Interview with Eric Cressey

December 26th, 2009 by

First off, thanks for agreeing to the interview. We’ve known each other for a number of years now. I used to always refer to you as the ‘Anatomy Guy’. You then became know for being ‘The Shoulder Guy’ and have since garnered another title, ‘The Mobility Guy’. Who is Eric Cressey?

Good question. As you implied, it’s the nature of this industry to try to pigeonhole guys into certain professional ‘diagnoses.’ Personally, even though I specialize in athletic performance enhancement and corrective exercise, I pride myself on being pretty well-versed in a variety of areas – endocrinology, endurance training, body recomposition, nutrition, supplementation, recovery/regeneration, and a host of other facets of our industry. To some degree, I think it’s a good thing to be a bit all over the place in this ‘biz,’ as it helps you to see the relationships among a host of different factors.v Ultimately, I’d like to be considered a guy who is equal parts athlete, coach, and scholar/researcher.

All that said, for the more ‘traditional answer,’ readers can check out my bio: www.ericcressey.com/aboutec.html.

What are the three most underrated and underused exercises? Does it differ across gender?

Well, I’m not sure that the basics – squats, deadlifts, various presses, pull-ups, and rows – can ever be considered overrated or overappreciated in both a male and female population.

Still, I think that single-leg exercises are tremendously beneficial, but are ignored by far too many trainers and lifters. Variations of lunges, step-ups, split squats, and single-leg RDLs play key roles in injury prevention and development of a great lower body.

Specific to females, we know that we need a ton of posterior chain work and correctly performed single-leg work to counteract several biomechanical and physiological differences. Namely, quad dominance/posterior chain weakness and an increased Q-angle. Increasing glute and hamstrings strength and optimizing frontal plane stability is crucial for resisting knock-knee tendencies and preventing ACL tears. If more women could do glute-ham raises, the world would be a much better place!

What common issues do you see with female trainees in terms of muscular or postural imbalances that may predispose them to some kind of injury if not corrected? How would you suggest they be corrected or prevented?

  1. A lack of overall lower body strength, specifically in the glutes and hamstrings; these shortcomings resolve when you get in more deadlifts, glute-ham raises, box squats, single-leg movements, etc.
  2. Poor soft-tissue quality all over; this can be corrected with plenty of foam rolling and lacrosse/tennis ball work.
  3. Poor core stability (as much as I hate that word); the best solution is to can all the ‘turn your lumbar spine into a pretzel’ movements and focus on pure stability at the lower back while mobilizing the hips and thoracic spine.
  4. General weakness in the upper body, specifically with respect to the postural muscles of the upper back; we’d see much fewer shoulder problems in females if they would just do a LOT more rowing.

You’ve mentioned to me in the past the issues with the ever popular Nike Shox training shoe as well as high heels in women. What’s are the potential problems?

When you elevate the heels chronically – via certain sneakers, high-heels, or any other footwear – you lose range of motion in dorsiflexion (think toe-to-shin range of motion). When you lack mobility at a joint, your body tries to compensate by looking anywhere it can to find range of motion. In the case of restricted ankle mobility, you turn the foot outward and internally rotate your lower and upper legs to make up for the deficit. This occurs as torque is ‘converted’ through subtalar joint pronation.

As the leg rotates inward (think of the upper leg swiveling in your hip joint socket), you lose range of motion in external rotation at your hip. This is one of several reasons why females have a tendency to let their knees fall inward when they squat, lunge, deadlift, etc. And, it can relate to anterior/lateral knee pain (think of the term patellofemoral pain … you’ve got restriction on things pulling on the patella, and on the things controlling the femur … it’s no wonder that they’re out of whack relative to one another). And, by tightening up at the ankle and the hip, you’ve taken a joint (knee) that should be stable (it’s just a hinge) and made it mobile/unstable. You can also get problems at the hip and lower back because …

Just as losing range of motion at the ankle messes with how your leg is aligned, losing range of motion at your hip – both in external rotation and hip extension – leads to extra range of motion at your lumbar spine (lower back). We want our lower back to be completely stable so that it can transfer force from our lower body to our upper body and vice versa; if you have a lot of range of motion at your lower back, you don’t transfer force effectively, and the vertebrae themselves can get irritated. This can lead to bone problems (think stress fractures in gymnasts), nerve issues (vertebrae impinge on discs/nerve roots), or muscular troubles (basic strains).

So, the take-home message is that crappy ankle mobility – as caused by high-top shoes, excessive ankle taping, poor footwear (heel lifts) – can cause any of a number of problems further up the kinetic chain. Sure, we see plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinosis, and shin splints, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can happen.

How do we fix the problems? First, get out of the bad footwear and pick up a shoe that puts you closer in contact with the ground. Second, go barefoot more often (we do it for all our dynamic flexibility warm-ups and about 50% of the volume of our lifting sessions). Third, incorporate specific ankle (and hip) mobility drills.

Oh, I should mention that elevating the heels in women is also problematic simply because it shifts the weight so far forward. If we’re dealing with a population that needs to increase recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings, why are we throwing more stress on the quads?

Dynamic warm ups, mobility exercises, soft tissue work/foam rolling, static stretching – who should be doing this and with what kind of frequency?

Well, everyone needs mobility and good soft tissue quality.

If they’re serious problem areas, then daily – or even multiple times daily – is the best bet. Others might just go with rolling a few times a week with mobility work prior to all training sessions. The majority of my clients spend about five minutes rolling and working with a lacrosse ball four times a week prior to their dynamic flexibility warm-ups. We also incorporate mobility/activation drills in between sets of compound exercises.

A lot of it is relatively ‘new’, at least to the physique conscious individual. Why should a physique conscious individual, training for aesthetics, worry about this stuff?

Good question – and I’ve actually received the same inquiry from a few people now. In a word, longevity. Here’s my (admittedly-biased) take on things:

If you’ve read stuff from Mike Robertson, me, and several others from similar schools of thought, I hope one message you’ve taken away from the articles is that the ordinary weekend warrior would be a lot better off if (s)he’d train more like an athlete. The strength work athletes do helps you move bigger weights and build more muscle while burning more calories to stay lean. The movement training keeps you functional and helps you with energy system work to keep your body composition in check. The mobility work keeps you healthy and functional so that you can stand up to all the challenges in your training programs without getting injured.

Additionally, from a fat loss standpoint, think about what happens when you improve efficiency: you recruit more muscle fibers, therefore creating a bigger “metabolic disturbance” (to quote Alwyn Cosgrove). Deadlifts will give you more benefit if your glutes are firing, and you’ll get more out of chin-ups if your lower traps are kicking on all cylinders. And, improving efficiency will keep the body away from technical breakdown with high-intensity interval training and metabolic-oriented resistance training circuits, decreasing the risk of injury.

Here’s a great example – a client of mine who was featured in the Boston Globe for her inspirational story: “Loss fuels her resolve to make a difference”.

Steph went from a size 20 to a size 2 in about 18 weeks – and prepared for a fantastic showing for a first-timer at the Boston Marathon. What this article doesn’t touch on much is how many injuries she had when we first started; it was like triage! Mobility and activation work was absolutely necessary to get Steph healthy (and keep her healthy enough) to make it possible for her to do what it takes to prepare for the marathon.

She got lean with proper diet and a combination of lifting, sprint intervals, hill work – with threshold runs and once weekly long, slow distance runs thrown in for the sake of necessary aerobic adaptations (I wouldn’t include these with a pure fat loss client). However, she couldn’t have done any of this if it wasn’t for the “money in the bank” she got from the mobility and activation work; it indirectly helped to get her lean.

The elliptical machine is a very common piece of cardio equipment in the gyms these days. I think it’s taken over stationary bikes, step mills and even the treadmill as the most used piece of cardio equipment in the gyms today. Is it an effective tool?

I don’t vilify it like many others in the industry, as I’ve seen it prove useful for people coming back from knee problems, back pain, shin splints, and the like. I always like to have a low-impact option available for people for cardio, and this fits the bill nicely (heck, I use it myself a bit). Granted, the calculators on these machines drastically overestimate calorie burn because they don’t take into account the momentum utilized, but who cares how many calories you burn during the session? It’s about effort and the post-exercise oxygen debt you accumulate.

Still, like almost every piece of cardio equipment, the elliptical doesn’t allow for full range of motion, so you need to complement it with mobility work and some more full range of motion energy systems work (e.g., sprinting).

What are the most common program design mistakes you see in training programs today?

There are a ton. Here’s the tip of the iceberg, in no particular order:

    * Excessive volume
    * No fluctuation of training stress
    * Foo-foo exercise selection
    * No attention to injury prevention/prehab
    * Not understanding how to take deload periods appropriately
    * Plain ‘ol ugly exercise exercise (it’s the how, not just the what)
    * Too many
machines and not enough free weights
    * Poor training environments/bad lifting partners
    * No attention to recovery/regeneration protocols
    * Thinking that it’s JUST about lifting and cardio

The Magnificent Mobility video is a great resource for lower body dynamic warm ups and mobility work. But with over 30 exercises contained in the video, could you provide any insight as to how one might go about choosing exercises that are most suited to them?

Honestly, the best way to go about doing things is to try the movements out and see where you are the most “restricted.” For instance, most females will do fine with high knee walks and not have to worry about them. Then, they’ll try lunging variations, pull-back buttkicks, and alternating lateral lunge walks and notice that their hip flexors, quads, and adductors (respectively) won’t let them get the range of motion they need.

In general, though, they all need to be doing supine bridges and birddogs along with the above three variations relatively frequently, and the rest can be mixed and matched so as to provide variety.

Thanks for the interview Eric.