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Deadlifting Secrets 101

Everything you need to know about this complex exercise.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 51 (Set-Up Edition)

Written on September 9, 2013 at 10:49 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from CP Coach, Greg Robins.

Since this website first launched, Eric has gone to great lengths to focus on coaching cues you can use to fine-tune your technique on a number of strength exercises.  If you check out his YouTube page, you’ll be greeted with hundreds of videos, many with thorough instructions on now only the “how,” but also the why.

With that said, when I’m working with lifters in person, I always find myself stressing the “little” things to them. In reality, these “little” tips are a really BIG deal. They’re not something taught in the typical exercise science curriculum, nor are they something that crosses the mind of someone who hasn’t taught hundreds of people how to do an exercise. In fact, even people who have spent decades in the gym tend to pass over these sorts of things because they have just become second nature to them.

Taking the time to teach someone these things will set them up for continued success, as well as keep them from having to learn many small lessons the “hard way.”

The number one thing I stress to lifters is to not overlook the set-up. It’s imperative that lifters know how to get in place for an exercise before actually demonstrating the movement. I will usually reference the following phrase:

“Hard start, easy finish”

I’m not sure where I heard this phrase originally, but it has stuck with me for many years. It is obviously applicable to more than lifting weights, and a solid reminder that the harder we work at the start, the smoother the sailing thereafter.

In terms of exercise technique, the more stock you put into your set-up, the better your form and performance will be thereafter.

If you are a coach, MAKE IT A POINT to teach people where to set the pins on the squat rack, how to position the body, their feet, the bar, the weights, etc.  These small tips will make an enormous difference in shortening the learning curve and making exercises more effective as well as safer.

Below, I’ll discuss and demonstrate five set-up points for different lifts. These tips should help out with your own efforts in the gym, as well as with those you may be instructing.

1. Watch your foot position on Bulgarian split squats.

2. Make sure the pins are set correctly to allow you to “get tight” on back squats.

3. Teach the hip thrust from the finish position.

4. Don’t butcher the feet-elevated inverted row set-up.

5. Avoid these common rotary stability set-up mistakes.

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Exercise of the Week: Standing External Rotation to Wall

Written on May 24, 2013 at 1:10 am, by Eric Cressey

This week's exercise of the week is a great fit for everyday lifters and baseball players alike, as it builds rotator cuff strength without any equipment.

Also, just a friendly reminder that the early-bird discount on Post Rehab Essentials Version 2.0 ends tomorrow (Saturday) at midnight.  This is a great new resource from Dean Somerset, and it comes with CEUs and a money-back guarantee. Be sure to check it out!

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Strength Exercise of the Week: 1-arm Bottoms-up Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up

Written on April 3, 2013 at 1:20 pm, by Eric Cressey

I’m a big fan of the Turkish Get-up.  It’s one of those exercises that affords so many benefits – core stability, hip mobility, scapular control, rotator cuff control – that you could make a list a mile long and still forget a few of the positives.  It is, however, one of those exercises where every rep takes quite a bit of time to execute, and there are a lot of cues to remember.  In fact, in referring to Turkish Get-ups the other day, a 17-year-old Cressey Performance athlete remarked:

“It’s like solving a damn puzzle every step of the way and that’s just to do one rep…stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my program.”

I like to think of it as “exposure to a rich proprioceptive environment,” but I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree!  With that said, regardless of what you call it, it’s important to not let people rush through the get-up, as it should be more “segmented” to ensure that they don’t miss out of the benefits.  Young athletes, in particular, will want to speed through it and try to make it one fluid movement.  One of my favorite ways to prevent rushing is to simply switch to a bottoms-up kettlebell get-up.

Going bottoms-up increases the stability demands at the upper extremity, and in a more unstable environment, you have to move a bit slower. Additionally, this serves as a great challenges to the scapular stabilizers, rotator cuff, and grip musculature.

The next time you find yourself rushing through the get-up – or dealing with a client or athlete who is going through it too quickly – try going bottoms-up; it should clean up some of the issues you’re seeing.

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How to Front Squat: Everything You Need to Know

Written on December 4, 2012 at 7:09 am, by Eric Cressey

The squat is one of the most revered strength training exercises of all time, and the front squat is a popular variation on this compound lift.  However, like many lifts, it's often performed incorrectly, and in many cases used by folks for whom it isn't a good fit.  To that end, I thought I'd devote this article to outlining everything you need to know to be successful with the front squat.

What Makes the Front Squat Different?

A few primary factors differentiate a front squat from a traditional back squat.

First, the bar is positioned on the front of the shoulder girdle rather than on the upper back.  In the process, an athlete is given a counterbalance to allow for a better posterior weight shift, which improves squat depth.  If you need proof, check out your body weight squat, and then retest it while holding a ten-pound plate out at arm's length; most of you will improve substantially.

Second, because the arms are elevated (flexed humeri), the lats are lengthened.  This is in contrast to the back squat, where the lats can be used to aggressively pull the bar down into the upper back and help create core stability.  I firmly believe the lack of lat involvement is what accounts for the significant differences in loads one can handle in the front squat as compared to the back squat.  However, "quieting down" the lats on the front squat is likely why athletes with such dramatic lordotic posture can often squat much deeper/cleaner with the front squat.  Of course, if they have an excessive lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt, you may not want to squat them in the first place!

Third, the positioning of the bar in the front makes the front squat much more shoulder friendly than the back squat, assuming we aren't dealing with an acromioclavicular joint injury, which would be irritated by direct pressure of the bar.  In the back squat, the externally rotated "rack" position poses problems for athletes with poor upper body mobility, and it actually reproduces injury mechanisms at the shoulder and elbow in overhead athletes like baseball players, tennis players, volleyball players, and swimmers.

Fourth, the upright torso angle of the front squat reduces shear stress on the spine. More forward lean equates to more shear stress, as the resistance is moved further away from the axis of rotation; just think of a see-saw where your lower back is the middle point and you'll catch my drift. Moving the load further out also increases risk of going into excessive lumbar flexion under compressive load. The front squat – even under heavier loads – keeps a lifter more upright, or else he’ll simply dump the bar; it's somewhat of a self-limiting strength exercise.

Fifth, because the load is positioned further forward than in a back squat, there isn't as much of a pre-stretch for the posterior chain, so the front squat will be more quad dominant than the back squat, which will engage more glutes and hamstrings.  Of course, you can use front box squats to shuffle things up and get some variety, but we won't deviate from the point too much here.

Sixth, in the overwhelming majority of lifters, because of the upright torso angle and increased recruitment of quads relative to posterior chain, most lifters will use significantly less weight on the front squat than the back squat. All things considered, if you can achieve a comparable training effect with less external loading, you're dealing with what would generally be considered a safer exercise.

Contraindications

Some individuals simply aren't cut out for any kind of squatting, so before we even talk technique, it's important to start by separating these lifters out.  Some common contraindications for squatting include poor tolerance to compressive loading (e.g., symptomatic lumbar spine disc injuries) and femoroacetabular impingement (this bony block at the hips makes it virtually impossible to squat without developing issues acutely and chronically).

Specific to front squatting, poor hip mobility, ankle mobility, core stability can be problematic, but perhaps nothing is as big of a buzzkill for front squatting as a kyphotic posture.  As I demonstrate with my Quasimodo impression in this photo, it's impossible to get the elbows up when you're rounded over like a scared cat.

 

These are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential contraindications, but they serve as examples of how we need to fit the exercise to the lifter and not vice versa. With that out of the way, let's talk…

Technique!

We'll start with the hand positioning, as it's the most hotly contested portion of the front squat technique debate.  Only a video will do it justice:

When it comes time to unrack the bar, I cue the athlete to push the elbows up high and take air into the belly as they stand up the weight.  This combination of "elbows up" (shoulder flexion) and "air in" prevents the bar from rolling – either because the arms are angled down or because the torso goes to mush as the rib cage comes down.

After the weight is walked out, the athlete should take a slightly outside hip width stance, with the toes angled slightly out.  One of the biggest mistakes I see is that athletes go too wide with their stance, and the end result is that the knees have nowhere to go but in:

To piggyback on the "feet in, knees out" cue, I encourage athletes to think of "squatting between the knees, not over them."  This seems to get folks to the right balance of "sit back" and "sit down," as an (Olympic) front squat will have more "sit down" than a back squat or box squat variation. Additionally, a regular back squat will be slightly wider in stance than a front squat for most folks, and a box squat will certainly be even wider.

"Elbows up" is a cue that resounds throughout the movement, and it's especially important in the bottom position, when the bar will want to roll the most.  Regardless of the hand position you select, make sure the elbows are at or above the level of the bar at all times.  One great drill for practicing is to simply unrack the bar hands-free and gradually build up loads.  If you can get comfortable with this set-up, you'll always remember to think "elbows" and not "hands."

As you come out of the hole and accelerate toward lockout, make sure you don't get lazy as you enter the easy portion of the strength curve.  This is where front squatting with chains can be very helpful; it educates you on how to accelerate right up to lockout, where the hips and knees extend fully simultaneously.  If you don't have chains, try loading the last ten pounds of weight as 2.5-pound weights (two on each side). Position the clamp about an inch further out than it would normally be so that they can "clank" a bit.  Your goal is to make the 2.5-pound plates rattle at the top of each rep.  Finish with the glutes as you stand tall, and reset your breath before descending for subsequent reps.

Speaking of reps, stay away from doing high-rep front squats.   Sets of six should be the maximum you do, as muscles involved in maintaining the "rack" position may fatigue early and compromise the safety of the exercise.

Equipment Considerations

There are three important equipment considers to take into account.

First, your shoes should have a subtle heel lift.  It doesn't have to be an Olympic lifting shoe, but something that is totally flat to the ground won't work for the majority of folks.  It'll take some tremendous ankle mobility to squat deep without a little lift – even if it's only a few millimeters.  Front squatting (assuming an upright, Olympic stance) barefoot is probably not a great idea; I can count on one hand the number of people I've seen do it in good technique in the past 4-5 years since the barefoot craze took off.  Minimalist shoes are fantastic, but not necessarily for deep, Olympic-style squatting. If you're rocking a Minimalist sneaker, you can always slide a five-pound plate under the heel.

NewBalance-20v3low

Second, be careful with shirts made of "wicking" fabric.  While they may be super comfortable, they do tend to allow the bar to slide a bit too much, especially if you're using a bar that doesn't have much knurling.  A quick solution to this is to spread some lifting chalk around the collar and chest to help the bar grab the shirt a bit more – or you could just wear a different shirt.

Third, many front squat newbies will really struggle with the discomfort of the bar position as they're learning to the bar-in-front technique.  While everyone ultimately adjusts to this discomfort (especially if they add some muscle mass to the area), one strategy to help athletes get by in the short-term is to just have them wear two shirts while they front squat.  This extra layer of padding is subtle and won't change the technique of the exercise, but will make it more tolerable during the learning phase.  You can taper an athlete off of it shortly thereafter.

Closing Thoughts

Squats aren't for everyone, but if you are going to squat, the front squat is one great option. Put these coaching cues and strategies into action, and you'll be front squatting safely and moving big weights in no time.

Looking for more detailed training tutorials like this, and a program in which front squatting is incorporated? Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.

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Thinking Concentric With Your Strength Training Programs

Written on September 24, 2012 at 6:36 am, by Eric Cressey

When it comes to strength training programs, the basics work.  They always have, and they almost always will.  However, sometimes, they don’t.  The more advanced you get, the more often you’ll need to shake things up to ensure continued progress.

Sometimes this is as simple as taking a deload week, changing your exercise selection, undertaking a specialization program, or bringing in a hype guy to pad your ego.

With that in mind, I thought I’d use today’s post to introduce a way you can integrate some variety in your strength training programs to avoid plateaus and keep things interesting.  That strategy is to go concentric-only. Let me explain.

The eccentric (lowering) portion of each rep is what causes the most muscular damage and post-exercise soreness.  A common deloading strategy that many lifters have employed is to reduce the amount of eccentric work in a strength training program, instead utilizing concentric-only (or predominantly concentric) lifts.  These strength exercises include deadlifts (uncontrolled eccentric or dropping the weight), high pulls, step-ups, sled pushing/dragging, and Anderson squats.  Have a look at this video and let me know how much eccentric work I actually did:

Then, consider that a step-up variation under load allows a lifter to attain some of the benefits of single-leg training without all of the debilitating soreness one feels when sitting down to the toilet for the 3-4 days following walking lunges.

And, consider sled pushing.  It might make you hate life and lose your lunch, but it won’t make you sore.

What folks might not consider is that this doesn’t just have to be a deloading strategy; it can also be a loading strategy.  It goes without saying that if you are employing more concentric-only exercises, you can train more frequently.  So, for those of you who are considering squatting or deadliting 3x/week in a specialization block, you might consider getting more concentric-only work in so that you can still groove movement patterns and load considerably, but without the same degree of tissue-specific damage. 

Utilizing more concentric-only variations can also be very helpful with in-season athletes when you want to avoid soreness at all costs, as I wrote here.  However, it’s important to note that this is not a long-term training strategy.  Rather, it should be a short-term change of pace, as eccentric control is tremendously important for athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike.  Experiencing eccentric stress is crucial to prevent injuries, performing at a high level, and building muscle mass. Nonetheless, start thinking about how some concentric-only work might help to take your strength training programs to the next level.

To take the guesswork out of your strength training programs, check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 18

Written on September 11, 2012 at 9:28 am, by Eric Cressey

It’s that time of the week again: Greg Robins is here to throw some tips your way to lose fat, gain muscle, get strong, and take over the world.  It’s also quite fitting that Greg be our guest contributor on 9/11 in light of his military background.  With that in mind, for every Tweet or Facebook Share (both can be done in the top left of this page) this post gets by the end of the day on Wednesday, I’ll donate $0.10 to the Wounded Warrior Project.  Thank you very much to all of you who have served our country.

Now, on to Greg’s tips…

1. Be careful not to pair competing exercises.

When you set up your own strength training programs, exercise selection is the most commonly recognized variable; they think about it before they consider a number of other factors. I often advise people to look deeper than simply the strength exercises they are choosing. Instead, many would be better served to evaluate things like sets and reps schemes and total volume week to week while keeping the same movements in their approach longer. This aside, strength exercise selection must be considered at some point, and one rookie mistake is pairing two exercises that directly compete against one another.

Exercises may compete in a variety of ways. For example, pairing two exercises that are heavily grip dependent, such as rows and dumbbell lunges, provides an unneeded challenge to maintain grip strength. A better suggestion would be to keep the rows, but go to a single-leg exercise that doesn’t require as much grip work:

Another common example is pairing prone bridge variations with pushing exercises, as the shoulder fatigue will often take away from the ability to maintain good posture in the prone bridge. Take a look at how you have set up your strength and conditioning programs and eliminate pairings that do not allow you to give a full effort to each exercise. It’s easily fixed by subbing in exercise pairings that are direct opposites (e.g., rows with presses) or by pairing strength exercises with mobility drills.

2. Choose jumps and throws wisely for those with elbow and knee pain.

I am an advocate of placing a small amount of “explosive” training at the beginning of both competitive athletes and general fitness clients’ programs. Performing an explosive movement prior to resistance training helps to prime the nervous system for the day’s training. Additionally, it helps mentally gear people up to lift heavy stuff!

However, many people deal with nagging elbow and knee pain, which can be problematic when coupled with many of the common exercises utilized in this capacity. In some cases, a person may need to forgo these types of movements altogether while we work to alleviate the causes of such problems. For many, though, explosive movements can still be incorporated if appropriate exercises are selected. Limit jumping variations to those with the least amount of deceleration. Work with low level box jumps, and avoid options like broad jumps and depth jump variations. Another great option is to utilize jumps up an inclined surface, like a hill. Furthermore, kettlebell swings present us with an excellent joint friendly option to work the lower extremities in a low impact, explosive fashion.

Lastly, medicine ball exercises can present problems for those with elbow pain. When presented with these issues, stick to throws that do not call for violent extension of the elbow joint. These include overhead stomps done with straight arms, overhead throws done the same way, and scoop toss variations with a strict attention to keeping the arms generally straight.

3. Examine your protein supplements closely.

With the recent popularity in protein supplementation, it’s no shock that everyone is trying to make a quick buck off those looking to pack in more protein. It wasn’t too long ago that you had to seek out an actual nutrition store to purchase products like “ready to drink” protein shakes. Nowadays you can find these at pretty much any convenience store, or gas station mini mart. Furthermore, there was also a time that you could count the manufacturers of protein supplements on one hand, or two at the most. Most of them tasted like cardboard, and you needed an industrial blender to try and make that stuff into something resembling liquid. This has obviously changed – some for the better, and some for the worse. Before picking up your next tub of powdered goodness, take a look at the ingredients. In a similar fashion to what we discussed a few weeks back with food labels: the flashy front promises are often hiding a less than impressive host of ingredients on the back.

First, look at what type of protein you’re getting. Whey is not whey, is not whey, is not whey. Cheaper products are predominantly whey concentrate which is of lesser quality than whey isolate, or the more rapidly usable hydrosylate. It also tends to be harder to mix. Furthermore, if it isn’t whey, what’s the protein source? Is it soy, milk, egg, hemp, pea, or unicorn blood? Next, how are they making this stuff taste so darn good? Check for added sugar, and the use of artificial sweeteners. Lastly, be weary of the ready-to-drink variations; they are most likely full of chemicals, preservatives, and other things my high school chemistry curriculum failed to cover.

There are definitely reliable sources of protein supplements out there, though. I like to mix up the companies I use, and also the sources. I realize you could get pretty scientific about what works best and when, but I have other things to do. Mixing the source, and attaining them from quality places have served me well; I advise you do the same!

4. Layer up to beat the cold.

Fall is here in New England, and that means the cold weather is almost upon us. I have something to confess: I sweat on an absurd level. Needless to say, fall is a nice change of pace for me. I can wear a color other than black on a date, and I don’t have to buy nearly as much deodorant.

While my perspiration woes are a menace to my social life, I like being sweaty in the gym. As it gets cooler, I wear sweats and spandex or compression pants, shirts and sleeves. Plus, it seems like the perfect time to have an excuse to wear a beanie while training and not look like I am trying to just be a total badass. Do note, however, that I am perfectly okay with wearing anything that makes you feel badass, anytime.

As an aside, though, Cressey Performance does sell beanies; you can buy one online HERE.

It’s more than just a personal preference, though; it will help improve your training quality. Warm joints and muscles are happy joints and muscles. To take it a step further, warm people are happier people too – and that makes them far more motivated to train. Keep this in mind when leaving the house to train. Take a hot shower, layer up, warm up the car, and take any other preventative measures needed to prevent you from entering cold weather hibernation. Your training quality will stay up, and your consistency will continue.

5. Think twice about implementing icing for post-training recovery.

Icing has become a common prescription to help aid recovery of sore muscles. The research has always been less than stellar as to the actual merits of its application, though. Still, ice baths, bags of ice, and cooling packs have been a staple in gyms and training rooms across the country. And, if people are doing it, and claiming it helps them, then why not do it? There are, of course, different ways to use ice. Are we treating inflammation, or muscular soreness?

A recent study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that icing actually reduced recovery from eccentric exercise induced muscular damage. Participants were given cooling packs for the associated muscles affected by a controlled exercise. The pack was applied at various times for 15m in duration, post-training. The group who was given the cooling treatment did not improve recovery; in fact, it delayed the recovery process in comparison to the group who was not. Given this information, people should place a premium on other modalities to improve recovery. These include soft tissue work, compression, and low level activity in the 24-48 hour period following eccentric exercise.

There still may be some merits to icing in certain situations, so be careful to discard this modality altogether.  However, it’s clear that more research is needed to determine if/when it should be used.  For additional reading along these lines, I’d encourage you to check out Kelly Starret’s recent blog post, People, We’ve Got to Stop Icing.

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3 Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective

Written on August 16, 2012 at 10:51 am, by Eric Cressey

When it comes to strength and conditioning programs, I’ve long been a proponent of the phrase, “It’s not just what you do; it’s how you do it.”

Whenever I visit a commercial gym, I’m reminded of just how badly most people butcher exercise technique.  A lot of people get hurt with exercise, and it isn’t necessarily because the exercise is inherently bad, but because their execution of that exercise (or their “intepretation” of it) is grossly flawed. 

To that end, I thought it would be a good idea to kick off a new series about coaching cues we regularly use with our clients and athletes.  Here are three to get the ball rolling:

1. “Make a double chin.”

I’m a huge advocate of teaching the packed neck during strength exercises, as a lot of athletes have a tendency to slip into forward head posture the second they get under load.  However, the common cue of “tuck the chin” really doesn’t work, as a lot of athletes will simply open the mouth or take the chin to the sternum.  Neither of these patterns are ideal.  Simply telling someone to make a double chin usually fixes the problem instantly, as it’s a pattern that is already in their existing schema; they’ve been making goofy faces every since they were kids.

This is, of course, a cue you might want to avoid if your client does, in fact, have many chins.

2. “Stare at your fists.

Prone bridges are a tremendously valuable anterior core stability exercise, especially for beginners.  Unfortunately – and possibly because they’re so common in group exercise settings – the technique gets butchered all the time, as folks make themselves “too long” with their set-up.  When the hands are too far out in front of the body, the challenge improves considerably, and folks often drop into a forward head posture, “buffalo hump” at the thoracic spine, and lumbar hyperextension.  Here’s what the poor technique looks like; you’ll see that the athlete is simply training in an excessively lordotic posture:

Here’s how it looks when it’s corrected:

 

3. “Work like a see-saw.”

I’m a big fan of single-leg deadlifts, but the truth is that a lot of people struggle to master the hip hinge in unilateral stance.  One of the quick and easy ways to correct this is to tell an athlete to “work like a see-saw.”  In other words, imagine the dumbbell in front as being one side of the see-saw, and your foot in the back as the other end.  Since the foot weighs less than the dumbbell, you’ve got to get it further out on the see-saw to have the same counterbalancing effect.

The same is true in the warm-up period, even if you don’t have weights in the hands:

Did you find these tips helpful?  Looking for more coaching cues like these? In the comments section below, let me know what exercise technique gives you trouble and we’ll cover it in a future installment!

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Risk Homeostasis and Your Strength and Conditioning Programs

Written on July 27, 2012 at 7:27 am, by Eric Cressey

A few years ago, I read What the Dog Saw, a collection of short stories from popular author Malcolm Gladwell.

In one particular short story, Gladwell introduces the concept of “risk homeostasis.” Essentially, risk homeostasis refers to the fact that modifications that are designed to make things safer often eventually have a break-even effect on safety because of adaptations to those modifications.  In other words, something that should protect us doesn’t because new compensatory factors make things more dangerous.

As an example, Gladwell observers that taxi drivers who are given anti-lock brakes actually wind up with higher incidences of traffic violations and accidents.  Presumably, this occurs because the drivers feel they can drive faster and more aggressively because of this added “protection.”  

In another case, a study showed that adding childproof lids to medicine bottles actually increased the likelihood that children would die from accidental overdose of consuming drugs not meant for them. The added “safety” leads to adults being less cautious with where they hide bottles of pills.

While watching an absolutely atrocious YouTube video with some of the worst box squat technique in history the other day, my thoughts flashed back to this concept of risk homeostasis from when I read Gladwell’s work.  There are actually some remarkable parallels in the world of strength and conditioning.  

1. Wearing a belt.

When a lifter throws on a belt, he assumes that it will make an exercise safer for him.  While the research isn’t really in agreement with this assertion, we’ll roll with this assumption.

In real life, most lifters throw on a belt because it helps them handle additional weights – and at these weights, their form usually deteriorates rapidly, and does so under additional compressive loading.

2. Popping anti-inflammatories and getting cortisone shots.

When a doctor gives you a cortisone shot or recommends oral anti-inflammatories, it’s because he believes you have some level of inflammation, whether it’s a bursitis, tenosynovitis, or other issue. This short course of anti-inflammatories will reduce that inflammation.

You rarely see these issues in isolation, though; they’re usually accompanied by degenerative changes (e.g., tendinosis) or structural changes (e.g., bone spurs) that could also be causing your symptoms.  Unfortunately, your anti-inflammatories don’t know that; they just know they’re supposed to kill off all your pain.  They make you asymptomatic, but not necessarily “healthy.”

Many individuals get a cortisone shot or take a few days of NSAIDs and assume they can just go right back to training hard with no restrictions because their pain is gone.  A few weeks or months later (when the cortisone shot wears off), they’re back in pain (and usually it’s worse than before) because they’ve done nothing to address the underlying causes of the problem in the first place.  They shut off the inflammation and pain, but kept the degeneration, structural changes, and stupid.

The anti-inflammatory intervention is supposed to be part of a treatment plan to make folks healthier, but actually gives them a false sense of security, which in turn makes an injury or condition worse.

3. Lifting alongside an “experienced” coach who has done stupid s**t for decades, but has never been hurt.

It’s not uncommon to feel a sense of security when you train with a coach with tons of time “under the bar” himself.  His training background – and reportedly clean injury history – gives you peace of mind and you buy into his system.  And, you continue lifting heavier and heavier in poor form because he’s proof that it works, right?

Unfortunately, he’s a sample size of one.

His experience should make training safer, but instead, it just leads you to take more poorly calculated risks with your training.

As an example, I did this while goofing around a few years back, but I’d never let one of my athletes try it. There are enough ugly box jump videos out there on YouTube to appreciate that a lot of coaches don’t have the same kind of self-restraint.

4. Wearing elbow sleeves and knee wraps.

Elbow sleeves and knee wraps are incredibly common in the world of strength sports, and with good reason: they can really help with getting or keeping a joint warmed-up.

The only problem is that most lifters use them just so that they can power through the exact exercises that caused the joint aches in the first place.

As an example, a lot of lifters lack the upper back and shoulder mobility to use a narrow grip position on the barbell when back squatting, and the medial (inside of the) elbow takes a beating as a result.  Rather than doing some shoulder mobility drills, they just throw on a band-aid in the form of an elbow sleeve.

5. Picking “joint-friendly” strength exercises.

 There are lots of ways to deload a bit in the context of strength exercise selection. Maybe you do some single-leg work instead of squatting.  Or, maybe you do some barbell supine bridges in place of deadlifting.  These substitutions usually make a strength training program safer.

That is, of course, unless you do them with horrendous technique.  Sadly, this isn’t uncommon.  You see people who meticulously prepare for squatting and deadlifting and heavily scrutinize their technique with video analysis, yet they’ll blow through other exercises with terrible form.  They expect exercise selection alone to make their strength training program safer, but compensate for this added safety by butchering technique.

Of course, these are only five examples of how risk homeostasis applies to strength and conditioning programs, and there are certainly thousands more.  Where do you see good intentions go astray in your training?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 6

Written on June 8, 2012 at 8:44 am, by Eric Cressey

Here are some strength and conditioning and nutrition tips to help you lose fat, gain muscle, get strong, and scare obnoxious kids off your lawn, compliments of Cressey Performance coach, Greg Robins.

1. If you’re going to use kettlebells, hold them correctly:

2. There’s “strong,” and there is “strong enough.”

In our strength and conditioning programs, we focus on the improvement of three main strength qualities: maximal strength, explosive strength, and reactive strength. Strength is basically the ability to produce force. Potential force finds its ways into different equations that represent qualities executed on the field, court, diamond, ice, etc.

I look at maximal strength as a pool of potential force that can be called upon, while explosive and reactive strength are a measure of how efficiently and quickly this potential force can be utilized. At a certain point, improving one strength quality without another is a futile effort. The amount of each quality can be determined by the demands of the athlete’s sport, and position within that sport; how does the athlete need to move themselves, or someone or something else?

At a certain point the continued increase of maximal strength at the disproportionate increase of explosive and reactive strength is not productive. In other words, how beneficial is it to take a pitcher’s squat from 315lbs to 405lbs when he is asked to throw a baseball that weighs about 5 ounces? Do not get wrapped up in maximal strength numbers, be weary of assigning arbitrary numbers as benchmarks for your athletes, and make sure to train different qualities in a strength training program.

3.  We were given two legs and two arms, don’t forget to use them together.

I am not dismissing unilateral work from a solid strength and conditioning program. I am offering that the dismissal of bilateral exercises, injury cases/movement issues withstanding, is not necessary. In fact, I would argue that it is detrimental to your purpose.

Strength coaches often use the analogy that “weight lifting is not your sport”, and I have written on this forum on how the only necessary activity to an athlete is actual sport practice. As coaches, and everyday people, we all know the last thing we want to do is get hurt in the weight room. So if weight lifting is an added benefit to sport performance, and not used to replicate the sport itself, why is uni lateral work considered more functional to our goal? Additionally, if the idea is to keep people healthy, why would we not use the best mechanical positions to move heavy loads in our strength training programs?

I realize an argument can be made for unilateral work in both of these cases, and thus I am not saying it shouldn’t be included; rather it shouldn’t be included at the expense of bilateral work. Instead of looking for ways bilateral lifts aren’t great choices, you are better served to look at how they are, and then find ways around their shortcomings. This is what we do at CP, via specialty bars, elevated trap bar settings, and so forth. Do yourself and your athletes a favor and include bilateral exercise selections in your strength training programs; they are safe, effective, and very “functional”.

4. When squatting, create outward pressure from the heel.

When I teach someone how to squat I am careful in how I cue pressure on the foot. I like people to imagine “spreading” when going down AND when coming up in the squat. However, I find that when you tell someone to spread they will often supinate and lose a neutral position of the ankle.

The good news is that this cleans up when you tell them (or yourself) to create outward pressure on the heel. In this position the ankle joint will remain centered, and you will produce better force through the ground. Make sure to keep contact with the ground with the front of your foot as well. The two points of contact there will be just below the big and little toe. This creates the “tri-pod” effect and gives you power through the lateral heel and control through the front foot. Give it a try and watch your squat improve right away!

Additionally, think about what this means in the context of your footwear selection.  If you’ve got a huge heel lift, there is no way you’ll be able to get the appropriate weight positioning through your feet.  That’s why a minimalist footwear option is a better bet for performing various strength exercises (and just about everything in life).

5. Cue up some music; it helps!

I don’t know about you, but I love to have some great music on when I train. I honestly prefer to listen to music I actually enjoy when training, not always something that just makes me want to put my head through a wall. Furthermore, it has actually been shown that music does improve performance in activities requiring high muscle outputs.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that music actually improves muscle power output.

“…peak and mean power were significantly higher after music than no music warm-up during the two times of testing. Thus, as it is a legal method and an additional aid, music should be used during warm-up before performing activities requiring powerful lower limbs’ muscles contractions, especially in the morning…”

While external sources of motivation should not be relied upon, make it a point to charge the iPod the night before big training sessions. It actually WILL make your strength and conditioning programs more successful!

My top five favorites on the playlist these days include Rage Against The Machine, Skrillex, Metallica, Jedi Mind Tricks, and “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Yes, I went there.

What are your favorites? Leave a comment below!

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Strength Training Programs: 8 Strategies for Easily Maintaining Strength

Written on May 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm, by Eric Cressey

In a post a few weeks ago, I made a comment that intrigued quite a few people:

I’m always surprised at how much volume it takes to attain a level of fitness, but how little volume it takes to maintain that level of fitness.

If you train yourself to run a six-minute mile, then take two months off from running, you can usually come back and get pretty darn close to that same time in spite of the detraining.  However, chance are that you had to bust your butt to get to that six-minute time in the first place.

The same can be said of a 600-pound deadlift, appreciate level of mobility, or world-ranking in water chugging.

In short, once you’ve hit these milestones, they stick around pretty well, provided you don’t completely screw up and allow yourself to detrain.  As a frame of reference, my best deadlift is 660, yet even though I don’t pull over 600 all that frequently (my competitive powerlifting days are likely over), I know I can do so just about any day of the week.

I’m always amazed at where my strength levels stand at the end of a long baseball off-season.  I work some absurdly long hours from September through February when all our professional baseball players are around – and this definitely impacts how frequently I do much work in the 1-3 rep range with my lower body training.  And, frankly, I don’t squat at all during this time of year because my knees are usually cranky from being on the hard floors all day.  

Interestingly enough, when I get some down-time when the pro guys go in-season, my squatting numbers haven’t fallen off much at all. I’ve never been a fantastic squatter (raw PR of 460 and suited PR of 545 at 165), yet in my first session back this March, a pretty deep 400 on the giant cambered bar came up pretty easily, even if I was still getting my squatting groove back, and was just rocking a pair of cross-trainers.

I don’t just think this is a valuable lesson for lifters who anticipate life interfering with optimal training dedication; I also think it’s a tremendously important message to older lifters who may not be able to load as frequently as they could in their younger years.  To that end, here are some strategies for sustaining the strength one has built up over the years.

1. Avoid significant weight fluctuations (particularly down).

Nothing every sapped my strength more than losing five pounds.  Maybe I was just hyper-sensitive to it because I competed at a lower weight class and always had to monitory my weight to the point of being neurotic, or maybe it was just because it slightly changed my range-of-motion and leverages on the squat and bench press.  Regardless of what it was, a five pound drop in body weight equated to a 30-pound drop off my squat and 15-pound drop off my bench.

To that end, if you’re trying to keep your strength up during some down time in your strength training program, make sure to keep your weight up, too.  It’s not the time to be skimping on calories (unless, of course, you have a lot of fat to lose as part of your fitness goals).

2. Eat right.

“Eating enough” and “eating right” are two completely different things.  It would be very easy for me to just live on fast food during our busiest season.  Instead, I still set aside time to prepare food for the long work day.  I’m also fortunate to have a cafeteria 100 feet down the hallway, and they’ll cook me up whatever healthy food I need on the fly.  I’ve got Athletic Greens, fish oil, and probiotics in my office, plus beef jerky and almonds in case I need solid food on the fly.  ”Busy” doesn’t have to mean “unhealthy” as long as you plan ahead.

3. Lift heavy at least once a month.

If you want to get strong, you need to put in at least 2-3 heavy lifting sessions per month for the lift in question. And, if you’re trying to trying to bring up a bench press, squat, deadlift, and chin-up simultaneously, you’ve got a lot of competing demands and overall training stress.

If, however, you want to stay strong, getting in just a few heavy sets of a particular movement each month can get the job done.

4. Get sufficient sleep.

No matter how busy life gets, I am pretty good about getting at least seven hours of sleep each night – and usually a little bit more. I’m typically in bed by 10PM and asleep by 10:30, then wake up between 6 and 7AM each day.  I (like many others) have noticed that sleep before midnight makes me feel a lot better than trying to catch up by sleeping in the following morning.

5. Forget the deloads.

I’m a huge advocate of deloading periods in one’s training; in fact, I wrote an entire e-book about the topic!

 However, if you’re going through a time when your normal training volume is compromised, you really aren’t “loading” enough to require a deload.  You’re better off getting in your work whenever possible.

The obviously exception to this rule would be older lifters with appreciable levels of strength; they need to set aside specific deloading periods even if they are training with heavier sets less frequently.

6. Still crush your assistance work.

Just because you’re not feeling up to crushing a personal best squat doesn’t mean that you can’t still get after it with your single-leg work, sled pushing, glute-ham raises, or any of a number of other assistance exercises. Do your best to keep the resistance up on your assistance work instead of just getting your reps in. Sets in the 5-8 rep range are outstanding in this regard, as they’re heavy enough to have strength benefits, and the volume can help keep muscle on you, too.

7. Stick with multi-joint exercises.

If you maintain your strength on compound movements (e.g., chin-ups), you’ll maintain your strength on “sub-category” isolation movements (e.g., biceps curls) just fine.  It doesn’t work the other way around, though.

If life is busy and you’re dragging when you get to the gym, you’re much better off hitting a set of deadlifts than you are doing some leg curls.

8. Consider rearranging your schedule or changing your strength training program split.

One of the biggest appeals of the Show and Go Training System I introduced was the versatility it provided via its 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week strength training program options.  Being able to shift from one approach to another as your schedule gets busier or lighter is valuable flexibility.

Additionally, it may be advantageous to plan your training for your less stressful days.  If you work crazy hours Monday through Friday, try lifting Saturday and Sunday, then picking 1-2 days in the middle of the week for short sessions consisting of just assistance work.

These are eight strategies you can easily apply even when life isn’t easy and you want to maintain strength, but there are surely many more.  I’d love to hear your experiences with maintaining strength during busy times in your life in the comments section below!

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