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The 5 Biggest Mistakes Women Make With Their Training Programs

Today's guest post comes from Molly Galbraith, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong and creator of the The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training. -EC

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Over the last several years I’ve interacted with thousands of women – at the gym I co-founded, through the internet, and through my online coaching programs – and you know what I’ve found? Most women who are seeking training advice just want to look better and feel better, and not have to live in the gym.

So why is this so hard for them to accomplish? Why can’t they get the results they want when they are willing to work so hard?

Simple. Most of them are making one or more of these five mistakes.

Mistake #1: Choosing the wrong training modality.

If left to their own devices, women often gravitate towards cardio-heavy activities like running or kickboxing, and shy away from pure strength training. While there is nothing wrong with doing cardio, (especially if you enjoy it), there are numerous benefits to strength training for women.

Not only will strength training help you improve your posture and increase your bone density, but you’ll add muscle mass, which is metabolically expensive (read: burns more calories), making it easier for you to lose body fat. Not to mention, getting stronger is incredible for boosting your self-confidence.

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Mistake #2: Not following a well-designed program.

As I mentioned above, strength training is critical for women. But you know what?

It’s not enough. A proper training program has balance.

I say it all the time: you can’t just run, you can’t just stretch, you can’t just lift – you have to have a combination of several things for a well-rounded training program. So what does a solid training program consist of?

  • Breathing – I like to incorporate breathing with a hard exhale at the beginning of the workout to help get the “core firing” and teach clients to blow out all of their air and get their ribs down. I also like to include silent, nasal breathing at the end of the workout to help clients calm down and switch to a more parasympathetic rest-and-digest state to help jump-start recovery.
  • Soft Tissue Work – I usually use a foam roller for soft tissue work, but you can use a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, stick, PVC pipe, tiger tail, Theracane, or whatever you’d like. Spending a few minutes before each training session doing soft tissue work can increase blood flow to the area, send a signal to the brain to relax that muscle a bit, and give you a few minutes to mentally prepare yourself to get into “training mode.
  • Dynamic Warm-Up – This is generally a series of 6-12 exercises designed to prepare you for your workout. For most people, it includes some basic hip and thoracic mobility drills, some glute activation drills, and some core stability exercises. These exercise can go a long way in improving your overall movement quality.
  • Strength Training – The training routine will vary based on the training age and ability level of the trainee, but it will include variations of the following movement patterns: squat, hinge, push, and pull, along with resisting rotation, extension, and lateral flexion with your core. It will also include single-leg and split-stance work.
  • Energy Systems Training (aka “cardio”) – The amount and type of energy systems training that should be included in a program is very dependent on goals, and amount of time available to train. I like using a mix of both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and moderate intensity cardio.

While many fitness professional demonize moderate intensity cardio, I actually like including a couple of sessions a week to build and maintain a solid aerobic base which will help clients recover quicker between exercises within a workout, and between workouts so they can approach each session fresh and ready to train. That being said, if a client has limited time to train, I usually limit these sessions to an hour a week or less.

If your program is missing any one of these critical components, you’re going to be missing out on maximum results as well.

Mistake #3: Not lifting heavy enough.

Back in 2002 or 2003 – before I knew anything about strength training – I’d go to the gym and spend 60 minutes on the treadmill, and then walk over to the free weights and grab 5-10 lb. dumbbells and go to town.

I would do a little of this (lateral raises) and then a little of that (biceps curls) and then I’d try to slyly copy what someone was doing that looked really cool: Arnold Presses! Yes! I needed Arnold Presses in my life!

And, it’s safe to say that I got just about nowhere. My body didn’t change, and I didn’t notice any increases in my strength levels whatsoever. But…but…but…I was lifting weights! And I was consistent! Why didn’t I see results?

Because I wasn’t lifting heavy enough.

Keep in mind that “heavy enough” is all relative. If you are a beginner to strength training, using just your own body weight will be plenty “heavy” in the beginning, and as you get stronger you can work on adding external load to your training program.

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You simply need to make sure that you’re always challenging yourself so that your body has to consistently adapt to keep up with the increasing demands you are placing on it. This is how you make progress in strength, performance, and body composition.

Mistake #4: Not resting long enough in between exercises.

Almost every time a new client receives their first training program from me, I get the same question:

Client: “What do I do during my rest periods?”

Me: “You rest.”

While there is undoubtedly a time and a place to do consecutive strength training movements back-to-back with minimal rest in between sets, during your pure strength program is generally not it – at least not with the bigger movements, anyway.

Taking time to rest appropriately between exercises allows your muscles to recover almost fully, so that you can perform quality reps of each exercise with the heaviest load your body can handle for the given set and rep recommendation.

For bigger compound movements that are placed at the beginning of your workout, you want more rest (generally 2 – 4 minutes). In contrast, you can typically get away with 30–90 seconds between sets of accessory movements, especially if they are paired with other exercises.

Mistake #5. Not doing a thorough warm-up.

This is one of the biggest mistakes that I see not just women, but everyone, make in the gym. Most people walk in, go right to the machine or free weights that they plan on using, pick up their working weight, and get after it. If they’re really “in-the-know,” they might walk on the treadmill for five minutes to warm-up. Yikes.

I already gave you a little information of what a good dynamic warm-up consists of above, but let me give you some of the benefits. Not only does it increase blood flow to muscles, increase your core temperature and get your body prepared for your workout – but it’s fantastic for improving body awareness and increase your mind-muscle connection. This can help re-teach your body how to perform certain movement patterns using the correct muscle groups and allow for more effective and safe workouts.

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There you have it. The five biggest mistakes women make when it comes to their training programs – and how they can be fixed.

You know what’s even better than being told how to fix them, though? A program available that addresses them all for you!

Introducing The Modern Woman’s Guide To Strength Training – a comprehensive guide that helps women from beginner all the way to high-level intermediate reach their goals of getting leaner, stronger, and more confident, while spending minimal time in the gym. We’ve worked with thousands of women and we know exactly what it takes to get the best results with the least amount of time and effort, and we are so excited to share it with you. Click here to learn more.

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About the Author

Molly Galbraith is co-founder of Girls Gone Strong, a movement dedicated to helping women improve their physical strength, mental strength, and strength of character through strength training. She is also co-founder J&M Strength and Conditioning, a private studio gym in Lexington, Kentucky. No stranger to the gym herself, Molly has competed in figure and dabbled in powerlifting; her best lifts include a 275-lb. squat, a 165-lb. bench press, and a 341-lb. deadlift.

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Emotional Detachment for Training Success

About eight years ago, I had a defining moment in my career during a training session. Twice a week, I would train two guys who had been wildly successful in their careers – to the point that they’d both been able to retire in their early 40s. It was an absolute blast to work with them, as they were both huge sports fans and would constantly bust one another’s chops during training sessions. One day, one of them finished up his set of Prowler pushes, and remained “slumped” over the Prowler for 20 seconds or so, working to catch his breath.

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Once he regained it, he looked up at me and said, “You know, Eric, I’m really just doing this so that I can drink beer and eat pizza during Patriots games and not feel guilty.”

It was a big eye opener for me to realize that my fitness goals for him were a lot loftier than his goals for himself. Sure, we trained in a safe and effective manner and he got great results, but was I really doing all I could do to make exercise actually seem fun for him?

I think we take for granted how much we, as fitness professionals, love to train. We convince ourselves that clients don’t mind eating out of Tupperware every two hours. And, we assume that heavy deadlifts get these clients so excited that they have erections lasting more than four hours. Sorry, but most people just don’t look forward to exercise – or enjoy it during the sessions – as much as us fitness lunatics do.

Here is where we learn one of the most important lessons in terms of improving client adherence, retention, and long-term success:

   You need to be emotionally attached to your clients,
        but emotionally detached from a training style.

With respect to the former point, you should go out of your way to make clients know that you genuinely care about them and want to help them get to where they need to be. They really should be like extended members of your family. Heck, there have been times in my life when I’ve spent more hours with certain clients in a given week than I have with my own wife! Don’t neglect the importance of being a friend before you become a coach or trainer.

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On the other hand, though, you must emotionally detach yourself from a training system. We know that in our own training, we sometimes have to do things we don't enjoy in order to make progress; we have to emotionally detach ourselves from the exercises we enjoy. This also applies with how we manage clients, but in the opposite direction.

In other words, just because you love Powerlifting doesn’t mean a client will always want to lift heavy. Just because you enjoy broccoli doesn’t mean that a client won’t abhor the stench of it. Just because you think it’d be cool to drop $10,000 on a souped-up leg press doesn’t mean that it’ll over any benefit whatsoever for your clients. And, just because you feel like you look good in a tight-fitting sleeveless shirt doesn’t mean that potential clients won’t joke with each other than you look like a raging, self-consumed tool. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

Candidly, I think this is one reason why Crossfit has gained popularity so fast. Effectively, it allows people to “ride several horses with one saddle” with their training. If there is one part of training (e.g., heavy lifting) that they don’t like, there is something else (e.g., metabolic conditioning, gymnastics movements, Olympic lifts) that might get them fired up. Add in great camaraderie – which makes clients feel the emotional attachment to people and not just a system – and you’ve got a recipe for a successful training business.

At the end of the day, what's the takehome message?  Be a good person, and be open-minded to new ways to evaluate, program, and coach. If you're looking for a tremendous resource to help you in this regard, I'd highly recommend Elite Training Systems, a collaborative product from Mike Robertson, Wil Fleming, Tyler English, Dave Schmitz, Steve Long, and Jared Woolever. This product delves into how to write effective strength and conditioning programs, as well has how to run the business side of things. I like it so much that I contributed several bonus videos of my own.  It's on sale at a great introductory price; check it out HERE.

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Exercise of the Week: Half-Kneeling 90/90 External Rotation Hold

Today’s guest post comes from my friend and colleague, physical therapist Eric Schoenberg. Eric is an integral part of our Elite Baseball Mentorships.

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I have yet to meet a high level baseball player that hasn’t done some form of rotator cuff strengthening exercise. The interesting part is that a high percentage of these athletes don’t actually know where their rotator cuff is and where they should be feeling these exercises. The most common response is the athlete will point to the front of their shoulder. This is also the same spot (biceps tendon, labrum) where all of their pain is when they throw!

In other words, the athlete is doing a “rotator cuff” exercise to help decrease or reduce the risk of shoulder pain, but in turn, ends up actually causing more stress and overuse to their already irritated anterior shoulder.

The ability to properly recruit the rotator cuff works hand in hand with being able to relax/shut down the posterior deltoid, latissimus, and lumbar extensors from overcompensating as an athlete “lays back” into external rotation.
We commonly see athletes/coaches performing the right exercises, but executing them improperly due to faulty recruitment, poor timing, or compensation. In these cases, the athlete looks the part and even appears stable and strong, but are not actually receiving the intended benefit of the exercise. In fact, more times than not, they are potentially making themselves worse.

Enter the ½ kneeling 90/90 External Rotation (ER) Hold. It is a great exercise to teach the baseball player (pitcher or position player) what they should feel and maybe more importantly, what they shouldn’t feel when attempting to build stability and proper alignment in their shoulder.

This exercise is one of many concepts that we discuss in our Elite Baseball Mentorships. With the continued rise in baseball injuries, we have made it our mission to help create an environment for collaborative learning among the leading strength coaches, health care professionals, and pitching instructors/coaches in the world.

Our next Upper Extremity course will be June 15-17, and the early-bird registration deadline is May 15; to learn more, click here

Sign-up Today for our FREE Baseball Newsletter and Receive Instant Access to a 47-minute Presentation from Eric Cressey on Individualizing the Management of Overhead Athletes!

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Why We’re Losing Athleticism

Last year, as the day was wrapping up a training session at Cressey Sports Performance, one of the last remaining clients in the gym took a detour on his way to the exit to leave for the night.  This client, a 39-year-old engineer who'd been training with us for about eight months, strolled over to the power rack.

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Once there, he proceeded to do a quick and effortless muscle up into a pseudo gymnastics routine, all atop the power rack. My jaw pretty much hit the floor. 

Stunned, I asked him, "Where did that come from?"

His response: "It was in our school curriculum. I've been able to do it since I was little."

You see, this client was born in Soviet Union (the region now known as Ukraine), and learning to move like this was an integral lesson in each day of schooling. In spite of the fact that he hadn't done much organized training in recent years - and the fact that he probably sits at a desk too much during the day, this client had maintained some significant movement capabilities.  As I thought back on his training history with us, too, I recalled that he not only crushed his evaluation, but also picked up new movements we introduced incredibly easily.  If you build a foundation, it's there for good.

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Now, compare that to the current model for "athletic development" (if you can even call it that) in the United States.  Fewer and fewer kids have physical education classes in school, and we have earlier and earlier sports specialization taking place. 

Very few American kids are exposed to the rich proprioceptive environments that not only makes them good athletes, but also sets them up for a lifetime of good movement.

In this New York Times article - which is actually several years old - some disturbing statistics were presented:

In its biennial survey of high school students across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in June that nearly half said they had no physical education classes in an average week. In New York City, that number was 20.5 percent, compared with 14.4 percent a decade earlier, according to the C.D.C.

That echoed findings by New York City’s comptroller, in October, of inadequate physical education at each of the elementary schools that auditors visited. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found just 20 percent of elementary schools in San Francisco’s system were meeting the state’s requirements: 20 minutes per day.

Most of the focus in this regard has been on implications with respect to childhood obesity, but the truth is that it has likely has just as profound an impact on long-term athletic development, as well as performance in school, as exercise and quality movement have tremendous benefits for brain function.

In the U.S., we are reaping exactly what we sow. We're fatter than ever, have far more injuries (both in competitive athletes and the general population), and aren't the international sports powerhouse we once were.  Our academic performance has also slipped considerably as compared to other countries around the world, and while there are loads of socioeconomic factors that influence this, I think it's safe to say that healthier, active kids are smarter kids. Anecdotally, the typical athletes I've seen on initial evaluations are now considerably less athletic than what I saw in 2006, when I first moved to Boston.  These kids also have more extensive injury histories, and they're on more medications.

Clearly, what we're doing isn't working. It's time to get kids moving, encourage fun and free play, and discourage early specialization. Please spread the word, and do your part.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 4/24/14

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

5 Reasons Why There Are So Many MLB Tommy John Injuries - Mike Reinold posted this blog earlier in the week, and it's spot on. And, if you think this is good, you'll love what Mike and I cover in Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body, which will be released in just a few weeks.

An Interview with Eric Cressey - Robbie Bourke interviewed me for his Podcast recently, and it was just posted. I love Podcasts because you can just throw them on in the background while you're driving, preparing food, or doing something else.

CP Client Spotlight: Chuck Abdalian - Chuck's one of our favorite Cressey Performers, so it was about time that he got featured in a client spotlight!

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7 Entertaining Quotes from Mike Boyle

Back in 2005, I presented at my first "big" event - about 120 coaches and trainers.  I spoke right after Mike Boyle, and right before lunch; it was the very epitome of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.  You see, Mike was a super polished speaker with many years under his belt, and lunch was pulled pork barbeque, which provided a fantastic scent that easily distracted a hungry audience.

To say that my presentation could have gone better would be an understatement.  I believe I used the word "umm" and "okay" a combined 1,500 times in the hour. I had about 75 slides for a 60 minute talk.  After the presentation, Mike gave me some great advice; paraphrased, it was: "Relax, have fun, and just be yourself; it's more entertaining if you're talking with them than if you're talking at them. And use more videos."

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Needless to say, it was helpful advice that was rooted in a lot of experience, as Mike is one of the more entertaining presenters in the fitness industry. One of the things he's noted for on this front is some good one-liners, so as I went through his new DVD set, Functional Strength Coach 5, I wrote down these gems, which I think you'll appreciate:

1. "It [Training] all comes down to anatomy and physics."

I loved this one because I'm constantly hammering home the importance of having an anatomy foundation. If you don't understand structure, you can't understand function or dysfunction.

2. "We want to be simple, not just safe."

Mike went on to discuss how "safe" alone doesn't get the job done, as a lot of people would argue that machines are "safe."  "Simple" implies safety - but with an appreciable training effect.

3. "There are a lot of poor people out there who just want to train athletes."

I cracked up when he said this, as just about every young fitness professional only wants to work with athletes.  As my business partner, Pete Dupuis, wrote in this great guest blog almost two months ago, the adult clients you encounter not only help pay the bills, but also have some of the greatest potential to teach you about training and life.  Very few people "make it" in the private sector by training athletes only.

4. "The intervention matters more than the monitoring. You’ve got to train."

This was a great point.  So many people are wildly focused on monitoring athletes now that the actual training seems to be getting back-burnered.  I'm all for monitoring, but if you are willing, able, or qualified to get quality work in, monitoring doesn't really matter.

5. "In culture, there is an asshole-to-good guy ratio."

Mike went on to discuss that if more than 20% of the people in a team setting are hard to deal with, it's going to be difficult to be achieve your training goals with everybody.

6. "You never see anyone who can run or jump who doesn’t have an ass – in any sporting activity."

You need to train ass to haul ass.  Enough said.

7. "The two most profitable areas of hospitals in the United States are bariatic surgery and spinal surgery."

Well, this certainly is a sad commentary on our society to wrap up this article, huh?

Looking to learn more about Mike's thought processes - and be entertained with more one-liners like this? Check out the newly released Functional Strength Coach 5, which is available at $50 off through the end of the week.

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Destroying Baseball Dogma: Installment 1

Today, I'm going to kick off a new series about common myths from the baseball world.  I'll tackle one of these each month.  In this first installment, we're going to have some fun with this quote that I hear all too often:

       "Guys are working too hard in the off-season,
    and all this strength training is leading to injuries."

I've heard this muttered hundreds of times, but this is this quote by Lou Piniella in the NY Times in 2013 stands out for me:

“The season is so long now and so strenuous, you need to rest your body for two-three months after it’s over,” said Sweet Lou. “But today, these players all have their personal trainers and they work out all winter and put on more muscle. When I played, we didn’t have a weight room or a strength coach and everybody took the team bus to the ballpark. We never heard of an oblique. Now guys are going out on their own, five or six hours before the game, going right to the batting cages and taking hundreds of swings a day. It’s overdone. The body can’t take it. If you ask me, that’s where all these oblique injuries are coming from.

I'm going to respond to this in bullet point fashion, as I think there are a lot of gems in here:

1. You'll be surprised to know that I partially agree with Piniella on a few different fronts.  First, the season is absurdly long.  Guys may play 200 games in 230 days - with a lot of travel mixed in - and that makes it incredibly hard to maintain strength, tissue quality, and mobility. Interestingly, though, a lot more injuries occur at the beginning of a season than at the end. It makes you wonder if some guys are showing up unprepared and then benefiting from the adherence the team environment forces.

Second, setting the lazy off-season guys aside, there are a lot of players who are doing absolutely idiotic stuff with their training. As recently as a few years ago, a few teams were still recommending P90X to MLB players for off-season conditioning.  I'm not making that up.  How can we say strength training is the problem if most organizations still haven't even made it a priority?

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Third, guys getting bigger and stronger is leading to injuries...but doing so in an indirect.  You see, average body weight in Major League Baseball increased by 12% from 1990 to 2010; this time period parallels the rise in popularity of strength training. With the increase has come a huge increase in average fastball velocity, too - especially over the past 6-7 years.  And, the aforementioned body weight study also showed that offensive leaders were more likely to be heavier than their "normal" MLB counterparts. Obviously, the steroid era played into this, but the message doesn't change: being stronger increases your likelihood of success - even if it means you are playing with fire with respect to injuries.  Swinging quicker, throwing harder, and running faster will increase your likelihood of injury - regardless of whether you strength trained to get to that point in the first place.

The alternative, unfortunately, is to throw 88mph or have subpar bat speed - neither of which will help you compete in the modern game.  At the highest level, sports will always be a balancing act between high performance and injury risk.  To this point, I'd also subjectively note that most of the guys who have wound up with injuries this spring were not massive dudes; I'd argue that they really weren't that strong or heavy

2. With respect to the comment about taking 2-3 months off at the end of the season, one has to really do the math on this to realize how silly it would be. The big league season ends in early October for most teams, whereas playoff teams will play all the way through the month of October. If a player takes off all of October, November, and December, he wouldn't do anything until January 1.  If he make the playoffs, he wouldn't do anything until (potentially) February 1.  If players report in mid-February, that would give them 2-6 weeks to prepare. 

If you think that's enough, good luck dealing with the media scrutiny that comes when a load of the players are on the disabled list, and all the pitchers' fastball velocities are down.

I'd also ask: is it healthy for anyone to take 2-3 months off from exercise altogether?  Let's just make them obese in hopes of cutting back on our oblique strains!

3. I think it's important to recognize that not all lifting is created equal.  The problems usually stem from incorrect technique, poor exercise selection, excessive loading, or a number of other common mistakes. If one athlete burns himself on a cup of coffee because he wasn't careful with how he prepared or drank it, do you vilify coffee for an entire team? Of course not!  So, why vilify strength training because there are some idiots out there applying it incorrectly?

Taking it a step further, lifting sometimes "displaces" other important components of a successful training program - because lifting heavy stuff is "sexier" to many athletes. You simply can't lift at the exclusion of other key physical preparation strategies; it has to complement them.

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4. To build on the last point, in many cases, lifting may become a problem because it's "ingraining" poor movement quality.  As Gray Cook has often said, "you can't put fitness on top of dysfunction."

The key word here is "fitness."  Many things - not just lifting - could bring these issues to threshold.  Throwing, swinging, and sprinting could all bring movement flaws to a painful threshold, too.  However, unlike strength training, these approaches can't be used to correct the fundamental problem - even if they're implemented perfectly.

[bctt tweet="General training can correct movement dysfunction, whereas specific training usually exacerbates it."]

5. Most obviously, if lifting was really the only problem, wouldn't we see a lot more guys getting hurt while lifting? Truth be told, the injury rates in strength training participation are remarkably low - even with crappy programming.

Bringing all these points together, the truth is that injuries have always been, are, and will continue to be multi-factorial.  Short of traumatic instances like being hit by a pitch, or fouling a ball off your foot, everything is something that has built for days, weeks, months, or years.  There are far too many different variables involved that have constantly changed over the past few decades to truly determine what causes injuries, so it's short-sighted to make strength training the scapegoat - especially when we know the value it has in enhancing performance, reducing injury risk, and facilitating injury rehabilitation.

Destroying Baseball Dogma is one reason we introduced our Cressey Sports Performance Elite Baseball Mentorships; we want to teach baseball coaches, strength and conditioning professionals, and rehabilitation specialists to learn more about how to best prepare players to handle the unique demands involved in baseball. Our next Upper Extremity course will be December 18-20, 2016; to learn more, click here.

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Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 57

 It's been a while since I chimed in with some random tips to help out your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs, so here are five suggestions to kick off your healthy weekend on the right foot.

1. Use a simple chain for added weight to chin-ups or dips.

A lot of people think that you can't load these exercises without a specialized chin-up/dip belt, but believe it or not, we don't actually have one of these at Cressey Performance - nor have we in the seven years we've been in business.

Why not?  Well, it's just as easy to just take a regular chain and use your butt to hold it in place. Check it out:

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2. Don't use "but it's paleo" as an excuse to overeat.

My wife and I cook out of paleo cookbooks all the time, and the food tastes great - and obviously includes unprocessed ingredients.  However, one thing that I often see with folks who go this route is overeating. They assume that since they're replacing regular flour with almond flour, that they can eat a lot more.  This is just one example, but I think it's important for people to realize is that just because it's minimally processed doesn't mean that it's automatically lower in calories. If you look at some of the paleo pizza recipes, as examples, they can be incredibly calorically dense.  "Clean"ingredients are great, but don't overdo it.

3. Try this exercise to train around shoulder pain.

One of the biggest complaints of folks with shoulder pain is that they struggle to find drills to train the pecs that don't make the shoulder discomfort worse.  Here's a basic drill that allows for a solid training effect with minimal equipment - and rarely any discomfort: the Pec Horizontal Adductor Iso Hold.

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With this exercise, you aren't raising the arms, so impingement isn't exacerbated. You also aren't slipping into a bad posture that would exacerbate that impingement, either.  In short, you're applying force in joint positions that are pretty close to "neutral."  Isometric exercises don't get much love, but this is a good one; you're basically trying to crush whatever is between your hands (a power rack or doorway are the best bets, in my experience). I'll usually prescribe one 15-20-second iso hold per set.

It won't take your bench press to 500 pounds, but it should help you avoid wasting away while you're on the mend.

4. Avoid bad upper extremity positioning with sled drags.

I'm a big fan of sled work, but when it comes to forward dragging, the upper extremity can be put in a compromising position.  You want to avoid a posture where the shoulder blades are anteriorly tilted, and the head of the humerus is allowed to glide forward; this positioning is really rough on the AC joint, biceps tendon, anterior capsule, and even many of the nerves and vascular structures of the upper extremity:

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Instead, make sure to get the shoulder blades posteriorly tilted (tipped back) slightly, and don't allow the arms to drag behind the body.

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5. Remember that the barbell isn’t always best.

The barbell is an unbelievable training tool - but it's far from the only effective training implement at your fingertips. I was reminded of this when reading through Bret Contreras' new resource, 2x4: Maximum_Strength.  In the text, Bret observes that you actually get better glute activation on kettlebell deadlifts and goblet squats than you do on barbell variations - in spite of the fact that the load utilized is substantially lighter.  Bret remarked that it likely has to do with the fact that the external loading can be kept closer to the center of mass (and, in these cases, the hips).

 

As a friendly reminder, this awesome new program is available at the introductory price through the end of the day today (Friday). I highly recommend that you check it out: 2x4: Maximum_Strength.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 4/17/14

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

The Power of Habit - I actually started reading this yesterday while I was waiting around at jury duty, and it was so entertaining that I covered just under 100 pages in a very short amount of time.  I'm excited to finish it, and you'll definitely enjoy it if you're someone who likes to look at the "brain stuff" that impacts our habits and decisions.  It's super affordable on Amazon, too; you can get a Kindle edition for $7.99, and an actual book for $10.12.

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The Speed Ladder Fallacy - Dean Somerset expands on a topic I've covered in the past, and does a great job with it.

P90X and Muscle Confusion: The Truth - Charles Staley hits on this controversial topic from all angles.

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Squats vs. Hip Thrusts: Which is Better?

Today's guest post comes from Bret Contreras, author of the recently released 2x4: Maximum_Strength.

Many strength coaches, personal trainers, and strength athletes claim that the squat is the best exercise for promoting gluteal muscle development. Recently, the hip thrust has stumbled onto the scene, and its reputation for building impressive backsides has gained traction.

There is currently no published research examining the gluteal hypertrophic effects of squatting or hip thrusting, yet anecdotally we’re aware of their glute-building potential. While nobody can say for sure right now which is best for gluteal growth between the squat and the hip thrust, I hope that by the end of this article, you’ll be convinced that both exercises should be employed for optimal glute development.

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Hypertrophy Science

According to hypertrophy researcher, Brad Schoenfeld, there are three primary mechanisms to muscle growth. The most important mechanism appears to be mechanical tension. A close second in terms of importance appears to be metabolic stress. Finally, we have muscle damage, which appears to be of slightly lesser importance. As it currently stands, we don’t know for certain how to optimize these three stimuli in our programming in order to maximize muscle growth. The way I see it, until more is known, we should do our best to hit every base in our training. Therefore, we want to perform exercises that create the most tension in the glutes, produce the most metabolic stress in the glutes, and create reasonable amounts of damage in the glutes. How do squats and hip thrusts fare in regards to the three mechanisms of muscle growth?

Let’s take a deep look at what happens biomechanically and physiologically in the glutes when we squat and hip thrust.

Gluteal Biomechanics During the Squat

Let’s say you have the bar loaded up to around 80% of your one-rep maximum (1RM). You set up and take the bar off out of the rack. The upper glutes help stabilize your pelvis as you walk the bar backward. Once you get set, the glutes calm down. Now you start descending. Glute activation during the eccentric phase is very low – around 20-30% of maximum voluntary contraction (MVC). At the bottom position, the point where everyone thinks is so amazing for glute activation, is where the glutes actually reach their lowest activation during the rep – around 10-20% of MVC. I realize that this hasn’t been mentioned in any journal. It’s something I’ve noticed over the past year with the last fifteen or so individuals I’ve tested in EMG. These are highly experienced squatters, including several Arizona state record holders in the squat.

Now, before you call me crazy, please not that a similar phenomenon is seen in the erector spinae as they’re stretched under load; this has been deemed the lumbar flexion relaxation phenomenon. As the glutes are stretched out, their activation diminishes. This could be related to the passive-elastic force that they produce in this position, or some other reason, possibly related to the changing sarcomere length or the changing muscle moment arm length.

At this point, you explode out of the hole. This is where the glutes do their thang – during concentric actions. Glute activation will reach around 80-120% of MVC as you rise upward, peaking around halfway up, and gradually diminishing before you reach the top. You pause for a brief moment, and then resume the next repetition.

Mean activation is fairly low – around 50-70% of MVC – since the top portion of the squat is rather unloaded for the glutes, and since there is usually a considerable pause in between reps as the lifter takes a deep breath, resets, and gets tight, and since the glutes don’t fire very hard eccentrically during the lift. Because of this, you won’t feel a pump or a burn in the glutes when you squat, since blood in the gluteal region has plenty of time to escape during the set. However, you will develop glute soreness in the days following the workout, due to the fact that the glute fibers are stretched eccentrically to long muscle lengths while being activated, albeit at low levels. But this is only true for the lower gluteal fibers; the upper fibers of the glutes will generally fire at around 30-40% of MVC during a heavy squat.


 

Gluteal Biomechanics During the Hip Thrust

Now let’s discuss the hip thrust. Just as in the case of the squat, let’s say you’re using around 80% of 1RM. The bar is placed onto the hips. The body is wedged into place. Before the lift begins, the glutes are silent. The lifter then thrusts the hips upward until full hip extension is reached. During this concentric shortening, peak activation will typically reach around 120-200% of MVC, and this level of activation will be elicited in both the upper and lower gluteal fibers. The peak is reached at full hip extension, as the glutes reach their shortest muscle length. This could be due to the changing sarcomere length or the changing muscle moment arm length.

On the way down, the eccentric EMG activity mirrors the concentric activity, gradually diminishing until the bottom of the range of motion is reached. The movement is quickly reversed. Due to the rapid movements and consistent tension on the glutes, mean activation during the hip thrust is extremely high – around 100% of MVC. Due to the high levels of activation and constant pumping of repetitions, levels of metabolic stress are very high as well. Incredible “glute pumps” and burning will typically set in from multiple sets of hip thrusts. However, since the glutes are not fully stretched at the bottom of the hip thrust, muscle damage will not be very severe.


 

Theoretical Imposed Adaptations

As you can see, the squat and the hip thrust are actually quite different in biomechanics. Let’s examine some commonalities and differences.

Both exercises make for excellent glute exercises due to the bent knee position, which shortens the hamstrings and places more burden on the glutes for hip extension (when the hamstrings are shortened, they cannot produce maximum force due to active insufficiency).

Both exercises require dual actions out of the glutes. In a squat, the glutes must fire to create hip extension torque, but they must also fire in order to create hip external rotation torque to prevent knee valgus (caving in of the knees). In a hip thrust, the glutes fire to create hip extension torque, but they must also fire in order to create posterior pelvic tilt torque to prevent anterior tilting of the pelvis and lumbar hyperextension.

Squats can be limited by back strength, which is not the case for hip thrusts. Squats require more balance and coordination, whereas the hip thrust is very stable and simple to perform. The hip thrust is generally limited by glute strength, meaning that the set reaches failure when the glutes can no longer raise the hips. Squats move the hips into deeper hip flexion.

Let’s see which exercise outperforms the other in various biomechanical and physiological categories in the chart below.

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As you can see in the hypothetical chart, the squat outperforms the hip thrust in 2 of the 7 categories, whereas the hip thrust outperforms the squat in 5 of the 7 categories.

The Verdict

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how combining the squat and the hip thrust would elicit greater adaptations than performing either exercise alone. In terms of imposed neural adaptations, the hip thrust requires more neural drive to the glutes, but there may be neural benefits to including squats due to the myotatic “stretch” reflex. In terms of mechanical adaptations, the two movements target different ranges of motion and therefore different gluteal muscle lengths, which likely lead to different mechanical adaptations as far as fascicle length and pennation angle are concerned. For full range gluteal strength, a more complete neurological stimulis, and full development of the upper and lower gluteal fibers, you’ll want to perform both the squat and the hip thrust. Either exercise alone won’t suffice. The good news is that we don’t have to choose between squats or hip thrusts for maximal glute development; we should perform both movements.

Squats elicit moderate levels of activation while promoting tolerable levels of gluteal muscle damage. Hip thrusts maximize tension and metabolic stress on the glutes and do a better job of hitting the upper fibers. The two exercises combine to produce one heck of a glute hypertrophy stimulus.

If you're looking for a great resource to take your strength training program to the next level, I'd highly recommend Bret's 2x4: Maximum_Strength. It's on sale this week at a great introductory price.

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