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Get Strong by Learning from My Strength and Conditioning Mistakes

Written on March 18, 2011 at 7:45 am, by Eric Cressey

We bought our dog, Tank, in October of 2010 – and he’s since gone on to be not only man’s best friend around the house, but also an integral (and entertaining) part of the Cressey Sports Performance experience, as he comes to the gym with me just about every day.

In spite of Tank’s affinity for flashing people, he managed to win adoration of the family of one of our CSP athletes to the point that they decided they wanted to get a cream puggle just like him.  Having spent months housetraining him and trying to get him to sleep through the night back in the day, my wife and I had plenty of suggestions for these folks to avoid making the mistakes we made.  I mean, we never told him to eat paint chips, but puppies will be puppies, you know?

Anyway, that family is now all settled with their puppy, and it got me to thinking about the importance of learning from others’ mistakes is in the world of strength and conditioning programs.  If I can help out one puppy owner, I might as well help out the thousands of visitors on this website each month!  With that in mind, here are five strength and conditioning mistakes I corrected that have made a big difference for me:

1. Eating like a sissy in the post-training window – If you’re an up-and-coming lifter or athlete who can benefit from increasing muscle mass (and I definitely was), the post-workout period is not a time when you can skimp on calories.  I really did not start making great progress until I was getting in over a thousand calories between my post-training shake and the meal that took place an hour later – and that was on the light side compared to what I’ve seen with some other guys. I can’t think of many things that drive me crazier than seeing one of our athletes finish a training session – and then sit around in the office for 2-3 hours without eating anything.  I love having them hang out at the gym, but I just want them to do it with calories!

2. Not training for strength soon enough – I'm going to dumb getting bigger down as much as I can, yet still keep it mathematical. You've got to do "muscular damage" and then rebuild.  If you don't do work, you don't get damage. Work = Force x Distance

Unless you plan on growing for the rest of your life (or find magical ways to keep adding range of motion to exercises), the easiest way to positively impact the amount of work you do is to apply more force - or be stronger. To that end, I'll make a bold statement here: for the first two years of lifting, your primary goal should simply be to add weight to the bar (provided you can do so in good technique and without pain).  As long as we're talking about compound strength exercises, you'll be very pleased with the results. We have novice lifters at Cressey Performance who grow like weeds in their first two years of training with us - and I can't say that I've ever had someone ask me about "the pump."  I wish I'd had someone to tell me to shut up when I asked about it when I was 18!

3. Spending too much time doing non-essentials – This one goes hand-in-hand with the previous observation.  I really had no place doing curls, triceps extensions, and other isolation exercises when I hadn’t even come close to putting up good numbers on the important strength exercises. It kept me in the gym too long and interfered with my recovery on the really important stuff. The funny thing is that now that I have gotten a lot stronger, I really don’t have interest in doing much of the isolation stuff anymore – because I realize that the core strength exercises are the ones that really helped me progress.

4. Not being more athletic with my energy systems work – Growing up, I was an avid soccer and tennis player, and as a result of all my time on the field/court, I was reasonably quick and good with changes of direction.  When my early 20s rolled around, I took a step back from those sports to pursue strength training "full time."  A few years later, I was invited to play in a charity basketball game against a bunch of at-the-time Patriots players like Ellis Hobbs, Reche Caldwell, Pierre Woods, and Logan Mankins (among others).  Don't let anyone tell you that NFL guys can't play hoops, because these guys mopped the floor with us. The outcome wasn't altogether surprising, but one thing that did open my eyes was how I just didn't feel as athletic as I used to be in spite of the fact that I'd gotten a lot stronger as compared to my high school years.  I was putting force into the ground, but I wasn't applying it quickly - and I wasn't doing it in planes of motion in which I was comfortable.  Not surprisingly, most of my energy systems work at the time (which really wasn't much) was being done on machines: ellipticals, versa-climbers, rowers, and bikes.  I committed to cutting back on mindless repetitive motion cardio right away - and since then, just about all my energy systems work has been sprinting, strongman-type medleys, change of direction work, slideboard work, and medicine ball circuits (plus just a small amount of Airdyne work). The end result?  A 37.2-inch vertical jump - more than 12 inches better than I was back at the time, and I'm at a higher body weight and just as lean as when I was doing all that "gerbil cardio."  More importantly, I feel a ton more athletic - and I'm more likely to do stupid things for others' amusement around the gym.

5. Not finding a good training crew earlier – I’ve been fortunate to lift with some excellent training partners, from my days on-campus at the University of Connecticut, to South Side Gym, to the guys I lift with at Cressey Sports Performance nowadays.  Before that, though, I was flying solo for quite some time.  Let me tell you: good training partners make a HUGE difference.  They pick you up when you’re dragging, help you select weights, provide spots/handoffs, and create an awesome social atmosphere that actually helps training progress. “Going it alone” doesn’t just refer to having training partners with whom you can lift, though.  It also refers to having professional resources to whom you can turn – whether it’s a massage therapist when your elbows get cranky from all the gripping you do, or someone to help you out with your strength and conditioning programs.  I’m not going to lie: I did some terrible programs back in the day when I didn’t know any better.  If I’d had an unbiased party helping me out, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. That’s one reason why I created The High Performance Handbook.

On one hand, it takes the guesswork out of training by providing the actual strength and conditioning programs as well as an extensive video database to help with technique on all the mobility and strength exercises.  On the other hand, though, I designed it so that it would give folks a lot of wiggle room when it comes to adapting it to their unique goals and needs.  It starts with an easy-to-apply assessment you can use to determine your unique needs.  From there, you've got 4x/week, 3x/week, and 2x/week strength training programs; different supplemental conditioning options; and a unique mobility warm-up for every month of the program.  Problems solved. Click here to learn more about The High Performance Handbook. It's on sale for $50 off through Sunday at midnight.

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29 Responses to “Get Strong by Learning from My Strength and Conditioning Mistakes”

  1. john Says:

    On “non-essentials:” I like to think of a non-essential exercise as anything I’d laugh at a fat middle-aged lady/man for doing–things that aren’t metabolically stimulating, don’t correct imbalances, etc. It’s easier to accept a linebacker [compared to the above] doing curls because he looks better doing it, although, like the old lady, he’s probably not increasing athleticism.

  2. R Smith Says:


    I’ve made many mistakes in the last couple years of strength training, but none impacted me more than neglecting the fact that it all starts with strength.

    As I’ve gotten stronger (and more mobile), I feel better, look better and perform better.


  3. Niel Says:

    For me, adhering too much to the “plan on paper” and not being flexible with my own programming.

    Experimenting with new methods is fun.

  4. troy Says:

    Maybe an article idea – speed and vert development 4 – 12 week program or something?

    Definitely 2 things athletes , including myself, are interested in and 2 things you\’ve addressed in the past to great success

  5. Jonas Says:

    “K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid. Michael tells me this, hurts my feelings every time.”
    – Dwight Schrute, The Office

    ALSO a reasonable consideration to keep in mind to your programming. 😀

  6. Martin Says:

    Hi Eric

    anytime the bible of health and fitness is written, this post should be ‘genesis chap 1’

    much appreciated


  7. Martin Says:

    Hi Eric

    anytime the bible of health and fitness is written, this post should be \’genesis chap 1\’

    much appreciated


  8. Maurizio Paolini Says:

    My worst mistakes were: -unbalanced programs (too much intrarotation exercises, lack of horizontal row, poor posterior chain strength); -poor programming (no volume fluctuations and deloading mistakes, lack of soft tissue work and mobility drills).
    Now thanks to guys like Cressey, Robertson, Hartman, Wendler and Tate at 43 I have never felt so healthy and strong….:-)

  9. Christopher Says:

    It’s nice to see people we put up on pedestals (You, Eric) be humble and recognize that he made mistakes.

    Appreciate this.

  10. Timothy Ward Says:

    Impressive box jump! I made the switch to multidirectional energy systems work after seeing Bill Hartman’s lecture at Mike Robertson’s midwest performance enhancement seminar last year. I love it.

  11. Clement Says:

    I concur with your points.

    There was a time, not too long ago, when I was constantly having my head turned by all sorts of fitness programmes out there. I thought I knew everything. Where did that get me? It had me moving sideways, from goal to goal, but never forwards, towards any one goal.

    In the six months, adding more weight to the bar with each session and eating more in the post-workout window has led me to gain more lean mass and less fat. Ditching the treadmill and actually sprinting has improved my speed and explosiveness in soccer.

    But my consolation is that I’ve never really liked doing isolation movements, anyway, so thank god I wasn’t one of those skinny guys whom I see doing curls in the power rack and whom I just find ridiculous.

  12. Fredrik Gyllensten Says:

    Interesting article, Thanks Eric!

    I love dogs! 🙂

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  14. Jez Says:

    Hi Eric,
    My biggest mistakes……
    1. Flitting from one shiny program to another, without giving any of them a chance to work
    2. Teaching too many group exercise classes, over 4 years it went from 2 hours a week to 25 and my strength dropped by almost 60% on the big three lifts. Basically I neglected my own training and suffered for it.

    Did show and go last year, which was an unpleasant wake up call. Now ditched all group fitness classes and returned to full time PT. Currently doing phase two of Max Strength, after which I’ll redo show and go. (Will probably follow that with FPFL2). Strength going up weekly, aches and pains slowly disappearing.

    Many thanks for your continued efforts to share what you know with the rest of us.


  15. Steve Says:

    It is quite reassuring reading the article and comments to know that many of us have trodden along similar paths and learnt from the same mistakes. It is this constant learning process that makes us stronger afterall!

  16. Jason - Core Routine Says:

    Eating and getting stronger every week is the best plan thee is. People so often try to make things fancier than they need to be, but if you follow these basics that you have laid out you will see results.

    Great post,
    love the dog

  17. phil Says:

    Biggest mistake, thinking my PT degree automatically taught me enough to write my own program. Following a professionally written program to the letter “even though I know better” was the smartest thing I ever did.

  18. Duke Says:

    Thoughts on brad pilons protein book w/ studies indicating the window is more or less a sluding scale. Ie u dont need to cram ur gullet w/in an hour but get the maximum protein over each 24hr period. Pesonal experience, i have not lost any muscle mass by not eating for up to 6hrs post workout although at the moment i am not bulking.

  19. Steve Says:

    Great post Eric, I could say just about the same things, only I’m way older than you. I didn’t learn how to train until I was in my fifties. I still fight old habits, but have changed almost everything I do. I train all my athletes right from your sight and others like it. Thanks for all your hard work!

  20. Conor Says:

    Great post!
    I’d love to read or see more about energy systems work like medicine ball circuits and strongman medleys.
    Love the dog…my dog always come and says “hello” to the guys that come to train at my gym. Hasn’t eaten any paint chips though.

  21. Tim Peirce Says:

    Great stuff as usual, Eric.

  22. Victoria Says:

    Tore my supraspinatus doing too many non essential push ups without bring correctly organised: six months later still very little improvement and a lot of restriction in rt arm and loss of strength! Very frustrating

  23. Alex Says:

    Programming hopping and not sticking with a program is a mistake I made. Another was not documenting things and going by feel. This works for a while and is not a bad idea but writing things down is a testament to your progress as you look back. O, and worrying about being a bodybuilder instead of getting strong.

  24. glen chaytor Says:

    thanks eric…great article..

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Glen!

  26. Zac Says:

    Great post Eric. I find that making mistakes is the best way to learn as an individual. You brought up some great points.

  27. Nick Novice Says:

    ” I hadn’t even come close to putting up good numbers on the important strength exercises” – so what are these important strength excercises?

  28. Nicholas Says:


    You write: “for the first two years of lifting, your primary goal should simply be to add weight to the bar”

    As opposed to what? Deload weeks? And what is your primary goal after 2 years if you are into power lifting?

    In the High Performance Handbook, you recommend minimal cardio for those training for power lifting. Yet according to this blog post, you did do cardio when you were training. What was the frequency, intensity (HR), and duration of your cardio when training?

    Thanks heaps!

  29. Eric Cressey Says:


    1. After two years, you can make better use of “traditional” hypertrophy ranges if you want to spend most of your time there.

    2. Always below 70% of max heart rate, never for more than 25 minutes.  Nice and easy, 1-2x/week.

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