Horizontal Pulling Progressions for Youth Athletes

8 Nov

Hey all!

I am excited to have an excellent contribution today from my friend Conor Nordengren. Conor, is a former CP intern and current strength coach at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning in Nashua, NH. Additionally, he is one strong dude, and my summer hill sprint buddy. I hope you can take a little time and read what he has written as it will surely help you as a coach and trainer!


If you know anything about Greg, you know that he loves horizontal pulling exercises. He’s put in the time and built a massive back by doing his fair share of rowing movements. Greg’s back development has a great deal of utility in his participation in powerlifting, as it has bolstered his squat, bench press, and deadlift numbers. Placing a priority on pulling (how’s that for alliteration?) goes well beyond the confines of powerlifting, though. Pulling is a fundamental human movement and also an essential movement in many sports. The major muscles involved in pulling are important to posture and the development of these muscles (think traps, rhomboids, lats) is a good indicator of strength.

When it comes to young athletes, it’s important that we teach and continually reinforce proper pulling mechanics. As coaches, we have the responsibility to set a solid foundation for our youth athletes in the weight room and set them up for long-term success. When approaching pulling exercises, it’s appropriate to start young athletes pulling horizontally and gradually progress them to vertical pulling variations. As the saying goes, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” so there’s not merely one correct way to progress an athlete in terms of exercise selection.

Where you choose to start an athlete will depend on factors like the athlete’s ability level, any prior experience with legitimate strength training, and whether or not they’ve had exposure to some solid coaching. There’s also no precise timetable for progressing an athlete through a series of exercises. This, again, is dependent on the athlete and how proficient they become at a given movement. It’s better to be patient and give the athlete time to achieve a certain level of mastery of an exercise than it is to move them along too quickly.

Let’s briefly touch on a few components of good horizontal pulling technique that you should cement within your youth athletes. As you coach them on how to pull correctly, be sure to look for and reinforce:

• Chin tucked

• Scapulae down and back (chest “out”)

• Very little (if any) shoulder extension

• No anterior humeral glide (keep the “ball” centrated in the “socket”)

• Roughly 30 degrees of arm space between the side of the body and arm

• Neutral spine (no lumbar hyperextension)

Now let’s say you have an untrained athlete with no prior strength training experience walk into your facility. What would be a good horizontal pulling progression for this athlete?

Here’s a sample progression (each exercise is performed for 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps):

1. Seated Cable Row – neutral grip

I like to begin with the seated cable row. By taking the athlete’s legs completely out of the picture, it allows them to solely concentrate on their upper body where the movement is taking place. This variation really lets the athlete focus on and get a feel for proper positioning and is a good place to start.

2. Half-kneeling One-arm Cable Row

Once the athlete has become proficient in the seated cable row, the half-kneeling one-arm cable row is a great next step. This exercise will increase the stability challenge on the athlete and force them to activate their core and glutes. It also prevents them from going into lumbar hyperextension.

3. Standing One-arm Cable Row (with excellent commentary from Eric Cressey)

The next logical progression is to get the athlete off the floor and into a standing position. The athlete must now display adequate control in the upright position while still demonstrating proper rowing technique.

4. TRX Inverted Row

The TRX inverted row is going to provide a greater demand on the athlete to keep their core and glutes engaged. I love the TRX because the athlete can easily adjust the resistance; the more horizontal their body is to the ground, the tougher it will be. I like to tell our athletes to think of their body as a 2×4 and stay rigid from head to toe.

5. Batwings

At this point I think it’s appropriate to begin including some chest-supported rowing variations. I like to start with batwings because it allows the athlete to get more accustomed to the challenge of gravity within a shorter range of motion. I make them hold the top position for a one count and reset at the bottom to make sure they’re maintaining proper form.

6. Chest-supported Row – neutral grip

Once the athlete has gotten good at batwings, it’s time to increase the range of motion of the exercise. If you don’t have access to a chest-supported row apparatus, these can also be done on an incline bench with dumbbells.

After an athlete has gone through this progression, you can begin programming things like one-arm dumbbell rows, split-stance low cable rows, and landmine rows. Remember to let the athlete dictate the timetable for their progression. They may need more than a month to nail down a certain exercise and that’s fine. It will serve them better if you give them the time to master an exercise and progress them when they show you they’re ready instead of rushing them along. It’s all about laying that foundation and setting them up for success.

Bio: Conor Nordengren is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) accredited by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He is a graduate of Stonehill College, where he majored in Health Sciences with a minor in Business Administration. At Stonehill, Conor was a two-year member of the men’s basketball team. He completed internships in physical therapy and also worked as a physical therapist aide. Upon graduation, Conor interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts, under widely recognized strength coaches Eric Cressey and Tony Gentilcore. During his time at Cressey Performance, he had the opportunity to work with a variety of clients including athletes at the professional, college, high school, and junior high school levels. Conor is now a strength and conditioning coach at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning in Nashua, New Hampshire where he is dedicated to helping people of all ages and ability levels achieve their fitness goals. You can read Conor’s blog at www.conornordengren.com and contact him at cnordengren@gmail.com.


Article For JTS: Thoughts On Becoming a Better Raw Squatter

4 Sep

I am really excited to have an article up at Juggernaut Training Systems. Chad Wesley Smith, is not only a phenomenal lifter, but an excellent coach. I realized after I had pushed “send” that I sent an article on improving your raw squat to a 900+ lbs raw squatter…thankfully he agreed with what I had to say.

Not All Squats Are Created Equal: 3 Thoughts On Becoming a Better Raw Squatter:

If you want to be a good raw back squatter then you need to embrace the nuances of that lift. It isn’t the same as geared squatting, box squatting, front squatting, or any other kind of squat you might choose to utilize.

1. Stop box squatting

I don’t like the box squat for those looking to excel at raw squatting. Why? Mainly it’s too far removed from a technique and demand standpoint from the raw squat. Box squatting, done correctly, is a different lift all together. Most will assume a wider stance, utilize the hips to a point that isn’t possible in a raw squat, and become reliant on the controlled descent….

Continue reading HERE!

Quick Tip: Improve A Lift, By Doing The Lift!

3 Sep

If you want to improve your squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pull up, etc. I firmly believe that your best bet is to do the lift. I often marvel at how many programs, designed to improve a certain lift, shy away from actually doing the lift in question. I guess in reality it’s not that shocking. After all, everyone is looking for the next best thing. People are quick to jump at some crazy new variation, or assistance lift guaranteed to elevate their numbers. The truth is, nothing will make you a better squatter than squatting more. The same goes for just about all the big lifts.

Increasing volume means more time spent practicing good technique, more reps to groove the pattern, and more time for the CNS to develop the coordination needed to perform the lift.

Instead of seeking out new ways to improve your big lifts, just do them more often. Obviously this calls for an intelligent management of intensities and volume, but it will work.

Easy Protein Pancakes

29 Aug

I found myself pretty busy last week. As you know, we moved CP to a brand new space, and then had our grand opening on Saturday. If you couple that with a Saturday evening wedding, and my first time stand up paddle boarding on Sunday, you can imagine I may have lacked the time to get the usual Sunday grocery shopping done.

In a pinch, I have a few recipes I go to in order to make sure I still eat right during the week. Over the course of the day I tend to stick to mostly protein and fat. Therefore, many common protein pancakes don’t work, because they include a fair amount of carbs.

Here is my go to pancake recipe, sans the carbs and artificial ingredients like protein powder.

In a bowl mix:

1 Cup of Liquid Egg Whites

1/2 Cup Almond Meal

1TBSP Unsweetened Coco Powder

3 drops of liquid stevia

Cooking directions:

Heat up a pan glazed with coconut oil on medium high heat

Pour contents of the bowl into pan

Let the mix sit until it starts browning and the under side firms up

Flip it over and let it sit an additional minute or two

Lower heat to medium low, and spread about a TBSP of peanut butter over one side of the pancake

Flip it into an omelet looking shape, let cool and enjoy!

There are two of those bad boys ready to go!

First Annual Cressey Performance Fall Seminar!

27 Aug

Hi All!

I wanted to let you know that our first annual fall seminar will be going down in October at Cressey Performance. The line up of speakers is great, and hey, even I am included!

This will be a terrific event, and I hope you can make it! For more information please follow the link below.

CP Fall Seminar


CP has a new look, have you seen it yet? If not check out this video tour by Eric:


Quick Tip: Food Is Good

20 Aug

Many of us want to improve strength, muscle mass, and stay lean. While I firmly believe the most success, in either category, comes when you prioritize it; you can make progress in all three areas at the same time.

I have found a few tricks that help me keep my nutrition in check (in order to stay lean), while also eating enough to promote gains in size and strength. One of which is to intelligently attack post training nutrition.

I truly love to eat. I can absolutely crush food. One way I have found to keep my hunger in check, and not take in an excessive amount of calories is to cut back on serving sizes of post training shakes. If you look at the recommendations on the back of most “post training” protein powders, they recommend you take in a pretty high amount of carbs and protein. This is a good thing, except for the fact that you aren’t sitting down and chewing any food.

He crushes harder.

Instead, try cutting the serving size in half, or even in thirds. Make up the additional calories about 30min or so later with a big meal.

For example, I choose to use Biotest’s SURGE recovery post training. For my body weight, they would recommend that I consume 3 scoops. They are also advocates of eating an additional carb / protein rich meal a hour later. I am totally on board with this if someone is trying to gain weight.

In my case, and I think many of you are in the same boat, this would provide me with less of an opportunity to eat food, as the three scoops alone would give me a fair amount of calories. Instead I take one scoop with added Leucine and Creatine. This gives my body some quick nutrients, but leaves plenty of room to destroy a big meal 30m later.

To recap:

If you want to add pounds to your frame then by all means take the full serving, and eat a big meal.

If you want to hover around where your at, curb your need to actually chew food, and fuel your system to grow, cut the serving down and make up the difference with food.


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Sneak Peek: The Biggest Mistake

18 Aug

The TPS newsletter is dropping soon, and I wanted to give my blog audience a look at the short piece I did for this issue. Enjoy!


The biggest mistake I see people make, both beginners and advanced lifters alike, is working at 95% and above of what they’re capable of too often.

Why does it suck?

1. It sucks because it’s not repeatable:

Working at such a high intensity is too neurally demanding. In order to coordinate the effort needed to produce a 100% effort means that you are maximally taxing the central nervous system. What many people don’t realize is that CNS fatigue can actually take longer to recover from than muscular fatigue, produced by lesser intensities at a higher volume. If you want to improve outputs (maximal force production) you want to be able to repeat them, not set yourself up to train at something less all the time.

As an example, elite sprinters will take incredibly long rest periods (by most of our standards) between sprints in training. Why? They want to repeat high outputs, this can only be done when you are fresh. Relate this to lifting, the same rule applies. If you want to produce high outputs, you need to be fresh.

It is of note that beginners can work at higher intensities more often. This is because they are less capable of maximally tapping into their potential. Their outputs are inherently lower because they haven’t learned to recruit maximally. Either way, I am an advocate for sub maximal training in newbies too. In actuality, a true newcomer can make strength gains from as little as 40% of what they are capable of.

With the same coin, veterans to strength training should heed this advice even more. Because they ARE able to produce high outputs, they shouldn’t put out maximally often. Many of the strongest people in the world have set personal records on the platform, or in competition, without touching more than 80 to 85% of what they were capable of in training. More on how that’s possible later.

Lastly, why is the repeatability of an intensity important? Simply because it can be trained more often. What do you think would work better, continually being able to work at improving 80%, or attempting to improve 100% sparingly but then having to spend a good length of time at much lower intensities? The answer is debatable, but I would argue if over the course of 12 weeks you could train at an average intensity of nearly 75%, instead of an average of say 60%, you are going to make better gains.

2. It doesn’t promote quality movements

Can we agree that shit tends to go wrong at 95+%? It’s ok, as long as we don’t do it so often that we teach our bodies that this is acceptable. The more we tinker on that line of good and bad form, the more likely we are to continually execute bad form. It’s the same as sport practice. If you were to take batting practice every day and swing out of your shoes at every pitch, what are you most likely to look like at the plate? Ridiculous, most likely.

Let’s avoid this as much as possible, maybe ever?

Instead we can train at lower percentages, with a focus on quality, fast repetitions. This will help us learn, and help our bodies learn, what “right” feels like. In return, when we do test the limits we are going to revert back to our training. The result? Better recruitment, better form, more success.

How Do We Avoid This Mistake?

1. Keep Track Of Repetition Maxes

If our 100% is the only indicator we have of what we are capable of, we are going to want to improve it in order to measure progress. Instead, record your best three or five repetition maxes. Without these numbers, you aren’t going to realize progress that is taking place right in front of you. If you don’t monitor that progress, you are going to be tempted to test 100%. More times than not you will end up missing lifts, essentially working at over 100%. Doing so will be equally, if not more detrimental to your progress than working at 95-100% too often.

2. Work Sub Maximally More Often

If we make the change to working at lower percentages more often you will find that your previous 100% starts to appear at lower percentages. As your repetition maxes improve, you can make adjustment to your perceived one repetition maximum. If we can hit a 10lb PR at 90% then we are training ideally. If we can hit a 10lb PR at 80% we are really making progress.

Check your ego at the door, and embrace the principle of delayed gratification. While it may seem that you are handling smaller weights at first, if you stay consistent you will be lifting your one rep max of today as a set of 5 at 80% in no time. Stop missing reps, stop testing your 100%, and embrace a more intelligent way of training. Your body will thank you, your training will improve, and you will be stronger than ever before. Be patient, train hard, and stay focused.

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