Below is an interview from Jukka Mäennenä. Jukka recently interviewed me for ProBody Magazine (a Finnish magazine) and was kind enough to translate the interview into English. This interview took place several months back, when I was still living in Scottsdale. I recently moved to Phoenix and have a new Glute Lab.
Inside the mind of Bret Contreras
By Jukka Mäennenä
I’m driving in Scottsdale close to Phoenix. Although it’s February the heat of Arizona makes my shirt wet like driving would be a physical feat. Scottsdale is know as one of the better neighbourhoods in the area. Houses along the road confirm the impression. The size of the properties are more than adequate to do pretty much whatever you want. There´s also at least one SUV or truck that is powered no smaller by an V6 engine on every drivelane. The gas consumption of those vehicles makes me shiver since I´m still thinking in gas prices back home in Finland (approximately $8,5 for gallon for those who want to know). Bret Contreras agreed to have an appointment with me the previous day. I received the address I´m heading to right now. I assumed that it would be located near some type of mall or at least in an industrial area– the sort of places gyms are usually located, you know. I stop because the GPS says I´m arrived in the destination. The house I see doesn’t differ in any way from the other ones in the neighbourhood. I try to look around for a bit and finally knock the door. Mr. Contreras opens the door. Supposedly I´m in the right place.
Who is Bret Contreras?
Bret Contreras is blogger, writer, coach and scientist and precisely in that order. At the moment he is finishing his Ph. D from AUT University. He started working as a personal trainer when he was 21-years old and continued doing it for twelve years. Around four years ago PT business took a backseat as he started blogging, writing and doing research. The quality of information he provides is high. He goes as far as saying that the content he puts out almost daily is better than in some websites that might have as many as ten people behind them. So far Bret has written two books and published eighteen studies. On top of that five more studies are in the works. Why is Bret so popular? The answer is quite simple. He provides top notch information and he has a unique field of specialty – that is glute development.
Scientist and a coach
Early on in our conversation it gets clear that Bret is a man of science and he gives a lot of value to it when considering the theory behind training. Readers get bored of seeing and listening to just opinions. Science tells things how they most likely are whether you liked it or not. With eighteen published studies under his belt, Bret is currently working on five more studies. The subject varies from EMG measurements in leg press done to failure with loads ranging from 30-70% 1RM, to EMG activity in the hamstring muscles in the SLDL and leg curl, to running mechanics.
Bret is an true academic. It´s rare though that someone with this much expertise in the scientific field has 10,000-20,000 daily visitors on his site. A conclusion could be reached that he writes about subjects that interests the average trainee and he can translate scientific studies to more common understandable language. As he so delicately says: ”People wanna know how to get jacked.”
When I ask if he has some kind of philosophy when it comes to training the first thing he says is Mel Siff. Bret is a true fan of him and considers that Siff was a true professional who worked tirelessly for training science. Anyone who has read the book Supertraining can verify that. Despite being a scientist Bret doesn´t see result orientated training of just applying study results to practice. Instead he likes to take influences all around from the world of sport and fitness. For example he regularly reads what athletes, bodybuilders and powerlifters do in their training. The most important thing is to apply the methods that fit the goals and situation of the client. For example, he doesn´t agree with the common view that all training that isn´t aimed for athletic purposes is a waste of time. For the best results you need to use the methods that are safe and cause the wanted adaptations. Where the methods come from is secondary.
The hip thrust is a good example – an exercise Bret invented. When he starts working with a new clients it might take a month of squatting and the load in the bar doesn´t exceed 80 pounds. In the same four week period he can load the hip thrust twice the amount of weight! Although the amount of load used doesn´t always correlate with good results or optimal methods, it´s something to consider.
Field of specialty
Finally we get to the point, I mean talking glutes and developing them. Bret got the nickname ”The Glute Guy” from his colleague and the name sticked ever since. The story why he got interested in glutes in the first place is funny and an interesting one. When in high school he was playing golf with his sister’s boyfriend. As Bret was about to put, the boyfriend yelled: ”You don´t have an ass! Your legs go right into your back forming a straight line!” Apparently the comment held some truth and Bret decided to do something about it. The quest of learning all the knowledge possible started off with buying all the magazines from the nearby stores that even mentioned the word glute. He says that to this day he is most likely the most well studied person when it comes to glute anatomy, function and training. The shelves of his house are stacked with studies, books magazines and articles that revolve around the subject.
When I ask about the most common mistakes and misconceptions when it comes to glute training the answer starts out quick and seems to never end. He starts off by saying that a person who structures their training mainly around squats can have excellent glute development although the EMG studies show the glute activation isn´t the greatest possible in squats. How is this possible? Bret believes it has to do with the position of peak torque during the squat. Since it’s near the bottom of the lift, where the glute is stretched, it cannot activate to its fullest extent. Something that he is sure of is that to have optimal glute development you need to have variety in your training. In practice that means squats, hip-domintant movements, unilateral lifts etc. He went as far as saying in T-Nation that Ronnie Coleman would have probably had even bigger glutes if he had done hip thrusts. He continues without a pause laughing that it pissed off some people pretty well. Bret´s line of thinking is pretty straight forward though, the greater the muscle activation, the bigger the ”pump” and the more hypertrophy will follow.
Poor activation of the glutes or ”glute amnesia” as it´s called is a real and serious phenomenon according to Bret. This is one thing that he has made pretty much a full turn during the past years based on the experiences he has gotten from novice to professional level trainees. A lot of high caliber lifters have said that they can employ glutes better in the big lifts after some glute activation work. The reason behind ”glute amnesia” is still open even for Bret. However the suspects are the usual ones: too much sitting, tight hip flexors and most of all that everyday living and moving is very quad-dominant. Walking or even taking the stairs to the next floor doesn´t require much of glute use. When sitting for several hours in work, car or home is added to the equation we can end up with a quite a mess. A lot of time spent sitting might be one causes of tight hip flexors which can effect glutes through mechanism called reciprocal inhibition. Basically it means that when agonist is tight or tense the antagonist muscle tends to relax. Chronically tight hip flexors can therefore contribute to chronically inactive or lazy glutes.
Exercises for glutes
When talking about exercises Bret is the man to talk to. First of all he makes it very clear that he doesn´t claim to have invented any of the lifts. For sure there’s been someone at some point of time who has done these exercises at some point of time. What Bret does say is that he has popularized some of the lifts. The list consists of hip thrust, barbell glute bridge, single leg hip thrust and various types of back extensions.
Hip thrust is arguably the most well known exercises in this list. Bret recently introduced precise equipment just for this exercises – the hip thruster. Besides regular barbells it allows for the use of various types of bands as a mean of resistance. One interesting thing about bands in this exercise is that based on EMG readings muscle activation increases as the set progresses. The reason for this is due to the size principle – under constant tension during submaximal exercise, muscle activation will continue to rise until momentary muscular failure is reached.
Bilateral and unilateral training has been a hot potato in training world for quite some time now. Bret doesn´t see this as question of either or. Optimal results require the use of both in most cases. Some powerlifters for example might consider unilateral training almost as a joke and on the other hand a strength coach can see too many risks with heavy bilateral lifts. As said previously a good training plan uses the means and methods that are the most suited for the particular situation.
The Glute Lab
The Glute Lab is located in the same address I got from Bret. I was a bit surprised at first when Bret asked if I wanted to see the Glute Lab and the next thing we walked over to the garage. My confusion quickly disappeared when he opened the door and I saw the amount of training equipment he had in there. Besides being pretty much a full blown gym, all the EMG measurements are done in there. On top of that he has a force plate and a camera system that can record movement and bar paths for example. Hence the name lab is well justified.
Next the discussion turns to clients. I ask that what type of clientele Bret works with. Are they athletes, power lifters, body builders, general population or what? The answer comes without hesitation – bikini competitors. He says it with a slight smile of course. He receives inquiries about his coaching services almost daily but he hasn´t been able to take any new clients for a while because it would take the focus off from research and writing which he sees as his primary work.
Bret´s tip for learning
The final question is that where does Bret recommend to look for information? The first thing he mentions is Strong Curves – that is one of his books. Although it´s aimed for women, a lot men can get plenty out of it as well because of the practical training tips and scientific sections. Naturally he mentions his blog BretContreras.com as well. For someone who is more science orientated a must read is StrengthandConditioningResearch.com, which Chris Beardsley regularly updates on the latest scientific findings and hot topics. When it comes to nutrition, Alan Aragon´s site is hard to beat in Bret´s books.
In the end he says that it´s important to take influences from very diverse sources and gather the best things to serve you or your clients’ purpose as well as possible. That´s how Bret has done it and with plenty of success. The importance of science can´t be pronounced enough. When you do research you might learn new things and the other way around.
About the writer
Jukka Mäennenä is a 27-years old Finnish athlete, coach and student. He is certified kettlebell, barbell and bodyweight training instructor in the StrongFirst system and he has completed Poliquin PICP 1-2 courses. When not training, working or updating his blog at super-sets.com he can be found on his BMX or mountain bike.