This is year 5 of my "What I Learned in" series here at T-Nation, and it's actually being written in February of 2011 because I needed an extra month to process everything and put it down on paper.
Apparently, I also learned in 2010 that I was disorganized and senile. So, before I digress too much, let's get to it.
Yesterday, New England Sports Network (NESN) ran a feature on my work with Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox. In the background of the video, you'll notice several other professional athletes (including a pro soccer player and pro triathlete) doing their thing, too. What's perhaps more interesting, though, is that you'll even see some general fitness clients getting after it at the same time.
It reminded me of an interview Chad Waterbury did with me for his website a while back; the focus was what ordinary folks can learn from professional athletes, and how they're alike/different in the gym. I think that there are some valuable takeaway points:
CW: You work with a lot of high-performance athletes. What are three principles that apply equally to athletes and non-athletes?
EC: I think people would be surprised to realize just how similar the Average Joe or Jane is to a professional athlete – both socially and physically.
The lay population often sits in front of a computer for 8-10 hours a day, but many pro athletes have 4-8 hour flights or 10+ hour bus rides where they’re sitting – and because they’re taller, sitting is even more uncomfortable and problematic. Like everyone else, they spend time surfing the internet, Skyping, playing video games, and goofing around on Facebook/Twitter. The advances in technology have hurt everyone from a physical fitness standpoint – but brought the “Pros and the Joes” closer together, believe it or not.
They’re also very similar in that they want the most bang for their buck. Most pro athletes are no different than anyone else in that they want to get in their training, and then go to visit their families, relax, play golf, or whatever else. They really don’t have interest in putting in six hours per day in training outside of the times when they have to do so (namely, in-season).
All that said, if I had to pick three principles crucial to the success of both populations, they’d be the following:
1. Realize that consistency is everything. I always tell our clients from all walks of life that the best strength and conditioning programs are ones that are sustainable. It’s not about working hard for three months and making great progress – only to fall off the bandwagon for a month. This is absolutely huge for professional athletes who need to maximize progress in the off-season; they just can’t afford to have unplanned breaks in training if they want to improve from year to year.
If a program isn’t conducive to your goals and lifestyle, then it isn’t a good program. That’s why I went out of my way to create 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week strength training options – plus five supplemental conditioning options and a host of exercise modifications – when I pulled Show and Go together; I wanted it to be a very versatile resource.
Likewise, I wanted it to be safe; a program isn’t good if it injures you and prevents you from exercising. Solid programs include targeted efforts to reduce the likelihood of injury via means like mobility drills, supplemental stretching recommendations, specific progressions, fluctuations in training stress, and alternative strength exercises (“plan B”) in case you aren’t quite ready to execute “Plan A.”
2. You must balance competing demands, and prioritize the ones that are the most pressing at a given time. Using our professional baseball pitchers as an example, their training consists of strength training, mobility drills, medicine ball throws, movement training, and the throwing program (which is near daily in nature). In the Cressey Performance system, when the throwing program ramps up, the medicine ball work must come down substantially, and the strength training tapers off just a bit. You simply can’t keep adding sets and reps without subtracting something else and making a tradeoff, as athletes only have a certain amount of recovery capacity, and it’s hard to fine-tune an exact movement like throwing a baseball if you’re fatigued from everything else.
Managing competing demands is arguably more challenging in the general population, as their jobs outside the gym are usually more stressful than those that face many professional athletes – meaning that the Joes and the Janes have less recovery capacity with which to work. It seems logical that when you add something to a program, you have to subtract something else – but I’m constantly amazed at how many people decide to just keep adding more volume when they can’t lose fat or gain muscle mass fast enough. Sometimes, you just need to change the composition of the program, not add more and more, thereby creating three-hour marathon training sessions. This leads to my next point…
3. The success comes from the overall program, not just the individual parts. In other words, synergy is everything.
The aforementioned pitchers can’t just go out and start a throwing program after doing nothing for three months. Rather, they need to work to enhance their mobility and get stronger, more reactive, and more powerful first. If they skip these important steps, they increase their likelihood of injury, make it harder to re-acquire a skilled movement, and reduce the likelihood of improvement.
In the general population, a good strength and conditioning program consists of tremendous interdependencies. Your deadlift technique and strength depends on the training you’ve done in the previous month, week, and day – and how thorough and targeted your mobility warm-up (or lack thereof, in many unfortunate cases) was prior to that day’s training session. Those trainees who have the best results are the ones that line everything up – from nutrition, to strength training, to mobility exercises, to movement training, to metabolic conditioning, to recovery protocols.
CW: It’s common for people to think they’re advanced when they’re really not. Can you mention a few things a pro athlete typically does that a weekend warrior shouldn’t do?
EC: I would strongly discourage non-professional athletes from holding shirtless press conferences in their driveways while exercising during contract holdouts.
Then again, I wouldn’t really recommend that to Terrell Owens or any professional athlete, for that matter, but I digress…
To be honest, in the context of resistance training, a lot of professional athletes aren’t really as advanced as you might think, especially after a long season that’s taken its toll on them. Many of them have a ton of similarities with our general fitness clients – but just have different exercise contraindications and energy systems needs.
I think the better comparison would be between novice lifters (less than one year of resistance training) and those with years and years under their belt. They have to do things quite a bit differently.
As a first example, the novice lifter can handle a lot more volume because he (or she, of course) is relatively neurally inefficient. If this lifter did the volume of an advanced athlete, he might actually undertrain on volume (and possibly overdo it on intensity to the point that it’d interfere with picking up appropriate technique).
Second, a really advanced lifter will often need to deload on intensity – meaning that when it’s time for a “backoff week” – he’ll often keep the sets and reps up, but take a lot of weight on the bar. It’s just about getting reps in. A novice lifter, on the other hand, is better off keeping the intensity up and dropping the number of reps.
Third, a novice lifter can often be more aggressive in terms of caloric intake because there is such a large window of adaptation ahead in terms of muscle weight gain. I gained 50 pounds in my first year of lifting, but nowadays – even though I’m five times as strong as I was then – if I can go up 3-4 quality pounds a year, I’m thrilled. Surely, lifters are the opposite ends of the experience continuum can’t have similar caloric needs – even if the more experienced ones are heavier. Skinny novice guys can sometimes get away with eating like absolute crap as long as there are enough total calories – and still end up getting bigger. I certainly don’t advise it, but it’s one more way to show that novice and experienced lifters are horses of different colors, and that you have to be honest with yourself on where you fall on this continuum so that you train and eat optimally.
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I just wanted to give you a quick heads-up that NESN ran this feature on Boston Red Sox Third Basemen Kevin Youkilis' off-season training at Cressey Performance. Check it out:
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Here are a few good reads to check out this week:
15 Muscle Building Tips at a Restaurant - I came across this article by Vince Delmonte on how to maintain a healthy eating schedule even when you're eating out. This is a place where a lot of people fail, so I think it's an excellent article for folks to read as a reminder.
Small in Stature, Royals Pitcher Tim Collins a Force on the Hill - Here's piece at MLB.com on Cressey Performance athlete and Kansas City Royals pitcher Tim Collins. I've been training Tim since he was 18 years old, and he's got a tremendous story.
Scalenes: Breathing and the Thoracic Spine - This is an excellent post from Patrick Ward on how aberrant breathing patterns can markedly influence upper extremity function.
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In today's post, we've got the second half of a Q&A response regarding how to determine the optimal number of sets and reps for strength exercises. In case you missed the first installment, be sure to check out Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps - Part 1. We pick up with factors 7-13:
7. Whether You’re Trying to Correct Muscle Imbalances – In Part 1 (Bulletpoint 4) of my five-part Correcting Bad Posture series, I talked about how I like to use a 2:1 pull-to-pushing ratio with those who have significant upper body muscle imbalances. In addition to upping the sets, you can also use higher rep schemes. So, something like this would be an easy way to accumulate more volume:
Effectively, you're not only getting more total sets in favor of "postural balance;" you're also getting more reps per set.
8. How Neurally Efficient a Client/Athlete Is – Some athletes – especially those who tend to be of a more slow-twitch muscle fiber predominance – always seem to need to get more sets in on their strength exercises. This is impacted in a lot of them by a previous history of endurance training – whether it’s high school soccer or a dedicated running career – that made them less efficient at tapping in to high threshold motor units. The same holds true for female athletes; they always seem to need a little extra volume on strength exercises; it’s almost as if they can’t ramp up to a max as quickly as men. I don't think you necessarily need to increase reps per set, but definitely ought to consider adding an additional set or two.
9. Whether You’re Trying to Achieve a Metabolic Training Benefit – Some programs use a concept called metabolic resistance training to improve cardiovascular conditioning and increase energy expenditure so that you can burn fat faster. Warp Speed Fat Loss and Final Phase Fat Loss are good examples. Generally, in programs like these, you’ll need more sets and higher reps to elicit this training effect.
10. Whether You’re Dealing with a Post-Injury Client – In these folks, you want to keep the sets and reps down and gradually ease them back in to things. So, while a “normal” client might be fluctuating up and down to impose and decrease training stress, respectively, an post-injury client would be gradually increasing the sets and reps to match his/her capacity for loading at a particular time.
That said, you have to be cognizant of giving them sufficient volume to maintain a training effect and keep them from going insane. So, using the example of someone with shoulder pain, you might have to cut back on pressing movements, but you can really bump up the volume on horizontal pulling sets and reps.
11. What Else You're Doing - The base mesocycle of the Smolov Squat Program goes like this:
Sure, this is a ton of work (and very specific work at that), but quite a few lifters have used it with excellent success. You know what, though? Try adding a lot of extra sets and reps for "other stuff" and you'll fail...miserably. You can't specialize on everything all at once. If sets and reps go up in one facet of your strength and conditioning program, they have to come down somewhere else.
12. Whether Soreness is of Concern - With our in-season athletes, we want to avoid soreness at all costs. The easiest way to do this is to avoid changing strength exercises, but this isn't really feasible, as most athletes will get sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again all season. So, we need to be careful about strategically substituting new strength exercises during in-season training. One way to make it go smoothly is to simply keep the sets and reps down in the first round through a new training program. Let's say that we were doing front squats in-season. We'd probably go something like this:
13. Whether or Not an Athlete is In-Season - If an athlete is in-season, less is more. I prefer to have our athletes leave the gym feeling refreshed after their in-season training sessions - so they might be completely finished with a lift after only 8-10 sets of strength exercises in session. You can get in more sets and reps during the off-season.
That wraps up the primary considerations that come to mind for determining the sets and reps in a strength training program. Of course, there are many more to consider. Feel free to share them in the comments section below.
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Q: I know this is a loaded question with hours upon hours of answers, but I'm trying to make some sense about the different kinds of ways/philosophies involved in writing strength and conditioning programs. I have read different articles and chapters in books that discuss program development, looked at programs at my current job, and can write a basic one for a new athlete. It's not the exercises; I'm familiar with plenty and love seeing something new. My problems come more with the sets and reps and when they change and why; I can’t seem to map out the actual progression of the program.
What philosophies, if one, do you follow and what basic rules do you find to be the most important when determining the sets and reps?
A: This is a loaded question! The best way to get better with programming is simply to write a ton of programs and see what works and what doesn't. However, with respect to your specific questions on sets and reps, what you choose to utilize is going to be dictated by:
1. The duration of a session - You won't be able to do 6 sets of 4 reps if you only have an client/athlete for an hour and want to accomplish other things. This is, in particular, a big issue in collegiate strength and conditioning programs because the NCAA allows only limited number of hours per week with athletes, and sport coaches and strength and conditioning coaches have to share this time. Additionally, it's a challenge for personal trainers in private training set-ups where clients may train in 30-, 45-, or 60-minute blocks.
I've written several times in the past about how I would never allow our business model to dictate our training model - and this sets and reps question is one reason why. At Cressey Performance, we do all semi-private training, which allows for sliding starts and finishes. It allows us to get in all the work we need to do with clients - regardless of the sets and reps in question. Likewise, as you'll see in the rest of this two-part series, you'll appreciate that it's why we don't have one program standardized for everyone on the dry erase board; every single CP client has a unique program because they all have unique needs.
2. Competing demands - The more variety (plyos, conditioning, medicine ball work, etc) that you want to add to a program, the less volume you'll be able to do on strength training. We have limited time and recovery capacity, so we can't just keep adding all the time.
For me, a good example is what happens over the course of the baseball off-season. Lifting volume is high when they get back, throwing is a no-go, movement training is 2x/week, and medicine ball is light. After the first month, medicine ball work goes up, lifting comes down a bit.
Then, at the start of January, medicine ball and lifting volume comes back down and throwing volume increases. We then get rid of medicine ball work almost altogether and go to 3x/week movement training as the season approaches, throwing intensifies, and guys do more hitting. So, it doesn't just depend on the exercises; it depends on the big picture.
3. Exercise selection - If you're doing more sets, you'll want to do it on "money" exercises like deadlifts and not curls, etc. Moreover, certain exercises lend themselves better to higher reps than others. For instance, we never front squat anyone over six reps, because technical breakdown often occurs with fatigue. You also wouldn’t want to do cleans for sets of 15!
Usually, it’s also good to just “call it” on a particular exercise and move on to the next if someone has already dropped the weight on subsequent sets and form continues to deteriorate. That energy is better spent on different exercises where technique can remain perfect even in the presence of fatigue.
4. Training age - As a general rule of thumb, the more experienced they are, the more sets and FEWER reps they'll need. At this point in my training career, I just won't get strong on sets of five. Here's another good follow-up read: Why I Don't Like the 5x5 Workout.
Conversely, beginners generally need more sets and reps to pick up on things. That doesn’t mean that you should just do three sets of 15 reps on everything with a novice, though. I find myself teaching squat and deadlift variations with four sets of five reps quite a bit; the load, however, is light enough that the lifter could usually do 10-12 reps. In other words, it’s just technique practice.
5. The Training Goal and Client/Athlete in Question – While taking heavy singles over 90% of one’s 1-rep max may be ideal for helping folks get strong, working at such a high percentage in some populations warps the risk: reward circumstances. Whether it’s older folks, those with injuries, or athletes who have a lot more to lose by getting hurt than they have to gain by adding five pounds to their squat, you have to take each individual situation into consideration. I always remind people that we lift weights to improve quality of life, not just so that we can talk about how heavy the weights we lifted were.
6. Whether You Want to Impose or Remove Fatigue – In a “loading” week, volume is going to be higher. If you’re deloading, though, that volume is going to be reduced. Aside from beginner strength training programs, volume should never be the same over several weeks in a row. I discuss several deloading strategies in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.
I’ll be back in a tomorrow with more factors that influence the sets and reps in a strength training program. In the meantime, if you're looking for a comprehensive strength and conditioning program to take all the guesswork out of things for you, check out The High Performance Handbook.
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If you've read much of my stuff, you've probably come to realize that I'm quite the shoulder geek. With that title comes a lot of questions at seminars and via email, and one of the more common ones is whether I think direct rotator cuff strengthening exercises are necessary for everyone. A lot of coaches say that they aren't essential, but I beg to differ for five reasons. Here's why:
1. Bad Posture - Nowadays, pretty much everyone has rounded shoulders - which means that the scapulae are winged out. When a shoulder blade isn't sitting right, the rotator cuff muscles that attach to that scapula are at a mechanical disadvantage because they are outside of their ideal length-tension relationship for creating force; it's analogous to trying to shoot a cannon from a canoe.
Incorporating some direct rotator cuff exercises not only strengthens muscles that you know will be operating at a mechanical disadvantage, but also educates a lifter about how the scapula should be positioned for ideal shoulder function.
2. Shoulder impingement is a physiological norm. - Research from Flatow et al. demonstrated that everyone – regardless of age, activity level, sport of choice, acromion type, gender, you name it – has direct impingement on their rotator cuff tendons. If you know a region is going to get beaten up regardless of what you do in your life, why wouldn't you opt to strengthen it proactively?
3. Rotator cuff tears are far more common than you think. - In consideration of the previous point, it should be no surprise that rotator cuff tears are actually far more common than one might realize - even if you look at asymptomatic subjects. Connor et al.discovered that on MRI, 40% of asymptomatic tennis/baseball players had evidence of partial or full-thickness cuff tears. The general population is no different; Sher et al. took MRIs of 96 asymptomatic subjects, finding rotator cuff tears in 34% of cases, and 54% of those older than 60. And these studies don't even include the ones who are actually in pain! It makes sense to strengthen these areas proactively - even if your shoulder doesn't hurt...yet.
4. Lots of people also have labral tears. - In the past, I've written quite a bit about Active vs. Passive Restraints. In the shoulder, the rotator cuff would be considered an active restraint, as it's something that can be strengthened to improve dynamic stability. The labrum, on the other hand, doesn't get stronger with exercise; it's a passive restraint that provides stability. So, if the labrum is torn or frayed (as it very commonly is in both lifters and overhead throwing athletes), then the active restraints - the rotator cuff tendons - need to pick up the slack.
5. The "Just do normal stuff and the rotator cuff will take care of itself" philosophy isn't working. - That's been tried for quite some time, and nowadays, as a society, we move like absolute crap and - as noted above - have a boatload of issues on MRI even if we're asymptomatic. With respect to the cuff, we've built the deltoids up to the point that they absolutely overwhelm the rotator cuff (particularly the supraspinatus), which is trying to prevent the humeral head from migrating upward into the acromion.
I'll be brief today, as I have a lot going on, and frankly, Nate Green can better explain what he has going on than I can.
Nate's a great dude and excellent writer, and he's doing a free giveaway at his website of his "Hero Handbook," which is basically a how-to guide that covers everything from personal, to physical, to professional development. So, whether you want to get strong, get lean, get self-employed, or get a girlfriend/boyfriend, it's a good read. I really enjoyed it.
No charge; it's just a sweet free gift Nate's made available as a thank you to his readers. It's so thorough that it deserves more than just a "Stuff You Should Read" column, so I'm giving it an entire blog. Check it out: The Hero Handbook.
Sappy title, huh? Well, the truth is that people around the world will spend loads of money on flowers that will die in the next week - so we'll carry that theme forward with today's list of recommended reading. Check these out:
White Sox, Brewers Lead Injury Prevention Parade - A big thanks goes out to Mike Stare, DPT for sending this article my way. It's always good to see quantifiable evidence of just how bad injuries in major league baseball have gotten. One really important thing to consider is that man games (and money) lost to injuries doesn't always paint a true picture of how effective a team's medical staff is. Teams with good medical staffs are more likely to sign better players in spite of pre-existing injuries (the 2009 Red Sox signed John Smoltz, Billy Wagner, and Brad Penny when they were all coming off surgery, for instance), so they'll understandably have higher rates in spite of the fact that they're doing a lot of things really well. Muddy waters, indeed.
Smith Machine Salaries - Speaking of wasteful spending, this post is about two years old and is very, very sad, but true. I'm sure it's even worse nowadays.
Baseball Showcases: A Great Way to Waste Money and Get Injured - This is timely on a number of fronts, as there are loads of showcases going on right now. Many of the participants are kids who haven't even picked up a baseball since last August, yet they're throwing full speed in front of radar guns. Sad.
Happy Valentine's Day, everyone; try not to think about all the money you spent on flowers!
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