An Interview with Bret Contreras
This week’s post is an interview with Bret Contreras, a strength coach located in Arizona. I have been reading a great deal of Bret’s thoughts on the strengthcoach.com forums and got a chance to meet him personally in Rhode Island this year where I attended the Perform Better Summit.
As you will see in the interview; Bret has some interesting thoughts, and is definitely not afraid to speak his mind and offer advice.
1. Hi Bret, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Could you give my readers your background, and how you came to be an S&C coach?
I’ll try to be brief. I just turned 34 years old. I started lifting weights and reading bodybuilding magazines at age 15. I got my CPT at age 21, my CSCS at age 26, and my MS at age 26 as well. I’m a huge reader and student of strength training. Right now my main interest is sport-specific training. My entire day pretty much revolves around strength training; reading, training others, working out, and writing.
2. Could you give my readers a basic summary of your training philosophy/methodology?
Sure. First off I believe that great trainers and coaches have an initial screening system such as the FMS and/or table assessments. I believe that training should be tailored to the individual’s needs and wants. I don’t believe in cookie cutter approaches and feel strongly about using the scientific method to continue to improve upon a client/athlete’s programming. I believe in communicating with the client/athlete to be able to adapt the program to better suit them. I believe in correcting imbalances, asymmetries, and dysfunctional patterns. I believe in having extensive knowledge of progressions and regressions as proper placement on the movement pattern continuums are critical. I believe in getting people very strong while keeping excellent form. I believe strongly in utilizing biofeedback/auto-regulation/cybernetic periodization. I believe in taking anthropometry into consideration and taking a hard look at strength balances. I believe in using all sorts of tools to get the job done; from multiple types of equipment, to multiple types of methodologies and systems.
3. What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem you see within the field today?
It seems that many coaches and trainers have forgotten about getting athletes strong and coaching the big lifts. People seem to want to gravitate toward exotic trends, new equipment, and new systems, which is fine as long as the coach or trainer has an excellent handle on the basics. A coach who has excellent cues and has developed “an eye” for perfecting athlete’s form on big exercises like squats, deadlifts, and power cleans will be much more successful than the coach who skirts around the big lifts due to fear and lack of knowledge. The nervous system is paramount in athletic development! You have to train the body to explode.
Furthermore, I have “cured” so many regular individuals of nagging pain just by getting them stronger at big lifts. Many times these people had been to doctors and physical therapists and never “got better.” They just accepted their pain as part of life. As trainers we get these kinds of clients all the time; people who say, “I can’t squat; I have bad knees,” or “There’s no way I can deadlift; I have a bad back.” I always tell these folks that we’re going to start out with just bodyweight with squatting or just the bar with deadlifting to practice good daily lifting and movement mechanics. I teach them proper form and ask them if anything hurts. They almost always say “no.” From session to session, I bump the weight up gradually and all of a sudden they are pretty strong and their pain has disappeared.
When people are strong at squatting and deadlifting while using great form, they demonstrate sufficient glute activation, ankle/hip/t-spine mobility, knee/lumbar stability, and neuromuscular efficiency. You can tell a lot about an athlete who is very strong through full ranges of motion in all the basic movement patterns. Strength is magical. It lays the foundation for everything.
Just as in the cases of personal trainers and strength coaches, there is a huge gap in knowledge between the top physical therapists and average physical therapists. Most therapists don’t know how to squat or deadlift their way out of a wet paper bag. Many strength coaches could do a better job at “fixing” someone than a physical therapist depending on the situation.
However, this is a very complicated topic because as physical therapists know, strength coaches are not properly versed in Anatomy & Physiology and don’t have sufficient knowledge regarding the wide array of injury mechanisms and therapeutic protocols. That said, there are many therapists who aren’t able to look at the “big picture” and realize that a problem at one part of the kinetic chain is occurring due to a problem further up or down the chain. The best coaches and therapists realize this and have developed systems based on looking at how the entire body functions on a joint-by-joint basis. The bottom line is that ideally therapists and coaches should work together as both have plenty of expertise to offer.
4. You have worked with a wide variety of populations ranging from “the general public” just looking to get in shape, to fitness models to athletes that compete across a range of sports. What have these experiences been like and do your approaches differ between the various populations?
Heck yeah they differ! My programs vary considerably from one type of client to the next. We’re always squatting, lunging, deadlifting, hip thrusting, pressing, rowing, etc., but the frequency, volume, intensity, density, intensiveness, exercise variations, and periodization differ. For physique clients I tend to use higher rep ranges and shorter rest periods in comparison to performance clients.
I love training women because sadly, most of them are clueless as to how to go about achieving the physiques of their dreams. They tend to be extremely appreciative. I love training strong, powerful athletes because it’s inspiring and fun and makes you feel like a really good coach. I like working with all types of people as it’s always interesting and “new.”
5. Who have been your biggest influences as a coach and person?
Mel Siff!!! Although he passed away a while back his legacy lives on through his written works. I aspire to be more like him in terms of critical thinking and education. I am seriously considering getting my PhD in Biomechanics as I love researching and learning! Next would have to be Charlie Francis. He was a pioneer in strength & conditioning. Following Siff and Francis would be Louie Simmons. Another legend. In terms of energy and passion, I aspire to be like Martin Rooney and JC Santana. These guys know a ton about training and subscribe to a similar philosophy of mine – movement!
There are tons of other guys who influence my training, including Mike Boyle, Gray Cook, Eric Cressey, Charlie Weingroff, Nick Tumminello, Tony Gentilcore, Bill Hartman, Keats Snideman, Carl Valle, Patrick Ward, Mark Young, Joe Sansalone, Aaron Schwenzfeier, Christian Thibaudeau, Dan John, Joe DeFranco, Dave Tate, Matt Perryman, Dan Pfaff, and Vern Gambetta. There are so many smart guys in the field who can teach me a thing or two and make me better at what I do.
Ironically, my biggest influence lately is not an individual, it’s Pubmed. I’ve really been taking a good look at journals these days to learn more about training.
6. “Corrective exercise” and “activation work” seem to be major buzzwords in the industry at the moment. Where in your opinion do these fit in the training process and how do you go about incorporating them into your programs?
In my opinion if you don’t believe in corrective exercise then you’re an idiot. I’m a big proponent of “isolating” and “integrating.” If someone has crappy ankle mobility you need to give them specific ankle mobility drills and treatments and then have them incorporate the newly acquired mobility into basic movement patterns. Corrective exercise gets you where you need to be in the quickest manner possible which is what the client or athlete deserves. Coaches have different opinions as to what “corrective exercise” entails, but as long as coaches are fixing asymmetries, mobility deficiencies, and stability deficiencies and developing proper motor engrams, then they are “A-Okay” in my book. In truth the entire session is “corrective” as everything you do as a coach works toward getting people to move better.
In terms of how correctives fit into the training process, it all depends on the individual and what you find during the screening. Most of my female clients don’t ever foam roll or stretch. Many have hypermobility and just need stability, activation work/motor control which is delivered through proper strength training. Most of my male clients do much more “corrective” work in the form of self-myofascial release, static stretching, and mobility drills. I plug some of these activities into the strength program as part of the warm-up, some of them as “active recovery” in between sets, and some of them as part of the “post-workout” cool-down. As soon as the athlete or client is “corrected,” then the client or athlete no longer has to do “corrective exercise” as they will reach and retain the ranges of motion they need while strength training and playing sports.
7. A current topic of contention is the use of single leg strength work (e.g. RFESS) over bilateral counterparts (e.g. Backsquat). What are your thoughts on this matter?
Let’s be honest. Mike Boyle is single-handedly responsible for creating this controversy. I have very much respect for Mike Boyle and am very active on his forum at StrengthCoach.Com. I could never fault Mike for his emphasis on safety. I’ve learned a ton from Mike and will continue to learn from him as time goes on. You’d be a damn fool to not listen to one of the world’s most successful coaches who has as many years of experience and learning under his belt as Mike Boyle.
However, he creates systems based on training many athletes at a time. I usually train one, two, or three clients/athletes at a time. I can keep a close eye on every single repetition my clients execute. The second that form breaks down, the set is terminated. They don’t choose the load they’ll be using; I determine that. I also communicate with the client/athlete regarding how they feel, and I watch how they look on their warm-up sets. For these reasons, I can prescribe nearly any exercise. There’s a big difference between strength coaching and personal training. I have not found the back squat to be “unsafe” and lead to improper form or injuries under my watch.
As far as single leg strength vs. bilateral strength; I’m like most coaches in that I believe in both.
There needs to be a balance of strength and if someone is very good at one or the other then the focus should be on bringing up the weak link. I do not believe that there is any reason to avoid one or the other in my setting. Perhaps if I was an actual strength coach I would arrive at a similar conclusion as Mike. Perhaps if Mike was solely a personal trainer he would arrive at a similar conclusion as me.
8. You are a big proponent of using EMG for S&C related research, and have also recently written a substantial amount about the necessity of vector loading considerations. These are two areas that I feel some people may be more unfamiliar with so could you please explain what these two areas entail, what they have provided you with and how you integrate your conclusions into your training prescription?
Prior to my EMG experiments, many coaches “believed” in EMG and looked at journal research for answers regarding exercise efficiency. After I came out with my EMG research, many “abandoned” EMG because I was advocating entirely new movements and advising coaches to stop looking toward squats for maximum glute strength and instead start incorporating hip thrusts into their programming. Many weren’t ready for the change at the time, but nowadays more and more coaches seem to be willing to accept the truth.
I’ll be the first to admit that EMG activation isn’t everything, as the data doesn’t tell the whole story. It usually tells you on average how hard a muscle contracts (mean activation) as well as how hard a muscle contracts at its highest point (peak activation) during a movement. If you look at the charts, you see a bigger picture as you get to look at the activation pattern and the levels of muscular contraction throughout the movement. Whole body timing, coordination, integration, and relaxation will always be huge components to movement, and unless we have motion software coupled with multi-channel EMG that measures a significant number of muscles at a single time, we can probably get a better idea as to what’s going on during movement just by looking at form/mechanics, palpating, and asking for feedback. However, EMG isn’t biased and provides honest feedback based on mathematics; the language of the universe. So taking EMG into consideration is critical in my opinion.
As far as directional load vectors are concerned, many coaches before me realized that muscle activation during strength training has very much to do with the direction of the resistance relative to the exerciser’s body. However, the system we used to describe movement was insufficient as planar terminology is too general. I created load vector terminology to more specifically describe movement as it pertains to the weight room and the sport setting.
My system uses 6 main vectors; anteroposterior (running, bench pressing, hip thrusts), axial (jumping, squatting, military pressing), axial/anteroposterior blend (acceleration sprinting, incline pressing, walking lunges), posteroanterior (backpedaling, backward sled dragging, seated rowing), lateromedial (cutting, slideboard slides, lateral raises), and torsional (swinging, throwing, woodchops). These directional load vectors can be used to help improve the likelihood of positive transfer of training from the weight room to the sport.
9. The use of manual therapy and self-applied tissue treatment techniques, as well as the “Anatomy Trains” concept popularised by Thomas Myers are all gaining rapid recognition in the industry (some call it the “missing link” between PT and S&C). There are however many people that question the science behind many of the techniques that are used and whether or not we are actually causing any “concrete” changes (e.g. whether foam rolling actually changes tissue quality or if we are merely stimulating receptors in the tissue that provide us with transient changes that appear to be myofascial/structural alterations but are not). As a very “science-based” coach what are your thoughts on these areas and their purpose in the training continuum?
My thoughts are that foam rolling can be used for different purposes:
1. Stimulating proprioception prior to a warm-up
2. Decreasing tissue density prior to static stretching
3. Decreasing sympathetic tone following a work-out
To my knowledge, there isn’t any research supporting any of these concepts but science can be used to justify their inclusion in programming as all three purposes “make sense.” Hell, even if they work via the placebo effect that’s a big deal! The placebo effect is well documented and realer than Real-Deal Holyfield.
10. What are your all-time favourite resources for:
- Strength Training: Supertraining by Mel Siff
- Rehabilitation: Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes by Shirley Sahrmann
- Business: eMyth by Michael Gerber
- Random/Recreational: Cashflow Quadrant by Robert Kiyosak
11. What additional resources would you recommend to young, up and coming coaches?
For young, upcoming coaches I recommend internships/mentorships and attending conferences/seminars for networking purposes.
12. Could you provide us with some ideas of what you think people should be including in their training above all else?
It’s pretty damn simple! Get strong at:
1. Bilateral and unilateral knee (squatting) dominant patterns
2. Semi-straight leg hip hinge (deadlifting) patterns
3. Bent-leg hip hinge (bridging) patterns
4. Horizontal pushing (bench pressing) patterns
5. Horizontal pulling (rowing) patterns
6. Vertical pushing (military pressing) patterns
7. Vertical pulling (chinning) patterns
8. Multi-directional core stability (anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion) patterns
13. What advice would you give young coaches like me who are looking to excel in S&C?
Don’t just focus on learning how to train football players. Venture into non-typical sport training such as gymnastics, swimming, and MMA. Learn how their training differs depending on their unique load vectors, surfaces, and body positions. Venture out into powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman, and weightlifting. Shadow a physical therapist. In addition to the CSCS, look toward other certifications such as the FMS and certifications from USAW, USATF, and RKC. The more you know about strength training and the more versatile you are the better your training will be and the better your athletes will perform.
Also, don’t just listen to one guru. Get exposed to the preachings of many different experts. Don’t take somebody’s methodology as gospel; investigate the methodology. Does the science make sense? Is there any journal evidence to support it? Does it go hand-in-hand with anecdotes and “real-life” results? Begin to formulate your own “philosophy” of training.
14. Bret, thank you for taking the time to do this interview, it’s fantastic to have you on the site. Where can my readers find out more about you, and any projects that you may have coming up?
Thank you very much Cedric for interviewing me. I really appreciate it. I’m compiling a ton of research for an upcoming book. It’s going to take me some time but it will be damn good when I complete it. I’m all over the place; on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. But the best way to follow me is through my blog at www.BretContreras.Wordpress.com.