Earlier this year I wrote an article titled Dieting
Disasters, where I described some of the more common mistakes
(or disasters, if you will) that people often make with their diet
in regards to their body composition goals.
I figured it was only fitting that I write an article dealing
with the training side of things as well.
Running To Get Fit
Mike Boyle has often been quoted as saying, “You can’t
run to get fit, you need to get fit to run.” I
couldn’t agree more with this statement. Most (read: not
all) people shouldn’t be running in the first place.
This is especially true for women.
What’s the first thing that women do to get into shape?
They hightail it to the local store and buy a new pair of pearly
white running shoes and go for a jog outside. Conversely,
what’s the first piece of equipment that women will gravitate
towards if they’ve never set foot in a gym before? The
treadmill. And more often than not both scenarios do notlook
I watch some of these women running (you men too–you’re
not off the hook) and it just looks painful. How can they possibly
think this is good for them? I can walk on a floor of broken glass
barefoot or listen to Paris Hilton speak and both would be less
painful than watching some of these women run.
I’ll admit, the girls on the left are rockin
Why is running not so great for the majority of women? There are
a few reasons, but the main one boils down to basic biomechanics
and the Q-angle. Women by nature have a greater Q-angle compared to
men (wide hips, narrow knees), which predisposes them to a number
of problems that aren’t normally an issue for men.
Research has shown that women are six times more likely to tear
their ACL compared to men.
Add that to the fact that many women tend to be very quad
dominant and are weaker than a baby’s fart (i.e. they
don’t lift appreciable weights; sorry, pink dumbbells for 20
reps don’t count) and you have a recipe for disaster.
Women aside, running is a fairly advanced form of exercise.
Within any given mile there are roughly 1500 foot strikes. Ask any
strength coach or decent personal trainer (yes they do exist) if
they’d ever allow an elite athlete (let alone your
average weekend warrior) to perform a plyometric protocol which
calls for 1500 foot strikes on a daily basis, and I’m willing
to bet you’ll get some perplexed looks.
Yet day in and day out I see men and women who are 20-50 lbs
overweight trudging over to the treadmill to get their three miles
in because this is what they feel will get them fit. Even worse,
I’ll often hear trainers or internet gurus on various forums
tell these same people that they should be doing sprints to get
lean. [Picture me here banging my head against a brick wall.]
Before you send the hate mail, please understand that I’m not saying that running is “bad” for everyone, nor
am I saying that it’s “bad” in general. There
are a plethora of health benefits to be had by including aerobic
training such as running/jogging into your repertoire.
However, I feel there are better options for those people who
are overweight and relatively new to training looking to get into
shape. And that’s the point… you need to be fit to run and
not vice versa.
Side Note: Eric Cressey wrote a fantastic newsletter a few
weeks ago detailing how a novice runner’s stride (heel strike)
is different from the advanced runner’s stride (balls of
feet). Long story short, “we” need to teach people
how to run.
Not Training the Backside of the Core
I’m not a big fan of the word “core.” Unless, of
course, your name happens to end with “core,” then
it’s completely awesome. However, in the fitness world the
term “core” is often misused and
When most people think of core they think of the cover of Men’s Health, with the cover model sporting a six pack
you could wash your clothes on. In order to achieve said six
pack, many trainees will spend hours performing various sit-ups or
crunches. I mean we all know the main function of the
core/abdominals is trunk flexion. We all learned that in
10th grade anatomy class, right?
While trunk flexion is one of the many actions of the
abdominals, their main function is to keep the trunk over
the pelvis by resisting hoop stress. Besides, we’re
missing the big picture here. The core is much more than just
the abdominals. The core actually represents the entire
lumbo-pelvic-hip complex consisting of over 30
In his book, “Form and Function: The Anatomy of
Motion,” Evan Osar states that only the rectus abdominus and
the spinalis portion of the erectors are oriented in a purely
vertical fashion while the transverse abdominus (TA) is the sole
muscle oriented in a horizontal manner. The large majority of
the core muscles are oriented in an oblique direction (i.e. spiral
External Hip Rotators
Why is this important to know?
The muscles of the core are obliquely oriented in order to
produce and control rotational movements. As Osar notes in
his book, “By nature of its position, the core is able to
produce and control forces that are occurring throughout the
body. It also acts as a relay station between the upper and
lower kinetic chains. The extremities drive core activity,
but activity of the core influences movement of the extremities as
Guess where all force is transferred by the body? The
hips. Strength and power are derived by loading the hips,
aided by pelvic and spinal motion, and then transferring it to the
I’m in total agreement with physical therapist/strength
coach Gray Cook when he says that people need to pay more attention
to their rear ends and start “training the backside of the
core” (ie: glutes, hips and hamstrings). Everyone likes
to look at rear ends. Well, they’re part of our core as
Cook notes that we should be hip-based creatures. Essentially
the hips are the engine of the core. Everything from force, power,
to strength is transferred through the hips. The engine of your car
does the same thing; gives your car horsepower. Your mid-section
(abdominals) can be seen as the transmission or drive shaft of the
core. You’re not supposed to bend or twist the drive
shaft/transmission of your car, so why do we seem to think that is
the best way to train our core (sit-ups, crunches, etc)? Why do we
totally neglect the engine?
In the end, training the backside of your core (via deadlifts,
glute ham raises, pull-throughs, etc.) will lead to better performance. Train for performance and the aesthetics
will come in time. Learn to use the backside and your
body will thank you with a firm and lean mid-section (assuming your
diet is on point). No crunches involved.
Deadlifting Before You’re Ready
I can hear the crickets chirping already. Did Tony just
say that people should not be deadlifting when he just said
that we should all train our backsides? Put the pitchforks down and
hear me out.
If there’s one movement pattern everyone should master,
it’s the deadlift. Broken down to its simplest form, the
deadlift is essentially your ability to equalize your own
bodyweight to get lower to the ground. Many people have
forgotten how to perform this basic movement pattern properly, yet
will still walk into the gym on day #1 and do something that
resembles anything but a deadlift. Does this look
Let me be clear. Whether you’re an athlete looking to
improve performance, a weekend warrior looking to add some mass, or
a 65-year-old grandmother who wants to be able to pick her
grandchildren off the floor, the deadlift is an exercise that will
benefit anyone. That said, not everyone is meant to walk into
the gym and place a bar on the ground and lift it. Some
people just don’t have the strength and/or flexibility to
perform a conventional deadlift safely right off the bat.
The spine does indeed get into bendable positions in sports and
everyday activity. However, look at a football player when he
strikes an opponent. Look at a baseball player when he swings and
makes contact with the ball. Look at someone who exhibits flawless
deadlift technique. The spine always finds its neutral
position. When it’s not in neutral, that’s when
people get hurt.
Trainees need to learn how to achieve a neutral spine and groove
the proper motor pattern of the deadlift before they start pulling
from the floor. The beauty of the deadlift is that it’s
one of those rare exercises that can be conformed to fit the needs
of the lifter (and not vice versa).
One of my favorite exercises to use with new trainees is the
partial deadlift (or rack pull). Here the lifter gets all the
benefits of the deadlift (grooving the proper pattern, keeping a
neutral spine, getting massive), without all the drawbacks (a
1. Set the pins at a height where the barbell is just below knee
level. As you start to get more comfortable with the
movement, you can move the pins down so that you’re pulling
from mid-shin as well.
2. Chest up, butt back, chin tucked. Big air, brace your
3. Stand tall, pulling “through your heels.”
Always end with hip extension (squeeze your glutes).
4. Keeping the bar against your thighs, return to the starting
position by breaking your hips first, not your knees. Push
your butt back while keeping your chest high. You should feel
the brunt of your weight go back into your heels.
5. Place the bar back on the pins, reset yourself and
6. Girls will now want to hang out with you.
Another great deadlift variation that I like to use with new
trainees is the suitcase deadlift. Not only is it a great
teaching tool to teach the proper movement pattern, but it also
serves as a great way to train anti-rotation because you have to
brace the opposite side of the body so as not to tip
Additionally, for those trainees who lack the flexibility to
perform the movement through its full range of motion, you can
elevate the dumbbell by using blocks. This is also a
great option for really overweight or elderly
The trap bar deadlift is also a great option. At Cressey
Performance, we usually have all our athletes start with a trap bar
deadlift and then progress to more conventional variations.
The trap bar serves as a pseudo “partial deadlift” due to
the three inch elevation that the handles provide (you can also
turn it over so that the bar is closer to the floor).
Additionally, the trap bar tends to be a bit easier for those
people with long femurs as it gets the knees out of the way.
Not Including Single Leg Training
Most people would rather pass a kidney stone than perform single
leg training. I realize this is probably a fruitless
endeavor, but I am going to say it anyways:
You need to include more single leg training into your
1. Single leg training helps to alleviate any weaknesses or
imbalances that may exist between one limb or the other. In
this case, one leg being stronger or weaker than the
2. Single leg training does a superb job at improving overall
strength by forcing the hip adductors/abductors to fire and
stabilize the body (namely the femur) while the body is breaking
the frontal plane. I’ve seen it time and time
again. A trainee improves his or her strength with single leg
movements and their squat and deadlift numbers go up as well.
Not a bad thing.
3. Name one sport that takes place entirely on two legs (and no,
competitive eating is not a sport). Even bowlers end up on
one leg! Athletes are constantly competing on one leg
(changing direction, jumping up and down, kicking, etc.), so it
only makes sense to train with single leg movements in the
4. From an injury prevention standpoint, single leg training is
invaluable. There’s quite a bit of research which suggests
that anterior knee pain is directly associated with a weak or
inhibited glute medius (a hip abductor).
When we perform a single leg movement such as a one legged
squat, we engage what Mike Boyle has called the Lateral Sub System
(hip adductors, hip abductors, and the Quadratus Lumborum), which
is a “system” of muscles that when “fired,”
work to stabilize the hip and knee joint (mentioned above).
Include more single leg training into your programming and your
knees will thank you.
Lateral Sub System.
Training for the Circus
If I never see a BOSU ball again or any other device used for
unstable surface training, I would die a happy man. Unless
you’re training to be part of the circus, I really feel that
these foo-foo pieces of equipment have no place in a healthy
individual’s training program.
BOSU Ball + Biker Shorts = Lame.
I hear a lot of personal trainers tout that using unstable
surfaces is great for “functional training.” The phrase
functional training has gotten a bit skewed as of late, and I think
that people have forgotten what the true definition is in the first
place. For me, functional training entails anything that improves a real life quality or function.
Examples include: squatting down to pick something up off the
floor, walking up a flight of stairs, or drop kicking dumb personal
Functional training should entail exercises and movements that
help to improve everyday life events. Standing with one
leg on a BOSU ball while doing arm curls with one arm and holding a
body-blade in the other does not constitute as
She’s sitting, so it’s only half stupid
Conversely, it does constitute being a complete waste of
time. [Side Note: there’s some research which shows that
unstable surface training is beneficial for people coming off of
severe ankle sprains, but as I alluded above, for healthy individuals, it’s just not worth the time.]
Trust me, your time can be better spent sticking to the basics
if you want to lose fat or get stronger in the gym: squats,
deadlifts, various lunges, bench presses, chin-ups, rows, etc.
These are the staples. If someone can’t even do a regular
squat with correct form on a stable surface (the floor), why would
I want to put him or her on an unstable surface? It doesn’t
make sense. In the end, all they’ll be doing is promoting a
faulty motor pattern, which could possibly predispose them to
injury down the road.
Staples are what it’s all about.
By training on an unstable surface you’re shooting yourself
in the foot in a few ways.
1. You’ll burn fewer calories. You
won’t be able to use nearly as much weight on an unstable
surface as you would on a stable surface performing the same
exercise. Burning calories (and hence, fat) is all about
progressive resistance/overload (stressing the body). BOSU balls
and the like are inferior in this regard.
2. You will actually make yourself weaker. Gaining strength is all about force production (i.e. being able to
transfer force from the ground up). By training on an unstable
surface, you’re promoting “leaks” and really
limiting the amount of force you can generate in any given
exercise. For athletes, this is crucial.
Additionally, unstable surface training undermines all three
phases of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), especially the
amortization phase. Using devices such as BOSU balls
actually delays the amortization phase. From an athletic
standpoint, one seeks to minimize this phase as much as possible to
prevent loss of a significant amount of the energy accumulated and
stored as a result of the preloading (eccentric)
World’s best coach… at making athletes
3. Core Strength? Please don’t be that person who claims that unstable surface training is
great for training the core. I can have someone do the same
movement on a stable surface and activate the “core” just
4. Safety. On more than one occasion I’ve seen
people fall and injure themselves while performing exercises on an
unstable surface. For example, squatting on a SWISS
ball. Every time I see someone attempt this, I cringe.
Free-weight exercises have been proven safe when performed on
stable surfaces, but there isn’t much data out there which
showcases the efficacy of unstable surface training in regards to
In the end, I just don’t think training on unstable
surfaces is worth it. Again, if you’re training for the circus
they’re great! However, I feel that people would be much
better served steering clear of them in the long
Following the “JT” Workout
Not too long ago I was training a client of mine and looked over
my shoulder and saw Justin Timberlake (JT) training with a few guys
from his entourage. My initial reaction was to crank the
radio and challenge him to a Michael Jackson dance off. But
upon observing his training routine, I decided to back off and use
him as an example in this article instead.
You may be wondering what the “JT” workout
entails. In short, it’s any program which only
exacerbates your already less than spectacular posture. In
JT’s case, we have a training routine which included roughly
12-15 sets of exercises that internally rotate the humerus (flat
bench press, incline DB press, decline BB press, lat pulldowns) and
zero that externally rotate the humerus. For those who
aren’t anatomy savvy, the humerus is the upper arm bone.
Who knew internal rotation could be so
sexy? Damn you JT!!
I’m willing to bet the above routine looks familiar to many
people reading this article. I’m also willing to bet
many of you have the same postural issues. If you’re not
necessarily sure, perform the following simple test popularized by
strength coach/personal trainer Mike Meija:
The Pencil Test
1. Grab a couple of pencils and hold them in your hands with
points facing out and your arms at your sides.
2. Look down at your hands. Where are the pencils
If they’re pointed straight ahead, you have optimal
shoulder posture and you’re awesome. If they’re
pointed inward diagonally, you have slight internal rotation and
you’re less awesome. If they’re pointing towards
each other, you have severe internal rotation and you’re
completely not awesome.
What to do?
If you fall under the category of slight internal rotation,
I’d include a healthy dose of static and dynamic stretching
for the pecs and lats and include two pulling exercises
(rows) for every pushing exercise (presses).
If you fall under the category of having severe internal
rotation, I’d include a healthy dose of static and dynamic
stretching for the pecs and lats and three pulling exercises
for every pushing exercise.
Whether it’s including more exercises that promote external
rotation and scapular retraction or realizing that leg presses
should not be the staple of your leg training, the sooner you learn
to balance your programming so that you can achieve optimal
postural balance and joint health, the better off you will
Not Including More Soft Tissue Work
Everyone always talks about how stretching/lengthening our
tissue (muscles) is the best thing you can do to increase your
range of motion and improve flexibility. I don’t agree
entirely. A good example would be someone who is in anterior pelvic
tilt, which is about 95% of the population:
In this example, we see a predictive pattern of tight/overactive
muscles and weak/inhibited muscles (also called Lower Cross
Quadriceps, TFL, Psoas (hip flexors)
Hamstrings, Glutes, Abdominals
Most people like to stretch their hamstrings because they always
feel “tight,” when in all actuality they’re anything
but. Why would you want to stretch an already weak and inhibited
muscle? The hamstrings are already lengthened in this scenario
(hence why they “feel” tight). By static stretching them,
you’re just making them more weak and
What if I told you that you don’t necessarily need to
stretch in order to improve your flexibility?
I like to get people in the mindset that working on tissue quality is paramount in how they feel overall. We can
stretch till the cows come home, but if we don’t take care of
all the knots, adhesions, trigger points, and scar tissue that
build up in our muscles from all the weight training, running, and
daily grind we put them through (even sitting at your computer all
day), we’ll never get full range of motion. A great analogy I
like to use is with a rubber band.
Suppose I took a band and put a knot in it. Now I pull the
band to emulate stretching, what happens to the
It just gets tighter/smaller. Eventually, the band will break
either above or below the knot; kind of like what your muscle does
when you strain it.
Using a foam roller or something as simple as a tennis
ball can go a long ways in helping you achieve improved tissue
quality. By breaking up all those adhesions, you will automatically
improve your flexibility without even stretching.
***Side note: I am in no way saying that static stretching
doesn’t have a time and place. In fact, we need more
stretching, as long as it’s done correctly and in the right
areas. But I just wanted to bring light to the fact that people are
doing themselves a disservice by not focusing on tissue quality as
well and including more soft tissue work into their daily
Hopefully I was able to shed some light on a few of the more
common “disasters” that I see many trainees make with
their programming. In the end, sometimes we need a little
dose of tough love to set us straight and to set us up for