Today’s post, which I’m pretty pumped up about, is an interview I did recently with fellow strength coach Bret Contreras. For those of you who don’t already know Bret, he’s a very smart and well read coach who has been in the research field quite a while. He is now a well established strength coach, training clients in his own gym. He’s also been under the bar for quite a while himself. Bret is actually moving to New Zealand in the next couple of months to pursue his PhD, so that will make him even smarter! Bret was kind enough to let me pick his brain for a couple of questions on how he views strength and conditioning. So without further ado, here it is:
DL: Bret, your name has been around for quite a while now in the strength and conditioning world. You have been writing for T-Nation and on your own blog, but most importantly you have actually been training clients and been under the bar yourself for quite a while now, which I think are two very important things to do in order to become a successful coach. You have mentioned to me that you think coaches and trainers should possess a variety of skills to better serve clients and athletes alike. Would you mind naming a few and telling us how they impact the way we deal with clients and athletes?
BC: First off David, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. I appreciate the fact that you’re interviewing me. Here are some of the skills that will help coaches and trainers be more successful:
-Critical thinking: Strength training is an art and a science – an arta scienza.
Training really IS an art
Coaches should put a ton of thought into their athletes’ and clients’ programs, and each program should differ based on a myriad of factors:
-Knowledge of autoregulation: Coaches should never completely stick to a pre-set plan with their athletes and clients. Coaches should adapt their programming on the fly based on their verbal feedback as well as their biofeedback.
-Psychology: Coaches should try to be good motivators, to “believe” in their athletes and clients, to have high expectations, to figure out what makes their athletes tick and adapt their approach accordingly, and to push them hard while still having fun.
-Knowledge of the history of strength & conditioning: Coaches should try to develop an appreciation for the evolution of the iron game and should be able to rattle off the training philosophies of many different experts.
-Ability to discern the truth: Coaches should possess a sound understanding of the workings of the human body so they will intuitively know what works and what doesn’t.
DL: That is definitely why it’s so important to have a good educational background in this field. I know you have been involved quite a bit in the research world and in particular with muscle EMG for a variety of muscles in different movements, especially with the glutes (and on a related note you’ve been named The Glute Guy, which is probably the coolest nickname ever for a strength coach!). That being said, for the glutes, do you find any difference between open chain and closed chain glute exercises as they correlate to performance in different sports and activities?
BC: I won’t pretend to know the answer to this, but I will tell you that the more I research the more I realize that I don’t know everything I once thought I knew. There’s so much we don’t know about strength training, and our understanding about what transfers best to sport performance is seriously lacking.
I will tell you this – open chain glute exercises render surprisingly high EMG levels. When the thigh can move freely with no ground-communication the glutes seem to contract very hard. Some individuals have trouble activating their glutes in a closed chain environment, but if you put them in an open chain environment they do much better in terms of glute activation. I think it’s wise to make the focus of lower body training on closed-chain movements – squats, deads, lunges, Oly lifts, hip thrusts, ghr’s, back extensions, and hip rotational work. But I also think it’s wise to supplement with open chain hip isolation work – band or cable adduction, abduction, and flexion, reverse hypers, and quadruped hip extensions.
DL: What I really like about your blog and your articles is that you always bring up new ideas and you think outside the box, which I think many coaches and trainers (including myself!) are not very good at. One of the new concepts you brought up that I really like are the ‘Load Vectors’. I find it very interesting and I don’t think many people understand this concept yet. Could you elaborate a little bit on what Load Vectors are and tell us what their practical applications are in strength and conditioning.
BC: The best coaches were already incorporating load vector training into their programming long before I came around. I just came up with a naming system. I’m absolutely amazed that no one came up with this model before I did. The model, which involves axial, anteroposterior, lateromedial, and torsional components, ensures:
-optimal multi-directional strength development
-optimal multi-directional power development, and
-optimal structural balance
This way, the client performs better and stays healthy. Coaches and trainers need to understand the various exercises that can be performed for each vector and which are best for various portions of the force-velocity curve.
DL: A topic that’s hot right now in the training world is core training. I think core training will probably always be a controversial topic as as we understand the core more and more from a functional standpoint, and (thank God) begin to move away from the “just do 100s of crunches mentality” that was so typical of the past. What is your take on core training? And what are you doing differently in that regard?
BC: My take is that we still don’t have it all figured out. Here are some questions that coaches should be thinking about in regards to core training:
-what are the different categories of core exercises?
-is there an optimal amount of volume for the core?
-should the core be trained specifically or does it get worked just fine from compound movements?
-should the core be trained for strength, power, endurance, or all three?
-what rep ranges work best for the core, and are those rep ranges uniform for all types of movements?
-should we train the core for movement, stability, or both?
-are there any advantages and disadvantages to training with dynamic spinal movements?
-are there any advantages and disadvantages to training with static-based stability movements?
-should specific core training be placed before or after the strength component of the workout?
I won’t pretend to know all the answers to these questions either, but I will tell you that the research gives us incredible clues as to how we should train the core. To understand the answer to these questions, you really have to have a sound understanding of spinal biomechanics.
DL: I know you train a lot of female clients; the way we train females has been another hot topic lately. What do you think we should do differently with females clients and athletes compared to males, and also, what should we NOT do differently?
BC: I love training women, and I believe that I’m one of the best in the biz at getting women to look good. Of course, getting clients to look good has more to do with coercing and motivating them to be strict on their diets than it does with sound training. However, in terms of training there are some important considerations. Women are weaker – especially in the upper body, less powerful, and have a tenth of the testosterone that a man has.
As to what we should do differently, women have a higher ratio of type I to type II hypertrophy than men. In fact, their type I fibers are often larger than their type II fibers. This means that higher rep training should be interwoven with lower rep and medium rep training. Furthermore, women recover in strength quicker than men. This means that increasing the frequency with your female clients is a wise strategy. Finally, women often have different goals than men. Listen to their goals and plan accordingly. Most really appreciate a routine that includes tons of targeted glute-work.
What doesn’t change, assuming that the woman has a goal to improve the shape over her entire body, is the emphasis on progressive overload for the big basic compound movements from the primary movement patterns – quad dominant, hip dominant, horizontal press, horizontal pull, vertical press, vertical pull.
DL: Good stuff! Bret, thanks a lot for your time!
This is it folks. Make sure you check Bret’s blog, as he has some great content each and every week! It is definitely one of my favorite websites to visit to get good information on strength and conditioning.