Off-Season Training for Athletes with Eric Cressey | Precision Nutrition

Off-Season Training for Athletes with Eric Cressey

By Phil Caravaggio

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A few months ago when the PN team sat down to put together this library of training programs to integrate with the Precision Nutrition system, we really wanted to make sure that we had something spectacular for our athletes, many of whom compete at the elite level of their sport.

So when it finally came time to put together the program to cover off-season training for athletes, we turned to the guy who does it best: Eric Cressey.

Eric Cressey
Eric Cressey

Eric’s a long-time friend of Precision Nutrition, and he’s one of the best in the business at prepping athletes for the rigors of elite sport. Recently he’s been spending his time working with athletes at Excel Sport & Fitness in Boston. He’s even written an entire manual on the topic, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, and so when he agreed to dig into his bag of tricks to come up with an off-season program for Precision Nutrition members, we knew it would be in good hands.

And sure enough, he came through with one of the best and most thorough training programs we’ve seen in some time.

Precision Nutrition members, you can download Eric’s Off-Season Training for Athletes program here:

Off-Season Training for Athletes, by Eric Cressey

Last week, I was able to interrupt Eric’s busy day training athletes and training for an upcoming powerlifting meet (he’s just a few pounds from Elite status with competition bests of 540 squat, 402 bench, 628 deadlift, and 1532 total in the 165-pound weight class) to chat with him about his career, his obsession with biomechanics, and about what goes into making an elite-level athlete.

Q&A with Eric Cressey

Precision Nutrition: I remember, years ago now, you wrote an article for johnberardi.com called Budgeting for Bodybuilders.  I loved that article, because a lot of times that’s people’s main excuse for not doing this stuff: “I can’t afford it.”  You always seem to be coming up with these cool ways of approaching problems, even tackling the problem outside the gym.  I think “strength coach” doesn’t quite capture what you do.  If you had to give yourself a different title, what would it be?

Eric Cressey: That’s a good question, I often get another one that gets tossed around a lot now, “Performance Enhancement Specialist.”  But even then, I’m not sure that expresses the right sentiment. [Laughs.]  But you do these days end up going beyond strength and conditioning, you do end up doing budgeting, because there is a cost associated with this stuff, or sports management, or sports psychology, and you’re working with athletic trainers and head coaches and so many different specialists, and you have to be able to understand where they’re all coming from.  So the fitness industry does need to find some way of better classifying people, but I’m not sure there’s an easy way to do it.  But it’s funny, when I wrote that article, I actually wanted to be an accountant.  [Laughs.]  But I realized about two years into business school that I was more interested in counting plates on the bar than numbers and figures in an office all day.  So it worked out well, I got into sports management and exercise science, the things I was more passionate about.

PN: What did your counselor in high school tell you you’d be?

EC: Actually, it’s interesting because I didn’t take any science classes in my last year of high school.  I was pretty dead set on accounting.  I have three accountants in my family, so it might have been genetic or something.  I just liked the black and white, crunch-the-numbers aspect of it, and I remember my counselor was all for it.  Accounting is a career path that counselors feel comfortable recommending and supporting.  I did well in math, I did well in accounting classes, so studying to be an accountant was the next logical step.  But I had some health problems near the end of high school and in my freshman year of college, and as a result I lost a lot of weight.  It was one of those critical life experiences, and I wanted to gain it back and gain it back the right way.  And in doing that, I started to realize how passionate I was, not only about the exercise part of it, but about nutrition as well.  So I started to figure out how to put it all together.  And ultimately I discovered t-nation.com, and I started talking more and more with John Berardi, and that led to that first article.  And it just kind of snowballed from there.  It’s been an interesting couple of years, that’s for sure.

PN: Do you remember the first day you picked up a weight?

EC: I do, actually.  This is the irony of it all.  I was in eighth grade, and my brother, who was a senior in high school at the time, he was a pretty big guy at the time.  He was into lifting and everything.  He brought me into the high school weight room after school one day.  And the irony of it is that now my brother’s an accountant, and he weighs about a buck thirty-five, a buck forty. [Laughs.]  He doesn’t really lift any more, not as much as he should, and here I am making a profession of it, and competing as a powerlifter.  Times change I guess.  But that first day, yeah, it was during one of those stages where you want to piss off your parents, whether it’s right or not.  And so I had grown my hair out nice and long, and I have really wiry, curly hair, so it was pretty much a big afro.  And I was kind of a pudgy kid at the time.  Sure enough I go in and get on the bench press, and it was like a 45 pound bar, and I just got pinned.  So here’s this big kid, big afro, beet red face, just squirming like a fish out of water under the bar.  [Laughing.] So I’m sure they got a good laugh out of it.  But in retrospect, it was a pretty influential moment.

PN: Do you remember maybe your worst mishap in the gym?

EC: Oh yeah, sure.  I’ve done some silly stuff.  But looking back, it’s always taught me something.  I’d say probably the biggest downer was when I pulled 400 pounds for the first time back in 2002, and then about a week later I was in the gym doing my warmup sets on a cold November day, and I was anxious to get back to the house and watch some football, so I didn’t warm up like I should have.  And I ended up herniating my L5-S1 disc doing a warm up set of 185.  [Laughs.]  A long story short, I ended up learning a lot about lower back rehabilitation, I did all my own rehab, and I wound up bouncing back.  And I’m pulling right around 650 right now.  So in retrospect, it was really a blessing in disguise.  You never think it’s going to be like that, but that’s how it goes, you know.  I learned so much about how to warm up properly, and it turned out that I had some imbalances that were predisposing me to the problem in the first place.  But hindsight is 20/20.  Like I said, I learned a lot from the experience.

PN: Do you remember maybe your best day, a day where you thought to yourself, “Yep, this is what I want to do”?

EC: Oh yeah, I have those all the time.  A lot of them for me have been as a coach, and not just as a lifter.  I mean, I’ve had meets where I went 8 for 9, you know, really performed well and everything.  Times when I really felt in sync.  But I’ve felt it more so as a coach, you know, you get in the groove, and you barely realize you’re having so much fun, because you’re so into what you’re doing.  But from a lifter’s standpoint, my first meet stands out, it really had a big impact on how my career went, and it forced me to look at how I did things and really change for the better.  I had a lot of experienced lifters who I’d never met before take me under their wing, teach me things I didn’t really know.  I learned about the fitness-fatigue model, and how you know, I had accumulated a lot of fatigue over the years, and maybe that bodybuilding stuff had caught up to me.  So it was really critical to just get out there and compete for the first time, to go through the whole process.

PN: You work one-on-one with a ton of athletes as sort of a cross between strength coach and physical therapist.  Where do you fit in along that spectrum?

EC: Well I’m not a therapist, I’m not a PT or anything like that, but that’s a good question because a lot of what I do does fall somewhere between the two ends.  I think I have a keen eye for dysfunction, and helping out with that.  I mean, if someone tears a labrum, there’s not a whole lot I can do about that, but what I can do is look at someone and see a scapular dysfunction that might make them susceptible to a tear, and I can definitely work with that.  And at the other end of the spectrum, you know, often you have people getting acute treatments from the medical profession, and you still have to know how to produce a training effect in the meantime.  You still have to shore up the weaknesses and deficiencies that got them there in the first place, and that’s where I come in, I think.  A lot of people don’t realize that 80% of Americans have back pain at some point in their lives.  But we can’t send 80% of the population to physical therapy.  There’s a lot we can do to address that in the gym, so I see myself covering that gap. But at the same time, I’ve got plenty of athletes who are healthy and just looking to improve their performance, so that’s still a big part of what I do.

PN: Who are you doing most of your work with these days?

EC: Everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors, I’ve worked with NBA guys, NFL combine guys, D1 baseball guys. Athletes of all ages, really. Boston has a big endurance training community, so I work with a lot of cyclists, runners, and triathletes. And I really enjoy working with my high school athletes. Actually we’re just going to start working with the Blue Man group next week, so that will be interesting.  So it’s not even just athletes.  I’m lucky, I get a lot of variety in my day.

PN: Were you always strong and athletic growing up?

EC: No, I wasn’t necessarily your typical athletic kid.  I didn’t really eat very well.  But I was always out there, moving around, doing a lot of different things, so I was athletic, but I didn’t really get into weight training until after high school.  So I didn’t have that early start that some people had.  But I feel like I’ve still got a lot of good years ahead of me, I’m still making good progress.  And I find it exciting, you know, because I’m always trying out different methodologies and things like that.  I do consider myself an athlete first and a powerlifter second.  I’m not really sure that I want to be a powerlifter forever, I might want to try some strongman soon, or do some vertical jump stuff, you know, I just want to go out there and enjoy being athletic.  It’s cool training around here, because I’ll jump in with the athletes and train with them too.  I just want to keep pushing myself, keep trying new things, and keep going for many years to come.

PN: Yeah, you’re still pretty young – what’s your secret to national recognition at such a young age?

EC: Probably sacrificing the social life, I’d say.  [Laughs.]  No, I’ve just been really fortunate, and I’m lucky enough to have a job I love.  I get to train athletes.  To me, there’s nothing better than that.  But if there’s one thing, I think it’s that I keep trying to learn more.  I’m not satisfied with what I know now.  One of the problems with training clients and charging an hourly rate is that you get working so hard, you’re training clients all the time, and yeah it may be all well and good from an income standpoint, but you’re not really continuing to educate yourself.  You train people all day, go to sleep, wake up in the morning and do it again.  And that does you no favors.  Where’s your chance to read?  Where’s your chance to call other coaches, or attend seminars, or things like that?  So for me, the Internet has actually been helpful in the sense that it’s opened my life up to other opportunities to get better as a coach. So I’ll try to regularly set aside a day to go travel, maybe up to UConn or to see Mike Boyle over at BU, or even set aside a day to call other coaches just to talk about what they’re doing, what I’m doing, what’s working and what’s not working.  So that’s helpful.  A lot of trainers can get swept up in training people and don’t leave the time for continuing education.  But apart from the time commitment, I think I also approach things from a writer’s mindset, I’m always looking for new ways to do things, new insights and interesting ideas to bring to the public, and I think that forces me to stay on the ball.  And the thing about writing for the Internet is that you get instant feedback.  I mean I’m sure you guys see this, you publish something and you can get people from all over the world giving you feedback instantaneously, and it pushes you to respond to them, to address their questions and to refine your ideas.  There’s no other way I could get that kind of feedback in person, and I definitely couldn’t get it in those kinds of numbers.  There’s no other way to test your programs and ideas on a sample size that large.  So on the Internet you have more opportunities to test out your ideas and see if they have merit.  And it’s iterative, you can go back and forth, bring things from the net into the gym with your local athletes, and from the local athletes back to the net and that huge sample size, constantly testing and refining.  You guys have probably found the same thing with nutrition.  So the web has played a big role in speeding up the process for me, for sure.

PN: Speaking of nutrition, how big a part does nutrition play into what you do on a daily basis, both personally as an athlete and professionally as a coach?

EC: It’s huge, in fact I don’t think people realize how important it is to their overall progress.  The overwhelming majority of problems we see in our society are related to systemic inflammation to some degree.  Just look at omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, I’ve seen people dramatically improve arthritis and a number of other conditions with just the addition of fish oil.  And really it just comes down to this: if you put junk in your body, you’re going to get junk results.  When I was writing this program for the Precision Nutrition members, one of the first things I say in there is that, you know, this is a good program, but it will be an incredible program if you dial in your nutrition. And that’s what Precision Nutrition is all about. We sit down and have conversations with all of our combine guys, and we say to them flat out, “For the next couple of months, you’re going to drop what you’re doing now cold turkey, and you’re going to eat the way we tell you to eat.”  We have this one kid who just started up with us, and the first meeting, he walks in with Twizzlers in one hand and M&M’s in the other.  [Laughs.]  And the thing is sometimes they can get away with it for a short time, or while you’re young.  This kid in particular is lean, he’s a monster in the gym.  But so is everyone else at the highest level, and if you want to beat those guys, you can’t leave any stone unturned.  You’ve got to provide your body with the raw materials it needs to push the outer limits of human performance.  If your nutrition is poor, or mediocre, or just okay, and really for most athletes it is, then you have a lot of untapped potential in there.  There’s a big difference between acceptable and optimal, and it’s those who realize that and take that step who really set themselves apart.

PN: You have almost an obsession with biomechanics.  Were you calculating joint forces on your GI Joes at age 6?

EC: No, I hope not. [Laughs.]  Maybe subsconsciously I was.  But for me the real turning point was when I transferred out of business school to do my exercise science degree at the University of New England, which happened to have one of the best medicine programs in the country.  And so I got to take Gross Anatomy, and I spent 6 months of my life working with cadavers.  I was surrounded by physical therapists, athletic trainers, occupational therapists, pre-med students.  I was immersed in an environment where anatomy was first and foremost.  And then I started to learn how the body moves, I started going beyond the anatomy itself.  Structure dictates function, and function obviously dictates dysfunction, so it’s important to differentiate between functional anatomy and the stuff you find in an anatomy textbook.  The body isn’t a two-dimensional sheet of paper.  You also have to understand compensation patterns, things like that, and the only way to do that is to look at a lot of different athletes, to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.  And that’s led to a lot of the things that Mike [Robertson] and I have done, like the seminars and DVDs.  It’s not just about origin, insertion, innervation and action, it’s also about what happens when muscle A doesn’t work.  What does muscle B do to compensate?  Does it shut down, or ball up, etc?  And most importantly, what can you do to correct it?

PN: Speaking of which, you guys have put out some great stuff.  We recommend the Magnificent Mobility DVD and the Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual to all our athletes.  What inspired you to put these together, and what else can we expect from you in the future?

EC: Well, I guess the Mobility DVD was kind of the first step in all of this, and for Mike and I it was our first venture into information products.  There’s a lot of stuff that we use with our clients and athletes, and also just stuff that we picked up from our interactions with physical therapists, chiropractors, and a lot of others professionals.  And so this was a comprehensive way to bring all of those ideas together.  The cool thing about it was, when we originally introduced it, it was intended to be sort of a warm-up DVD, something to teach people how to get the body moving more efficiently, something to get people prepared before they lift, but after the fact we got all this feedback and email from people saying things like, “Hey thanks guys, my hamstring problem is gone,” or, “Awesome, my back doesn’t hurt now.”  And we never intended it to be a rehabilitation program.  We hoped it would have a moderate impact, but we never promoted it as some sort of way to treat injuries.  But sure enough people were contacting us and thanking us for having solved this or that problem.  That was a little unexpected to be honest, but very cool.  So it’s been pretty successful.  You know, it’s funny though, after that was published, I kind of got labeled, “The Mobility Guy.”  People want to pigeonhole you.  So the Off-Season Manual is nice because it allows people to see the overall programming for athletes, and mobility work is maybe 3-5% of that.  The Off-Season Manual opens people up to the other 95% of what I do with our athletes.  Everything has its place, and it’s important to get perspective, to see what components are involved and to see what the place is for each component that goes into preparing an athlete for elite sport.  So that’s what the Off-Season Manual does, it looks at the complete program, and that’s been a lot of fun for me.

PN: What are your ultimate career and athletic goals?

EC: Well, athletically, I think competing as a strongman would be fun.  I mean, ultimately I’d like to be a guy who can say I deadlifted 700 pounds, I had a 40” vertical, and I competed as a strongman.  To me that would be ideal.  I like the variety.  And also, I train athletes with a lot of different goals, and I want to have a frame of reference for everything that they have to go through.  So I think having that experience and staying competitive will help me with my athletes.  Professionally, you know, I never expected the Internet stuff to take off like this.  I actually had to bring someone on to help me with it, because I don’t have it in me to be an Internet-only kind of guy.  I need to be in the gym, or on the field, I need to be working with athletes.  I have to train people.  I’m a coach first and foremost, a writer or whatever else second.  I would ideally love to work with athletes all day, and that’s pretty much where I’m going.  So I’d just like to stay the course and see where it goes, keep giving everything I’ve got to any athlete who’s motivated enough to put in the work, and just let it snowball from there.  Hopefully that somehow that results in a huge empire. [Laughs.]

PN: If you had a dream client, what kind of attitude would you want them to have?

EC: If you read Brian Grasso’s stuff, he talks about how you can classify every athlete according to motivation and skill.  So obviously your high motivation, high skill athlete is ideal.  The low motivation athlete, you definitely don’t want to work with those.  They need to convince themselves that they need to be there before you can help them. Personally, I like any athlete with high motivation, whether they’re low skill or high skill doesn’t matter.  The difference is that it’s pretty easy to bring the low skill guys up if they’re motivated.  And I like a challenge, so I really enjoy working with the high skill guys because it really pushes you to be that much better.  Because really if you’re working with low skill athletes, you can give them mediocre programs and they’re still going to get better.  But I’m working with a kid now, for example, who squats 675 at just under 200 pounds.  He’s a D-III kid who wants to go to the NFL.   And it’s going to be a big stretch for him.  He’s a great weight room guy, great attitude, but he’s coming from a D-III program, so he’s not going to get the attention he deserves.  So he’s high motivation, high skill.  So that pushes me, I’ve got to put together an optimal program for him.  It’s not going to do much for him to take his squat from 675 to 700.  Does that really matter in the grand scheme of things?  Not really.  What I need to do is look at the other components that are really going to make him better, because he’s so strong it might actually be slowing him down out there.  So we’re doing a lot of work with rate of force development, hit mobility, pure soft tissue work, a lot of reactive stimuli, things like that.  What would work for a high motivation, low skill athlete, there’s no way it would work for him.  So it forces me to really be on the ball with my program, to adapt my programming a lot quicker, and I like that a lot.  And typically a high motivation, high skill athlete will come in and they’ll have questions.  They don’t just want to know what, they want to know why, they want to know when, they want to know everything they can do to get better.  And luckily we’ve got a lot of guys down here who are great like that.

PN: What’s the common denominator among those who achieve the lofty goals they set for themselves, be it in strength training or athletics, fat loss, whatever — what separates them for the rest?

EC: I think the key is synergy among all the different components.  They understand how the nutrition interacts with training, how it interacts with supplementation, with warm ups, soft tissue work, all that.  Everything.  And that to a large extent is how we try to model our business.  Working with Carl Valle, Carl’s an excellent strength coach, obviously, he’s excellent with recovery protocols, regeneration, etc., and that really complements my abilities, like biomechanics, building maximal strength, working with athletes in the weight room context.  So I know that in a combine situation, for example, we might have a kid in, and I can help him with his diet and do all this weight room work, and when the time is right, we can pass him out to the track and Carl can do more work with him out there.  And all along, Carl is optimizing his recovery.  It’s critical to have your bases covered, to have that synergistic process.  These days, the ones that don’t have that are likely going to fall short.  And for the lay population, people who don’t have one-on-one coaches covering all these different facets all the time, those are the people who really need to go out and get smart about all these areas.  They need to learn everything they can about nutrition and nutrient timing, training methodologies, supplementation, and how they all interact.  If you can do that and put it into practice every day, you’ll accomplish way more than you ever thought possible.

PN: Eric, thanks again for taking time out of your day, and thanks again for the fantastic program you put together for the Precision Nutrition members.  We really appreciate it.

EC: No worries, great chatting with you.  It’s been my pleasure.

Our thanks to Eric for all his hard work in putting together this program for our members. To learn more about Eric, visit his website at www.ericcressey.com.  Eric can also be found training clients at Excel Sport & Fitness in the Boston area, and is the co-creator of the Magnificent Mobility DVD and the author of the Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual for athletes, both of which are uniformly excellent and highly recommended.

Download the Off-Season Training for Athletes program, by Eric Cressey.

Precision Nutrition members, you can download Eric’s Off-Season Training for Athletes program here:

Off-Season Training for Athletes, by Eric Cressey

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