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5 Spine-Sparing Strength and Conditioning Program Strategies

In his book, Back Mechanic, Dr. Stuart McGill frequently uses the term "spine hygiene" to describe how individuals position themselves during various everyday and athletic tasks to manage their back pain. Most of the strategies speak to the positional side of things, but I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at some strength and conditioning program strategies you can employ to keep the spine healthy over the long haul. 

1. Don’t pick up heavy dumbbells.

The stronger you get, the bigger a pain it is to pick up and position dumbbells, whether it's for rows, presses, or single-leg work. Things are even harder when the heaviest dumbbells are positioned on the lowest tiers of the dumbbell rack. We've been brainwashed for years that dumbbells are more spine-friendly than barbells, but this simply isn't always true. Being able to unrack a weight from chest height and not having to swing it into position can be invaluable once you're developed an appreciable level of strength. I'm not saying not to use heavy dumbbells, but rather to be very careful with this approach if you're someone who has dealt with low back pain.

2. Cycle in heavy bilateral loading.

Make no mistake about it: a barbell will allow you to move the most weight in your program on the overwhelming majority of exercises. Unfortunately, this also means that the compressive and shear forces on your spine will generally be highest with barbell exercises. That doesn't mean that you need to eliminate them, but rather that you need to cycle them out periodically to give you a little break. At the peak of my powerlifting career, I'd always stay away from squats, deadlifts, and good mornings for the first 10-14 days after a meet. It was all lower intensity work, anyway, so plenty of single-leg work and glute-ham raises was a perfect fit.


3. If you are going to do both in the same session, squat before you deadlift.

There are many theories as to why deadlifting is so much more exhausting both systemically and locally, but regardless of the one to which you subscribe, you'll surely recognize that heavy pulling before squatting is a recipe for a cranky back. After all, there is a reason you always squat first and deadlift last in every powerlifting. A few of my favorite approaches in terms of sequencing are:

a. Squat heavy, deadlift for reps
b. Squat heavy, deadlift for speed
c. Squat for speed, deadlift heavy
d. Squat for speed, deadlift for reps

Occasionally, you can dabble in some speed deadlifts before you squat, but once you've reached a solid level of strength, I think you'll find that it still just doesn't work out all that well.

4. Don't train in a fatigued state if you don't move well.

Experienced lifters with great core control can usually get away with training through fatigue as long as the training loads aren't outrageous. Interestingly, though, if you look at the typical recreational runner with back pain, it usually starts after they've already been running for a while. Fatigue changes the game, as they start to substitute lumbar extension (low back movement) for hip extension.

This doesn't just underscore the importance of gradual return to running progressions; rather, it reminds us that those with a history of low back pain need to spend a lot of time training with perfect technique in non-fatigued states. As McGill has discussed, they're better off doing multiple sets of shorter prone and side bridges than they are trying to hold one set for 60 seconds.


Over time, these good positions because second nature and accepted as the norm "subconscious awareness." Every second the individual spends in a bad position, though - either because of poor positional awareness or an inability to overcome fatigue - is a step in the wrong direction.

5. Go to split-stance.

Just as single-leg lower body work can be much more spine friendly than bilateral work, simply going to a split-stance on other exercises can be helpful for minimizing unwanted spine movement, too. As an example, we always teach our wall slide variations with a split-stance, and you'll also see this approach integrated with rowing and landmine press technique, too.

Cressey wall slide


These are obviously only a few of seemingly countless ways to keep your lower back healthy in a strength and conditioning program, so I'd love to hear some of your suggestions in the comments section below!

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 10/17/16

I hope everyone had a great weekend. I made my second Massachusetts-to-Florida drive over the weekend. I was going crazy not being able to watch playoff baseball, but I did manage to crush some audiobooks and podcasts along the way.

EC on the Jim Laird Show - I really enjoyed being interviewed in Jim's podcast, and feel like we covered a lot of great stuff.

ADHD Nation - I listened to this audiobook on my ride from MA to FL over the weekend, and it was eye-opening, to say that least. One statistic that really blew my mind: there are over 10,000 2-3 year-olds in the U.S. who are on some kind of ADHD medication.


The Absolute Worst Fitness Trend - This is a T-Nation compilation to which I contributed. There are some really good observations here.

Top Tweet of the Week -

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Not too shabby. #elitebaseball #cspfamily

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Strength Strategies – Installment 3

I figured it'd be a good time to add another installment to this series, as today is the last day of the sale on Greg Robins and my resource, The Specialization Success Guide. Through midnight tonight (Sunday), you can save 40% by entering the coupon code ROBINS at checkout HERE.

SSG (1)

Here are six strategies to help you in your strength pursuits:

1. Be a beltless badass.

My wife has a very good deadlift for someone who's never competed in powerlifting; she's pulled close to 300 pounds, which is about 2.5 times her body weight. What's most impressive to me, though, is that even when she gets up to 95-100% of her best deadlift, her form never breaks down. This has a lot to do with consistent coaching early on, and the right pace to progressions over the ten years I've known her.

That said, I also think that it has a ton to do with never wearing a lifting belt. Seriously, she has never put on one. Likewise, I have athletes who have been with us for close to a decade who have never worn one, either. I'm a big believer:

[bctt tweet="Optimal long-term technique and strength success is built on a beltless foundation."]

Interesting, on this point, I reached out to Cressey Sports Performance coach Tony Bonvechio, who coaches our women's powerlifting team. He said that most of his novice lifters will gain about 20% on their squat and deadlifts by wearing a belt.

Conversely, Tony himself gets about 9%, and I'm slightly less than that (6-7%). I reached out to some very accomplished lifters, and after crunching the numbers between raw and belted PRs, none of them were over 10% difference.

To this end, I think a big training goal should be to reduce the "Belt Deficit." Training beltless is a great way to make sure that "ugly strength" doesn't outpace technique in beginning lifters, and it can also be a hugely helpful training initiative for more advanced lifters who may have become too reliant on this implement.

2. Don't be afraid to gain some weight.

Make no mistake about it; you can improve strength without gaining weight. It can, however, be like trying to demolish a 30-story building with an ice pick instead of dynamite. 

I've had some success as lightweight (165-181-pound class) lifter, but this can be misleading because there have been multiple times in my lifting career when I've pushed calories to make strength gains come faster. In the fall of 2003, for instance, I went from 158 up to 191, and then cut back to a leaner 165. In the summer of 2006, I got up to 202, then back down to the mid 180s. These weight jumps made me much more comfortable supporting heavy weights in the squat and bench press, as a little body weight goes a long way on these lifts.


3. Learn to evaluate progress in different ways.

Traditionally, powerlifters have only cared about evaluating progress with the "Big 3" lifts. Unfortunately, those aren't going to improve in every single training session. To some degree, the Westside system of powerlifting works around this by rotating "Max Effort" exercises - but even with rotating exercises, it's still an approach that relies on testing maximal strength on a very regular basis. Occasionally, it'll lead to disappointments even over the course of very successful training cycles.

For this reason, we always encourage individuals to find different ways to monitor progress. Tracking bar speed can be great, whether you have technology to actually do it, or you're just subjectively rating how fast you're lifting. A lower rating of perceived exertion (RPE) at a given weight would also indicate progress.

Volume based measures are also useful. Hitting a few more reps with the same weight during your assistance work is invaluable; those reps add up over the course of a longer training cycle. Also, making a training session more dense (more work in the same or less amount of time) can yield great outcomes.

Looking for more strength strategies or - better yet - programs to take the guesswork out of things for you? Check out The Specialization Success Guide, a resource for those specifically focused on improving the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Through the end of the day today, you can enter the coupon code ROBINS to save 40% off the normal price.

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The “Power Couple” Sale

This weekend is going to be a fun one for the Cressey Sports Performance family, as long-time staff member Greg Robins marries his wonderful fiancée, Taryn. When you combine Greg's 685-pound deadlift with Taryn's 320-pound deadlift, you quickly realize that a 1,000-pound combined pull makes them the very definition of a "power couple."


Greg was also my co-creator The Specialization Success Guide, so it seemed like a perfect week to have a Power Couple Sale (because weddings are all about cheesy hashtags and taglines). This 100% digital product is a great resource for those looking to specifically improve the squat, bench press, or deadlift. Just enter the coupon code ROBINS (all CAPS) to receive a 40% discount at checkout at the following link:


SSG (1)

This sale ends Sunday, October 16 at midnight. Again, that coupon code is ROBINS. Congratulations, Greg and Taryn!

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 10/3/16

I just finished the 23-hour drive down to Jupiter, Florida from Massachusetts, the Patriots lost yesterday, and I got crushed in Fantasy Football. In other words, you could say that it was a rough weekend - but I certainly won't. Why? Playoff baseball is kicking off this week, so things are looking awesome!  How awesome is this time of year? Speaking of awesome, here's some great reading from around the web from the past week:

Having an Approach to Having an Approach - In case you missed it, here's a guest post I wrote up for my business partner, Pete Dupuis.  First impressions really matter, and these are some strategies to make the most of them.

The Like Switch - I listened to this audiobook on my ride down to FL, and found it pretty interest. Dr. Jack Schafer is a retired FBI agent, and he discussed a lot of tactics he used in everything from befriending spies, to interrogating suspects, to reading people. As a coach, it made me realize that we can enhance our coaching and rapport-building efforts with some non-verbal adjustments. And, as a speaker, it gave me some ideas on how to "read" audiences. I'd definitely recommend it regardless of your line of work.


The Physical Preparation Podcast with Chris Chase - I covered this on my drive as well; Mike Robertson interviewed Atlanta Hawks Athletic Performance Coach Chris Chase, and it was outstanding. This is a really good listen on both the off-season and in-season training side of things.

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How to Determine If An Athlete Should Olympic Lift

Today's guest post comes from Wil Fleming, who just released his excellent Certified Weightlifting Performance Coach course, which is currently being offered at an introductory for $100 off discount. 

Eight years ago, when I first opened my business, if you had asked me "Which athletes should Olympic lift?", I would have answered:

“Anyone with a pulse.”

While my vigor and passion for the Olympic lifts as a training tool have only grown, my group of athletes that immediately begin weightlifting movements has grown smaller. I still believe that most athletes can benefit greatly from the Olympic lifts, and have seen it happen hundred and hundreds of times, but I have developed a system and an eye for who should be weightlifting.


Below are the four considerations that I go through with my athletes to determine who is ready to do the Olympic weightlifting movements.

1. Assess

The first and simplest step in determining if an athlete should Olympic lift is to assess their movement ability prior to starting. As any competent trainer/coach knows that assessment prior to training is important no matter the goal.

There are plenty of different tools for assessment based on your background, and needs as a coach. Similarly, with athletes looking to Olympic lift, I want to see a variety of screens passed before I say “let’s go do some cleans.”

We have several screens or assessment tests that we use to determine if an athlete can A) Olympic lift B) do it well.

The one that coaches are most familiar with would be the FMS active straight leg raise test. This is a gross simplification of the test and the desired outcome, but the athlete starts in supine and lifts one leg as high as they can go. We want to see a score of 2 or 3, in FMS terms, to green light the athlete for hinging into hang Olympic weightlifting movements.


So why exactly are we concerned about the FMS score for an ASLR?

First off, hinging is a vital component to an athlete’s ability to perform an Olympic lift or any derivative. In setting up on the back, the athlete has nearly all variables taken out of the hip flexion, or hip hinge equation. This position is the simplest form of hip flexion we can achieve and if an athlete is unable to score a 2 or 3, it would be pretty poor judgment to believe that they can get in a good hinging position while loaded with a barbell and additional weight. Could I absolutely get them in a good position with lots of coaching? Probably, but I would not risk the potential for compensatory patterns popping up.

No, 2 or 3? It’s cool. We can develop better hip flexion through a variety of correctives and get the athlete Olympic lifting if they have numbers 2-4 down.

2. Pre-Requisites

Going into high school, you weren’t thrust right into calculus or rocket science class (is that a class?). No, instead you got your basics in multiplication and algebra, or chemistry and physics.

Similarly, weightlifting movements are pretty advanced to perform. Now, I’m not going to compare them to calculus or rocket science, but there’s more going on than in the dumbbell curl.

Pre-requisites, at the very least, allow you to speak the same language. When coaching the Olympic lifts, it is extremely helpful to be able to refer to other movements to which the athlete is somewhat familiar. “Jump,” “squat,” and “hinge” all work a lot better when the athlete knows to what you are referring.

In this case, we need some pre-requisites to Olympic lifting. Fortunately, they aren’t as difficult as chemistry was.

First is the ability to squat. I’m not referring to a particular amount of weight, but just the capacity to do a pretty good looking squat and maintain balance across the foot for the entire movement. Ideally, we have exposed them to a front squat of some sort. This is going to allow the athlete to receive the barbell in the clean or snatch.

I teach all my athletes the hang power clean first. While I am not looking for an athlete to squat all the way under to receive it, I do want to see them understand how to retreat the hips when accepting load.

Next up is hinging. The athlete should be able to do a good looking RDL with a kettlebell or barbell. I want to see an athlete understand balance (again), unlocked knees, and hips going backwards. If we don’t prepare an athlete with the ability to hinge, we end up with athletes that clean by jumping a foot forward. Set them up for success by teaching the hinge first.

Lastly, we need some knowledge of plyometrics. The athlete should be able to jump and land. We are primarily concerned with jumping from a hip width stance (the same one we use for pulling in the clean or snatch) and landing in a shoulder width stance (the same one we want when receiving the bar).


If all three of these things are knocked out, then an athlete is ready to learn the Olympic lifts.

3. Athlete Needs

In its most basic sense, we look at the energy system demands and strength/power demands of the sport in which the athlete is competing. From that information, we must determine whether the athlete would benefit from adding Olympic lifts to that equation.

Olympic lifts fall on a particular portion of the force velocity curve that mean they maximize power output. Generally this number is around 60-80% of max force, exactly where heavy Olympic lifts tend to rest. In other words, getting an athlete proficient in the Olympic lifts will help the athlete develop a much higher power output, resulting in improved testing measures (vertical jump, broad jump, 10 yd sprint time), and improved on court/field performance.

If the athlete competes in a sport that values those attributes – which is effectively almost every sport – then you have passed the next step to determine whether an athlete should Olympic lift.

4. Sport Demands

Determining the demands of the sport will be the final hurdle. Specifically, what are common movements in the sport, and would using the Olympic lifts unnecessarily add to the trauma that the sport causes?

Being that you are on Eric Cressey’s website I can imagine it would be heresy to say that baseball players SHOULD snatch, and don’t worry: I’m not going to. If that’s where your brain took you, then we are on the same page.

We look at two things when it comes to sport demands. The first is the actual sport, and then we look at the athlete’s level/training age.

To take the baseball player for example, the snatch will typically be eliminated. This is not because of inherent danger, but rather that some of the more extreme ranges of motion in the snatch may create issues in a population with a combination of structural changes and accumulated fatigue that could lead to problems. Similarly, for our population of swimmers we don’t snatch due to the accumulated fatigue most swimming strokes cause.

That said, the clean doesn’t have the same level of incidence of shoulder issues that the snatch does (see this study), so in the eyes of many, the criteria for baseball or swimming would be passed.

Our next set of questions arises when we look at the age or experience level of the athlete. When we have had pro baseball players in the gym, and particularly under a limited time frame, we often choose to not use the clean in their training. Many times these athletes have no experience with the clean, but have trained for a number of years; at this point we are introducing a completely new skill to an already highly skilled athlete.

Will there be power production improvements? Most likely.

Will that mean they are better professional baseball players? Probably not.

The case of the high school baseball player is much different. I likely have a lot more time (years, potentially) with them. Their training age is fairly young, they’re often multi-sport athletes, and the benefits of increased power production are incredible.


Once these four hurdles are cleared, an athlete is likely ready and able to Olympic lift. That doesn’t mean you are ready to start them on that path. You have to have a repeatable and simple method for teaching the lifts to your athletes, and you have to have a method for identifying and correcting mistakes early and often. If you don’t,then I would highly suggest you don’t worry about teaching the lifts; it’s probably not worth it for your or your athletes’ time.

If you do or don’t, but want to learn my system for teaching thousands of athletes how to use weightlifting movements to become better athletes, please consider checking out my new resource, the Certified Weightlifting Performance Coach course.


Note from EC: I’ve gone through Wil’s course myself; it’s very thorough and a continuing education option I’d highly recommend, especially with it being on sale through October 7. You can learn more HERE.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 9/27/16

This post comes a day later than usual, as we're playing a bit of catch-up after Sunday's 5th Annual Cressey Sports Performance Fall Seminar. Fortunately, there is some good content to make the wait worth it.

Certified Weightlifting Performance Coach Course  - I'm actually going through this new offering from Wil Fleming right now myself. Admittedly, I was skeptical of whether Olympic lifts could be taught via an online medium, but it's actually very well structured and I'm enjoying going through it. Wil discusses assessments and programming in great deal as well. It's definitely worth checking out if you're someone who's looking to learn more about the Olympic lifts and how to coach and program them.


Applied Technology in Training and Rehab - This is an excellent guest post from Adam Loiacono on Mike Robertson's website. With the big boom of athlete monitoring over the past few years, it's important to understand how all the pieces fit together.

The Ideal Business Show with Adam Bornstein - I loved Adam's interview for Pat Rigsby's podcast. Adam's a super bright guy who understands a lot about business development - particularly in the fitness industry, but definitely across multiple disciplines.

Top Tweet of the Week 

Top Instagram Post of the Week 


Simple reminder. #cspfamily #elitebaseball

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 9/19/16

Another week, another Patriots win and fantasy football victory for me! I'll keep talking about it in this weekly blog until the luck wears off! 

That said, let's look at some top picks from around the web from the past week:

They Myths of Mental Toughness Training: Part 1 and Part 2 - Doug Kechijian is a super bright physical therapist who also happens to have extensive military experience. So, you could say that this fantastic two-part article comes from excellent perspectives in multiple regards.

Physical Preparation Podcast with Boo Schexnayder - This podcast from Mike Robertson is several months old, but I actually went back and listened to it a second time. There are loads of pearls of wisdom in there for any coach from any discipline.

Podcast Q&A with Dr. Stuart McGill - There was some excellent information on the lower back front in this interview for Dean Somerset's site. The discussion of calcification in the spine of lifters of various proficiency is fascinating, and is around the 18-minute mark.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 9/5/16

Happy Labor Day! I hope you all are enjoying the long weekend with friends and family. This is always a fun time of year at Cressey Sports Performance, as a lot of our minor league players are starting their off-seasons, and many of our high school athletes are getting back in the swing of their "true" off-season training. And, of course, we've got MLB playoff baseball coming up soon! I won't digress too much, though; here are the goods!

Will a High Protein Diet Harm Your Health? - Dr. John Berardi has been at the forefront of the "understanding protein needs vs. optimization" debate for a long time, and this article is a great summary of the current literature on the subject.


5 Concepts of Modern Manual Therapy - I know I have a lot of rehabilitation specialists who read EricCressey.com, and this excellent post from Erson Religioso is for you!

Time to Break up with Your MRI Report - Physical therapist Andrew Millett authored this excellent post for Dr. Jarod Hall's website.

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Recency Bias and Long-Term Training Success

Last week, I was reading through a quarterly magazine published by a financial advisory firm with whom my wife and I work, and it introduced the concept of recency bias. WikiInvest.com describes this phenomenon as:

"Recency Bias is where stock market participants evaluate their portfolio performance based on recent results or on their perspective of recent results and make incorrect conclusions that ultimately lead to incorrect decisions about how the stock market behaves."

In other words, when the stock market tanks, people are - in the short-term - very reluctant to invest. And, when the market thrives, they can't wait to invest. This is in spite of the fact that these might be the exact opposite of the best approaches, and inherently at odds with a fiscally responsible long-term strategy.


Interestingly, the concept of recency bias has implications in the rehabilitation, health, and human performance fields. To illustrate this, I'll give you an example.

Back in October of 2015, I had a one-time consult at our Jupiter, FL facility with a individual with chronic shoulder, elbow, and hip/lower back issues. After a week-long stay in Florida with an assessment and week of in-person coaching, he's followed up with online-only programs from across the country. His progress has been fantastic in that time, with his exercise pool expanding and movement quality improving significantly. What's been really interesting is seeing the shift from "movement weary" to "fired up to train." 

His first few months of programming was very much about feeling out exercise selection and technique. For example, here were three email excerpts:

November 8: "Missed my first week of workouts after I got back home. Everything has been going good since. I plan on spending some extra weeks on this program before getting a new one to master the techniques on the serratus and periscapular exercises."

December 7: ".Can you check my wall slide form? Sometimes I feel it a tad bit in the front of the shoulder on the upward rotation and lift off."

December 16: "Need some help on bottoms up KB crosswalk. Not sure if I have the proper overhead scapula position. and suspect I might be in a bit of extension." 

When it comes to movement quality, I often talk with new clients about an eight-week magic mark. Be consistent for eight weeks, and re-evaluate where you stand. If there isn't considerable progress, you may need to shake things up with your approach. Take a look at what happened to the tone of the emails in the months that followed:

December 30: "Great new program by the way. I like how you bridged the gap between weights and corrective exercise. Shoulders and elbows feel better."

April 8: "Hips are feeling better than before I started the program!! Getting better glute activation on the back leg during lunges, and also getting better hip extension on bridges and hip thrusts were both very helpful for the hips."

May 24: "Keep working on my tight hips. Feeling better there but still a little stiff. My front squat went up! Keep getting stronger, and keep the shoulders safe!"

July 26: "New program is awesome! I didn't think I would be able to bench pain free before I started. Super psyched to see bench in my program."

August 28: "New program time! Made some good gains on the last one looking forward to the new one. Hips feel 3 times better. I want to make some more strength gains on this new program. Just throw in enough corrective exercise for all my previous chronic injuries. Really excited for this new program. I'm getting a lot stronger and I feel like a beast again!"    

This is where you see how important it is to avoid recency bias in your training, whether you have a considerable injury history or you want to avoid an injury in the first place. This individual is doing a great job of recognizing that while things are going well, he needs to preserve the balance between pushing his body and taking care of it. And, I'm sure that there will be times moving forward when we'll have to remind him to pump the brakes a bit; it's the give and take of training progressions. 

Don't only do your correctives when you are a) hurt or b) have recently been hurting; make sure to keep at least some of them around for the long haul. As my physical therapist buddy, Eric Schoenberg, has said, 

[bctt tweet="What gets you healthy keeps you healthy."]

Likewise, just because you've been healthy and managed to get away with brutal training technique and horribly designed programming doesn't mean that it'll last forever. As I Tweeted in the past, 


Now, please keep in mind that I'm not advocating that you foam roll for four hours per day and complete a two-a-day, 57-exercise mobility routine. If you're efficient with your exercise selection and pristine with your training technique, it can be accomplished relatively easily. If you look at the warm-ups in The High Performance Handbook, they cover the overwhelming majority of any "correctives" you'd need, and the rest is accounted for with the comprehensive, well-balanced strength and conditioning programs. It's not a rehab program; but it could very well be called an "avoid rehab" program.


The take-home point of this article is every successful approach to training avoids the recency bias trap. Just because something happened in the recent past doesn't necessarily mean it should be more heavily weighted in your planning or execution. In other words, have a smart plan - and stick to it!

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  • Avoid the most common deadlifting mistakes
  • 9 - minute instructional video
  • 3 part follow up series