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Athletic Performance Roundtable - Things you need to know to become a freaky athlete
Gather three top strength and conditioning coaches for a discussion and what do you get; information that you’d normally never read or hear about anywhere else.
Wannabebig was fortunate enough to have Jimmy Smith, Brijesh Patel, and Eric Cressey agree to discuss and answer some questions on how they make their athletes bigger, stronger, and faster as well as deal with some of the issues that surround training an athlete.
Bear in mind these guys have pro athletes coming to them for help because they deliver results!
Wannabebig: What is your training philosophy for athletes?
Eric Cressey: Build the athlete first, and the player later. To do so, you need just the right mix of strength, reactive ability, speed-strength, kinesthetic awareness, mobility, activation, and recovery modalities in conjunction with proper diet and supplementation. There is no one right way to train an athlete.
Brijesh Patel: I believe that training for athletes should accomplishing two main goals, which are to:
- Reduce the chance of injuries
- Improve Athletic Performance
Reducing the chance of injuries is the most important as you can’t perform if you can’t play. The second goal is to improve performance by working on all parameters of sport performance, which are:
- mental toughness
- movement skills
Our goal as strength and conditioning coaches or performance enhancement coaches is to improve general athleticism that can carry over to the particular sport.
Jimmy Smith: My philosophy is very unique and blended; I don’t believe in having a one size fits all mindset. We can learn from powerlifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, and track and field to better prepare our athletes since they all involve different neural, metabolic, and muscular processes. It is really hard for me to sum it up, I’m sure everyone will agree that athletes typically have a bad case of weakness, that is the first place that we have to look.
What are the four requirements for the sport? That will dictate the frequency of repetitions used. What is the available time to train the athlete? If I don’t have an athlete year round, I am going to have to decide if his performance is suffering because he doesn’t have enough size or that he doesn’t have enough strength for his cross-sectional area. What’s the genetic make-up of the athlete? Some athletes respond better to higher reps and others respond better to lower reps. What is the athletes’ rate of adaptation? As coaches we have to notice how the athlete adapts, after two weeks is the program useless? I might need to alter their reps or sets.
It’s never an open and shut case.
Wannabebig: When you meet with an athlete who you’re going to potentially work with what are some of the things you look for when you are screening them pre training?
Eric C: I’m screening for flexibility and strength deficits, poor structural balance, and bad soft tissue quality – and considering all these factors with respect to that athlete’s sport(s) of choice and injury history.
Brijesh Patel: I don’t do any pre-participation screening as I typically work with teams and groups the majority of the time. I assess as we go through training. I watch the way they stand statically and move through a dynamic warm-up; how they lunge, how they squat, how they bend, etc. These things tell me what weakness that athletes possess and what they need to work on. We are also limited by time for training, so it’s my responsibility to teach them how to improve their posture or which exercises to do before training, after training, or on an off day.
Jimmy Smith: If I am dealing with an athlete one on one, not in a team setting my screening is going to be extensive. First, I am going to just watch them move. How do they look when they walk? Do they rotate at the trunk too much or too little? Do they have enough shoulder extension and opposite hip extension? Then I will take them through some movement screens and muscles tests.
How do they look when they do a reverse lunge with an overhead reach? How do they look when landing from a jump squat? Watching them squat and lunge is a huge basic assessment that shows everything.
I’ll also look at where they store fat; this is going to be a huge indicator of what’s going on with the hormones in their body. There’s so much past the basic “eat more protein and eat good carbs” nutrition that is out there. What’s going on in their gut? What kind of food allergies and inflammation do they have? How much insulin resistance and cortisol do they have? While being able to test for this is optimal there are several common patterns, very much like the patterns of functional anatomy that shows certain muscles will be tight and weak.
Wannabebig: What are some tests you would use to assess an athlete?
1. Upper body max strength:
Bench press (not in overhead throwing athletes) and 3-rep max chin-up
2. Lower body explosive power:
Vertical jump, broad jump, 4-jump test (Just Jump System), Single-leg triple jump
Pro-agility (5-10-5, or 20-yard shuttle, depending on who you ask). We also can extrapolate some results from the single-leg triple jump.
4. Core stability:
Prone bridge to side bridge transitions, side bridge hold time, and just watching them move (you can tell a lot about their joint-specific mobility/stability if you get them moving and know what to watch for).
Upper body max strength
Bench Press – I use a repetition test to assess strength and use the Husker formula to calculate a 1RM to prescribe loads for their programs. The Husker formula is:
1RM= (Weight * Reps * .03) + Weight
The reason I use predicted maxes rather than 1RM’s is because I test every 3rd week in my training programs to see how my athletes are progressing and to assign a new max to their next training phase if they’ve gotten stronger.
I also use a maximum medium grip pull-up test for all of my athletes, males and females. For some it becomes a test of max strength, while others it becomes a test of muscular endurance. But I like to incorporate both a test of pushing and pulling to show them the importance of both movements.
Lower Body Explosive Power
Hang Clean – this is a 1RM test and we prescribe loads for Olympic lifts from this exercise.
Vertical Jump with approach step – this is a test more of reactive ability as the approach before the jump stores elastic energy so the consequent jump should be higher. I’ve found that there should be a 4 inch difference between these jumps for optimal balance. If there is a less than 4 inch difference the athlete needs more elastic/reactive work. If there is a greater than 4 inch difference the athlete needs more strength work.
Basically any test that is going to force the athlete to accelerate, decelerate and change direction. The better the time, the more efficient the athlete is at absorbing force, controlling their body to move again.
For basketball players, I’ll use a lane agility test; for football a pro agility; for soccer, lacrosse and field hockey a 5-10-15 shuttle would be more appropriate.
I don’t use tests for core stability as most of our core training is all stability based. So you can say that our core training is core testing as well, as we can see what compensation patterns athletes will use when their core musculature starts to fatigue. Take for example a forearm bridge, typical errors are excessive lumbar lordosis, lifting the hips in the air (not parallel to floor), and weight shifting.
1. Upper body max strength:
I don’t really test the barbell bench press any more. I test with a 3-RM chin-up, I just find that it has a better carry over to all aspects of athletic performance. Sports coaches like to see big bench press numbers but you can improve that with the chin-up and doing heavier tricep work. In my mind the pull-up is the ultimate upper body test
2. Lower body explosive power:
I like the bounce drop jump/countermovement test that Eric describes in his manual. It is a great test and really lets you know where you need to program your athletes training. If no one is familiar, you simply test your vertical jump the way that you normally would. Swing your arms back and spring up and try to touch a point, now mark that point. Next take a 12-inch box and place it 6-8 inches away and drop off the box and explode up. Compare the differences.
I use the classic T-test; it is old school but gets the job done.
4. Core stability:
This is a test that Stuart Mcgill uses in rehab settings; I call it the crossover drill. The athlete assumes a push-up position with their elbows locked out. They have to cross one hand onto the other without allowing their low back to rotate; their spine must stay flat. This is both a test for low back rotation issues as well as core stability and is a killer workout in of itself.
Wannabebig: How much of a mental coaching approach do you have to take with the athletes you train?
Eric Cressey: Coaching, by nature, is largely mental. And, you have to be a little mental to be a good coach!
I love Brian Grasso’s model of coaching approaches depending on the athlete; my experience has been that these classifications hold true in the overwhelming majority of athletes I encounter:
High Motivation, High Skill: Delegate
High Motivation, Low Skill: Guide
Low Motivation, High Skill: Inspire
Low Motivation, Low Skill: Direct
Brijesh Patel: I use a lot of sport psychology in to my coaching style in an attempt to get my athletes to work harder. One of our goals in a team setting is to improve confidence and build a sense of team camaraderie. The best way to improve confidence is through work and doing things that you did not thing were possible. Our bodies are extremely amazing and are capable of accomplishing great things, but our minds will always want to give up before the body physically can. My goal is to teach my athletes how to push their limits and how to work. When you learn how to work, you know you can do anything.
I also hold my athletes accountable to themselves as well as their teammates. If they are going to be late for a training session, they have to call me or email me. If they don’t do something right during a training session the entire team is punished. If you hold athletes accountable they’ll realize it’s important. And it’s mostly the little things that I get on them about. If you can’t do the little things right, then you won’t be able to accomplish big things, like winning a championship.
Jimmy Smith: It is a huge part of my training. If you’ve ever read Dale Carniege he talks about how dealing with people is 85% of ones financial success, it is the same way when you are trying to increase performance. You have to know when to push and win not to. Motivation is key you have to be able to successfully influence your athletes even when they don’t want to be there. I don’t over do it, I was an athlete myself so I know the buttons to push and not to push.
Wannabebig: Top 3 things you’ve found wrong with the athletes you’ve trained?
1. Poor diet.
2. Ignoring imbalances for too long; many of these imbalances are the result of ignorant coaches with whom they’ve worked in the past.
3. Not appreciating that it is both what you do AND how you do it.
Brijesh Patel: The top three things that I’ve found with athletes that I’ve trained have been:
1. Lack of mobility
2. Poor landing mechanics
3. Poor nutritional habits.
The lack of mobility is becoming more and more profound as society has made our lives easier and the belief that children need to specialize early in their sport. With the development of technology, we can accomplish everything we need to from a seated position. If we don’t move our joints through their full range of motion, we lose the ability to move through that range of motion. This can cause a whole host of problems up and down our kinetic chain which can lead to injuries. Specializing in a sport at an early age can retard athletic development as the athlete only learns the skills of that one sport and those movement patterns. Overuse of those movement patterns can lead to injuries as the same muscles and movements get trained over and over again throughout the year. Specialization can also cause early burn-out because the athlete is involved with the same sport continuously.
Poor landing mechanics is another large issue that we have to teach my athletes, especially females. My goal is to get the athletes to learn how to engage their posterior chain when landing/absorbing force so they can move efficiently. What I see is that athletes will tend to engage their quadriceps to a greater degree when landing rather than the glutes and hamstrings. This can be seen when the athlete drives their knees forward and have an upright torso when landing from a jump or making a cut. The ideal position would be to have the knees slightly bent, the butt back and a slight forward torso lean. This position loads the posterior chain for the subsequent movement.
The other big issue that we see is how poorly athletes eat and how little they know about proper nutrition. They get upset and worried about how come their not making body composition progress and need to realize that nutrition plays a huge role. I think it’s a huge part of our job as coaches and trainers to educate our athletes on proper nutritional habits/practices and increase their awareness of good food.
1. Zero glute strength, this is going to be the case with 99% of people. It wasn’t until I could get their glutes to fire that they started making significant strength gains. Athletes will come to me and every single one of them will lock out a deadlift with their low back. You’ll also see a side shift when they squat because one glutes medius is going to be weaker then the other.
2. Weak chin-ups. For years the primary method of upper body strength with athletes has been their bench press. If we improve an athlete’s chin-up, we improve their running speed. You’ll see upper back weakness being a limiting factor is deadlifts, bench press and just overall athletic weakness
3. Locked mid- spine. This is an area no one has really focused on when it comes to athletes. This is going to give our athletes a hunchback posture but also wreck proper firing patterns of our upper body muscles. Think of a basketball player trying to get a rebound, if he can’t get the shoulder flexion to reach up since his thoracic spine is locked, he won’t get to the ball as fast
Wannabebig: What is the biggest misconception when it comes to training athletes?
Eric Cressey: Hands down, it’s the perception that it takes bodybuilding-like volume to build good athletes. I wish more people would realize that it’s about quality, not just quantity.
Brijesh Patel: The biggest misconception when it comes to training athletes is that they know healthy habits. People tend to make the assumption that just because their athletes they should know how to take care of their bodies and eat properly. Like I mentioned earlier, we need to educate them about the training that they’re doing as well as educate them on what to do outside of training to maximize results.
Jimmy Smith: That they can’t use hypertrophy work. The term functional hypertrophy is taken way out of context these days. It is almost an after-thought; it is used to bring up the weak areas and really isn’t given too much priority. I’m not saying we should perform body part splits or a huge amount of isolation work but if we program it correctly then our athletes are going to benefit, remember if it is done right a bigger muscle can produce more force.
Wannabebig: What are some of the mental roadblocks athletes have in regards to their training and performance on and off the field?
Eric Cressey: Believe it or not, some of the biggest roadblocks are a product of previous and current coaches and sometimes even the athlete’s own parents (at the high school level). Implementing bad programming with impressionable young minds makes them think that such programming is the only way to go. The rounded back deadlifts, crap abdominal training, and “go heavy or go home” mentality that characterizes the Bigger, Faster, Stronger program has, in my opinion, hurt the strength and conditioning field (and many athletes’ backs) more than it has helped.
On the parent front, many times, these individuals are resistant to change from what they did when they were growing up. From diet, to supplements, to actually lifting in-season, to wanting to use extra conditioning to make up for poor diet, many parents can be “tough sells” for coaches; old habits die hard.
Brijesh Patel: The biggest roadblocks seem to be not being able to stay in the present and thinking negatively. Staying in the present is extremely difficult for many athletes. I often have to remind them to leave the stuff that’s not important at the door before training. What’s in the past can’t be changed and the future is determined by what you do right NOW! It’s difficult for college athletes who have exams, issues with a significant other, and other social matters to block everything out and focus on the task at hand. The athletes, who are good at this, tend to be the mentally toughest athletes as not many things will faze them.
The other roadblock is thinking negatively. If something bad happens, let it go. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’re better off thinking positively and being happier. It’s amazing how you think can affect the way you perform. Thinking positively, more times than not, will result in better performance. If you think you’re not going to be able to do something, you’ll never be able to do it.
Jimmy Smith: Athletes are scared to fail. Look at the best athletes of all time, not one of them was scared to fail. I remember a poster I had of Michael Jordan and he is quoted saying, “I’ve missed over 300 game winning shots but I still want the ball at the end of the game”.
Wannabebig: Are there any common injuries you’ve seen athletes suffer from repeatedly? How could they have been addressed so they don’t occur in the future?
Eric Cressey: Lots of them. Here are a few examples…
Rotator cuff issues: need to prioritize scapular stability, thoracic extension, mobility of the contralateral hip and ankle, optimal (belly) breathing patterns, and (finally) rotator cuff strength. Overhead throwing athletes really need to address posterior capsule stiffness with soft tissue work and sleeper stretches.
Extension-based back pain: emphasize lumbar spine stability and mobility of the thoracic spine and hips. Drop all the traditional “core” training ideas and start training stability. If it’s unilateral back pain, check hip external rotation range-of-motion on that side. Get the glutes firing.
Adductor and hamstrings strains – get the glutes firing and improve soft tissue quality on the affected muscles
There are obviously a ton of other factors involved in preventing and correcting inefficiencies. I check calluses on the feet, ankle ROM, and a host of other things; we’re really just getting the tip of the iceberg here.
All in all, improve soft tissue quality (foam rolling, lacrosse ball work, and massage), enhance mobility where appropriate, and get activation work in, and you’ll usually be in good standing. Pack some maximal strength on top of those efficiencies, and you’ll be bulletproof.
Brijesh Patel: The most common injuries are muscle strains or pulls. They can be greatly reduced by proper training, well devised warm-up routines, and planned recovery.
The most common types of strains tend to be hamstrings and groins. Strains tend to occur in synergists (helpers). When this happens, look to the prime mover of movement to find out what’s wrong. The prime mover will tend to be weak or under active, so therefore the synergists will take over their job and perform more of the work. In the case of hamstring and groin pulls, the glute max will tend to show up weak or under active. The hamstrings and groin are synergists to the glute max. To fix this problem, make sure you are cueing your athletes properly to use their glutes properly and including exercises to “turn them on”, such as bridges, and prone hip extensions.
Hamstring strains - which can be prevented by cleaning up the anterior hip and getting the glutes to fire.
Shoulder injuries - which can greatly be reduced by working on the scapula, prompting more depression work, getting the mid-low trap to fire, having the thoracic spine move better and performing more reverse crunches.
Knee issues - either pain or tears which can be avoided by cleaning up the ankles and hips as well as the adductors and tfl.
Ankle sprains - this is my personal favorite since I have some personal experience on them. If we get our athletes out of Shoxs or shoes that are elevated into barefoot training and Nike Frees then we can really reduce these injuries. Mobilizing the ankle and working on more single leg force absorption work is also hugely critical.
Wannabebig: I’m going to throw out three different sports. Can you break down the 5 qualities (i.e: mobility, single leg strength etc) that need to be addressed in training the athlete for the sport.
Eric Cressey: Well, it’s a lot more than five, but here goes…
a. Posterior capsule mobility and soft tissue work, scapular stability, and thoracic extension ROM
b. Hip and ankle mobility
c. Rotary stability (ability to resist rotation)
d. Lower body strength (posterior chain emphasis to counteract quad-dominant nature of the sport)
e. Frontal plane stability (single-leg proficiency)
a. Ankle mobility
b. Hip mobility/lumbar spine stability/rotary stability/glute activation
d. Reactive ability (only if we’re talking about a guy who hasn’t played years of street ball)
e. Frontal plane stability (single-leg proficiency)
a. Hip and ankle mobility
b. Maximal strength
c. Psoas activation
d. Lower extremity soft tissue work
e. Frontal plane stability (single-leg proficiency)
Brijesh Patel: This is where I may disagree with some other coaches, but I tend to train my athletes the same when it comes to strength training and basic movement skills the things that will differ are conditioning and attention to common injuries. The reason why I believe this is every sport tends to rely on the same qualities for success. These are the same parameters of sport performance that I mentioned earlier. What sport doesn’t need hip mobility, lower body strength, explosiveness, hip stability, scapular stability, eccentric strength?
a. First thing that we have to look at is the t-spine and hips. If we can improve the movements first by getting more t-spine extension and our hip external rotation, our athletes will greatly benefit from some rotation work but only after these areas are cleaned up.
b. Ankle mobility, tennis is stop and go sport. Since we are pounding on our ankle during the game, we are going to see increased knee injuries. So doing some simple ankle mobilization is huge
c. Shoulder External rotation. Think of all the internal and external rotation that goes through a typical tennis match, we need to be strong in external rotation for both our back serves and to counteract all the internal rotation
d. Single leg strength, every athlete needs it, period
e. Glute strength, very much like single leg strength, we’ve got to have our athletes glutes firing correctly to prevent back pain and improve lower body power
a. Single leg strength- look at all the pivots and movements that basketball players make off of one leg.
b. Glute strength-they need it badly to keep exploding up.
c. Ankle mobility- basketball players are always in high tops and ankle braces or tape. Their ankles are going to be cinderblocks so we have to open them up.
d. Hip mobility-Basketball players hip are just locked up.
e. Lower body max strength- They do a ton of reactive work, they need to get strong.
a. Thoracic spine extension- If hockey players are locked up here, they will never get the power behind their shots that they want
b. Hip abduction strength-The primary motion in skating is bring the leg toward each other, so we need to counteract that with some lateral hip strength. Hockey players typically present with either adductor strains or hernias, which can largely be eliminated by strength up their outer thigh.
c. Hip mobility- same reason as above, they need it
d. Shoulder external rotation- If they are lacking external rotation strength there is no way that they get the power they need.
e. Glute strength- The glutes are the center of everything
Wannabebig: Name three athletes who display athletic qualities (not skill) that serve as an example of what good training is a result of.
Barry Sanders – This guy might be the most athletic guy in the history of sports – certainly football. He has amazing ability to control his center of gravity within his base of support. Squatted over 600 pounds and had tremendous single-leg stability, reactive ability, and kinesthetic awareness.
Felix Hernandez – Who? I’m big on relative improvements, and this guy is an example of how an off-season can change your career. He’s a 20 year-old pitcher for the Seattle Mariners who dropped 20 pounds in the off-season to become the major leagues’ youngest opening day pitcher in 22 years. On opening day, he only allowed three hits and struck out a career-high 12 in eight innings of shutout baseball. Having “stuff” isn’t good enough if you’ve got 20 pounds of blubber holding you back.
Roger Federer – This one probably comes as another surprise to many of you, but the fact of the matter is that he’s likely the greatest tennis player of all time – and he’s only 25. This guy is incredibly efficient and powerful in spite of the fact that he weighs in at 177 on a 6-1 frame. Combine efficiency with technical precision and there’s no need to “muscle anything” on the tennis court. The hallmark of a good athlete is that he makes it look effortless, and Federer does just that. Rumor has it that he spends up to three hours per day on the massage therapy table, too – something that’s indicative of his attention to detail in taking care of his body.
I think that a guy like Karl Malone deserves an honorary mention, too, at the very least. He was arguably the most durable player in NBA history; it should come as no surprise that he was notorious for his rigorous off-season lifting programs (and for getting in the weight-room in-season, too).
Brijesh Patel: In my opinion, I think all athletes who are at the top of their respective sports possess fantastic genetics. If you want to be a good athlete, choose your parents carefully. That being said, good training plus good genetics is an awesome combination.
The athletes that train well tend to be the ones who don’t miss games due to an injury. Therefore the athletes that are good examples of good training are the ones that are at the top of their game and rarely miss games.
Peyton Manning – started 16 consecutive games for 8 consecutive years. Unbelievably consistent and is known for his strong work ethic.
Jerry Rice – played 189 consecutive games before a serious knee injury in 1997. He is the best wide receiver ever to play who always trained like a maniac in the off-season.
Karl Malone – missed only 5 games in his first 13 years in the league and continued to play well until the age of 40. He was an extremely hard working power forward that was built like a football player rather than a basketball player.
Reggie Bush - the guy is a freak and his training just makes him freakier.
Michael Jordan - who didn’t hear about his passion and drive in the weight room? The guy was insane about it and it allowed him to come back way past his prime and still be a top 20 player in the NBA.
Barry Bonds - people will laugh but the guy has busted his butt in the weight room time and time again and made himself one of the top three baseball players of all time regardless of the other “stuff” around him.
Written by Maki Riddington
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - The Athletic Performance Roundtable discussion thread.
About The Roundtable Contributors
Jimmy Smith, CSCS: is a body enhancement coach who has helped individuals and athletes of all levels from high school to the top collegiate and national ranks in reaching their elite performance and body enhancement goals. Although Jimmy is well versed in several bodies of knowledge, he specializes in performance and body enhancement as well as biomechanics as it relates to injury rehabilitation and human movement. In addition, Jimmy is currently advancing his education as a master’s degree student in Human Movement and writes for various online magazines.Visit
Jimmy’s website www.jimmysmithtraining.com to sign up for his FREE newsletter that contains a FREE report with exclusive fat loss information.
Brijesh Patel, MA: a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (NSCA) and USA Weightlifting Club Coach (USAW), has been a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the collegiate level since 2000. Currently employed at the College of the Holy Cross, Brijesh has also worked with Mike Boyle at his professional facility in Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut, and with the Worcester Ice Cats of the AHL (American Hockey League). Brijesh has trained a variety of athletes ranging from middle school to the professional and Olympic levels. Brijesh has been published in magazines and has presented on the regional level.To contact Brijesh email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS: is a Boston-based performance enhancement coach and record-setting competitive powerlifter who has worked with athletes of all levels, from youth sports to the professional and Olympic levels.
The co-producer of the Magnificent Mobility DVD and Building the Efficient Athlete DVD set, Eric is also the author of The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual.You can find out more about Eric and sign up for his free newsletter at www.EricCressey.com