February 2011: Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, CPT

by on February 24, 2011

JOHN: For this month’s interview it is our pleasure to have Tony Gentilcore with us. I have read much of Tony’s writing lately and I think you’ll enjoy his style, and more importantly the well thought out ideas and information he brings to the table. Tony, please tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what are some of the things you are most passionate about?

TONY: Well thanks for giving me the opportunity! I appreciate the kind words, and I’m always humbled that there are people out there who actually enjoy what I have to say. Full disclosure: I’m definitely not the type of person who takes himself too seriously, so it’s great that people “get” my writing style. To be quite honest, if you would have told me when I first started in this industry that I’d make at least part of my living off of writing, I would have laughed. I mean, I got my degree in Health Education from the State University of New York at Cortland and had every intention of becoming a high school health teacher. Thankfully, however, I also had a concentration in Health/Wellness Promotion and had to complete a summer internship in a corporate gym to get my degree. Once I did that, they offered me a job from the get-go, and the rest, as they say, is history.

To backtrack a bit, though, health and fitness has always been a part of my life. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been active in sports and fitness. I played multiple sports all through high-school, and ended up playing collegiate baseball for four years. I had a few professional tryouts, but nothing panned out unfortunately. Likewise, I “trained” in the weight room all through high school and college. I put “train” in quotation marks, because I look back at how I used to train back then and want to wash my eyes out with broken glass.

It’s painful to reminisce, and look back at all the stupid things I did as a teenager and young, twenty something. I take solace in the fact that, for the past decade or so, I’ve been able to “pay it forward” so-to-speak, and coach young athletes (and regular weekend warriors, too) on how to train the right way. Which is to say:

  • – When in doubt, start each session with either a squat or deadlift variation. Don’t be that guy who complains that you can’t put on any mass if you’re spending 30 minutes a day training the short head of your biceps.
  • – Walking on a treadmill while watching The Price is Right doesn’t constitute as “cardio.”
  • – Likewise, anyone who says lifting weights isn’t cardio has never done a heavy set of squats before. Put 75% of your 1 RM on your back and do it for 15-20 reps and tell me your heart rate isn’t elevated!!!
  • – Eat breakfast, for THE LOVE OF GOD!!!!!!
  • – If you can’t do 10 picture perfect, bodyweight push-ups – then you don’t need to ask me if you should add chains to your bench press.

Speaking of which, for those who are un-aware, I’m one of the co-founders of Cressey Performance located just west of Boston in Hudson, Massachusetts. We opened our doors in the summer of 2007, and we haven’t looked back since. As it stands now, we just completed our THIRD expansion about a month ago. We’ve grown from a small business where we were lucky to get twenty sessions in one day, to now training 45-50 professional baseball players this winter from just about every Major League organization, as well as a plethora of local high school and college athletes, not to mention regular clients just looking to either lose some fat, get a little stronger, feel better, or make someone from the opposite sex want to hang out with them.

In a nutshell, I get to hang out in my own facility all day, NOT listen to the likes of John Mayer or Miley Cyrus, and make people more badass now compared to when they first walked through the doors. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.

Oh, and for those interested, I’m passionate about making people stronger, movies with zombies in them, beef jerky, deadlifting, and eventually having the opportunity to train every woman named on the FHM Sexiest Woman Alive list. Hey, it could happen.

JOHN: So you must be a fan of “the Walking Dead” series too!

TONY: Honestly, I have yet to watch it. I’ve heard great things, but I made a concerted effort not too long ago to try to distance myself from rotting my brain further, and I got rid of cable. That’s not to say there aren’t shows I love to watch: 30 Rock, The Daily Show, etc; but as it stands now, I haven’t had cable for about six months now and I love it. I do miss not being able to watch Sportscenter in the morning, though.

JOHN: Ok, so let’s start with some fundamental questions. You mentioned people spending too much time on biceps when trying to gain mass. Can you elaborate on what you would have someone do to gain muscle mass, that is having a hard time?

TONY: I’m a firm believer in the basics. More to the point, I’m a firm believer in the Pareto Principle. To summarize, it was named after an Italian economist (Vilfredo Pareto), who demonstrated that 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. Taking it a step further, many have described it as a Law of Unequal Return, whereupon certain activities tend to give more return on investment than others. Incidentally, it should come as no surprise that many (if not all) aspects of fitness can be applied here.

Bluntly, if we were going to be honest with ourselves, which do you think is going to add more mass to our body: 14 different bicep exercises, or some heavy deadlifts? I’ve never seen a dude who could pull 500 lbs off the floor with tiny arms.

I’m always perplexed whenever I train at a commercial gym and see all these guys who are 155 lbs, soaking wet, spend an entire session training a muscle the size of a tennis ball.

It’s simple really, if you want to add mass, you need to focus on movements that give you the most bang-for-your-holy-shit-that-guy-is-a-beast-buck. Isolation curls on the cable machine aren’t gonna cut it. Sorry.

In short, I’ve seen plenty of kids (and adults) who have come to Cressey Performance and mention how they’re never able to add mass to their frame. Four months later, they’re up fifteen pounds, and dominating. Why? Because when they’re training under our supervision, a few things happen:

  1. They’re held accountable, and actually stick with ONE program. One of the worst things you can do as a trainee is to constantly flip-flop between routines. One week you want to focus on strength; the next you want to focus on fat loss; and the next you want to train for a triathlon. No wonder you’re never making progress!
  2. They do what they need to do not what they want to do. A funny thing happens when you have someone else write your programs: you’re now forced to do exercises that you aren’t good at! Often times, the exercises that are most beneficial, are the ones that most guys don’t do. Walk into any commercial gym on a Monday afternoon and what is everyone doing? Bench presses and bicep curls. It’s no coincidence that most look the same now as they did two years ago. Get in the squat rack for crying out loud!
  3. You don’t train like a pussy. Both Eric and myself have repeatedly written on the importance of training environment. Place yourself around people who are stronger than you, and who will push you, and you’re GOING to succeed. If you’re the strongest guy in your gym (and you think your 315 lb deadlift is impressive), you my friend, need a change of environment.

JOHN: That is so cool that you get to train MLB’ers. Do me a favor, if any of them are Houston Astros, tell them I am on the verge of quitting being a fan. I am sure that will fire them up to do better. HAHA.

Seriously though, what are a few of thing things you do with these guys to help them develop sport specific skill?

What are common issues you see related to performance among these guys too?

TONY: Come to think about it, I think Houston is one of the organizations we haven’t worked with yet. We need to get on that! But as far as what we do to help get these guys better, we have to remember that it really isn’t so much being “sport specific” with them. That’s a buzz word that’s thrown around quite a bit, and while it does have some merit, I feel it’s a pretty general term. I mean, playing baseball will get them better at baseball – and they do plenty of that!

Instead, we’re under the mindset that it’s not so much about making them a better baseball player, but a better athlete overall.

That said, a lot of what we do with any guy that walks through our doors is dependent on what we find during their initial assessment. How we go about training a guy with a “lax” (or loose) shoulder is completely different than how we train a guy who doesn’t. Likewise, if a guy comes in demonstrating a fairly significant GIRD (Gleno-humeral Internal Rotation Deficit) in his throwing arm, you can bet that that is going to dictate how we’re going to go about getting him healthy. All told, however, to say that there are a lot of archaic myths and misconceptions with regards to strength and conditioning for baseball players would be an understatement! We like to think that we’re kind of opening the world’s eyes to the fact that baseball players, are, you know, athletes.

Believe it or not, there are some organizations that won’t allow their Minor League guys to lift a weight over 50 lbs for fear of them getting too big and bulky! Moreover, the constant emphasis on endurance and distance training for these guys is bordering on ridiculous. How is making a guy run three miles in any way related to throwing a baseball (a short, repeated, explosive, maximal effort movement) 90+ MPH, or sprinting from home plate to first base – which is only 90 feet away? To that end, in the off-season, we’re all about getting these guys stronger, helping them move a little better, and fixing any asymmetries that will undoubtedly beat them up throughout the season. Walk in on any given day, and you’re bound to see our guys deadlifting, squatting, sprinting, hitting tires, pushing sleds, and throwing around med balls (which helps to maintain much of the sport specific motion seen in baseball). The kicker: It’s not un-common to see some of our guys put on 15-25 lbs during an off-season, and go back to training camp MORE flexible and explosive. So much for lifting weights making you big and bulky, huh?

JOHN: In terms of building strength, can you walk us though a high-level approach of how you might coach someone through a 3-4 month program to get stronger?

TONY: It’s almost impossible for me to write a program for someone 3-4 months in advance. Honestly, I think it’s unnecessary. This isn’t to say that I don’t have some idea of where I want to go with someone, and what I’m going to have him (or her) do as the months progress – far from it. But there are just so many other factors that come into play. Work, school, drama club, basketball practice, TPS reports, late babysitters, headaches, baby up all night, girlfriends/boyfriends breaking up, homework, American Idol is on, explosive diarrhea – all of these can come into play and prevent someone from following a program 100%. I’d say it’s pretty rare when someone is able to follow a program all the way through without something going awry.

One day things are going great, and you’re breaking PRs, and the next, you sleep on your shoulder wrong and it’s pissed off. Guess we’re not benching tonight, huh? It’s not talked about a lot, but much of what makes a good strength coach is the ability to adapt on the fly and still give people a training effect when they’re broken or just not feeling up to snuff.

That said, much of what I do to get someone stronger is to assess where they’re weaknesses are and hammer those hard. For example, if someone is slow off the floor with their deadlift, I may have them pull from a deficit (pull while standing on a box), or some speed pulls against chains. Similarly, if someone has a hard time pushing through that sticking point half way off their chest on the bench press, guess who’s going to be spending their time hammering board presses? Again, as I noted earlier, much of what helps people the most is working on what they suck at.

Another aspect that I think most (advanced) trainees tend to overlook is not getting more lifts above 90%. More often than not, if you were to look at someone’s program to get stronger, it would include 5×5 or maybe something along the lines of 8×3. While not bad, it’s certainly not ideal if your goal is STRENGTH! Including more lifts at or above 90% of your 1 RM is the fastest way to get stronger. As an example, lets say your best squat is 300 lbs, and the goal for that day is to get FIVE lifts at 90% and above. It may look something like this:

Bar x whatever (just get the groove)
135 x 5
185 x 3
225 x 3
275 x 1 – felt good, time for a PR
305 x 1 – you got it, but you also felt like you were going to shit your spleen.

So, using the 90% rule, any lift that was 270 lbs and above would count. Looking above, you hit one at 275 and another at 305, which leaves THREE more lifts. 280 x1,1,1

God, you’re awesome.

From there, it just comes down to applying the right accessory work given your needs and weaknesses. Most people have weak posterior chains – so I often recommend pull-throughs, glute ham raises, hip thrusters, etc. In addition, most have really poor hip stability, so I’m not scared to program single leg work till their blue in the face.

Of course, I’m just generalizing here. At the end of the day, it depends on the person. But I do feel that most advanced trainees need to start getting more lifts above 90% into their programming. That, alone, will undoubtedly get them a strong!

JOHN: I really appreciate what you are saying about being creative when people aren’t up to snuff. THANK YOU for saying that! Here’s another version of the need for creativity. Many times I see people with their pre-planned training routine (which isn’t bad) as they head into the weight room. They ask me for feedback and I say what are you going to do if someone is in the squat rack and you can’t do it first? What if it listed second, are you going to sit around and wait and get cold, etc? They get this blank stare in their eyes. My point is, I agree with you 100%, and I think being intelligently creative can be a huge factor in continued progress.

TONY: Absolutely. NOTHING is set in stone. The scenario you noted above happens at CP all…..the…….time. All the racks will be taken (which is a beautiful thing by the way), and I’ll see a kid standing there twidding his thumbs. I’ll walk up and say, okay, instead of front squats today, you’re doing DB Bulgarian split squats, from a deficit. Easy peezy, lemon squeezy. So long as he gets a training effect that day, that’s really all I’m after.

It’s a little more tricky in a commercial gym setting, but it stands to reason that being able to program on the fly (occasionally, not always) is a Jedi-like quality to have.

JOHN: Ok, back to strength training. On the pull throughs, glute ham raises, and hip thrusters, what kind of reps do you typically have people do? Do you have them do the 5 reps at or above 90% max as well?

TONY: With accessory work, I’ll typically stay with high(er) rep ranges: say, anywhere from 8-12 reps. With these movements, I’m not really so much concerned with using super heavy loads as I am using these movements to correct postural deficits, imbalances, or just weak points in general.

How many sets and reps I do with any one person depends. That said, since most people are woefully weak in the posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings), it’s safe to assume that they’re going to get a healthy dose of all the exercises listed above. – particularly with regards to our female athletes. We have saying at CP: female athletes need two things – balls and hamstrings. And since they can’t have balls, females need more hamstrings!

JOHN: You mentioned chain work, do you like band work as well? I am a huge fan of both for building strength and mass by the way.

TONY: Definitely! We use bands quite often with our clients. The best example I can use would be for chin-ups. Bands, as you know, are a great tool to take advantage of something called accommodating resistance. In short, with the chin-up, we’re weakest at the bottom of the position (when our arms are fully extended), and strongest at the top (arms bent). If I happen to be working with someone who can’t perform a bodyweight chin-up, I can have him or her use a band for assistance.

The band will give them a boost at the bottom (again, where they’re weakest), and give them less assistance at the top (where they’re strongest).

Similarly, we can also use bands with push-ups, albeit to make them harder. Push-ups often get thrown to the wayside for being too wimpy – but we can always make them harder and more challenging, and utilizing bands are a great way to do so.

JOHN: Can you give us a few examples of your favorite exercises to perform chain work with, and a few that you like to use bands with? For me, I think my top 3 for chains is probably squats, bench press, and good mornings. For bands, I love leg presses…egad, your favorite..haha.


Chains – squats, push-ups, and bench press.

Squats – you know, as much as I think chains should only be used by more advanced trainees, there have been several times – to prove a point – where I’ve tacked on a few chains to a standard Olympic bar and taught a new trainee how to “get tight” when squatting. Oftentimes, one major mistake that people make is just casually walking up to a bar, placing it on their back, and just squatting.

You and I both know that the SET-UP is crucial. To that point, it’s imperative that one learns how to “get tight, “ or learn how to engage their core to provide a bit more stability. Chains are a great way to do this. If they don’t quite “get” this concept with just the bar, they learn reeeeealllly quick when you put a few chains on – you really have to engage your core so as not to tip over.

Push-Ups – I heart loading push-ups. It’s been said that when you do a push-up, you’re “lifting” 60% of your bodyweight. Pile a few chains (15 lbs each at CP) and it’s pretty clear that you can load them up quite easily. Plus, it looks bad-ass.

Band resisted Push-Up:

Band Assisted Chin-Up:

Bench Press – Great way to get some rotator cuff activation, as well as learn to push through sticking points in the bench curve.

Bands – as noted above, I love bands for chin-ups and push-ups. Another useful exercise is “band” Pallof Presses.

JOHN: Excellent. I want to go back to the “sleeping wrong” on your shoulder thing again too. I often interact with people who think the end all be all is increasing weight on every lift. When it doesn’t happen, they say the workout is a failure. This I find ridiculous. What if they, as you said, just slept on their shoulder wrong, or maybe they stayed up late studying for an exam? So my point is, they can still bust their ass the next day, and just because they didn’t set a PR, doesn’t mean their workout was a waste of time or failure. This is one of the most challenging concepts for me to communicate to people. How do you handle that situation when you run into that mentality?

TONY: Oh boy, I have to deal with this on an almost daily basis. People are always under the impression that more is better. It’s a hard concept for them to grasp when you tell them that fatigue will always mask one’s true fitness level. The best way to explain this would be to ask someone to figure out their bench press max. Now, have him or her go out and run (GASP!!) ten miles. When they return, ask them to test their 1RM max again. They won’t even sniff that original number. Once I break it down like that, many start to understand, but it’s still an upward battle some of the time. Incidentally, I like to add in de-load weeks every fourth week as it is – so people get a structured “break” anyways.

Likewise, I think you’re spot on with regards to training around injuries. Let’s be real here, YOU CAN ALWAYS TRAIN AROUND ANY INJURY. We’ve had kids come to our facility in back braces and they’re still training three times per week. Much the same, we’ve had people with their arm in a cast still get after it. I mean, they still have another arm we can train, a core, not to mention their entire lower body. There’s plenty they can still do. Just because your “shoulder hurts” doesn’t mean you have to use that as an excuse to not train. It’s lame, and probably explains why you’re still trying to lose the same 20 lbs of fat you’ve been trying to lose for the past five years.

JOHN: When you are evaluating progress, what are some of the key things you look for? I ask this because many people think you have to do the same set of exercises over and over, and the only way you make true progress is to use heavier weight on those particular exercises. Not bad, but flawed long term I say.

TONY: Well, I do feel that many trainees (beginners and intermediates most notably) switch exercises up far too often. For many, as mentioned above, they’ll go through program ADD where they’re switching exercises every other training session. How do you expect to get better at front squats, if you’re not, you know, front squatting? So, for me, there is some credence with making sure that people actually learn the lifts they want to get good at.

Conversely, we’ve all heard the saying, “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.” To that end, it’s important that people train their weaknesses, which most are reluctant to do. Take me for example. I’m woefully slow off the floor on my deadlift. To help counteract this, I’ll include deadlifts, from a deficit – where I elevate my body 2-4 inches off the ground. I HATE pulling from a deficit – because I suck at it. But, it’s the only way I’m going to get faster off the floor. Two, accessory work will come into play. I like to have “markers” for certain lifts. Keeping with my deadlift, I know that if I hammer my good mornings (another great exercise that targets the posterior chain), my deadlift numbers almost always go up. It’s un-canny really.

I don’t even have to be deadlifting, but I know if I see progress with my good mornings, inevitably, my deadlift will go up as well.

JOHN: During your deloading weeks, do you bring volume down, intensity, or some combination of both?

TONY: As a general rule, we typically lower volume. When it comes to overtraining (not an easy thing to accomplish mind you), overall volume tends to be the culprit; no intensity (in this case, referring to a percentage of one’s one-rep max).

As an example, lets look at the bench press. Using a typical four week cycle, it may look something like this:

Week 1: 5×5
Week 2: 4×5
Week 3: 6×5
Week 4: 3×5

Sometimes, I “may” reduce some of the accessory work. So, if bench press was their “A” exercise, I‘ll pair two exercises together for the “B” exercises, and it may look something like this:
B1. Seated Cable Row
B2. Low Incline DB Press

Most likely, I’d probably have them perform 3×8 for each exercise every week. In week 4, though, I’d be more inclined to do this:

B1. Seated Cable Row 3×8
B2. Low Incline DB Press: 2×8

I’ll keep the horizontal rowing volume the same, because frankly, most people are skewed the other way and perform waaaaay too much pressing anyways.

This isn’t to say that this format is set in stone – but I do find that this is what works best for most trainees out there.

JOHN: Just a few more questions. If you could do it all over again, what, if anything, would you do differently as a trainer?

TONY: Two things ——-.

1. One-on-one training is dead: there’s a reason that a vast majority of personal trainers burn out within two years of entering the profession- they don’t know how to manage their time. Many will get up at the crack ass of dawn and head to their facility to train clients before they head to work, only to have like 30 minutes to get a workout in themselves before they start training clients again until later in the evening. Before you know it, they’ve been there for 12-14 hours. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound like a fun.

Think of it this way, you can either train ONE person per hour at $60-$90 per hour (of which you only see maybe 1/3 of that cut), or you can train four people per hour at $45 per person. Do the math: $90 per hour or $180?

If you look at the statistics, only like 6-7% of the population can afford personal training. Once you switch to semi-private or “group” training, that number increases to around 45%. Not only is it cheaper for them, but it allows you to make better use of your time! What’s more, there’s something to be said about the overwhelming sense of camaraderie that is established between clients – they’re held accountable to other people, they push one another, and it’s just A LOT more fun in general.

So, my main piece of advice for upcoming trainers out there would be to start incorporating more semi-private training into the mix.

2. It’s often been said that you need to read one hour per day for TWO years in order to become an expert on any given topic. I wholeheartedly agree – which is why I try stay updated on blogs, articles, dvds, seminars, and text.

However, as much as I feel it’s important to read material in your field of expertise (kama sutra excluded…..sorry, I couldn’t resist), I also think many trainers miss the boat entirely from a business/personal development standpoint.

There are PLENTY of trainers out there who can tell you ever insertion point of every muscle, can write solid programs, and for all intents and purposes – know their shit. But what good is all of that if you’re unable to get clients or sell yourself as a trainer?

To that end, I think it’s important to even out the ratio: For every book you read on training, you should also read a book on business and/or personal development.

JOHN: Along those same lines, how would you recommend upcoming trainers go about getting published? You’ve done a great job at building a popular blog, as well as establishing a following on sites like t-nation.com; so, what’s the secret?

TONY: I remember a great piece advice I heard from Lou Schuler (author of such books as The New Rules of Lifting, The New Rules of Lifting for Women, and The Testosterone Advantage), and it was this: When the industry is ready for you, it will seek you out.

I’m often amused when I get emails from personal trainers asking me how they can get into things like T-nation or Men’s Health, and they’ve only been training people for two weeks. Just because you have a few letters next to your name, doesn’t mean you know jack-shit on how to train people, much less actually being published! As such, I think there’s a lot to be said about getting good – and I mean, REALLY good – at what you do before you start thinking about writing the next great e-book. You’d be surprised, but there are a lot of guys (and girls) out there who have stuff published, yet they don’t train ANYONE! That really bothers me.

Nonetheless, if I had to give advice to people it’s this: start a blog and try to write something everyday. Sure, you may only have three people who read it (not counting your mom), but it’s something. Likewise, you’re not just going to start writing for publications such as Men’s Health without first having some content out there! Speaking of which, content reigns supreme. If you write good, solid, informative, entertaining, content, people will come. They’ll find you and seek YOU out.

JOHN: Tony, thank you very much for you time and knowledge sharing. It has been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading more of your stuff in the future my friend! You can catch Tony’s blog at http://www.tonygentilcore.com/blog