Home Posts tagged "Weight Training Program"

Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 9/19/12

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

How to Get Published - I thought this new e-book from Sean Hyson, Lou Schuler, and John Romaniello was a great idea.  Writing in the fitness industry opened a ton of doors for me at a young age and also helped me to educate myself on a various of topics.  These three guys are super accomplished in the writing world, and it definitely shows with the quality of this product.  If you're looking to get published (especially in the fitness industry, but regardless of the industry), give this a read.

Weight Training Programs: Assess, Don't Assume - Last May, I wrote this post up, but it slipped to the archives. It's worth a read regardless of whether you're a fitness professional or just a fitness enthusiast.

27 More Nutrition Facts - I'm a sucker for "Random Thoughts" pieces, especially when they come from bright guys like Dr. Mike Roussell.  It's a great chance to process a ton of information in a short amount of time.

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Strength Training Programs: Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?

The pull-up is among the most sacred strength exercises in the history of weight training programs, ranking up there with squats, deadlifts, and bench and overhead presses.  This is one reason why I expect there to be burning Eric Cressey effigies in various strength and conditioning circles after they read the following sentence:

Some people would be wise to leave out pull-ups - at least temporarily.

Before you rip me a new one, please give me a few minutes to explain.

First off, I get it: pull-ups train the lats, and the lats are huge players in athletic function and the quest to get strong and gain muscle.  They're the biggest player in force transfer between the lower and upper body, and play key roles in core stability and breathing.  Specific to my baseball work, lat recruitment is higher during acceleration in professional pitchers than amateurs, showing that reliance on this big muscle helps generate increase pitching velocity, too.  I actually wrote an entire article back in 2006 about just how extensive the lat's role is, if you'd like to read more: Lats: Not Just for Pulldowns.

However, the "expansive" presence of the lats - running from the thoracolumbar fascia all the way up to the humerus - can make them a problem as much as they are a solution.  To that end, here are four reasons you may want take a break from pull-ups/chin-ups/pulldowns in your strength training program:

1. Heavy pull-ups can make the elbows very cranky - This is really the shortest and least complex of my arguments, so I'll get it out of the way early.  My personal best three-rep max chin-up is 321 pounds, at a body weight of about 188 pounds (so, the external load was 133 pounds).  My best raw three-rep max bench press is about 330 pounds, but what you might find surprising is that going heavy on the bench press is dramatically easier on my joints (particularly my elbows) than pull-ups/chin-ups are.  What gives?

First, when you bench press, you're doing a full-body movement.  There is leg drive and loads of core stability involved on top of the upper extremity activity that's taking place - so the stress is more easily distributed.  When you do a pull-up, your upper extremity is relatively isolated, so the stress is more concentrated.

Second, a pull-up is a traction exercise; it pulls the humeral head out of the socket, and essentially pulls the lower and upper arm apart at the top. When you lose bony congruence - one of the most important, yet overlooked components of joint stability - you have to pick up the slack with the active restraints (muscles/tendons) acting at the joint.  Low-level traction can be tremendously helpful in situations like external impingement at the shoulder, or intervertebral disc issues.  However, under extreme load, it can be pretty darn stressful to the soft tissue structures around the joint.  Conversely, a bench press is an approximation exercise, so you can actually draw some stability from the joint alignment itself to take some of the stress off the soft tissue structures.

I remember Jason Ferruggia writing recently about how heavy chin-ups/pull-ups can really beat up on older lifters - and it's safe to say that the reason isn't so much tissue degeneration, but simply that it took time for them to build appreciable enough strength to get to the point where the overall stress was too much.

2. The lats overpower the lower traps - The overwhelming majority of the baseball athletes I see (and most extension/rotation sport athletes, in general) live in lordotic postures.  The lat is a strong extensor of the spine - but it also attaches to the rib cage and scapula on the way to the upper extremity.  The end result is that many lordotic athletes wind up with a very "gross" extension pattern.

The rib cage flairs up, and the lower traps do little to pull the shoulder blades back and down on the rib cage - because the lats have already gotten an athlete to the position he/she wants to be in via lumbar extension.  You can see from the picture below that the line of pull of the two muscles is actually very comparable - but given cross sectional area and length, the lat will always have the upper hand, especially if it's constantly being prioritized in a strength training program due to exercise selection and faulty lifting technique.

Effectively, we need to learn to move our scapulae on our rib cage, as opposed to just moving our entire spine into extension.  Interestingly, you'll find a lot of flexion-bias in the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) schools of thought because they clearly appreciate that getting folks out of "gross extension" is a way to get/keep people healthy.  Having ultra short/stiff lats can cause issues ranging from extension-based back pain (e.g., spondylolysis) to shoulder pain (e.g., external or internal impingement).  As I've written previously, too, this global dysfunction may also be the reason we're seeing more femoroacetabular impingement in athletes.

As another interesting aside, I see a lot of throwers with low right shoulders and incredibly short/stiff lats on that side.

This is secondary to faulty rib positioning and the scapular anterior tilt that ensues (as per the PRI school of thought), but one additional thing we've found (thanks to great feedback from physical therapist Eric Schoenberg) is that overhead shrugging variations on the low shoulder have helped these throwers to not only feel better, but minimize these asymmetries.  Effectively, creating a bit more stiffness in the upper trapezius helps it to counterbalance the aggressive downward pull of the lat on the scapula.

These folks sit in scapular depression, and for that reason, we'll often leave out any exercises (e.g., deadlifts, dumbbell lunges) that involve holding heavy weights in the hand until scapular positioning is better controlled.

3. The humeral attachment portion of the lat is part of a significant zone of convergence at the posterior shoulder - The back of your shoulder is another one of those claustrophobic areas in your body.  You've got tendons for the lat, teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, long head of the triceps, and posterior deltoid all coming together in a very small area, creating friction over each other as their individual forces come together (regions like this are called "Zones of Convergence" by myofascial researcher Luigi Stecco.

The latissimus dorsi is, without a doubt, the largest and strongest of all the involved structures.  It also has the longest tendon, which makes it the biggest candidate for nasty tissue quality in the region.  The problem is that muscles/tendons don't deform evenly; rather, they move a lot where the tissue quality is good, and very little where it is dense.  So, when you're super dense in the posterior shoulder and try to go do pull-ups, as I noted earlier, the entire shoulder girdle wants to move (humeral extension and internal rotation, and scapular depression) together, as opposed to a nice synergy of the humerus with the scapula on the rib cage.  When some is stiff in the posterior shoulder and wants to use the lat for everything, a seated cable row looks like this.  Notice how the elbow winds up behind the body, and the scapula anterior tilts - and also how old the video is; I look like I am 12 years old and weigh 120 lbs.

Rowing like this over time will eventually irritate the anterior shoulder.  However, watch this standing one-arm cable row where the humeral head (ball) maintains a good alignment with the glenoid fossa (socket) as the shoulder blade moves on the rib cage.  The humerus doesn't extend unless the scapula moves with it.

4. Overactive lats can decrease the subacromial space - The lat extends, adducts, and internally rotates the humerus.  In order to get overhead the right way, we need flexion, abduction, and external rotation of the humerus.  So, you can see that it's a direct antagonist to healthy, overhead movement.  If you think about your biggest players for pain-free overhead movement, two of them have to be the posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius.  The lat overpowers both of them in a "gross" extension pattern.

Here's a test: position yourself supine, bend the knees, flatten the lower back, and then let your arms hang freely overhead.  Then, have someone take a picture looking down at the top of your head.  A "pass" would be full shoulder flexion with no arching of the back, and no shoulder pain along the way.  A fail would be pain, or something that looks like this:

If your photo looks like this, you better hope that you have outstanding posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius function (adequate stiffness) to overpower some very short lats if you intend to train overhead pain-free (especially with overhead pressing).  Otherwise, your shoulder flexion will really just be lumbar extension and forward head posture substitutions (this one has a nice left rib flair, too).

In other words, you need adequate anterior core stability and good recruitment of the deep neck flexors, too, but those are blogs for another day.

Closing Thoughts

This post has gone on far too long, and to be honest, I've probably just used the last 1300+ words to piss a lot of you off.  You'll be happy to know, however, that we still use a ton of pull-ups/chin-ups in our strength training programs at Cressey Performance.  In fact, they're a mainstay.  Here are some modifying factors, however:

1. The risk:reward ratio gets a little out of whack once you get very strong with pull-ups.  You'd be better off adding sets and reps, as opposed to adding load - and you may want to push the heavy stuff less frequently than you would with compound exercises.

2. Get regular manual therapy at the posterior shoulder and entire elbow to stay on top of tissue quality. At the very least, make sure you're foam rolling a ton and using The Stick:

3. Strengthen the anterior core and deep neck flexors so that you don't substitute lumbar hyperextension and forward head posture, respectively, for shoulder flexion.

4. Strengthen the lower traps so that the lats can't overpower them.  I like wall slides at 135 degrees abduction, as it allows one to work in the direct line of pull of the lower traps.  Make sure to cue "glutes tight, core braced" so that folks can't substitute lumbar extension ("gross extension") for movement of the scapulae on the rib cage.  Make sure there is no forward head posture, too.

Prone 1-arm trap raises off the table are also a popular one.  Just make sure you continue to cue "glutes tight, core braced, and no forward head posture."

4. Maintain adequate length in the lats. In warm-ups, I like the bench t-spine mobilizations and side-lying internal external rotation as a means of getting some shoulder flexion.

In terms of static stretching, a lat stretch in the power rack is great.

If this gives you an impingement feeling, regress it a bit, stabilize the scapulae with the opposite hand, and gently dip into a wall lat stretch with stabilization.

Many folks will also benefit from this classic overhead stretch in order to reduce stiffness in the long head of the triceps, a synergist to the lats in humeral extension.

5. Make sure you're including plenty of horizontal pulling (rowing) strength exercises as well - and executing them with the correct form.  This means moving humerus and scapula together on rib cage, not just yanking the humerus into extension on a fixed scapula.

6. If you have terrible shoulder flexion and can't get overhead without substituting forward head posture and lumbar hyperextension, spend some time addressing the underlying issues before you start cranking on pull-ups.  We actually don't do any pull-ups/chin-ups with some of our professional baseball players for 4-8 weeks following the season, as we need to spend time building rotator cuff, lower trap, and anterior core strength. I like to use the back-to-wall shoulder flexion exercise as a "pass/fail test." If you can get the thumbs to the wall without losing the flat-back posture on the wall or bending your elbows, then you can probably start going to pull-ups.

7. Above all else, listen to your body, and hold back if pull-ups/chin-ups hurt.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post and your experiences with heavy and/or high-volume pull-ups/chin-ups in the comments section below.

For more information on the role of the lats in upper extremity health and function, I'd encourage you to check out our Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD Set.

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The Best of 2011: Articles

With 2011 winding down, I'll be dedicating this week to the best content of the year, based on traffic volume at EricCressey.com.  I'll kick it off today with my most popular articles from the past year. 1. My New Favorite Training Shoe - This post received more than 3,000 views more than #2.  Apparently, footwear is a topic about which folks were anxious to read, and I gave a detailed review of all the minimalist footwear options I've tried - and folks shared it a ton.  Additionally, based on feedback on my Twitter account, a lot of people purchased the New Balance Minimus based on my recommendation and have absolutely loved it.

2. Your Arm Hurts?  Thank Your Little League, Fall Ball, and AAU Coaches. - This post received well over 1,000 Facebook "shares" and loads of Tweets, and I'm hopeful that this is indicative of parents, coaches, and players learning about how to approach arm care and throwing programs intelligently.  I think it was also popular because it was a good blend of scientific evidence and simple, everyday logic. 3. Tim Collins: Why Everyone Should Be a Kansas City Royals Fan (at least for a day) - This was my favorite post of the year, as it was a chance to celebrate a good friend and long-time Cressey Performance athlete who is everything that is right about Major League Baseball. As a cool little aside, traffic to this article played a large part in having "Tim Collins" trending on Twitter during his MLB debut on Opening Day in March.

4. Weight Training Programs: You Can't Just Keep Adding - It sounds like many of my readers were glad to hear that I was doing some writing on managing training stress.  There is a lot of common sense in this one, but sometimes, that's what people need! 5. Strength Training Programs and Squat Technique: To Arch or Not to Arch? - Here's a very misunderstood topic in the area of strength and conditioning technique.  You'll be happy to know that I'll be addressing it in great detail in the new Functional Stability Training resource that Mike Reinold and I are releasing soon. 6. Shoulder Hurts? Start Here. - In this piece, I outlined three sure-fire strategies that just about everyone can employ regardless of their shoulder issues.

7. Healthy Food Options: Why You Should Never Take Nutrition Advice from Your Government - One of the biggest surprises for me in 2011 was that my readers absolutely ate up (no pun intended) nutrition content, and summer Cressey Performance intern Tyler Simmons' guest blog perfect example.   He shared some great (and controversial) thoughts in this guest blog. 8. Correcting Bad Posture: Are Deadlifts Enough? - People want results, and they want them fast.  This post touched on whether or not the deadlift could be an optimal "shortcut" for getting to where you want to be. 9. Why the Gym's Out-of-Business and the Porn Store's Thriving - This was proof that I can write about just about anything.  Don't ever expect to see a content drought here at EricCressey.com.  The timing for this was really good, as I got the idea to write it right around the time that we released The Fitness Business Blueprint.

10. Lifting Heavy Weights vs. Corrective Exercise: Finding a Balance - I can definitely see how folks found this topic so interesting, as it's a very challenging balance to strike.  In fact, it was even a very challenging piece around which to wrap my brain! This wraps up our top 10 posts of 2011, but I'll be back soon with more "Best of" highlights from 2011.  Next up, I'll list my top product reviews of the year. Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
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Weight Training Programs: Don’t Major in the Minutia

Last night, I was on my laptop searching for an old weight training program I’d written up a while back, and I accidentally stumbled upon some written goals of mine from back in 2003.  Based on the “Created on” date in Microsoft Excel, I had written them up in the spring of my senior year of college. On one hand, I was proud of myself for – at age 22 – knowing enough to write down the goals that I wanted to achieve.  On the other hand, I have to laugh about just how out-of-whack my priorities were. You see, I’d listed loads of strength, body weight, and body fat percentage goals first and foremost.  In fact, there were 41 rows worth of performance and physique goals; hard to believe that ladies weren’t lining up to date this Type A stallion, huh?  Can you say neurotic?  I was like this guy, but with better eyesight and a decent deadlift.

That’s just self-deprecating humor, though.  What was actually really sad was how distorted my perception of reality really was, as rows 42-46 consisted of the following: 42. Resolve shoulder pain. 43. Get rid of lower back tightness. 44. Get accepted to graduate school. 45. Get a graduate assistantship in research or coaching. 46. Have 3-4 articles published. At the time, I was coming off a lower back “tweak” while deadlifting, but more problematic was my right shoulder, which hurt so much that it kept me up at night and negatively affected not only my training, but my everyday life.  It was an old tennis injury from high school that just kept getting worse and worse. Likewise, I hadn’t gotten word on whether or not I’d been accepted to graduate school, so I was up in the air on whether I needed to start looking for jobs for after graduation, or whether I’d end up moving south to enroll at the University of Connecticut. Finally, I’d just had my first article published, and there was some momentum in place on which I could build a successful writing career. In other words, I was in pain, unsure about where I’d be living in two months, potentially without a job, and all but ignoring a potentially career-changing opportunity – yet I managed to list 41 performance and physique goals more important than any of these concerns.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was clearly buried under all the bullshit I had convinced myself was important.  They made signs like this for guys like me.

Maybe it was the acceptance phone call from my future advisor at the UCONN; the experience of moving to a new area and being out on my own; interaction with a lot of highly-motivated, career-oriented people and successful athletes; the natural maturation process; or a combination of all these factors, but I got my act together that fall and figured out my priorities.  That fall, I read everything I could get my hands on to get rid of the pain in my shoulder (canceled an impending surgery) and lower back.  I put in 70 hour weeks among classes, volunteering in the varsity weight rooms and human performance lab, and personal training and bartending on the side.  I published my first article at T-Nation and in Men’s Fitness.  In short, I grew the hell up and stopped losing sleep over whether I’d remembered to take my forearm circumference measurements on the third Tuesday of the month. Some folks might think that this shift in my priorities interfered with my training progress, but in reality, the opposite was true.  In that first year of graduate school, I put over 100 pounds on both my squat and deadlift and 40 pounds on my bench press – and did so pain-free, which made training even more enjoyable.  I learned a ton about the importance of training environment as I lifted around athletes and other coaches in the varsity weight rooms, and even caught the powerlifting bug, competing for the first time in June of 2004.  I even won a few trophies absurdly large trophies that wildly overstated my accomplishments.

In short, when I stopped majoring in the minutia and clearly defined the priorities that were important to me – being pain-free, enjoying training, and seeing it as a means of becoming better in a profession that I loved – a world of opportunities opened up for me.  And, surprisingly, some of the “old” priority goals were easier to attain because I didn’t force them or put as much pressure on myself. That was almost a decade years ago, and I’ve had to make similar reevaluations of my priorities since that time, from opening a business, to proposing to my wife, to buying a house, to getting a puppy, to hiring employees, to working with charities.  There are some priorities that will always remain for me, though; strength and conditioning has to be fun, and it has to improve my quality of life, not take away from it. These are values that are reflected in the weight training programs that I write, too. To that end, how have your priorities changed over your training career?  And, how have these changes impacted your progress in the gym? Related Posts Weight Training Programs: You Can't Just Keep Adding Lifting Weights vs. Corrective Exercise in Strength Training Programs Sign-up today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
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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 and Conditioning Programs: The Most Important Benefit

This past weekend, my wife and I headed down to Pennsylvania for some friends’ wedding.  On Saturday morning, I awoke at 7AM to her standing next to my bed absolutely covered in sweat and wearing her workout clothes.  As it turns out, knowing that the weekend would be full of not-so-healthy food and limited opportunities to exercise, Anna had taken the bull by the horns and hit up the hotel gym at 6AM to kick her day off right.  It's no surprise, as she spends quite a bit of time at Cressey Performance.

That, in itself, isn’t a particularly riveting story to kick off today’s blog – until I discovered that the only thing this hotel gym had was an elliptical, recumbent bike, and treadmill.  And, to take it a step further, Anna discovered that there was no power for any of them, meaning that they were essentially just places to rest her water bottle.  What to do? She could have said screw it and gone back to bed. She could have woken me up and asked me to write her a body weight program. She could have tried to run on the side of a busy road, or find a place to sprint in a town that wasn’t familiar to her. Instead, though, she used the knowledge and experience she had to construct her own body weight training program.  Anna’s an optometrist, not a trainer – but her skill set from asking questions, being in the right environment, and performing dozens of programs put her in a position to handle the curveballs life threw at her.

Coincidentally, a strength coach from the Cape Cod Summer League came up to observe at CP last week, and we got to talking about how you never quite have the continuity you want with training athletes because they go in-season for a big chunk of the year, and because you’re always working around competition and travel schedules.  To that end, he asked me what the single biggest thing is that we focus on when we may only have someone for a short period of time.  My answer? “It’s the same thing we focus on when we have someone for a longer period of time: education.  It’s our job to make athletes informed consumers who know how to listen to their body, adapt to their surroundings, eat the right foods, get the right amount of sleep, and do the correct programs regardless of what’s going on around them.” You might think that your #1 job as a trainer is to strip 15 pounds of body fat off someone in two months.  Or, maybe it’s to put four inches on a guy’s vertical jump prior to a scouting combine. In reality, though, your #1 priority is to educate them so that they’re prepared for the days that they’re on their own. Education needs to be different for everyone, though.  A true beginner needs to be educated on everything from what to eat during/post-training to how to perform the actual exercises.  If you teach a female client to have a protein and carb shake around a session in a weight training program, then chances are that she would eventually know to grab some Greek yogurt and a piece of fruit if a shake isn’t handy when she’s on the road.  Or, if you teach a young baseball player how to do a dumbbell reverse lunge and a front squat, then he’ll be able to perform a barbell reverse lunge with a front squat grip someday when he needs a good single-leg exercise, but only has barbells at the exclusion of dumbbells.

A more advanced individual might want to know more about his/her unique muscle imbalances and what corrective mobility and stability drills to stay on top of to prevent problems from arising.  Or, these folks might just want to make use of your network to find great gyms and manual therapists in other parts of the country so that they can stay on top of their workout routines while on the road.

Results are fantastic and obviously an absolutely essential part of a successful strength and conditioning program.  However, if you aren’t educating folks along the way, then you’re not cultivating the long-term fitness success they really need, even if they don’t think to consider anything beyond short-term results. What do you think are the most important things we absolutely have to teach our clients and athletes to ensure long-term success?  And, what are the most overlooked things they need to learn to be successful over the long haul?  Post your comments below! Related Posts What a Stressed Out Bride Can Teach You About Strength Training Program Success Strength and Conditioning Program Success: The Little Things Matter Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a deadlift technique tutorial!
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2 Key Strategies for Creating Effective Strength and Conditioning Programs

One of the questions I'm asked the most frequently is "How did you learn how to write strength and conditioning programs?" Unfortunately, while it's a tremendously common question posed to me, I haven't yet determined a quick and easy response that would work for everyone.  While this may make it seem like I haven't learned anything in this regard, the truth is that I get more and more effective and efficient with creating programs every single day.  What's my secret?  Well, I actually have two of them.

1. I NEVER reinvent the wheel. Our philosophies are constantly evolving, and I'm always working to integrate new concepts into our programming to improve outcomes for our clients.  These ideas may come from things I've read, seminars I've attended, other programs I've observed, or - most importantly - feedback our athletes have given us.  I absolutely, positively, NEVER overhaul a program, though.  Why? If you change everything, you learn nothing - because you can never appreciate what modification it was that worked (or didn't work). 2. I build on previous successes, rather than starting from scratch with every new client. I absolutely loved the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath.  I read this book back in early 2007, and I still refer back to it all the time.

One of the key points that the Heaths make in this book is that an idea will always be more readily accepted if it is incorporated into an individual's existing schema.  As an example, if I give you the letters TICDGFASOH and then ask you to list all the letters I included to me 20 minutes later without writing them down, most of you won't be able to accomplish the task correctly.

However, if I reordered those letters as CATDOGFISH, you'd accomplish the task easily.  You know the words DOG, CAT, and FISH - so it would fit into your existing schema.  This applies to strength and conditioning programs, too.

When I attend a seminar, whenever a new technique is introduced, I try to immediately apply it in my notes and in my brain to an existing client of mine.  How can that subtle modification make this individual's program better?

And, when I evaluate a client for the first time, I ask myself how this client is similar to a previous client of mine.  I'll look back to that old client's program to see what we used to get results - and then I'll tinker accordingly based in the new client's more specific individual needs.  I absolutely NEVER open up a blank Microsoft Excel template and write something from scratch, as it's always easiest to tinker with what's worked in the past.

What does this mean for the up-and-coming strength and conditioning program author?

Get out to as many seminars as possible.  Visit other coaches and observe their programs.  Read books and watch DVDs to learn about how others incorporate different strategies and strength exercises in their weight training programs.  Your goal is to expand your existing schema as much as possible and - in the beginning - create the strength and conditioning programs that will end up becoming the foundation for all future programs.  After the first few months, you are simply "tinkering," not overhauling.  Never reinvent the wheel, and always build on previous successes.

Want to see how a comprehensive program is set up? Check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.

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Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: Systems, Not Just Sets and Reps

Back in November of 2010, a good buddy of mine who is a very accomplished college strength coach came up to Boston for a seminar we were hosting at Cressey Sports Performance.  The seminar was on a Sunday, but he actually flew up Friday night so that he could observe on Saturday while we trained our clients – which was a nice blend of high school, college, and professional athletes, plus our adult clientele.  All told, at the time, I’d say that high school athletes were 70% of our clientele.

That Tuesday morning, I woke up to this email from him:

“I just wanted to say thanks for everything.  I had a great time.  Your staff was outstanding and I really enjoyed watching you guys work on Saturday.  I realize you are managers, but certainly technicians as well.  Perfect form, I told Tony I saw two bad reps all weekend and someone was on the athlete before he had a chance to do another rep!!!   Thanks so much and come visit anytime, we would love to have you.”

This isn’t an email to toot our own horn; it’s to make a very valuable point.  If this coach had walked into every single private training facility and high school weight room in the country, in what percentage of cases do you think he would have come out with a favorable impression of the technique he witnessed in these strength and conditioning programs?  If I had to venture an extremely conservative guess, I’d say less than 10%.

Simply stated, both in the public and private sectors, some coaches are letting kids get away with murder with respect to technique, not warming up, poor load selection in weight training programs, and a host of other factors.

What happens, then, when the s**t hits the fan and a kid gets hurt?  I’ll tell you: certain exercises get “condemned” and strength and conditioning programs become more and more foo-foo; external loading is eliminated and kids wind up doing agility ladders and “speed training” for 60-90 minutes at a time in what can only be described as glorified babysitting.  Or, worse yet, weight rooms get closed altogether.  The door of opportunity gets slammed in the faces of a lot of kids who desperately need to get strong to stay healthy, improve performance, and build confidence.

That’s the reactive model, but what about a proactive model to prevent these issues in the first place?  Again, I’ll tell you: assess kids up-front.  Find out what is in their health history and evaluate how well they move.  Actually learn their names and backgrounds.  Then, program individually for them.  Coach intensely in their initial sessions and get things right from the start.  And, if an exercise doesn’t work for them, give them an alternative.

As an example, take the squat.  Some kids may not have sufficient ankle or hip mobility to squat deep in an Olympic style squat, so they’ll benefit more (and stay healthier) with box squat variations or single-leg exercises while you improve their mobility.  Others may even be too immobile (or possess structural issues like femoroacetabular impingement) to even box squat safely, so you give them more single-leg work and deadlift variations.  Regardless, you “coach ‘em up” well from the get-go – and they learn along the way.

In other words, the exercises aren’t the problem because exercises can be quickly and easily changed on the fly to match the athlete's level of abilities.  It’s the system in which they are placed that can be the stubborn, tough-to-change problem.

If you're struggling to get results with your youth strength and conditioning programs - or your business itself is struggling - be sure to look at your business model and overall systems before you start tinkering with the individual exercises.  Chances are that you need to rededicate yourself to relationship building and individualization more than you need to worry about sets and reps.

If you're looking to learn more about training young athletes, I'd encourage you to check out Mike Boyle's resource, Complete Youth Training. In it, he touches on everything from the problems with early specialization to age-specific training stages. It's a good investment for parents and coaches alike. From now through January 4, you can get $50 off on the resource. No coupon code is needed; just head HERE.

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Weight Training Programs: Assess, Don’t Assume

Late last week, my buddy Nick Tumminello made the follow comment that some folks, unfortunately, took out of context:

“Everyone is talking about assessments (and that's cool). But, no one seems to talking about simply not allowing poor form in training. If you can't keep good form in a certain exercise (movement pattern), simply don't do that exercise until you've improved the movement or decided that you're simply not built for it to begin with. Not sure why things need be any more complicated than that!”

For the record, I agree 100% with Nick and understood what he meant, but it would have been easy to assume that he was referring to “trainers train, and therapists assess.”  In other words, many folks assume that as long as you aren’t symptomatic in some way, then you’re safe to start exercising because you can simply “feel” things out as you go and, if something hurts, you don’t do it.

While you obviously shouldn’t do something if it hurts, just because something doesn’t hurt doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful long-term – and to me, that’s the difference between “working someone out” and provided them with an optimal training experience.  As physical therapist Mike Reinold has said, “Assess; don’t assume.”

To illustrate my point, here are a few examples.

Let’s say you have someone with a chronically cranky acromioclavicular joint or osteolysis of the distal clavicle that might only be apparent upon reviewing a health history, palpating the area, or taking someone into full horizontal adduction at the shoulder.  While direct over-pressure on the area (as in a front squat) would surely elicit symptoms, my experience is that most folks won’t notice a significant amount of pain until the next day if the strength exercise selection is inappropriate (e.g., dips, full range-of-motion bench pressing).  You might have avoided what “hurt” during the session (presumably because the individual was warmed up), but you find out after the fact that you just set an individual back weeks in their recovery and fitness program.

How about right scapular winging?  It’s not easily observed if a client has a shirt on, and if you simply throw that individual into a bootcamp with hundreds of push-ups each week, you’re bound to run into trouble.  Here’s the thing, though: even if you observed that winging and wanted to address it in your training, you really have to consider that it can come from one or more of several factors: weak scapular stabilizers, a stiff posterior cuff, insufficient right thoracic rotation, faulty breathing patterns, or poor tissue quality of pec minor, rhomboids, levator scapulae (or any of a number of other muscles/tendons).  Just doing some rows and YTWL circuits will not work.

Also at the shoulder, a baseball pitcher with crazy congenital and acquired shoulder external rotation may have a ton of anterior instability in the “cocking” position of throwing (90 degrees of abduction and external rotation), but be completely asymptomatic.  Back squatting this athlete would exacerbate the problem over the long haul even if he didn’t notice any symptoms acutely.

Finally, in my recent article, Corrective Exercise: Why Stiffness Can Be a Good Thing, I spoke about how someone can have crazy short hip flexors and still manage a perfect squat pattern because his stiffness at adjacent joints is outstanding.  If I don’t assess him in the first place and just assume that he squats well, I’m just waiting for him to strain a rectus femoris during sprinting or any of a number of other activities.  Gross movement in a strength and conditioning program wouldn’t tell me anything about this individual, but targeted assessments would.

The point is that while Nick’s statement is absolutely true – demanding perfect form is corrective in itself – you’ve still got to assess to have a clear picture of where you’re starting.  Otherwise, many cases like this will slip through the cracks.

To that end, I’m happy to announce that my long-time friend and colleague, Mike Robertson, recently released his Bulletproof Knees and Back Seminar DVD Set.  This comprehensive product covers anatomy, assessments, program design, and coaching.  In fact, almost the entire second day is focused on coaching, and that’s an area in which most trainers really do need to improve.  All in all, this isn’t a collection of bits and pieces; it’s Mike’s entire philosophy on training someone who is suffering from knee or low back pain (and how to prevent it in the first place).  Effectively, Mike covers what both Nick and I are getting at in the paragraphs you just read.

This is tremendously valuable information that fitness professionals need to hear, so be sure to check it out.

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Deloading on 5×5 Workout Programs

Following my recent article on T-Nation about various weight training program loading protocols (you can read it HERE), I received an email from someone asking me how I'd approach deloading for someone doing a 5x5 workout program.  I've broken the paragraph up so that I can answer each of the inquiries individually: Q: Let’s say on a horizontal push pull day your doing Bench press supersetted with 1-arm dumbbell rows at 5x5, do both lifts follow the same deloading strategies? A: Yes, although I'll often leave an extra set or two of the pulling exercise in there because people really need it from a postural/muscle imbalance standpoint.  So, in other words, we might just flip-flop things to be: A1) 1-Arm DB Rows: 4x5/side A2) Bench Press: 3x5 This, of course, would assume that we're deloading on volume and not intensity.  It'd be a more appropriate strategy for intermediates. Q: How do you adjust your assistance work, if at all? A: Usually, I just drop a set, or sometimes cut the reps down by 2-4 per set.  Here's how that would work, assuming that the normal set/rep prescription is three sets of eight on both exercises: Example 1 B1) Chain Pushups: 3x6 B2) Close-Grip Chinups: 3x6 Example 2 B1) Chain Pushups: 2x8 B2) Close-Grip Chinups: 2x8 Again, this is an intermediate approach.  More advanced lifters might keep the sets/reps up and simply reduce intensity. Q: Also, a lot of times there will be the first two push pull lifts (4 lifts total) done at 5x5 (e.g., flat bench 5x5 and incline 5x5) do you deload both lifts or do you think two chest/back exercises at 5x5 is too much and just the primary lift should have that scheme and the incline would be an assistance lift? A: Personally, I think that doing all your lifts at 5x5 in a single workout is overkill. I would rather see other rep ranges attacked after the first pairing.  However, if you are going to do it, I'd go with the deloading approach outlined in the first response I gave (above). For even more detailed information on how to approach backoff weeks appropriately, check out my e-book, The Art of the Deload.

Yes, although I'll often leave an extra set or two of the pulling exercise in there because people really need it from a postural/muscle imbalance standpoint.
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