What I Learned in 2006
by Eric Cressey
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"A man's errors are his portals of discovery."
— James Joyce
When I look back on what I was doing and what I knew a few years ago (or even last year), I laugh. The health and human performance field is incredibly dynamic in nature, so if you aren't evolving, you're sure to be left behind.
For me, 2006 was a tremendous year of evolution, both personally and professionally, so I figured the new year would be a great time to reflect on some of the more influential revelations I had this year. This list certainly isn't exhaustive, but it should give you a peak into what a difference a year can make.
Lesson #1: Pay more attention to the foot-ankle complex and footwear.
With the exception of the time that we're sleeping, we spend every second of our lives with one or both feet in contact with the ground. Nonetheless, up until this year, I (like most coaches) overlooked the significance of the foot and ankle to performance. I have to admit that I'm particularly disgusted with myself on this one in light of the fact that a large portion of my master's thesis research revolved around foot and ankle function!
All my athletes do their warm-ups barefoot now, and we'll perform a lot of their other training barefoot as well (the perks of working in a private training facility). The problem is that sneakers — especially some of the souped-up crap that's on the market today — become a crutch for athletes. This is really bad when you consider that we're in an era of excessive ankle taping and high-top sneakers (especially in basketball; it drives me nuts). The more you train barefoot, the more you strengthen the small muscles of the feet and enhance ankle mobility and proprioception.
Beyond just getting out of your sneakers as often as possible, you can do a lot to enhance in-gym performance by wearing Nike Frees, Converse Chuck Taylors, wrestling shoes, and anything else that keeps you close in contact with the floor. You'll be even better off if you can get away with wearing flatter shoes like this during the day.
Note: Exceptions to this rule would be the small percentage of the population that has supinated feet (don't decelerate or absorb shock well). They'll need more cushioning, but can still definitely get away with wearing the shoes listed above as long as an extra insole is added. If you've got big calluses on your foot at the base of your big and little toes, chances are that you're a supinator.
Lesson #2: Play devil's advocate when it comes to orthotics.
I figured this would be a good follow-up to number one, although I'll probably wind up getting some angry emails from podiatrists.
I don't consider myself a foot and ankle specialist by any means, but I do see a lot of people who are really jacked up and can't even stand on one foot right. And I've seen a lot of people whose pain started when they originally got orthotics or replaced old ones with new ones. Further, I've seen a lot of people get rid of their pain and movement dysfunction when they got out of their orthotics frequently or altogether.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't get orthotics, and I'm not saying that you should. I'm just saying that it's a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly. I just happen to be someone who's seen a lot more people get jacked up from orthotics than those who've been helped by them (and we're talking a 15:1 ratio). If you didn't need orthotics when you were three years old, do you really think you need them when you're 30?
Ask some of the best in the business — guys who have huge sample sizes from over the years — and they'll tell you the same. Or at least they'll tell you the same if they aren't podiatrists with expensive cars to pay off.
Lesson #3: Use jumping tests as assessments, not just predictors of performance.
In the past, like many others, I used jumping tests to tell me if my programming was working for athletes. Now, however, I'm using these tests to assess strengths and weaknesses in athletes.
As I outlined in my book, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, I've used a bounce drop jump vs. countermovement jump assessment to test static-spring proficiency. The countermovement jump (CMJ) is a regular down-and-up vertical jump test, while the bounce drop jump (BDJ) from 12" is the same test, but the jump is preceded by a drop from a specified height with the athlete attempting to minimize ground contact time in the transition from landing to jumping.
In a nutshell, if the athlete performs better on the CMJ than the BDJ, we know he needs to train reactive ability (plyometrics) harder to improve, whereas those who do best on the BDJ test will need more maximal strength work to improve their athleticism.
The CMJ-proficient guys are muscling their jumps, while the BDJ-proficient guys are better at using elastic energy they store in the tendons. Those who perform equally on both tests respond best to a mix of training. Programming like this took Frank Yang's vertical jump from 31" to 38" inches in only eight months — some of which were actually more corrective, as Frank started out with a knee problem.
Now, after chatting more with Mike Boyle and visiting the Boston University weightroom a few times, I've switched to the Just Jump System. It's $500 very well spent (especially since the ceilings in our facility tend to be a bit lower and we wouldn't be able to test our taller athletes with a Vertec).
The thing I like the most about the Just Jump is that it doesn't just measure vertical jump; it also offers a four-jump test that can assess elasticity, which ties in closely with reactive ability. The guys who are most reactive (perform better on bounce drop jump tests) will actually get better on each successive jump, whereas those athletes who "muscle" everything will drop off.
My experience tells me that elasticity is a far better predictor of performance in most sports than regular ol' peak power. We don't just take single bursts of effort (one step or one jump) in most athletic endeavors. Rather, it's usually several strides, jumps, or changes in direction in rapid succession (as with sprinting) that determine how effective an athlete is. Speaking of which, the Just Jump actually has a setting for timing various sprints, too, so it's very versatile.
The single-leg triple jump is a great test I use to assess side-to-side discrepancies. If you see a huge difference between right and left, you know you're in trouble — and that you can make ridiculous progress in a short amount of time by enhancing ankle function and frontal plane stability with loads of single-leg work.
Recently, I tested a moderately-trained high school senior catcher who's going on to play D1 ball next year. In his pre-testing, his single-leg triple jump on the left leg was 17'0" — 15 inches less than that of his right. He'd had a severe left ankle sprain in the past and was compensating with a lot of lumbar rotation and lateral flexion.
After two months of a ton of single-leg work, appropriate soft tissue work in the entire lower extremity (especially that ankle), and lots of lumbar spine stability work, he was at 21'3" on his left leg and 21'4" on his right. Not surprisingly, his broad jump went up by a full 12 inches in the process, and he put 3.5 inches on his vertical at the same time.
Anyone who says that single-leg work doesn't predict athletic success hasn't spent enough time working with athletes. On the single-leg triple jump, watch for both general discrepancies side-to-side and overall strength deficits, and don't forget to subjectively evaluate how well they land on each jump.
Lesson #4: Quit static stretching the hamstrings.
This year, after chatting with Stuart McGill, I stopped static stretching hamstrings unless there was a noticeable side-to-side discrepancy.
The results were nothing short of awesome. Athletes (myself included) got stronger and faster in a matter of weeks. We still use several dynamic stretches, though. If I can get it with ten two-second mobilizations, why would I want to waste time with a ten-second static hold that does little to impact the nervous system?
Lesson #5: Incorporate single-leg exercises effectively.
In 2005, I really pushed to try to get people to realize how important single-leg training is. In 2006, after talking more with Mike Boyle and brainstorming a bit, I learned to program them a lot better with sub-divisions:
1. Static Unsupported: 1-leg squats (pistols), 1-leg stiff-leg deadlifts
2. Static Supported: Bulgarian split squats
3. Dynamic: lunges, step-ups
From there you can also divide single-leg movements into decelerative (forward lunging) and accelerative (slideboard work, reverse lunges). I've found that accelerative movements are the most effective early progressions after lower extremity injuries (less stress on the knee joint).
I think it's ideal for everyone to aim to get at least one of each of the three options in every week. If one needed to be sacrificed, it would be static supported. Because static unsupported aren't generally loaded as heavily and don't cause as much delayed onset muscle soreness, they can often be thrown in on upper body days. Here are some sample splits you might want to try:
Monday — Include static supported (50/50 upper/lower exercise selection)
Wednesday — Include static unsupported (would be the only lower body exercise in this session)
Friday — Include dynamic (50/50 upper/lower exercise selection)
Notice how the most stressful/soreness-inducing option is placed prior to the longest recovery period (the weekend of rest).
Monday — Include static supported in lower-body training session.
Wednesday — Include static unsupported (only lower body exercise in otherwise upper body session)
Friday — Include dynamic in lower-body training session
Saturday — Upper body workout, no single-leg work outside of warm-up and unloaded prehab work
We rotate our single-leg movements every four weeks, and generally use accelerative movements (reverse lunge variations, especially) twice as often as decelerative movements.
Lesson #6: Never keep score; goodwill never runs out.
Keith Ferrazzi's book, Never Eat Alone, might be the single-best non-training book I read this year. Ferrazzi outlines not only the importance of building a strong network, but also how to go about doing it properly. The old adage of you only being as good as your network may be hackneyed, but it's incredibly accurate.
I've been amazed at the willingness of guys like Alwyn Cosgrove, John Berardi, Mike Boyle, Dave Tate, and Jay Ferruggia to help an up-and-comer like me with any question I've ever had. Heck, they've even offered unsolicited — but tremendously appreciated — advice that has helped me immeasurably. What's even more amazing is that they've all given this advice at no cost — and asked for nothing in return. Why? Because they "get it."
With respect to connecting, Ferrazzi writes, "It's a constant process of giving and receiving, of asking for and offering help. By putting people in contact with one another, by giving your time and expertise and sharing them freely, the pie gets bigger for everyone."
You see, goodwill — the willingness to help others — never runs out unless you allow it to by your own ignorance. These guys offered me tremendous information and expected nothing in return, but now that I'm in more of a position to help them out, their goodwill has paid off.
I wrote a free 12-week program for John Berardi this fall, introduced Mike Boyle to Testosteronewith an interview this summer, referred hundreds of people to EliteFTS to buy training equipment from Dave, am contributing on a project for Alwyn as I type this, and even sent some marketing ideas Jay's way just recently. It's a constant ebb and flow, but the reason it works is that none of us keep score. Ferrazzi writes:
A network functions precisely because there's a recognition of mutual need. There's an implicit understanding that investing time and energy in building personal relationships with the right people will pay dividends.
Interestingly enough, at the ripe ol' age of 25, I'm kind of proud to see a group of guys I've helped out doing so well. I was the first to congratulate Nate Green when he had his first article at T-Nation, and it gets me fired up to see two former UCONN strength and conditioning interns, Mike Irr and Nick Kalra, doing great with the Chicago Bulls and University of Arkansas, respectively. Meanwhile, AJ Roberts is doing tremendously well helping out at the University of Idaho.
This doesn't just apply to the business aspect of the industry, though; you all need to be doing this in your own training lives. Don't make fun of that beginner who's doing leg extensions; take him over to the squat rack and show him how it's done.
If you're going to take the time to reply to someone's question on the forum, why not help him out with some solid advice instead of just ridiculing him? Chances are that down the road he'll help you or someone else out, too. What goes around comes around, but not if you're keeping score and thinking that you have to save your goodwill up for a rainy day.
Lesson #7: Be more aggressive with soft tissue work.
I've been a big proponent of soft tissue work like massage, ART, and even foam rolling for a few years now, but it wasn't until this year that I began to realize how profound an effect these modalities have on making me more effective; they're very synergistic to the training process.
My approach to corrective exercise to a large extent is based on the Law of Repetitive Motion, which explains how injuries occur:
I = NF/AR
In this equation, injury (I) is exacerbated by the number of repetitions (N) and the force of each repetition (F). Conversely, we can reduce injury with amplitude (A — also known as range of motion) and rest (R), or by working directly on the "I" component of the equation. My approach is structured to accommodate this equation in several ways:
1. We work directly on the existing injury (soft tissue adhesions/scar tissue) with foam rolling and self-myofascial release with tennis/lacrosse balls at the beginning of each session, and more aggressively, by referring out for massage and ART in cases where they're indicated.
2. After the soft tissue release, we move to a collection of static and dynamic flexibility exercise aimed at improving amplitude. Integrated in this period are "activation" exercises aimed at teaching certain dormant muscles to fire so that they'll be integrated during the subsequent full-body strength training.
3. The strength-training component of the program consists of a variety of free weight, body weight, resistance band, and cable exercises. These initiatives are aimed at increasing maximal strength (minimizes the "F" in the equation, as repetitive stress is perceived as less challenging) and optimizing appropriate movement patterns and musculoskeletal balance. Strength training is a highly effective corrective exercise modality when applied appropriately, as it provides considerable force and repetitions to restore muscular balance and re-educate the neuromuscular system.
As you can see, the soft tissue component of this equation precedes the corrective exercise itself. If there are knots in the rubber band, you'll never get it to lengthen optimally, will you?
Lesson #8: Read smarter.
In January, Jason Ferruggia asked me about the books I was reading at the time. I listed about five training books, and he asked me what business books I was reading. I stood there dumbfounded like Bubba from Forest Gump.
His exact words: "You already know more than 99.99% of the trainers out there; you need to read more about business to be better at what you do." I've read a lot more about business since then, and the results have been nothing short of fantastic.
In June, I had a similar conversation over a steak and eggs breakfast with Jim Wendler at the Syracuse Strength Spectacular, but his focus was coaching rather than just training knowledge. If you've got the training knowledge, but aren't a good coach, it doesn't mean anything. I resolved to get even better as a coach. I read a ton about it and visited more coaches to see what they were doing. I'm a much better coach as a result.
Lesson #9: Your scapular stabilizers and thoracic mobility are far more important than your rotator cuff.
This is going to sound like heresy coming from the guy who wrote "Cracking the Rotator Cuff Conundrum" back in 2003, but I guess you could say that I've evolved a bit over the past 39 months!
Something to consider: 100% of shoulder problems involve scapular dysfunction, but not all shoulder problems involve rotator cuff weakness.
I'm not going to bust out one of those Venn diagrams on you here; I'm just going to tell you flat-out that if you want to make lasting changes in shoulder health, you need to focus your attention on the scapular stabilizers, most notably the lower traps and serratus anterior, and the thoracic spine.
I'll give it to you nice and simple. Even if you're a complete meathead bodybuilder who trains chest and shoulders four times a week, you'll still be able to keep some semblance of health in your shoulder girdle with these three exercises three times per week pre-training:
Thoracic Extension on the Foam Roller
Behind-the-Neck Band Pull-Aparts
These are just the tips of the iceberg, but definitely a step in the right direction. If you're smart, though, you'll still pick up the Inside-Out DVD.
And, to be honest, I'm almost willing to say that adequate function of the opposite hip and ankle is more important than the isolated muscle strength of the rotator cuff. I'll probably save that bold assertion for the 2007 installment of "Things I Learned," though.
Lesson #10: In this industry, it's good to be a cynical bastard — just not a jerk.
I realize that there are more people in this industry who are full of shit than ever. I guess I was a bit less cynical, or probably just less "in the know," in 2005. My first big seminar was in November of 2005. At the end of the day, there was a roundtable of speakers, and one audience member asked the panel, "Who in this industry do you think is full of it?"
After the laughter died down, I politely declined with, "Everybody has something to teach. Besides, I'm too young to have enemies."
Now, thirteen months later, I still firmly believe in that entire statement, but I've recognized that if you put yourself out there, you're going to get some enemies. Sometimes, to make a difference, you have to barbeque some sacred cows.
I've gotten crappy reviews from people at seminars simply because I was younger than the other presenters. There are guys out there who are already cursing at my grandchildren because I said I don't like the Smith machine. And I'm pretty sure that I'll be pissing off the entire Boston endurance community in the next few years with my non-traditional ideas, so I better start praying for salvation now. But if I just accepted things instead of playing devil's advocate, I'd never have stumbled onto some of the valuable training insights I now possess.
I think we're lucky to have a solid crew of regular contributors here at T-Nation because they aren't just knowledgeable, they're downright approachable people who treat others as they'd like to be treated. Being cynical is a good thing when it comes to ideas, but not interacting with people.
For whatever reason, there are a lot of people in this industry who gain some publicity and all of a sudden think they're better than everyone. I've never heard of a good accountant or mechanic getting an ego and treating others like dirt, so it always amazes me when I hear a story about some industry notable refusing to talk to audience members after a seminar.
Lesson #11: Bells and whistles might fool millionaire athletes who are casual observers when it comes to training, but the best coaches are rarely in the most expensive, souped-up facilities.
While we're on the topic of cynical, the lesson title above pretty much says it all. If you want to get results, you need to find a smart coach who works in a great training environment with some attitude — not a country club where you have unqualified interns supervising you on four-exercise 3 x 10 circuits.
I'll leave it at that.
Lesson #12: If you understand "dead spots," you can make any athlete better really quickly.
I think that "dead spots" might be the first functional anatomy term I've coined, so somebody go throw it up on Wikipedia for me (and give me credit, of course).
To understand dead spots, you first have to have the functional anatomy background to understand that all our joints operate on a balance of mobility and stability. Too much mobility and we'll have unrestrained movement (think ballerina). Too much stability and we'll be too rigid to move (think Dave Tate trying to squeeze into a ballerina outfit).
Moving forward, we need to understand that although each joint has a balance between mobility and stability, some joints need more stability than mobility, or vice versa. Here's a chart that simplifies things:
There are two kinds of dead spots: hypermobile and hypomobile. The hypermobile ones tend to be the knee (not as common), lumbar spine (very common), scapula (very common), and glenohumeral joint (can go either way, usually hypermobile in overhead throwing athletes).
These dead spots are points at which we lose force we've generated — either for acceleration, deceleration, or pure stabilization — at other points along the kinetic chain. An example would be someone squatting, pushing a bobsled, or shooting a jump squat with poor lumbar spine stability. He might be able to generate great force from the lower extremities, but that force has to travel through the lumbar spine in order to reach its target. If we lack stability, some of the force is lost.
We can compensate in one of two ways: increase range of motion at the hypermobile dead spot to help generate more force, or shift the burden to another joint. It's a vicious cycle, as the former compensation strategy further increases instability at an already unstable joint (the lumbar spine, a place at which range of motion is positively correlated with injury risk).
The latter compensation strategy can easily lead to overuse injuries at other joints. It's why pitchers can throw out their shoulders and elbows due to lumbar spine and scapular dead spots (instability).
The hypomobile dead spots tend to be the ankle, hips, thoracic spine, and sometimes the glenohumeral joint (most commonly in bodybuilders). Here, we get dead spots because limitations to joint range of motion actually impair — through a phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition — recruitment of important muscles.
A great example is poor mobility in hip extension occurring due to tightness of the hip flexors. The glutes (the true antagonist) can't be optimally activated to help the hamstrings out with running, jumping, deadlifting, you name it. We compensate by overusing/tightening up the agonist (hamstrings) and looking elsewhere (lumbar spine) to get our range of motion.
We not only lose force production capabilities, but also increase the risk of injury to adjacent joints. A great example is the terrible ankle mobility in the NBA today. Guys tape their ankles like crazy and wear high-top sneakers all the time. Sure, regular ol' lateral ankle sprain incidence has gone down, but now everybody has patellofemoral pain (took a knee joint that needed stability and forced it to gain mobility — creating a hypermobile dead spot) and, just as concerning, serious high ankle sprains.
The good news is that if you understand corrective exercise and have a keen eye for spotting dysfunction, you can look like an absolute genius in a matter of days or weeks — and that's why we get a lot of guys in Boston for four or five days of corrective exercise work. We spot the flaws, take them through some sessions to enhance motor control acutely, and send them on their way with some exercise and soft tissue prescriptions.
If you're diligent, mobility and stability come around very quickly. A lot of progress can be seen in a matter of days, and a ton in a matter of weeks, even though it's taken years for these problems to originate. The best part is that in the majority of cases, it's 100% possible to correct dead spots without compromising the training effect. Athletes can still train hard and heavy as long as they're attentive to their soft tissue, mobility, and activation exercises and the assistance work we recommend for them.
Unfortunately, if you follow cookie-cutter approaches and perform corrective exercises incorrectly, you're just making things worse.
Lesson #13: The gym shouldn't define you.
As sad as it sounds, for a few years, lifting weights was life for me. It's the first thing I thought about when I woke up, and the last thing I thought about before falling asleep. If I wasn't training athletes or clients or lifting myself, I was reading or writing about lifting. It absolutely consumed me.
And, much like the "newbie gains" we experience when we first pick up a weight, this worked for me for a while. The more I did, the more I needed to do. As I kept setting the bar higher for myself, the only way to improve seemed to work longer.
This year, though, I came to some profound realizations. I was really getting burned out, and was basically working longer because I didn't know how to work smarter. What once had been a passion was now something that consumed me to the point of exhaustion. And although I still enjoyed training, had it not been for a great training crew at South Side Gym, I probably wouldn't have been able to get motivated enough to make any progress.
Over the next several months, I put a lot of changes into place, most notably relocating to Boston to be involved with an exciting new facility and be closer to family and friends (not to mention Fenway Park). I cut back the number of hours I spent training clients and consolidated to more group training so that I could focus more on continued professional development through reading, writing, interacting with other coaches, and traveling to seminars.
I still answer all my emails and forum inquiries, but I just concede that people can wait a little longer for their free advice. Training is as fun and productive as it's ever been. I needed to take a step away from the gym in order to get better in it, as I'd hit the point of diminishing returns on my time investment.
I met Dan John back in January in Washington, D.C., and we chatted on the phone for the first time sometime in July. He probably doesn't even remember the conversation, but it really stuck out in my mind. Dan is a guy that really "gets it."
We were in a deep, meaningful discussion about lifting heavy stuff or something to that effect and sharing some good laughs. At one point, Dan asked me if I could hold on for a second. "Sure," I said. As I'm listening, I hear him ask his daughters if they have everything they need, tell them he loves them, and kiss them goodbye — while I'm still on hold all the way across the country.
Ask yourself, "How would I feel if I was put on hold for that 30 seconds?" Then, ask yourself what you would've done if you were Dan John. I, for one, was delighted to be put on hold because it made me realize just why Dan "gets it" and why he's been so successful as a lifter for as long as I've been alive.
At that point in my career, I probably would have just waived to my kids on their way out the door and mouthed "goodbye" because I was too fired up about deadlifts or whatever to realize what was really important.
I also remember Mike Boyle telling me that the critics don't bother him; all that matters at the end of the day is what his daughter thinks of him when they're playing Candyland. Pretty good perspective coming from a guy who's trained more professional athletes than you can possibly imagine.
Look at all the best in the business and you'll see that they have a good appreciation for the balance in life. The gym might have made them famous, but they don't allow it to define them — and they've all gotten better and better at what they do in spite of the fact that they still allow themselves to enjoy the important things in life instead of just thinking about the gym all day.
On one hand, I'm frustrated to think of all the unnecessary sacrifices I've made along the way because I overlooked the important things too often. I've missed time with family, ignored opportunities to become more well-rounded, and wasted away relationships that could have been. On the other hand, I'm excited for the future, as I've realized that I can have my cake and eat it, too — and continue to get better as a coach, writer, and lifter at the same time.
So, while the "ordinary folks" in the population make their New Year's resolutions to get fit in 2007, ask yourself if your best resolution — as a hardcore gym rat already — would be to take a step back and reevaluate your priorities. Chances are that learning how to "turn off the hardcore" sometimes is exactly what you need to make more progress in the long run.
About the Author
Eric Cressey, M.A., C.S.C.S., is a sought-after coach for healthy and injured athletes alike at Excel Sport and Fitness in Waltham, MA (www.ExcelStrength.com). Feel free to contact him and sign up for his free newsletter at www.EricCressey.com.
Along with Mike Robertson, Eric co-produced Magnificent Mobility, which is available through the Biotest Store. He also recently released The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual. For more information, check out www.UltimateOffSeason.com.
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