A New Model for Training Between Starts: Part 1By: Eric Cressey
The management of pitchers between starts is one of the most debated topics in the world of baseball training. Some pitching coaches want multiple throwing sessions between starts, while others insist that a single bullpen is sufficient. Athletic trainers debate on whether or not a pitcher should ice after a throwing session. And, specific to my realm of expertise, there are differing opinions on what kind of running programs are appropriate for pitchers between bouts of throwing.
Not to toot my own horn, but I'm a pretty well-read guy - and I can honestly say that I've never read anything along the lines of a truly logical argument for or against a specific running program for pitchers. So, I guess that's where I come in with this piece.
With that in mind, I'll be very blunt with you: I despise distance running for pitchers (and the overwhelming majority of other athletes, for that matter). While many pitching coaches are probably reading this and cursing my name already for going against the norm, I'd encourage you all to hear me out on this. Below, I'll outlined NINE reasons why distance running is not the correct course of action - and then, in my next installment, outline a new model for training between starts that we've used with great success at the professional, collegiate, and high school levels.
Why Distance Running is Not the AnswerReason #1: Immunity Concerns
As a strength and conditioning coach, my number one priority in working with athletes is to keep them healthy. This refers not only to musculoskeletal health, but also general health. In an outstanding 2006 review, Gleeson wrote that "postexercise immune function depression is most pronounced when exercise is continuous [and] prolonged." Interestingly, this review also noted that many of these symptoms are "attributable to inflammation of the upper respiratory tract rather than to infectious episodes (1)." In other words, distance running between starts is more likely to cause and spread sickness in your clubhouse than that tramp in the right field bleachers who wants to hook up with every guy in your bullpen. Strike 1.
Reason #2: Endocrine Concerns
Here's a little excerpt from an email I got from a minor league guy I work with in the off-season:
Yesterday might have been the roughest day of my career. It started by getting back from our game Sunday night at 11:30PM. I couldn't fall asleep until at least 12:30AM, and then we had a 3:30AM wake up call to catch a bus to the airport for our flight at 6:15AM. We had a layover for an hour and a half, then got to the next city at 11AM. We drove to our hotel and I got to my stinky room at the Sleep Inn and tried to catch some sleep - except we had to be at the field at 4PM.
Days like this are the norm for many professional (and particularly, minor league) pitchers: late nights, early wake-up calls, red-eye flights, long bus rides, and - as a result - completely warped sleeping patterns. And, as I'm sure you can imagine, the diet that accompanies these travels is less than stellar, particularly when clubhouse food isn't exactly gourmet or healthy. And, let's just say that a lot of ballplayers at the collegiate and pro levels far too much alcohol, and that has direct negative consequences in terms of sleep and tissue quality.
So, basically, we've got absurd sleeping hours, terrible dietary habits, too much alcohol - and one of the longest seasons in sports. Effectively, we've done everything we possibly can to reduce lower testosterone and growth hormone output, creating a mess of a hormonal environment. Frankly, you could get this same hormonal response by forcing pitchers to watch Golden Girls reruns while sitting on bicycle seats and downing estrogen tablets - and you wouldn't have any incidences of plantar fasciitis.
Instead, you know what's done instead? Distance running! Yes, the same distance running that is responsible for the markedly lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol levels in endurance athletes. It's like putting a new engine in a car with square wheels: studying for the wrong test.
It almost makes you wonder if some guys used performance-enhancing drugs just to counteract the negative effects of their running programs!
Reason #3: Mobility Concerns
As I wrote in a previous newsletter, one of the issues with distance running is that it doesn't allow for sufficient hip flexion to truly activate all the hip flexors. Specifically, we get a lot of rectus femoris recruitment, but not much activation of psoas, which predominately is active above 90 degrees of hip flexion. Likewise, you really aren't getting much hip extension at all.
So, on the whole, by using a repetitive motion like jogging for an extended period of time, pitchers are losing mobility in their hips - and that's the very mobility they depend on so much to generate stride length and, in turn, velocity.
Frankly, runners are the athletes I see with the most marked lower extremity dysfunctions due to the lack of range-of-motion in the jogging stride - and the fact that they pile so much mileage on this faulty movement pattern. I am a firm believer that we were made to sprint, not jog.
Strike 3. The batter's out!
Reason #4: Negative Effects on the Stretch-Shortening Cycle
Here, I need to get a bit geeky for a second so that I can explain the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). The easiest analogy I can use is that when you want to shoot a rubber band at someone, you pre-stretch it before you release your shot. Muscles work the same way; pre-stretching them (eccentric action) prior to shortening them (concentric action) stores elastic energy and helps that muscle generate more force. Anecdotally, I've heard estimates that as much as 25-30% of pitching velocity is attributed to elastic energy - or how effectively someone makes use of the stretch-shortening cycle.
Where we're different from rubber bands is that we can actually train those elastic qualities to make our tendons more efficient at collecting, temporarily storing, and releasing that elastic energy to help us run faster, jump higher, and throw harder. It's why doing plyos, sprinting, and throwing medicine balls can do wonders for a player's performance.
With the stretch-shortening cycle, we need three things, according to Komi (2):
1. a well-timed muscle preactivation before the eccentric phase
2. a short, fast eccentric component
3. immediate transition (minimal delay) between stretch (eccentric) and shortening (concentric) phases. This period is known as the amortization phase, and the shorter it is, the less elastic energy we lose (as heat).
To be honest, #1 takes care of itself. For #2 and #3, though, we are definitely working against ourselves with distance running, as the importance of the SSC rapidly diminishes as exercise duration continues. In fact, the vertical jump only predicts sprinting performance up to 300m (3).
In other words, the longer exercise goes, the more we "muscle" it instead of being relaxed. What do we know about guys who try to muscle the ball to the plate? They don't throw hard because it impairs pitching specific mobility and they don't let the arm whip through.
I will take a guy with a good vertical jump over a guy with a high VO2max anyday. Distance running conditions guys to plod instead of bounce - and this definitely has implications in terms of chronic overuse conditions.
Reason #5: Strength and Power Reductions
As just one example of how stressful the pitching motion is on the body, the humerus internally rotates at 7,500°/second during the acceleration phase of throwing. It takes a lot of strength and power to generate this kind of velocity, but just as importantly, it takes a lot of strength and power - and in a timely fashion - to decelerate it. We need to not only be able to generate enough force to resist and control this acceleration at end-range, but also be able to generate this force quickly (power). To that end, you would think that conditioning for pitchers would be similar to that of strength and power athletes, who avoid distance running altogether.
Instead, most pitchers run several times a week. When was the last time you saw a marathoner throw 95mph?
Additionally, in many cases, coaches encounter Latin American players who have never had access to weight-training equipment - and this is a huge window of untapped potential. Using distance running when these athletes could be devoting more time to getting stronger is a huge hindrance to these players' development, as it conditions them to go longer instead of faster. At some point, you have to put more horsepower in the engine instead of just changing the oil.
We know that when we first get young athletes started with weight training, there is a huge transformation to make them more athletic in the 8-10 weeks that follow. You would be surprised at what good training can do for many advanced pitchers in the initial phases, too. The reason is that, unlike position players, many pitchers are (to be blunt) one-trick ponies. They know how to throw a nasty cutter, a crazy 12-to-6 curveball, or a slider with a funny arm-slot. So, it's always been "okay" for them to be completely unathletic outside of their delivery. They might get guys out, but they're long-term gambles teams because of their increased risk of injury; weak, immobile bodies break down the fastest - just like distance runners. Additionally, being able to quickly recruit muscles (and do so powerfully) is crucial for rapidly stiffening joint complexes to create stability and prevent acute injuries like ankle sprains and ACL ruptures. Strength and power athletes are much better off in this regard than endurance athletes.
Reason #6: Inappropriate Intensities
In what was - at least in my eyes - a landmark study, McCarthy et al. (1995) looked at "compatibility" of concurrent strength training and endurance training. Traditionally, the attenuation of strength and power gains has been a big issue when endurance exercise is added to a strength training program. As I noted in Cardio Confusion, these researchers found that strength and power loss was only an issue when the intensity of the endurance exercise was greater than 75% of heart-rate reserve (HRR) (4). I can guarantee you that the majority of pitchers who are running distances are doing so at well over 75% HRR.
As I'll note in my recommendations at the conclusion of this article, I strongly feel that the secret is to stay well above (circa-maximal sprinting, in other words) or below (70% HRR, to play it safe) when implementing any kind of running. The secret is to avoid that middle area where you don't go slow and don't go fast; that's where athletes get SLOW! And, ideally, the lower-intensity exercise would be some modality that provides more mobility benefits.
Strike 3. The batter's out!
Reason #7: Nobody likes to babysit.
Simply put, running is babysitting. Catcher is actually the position that requires the most endurance in baseball, but we don't run catchers extra, do we? Nope - and it's because we have bullpens for them to catch, batting practice for them to take, and all the other responsibilities associated with handling a pitching staff and being a pseudo coach on the field.
My business partner actually was a division 1 pitcher almost ten years ago, and when I brought up this argument, he smiled and nodded, replying with, "When I was a pitcher, all we did was shag fly balls and run poles." Meanwhile, 57% of pitchers suffer a shoulder injury during a competitive season (5) - and that doesn't even include elbow, lower back, or lower-extremity injuries! At the major league level, pitchers are 49% of the players, but they account for 68% of the time on the disabled list league-wide (6). Running isn't going to prevent these problems; it's going to exacerbate them.
Reason #8: Distance running ignores existing imbalances.
Baseball is an at-risk sport for a number of reasons. You've got an extremely long competitive season, overhead throwing, and - possibly most significantly - unilateral dominance. Switch hitters and guys who bat right and throw left (or vice versa) tend to be a bit more symmetrical, but the guys who bat and throw on the same side tend to have the most glaring issues. Many really smart dudes - most notably, Gray Cook - note that asymmetry is quite possibly the best predictor of injury. When we get pitchers after a long season, our first goals are to address range of motion deficits in:
1. lead leg hip extension (tight hip flexors)
2. lead leg hip internal rotation (tight external rotators)
3. lead leg knee flexion (tight quads)
4. Throwing arm shoulder internal rotation (tight posterior rotator cuff and capsule)
5. Scapular posterior tilt (tight pec minor and levator scapulae)
6. Throwing arm elbow extension (tight elbow flexors)
I knocked back some caffeine, splashed some water on my face, and really put my thinking cap on to see if I could come up with a rationale for how distance running addresses any of these issues. In the end, I had nothing. I came to the realization that jogging negatively affects the majority of them - and pitchers would be better off just shagging fly balls instead of splitting time between that and long runs. At least they move side-to-side when they're chasing fly balls.
Reason #9: It's really boring!
I am a firm believer that the best coaches are the ones who engage their athletes. The best coaches I had in my athletic career were the ones who made me look forward to each training session. With that said, the only people who look forward to distance running are - you guessed it - distance runners!
Most of the ballplayers you're coaching have always seen running as a form of punishment for doing something wrong; they hate it as much as I do (okay, maybe not that much). And, truth be told, they'd hate it even more if they realized it is limiting their development as athletes.
Strike 3. The batter's out - and the side is retired.
I have always disliked it when people criticize the status quo, but fail to offer solutions of their own. With that in mind, the next installment of this series will outline my personal perspective on how to attack the time between pitching outings.
1. Gleeson, M. Immune systems adaptation in elite athletes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2006 Nov;9(6):659-65.
2. Komi, P.V. Stretch-shortening cycle. In: Strength and Power in Sport (2nd Ed.) P.V. Komi, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. pp. 184-202.
3. Hennessy L, Kilty J. Relationship of the stretch-shortening cycle to sprint performance in trained female athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Aug;15(3):326-31.
4. McCarthy JP, Agre JC, Graf BK, Pozniak MA, Vailas AC. Compatibility of adaptive responses with combining strength and endurance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995 Mar;27(3):429-36.
5. Ouelette, H, Labis J, Bredella M, Palmer WE, Sheah K, Torriani M. Spectrum of shoulder injuries in the baseball pitcher. Skeletal Radiol. 2007 Oct 3.
6. Fleisig, GS. The Biomechanics of Baseball Pitching. Spring 2008 Southeast ACSM Conference.
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used by Cressey Performance Pitchers after they Throw!
All too often, I’ll read about an athlete who has undergone an “intense” training program in the off-season to build muscle for the upcoming year. I’ll see that the athlete did the leg press with “X” amount of weight for 15 reps, or read about the endurance athlete who did a 45-minute circuit training workout with no rest intervals because his sport requires him to go non-stop for 30 minutes. Every athlete’s goal is to come into the season bigger, stronger and faster. However, while they look physically impressive in their first few games, they are moving and cutting slower than an old lady trying to get in front of someone at the grocery store register. So why is all this hard earned muscle mass costing them success? Simply put, it’s not “functional”.
Before you start training you need to have a clear understanding of what functional hypertrophy is; not having a clue in this regard could screw up your results more than a terrible training program, lackluster effort, and inadequate nutrition. First, it’s important to define what functional hypertrophy is NOT. Functional hypertrophy is not squatting with a barbell on your back while balancing on a Swiss ball. Functional hypertrophy is a quest to attain the most usable amount of muscle mass that your body can efficiently handle to make you effective in your given sport.
Requirement #1: Use Compound Movements.
I still see athletes and weekend warriors alike training for “sport muscle” by doing curls and leg presses; this just isn’t going to cut it. Today, athletes are expected to be bigger, stronger and faster. You need to stick with the “money exercises” that allow you to use the heaviest load possible, involve multiple joint articulations, and stimulate a large amount of muscle mass. As an added bonus, the majority of these movements are performed in the standing position, meaning that you will need to display proper control of your body. Postural control is a very under-valued aspect of sports. Do you think you could catch a football if every time you attempted to cut you tripped over yourself? Emphasizing compound movements will allow you to avoid the bottleneck training effect, which states that when one joint is significantly weaker, the performance of the entire kinetic chain is weaker. For example, being weak in knee extension limits the amount of weight you can use during the squat. Compound exercises are also more likely to increase your anabolic response to training, which is paramount when you’re attempting to increase lean muscle tissue.
Requirement #2: Train Primarily in the 6-8 Rep Range.
Since you’re attempting to build muscle that will allow you to perform at a higher level and not pose on stage, you need to focus mainly on the 6-8 rep range instead of the traditional 8-12 rep range for “size”. Don’t get me wrong, though; reps 10+ can be very beneficial for connective tissue health, so you’d be wise to include some work in those reps ranges to stay healthy. However, utilizing 6-8 reps will allow you to use the highest load possible while still ensuring that you receive the optimal volume to provide a growth stimulus. Just as importantly, training in the 6-8 rep range will provide more favorable neural adaptations to facilitate strength gains. If you feel like you need to change things up, try to rotate exercises before raising the reps. This will ensure that you’re still in the “sport muscle” range. If you do feel the need to change to higher reps, go ahead; just be sure not to overdo it for too long.
Requirement #3: Avoid Body Part Splits.
If you’re trying to get HUGE, do you really think it’s going to translate over to exploding up for a rebound? Is there a need to perform 15 sets for your biceps? No. Body part splits should be out of the question. By having a “chest day” or “shoulder day”, you force yourself to train too often with too much volume and not enough intensity. You’re producing immediate, cumulative, and delayed fatigue, which will all negatively affect your performance. Instead, focus on splits like Upper/Lower body, Push/Pull, and Quad/Hip dominant routines and, if you can, Full Body routines. These splits not only allow you to train more efficiently, but aid in correcting postural imbalances, which often exist because of the lack of antagonistic training. This correction will lead to increased muscle activation that will have a trickle down effect on your functional hypertrophy gains.
Requirement #4: Train to Increase Your Cross-Sectional Area Through Strength and Size Increases.
There are two ways in which a muscle can increase its cross-sectional area (CSA): neural improvements and hypertrophy. The larger the CSA, the more force you can produce. All too often, athletes will focus on either neural or hypertrophy gains. Why not both at the same time? If you increase your muscle mass – but not your maximal strength – do you really think you’re going to be able to hit a ball 405 feet? Explode off of a drop-step and throw it down? How about improving your long jump? It doesn’t matter how functional the hypertrophy is; if it doesn’t have corresponding neural improvements, then it’s not going to be advantageous. If you flip the coin and only train to get stronger, you will never reach your peak of strength gains. How many rail thin Olympic lifters have you seen? How many power lifters have small triceps and upper backs? Just take a look at top strongman Marisz Pudzianowski - he “gets it!”
They all know that the bigger a muscle is the more force they will be able to display. So while you’re getting stronger, get bigger.
Here is a table of guidelines for your maximal strength and functional hypertrophy work:
Strength Quality Maximal Strength Functional Hypertrophy
Sets Work up to a Max of 1-3 reps 3-4
Reps 1-3 6-8
Time Under Tension 0-20s 20-40s
Rest 3-5 minutes 2-3 minutes
Requirement #5: Limit the Amount of Aerobic Work That You Do.
“If you want to get big, don’t do cardio.” This is something any bodybuilder can tell you. It doesn’t directly apply to you in the athletic population, but it does have merit. First off, you are attempting to build muscle in the off-season, so you do not want to do anything to compromise your rate of growth. You’re working hard to add muscle mass, yet you feel the need to do aerobic work as well. How much can you really do before one or both objectives are comprised? This is known as the interference effect. When the body is exposed to two different types of training, it will choose one over the other. In most cases the body will choose the less demanding activity, which in this case is the aerobic work. So relax on the aerobic activity, you’ll thank yourself later. Plus, who really likes to do it anyway?
Requirement #6: Use Compensatory Acceleration Training.
Athletic movements are explosive, so why train differently? Each concentric contraction should be done in a dynamic effort fashion to ensure that you are maximizing motor unit recruitment and teaching your body to react as quickly as possible. An increase in acceleration increases muscular tension that enhances the training effect of the exercise. It is important to note that it is the brain’s intent – not the actual velocity of the bar – that dictates the training outcome. Even if it does not seem like you’re moving the load explosively, as long as you aim to do so, you will. I think I can, I think I can!
Requirement #7: Don’t Overload the Central Nervous System with Excessive Isometrics and Eccentric Contractions.
When an athlete (or anyone for that matter) first attempts to increase muscle mass, they immediately look at “going slow on the way down” or eccentric loading. While this is great for inducing muscle mass gains, it does come at an expense to the central nervous system (CNS). Your CNS is responsible for recruiting motor units in addition to establishing the motor patterns that are going to be used. CNS fatigue will result in less than optimal muscular output, which is detrimental to your training results. Eccentrics may also lead to excessive delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which can impair subsequent performance. Instead, I choose to have my athletes just control the weight on the way down.
Isometric contractions, although not as taxing on our CNS as eccentric contractions, can still have the same negative effect. However, isometric work can have a pronounced effect on motor unit recruit, as it leads to an increased capacity of your CNS to access them. It has also been proven that a single isometric action that is immediately followed by a dynamic action can make that dynamic action more effective. Basically, your fast movement gets faster.
Integrating eccentric and isometric muscle actions can be tricky, so here are a few tips to keep you on track:
1. When using eccentric work, keep your time under tension around 20-40 seconds.
2. Do not eccentrically load for more than one exercise per session.
3. If you incorporate isometric muscle actions, keep the static contraction around 3-5 seconds.
4. Focus on using them at the weakest point of your lift. You’ll notice that the sticking point is no longer present and you’ll have thrown more weight up.
These are my seven most important suggestions for any athlete who desires to develop functional muscle mass. Following these steps and training hard, you’ll notice that your new muscle mass is a lot more “go” than “show.” Enjoy the benefits; I know your competition won’t!
About the AuthorJimmy Smith is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and performance enhancement coach in Southwestern Connecticut. Jimmy has helped athletes of all levels and people alike achieve their training goals. He specializes in body composition, performance enhancement, and corrective training. You can contact Jimmy at email@example.com
Normally, we have qualified individuals like Christina Jenkins and Ko Attleberry put together The Rugged Kitchen for us. However, with qualified individuals come recipes that actually require thought and a passion for cooking. As a overworked grad student who really couldn't care less about making his food look pretty, I tend to rely on healthy recipes that I can make in just a few minutes, thus allowing me to get out of the kitchen as quickly as possible. Normally, I just cook in bulk every 4-5 days and then work off of plastic bags in the fridge, but there are a few "recipes" that I actually follow, so I figured I'd share them with all you readers that can sympathize with me. You'll notice that I don't include quantities; it's because I don't measure anything out. Yes, I really am that lazy. Remember, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) strategy works just as well in the kitchen as it does in the gym.
Bean and Egg Burrito
What you need:
- Egg whites (the carton kind or regular eggs that you crack yourself)
- Black Beans
- Hot Sauce
- Fat Free Cheddar Cheese
- Any veggies you like (I use spinach; you may want onions, peppers, etc.)
- Whole Wheat Tortilla (optional)
- Chili Powder (optional)
This makes a great protein and carb meal. Basically, you just make a round omelet (use non-stick cooking spray) with the veggies mixed into the egg whites; don't add the cheese yet, though. Once it's done, lay it out on a plate and toss on the cheese (it'll melt; don't worry), beans, salsa, hot sauce, and chili powder (if desired). Roll it up and eat it. If you wish to add more carbs, you can wrap the whole wheat tortilla around the egg layer. This whole process should take about four minutes.
If you were a little porker as a youngster like me, when Mom made brownies and offered to let you lick out the mixing bowl, you salivated like Homer Simpson on a tour of the Duff Beer production plant. This little piece of heaven is the closest thing to brownie mix that can actually be considered healthy; give it a shot.
What you need:
- Calcium Caseinate or Milk Protein Isolate Powder*
- Whey Powder (isolate, concentrate, or a mixture of the two)*
- Psyllium Husk Powder
*Note: Biotest Low-Carb Metabolic Drive powder works perfectly for this recipe, as it's a blend of the two different categories.
Put some water in a bowl, and then add your protein powder (ideally in a 2:1 caseinate/MPL:whey ratio) and a tablespoon or two of psyllium husk powder. Be sure to mix as you add. Add as much water as you want; you can make it like pudding or the thicker brownie mix that I like. I like to have it with almonds before I hit the sack; it makes a great, high fiber, slow-digesting protein and fat meal before bed.
Lazy Man's Calico Beans
This is a recipe that's really popular at our family gatherings. Unfortunately, the original recipe isn't all that healthy; it includes ketchup, pork 'n beans, cooked bacon, and regular ground beef (note: beef is great, just not in protein and carb meals). I just changed things up to make it healthier and appropriate for a protein and carb meal.
What you'll need:
- 1 lb. Lean Ground Turkey (cook it separately before adding it to the mix)
- 1 Can Pinto Beans
- 1 Can Black Beans
- 1 Can Kidney Beans
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Spicy Mustard
- ½ Bag Onion Soup Mix
Toss all of this into a crock-pot and let it cook for a few hours on low. Eat it. Enjoy it.
If loving beef jerky is wrong, I don't want to be right; this stuff might be my favorite food in the world. The store-bought kind is a convenient protein source that you can take anywhere, but nothing tops the homemade version on taste and tenderness. When you use lean red meat, it's also very healthy. The only trade-off is that unless you have a load of preservatives in your kitchen cabinet, you'll have to keep this stuff refrigerated and eat it within a few days of cooking it.
What you'll need:
- 1 eye of round or top or bottom round roast
- Whatever type of flavoring you desire (soy, teriyaki, Tabasco, or barbecue sauce)
- Spices (salt and pepper are sufficient, but you may want some chili powder, etc.)
Slice the roast into small strips about three inches long, one inch wide, and ¼ inch thick. If you use an eye of round roast, be sure to slice it lengthwise to keep it reasonably tender. Use a fork to poke some holes in the meat; it'll keep it tender and allow it to soak up the marinade better. Marinade the strips in the flavoring of your choice (I like Tabasco and pepper) overnight. The next day, set the strips directly on the oven rack; you'll probably want to use a pan underneath to keep all the drippings off of the bottom of your oven. Set the oven on the lowest possible setting (150°, or the "Warm" setting will do fine), and leave the strips alone for at least five hours to "dry out." Basically, the tougher you like your jerky, the longer you should leave them in.
That concludes this installment of the "Rugged Kitchen." For more information on some great healthy recipes, I highly recommend John Berardi and John K. Williams' fantastic Gourmet Nutrition e-book or, even better, JB's entire Precision Nutrition package, which includes the recipe book and a whole lot more at a great deal.
An Interview with Brad Cardoza and John Sullivan
By Eric Cressey
Walk into any gym and you'll encounter some really big guys. Heck, you might even find a few who can move some reasonably impressive weight on the bench. Rarely, you'll see people who actually deadlifts. And, once in a millennium, you might encounter someone who smokes a crisp 400-lb. butt-to-heels squat that brings a tear to your eye. I can guarantee you, however, that you've probably never encountered someone who can do what Brad Cardoza and John Sullivan do regularly in their training. That's not to say, however, that you should simply discount what these guys have to offer; chances are that some Strongman training methods could take your performance and physique to all new levels. You'll probably learn a few new ways to frighten the old ladies in your gym, too!
EC: Tell me about yourselves to set the stage, fellas. Please omit anything related to your criminal records, favorite colors, and Sully's weird rash.
BC: I've pretty much run the gamut in terms of participation in strength sports. I lifted in high school and threw the discus (some school and conference records), then went on to have a successful career at Division III UMASS-Dartmouth, where I was ranked #1 in the country in the hammer throw and held the UMASS-Dartmouth school record in the 35# weight throw. As a result, UMASS-Amherst offered me a D-I athletic scholarship, so I gladly accepted the opportunity to be involved with a program that had good coaching and a solid strength and conditioning program. I wound up going to D-I Nationals and still hold the UMASS school record in the hammer throw.
I got away from competing for a few years after college, as I was busy trying to start a career www.pinnaclestrengthandfitness.com as a personal trainer in Boston. While working at Boston Sports Clubs for two years, I met quite a few people, most notably Sully. It took a little while, but he finally convinced me to give Strongman a try. Needless to say, I'm very happy he did; it has become the most important part of my life these days. This is one thing people have a hard time understanding about me: when I am involved in a sport that I love, it comes before everything else in my life besides loved ones. At UMASS, track came before classes, and now strongman comes before work, sometimes even my health. This attitude has lead to a lot of improvement, as I earned my pro card in the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA); had some success in powerlifting during 2003 (575 squat, 375 bench, and 650 deadlift without much specific preparation); and received sponsorship from AtLarge Nutrition www.atlargenutrition.com and APT Pro Wrist Wraps www.prowristwraps.com. Then again, my approach has led to some frustration at times as well; I'm now dealing with my third major injury in only two months (a record for me); this time I'm going to need surgery (Editor's Note: at publication time, Brad has not only had the surgery, he's back in the gym already!).
JS: When I originally started becoming more focused on strength sports, I was interested in powerlifting. I began to learn more and more about the Westside system of powerlifting, and began to use their methods in my training. In 2002, I met the owners of Total Performance Sports in Everett, Mass., who were running the Mass. State Strongman Championships. They convinced me to come down to their place and give it a try. I did, and loved it. I wasn't sure I was going to enter the contest, but after about a month of training there, they basically said, "you're entered". I was kind of nervous, but in retrospect it was the best decision that was ever made for me. I won my division, and I was hooked after that. Later that same year I started working for Art McDermott, training clients at Highland Strength & Fitness in Andover, MA. I have trained there for all of my subsequent Strongman competitions. My last competition was NASS Nationals, where I placed 5th in the 200 lb. class. I've also been involved in Olympic lifting of late.
EC: Those answers once again reaffirm my belief that lifting heavy stuff is more addictive than any drug – even Viagra on a trip to the Playboy mansion. Anyway, what does a typical week of training look like to you?
BC: When I am healthy and preparing for a competition, my typical week would look something like this:
Monday - Max effort overhead pressing day (maybe a little thick bar bench or something to keep the bodybuilder in me happy!)
Tuesday - Max effort leg day. This would include squat and deadlift variations as well as my single leg support stuff (my favorite)
Wednesday or Thursday - There are usually two event days per week when preparing for a competition. This would usually be one of them; the other falls on Saturday. Usually, you are training for 5-6 events, so I prefer to do three of them on Wednesday/Thursday and three of them on Saturday.
Friday - Upper body pull day. This includes all of my back work as well as any direct arm or grip stuff that I might need.
Saturday - Event day #2
I should also mention that I usually mix in some Olympic movement at least once a week. Sometimes, I'll do it on a day off, or possibly just throw it in wherever I feel it fits best.
JS: A typical training week is a little tough, since the nature of the events in a Strongman contest can vary so widely. That said, here is a template similar to the one I used to prepare for the 2004 X-Treme Strongman Showdown, where I placed second. Keep in mind that this template reflects my personal strengths and weaknesses, and may not necessarily be optimal for someone else.
A) Heavy Pull/Good Morning (DL or DL variation once every 14-21 days)
B) Harness Front Squat or Olympic Squat
C1) Lunge Variation
C2) Core Work
A) Jerk Variation
B1) T-Bar Row
B2) Close grip Bench
C) External Rotation Work
A) Power Clean
B) Box Squat
C) Core Work
I don't do much overhead or grip work because I tend to do very well in those types of events. I focus on exercises that will bring up exercises like stones, which are a weakness for me.
EC: As sweet as training Strongman-style to prepare for Strongman competitions is, it stands to reason that the overwhelming majority of our readers have other goals. How can the ordinary fitness enthusiasts integrate Strongman training into their programs? Bodybuilders? Powerlifters? Other athletes? Regular weekend warriors?
BC: What people have to realize is that Strongman training means nothing more than integrating explosive, compound movements into your workouts. I am actually quite impressed with how many guys at my gym have taken my advice and started doing a lot more squat and deadlift work. I even see guys attempting 1-leg reverse hypers, pull-throughs, etc. It all comes down to wanting to be athletic and strong - not just big or buff. I will admit that when I first arrived at UMASS and my coach told me that I wouldn’t be bench pressing again during my collegiate career, I was heartbroken! No more than two years later, when it was time for max day and everyone on the team was doing benches, squats, and cleans, I was no where to be found. I maxed on front squats, snatches, and behind the neck push presses! At this point, I was convinced that these were the lifts that were turning me into a successful hammer thrower, so "missing out" on the others was of absolutely no frustration.
As far as strongman events are concerned, there are usually a limited number of things you can do at a traditional commercial gym. One the most beneficial and rewarding events is the farmer's walk. These were tough to do at the gym until I realized I had two of these guys at my disposal:
Throw some tape in the middle of the handle to make it a little bit thicker, and it is probably the best farmer's simulation you will get without the real implements.
Besides farmer's, there aren’t too many events you can replicate in the gym, and this is when you have to use the imagination a little bit. Zercher holds (Conan's wheel), stiff leg pull-throughs (stones)…there are lots of things you can do that will be great for you and maybe even amp you up enough to try a competition sometime!
Grip is the only other thing about which you ought to worry if you're thinking about competing. Sully covered that one pretty well in his article last month, though, didn't he? All that you have to remember is that most people's grips suck; I know mine did. The more heavy pulling you do on a weekly basis, the more rapidly your grip will improve. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt to add the grip-specific stuff as well.
JS: I think certain athletes can benefit greatly from Strongman training. Strength athletes like powerlifters can expect greater hip, back, and abdominal stability, strength, and power from using Strongman equipment like the super yoke, stones, tries, kegs, and sandbags. Bodybuilders can fill the sandbags with chicken breasts to make sure they get their 1200 grams of protein a day, and use the kegs to stock up on posing oil! For combat athletes, I think it can also be extremely beneficial. Lifting oddly shaped, uneven objects will tax your body in a way you don't normally encounter in the weight room. On top of that, strongman medleys are an unbelievably effective conditioning method. Summarily, I've had great utilizing these methods with my football, hockey, wrestling, and baseball clients (just to name a few).
EC: Any tips on improvising home versions of various Strongman implements? I've heard that the Strongmen are the closest thing to a freaky big and strong Bob Villa that one can imagine!
BC: This depends! If you live with Art McDermott at Highland Strength and Fitness (www.highlandstrength.com), then yeah - just bring the stones into the driveway, pull out all the tires, and get to it after warming-up with a keg for height in the back yard! Most people don’t have these luxuries, so it really depends on what you have at your fingertips. If someone was really interested in training Strongman without spending any money, I would probably tell him to get the following
Kegs – There are a lot of things you can do with a keg, and many of them you will see in competitions. First, it's ideal to get as many as you can so that you can have a variety of different weights. You will have to fill each keg with different stuff like water, sand, lead, and shot. Once you have all the kegs you can do the following:
1. Overhead presses- (strict, or clean and press)
2. Carries- (much like a Husafell stone) Try doing sprints while holding a 200 lb keg.
3. Loading – If you have platforms, you can load kegs just as you would load stones. A little bit more awkward, but it gets the job done.
4. Keg throw for height – This may be my favorite. It feels very similar to a snatch to me, and will build explosive power like you can only imagine!
Tires – Many people assume that tires are just for flipping, but different size tires can actually come in handy with:
1. Tire flip- Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory. This might be one of the most beneficial exercises I have ever done - inside the gym or training events.
2. Tire throw for distance – If you have ever seen someone throw the discus, this one might make sense to you. Start with a tire from a smaller car, something like Sully’s Sentra. If you can throw your flipping tire, give me a call. This would mean that we need to bring you straight to the Olympic training center to start throwing the discus.
3. Drags – If you don’t have a sled, tie some tires together and drag those. This might be a pain, but it works, and dragging on grass will make it much tougher
Odd-shaped stones – Once again, not too many people have Atlas Stones or Husafell stones on hand, but if you have a quarry of any kind or even a cheap or generous mason in the area, you’re in luck. Your options with this implement include:
1. Loading – This is just like the Atlas stones you have seen; if you have a platform or even a keg onto which to load them, you’re all set. These may hurt and be a little bit more awkward than it real Atlas stones, but it does the job.
2. Throwing – Instead of throwing the stone like a discus, you would throw either for distance like a shot, or for height over a bar.
3. Carrying: Nothing beats a true Husafell stone carry. If you are lucky, you might be able to find a somewhat triangular piece of granite or something similar. As long as it sits in your arms comfortably, this could be on of the best free training implements of all.
You'll notice the similarities between the odd-shaped stone and keg exercises; this just underscores the importance of variety!
Anything heavy on which you can get you hands – Last but not least comes everything else. You name it: blocks of wood; cars or trucks for pushing and pulling; sledgehammer swings; etc. If you are familiar with the events you will be able to pull it off. Just remember that it takes a very special (read: crazy!) person to be able to go out into the cold and be excited about running around holding onto kegs and rocks. Once you start seeing results from integrating workouts like this into your weekly routine, you will be hooked, I promise. Just have fun and if you feel like your isolating a muscle, stop immediately (just kidding). All that I ask is that you stop doing day purely for arms!
EC: Whoa, Brad covered a lot. Say what you want, Sully, and then we'll make up the difference with a photo of you picking up a car.
JS: Personally, I feel that for most of this stuff, you need to find the actual implements. As Brad mentioned, however, kegs, tires, and sandbag aren't too difficult to come by. You can also probably find a quarry or construction site and "borrow" some heavy stones. Or, you can just pick up cars.
EC: Okay, time to play the "glass is half empty" game. What are the downsides of competing as a Strongman?
BC: My top four answers would have to be:
1. Injuries - I have had more injuries in the eighteen months than I have had in my entire life. There's been a hernia, broken foot, pulled hamstring, disk problems, and pec tear… and the list is still growing!
2. Convenience - I have to drive a total of three hours just to get proper equipment and training partners.
3. Getting beat – This is pretty much applicable to any sport, but I hate it when I don't win.
4. Nuisances in the Gym – Specifically, I'm referring to all of the attention that "strong guys " pay to you at the gym. Ever since I started competing and word got around, I constantly have guys lifting next to me and trying to show me up. At times, it gets ridiculous and I have to say something.
JS: It really tests your mettle, both mentally and physically. Plus, it's lots of fun to train and compete. There really is a great camaraderie in the sport.
EC: Okay, now that you jerks have depressed our readers and killed the enthusiasm we'd built beforehand, let's finish on a positive note and highlight why being a Strongman competitor rules. That is, unless, of course, you'd like to club some baby seals, set a kitten on fire, or make fun of the handicapped. Got any good party tricks or cool stories?
BC: How about another list?
1. Personal satisfaction - I have never been more excited with my accomplishments and training than I have been over the past 1.5 years. I am doing things that I thought (assumed) I would never be able to do. That keeps me going.
2. Being called one of the strongest small people in the country isn't half bad either.
3. The people – The individuals involved in Strongman competitions are some of the friendliest, most helpful people I have ever known. Ever since Sully introduced me to the sport, I am constantly amazed at how cool all of these people are.
4. When it comes down to it, I am just happy to have a successful career in the best sport in the world. People can try to argue this if they so choose, but I have never seen more talented athletes in my life. I am constantly amazed at some of the feats of strength and athleticism I see on a regular basis.
5. I wish I could say party tricks, but there's not much I can pull out my sleeve in that regard. Actually, I take that back. When I was in Vegas for Olympia this year, I spent a bunch of time doing overhead presses with a couple of girls in the hot tub. First they asked me to pose, so I figured I would go with the second option so that Sully wouldn't give me a hard time for acting like a bodybuilder. I guess that could be considered a party trick. I also like to throw things far at parties; I used to do this a lot in college, but not so much anymore. Usually, "things" consists of kegs, people, or whatever else is lying around.
JS: My family and friends automatically assume that I want to help them move, since I compete. Also, people look at the cuts and scars on your arms from doing stones and think you have some kind of weird rash. And, by far the worst, people ask, "Oh, you compete in bodybuilding?" Crushing full cans of soda and ripping phone books are always good times, too.
EC: Way to try to explain that rash, Sully. Unfortunately, it isn't on your forearms… On that sickening note, it's time to wrap this up. Thanks very much for your time, guys, and best of luck.
Recently, I received an email inquiry about the value of strength training for pitchers. The individual emailing me had come across the following quote from a pitching “authority:”
"Training will not teach you how to apply more force...only mechanics can do that. And pitching is not about applying more effort into a pitch but is about producing more skilled movements from better timing of all the parts. That will help produce more force.
"No matter how hard you try, you will not get that from your strength training program...no matter who designed it, how much they have promised you it would or your hope that it will be the secret for you.”
To say that this surprised me would be an understatement.
I’ll start with the positive: I agree with him that pitching is all about producing skilled movements secondary to appropriate timing of all the involved “parts.” I’ve very lucky to work hand-in-hand with some skilled pitching coaches who really know their stuff – and trust in me to do my job to complement the coaching they provide.
With that said, however, I disagree that you can’t gain (or lose) velocity based exclusively on your strength and conditioning program. On countless occasions, I’ve seen guys gain velocity without making any changes to their throwing programs or mechanics. I know what many of the devil’s advocates in the crowd are thinking: “you’re just making that up!” So, if my word isn’t enough, how about we just go to the research?
Derenne C, Ho KW, Murphy JC. Effects of general, special, and specific resistance training on throwing velocity in baseball: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Feb;15(1):148-56.
[Note from EC: Yes, it’s pathetic that this REVIEW has been out almost seven years and people who are supposedly “in the know” still haven’t come across ANY of the studies to which it alludes.]
Throwing velocity can be increased by resistance training. A rationale for general, special, and specific resistance training to increase throwing velocity has been presented. The following findings and recommendations relevant to strength and conditioning specialists and pitching coaches can be useful from the review of literature.
In the “further reading” section at the end of this article, I have listed ten different studies that each demonstrated a positive effect of weight training on throwing velocity. The authors in the review above also have a table that summarizes 26 studies that examined the effect of different strength protocols on throwing velocity, and 22 of the 26 showed increases over controls who just threw. In other words, throwing and strength training is better than throwing alone for improving velocity – independent of optimization of mechanics from outside coaching.
The saddest part is that the training programs referenced in this review were nothing short of foo-foo garbage. We’re talking 3x10-12 light dumbbell drills and mind-numbing, rubber tubing blasphemy. If archaic stuff works, just imagine what happens when pitchers actually train the right way – and have pitching coaches to help them out?
Oh yeah, 10 mph gains in six months happen – and D1 college coaches and pro scouts start salivating over kids who are barely old enough to drive.
With that rant aside, I’d like to embark on another one: what about the indirect gains associated with strength training? Namely, what about the fact that it keeps guys healthy?
We know that:
a) Pitchers (compared to position players) have less scapular upward rotation at 60 and 90 degrees of abduction –and upward rotation is extremely important for safe overhead activity.
b) 86% of major league pitchers have supraspinatus partial thickness tears.
c) All pitchers have some degree of labral fraying – and the labrum provides approximately 50% of the stability in the glenohumeral joint
d) There is considerable research to suggest that congenital shoulder instability is one of the traits that makes some pitchers better than others (allows for more external rotation during the cocking phase to generate velocity).
e) Most pitchers lack internal rotation range-of-motion due to posterior rotator cuff (and possibly capsular) tightness and morphological changes to bone (retroversion). Subscapularis strength is incredibly important to prevent anterior shoulder instability in this scenario.
We also know that resistance training is the basis for modern physical therapy – which I’m pretty sure is aimed at restoring inappropriate movement patterns which can cause these structural/functional defects/abnormalities from reaching threshold and becoming symptomatic. Do you think that a good resistance training program could strengthen lower traps and serratus anterior to help alleviate this upward rotation problem? Could a solid subscapularis strengthening protocol help with preventing anterior instability? Could a strong rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers allow an individual to work around a torn supraspinatus?
And, last time I checked, strength and conditioning was about more than just being the “weights coach.” We do a lot of flexibility/mobility and soft tissue work – and it just so happens that such work does wonders on pec minor, levator scapulae, rhomboids, infraspinatus/teres minor, and a host of other muscles in pitchers. For instance, all our guys roll through this foam rolling series when they first come to the gym - and we use a ton of the upper-body warm-up drills from the Inside-Out DVD.
I also like to tell jokes, do magic tricks, and make shadow puppets on the wall. Am I to assume that these don’t play a remarkable role in my athletes’ success? I beg to differ. Sure, banging out a set of 20 chin-ups because one of my athletes called me out might make me look like a stupid monkey when my elbows refuse to extend for the subsequent ten minutes, but I still think what we do plays a very important role in our athletes success; otherwise, they wouldn’t keep coming back. And, for the record, my shadow puppets are great for building camaraderie and bolstering spirits among the Cressey Performance troops – even if I’m just a “weights coach” or whatever.
This only encompasses a few of the seemingly countless examples I can come up with at a moment’s notice. Pitchers are an at-risk population; your number one job in working with a pitcher is to keep him healthy. And, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a guy who is healthy and super-confident over his monster legs and butt is going to throw a lot harder than a guy who is in pain and as skinny as an Olsen twin because his stubborn pitching coach said strength training doesn’t work. You’ve got to train ass to throw gas!
Last fall, I started working with a pro ball player whose velocity was down from 94 to 88 thanks to a long season – but also because he’s had lower back issues that have prevented him from training. In other words, he counts on strength training to keep his velocity up. And, sure enough, it was a big component of getting him healthy prior to this season.
Putting it into Practice
I suspect that some of the reluctance to recognize strength training as important to pitchers is the notion that it will make pitchers too bulky and ruin pitching-specific flexibility. Likewise, there are a lot of meatheads out there who think that baseball guys can train just like other athletes. While there are a lot of similarities, it’s really important to make some specific upper body modifications for the overhead throwing athlete. Contraindicated exercises in our baseball programs include:
•Overhead lifting (not chin-ups, though)
•Front/Side raises (especially empty can – why anyone would do a provocative test as a training measure is beyond me)
•Olympic lifts aside from high pulls
The next question, obviously, is “what do you do instead?” Here’s a small list:
•Multi-purpose bar benching (neutral grip benching bar)
•DB bench pressing variations
•Every row and chin-up you can imagine (excluding upright rows)
•Loads of thick handle/grip training
•Medicine ball throws
•Specialty squat bars: giant cambered bar, safety squat bar
The Take-Home Lesson
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with strength training program for pitchers. In reality, what is wrong is the assumption that all strength training programs are useless because some are poorly designed and not suited to athletes’ needs and limitations. Be leery of people who say strength training isn’t important. Everyone – from endurance athletes, to grandmothers, to pitchers – needs it!
1. Bagonzi, J.A. The effects of graded weighted baseballs, free weight training, and simulative isometric exercise on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master's thesis, Indiana University. 1978.
2. Brose, D.E., and D.L. Hanson. Effects of overload training on velocity and accuracy of throwing. Res. Q. 38:528–533. 1967.
3. Jackson, J.B. The effects of weight training on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master's thesis, Central Michigan University,. 1994.
4. Lachowetz, T., J. Evon, and J. Pastiglione. The effects of an upper-body strength program on intercollegiate baseball throwing velocity. J. Strength Cond. Res. 12:116–119. 1998.
5. Logan, G.A., W.C. McKinney, and W. Rowe. Effect of resistance through a throwing range of motion on the velocity of a baseball. Percept. Motor Skills. 25:55–58. 1966.
6. Newton, R.U., and K.P. McEvoy. Baseball throwing velocity: A comparison of medicine ball training and weight training. J. Strength Cond. Res. 8:198–203. 1994.
7. Potteiger, J.A., H.N. Williford, D.L. Blessing, and J. Smidt. Effect of two training methods on improving baseball performance variables. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res. 6:2–6. 1992.
8. Sullivan, J.W. The effects of three experimental training factors upon baseball throwing velocity and selected strength measures. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University,. 1970.
9. Swangard, T.M. The effect of isotonic weight training programs on the development of bat swinging, throwing, and running ability of college baseball players. Master's thesis, University of Oregon,. 1965.
10. Thompson, C.W., and E.T. Martin. Weight training and baseball throwing speed. J. Assoc. Phys. Mental Rehabil. 19:194–196. 1965.
MR: You have a new book out, entitled Maximum Strength. Who is this book geared toward?
EC: People who enjoy gardening. Next question?
Kidding, of course. I would say that this book targets the typical lifter who goes to the internet to find information to take his/her training to the next level. There are a lot of people in the T-Nation, etc. crowd who have done a good job to get from untrained, to beginner, to intermediate – but don’t necessarily have the tools to take it to the advanced level. Maximum Strength provides that opportunity – and addresses mobility/activation, nutrition, motivation, programming strategies – basically a lot of the things you need to know to be successful not just for the 16-week program I outline, but also the years of lifting that follow it. Thus far, the feedback has been fantastic.
MR: Could you give readers an idea of how much goes into the publication process?
EC: Matt first approached me with the idea in the fall of 2006, and we created a proposal (I think it was 14 pages, plus a sample chapter). Our literary agent took it to some publishing companies, and we eventually agreed on a contract with one (DaCapo) in January of 2007. Matt and I wrote the book over the next six months and submitted in mid-June. Over the summer, I dedicated seven Sundays to the photo shoot (harder than it sounds – especially when you wear the wrong color/type of clothing, as I did in the first two sessions).
We spent the fall going through proofs, cover designs, copy-editing, and sending out advanced copies. I’m pretty sure that it was complete in February – and production started in time for a late April/early May release. So, all told, it was about an 18-month process.
So, I’ve now self-published and dealt with a publisher. Both have perks and drawbacks, so I’ve got plenty to consider as I take on future projects.
MR: You also recently released an e-book called The Art of the Deload. What prompted you to write a manual all about taking time off training?
EC: I honestly don’t know that many people understand what it feels like to remove fatigue and display fitness. Heck, I never did before I got into competitive powerlifting. Going into my first powerlifting meet, I had never deadlifted more than 484 in training. I had to hold myself back like crazy the last three weeks before the meet to avoid doing anything stupid – and it was hard because that amount of deloading was unfamiliar to me.
I went out and pulled 510 on a fourth attempt at a body weight of 161 for a Connecticut state record in that meet. Strategic deloading has been a big part of my programming ever since.
The thing is, not all trainees are the same. Experienced lifters need to deload differently than beginners and intermediates. Lifters with a previous history of injury need to deload differently than those who are completely healthy. Competitive lifters need to deload differently than those who are just lifting to enhance quality of life and look good. This e-book has something for all of them.
MR: Without giving away the farm, what are some of the different scenarios you outline? I know that I talk to people and they think of a deload week as one of two things:
1 – No strength training whatsoever; maybe some cross training.
2 – The typical 60% volume approach with a slight reduction in intensity.
EC: For the record, I don’t agree with #1 that you just outlined at all, and I think that in most cases, people who drop volume by 40% need to maintain or actually increase intensity. How’s that for barbecuing some sacred cows? Anyway, I also cover:
how to deload to make sure old injuries don’t resurface
how to know when to drop intensity instead of volume
how to effectively incorporate a testing day at the end of a deload week
why beginners don’t need to deload
what active rest means to me
how to deload on reactive training (particularly important for guys like me who have crazy supinated feet)
Plus, there is some nuts and bolts about how to individualize deload frequency.
MR: Any new projects or things in the works we should know about?
EC: Next week, we’re moving everything – equipment, turf, flooring, computers, stereo – in Cressey Performance three miles east. We also have to demolish the walls at our old place when we leave – and I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to that part! All in all, though, with the new book out, and the new facility up and running (and summer training underway), I won’t have anything too exciting on tap until at least the fall. My presentation at the Perform Better Summit in Providence at the end of May will be my last seminar for a while – unless we decide to do something at CP to celebrate the new location this summer.
MR: Okay, time for the final question, and you know I ask everyone this! You’ve been doing this for a while now – what mistakes have you made in the past, and what have you since done to correct that mistake?
EC: My biggest mistake was caring what stupid people thought of me. Let me explain.
For whatever reason, the strength and conditioning and fitness industry is very polarized. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that physique and performance enhancement tends to put people on pedestals; many people think that looking good and being stronger or more athletic will make life so much better. When was the last time that a forward-thinking accountant or surveyor got the attention some strength coaches get?
Because of the puzzling nature of this industry, people get irritated more. I think Mike Boyle said it best when he noted that many people don’t know the difference between “disagree” and “dislike.” That said, there are some people that disagree with my methodology and hate my guts. Because I put myself out there by writing articles/books, making DVDs, and speaking at seminars, it is hard to avoid it getting back to me.
Early on in my career, I let this stuff get to me. The negativity weighed on me and I actually lost sleep at night for what some keyboard warrior said about me on an internet forum. Fortunately, I quickly recognized the unfavorable impact taking criticism to heart was having on me. I had five or six guys on the internet who didn’t like me even though they’d never met me and disagreed with an article I wrote. It’s not something I needed to be losing sleep over.
So, I got that negativity out of my life and focused on what I’m doing right. I’m a better coach, much more positive, and far more productive. I’m helping people and not arguing with them. Instead of defending myself or worrying, I’m continuing to contribute to the body of knowledge. If I was as bad as these 5-6 people (or however many there are) seem to think, why are athletes practically kicking the door down to Cressey Performance to train? And, why would a traditionally strength-training-unmotivated population (baseball athletes) not only be appreciating the benefits of what we do, but thoroughly enjoying the process as much as the destination?
So, my advice to those out there would be to get rid of the negativity in your lives. We’ve all worked with people who just punch the clock, criticize those around them, and don’t really care. Stay away from these people and focus on what’s right in the world around you. It’ll make you a better lifter, coach, and person.
As I type this newsletter up, I realized that I've trained athletes on each of the past 24 days - and the two days prior to that were spent attending a Perform Better Summit. So, I guess you could say that I can't remember when my last true day off was. But, you know what? I'm not nearly as tired as I would have been if I had stayed up all night worrying about what somebody said about me on the internet.
Mike Robertson (robertsontrainingsystems.com): Eric, believe it or not you’ve never done an interview for the site before! If you don’t mind, please explain to people that we AREN’T the same person. (Yes, people actually thought this for a while!)
Eric Cressey: I’m actually just the president of the Mike Robertson Fan Club; he’s the real thing.
MR: You’ve recently opened your own facility, Cressey Performance. What kind of people are you training on a day-to-day basis? How is the gym going?
EC: It’s going very well and we’ve having a blast. In fact, as I type this, we’re in the process of arranging a move into a new facility; it should take place within two weeks and double our space.
We get a little bit of everything in terms of client variety, but the overwhelming majority of my athletes are baseball players. This past off-season, we saw 96 baseball guys from 32 high schools, 16 colleges, and 8 major league organizations. Throw in some football, hockey, triathlete, track and field, soccer, bobsled, skeleton, rowing, and regular ol’ weekend warriors, and it keeps life interesting.
MR: I’m willing to admit, you know a ton about shoulder. Couple this with the fact that you work with a ton of baseball players daily, and that pretty much makes you a shoulder guru in my book.
Where are most people missing the boat with regards to training overhead throwing athletes?
EC: Wow, there is a loaded question. Here are a few thoughts – speaking specifically to a baseball population to keep it more focused.
People spend too much time looking at the rotator cuff. It’s like focusing on the oars when there is a hole in your rowboat. The truth is that when someone’s shoulder goes, the rotator cuff (and labrum) are just the place where someone becomes symptomatic; it’s poor soft tissue quality and faulty movement patterns elsewhere (and in many cases rotator cuff weakness) that cause the problem. So what are these problems?
First off, the very nature of baseball is an issue. It’s a long competitive season (>200 games as a pro, potentially, and more than half that in high school/college): Short off-season + Long in-season w/daily games = tough to build/maintain strength, power, flexibility, and optimal soft tissue quality.
You’ve got unilateral dominance and handedness patterns, too; when was the last time you saw someone throw the first inning right-handed and then toss the second inning as a southpaw? We know that asymmetry is a big predictor of injury.
Let’s take it a step further. The best pitchers – with a few exceptions – are the tallest ones. In chatting with one MLB scout this off-season, he noted that only 14% of major league pitchers are under 6-feet tall. The longer the spine, the tougher it is to stabilize. I’ve worked with eleven guys 6-9 or taller since 2003, so I can definitely speak to this from experience. They were all basketball guys; I can’t imagine how jacked up they’d be if they were throwing baseballs, too!
And, to be more blunt, there is absolutely nothing even remotely healthy about throwing a baseball. Do a MRI of a pitcher’s shoulder and you’re going to find labral fraying: big deal! That’s just what happens when you go through 7,500°/second of internal rotation during acceleration – or the equivalent of 20 full revolutions per second! Some guys are symptomatic and some aren’t; it’s the other “stuff” that’s going on that dictates whether they’re hurting or playing pain-free.
MR: So what’s this “other stuff” of which you’re speaking?
If you want to keep a pitcher healthy, your job is to make him more athletic. I have seen professional pitchers who couldn’t broad jump 80 inches or front squat 135, yet they could throw 94 mph. I’m proud to say that we had two pitchers vertical jump over 35” and broad jump over 115” at their spring training testing this year.
Baseball is a population who – believe it or not – still doesn’t understand a) what good strength and conditioning is and b) what that solid training can do for them. I am a firm believer that much of the abuse of performance enhancing drugs in professional baseball is a direct result of players wanting a shortcut to make up for the fact that they really have no clue how to train for peak performance or sustain it for the long haul of a professional career. And, more sadly, there aren’t many good performance enhancement coaches out there who know how to show them the way. I’m strongly believe that our success in working with these guys is directly related to the fact that we show them direct, tangible results of their training, educate them on the “why” of what they’re doing, and make it fun in the process.
That said, in terms of athleticism, my goal is symmetry – or at least bringing guys closer to it in the off-season. To that end, we address the following to keep shoulders healthy:
•Scapular stability – In Particular, we need to focus on lower trap and serratus anterior. I know it’s hackneyed by now, but you can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe! It’s important to get pec minor, levator scapulae, and rhomboids loosened up to make this happen. The problem is that the research has shown that pitchers have less scapular upward rotation than position players, specifically at humeral elevations of 60 and 90 degrees – the “zone” in which the humerus sits during throwing.
•Thoracic extension and rotation range of motion – If you don’t have thoracic extension and rotation, you won’t be able to get sufficient “lay back” during the cocking phase, so there is a greater stress on both the humerus and elbow to achieve this range of motion.
•Rotator cuff strength/endurance – You need a strong posterior cuff for decelerating all that internal rotation, but you also need a very strong subscapularis to both depress the humeral head during overhead work and prevent anterior translation of that head. The subscapularis takes on an even bigger role when you realize how many overhead athletes have chronic anterior-inferior laxity and posterior-inferior capsular contracture: adaptations that favor anterior translation of the humeral head (which the subscapularis must resist).
•Soft tissue quality – Pay close attention to lats, pec minor, levator scapulae, posterior cuff/capsule, forearms (flexor carpi ulnaris, FC ulnaris, pronator teres), rhomboids, and subscapularis.
•Opposite hip and ankle – 49% of arthroscopically repaired SLAP lesion patients also have a contralateral hip abduction ROM or strength deficit. Lead leg hip internal rotation range of motion is extremely important for pitchers and hitters alike.
•Core stability/force transfer – If you can’t transfer force from the lower extremity through the core effectively to the upper body, you shouldn’t be throwing a baseball. Period.
•Glenohumeral (shoulder) ROM – Over time, the dramatic external rotation during the cocking phase can lead to a loss of internal rotation ROM; this is known as glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD). The posterior capsule and cuff stiffness leads to a superior and posterior migration of the humeral head during the late cocking phase. You also get some osseous changes to the humeral head itself. This commonly presents as medial elbow issues – including UCL injuries and ulnar nerve irritation.
To fix this, we use posterior cuff/capsule soft tissue work, sleeper stretches/cross body mobilizations/doorway capsular mobilizations, and then subscapularis isolation work (prone internal rotation, cable internal rotation at 90 degrees of abduction). Little league elbows get chewed up more by the varus torque (think transition from cocking to acceleration) and present more laterally with pain. Adolescent elbows are a bit more skeletally mature and break down medially from the valgus-extension overload that takes place during acceleration. Little leaguers just need to get stronger. Adolescents need to get stronger and work on posterior cuff flexibility (more internal rotation). College and pro guys need to start incorporating capsular mobilizations because of the actual structural changes that take place to the capsule. Back and Goldberg provide an excellent series of photos for each situation HERE.
Now, there is some debate over whether the loss of internal rotation in experienced throwers is due to posterior capsule tightness. Burkhart and Morgan insisted that there was posterior capsule tightness involved via what they called the “peel-back” mechanism, which causes the humeral head to translate posteriorly and superiorly during the late cocking phase. They picked up on these posterior capsule contracture issues during surgeries of a large number of pitchers with type II SLAP lesions.
Wilk, Meiser, and Andrews (2002) countered that it was simply related to the posterior muscular tightness and the aforementioned humeral head adaptations. They therefore recommend primarily cross-body and sleeper stretch drills with the scapula fixed – but don’t pay much attention to the role of the capsule.
I’m not too handy with an arthroscope (I prefer samurai swords for all my impromptu operations), so I keep my mouth shut and do both capsular and soft tissue mobilizations, as they’re all means to the same end. They’re all brilliant guys, but are really debating on which one will get you from point A to point B faster – and how to perform surgeries once you are FUBAR. I’m more concerned with preventing the surgeries in the first place!
Interestingly, there appears to be a “threshold” of internal rotation deficit at which a pitcher becomes symptomatic. In the aforementioned Burkhart and Morgan study, all the surgery cases had an internal rotation deficit of greater than 25°. Myers et al. pinned that “don’t cross this line” number at about a 19° deficit. The research on non-symptomatic throwing shoulders was in the 12-17° range – so every little bit matters. Horizontal adduction (cross-body range of motion) is understandably impaired as well, and the common compensation pattern is for pitchers to substitute extra protraction for this lost ROM during the follow-through. This is where pec minor grows barnacles and the lower traps simply can’t handle the load alone.
•Breathing Patterns – Guys who breath into their bellies have much better shoulder function than those who breath into their chests.
•Cervical Spine ROM – Levator scapulae and sternocleidomastoid have significant implications in terms of shoulder health, but very few people pay attention to them. Levator scapulae helps to downwardly rotate the scapula, so if it’s tight, overhead motion will be compromised. SCM attaches to the mastoid process of the skull as well as the sternum and clavicle; it might be the latissimus dorsi of the head and neck. Suboccipitals can be hugely important as well. Get ‘em all worked on by a good manual therapist. Forward head posture is associated with too much scapular anterior tilt and too little upward rotation.
•Reactive Ability – We test all our guys on a single-leg triple jump to determine their reactive ability and look for unilateral discrepancies. Typically, pitchers will have a better score on their lead leg, not their push-off leg. It sounds backwards, but if you think about it, that front leg is more trained for deceleration and reactive ability (they have to land, and immediately swivel into fielding position). The back foot is much more geared toward propulsion, so it doesn’t decelerate so well.
Interestingly, you can look at callus patterns and pick up on this. Check out the base of the 1st and 5th metatarsals on a pitcher’s push-off leg and you’ll typically find calluses that indicate more of a supinator. Check the lead leg, though, and you’ll find more thickening at the base of the 2nd and 3rd toes, indicating more pronation. These won’t be as noteworthy in people who throw right and bat left (or vice versa); switch-hitting is actually really valuable for symmetry.
•STRENGTH – Yes, I put this in all caps because it is important. If you think doing some rubber tubing external rotations is going to help decelerate a 100mph fastball that involves a total-body effort, you might as well schedule your shoulder or elbow surgery now. Strength is an important foundation, so strengthen your posterior chain, quads, thoracic erectors, scapular retractors, etc, etc, etc.
MR: Damn that’s a pretty thorough answer! How does overhead pressing fit into all of this? Some people say you need to do it because they encounter it in their sport. What do you say?
EC: I stay away from it. Contraindicated exercises in our program include:
•Overhead lifting (not chin-ups, though)
•One-Arm Medicine Ball Work
•Front/Side raises (especially empty can – why anyone would do a provocative test as a training measure is beyond me)
•Olympic lifts aside from high pulls
While I'm working on a detailed article on this topic, in a nutshell, it has a lot to do with the fact that overhead throwing athletes (and pitchers in particular) demonstrate significantly less scapular upward rotation – and that makes overhead work a problem. This is particularly serious with approximation exercises, which leads me to…
Comparing most overhead weight training movements (lower velocity, higher load0 to throwing a baseball is like comparing apples and oranges. Throwing a baseball is a significant traction (humerus pulled away from the glenoid fossa), whereas overhead pressing is approximation (humerus pushed into the glenoid fossa). The former is markedly less stressful on the shoulder - and why chin-ups are easier on the joint than shoulder pressing.
Likewise, comparing an overhead-throwing athlete to a non-overhead-throwing athlete is apples and oranges again. Throwing shoulders have more humeral and glenoid retroversion, an adaptation that many believe occurs when pre-pubescent athletes throw when the proximal humeral epiphysis (growth plate) isn’t closed yet. This retroversion gives rise to a greater arc of total rotation range-of-motion. Wilk et al termed this the “total motion concept” (internal rotation + external rotation ROM) and noted that the total arc is equal on the throwing and non-throwing shoulders – yet the composition (IR vs. ER) is different in overhead athletes, who have more less internal rotation in their throwing shoulders.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people believe that the internal rotation deficit overhead athletes experience has more do to with the osseous changes than soft tissue and capsular issues alone. We can work with the latter, but can’t do anything with the former. So, when someone says that all their YTWLs and theraband exercises make it okay for an overhead throwing athlete to overhead press, I have to wonder how those foo-foo exercises magically changed bone structure. Additionally, this acquired retroversion allows for more external rotation to generate more throwing velocity. In my opinion, this is why you never see someone just “take up” pitching in their 20s and magically become a stud athlete; the bones literally have to morph to throw heat! Believe it or not, some research suggest that this retroversion actually protects the shoulder from injury by “sparing” the anterior-inferior capsule in from excessive stress during external rotation.
Additionally, as I noted above, just about every overhead throwing athlete you see (and certainly all pitchers) have labral fraying. The labrum deepens the glenoid fossa (shoulder socket) by up to 50% and creates stability. Would you want to build a house on a foundation with chipped concrete?
There may even be somewhat of a congenital component to this. Bigliani et al. found that 67% of pitchers and 47% of position players at the professional level have a positive sulcus sign in their throwing shoulder. One might think that this is simply an adaptation to imposed demand – and that very well might be the case. However, those researchers also found that 89% of the pitchers and 100% of the position players with that positive sulcus sign ALSO came up positive in their non-throwing shoulder. It may very well be that the guys with the most congenital laxity are the ones who are naturally able to throw harder – and therefore reach the higher levels. If you’re dealing with a population that’s “picked the right parents” for laxity, you better think twice about having them press anything overhead.
With respect to the Olympic lifts, I'm not comfortable with the amount of forces the snatch puts on the ulnar collateral ligament, which takes a ton of stress during the valgus-extension overload cycle that dramatically changes the physical shape of most pitchers' elbow joints. Cleans don’t thrill me simply because I don’t like risking any injury to wrists; surgeons do enough wrist and forearm operations on baseball guys already! We teach all our guys to front squat with a cross-face grip.
Lastly, here is a frame of reference to deter you from the "Since they encounter is in sports, we need to train it in the weight-room" mindset. Boxers get hit in the head all the time in matches; why don't we intentionally train that? Getting hit in the head is not good for you, nor will it make you a better boxer. It is a part of the sport, but they don't intentionally add it into the training because they can appreciate that it would impair longevity.
Some might ask if I feel that it limits development of the athlete on the whole. If you’re dealing with a little leaguer, feel free to do some overhead stuff with him; I love one-arm DB push presses with our younger kids. However, with our 16+ athletes, my glass-is-half-full mentality is that we're avoiding any unnecessary risk because the reward is trivial at best compared to what you can do with effective non-overhead programming. Like I said, every baseball pitcher you see will have fraying in their labrum - and that means less mechanical stability.
MR: So what do you like to do instead?
EC: Here’s a small list:
•Multi-purpose bar benching (neutral grip benching bar)
•DB bench pressing variations
•Every row and chin-up you can imagine (excluding upright rows)
•Loads of thick handle/grip training
•Med ball throws
•Specialty squat bars: giant cambered bar, safety squat bar
MR: Okay, that covers pitchers pretty damn well. Do you follow the same guidelines with position players as well?
EC: At the youth levels, pretty much every kid thinks that he is a pitcher or a shortstop. Next to catchers, these two positions throw more than anyone on the field. At the pro ranks, most guys have developed a lot more of the adaptive changes I outlined earlier, so the name of the game is conservative in terms of exercise selection. So, as far as avoiding the contraindicated exercises I noted above, we’re standard across the board.
I look at my baseball guys as pitchers, catchers, and position players. The big areas in which they’re different are a) initial off-season focus and b) in-season training.
In terms of “a,” I’ve found that we need to spend more time ironing out asymmetries early on in the off-season with pitchers, as they simply don’t move as much as position players. Additionally, with the amount of moronic distance running (can you tell I’m not a fan?) that many pitchers do, we spend a lot of time trying to get back a solid base of strength, power, and reactive ability upon which to build some pitching-specific endurance.
In-season, it’s not too hard to program for starting pitchers; you know they’re going to throw on a 5-day (pros) or 7-day (college/high school) rotation. Some guys might close games on Mondays and start on Wednesdays, though. Basically, you plan around the starts – and make sure that you get in a solid lower-body-emphasis lift in within 24 hours after a start. Relievers are a bit more challenging – and in many ways have to be treated as a hybrid between position players and starters. You base a lot of what you do on how many pitches they throw and the likelihood of them pitching on a given day.
As a general rule of thumb, I don’t do chin-ups or heavy pressing the day after someone pitches. It’s generally more rowing and push-up variations.
I don’t squat my catchers deep in-season. We’ll do some hip-dominant squatting (paused or tap and go) to a box set at right about parallel, but for the most part, it’s deadlift variations. We get our range-of-motion in the lower-body with these guys with single-leg work.
Position players just need to lift – before or after games. The name of the game is frequency, and as long as you aren’t introducing a lot of unfamiliar exercises or long eccentrics in-season, they won’t be sore.
MR: This question may be for myself as much as the readers, but what resources can you recommend for someone that wants to learn more about the anatomy and biomechanics of the shoulder and elbow?
EC: I haven’t seen a really good resource that effectively addresses the need for specialized training in overhead throwing athletes; I’ve actually had a lot of people telling me I should pull something together. I guess that’ll be a project for the new facility.
That said, there are definitely some great resources available. First and foremost, I really like all the drills you and Bill outline in Inside-Out – and I’m not just saying that to butter you up (hell, I already got the interview, and I can be a jerk to you whenever I want).
Second, I think Gray Cook’s Secrets of the Shoulder DVD is excellent.
Third is Donatelli’s Physical Therapy of the Shoulder is a classic. It’s very clinical, and you won’t read it in one sitting, but it’s definitely worth a read.
Fourth is Shirley Sahrmann’s Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. Sahrmann really turned me on to looking at things in terms of inefficiency/syndrome rather than pathology. The way she approaches scapular downward rotation syndrome is great.
Fifth, get over to Pubmed.com and read everything you can from James Andrews – and then search the related articles. Be sure to check out Throwing Injuries to the Elbow by Joyce, Jelsma, and Andrews as well; it’s important to understand how shoulder dysfunction impacts elbow function.
At the dawn of the New Year, billions of people will engage in conversations about how 2005 will be the year that they'll turn over new leaves with profound New Year's resolutions. I'm all for motivation, but quite frankly, I'd rather be a stowaway on one of Richard Simmons' "It's Okay for Tubby Bitches to Dance" cruises than be present for another one of these life-changing affirmations.
A New Year's Note
Before I get to the meat and potatoes, I need to define the scope of this article. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that if you're reading this magazine, you're reasonably devoted to your health, appearance, and performance (or at least the first one). With that in mind, if your resolutions consist of "general health" things like "eat nutritious foods" or "get more sleep," I'd encourage you to take the power cord to your computer and beat yourself senseless with it. Your number one responsibility on this planet should be the one to yourself. If you can't handle the responsibility of taking care of yourself, how can you possibly expect to be good at taking care of others? We accept all kinds of responsibilities – jobs, children, mortgages, pets, you name it – but often ignore our responsibility to ourselves all the while. Being healthy is something that you should reaffirm with every action you take in every minute of your life; you don't need to resolve to "try harder" in 2005. You need to quit talking and start acting.
That said, the resolutions to which I'm referring relate specifically to pushing the bar (pun somewhat intended) with your specific training and nutrition goals. Examples include improving lifts, speed, and agility; getting to a certain percentage body fat; and achieving a desired body weight through skeletal muscle hypertrophy.
What's this guy's problem?
Good question; I knew you'd ask (although I kind of hoped that you wouldn't, as it would have saved me a lot of typing). Remember the first time you ever lifted? I sure do; my big brother brought me – a porky little seventh-grader with curly hair and rosy cheeks – to the high school weight room for the first time. Of course, egos predominated, so nobody was squatting or deadlifting; there was no chance that I'd be able to salvage my pride by using the reasonably conditioned legs I had from years of soccer. Instead, they plopped me right on the bench. I proceeded to get pinned under the just the bar (after a good fifteen second fight in which I almost got it past the sticking point, mind you). Now, let's assume that I had actually known enough to keep lifting then. Chances are that I could have benched the big wheels within a year or so of training; it would seemingly have been a logical New Year's resolution for me to set. However, when you consider that I probably wasn't even strong enough to lift the 45-pound plates to load the bar for an attempt at the big wheels, then I'd be setting myself up for a world of failure – not exactly what a kid who already shopped in the "husky" section of Filenes with his mom really needed. On the other hand, if I had broken the "road to junior high bench press glory" down into a bunch of achievable mini-goals, then I would have been much better off.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Newbies are different; experienced lifters can come up with appropriate goals. Oh, really? In light of the following year-end assessments of 2004 resolutions from a thread on our forum, you might want to have humble pie instead of pecan pie this holiday season.
2004 Resolutions: Squat 700, bench 500, and deadlift 600.
Year-End Self-Assessment: "No, no, and no. I had to straighten out issues with my squat. The good news is that I think I'm getting there. 600 [squat] was a joke at the last meet, and 625 felt very light as well.
I'm not being a bitch here, but if I had a legitimate shirt, I would have hit 500 on the bench. I paused 495 in training a couple of months before my last meet and wound up barely hitting 480 at the meet. So I was 20lbs shy.
I may or may not have had the deadlift in me, but I wound up with 570. I had more at that meet, but I'll have to save that for next time. Bombing out of the September meet kind of screwed things in general."
My Take: Aren't the holidays supposed to be a happy time? Resolutions are even more troublesome for powerlifters, as nobody really competes on December 31. I true year-end lift total isn't a reality, so it's a lot more appropriate to go meet by meet and plan in weekly/monthly time frames.
2004 Resolutions: Snatch grip deadlift 405, front squat 275, and power clean 315. "I think these are achievable. The clean may be pushing it. The others are an increase of maybe 50 pounds, but I have not focused my training on bringing them up before. I plan to focus on back for the rest of 03, which will assist each of those lifts."
Year-End Self-Assessment: "No for everything. I *might* be able to put up 275 on the front squat right now, but I haven't tried yet. The deadlift is not close; I'd be doing good to pull 345 snatch grip right now. The power clean was stupid, anyway. Boy, I suck."
My Take: I don't want to kick him while he's down, but talk about setting yourself up for failure. Hell, he didn't even test most of the lifts. It's never a good sign when one of your goals is "stupid" by the end of the year. Ouch.
2004 Resolutions: 300 bench, 350 Squat (ass to grass), 400+ parallel squat, and 500 deadlift. "All in all, I want to get stronger while staying lean. I'm currently just trying to get over 200 (at 195 right now). Ideally, I would love to be 210-220 by beginning of summer, lean out back to single digits BF, and then just focus on putting on the mass again."
Year-End Self-Assessment: "Bench was close; I got 295 up last March. Squat: I think I was repping with 265 for 5x3 at one point. Deadlift -YEP! Body weight: got up to 210.
I would have easily achieved all my goals if I hadn't gotten injured."
My Take: Injuries threw a wrench in his resolutions; just imagine how much easier goal-setting would have been if he'd done it month-by-month. More importantly, he wouldn't be frustrated now at year's end. I'd much rather be frustrated about a less than optimal month than I would be for an entire year of shortcomings.
2004 Resolutions: "Get my weight to 250; currently 225 at 6-4. 350 bench; currently 310 raw. 500 deadlift; currently 415 w/ straps (6mos ago). 400 squat; currently 335 on box squat slightly below parallel."
Year-End Self-Assessment: "Body weight - Currently 255 but was as high as 272. Bench - Did 340 raw in early spring and haven't tested since. But all my bench numbers have improved. Deadlift – 530. Squat - Box Squatted 475x1. All in all, a good year. Learned a lot about myself and what I can do if I get my mind right. I'm looking forward to '05.
My Take: As you can see, this guy blew his goals away – probably by the end of August. It almost makes you wonder how this rapid achievement will impact his future goal-setting experience. It goes without saying that shorter-term goals are easier to approximate, so you won't over- or undershoot your true capabilities. Plus, gains don't come linearly; you might see a 30-lb. jump on a particular lift over the course of a session or two just by correcting your form, or a lift might be stalled while you focus on other areas. Monthly goal-setting allows you to accommodate these hills and valleys without getting too "up" or too "down" as you view your long-term goals.
I should also note that there were five posts by people on this thread who have since dropped off the face of the Earth; I can't imagine that doing so was conducive to fulfilling their resolutions. All this is just the tip of the iceberg; there were dozens more regulars who didn't report how things turned out for them.
Got a better idea, you schmuck?
Sure I do; I'd never offer constructive criticism without including solution recommendations. Figure out your long-term goal (or estimate it). Where do you want your life to go personally, academically, and professionally? Don't resolve to do anything with this long-term goal; just hide it in the back of the refrigerator next to that moldy tub of cottage cheese that you keep forgetting to throw out. You'll consider it every day, but it won't be a tie that binds you; it can stay in the fridge, get tossed in the garbage, or revised as needed. One year doesn't mean a damn thing in the grand scheme of things; you need to be thinking longer-term (your big goal) or shorter-term (what you can do right now to get closer to that goal). Let's say that you're hunched over your computer screen reading this and you decide that you want to get rid of your nagging shoulder injury. Are you going to wait until January 1 to get started, or are you going to fix your posture now so that your shoulders aren't rounded and your upper back doesn't look like that of a 90 year-old osteoporotic woman? If you're a beanpole and need to pack on some size, are you going to wait until January 1 to start pushing the calories, or are you going to grab your fork and get to work on a steak while you're reading the rest of this article? If that's not enough of a foot in the ass, hopefully this appetizing reminder will help:
Now, let's talk training. Do you really think that you can plan specifically for the entire year in one sitting? If you try to do so, you'll be ignoring the value of cybernetic periodization, which involved modifying volume and intensity based on how you feel at different points in time. You'll also be underestimating the value of the knowledge you'll gain over the course of the year; this knowledge may impact your programming. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you'll be failing to take into account potential roadblocks such as injuries, personal obligations, and cases of volatile and unpredictable diarrhea (sorry for mentioning that last one, folks; I just needed an intense kicker to top off the paragraph).
What I'd like you to do for the next year is have twelve resolutions – one for each month of training. Your strengths and weaknesses are sure to change over this time period, so it makes more sense to hone in on what you can do in four-week cycles to get closer to your long-term goal. With one week left in each month, I want you to sit down and write out all your glaring weaknesses. They'll be your priority as you plan for the next month - none of this two-months-in-advance planning. Don't just say what you want; make several resolutions that relate how you'll achieve your goals.
I'll use myself as an example. My long-term training goal is to be an Elite powerlifter; I'll have to make a Master's class total first (hopefully at my next full meet - April 2005). I know where I need to be as well as where I stand now, having done a push-pull on December 18th. This competition helped me to better realize where my weaknesses exist, and in combination with what I already knew, I can now plan for the month of January. As I planned in late November, the remaining days in December will be used as a bridge between active recovery and introducing the already-calculated higher volume of my January program. For January, I resolve to:
1. Squat against a crapload of band tension in weeks 1, 2, and 4.
2. Utilize the safety squat bar for all good mornings to keep my shoulders healthy in spite of using this band tension. Continue to hammer on my lockout on the bench.
3. Do more horizontal pulling .
4. Get into my new bench shirt twice (second and fourth full ROM bench sessions).
5. Continue with my shoulder and scapular stability prehabilitation (related to #3).
6. Devote more work to top-end deadlifting.
7. Do neck harness work once per week.
Chances are that the tasks at hand will be somewhat similar for February, but I won't put anything in stone until the last week in January. The important thing is that I'm not just saying what I want to achieve; I'm delineating how I plan to going about getting the job done.
Summarily, I'm just encouraging you to break your long-term goals into smaller tasks and omit the classic one-year resolution altogether. If you can't even accomplish short-term tasks specific to your goal, then how can you resolve to get things done over the course of an entire year? If you're saving up for a vacation, do you expect to "earn" the money in lump sums off of 4-5 winning scratch tickets, or do you bust your butt day-in and day-out at work, accumulating a few bucks with every paycheck to get your closer to your goal? Why go for the whole shebang when you can't even get part of it right? Have your long-term goals, and then recognize what you can do right now to get to them; stay away from the half-ass in between stuff, leaving New Year's resolutions to those who won't even be going to the gym anymore by the end of February.
So you've finally made the decision to give up the "all show and no go" bodybuilder's mentality in favor of powerlifting, huh? Glad to have you aboard; please leave your posing trunks, tanning oil, and pink dumbbell triceps kickbacks at the door. It goes without saying that one's first powerlifting meet is an exciting, yet confusing -- and potentially disastrous -- event. Admittedly, I'm a powerlifter without much true competition experience under his belt, so it wouldn't be fair for me alone to put something together on this topic. With that in mind, I met up with four experienced lifters -- Jay Floyd, Ross Bowshers, Dr. Tom Deebel, and Steve Coppola -- to discuss first meet madness, and collaborate on a piece on how to avoid bombing out and looking like an ass in your first meet.
EC: Welcome, fellas. Before we get started, let's clue the Rugged audience in on your lifting backgrounds so that they know we're talking to some pretty strong and smart lifters.
JF: I'm 25, and am about to complete my M.Ed. in Health and Physical Education. I have a job awaiting me teaching health and PE and coaching football and strength and conditioning at a high school in Georgia. I got into powerlifting after an athletic career that included football, baseball, basketball, track, and even competitive collegiate cheerleading. Lifting was also a big priority throughout; and graduated high school with a raw 500 squat and 335 power clean. My last year of cheerleading was terrible and I really wanted to be competitive in something, so powerlifting seemed like a great fit. When I first started training for powerlifting with the Westside principles, my box squat was 365, deadlift was 495, and my bench was less than 300. After seven months (approximately six weeks of which was compromised due to two-a-day cheerleading practices and a shoulder injury), at my first meet, I squatted 575, benched 335, and deadlifted 535 at a body weight of 238. At my last meet, which was 356 days after my first meet, I squatted 771, benched 402, and deadlifted 633 at 265. This was all drug free. I'm tempted to make a run at Strongman training in the near future.
RB: I am 22 and played college baseball for three years: two at the Vincensses Junior College, and one at Division 1 University of Tennessee-Martin. I had to have stomach surgery during my junior season, at which point I decided to go back home to Indianapolis. I needed some thing to keep my competitive demeanor satisfied, so I checked out an Elite Fitness seminar and got totally hooked. I did some small local meets and then had to have stomach surgery again, which set me back 6 months with no training. I have been training very serious for the last year and a half but haven't been able to get to a meet recently because of my job and a recent injury. At a body weight of approximately 280-285 pounds, my best gym lifts are a 735x2 box squat, 505 bench press and 595 deadlift. Currently I am employed by the Franklin Boys and Girls Club and coach the Indianapolis Grizzlies College baseball team and go to school at IUPUI.
TD: I started powerlifting at the 1982 Pennsylvania Teenage State Championships, and competed approximately 12 times over six years ending in 1988. I started at 132, but after two years I moved up to 148 where I competed for 5 more years. My best ranking in the ADFPA/USAPL was Class 1. After chiropractic college, I continued lifting, but various injuries kept me from competing. In 1998, I began to learn ART, which helped to fix my injuries, and started training with Westside methods, which brought the excitement for lifting back. Last year, I did a deadlift meet and a push/pull. As of right now, I hope to be healthy enough to make a Class 1 or Master's classification later this year. My son, Tommy, Jr., is getting into the action, too, as you can see!
SC: I’m 22 years old, and compete in the 242 weight class as an “amateur” lifter. My best meet numbers are a 725 squat, 450 bench, 620 deadlift, and a 1795 total done in IPA meets. I’ve been a competitive athlete in various sports since age 8, but have only been competing in powerlifting meets since 2003 when my college baseball days came to an end. I’m lucky enough to train with a great group of lifters in Buffalo, NY; this group includes Paul Childress and Joe Dougherty, two of the top lifters in the world in their respective weight classes. We train using a conjugate system that is similar to Westside Barbell.
EC: What are the biggest mistakes you see novice lifters making before their first meets?
JF: The biggest mistake I think beginners make is not knowing the rules and the ways of a meet. By this I mean how the warm-ups go, the technical rules, what equipment is legal, etc. I cant tell you how many times I have gone to a meet and some person during the rules briefing asks the dumbest question ever. Watch videos of lifters in the same federation that you will be competing in; doing so will allow you to see the calls and signals that are made in real competition. The best thing you can do is listen, especially during the rules briefing. Read the rules before you go. Know all the technical things so you can concentrate on your lifting. You can find articles at Elite Fitness on what to do at a meet; these helped me out tremendously. I would also recommend getting easy-to-use equipment at the beginning. Any single ply suit and bench shirt should do in the beginning. Get it early and get used to it.
RB: The most common problems have to do with equipment. For example, one of my training partners was getting ready for APF teen and junior nationals, and after a great training cycle that took his bench almost up 100 pounds and his squat close to 150 in about 20 weeks, UPS lost his squat suit, and it took him six extra weeks to get it. He got it three weeks out from the meet and the legs were too long (needed to be tailored) and it was super tight; he couldn't even reach a parallel box with 635 pounds and had problem getting it up two weeks out! A $500 trip to Omaha was not too wise for him to go out there and bomb on the squat, so his dropped out. Get your equipment early and train in it! Other than that, powerlifting is just like any other sporting event; keep your nerves in check and don't sweat the small stuff and everything will be fine...
TD: The biggest mistake novice lifters make is being unprepared for meet day. It's a great idea to see exactly how things run. You have to be familiar with the time it takes to warm-up, get on equipment, get ready for your attempt, and know how to perform the lift according to the rules. A beginner should really go see a meet first.
The second mistake is not bringing enough stuff. You need meet-day food that you can tolerate, drinks, aspirin/Advil, your equipment, and any other comfort items. There can be long delays, so a book, Walkman, or Gameboy might take your mind off delays.
EC: I put you last, Steve, because I know you've got a ton of these. Hit what the others haven't covered; the floor is yours!
SC: In no particular order…
1. Not going into the meet fresh, and rested enough. Too many people overestimate their recuperative abilities, and don’t realize what it truly takes for supercompensation to take place, so they essentially wind up being overtrained leading into a meet. In my experience, this tends to occur moreso on the squat and deadlift than the bench. In my gym, we recommend lifters take their last heavy squat/bench/dead at least 2-3 weeks prior to meet day, minimum. Sometimes we will push this minimum to 3-4 weeks out from meet day for the deadlift depending on the lifter.
2. Not being familiar enough with one's equipment. It seems so obvious, yet so many people have no idea how to use their equipment come meet time. This could apply to getting it on and off in a timely manner, as well as how to perform in it. The bottom line is that you need to be confident in how to use your equipment with plenty of time to spare (weeks!) before the meet.
3. Not bringing an experienced handler - or any handler at all - to the meet with them. Although an experienced handler is preferable for obvious reasons, any handler will work to help get equipment on and off, give attempts to the scorers table, go grab food or water, tell the lifter how far out they are from being up, etc. Lack of any type of handler usually spells disaster (unless your name is Jay Floyd and you’re too cool for handlers and can wrap your own knees!) for the poor-planning lifter, and will also cause fellow lifters to get pissed off when the poor-planning lifter constantly asks them what’s going on.
4. Not bringing back-up equipment, shoelaces, etc. Anything you will use in any way on meet day, bring a back-up. Sometimes things go wrong, so you have to be ready. Speaking of readiness, be sure to pack plenty of food and drinks, as Tom mentioned.
5. Not being realistic with attempts. The novice lifter should aim to make as many lifts as possible in his or her first meet. This allows more PRs to be set, builds more confidence, and allows for steadier progression in subsequent meets. The novice lifter, in my opinion, should be hitting numbers on first and second attempts that have been done confidently in the gym (as judged by someone who has some meet experience, if possible), and should be aiming to set a PR on the third attempt. Technically, every attempt made will be a “meet PR” anyway. Failure to go into a meet with this mindset has resulted in many a novice bombing out or missing too many attempts; this not only hurts confidence, but also leaves too much doubt about what kind of numbers the lifter is really capable of hitting.
6. Not taking bands and chains off of the bar leading into meet week. Most novices probably aren’t doing advanced band/chain cycles anyway, but in the event that they are, they would be well-served to use straight bar weight on most of their exercises for a week or two before the meet. There a few reasons for this practice…most of them have to do with recovery, and the fact that the body needs to re-adjust to straight bar weight from a nervous system standpoint. Bands, especially, have a grounding effect; once taken off the bar, the lack of this grounding effect can lead to some instability in the lifter if sufficient time (a couple squatting/benching sessions) is not allowed for a regaining of balance.
7. Not knowing the rules of the federation. Jay already touched on this, but it warrants reiteration. The lifter should know the rules of his or her federation of choice prior to meet day. Different feds have different rules about each lift, and how they are performed. This might seem obvious, but I missed two benches in my first ever meet because I kept forgetting the fed I was competing in that day (USPF) had a “start” command on the bench at the time.
8. Not knowing the monolift rack height in a meet with a monolift before taking first attempts. Get under the damn bar before the meet starts and figure out your rack height, and tell the judges and scorer's table. This can be costly if not done, as it can be a bitch to basically squat a max attempt twice if your rack height is way too low or slightly too high.
9. Not timing warm-ups properly in the warm-up room. Don’t rush warm-ups and don’t take too much time. This comes with experience, but a good idea is to try and take a warm-up every 5-10 minutes depending on how many people are competing in the meet (if there are a lot of people, as in twenty or more in your flight, ten minutes between warm-up attempts is probably not too long). Have an idea of where you fall on the opening attempts list so that you can time things a bit better.
EC: Awesome stuff, Steve. Knock back a post-training drink to replenish what that dissertation took out of you while I talk with the other guys. Before I move on, though, I'd like to add a little bit to Steve's third recommendation. Make sure that your handler knows where the meet is, how to get there, what time it begins, and how long he/she should plan for travel to the event. I learned this hard way in my first meet; fortunately, somebody else was able to help me out. Anyway, moving on…how important do you think it is to go and watch a powerlifting meet before you compete for yourself? Did you do so before your first meet?
JF: Going to a meet before you compete is a good idea. At the first meet I went to, the meet organizer offered to let me sit next to a judge during the competition so I could see how things worked and he could explain things to me. I declined because I had been to a competition a few years before and had watched a million videos online.
RB: Not that important...When I decided to get into powerlifting, I basically started calling people in my area who were the best. I had been training for about three weeks and went to train with Ron Palmer and Rocky Tilson's crew; they talked my training partner and I into a SLP meet that next weekend we went and did the meet never having seen one in person. In fact, my training partner, Justin Fricke, set the SLP Indiana teenage state bench press record at that meet! The people in powerlifting are great; Justin actually borrowed a shirt from Mike Coe, a WPO competitor, because his ripped. Here was a champion helping a young kid in a pinch even though he'd only known him for a week; you just don't see that kind of mutual respect and kindness in other sports. We have found all people in powerlifting to be great and helpful, especially Jim Wendler, who has by far been the most helpful for me personally.
TD: It's a great idea to watch a meet and a better idea to help a friend first to see the flow of meet days. I highly recommend it.
SC: I think this is very important. If possible, the novice lifter should be accompanied by an experienced lifter (whose brain can be picked by the novice as they watch the goings-on of the meet) if at all possible. I actually did not do this before my first meet, and it showed. I basically screwed up just about everything I could have on meet day. Things would have been a lot less stressful had I taken this logical step in meet preparation.
EC: What would be your recommendations for picking attempts in a first meet?
JF: It depends on how you train. If you train with a Westside-influenced program, you will probably have no idea what your 3RM is, so the idea of "picking something you can do for reps" isn't very applicable. At my first meet, I opened at 525 even though I had never even had that much on my back before. Every meet since then I have opened with my best from my last meet. I don't recommend that, though! I would say take something that you know you could do on a bad day. This is where working up for some heavy singles on dynamic day can help. I knew I could box squat at least 450 before my first meet, so I figured 525 wouldn't be a problem. Since then, I have just opened high enough to be able to take medium jumps so I could get my goal. I opened at 705 at my last meet because I wanted a shot at 804 if given the opportunity. I did 705 at my last meet for a PR, but knew I had a lot left in me.
RB: Just make sure that it's a weight you have lifted a ton of times in training; be very confident with the lift. The best way to do this is to pick a max effort weight that is usually your 90% lift - the lift you know you're going to get easy before you head to your max attempts. A good example for me is around 440 on the bench. When I am training, I know no matter how terrible I feel I can always hit 440, and after that, it's really time to focus. If i can hit it in the gym feeling average, I can certainly nail it in a meet with the adrenaline and ephedrine flowing and focus at an all-time high. Plus, it's not far off my best, and screw up my total too bad...
TD: Your opener should be 100% I can make it with the flu and explosive diarrhea. Your second should be very close to a max, but you're very confident with it. The third is for placing, PRs, or goals (e.g. 500 deadlift). Remember to be honest with your self. Don't attempt hopes. You've trained and should therefore know what's possible.
SC: I talked about this in my laundry list of novice mistakes. The first attempt should be extremely easy: something the lifter has tripled in the gym. The second lift should be something the lifter can confidently single in the gym. The third attempt should be something slightly greater than what the lifter has done in the gym. Equipment problems, strict judging, nerves, etc. can make an easy triple turn into a grueling single.
EC: Good stuff, gentlemen. A lot of federations will give newbie lifters fourth attempts if they make their first three. This is also the case with going for records, but most newbies aren't shooting for records in their first meets. Nonetheless, if you you’re your first three and feel like you have more left in the tank, ask for a fourth. It won't count toward your total, but it'll be nice to go home knowing that you didn't leave a ton of weight on the platform. Now, let's talk planning; how far in advance should squat and bench cycles be planned?
JF: For beginners, I don't think it matters much. Once you get a little more advanced, it should be a little more structured. For my last two meets I have done three weeks of chains, three weeks of blue bands, deload, four weeks of circa max, and then a deload week before the meet. This has worked very well for me. For my dynamic bench, I just alternate bands and chains every three weeks ending with either chains or straight weight. For my other days, I just rotate my max effort exercises. For beginners, I would just use an undulating wave every three weeks ending with a deload week before the meet. After you get more advanced, you will have to decide when you want to add in circa max phases and things of that nature.
RB: Twelve weeks is great. One thing that I need to take into account is the bar; even though I have a Texas squat bar, it still beats up my shoulders really bad, so I want to spend as little time under it as I can. If you have 16-24 weeks before a meet, use the safety squat bar or a cambered squat bar for 12 weeks or so. What I like to do is alternate the bars each week for dynamic squats for 8-12 weeks after a training cycle; both these bars really bring up weakness, so after these cycles you will be a lot stronger with a regular bar. The first time I did this last fall, I got about a 60-pound increase from one six-week cycle with each bar. You will, however, need about 12-14 weeks with a regular bar to get your groove back. During this time, get under some band tension and work on your specific weakness such as strength-speed and speed-strength. The best specific meet dynamic squat cycle I have used is Jim Wendler's Squat Training: A Different Perspective.
TD: Eight weeks would be sufficient. If you're farther out, just do two cycles.
SC: At my gym, most guys shoot for a solid 12-15 week training cycle leading into a meet. This number comes from years of experience combined with how most of our squat cycles are structured (5 week mini-cycles). It allows for a week or two of adjustment if things get screwed up, too. Basically, it’s enough time to get done what we’d like to get done, and if that can’t happen, there’s enough time to get done what HAS to be done.
EC: How do you structure your training in the week after a meet? I found that I was able to get back to work sooner with my bench work, but the posterior chain took considerably longer to recover. I hit my first bench session three days after the meet for a repetition day, and got back to a light dynamic squatting session five days after the competition. The days in between were reserved for some GPP, extra work for my upper back, swimming, hot tub, and even some EMS.
JF: If you did things right, you just put in at least 12 weeks of very intensive training with a meet at the end. Take some time off! You more than likely won't have a meet for at least another 12 weeks, so who cares what you do? I see guys saying that they are going to do this or that when in reality not going to the gym at all may be the best thing for them to do. I usually take at least until Wednesday off. After my last meet, I went to the gym and did some sets of five on reverse band presses…that was all I did! On Friday, I would do my dynamic squat with straight weight going really light. I might only use 345 or so…something easy. Then, on Sunday (dynamic bench day) I would get things back to normal.
RB: Eat and sleep. I have found swimming to be great for recovery; treading water is great GPP and helps me recover
TD: The week after a meet I either go light or don't train at all. I recommend doing other active things to get away from lifting. It also gives you a little reflection time for your accomplishments or mistakes.
SC: In my case, post-meet training, at least for a week, usually consists of light recovery work. I normally begin speed work in the second week after a meet, and won’t do a true max effort single until the end of that second week, or the beginning of the third week after the meet.
EC: Can newbies compete too often? Is there a time to just can competing for a bit and focus on training? I couldn't wait to get back under the bar after my first meet in spite of the fact that I knew my body needed to recover; I felt like I had learned too much about what I needed to do to be more successful to be sitting around!
JF: I think beginners should compete at least every 12 weeks or so. Obviously it is going to be limited by what is around you. You might have to travel. For my last two meets, I have traveled a total of 22 hours. I think the training that you do the weeks before a meet are much better than "normal" weeks of just training. Motivation is higher and you are more likely to put in that extra effort. A beginner's level is so low, that they are not likely to get burned out by competing more often. I competed five times last year and my total went up over 300lbs. I don't think it hurt me any. I don't feel that you should consider limiting your competitions until you hit Elite status.
RB: Money and time are the limiting factors. I live in Indiana and only do APF and IPA meets, but there aren't any meets in this state for those federations. So, for me to go to a APF or IPA meet, we're talking about a $300-500 or so weekend. I got to school full-time and work part-time, so money isn't falling off trees for me. I had an injury this year that prevented me from doing my most recent planned meet, but it's proven valuable in that it's an opportunity to continue to train and get stronger over the next few months before I compete again. The PR goals will still be reached regardless of whether I do four meets this year or one. So, for me it's really financial; if I am going to spend the money, I want to be 100%.
TD: For a new guy, I'd think up to four times a year. Many lifters of all abilities do up to that many competitions. A newbie does have to get out there to learn the ropes, so they may need to do a meet or two more each year than a more advanced guy.
SC: Yes, and yes. If there are technical problems and/or injuries occurring in a lifter, time should be taken to remedy these issues before serious meet training takes place. If the lifter is anything like me, the entire preparation, and completion of a meet can be very taxing from a mental standpoint from about 10 weeks out from the meet until it’s over. If this is the case, mental recovery is also something a lifter - newbie or not - needs to consider. Although newbies normally can, and probably should, compete a bit more often than a seasoned pro, they should take the time necessary between meets to recover, evaluate, and properly prepare for another meet. A decent number to shoot for is probably around 3-5 meets a year for most lifters new to the sport.
EC: That's some excellent information, guys; thanks for helping out with this. I'm sure that a lot of newbies out there will benefit from it. Just as importantly, they won't annoy the more experienced lifters with silly questions at their first meets! Then again, when it comes to the pre-meet time period, the only stupid question is the one that isn't asked.