An Interview with Joe DeFranco
Joe DeFranco is a busy man. Right now he's training sixty high school athletes, thirty college athletes, and ten professionals. NFL agents keep his phone ringing all day long. HBO wants him to appear again on Inside the NFL. First round draft picks from Major League Baseball are waiting in line for his services. And DeFranco doesn't even advertise. He doesn't have to.
DeFranco is a pro-maker, a gun for hire used by athletes seeking an edge on the competition. DeFranco's coaching techniques have brought seventh round draft picks up to the third round, and third round pics up to the first. Thirty-one of his athletes have been drafted into the NFL.
Agents love him and players love what he can do for them. Scouts, on the other hand, think he's a scumbag. I asked him about that and about a number of other hot-button issues in our recent interview.
Testosterone Nation: Joe, for our readers who aren't familiar with you, tell us about yourself and how you got into all this.
Joe DeFranco: Well, like most people in this field, I grew up obsessed with sports. My life revolved around playing football and someday playing in the NFL. I even ended up going to a private, all-boys high school because of its football program. I was a third-year starter at Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey. I played fullback and linebacker and I was a captain. We were 22-0 my junior and senior years and state champs. Other teams knew that when they played us, they were going to get their ass kicked!
T-Nation: Now, at age 28, you're a successful trainer of NFL players, but what happened to your own pro dreams?
JD: Well, although I had a great senior year, my performance was hindered due to excruciating pain in my low back and shooting down my leg. All of the big-time schools recruiting me backed off because they could tell I was playing in pain. To make a very long story short, four years and four major back surgeries later, doctors discovered a tumor in my sacrum. The excruciating pain I was living with for four years turned out to be an osteo osteoma, which is a benign tumor located inside a bone.
Since my football career got cut short due to the tumor, I knew I wanted to do the next best thing with my career: help other athletes achieve their goals. I majored in Exercise Physiology in college and basically read everything I could get my hands on with regards to improving athletic performance. I turned into a research freak.
After college, I traveled all over the country and went to every seminar and read every book I could afford. Instead of going back to school and getting my Master's degree, I decided to continue my studies in the "real world." The rest is history.
T-Nation: So what do you do every day as a pro-maker?
JD: I have my own business, DeFranco's Training Systems, LLC, located in Waldwick, New Jersey. I basically make athletes bigger, stronger, faster, leaner and more flexible – and I get paid for it! I have the greatest job in the world! I cover all aspects of athletic performance at my facility. I train high school, college and professional athletes all day long!
T-Nation: You're still quite an athlete yourself. You definitely walk the walk. What are your best stats in the gym?
JD: I've recently benched 225 for 30 reps. I probably won't be doing it again any time soon, though. For me, high-rep training is similar to cardio: I hate them both! I've bench pressed 440 while weighing 218 pounds, and box squatted 545 with just a belt. I've also recently performed three strict chin-ups with a 90-pound dumbbell strapped around my waist.
I know these aren't the greatest numbers in the world, but I'm proud of them. This is because I have permanent nerve damage in my back and down my right leg from the back surgeries. I've also dislocated both AC joints playing football and powerlifting. My back and shoulders still hurt like hell when I train. I must admit that if I didn't get A.R.T. treatments every week and take Vioxx, I wouldn't be able to bench press or squat two wet socks! I've also never used anabolic steroids or any performance-enhancing drugs in my life!
T-Nation: Party pooper. Now, you're an expert when it comes to prepping athletes for the NFL Combine and the "Pro Day," yet you think those tests are mostly bullshit, right?
JD: You're absolutely right. The tests are poorly designed. I'd still love to know who the hell came up with these tests anyway. I mean, how often does a football player get in a track stance and run 40 yards in a straight line? And I find it hysterical these scouts think that the "agility" drills can predict a player's game speed. They fail to realize that true "game speed" and "agility" is an athlete's ability to react to a visual stimulus in a split second. Making predetermined cuts around cones that aren't moving is a lot easier than a running back trying to juke a linebacker in order to score a touchdown.
And let's not forget about the 225-pound bench press test. First of all, it's not even a strength test! It's a strength-endurance test. I'd much rather see a one to three rep max in the bench press or incline press. I also think a medicine ball chest pass for distance would be more appropriate.
The harsh reality of these tests is, whether they're bullshit or not, they're still a prerequisite for a lot of football players to get drafted or get into an NFL camp. Many players, especially guys from small schools, must dominate these tests in order to get the opportunity to even step on the field and prove they can play. It's sad, but true!
That's why I do what I do. Hey, if these scouts are going to make these kids perform the Combine tests, then the kids should practice to get good at them. That's where I come in. I prepare college football players to get past the first part of their evaluation (the NFL Combine or their Pro Day). Doing well at their Combine or Pro Day then opens up doors for them to show what they can do on the football field. That's the bottom line.
T-Nation: Some critics and a few NFL scouts say your Combine coaching and videotape on the subject borders on cheating.
JD: [laughing] It's only cheating if you get caught, right? Seriously, any college football player who gets invited to the Combine and doesn't learn the techniques to these tests is out of his mind! Their Combine test results can dictate their future. Think about it: one-tenth of a second can literally mean millions of dollars to these kids! If the scouts are going to grade them on these tests, why not prepare to perform well on them?
Here's what bothers me. Why is it recommended that high school students take S.A.T. preparation courses, yet college football players are frowned upon for taking Combine preparation courses? Whether you're talking about the NFL Combine or the S.A.T.'s, both of these tests can dictate a young kid's future.
It's funny that teachers who teach S.A.T.-prep courses are praised when their students do well, yet I'm considered an asshole when my "students" do well at the Combine! It doesn't make sense.
T-Nation: Agreed. You once took a shot at some other coaches, saying that any coach can make you tired, but it takes a true pro to make you stronger, faster, and more flexible.
JD: Yes, I made that statement and I stand by it. Athletes need to be aware of this. Unfortunately, they don't always distinguish between getting tired and getting better.
Here's an example: Let's say that two performance coaches were preparing two different athletes to improve their 40-yard dash times. Coach A spends an hour teaching his athlete the proper track stance and first-step technique. Coach B makes his athlete perform jumping jacks for an hour straight. The athlete who did jumping jacks for an hour would be more tired than the other athlete. But the other athlete got better during his workout.
The lesson to be learned is that athletes must be very careful when hiring a performance coach. There are a lot of uneducated coaches out there who make up for their lack of knowledge by just beating the crap out of their athletes. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for hard work. I just like to make sure the hard work has a reason and a purpose.
T-Nation: Makes sense. What are the biggest mistakes athletes make in their training, generally speaking?
JD: Younger athletes (grade school and high school) specialize too soon. When I say, "specialize," I'm referring to playing their sport all year long and never leaving time for a training season.
For example, there's an epidemic of ACL tears with female athletes. Studies have proven that one of the reasons females are susceptible to ACL tears is due to their lack of relative body strength. This muscular weakness, coupled with other inherent female factors (electromechanical delay, joint laxity, Q-angle, etc.), has contributed to this devastating injury. Knowing this, you'd think that females would dedicate some portion of the year to strength training. Most of them don't. Instead, they join club teams, AAU teams, attend camps, and end up playing their sport all year long! I feel this only contributes to the problem.
With regards to advanced athletes, I see the same three mistakes being made all of the time. The first is consistency. There are a lot of athletes out there who work hard; the best athletes in the world do it on a consistent basis, year in and year out. The biggest problem I see with regards to consistency is the disregard to in-season training. I always say, what good is it to be big, strong and fast in the off-season, if you're going to stop training and get as weak as an eight year-old girl during the season?
The next big mistake is exercise selection. I think most athletes choose exercises they're good at or that they enjoy doing. These usually aren't the same exercises I consider productive.
Lastly, they lack basic knowledge of nutrition. There's no nice way to put this: most athletes eat like shit! Feeding your body with the proper food combinations can have a profound effect on how athletes look, feel and perform! It's a shame that a lot of athletes neglect this aspect of their training.
T-Nation: Good points, and true with regular people too, not just elite athletes. Now, as a performance coach, what do you think of this "functional training" craze?
JD: It's funny you ask about functional training. As we speak, I'm standing on a Swiss ball with my eyes closed, I have my left thumb jammed up my nose, and I'm juggling two wobble boards with my right hand. My strength is more functional already! [laughing]
Obviously, I feel that most people's definition of functional training is bullshit! "Functional training" is a way for skinny, weak personal trainers to get recognized. They know they're not going to turn any heads by bench-pressing the eight-pound chrome dumbbells, so they balance on a wobble board and touch their toes! It makes me sick!
Whoever came up with the term "functional" for these ridiculous exercises needs to have his head examined. Here's my question for all of the "functional" trainers out there: How would you categorize the following exercises, since you don't classify them as functional? Squats, chins, deadlifts, sled dragging, tire flipping, and glute-ham raises, just to name a few. I'd love to be enlightened with an answer to that question. Let's move on.
T-Nation: You know, Joe, you should stop holding back and tell us what you really think. Just let it out and stop being so shy. Kidding. Let's do move on before that vein in your bald head pops! I've heard you use the term "training economy" quite a bit. What do you mean by that?
JD: I first heard of this term a couple of years ago at a Charles Poliquin seminar. Basically, training economy refers to choosing the exercises that give you the best "bang for your buck" in training.
In other words, why would an athlete perform eight unproductive exercises and spend three hours in the gym, when he can get better results by doing four productive exercises and spending one hour in the gym? High school kids are the biggest culprits of not adhering to the training economy. Their exercise selection is usually a disgrace and they're in the gym way too long. Then they wonder why their physiques never change or why they never get any stronger!
Athletes must also adhere to the training economy to prevent overtraining. You must remember that there's more to an athlete's training than just the weightroom. Spending too much time in the weightroom can end up being counterproductive to an athlete's technical training, conditioning, etc.
T-Nation: Speaking of conditioning, let's talk about bodyfat and athleticism. Does it matter? Some say who cares what their bodyfat percentage is as long as they're performing. Other coaches make it a goal to get their athletes ripped. Where do you stand?
JD: Excess bodyfat doesn't help anyone! It only serves as an anchor when you try to perform! I don't want an athlete carrying 300 pounds of shit in a 200-pound bag! Obviously, not all athletes need to try and achieve the same bodyfat levels. For example, an offensive lineman doesn't need to be as lean as a wide receiver. But, the bottom line is that there's no advantage to carrying around too much excess baggage.
T-Nation: Agree or disagree: A weak athlete is a slow athlete.
JD: Agree! The bottom line is, if you're weak, you're slow! Athletes who are strong in relation to their bodyweight (relative body strength) are always fast. Think about this: the primary function of your body's 600 plus muscles is to contract to move body parts. Only muscle can cause movement. If your muscles are weak, they can't move your body fast. Simple enough?
T-Nation: Simple enough. I notice many of your training ideas were inspired by the Westside powerlifting techniques. Why were Dave Tate and these guys such an influence?
JD: It's simple. Westside powerlifting has influenced me because their stuff works! That's right, I have an ego and the bottom line is that if an athlete hires me, he will get results. So I make it my business to research the methods that produce the quickest and/or best results. I feel many aspects of the Westside system help me achieve these results.
I've always gravitated to what the Soviets and Eastern Bloc countries were doing with regards to strength training anyway. I always thought they were way ahead of us in this field, and the Westside methods are based on these same beliefs. Their techniques make sense and everything is backed by science and real world results.
I use the term "real world" a lot because I'm not a lab geek. My lab is the weight room, track, etc. I need to know what works with real athletes in a real athletic setting.
T-Nation: Hey, a little off topic here, but I saw a picture of your dad and was blown away by how big and powerful he looked despite his age. What's his story? Was he an influence on you?
JD: My dad has definitely been my biggest influence. For as long as I can remember, I begged him to teach me how to lift weights. Finally, when I was in the seventh grade, he brought me to his gym. He owned a hardcore gym in a bad section of Paterson, New Jersey. It was a private gym located on top of a factory. It was standard procedure for members to look out the window that faced the parking lot in between their sets.
T-Nation: Why is that?
JD: They feared getting their cars stolen while they were training! What a great training atmosphere for a twelve year-old kid! I still say it was the best place in the world to train.
I was also fortunate enough to have the best teacher in the world – my dad. Since day one, he always trained me for performance. Even at twelve there wasn't much "vanity" work in my program. My dad stressed to me the importance of leg strength and core strength and I worked a lot on my neck and traps. So while all of the other kids were doing benches and curls, I was squatting, doing hyperextensions and set after set with the neck harness. I benched 225 in the eighth grade.
My dad also instilled in me the importance of hard work. Our workouts were so intense that one time my mom came to the gym to watch us train and she started crying! Enough said.
My dad has been training for almost 40 years now. He's 57 and in the best shape of his life. He's currently 5'11" and weighs 196 pounds at 9% bodyfat. He first started training to prepare for the physical demands of becoming a New Jersey State Trooper. He was in the State Police for 25 years, retiring as a Lieutenant in 1994. During this time he competed in powerlifting and arm wrestling. He took first place in every powerlifting contest he ever entered and placed third in the world in arm wrestling in 1977!
He was even offered a part in Sylvester Stallone's arm wrestling movie, Over the Top. In his arm wrestling prime, my dad could curl 120-pound dumbbells for sets of ten reps! He also benched 440 with a pause (no bench shirt), weighing 217 pounds. He's never touched an anabolic steroid or performance-enhancing drug in his life. In fact, just bringing up the subject causes the veins in his neck to pop out!
T-Nation: Wow, I think we need to interview dad next! Back to performance coaching.
You're a specialist at increasing the vertical jump. You once said that big calves have about as much to do with how high you can jump as the color of your hair. What's the full story on "big hops"?
JD: The posterior chain (spinal erectors, gluteals and hamstrings) makes up around 70% of the musculature responsible for your jumping ability. Squat and deadlift variations, Olympic lifts, and good mornings will give you the most bang for your buck in the weightroom with regards to improving your vertical jump.
There's another very interesting factor that plays a large role in how high you can jump. I've had the pleasure of working with over two-dozen athletes who can jump over 35". Besides being very strong in the posterior chain, they had something else in common: "high cut" calves. What I mean by this is that their calves had an insertion point very high on their lower leg. This usually means a longer Achilles tendon. A longer Achilles tendon can store more elastic energy, which translates into more explosive jumps.
Think about this: have you ever seen a kangaroo with big calves? Of course not! The reason they can jump so high lies in the length of their Achilles tendons. Kangaroos have the longest Achilles tendon of any animal on earth. They also spring off the ground better than any other animal on earth. Unfortunately, you can't increase the length of your Achilles tendon – it's genetic. You have your parents to thank for that.
T-Nation: You've mentioned the deadlift a few times. What kind of deadlift do you prefer?
JD: I don't prefer any one variation of the deadlift; I use many variations. The variation I choose depends upon the level of the athlete I'm training and the goal of the session.
I usually start my high school athletes with the trap bar deadlift. The trap bar is a great piece of equipment that I feel should be used more often by strength coaches. It evenly distributes the weight through the midline of the athlete's body as opposed to in front of it like regular straight bar deads. This is a great way to strengthen a young athlete's low back, while placing much less stress on the spine. By no means is the trap bar just for beginners, though. I use it with my college and professional athletes as well.
Regular deadlifts and snatch-grip deadlifts are also a big part of my program. For my advanced athletes, I also like performing all three of these deadlift variations off four-inch blocks. The added range of motion helps to further recruit the hamstrings and vastus medialis. (Try sitting on the toilet the day after a couple sets of snatch grip deadlifts off four-inch blocks!) I also like the effectiveness of using chains draped over the bar with all these lifts. Deadlifting with chains is tremendous for improving your vertical jump and first-step quickness.
As far as set and rep schemes are concerned, it depends on the athlete I'm training. For younger athletes I prefer more traditional set and rep schemes. Three to four sets of eight to ten reps usually does the trick. For my advanced athletes, I prefer multiple sets of low reps. This type of set/rep scheme recruits the higher threshold motor units to a greater degree. In general, I'll usually prescribe five to ten sets of one to five reps in the deadlift.
T-Nation: Okay, cool. I've heard you make some pretty definitive statements about leg training. For example, you say to always follow squats or deadlifts with a single leg movement. Why is that?
JD: First of all, I usually start lower body days with a double-leg movement, such as squats or deadlifts, because the brain activates a lot more motor units at once while performing these lifts. This is because you can obviously handle much heavier loads in the squat or deadlift compared to any single leg movement.
It's true that after squatting or deadlifting, I always prescribe a single leg movement. This is because I've found most athletes have strength deficiencies between limbs when I evaluate them. And we must remember that in most sports, athletes are usually running, jumping, stopping and cutting off of one leg. Building balanced strength in both limbs can drastically improve performance and decrease the potential for injury. I always have my athletes start the single leg movement with their weaker leg. I'll sometimes prescribe one or two extra reps per set on the weaker leg to try and speed up the "balancing" process.
The single leg exercise prescribed is crucial. Single leg extensions and single leg presses just won't cut it! The exercises I've found to produce the best results are single leg squats with the back leg elevated, step-ups, reverse lunges and sled dragging. All four of these adhere to my training economy. They all build strength, balance and flexibility if they're taught and performed properly. I have about fifteen to twenty variations of each of these lifts, ranging from beginner to advanced. They work!
T-Nation: Also, you always recommend finishing a leg workout with hamstrings, then doing core work for the abs and low back for five or ten minutes after legs. What's the thinking behind these rules?
JD: Always finishing a leg workout with extra hamstring work originated when I realized most athletes have pathetic hamstring development and strength. One thing I won't tolerate is weak hamstrings! This is because the hamstrings are way too important in the development of the athlete.
Most athletes have underdeveloped hamstrings because they're not a "visual" muscle. Growing up, every kid wants to bench and do curls. Why? Because you can see your chest and biceps getting pumped and responding to the training while you're looking at yourself in the mirror. Focusing on training the visual muscles is a habit most kids start at an early age and then it carries over with them later in life. This comes back to haunt most athletes as they progress in their athletic careers.
When I first start training high school kids, I have them stand in front of a mirror and look at themselves. I then tell them that all of the muscles they can't see are the ones we're going to focus on. I let them know that the posterior chain is their "performance engine." I also tell them the upper back and external rotators are paramount in producing a well-functioning and balanced athlete. This sets the tone and gets them in the right frame of mind about the type of training they'll be doing with me.
Everyone's now well aware of the importance of core strength. I know a lot of trainers even advocate starting a workout with abs and low back so these muscles get top priority. I don't like doing this. I feel that pre-fatiguing the abs and low back before squatting or deadlifting can be potentially dangerous. That's why I always start with the complex movements that train the larger muscle groups and then finish with abs and low back.
T-Nation: Let's talk about flexibility. Why is it important and what kind of stretching do you use?
JD: First and foremost, when athletes feel good, they usually perform well. You'd be surprised how many athletes come to me with alleged "bad backs." They claim they can't squat or deadlift (amongst a lot of other things) because of their bad back. After one flexibility session, they usually get off the stretching table and have no pain in their backs!
My point is, a lot of the time an athlete's low back pain is due to the tension caused by shortened hip flexors, gluteals, and hamstrings. The downward pull created by these muscles usually causes low-back pain. This low-back pain usually prevents an athlete from functioning properly. So, feeling good would be my number one reason for incorporating flexibility training into an athlete's program.
Also, a lot of athlete's hire me to improve their sprinting speed. My number one goal for improving an athlete's sprinting speed is to increase his stride length. Stride length is in large part due to your strength and flexibility. If you have the flexibility of a guitar string, you're not going to be able to achieve a full range of motion when you run, thus, your stride length will suffer.
It's ironic that the first thing most of my clients do after getting off the stretching table is go run around the gym. This is because they usually feel as if they have a new pair of legs and they want to "test them out." After one session, most athletes get addicted to stretching. The changes are that drastic! So, my second reason for incorporating flexibility into an athlete's program is to improve sprinting speed.
T-Nation: When exactly should we be stretching?
JD: Timing is everything when it comes to what kind of stretching should be performed. Pre-workout I have my athletes perform an active warm-up that incorporates dynamic and ballistic stretches. These stretches fire up the nervous system and prepare the athlete for the workout or event.
I also incorporate P.N.F. stretching pre-workout and during the workout. Although static stretching has gotten a bad rap lately, I incorporate it as well. All of my athletes static stretch three to four hours after workouts. Waiting a few hours after the workout allows the nervous system to calm down and this enables the athlete to achieve a better stretch.
T-Nation: Okay, interesting stuff. Now let's hear some mutant athlete stories. Any good ones?
JD: I can talk forever on this subject, but I'll give you three of my favorites. First, three years ago I had the good fortune of training University of Iowa wide receiver, Kevin Kasper, for the NFL Combine. Kevin is still the most well-rounded athlete I've ever trained. He's strong, fast, flexible, and shredded!
One of the evaluation tests for our athletes was to analyze their squat form on a wobble board. This is a great test to determine muscular imbalances, flexibility issues, and weaknesses. Most athletes suck at this test. Kevin stood on the wobble board, squatted ass to the ground without the slightest movement of the board, stood up, and then did a back flip off the board and landed perfectly on his feet! It was amazing. He then went on to break three all-time Combine records and gets drafted by the Denver Broncos.
T-Nation: I can do the exact same thing. I'll show you, um, later. What's your second story?
JD: Two years ago I trained University of Alabama-Birmingham defensive end, Eddie Freeman, for the NFL Combine. Eddie is a freak of nature – he also likes to talk shit. During a lower body training session, Eddie was arguing with one of the other athletes about who was going to get drafted higher in the NFL draft. Eddie ended up deadlifting 500 pounds for five reps during the argument. The amazing thing was he didn't shut up for the entire five reps! He was more in tune with the argument than the fact he had 500 pounds in his hands. This was also the first time he ever deadlifted! (Eddie ended up being a second-round draft pick, thus winning the argument as well.)
One last story. Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle, Eric Downing, is still legendary among my athletes for his 30-yard, 660-pound sled drag last year. If you added in the friction created by the track surface he pulled the sled on, the resistance was probably closer to 800 pounds! I have a picture of this in my office. It's a classic. Eric also vertical jumped over 33 inches while weighing 313 pounds!
T-Nation: That's amazing! Sounds just like Tim Patterson! (cough, cough) Do you work with your athletes on diet?
JD: Yes, all of them. Nutrition is the weak link for most athletes. Generally speaking, I have all of my athletes cut out sugars from their diet. This doesn't mean cutting out carbs, just sugars. I use recommendations similar to John Berardi's with regards to protein plus carb meals and protein plus fat meals. If an athlete is carrying too much bodyfat, I usually recommend two protein plus carb meals (breakfast and post-workout) and three protein plus fat meals. Athletes that are lean would eat five to six protein plus carb meals.
For my advanced athletes, I send them to my nutritionist, Dr. Tom Bilella, for a comprehensive nutritional screening. I work very closely with Dr. Bilella after he performs these tests on my athletes: Comprehensive Allergy Profile, Amino Acids Analysis, Adrenocortex Stress Profile, Male Hormone Profile, IGF-1 Assay (Somatomedin C), Essential and Metabolic Fatty Acids Analysis.
Once we get the test results, every athlete is treated as an individual. After the nutritional screening, Dr. Bilella prescribes an individualized diet and supplementation routine that I help the athlete carry out on a day-to-day basis. The results this type of program brings are drug-like.
T-Nation: How about general supplementation? What do you recommend to your players?
JD: The foundational supplements I recommend to most of my athletes all year round are essential fatty acids, glutamine, magnesium glycinate, and a quality protein/carbohydrate post-workout shake. I cycle the brand of the shake I recommend every couple of weeks. I'm also a huge advocate of taking three to five grams of L-Tyrosine thirty minutes before workouts. I feel L-Tyrosine is one of the most underrated supplements out there. I recommend creatine as well.
If an athlete needs some help getting lean, I've recently started recommending HOT-ROX. I'm not kissing ass, either. I tried this stuff for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It's hands-down the best fat-burning supplement I've ever taken!
T-Nation: Cool! Good to hear! Let's get back to iron. What do you think of the leg press machine for athletes?
JD: The leg press machine and the word "athlete" shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence! The leg press is a waste of time for athletes. With all of the squat and deadlift variations out there, I can't see why any athlete would even look at a leg press. Yet, it's still one of the most popular pieces of equipment in the gym, but when I see an athlete on the leg press machine, I automatically think he's a lazy athlete.
And don't tell me you're doing leg presses instead of squats or deads because you have a bad back either. The leg press is much more damaging to the low-back compared to squats or deadlifts. Not to mention the fact that leg press strength has no carryover to the athletic field! Try putting the leg press machine on your back and see how many times you can squat it. Then it may be useful for athletes!
While we're on the subject, let's burn the leg extension, hack squat, inner/outer thigh machine, pec deck, and that stupid pad that people wrap around the bar when they squat!
T-Nation: While we're on that subject, what's the dumbest athletic training device or gadget on the market?
JD: Where the hell should I begin? If I listed all of the worthless gadgets out there, we'd be here all day! The two devices that baffle me because they've been around for so long are the parachute and strength shoes.
I mean, the parachute blows all over the friggin' place when you start running. This alters running mechanics and can actually make you slower. And if it's a windy day, you're really screwed. If you're not planning on jumping out of an airplane, you don't need a parachute!
And then we have strength shoes. These things are supposed to strengthen your calves, which in turn will make you jump higher. Well, you already know how I feel about that statement! These things also come with workouts that even the most advanced athletes can't complete. I used these shoes in the eighth grade and pulled my calf muscle. I couldn't walk for two weeks. I've also seen too many cases of Achilles tendon injuries with these things. If you really want to walk around on your toes, go buy a pair of high heels!
T-Nation: Already have two pair, thank you very much. Now, you do like the Swiss ball though, correct? That thing causes a lot of controversy.
JD: Yes, I like the Swiss ball for certain exercises during certain times of the year. The problem with the Swiss ball is most trainers overuse it. It becomes counterproductive when it's overused because you can actually get weaker! This is because even though your stabilizers are activated, your prime movers are never overloaded due to the decreased loads you must use in Swiss ball exercises.
I like using the Swiss ball for high-rep dumbbell work, implemented in two to four week mini-cycles in a program. This is a great way to add muscle mass, address muscular imbalances, strengthen weaker stabilizing muscles, and it acts as restoration. After a few weeks I'd move on to more traditional exercises. I also like performing ab work on the Swiss ball due to the pre-stretch it provides during the eccentric contraction.
T-Nation: How 'bout Olympic lifting? You don't seem to be a big fan of it.
JD: I need to clear this up. People always accuse me of condemning the Olympic lifts. It's not that I don't like the Olympic lifts or that I never do them, I just feel there are usually quicker, more efficient ways to achieve certain goals.
First of all, the Olympic lifts take a long time to teach. After all, they're a sport in and of themselves. It usually takes a while before an athlete gets good enough at them to be able to handle a sufficient amount of weight. That is, if the athlete ever gets good at them!
I don't always have a lot of time to work with athletes. An athlete might fly in and train with me for four to six weeks before training camp. I need to get quick results. I can't spend a week teaching a pro-athlete how to power snatch a broomstick! And the reality is that most athletes aren't good at these lifts when they first learn them. This is usually because they aren't strong enough in the right places.
After assessing an athlete's power clean or power snatch form, I usually conclude that his technique flaws are due to a lack of hamstring, glute and low-back strength. This assessment usually means I end up prescribing more deadlifts, reverse hyperextensions, glute-ham raises, etc.
This goes back to what I was saying about the training economy. Getting stronger in the deadlift, reverse hyper and glute-ham raise will improve your power clean, but it doesn't always work the other way around. Basically, I choose the exercises that give my athletes the best "bang for their buck" in the shortest possible time.
T-Nation: Okay, here's something I've noticed recently. When I interview performance coaches I always ask them what the key exercises are for athletes. Yet when I myself design a training program for a guy just wanting to look good naked, I find myself prescribing most of the same exercises: deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, rows, dips, etc. What's the lesson here?
JD: The lesson to be learned is that the exercises you named produce the best results, regardless if you're an athlete or you're just trying to look good naked!
It drives me nuts when people think that the best way to get "toned" and look good is to perform such exercises as cable crossovers, concentration curls, and the inner/outer thigh machine. This is complete bodybuilding magazine fiction!
The "toned" look is achieved when people who strength train possess low bodyfat levels. Basically, if there's minimal fat covering your muscles, you'll look "toned". Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups are great choices due to the fact that they work a lot of muscle mass and they burn a ton of calories in the process!
It's a fallacy that these exercises make you look bulky. Eating too much makes you look bulky! One of my biggest pet peeves are people who eat at McDonald's every day, then come to the gym and only use the plastic-coated, neon-colored dumbells because they "don't want to get big and bulky."
T-Nation: Yeah, some people deserve public beatings. Hey, what's the steroid scene like these days in high level sports?
JD: Steroid use has actually died down a little bit. The steroid testing in sports has gotten more serious and I think athletes are scared of getting caught. Don't get me wrong, though, it's still out there. Growth Hormone seems to be the drug of choice these days. This stuff is becoming as mainstream as Gatorade! I also think this whole "designer steroid" thing is about to take off. The athletes always seem to be one step ahead of the guys doing the drug testing.
T-Nation: Thanks for the chat, Joe. Very cool stuff. Where can readers find out more about you, your services and your video?
JD: They can checkout my website at www.defrancostraining.com. If you subscribe to the site (it's free), you'll receive an e-mail newsletter whenever I update the site with new information. My video, Mastering the Football Combine Tests, can be ordered at my website, too. I've also started to work on an article for T-Nation, so hopefully that'll get published and your readers will be hearing more from me.
T-Nation: Thanks again, Joe.
JD: Any time, Chris!