by Eric Cressey T-Nation
I wrote my first “What I Learned in” feature for T Nation back in 2006 – over 7 years ago! – and a lot has happened since then.
I’m no longer the young whippersnapper picking fights on the T Nation forum. I’ve morphed into an old man with a receding hairline that prefers to yell at the television and complain about the damn kids who walk on my lawn, rather than argue with folks on the internet.
Kidding aside (excluding my hairline; sadly, that part wasn’t a joke), a lot has changed in the world of health, human performance, and getting huge.
New research is introduced constantly, and smart people take this research and apply it with existing theories to make their training and nutrition programs just a little more awesome with each passing day.
In such a dynamic industry, if you’re not staying up-to-date on new research and always testing new ideas out, you’ll quickly fall behind.
To that end, my “What I Learned in” series has become a great opportunity for me to recap my biggest discoveries of the year. My hope is that they’ll be as beneficial to you as they’ve been to me.
Here’s my top 8.
1. Strength is actually very easy to maintain – and even improve – if you’re consistent.
I retired my powerlifting singlet back in 2007. I still loved to train and always enjoyed the camaraderie I saw in the powerlifting world, but I simply didn’t have the time to devote to it that I had in my early 20’s.
With a wife, business, and host of other responsibilities, training became more of something I did for fun than something I did for competition – and I was fine with that.
Just for ****s and giggles, though, I decided to run my own “mock” powerlifting meet this past fall just to see where things stood. I weighed in at 180 first thing in the morning, and then went out and totaled 1435 pounds, an Elite raw total in the 181-pound weight class. It took just under two hours.
Note: I used a giant cambered bar for squatting just because I’ve got a shoulder that doesn’t love back squats.
Interestingly, I never totaled Elite in powerlifting gear, which kind of makes me regret not lifting raw from the start! However, my biggest takeaway from this experience was that I didn’t have to absolutely crush every lift to make long-term progress.
There were a lot of training sessions along the way when I scaled things back because I was dragging, and my training volume wasn’t as high as it used to be. I probably trained more in the 80-90% of 1RM range more than I did in the 90-100% range.
I did, however, always show up. I never miss training sessions.
If you want to make insane improvements in strength, you need to have an incredibly narrow focus – doing everything you can to support training at high percentages with sufficient volume.
You need to train frequently, deload at the right times, eat plenty of calories, and pay attention to a host of other factors.
The good news, however, is that it appears that if you want to simply keep the ball rolling in the right direction from a strength standpoint, you just need to make sure you get your ass to the gym and put in some effort.
2. The Glute Guy might’ve been a royal pain in the ass (pun intended), but he was right.
Back in August of 2009, while in Long Beach to present at the Perform Better 3-day Summit, I was in the lobby talking to one of the other presenters when I noticed someone a few feet away; he was apparently waiting to chat with us.
It was particularly amusing, because he was anxiously bobbing side to side like a little kid who was about to pee his pants, and he was holding a few big fat envelopes.
After my friend and I wrapped up our conversation, we turned our attention to the gentleman who was waiting for us. It was clear that he’d been preparing for this conversation for quite some time, as he had handouts prepared for both of us.
Moreover, he launched into no less than a 60-minute diatribe about glutes. Yes, butt cheeks. He talked functional anatomy, training techniques, carryover to performance, and a host of other topics all related to glutes. In fact, he covered absolutely everything there was to cover short of *******-wiping technique and how to cure hemorrhoids.
It was by far the most homoerotic training presentation I’ve ever witnessed. I’m just glad he didn’t try to go into any more “depth,” or else we likely would’ve been walking funny for the rest of the weekend.
After what seemed like four hours, we did our best to politely excuse ourselves from the conversation to head to lunch. As we walked away, my wife – who is somewhat desensitized to some of the crazy product and supplement pitches I get on a regular basis – commented on how he was a top 5 nut-job that we’d ever encountered at one of these events. The seminar ended the next day, so we didn’t have any more interaction before we headed out. Bullet dodged.
As annoying and untimely as he might’ve been, though, the guy made some good points, so I pulled out his envelope and opened it up on the flight home. At the top of the first page, it read:
Advanced Techniques in Glutei Maximi Strengthening
by Bret Contreras
Unlike the meandering dissertation we’d experienced in the lobby in Long Beach, this was a lucid and strong case for us to reevaluate the way that we train the glutes. It was incredibly well researched and presented.
Bret might have been a lunatic, but he was extremely bright and ballsy enough to question the status quo and introduce exercises that might change the way folks train.
A month later, T Nation also recognized how forward-thinking Bret was, as it published Dispelling the Glute Myth, his first of 37 articles to date here at this site.
Our staff spent the next year (2010) experimenting with some of the exercises Bret introduced, making sure they were safe and effective. I originally had my concerns with shear stress during bilateral hip thrusts, but over time, learned that it was just like any other exercise – if cued correctly, risk was dramatically reduced.
In 2011, we started working them into clients’ programs more regularly, but it wasn’t until 2012 that loaded supine bridges and hip thrusts became mainstays in the majority of our programs at Cressey Performance. The results were outstanding.
They’re great alternatives to squatting and deadlifting for those with a history of back pain.
They’re awesome options for training the posterior chain in those with shoulder conditions that may be exacerbated by certain squat and deadlift variations (more on this later).
They’re less coaching-intensive exercises that athletes can pick up relatively easily in a short amount of time.
They don’t create a lot of soreness because you can minimize the eccentric component, so they’re a useful option for in-season athletes.
Most importantly, though, the feedback from clients and athletes was excellent. They felt more direct carryover to sprinting, and there was a lot more complaining from male athletes who had to buy new jeans because their asses were getting too big.
At the end of the day, my experiences with Bret over the past three years taught me more than just a few new exercises and the rationale for their inclusion, though. Bret taught me that if you have worked hard to become an expert in your chosen field of study, you have an obligation to yourself and your industry to be wildly persistent – even if it means being a pain in the ass.
There are a lot of great ideas out there that have never made it to the public eye because the innovators weren’t good marketers of themselves or their ideas.
Additionally, Bret taught me to never throw an idea out because it wasn’t tastefully presented. Think of it this way: I could go to a dinner party with some non-medical types and drop a bunch of fancy anatomy and physiology words and likely convince people that I’m a cardiologist. I’d be full of ****, though, and you wouldn’t want me doing your open-heart surgery. That’s our world, though – there are many people who sweet-talk a lot, yet know very little.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are bright, talented folks who might not present themselves well in conversation, so it’s easy to miss their messages. So, don’t be too quick to judge an idea as bad or good.
Thanks, Bret, for all the lessons.
3. Deadlifts aren’t always okay for those with shoulder pain.
I always viewed deadlifts as “fair game” for those with shoulder issues. In other words, short of a ruptured biceps tendon, shoulder issues almost never seemed to get more painful when people used deadlift variations.
The problem was that my line of logic didn’t take into account a control group. In other words, would people who didn’t deadlift get out of shoulder pain more quickly than those who did? The answer, as I learned in 2012, was sometimes.
The folks who respond best to omitting deadlifting are those who sit in a lot of scapular depression. In other words, their shoulder blades sit far too low.
The shoulder blades in this photo are both depressed and anteriorly tilted, so the correct postural cueing would actually be “up and back,” not the “down and back” cue that everyone seems to think magically gets the job done.
These folks usually present with incredibly stiff lats and a big lordosis. Put heavy weights in their hands and you pull them into more scapular depression. They need more elevation just to get to the right starting position, and then they need to upwardly rotate the shoulder blades to be in the correct positions as they overhead press, throw a baseball, or flip the bird to another driver in a bout of road rage.
Most provocative tests take place with the arm elevated, yet deadlifts take place with the arms at the sides – how do we really know if we aren’t exacerbating their issues?
So in 2012, we dropped deadlifts (in the short-term) from the programs of folks who sat in scapular depression if they were working to overcome shoulder pain. They came along much faster.
For a long time, we’ve been conditioned to believe that as long as an exercise didn’t hurt, it was an acceptable exercise to use. Pain is our guide, right? Not necessarily. This deadlift/scapular depression example serves as a reminder that just because something doesn’t hurt doesn’t mean that it isn’t leading to more pain.
4. Exhale fully to get more out of your anti-extension core exercises and shoulder flexion mobility drills.
In my What I Learned in 2010 article, I talked about the profound impact the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) had on my development as a coach. That impact continues to this day.
One of the central tenets of the PRI philosophy is that folks who live in a gross extension pattern (forward head posture, excessive lordosis, anterior pelvic tilt, plantarflexed ankles, etc.) live in a constant state of inhalation. In other words, they have absolutely no idea how to get air out.
When you exhale, your ribs should come down, so the best time to challenge this function is when the arms are flexed overhead, as folks with an anterior-weight-bearing tendency will usually “flare” the ribs up during this overhead reach.
It’s challenging enough for folks with these heavily ingrained habits to get their arms overhead in a neutral spine position, but ask them to exhale in this position and you’ll make folks feel inadequate really fast.
Here’s a good progression you can use, from mobility drills to stability ones. Exhale fully at the position in each drill when the arms are overhead (lats are on the biggest stretch):
You can then progress on to using the exhale at the “lengthened” positions on stability ball and ab wheel rollouts.
5. I was right back in 2010!
Back in my What I Learned in 2010 article, in light of my experience working with high-level baseball players, I talked about how I firmly believed that power was very plane-specific.
In other words, training power in a linear (sagittal) manner wouldn’t have the same transfer to rotational power sports as a program that emphasized power development in the frontal and transverse planes. And just because someone was good in one plane did not mean that they’d effectively produce force quickly in other planes.
Luckily for my ego, my assertions were verified by a 2012 study by Lehman, et al (1) that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. They found that baseball throwing velocity was predicted better by rotational medicine ball throw distance and lateral-to-medial jump distance than by bilateral and unilateral vertical and broad jumps.
Just because you can run fast or jump high doesn’t mean that you can swing or throw, or vice versa. Specificity is important.
6 and 7. “Free scapula” pressing improves your bench press, and landmine presses are awesome.
Several years ago on T Nation, Bill Hartman and Mike Robertson co-authored a great article, Push-ups, Face Pulls, and Shrugs. One of their key points was that for optimal upper extremity health, you need a healthy balance of pressing exercises like push-ups where the scapula moves freely to “counteract” exercises like bench presses where the shoulder blades are fixed in place. I couldn’t agree more.
I’m not sure that Bill and Mike scratched the surface when it comes to the awesome performance and physique benefits that can come from “free scapula pressing” initiatives, though. They focused heavily on push-up variations – and rightfully so, as these are must-have exercises in just about any training program. However, landmine presses didn’t get any love.
We use landmine presses a lot with our throwing athletes because they allow the scapula to upwardly rotate effectively (no bench is there to lock it into place), and it’s easy for us to coach it manually by guiding the shoulder blade to where we want it to be.
If an athlete is stuck in scapular depression, we can cue him up a bit and add a shrug at the top. If he’s elevated and anteriorly tilted, we can guide him to posteriorly tilt the shoulder blade. We can work to make the movement look perfect in everyone.
This is probably one reason why my bum shoulder – which always gets cranky with overhead pressing – can tolerate landmine presses. Moreover, it’s slightly less elevation of the humerus, and you’re competing against a bit less gravity than when you overhead press.
I’ve often heard accomplished bench pressers say that their numbers took off when they started overhead pressing. I noticed the same thing when I started landmine presses, which makes me think it has a lot more to do with the freedom of scapular motion than it does with the overhead motion. Truth be told, a landmine press is likely more specific to a bench press anyway.
As added bonuses, you also strengthen the anterior core, improve rotary stability, and enhance thoracic spine mobility by doing these one arm at a time. You can do them half-kneeling, tall-kneeling, standing, or split-stance, too, so they’re something that can be included in just about any program. All you need is a barbell and a corner into which you can shove it.
8. Structural abnormalities are now part of normal physical development in today’s athletes.
In “What I Learned in 2011,” I commented on how the basics were more important than ever because we’re actually de-evolving.
Specifically, “Today’s population grew up sitting too much, competing too much, and preparing too little, and they always, always, always got participation trophies. They de-evolved, and the correction – both physically and psychologically – needs to take place now.”
In 2012, I had two kids under the age of 12 come my way with ulnar collateral ligament (elbow) injuries. You can’t do a Tommy John surgery on a kid that young because the growth plates are still open.
This is on par with a kid blowing out an ACL playing pee-wee football – it simply shouldn’t happen. The fact that kids are finding a way to get injured in ways that stump orthopedic surgeons is scary, and something needs to be done about it.
Overuse injuries from early sports specialization are off the charts, and we aren’t going to change the stress that kids encounter in sports. We can, however, do a lot to impose some variety in their yearly athletic calendar by mandating that they play multiple sports.
In his book, Never Eat Alone, author Keith Ferrazi talks about how there are two guaranteed ways to win over anyone for life: take their pain away, and help their kids. In my next paragraph, I’m going to help you take your kids’ pain away and help to set them up for success, so that pretty much makes it one of the most important things you’ll ever read.
I work with literally hundreds of professional and collegiate athletes each year. The overwhelming majority of them didn’t specialize early. This is something that has been verified by polls of the top athletes in every professional sport. Anecdotally, I see more injuries in the ones who did specialize early, as they’ve acquired structural abnormalities that later “reach threshold” when they compete at faster speeds.
It would be extremely challenging to argue that, in the past decade of early sports specialization, the U.S. has improved more than other nations on the world athletic scene. It simply isn’t true, and what’s perhaps more alarming is a U.S. News and World Report article that proposes that we’re actually remarkably inferior to other affluent, developed countries at developing Olympic medalists, when you consider population size and gross domestic product (GDP).
And even if we had blown everyone else’s doors off, it would be hard to justify the injury costs in our adolescents that we paid along the way. I can tell you that in the past five years alone, the “average” movement quality I see on an initial evaluation with a teenage athlete has gotten worse.
So with all this in mind, with a large readership of parents here at T Nation, here’s my two-part direct challenge to parents:
Up to the age of 16, make sure your kids play at least two sports per year. Neither of those sports can be played for more than nine months out of the year. After age 16, you get some wiggle room, but there still needs to be time off.
Get kids involved in a strength and conditioning program at a younger age. My experience has been that age 12-13 is a good time, depending on psychological maturity. Before that age, find ways to make exercise fun and productive. Expose kids to a wide variety of activities and encourage free play.
You’ll build better athletes and keep them healthy in the process. I’d bet my career on it.
So, have I evolved into a wise old bastard, or what?
That’s the great thing about athletic training – you never stop discovering new things and you never stop learning.