Jonathan: Hey, everyone, Jonathan Bailor here. Today is going to be an epic podcast because we have an individual, I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning this, but it’s on his website so I’m assuming it’s okay. We have an individual who while weighing 165 pounds, squatted 540 pounds, bench pressed over 400 pounds, and dead lifted 650 pounds.
We know this individual has got to be exercising smarter because you are not going to move 650 pounds while you weigh 165 pounds if you’re training unintelligently. That man is none other than the president of Cressey Performance and the proprietor of ericcressey.com.
Eric, welcome to the show.
Eric: Thanks for having me.
Jonathan: Hey, brother. Well, I really appreciate you joining us today and I would love to just hear your background and your story and what led you up to, right now you’re a world class power lifter. You’ve published over 500 articles, your work is respected all around the world and you’re a young guy. How did you go from little Eric to bigger Eric and do all that in the meantime?
Eric: It’s probably a combination of me being prepared but it’s also being a little bit lucky. I was very, very fortunate growing up. My mother taught high school English, so in addition to obviously being around someone who could help me out with writing and things like that as I was trying to learn to get on that path, she was also someone who’s great for making sure that I was around great books for as long as I had been around this earth.
On my end, writing actually opened a lot of doors for me because it was a way for me to not just hone my talent on that side of things, but also to, every time you write, you have to educate your readers on so it forces you to research and learn the process. Writing early on in my career back in, I think my first article was published in 2001 when I was 19.
That was really when the doors kind of started opening for me and pretty soon, some of the websites that maybe didn’t have as much traffic led to gigs with like Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Teen Nation, things like that. It kind of coincided when I was doing my Masters Degree at the University of Connecticut. It was just a combination of the academic preparation, the experience, and having a web presence from some of that writing component. It all worked together in the end.
Jonathan: Well that’s awesome, Eric. It’s funny that you should mention that your mother’s influence as an English teacher because my mother is also an English teacher so we’ve both been surrounded by books and English professors our whole lives so that’s pretty funny.
Eric: It makes a big difference.
Jonathan: It absolutely does. Well Eric, one of the things that I wanted to make sure we talked about today and one of the key reasons I wanted to have you on the show is I’m so happy to see popular culture is starting to understand the profound importance of safely moving heavy weights, especially for women and I’d love to get your two cents on what you like about the mainstream adoption of this and what you’d like to see changed about the mainstream adoption of this?
Eric: Yeah. I think there are really two big things or probably three big things that we consider when we talk about the evolution of strength training as it pertains to females. I think the first one is we’re realizing more and more what it really does for us. If you think about what happened in research in the exercise field. For the longest time, all the research done was really heavily focused on aerobic exercise.
It started back in years before I was born and like the Cooper Institute, we were looking at the effects or aerobic exercise for folks. Really around 1990 up to 2000, there was this kind of big boom of research, looking at how resistance training could not just improve athletic performance, but it could also have a really profound effect in a lot of chronic disease traits.
We know that putting on some muscle mass increases metabolic rates, not as implications in terms of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, all these different things. I think we’re starting to appreciate that, “Hey, this thing matters for everybody,” and in reality, it’s probably a more efficient way for people to lose body fat, to improve how well they tolerate carbohydrates, things along those lines.
I think on one hand, we’re speaking to, “Hey, this is a new mode of exercise that works a lot better.” What I don’t think that really speaks to as much is that there’s specific components of dealing with women that are certainly important as well. If you look at the typical female, they tend to have a lot more joint laxity than males do. In other words, they have a little bit more give to their ligaments as a general rule of thumb.
What we know about folks who have a lot more ligament laxity is they tend to need a lot more strength at each joint to be at a safe position, meaning, you don’t want to take somebody who’s already really loosey, goosey and just aggressively stretch them. You’re going to make them worse. Instead, building some strength, doing the weight training will actually help us to transfer force effectively throughout our bodies, whether we’re trying to pick up our three year old or we’re trying to carry the groceries or whether we’re going out and running a half marathon for a charity or something.
I think that’s the second part but I think in terms of what it means for everybody, we know that as folks age, the issue is not just that maybe bones become a little bit more brittle or we lose muscle mass, really the bigger problems are that we lose strength and power. When you hear about strength and power, you think of high level Olympic athletes, people who maybe don’t fit into the existing world that we know but in reality, power is incredibly important when you get to your 80’s and you slip in the ice and you want to avoid breaking your hip.
You need to be able to not just have muscles that are strong and are able to develop force, but you want to have muscles that can develop that force quickly to ride the ship when you start to go. Really, the loss in power is a huge, huge deal in the aging population that we’re seeing nowadays. It’s nice to see some of the baby boomers and folks taking it a bit further along and really taking advantage and doing more and more strength training to keep them healthy and to keep them lean and fit.
Jonathan: Eric, I’ve literally been just frantically jotting notes down. This is a gold mine. The first thing I want to drill into here is, you mentioned especially as you get older, the ability, you said specifically in the context of power, to generate power quickly. I’d like to slightly pivot that and ask you about, so often we’re told that we must do aerobic conditioning to strengthen our heart and to avoid hear attacks but it seems like a heart attack happens when a massive amount of stress is placed on the heart in an instant and the heart cannot handle it. So is it, would we be better served by training our heart to handle short bursts of intense stress to prevent heart attacks or is there some logic there? How does that work?
Eric: Yeah. I’m not sure that we’re really just training our heart. Let’s put it this way, I think where there’s a lot of stuff that we’re still learning. If you think about it his way, for the longest time, we’ve looked at cholesterol as a huge risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and then we realized, “Hey, cholesterol in and of itself doesn’t tell us a whole lot.” We have hdl, we have ldl, and then there’s different particle sizes within those that ldl classification and then you have homocysteine that they never looked at before.
That’s now something that we’re looking at in terms of being predictive of heart diseases. There’s a lot of things that we really don’t know yet. Certainly, the biggest factor is that people aren’t adopting the lifestyle changes they need to make to really stay healthy but put it this way, if you look at people who are strong and healthy, you don’t really hear about a lot of former athletes dying of heart attacks in their 40’s and 50’s.
It doesn’t happen, so that’s both aerobic exercise folks that’s basically strength training folks. I think the bigger issue is, are we managing our weight correctly? What I would tell you is that we could certainly do that with resistance training alone and all that. I think why maybe aerobic exercise gets a little bit more love with respect to the cardiovascular disease stress is that it’s a heavy portion of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation.
Folks get into those programs, they’re very aerobic in nature and that’s because they have to be. You’re talking about a significantly clinical population that maybe at risk of another problem like that. They’re so low on the fitness tolerance scale that going for a 10 minute walk at 2.2 miles per hour on a treadmill is a significant exercise session. For the average American if they are in reasonably good shape, that’s not really that hard to do.
Jonathan: That makes a lot of sense, Eric and it’s all about that progressive resistance. When it comes to aerobic exercise, there’s really only one way to make that harder and that’s to keep doing it for longer and longer periods of time which is not, you can’t walk for six hours like it’s like it just isn’t going to happen.
Eric: Or to gain weight to make it harder on yourself and that’s not what we want either. Let’s put it his way, I can tell you, I do virtually no aerobic exercise aside from walking around on my day to day job. I probably walk four to five miles a day just with coaching at the gym.
All my blood work is fantastic like there’s nothing that would make me concerned that I’m going to have heart problems, based on the measures that we have right now and that we utilize. There are certainly folks that can be very, very healthy and have no problems in spite of the fact that they’re not out there running 15 miles a week or anything like that.
Jonathan: Well Eric, one aspect of the ability to perform that I think, even in an almost aerobic capacity that fail to appreciate, and I think Doug McGuff and John Little do an excellent job of illustrating this in their book Body by Science is, just think about, people often say, “Well you need to do aerobic exercise that you walk up a couple of flights of stairs, you’re not out of breath.” There’s another way to look at that in the sense that let’s say you were carrying, let’s say that your muscles could generate one unit of strength and then you have to carry your body weight up a flight of stairs.
Okay, let’s say you’re strength training and now your muscles can create two units of strengths, and now you have to carry your body weight up the stairs. Well it’s lighter, it’s essentially like it’s easier for you to walk up the stairs now, so you will be less out of breath not necessarily because you’re in better aerobic shape, but because what you’ve done is now perceived as less demanding by the body.
Eric: Correct. Yeah. I’ve discussed with folks, this is something that I talked about in one of my first books, more than the athletic side of things than the general health but I look at strength as kind of being this glass. All those other athletic qualities, whether it’s endurance, whether it’s power, whether it’s agility, whatever they may be, those are like fluid within the glass. We can train the endurance component, we can try to train the agility side of things.
We can do all kinds of jump training for power and stuff like that but for ultimately limited amount of body strength we have, we’re just going to over fill that glass and we’re not really going to be able to make use of a lot of that training. It’s not going to have the same level of carry over to our real world. There comes a time when we do need to work on getting people stronger and really, the initial research on this was done on female volleyball players where they found, “Hey, we can squat them or we can do jump squats, things like that. Those power training approaches to really try to improve vertical jump didn’t help unless they were able to get stronger and it makes sense if you think about it.
If you don’t have force to put in to the ground, you’re not going to be able to have force to put into the ground quickly and that’s what I think is so important for people to realize that strength is this amazing foundation for just about everything we do. Certainly in some worlds, if I have a running back in the NFL who’s squatting 600 pounds already, the amount of time, effort and injury risk that goes into trying to make him squat 610 pounds probably isn’t worth it.
If I have an adult training client who can’t even do a body weight squat to parallel, then those people have a huge window of adaptation ahead of them that have real profound results, not just in terms of what they’re able to do in their daily lives, but also in the context of how they look and how they feel.
Jonathan: I love the analogy there, the glass and filling the glass and other analogy I’ve hear in terms of the strength training that I really, really love and I forget the source so my apologies to the brilliant source who came up with this is that people would, it was actually used in the context of philosophy saying that, “Why would you ever learn philosophy?” Well you learn philosophy because it makes you smarter in general and you can just do everything in life better when you’re smarter.
In some ways, I see strength training as a bit like physiological philosophy, like no one’s ever going to drop a barbell on your chest in the middle of the street and say, “Lift that up.” However, being strong more than any sport specific training will permeate, there’s literally nothing you do with the exception of maybe sitting in and watching TV or sitting and typing that will not become easier if you’re stronger. Correct?
Eric: Exactly. Everything is easier when you’re strong. Maybe that’s quotable right there.
Jonathan: I would say Eric, let’s even blow that out even further where everything is easier when you’re strong. I think also, when you start to see, I have mixed feelings about CrossFit but one of the things that I like about is when people start to move weights that they’ve never, that three weeks prior if you would have said you’re going to lift 100 pounds, like, “There’s no way I could ever lift 100 pounds.” You see yourself do that, you start to experience these private victories and these, “Wow, I can do that and I can control that. What else can I lift off my back? What else can I lift up in life?” I think it’s very empowering.
Eric: I think some people do very, very well particularly folks who may be a little bit more type A with pure quantifiable results. If you lift up your shirt and you check out your abs in the mirror, that’s a very debatable thing. You may have water weight fluctuations, the lighting may be different, it’s a very, very subjective thing. If you take something like lifting weights, you either pick up 225 pounds off the floor or you don’t.
It’s very black and white and I know for me, that’s one of the reasons why I did better when I got into a power lifting mentality because the goals were very specifically quantifiable. I do think you bring up a really good point almost by accident in talking about CrossFit. I love their camaraderie. They get people excited about exercise. They emphasize anaerobic conditioning over aerobic exercise. They emphasize compound movements. I think one of their biggest flaws historically has been that they try to acquire strength on top of dysfunction.
It’s more about trying to be strong and looking at the weight lifted as opposed to looking at, “Hey, are these people moving well before we try to strengthen those patterns?” Don’t get me wrong, I know some CrossFitters who are unbelievably brilliant people who have done awesome stuff. If you look at Kelly Starett out in California, he’s fantastic. There are a lot of people who do things great.
It’s really a generalization that I make. I do think it’s something that a lot of people would be wise just to take a step back and…It’s a conversation I have, I see a lot of folks who do that and they come to the facility for one time consults and kind of program their visions and we just talk about, “Hey, sometimes you’ve got to move well before you move a lot.”
Jonathan: Eric, that is, the moving well versus the moving a lot is so profound that I think it illustrates just how powerful this, for lack of a better term, medicine is. When you start getting into proper strength training, based on my research, based on your research, based on hundreds of people’s years of research of people out there, this is, without question I would say, in the physical arena, the most potent medicine you could administer to your body to create both aesthetic and metabolic change. Now, when we’re dealing with potent medicines, you just don’t mess around with oxycodone.
You need to be very careful, it’s not just like reaching for your medicine cabinet and take anything, so just don’t go in the gym and do things. Don’t just flip a tire. This is, high stakes is the wrong word but we’re dealing with potent stuff here so we want to make sure we’re administering it correctly, right?
Eric: Absolutely. It’s amazing. I always kind of get frustrated when I see a lot of folks… If you need your taxes done, you go to an accountant. If you need to get a will made up, you go to a lawyer. If you need an exercise program, you make it up yourself, and that’s a scary thing. If you screw up your taxes, what’s the worst thing that can happen? You go to jail for a year because of tax evasion, because you screwed something up, whatever it may be.
You don’t do your will right, and maybe your estate is left to the wrong brother or something. You screw up with exercise and you might wind up at a hospital, you might wind up dead, you might wind up with a heart disease or something. It’s a very, very scary thing when you think about a lot of people, they’re just kind of, they’re almost shooting from the hip on this stuff.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Well, Eric, there’s another thing to keep in mind here and that’s it seems to be a barrier of entry for a lot of people which is this misconception, a very reasonable misconception that because strength training is so effective that if I’m a woman and I start lifting weights, I’m going to a essentially look like a man. What do you say about this?
Eric: It would be nice if it was that easy.
Jonathan: I say the same thing! I’ve tried my whole life to get bigger and I can’t and I’m a dude.
Eric: There are a lot of men who love to have it be that easy. There’s a thousand different arguments for why women tend to have obviously lower testosterone levels. They also tend to have more hills and valleys in terms of how they feel for training because of the menstrual cycle. We also know that, like I mentioned, women tend to be a little bit more lax so it’s going to be harder for them to build stability at joints to transfer force. We know they tend to be a little bit less neurologically efficient, meaning they don’t kind of turn on muscles as quick and easy as men, so that’s one reason why they probably need a little bit more volume in their programs than men do and why they don’t have to take kind of those de-load weeks very often.
There are a lot of things that differentiate between men and women but I noticed because I’ve trained women who have come in and said, “I want to be bigger.” I trained Bree Schaaf who finished fifth in bobsled in Vancouver in the 2010 Olympics and she was one of the few athletes who ever came in and said, “I want to gain weight.”
It’s not that easy, a scenario that I’d love it if it was and we had to change things up dramatically but at the end of the day, if you’re monitoring your caloric intake, you’re lifting heavy stuff, you’re working on moving correctly, you’re also accompanying it with the right kind of metabolic conditioning, you’re not just going to just magically shoot up 15 pounds a muscle. It doesn’t happen.
What I can tell you is when my wife and I first started dating, she was a big runner. She had chronic knee issues, low back tightness and one of the first things we did was just kind of played around with her training approach. She started lifting three to four days a week, switched away from some of the long runs and did more interval stuff and what’s interesting is her body weight stayed the same for probably the first four or six weeks that she was doing it and then it was like clockwork, she lost 13 pounds over the next three months.
This is what dropping her overall time devoting to exercise each week and certainly she made some dietary changes and things like that but if weight training was this evil thing that was going to bulk you up, that wouldn’t have happened. She’s at the weight right up until today, she’s a 300 pounds dead lifter. She can bang out 12 chin ups. She’s a strong girl and it’s one of those things that you buy into it and you realize that it really works and you’re kind of stuck with it for life.
Jonathan: I love it, Eric. I have no knowledge of the science here, this is purely anecdotal but rumor has it that women have a higher pain tolerance than men, and if that is true, do you think it has any impact on their ability to train? Basically they can withstand more pain so they can train, good pain here, they can train differently than men can?
Eric: I think it’s an interesting question and I’m not sure there’s any research that’s been devoted to it too but yeah, I think women are a little bit less likely to speak up when something’s wrong, they are more likely to plow through things. It’s an interesting dynamic. I’ve trained high level female athletes and high level male athletes and they are dramatically different.
One thing I would tell you about most females, they would not put another 2 ½ pounds on the bar unless they are 100 percent positive about their techniques. There’s no kind of, for lack of a better term, no pissing contest with their training partners, whereas you look at men, it’s always about trying to add weight but they probably shouldn’t be adding because their technique’s off or they just don’t have the strength. They’re different in that but like I said, I think women do need more volume. I do think they need less frequent kind of back off or de-load weeks, so there are some pretty profound differences.
We know they have more joint laxity. We know they have what we call greater q angle at their hips and their knees, which probably predisposed them to greater incidence of ACL tear. There are definitely things that we need to do differently in how we train females but at the same time, for difference there, there are a lot of similarities at the same time. It’s hard to say one is entirely different than the other.
Jonathan: That makes a lot of sense, Eric and have you…What would you say would be the biggest differences, there’s an individual who wants to, and maybe the answer is well, they do the same thing. Let’s say we have an individual who wants to get stronger, they just want to get stronger, they’re happy with everything else in their life, they just want to get stronger and we have an individual who just wants to have less belly fat. What would those two individuals do differently from one another?
Eric: If one’s a male and one’s a female?
Jonathan: No, they’re both men or they’re both women but just those two different goals.
Eric: I think if you look at belly fat, it’s traditionally something hormonal that is linked more so to insulin resistance as well as high cortisol, so I think stress management is part of it, carbohydrate intake modifications are certainly a big part of it. I’d probably more extreme on the dietary side of things, as opposed to just the training side of things but you know, that’s just an individual thing. Charles Poliquin has talked a lot about region specific fat storage being indicative of you carrying your hormonal status a little bit differently.
At the same time, I think there’s also a part of us that knows that, “Hey, yeah we’re going to store our fat differently.” Everyone is going to take it off at some point, it’s just a matter of where it comes off from first. I know for me, if I want to try to drop a few pounds of body fat, the first place that looks gaunt is my face. I look like I’m dehydrated, that’s the first place it goes from.
Conversely, I usually walk around at 5’8” 190 pounds and there have been times when I’ve been up over 200 pounds, just trying to bump up weight cost and power lifting or whatever, and I feel like I have about 8 chins, like it all goes right to my face. For me, this is where I carry a lot of stuff and it goes in and out of being in the spot. It’s tough to say. I think everybody’s different but at the end of the day, it comes off eventually where it’s supposed to.
Jonathan: I love it, Eric and the one last question I would love to discuss with you is, it seems, and correct me if I’m wrong, at the end of the day, if I’m not looking to be a professional athlete, if I’m not looking to squeeze an additional10 pound out of my power lift, I’m just looking to be a functional, strong, healthy human, that strength training can be amazingly simple. We’re talking basic compound movements done progressively over time and that all of this media muscle confusion and 874 program denominator 56, is that just noise?
Eric: I think to the beginner lifter, yes, it very well can be. I think it’s like anything else. The answer is somewhere in the middle. It’s not to be too extreme with changing your workout up every single time you go to the gym and it’s not a scenario where you should do the same exercise for years on end. What do I see a lot?
I see a lot of up and coming lifters who all they’ve done is squat, bench, dead lift for their entire first two years and they’ve basically gotten good at terrible technique on those and they haven’t exposed their body to this rich proprioceptive environment that we want to prepare us for what life has to throw our way. I think it’s important to have single leg exercise. I think it’s important to do both one arm and two arm dumbbell presses, things along those lines.
What we do with our clients at our facility is we rotate programs every month. They’ve got four weeks to learn exercises, practice them, get stronger on them and some people may stretch those out to about six weeks but by the end of that program, you’re starting to get a little bit bored with them, you’re ready for something new.
Our goals to kind of head off that adaptation that takes place before it gets boring and people plateau. I think every four to six weeks, rotating is good. I surely don’t think you need to do something different every single time you go to the gym. It’s an individual thing but some people will go squat, bench, and dead lift every day for an entire life and be fine, but I also see a lot of people that get in some trouble because of that.
Jonathan: Certainly, there are people it would seem, maybe the majority dare I say that don’t squat, dead lift or bench in favor of crunches and arm curls and that’s probably not the way to go either.
Eric: Exactly. They’re not even taking the toughest exercise that can really give them the biggest return on investment.
Jonathan: Yeah. We don’t want to just do the giant upper body with the twig legs, that doesn’t serve anyone.
Jonathan: Well, Eric, this is beautiful. Certainly, individuals can learn more about you and your great work at ericcressey.com and as well as if they are in the Boston area, they can check out your facility which is Cressey Performance, and Eric, what’s next for you?
Eric: That’s a good question. We’ve got some new products coming out this year and I’m actually in kind of a speaking tour quite a bit over the next several months but for the most part, we’re kind of focusing all our efforts on getting people better, having a good time here at the facility here in Boston so we’ll take it as it comes our way.
Jonathan: Eric, well thank you so much. Obviously, you are a very passionate and very intelligent individual and you also set an example. I love the fact that you can be right next to your clients there, pushing them and demonstrating all that you teach which is wonderful. You are the change you want to see in the world and if individuals want to learn more about you, again that’s ericcressey.com, C-R-E-S-S-E-Y, and he is the president of Cressey Performance. Eric, thank you so much for joining us today.
Eric: You got it. Thanks for having me.
Jonathan: Thank you, Eric. Hey, everyone! I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did, certainly, a lot of great information. Remember, this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.