Is a Biceps Tenodesis the Answer? - I've seen more and more biceps tenodesis coming our way as post-op clients, and my views closely parallel what Mike Reinold talks about in this article. It's not an ideal first choice, but can be an effective alternative after previous labral repair attempts are unsuccessful.
I'm going to let you in on a little shocker: I really don't train as hard as I used to train.
Blasphemy, I know. Every strength and conditioning coach is supposed to constantly be pursuing a mythical level of fitness at all times. Because it's my job to make people healthier and more athletic, I, in turn, am expected to be able to bench press 800, vertical jump 40 inches, complete a marathon in under three hours, and be able to fart lightning at a moment's notice. While I can make a decent run at the last challenge after a batch of my mom's famous calico beans recipe, I guess I'm just content with not making optimal progress.
Now, don't get me wrong; I haven't let myself turn into a blob, and I'm still training 5-6 days a week. The goals, however, have shifted since my last powerlifting meet in December of 2007. Nowadays, I get a lot more excited about watching one of our minor league guys get a big league call-up than I do about a ten-pound squat personal record after a 16-week training cycle. I worry more about being a better husband, business partner, boss, and coach than I do about whether I'm 10 or 11% body fat, and whether it'll make my weight class. And, I certainly expect these priorities to change even more when my wife and I decide to have kids.
In short, I think I'm a lot like a solid chunk of the exercising population. Training hard excites me, but it doesn't define me anymore.
Interestingly, though, I really haven't wasted away like one might expect. In fact, I've gotten stronger while keeping my weight about the same - or slightly lower, right where I want to be. Just for the heck of it, not too long ago, I staged my own little mock raw powerlifting meet and totaled 1435 at a body weight of 180.6 (1396 is considered an "Elite" total, as a frame of reference). I used the giant cambered bar for squatting, simply because my shoulder gets cranky when I back squat. Sue me.
A few notes on the mock/impromptu meet:
1. Thanks to the CP staff and interns for helping with spots, handoffs, and videos - and putting up with my musical selection (which I think, for the record, was an outstanding representative sample of modern training music).
2. I weighed in at 180.6 first thing that morning (about three hours before I lifted). I didn't have to cut weight.
3. I had a scoop of Athletic Greens, three cups of coffee with vanilla protein powder, and five eggs with spinach, peppers, and onions for breakfast, then drank a bottle of water at the facility before I started. So, I really didn't carb up for this "meet" (or really prepare for it in any capacity, for that matter). I did have an accidental open mouth kiss with my dog, Tank, while I was foam rolling when he licked my face while I wasn't looking. I'm not sure if making out with a puggle constitutes ergogenic assistance?
4. Speaking of Tank, he makes a great cameo during my opening squat. He's eating air, in case you're wondering.
5. The great thing about squats in powerlifting meets is that they can look like good mornings to parallel and still pass. Score!
6. I haven't free squatted with a wider, powerlifting style stance in about three years. So, you can say that I was a bit rusty, as evidenced that my stance width was a bit erratic from attempt to attempt (and especially narrow on the third squat).
7. The first squat and last deadlift were exactly 90 minutes apart. Talk about efficiency!
All that said, I really don't think I could have even come close to this total back in 2007, and according to some research that says strength peaks at age 29, I should be on the downslope, especially if I'm not training as hard. So, what gives?
I suspect it has a little something to do with the fact that I have a pretty good idea of how to sustain a strength training effect. Much of it has to do with my experiences with in-season athletes; some of them waste away if they don't pay attention to detail and stay consistent with their training. Meanwhile, others come back so strong that you'd think they never left. Here are some of the factors that have surely helped me (and them) over the years.
1. Very little alcohol consumption.
My first date with my wife was April 22, 2007. She's seen me drink twice in the entire time we've known one another. I'm absolutely not going to stand on a soapbox and say that I don't think other people should drink; they can do what they want, but it just really isn't for me.
That said, if you're concerned with helping your strength training gains along (or simply sustaining them), simply have a look at the research on alcohol's negative effect on effect on endocrine status, sleep quality, neural drive, tissue quality, and recovery from exercise. People who drink a lot feel and move like crap. Sorry, I don't make the rules.
2. Early to bed, early to rise.
I find the 6AM world far more entertaining, refreshing, and productive than the 1AM world. I feel better, train better, recovery better, and am an all-around happier person when I get to bed early and awake early without an alarm. For me, 10:30PM to 6AM is pretty much the norm.
Now, for those who insist that sleeping 1:30AM to 9AM counts exactly the same, check out some of the research on night shift workers and their health; it's not good. As a rule of thumb, one hour before midnight is worth two after midnight - and it certainly helps to try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Post-Thanksgiving meal naps are spectacular, too.
3. A foundation of strength and mobility.
In talking with our athletes about the relationship between off- and in-season training, I use the analogy of a bank account. During the off-season, you make deposits (work hard and acquire a training effect). When you go in-season, you make withdrawals (play your sport). If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, you're in trouble - and that's why in-season training is so important.
Now, for the general fitness folks, this simply means that if you put a lot of "money in the bank," you'll be prepared for the day when life gets crazy and you miss a few days in the gym. You have more wiggle room to go on a spending spree.
Mobility works the same way. Once you've built it, it's hard to lose unless you really go out of your way to avoid moving for an extended period of time.
4. Regular manual therapy.
I'm very fortunate to have two outstanding manual therapists in my office on a weekly basis. Chris Howard is a massage therapist and does a tremendous job with more diffuse approaches, recovery modalities, and some focal work with the Fibroblaster tool. Nate Tiplady utilizes Graston Technique, Active Release, fascial manipulation, and chiropractic adjustments. Along with regular foam rolling, these guys have made a big difference in me staying healthy, which leads me to...
5. No missed training sessions.
I'm fortunate to have been very healthy over the years. Like everyone, I've had minor niggles here and there, but haven't pushed through them and let them get out of hand. It's better to skip benching one day and do higher rep floor presses than it is to push through some pain and wind up with a torn pec. If long-term consistency is your goal, you have to be willing to assess risk: reward in your training on a regular basis.
Moreover, training is a part of my life, just like brushing my teeth, feeding the dog, or checking my email. It's not an option to "squeeze it out" because my calendar gets too full. I make time instead of finding time. Of course, it's a lot easier when your office is part of a 15,000+ square-foot gym!
6. Lots of vegetables and quality protein.
Call me crazy, but I'd take grass-fed meatloaf and spinach and onions cooked in coconut oil over a chocolate cake any day of the week. I'm not making that up; I just don't have much of a sweet tooth.
In Precision Nutrition, Dr. John Berardi talks about the 90% rule: as long as you're good with your nutrition 90% of the time, you can get away with slip-ups or intentional cheat meals for the other 10%. If you eat five meals a day, that's 31-32 "clean" meals and 3-4 "whoops" meals each week. When I think about it in that context, I'm probably more like 95-98% adherent, and the other 2-5% is me grabbing a protein bar on the fly while I'm coaching at CP. I could certainly do a lot worse.
I'm sure Dr. Berardi would agree that if you get closer to 100%, you likely have a little wiggle room with your training program. For example, you might be able to cut back slightly on the amount of conditioning needed to meet your goals.
7. Great training partners.
I've been extremely fortunate to lift in a number of great environments, from my time in the University of Connecticut varsity weight room, to my days at Southside Gym, to Cressey Performance 1.0, 2.0, and now 3.0. You've always got spotters nearby, and there are always guys to give you feedback on weight selection and technique. We crack jokes, play loud music, and challenge and encourage each other. I'm convinced that this factor more than any other can absolutely revolutionize the way many folks train; they need human interaction to get out of their comfort zone and realize what they're capable of accomplishing in the right environment.
8. Planned deloads.
I rarely take a week of training off altogether, but at least once a month, I'll reduce training stress substantially for 5-7 days to recharge. The secret to avoiding burnout is to understand the difference between overload, overreaching, and overtraining. The former two are important parts of the training equation, but if you are always seeking them 24/7/365, you can wind up with the latter. I talk about this in great detail in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.
In my opinion, one of the main reasons many people struggle to achieve their fitness goals is that they are only accountable to themselves - and that's a slippery slope if you aren't blessed with great willpower and perseverance. It's one reason why we encourage our clients to tell their friends and family about their fitness goals; they'll constantly be reminded of them in conversation throughout the day.
Being in the fitness industry is a blessing because your peers and your clients/athletes are your accountability. Fat personal trainers don't have full schedules. Weak people don't become strength coaches of NFL teams. And, in my shoes, it's magnified even more because I'm in front of thousands of people every single day through the videos on this website, DVDs that we've produced, and seminars at which I present. Even if "tapping out" on my training was something that interested me, I have too much at stake. Think about where you can find that level of accountability in your life to help you reach your goals.
10. Cool implements to keep things fun.
I live really close to our facility, so I often joke that I have the best 15,000 square-foot home gym you'll ever see. We've got a bunch of specialty bars, bumper plates, slideboards, sleds, tires, sledgehammers, turf, kettlebells, dumbbells, bands, chains, farmer's walk handles, TRX units, medicine balls, a glute-ham, chest-supported row, functional trainers, benches, and a host of other implements that I'm surely forgetting. There is absolutely no excuse for me to ever get bored with training, as I have an endless source of variety at my fingertips.
Now, I know some of you are thinking, "But Eric, I don't have anything cool at my commercial gym!" My response to that has five parts:
a. If they didn't have what you needed, why did you give them your money instead of taking your business elsewhere?
b. Have you considered outfitting home gym?
c. They probably have a lot more than you might think, but you just need to be more creative and prepare a bit more.
d. Remember that there are many different ways to add variety to programming beyond just changing exercise selection. You can tinker with sets, reps, rest intervals, training frequency, tempo, range-of-motion, and a host of other factors.
e. Have you used a strength and conditioning program written by a qualified coach? He or she may see the same equipment through a different lens than you do.
These are surely just ten of countless factors that one can cite when it comes to sustaining performance over the long haul, and I'm sure that they'll change as I get older. With that said, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section: what factors have contributed to you making (or sustaining) progress with your strength and conditioning programs?
Today's guest blog comes from current CP intern Jay Kolster, who has an extensive background in hitting instruction.
Great hitters are not born; they simply do things to put themselves in great positions to be successful. Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult tasks to perform in sports, and with that in mind, experts have long-debated the biomechanics of hitting in baseball. Timing is agreed upon as being a crucial piece in being a successful hitter, but while it is crucial, it is not imperative!
Great hitters will be late on the fastball and out in front of sliders; they are human, too. With correct timing hitters are able to get themselves in the strongest position at the point of contact. The pitcher throwing off-speed is trying to pull the hitter out of position! A hitter is in the strongest position when the back elbow is tucked at a 90 degree angle into the back hip at contact.
Ideally, every hitter wants to be in Pujols’ position. However, even the great hitters have trouble getting to this position consistently. Further illustrating the difficulties of being on time, let’s consider the physics of baseball. A study performed by Yale professor, Dr. Robert Adair, detailed the amount of time from release point to the plate. A 90 mph pitch will arrive at the plate in 400 milliseconds. During that time a hitter must recognize the pitch type and location and get to a strong contact position.
According to Professor Adair’s illustration, it takes a hitter 150 milliseconds to complete a swing at 80 mph. This leaves the hitter roughly 250 milliseconds to locate the ball, process, decide, and start the swing. Professor Adair’s study helps piece together the physics and how difficult being on time is for a hitter. However, there are other variables that were not included in the study that can disrupt timing for the hitter. Let’s review some of these variables:
• Pitch velocity
• Pitch type (2-seam, 4-seam, change-up, slider, curveball, cutter, splitter, etc)
• Arm speed variability
• Arm angle and release point
• Pitcher’s method of delivery (windup, stretch, slide step, left hand pitcher hang and read, etc)
• Variability of the hitter’s bat velocity
• Situational hitting (hit and run, hitting behind runner at second, sac fly)
Professor Adair’s study does not include human variability. At any time, the pitcher can change his delivery and pitch velocity, which affects the timing aspect of the hitter. Professor Adair’s statistics are of one pitch! Each pitch thrown by a pitcher in a game is unique! It almost seems humanly impossible to be on time consistently. I can guarantee that the best hitters in the game aren’t always on time, yet they still manage to eclipse the .300 average mark. Hitting a baseball now becomes an equation of probability. After all, pitch recognition is a guess! It has been said that hitters lose track of the baseball within 5 feet of the plate….. so now what? Hitting a baseball now becomes an educated guess! You are starting your swing where you THINK the ball will be.
“Great hitters get the barrel on plane earlier and keep the barrel on plane longer than average hitters.”
Keeping the barrel in the bat plane is just as important as having great timing. I have already established that timing isn’t the be-all, end-all for becoming a great hitter. It’s the positions hitters put themselves in when their timing is off that allows for eclipsing the .300 average mark. Touching on a quick side note, I believe that contact percentage is a mark of a great hitter, not just overall batting average. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio set the hit streak record at 56 games, a record that may never be broken. Do you think that a contact percentage of 97% had anything to do with setting the record? I think so, as Joe only struck out 13 times!
Using Video Analysis to Determine Bat Plane
Cressey Performance pitching instructor, Matt Blake, utilizes the Right View Pro system when evaluating mechanics. For the purpose of discussing bat plane I have taken images from RVP to help illustrate the importance of the bat plane and how it relates to timing. The first image we will look at is MLB’s Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera.
*Note: Red = pitch line/bat plane, Blue = distance knee traveled from start to contact, Green = Barrel from start to contact.
In this image, Cabrera is not in a great point of contact position, but he did great things during his swing to allow himself to stay on the plane. His contact position is out front and he is slightly early, which is why his back elbow is extended. Result? Line drive single to left field. Cabrera was able to maintain a good position to hit because of his ability to keep the barrel in the bat plane past his strongest point of contact. Cabrera’s success is not based off of having perfect timing, but instead putting himself in a position to be successful. So, how does he get the barrel to the plane early and stay through, even past the optimal point of contact? I think this is a question hitting coaches have been trying to figure out for decades. For the sake of keeping this short, let’s examine a few key components.
Early to the Bat Plane
Getting the barrel to the beginning of the bat plane is driven by the back elbow. Upon toe touch and heel plant, Cabrera’s first move is with the hips, which allows for the elbow to get clearance to move directly to the back hip. In being direct with the elbow, Cabrera avoids having an elongated swing.
Optimal Contact Position
A contact position with the back elbow flexed and tucked tightly to the body will allow for optimal power.
Consider the sport of boxing. Great knockout punches are not performed with full extension; rather, the punches land with flexion in the elbow because it is a stronger point of contact. This idea is evident in baseball, too!
Keeping the Barrel in the Bat Plane
Consider Cabrera’s lower body as the key ingredient in keeping the barrel in the bat plane. The distance his back knee travels allows him to keep his barrel in the bat plane, and in this case, past his ideal point of contact. If Cabrera “squishes the bug”, he either rolls over or his barrel is out of the bat plane by the time the ball reaches him. There are other factors that help Cabrera stay in plane, such as elbow extension. However, if we want optimal power, we do not want to have elbow extension to occur before contact. Cabrera’s ability to keep the barrel in the bat plane past the point of contact is what makes him a cut above most major leaguers and the reason he won a Triple Crown. On the flip side, if Cabrera were to be late with his timing, his barrel in this particular swing is in plane starting at the back of the plate; giving him an opportunity to be successful.
Timing is Only a Piece of the Puzzle
Timing is an important component of hitting, but raw hitting mechanics should take precedence over addressing uncontrollable variables against which players compete. In low levels of baseball, players can get away with not being in the bat plane like Cabrera is. Why? A majority of lower level pitchers have one or two pitches they can control, and a majority of strikes are thrown over the heart of the plate. The debate over linear, extension-based, and rotational hitting approaches can be saved for future discussions. Regardless of the hitting philosophy, keeping the barrel in the bat plane before and after optimal contact position increases the probability of making contact with the ball.
Jay Kolster, CSCS is serving as an intern at Cressey Performance. Prior to this internship, Jay was a teacher and head coach of baseball and softball in Lexington, MO. For more information or to reach Jay, please visit http://jaykolster.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @RollerKolster.
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Here's this week's collection of strategies you can apply to your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs; it's a collaborative effort between Greg Robins and me.
1. Clean up your overhead pressing and pulling with these exercises and cues.
Overhead pressing isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good exercise choice. In fact, vertical pressing and pulling is an important part to any balanced approach. For those of us who have lived most of our lives below the shoulders, it may play an integral part to an unbalanced approach, aiming to bring overall balance back.
Overhead pressing and pulling may become problematic when people allow themselves to move into a heavily extended posture as they perform the exercise. In some cases, the factors contributing to this may warrant the elimination of overhead work until certain mobility and stability deficits are improved upon.
For many it’s simply a question of cueing, and re-learning what “right” feels like. Try some of these exercises.
Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion - engage anterior core, activate glutes, make a double chin, and don't allow the lower back to arch (keep it flat against the wall). Exhale fully in the top position. Those in a lot of scapular depression and/or downward rotation will want to to get shrugged up a bit at the top, whereas those with a big upper trap substitution pattern will want to leave this cue out and focus on a bit more posterior tilting of the scapula during upward rotation.
Half-Kneeling 1-arm Landmine Press - The half-kneeling posture makes it harder to substitute lumbar extension for overhead activity, and the pressing angle serves as a nice progression to eventually getting overhead. The cues are largely the same as with the back-to-wall shoulder flexion, including the cue for those in a lot of scapular depression and/or downward rotation to get shrugged up a bit at the top.
Half-Kneeling 1-arm Lat Pulldown - You'll generally do better with traction (pulls ball away from the socket) than approximation (forces ball back in to socket) exercises early on with overhead activity. The cues are, again, much the same. Notice, however, that Greg is attentive to not extending the humerus past neutral, which would create an anterior scapular tilt and cause the head of the humerus to glide forward.
2. Use the eccentric portion of a lift as an indicator.
We are stronger eccentrically than we are concentrically. In other words, we can lower higher weights in control than we can actually lift. For some, the difference between what they can load eccentrically, as compared to concentrically, is minimal. For others, the gap is quite large. Many refer to this difference as the “Strength Deficit.” Essentially the strength deficit is indicative of the difference between our maximal strength potential (absolute strength) and our actualized maximal strength.
With that in mind, keep a watchful eye on athletes (and yourself) during the lowering phase. Their ability (or inability) to show control in this portion is a valuable way to assess the appropriateness of the weight and exercise. I realize other factors could contribute to form breakdown on the way down or up, but in general, if you see athletes unable to lower a weight under control, it’s probably not going to look any better going up. Furthermore, if the athlete shows great control going down, but struggles on the way up, you know there is a recruitment breakdown and they are unable to realize their potential strength at this point. When you see that, address it as soon as possible! Lower the weight to where the concentric portion looks good and gradually progress the load.
Lastly, apply this concept to jumps as well. Consider teaching athletes (especially youth athletes) how to absorb and store force before sending them right into releasing it. Reversing the usual order of events, and teaching landing mechanics before jumping mechanics can effectively do this.
3. Vary soft tissue techniques for better recovery.
Many people don’t realize that the body will adapt to restorative strategies in a similar fashion to how it adapts to training. Vary how you approach your soft tissue work, by using different sized objects, changing directions between passes and modifying the sequencing.
Additionally, seek out trained professionals who can administer a number of different approaches.
4. Try meat muffins.
Meatloaf (the food, not the musician) makes everything better. If I could eat it for every meal, I'd be a happy man.
As with eating muffins, the absolute tastiest part is the top - but in a traditional meatloaf cooking container, the amount of "top shelf loaf" is minimized. The solution to this, of course, is to cook your meatloaf in a muffin baking sheet.
Also, if you're looking for a healthy meatloaf recipe, check out this great turkey meatloaf one from Dave Ruel (makes six servings):
• 2 lbs ground turkey
• 1 tsp olive oil
• 1 diced onion
• 1 tsp garlic (optional)
• 1⁄3 cup dried tomatoes
• 1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
• 1 whole egg
• 1⁄2 cup parsley
• 1⁄4 cup low fat parmesan
• 1⁄4 cup skim milk
• Salt and pepper
• 1 tsp oregano
1. Cook the onion with olive oil separately
2. Mix everything together in a big bowl, add the cooked onions
3. Put the mix in a big baking pan
4. Bake at 375-400°F for about 30 minutes.
This recipe is one of 200 awesome ones in Dave's product, Anabolic Cooking; I'd highly recommend you check it out, as my wife and I cook from it all the time.
5. Be realistic when you write programs if you know you'll have time constraints.
Most of us have very busy lives, and if we aren't careful, they can quickly cut into our gym time. One of the biggest mistakes we see when folks write their own strength and conditioning programs is that they choose advanced exercises that may take a lot of time to set-up. Take, for instance, a reverse band bench press. In addition to requiring a lot of set-up time, it requires that you find a spotter and load/unload more plates than you'd normally use. The same would go for a board press variation; you need a spotter, someone to hold the boards, and more weight than you'd use on a regular bench press.
Sometimes, if you're strapped for time you're better off just picking an exercise on which you can fly solo, like a dumbbell bench press or push press. You're increasing your likelihood of adherence and, in turn, success if you know you can get in more quality work in less time.
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I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of Chad Waterbury's newest project, High Frequency Training, earlier this week, so I thought I'd do a quick write-up on the product.
One of the things I've always admired about Chad is his extensive educational background; all of his programs are based on theories that are heavily rooted in both his research and anecdotal observations. It takes a lot of time to learn scientific principles, apply them in the real world and evaluate results, then "re-program" in consideration of what did and didn't work. Chad is one of the few people in the industry with the unique background and experience to have accomplished this, and High Frequency Training is an outstanding example of his efforts. There are a lot of books out there that were published by schmucks with absolutely no frame of reference; this isn't one of them.
I also think Chad does a tremendous job of relating complex topics in the conversational and easy-to-understand format. Truthfully, I often glaze over the "rationale" portions of the books I encounter - either because I already understand them, or because it's so poorly written that I'd rather just get to the meat and potatoes (the program). Conversely, Chad's discussion of how he came to understand the how various loading protocols impact the overall volume equation was outstanding. In short, if you want big muscles, you have to be exposed to a high training volume - but that may come from a variety of set/rep/load combinations.
One can't just haphazardly add volume, though, as overuse injuries can easily kick in if you just keep adding and adding. Additionally, you can't simply add volume in all aspects of your program; you have to pick and choose the appropriate times and places so that you're making progress instead of just treading water. Chad's program takes the guesswork out of adding volume. And, as an added benefit, you'll likely get a bit leaner from the increased exercise volume and frequency.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to this program, though, is that it's making me revisit how I am planning my own training. Admittedly, I've trended toward much lower volume strength training programs as I've gotten older and the rest of the stress in my life has increased. After reading through this e-book, I'm searching for ways to add some additional volume via increased frequency as a means of complementing my current approach, which is typified almost exclusively by work in the 1-10 rep range. With Chad talking about incorporating some much higher rep sets, I'll be dabbling a bit more in this regard.
This program won't be a good fit for you if your primary goal is strength development, but if you're looking for a way to gain muscle, try some new exercises, and deviate from a "normal" training approach, it'd be a great fit. And, you can't beat the price, as it's on sale for $50 off as an introductory offer this week only. For more information, check out High Frequency Training.
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I’ve come to realize that over the past 16 years in strength and conditioning, I’ve gotten a little spoiled. Many of my readers are some of the more educated weight-training consumers on the ‘Net. I’ve been around Division 1 athletes who have four years of strength and conditioning continuity in their lives. I’ve lifted alongside world-class powerlifters. And, now, I have a host of athletes at Cressey Sports Performance who are completely “indoctrinated” with my training philosophies, as it’s the only thing they’ve ever known.
So, I guess you could say that I’ve become a bit of a lifting snob in the sense that I assume I’m always surrounded by people who know how to interpret my programs, leaving me to just program, coach technique, help select weights, and turn up the volume on the stereo.
I came to the realization that I was just in a fantasyland, though, when my second book, Maximum Strength, was published in June of 2008.
This book, which had a bit more “mass market” flavor than the overwhelming majority of my work, was being sold online and in bookstores from Idaho to Thailand – and many of the people buying it were Average Joes who didn’t know how to interpret the programs I’d written. One question that I received in about 50 different emails sticks out in my mind:
“I've recently purchased your book and have a quick question related to the training schedules. I see the "A1 and A2" / "B1 and B2" designations, but am not sure I fully understand if I'm supposed to alternate the exercises that day (for example, do a set of one-arm DB push press and then do a set of close-grip chin-up and cycle through to complete 3 sets each) or am I supposed to pick one exercise for week 1 and then choose the other exercise in week 2?”
The answer, as the overwhelming majority of my readers knows, is that A1 and A2 indicates a superset. You go back and forth between the two (in all weeks), and once you’ve completed A1 and A2, you move on to B1 and B2, then C1 and C2, and so on. So, you do all the exercises in all the weeks. The idea is pretty simple:
Supersetting makes your training far more efficient.
So, rather than doing a set of bench presses and then standing around for two minutes before the next set, you superset the bench presses with a variation of rows or a flexibility exercise, for instance. You increase training density, and can use the pairings to bring up weak areas.
All that said, we know superset training works; it might be one of the few things that the overwhelming majority of strength coaches and personal trainers agree on, in fact! However, I often see poor choices in terms of exercise pairings in the lay population. For instance, you’ll often see people supersetting walking dumbbell lunges and chin-ups, both of which are pretty grip-intensive. As such, I thought it’d be a good time to throw out some of my favorite supersets.
1. The "Regular Ol’ Push-Pull" Superset
This is probably where we’ve come to recognize the value of supersets more than anywhere else. Do a set of presses, and instead of just waiting 2-3 minutes to go back to another set of presses, we go to a pull in the middle. Let’s look at what this works out to over the course of five sets, assuming a two-minute rest between sets and a duration of thirty seconds between sets:
Option A – Just “Press ‘n Wait”
30s set Total Time: 10 minutes, 30 seconds
Option B – Pairing a press and a pull with a “moderate” rest between push and pull
30s set (press)
30s set (pull)
30s set (press)
30s set (pull)
30s set (press)
30s set (pull)
30s set (press)
30s set (pull)
30s set (press)
30s set (pull) Total Time: 14 minutes
Effectively, you’ve doubled your training density while only investing 33% more time. And, if you cut the rest intervals down to 45s between the end of a press set and start of the pull set, you actually keep the rest between sets of presses the same as you did in Option 1 and be down to 11 minutes, 45 seconds. You don’t have to be an economist – or even a graduate of the 6th grade – to know that this is a wise training investment. “More work in less time” holds merit in lifting heavy stuff just like it does in the business world.
The logical next question is, of course, what kind of “pushes” and “pulls?” It’s a pretty easy division to make, via four categories:
Pair the vertical pushes with the vertical pulls, and horizontal pushes with the horizontal pulls. And, if you’re feeling frisky, you can pair horizontal pushes with vertical pulls, or horizontal pulls with vertical pushes. Your imagination is the only limit.
A word of advice: you’ll never get completely perfect antagonist relationships. For example, the long head of the triceps is going to be at least somewhat active in every one of these variations because it is both a shoulder extensor (pull-ups and rows) and an elbow extensor (all presses). The long head of the biceps flexes both the shoulder (all presses) and elbow (pull-ups and rows) on top of contributing to shoulder joint stability in all tasks. Your rotator cuff is going crazy in all these movements.
In short, consider gross movement schemes and try to avoid blatantly obvious overlap in muscle recruitment, but don’t get bogged down in minutia when selecting your pairings.
2. The “True Mark of Your Common Sense” Superset
Without further ado, here it is:
A1) Deadlift variation
A2) Heavy panting!
I throw this in here simply because I want people to realize that not everything in your training needs to be supersetted with another exercise. Sometimes standing around – or at the very most, doing an unrelated stretch or easy mobilization – is exactly what you want. I once heard about a trainer who supersetted back squats with stiff-leg deadlifts. This less-than-enlightened individual overlooked the fact that:
a) both exercises heavily tax the posterior chain
b) both movements absolutely destroy you – which just might compromise technique
c) intervertebral discs – and not just muscles and the nervous system – are relaxing between sets, too.
There are, however, a few ways to make the downtime between deadlift sets more productive…
3. The "Stiff Ankle" Superset
We do all our deadlifting variations without shoes on at Cressey Performance, as this allows athletes to keep the weight on the heels to better activate the posterior chain. It also brings the lifter closer to the ground, so hip mobility deficits can’t interfere with getting down to the bar without a rounded back.
Being shoeless also lends itself well to working on some ankle mobility, as being in sneakers typically gives us a false sense of good range of motion at this joint, so a low-key filler between deadlifts is ankle mobility work:
A1) Deadlift variation
A2) Ankle mobilization of your choice
Knee-break ankle mobilizations are one option. Here, the goal is to keep the heel down while going into dorsiflexion (knee over toe); don’t allow the knees to deviate inward or the toes to turn out, though.
4. The "Front Squat/Vertical Pull" Superset
It’s a bit easier to superset squats with other movements than deadlifts – but only in specific cases, such as…
A1) Front Squat Variation
A2) Vertical Pull Variation
As I mentioned in my article Lats: Not Just for Pulldowns, the lats are anatomically less effective as spinal stabilizers during the front squat, which accounts for some of the discrepancy between one’s front squat and back squat. If we’re not using them as much in stabilization for the front squat, we might as well use them for actually generating movement.
For variation, you can squat to various depths, from pins or a box, or against bands/chains. With the vertical pull, you have several grip choices (neutral/supinated/pronated/alternate, and plus different grip widths).
As you get stronger and stronger, though, pairing anything with a squat can get to be a pain in the butt. With that in mind, one substitute we’ve used is pairing reverse lunges with a front squat grip with any of the vertical pulling variations – and just extended the rest time a bit.
You can also use any of a number of other lunge variations that use a bar (dumbbells won’t work because of the grip challenge). We use the giant cambered bar a lot, for instance:
5. The Unilateral Superset
I get quite a few questions about how to plug single-leg exercises into supersets.
A1) Single-leg Exercise – side #1
A2) Single-leg Exercise – side #2
I structure programs this way because I want people to rest between sides on these movements. Grips falter, scapular stabilizers get fatigued, and there is always a bit of overlap from side to side on these movements. As such, I like to shoot for 30-45 seconds between sides – during which time people can regroup and focus on the quality of the next set instead of rushing right into it.
That said, we generally pair our lower body work with some kind of core stability or mobility drill. So, I guess it would technically be treated like a triset (or quad-set, if one of these drills is performed on each side). Examples might be:
A1) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #1
A2) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #2
A3) Stability Ball Rollouts
A1) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #1
A2) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #2
A3) Half-Kneeling Cable Chop – side #1
A4) Half-Kneeling Cable Chop – side #2
Of course, to keep things less cumbersome, I’d simply write these up as:
As I noted above, one of the problems I see with a ton of lower body superset is that they combine complex exercises like squats and deadlifts with other fatiguing exercises – and as a result, the squat and/or deadlift form because absolutely atrocious and potentially injurious. From my perspective, effective lower body pairings are safe, but sufficiently compound and functional enough to activate enough muscle mass and have some functional carryover to the real world.
I know most of you won’t have a sled or a glute-ham raise at your disposal, but I’m throwing this out there anyway, as it makes for a great finisher at the end of a lower body day:
A1) Reverse Sled Drags
A2) Glute-Ham Raises
The reverse sled drags are about as quad dominant as you can go, and the glute-ham raises crush the posterior chain. Don’t have a sled or glute-ham raise set-up, though? All you’ll need are a bench, a lat pulldown or seated calf raise, some balls, and a good stomach. You can instead pair dumbbell Bulgarian split squats with natural glute-ham raises. For the latter, just set up in reverse and lock your ankles under the pads, controlling yourself down slowly and (most likely) giving yourself a push off with your arms to get back to the top.
7. The “Miserable Upper Body Experience” Superset
Our entire staff trains together at Cressey Performance, and this pairing is widely recognized as the most brutal upper body superset we’ve ever done.
A1) Bench Press Clusters: 4 x (4x2) – 10s
A2) Farmer’s Walk: 4x80yds – but go as far as you can on the last set
For those of you who aren’t familiar with clusters, for 4 x (4x2) – 10s, this would be four total clusters. Each cluster consists of 4 sets of 2 reps with 10 seconds rest between sets. The idea is that by putting these “mini-rests” between sets of 2, you can use a heavier weight for your sets than if you’d just done eight straight reps. So, training is more dense (anyone notice a theme here?). All told, you might wind up doing 32 reps with as much as 85% of your 1-rep max.
After the cluster, of course, we went to A2, nearly vomited, and then came back to do another cluster. The first time four of us did this, there was a 25% attrition rate after the second round, and the remaining three of us made it through all four – but couldn’t lift our arms for about three days without yelping like chihuahuas giving birth.
To the naked eye (and stomach), this would just seem like torture, but whether we recognized it or not, we were onto something. Bench presses are a push and require some lower trap activation for a good “tucked” upper body positioning. Farmer’s walk are more of a pull and rely heavily on the upper traps. Lower traps depress the scapula, and upper traps elevate it.
8. The “Productive Rest during Plyos” Superset
We do a lot of medicine ball drills, jumping, and change-of-direction work with our athletes to develop power. With this type of training, it’s important to allow for adequate rest between sets, even if athletes don’t actually feel tired. To that end, we’ll often pair these drills up with some kind of mobility or activation drill, as it allows us to:
a) slow an athlete down
b) work on an inefficiency
c) shorten the learning loop (meaning that if we work on the inefficiency from “b,” we’ll best integrate those changes with compound exercises like medicine ball throws or jump training)
Here’s an example we might use for medicine ball training for an athlete with limited shoulder flexion and an excessive anterior pelvic tilt/lorsdosis:
A1) Step-Behind Rotational Medicine Ball Shotput: 3x3/side, 6lb
A2) Bench T-Spine Mobilizations: 3x8
B1) Recoiled Rollover Stomps to Floor: 3x4/side, 12lb
B2) Wall Slides with Upward Rotation and Lift-off: 3x8
Of course, you can plug in just about anything for the A2 and B2 “fillers,” depending on what inefficiencies the athlete needs to address.
9. The “Where the Heck do I put Turkish Get-ups” Superset
The Turkish get-up is one of the most big-bang exercises you can do; it offers great core and shoulder stability challenges while testing hip mobility in a fundamental movement pattern: transitioning from the supine to upright position. It does, however, often lead to confusion in program design, as folks sometimes struggle with determining where to put this exercise in strength training programs. On one hand, it’s a technically intensive exercise that you want to put first in a training day. On the other hand, it’s probably more of a “core” exercise than a true upper extremity loading drill, so one might be tempted to put it later in a training session. What to do?
Personally, I agree with the former approach. In fact, one of my favorite places to put them is as part of a A1/A2 pairing that also includes vertical pulling. The get-up is more of an approximation exercise at the shoulder, meaning that it pushes the humeral head (ball) back into the glenoid fossa (socket). Conversely, pull-up variations are traction exercises, meaning the ball is pulled away from the socket. So, a sample pairing might be:
Let’s face it: traditional strength training is very sagittal plane dominant. However, when it comes to participating in sports or just encountering random things in everyday life, we have to be comfortable working in other planes of motion. And, specific to our baseball players, we need to make sure that our athletes are prepared for a sport that largely takes place in the frontal and transverse planes. And, that’s why I like this superset.
A1) Kettlebell Goblet Slideboard Lateral Lunges
A2) Wide-Stance Anti-Rotation Chop with Rope
With A1, you’re building some strength in the frontal plane while improving adductor length. If you don’t have a slideboard, you can throw a towel, furniture slider, or paper plate on a tile or wood floor. Or you can just do dumbbell goblet lateral lunges.
With the second drill, obviously, you’re working on rotary stability and getting some hip mobility at the same time. When you pair two drills like this up, you’ll find that the core stability work helps to make the transient improvements in hip mobility “stick” a little better.
Supersetting My Closing Thoughts
A1) Your imagination really is your primary limit with respect to coming up with supersets you can use. Just stick to the basics and don’t get cute.
A2) Remember that good pairings are both safe and appropriate in light of your goals (e.g., not pairing two grip intensive exercises).
B1) Don’t forget that there is absolutely a time and place for rest, and it is usually better to “casually alternate” between sets, as opposed to raising back and forth.
B2) Just because I am showing you a way to make your training more dense and efficient does not mean that you should go ahead and start doing 50 sets per training session just so that you can continue to spend three hours in the gym. Keep it short and sweet.
C1) Good luck.
C2) Thanks for reading.
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Round Back Deadlifts - This was an EPIC blog post from Mike Robertson. Of particular interest to me was his commentary on getting your breath TWICE in an ideal deadlifting set-up. This is something I've always done - once standing, and once in the bottom position - and I suspect it's had something to do with my deadlifting success over the years. Coincidentally, I pulled heavier earlier today and you can pick up on the two points at which I set my breath before the first rep: the 10-11 second mark and the 12-13 second mark.
As an aside, you can tell I was strongly considering taking this for a third rep. I had it in me, but decided not to be stupid today. I guess I'm getting wiser in my old age.