Bret Contreras Talks Strength

I recently caught up with the master of glute training, Bret Contreras (aka The Glute Guy). Check out his insights below. – CW

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.

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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.

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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. Continue reading

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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A Uniquely Effective Core Exercise

blog DNS sprinterWhen it comes to building performance, whether it’s more speed or more muscle you’re after, it’s imperative to develop high levels of stability strength first. The path to high-powered performance is paved through full body stability strength.

The Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) techniques out of Prague understand and emphasize that fact. The moves and positions they teach respect the complex integration between your nervous system, muscles, and physical structure.

Let’s take a standing one-arm dumbbell row as an example. Your right hand is holding the dumbbell and your left leg is forward. As you row the dumbbell with your right, the left leg and hip work to stabilize the movement. This stabilization requires a transfer of force through your core between the left hip and right shoulder.

The contralateral neuromuscular control between your shoulder and its opposite hip is essential for power and performance, whether you’re throwing a hard punch or sprinting at top speed.

Many traditional abdominal exercises don’t enhance this complex neuromuscular activation and control. That’s why so many experts don’t consider a typical floor crunch to be functional enough to carryover to sports performance, no matter if you’re a weightlifter or a MMA athlete.

I recently learned a terrific DNS-based core exercise that develops stability strength between the shoulder and contralateral hip. Your left shoulder is designed to function effectively with the left hip so the following exercise is ideal for anyone who wants to develop his/her midsection. I call it a “contralateral core lift” since DNS doesn’t typically name their exercises.

This core exercise is more challenging than it looks, so it probably isn’t ideal for people with low levels of strength. But if you’re looking for a new way to build athleticism through high-performance core training, give the exercise below a shot.

Here are my recommended training parameters for the exercise.

Contralateral Core Lift
Frequency: 3-4 times per week
Sets: 3-4
Duration: start with a 5-second hold and work up to 20 seconds.
When to perform: I prefer to do this exercise at the beginning of your workouts because it’s challenging and requires high levels of strength. Furthermore, the enhanced contralateral stability strength you’ll achieve from this exercise at the beginning of your workouts will boost your performance in all the lifts that follow.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Is Faster Always Better?

nsca cw speaking Last month I gave a presentation in Las Vegas for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). My topic focused on ways to increase motor unit recruitment.

It’s a subject I’ve written extensively about over the years, and in those articles and books I’ve placed a large emphasis on increasing acceleration during the concentric (muscle shortening) phase to enhance the number of motor units you recruit.

However, there’s much more to motor unit recruitment than just lifting faster. I’ll use the Turkish Get-up (TGU) as an example – an exercise that beautifully challenges full-body strength.

Assuming you’ve tried the TGU, you know it’s difficult to perform explosively. Indeed, to maintain perfect form you need to move with a slow, deliberate pace and concentrate on joint stability as you transition between each phase of the movement. This is especially true as you work to, and beyond, a 32 kilogram kettlebell.

Could you increase motor unit recruitment if you tried to perform the TGU more explosively? Possibly, but it’s not worth the effort. Certain strength exercises that require full-body strength in complex movement patterns are better performed slowly, even if you could move faster. Pavel refers to the TGU as the ultimate slow grind strength exercise. I completely agree, and that’s why it’s part of all my athletes training programs.

Now, you might not consider a TGU to be a massive muscle builder. But a heavy deadlift certainly is, and it’s a perfect example of a slow grind move that quickly builds plenty of muscle.

And sometimes, no movement at all is best for building muscle. I’m referring here to isometric holds. It’s clear that gymnasts who perform the rings event have incredible upper body muscle development – better than any other natural athlete on earth, if you ask me. Yet, they virtually never move explosively. In fact, a rings routine consists of isometric holds paired with slow, deliberate transition moves in between.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time hanging from rings over the last few years. So I can state with utmost certainty that it takes more muscle and strength to perform a perfect muscle-up slowly. An explosive muscle-up relies heavily on momentum. As momentum goes up, muscle tension and motor unit recruitment go down.

Now, if we take momentum out of the equation and focus on traditional strength exercises with free weights and cables, it’s usually better to perform the concentric phase as explosively as possible. This philosophy forms the foundation of the programs in my book, Huge in a Hurry.

However, as you incorporate less traditional moves into your programs – exercises such as the TGU with a kettlebell or an iron cross hold on the rings – it’s important to understand that faster isn’t always better. In those cases, developing the highest levels of muscle tension possible is the goal. And that usually requires you to slow your pace.

So for complete muscle and strength development in athletes, I incorporate three categories of movements into their programs: explosive, slow grind, and high-tension isometrics. Here are a few of my favorite examples from each category:

Explosive: kettlebell swing, one-arm row, push press, and hang power snatch.

Slow grind: TGU, heavy deadlift, Nordic hamstring, and one-arm push-up.

High-tension isometrics: iron cross, maltese, handstand from rings, and one-arm hang from a pull-up bar or rings.

Stay Focused,
CW

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Squat Deeper and Enhance Hip Mobility

The ability to perform a full, pain-free squat with your torso at least 60 degrees relative to the ground is an essential component of athleticism. This ability relies on a myriad of mobility and stability qualities that run from the ankle to t-spine. If you can’t maintain a relatively erect torso in the full squat, oftentimes a trainer or therapist will recommend a wall squat to improve your technique.

A quick overview of the wall squat: stand facing a few inches away from a wall with the arms hanging straight down in front, between your legs. With your feet wider than shoulder width and angled out slightly, squat as deep as possible. Stand and repeat.

The wall squat has the potential to be a great drill for people with the right body structure, but most people find it uncomfortable and awkward. It’s not natural to squat down with a wall hitting your face, and it’s too easy to fall backward as you try to maintain an upright torso.

That’s why I’ve merged away from using the wall squat with my clients. These days I use a goblet squat with a lateral shift to mobilize tight hips. By holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest, you create a counterbalance load that allows you to really push your hips back without falling over backward. This counterbalance also allows you to maintain a more erect torso. And since this exercise doesn’t require you to stand directly in front of a wall, you don’t have to worry about that nuisance.

Key Points for the Goblet Squat with Lateral Shift
1. Maintain an arch in your feet: it’s common for people to pronate their feet in the bottom position of a squat. Be cognizant of your arches as soon as you start to descend – don’t let the arches flatten.

2. Push knees out to the side: as soon as you squat focus on pushing your knees out to the sides to avoid valgus collapse (inward movement of knees). Keeping your knees pushed out will also help you maintain an arch in your feet.

3. Maintain an erect torso and neutral head position: there should be a straight line from the base of your neck to your pelvis when you’re in the bottom position of the squat. Have a partner cue you the first few times until you get the feel for the correct position.

4. Relax in the bottom position: when you’re in the bottom position (hole), maintain a normal breathing pattern. If you have to strain or hold your breath the new position won’t stick. After shifting side-to-side four or five times, exhale deeply as you achieve a deeper position.

Now that you know the correct technique, the key point of this exercise is the lateral shifting to mobilize the hips by creating a more intense stretch on the hip capsule and surrounding muscles. I learned the value of the lateral shift many years ago from Pavel Tsatsouline. When you do the lateral shift correctly it induces a feeling that’s similar to hip scouring, a technique that my friend Dr. Trisha Smith frequently performs on me to mobilize my hips.

Use this exercise to not only improve your squat technique, but also your Olympic lifts, lunges, and kicks. Plus, enhancing hip mobility will take stress off your knees and back. Perform this exercise at the beginning of your workouts and anytime you need to loosen your hips.

Stay Focused,
CW

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