How do I get to where you are?”  It’s a hard question to answer, as I’m 31 years old and still have a lot of things I want to achieve in life – so I guess you could say that I don’t really know exactly where I “am.”  More challenging, though, is getting up-and-comers to realize that the correct path is going to be different for everyone.

While I can certainly give some suggestions on how to best prepare for the knowledge side of things, the truth is that everyone will respond best to a different course of action. They all have unique personalities, learning styles, and specific goals. That’s what it’s so important to encounter a lot of people to determine your way in the working world – or to simply fine-tune your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs.

You read EricCressey.com because you like the perspective I offer, but it’s important to recognize that what you might learn from me should be supplemented by what you can learn from others, including guys like Roman. It’s just like coaching different clients/athletes; in the quest to get them to all have good technique, you’ll need to use different cues to figure out which works best for that individual. The single-most important thing you can do to get to want to be in any aspect of your life is get out of your comfort zone and seek fresh ideas that’ll challenge your status quo.

That’s why I’m so excited to throw an endorsement to his new book, Engineering the Alpha.

This project, which was co-authored with another good friend, Adam Bornstein, highlights ways to make your life more awesome. It covers fitness, nutrition, psychology, career development, and even interactions with the opposite sex. This book talks about a lot of the mistakes Roman (and I) made in the late 1990s, and can save you a lot of headaches and wasted time. It’s extremely well researched on the training, nutrition, and social behavior sides of things. And, for under $20, it’s a pretty darn good bargain for such an entertaining and educational (“infotainment”) resource. Oh, and the foreword is written by some guy named Schwarzenegger; you may have heard of him.

Check it out here.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 35

Written on March 4, 2013 at 6:43 am, by Eric Cressey

Thanks to CP coach Greg Robins, here are this week’s tips to get your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs headed in the right direction.

1. Add finely ground nuts to your favorite meals.

A while back, I started using a chili recipe from Precision Nutrition that called for a few cups of finely ground up cashews. The cashews did a fantastic job of thickening up the chili and adding taste and texture. Since then, I have experimented doing the same thing to a few different stews, and other dishes as well. It seemingly works every time. Making a stir fry? Add a cup of finely ground nuts. Steaming up a big bag of kale? Try adding them in, it tastes amazing!

You will find that it is a great addition for those looking to add calories. Additionally, it works great to add flavor and texture to those on more low carb style meal plans.


 

2. Recognize that assessing exercise form is not the same as assessing movement patterns.

I’ll admit to a mistake right away. I was always impressed when coaches I had met would tell me how they could accurately assess people just by watching them squat, deadlift, or perform a host of other loaded exercises. I was fortunate that I stumbled upon people like Eric’s work early on in my career as a fitness professional. At the same time, I was frustrated because I didn’t have the knowledge yet to apply a lot of the information he was presenting. I wanted to use better methods of assessment, but I couldn’t draw the connections. Admittedly, I’m still not 100% there, if anyone is ever truly 100%. Luckily, I have him as a resource, and consider every week at work a mini course in my ongoing education. Being in this position early on I was impressionable, and the idea of looking at exercises I was very familiar with as a form of assessment was appealing. In turn, I began to do the same thing. Little did I know there was a major flaw in my thinking. The flaw is really quite simple when we take a second to think about it.

Loaded exercises, and movement patterns are two different things. While we must work to establish solid movement patterns, exercises under load do not need to, nor should they necessarily, look the same. Granted, one should prove proficient in establishing correct patterns before loading similar movements, but one should not use proficiency in a loaded movement to assess a person’s adequacy in a movement pattern.

The “why” is a long-winded explanation – and one that could branch off into many sub-topics. So, for the sake of today’s pointer, just respect the difference between performing a squat with 400lbs on your back, and assessing someone’s squat pattern. How can we look for compensatory movement in a 400lbs squat? Every muscle in the body is firing on full cylinders, so differentiating between what’s doing too much, and what’s not pulling its weight is impossible. If someone pitches forward in a 400lb squat how can we look past the 400lbs on their back and say it’s a movement flaw? You would probably be better served just watching the person walk around, tie their shoes, or walk up a flight stairs. Once we have switched into the totally active form of “exercise,” assessing movement integrity is a futile effort.

3. Get a grip on your bench press technique.

4. Pay attention to hip positioning during jumps and landings.

5. Utilize open and closed loop drills in your strength and conditioning programs.

Strength and conditioning programs are not meant to imitate the demands or movements of actual game play. However, decision-making is an important component to an athlete’s success. It is also a skill that can be, and should be trained.

Many drills that are used by strength coaches and sport teams would be considered “closed loop” drills. They are predetermined, and predictable.

“Open loop” drills, on the other hand, require an athlete to make changes in direction and speed on the fly in response to a scenario or outside cue. For more on the difference between them, give this a read.

In a recent study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28 (14 high standard and 14 low standard) Australian footballers were assessed on their decision-making skills, and the cost of poor decisions in relation to their reactive agility capabilities.

It’s not surprising that the study found errors in decision making to worsen reactive agility performance. What’s also useful to know is that the footballers of a “high standard” were much less likely to make incorrect decisions.

When training athletes, especially young athletes, make sure to incorporate open loop drills that challenge both the physical and mental side to sport performance. It can be as simple as making them react to the direction to which you point, or chase a tennis ball you throw.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 33

Written on February 15, 2013 at 9:47 am, by Eric Cressey

Thanks to CP coach Greg Robins, here’s this week’s list of tips to make your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs more awesome.

1. Go narrower to improve wider.

People tend to spend a lot of time searching for that elusive exercise that will aid them in bringing up one of their big main lifts. Many are successful in their quest, and over time learn that one movement has great transfer to another. As an example, many people find improvements in the traditional good-morning has direct transfer to improvement in both their squat and deadlift.

Sometimes, however, what you’re searching for isn’t that far removed from what you’re already doing. Slight tweaks to the main lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), will cause you to make huge improvements to the lift in question. Some examples include: creating more range of motion, altering the tempo, or utilizing a different bar. One tweak in particular doesn’t get enough attention, which is unfortunate because it yields consistently great results. So what’s the change? Go narrower to improve wider.

If you want to improve your back squat, consider doing a few training cycles of narrow stance high bar back squats. When you return to a lower bar, wider stance position, you will have great return.If you want to improve the bench press, consider doing more bench sessions, or more sets within a bench session, with a narrower grip.

Lastly, if you’re a sumo style puller, work to bring up your conventional pull. If you already pull conventional, utilize snatch grip deadlifts. The set up for a snatch grip pull is generally a bit narrower, and forces you to drop the hips more so than the conventional deadlift.

2. Don’t limit your grip training to exercises that close the hand.

Admittedly, I have a pretty weak grip. Granted, there are different qualities to grip strength, just as there are different strength qualities. My ability to resist the opening of my hand is pretty good; due mainly to many years of holding heavy stuff. In my recent efforts to improve my ability “crush” and “pinch” I have done a few things. A few in particular I brought up in this Installment 29. Another approach that’s yielded a noticeable difference is training my hand “opening” strength.

The benefit to training finger extension is two-fold. First, doing so helps to keep the joints of the lower arm healthy. If you are doing a lot of heavy lifting or playing sports that are grip intensive, you’re spend a considerable amount time flexing the elbow, wrist, and fingers. Simply doing some work in the opposite direction will create some much-needed balance. Second, improving your opening strength will improve your closing strength. Stronger and healthier is never a bad combination, so what are some exercises to train finger extension. Here are a few I picked up in John Brookfield’s Mastery of Hand Strength.

3. Monitor outputs for more productive “conditioning.”

As I have harped on a few times, conditioning is somewhat of a “garbage term” mainly because it is too generally applied. What you do for conditioning should be in line with your training goals. If your goal is increased performance, in power development for sport or weightlifting, you want to make sure you’re training in a way that aids your end goal. Many conditioning protocols are designed to more or less run people into the ground. If not that, then they are not really designed with any rhyme or reason at all, except to include a day of moving around that makes you sweat and generally hate life for 15–30min. While something of this nature may be productive for fat loss, or to fill an exercise quota in general fitness populations, it is actually taking away from your efforts the other 3–4 days per week. Here are two easy ways to improve your conditioning days. Each is based on the concept of repeating quality outputs.

In scenario 1, you will adjust rest to produce consistent outputs. This is pretty simple. Start to monitor what you get done, and then adjust rest to continually do the same or better. For example, say you are doing 15yd shuttle sprints. You want to get 10 quality sprints in, and you have set a rest interval of 45 seconds between each one. You run the first two in 4.4s and 4.42s, respectively. Your third time is 4.56. At this point you would add 10s to the rest. You run three more with this rest all under 4.5sec. Your seventh sprint is 4.6, what do you do? Add 10s to the rest. Continue like this until all ten sprints are complete.

The same concept can be used for exercises done for repetitions under a given interval. For example, rounds one through three you were able to knock out 15 kettlebell swings in 20s. The fourth round you only got 14. Add 10s of rest, and continue.

In scenario 2, you will monitor outputs and end conditioning sessions (or the exercise) when outputs become unrepeatable. I’d use this after you have done a fair amount of work in scenario 1. This way you have a solid idea of what a good rest interval would be to accomplish ten sets of a given exercise and be able to repeat the same output every time. Once you have an idea of how you are going to set it up, you simply stop the exercise, or session, once you can no longer achieve the same output. Each week, or each session, your goal would be to get more sets in, with the same rest interval before you can no longer achieve the same output.

4. Clean up your step-up execution with this variation.

5. Teach your bench press spotter to give a proper hand-off.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 32

Written on February 8, 2013 at 10:00 am, by Eric Cressey

Thanks to Greg Robins, here are this week’s tips to make your nutrition strength and conditioning programs a bit more awesome.

1. Position your free hand in the correct place during unilateral upper body movements.

2. Improve exercise form by cueing spinal flexion, when appropriate.

In the following video I demonstrate a few exercises where spinal flexion is actually a good cue to keep people in better positions during the movement. It seems counter-intuitive, so what’s the deal?

First off, individuals may start of in a more extended posture. This is often the case with athletes, or really any active individuals. Therefore, cueing flexion brings you closer to neutral. This is something to which Eric devoted a lot of attention in Functional Stability Training.

As someone who is pretty extended, I often find that the appropriate positioning of my spine actually feels rounded over, or flexed. In reality, I am just less extended than usual. Try it out for yourself, and possibly try to grab a quick video so you can relate what you’re feeling to what it actually looks like. I think you will be surprised.

Second, certain exercises fit this description: They are inherently harder to execute without driving through back extension. Additionally, they are not loaded in such a way that erring on the side of being a little flexed is dangerous. With these movements, starting a bit flexed is helping, not hurting.

Third, many people who struggle with “anti-extension” exercises are simply unable to understand what should be kicking in to keep them in the right position. Taking these folks into a position of slight flexion helps them learn to use the abdominals. Before you knock it, try it out. You will find this cue gets most people to neutral, and in the cases where they remain slightly flexed you can gradually teach them to even out.

3. Pull through the floor when performing board and floor press variations.

Great benchers all have one thing in common: they use their lats well in their bench press technique. Using the lats to bench is tough to conceptualize, and even tougher to actualize when training. It was always a major issue for me, and held me back quite a bit. One great way to learn how to engage the lats is with the board press and floor press. When done the way I explain in this video you will be able to get some feed back on the “pulling” sensation you are looking for when lowering the bar. Give it a try!

4. Convert some of your favorite oils into sprays for cooking.

Most of us use oils to coat pans and dishes when cooking. One easy thing you can do to save a few calories, and dollars, is make spray bottles with your oils. It’s fairly easy to find BPA free spray bottles, or you can invest in a Misto, which is a cool little gadget too. I generally use a 3-to-1 ratio of the oil and water in my sprays and that seems to work well. You will notice right away that as little as 6oz of olive oil when converted to a spray bottle will last a LONG time! This means you save money and eliminate unnoticed calories from your diet. Too easy!

5. Consider this blueprint for being a good training partner.

I am lucky that over the past few years, I have had some really solid training partners. When you have a good team, you are always better than you could be alone. Unfortunately, my own schedule and location, has made it tough to keep a training partner around who is on the same page as me with their training. That aside, it got me thinking about what makes a great training partner. Give this a look and see where you can step your game.

  • Be consistent. Nothing is more important to your success in the gym, and nothing is more important to your training partner. SHOW UP, all the time.
  • Shut up and train. We all have better days than others, and your training partner doesn’t need to be dragged into some pity party you are hosting.
  • Coach more. Yelling things like “up!” is a giant waste of your training partner’s time. Unless he or she tends to forget which direction the bar is supposed to move, then take stock in learning what helps them. Talk technique with them, and yell out things that will make or break their lift

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