6 Principles from Westside-Barbell and Cressey Performance
While each gym caters to a different population, they have both produced elite athletes and rightfully earned the respect of top strength coaches and fitness enthusiasts alike.
This past year I was fortunate enough to train and intern at each of these facilities. I was given the opportunity to not only learn but experience their methods first-hand.
On the surface these gyms may appear to be polar opposites. One is recognized for producing the world’s best Powerlifters and the other for elite baseball development.
What could these two gyms possibly have in common?
Actually…quite a bit.
Despite a range of obvious discrepancies, when broken down to their basic core concepts one will find the similarities between the two far outweigh the differences.
Don’t believe me?
Just keep reading.
This article will detail 6 core principles of training used by both Westside Barbell and Cressey Performance to ensure the continued success of their athletes.
In case you were wondering…incorporating these principles into your training would probably be in your best interest.
1. Improving Maximal Strength
The ability to produce a sufficient amount of force within a given athletic movement is arguably the most important skill set an athlete can acquire.
But why is Maximal Strength so important?
To answer this question we must take into consideration Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion:
Force = Mass x Acceleration or F = ma.
If an athlete is unable to produce an adequate amount of force (F), he/she will be far less equipped to accelerate (a) their own body and/or separate external load (m) throughout a given range of motion.
From a practical standpoint, imagine a sprinter (male or female) who has an insufficient degree of Maximal Strength necessary for optimal performance:
This [weak] sprinter will be unable to produce an adequate amount of force into the ground with each and every step. As a result, this sprinter will be incapable of running at speeds nearing his/her true potential.
In short, developing a high level of Maximal Strength will provide a base off of which subsequent and other necessary strength qualities can be developed.
Finally, it’s worth noting the optimal level of Maximal Strength is highly dependent on the sport in question in addition to the athletes role/position during competition. In other words, some individuals will need to devote more time than others to the improvement of Maximal Strength based on a variety of factors such as genetics, gender, sport being played, and position within that sport.
How Westside Barbell Improves Maximal Strength:
Westside devotes 2 days per week to Maximal Effort training. On these days, Westsider’s will work up to a 1 Repetition Maximum (1RM) in a variation of the Squat or Deadlift and the Bench Press.
How Cressey Performance Improves Maximal Strength:
Generally speaking, the younger and/or less strong athletes dedicate 2-4 days per week to gaining Maximal Strength in variations of the Squat, Deadlift, Pushup, Row, and Chinup.
Sets and repetitions vary from 3-4 sets of 3-6 repetitions with near maximal weight.
As the athletes’ progress and reach a certain level of Maximal Strength, they tend to place a greater emphasis on the development of other strength qualities in addition to remaining injury-free throughout the season.
2. Improving Speed/Rate of Force Development
Rate of Force Development (RFD) refers to how much force can be produced in the shortest amount of time.
To illustrate why a high level of RFD is crucial for success in sport, allow me to refer back to a sprinting example.
Imagine we have two sprinters, Sprinter A and Sprinter B, who are the same height, age, weight, and exhibit analogous levels of Maximal Strength.
The only difference between the two athletes being Sprinter A has developed an extremely high level of RFD while Sprinter B has a relatively low RFD.
If these two otherwise identical athletes were to compete in a 100yd dash, who do you think would win?
Needless to say, Sprinter A would most likely prevail.
Despite both athletes being practically indistinguishable from one another, Sprinter A has a distinct advantage as he/she can not only produce a lot of force, but has the ability to display that force in a shorter period of time!
Simply put, having the capability to move a weight (be it your own body mass or a separate external load) and move it as quickly as possible is of the utmost importance to athletic success.
How Westside Barbell Improves Speed/Rate of Force Development:
To develop a high level of RFD, Westside devotes 2 of their 4 primary training sessions to lifting sub-maximal weights as fast as possible. On these days they perform variations of the Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press at 50-60%1RM and perform the movements at extremely high speeds (roughly .8 meters/second).
Additionally, Westsider’s improve RFD through the use of numerous special exercises such as box jumps.
Here’s a video of World Record holder Laura Phelps jumping onto a 36” box with a 25lb weighted vest.
How Cressey Performance Improves Speed/Rate of Force Development:
At Cressey Performance a large portion of Speed work is performed during the warm-up.
In addition, as the athletes progress they devote more and more time to the development of speed and RFD. For example, in addition to roughly four strength-training sessions per week, some athletes have an additional two “running” sessions which largely consist of various sprinting and footwork drills designed to increase RFD, reactive strength, eccentric strength, and more.
It’s worth noting as athletes gain an appreciable amount of Maximal Strength, they will devote a greater part of their training to Speed work including movements such as Speed Squats vs. Chains.
3. Making Use of Accommodating/Variable Resistance Methods
The benefits of using Accommodating/Variable Resistance Training Methods such as bands and chains are simply too great to be ignored.
Without going into excruciating detail, through the proper use of bands, chains, and other forms of variable resistance, we can “change the external resistive load throughout an exercise’s range of motion.”
In other words, we can literally manipulate the strength-curve of a given movement by adding equipment such as bands and chains.
Bands can be wrapped above or below a barbell and used more or less like a slingshot.
- If they are attached from below, they will increase in tension as you raise the barbell higher thus increasing the difficulty of the lift as a result of increased band tension.
- Similarly, if they are attached from above, they will decrease in tension as you raise the barbell higher thus increasing the difficulty of the lift as a result of more bar-weight being lifted.
Chains can be draped over most equipment in addition to being placed on the athletes body.
- If the chains are draped over a barbell while Squatting, Benching, or Deadlifting, as the bar is raised higher the movement will increase in difficulty as the number of chains being lifted off of the ground continues to increase.
- If the chains are draped over an individual’s back while performing pushups, the pushup will increase in difficulty as they move closer towards the top of the movement as the number of chains being lifted off of the ground continues to increase.
How Westside Barbell Utilizes Accommodating/Variable Resistance Methods:
Westside uses bands and chains throughout all stages of their training.
Bands and chains are used on Max Effort day to increase absolute strength and Dynamic Effort day to improve RFD and acceleration strength.
In addition to using bands and chains on all variations of the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift, they are also used as part of their Accessory Work which is meant to build up any lagging muscle groups, improve work capacity, and develop overall strength.
Of notable significance, Westside uses an extremely high percentage of band resistance during their Circa Maximal Phase which they use in an attempt to peak for competition.
Here are two great videos of Louie describing how to use Bands and Chains:
How Cressey Performance Utilizes Accommodating/Variable Resistance Methods:
Cressey Performance uses bands and chains throughout all stages of training as well.
During the warm-up they’ll perform movements such as band-resisted Heidens.
4. Improving General Physical Preparedness (GPP)
For the purposes of this article, GPP can be defined as the training which focuses on improving an individual’s overall level of fitness. GPP will develop all athletic qualities such as strength, speed, endurance, power, flexibility, and perceptual awareness.
Having an adequate level of overall fitness is absolutely essential for success in sport. Without it an athlete will be unable to train to his/her fullest potential thus increasing risk for injury and/or resulting in decreased performance.
But how does one improve their GPP?
Quite simply, to improve GPP an athlete must target their weaknesses and raise their work capacity.
Rather than delve into numerous methodologies, below I provide brief examples pertaining to how Westside Barbell and Cressey Performance improve GPP within their facilities.
Unsurprisingly, they’re extraordinarily similar.
How Westside Barbell Improves GPP:
As Louie explains HERE, one of Westside’s preferred methods for increasing work capacity and strengthening various muscle groups is through different variations of sled dragging.
Westside will attach the sled to a rope and loop it around their ankles, hips, hands, or neck. From these various positions they will drag the sled walking forward, backward, and side-to-side performing movements for both the upper and lower extremities.
These sled dragging variations improve work capacity and target various muscle groups ranging from the hips, hamstrings, glutes, and abs, all the way to the erectors, upper back, shoulders, and triceps.
Other methods used for improving GPP include pushing a Wheelbarrow, battling chains/ropes, and box jumps.
How Cressey Performance Improves GPP:
To improve GPP Cressey Performance does a lot of work with The Prowler.
In an attempt to avoid accommodation as well as target various muscle groups, they will push the prowler from the front on a high or low setting, pull it walking backwards, or drag it from the side.
Other methods used for improving GPP include sledgehammer swings to a tire, sled pushing, various sprinting drills, foot speed drills, and jumping drills.
5. Improving Special Physical Preparedness (SPP)
For the purposes of this article SPP can be defined as the training which prepares an athlete for the demands of their specific sport. While GPP improves overall fitness, SPP is meant to improve precise athletic function.
Again, rather than outline various SPP methodologies, below I’ll outline how Westside Barbell and Cressey Performance improve SPP with their respective athletes.
How Westside Barbell Improves SPP:
Bearing in mind that Westide’s athletes are looking for improved performance in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift specifically, the majority of their SPP revolves around improving the muscle groups which contribute to those lifts.
As such, Westside’s SPP largely consists of various special exercises which closely resemble the competition movements.
For example, on Max Effort day Westsider’s will work up to a 1RM in a variation of the Squat or Deadlift and the Bench Press. The simple act of straining during these high-load exercises closely resembles the demands of their sport which teaches their central nervous system (CNS) and muscular system to become more efficient.
How Cressey Performance Improves SPP:
The majority of SPP performed at Cressey Performance is geared towards improving performance in Baseball.
As such, their SPP looks drastically different than that of Westside Barbell.
For example, two of the most common forms of SPP performed at Cressey Performance are:
- Throwing weighted baseballs
- Long toss (i.e. throwing very long distances)
Both of these activities have proven to work extremely well for the Cressey Performance athletes, notably in regard to increasing arm speed and remaining healthy during the off-season.
Furthermore, these movements mimic their sport enough to allow for a great carryover, yet are different enough to keep the athletes from suffering the law of accommodation and/or getting injured.
Eric has some great articles on the topic which you can read here.
6. Each Program Must be Tailored to the Individual
Understanding the need for individualization in each and every training program is perhaps the most important lesson I have taken from both Westside Barbell and Cressey Performance.
While prescribing or following a one-size-fits-all program is undoubtedly the easier and less time-consuming option, it is far from optimal.
Whether you’re a Powerlifter looking to add 100lbs to your total, a pitcher trying to gain another 2-3mph on your fastball, or a fitness enthusiast interested in living a healthier and happier lifestyle, the need for individualization is absolutely essential.
How Westside Barbell Individulizes Training Programs:
Each and every lifter at Westside has different strengths and weaknesses which need to be addressed on an individual basis.
As such, you will never find two Westsider’s performing the exact same routine.
Following the main move (be it Max Effort or Dynamic Effort) each lifter will perform specific accessory movements based on their individual weaknesses and goals.
For example, a lifter who needs to gain weight and is weak off the floor while deadlifting might be performing deficit deadlifts and training with a rather high volume.
On the other hand, a lifter who needs to maintain his current weight and is weak at lockout might be using the belt-squat machine and training with a significantly lower volume.
How Cressey Performance Individualizes Training Programs:
Cressey Performance trains athletes of varying ages from very young (roughly 11 years old) all the way up to professional ball players.
Clearly, the need for program individualization is of the utmost importance.
Similar to Westside, each and every trainee will follow a different training program geared towards the individuals’ specific needs and goals.
In addition, however, Cressey Performance assesses every athlete based on their current level of fitness. The athlete is put through a series of movement based tests designed to identify asymmetries, mobility/stability issues, strength levels, injury history, etc. in order to determine the optimal training routine for them.
Considering this article is already excruciatingly long I want to cut it right here, but before I sign off I want leave you with one final thought.
On the surface, Cressey Performance and Westside Barbell may appear to be drastically different from one another.
However, when the training methodologies are broken down to the most basic core concepts we find their systems are based off of many of the exact same principles.
After reading this article I hope you have gained the knowledge to understand there is no magic pill, there is no ideal exercise, nor is there a perfect set/rep scheme.
There are only principles.
Adhere to these principles and implement them appropriately within your individual training routines to see the best gains possible.
Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.