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An Interview with Eric Cressey

Written on January 27, 2008 at 9:45 am, by Eric Cressey

Brian Grasso – Your newest DVD, ‘Magnificent Mobility’ cites the importance of delineating the difference between ‘mobility’ and ‘flexibility’ in a training program. What is the difference and when do each apply?

Eric Cressey – Those are great questions, Brian; very few people understand the difference – and it is a big one. Flexibility merely refers to range of motion – and, more specifically, passive range of motion as achieved by static stretching. Don’t get me wrong; static stretching has its place. I see it as tremendously valuable in situations where you want to:

a) Relax a muscle to facilitate antagonist activation (e.g. stretch the hip flexors to improve glute recruitment)

b) Break down scar tissue following an injury and/or surgery (when the new connective tissue may require “realignment”)

c) Loosen someone up when you can’t be supervising them (very simply, there is less likelihood of technique breakdown with static stretching because it isn’t a dynamic challenge)

However, the principle problem with pure flexibility is that it does not imply stability nor preparedness for dynamic tasks. As one of my mentors, Dr. David Tiberio, taught me, we need to have mobile-stability; there’s really no use in being able to attain a given range of motion if you can’t stabilize yourself in that position. Excessive passive flexibility without mobility (or dynamic flexibility, as it’s been called) will actually increase the risk of injury!

Moreover, it’s not uncommon at all to see individuals with circus-like passive flexibility fail miserably on dynamic tasks. For instance, I recently began working with an accomplished ballet dancer who can tie herself into a human pretzel, but could barely hit parallel on a body weight squat until after a few sessions of corrective training. She was great on the dynamic tasks that were fundamentally specific to her sport, but when faced with a general challenge that required mobility in a non-familiar range of motion, she was grossly unprepared to handle it. She had flexibility, but not mobility; the instability and the lack of preparation for the dynamic motion were the limiting factors. She could achieve joint ranges of motion, but her neuromuscular system wasn’t prepared to do much of anything in those ranges of motion.

We went to great lengths in Magnificent Mobility to not only outline mobility drills, but also what we call “activation” movements. Essentially, they teach often-dormant muscles to fire at the right times to normalize the muscle balance, improve performance, and reduce the risk of injury. Collectively, mobility and activation drills are best performed as part of the warm-up and on off-days as active recovery. We’ve received hundreds of emails already from athletes and ordinary weekend warriors claiming improved performance, enhanced feeling of well-being, and resolution of chronic injuries; this kind of positive feedback really makes our jobs fun!

Brian Grasso – You certainly are known for you ability to get athletes stronger. What type of training do you use for adolescent athletes… let me narrow that down (i) a 16 year old with no formal strength training experience (ii) a 16 year with a solid foundation and decent knowledge with exercise form

Eric Cressey – First and foremost, we have fun. It doesn’t matter how educated or passionate I am; I’m not doing my job if they aren’t having a blast coming in to train with me. With respect to the individual athletes, I’ll first roll through a health history and just run them through some basic dynamic flexibility movements to see where they stand. As we all know, there is a lot of variation in terms of physical maturity and training experience at these ages, and I can get a pretty good idea of what they need just by watching them move a bit. In your individual cases, much of my training would revolve around the following:

In the unprepared athlete, I’d go right into several body weight drills – many of them isometric in nature – to teach efficiency. We often see an inability to differentiate between lumbar spine and pelvic motion, so I spend quite a bit of time emphasizing that the lumbar spine should be stable, and range of motion should come from the hips, thoracic spine, scapulae, and arms. Loading is the least of my concerns in the first few sessions; research has demonstrated that beginners can make progress on as little as 40% of 1RM, so why rush things with heavy loading that will compromise form? The lighter weights will allow them to groove technique and improve connective tissue health prior to the introduction of heavier loading. At the start, I’ll emphasize unilateral work; mobility; any corrective training that’s needed; classic stabilization movements (i.e. bridges); and learning the compound movements, deceleration/landing mechanics, and how to accelerate external loads (e.g. medicine balls, free weights). I’ll also make a point of mentioning that how you unrack and rerack weights is just as important as how you train; it drives me crazy to see a kid return a bar to the floor with a rounded back.

In the athlete with a solid foundation, I’ll run through those same preliminary drills to verify that they are indeed “solid” and not just good compensators for dysfunction. Believe it or not, most “trained” athletes really aren’t that “trained” if you use efficiency as a marker of preparedness – even at the Division I, professional, and Olympic ranks; you can be a great athlete in spite of what you do and not necessarily because of what or how you do it.

Assuming things are looking good, I’ll look to give them more external loading on all movements, as the fastest inroads to enhanced performance will always be through maximal strength in novice athletes. As they get more advanced, I’ll start to look more closely at whether they’re more static or spring dominant and incorporate more advanced reactive training movements. Single-leg movements are still of paramount importance, and we add in some controlled strongman-type training to keep things interesting and apply the efficiency in a less controlled environment. Likewise, as an athlete’s deceleration mechanics improve, we progress from strictly closed-loop movement training drills to a blend of open- and closed-loop (unpredictable) tasks.

In both cases, variety is key; I feel that my job is to expose them to the richest proprioceptive environment possible in a safe context. With that said, however, I’m careful to avoid introducing too many different things; it’s important for young athletes to see quantifiable progress in some capacity. If you’re always changing what you do, you’ll never really show them where they stand relative to baseline.

Brian Grasso – Olympic lifts and adolescents… do you use them? Why or why not?

Eric Cressey – Personally, I generally don’t for several reasons. It’s not because I’m inherently opposed to Olympic lifts from an injury risk standpoint. Sure, I’ve seen cleans ruin some wrists, and there are going to be a ton of people with AC joint and impingement problems who can’t do anything above shoulder level without pain. That’s not to say that the exercises are fundamentally contraindicated for everyone, though; as with most things in life, the answer rests somewhere in the middle. Know your clients, and select your exercises accordingly.

My primary reasons for omitting them tend to be that I don’t always have as much time with athletes as I’d like, and simply because such technical lifts require constant practice – which we all know isn’t always possible with young athletes who don’t train for a living. Equipment limitations may be a factor (bumper plates are a nice luxury). And, to be very honest, I’ve seen athletes make phenomenal progress without using Olympic lifts, so I don’t concern myself too much with the arguing that goes on. If another coach wants to use them and is a good teacher, I’m find with him doing so; it just isn’t for me, with the exception of some high pulls here and there.

Brian Grasso – Basing off of the last question, do you teach Olympic lift technique to pre-adolescents?

Eric Cressey – I don’t. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing so with a broomstick or some PVC pipe, but when I consider the pre-adolescents with whom I’ve worked, I just can’t see them getting excited about all that technique work for one category of exercises. Olympic lifting is a sport in itself, and I think it should be viewed that way.

Brian Grasso – My subscribers know that I believe as much in deceleration training as I do in any sort of speed enhancing-based work… How do you improve speed and deceleration habits?

Eric Cressey – We’re definitely on the same page on this one. In a nutshell, I just slow everything down for the short-term – starting with isometric holds. Every change of direction has a deceleration, isometric action, and acceleration; I’ve found that if you teach the athlete how his/her body should be aligned in that mid-point, they’ll be golden. My progressions are as follows (keep in mind that you can span several of these progressions in one session if the athlete is proficient):

Slow-speed, Full Stop, Hold > Slow Speed, Full Stop, Acceleration > Slow Speed, Quick Transition, Acceleration > Normal Speed, Full Stop, Hold > Normal Speed, Full Stop, Acceleration > Normal Speed, Quick Transition, Acceleration

Open-loop > Closed-loop (predictable > unpredictable)

With respect to reactive training methods (incorrectly termed plyometrics), we start with bilateral and unilateral jumps to boxes, as they don’t impose as much eccentric force (the athlete goes up, but doesn’t come down). From there, we move to altitude landings, and ultimately to bounce drop jump (depth jumps), repeated broad jumps, bounding, and other higher-impact tasks.

Finally, one lost component of deceleration training is basic maximal strength. All other factors held constant, the stronger kid will learn to decelerate more easily than his weaker counterparts. So, enhancing a generally, foundational quality like maximal strength on a variety of tasks will indirectly lead to substantial improvements in deceleration ability – especially in untrained individuals.

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