Ten years ago, most people who trained with weights had never heard of a "strength coach." Oh sure, there were sports coaches who worked with athletes on performance. And there were famous bodybuilders who theorized on hypertrophy methods in the magazines. There were even personal trainers and fitness instructors, but a strength coach? An expert who specialized in all things iron? A guy who could help you increase your vertical, build your biceps, and add 50 pounds to your bench press? Not many gym-goers had heard of such an animal.
Then along came Charles Poliquin, one of the first notable gurus that appealed to a broad spectrum of athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness freaks. Poliquin is still at the top of his game, but a whole new crop of strength coaches have sprung from the seeds he planted way back when TC first introduced him to the Muscle Media 2000 audience. These new guys are young, hyper-educated and viciously smart. We know because most of them are already writing for T-Nation!
Eric Cressey is one of those young guns. We caught up with 23-year old Cressey just days after he got his master's degree. We think you'll agree that the future of strength and conditioning is bright.
T-Nation: Tell us about yourself, Eric. What are you doing right now?
Eric Cressey: I just graduated from the University of Connecticut with my master's degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science. It's been a great place to be for the past two years. The faculty is top notch and I've been fortunate to study under several big names that are really doing a lot of great things in a wide variety of research settings.
T-Nation: What kind of studies have you been involved in?
EC: I've been involved in a few different studies since I arrived in the fall of 2003, but my graduate assistantship for the past year was through a US Army-funded study looking at bone health and military readiness in female basic training recruits. Essentially, I trained a ton of college aged females for ten weeks to see what kind of performance and physiological changes we'd see. It's pretty cool to see girls go from "untrained" to squatting two bills in a matter of months.
T-Nation: I'm having vivid boot camp fantasies already. You've worked with a lot of university athletes too, correct?
EC: Yes, I help out in strength and conditioning with the varsity athletes here on campus. Over the past year, I worked exclusively with Coach Chris West and his teams: men's and women's basketball, and men's soccer, all of which are very successful programs. Chris is a great coach and he's really had a profound influence on my development.
I've been around several different teams in my time here on campus. It's been nice to have exposure to a wide variety of athletes. I definitely have a more comprehensive perspective. Plus, it's always fun to be around high caliber athletes, the likes of which have won gold medals, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man awards, Big East and NCAA championships, and been drafted into the NBA, WNBA, NFL, MLB, and MLS. I'm really fortunate to experience both the research and applied realms on a daily basis.
T-Nation: You're no armchair expert yourself. Tell us about your adventures in powerlifting.
EC: I just competed in AAPF Nationals and am now preparing for AWPC Worlds. I've always been really fascinated with relative strength; I actually cut a bunch of weight to make 165 pounds (I'm normally 180-185). Some might discredit me as a writer and a coach because I don't weigh a lot more, but truthfully, being huge has never really been a goal.
T-Nation: Why not?
EC: Well, most athletics are all about relative strength, and I like being able to not only do everything that I expect of athletes with whom I work, but also serve as an example of how one can get stronger through mechanisms other than considerable hypertrophy.
T-Nation: What's your strong point as a powerlifter?
EC: Deadlifting is definitely my strong point. I've pulled 556.5 in competition and locked out 573, although it was red-lighted. Since I'm strong in the deadlift, I'm almost always prioritizing squatting and benching. If all goes well, I'll get my master's total at 165 (1400+) in July and get cracking on Elite shortly thereafter. I'm just about to turn 24, so really this is just the beginning. Down the road, I might do some strongman, play competitive bocce ball, or take up badminton. What can I say? I'm a Renaissance man.
T-Nation: You're going to spend a good portion of your life in the weight room from this point on. Can you remember when you first stepped foot into a gym?
EC: Actually, it's a pretty funny story. My brother Brian was a senior in high school, and he finally agreed to let me tag along on one of his after-school trips to the high school weight room. This was when I was in eighth grade, and in addition to sporting a delightful 4-11" x 4-11" physique, I was also going through one of those stages where I thought it would be cool to grow out my hair and irritate my parents.
Well, it just so happens that I have very thick, curly hair, so I was sporting a monster afro that I'd pick each morning. So, to make a long story short, all of the big guys got a kick out of seeing pudgy "Little 'Fro" get pinned under the bar, and I mean just the bar, on his first attempt at benching. I must've been beet-red and squirming like a fish out of water. Perhaps the funniest part was that the "big older brother" went on to become an accountant, and I wound up in the iron game.
T-Nation: You're a young guy just getting rolling in this community, but what would you say your "specialty" is? In what area do you have the most to offer?
EC: I think it's fair to say that I'm a bit of a functional anatomy dork. If I had to put it eloquently, I'd say that I specialize in applied kinesiology and biomechanics as they relate to program design and injury rehabilitation.
There's a huge need for individuals who can bridge the gap between patients in need of physical therapy/rehabilitation, and athletes who just need to be prepared to dominate. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of physical therapists, athletic trainers, and doctors don't understand the first thing about training for performance enhancement and physique improvement.
Conversely, there are a lot of coaches who get an athlete fresh out of PT and don't have the slightest clue how to reintegrate him properly to "normal" training. Incidentally, these are usually the same coaches whose garbage programs played a big role in the athlete winding up injured in the first place!
As I mentioned earlier, I'm big into maximal relative strength development. I get a lot of emails from lifters who need to drop weight classes or get stronger without adding body weight. I guess it's just one of those weird infatuations; I think little people that lift big weights are really impressive.
Guys like Ron Palmer, Wade Hooper, and Tony Conyers are doing amazing things at 165, and even seeing Travis Mash putting up ridiculous numbers at 220 is awesome to me. He's beating super heavyweights by hundreds of pounds on all three lifts. My buddy actually nicknamed me "The Mediocre Hulk" in light of the fact that I'm a lightweight who loves to lift heavy stuff and is completely dead-set on being strong.
Overall, though, I think that I have the most to offer working with individual athletes. I've always been a huge fan of sports, but watching it as a coach is a lot different than watching it as a fan. When you're a fan, you can just sit back and be in awe of someone's talent. When you're a coach, you're constantly honing in on dozens of issues that you want to address in the athletes' next training session to make them better.
T-Nation: You have some strong opinions about training on unstable surfaces. Let's talk about that. What's your general stance on this stuff?
EC: I'm doing my master's thesis on this very topic. Unstable surface training was originally confined to rehabilitation settings, as it's been proven effective in helping patients recover from the proprioceptive deficit that's present following a lateral ankle sprain. In these patients, wobble boards, balance discs, foam pads, and half-dome stability balls re-educate the peroneals to react more quickly; this muscle group (also known as the evertors of the foot) decelerates inversion. There's a lot of research to support this use for such implements.
Unfortunately (well, fortunately for me), there isn't any research examining the effects of unstable surface training in healthy individuals and, more specifically, healthy trained individuals. We need to be very careful when it comes to applying results from clinical populations to healthy individuals.
Nonetheless, a lot of self-proclaimed "balance training gurus" are promoting these implements until they're blue in the face. It should come as no surprise that these same "gurus" usually have an appreciable financial interest in the success of such implements, whether they invented the equipment themselves or just sell videos and books describing how to use it. I'm sure that most T-Nation readers have seen housewives and athletes alike on these objects.
T-Nation: Yeah, I've always thought these trainers could get much better results with their healthy clients if they'd get them off the wobbly boards and into the rack! What does your thesis in this area involve?
EC: My thesis is entitled "The effect of 10 weeks of lower body unstable surface training on markers of athletic performance." We're looking at how it'll affect bounce drop jump (short stretch-shortening cycle), countermovement jump (long SSC), 40-yard dash, 10-yard dash, and T-test (agility) in a group of trained Division I college athletes.
I'm finished with data collection, and have started statistical analyses and the write-up. I'll be defending in mid-June. Suffice it to say that preliminary data is very promising. I'm really excited. As soon as I can speak for sure, I'll be putting together an article for T-Nation in the not-so-distant future.
It's clear that there's a role for training on such surfaces, but it's also fair to say that they're being ridiculously overused. Hopefully, the results of this study will put things in perspective.
T-Nation: Cool. Looking forward to that. Now, you've written some great articles about training myths. Which myth really drives you monkey-nuts?
EC: Well, it seems that it's common belief that "ordinary" people don't need to do anything special in the gym to get what they desire. Regardless of your goals, a cookie-cutter machine circuit is going to be a lot different than several free-weight variations.
The latter option is going to give you a lot more functional carryover to your daily life, and it's going to be a much more productive physiological stress to your body.
I had to chuckle a few weeks ago when someone told me that some certified personal trainer criticized one of my programs because it included a low-rep deadlift variation. Apparently, "only athletes" need to lift heavy, and deadlifts aren't valuable for anyone else. If that's the case, maybe I should've just followed in big bros footsteps to the world of accounting; there's obviously no need for someone with a master's in kinesiology when the secret to ultimate fitness is a machine circuit and a Justin Timberlake CD for motivation!
If you're going to spend an hour in the gym, you might as well get the most bang for your buck. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to forget that exertion is a key component of exercise. It's kind of coincidental that this discussion came right after we talked about those new-age functional training folks, huh?
T-Nation: Yep. Speaking of deadlifts, there used to be a running joke on the forum about them. Whenever someone posted their pic, a dozen people would jump on and say "You need to deadlift!" Funny thing is, you never see anyone doing it in the gym. Like you mentioned above, the average person thinks the deadlift is just for football players and powerlifters. So, why exactly should the recreational gym-goer (even females) be pulling big iron?
EC: There are several reasons that come to mind. Here goes...
1. You can train hip and knee extension together, but without the technical learning curve of Olympic lifts. I'm not trying to start an argument on the value of Olympic lifting; it's pretty obvious that the O-lifts work quite well. Unfortunately, they aren't as easily taught as the deadlift, so the deadlift (which is actually an early stage in the progression to O-lifts) is a great option for most individuals who are looking to train double extension, which is a common movement scheme.
2. Absolute load is very high. You're going to be able to lift a lot more weight on deadlifts than you are on some silly attempt at isolation, so the overall muscle mass recruited will be greater. Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) will be greater with more muscle mass recruited, and as a result, your metabolic rate after the session will be higher than with isolation exercises.
3. Deadlifts offer a lot of wiggle room in terms of training for various goals. You can pull very light (~30% 1RM) with high velocity for speed-strength, in the middle range (45-70% 1RM) for strength-speed, or with heavy weights for maximal strength. You can add bands, chain, and weight releasers, and do any of a number of variations (various grips, stance widths, pulls from deficits, pulls from blocks/pins, etc.)
4. Deadlifts offer a greater functional carryover than leg curls. While knee flexion is certainly an important movement in daily activities and in sport, leg curls on machines that restrict you to a fixed line of motion always leave a bit to be desired. Training hip extension tends to give you the best carryover in the shortest amount of time.
5. Pulling heavy deadlifts will make your upper back beeeeeeg. The upper back musculature tends to respond to heavy isometric work (as in deadlifting) more than any other location in the body.
6. Dip, grip, and rip. Has there ever been a more eloquent way of expressing efficiency in training? Variations of the deadlift will allow you to get in and out of the gym in a short amount of time while still allowing you to optimize your progress.
7. Women dig calluses...or at least that's what I keep telling myself.
T-Nation: I dig women with calluses, but I have mommy issues. Moving on: I always ask our coaches what common mistakes they see people making in the gym. Let's go one step past the obvious stuff and talk about mistakes that even some advanced lifters make. What do you see?
EC: First, I see an unfortunate trend developing as far as "flavor of the week" training is concerned. Basically, there are a lot of individuals who won't think twice about ditching the tried and true methods of building size and strength. They'll just jump right on whatever bandwagon rolls into town – even if this school of "thought" is led by an uneducated schmuck with nothing more than an infomercial and goofy smile. You really have to play devil's advocate when it comes to incorporating new methods into your training.
Nonetheless, take a look at any of the mainstream strength and conditioning equipment catalogs and you won't see anything except flavor of the week gimmicks for the first 25 pages. Those "silly" free weights are relegated to the back of the catalog because the housewives and misinformed personal trainers don't bother to read about anything that will actually make them sweat. I think people should browse these catalogs starting at the end – or just get their equipment elsewhere.
This next one is pretty common in athletic performance settings. There are a lot of people who really don't understand what work capacity is, let alone how to build it. The main problem is that work capacity is specific to the sport. Being able to tolerate a large volume of maximal strength work (as would be desirable for a powerlifter) doesn't mean that you'll be able or want to tolerate a lot of power endurance-type work (e.g. sprinting).
Yet you see a lot of coaches who insist that one needs to establish an aerobic base of conditioning before you can be more specific with your training, so they've got shot-putters doing sets of 100 squat jumps and hockey players going for five-mile runs as hard as they can. I tried to get into this a bit in my Cardio Confusion article. Sometimes, the best way to improve work capacity is to work in a sport-specific context, appropriately manipulate volume, and just be patient.
Oh, and just as an interesting aside, I'd take an athlete with outstanding physical skills and attributes (e.g. strength, speed, quickness) but poor work capacity, over an athlete with mediocre skills but great work capacity any day of the week. Take basketball for example. The former athlete is going to bust his butt and put up monster numbers in the 10-15 minutes per game he can give you. The latter athlete, on the other hand, could play all 40 minutes, but he won't even be a factor in the game – unless you count all the times he's "posterized" by opposing players.
The former athlete will also gradually play himself into shape; the latter athlete won't gain much (if any) strength, speed, and quickness in-season. In fact, these qualities may even deteriorate a bit.
T-Nation: Interesting stuff. Okay, next topic. As you work with athletes and observe recreational lifters, I'm sure you notice some patterns emerging. What do you see most people "missing?" In other words, what are most people overlooking?
EC: They're missing the synergism thing. It's a big, comprehensive mistake. People just don't understand that being successful is really a function of the synergistic interaction of a bunch of factors. You see guys that plan their training out perfectly, yet drink beer like it's water.
T-Nation: Hey, let's leave Coach Mike Robertson out of this...
EC: Conversely, there are those who eat the cleanest diets imaginable, yet don't dare venture into the "scary" free weight section of the gym. Interestingly enough, these are usually the same people who can't seem to figure out why that $120 bottle of NO2 hasn't made them huge yet.
If I could make one recommendation in this regard, it would be to adopt habits, not programs. I can write a diet for a client and lean him out in no time, but if he strays off that program and starts eating instinctually again, he'll be fat in no time. If he learns something from me while on that program, though, chances are that he'll at least start to develop a good habit that'll stick with him for life.
I wish people would do this when it comes to every factor in their lives that directly or indirectly affects their progress in the gym. I just finished an article on this, so I won't spoil all the fun.
T-Nation: Let's talk about wasting time in the gym. Not with goofing off or flirting with the yoga instructor, but performing exercises or routines that are simply a waste of time or provide almost no bang for the buck. Any examples come to mind?
EC: I think we've beaten up on machines enough as it is; it goes without saying that with the exception of cables, machines are an inferior choice 99% of the time.
A good example of time that could be better spent is cooldowns, which really don't have to be explicitly written into any program outside of those for deconditioned, pseudo-clinical individuals who are at risk of post-exercise hypotension and dizziness due to blood pooling in the legs.
Even if you're doing high-intensity exercise like sprinting, what's the first thing you do when you're done? You walk! There's your built-in cooldown! You walk to grab your post-training shake, grab your belongings, and walk to the car to leave the gym. As for cooldowns from resistance training, does anyone really feel there's a need to cool down from an exercise modality when you're only active 25% of the time at most?
On an unrelated note, timing is an important thing to consider as well, especially in an athletic performance setting. Some initiatives are useful at certain points in time, but not at others. Take heavy metabolic conditioning work in the off-season for football, basketball, or hockey players, for instance. What value is there in maximizing your aerobic and anaerobic endurance in the early off-season? These time periods are better utilized for improving strength, speed, and size (when desired).
Provided that diet is up-to-par, you can improve body composition without tons of energy systems work. Most athletes can get into playing shape with only five or six weeks of specific conditioning pre-season. And given today's trend of some athletes playing year-round (especially basketball players), it's generally even less than this.
I actually wish that many athletes would realize that the single best thing they can do to become better is to stop playing their sports for a bit! The take-home message is that some things may be productive or destructive based on the time of year.
T-Nation: Let's wrap this up. What's coming up for you, Eric?
EC: Graduation was just a formality because although I've completed all my coursework, I'll spend the next few months writing and defending my thesis and continuing to work with the athletes around here. Beyond that, I'm anxious to continue coaching for performance enhancement, so I've already started to look into new opportunities on this front.
I'll be doing more speaking in the coming months, although the only things that are set in stone right now are my thesis defense here at UCONN, and an ISSN seminar in Delaware in August.
In terms of personal goals, I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family and friends, make a few trips to Fenway Park, and do some fishing. I can't say that I've taken a true vacation in my entire college career. I'm someone who always has a few dozen works-in-progress. I'm not complaining; I chose to give up some of the social aspect of college life to prioritize academics, training, working, and writing.
It's all been worth it, but I'll be the first to admit that I need to do a better job of finding a balance in this regard. Hopefully, I'll have a chance to take my laptop outside and get some sunshine while I finish some of these projects up! And of course, I'd like to keep improving as a powerlifter, total Elite at 165, and then bump up to 181 and do it all over again.
T-Nation: I'm sure you'll do it too. Thanks for the chat, Eric. We look forward to more articles from you!