Home Posts tagged "Increase Strength"

Lose Fat, Gain Muscle, Increase Strength, Be More Awesome: Live Q&A #6

It's time for another live Q&A here at EricCressey.com!  I figured that it's a great time to do this, as I'm currently snowed in!  This is the view of my mailbox right now, in fact:

To get your questions answered, just post your inquiry in the comments section below, and I'll approve it and then reply.  

My only rule is that your question must be limited to five sentences or less.  I'll answer the first 25 that are posted, so please don't bother posting questions if you come to this post days, weeks, or months after it was originally posted.

With that said, head on down to the comments section below and ask away! 

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5 Ways to Do Less and Get More from Your Strength Training Programs

Whenever someone talks about a plateau they've hit with their strength training programs, the first question they usually ask is "What should I do?" In reality, the answer isn't just what one should do, but what one shouldn't do, as well.  Here are five examples of how you can get more out of your strength training programs by doing less.

1. Leave the gym sooner.

Tony Gentilcore is one of my best friends.  We co-founded Cressey Sports Performance, were roommates for two years, and he were groomsmen in one another's weddings. 

We also have been training partners since 2005. And, in just about every training session we've ever shared, I've finished before Tony.  Tony absolutely loves to train, so he's always adding stuff at the end: things like conditioning, accessory work, curls and lateral raises.  This stuff is all well and good in the battle to improve his physique, but it's always attenuated his strength gains.

As a frame of reference, back in 2005, my best raw bench press and deadlift were 250 and 510, respectively.  They're now up to 365 and 640.  In that same time period, Tony has gone from roughly 250 to 300 on the bench press, and 500 to 580 on the deadlift.

That said, make no mistake about it: Tony is still a pretty strong dude - and he walks around at sub-10% body fat year round and could be a Men's Health cover model body with a week of dieting.  He trades off some of his strength gains for the volume it takes to build the physique he wants.  I, on the other hand, trade off some of the physique stuff to enhance my strength. 

We take these considerations into mind whenever we write programs for clients. It's all about individual preference, and your goals may shift over time. If you're looking to get stronger faster, though, look to eliminate some fluff and focus on putting your eggs in the "quality, not quantity" basket.

2. Quit pairing so many things up.

We use a lot of "fillers" in the strength and programs we write for athletes.  For instance, they may do a set of yoga plex to work on hip and thoracic spine mobility between sets of trap bar deadlifts.  Athletes have so many competing demands that you can't just ignore everything else while you work to build strength, or else you'll run out of training time. 

In some of our general fitness clients who have a lot of mobility restrictions to work through, but also need to drop body fat and build work capacity, we may use trisets, pairing up 1-2 strength/stability exercises with a mobility drill.  They get a little bit of everything, and they keep moving.

You know what, though?  None of the elite caliber powerlifters and Olympic lifters I've met do this.  They lift, and then stand (or sit) around between sets.  They might not move as well in a variety of contexts as some other athletes I encounter, but they're damn strong.

Look at your program and weight the benefits of adding filler work between sets.  For most folks, the benefits definitely outweigh any subtle reduction in strength you'd see on the main strength exercise.  If, however, your goal is to squat 800 pounds, you don't need to be doing a set of chops or lifts between sets; you're better off resting and contemplating the challenge ahead, then hitting your assistance work thereafter.

3. Shorten up your movement training and conditioning.

A lot of people want to get stronger, but don't want it to interfere with their ability to train for sprinting, agility, or conditioning.  The quick and easy response to these folks is to simply pare back on how much you do with these somewhat competing demands.

If you're accustomed to running 200-400m sprints for conditioning, shorten it to 50-100m and take a bit longer for recovery between sets.

If you normally sprint three times a week, cut back to 1-2 sessions just to maintain what you've built as you add strength to the equation.

If you're used to doing 10-12 sets of agility work in a training session, cut it in half and put it during your warm-up before a strength training session.

Personally, a big chunk of my conditioning actually takes place on the rowing machine in my basement.  I'll just hit 3-5 rounds of 200-500m (anywhere from 30s to 120s) at a once or twice a week frequency.

4. Go to a lower rep range with your main strength exercise of the day.

This sounds like a no brainer, but you'd be amazed at how many intermediate to advanced lifters plug away with 4x6 and 5x5 rep schemes, but can't possibly understand why their strength levels aren't improving.  So, here's a good general guideline:

Lifting really heavy weights (>90% of 1RM) for few reps can get you stronger.  Lifting lighter weights (40-70% of 1RM) for few reps with great bar speed can also get you stronger.  Being in the middle (70-90%) and doing more reps at a slower bar speed often winds up being like riding two horses with one saddle.

There are two take-home points here.  First, regardless of the weight on the bar, your intent should always be to be as fast concentrically (lifting) as possible.  Second, doing sets of five or more reps isn't going to have a great neural benefit for strength improvements, although the volume may help you to gain body weight as a means to build strength. Save the higher rep stuff for your assistance work.

5. Deload.

A line I heard from Kelly Baggett back in the early 2000s has always stuck out in my mind:

Fatigue masks fitness.

If it didn't, we'd all be able to match (or exceed) our personal records in every single training session.  That may be the case when you're a complete beginner, but it's certainly not once you get some experience under your belt.  If you find you aren't getting stronger, try taking some time off and increasing the amount of recovery-oriented strategies - naps, massage, compression - you employ.  You might just find that you bounce back with a PR in a matter of days.

These are just five examples of how subtle modifications to your strength training program can yield big results.  They do, however, underscore the importance of having a versatile strength and conditioning program that can be modified to suit almost any goal.  To that end, I'd encourage you to check out The High Performance Handbook

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Lose Fat, Gain Muscle, Increase Strength, Be More Awesome: Live Q&A #1

Here at EricCressey.com, tonight marks the start of a new feature: live Q&A.  Periodically, I'll post a blog where you can post questions in the comments section and get replies directly from me.  

My only rule is that your question must be limited to five sentences or less.  I'll answer the first 30 that are posted, so please don't bother posting questions if you come to this post days, weeks, or months after it was originally posted.

With that said, head on down to the comments section below and ask away! 

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Show and Go: Helping Lifters and Puppies Get Strong

If you liked yesterday's Show and Go success stories, you'll love today's.  Be sure to listen to what these guys have to say.  And, in the case of our third "success story," the pictures tell the story.

Show and Go was released last September - just prior to us getting a new puppy, Tank, who is now the official facility mascot of Cressey Performance (he even has a Twitter account).

He weighed in at a scrawny 5.6 pounds when we got him, but we put him to work right away using the principles of Show and Go.  Here he is learning how to foam roll with one of our pro guys in his first week at Cressey Performance.

He was great about getting proper rest between workouts:

And making sure that he was fully hydrated:

The end result?  He's tipping the scales at a lean, mean 31 pounds now - with some outstanding mobility.

Anyone else find it very interesting that Tank's weight has increased six-fold in the time that he's been around the Show and Go program - even without doing it?  This program works even by simple association!

Get it now!

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Weight Training Programs: 7 Ways to Get Strong(er) Now

When it comes to intermediate to advanced lifters and their weight training programs, they don't just want to get strong; they want to get strong fast.

With that in mind, I'm devoting today's post to some of my favorite strategies to increase strength quickly.  I talk a lot about longer-term strength and conditioning strategies, but figured it'd be a good idea to highlight some "quick fixes" today.

1. Warm-up - This seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed at how many people jump right into their weight training program of the day without even getting their body temperature up. It's well documented that performance improves as core body temperature rises.  However, as this study demonstrated, even a lowered skin temperature can decrease force output - independent of core body temperature.  So, it may be advantageous to start your day's strength training program in long sleeves and remove layers as you go.  I prefer to see folks sweating by the time the warm-up ends; set aside at least ten minutes for it so that you can get some foam rolling and mobility drills in.

This is why every training session in Show and Go begins with foam rolling and a dynamic warm-up.

2. Hydrate - You'd be amazed at how many people - both athletes and non-athletes - are chronically dehydrated.  Research at my alma mater, The University of Connecticut, demonstrated that dehydration negatively impacted performance - especially on subsequent sets.  In other words, dehydrated lifters don't bounce back as quickly between sets.  As an interesting aside, everyone on this study was either a classmate or professor of mine; cool (no pun intended) stuff!

Regardless, drink as much as you think you need to drink - and then drink some more.

3. Have Some Caffeine - I don't love the idea of guys crushing energy drinks like the world is about to end and they don't need their adrenal glands anymore, but a little boost here and there can do the trick for a lot of lifters.  On the whole, research supports the idea that caffeine improves performance in most scenarios with minimal risk, provided the dose isn't excessive and the individual isn't prone to certain issues (migraines being the one that comes to mind the quickest).

Think of it as a "here and there" boost, but don't assume that you need to crush it to be successful.  Many people get enough of it in from drinking coffee in the morning that they're desensitized, anyway.  I'd prefer folks drink coffee, anyway, as it's loaded with antioxidants and actually confers more health benefits than folks realize.

4. Firm up your Grip - It drives me bonkers when I see a lifter get all fired up to take a big lift, and then grab the bar with a limp hand. There are times to be gentle - handling puppies, performing surgery, and knitting scarves, for instance - but lifting heavy stuff is not one of those times. A firm grip do so much more than connect you to the bar; it turns on more proximal muscles and gets the nervous system going, as we have loads of mechanoceptors in our hands (disproportionately more than other areas on the body). As an example, physical therapist Gray Cook often cites a phenomenon called "irradiation," where the brain signals the rotator cuff to fire as protection to the shoulder when it's faced with a significant load in the hand, as with a deadlift. Just grabbing onto something get more muscles involved in the process.

5. Tinker with Technique -  It goes without saying that just a few subtle strength exercise technique adjustments can make a big difference quickly.  Using the deadlift as an example, the few I know that can make a dramatic difference quickly are:

a) bringing the hands in closer (shortens the distance the bar must travel)
b) taking off the shoes, or getting into a pair of minimalist training shoes (also shortens the distance the bar must travel, and puts the weight on the heels, where you want it)
c) spending less time in the bottom position before one pulls (notice in the video below that I get my thoughts together, then dip, grip, and rip; it allows me to get a bit more out of the stretch-shortening cycle at the bottom):

These are just a few coaching cues for a single strength exercise, but there are countless more unique to each individual to help people increase strength quickly.

6. Change the Music - I don't need to cite a study to prove to you that lifting with good music will help your cause, but I will anyway: Music (or the expectation of music) makes cyclist work harder.  Cycling isn't lifting heavy stuff, but it goes without saying that my experience has been that folks get strong faster when they've got music playing and lots of energy in the gym.

7. Utilize Post-Activation Potentiation - This is a fancy way of saying that if you lift (or even just hold) a heavier weight, when you subsequently (shortly thereafter) perform a comparable exercise with a lighter weight, it will feel easier.  In the research, it works in some scenarios, but not in others (seems to be more effective in the lower body than the upper body).  Chad Waterbury covered this concept in some detail HERE, if you're interested in reading more.

These are just seven strategies you can employ in your weight training programs to increase strength transiently, and there are surely many more.  By all means, share your top short-term "get strong fast" strategies in the comments section.

Looking for a weight training program where you can best put these strategies in action?  Check out The High Performance Handbook.

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Baseball Strength and Conditioning: Early Off-Season Priorities 6-10

In Part 1 of this off-season baseball strength and conditioning series, I outlined the first five of my top 10 priorities when dealing with baseball players at the start of their off-season.  Today, I round out the top 10 “general” things always seem to be addressing with players coming in after a season.

1. Regaining lost mobility - This is an incredibly loaded topic that goes far beyond the scope of any blog or article, as it's an entire two-day seminar or book! You see, losses in mobility - the ability to reach a desired position or posture - can be caused by a number of issues - and usually a combination of several of them.  Tissues can actually lose sarcomeres and become short after immobilization or significant eccentric stress (as with the deceleration component of throwing).  They can become stiff because of inadequate stability at adjacent joints (learn more HERE), protective tension (e.g., "tight" hamstrings in someone with crazy anterior pelvic tilt), or neural tension from an injury (e.g., disc herniation causing "tight" hamstrings).

The "Short vs. Stiff" issue is why you need to have a variety of tools in your "mobility toolbox."  You need focal modalities like Active Release, Graston, and ASTYM techniques to assist with dealing with short tissues, whereas you need more diffuse modalities like traditional massage and foam rolling for dealing with stiffness (although both modalities can certainly help in the other regards, this is how I prefer to use them).

You need to understand retraining breathing appropriately and how posture affects respiratory function.  If you live in extension, you'll have a poor zone of apposition in which the diaphragm can function.  The average human takes over 20,000 breaths per day.  If you don't use your diaphragm properly, more of the stress is placed on the supplemental respiratory muscles: sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, pec major and minor, upper trapezius, and latissimus dorsi (to only name a few).  What are some insanely common sites of trigger points in just about everyone - especially thrower? Sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, pec major and minor, upper trapezius, and latissimus dorsi.  Improving respiratory function can be a complete game changer when it comes to enhancing mobility.  If you see a baseball player with a low right shoulder, prominent anterior left ribs, adducted right hip, huge anterior pelvic tilt, and limited right shoulder internal rotation, it's almost always a slam dunk.

(Check out www.PosturalRestoration.com for more details on this front)

You may need low-load, long-duration static stretches to improve length in tissues that have lost sarcomeres.  This research has been around in the post-surgery community for decades (1984 research example here), but it's actually not used all that much in strength and conditioning programs - presumably because of time constraints or the fact that most coaches simply don't know how well it can work in the right people.

Finally, as we noted in our Assess and Correct DVD set, you also need dynamic flexibility drills in your warm-ups to reduce tissue and joint stiffness, and subsequent strength exercises in your strength and conditioning program to create adequate stability at adjacent joints to "hold" that new range of motion in place.

Many physical therapist employ heat early in a session to decrease stiffness prior to strengthening exercises, too.  The point is that there may be many different ways to skin a cat - but there are also a lot different types and sizes of cat.  And, for the record, I don't condone skinning cats; it's just a really gruesome analogy that has somehow "stuck" in our normally very politically correct society. Weird...but let's move on.

2.Improving dynamic stabilization of the scapula - I say "dynamic stabilization" because you don't just want scapular stability; you want a scapula with appropriate tissue length, stiffness, and density to allow for the desired movement.  A scapula that doesn't move might be "stable," but that's not actually a good thing!

Truth be told, the scapular stabilizers generally fatigue before the rotator cuff does.  And, when the scapula isn't positioned appropriately, the rotator cuff is at a mechanical disadvantage, anyway.  Additionally, poor scapular control can present as an internal rotation deficit at the shoulder, as you'll just protract the shoulder excessively in place of internally rotating.  In other words, you can do all the rotator cuff exercises you want, but you don't increase strength of the periscapular muscles, you'll be spinning your wheels.  There are loads of drills that we use, but forearm wall slide variations are among our favorites:

3. Enhancing global strength while minimizing reactive training - As I've already noted in this series, we're certainly spending a lot of time addressing specific areas of weakness like the rotator cuff, scapular stabilizers, and anterior core. However, I should be very clear that we're still using "money" strength exercises like variations of the deadlift, single-leg exercises, squatting (in some of our guys), pull-ups, rows, push-ups, and dumbbell bench presses to get strong.  That said, the volume and intensity come down a ton on the reactive training side of things.  We'll give our guys a few weeks off altogether from sprinting, as they've usually done a lot of that all season.  Plus, nixing all the sprinting and jumping for a few weeks ensures that they won't tweak anything, given the soreness they'll be working with from the strength training program - and it allows us to increase strength faster.

4. Putting guys in the right footwear - One thing that many folks don't appreciate about playing baseball every day from February to October is the sheer amount of time one spends standing around in cleats, which will never be as comfortable as sneakers or going barefoot.  As such, one of the first things we do with most of our guys is get them into a good pair of minimalist shoes for training, as it gets them away from the rigidity, separation from the ground, and ankle mobility deficits that come with wearing cleats.  As I wrote previously, I'm a big fan of the New Balance Minimus.

Keep in mind that we ease guys into these minimalist shoe options, rather than throwing them in the footwear 24/7 right away.  They'll start out just wearing them during training, and increase from there, assuming all goes well.

5. Normalizing sleep schedules - Professional baseball players (and really all professional athletes) have terrible sleep schedules.  Because most games are night games, they generally go to bed around 1-2AM and wake up anywhere from 7AM to 11AM.  The early risers I know will usually take a nap before going to the park, whereas the guys who sleep in roll out of bed and go straight to the park.  Additionally, much of this sleeping comes on planes and buses, which aren't exactly comfortable places to get quality sleep.  I'm a firm believer that one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight - but this simply isn't an option for professional baseball players.

That said, we try to normalize things as much as possible in the off-season.  All our athletes are encouraged to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time - and to hit the hay before 11pm every night.  Any naps they can get during the day are a bonus, too!

Wrap-up

While I've outlined ten things we address in the early off-season, these are really just the tip of the iceberg, as every player is unique and needs an individual approach.  That said, the one general theme that applies to all of them is that we're shifting paradigms - meaning that some things about our philosophy may differ from what they've experienced.  Some guys may be accustomed to just "football workouts."  Others may have been coddled with foo-foo training programs where they didn't work hard.  Some guys ran distances. Some guys crushed the rotator cuffs every day while ignoring the rest of the body.

The point is that it's not just our job to find what we feel is the best fit for these athletes, but also to educate them on why the unique program we've designed for them is a better approach than they can get anywhere else.

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Strength and Conditioning Programs: Understanding and Managing Fatigue

Understanding and Managing Fatigue

Perhaps it’s coincidence, or perhaps the scientific community is finally catching on, but recently, there have been several studies looking at the role of short- and long-term recovery in preventing and rehabilitating injuries.

Here’s a research study that demonstrates relationships among a variety of scheduling and recovery factors and injury rates. The part I found most interesting was that researchers observed that sleeping fewer than six hours the night prior to a competition led to a significant increase in fatigue related injuries.

Additionally, researchers at Stanford recently demonstrated the profoundly positive effect that “sleep extension” has on a variety of performance variables in high-level basketball athletes.

These results, in themselves, aren’t particularly surprising: fatigue impacts performance – whether that’s on the field, or in the rehabilitation realm. Anyone who has ever trained an athlete on a Saturday morning after he’s had a late Friday night, or rehabbed a roofer after he’s completed a 10-hour-workday, will tell you that there are certainly less-than-optimal times to get the work in.

What research like this doesn’t tell us, though, is that not all fatigue is created equal – and I suspect that this is one area where strength and conditioning specialists can “return the favor” to rehabilitation specialists for all that we’ve learned from them over the years. Very simply, the very best strength and conditioning coaches I know are the ones who are masters of managing competing demands, including strength training, mobility drills, soft tissue work, movement training, metabolic conditioning, and sport-specific training. In order to effectively manage all these factors, it’s imperative to understand the different stages of fatigue. On the rehabilitation side of things, every injured athlete likely has some element of fatigue that not only impacted his/her injury mechanism, but will impact the response to a given rehabilitation program.

Over-what? Over-everything!

In their classic review, The Unknown Mechanism of the Overtraining Syndrome, Armstrong and VanHeest discussed the importance of differentiating among overload, over-reaching, overtraining, and the overtraining syndrome (OTS). They defined the terms as follows:

  • Overload – “a planned, systematic, progressive increase in training stimuli that is required for improvements in strength, power, and endurance”
  • Over-reaching – “training that involves a brief period of overload, with inadequate recovery, that exceeds the athlete’s adaptive capacity. This process involves a temporary performance decrement lasting from several days to several weeks.”
  • Overtraining – training that “exceeds over-reaching and results in frank physiological maladaptation(s) and chronically reduced exercise performance. It proceeds from imbalances between training and recovery, exercise and exercise capacity, stress and stress tolerance; training exceeds recovery, exercise exceeds one’s capacity, and stressors exceed one’s stress tolerance.”
  • Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) – “a set of persistent physical and psychological symptoms that occur subsequent to prolonged application of heavy training loads. The critical diagnostic factor is a chronic decrease in performance, not simply the existence of SAS [signs and symptoms].”

Overload is inherent to a successful training process, and over-reaching is actually quite valuable when used appropriately. For instance, in our training programs at Cressey Performance, we generally fluctuate training stress in four-week programs as high (1), medium (2), very high (3), low (4), where the deloading in week 4 allows for adaptation from the fatigue imposed during week 3.

However, over-reaching is far from overtraining – a term that is thrown around far too often among even the most qualified individuals in the world of health and human performance. Over-reaching may be attained in as little as 7-10 days, and remedied in a matter of days or weeks with adequate deloading. Conversely, the process of overtraining must take place for months for the outcome, OTS, to be apparent. Recovery from OTS requires at least several weeks – and more often several months; in other words, you really have to go out of your way to get to overtraining syndrome.

Since high level performance – and even just normal physical health – is a priority, it is imperative that coaches, parents, and athletes recognize the signs and symptoms of over-reaching and overtraining syndrome – and the differences between the two. According to Armstrong and VanHeest, the signs and symptoms of OTS may include:

  • Decreased physical performance
  • General fatigue, malaise, loss of vigor
  • Insomnia
  • Change in appetite
  • Irritability, restlessness, excitability, anxiety
  • Loss of body weight
  • Loss of motivation
  • Lack of mental concentration
  • Feelings of depression

What All These “Overs” Mean to You

Many of these signs and symptoms are shared between over-reaching and OTS, so how do we know the difference? How do we know when to hold back for a day or two (for overload recovery), 7-21 days (over-reaching), or even months (overtraining syndrome)?

Unfortunately, as much as I would like to be able to offer you the magic answer, I can’t do so. The scientific community has yet to agree on a single, highly sensitive diagnostic test to differentiate among the three. In fact, the only diagnostic tests that are universally accurate are those of physical performance; if performance drops off, there must be some degree of accumulated fatigue.

Other measures – such as heart rate, bloodwork, metabolic rate, substrate metabolism, and a host more – are subject to so many factors that they are hardly reliable tests of one’s training status.

As an example, research from Fry et al. had subjects perform ten sets of one repetition on machine squats at 100% of their one-rep maximum for 14 days straight. That’s an absurd volume of high-intensity resistance training, especially in a trained population. You know what, though? The only thing that dropped off was performance; hormone status (as measured by bloodwork) really didn’t change much at all.

Conversely, crush an endurance athlete with volume, and this same bloodwork will look terrible. The take-home point is that it’s a lot harder to “overtrain” on intensity than volume. And that’s where the problem exists when you’re dealing with athletes: just about every sport out there is a blend of volume and intensity. We don’t just train or rehabilitate shotputters or Ironman competitors; we get athletes from soccer, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis, and a host of other sports.

So, what is a coach or rehabilitation specialist to do when trying to determine just how much fatigue is present, and what the best course of action is to guarantee an optimal return-to-play as quickly as possible?

In two words: ask questions.

In my opinion, the absolute most important step is to establish communication with athletes and – in this case – patients. Ask about training practices before an injury, sleep patterns, dietary factors, family life, concurrent illness/injury, changes in body weight, and appetite.

These may seem like obvious questions to ask, but we live in a one-size-fits-all world of pre-made templates and rigid systems – and people can fall through the cracks all the time. My experience has been that those most commonly “thrown under the bus” in this regard are the most dedicated athletes forced to train or rehabilitate in a “general health” world. As an example, we had an adult athlete client request a Vitamin D test from a primary care physician last year, and he was turned down because he wasn’t “a post-menopausal female.” As it turned out, he was severely clinically deficient, and normalizing his Vitamin D was a big game-changer for him.

Simply asking the right questions will always help the cause when it comes to determining just how “systemic” what you’re dealing with really is. And, in the process, it gives you an opportunity to show a client or patient how much you care before they even care how much you know.

- Eric Cressey
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Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 2

In today's post, we've got the second half of a Q&A response regarding how to determine the optimal number of sets and reps for strength exercises.  In case you missed the first installment, be sure to check out Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps - Part 1.  We pick up with factors 7-13:

7. Whether You’re Trying to Correct Muscle Imbalances – In Part 1 (Bulletpoint 4) of my five-part Correcting Bad Posture series, I talked about how I like to use a 2:1 pull-to-pushing ratio with those who have significant upper body muscle imbalances.  In addition to upping the sets, you can also use higher rep schemes.  So, something like this would be an easy way to accumulate more volume:

A1) Chest-Supported Row - Neutral Grip: 4x8
A2) Low Incline Barbell Press: 3x6

Effectively, you're not only getting more total sets in favor of "postural balance;" you're also getting more reps per set.

8. How Neurally Efficient a Client/Athlete Is – Some athletes – especially those who tend to be of a more slow-twitch muscle fiber predominance – always seem to need to get more sets in on their strength exercises.  This is impacted in a lot of them by a previous history of endurance training – whether it’s high school soccer or a dedicated running career – that made them less efficient at tapping in to high threshold motor units.  The same holds true for female athletes; they always seem to need a little extra volume on strength exercises; it’s almost as if they can’t ramp up to a max as quickly as men.  I don't think you necessarily need to increase reps per set, but definitely ought to consider adding an additional set or two.

9. Whether You’re Trying to Achieve a Metabolic Training Benefit – Some programs use a concept called metabolic resistance training to improve cardiovascular conditioning and increase energy expenditure so that you can burn fat faster. Generally, in programs like these, you’ll need more sets and higher reps to elicit this training effect.

10. Whether You’re Dealing with a Post-Injury Client – In these folks, you want to keep the sets and reps down and gradually ease them back in to things.  So, while a “normal” client might be fluctuating up and down to impose and decrease training stress, respectively, an post-injury client would be gradually increasing the sets and reps to match his/her capacity for loading at a particular time.

That said, you have to be cognizant of giving them sufficient volume to maintain a training effect and keep them from going insane.  So, using the example of someone with shoulder pain, you might have to cut back on pressing movements, but you can really bump up the volume on horizontal pulling sets and reps.

11. What Else You're Doing - The base mesocycle of the Smolov Squat Program goes like this:

Monday: 4x9
Wednesday: 5x7
Friday: 7x5
Saturday: 10x3

Sure, this is a ton of work (and very specific work at that), but quite a few lifters have used it with excellent success.  You know what, though?  Try adding a lot of extra sets and reps for "other stuff" and you'll fail...miserably.  You can't specialize on everything all at once.  If sets and reps go up in one facet of your strength and conditioning program, they have to come down somewhere else.

12. Whether Soreness is of Concern - With our in-season athletes, we want to avoid soreness at all costs.  The easiest way to do this is to avoid changing strength exercises, but this isn't really feasible, as most athletes will get sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again all season.  So, we need to be careful about strategically substituting new strength exercises during in-season training.  One way to make it go smoothly is to simply keep the sets and reps down in the first round through a new training program.  Let's say that we were doing front squats in-season.  We'd probably go something like this:

Week 1: 1x3 reps
Week 2: 3x3 reps
Week 3: 3x3 reps
Week 4: 2x3 reps (deload)

This leads me to my final point...

13. Whether or Not an Athlete is In-Season - If an athlete is in-season, less is more.  I prefer to have our athletes leave the gym feeling refreshed after their in-season training sessions - so they might be completely finished with a lift after only 8-10 sets of strength exercises in session.  You can get in more sets and reps during the off-season.

That wraps up the primary considerations that come to mind for determining the sets and reps in a strength training program.  Of course, there are many more to consider.  Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 1

Q: I know this is a loaded question with hours upon hours of answers, but I'm trying to make some sense about the different kinds of ways/philosophies involved in writing strength and conditioning programs. I have read different articles and chapters in books that discuss program development, looked at programs at my current job, and can write a basic one for a new athlete. It's not the exercises; I'm familiar with plenty and love seeing something new. My problems come more with the sets and reps and when they change and why; I can’t seem to map out the actual progression of the program.

What philosophies, if one, do you follow and what basic rules do you find to be the most important when determining the sets and reps?

A: This is a loaded question!  The best way to get better with programming is simply to write a ton of programs and see what works and what doesn't.  However, with respect to your specific questions on sets and reps, what you choose to utilize is going to be dictated by:

1. The duration of a session - You won't be able to do 6 sets of 4 reps if you only have an client/athlete for an hour and want to accomplish other things.  This is, in particular, a big issue in collegiate strength and conditioning programs because the NCAA allows only limited number of hours per week with athletes, and sport coaches and strength and conditioning coaches have to share this time.  Additionally, it's a challenge for personal trainers in private training set-ups where clients may train in 30-, 45-, or 60-minute blocks.

I've written several times in the past about how I would never allow our business model to dictate our training model - and this sets and reps question is one reason why.  At Cressey Sports Performance, we do all semi-private training, which allows for sliding starts and finishes.  It allows us to get in all the work we need to do with clients - regardless of the sets and reps in question.  Likewise, as you'll see in the rest of this two-part series, you'll appreciate that it's why we don't have one program standardized for everyone on the dry erase board; every single CSP client has a unique program  because they all have unique needs.

2. Competing demands - The more variety (plyos, conditioning, medicine ball work, etc) that you want to add to a program, the less volume you'll be able to do on strength training.  We have limited time and recovery capacity, so we can't just keep adding all the time.

For me, a good example is what happens over the course of the baseball off-season.  Lifting volume is high when they get back, throwing is a no-go, movement training is 2x/week, and medicine ball is light.  After the first month, medicine ball work goes up, lifting comes down a bit.

Then, at the start of January, medicine ball and lifting volume comes back down and throwing volume increases.  We then get rid of medicine ball work almost altogether and go to 3x/week movement training as the season approaches, throwing intensifies, and guys do more hitting.  So, it doesn't just depend on the exercises; it depends on the big picture.

A great follow-up read to this point would be my post, Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding.

3. Exercise selection - If you're doing more sets, you'll want to do it on "money" exercises like deadlifts and not curls, etc.  Moreover, certain exercises lend themselves better to higher reps than others.  For instance, we never front squat anyone over six reps, because technical breakdown often occurs with fatigue.  You also wouldn’t want to do cleans for sets of 15!

Usually, it’s also good to just “call it” on a particular exercise and move on to the next if someone has already dropped the weight on subsequent sets and form continues to deteriorate.  That energy is better spent on different exercises where technique can remain perfect even in the presence of fatigue.

4. Training age - As a general rule of thumb, the more experienced they are, the more sets and FEWER reps they'll need.  At this point in my training career, I just won't get strong on sets of five. Here's another good follow-up read: Why I Don't Like the 5x5 Workout.

Conversely, beginners generally need more sets and reps to pick up on things.  That doesn’t mean that you should just do three sets of 15 reps on everything with a novice, though.  I find myself teaching squat and deadlift variations with four sets of five reps quite a bit; the load, however, is light enough that the lifter could usually do 10-12 reps.  In other words, it’s just technique practice.

5. The Training Goal and Client/Athlete in Question – While taking heavy singles over 90% of one’s 1-rep max may be ideal for helping folks get strong, working at such a high percentage in some populations warps the risk: reward circumstances. Whether it’s older folks, those with injuries, or athletes who have a lot more to lose by getting hurt than they have to gain by adding five pounds to their squat, you have to take each individual situation into consideration.  I always remind people that we lift weights to improve quality of life, not just so that we can talk about how heavy the weights we lifted were.

6. Whether You Want to Impose or Remove Fatigue – In a “loading” week, volume is going to be higher.  If you’re deloading, though, that volume is going to be reduced.  Aside from beginner strength training programs, volume should never be the same over several weeks in a row.  I discuss several deloading strategies in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.

I’ll be back in a tomorrow with more factors that influence the sets and reps in a strength training program.  In the meantime, if you're looking for a comprehensive strength and conditioning program to take all the guesswork out of things for you, check out The High Performance Handbook.

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Does a Normal Elbow Really Exist?

I've written quite a bit in the past about how diagnostic imaging (x-rays, MRIs, etc) doesn't always tell the entire story, and that incidental findings are very common.  This applies to the lower back, shoulders, and knees (and surely several other joints).  The scary thing, though, is that we see these crazy structural abnormalities not just in adults, but in kids, too.  Last month, I highlighted research that showed that 64% of 14-15 year-old athletes have structural abnormalities in their knees - even without the presence of symptoms.  Just a month later, newer research is showing that the knee isn't the only hinge joint affected; young throwers' elbows are usually a structural mess as well.  In an American Journal of Sports Medicine study of 23 uninjured, asymptomatic high school pitchers (average age of 16), researchers found the following: Three participants (13%) had no abnormalities. Fifteen individuals (65%) had asymmetrical anterior band ulnar collateral ligament thickening, including 4 individuals who also had mild sublime tubercle/anteromedial facet edema. Fourteen participants (61%) had posteromedial subchondral sclerosis of the ulnotrochlear articulation, including 8 (35%) with a posteromedial ulnotrochlear osteophyte, and 4 (17%) with mild posteromedial ulnotrochlear chondromalacia. Ten individuals (43%) had multiple abnormal findings in the throwing elbow. For me, the 35% with the osteophytes (and chondromalacia) are the biggest concern.  Thickening of the ulnar collateral ligament isn't surprising at all, but marked osseous (bone) abnormalities is a big concern.

Also, as a brief, but important aside, this study was done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota - which isn't exactly the hotbed of baseball activity that you get down in the South.  Recent research also shows that players in Southern (warm weather) climates have decreased shoulder internal rotation range of motion and external rotation strength compared to their Northern (cold weather) climate counterparts. In other words, I'll be money that the numbers reported in this study are nothing compared to the young pitchers who are constantly abused year-round in the South. The next time you think to yourself that all young athletes - especially throwers - can be managed the same, think again.  Every body is unique - and that's why I'm so adamant about the importance of assessing young athletes. It's one reason why I filmed the Everything Elbow in-service, which would be a great thing to watch if you're someone who manages pitchers.

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