An Interview With Bret Contreras
Bret Contreras wants you to know he's read every single article T NATION has ever published. (That's online and print, buddy.)
Passionate about training? You bet your ass.
Speaking of asses, Bret also wants you to know that yours is weak and ugly, and he means that in the nicest way possible. But you should still do something about it. (He also wants you to know he regularly massages the ass of one of his clients who just happens to be a figure competitor.)
Bret wants you to know a lot of things, but that's just because he wants to know a lot of things, too. That's why he received his Masters degree from ASU, his CSCS from NSCA, took a full year off to conduct EMG research, wrote a book about glutes, and is planning to head back to school for his Ph.D.
In fact, Bret's so eager to share his knowledge about bodybuilding, speed, new exercises, and sports training, that he'll start ranting immediately after answering the phone for your interview.
But I guess you really didn't need to know that.
T Nation: Hello? You there? Hold on. Shit. Let me turn this thing on.
Bret Contreras: Sorry about that.
T Nation: Nah, it's cool. We're recording now. What were you getting all pissed about? Something about being "anti-bodybuilding?"
Bret Contreras: I was saying that a lot of experts seem to be anti-bodybuilding. While I agree the vast majority of people see more results when they follow a routine that hits each major muscle group two or three times per week, I believe that every person should experiment with HVT, HIT, HFT, EDT, body-part splits, upper/lower splits, and total body training to find what works best for them.
There's no need to bash any particular system. We all have unique physiologies so we all respond differently to various exercises, splits, volumes, frequencies, intensities, and densities. In fact, the best part of strength training over the long haul is discovering our own unique system.
T Nation: Good point. I've also noticed a lot of guys shitting on the bodybuilding philosophy in the past couple of years, but I think it's making a comeback.
Bret Contreras: I agree. But I've seen a lot of strength coaches and corrective exercise types who employ sport-specific training but wouldn't be caught dead using bodybuilding techniques. However, bodybuilders have been preaching about developing intense mind-muscle connections, reaching optimal levels of body composition, and hitting the muscles from a lot of angles for many decades. Are you telling me their athletes can't benefit from all that?
We all know the sport-specific crowd trains "movements, not muscles." Now they have to teach people how to activate certain muscles like their glutes because they were too focused on the movements. They didn't pay any attention to the muscles.
If you're performing the right strength exercises through the proper range of motion and squeezing the right muscles, then muscle activation takes care of itself. Had we listened to what bodybuilders have said all along and applied it to sport-specific training there would be no need for activation work.
T Nation: That's going to piss some people off.
Bret Contreras: Yeah, but that's okay. It's time for a change.
If a coach prescribes solely axial lifts for his athletes like squats and deadlifts without prescribing anteroposterior lifts like hip thrusts and back extensions, then the athlete will be robbed of maximum glute and hamstring activation and sprint speed development.
Had we listened to the bodybuilders about hitting muscles from various angles we wouldn't have been overly-focused on performing standing barbell and dumbbell exercises and would have been more open to supine, prone, and quadruped movements. And our athletes would be faster because of it.
I don't think there are many trainers right now who are raking in the dough, and considering that people hire trainers for a myriad of reasons including fat loss, muscle gain, increased strength, enhanced speed, and improved health, it's very important for trainers to have a good understanding of each sub-field of strength training so they can be of maximum benefit to their clients.
T Nation: Let's forget about the trainers for a minute and talk about the guys who are in the gym busting their ass. You wrote me an email a few days ago and said they were married to the methods. What did you mean?
Bret Contreras: Most guys have too many goals or none at all. I think each month you should choose a new primary goal. I don't care if it's to gain ten pounds on your bench press, perform two more reps on a chin-up, or gain five pounds of muscle.
But too often we're married to our methods to reach our goals in what we think will be the quickest manner possible.
In strength training we have a lot of divisiveness. There's a time and place for every type of training and we should look at all of these methods as "tools" to help us reach our goals. Guys like Christian Thibaudeau and the late Mel Siff truly understand fitness. They have an appreciation for all types of training, are very open-minded, and can see value in most methods. These are my favorite types of experts. I don't like when people make judgments about certain exercises or training systems having never tried them.
I mean, get good at Bulgarian split squats and single leg RDL's and you'll swear by them. Do HIT training for two months and you might see the best gains of your life.
If you've been training for strength but want increased power, put the strength work on the back burner and focus on speed-strength, explosive strength, and reactive ability.
However, many people have serious hang-ups with abandoning their favorite exercises or methods for a period of time. You can't train for maximum power, maximum strength, maximum size, and maximum conditioning at the same time.
T Nation: But what if a particular method has been working great. Are you saying we should change it up even if we're consistently making gains?
Bret Contreras: Not at all. I'm just saying that your new goal will require you to add something in. To do that, you must take something out. So if you're still getting a benefit from a certain exercise, then sure, keep it in. But I bet there are other parts of your program that aren't doing much for you.
And you gotta know the difference. Most guys will still keep the bench press even though they haven't progressed on it for months. They simply can't let go of an exercise or method in order to advance at something new.
Nate, if I told you that you had to increase your vertical jump by five inches in the next two months or I'd molest your dog in the worst way, what would you do?
T Nation: Wait, what? That's weirdest threat I've ever received.
Bret Contreras: I don't know why I just said that. But, still, what would you do? Let's say you're a strong, powerful squatter. You'd likely improve your jump the most by eliminating squats for two months and doing solely plyometrics, Olympic lift variations, jump squats, and medicine ball work. But many people could never get over the mental hurdle of taking two months off squatting in order to reach that goal.
I've met people who continuously re-injure their lower back from squatting and deadlifting. Their goals should be to rehabilitate themselves so they can lift pain-free. Avoiding squats, deadlifts, and good mornings for a month and sticking to all single-leg work will allow them to stress the hip and thighs while reducing the stress on their lumbar spine. Their strength could be maintained while their back is being rehabilitated.
T Nation: Good point.
Bret Contreras: One final example. I know a lot of guys who want to lose some fat but can't seem to tighten everything up. They're typically really strong guys who are addicted to being big and strong. They lift big and eat big. If and when they ever decide to lighten up the weight, do more reps, hit the muscles from more angles, perform some cardio, and tighten up their diets, they're usually very pleased with their new bodies.
Think of Christian Thibaudeau and Dave Tate. These guys have always been strong, but now they're strong and ripped. The mental hurdle of dieting down for big strong guys is usually a very tough one to get over. But if they can do it, you should be able to.
T Nation: All right, man, I gotta ask. Why the glute fetish?
Bret Contreras: Good question! I remember being 15 and my mom bought me a set of barbells. I'd do curls and military presses and push-ups and stuff, but I never knew how to do anything for legs. One day it occurred to me that I could get bigger legs and a better butt. I don't know why it was such a quantum leap for me. I had friends who played football and the girls would say, "Oh, he has a nice butt," and I wanted them to say that about me.
More recently, I read about glute bridges from guys I respect like Robertson, Cressey, and Boyle and thought it was a good exercise. Then I was watching a UFC fight and this guy was full-mounted on the ground. I couldn't figure out why the dude on the bottom didn't buck the other guy off. In truth, I knew he was tired and less powerful, but I still thought it was a movement that most guys have no power in. So I thought about putting a barbell on there, and the weighted glute bridge was born.
People think I'm psychotic because I wrote a 675-page E-book on the glutes. It's just something I think everyone needs to work on.
T Nation: You told me earlier you actually massage your clients' glutes. What's up with that?
Bret Contreras: It's something I picked up from Charlie Francis who would get so in tune with his clients. He was their trainer, their masseuse, and their coach. I stopped doing 12-hour days training clients to focus on writing, but I still trained a handful of people. I found out I could help them break down scar tissue with a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or by using my thumbs and elbows and it really did miracles with their form and their firing patterns. It's not that weird. And I don't just massage their glutes. There are other body parts, you know.
T Nation: Fair enough. I also heard you don't like to get sore from training. What are you, a wuss?
Bret Contreras: Ha! Hardly. But I'm glad you brought it up because it's rarely talked about in strength training. Soreness is not an indicator of muscle growth and can very easily impede progress. Due to individuality and differences in anthropometry, everyone has exercises that get them really sore, and those exercises are often the one's for which they are the best suited. For me it's deadlifts and walking lunges. Deadlifts make my lower back very sore and walking lunges make my adductor magnus and lower glutes sore as hell.
But if I get too sore from these exercises, it's hard for me to get a good workout the following day (or even the following several days), even if I'm doing upper-body work. Also, if my adductor magnus is crippled I won't be able to do any high-quality hip extension work until the pain subsides or I might pull the muscle. So it's to my advantage to avoid getting too sore on these exercises.
This leaves me with several options. I could avoid the exercise altogether, which is not a good choice. I could perform several sets but not go too hard on any sets, which is also not a good choice. I could perform dynamic work (explosive sets with lighter weight) which is a decent choice, or I could just do one hard set and walk away, which is the best option in my opinion.
T Nation: But would that one set still give you a training effect?
Bret Contreras: Definitely. It would if you came back and hit that same muscle group one or two more times that week. Why cripple yourself when we know that working the muscle more frequently is better?
If you're sore, you won't get a good training effect at all. So it's okay to perform just one or two sets of an exercise if it decreases soreness and allows you to function better throughout the week.
But you don't do it on every body part. Personally, I often avoid high rep deadlifts and walking lunges. I once deadlifted 405 pounds for 12 reps and was crippled for nine straight days. I once did 20 walking lunges with 245 pounds and was crippled for nine days as well.
T Nation: Something about the nine days...
Bret Contreras: Must be. But I won't do that ever again. I always deadlift after I squat, so my hips and low back are already warmed up, but now I do 405 pounds for one rep and I use that set to determine how heavy to go for my work set. If 405 feels heavy, I might do 475 for one set. If 405 feels like cupcakes, I might go for 550 for one set. Then I'm done.
Now, squats and the bench press don't get me that sore so I might do five sets of them. Everyone has their lifts where they should limit their total amount of sets due to extreme levels of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) production.
T Nation: After seeing your glute bridge variations, I'm crowning you King of the crazy-ass exercises. You got any others for us?
Bret Contreras: Man, you have no idea. A few years ago I remember hearing some guys at my gym say that lunges are for pussies. I remember thinking to myself that walking lunges are probably the most difficult exercise I do. One hard set can force me to lie down for five minutes gasping for air.
I'd rather do a hard set of squats, deadlifts, or weighted chin-ups any day of the week than walking lunges. I then realized that these close-minded guys were referring to bodyweight lunges and had never tried a hard set of barbell walking lunges.
Last year I overheard a guy at my gym telling another guy that single-leg RDL's are a "sissy exercise." I tried them and sucked at them because I wasn't very coordinated. Luckily, I decided to stick with them. Now I can perform 5 deep reps with two 100-lb dumbbells and they're an amazing exercise for me.
T Nation: Okay, but where are you going with this?
Bret Contreras: What I'm saying is, until you try it you have no idea how effective an exercise will be. And just because it looks crazy doesn't mean it won't kick your ass. One exercise I'd like everyone to try is the pendulum quadruped hip extension.
You know why most of the butt machines at the gym suck? Because they're made for women. They're too small, uncomfortable, and don't have enough weight on the stack.
The pendulum beneath the reverse hyper is the perfect tool to allow you to maximally target the glutes. Just place a mat underneath the machine, get on all fours, place a heel against the pendulum bar, position the body far back so the heel is almost touching the butt, hold onto the side rails for support, and extend the hips, keeping the knee at around a 90-degree angle and avoiding any rotary motion at your core.
This exercise absolutely kills me. The plate-loadable bar allows you to load up as much weight as your want. I can do 100 pounds for ten reps and 125 pounds for five reps. When I'm finished with the set, I feel like I got run over by a truck. My core is demolished, my glutes are on fire, my quads are pumped, and my lungs are gasping for air. How many glute isolation exercises have this effect?
Sure, it's a "machine exercise" but machines are okay in sport-specific training if they hit a certain muscle really hard, train a functional movement pattern, and as long as the big basics are covered in the program.
The pendulum quadruped hip extension will get you strong glutes and increase your hip hyperextension strength which will transfer over to running and sprinting.
T Nation: I'll have to try that one. Let's wrap up. Is there anything else pissing you off?
Bret Contreras: At the risk of sounding like a typical meathead I'm going to go out on a limb and call for a "return to strength." Don't get me wrong; I believe there's a time for unstable training, unilateral and bilateral exercises, free weight and machine exercises, closed chain and open chain exercises, compound and isolation exercises, and stretched-position and contracted-position exercises. I believe we need to learn how to activate certain muscles, get flexible, and get the core really strong.
T Nation: However, how long does this take?
Bret Contreras: After a solid year of glute activation, stretching, and core training, those qualities should be brought up to par. After that, glute activation work doesn't need to be performed. You simply need to integrate level-appropriate glute strengthening exercises like hip thrusts and pendulum quadruped hip extensions into your strength program.
The total amount of stretching can be reduced once adequate flexibility is reached, and if you're doing exercises like full squats, Romanian deadlifts, chin ups, dips, and Bulgarian squats, then you're already doing loaded stretching during your strength workout.
I think we can easily go overboard on things like warm-ups, mobility work, flexibility, activation, movement prep, and core work.
If I'm training an athlete, then I'll spend more time warming them up.
But when I'm ready to lift, I want to slam an energy drink, listen to some insanely loud music, do a few warm-up sets, and start lifting my balls off.
T Nation: Sounds good to us. Thanks, man.