Bret Contreras Talks Strength

Chad Waterbury: Bret, thanks for stopping by to talk shop. It’s your first time here.

Bret Contreras: Yes it is, Chad, thanks for this interview. I really appreciate it!

CW: First off, congrats on achieving a 601-pound deadlift. That’s a strong pull. What is that, about 2.5 times your body weight?

BC: Yes, I weighed 236 when I made that pull. I’m the strongest and most muscular I’ve ever been.

bret c DL

CW: I know a 601 pull was a new PR for you. What do you feel finally helped you achieve that feat?

BC: There are several factors that I feel helped, but the most important is taking advantage of submaximal training.

One day, it dawned on me that there were plenty of lifters far stronger than I am who were lifting much lighter relative loads than I typically used. If there are world-renowned powerlifters sticking to 60-80% of 1RM for 1-5 reps, then who am I to think I always need to max out or push every set to failure.

I started performing what I call super-strict reps, pause reps, and explosive reps, all done with 60-80% of 1RM for 1-5 reps. These methods are much easier on the CNS than a maximal single or a set taken to momentary muscular failure, and it grooves technique and adds more frequency/volume without compromising recovery.

When combined in tandem with maximal training, the submaximal methods provide a one-two punch that really enhances strength development. Imagine that: you get more from doing less. If only I understood this in my twenties.

CW: Yep, we all learn that lesson the hard way! I used to go for a new PR in every workout, but that’s a road that quickly leads to burnout. What are the other key elements you learned?

BC: I left no stone unturned in my quest for greater strength. What muscles do the most work in a deadlift? Hams? Check. Glutes? Check. Erectors? Check. Quads? Check. Grip? Check. Abs? Check. You get my point.

For the first time in 10 years, I started hammering front squats. I fell in love with block pulls. I was a hip thrusting machine. I did heavy back extensions. I was setting squat and deadlift PRs every other week in various rep ranges. It seemed that every lower body lift I did transferred to every other lower body lift. I noticed that if my front squat and hip thrust went up, my squat went up. If my squat went up, my deadlift went up. If my deadlift went up, my back extension went up. I gained steady strength for weeks on end, culminating with a big PR on the day of the meet.

CW: That is an important lesson. Building strength with key exercises will carryover to your other lifts. I know these factors led to the creation of your new 2 x 4 strength and muscle-building system. 

BC: Yes, it did. However, the system kept getting more effective over time. Initially, I felt the early version of 2 x 4 was just too demanding. The people who initially piloted the program were beat down and complaining.

So I made changes and I kept tinkering with the system based on feedback from all the lifters implementing the system. We’d have weekly meetings to discuss the system – what was perfect, what needed improvement, etc. The end result is a field-tested system that went through a long, arduous process before it was ever presented to the public.

CW: I know that’s true because we were talking about the ways you were tweaking this system with lifters many months ago. Tell us what kind of results those other lifters achieved in your new system.

BC: Chad, every lifter who completed 2 x 4 saw huge improvements in strength and physique gains. My female client Sammie finally pulled a 315 lb deadlift weighing 125 pounds. My buddy Rob boosted his raw squat and deadlift to 475 lbs and 585 lbs. And Andrew, his strength went through the roof. His deadlift increased 110 lbs!

It’s important to note that I didn’t take on beginners – each of these lifters had many years of lifting experience. Andrew and Rob have competed in powerlifting competitions. They don’t have as much room to gain, but their strength still skyrocketed. Below is a chart summarizing the strength gains.

2x4 strength gains

CW: The true measure of any system is how quickly it can develop strength with lifters that are already very strong. 2 x 4 definitely achieves that feat and you’ve earned testimonials for world-record powerlifters. What body composition changes did these lifters experience?

BC: They all made outstanding progress. Each of these lifters’ physiques was at its all-time best after completing 2 x 4. There’s a huge correlation between muscle mass and strength. And the stronger you are at a given bodyweight, the leaner you’re going to be as well, so it makes sense to prioritize strength development during a couple of training cycles per year.

CW: You’re one of the hardest-working guys I know – constantly researching, experimenting, and blogging. You put a ton of work into the bonuses for 2 x 4, namely the section on biomechanics. Why should people care about biomechanics?

BC: Knowledge is power. It wasn’t until I understood biomechanics that I could truly take my training by the reigns and start steering my programming toward success. If you understand how anatomy affects strength on the different lifts, and why form tends to break down in predictable patterns, then you can be proactive in your training and shore up weak links, which makes your training more efficient. Biomechanics is critical when it comes to building strength.

CW: It absolutely is, Bret. Thanks for the interview!

BC: It was my pleasure, Chad.

I give Bret Contreras’ new system, 2 x 4, my highest endorsement. It’s a terrific resource for anyone interested in building strength and muscle. Best of all, you can get 2 x 4 for an introductory sale price today. Just click here to find out more.

2x4 banner

Stay Focused,
CW

Climb Your Way to New Muscle

rope climb l If I had to choose one upper body exercise for the rest of my training days it would definitely be the rope climb. Of course, we don’t live in a world where we’re relegated to only one exercise, but if I had to choose one that would be it. No other upper body exercise works as many muscles as intensely, from your abs to your forearms, and everything in between. However, the rope climb is an advanced exercise that might not be appropriate for many of you, at this point.

The people who run into a problem with the rope climb, whether it’s pain in the shoulder, elbow or anywhere else are usually not ready for such a challenging move. No matter how great the rope is, you must pass through the ranks before adding it into your program.

Here’s the checklist:

blog t ext arm lift1. Do you have sufficient thoracic extension? Stand with your arms straight down at your sides. With your elbows locked and palms facing each other, can you lift your arms up in front and overhead without the bottom of your ribcage elevating? If you don’t know how to feel the ribcage elevating, try to do the same movement while keeping your abs braced like someone was about to punch you in the gut. Now can you lift your arms up perfectly perpendicular to the ground? If not, you need to improve thoracic extension.

One of the most effective ways to improve thoracic extension is with the high bear exercise that’s taught by practitioners of Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS).

Since I’m certified in DNS, that’s exactly what I use with my clients. If it’s not possible to find a DNS-certified trainer in your area, the next best option is the downward dog (aka, downward facing dog) pose taught in yoga. The key is to hold the highest hip position while breathing into your lower abdominals, and keep your chin tucked. Try that for one minute then retest your overhead arm lift.

If it worked, now you have a corrective exercise that you should perform before any pull-up or rope climb workout. But if you still can’t elevate your arms high enough, keep working on the downward dog hold throughout the day until you pass the test.

2. Can you perform 10 pull-ups with a narrow, hammer grip? The rope climb requires high levels of strength because you’re temporarily in a position where only one arm is doing most of the work to elevate your body through space. That requires considerable strength. So if you can’t perform 10 pull-ups with a narrow, hammer grip (the best carryover for the rope climb) keep working on building it up.

The other option, if you’re a low-rep training machine that considers anything over six reps to be endurance work, is to be strong enough to knock off five pull-ups with 25% of body weight attached to a chin/dip belt.

Once you’ve passed the mobility and strength test you’re ready. The most common problem people have with the rope climb is an imbalanced pulling technique. Since none of us are perfectly balanced – one shoulder is always weaker or stiffer than the other – it’s imperative to build up your pulling technique by reaching an equal distance with each arm.

If you let the stronger arm reach further and pull harder, your strength and mobility imbalances will only get worse. And I can assure you that pain in the elbow, shoulder or neck will soon follow. By pulling equalling with each arm you can help put your upper body strength and mobility back in balance.

Like any new exercise you should start slow and do less than you think you need, then slowly build up from there. The goal is to be able to perform five climbs per workout at least three times per week. The height of the rope isn’t important, what matters is your set lasts 10 seconds from start to finish.

So if you only have an eight-foot rope, climb up and down it as many times as you can in 10 seconds. The purpose of limiting the sets to 10 seconds is to ensure that your largest, strongest motor units are constantly in play. Beyond 10 seconds they start dropping out.

Rope Climb

Now, the obvious downfall of spending so much time talking about the rope climb is that many people don’t have access to a rope. I encourage all of you hard-training lifters out there to find a way to hang one in your yard, garage or dining room.

If adding a rope into your program absolutely isn’t an option, it’s probably safe to assume that you have a playground or park nearby that has a swing set. So your other option is to climb up and down one of the support posts.

Post Climb

Climbing Parameters

Frequency: 3 times per week or more
Sets: 5
Duration of each set: 10 seconds
Rest: 3 minutes*
*You don’t have to passively rest for 3 minutes. Perform an upper body pushing exercise (e.g., dip) during that time, or put the climb within a circuit where you have at least three minutes before you repeat an exercise.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Gourmet Food for Abs

wp high kick I first met Wolfgang Puck in 2002. My brother and I visited Los Angeles that year and Spago, Wolfgang’s flagship restaurant, was at the top of our dinner list. Whenever I visit a new city, my first order of business is to figure out where I’m going to eat. I’m not a guy who eats to live, I live to eat. Being the food lover that I am, a dinner at Spago was sure to be memorable.

But the most memorable part of that night didn’t have anything to do with Spago’s salmon pizza that Wolfgang made famous, even though it was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. When my brother and I left, Wolfgang happened to be standing at the front door where he shook our hands and thanked us for stopping by for dinner. I thought it was pretty cool that Wolfgang was there considering how much business success he’s had. I mean, it’s not like he needed to be at the front door of his restaurant shaking hands.

The following night, my bro and I went to another one of his restaurants, Chinois on Main, in Santa Monica. (Like I said, I live to eat.) Much to my surprise, Wolfgang showed up to the restaurant that night as well, and it made me wonder if he had made copies of himself like Michael Keaton’s character in Multiplicity. It seemed the guy was everywhere: shaking hands, talking with guests, and checking on his chefs and managers.

Four years later I moved to Santa Monica and became a regular patron at Chinois. During those first few years I frequently saw Wolfgang in the restaurant and we’d make small-talk as he moved from table-to-table, conversing with his guests and staff. By this time he knew I was a trainer of some sort. I’m sure that didn’t impress him much because, as I found out later, he’d worked with dozens of trainers during his 30 years in Los Angeles. Most of them made him feel worse than when he started.

Eventually he’d heard from enough people that I was pretty good at what I did. So one night he sat at my table at Chinois and told me that he’d recently had hip replacement and feared he would have to stop skiing, his favorite sport since childhood. I was confident I could help him, and we set up an appointment so I could give him an assessment.

After I assessed him, I took him through a circuit of exercises that focused on restoring his strength, endurance and mobility. He liked how the workout made him feel, and committed to working with me over the next few months since he wanted to try to ski that winter.

Over the course of those next few months people began to notice that Wolfgang looked different. He was leaner, he moved better, and he was more energetic. Wolfgang didn’t want huge biceps, or six-pack abs, or any of the other aesthetic qualities that most of us are after. He just wanted to be able to ski again. That winter he called me from Colorado and said that he couldn’t remember the last time he felt so good skiing down the slopes.

Now, back to my passion for food.

Think back to the last time you decided to get leaner. If you’re like most people you probably bought a book that consisted of a 12-week training and nutrition plan. As you flipped through the book the workouts might have looked doable enough. But I’ll bet that the nutrition plan left you unsatisfied, even before you cooked the first meal. You can only eat flavorless food for a few weeks before the wheels start falling off the nutrition bus.

There are two types of cookbooks. One is filled with recipes from famous chefs that contain meals frighteningly high in fat, sugar and calories. The other type of book – a diet cookbook – is full of recipes that are void of any of the flavor and satisfaction you need from food that you actually want to eat again.

If there’s one thing I know for sure: Wolfgang knows how to make food taste great. So a few years ago I approached him about the idea of making a book of recipes that contain less fat, sugar and calories than most famous chefs usually put on the bookshelves. My timing was good.

Since the time Wolfgang hired me to get his body back on the slopes he had been experimenting with many of the dishes he made famous: adding more vegetables, taking out some of the sugar, and including more healthy fats. He wasn’t interested in creating a bunch of “diet” recipes, he just enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to make healthier dishes taste great.

And man did he succeed.

I’m excited to announce the latest cookbook to his collection, Wolfgang Puck Makes it Healthy. It contains over 100 new recipes, along with tons of tips and tricks to get the most flavor out of your healthy food. This is not a 12-week diet plan, it’s a book full of recipes that you’ll want to eat for a lifetime. Here’s a recipe you can try at home the next time you want an omelet.

French-Style Egg White Omelet with Vegetables

What you’ll need:
Butter-flavored nonstick cooking spray
4 large egg whites
1 large egg
1/4 cup thinly sliced asparagus
1/4 cup thinly sliced snowpeas
1 teaspoon minced shallot
Kosher salt
Freshly ground white pepper

How to make it:
1. Whisk together the egg whites, egg, and a little salt and pepper to taste until well blended and slightly frothy. Set aside.

2. Heat a 10-inch nonstick omelet pan over medium-high heat. Spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Add the asparagus, snow peas, and shallot and sauté, stirring continuously, until the vegetables are bright green and tender-crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover and keep warm.

3. Wipe the pan clean with a paper towel. Return it to medium heat and spray again with cooking spray. Add egg mixture, grasp pan by its handle, and start shaking the pan back and forth while stirring the eggs slowly with the back of a fork, gently lifting and moving the cooked egg so the liquid egg slips beneath it. After about 30 seconds the egg will have formed a uniformly cooked but still fairly moist pancake shape.

4. To fold the omelet, immediately tilt the pan to about a 45-degree angle by raising the handle, so that the cooked egg nearest the handle begin to fall and fold; you may use a fork or a spatula to help this happen. Hold the far edge of the pan over a heated serving plate and continue tipping the handle up, so the omelet folds over on itself and rolls out onto the plate.

5. To fill the omelet, use a small, sharp knife to cut a shallow slit lengthwise through the top of the omelet though the upper layer of egg. Spoon the reserved sautéed vegetables into and spilling out of the slit. Serve immediately.

One of the really cool elements of this cookbook is that it contains all the nutritional info you’ll ever need from a recipe. For example, the omelet above contains these nutritional facts:

Calories: 157
Calories from Fat: 39
Total Fat: 4.4g
Saturated Fat: 1.6g
Monounsaturated Fat: 1.8g
Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.0g
Cholesterol: 186mg
Sodium: 290mg
Total Carbohydrate: 5.1g
Dietary Fiber: 1.4g
Sugars: 2.7g
Protein: 22.2g

The book also contains exercise information that I wrote with Lou Schuler. The workout plan contains of circuit-training routines that build strength, endurance and mobility for people over 40. The training plan is also excellent for those with little training experience and minimal home equipment.

If you’re a health-conscious food lover that enjoys cooking, this will be the best $27 you’ll ever spend. You can find it at all major bookstores, or on Amazon at the link below.

wp book cover

Stay Focused,
CW

5 Ways to Add New Muscle in the New Year

Now that the new year is finally here, most of us are taking a more critical look at our body. Even though fat loss tips, tricks and pills are the big sellers every January, muscle growth is just as important. Adding quality muscle will not only increase your basal metabolic level (i.e., the calories you burn at rest) but it will also make you stronger and faster – if you add the right kind of muscle.

Not all muscle is created equal. Cyclists and Olympic weightlifters both have heavily-muscled thighs, but the type of muscle that makes up the girth is significantly different. Since Olympic lifters alternate between heavy loads and explosive movements, they add size to the fast-fatigable (FF) motor units that consist of the type IIB/X muscle fibers.

The FF motor units are the superstars of athleticism because they’re primarily responsible for making you bigger, stronger and faster. They come into play when you lift heavy or fast. You can also tap into the FF motor units by reaching a very high tension through an isometric hold or an intense squeeze of the muscle in peak contraction.

Mens Category 85kg

Cyclists, on the other hand, spend tens of thousands of hours building the slow (S) and fast-fatigue resistant (FFR) motor units. The growth potential of the S and FFR motor units is less than FF motor units – significantly less when you compare the S and FF types. The quadriceps are one of those rare muscle groups that can grow with intense endurance training. Importantly, most muscle groups will shrink when they’re bombarded with a zillion reps at a small fraction of your maximum one-rep load potential.

However, I don’t want to overload this discussion with motor unit physiology. My point in mentioning the O-lifters vs cyclist muscle relationship is that I don’t want you to build just any type of muscle: I want you to build the right kind of muscle. The muscle that makes you a more explosive athlete.

Hypertrophy requires protein synthesis. Specifically, muscle growth occurs when protein synthesis is greater than protein breakdown. This results in a net protein accretion that can be seen in the mirror over the course of weeks and months.

So to start off 2014, here are my top 5 ways to ensure that you add muscle as quickly as your physiology allows. You must provide your body the right nutrients, and train with principles that tap into the FF motor units.

1. Train with loads greater than 60% of your one-repetition maximum

Imagine two identical twins that have to train with a single dumbbell for six months. Give one guy an 8-pound dumbbell and the other guy an 80-pound dumbbell. You know, of course, that the guy with an 80-pound dumbbell will build more muscle over the course of six months. The reason is because he’ll be able to recruit the FF motor units with virtually any exercise he chooses.

In a study of the relationship between exercise intensity (% of one-rep max load) and protein synthesis, subjects who trained with 60-90% of their maximum training load induced the greatest levels of protein synthesis (Kumar et al, J Physiol, 2009).

As a general rule, 60% of your 1RM is a load you can lift 20 times. So if you’re training with a weight that allows more than 20 reps on the first set, it’s not optimal for hypertrophy.

2. Train Explosively with Lighter Loads

On the days you lift with lighter loads that are close to 60% of your 1RM it’s imperative to perform the concentric (shortening) phase explosively. This ensures that you tap into the FF motor units, even when the loads aren’t within typical strength- and muscle-building loading parameters.

When you train with loads that are 80% of your 1RM or greater, the speed of your shortening contraction phase becomes less important. A weight that only allows four or five reps will tap into your FF motor units, even if the movement is slow. However, it never hurts to try to lift heavier loads faster since it will increase the descending neural drive (i.e., the signal between your brain and muscles) more than if you tried to lift the weight slowly.

3. Maximize Motor Unit Recruitment with Each Rep

The way you perform each rep can have a profound impact on your results. I already mentioned the importance of accelerating lighter loads, but there’s more you can do to trigger muscle growth.

Regardless of the training load – assuming it’s greater than 60% of your 1RM – there’s a sure-fire way to get the most motor unit recruitment from each rep: accelerate the shortening phase, squeeze the peak contraction for at least one full second, and lower under control.

By accelerating the shortening phase you’ll recruit additional motor units. Then the intense squeeze of the peak contraction further increases muscle tension to tap into the FF motor units. And when you lower under control it causes more myofibrillar damage than if you just let gravity take over. That extra tissue damage can lead to extra muscle over time.

This three-pronged approach to each rep is much simpler, and more important, when you’re closer to 60% of 1RM. The likelihood of leaving the FF motor units out of the lift is greater when loads are lighter. That’s why it’s essential to perform the “acceleration/squeeze/lower under control” approach. However, when the loads approach 90% of 1RM your focus should be on achieving proper technique with the lift without regard for anything else.

4. Minimize Low-Intensity Cardio

While in graduate school my thesis paper was on the muscle-fiber alterations between strength- and endurance-training parameters. For months I perused every research paper imaginable on the subject. Put simply: whenever possible, your body will convert the type IIB/X muscle fibers that have the most strength and hypertrophy potential into weaker IIA and I types.

So if your goal is to develop more impressive thighs for spring break, keep in mind that low-intensity jogs will impede the growth potential in your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. Now, maybe you don’t care about losing some explosive motor units in your legs and would rather have a slimmer waistline? In that case, jogging is probably fine for you.

However, my recommendation is to limit all cardio to 20 minutes, three times per week. An ideal progression is to run faster during those 20 minutes. Put another way, your goal should be to cover more ground in the same amount of time. Those 20 minutes are enough to reap the health benefits of cardio while minimizing the potential negative hormonal impact that low-intensity training can have on your overall muscle growth.

A 40-minute jog might be good for your heart and endurance, but it definitely won’t get you closer to sporting thighs like Tom Platz.

5. Ingest Protein and Carbs Before Training

You can’t talk about muscle growth without mentioning nutrition. And you can’t talk about nutrition without getting into some biochemistry. (Well, you can but it typically won’t teach you much more than you already know.) So here goes.

In order to maximize muscle growth you must leverage the balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown in your favor. Your body is in a constant flux between build-up and breakdown, and the goal of training and nutrition is to tip the scale toward protein synthesis. That’s how you grow new muscle.

Over the last few years, the AMPK-mTOR signaling system has become a hot topic amongst those with Ph.Ds behind their name. AMPK and mTOR can have opposing effects on muscle growth.

AMPK activity reduces protein synthesis and muscle growth (Wackerhage et al, Strength and Conditioning). Contrarily, the mTOR pathway appears to be a primary driver for protein synthesis. The relationship between the two is certainly a complicated subject with many unknowns. However, it appears that insulin and amino acids can turn on the mTOR pathway – and subsequently enhance protein synthesis.

I’m a proponent of performing cardio in a fasted state when fat loss is the primary goal. Once glycogen from the liver is used up, your body will start burning fat for fuel.

But during the intense strength training that’s necessary for muscle growth, it’s safe to postulate that carbs and amino acids should be available to fuel your efforts. And it appears that the insulin response from carbs paired with the amino acids (namely leucine) from the protein will trigger protein synthesis via the mTOR pathway.

So when I’m working with a client who seeks fast muscle growth, one piece of fruit combined with 20 grams of leucine-rich, whey protein is consumed 15-20 minutes before training. Thirty minutes after training another 20 grams of protein is paired with berries.

You should experiment with different types of fruit to see which one works best for you. Most of my clients favor a banana, apple or orange with this whey protein.

Add these five steps into your training plan and make 2014 the year that you gain quality muscle faster than ever.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Glute Training Science at MPI

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For the last few months I’ve been learning from the stellar physical therapists at the Movement Performance Institute (MPI). The West Los Angeles-based facility is run by knee-rehab savant and biomechanics expert, Chris Powers, Ph.D.

Dr. Powers was one of the pioneering researchers to clinically demonstrate a relationship between knee pain and hip weakness. If you had knee pain 15 or 20 years ago, doctors and physical therapists would commonly focus on the knee joint itself. Thanks to Dr. Powers’ research, we now know that proximal factors such as the hips and trunk are often the culprit.

When the hips are weak it not only sets you up for injury, but also limits performance in the sprint, squat, jump, lunge, deadlift and just about every other athletic movement you can think of.

The Movement Performance Institute is a state-of-the-art facility with every imaginable biomechanical testing gadget. They have high-speed cameras, force plates, vector analysis, and probably the most expensive treadmill in the world that measures force, balance and stride length. And that doesn’t cover half of it.

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So today I want to outline a few of the terrific techniques I’ve learned over the months at MPI. Whether you have knee pain, or just want to become bigger, faster and stronger, this information is essential to understand.

1. Most people are hamstrings-dominant during hip extension. It’s ideal if the glute max is doing more work than the hamstrings when the hip extends. After all, the glute max is one of the most powerful muscles in the body. If you were a football coach you wouldn’t leave one of your biggest, strongest guys on the bench. The glute max’s crucial role in boosting athletic performance can’t be overstated. However, the gluteal muscles are rarely as strong as they should be.

Take the glute bridge, for example. It’s somewhat ironic that exercise is called a “glute bridge” since it often works the hamstrings harder than the glute max. If you’ve ever experienced a hamstrings cramp during that movement, one reason is because the hamstrings are doing more work than they should.

To demonstrate this hamstrings-dominant phenomenon, Dr. Powers attached two Noraxon EMG electrodes to me. One EMG was on my left hamstrings (shown in pic below), and the other was on my left glute max (underneath my shorts).

emg glute

After the two electrodes were attached, I performed numerous glute bridges using my left leg. While I was performing the movement I watched a computer screen that displayed the EMG activity between my left hamstrings and left glute max. I was surprised to see how much EMG activity was firing through my hamstrings – oftentimes more than my glute max.

I quickly learned why the glute bridge is not an exercise of choice at MPI.

2. Most people have extremely weak hip abductors. Walk into any gym in the country and you’ll see a plethora of curls, crunches and leg presses. This overemphasis on sagittal plane movement creates critical imbalances throughout the body. The sagittal plane work needs to be balanced with exercises that make you twist (transverse plane) and move laterally (frontal plane). Athletes don’t spend enough time moving laterally, especially against resistance.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that some of the biggest – seemingly strongest – athletes have extremely low levels of hip abduction strength. At MPI, Dr. Powers’ staff tests the ratio between hip extension, knee extension and hip abduction. When the numbers are crunched, it’s not uncommon to see a 30-40% strength deficit during hip abduction.

Why is hip abduction strength so crucial? Because it keeps the knees from going into valgus – that inward knee buckling when you land from a jump or squat a heavy load. Dr. Powers made a paramount contribution to the world of athletic performance when he demonstrated the relationship between knee valgus and patellofemoral pain.

Indeed, if an athlete wants to perform like superman, knee valgus is his kryptonite.

When the knees go into valgus, two actions are occurring at the hip from a biomechanical perspective: the femurs adduct and internally rotate. So in order to keep the knees out of valgus you must strengthen the antagonist actions of the hip: abduction and external rotation.

A popular phase 1 exercise at MPI to strengthen hip abduction and external rotation is the clam from the side plank position with a resistance band just above the knees. In the pic below, Dr. Powers is cueing me during the clam as we watch the EMG activity in my left hamstrings and glutes.

clam with dr p

Most of us have weak hip abductors because we rarely train hip abduction and external rotation against resistance. Furthermore, Dr. Powers’ research shows that weak hips can lead to knee pain. If you suffer from pain around the patella, it’s highly probably that your hips don’t have sufficient strength or motor control to resist knee valgus during movement.

At MPI, a primary focus with their patients is to strengthen the hips through resisted hip abduction and external rotation. Strengthening those movement patterns will allow you to run faster, jump higher and squat or deadlift heavier loads. And even more importantly to those hobbled by painful knees, stronger hips and a more stabile spine can eliminate knee pain.

Their work starts from the ground up. In the initial phases of physical therapy, athletes strengthen the glutes and synergistic muscles in side lying and quadruped positions. Then they merge into more complex movement patterns such as monster walks and jumps to fine-tune motor control.

Here are a few MPI-approved exercises for strengthening the hips in order to enhance athletic performance and minimize the risk of injury.

Clam with Band: hold for 60 seconds on each side.

The clam with band exercise isn’t performed for reps, it’s a static hold. According to Dr. Powers, a static hold is used at MPI because, “It takes greater concentration and focus to hold the correct position for one minute. This helps improve the cortico-motor excitability.”

The exercise is performed from the side plank position in order to engage the quadratus lumborum (QL) and lats – two crucial muscles for spinal stability and performance.

Clam with Band Technique Tips:

  • Stretch band to position shown in the video. Avoid using a band that’s too stiff for your strength.
  • Keep the ribcage down and abs tight.
  • The top hip should not roll backward as the band is stretched.
  • You should feel the glutes working instead of the hamstrings and low back.
  • Perform 1-2 sets on each side every day and before your workouts.

This is a phase 1 exercise to strengthen the hips and core. Once you can hold a minute with a black Perform Better mini-band (guys) or blue band (gals), progress to the fire hydrant from the quadruped position.

Fire Hydrant with Band: hold for 60 seconds on each side.

The fire hydrant with band is a favorite at MPI because they’ve performed plenty of research to show its positive influence on hip and core strength. Once again, a static hold is used to improve cortico-motor excitability (i.e., the signal between your brain and glutes).

Fire Hydrant with Band Technique Tips:

  • From the quadruped position, lower the ribcage and tighten the abs.
  • Lift one leg out to the side (abduct) and slightly back (extend) as shown in the video.
  • Keep the hips as level as possible.
  • Keep the chin tucked and shoulder blades apart by pushing your hands into the ground.
  • You should feel the glutes working instead of the hamstrings and low back.
  • Perform 1-2 sets on each side every day and before your workouts.

Once you can hold a minute with a black Perform Better mini-band (guys) or blue band (gals), progress to the lateral stepping.

Lateral Step with Band: 10 steps in each direction.

The lateral step with a band is an essential exercise for developing motor control once the hip abductors and external rotators have been strengthened in the side lying and quadruped positions. Oftentimes you’ll see this exercise performed with a band around the ankles. However, Dr. Powers favors the band around the lower thighs because the tactile cue from the band helps keep your knees apart. When the band is around the ankles it’s easy to let the knees collapse into valgus.

Furthermore, the hips should hinge back and the trunk should be forward so the chest is over the knees. This body position stimulates the glutes since they’re firing to resist hip extension.

Lateral Step with Band Technique Tips:

  • Maintain a hip hinge and forward trunk.
  • Push off through your heels and keep them down while you step.
  • Don’t let the head bob up and down – keep your level constant.
  • As you step to the right, push your left knee to the left, and vice versa.
  • You should feel your hips/butt working, not your low back, hamstrings or hip flexors.
  • Perform 1-2 sets every day and before your workouts.

The lateral step exercise is one of the new moves I have all my clients do at the beginning of their workouts. Turning on the glutes is essential before any type of training, and this specific version is the best I’ve seen.

How to Use this Information

These exercises serve two important purposes. First, they’ll help you relieve knee and low back pain. Perform 1-2 sets of each exercise every day until the pain subsides. Second, they work as terrific activation exercises before any workout. You’ll lift heavier loads and help safeguard yourself against injury. Perform 1-2 sets of each move before your workouts.

Most men should start with a blue or black band; women can start with a yellow or green band. The Perform Better mini-bands can be purchased at this Amazon link.

In my next installment I’ll cover some of the more complex strength exercises they perform at MPI. In the meantime, give these exercises a try.

Finally, if you’re interested in the biomechanics of knee injury, I highly recommend you check out Dr. Powers’ clinical commentary at this link.

Stay Focused,
CW

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How to Customize Your Training

When you train to get bigger, stronger, faster or leaner, your program must fit your body type. The program must address your specific weaknesses. Those weaknesses could be from a lack of strength, muscle or mobility. Indeed, a training program is only as good as its ability to cater to your physical structure, available equipment, and goals.

When it comes to finding and fixing weaknesses, Eric Cressey is one of my top resources. What’s unique about Cressey is his ability to create and implement assessment techniques that help you determine exactly how your program should be structured.

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I recently chatted with Eric Cressey about his approach to training, and how it’s evolved over the years. Check it out below.

CW: Eric, you and I have been in this industry for well over a decade. We’ve both seen a lot of dysfunctions and imbalances whether we’re talking about a person’s physical structure or his exercise programming. With your experience, what would you say is a big mistake people make in pursuit of more muscle, strength and athleticism?

Eric Cressey: I think a lot of people head down a bad path early in their training career because they lay fitness on type of dysfunction. In other words, they build a lot of strength through poor movement patterns. The longer people train in those terrible postures and incorrect patterns, the more ingrained they become.

CW: I want to first make the connection between posture and performance. Posture goes beyond standing up straight. The position your ribcage and pelvis are in during training can make a huge difference in terms of how much muscle and strength you gain. It also determines how well you move.

Let’s talk about posture. You’ve come up with a simple, self-assessment technique to help people determine which type of posture they have. 

EC: Most people have a normal, subtle anterior pelvic tilt. For men it’s 3-5 degrees, and in women it’s 5-7 degrees. Problems typically occur when they deviate beyond those ranges, whether that means a more extreme anterior tilt, or for others, they could have a posterior pelvic tilt where the low back arch flattens and the hips tuck under.

The majority of people will have an anterior pelvic tilt that causes as an extension posture. However, a cyclist or people who spend a lot of time hunched over at their desk can develop a posterior pelvic tilt that causes a flexed, hunched over posture.

It’s important for people to identify what type of posture they have because it helps determine which exercises they should emphasize or avoid.

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CW: So the first step for determining how a person should train is based on their posture? 

EC: Yes, they could have a flexion, extension, or neutral posture. From there, the exercises I have them perform will help correct poor posture, assuming they have it. This is easy to identify with the self-assessment video I created.

CW: With that evaluation out of the way, what’s the next programming factor you address?

EC: Next up is their frequency of training. Within my program you have options for anywhere for 2-4 times per week for strength training based on a person’s recovery capacity and available time. If you’re a marathon runner who runs five days per week it’s probably not ideal to strength train four days per week. In that case, twice per week might be best. Or a younger, fit guy might choose to train four times per week to quickly gain strength and muscle.

CW: And the third factor for determining how a person should train is based on their goals. A young guy who’s training for maximal strength shouldn’t train the same as an older person who seeks fat loss, right?

EC: Correct. My programming allows people to choose between four different goals. They can choose whether they want to emphasize athletic performance, fat loss, maximal strength or maybe they have no specific goal at all and they just want to get in the best shape of their life. I even modify the training parameters for people over 40.

CW: Flexibility work is often where people miss the boat, and I don’t blame them. Between the contradictions regarding how and when a person should stretch, it can become very confusing. I appreciated your video segment where you help people identify if they have joint laxity. 

EC: Not everyone needs static stretching. That’s why I help people determine if they should supplement their training with stretches. Some guys are naturally flexible. For them, foam rolling and a dynamic warm-up will be enough to meet their mobility needs. Other people will benefit from static stretches and my system shows them which ones they’ll need.

CW: Ok, let’s recap. So if a person is trying to figure out exactly how he or she should train to meet their goals, they follow your four-part assessment that addresses posture, training frequency, goals, and joint laxity. I think that covers the gamut.

EC: Exactly.

CW: I frequently check your blog and I’m really impressed by your relentless pursuit for creating top-notch instructional videos. I don’t know where you find the time to shoot all those videos!

EC: Ha! I drink a lot of coffee. All kidding aside, my new training system, The High Performance Handbook, has over 200 exercise videos. Each video has 30-120 seconds worth of verbal cues so people will learn exactly what to do, and why.

CW: Thanks for your time, Eric, it’s always great to talk shop with you. 

EC: You bet!

Eric Cressey’s new training and nutrition system is one of the best I’ve seen. He put a prodigious amount of work into creating a system that caters to your unique structure and function in order to catapult your muscle, strength and athleticism.

I give The High Performance Handbook my highest rating. I can’t think of a better investment into your training future. The entire training and nutrition system is on sale until Friday. You can check out more information at this link.

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