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Strength Training for Pitchers

Strength Training for Pitchers

by: Eric Cressey

Recently, I received an email inquiry about the value of strength training for pitchers. The individual emailing me had come across the following quote from a pitching "authority:"

"Training will not teach you how to apply more force...only mechanics can do that. And pitching is not about applying more effort into a pitch but is about producing more skilled movements from better timing of all the parts. That will help produce more force.

"No matter how hard you try, you will not get that from your strength training program...no matter who designed it, how much they have promised you it would or your hope that it will be the secret for you."

To say that this surprised me would be an understatement. I'll start with the positive: I agree with him that pitching is all about producing skilled movements secondary to appropriate timing of all the involved "parts." I've very lucky to work hand-in-hand with some skilled pitching coaches who really know their stuff - and trust in me to do my job to complement the coaching they provide.

With that said, however, I disagree that you can't gain (or lose) velocity based exclusively on your strength and conditioning program. On countless occasions, I've seen guys gain velocity without making any changes to their throwing programs or mechanics. I know what many of the devil's advocates in the crowd are thinking: "you're just making that up!" So, if my word isn't enough, how about we just go to the research?

From: Derenne C, Ho KW, Murphy JC. Effects of general, special, and specific resistance training on throwing velocity in baseball: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Feb;15(1):148-56.

[Note from EC: Yes, it's pathetic that this REVIEW has been out almost seven years and people who are supposedly "in the know" still haven't come across ANY of the studies to which it alludes.]

Practical Applications

Throwing velocity can be increased by resistance training. A rationale for general, special, and specific resistance training to increase throwing velocity has been presented. The following findings and recommendations relevant to strength and conditioning specialists and pitching coaches can be useful from the review of literature.

In the "further reading" section at the end of this article, I have listed ten different studies that each demonstrated a positive effect of weight training on throwing velocity. The authors in the review above also have a table that summarizes 26 studies that examined the effect of different strength protocols on throwing velocity, and 22 of the 26 showed increases over controls who just threw. In other words, throwing and strength training is better than throwing alone for improving velocity -

independent of optimization of mechanics from outside coaching.

The saddest part is that the training programs referenced in this review were nothing short of foo-foo garbage. We're talking 3x10-12 light dumbbell drills and mind-numbing, rubber tubing blasphemy. If archaic stuff works, just imagine what happens when pitchers actually train the right way - and have pitching coaches to help them out?

Oh yeah, 10 mph gains in six months happen - and D1 college coaches and pro scouts start salivating over kids who are barely old enough to drive.

With that rant aside, I'd like to embark on another one: what about the indirect gains associated with strength training? Namely, what about the fact that it keeps guys healthy?

We know that:

a) Pitchers (compared to position players) have less scapular upward rotation at 60 and 90 degrees of abduction -and upward rotation is extremely important for safe overhead activity.

b) 86% of major league pitchers have supraspinatus partial thickness tears.

c) All pitchers have some degree of labral fraying - and the labrum provides approximately 50% of the stability in the glenohumeral joint

d) There is considerable research to suggest that congenital shoulder instability is one of the traits that makes some pitchers better than others (allows for more external rotation during the cocking phase to generate velocity).

e) Most pitchers lack internal rotation range-of-motion due to posterior rotator cuff (and possibly capsular) tightness and morphological changes to bone (retroversion). Subscapularis strength is incredibly important to prevent anterior shoulder instability in this scenario.

We also know that resistance training is the basis for modern physical therapy - which I'm pretty sure is aimed at restoring inappropriate movement patterns which can cause these structural/functional defects/abnormalities from reaching threshold and becoming symptomatic. Do you think that a good resistance training program could strengthen lower traps and serratus anterior to help alleviate this upward rotation problem? Could a solid subscapularis strengthening protocol help with preventing anterior instability? Could a strong rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers allow an individual to work around a torn supraspinatus?

And, last time I checked, strength and conditioning was about more than just being the "weights coach." We do a lot of flexibility/mobility and soft tissue work - and it just so happens that such work does wonders on pec minor, levator scapulae, rhomboids, infraspinatus/teres minor, and a host of other muscles in pitchers.

I also like to tell jokes, do magic tricks, and make shadow puppets on the wall. Am I to assume that these don't play a remarkable role in my athletes' success? I beg to differ. Sure, banging out a set of 20 chin-ups because one of my athletes called me out might make me look like a stupid monkey when my elbows refuse to extend for the subsequent ten minutes, but I still think what we do plays a very important role in our athletes success; otherwise, they wouldn't keep coming back. And, for the record, my shadow puppets are great for building camaraderie and bolstering spirits among the Cressey Performance troops - even if I'm just a "weights coach" or whatever.

This only encompasses a few of the seemingly countless examples I can come up with at a moment's notice. Pitchers are an at-risk population; your number one job in working with a pitcher is to keep him healthy. And, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a guy who is healthy and super-confident over his monster legs and butt is going to throw a lot harder than a guy who is in pain and as skinny as an Olsen twin because his stubborn pitching coach said strength training doesn't work. You've got to train ass to throw gas!

Last fall, I started working with a pro ball player whose velocity was down from 94 to 88 thanks to a long season - but also because he'd had lower back issues that have prevented him from training. In other words, he counts on strength training to keep his velocity up. And, sure enough, it was a big component of getting him healthy prior to this season.

Putting it into Practice

I suspect that some of the reluctance to recognize strength training as important to pitchers is the notion that it will make pitchers too bulky and ruin pitching-specific flexibility. Likewise, there are a lot of meatheads out there who think that baseball guys can train just like other athletes. While there are a lot of similarities, it's really important to make some specific upper body modifications for the overhead throwing athlete. Contraindicated exercises in our baseball programs include:

  • Overhead lifting (not chin-ups, though)
  • Straight-bar benching
  • Upright rows
  • Front/Side raises (especially empty can - why anyone would do a provocative test as a training measure is beyond me)
  • Olympic lifts aside from high pulls
  • Back squats

The next question, obviously, is "what do you do instead?" Here's a small list:

  • Push-up variations: chain, band-resisted, blast strap
  • Multi-purpose bar benching (neutral grip benching bar)
  • DB bench pressing variations
  • Every row and chin-up you can imagine (excluding upright rows)
  • Loads of thick handle/grip training
  • Medicine ball throws
  • Specialty squat bars: giant cambered bar, safety squat bar
  • Front Squats
  • Deadlift variations

The Take-Home Message

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with strength training program for pitchers. In reality, what is wrong is the assumption that all strength training programs are useless because some are poorly designed and not suited to athletes' needs and limitations. Be leery of people who say strength training isn't important. Everyone - from endurance athletes, to grandmothers, to pitchers - needs it!

Further Reading

1. Bagonzi, J.A. The effects of graded weighted baseballs, free weight training, and simulative isometric exercise on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master's thesis, Indiana University. 1978.

2. Brose, D.E., and D.L. Hanson. Effects of overload training on velocity and accuracy of throwing. Res. Q. 38:528-533. 1967.

3. Jackson, J.B. The effects of weight training on the velocity of a thrown baseball. Master's thesis, Central Michigan University,. 1994.

4. Lachowetz, T., J. Evon, and J. Pastiglione. The effects of an upper-body strength program on intercollegiate baseball throwing velocity. J. Strength Cond. Res. 12:116-119. 1998.

5. Logan, G.A., W.C. McKinney, and W. Rowe. Effect of resistance through a throwing range of motion on the velocity of a baseball. Percept. Motor Skills. 25:55-58. 1966.

6. Newton, R.U., and K.P. McEvoy. Baseball throwing velocity: A comparison of medicine ball training and weight training. J. Strength Cond. Res. 8:198-203. 1994.

7. Potteiger, J.A., H.N. Williford, D.L. Blessing, and J. Smidt. Effect of two training methods on improving baseball performance variables. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res. 6:2-6. 1992.

8. Sullivan, J.W. The effects of three experimental training factors upon baseball throwing velocity and selected strength measures. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University,. 1970.

9. Swangard, T.M. The effect of isotonic weight training programs on the development of bat swinging, throwing, and running ability of college baseball players. Master's thesis, University of Oregon,. 1965.

10. Thompson, C.W., and E.T. Martin. Weight training and baseball throwing speed. J. Assoc. Phys. Mental Rehabil. 19:194-196. 1965.


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Detailed Review of Maximum Strength

I just got an extremely thorough review back from a happy Maximum Strength customer. Check it out for yourself! Hi Eric, First of all, a big thank you for writing Maximum Strength. It is an awesome book and money well spent. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to get bigger, stronger and faster. Improvements [note from EC: weights are converted from kilograms): Broad Jump increased 12” from 93.5” to 105.5” Box Squat increased 55 pounds from 297 to 352. Bench Press increased 50 pounds from 220 pounds to 270 pounds Deadlift increased 22 pounds from 462 to 484 3RM chin-up increased 22 pounds from BW+44 to BW+66 (BW was unchanged) I could write a book on my verdict of the whole program, but I've just got back from Testing day at the gym and I'm shattered. The biggest thing the program showed me was that I had not been training hard enough. The training sessions in Maximum Strength were brutal and longer than I was used to prior to doing the program. My whole attitude changed. I now always dig deeper and push myself to the limit. This brings me to another interesting point. I cannot over emphasize how important the deload weeks proved to be for me. I found that midway through the third week of each cycle, I was hammered and by week 4, my enthusiasm was nil. However, after the deload week I was always firing on all cylinders and raring to go for the first week of the next phase. I understand everyone is different, but three hard weeks followed by one easy seems to work great for me. Needless to say, great product! I am ecstatic with my results and there will be more to come. Thanks, Elliot Newman Leeds, United Kingdom Find out more about Maximum Strength here.
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Just One Missing Piece…

Each day, on my drive to work, I pass a series of traffic lights right where Rt. 16 in Somerville/Cambridge enters into Rt. 2, a pretty major pseudo-expressway here in Greater Boston. Without fail, at each traffic light, homeless folks will pace alongside stopped traffic with a cup in hand, asking for change (I'd say it's competitive among all of them, but the truth is that they seem to have a system mapped out, as there is always someone new on each corner daily). The locals have grown accustomed to it, and judging by the fact that these folks are there year-round, they make enough to get by. The other day, a gentlemen strolled past my car while I was stopped at a red light. He had the normal sign ("Homeless, Sober, God Bless") and the customary Dunkin' Donuts cup for change collection. However, he was also wearing a Yankees hat in the heart of Red Sox country - and in an area of knowledgeable/perceptive people (Harvard and Tufts are within a few miles of this spot, as a frame of reference). That hat couldn't be helping his cause... Here was a guy doing almost everything right (well, at least in the context of being homeless and asking for change), but he was missing out on a single crucial piece of the puzzle. It isn't all that different from most folks' fitness programs. You'll see people all the time have all sorts of stuff right: plenty of motivation, a good diet, a great training environment, top-of-the-line equipment, you name it. Then, they're missing out on something seemingly small, but hugely important. Maybe their back hurts because they're wearing cross-trainers when they deadlift (shifts the weight forward too much). Or, maybe they haven't implemented strategic deloading effectively, and are all banged-up or have hit a plateau. It might be poor exercise selection, too much or too little volume, or poor exercise technique. It's analogous to spending hours trying to figure out how to do your own taxes, and then overlooking a huge deduction you could have written off. You not only have to consider that you have physically lost money (the extra cash you paid to Uncle Sam would be your injuries and/or lack of progress); you also have to recognize the opportunity cost of your time doing taxes (efforts in the gym that didn't pay off). It would have been cheaper and more fruitful to just hire an accountant in the first place - just like you'd see a lawyer if you needed a contract, or a doctor if you needed surgery. For some reason, though, people have been conditioned to think that they can figure out exercise on their own. Just getting active is similar to understanding how to balance your checkbook. However, exercising safely, effectively, and efficiently is more along the lines of filing a tax return when you're self-employed with three ex-wives, 14 kids, and two company cars you want to write off (that's not me, for the record; I don't even have a goldfish, let alone 14 kids). What I'm saying in a not-so-concise format is that it's okay to outsource here and there. For a long time, I refused to put out articles and books/manuals that featured comprehensive programming, as I was all about how things need to be perfect for each individual. Eventually, though, after a lot of requests from readers, I broke down and found a happy medium when I wrote my Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual; it is a choose-your-own-adventure type of book where you tested yourself on some athletic qualities and then followed one of two programs depending on the time of year. The feedback was fantastic, and I realized that a lot of people were better off with an educated generic template than they were coming up with their own programs. That's why I was open to the idea of writing Maximum Strength when my co-author Matt Fitzgerald approached me with the idea. Effectively, we integrate comprehensive strength training, mobility/activation warm-ups, energy systems work, deloading, nutrition, supplementation, and quantifiable pre- and post-testing measures. For the majority of folks, these programs - with some minor modifications - do the trick. For others, more advanced strategies are necessary. Some folks see personal trainers, physical therapists, or orthopedists. I do a lot of online consulting work in the corrective exercise realm, helping folks who have chronic aches and pains that don't necessarily qualify them for physical therapy because they don't interfere with activities of daily living, but do act up with weight-training or sprinting, for example. I also work with a lot of folks who have just been discharged from physical therapy and need to figure out how to effectively transition back to "normal" training. So, with all this said, don't ever hesitate to outsource. Chances are there are people who outsource to YOU because you're an expert in some capacity where they need help.
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Random Friday Thoughts: 8/29/08

1. As you probably know, I haven't been updating here quite as frequently of late, but fortunately, it's with good reason. The summer's winding down, so we've been getting our fall schedule all squared away with the high school guys - plus some local college guys at programs that don't have organized S&C programs. Additionally, all of our minor leaguers are in the final few days of their seasons right now, so coordinating with them and a few agents has been a priority right now. Fortunately, though, there are also some exciting things in store for this blog... 2. Basically, we're going to be combining EricCressey.com with EricCressey.Blogspot.com. So, my blog will be available directly from EricCressey.com. In the process, we have to transfer a ton of content - but the good news is that the finished product will look a lot more professional and organized when all is said and done. In the meantime, thanks for your patience as we make this switch. 3. I was chatting yesterday with Doug Carroll, a great hitting coach with whom we work. Doug played professional baseball to a very high level in both the Mariners and Devil Rays organizations. We both agreed that one thing you’ll notice in the majority of high level athletes is that they really don’t give a crap what anyone outside their family thinks of them. I think that if more people approached their lifting with this mindset, we’ve have a lot more people who were really big and strong. Interestingly, this closely parallels my approach to internet forums - and, thus far, ignoring what the haters say has been a great decision. 4. Never forget that you don’t have to leave the gym exhausted for the session to be considered productive. Take a 300-pound lineman and have him run five miles; he’ll be completely exhausted by the end of the session. He’ll also be slower, more likely to get injured, and definitely more likely to want to kick your teeth in. 5. Something you might not know: there are estrogen receptors on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that – along with several other factors – make females more susceptible to ACL ruptures. The cyclical nature of estrogen and progesterone markedly influences ACL strength via fibroblast activity – so at certain times of the month, the ACL is more likely to tear. The ACL may also be predisposed to dramatic mood swings that make everything your fault, fellas. 6. I had a new article published yesterday, in case you missed it: 5 More Common Technique Mistakes. 7. I got two separate bills from Comcast in the past two days for a total of over $314. Do you think they read my blog, or is their billing system simply as hopelessly inadequate as their customer service? 8. Someone asked me yesterday, "Are single-leg leg press a good unilateral leg exercise? I hate lunges." Sorry, dude; single-leg leg presses don't count for anything. 9. I'm working on a detailed write-up on my views on running for pitchers right now. I think it'll open a lot of eyes - if I ever get time to finish it! I also have a new e-book in the works that I think will open a lot of eyes. 10. Have a great holiday weekend, everyone.
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Maximum Strength and HIIT Sessions

Q: My question concerns the combination of your Maximum Strength program and HIIT workouts. Comments I have read by you indicate that HIIT training is detrimental to progress in your program. Could you explain why? Thanks for all that you do. A: Give this article a read; it should answer your questions: Of course, some things change if you are a guy who is more focused on getting lean, maintaining/improving cardiovascular fitness, or conditioning for a particular sport that warrants a lot of interval training. It's the give and take between maximal strength and performance in some other discipline. There are a lot of elite strength and power athletes who couldn't run a mile in under 12 minutes - or even finish a mile at all! These are the folks who either a) have to keep body fat levels in check with diet, lifting, and very low intensity supplemental activity or b) not worry about body fat levels much at all, as strength and power are the name of the game. For more information, check out Maximum Strength.
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Maximum Strength Review at the Fitcast

Hey Gang, Kevin Larrabee posted a really thorough review of Maximum Strength at The Fitcast. To pick up a copy of your own, head HERE.
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Random Friday Thoughts: 7/25/08

It's that day of the week again, folks. Here we go... 1. Last night, Dan Toledano hit a 405 bench - his first 400+ pound bench. Congratulations, Dan. If you keep this up, you might actually get around to kicking that Star Trek fetish and meeting a girl who has all her teeth and is interested in your for more than just your Jedi Gym training background: 2. Speaking of bench presses, I got a question the other day about whether I thought that wrist wraps interfere with forearm hypertrophy. I doubt it, if you'd just using them to bench and possibly squat. For me, the benefit completely outweighs the cost, as the diameter of my wrists is right about six inches (that's small, folks). So, for me, the wraps allow me to stay healthy for the long haul - even they don't offer too much in terms of poundage increases. You can find some great wrist wraps at APT. 3. If you want to laugh like crazy - and don't mind the occasional rattling off of obscenities, here's a great blog from Cressey Performance client, Michelle Elwell. I could just post a hyperlink, but I'm not going to lie: the title is worth typing out: http://www.michellethinksyoureanasshole.blogspot.com Michelle is awesome - definitely one of our favorite clients. Yes, it's because we're afraid to not like her, but that's not the point. Read, laugh, and if you're one of the a**holes to which she's referring, clean up your act, a**hole. 4. There is some awesome feedback on some tremendous results from a Maximum Strength follower HERE. You can pick up a copy through my website. 5. Here is a great read about how saturated fat isn’t all that bad – and how low-carb diets outperform low-fat diets (again!). 6. Great quote from Mike Boyle: “Soft tissue work, whether for chronic muscle strains or for tendon issues, is like weight training. Treatment is actually a stimulus. In effect, what the therapist is doing is irritating the tissue to produce a chemical response. The chemicals produced are what begin the healing process. This why soft tissue work is often painful and can leave you feeling similar to a workout the next day. According to Dr. [Donnie] Strack, soft tissue mobilization (think massage) stimulates the formation of fibroblasts, which help take immature, and randomly aligned Type 3 collagen (found in tendinosis) and changes it back to a stronger, more parallel mature Type 1 collagen. In other words, massage changes the quality of the muscle fibers.” For those of you who don’t know, Mike Boyle heads up what is definitely one of the best information sources on the ‘net for those interested in strength and conditioning and fitness. They have a 14-day trial offer in place for just $1 – so I’d definitely recommend checking out StrengthCoach.com. You really don't have anything to lose. 7. I got my act together and organized all my baseball content in one place. You can check it out HERE. 8. As a surprise birthday present for my girlfriend, today, I’m taking her horseback riding*. She rode a lot when she was younger, and hasn’t been since she was a teenager. I, on the other hand, have never been on a horse, so it’s safe to assume that when I get on that critter, I’m totally screwed. I doubt that powerlifters and horses get along, so send some good vibes my way – and put in a vote for me for boyfriend of the month. *Honey, if you actually read my blog, you could stop asking me what the surprise is by now. Don’t worry, though; if I had to put up with me all the time, I probably wouldn’t read this blog, either. Have a great weekend, folks.
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Maximum Strength: The Personal Trainer’s Perspective

Here's a "Guest Blog" of sorts from Personal Trainer Kaiser Serajuddin, who recently read Maximum Strength: "Writing a testimonial for Maximum Strength is a great way to get your name on a blog read by thousands of people, but I wanted to give my views on the book to deliver the personal trainer’s point of view. I know a lot of other trainers besides me follow Eric’s work for principles and ideas to apply to our clients. And beyond that, I’m an athlete myself constantly looking to improve my performance. In both areas, I found this book valuable. "What we have here is a no-nonsense plan to get straight-up results. Most people today are looking for the appearance of outstanding fitness and health without the reality; for ripped abs or bulging shoulders, and every book is written for this sometimes gullible audience. That’s traditional bodybuilding, which won’t necessarily work for everyone. Here we have a different point of view, where the iron is our measure of success. Incidentally, it’s probably a much more sound system to gaining mass than what most others are following. "I have to count myself in the boat of disillusioned weightlifters. It’s something Eric talks about in the book, which describes me and I’m sure a lot of other people: guys endlessly yo-yoing between bulking and cutting, and ending up right back where they started. That’s why it’s time to implement a different plan. "Talk about the right information at the right time! In the past few months I switched over to a lower volume powerlifting model, and have been achieving excellent results. Now, enter Maximum Strength to help me focus it. If you read that new-age stuff, this is the “law of attraction” at work. If you’re experiencing some of the same frustrations – for example, your strength, size, or performance hasn’t improved in a while – it’s probably time for you to open up to something new too. "Like all of Eric’s writing, this book is based around sound science and principles proven to work in Eric’s practice, not just gym rhetoric. This is especially important from a trainer’s perspective. First off we have an ethical responsibility to deliver proven systems to achieve results with our clients; and for those of your clients to whom it applies, Maximum Strength is such a plan. A solid method to follow and tracking system with principles to back it up is important. You’ll get that here. "Another thing to keep in mind for a trainer is a comprehensive approach. Beyond just strength, Eric keeps an eye on flexibility and joint health here. The description of soft-tissue work prior to exercise with the use of a foam roller is one area I found valuable. I already knew about the importance of pre-competitive soft-tissue preparation, but it took this book for it to sink in. "It’s true that Maximum Strength isn’t as sexy as some of the other books out there. Eric chose not to hire a fitness model and instead demonstrated all the exercises himself. And he inexplicably decided to keep his shirt on, and didn’t tan, shave, or oil up for the photo shoot. We’ve all read all of those books. What you have here is a way to achieve measurable results, which is what I’m sure most people are going for. "It’s also very readable, and not overly detailed. Knowing Eric’s work, there’s a lot of reasoning behind the progressions and choice of exercises he’s laid out, but he chose to save us all eye-strain and kept the plan simple. "You’re not used to getting info of this quality in the general fitness section of the bookstore (maybe it was misplaced?). However, it’s an excellent book that, as an athlete, I’ll be using for performance; and, as a trainer, I’ll be using the principles and exercises with my clients. Thanks, Eric." You can pick up Maximum Strength HERE.
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The Dumbest Bodybuilding Move of All Time?

This one has been all over the news here in Boston this past week. And you thought doing curls in the squat rack was a bad move!
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Dynamic vs. Repetition

Q: I've heard about people using a "repetition day - upper body" instead of the "dynamic effort day - upper body." What are the differences? How come you use the dynamic effort day instead of a repetition day in your Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual? Is a repetition day more CNS-intensive? A: Who says you can't do both? Throw a medicine ball, and then do rep work on the bench. Or, do jump squats before you deadlift. Oh no! Heresy! Most inexperienced athletes need both. Dynamic work usually encompasses drills that help teach deceleration/landing, change-of-direction, and acceleration while improving reactive ability. Repetition work helps strengthen connective tissue and groove appropriate movement patterns. You can do both! I'd generally say that the dynamic stuff is more CNS intensive, particularly when it involves a lot of jumping/sprinting (due to ground reaction forces, or GRF). For instance, with sprinting, ground reaction forces can anywhere from 4-6 times an athlete’s body weight; the better the technique, the lower the stress from the GRF. Conversely, if you’re a 1,000 pound squatter who is doing “speed” work with six plates a side, it’s still going to be considerably easier than jumping in and doing four sets of six reps at 750 pounds or so. The point is that there really isn’t a right answer. It’s influenced by your training age, overall strength, the stimuli to which your body has already been exposed – and the areas in which you need to improve the most. The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual
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  • Avoid the most common deadlifting mistakes
  • 9 - minute instructional video
  • 3 part follow up series