Interrogating Eric Cressey

I first had the pleasure of working with Eric Cressey when I brought him over to the UK for his first overseas speaking engagement (he looked a little dazed and confused as he came through customs at Heathrow!). Since then I've enjoyed following his career, becoming one of the foremost experts on strength and conditioning. I decided to dust off an original Q&A that we did when we first met to introduce him to you. I've updated it to 2009 and I hope you enjoy it.

NG: Eric, thank you for the interview. Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about your current coaching commitments? 

EC: I'm currently doing phenomenal things with athletes and weekend warriors of all levels at my facility here in Hudson - Cressey Performance. I'm really excited to be a part of such a fantastic venture and you can rest assured that I don't have it in me to become one of those guys who just writes books and articles and never trains people; we've got too many of them in this industry already. I love to work with athletes and get under the bar myself; the day that stops being fun and I start considering just writing and consulting full-time is the day that I need to find a new profession. Performance enhancement coaching is about attitude and passion - not typing.   

NG:  Can you tell the reader your educational or previous career background? 

EC: I started out at business school (Babson College) thinking that I wanted to be an accountant. That thought passed pretty quickly, as I realised that training and nutrition was on my mind a lot more than crunching numbers. I transferred to the University of New England after my sophomore year, taking all my management credits with me into a Sports and Fitness Management degree (with some supplemental classes in health service delivery systems). I pretty much had that degree done in 2.5 years, so I decided to double major by adding Exercise Science to the mix. I wound up graduating with 168 credits, and in the process recognised that I was a lot more interested in the science and practice of performance enhancement than I was in management.   

As such, I went on to get my Master's degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science at the University of Connecticut, where I was involved in varsity strength and conditioning and research in the human performance laboratory (that must be where you met my good friend and colleague Duncan French). The UCONN Department of Kinesiology was recently voted the #1 Kinesiology Graduate Program in the US; the faculty and graduate students are brilliant, and opportunities abound with research and coaching. I am really lucky to have had the opportunity - and to still be involved in some capacity and have those resources at my fingertips. 

NG: You're a competitive powerlifter - what can you take from your own training that would be of use to our readers? 

EC: Competing has completely changed me as a coach and a writer; I never realised how much better I am at what I do when I share a competitive mindset with my athletes. My decision to compete was one of the wisest choices I ever made. In fact, this decision had such profound implications that I think I could go on all day. However, a few things that I have come to appreciate in a whole new light: 

1. Planned overreaching is tremendously valuable when used correctly.   

2. You need to appropriately schedule back-off/regeneration phases.   

3. Success rests with attention to detail. Imagine putting in an entire 12-week training cycle and then bombing out because your squat technique was off on just one day...this hasn't happened to me, but it does happen.

4. Train for performance, eat clean, and things will almost always fall into place. I couldn't care less about 'the pump' anymore.   

5. Attitude is the single-most important factor that determines your success or lack thereof. I'll take a guy with a great attitude on a garbage program over someone with a lousy attitude and the best program in the world any-day.   

6. The value of a good training crew cannot be overstated. It changes your attitude completely. They pick you up when you're dragging, and you do the same for them. They pick up on the little things that make the big differences and help you get personal bests when you don't realise you have them in you.   

I could go on all day, but you get the point. If you don't have a goal, it's hard to view exercise as anything more than 'working out.' Anybody can 'work out;' you need to train. 

NG: I spend a lot of time working with athletes that come to me with a good training history, only to find that lifting techniques are, well, pretty crappy to say the least! Sometimes the best people to work with are the ones that have never stepped foot inside a gym because you don't have to spend the whole of the session undoing all of the bad habits! If a newbie walks into your facility, what would you do to make sure that when he came over to the UK in 3 years time to train with me that I wouldn't be faced with a mess?!  

EC: We'd do loads of foam rolling, activation, and mobility work to make sure that he's moving efficiently through a full range of motion. From there, I'd use a combination of isometric holds and traditional strength training movements with an emphasis on single-leg work and lumbar spine and scapular stabilisation. The basics work great when they're done properly; it's our job to ensure that ideal technique precedes loading. People wouldn't need to have such elaborate assessment schemes if most athletes were taught to do the right things correctly early-on, you know? 

NG: I know you share with me an interest in maintaining a healthy shoulder girdle (that sounds a bit sad!). I try to incorporate my injury prevention work for the shoulders into the main training routine (I like to superset between the main lifts). I like to use a variety of exercises internal/external/PNF pattern rotator cuff work on elastics/pulleys, stability push ups on balance boards, bosu boards, rings, med ball catches, plate throws, Cuban snatches etc. Can you share with our readers some of the key exercises that you use to protect the shoulders from injury? 

EC: Ha! You're not kidding; I became a shoulder enthusiast out of necessity. Being a tennis player turned powerlifter isn't exactly easy on the shoulders, you know?   

You've got some great stuff there; I use most of them myself. One thing that I can overstate enough is the fact that the overwhelming majority of shoulder problems originate at the scapula - not the glenohumeral (ball-and-socket) joint. With that in mind, as the years have gone on, I've devoted more of my 'prehab' volume to stabilising the scapulae - most commonly with work emphasising the lower traps and serratus anterior in particular - along with the traditional external and internal rotation work for the humerus. The progression is always isolated to compound; my more experienced athletes don't do as much of the single-joint stuff. It's generally integrated in more complex patterns.    

Above all, though, fitness professionals need to understand how to assess the shoulder girdle. Unfortunately, it's an assessment that isn't in the repertoire of most coaches today. Hopefully, some products with which I'm involved will help to elucidate these issues to fitness professionals within the next six months. 

NG: Your Master's thesis looks at training on unstable surface as it relates to improving athletic performance. How has what you've discovered as a result of your research influenced your programming? 

EC: Well, unfortunately, I can't reveal my data until the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research publishes it (hopefully this fall)  I can, however, tell you that I'm already hard at work on putting together a 'layman's' version of the entire thesis to relate my findings to athletes and coaches in a more easily-interpreted context (reading academic writing isn't much different than perusing stereo instructions, unfortunately). Without saying too much, I can tell you that a lot of people are going to be very surprised at the results; it's going to open a lot of eyes and make people re-evaluate how they utilise these implements. This truly was the first study of its kind; nobody to-date had looked at how chronic training on these implements affects performance in trained, healthy athletes (since completing this Q&A the paper has been published and Eric has revealed all in The Truth About Unstable Training)

NG: I recently gave a talk on core stability to a group of strength coaches and physiotherapists (athletic trainers) - this was my first slide 'Much of what has been said about 'core training' has come from physiotherapists - they are experts at getting injured people healthy - they are not experts at training athletes!' - I borrowed that from Mike Boyle! Now I wasn't rubbishing all of the good work that has been done by people like McGill, Hodges, Saunders and Sahrmann. I was trying to do two things - 1. wake the audience up! 2. wake the S&C coaches up to the fact that maybe somewhere along the line a whole load of us forgot what we were supposed to be doing, building strong and a powerful athletes that can withstand the demands of their sport. How do you approach training the 'core' with your clients? 

EC: Honestly, the word 'core' has become so hackneyed that it makes me kind of ashamed that our profession. I mean, let's face it: 'Core' can essentially be translated as 'The rectus abdominus, lumbar erectors, obliques, and all those other muscles between the knees and shoulders that I'm either too lazy or misinformed to list.'  

Everything is related; our bodies are great at compensating. As such, it's imperative that the approach one takes to 'core' training be based on addressing where the problems exist. The most common lower back problems we see are related to extension-rotation syndrome. We most often get hyperextension at the lumbar spine because our gluteus maximus doesn't fire to complete hip extension and posteriorly tilt the pelvis; we have to find range of motion wherever we can get it. Having tight hip flexors and lumbar erectors exaggerates anterior pelvic tilt, so this hyperextension is maintained throughout the day to keep the body upright in spite of the faulty pelvic alignment.   

The rotation component simply comes along when you throw unilateral dominance into the equation. It might be a baseball pitcher always throwing in one direction, or an office worker always turning to answer the phone on one side. Lumbar rotation is not a movement for which you want any extra range of motion, and the related hip hiking isn't much fun to deal with, either.   

The solution is to get the glutes firing and learn to stabilise the lumbar spine while enhancing mobility at the hips, thoracic spine, and scapulae. You just have to get the range of motion at the right places.   Unfortunately, thinking this stuff out isn't high on some people's priority list. It's 'sexier' to tell a client to do some weighted sit-ups, Russian twists, and enough yoga to make the hip flexors want to explode. I'm not going to recommend sit-ups to anyone, and if an athlete is going to do something advanced, he's going to have shown me that he's prepared for it by successfully completing a progression to that point. You can get away with faulty movement patterns in the real world, but when you put a faulty movement pattern under load in a resistance training context, everything is magnified.   

NG: I like to develop what we call 'bullet proof' athletes - men and women that can take to the field and cope with what the sport and their opponents throws at them. What would be your main tips for making a 'bullet proof' athlete - what areas should we focus our attention on and what exercises could we use? 

EC:1. Adequate hip mobility.   2. Stability of the lumbar spine, scapulae, and glenohumeral joint.   3. Posterior chain strength and normal firing patterns   4. Loads of posterior chain strength.   5. More pulling (deadlifts, rows, and pull-ups) than pushing (squats, benches, and overhead pressing)   6. Greater attention to single-leg movements   7. Prioritisation of soft-tissue work in the form of foam rolling, ART, and massage   8. Attitude (being afraid when you're under a bar is a recipe for injury)   9. Adequate deloading periods   10. Attention to daily posture (you have 1-2 hours per day to train, and 22-23 to screw it up in your daily life) 

NG: I know you study the field a lot and - who are your go to guys when it comes to training? 

EC: Wow, that's a very loaded question, as I'm fortunate to be able to communicate with some of the most brilliant minds in the business (training, nutrition, supplementation, and marketing) on a daily basis. Some names that immediately come to mind as really influencing me personally are:Chris West, Brijesh Patel, Alwyn Cosgrove, John Berardi, Jason Ferruggia, Dave Tate, Mike Boyle, Mike Robertson, Michael Hope, Jim Wendler, Cassandra Forsythe, William Kraemer, David Tiberio, Brian Grasso, Kelly Baggett, Bob Youngs, Joe DeFranco, Buddy Morris, Brad Cardoza, John Sullivan, Carl Valle, Ryan Lee, and too many powerlifters and training partners to even list. Suffice it to say that my email address book and the phone book on my cell phone are pretty much filled to capacity! My undergraduate advisor called me a 'sponge for information;' others might just call me a pain in the ass who needs to stop cramming so much information into his brain and have some fun instead. They don't realise that this IS fun for me! 

NG:  What are your goals as a coach? 

EC: I want to positively influence the lives of those with whom I work and those who buy my products. My love of exercise in many ways saved my life, and I'm fortunate to be in a position to give something back to the world of health and human performance. 

NG: In a nutshell - What is your training philosophy? 

EC: I've been asked this so many times that I've decided to come out with an 'auto-responder!' Train your body to work efficiently and take care of your diet and lifestyle, and you'll be rewarded with a physique that performs at a high level and just so happens to look great. You can't build a castle on quicksand, so sometimes you need to take a step back and make sure that the appropriate foundation is in place. Foundations aren't built with gimmicks; they're built with hard work and scientific practices.  

NG: I'm asking all of our contributors for their top three books - the ones every S&C coach should have in their library? We've had some great answers and I'm building a virtual library on the links page of the web-site....what are your top 3? 

EC: This is going to come across as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but if you ask the functional anatomy guy what's important, he's going to say 'functional anatomy.' If you don't understand structure, you won't understand function. If you don't understand function, you won't understand performance or be able to recognise dysfunction - and every athlete has something wrong with them, trust me 1. Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes by Sahrmann 2. Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain (5th ed.) by Kendall et al. 3. Kinetic Anatomy by Behnke (good starter text for people just getting their feet wet)  Keep in mind that I read about two books per week; these are just three that are great in light of the subject matter at hand. 

NG: Is there anything else you would like to mention? 

EC: Mike Robertson and I are always releasing projects, check out Building The Efficient Athlete, The Ultimate Offseason Training Programme, Magnificent Mobility and  Maximum Strength.   

I've also got several speaking engagements lined up; readers can check out my schedule.  Other than that, it's mostly just some e-books and lots of facility planning on the agenda. Additionally, readers can subscribe to my FREE weekly newsletter.


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