Off-Season Training for Athletes with Eric Cressey

Q&A with Eric Cressey

Precision Nutrition: I remember, years ago now, you wrote an article for called Budgeting for Bodybuilders. I loved that article, because a lot of times that’s people’s main excuse for not doing this stuff: “I can’t afford it.” You always seem to be coming up with these cool ways of approaching problems, even tackling the problem outside the gym. I think “strength coach” doesn’t quite capture what you do. If you had to give yourself a different title, what would it be?

Eric Cressey: That’s a good question, I often get another one that gets tossed around a lot now, “Performance Enhancement Specialist.” But even then, I’m not sure that expresses the right sentiment. [Laughs.] But you do these days end up going beyond strength and conditioning, you do end up doing budgeting, because there is a cost associated with this stuff, or sports management, or sports psychology, and you’re working with athletic trainers and head coaches and so many different specialists, and you have to be able to understand where they’re all coming from. So the fitness industry does need to find some way of better classifying people, but I’m not sure there’s an easy way to do it. But it’s funny, when I wrote that article, I actually wanted to be an accountant. [Laughs.] But I realized about two years into business school that I was more interested in counting plates on the bar than numbers and figures in an office all day. So it worked out well, I got into sports management and exercise science, the things I was more passionate about.

PN: What did your counselor in high school tell you you’d be?

EC: Actually, it’s interesting because I didn’t take any science classes in my last year of high school. I was pretty dead set on accounting. I have three accountants in my family, so it might have been genetic or something. I just liked the black and white, crunch-the-numbers aspect of it, and I remember my counselor was all for it. Accounting is a career path that counselors feel comfortable recommending and supporting. I did well in math, I did well in accounting classes, so studying to be an accountant was the next logical step. But I had some health problems near the end of high school and in my freshman year of college, and as a result I lost a lot of weight. It was one of those critical life experiences, and I wanted to gain it back and gain it back the right way. And in doing that, I started to realize how passionate I was, not only about the exercise part of it, but about nutrition as well. So I started to figure out how to put it all together. And ultimately I discovered, and I started talking more and more with John Berardi, and that led to that first article. And it just kind of snowballed from there. It’s been an interesting couple of years, that’s for sure.

PN: Do you remember the first day you picked up a weight?

EC: I do, actually. This is the irony of it all. I was in eighth grade, and my brother, who was a senior in high school at the time, he was a pretty big guy at the time. He was into lifting and everything. He brought me into the high school weight room after school one day. And the irony of it is that now my brother’s an accountant, and he weighs about a buck thirty-five, a buck forty. [Laughs.] He doesn’t really lift any more, not as much as he should, and here I am making a profession of it, and competing as a powerlifter. Times change I guess. But that first day, yeah, it was during one of those stages where you want to piss off your parents, whether it’s right or not. And so I had grown my hair out nice and long, and I have really wiry, curly hair, so it was pretty much a big afro. And I was kind of a pudgy kid at the time. Sure enough I go in and get on the bench press, and it was like a 45 pound bar, and I just got pinned. So here’s this big kid, big afro, beet red face, just squirming like a fish out of water under the bar. [Laughing.] So I’m sure they got a good laugh out of it. But in retrospect, it was a pretty influential moment.

PN: Do you remember maybe your worst mishap in the gym?

EC: Oh yeah, sure. I’ve done some silly stuff. But looking back, it’s always taught me something. I’d say probably the biggest downer was when I pulled 400 pounds for the first time back in 2002, and then about a week later I was in the gym doing my warmup sets on a cold November day, and I was anxious to get back to the house and watch some football, so I didn’t warm up like I should have. And I ended up herniating my L5-S1 disc doing a warm up set of 185. [Laughs.] A long story short, I ended up learning a lot about lower back rehabilitation, I did all my own rehab, and I wound up bouncing back. And I’m pulling right around 650 right now. So in retrospect, it was really a blessing in disguise. You never think it’s going to be like that, but that’s how it goes, you know. I learned so much about how to warm up properly, and it turned out that I had some imbalances that were predisposing me to the problem in the first place. But hindsight is 20/20. Like I said, I learned a lot from the experience.

PN: Do you remember maybe your best day, a day where you thought to yourself, “Yep, this is what I want to do”?

EC: Oh yeah, I have those all the time. A lot of them for me have been as a coach, and not just as a lifter. I mean, I’ve had meets where I went 8 for 9, you know, really performed well and everything. Times when I really felt in sync. But I’ve felt it more so as a coach, you know, you get in the groove, and you barely realize you’re having so much fun, because you’re so into what you’re doing. But from a lifter’s standpoint, my first meet stands out, it really had a big impact on how my career went, and it forced me to look at how I did things and really change for the better. I had a lot of experienced lifters who I’d never met before take me under their wing, teach me things I didn’t really know. I learned about the fitness-fatigue model, and how you know, I had accumulated a lot of fatigue over the years, and maybe that bodybuilding stuff had caught up to me. So it was really critical to just get out there and compete for the first time, to go through the whole process.

PN: You work one-on-one with a ton of athletes as sort of a cross between strength coach and physical therapist. Where do you fit in along that spectrum?

EC: Well I’m not a therapist, I’m not a PT or anything like that, but that’s a good question because a lot of what I do does fall somewhere between the two ends. I think I have a keen eye for dysfunction, and helping out with that. I mean, if someone tears a labrum, there’s not a whole lot I can do about that, but what I can do is look at someone and see a scapular dysfunction that might make them susceptible to a tear, and I can definitely work with that. And at the other end of the spectrum, you know, often you have people getting acute treatments from the medical profession, and you still have to know how to produce a training effect in the meantime. You still have to shore up the weaknesses and deficiencies that got them there in the first place, and that’s where I come in, I think. A lot of people don’t realize that 80% of Americans have back pain at some point in their lives. But we can’t send 80% of the population to physical therapy. There’s a lot we can do to address that in the gym, so I see myself covering that gap. But at the same time, I’ve got plenty of athletes who are healthy and just looking to improve their performance, so that’s still a big part of what I do.

PN: Who are you doing most of your work with these days?

EC: Everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors, I’ve worked with NBA guys, NFL combine guys, D1 baseball guys. Athletes of all ages, really. Boston has a big endurance training community, so I work with a lot of cyclists, runners, and triathletes. And I really enjoy working with my high school athletes. Actually we’re just going to start working with the Blue Man group next week, so that will be interesting. So it’s not even just athletes. I’m lucky, I get a lot of variety in my day.

PN: Were you always strong and athletic growing up?

EC: No, I wasn’t necessarily your typical athletic kid. I didn’t really eat very well. But I was always out there, moving around, doing a lot of different things, so I was athletic, but I didn’t really get into weight training until after high school. So I didn’t have that early start that some people had. But I feel like I’ve still got a lot of good years ahead of me, I’m still making good progress. And I find it exciting, you know, because I’m always trying out different methodologies and things like that. I do consider myself an athlete first and a powerlifter second. I’m not really sure that I want to be a powerlifter forever, I might want to try some strongman soon, or do some vertical jump stuff, you know, I just want to go out there and enjoy being athletic. It’s cool training around here, because I’ll jump in with the athletes and train with them too. I just want to keep pushing myself, keep trying new things, and keep going for many years to come.

PN: Yeah, you’re still pretty young – what’s your secret to national recognition at such a young age?

EC: Probably sacrificing the social life, I’d say. [Laughs.] No, I’ve just been really fortunate, and I’m lucky enough to have a job I love. I get to train athletes. To me, there’s nothing better than that. But if there’s one thing, I think it’s that I keep trying to learn more. I’m not satisfied with what I know now. One of the problems with training clients and charging an hourly rate is that you get working so hard, you’re training clients all the time, and yeah it may be all well and good from an income standpoint, but you’re not really continuing to educate yourself. You train people all day, go to sleep, wake up in the morning and do it again. And that does you no favors. Where’s your chance to read? Where’s your chance to call other coaches, or attend seminars, or things like that? So for me, the Internet has actually been helpful in the sense that it’s opened my life up to other opportunities to get better as a coach. So I’ll try to regularly set aside a day to go travel, maybe up to UConn or to see Mike Boyle over at BU, or even set aside a day to call other coaches just to talk about what they’re doing, what I’m doing, what’s working and what’s not working. So that’s helpful. A lot of trainers can get swept up in training people and don’t leave the time for continuing education. But apart from the time commitment, I think I also approach things from a writer’s mindset, I’m always looking for new ways to do things, new insights and interesting ideas to bring to the public, and I think that forces me to stay on the ball. And the thing about writing for the Internet is that you get instant feedback. I mean I’m sure you guys see this, you publish something and you can get people from all over the world giving you feedback instantaneously, and it pushes you to respond to them, to address their questions and to refine your ideas. There’s no other way I could get that kind of feedback in person, and I definitely couldn’t get it in those kinds of numbers. There’s no other way to test your programs and ideas on a sample size that large. So on the Internet you have more opportunities to test out your ideas and see if they have merit. And it’s iterative, you can go back and forth, bring things from the net into the gym with your local athletes, and from the local athletes back to the net and that huge sample size, constantly testing and refining. You guys have probably found the same thing with nutrition. So the web has played a big role in speeding up the process for me, for sure.

PN: Speaking of nutrition, how big a part does nutrition play into what you do on a daily basis, both personally as an athlete and professionally as a coach?

EC: It’s huge, in fact I don’t think people realize how important it is to their overall progress. The overwhelming majority of problems we see in our society are related to systemic inflammation to some degree. Just look at omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, I’ve seen people dramatically improve arthritis and a number of other conditions with just the addition of fish oil. And really it just comes down to this: if you put junk in your body, you’re going to get junk results. When I was writing this program for the Precision Nutrition members, one of the first things I say in there is that, you know, this is a good program, but it will be an incredible program if you dial in your nutrition. And that’s what Precision Nutrition is all about. We sit down and have conversations with all of our combine guys, and we say to them flat out, “For the next couple of months, you’re going to drop what you’re doing now cold turkey, and you’re going to eat the way we tell you to eat.” We have this one kid who just started up with us, and the first meeting, he walks in with Twizzlers in one hand and M&M’s in the other. [Laughs.] And the thing is sometimes they can get away with it for a short time, or while you’re young. This kid in particular is lean, he’s a monster in the gym. But so is everyone else at the highest level, and if you want to beat those guys, you can’t leave any stone unturned. You’ve got to provide your body with the raw materials it needs to push the outer limits of human performance. If your nutrition is poor, or mediocre, or just okay, and really for most athletes it is, then you have a lot of untapped potential in there. There’s a big difference between acceptable and optimal, and it’s those who realize that and take that step who really set themselves apart.

PN: You have almost an obsession with biomechanics. Were you calculating joint forces on your GI Joes at age 6?

EC: No, I hope not. [Laughs.] Maybe subsconsciously I was. But for me the real turning point was when I transferred out of business school to do my exercise science degree at the University of New England, which happened to have one of the best medicine programs in the country. And so I got to take Gross Anatomy, and I spent 6 months of my life working with cadavers. I was surrounded by physical therapists, athletic trainers, occupational therapists, pre-med students. I was immersed in an environment where anatomy was first and foremost. And then I started to learn how the body moves, I started going beyond the anatomy itself. Structure dictates function, and function obviously dictates dysfunction, so it’s important to differentiate between functional anatomy and the stuff you find in an anatomy textbook. The body isn’t a two-dimensional sheet of paper. You also have to understand compensation patterns, things like that, and the only way to do that is to look at a lot of different athletes, to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. And that’s led to a lot of the things that Mike [Robertson] and I have done, like the seminars and DVDs. It’s not just about origin, insertion, innervation and action, it’s also about what happens when muscle A doesn’t work. What does muscle B do to compensate? Does it shut down, or ball up, etc? And most importantly, what can you do to correct it?

PN: Speaking of which, you guys have put out some great stuff. We recommend the Magnificent Mobility DVD and the Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual to all our athletes. What inspired you to put these together, and what else can we expect from you in the future?

EC: Well, I guess the Mobility DVD was kind of the first step in all of this, and for Mike and I it was our first venture into information products. There’s a lot of stuff that we use with our clients and athletes, and also just stuff that we picked up from our interactions with physical therapists, chiropractors, and a lot of others professionals. And so this was a comprehensive way to bring all of those ideas together. The cool thing about it was, when we originally introduced it, it was intended to be sort of a warm-up DVD, something to teach people how to get the body moving more efficiently, something to get people prepared before they lift, but after the fact we got all this feedback and email from people saying things like, “Hey thanks guys, my hamstring problem is gone,” or, “Awesome, my back doesn’t hurt now.” And we never intended it to be a rehabilitation program. We hoped it would have a moderate impact, but we never promoted it as some sort of way to treat injuries. But sure enough people were contacting us and thanking us for having solved this or that problem. That was a little unexpected to be honest, but very cool. So it’s been pretty successful. You know, it’s funny though, after that was published, I kind of got labeled, “The Mobility Guy.” People want to pigeonhole you. So the Off-Season Manual is nice because it allows people to see the overall programming for athletes, and mobility work is maybe 3-5% of that. The Off-Season Manual opens people up to the other 95% of what I do with our athletes. Everything has its place, and it’s important to get perspective, to see what components are involved and to see what the place is for each component that goes into preparing an athlete for elite sport. So that’s what the Off-Season Manual does, it looks at the complete program, and that’s been a lot of fun for me.

PN: What are your ultimate career and athletic goals?

EC: Well, athletically, I think competing as a strongman would be fun. I mean, ultimately I’d like to be a guy who can say I deadlifted 700 pounds, I had a 40” vertical, and I competed as a strongman. To me that would be ideal. I like the variety. And also, I train athletes with a lot of different goals, and I want to have a frame of reference for everything that they have to go through. So I think having that experience and staying competitive will help me with my athletes. Professionally, you know, I never expected the Internet stuff to take off like this. I actually had to bring someone on to help me with it, because I don’t have it in me to be an Internet-only kind of guy. I need to be in the gym, or on the field, I need to be working with athletes. I have to train people. I’m a coach first and foremost, a writer or whatever else second. I would ideally love to work with athletes all day, and that’s pretty much where I’m going. So I’d just like to stay the course and see where it goes, keep giving everything I’ve got to any athlete who’s motivated enough to put in the work, and just let it snowball from there. Hopefully that somehow that results in a huge empire. [Laughs.]

PN: If you had a dream client, what kind of attitude would you want them to have?

EC: If you read Brian Grasso’s stuff, he talks about how you can classify every athlete according to motivation and skill. So obviously your high motivation, high skill athlete is ideal. The low motivation athlete, you definitely don’t want to work with those. They need to convince themselves that they need to be there before you can help them. Personally, I like any athlete with high motivation, whether they’re low skill or high skill doesn’t matter. The difference is that it’s pretty easy to bring the low skill guys up if they’re motivated. And I like a challenge, so I really enjoy working with the high skill guys because it really pushes you to be that much better. Because really if you’re working with low skill athletes, you can give them mediocre programs and they’re still going to get better. But I’m working with a kid now, for example, who squats 675 at just under 200 pounds. He’s a D-III kid who wants to go to the NFL. And it’s going to be a big stretch for him. He’s a great weight room guy, great attitude, but he’s coming from a D-III program, so he’s not going to get the attention he deserves. So he’s high motivation, high skill. So that pushes me, I’ve got to put together an optimal program for him. It’s not going to do much for him to take his squat from 675 to 700. Does that really matter in the grand scheme of things? Not really. What I need to do is look at the other components that are really going to make him better, because he’s so strong it might actually be slowing him down out there. So we’re doing a lot of work with rate of force development, hit mobility, pure soft tissue work, a lot of reactive stimuli, things like that. What would work for a high motivation, low skill athlete, there’s no way it would work for him. So it forces me to really be on the ball with my program, to adapt my programming a lot quicker, and I like that a lot. And typically a high motivation, high skill athlete will come in and they’ll have questions. They don’t just want to know what, they want to know why, they want to know when, they want to know everything they can do to get better. And luckily we’ve got a lot of guys down here who are great like that.

PN: What’s the common denominator among those who achieve the lofty goals they set for themselves, be it in strength training or athletics, fat loss, whatever — what separates them for the rest?

EC: I think the key is synergy among all the different components. They understand how the nutrition interacts with training, how it interacts with supplementation, with warm ups, soft tissue work, all that. Everything. And that to a large extent is how we try to model our business. Working with Carl Valle, Carl’s an excellent strength coach, obviously, he’s excellent with recovery protocols, regeneration, etc., and that really complements my abilities, like biomechanics, building maximal strength, working with athletes in the weight room context. So I know that in a combine situation, for example, we might have a kid in, and I can help him with his diet and do all this weight room work, and when the time is right, we can pass him out to the track and Carl can do more work with him out there. And all along, Carl is optimizing his recovery. It’s critical to have your bases covered, to have that synergistic process. These days, the ones that don’t have that are likely going to fall short. And for the lay population, people who don’t have one-on-one coaches covering all these different facets all the time, those are the people who really need to go out and get smart about all these areas. They need to learn everything they can about nutrition and nutrient timing, training methodologies, supplementation, and how they all interact. If you can do that and put it into practice every day, you’ll accomplish way more than you ever thought possible.

PN: Eric, thanks again for taking time out of your day, and thanks again for the fantastic program you put together for the Precision Nutrition members. We really appreciate it.

EC: No worries, great chatting with you. It’s been my pleasure.

Our thanks to Eric for all his hard work in putting together this program for our members. To learn more about Eric, visit his website at Eric can also be found training clients at Excel Sport & Fitness in the Boston area, and is the co-creator of the Magnificent Mobility DVD and the author of the Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual for athletes, both of which are uniformly excellent and highly recommended.

Program Design For Women with Krista Scott Dixon

Q & A with Krista Scott-Dixon

Precision Nutrition: You have a very unique career. You’re a professor, a researcher, a writer, a coach, and more: it’s a mix of academia with all kinds of expertise outside the classroom, like for example your expertise in health and fitness. So I’m curious: what career did your guidance counselor suggest for you?

Krista Scott-Dixon: Wow, that’s a really good question. I actually thought I wanted to be an artist for a while. I did my undergrad in fine arts. I guess because my father was an academic, I always had a sense that I would at least get my PhD. I don’t know that I had a clear plan that I was going to be an academic, per se, but I always sort of had the sense that I would go on and do a PhD, so I would always have this home in academia. But yeah, originally I thought I would be an artist.

PN: Did you ever take those tests that tell you what you’re supposed to be?

KSD: I remember those, it was something like I should go into social services, or something. Like I’d be a teacher, that was another thing people figured I’d be, and I guess I kind of am now. Some kind of social service or teaching job, I guess. And certainly no one ever suggested health and fitness, because I was always like the last-pick-for-the-team kinda person. Actually, no, I was never the last, I was always like the second last. There’s almost always someone worse off than you. [Laughs.] But yeah, certainly health and fitness would not have been up there.

PN: In a number of places you talk about “coming out” as a feminist. Is there pressure not to be one?

KSD: Oh totally. Totally. I think if you move in certain circles, like if you’re part of the liberal elite, it’s not really such a bad thing, but there’s such misunderstanding about it, and there are so many negative connotations about it. You know, when you go outside your little urban world, people are afraid of that word. They associate it with such negative things. Even my students, when they tell their families, or their friends or their boyfriends or whatever, that they enrolled in a women’s studies course, their friends and families freak. They’re like, “I can’t believe you’re taking that.” There’s just so much stigma. And that’s not even naming yourself as a feminist, that’s just taking a course. It’s brutal. So every year we have to deal with the fallout from some family fights. [Laughs.] And breakups happen – literally, I’m not kidding. It’s just very bizarre. So yeah, there is a lot of pressure, and I think that’s because of the negative connotations people have with the term if they’re not familiar with the area.

PN: Most of the problems we face are multi-factorial. On your site, you tell your readers and students that they can mix women’s studies with other studies, be they medicine, law, economics, etc. And certainly you’ve done that yourself with health and fitness. Do you think in general that we’re too narrow-minded and contained in education today?

KSD: That’s an interesting question. I do definitely think there tends to be a focus on purity of discipline, and so people tend to be quite resistant to the idea that you would work across disciplines. Engineering is one example I can think of that’s very rigid about it. Like, if you’re in engineering, you don’t do humanities or anything else like that, you just do engineering. And not only do you just do engineering, you’re taught to think everything outside engineering is crap. [Laughs.] And many universities are heavily invested in this. You actually have discussions like, “Where is sociology going, and how can we make it real sociology again?” People are really, really into that purity. And I think the concept of interdisciplinary work is threatening to a lot of people. York University is a bit different, because they do talk about interdisciplinary work, and that’s sort of their brand, if you will. Not that it’s necessarily always deployed in real life. But I do definitely think that interdisciplinary studies are frowned up, especially between the arts and sciences. There’s science on the one hand, and then there’s sort of a devaluing of what humanities can offer.

PN: What got you interested originally in health and fitness?

KSD: Hmmm. Well, my mom used to be a science teacher, she has a science degree – and her science degree was food science. So she taught regular science, like chemistry and all that sort of stuff, but also she had worked as a nutritionist. And so we had a very science-oriented household. Like, we didn’t say, “I have to go pee,” we’d say, “I have to urinate.” [Laughs.] Or like on family vacations, we’d walk down the beach, and there’d be something gross on the beach like a jellyfish or something. And my mother would pick it up, and look at it, and tell us all about jellyfish. So there was a science-friendly mindset. And also a lot of emphasis placed on things like eating right and being active. Not that either of my parents were athletes or anything. But you would just go for a walk every night, that kind of stuff, and that’s just how it was done. Or you would eat vegetables because that’s the right thing to do, so that was kind of the value that circulated in my house. And the interest in science was something that I shared with my mother. So if I had to kind of pinpoint the origins, that where I would say it came from. But certainly I was never interested in athletics, or team sports, or anything like that. I was very averse to those. And then, I guess I got interested in weight training in high school when I had a chance to take a weight training course. That was something that was kind of different from the other team sports. Because I can’t throw a ball. Actually, I’m a good thrower, not a good catcher. [Laughs.] Anything that involves catching a ball is just disastrous for me. But individual sports, I was actually pretty good at, like gymnastics or whatever. And in the moments I was able to participate in that, I really enjoyed it.

PN: Do you remember the first day you picked up a weight?

KSD: No . . . but I remember my first entrance into the weight room. I was in grade nine, and I was taking an aerobics class as my gym class, it was like an all-girls aerobics class, and one day there was some reason we couldn’t use the gym so the gym teacher took us to the weight room instead. And I remember sitting in there, and there were a couple of older girls in there, and they looked really cool. And one of them was talking about how she wanted to be a female bodybuilder. And I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever. I guess that would be my first sort of moment in the weight room.

PN: Most of your readers and probably the vast majority of people you’ve helped know you exclusively through the web. How do you think the advent of the web has changed the fitness industry?

KSD: Well, you know it’s interesting. I think it’s been a little bit contradictory in certain ways. It’s been so good in so many ways, because it’s enabled connections and knowledge exchange that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. For instance, I got to be on a conversational basis with Mel Siff, and people have emailed me over the years, like Dave Draper, whom I never would have met otherwise. And whom I may or may not ever meet in person. But you can build these relationships online, relationships that wouldn’t otherwise be built because of geographical location. And you wouldn’t talk to people who are professionals, necessarily, like Michael Yessis, or someone like that – you wouldn’t have access to them. So there’s been that.

And also, the access to information now is so much better. You can get on PubMed and read studies and abstracts. I get the tables of contents of physiology journals emailed to me every month, so I don’t even have to go looking for it. It’s just that much easier. So there’s that too.

But then of course, you have this proliferation of crap. Sites that are all about selling stuff. And you’re still confronted with the problem of knowing what’s good information and what’s not.

PN: Hey, we sell stuff! [Laughs.] But seriously, where do you think the balance is? We had a woman email us the other day, and for whatever reason she was like, “How dare you not offer free advice?” And I was thinking . . .

KSD: Did she miss

PN: Yeah exactly, I was thinking, perhaps you missed the over 200 free articles we’ve put online?

KSD: No kidding!

PN: Well, yeah and for Precision Nutrition customers we have this whole free forum, and all kinds of other stuff, like the training program you designed. In any case, people take this very seriously. On the one hand you want to help people, and on the other hand if you’re doing this professionally, you have to make a living. So where do you think that line is drawn?

KSD: You know it’s interesting because a lot of it relates to people’s expectations of things. In my case, people are often surprised to find that it is free . . .

PN: And it’s awesome, your site is so comprehensive.

KSD: And your site too! People are often surprised when stuff is free. So it’s an interesting question. Sometimes people feel that if you’re not charging for it, it’s not worthwhile. On the other hand there’s sometimes that sense of entitlement to free stuff. So it’s hard to balance it, I guess. I always send people to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nutritional Programs, like constantly. It’s one of my favorite links to send people to, because it just lays it out so clearly. If John ever takes that article down, I’m screwed. [Laughs.]

PN: Well, it’s funny because I remember back in the early days, before a lot of the big fitness websites had taken off, I remember that people used to recommend two sites. One was, and the other was your site, A lot of people would link to those two sites in their signatures. Obviously it’s great for women, but I remember even some of the stubborn old men of the early web days were like, “Yeah, a lot of it is for chicks, but you’ll still learn a lot.” So they would recommend it anyway, even begrudgingly. So tell me a bit about your site, and how it came about.

KSD: Well my site started I think in 1996. Because I had taken this weight training course in high school – and the guy who taught it was a real advocate of women’s training – I knew when I decided to start the site that the information I was finding elsewhere on the web was crap. I also knew where to find good information, because I worked at a university, and I could go and read academic textbooks on physiology, coaching, kinesiology, and so forth. So I knew where to find the good stuff, and I became increasingly resentful of the proliferation of bad stuff. And I thought, I can’t be the only one in this situation. So that’s how I got started. It was a very modest little thing. I mean, it might have had five articles on it or something. And it was just dedicated to being an information resource for people who are looking for factual, evidence-based information on women’s training. And then it just kind of grew and grew, and my knowledge base grew, and I started building this expertise and broadening my focus. So I don’t know, it was a very organic process. I just wrote about what people were interested in. I might get ten questions about the same thing, so I would write an article about that. Or there would be some domain of knowledge that seemed unique to me, like for example how to do a pull-up. The stuff you wouldn’t find in a mainstream magazine. So that went up too.

I also wanted to provide an alternative representation, because when you think fitness for women, you think “fitness model.” And that’s so meaningless for most women. They don’t identify with it. They even resent it, you know, and for most women it’s not inspiring at all. And it’s not reality either. 99% of fit women don’t look like that. So I wanted to sort of provide alternative images of fit women, so other women could read about them and go, “Hey, there’s a 60 year old women powerlifting – I can do that, I’m a 60 year old woman too.” Things like that, things to make it more meaningful to them.

PN: Okay, I’m going to put you on the spot. Is fat beautiful, or should people just get in shape?

KSD: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think that fit is beautiful, and I think that fit comes in many sizes. Fat is too broad, too. You can be fat and out of shape, or fat and in pretty good shape, and those things look and feel very different. It’s about what people do with their bodies, how they carry themselves and so on. A big shot putter is different than an average couch potato, but they could both be covered under the rubric of “fat.” The thing with biology is that there’s usually a sweet spot. You don’t want too much or too little of anything. But there’s a range within which certain things are optimized. And I think that the range that culturally we’re happy with, in terms of fatness – put it this way, we’ve got a very narrow range that we’re willing to accept in our representations, our images, but we seem satisfied with a much wider range in real life. I mean, so many people are fat now that it’s almost the norm. To me, though, fit is attractive, and fit comes in different sizes for sure.

PN: When it comes to this stuff, stuff related to body image, people take it very seriously – especially in reference to themselves. Do you think it’s possible, or necessary, or advisable even, to separate who we are from what we look like?

KSD: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think it’s possible. To try to do it sort of a false Cartesianism. I think physical culture is about unifying all these dimensions of ourselves. I think the problem comes when we define aesthetics in a very narrow way, when we give it very narrow parameters of what’s okay. But I think this idea that giving a shit what you look like is somehow unfeminist, somehow beneath you as an intellectual – and I sometimes hear colleagues talking about this – it’s plain wrong. The reality is that we have eyes for a reason, right? And we are invested in how we look. And how we look has two components, too: how we actually look to other people, and how we think we look or how we want to look. There’s this sort of interior/exterior dynamic. So I don’t think it’s possible to separate the two, and anyone who says they can is either full of it or mentally unhealthy. But I think there are different ways to come to terms with that divide, and I think that people sometimes come to terms with it in ways that are unhealthy. But I don’t think that our appearance itself is the problem.

PN: Let’s talk nutrition for a second. When it comes to our relationship with food, do you see a difference between men and women?

KSD: Oh yeah. It’s huge. It’s absolutely different. Although what’s interesting is that I’m seeing now more and more men becoming like women. Now, they’re not there yet. But the things I’m hearing from them, especially young men, are becoming remarkably similar. And I think that has to do with the fact that men’s bodies are becoming much more commodified than they were. A generation ago, men didn’t know what their abs were, or what their pecs were, but now of course every man knows. And you have this sense now that it’s much more explicit what you’re supposed to look like. And you have images presented to you, depicting exactly what you’re supposed to look like. So I think that the concern is actually emergent with men, but it’s not quite where it is with women just yet. We’ve taken it to a whole new level. [Laughs.] Naomi Wolf had this interesting study in her book, The Beauty Myth. She talked about a study that was done to men subjected to food deprivation. These were regular college guys from up the street. Well they put them in a close environment and deprived them of food. They were very under-nourished, an intake of 600 or 800 calories, something like that. After a fairly short time, about a week, the men became obsessed with food in the same way that women are now. They continually talked about food, they had all this guilt and these moral associations with food, they fantasized about food, they exchanged recipes – food became a much more central thing. And I think the point of it all is that women’s behaviors around food set up this self-replicating thing. You have a dysfunctional relationship with food, which then reproduces itself. But also the study showed that it’s not necessarily a gender thing – I think a lot of it has to do with cultural norms and behaviors for sure.

PN: What’s the role of nutrition in the overall picture? If we understand that our identities are tied up with how we look, and we want to change that, what role do you think nutrition plays in that process?

KSD: I think it’s fundamental. I don’t think you can overstate the importance of nutrition. I think it’s absolutely central. And I think a big missing piece for me in nutrition – there’s this focus on eating this or that number of calories – but for me it’s about wellness and self-care. I always tell people, if you care for your insides, the outside will take care of itself. Even things like food quality. Are you eating a lot of chemical crap, or are you eating good food, unprocessed food? Are you eating the best quality of food that you can eat? Even like, if you have a piece of chocolate, are you eating Lindt 85%, or are you eating some piece of crap Cadbury wax, mostly-paraffin substance? So that’s a dimension I don’t hear a lot of. Nutrition is absolutely critical. You cannot be healthy, you cannot be fit, if your nutrition isn’t at least passable. It’s just not possible. Maybe it’s possible temporarily if you’re fifteen and in that kind of state of immortality that teenagers are in. But eventually, it just catches up to you.

PN: We try to cover that in PN. Speaking of which, I remember you telling me once, and I quote, you “pimp Precision Nutrition pretty hard.” Did that involve alligator shoes and a cane of some sort?

KSD: [Laughing] Well you know, the style’s gotta fit the job right? I gotta look good. There was definitely some sex work occurring.

PN: You once told me that you estimate that something like 30% to 40% of girls have an eating disorder. Um, what the hell’s going on?

KSD: Totally. I think there are a lot of reasons for it. I think eating disorders are very multi-factorial. In a way, they’re just symptoms. Food and eating are like languages we use to express certain things. We can express love, we can express refusal, we can express all kinds of things, and so I think it’s partly a physiological thing because in disordered eating you often see disorders in serotonin and dopamine and the neurotransmitter axes and so forth, but it’s so much more a symptom of other things. It’s a culturally sanctioned way of acting out all the other pressures that young women are experiencing. What you see is that boys tend to act outwardly, whereas girls tend to turn inward. Girls are much more likely to self-harm, to cut themselves, starve themselves, all kinds of stuff like that. Boys are more likely to go out and hit something, crash a car, whatever. So you have these differently gendered patterns.

You have this spectrum. Yes, on the one hand you have this super-anorexic 86 pounder, but that’s only the extreme manifestation. That’s only 1% or 2% of the problem. So many people have what could be considered disordered eating. It’s just immense. Partially it’s ignorance, partially it’s a way of expressing cultural pressures, partially it’s a way of acting out, it’s a way of attempting to manage your body, it’s a way of exerting control in a world where you feel like you don’t have a lot of control. And it’s just a function of living in our society, where the body has become so commodified and our ideas of fitness now have nothing to do with function. Most people have no concept of their bodies as functional anymore. It’s all about decorative. There has to be a balance.

PN: So given that, do you think that there is anything that can be done, be it with training or nutrition or what have you, to right the ship, or are people more or less at the mercy of the larger cultural landscape?

KSD: My mother, as I said, was a science teacher and is now a high school principal. So she’s a long-time educator, and I said to her once, “How do you build self-esteem?” Because I think we have this sense that self-esteem is built through affirmations, and saying to yourself, “I’m okay,” and whatever. I’m good enough, smart enough, whatever. But she said something interesting, which was that self-esteem is built through skills. And I thought that was actually a rather profound statement. And what I’ve noticed in my own practice is that if you demonstrate to people that they can gain the skills, and that their bodies are functional, then that can actually be life changing for the majority of people that do it. Weight training is one way. But I also know a lot of people who are involved with boxing, and that’s been an amazing experience. It really transforms women’s relationships with their bodies. So I do think that the potential is there even with training alone – if the training is the right kind of training. If the training focuses on functionality and performance, then I think it actually can be life changing.

PN: In other words, modalities that take the emphasis off how you look and place it instead on what you’re able to achieve?

KSD: Yeah, exactly. Because girls never get to have bodies that do stuff. It’s always about what you look like. It’s extremely disempowering. And it disguises the fact that having a body that’s non-functional is a problem. I work in an all-female workplace – actually there are a couple of guys – and even just lifting boxes, everyone is like, “Oh I can’t lift that.” And I’m like, “You should be embarrassed to say that.” We’re talking about 20 pound boxes, I mean, what’s the problem here? But there’s this sense that that’s normal, that’s okay. I’m currently taking a yoga class, and there are some women in the class that can’t support their own body weight on their hands. But they’re not saying, “Oh my God, I really need to fix this.” They’re saying, “Oh well, that’s normal.” So I think the sense of what’s normal for women is so flawed. But part of it’s a class thing too: no one does manual labor anymore. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers would think all of us are pathetic. [Laughs.] So the standards of functionality have all been decreased because there is this sense, which is a very middle class sense, that women are supposed to be ornamental. That norm was never applied to working class women who had to go out and earn a living, often dong pretty heavy stuff. In general, that’s the problem: there’s just no emphasis on functionality at all.

PN: What’s it like for a woman in the average commercial gym?

KSD: I think it can be pretty intimidating for sure, and I think it can be pretty negative if you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you don’t look like other people, or if you’re just anxious about your whole self-presentation. We all have so much body angst. So I think it can be quite intimidating. The commercial fitness industry thrives on making people feel like they don’t know what they’re doing, or that they’re going to hurt themselves. It’s like the burden of self-reliance is shifted off the consumer. The consumer walks in the gym and they’re confronted with stuff they don’t know about, stuff they’re scared of, stuff that might hurt them. Again, it’s very disempowering. They’re thinking, “I don’t know how to use this,” which is stupid because training is about movement, and we all know how to move, we all know how to squat, we all know how to sit down, and stuff like that. But somehow this idea came about that we have to outsource this to other people. So to me that’s what the commercial gyms are fostering: this sense that you have to outsource responsibility for your own body to other people. And not that you can’t benefit from other people’s expertise. But it’s more this feeling like, “I don’t have to know, I don’t have to care, I don’t have to learn, because someone else will do it for me.” The “hurting yourself” discourse always bothers me. There’s that sort of baseline that everyone encounters when they walk into a commercial gym. And then there’s the more gendered dimensions. So like, how do you command your space in the weightroom, how do you get the equipment you want, how do you keep creepy guys away from you. [Laughs]. There’s definitely that as well.

PN: How do you keep creepy guys away from you, by the way?

KSD: You know, to be honest, I’ve never really had that much of a problem with it. I’m a very direct kind of person. I make eye contact. I think about my body language, and I don’t use submissive body language, I just go in and dominate the space. I’m polite about it, I’m not a jerk, but a lot of women I think are so intimidated that they’re not really sure how to respond to it. They’ll just wear a walkman – oh my god, I just dated myself – I mean an iPod! [Laughs.] But they’ll have headphones on so no one talks to them, sort of a passive-aggressive kind of thing. People respond to it differently. But I don’t know, maybe it’s just my glasses.

PN: Are the glasses your “walkman”?

KSD: [Laughs.] I don’t know, possibly!

PN: There’s a time for self-reliance and a time for seeking expertise. What do you think is the role of a good coach?

KSD: I think a good coach is kind of like a midwife. You provide people the resources they need, you provide them the guidance, but you also provide them with the sense that they themselves are responsible for doing it. And I think that’s the reality too. You can’t make people eat healthy, right? All you can do is provide them with the information and the guidance they need, in other words the support they need to do it, whether that’s information support, structural support like giving them a plan, or emotional support – the you-can-do-it, rah-rah stuff. A good coach is someone who facilitates rather than imposes their will. A good coach is someone who’s able to bring out the best in people, so you’re able to locate that nugget of whatever someone is good at and develop it into something greater. A good coach doesn’t try to turn an endurance athlete into a sprinter, they recognize that the person is a really good endurance athlete and they steer them towards that. You identify the features that each person has, and you work to make those blossom. That’s how I see it.

PN: Can men and women be coached the same way, or are there differences they have to take into account?

KSD: I think that if you want to paint it in broad strokes, I think that men and women tend on average to respond to different things. But at the same time a good coach understands that everyone is an individual and that no two people are exactly equal. For example, I respond really well to what you might call a male style of coaching, which is the whole drill sergeant, alright-ladies-stop-your-crying, drop-and-give-me-fifty sort of thing. That’s the sort of coaching I like. Although on the other hand, while I don’t need someone to hold my hand, I have had coaches who have had a gentler style, which also really worked well for me. So I think a lot of it is about the individual. Coaches do have to be cognizant of gender differences, however. For example, a coach who coaches women should never comment on their weight. Just don’t go there. They should understand that in general it’s a sensitive issue. On the other hand, though, let’s say you’re coaching a specialized group of women, like boxers. Every one of them knows their body weight, and they don’t give a shit about it. They know they fight at 175 or whatever, and they don’t have those same issues. So there’s a negotiation between social values and individual attributes, I would say.

PN: Alright, a few more quick questions. One: can a guy pick up a girl in a women’s studies class?

KSD: [Laughs.] Well, jeez, why not, your playing field is going to be huge! They’ll see you as a snag, you’d be this new age guy or whatever, so why not? [Laughs.]

PN: The word “women”: spelled with an ‘e’ or with a ‘y’?

KSD: [Laughs.] Oh God. I’m more of an ‘e’ person myself. You know, it’s so funny, I just did an interview for the National Post yesterday. The University of Waterloo has just changed its Women’s Center from ‘y’ to ‘e’. And they called me up as an expert commentator on the significance of that shift. [Laughs.] It was rather bizarre actually.

PN: What’s the common denominator among people who achieve great things?

KSD: There are probably lots. Great things don’t happen by accident. Yes, it helps to have an intrinsic predisposition. No one ever won a gold medal in the Olympics who wasn’t genetically suited for it. But in general, great things come from a lot of good, or okay, or even bad things – reiterated over and over, and over and over again. Times a billion. [Laughs.] There’s this myth that a great thing is a one-time deal. But the achievement is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s less than 1% of what took place. So it’s doing a lot of little things, doing them well, and if you do them poorly, learning from them and remedying them the next time. But above all it’s the knowledge that the great things don’t happen by accident.

PN: If you had a dream client, what kind of attitude would you want them to have?

KSD: Oh, I can actually think of a couple of dream clients I’ve had. Both of them were boxers. They’re willing to bust their ass. They’re willing to do what I tell them. It’s a combination of self-reliance and handing themselves over to me. So they’re willing to put their trust in me, and follow my advice completely. They’re willing to say, “I trust that you have the expertise I need,” but at the same time they’re willing to advocate for themselves, ask questions, and ultimately do the work. So a dream client would certainly be a hard-working one. And one who enters into it with abandon. They’re just gung-ho, let’s go, give ‘er. That to me is a total dream client. You don’t have to work through issues like, “What if I get too big,” “I don’t like fish,” whatever. They’re just willing to trust you and to go for it.

PN: Krista, this has been great. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, and to design the awesome program you’ve put together for the Precision Nutrition members. We really appreciate it.

KSD: No problem, you’re welcome!