The Contreras Files
To say I'm a workaholic is like saying Tiger Woods has commitment issues. Through all the lifting, training, reading, and researching that I do, I'm constantly being exposed to and coming up with new ideas.
This column will introduce T Nation readers to just some of what I happen to stumble upon every day, in no particular order of importance. The typical lifter, athlete, personal trainer, strength coach, or physical therapist is bound to find something useful in this article.
1. Low Load Glute Activation is Legit
One thing I love about T Nation is that often the best coaches in the world are years ahead of the research. You might remember Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey writing about glute activation as early as 2004. I can remember thinking, "Why in the hell would I do some silly Jane Fonda exercises?"
When other top coaches including Mark Verstegen, Mike Boyle, and Martin Rooney started recommending glute activation, I could no longer ignore their advice. I got down on the floor and got my bridge, clam, and bird dog on and immediately recognized the potential in these simple movement patterns.
And thus began a love affair unparalleled by any other. Some guys have pictures of their girlfriend on their nightstand. Me? A picture of some glutes with a bouquet of roses stuck in-between the cheeks.
Kidding. But I do keep my eyes and ears open for new glute research. Case in point:
Australian researchers recently put 22 professional Australian Football League (AFL) players through three different warm-up protocols:
- Standing on a whole body vibration platform for 45 seconds at 30 Hz.
- A 5-7 minute, 7-glute exercise routine consisting of glute bridges, side lying clams, quadruped hip extensions, side lying hip abductions, prone single leg hip extensions, fire hydrants, and stability ball wall squats.
- A control group.
The researchers found that during a countermovement jump, the whole body vibration group fared 2.4% worse than the control group, while the glute activation group outperformed the control group in peak power by 4.2%, along with outperforming the whole body vibration group by 6.6% (Buttifant et al. 2011.).
My conclusion is that you'd be wise to include some low load glute activation work in your warm-ups. Remember, the purpose of glute activation isn't to "rep-out" or "max-out," but to groove proper motor patterns and focus on getting the glutes working efficiently. Ten high-quality repetitions of each exercise is all you need.
2. Cue the Glutes!
Speaking of glute activation, Cara Lewis and Shirley Sahrmann tested the gluteal activation of a prone hip extension exercise (Lewis and Sahrmann 2009). They showed that compared to no cueing, simply uttering the phrase, "Use your glutes to lift your leg while keeping your hamstrings relaxed," resulted in over double the gluteus maximus activation and caused the gluteus maximus to fire quicker in hip extension.
Based on my experience as a trainer, most beginners suck at using their glutes. It's important to remind individuals over and over to use their glutes until it becomes automatic.
3. Lifters vs. Weaklings – Lumbopelvic Rhythm
After a couple of months of training with me, my clients always tell me that their backs feel stronger and better than ever. Is it due to increased hip mobility, or is it core stability? Maybe it's just increased glute strength? Perhaps it's due to improved fundamental movement patterns? Or is it a case of all of the above?
In his book Low Back Disorders, Stu McGill discusses the mythical lumbopelvic rhythm pattern explained in textbooks – supposedly the first 60° of bending is accomplished by flexing the lumbar spine while the remaining flexion takes place at the hips (McGill page 74). While most individuals bend with a blend of spinal, pelvic, and hip motion, weightlifters possess unique movement patterns at the hip. Stu states that:
"Olympic Weightlifters attempt to do the opposite – they lock the lumbar spine close to the neutral position and rotate almost entirely about the hips."
Of course, Olympic weightlifters are better at hip hinging than normal individuals, but the importance of this information is that the movement patterns developed in the weight room transfer over to everyday life. Master the hip hinge first and everything else seems to fall into place.
Here's my man Tony Gentilcore demonstrating proper hip hinge patterning with a dowel.
4. Powerlifters vs. Olympic Weightlifters – Hip and Knee Moments During Squatting Tasks
Swedish researchers measured the hip and knee moments of six powerlifters and eight Olympic weightlifters during parallel and deep squats (Wretenberg et al. 1996). The results were intriguing: during deep squats powerlifters exhibited 41% higher hip extension moments and 37% less knee extension moments compared to weighlifters, and during parallel squats the powerlifters exhibited 43% higher hip extension moments and 42% less knee extension moments than weightlifters.
This study shows that during squatting tasks, powerlifters use a low-bar position, sit back more, and use their powerful hips to a greater degree than weightlifters, whereas weightlifters use a high-bar position, stay more upright, and use their powerful knee joints to a greater degree than powerlifters.
Maximum sports performance requires strong hips and knees so it's wise to rotate between different types of squats throughout the year, including low bar parallel, box, front, and high bar full squat variations.
5. Bench Press and Lateral Forces on the Bar
Wonder why the bench press elicits more triceps activity than a dumbbell bench press? A new study out of Penn State showed that the lateral forces exerted on the bar equaled roughly 25% of the vertical forces (Duffey and Challis 2011).
Ten men and eight women were tested in the bench press and the total vertical forces totaled on average 187 pounds of force whereas the lateral forces applied to the bar totaled on average 53 pounds of force. With these proportions, a 600-pound bench presser would be exerting around 150 pounds of outward pressure on the bar throughout the movement.
If you've listened to Dave Tate over the years and learned to use your triceps while benching, chances are your lateral forces are even higher than 25% of the vertical forces.
This extra work is simply a byproduct of the prime mover's maximal contractions against the barbell – which isn't possible with the dumbbell bench press as the dumbbells would split apart and result in a failed lift.
6. Elite Fitness Glute Ham Raise
I've traveled the world and performed glute ham raises with over twenty different glute ham developers. In a nutshell, 99% of glute ham developers suck. Instead of feeling smooth, the lift usually feels awkward and unproductive.
That is, unless you have an Elitefts glute ham raise. If you've never performed a glute ham raise off of an Elifefts model, then you can't possibly imagine the exercise's effectiveness, as chances are the one you're using pales in comparison.
Sometimes I wonder if equipment manufacturers even work out or understand biomechanics. Big props to Elitefts for spending the necessary time getting the design right.
7. Crunch Like This
Research out of Stanford University from 1979 showed that a sit-up exhibited 38 degrees of lumbar flexion, but a crunch where only the scapulae are lifted off the ground exhibited only 3 degrees of lumbar flexion (Halpern and Bleck 1979).
Given that the lumbar spine has between 40-73 degrees of ROM in males and 40-68 degrees of ROM in females (Troke et al. 2005), I think it's safe to say that this type of crunch remains in the neutral zone for the lumbar spine.
If you limit the lumbar ROM and use a controlled tempo, it makes the exercise much more challenging and you'll no longer be able to bust out hundreds of repetitions.
Start from a slightly hyperextended position by using a rolled up towel, ab mat, or stability ball. Raise the torso to only around 30° of trunk flexion, moving mostly in the thoracic spine. Control the tempo and accentuate the negative portion of the exercise. I discuss this further in the video below:
To prevent hyperkyphotic postural adaptations in the thoracic spine, make sure you perform thoracic mobility drills and include plenty of exercises to strengthen the erectors.
For example, some mobility drills include thoracic extensions off a foam roller and quadruped thoracic extension and rotation, while some strength training exercises include squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, and farmer's walks.
8. Four to Six Weeks to Harden Up
When I was 18 years old, I was in the gym quarter-squatting 275 pounds with a pad around the bar. A giant behemoth of a man walked up behind me and told me to back down to 135 and squat down deep to the floor like a real man and quit using the pussy pad. Thankfully I took his advice and never looked back.
I can remember using the bar pad because squatting freakin' hurt my back. The pressure was overwhelming. After ditching the bar pad, it took around four weeks to stop hurting.
When I started front squatting, the same scenario occurred – it hurt. But I stuck with it and a month later I could no longer feel any pain. Zercher squats took a bit longer to quit hurting – around six weeks – as did hook grip deadlifts. Just recently I started hip thrusting without a bar pad and it hurt like hell. I've been doing this for a month and it no longer hurts.
The take home message is, the more frequently you perform the lifts, the quicker your nervous system will become densensitized to the stimuli. So man up and fight through the discomfort. Just remember, what seems like torture today in a month will feel like a hot oil massage from a pair of busty Asian masseuses. I kid you not.
9. Resistance Training vs. Stretching for Flexibility Gains
Many long-term lifters have noticed that they don't have to stretch much to maintain their flexibility. Fact is, many of us have noted superior flexibility gains from weight training compared to stretching.
In the past few years, several studies have emerged showing that resistance training increases flexibility (Monteiro et al. 2008; Santos et al. 2010). This isn't surprising, but some have shown resistance training protocols to be just as effective or even more effective in terms of flexibility gains when compared to stretching protocols (Aquino et al. 2010, Simao et al. 2010; Morton et al. 2011; Nelson and Bandy 2004).
I'm a fan of doing all sorts of things for improved mobility and soft tissue functioning such as foam rolling and static stretching. But know that full range of motion resistance training is one of the best things you can do to increase and maintain mobility.
Just make sure your programs are well-designed, as structural balance is critical for postural and functional adaptations. To add icing on the cake, make sure you foam roll, stretch, and perform mobility and activation drills.
10. Broz Mentality – The "Shoot Your Family" Scenario
I'm a big John Broz fan. When I met him at his Las Vegas facility he said something that really hit home. He told me to envision someone capturing my family and informing me that they were going to shoot all of them unless I put a hundred pounds on my squat in one month. Then he asked me how often I would squat if this actually happened, and followed up with this gem: "Something tells me you'd squat more than twice per week."
I like to think of this scenario for a variety of purposes in strength and conditioning. What if you had to put an inch on your arms in one month without gaining any weight? Something tells me you'd perform some curls and triceps extensions. What if you needed your abs to be the strongest they ever were? Something tells me you'd perform dynamic spinal movements and not just core stability exercises.
It's good to really hone in on one goal per month and give it your all, just don't try this strategy with multiple goals or you'll fail at all of them.
I hope you enjoyed my ramblings and perhaps picked up something useful you can use in your own training.
- Activate the glutes
- Learn to sit back and hinge properly at the hips
- Learn to use the triceps properly for maximum bench press performance
- Buy an Elitefts glute ham developer if you want a real GHD
- Limit your lumbar ROM when you crunch
- Know that there's a light at the end of the tunnel for dealing with pain from barbell pressure on new movements as they only take a month or so to get accustomed to
- Perform full ROM resistance training for maximum flexibility
- Pick a new goal each month and attack it with purpose.
See you next month!
Aquino CF, Fonseca ST, Goncalves GGP, Silva PLP, Ocarino JM, Mancini MC. Stretching versus strength training in lengthened position in subjects with tight hamstring muscles: A randomized controlled trial. Manual Therapy. 15(1) 26-31, 2010.
Buttifant, D, Crow, J, Kearney, S, and Hrysomallis, C. Whole-body vibration vs. gluteal muscle activation: What are the acute eff ects on explosive power? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25: S14–S15, 2011.
Duffey, MJ and Challis, JH. Vertical and lateral forces applied to the bar during the bench press in novice lifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2011. 25(9): 2442–2447.
Halpern, AA and Bleck EE. Sit up exercises: an electromyography study. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1979. 145:172-8.
Lewis CL, Sahrmann SA. Muscle activation and movement patterns during prone hip extension exercise in women. J Athl Train. 2009. 44(3): 238–248.
McGill, S.M. Low back disorders: Evidence based prevention and rehabilitation, Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, IL, U.S.A., 2002.
Monteiro WD, Simão R, Polito MD, Santana CA, Chaves RB, Bezerra E, Fleck SJ. Influence of strength training on adult women's flexibility. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(3):672-7.
Morton SK, Whitehead JR, Brinkert RH, Caine DJ. Resistance Training vs. Static Stretching: Effects on Flexibility and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep 30. [Epub ahead of print]
Nelson RT, Bandy WD. Eccentric Training and Static Stretching Improve Hamstring Flexibility of High School Males. Journal of Athletic Training. 2004;39:254–258.
Santos E, Rhea MR, Simão R, Dias I, de Salles BF, Novaes J, Leite T, Blair JC, Bunker DJ. Influence of moderately intense strength training on flexibility in sedentary young women. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(11):3144-9.
Simão R, Lemos A, Salles B, Leite T, Oliveira É, Rhea M, Reis VM. The influence of strength, flexibility, and simultaneous training on flexibility and strength gains. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(5):1333-8.
Troke M, Moore AP, Maillardet FJ, Cheek E. A normative database of lumbar spine range of motion. Manual Therapy. 2005. 10:198-206.
Wretenberg P, Feng Y, Arborelius UP. High and low bar squatting techniques during weight-training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996. 28(2)218-24.
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Bret Contreras has a master's degree from ASU and a CSCS certification from the NSCA. He is currently studying to receive his PhD in Sports Science at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. Visit his blog at www.BretContreras.com and his research review service at www.StrengthandConditioningResearch.com.