An Interview with Eric Cressey - Mind And Muscle

interview chairAn Interview with Eric Cressey

Thanks for taking the time out for this interview Eric. No doubt many of our readers will know about your background and profile, but why don’t you take us through where you’ve come from and your professional background.

I’m from a small town in Maine where I grew up playing sports all the time – but I was still a fat kid.  While I was all-state in tennis and soccer as a senior and recruited by several colleges for both sports, my fitness level wasn’t on-par with my skills and knowledge of the game.  As senior year wound down, I went “cold-turkey” with junk food and really cleaned up my life, training hard and dieting even harder. Like any beginning program, it worked great for a while, but eventually, I pushed the bar too high and hit the point of diminishing returns.  I wound up skinny, weak, sick, and completely out of sorts with what was going on with my own body.  Along the way, I had wasted away a chance to play college sports and wound up in a position where I just needed to get healthy and pack on some good weight.  After wasting away a good two years trying to find the right “mix” to get healthy, I met up with a competitive bodybuilder who had trained Olympic athletes and, more importantly, was a model of the healthy lifestyle I wanted to live.  He took me under his wing as I got started, I started reading a ton, and wound up getting a career out of it.  Weight-training not only saved my life; it made me love life.

Since then, I’ve worked with athletes from the youth ranks right up to the professional and Olympic levels, and as a competitive powerlifter, I have state, national, and world records.  I double majored in Exercise Science and Sports and Fitness Management for my undergraduate degree from the University of New England, and then went on to get my Master’s degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science at the University of Connecticut; it’s the #1 ranked kinesiology graduate program in the country, and they’ve got some tremendous professors.  I was fortunate to not only study under them, but also spend a lot of time working with varsity athletes in strength and conditioning and subjects from all walks of life in the human performance laboratory.

Along with Mike Robertson, I co-produced the Magnificent Mobility DVD (



In July, I published my first book, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual(



I’ve written over 120 articles for publications in online and print magazines since 2002.

Now, I’m working in Boston, Massachusetts out of Excel Sport and Fitness Training.  I use the word “working” very loosely, as I have a blast and love what I do.  On a daily basis, I get to build freaky athletes, fix people’s injuries, and talk shop with some of the best in the business.

If readers are more interested in the “classic” bio stuff like articles I’ve written, seminars at which I’ve spoken, products I’ve released, and a discussion of my webbed feet, glass eye, and third nipple, they can check out my website’s “About Eric” page.


Now for those in the know, Eric has worked with many elite athletes. Do you specialize in any sports in particular?

I’ve worked extensively with basketball and soccer players, and now, since I’m a real “shoulder geek,” I’m working with a lot more baseball and tennis players. Boston is a huge endurance training community as well, so I’ve taken on a lot more runners, cyclists, and triathletes of late. That’s not to say that I’m uncomfortable with any other groups, though; I’ve trained football players, bobsledders, wrestlers, hockey players, field hockey players, track athletes, you name it. Heck, I just took on a group of seven well-known Boston theater performers for some corrective work.

What is your general training philosophy? And, how do you tailor it to athlete competing in various sports?

Identify and correct your inefficiencies, and you’ll be rewarded with a body that performs at a high level and just so happens to look great. People are often surprised when I tell them that I train athletes, not baseball players, football players, etc. Regardless of one’s sport, there are right and wrong ways to move; regardless of your sport, you have to learn to move correctly.

Of course, there are going to be different means to those ends. I don’t let my baseball guys bench with the straight-bar or do any overhead pressing, and we know that soccer guys are going to require more metabolic conditioning than track throwers.

Any lifts you would say are indispensable, no matter what type of sport one is involved in?

Well, we know people need to squat, deadlift, bench, row, and do chin-ups, but for whatever reason, the big ones I see people overlooking are single-leg movements – and I’m not just talking about lunges. You need to look at three different categories:

1. Static Unsupported – 1-leg squats (Pistols), 1-leg RDLs
2. Static Supported – Bulgarian Split Squats
3. Dynamic – Lunges, Step-ups

From there, you can also divide single-leg movements into decelerative (forward lunging) and accelerative (slideboard work, reverse lunges). I’ve found that accelerative movements are most effective early progressions after lower extremity injuries (less stress on the knee joint). I think that it’s ideal for everyone to aim to get at least one of each of the three options in each week. If one needed to be sacrificed, it would be static supported. Because static unsupported aren’t generally loaded as heavily and don’t cause as much delayed onset muscle soreness, they can often be thrown in on upper body days.

Of course, I’m the corrective exercise guy, so people obviously need to be doing their mobility and activation drills along with plenty of scapular stability and rotator cuff work.

So Eric, do you have any particular success stories that amazed even yourself?

Truthfully, at risk of sounding overconfident, at this point, the success stories never really surprise me. We’re successful because we’ve experimented to see what has worked over the years, have a great training environment, and also because we’ve built a great network of people to whom we can turn for additional insights.

To be honest, I’m more “amazed” at the stupid crap that some of the “best in the business” are doing to cause injuries. I’d say that a good 75% of my “business” comes in the form of weekend warriors and athletes who have been destroyed by a crap program from some self-proclaimed guru – or a guy who got a strength and conditioning job because he knew somebody or used to play high school football. I’m an optimistic guy, but 95% of our industry is clueless – especially when it comes to functional anatomy. If I don’t know something, it really pisses me off – and I go and seek out the answer as soon as possible. Most people in this industry shrug it off, assuming it isn’t important, and then go back to writing programs that hurt people.

Just how difficult is it to educate athletes, especially when it comes to diet, sleeping habits, etc? Are they like everyday trainees, i.e. do they complain, burnout, etc? Is motivating the athletes the toughest part of the job?

It depends on the athlete in question. I like how Brian Grasso classifies all athletes by motivation and skill. I’ll always train a high-motivation athlete, regardless of skill. At this point in my career, I’m fortunate enough to be able to only train those who I want to train; if you don’t want to be there, I don’t want you there, either. I wouldn’t hesitate to turn down a pro athlete with a bad attitude in order to train a high school kid with a ton of enthusiasm instead. Richard Simmons can do the motivating; I’ll build freaks and have fun doing it.

Now, assuming you’re only dealing with high-motivation athletes, it’s your job to not only recognize the signs of burnout, but also learn to manage fatigue with that athlete. There are times to push and times to hold back; it’s hard to believe, but sometimes motivating an athlete isn’t actually a good thing.


Did your background prepare you in dealing with difficult athletes, or did you learn your motivational skills on the job?

My background as a power lifter made me realize how closely motivation and fatigue go hand-in-hand. The more fatigue you’ve imposed, the less fitness you can display. If you’ve accumulated a lot of fatigue, you need to can the motivation and deload. A coach who just “works out” will never appreciate how it feels for a high-level athlete to be beaten-down in-season. With a deadlift of 650 at 181 pounds, I have an appreciation for the burden that goes along with competing at a high level. Don’t try to be a motivator until you’ve got a frame of reference, and if you aren’t at least competing, you’d better make up the difference by asking the athlete a TON of questions.

Have you ever trained a whole team, rather than just an athlete? Given time as a factor when training an entire team, what was your approach? Bill Starr’s Only the Strongest Shall Survive, written in the 1970s, used the 5×5 with ‘the big lifts’ and a circuit approach for training gridiron teams for example.

I’ve worked with as many as 75 athletes at once. It always surprises me when coaches can’t understand how group training with 4-5 kids works; that’s a piece of cake compared to 75! Your approach is really dictated by your equipment availability. If you’ve got 20 power racks and platforms, you’ve got a lot more at your disposal. And, obviously, you’ve got to fit the programs to the athletes and not vice versa; you can’t incorporate potentially dangerous exercises just because they’re convenient in group settings.

Okay so what do you enjoy the most about your job? And what gets you down/do you like the least in your job?

I love the variety. On a daily basis, I get to interact with high-level athletes, high school athletes, adult athletes, and regular ol’ weekend warriors who all have diverse goals – from gaining muscle mass, to getting healthy, to earning scholarships, to winning gold medals and world championships. Additionally, I get to interact with hundreds of thousands of people through my writing and am constantly building a big “sample size” from which to draw conclusions on what works and what doesn’t. Plus, I get to be around people (myself included) who lift heavy stuff all day long. I’ll take that over a desk job any day.

Yankees fans get me down, but I can live with that.

Strength coaches have in recent years emerged as critical components to top level athletes looking for the competitive edge. What advice would you impart on those seeking a career in this field?

I could talk all day about this, but here are a few suggestions right off the top of my head:

1. Learn functional anatomy.

2. Read at least one hour per day.

3. Surround yourself with people who are doing what you want to do professionally and personally – good lifters and coaches. Intern, drive hours to train, etc. Build a big network.

4. Read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. It has nothing to do with training, but everything to do with being successful in whatever it is you do. The same goes for “Under the Bar” by Dave Tate.

5. Recognize that you’re more than just a strength coach and be versatile: mobility, regeneration strategies, nutrition, speed training, etc. It’s not just about strength.

6. Work smarter instead of longer. If you train people 12 hours per day, cut back and consolidate your clients into group training sessions. Use the time you’ve freed up to read, call/visit other coaches, and do what it takes to make yourself better. Income is temporary; knowledge sticks around forever.

7. When you’re starting out, read three training books to every one business book. Once you’ve been rolling for a while, shift it to a 1:1 ratio. Learn to leverage the abilities and knowledge you’ve accumulated.

8. Compete in something. Chess. Curling. Anything. Just do whatever it takes to share the competitive mindset with your athletes.

9. Swear less and coach/cue more. Athletes get desensitized to your yelling, and you look like a tool. Almost all of the best coaches I’ve ever seen have been relatively quiet in the weight room; it’s because they coach well at the beginning, so they just needed to sit back and fine-tune tactfully as time goes on.

10. Your #1 responsibility in working with an athlete/client is to not f**k them up. Your #2 responsibility is to provide programming and coaching that will prevent injury. Training to enhance performance is #3, but in every case, attending to #1 and #2 will always get you started on #3.


Perhaps one of the more eternal disputes in who to listen to regarding how to build muscle is the “listen to Mr. X ‘cause he’s jacked/don’t listen to Mr. Y ‘cause he’s scrawny.” The other side of the fence will tell you “size does not always mean one knows how to help others build mass or strength.” Where do you stand on this age-old argument? Does a successful strength coach have to be strong and/or big to be successful and listened to, or should that not be a factor?

I think it’s very important to have under-the-bar knowledge, but it isn’t everything – especially in an era when steroids can make anyone an armchair expert.  Taking up competitive powerlifting made me a better coach, although some people might discredit me because I’m a lightweight competitor (I’m about 190-195 most of the time).  I can do pretty much everything that I demand of my athletes, though, so that to me shows that I have an extra frame of reference.

And, as I mentioned, I started out as a weak beanpole.  Where someone has come from says a lot more about them than where they are.  Experience yields perspective.

Take home message: it takes a combination of book smarts, under the bar knowledge, common sense/intuition, and good communication skills to be a good coach.

How much emphasis would you place on a degree(s) versus certification(s), for those interested in becoming a strength coach?

Well, you need the certification at the very least; it’s just a foot in the door.  I think degrees are worth it, at the very least because they mandate that you take certain courses (anatomy, biomechanics) that include information that all coaches need to know.  Degrees and certifications are really the tip of the iceberg, though; it’s what you do once you have them that is important.

Who are some of your favorite strength coaches ever?

I have learned from a ton of people over the years, so just listing a few would do a lot of them a great disservice.  Here’s a long, but certainly not exhaustive list of those who influenced (and in most cases, continue to influence) me:

Training: Mel Siff, Louie Simmons, Dave Tate, William Kraemer, Mike Robertson, Jim Wendler, Bob Youngs, Chris West, Brijesh Patel, Jeff Oliver, Tony Gentilcore, Mike Boyle, John Sullivan, Alwyn Cosgrove, Jason Ferruggia, David Tiberio, Bill Hartman, Mike Irr, Steve Coppola, Julia and Matt Ladewski, Mike Tufo, John Pallof, Jay Floyd, Jesse Burdick, Eric Talmant, Charles Poliquin, AJ Roberts, Stuart McGill, Landon Evans, Joe DeFranco, Kelly Baggett, Michael Hope, Buddy Morris, Dan John, Brian Grasso, Daryl Conant, Keith Scott, Carl Valle, Joel Marion, Ryan Smith, Mike Stare, TC Luoma, John Romaniello, Dan Boothby, Art Horne, Tom Deebel, Joe Dowdell, Pat Dixon, Tim Skwiat, Sean Skahan, Brian Batherson, and my training partners from over the years (South Side, Excel, UCONN).

Nutrition: John Berardi, Cassandra Forsythe, Chris Mohr, Lyle McDonald, Dave Barr, Erik Ledin, Tom Incledon, Mike Roussell, Jeff Volek

Are you able to give us a rundown of what you’re up to at the moment? Any specific and/or exciting projects?

Things are very busy here in Boston, but there is definitely some new stuff on the horizon.  In addition to our Magnificent Mobility DVD and my Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, Mike Robertson and I will soon be introducing the Building the Efficient Athlete DVD set – a recording of an entire two-day seminar we gave down in New York City in July.


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