An interview with Bret Contreras

Posted: March 22, 2011 in Interviews

STEVE:  I’m glad we could finally connect for this interview, Bret. I’m not certain, but I feel the majority of my readers are atypical when compared to the average Bret Contreras reader.  They’re not hanging around the bodybuilding and strength coach circles. I’ve many readers who are just starting out on the journey of weight loss, which is why I feel interviewing people like you is great – it gives them exposure to people they otherwise wouldn’t hear about.

Granted, that’s not my entire readership. Body-Improvements as a whole does the strength and conditioning for numerous athletes who will also appreciate what you have to say.

How about we start with a general introduction. Who are you and what do you have going on?

BRET: I’ll make this quick. I’m a 34-year-old guy who used to teach high school math while personal training on the side that left teaching to open up a Scottsdale studio called Lifts and invent a glute machine called the Skorcher. I always wanted to see if people would like what I had to say as a fitness writer, so I wrote an eBook on the glutes and started writing articles for various fitness sources. In the past couple of years, I’ve gotten pretty popular and many trainers and coaches have started using some of my methods with great success. Recently I moved to Auckland, New Zealand to get my PhD in strength and conditioning, and am now surrounded by many great minds in the fields of Biomechanics, Physiology, and Physical Therapy, as well as plenty of quality strength coaches. I have a blog that I maintain at www.BretContreras.com.

STEVE:  Short and sweet, but it also says a lot.  I’m a skeptic by nature, so when you first popped onto the scene I was thinking, “Who the hell is this guy?”  As time went on though, your passion for this field, your knowledge base, and your willingness to continue learning and refining your ideas became very evident.  I’ve to admit… I became a fan.

While you’re serious about the industry, you don’t take yourself too seriously which is a pleasant divergence from what you typically get in this field.  It also makes for some entertaining blogging, which is evidenced by your massively popular blog!  Hopefully you’ll be sharing what you learn along the way in pursuit of your PhD.

Speaking of your continuing education, it proves that you’re interested in bringing up the standards of the industry.  Can you touch on some of the biggest problems you see in this field and where you’d like to see things head in the future?  What can we do to bring up the standards?

BRET: Thank you very much for the kind words! I appreciate that. The biggest problem in the industry today is top fitness professionals assuming that they’re “ahead of the research.” The second biggest problem is that the common trainer or coach develops an idol and follows everything he or she says. Here’s how we can prevent this from happening.

First, fitness professionals need to realize that no single expert or guru comes close to having all the answers. Our profession draws upon so many different fields, including biomechanics, exercise physiology, nutrition, physical therapy, psychology, bodybuilding/hypertrophy, powerlifting/strength, Olympic lifting/power, strongman/functional training, and sport specific training and conditioning. The best any single expert can do is know a little bit about each of these fields and a lot about a particular topic within one of these fields. So there’s no need to idolize anyone.

Second, fitness professionals should expose themselves to a broad range of education, from text books and journal articles, to blogs and magazines, to forums and conferences, to DVD’s and eBooks. Knowing the research well helps you know what’s highly supported versus what’s not supported, which gives you an idea of what is somewhat factual and what is based on opinion. Training yourself and training others gives you a good bullshit meter so you know what to experiment with and what to outright ignore. If something works, then there will eventually be research to support it, and that research will be duplicated several times over. If something is explored by the research and consistently comes up unsupported, then it probably only works via “placebo effect.” No matter how passionate they are about a topic, fitness professionals need to rely on logic, not emotion, and stay “evidence based.”

Third, more fitness professionals should learn the research/peer-reviewed process and start writing review papers, case studies, exercise technique columns, and/or original research articles. I’m just starting to learn the process and I love it. If we simply rely on opinion and emotion, then fads can take off despite the fact that they may not do what they claim to do. 

STEVE:  Great Answer.  I think some of the onus lies with the consumer or client as well, which is unfortunate.  C’est la vie though.    The way the industry is structured, there’s simply not enough incentive for trainers to pursue professional growth and education.  As I explained in my State of the Industry article, consumers vote with their dollars and I’m of the opinion that change starts with them being pickier in terms of what and who they spend their dollars on.

Shifting gears – as I previously mentioned, there are many novice exercises reading this whose goals revolve around looking and feeling better.  They’re typically following the “Cardio Is Gospel” line of thinking and don’t pay much attention, if any at all, to strength training.  A lot of our exercise culture stills seems stuck in the cardio craze era.  Sure, a paradigm shift is happening as more people are “getting under the bar.”  But it’s a slow process.

What can you say to help drive a more balanced approach to shaping a better body?

BRET: Good points, and great follow up question. Regarding training for a better physique, people just need to use common sense. If they envision their perfect body for them, or pick out an individual who they aspire to look like, the body is always lean. Let’s say an individual currently weighs 200 lbs with 25% bodyfat and wants to be 175 with 12% bodyfat. Right now this individual is carrying 150 lbs of lean body mass and 50 lbs of fat. In order to reach his goal, he needs to carry 154 lbs of lean body mass and 21 lbs of fat. This means that he needs to simultaneously gain 4 lbs of muscle while losing 29 lbs of fat! This is very difficult to achieve and will not happen overnight. This person’s ONLY shot at reaching his goals is to perform strength training. People assume that if they lose a ton of weight via doing a bunch of cardio they will hold onto their muscle and burn just fat for weight loss. This is not true. If this individual got down to 175 lbs via solely cardio, he would probably lose a roughly equal amount of muscle tissue and fat for weight loss, which would leave him with around 138 lbs of lean body mass and 37 lbs of fat. This individual is not going to be happy with his physique when he reaches this point. When attempting to lose weight, you want to keep as much muscle as possible and have most of the weight coming off in the form of fat loss.

STEVE:  Thanks Bret.  It’s that whole weight vs. fat loss thing.  Genetics are going to primarily dictate what comes off as fat vs. what comes off as muscle.  But we need to do what’s in our control in the muscle preservation department and this involves lifting sufficiently heavy weights and eating adequate protein.

Speaking of lifting weights, what words do you have for the novice entering the weight room for the first time?  You’ve high vs. low reps, full body vs. split routines, machines vs. free weights, isolation vs. compound exercises, fast vs. slow reps, one set vs. multiple sets and so much more.  It can be daunting to figure out a reasonably logical first step when it comes to strength training.  Can you translate the “gibberish” into something applicable for the novice?

BRET: I certainly can. One thing that all camps can agree on is that full body workouts are superior for beginners. Beginners are not very strong or coordinated, so they don’t get taxed as much when they first embark on resistance training. Full body workouts will allow beginners to train more frequently and start engraining motor programs so they can rapidly improve their motor unit activation, firing frequency, synchronization, GTO disinhibition, and muscle spindle sensitization, in addition to intra and intermuscular coordination. After their nervous systems start to work better, hypertrophy gains are sure to follow. Four to six full body workouts per week are ideal.

As far as load, sets, reps, and intensiveness are concerned, here’s my take. Beginners can make good gains from using a relatively light load, even as low as 40% of their 1RM. As time goes on, the load must increase (up to 100% in advanced lifters depending on the goal). So the goal should be to start feeling comfortable with increasingly heavier weight while maintaining ideal technical form. If they go too heavy, their motor program development will be disturbed which will do more harm than good. In addition, the beginner runs the risk of suffering from musculoskeletal injury as their tissues have not sufficiently adapted to resistance training. It takes time to build up the body’s tissues so maximal loading should be avoided right off the bat. However, beginners don’t need to go super light either. They need to continuously challenge their systems by ramping up the weight while remaining very stable and not allowing energy leaks, which is quite difficult for beginners. The higher training frequencies employed by beginners allows them plenty of opportunity for variety in sets and reps, so fluctuation is encouraged. For example, one day a beginner could do 3 sets of 12 reps, another day could involve 4 sets of 8 reps, and another day could involve 5 sets of 5 reps. Pyramiding can also be employed, for example 4 sets of 12,10,8, and 6 reps. As you can see, multiple sets are ideal for beginners, and moderate rep ranges are typically employed, ranging from around 6 to 12 repetitions. Reps should be taken to failure with one caveat. “Failure” occurs much sooner in a set for a beginner than it does for an advanced lifter, since failure means, “the point at which technical form breaks down more than 10%.” This will ensure that the lifter doesn’t get too beat up so they can still train hard the following session, while also ensuring that poor motor programs don’t start to develop.

In order to use proper form, beginners need to possess adequate joint flexibility and motor control. Many times beginners don’t understand why they can’t squat deep or maintain a proper hip hinge while deadlifting. Proper instruction and use of corrective exercise is extremely important at this critical stage as motor programs are being developed right from the get-go. It’s much more difficult to learn proper technique after one has already “mastered” faulty technique. Beginner routines should consist of mostly compound bodyweight and free weight exercises to maximize neural adaptations and increase the functioning of the neuromuscular system’s stabilizing role. Beginners must learn how to control movement through full ranges of motion. The best exercises for beginners are squats, deadlifts, lunges, hip thrusts, push ups, chin ups, dips, inverted rows, planks, and side planks. Moderate repetition speeds should be used up front with an emphasis on eccentric control. A 1 second concentric phase, 1 second isometric phase, and 2 second eccentric phase seems ideal for beginners.

Of course, the aforementioned information is just a set of guidelines, and rules were meant to be broken. For example, a beginner might not be able to perform chin ups right off the bat. By employing 3 sets of slow negatives each session for several weeks, eventually the beginner will be able to perform a concentric chin up. This process can and should be employed, rather than putting the beginner on the lat pulldown machine and sticking with 4 sets of 10 with a moderate rep speed.

STEVE:  Thanks for your thoughts on the subject and I have one spin-off question.  I’m not sure if you have experience working with obese folks, but if you do (and even if you don’t), how would your exercise recommendations change in the resistance training department?

BRET: I’m very glad you asked this question, as I have tons of experience working with obese folks and I’m very passionate about the topic. In fact, I have 2 different clients who lost over 100 pounds! Here are some things I’ve noticed.

1. This goes without saying, but nutritional counseling is paramount with this population.

2. Bodyweight lower body exercises are perfect with this population up front – you can start with high box squats, glute bridges, 45 degree back extensions, and low step ups, progress to low box squats, shoulder and feet elevated hip thrusts, and medium height step ups, and then eventually add load and begin doing more advanced exercises such as dynamic lunges. Rack pulls and trap bar deadlifts can be performed right off the bat as well. It takes considerable time for this population to be strong and stable enough to perform advanced exercises like Bulgarian split squats, single leg hip thrusts, and single leg RDL’s due to the extreme stability requirements at the hip joint in particular as the hip moves into flexion. Sled pushing is a good idea for obese individuals as well.

3. As for upper body exercises, dumbbells and barbells can be used for pressing and rowing, and bands can be used for assistance with chin up variations. The strong bands from Elitefts come in handy for this purpose.

4. Core exercises should include planks, short-lever side planks, and Pallof presses.

5. There’s absolutely no need do plyometrics or explosive work with this population as the risks outweigh the benefits. Wait until their bodyweight drops sufficiently to start prescribing plyos, ballistics, and explosive work. Even jump roping or short sprint work is too much for obese folks.

6. The strength training workout they do is a form of high-intensity interval training. If you weigh 300 lbs and you perform 20 box squats, your heart rate will be through the roof. I like alternating between sets of lower body and upper body exercises with this group as it allows them more rest while keeping the heart rate elevated. If they come 3 times per week to train with you, they’re doing 3 HIIT sessions per week. Just have them do low-intensity cardio as homework on off-days and always encourage them to stick to the diet. Having them purchase a kettlebell and doing circuits as “homework” is a good idea as well.

7. Don’t spend time with foam rolling, mobility and activation work, and static stretching with this population. If you have them for an hour, spend the entire hour on building strength in the medium rep ranges, which will simultaneously build power, flexibility, and conditioning (at least initially it will).

8. Always keep in mind the psychological component to training obese individuals.

I’ve only watched the show “The Biggest Loser” one time in my life and I witnessed something horrible. This was several years ago, and the trainer was having obese clients hold themselves in a push up position for time and doing step ups. One of the girls was unable to hold herself up in a push up position and couldn’t do a step up correctly either. The trainer was yelling at her and telling her that she doesn’t want it badly enough.

This infuriated me. The girl’s inability to stabilize herself in a push up position and perform a proper step up had nothing to do with desire; it had to do with fitness. She wasn’t currently strong enough to do what the trainer prescribed, yet rather than realizing this and owning up to it, the retarded trainer made an already insecure individual feel even worse about herself and inevitably did more harm than good. Trainers like this make me sick. Our job is to start out very easy and make progressions while complimenting individuals so they feel good about themselves and build self-confidence. We need to create a positive environment surrounded with praise, good feelings, confidence-boosters, and progression.

Obese individuals already feel horrible about themselves. They’re self-esteem is usually very low. They don’t need to be yelled at, ridiculed, or “broken-down.” Take them to the edge of their current fitness abilities, praise them, and teach them the relationships between diet adherence and fitness gains to scale measurements and body composition.

STEVE:  Great answer, Bret.  Parts of the Biggest Loser infuriate me as well.  I can’t say that I watch the show, but I’ve seen it a few times.  I think besides the problem of sensationalism driving the show’s content, you also have what appear to be very ignorant trainers guiding the contestants.  I’m sure they were selected based on looks and personality rather than experience and knowledge.

I will admit though – it seems that many folks derive motivation from the show.  It gives them hope.  I simply wish the show’s producers would use their platform for what we’ll call realistic education and expectations.

Two more questions and we’ll wrap this up. First, can you highlight one or two of the biggest mistakes you see people making in the gym?

BRET: The biggest problem in gyms today is the lack of knowledge about fundamental movement. People can’t squat deep to save their lives, they can’t hinge at the hips, they can’t stabilize their cores. Rather than correcting dysfunction and mastering bodyweight, they start piling on plates and loading up their crappy form. As Gray Cook would say, this just puts fitness onto dysfunction. I like to say it gets them better at sucking. Eventually they can quarter squat and round back deadlift 400 pounds, but can’t do a bodyweight full squat or hip hinge correctly, and their joints break down.

The second biggest problem is insufficient knowledge of program design. Exercises are usually not to blame for injuries; it’s improper form or programming. Most lifters prioritize pressing at the expense of pulling. They fail to include stability exercises for the hips, spine, scapulae, and shoulders. Their programs don’t move their ankles, hips, shoulders, and thoracic spines through full ranges of motion. Eventually soft tissue shortens, force couples get out of whack, and injuries occur.

Powerlifters, bodybuilders, Olympic lifters, strongmen, and even weekend warriors tend to be stubborn and stick to their traditional ways. But they can learn something from the strength coaches and physical therapists who know how to keep athletes healthy. Do some foam rolling/SMR, perform some mobility and activation work, stretch a little bit here and there, learn proper form, and make sure programs have structural balance. This will keep lifters healthy and consistent and increase their chances of success.

STEVE:  Couldn’t agree more!  I don’t want to take anymore of your time so let’s wrap this up with a question about you.  What can we expect from Bret Contreras going forward?  Are you working on anything new or are you simply focusing on getting your doctorate?  And what does life post-school look like for you, assuming you’re thinking that far ahead?  Based on your latest blog post, you definitely are doing a lot of writing!

BRET: I’m just going to keep plugging away and see where life takes me. Half of me wants to open up an athletic training facility, part of me wants to be a research professor, and part of me just wants to dance! In all seriousness, the benefit of climbing the ranks as an “expert” in this industry is that more windows of opportunity appear and it’s easy to have numerous revenue streams. One thing is for certain, I never want to stop learning. Thanks for the interview Steve; I appreciate it.

STEVE:  Well I wish you the best of luck, though something tells me you won’t be needing it.  Wherever life takes you, I hope that you continue to share your thoughts and knowledge.  Thanks for your time, Bret.

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Comments
  1. CJ says:

    Bret! You are a so on point and it’s a pleasure following you. Keep kicking butt! After all you are the glute guy!;)

  2. […] Gordon Kocher and Steve Troutman interview Bret Contreras […]

  3. unusual says:

    elite blog! I’ve bookmarked it and I’ll beback to read more in the future.

  4. yeah that was well said, I think your a good writer

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