Sucker Punch: Jason Ferruggia
Sucker Punch: Jason Ferruggia
by Bryan Krahn
Renegade Gym isn't like most other gyms or fitness centers. There are no mirrors, no juice bar, and at times the music is so loud your teeth rattle.
It's an intense, take-no-prisoners environment that probably doesn't appeal to the majority of everyday lifters, much less the spandex & soccer mom scene.
And that suits its founder, Jason Ferruggia, just fine.
Jason has been training clients ranging from athletes to weekend warriors for nearly 20 years. In 1994, he opened Renegade Gym in Watchung, New Jersey. Since then, he has become one of the most in-demand trainers in the industry, having trained more than 700 athletes from over 90 different athletic organizations.
He's also a prolific industry writer, and a very opinionated one at that, with some even referring to him as "the most controversial man in the fitness industry today." While we think that title might be open to debate (hello Greg Valentino) it still sounds pretty cool, and it's one of the reasons we asked Jason to sit down with us today.
Outspoken, politically incorrect, and the last person you'll find training his rotator cuff, introducing Jason Ferruggia.
TMUSCLE: You barbeque a lot of the strength and conditioning industry's most sacred cows. Let's start with this classic principle: the greater your training age, the heavier you should train.
Jason Ferruggia: So according to this rule, weak novice lifters should do high reps and then continually lower their average number of reps over the course of their training career? That is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. It's so ass-backwards it's beyond words. The truth is actually the complete opposite!
The proponents of this bull**** rule are saying that when a guy can only squat 135 he can do sets of 10-20. But when he can squat 600 some years later, he can now only do sets of 1-5. It's asinine. Because someone has been training for 20 years they now can't go above five reps? And in another few years they will be limited to triples? And then what: eccentric-only singles? I mean, come on, he'd be bored to tears and constantly injured.
If you want to remain healthy as you age and get stronger, your average number of reps should actually go UP, not down.
Dave Tate, Wendler and I were discussing stupid training concepts many years ago at a bar on the Jersey Shore, and when I brought this one up they were both on the floor in hysterical laughter. Neither of these guys had ever heard of it before. And neither has any big, strong guy you've ever met.
TM: So a newbie should start with lower reps and gradually enter higher rep ranges as their strength improves?
JF: Exactly. Newbies have to start with low reps; it's the only way they can learn proper technique. I have all the beginners I train stick with an average of five reps per set, because I know that if we go any higher than that, their form will start breaking down, they'll learn bad habits and improper motor unit firing patterns, and be at a higher risk of injury. They need multiple sets of low reps to learn properly and get stronger. And if a guy can only squat 95 pounds for five, why would I want to have him squat 65 for ten? That's not enough overload.
Once a guy has been training for a while and has gotten significantly stronger, then I'll start to increase the reps. Even then, I really don't like having most intermediate guys with average genetics go above eight reps on a regular basis.
It's not until a guy is strong that he'll actually get anything out of high reps. At that point he can perform higher reps with perfect technique and reduced risk of injury and can also use a weight that'll provide an optimal overload.
When you see a guy like Matt Kroc doing twenty reps on a one-arm row with close to 300 pounds, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that he's inducing hypertrophy and getting a lot out of that set. If you see a skinny 17 year-old kid at the gym doing 20 reps with the 35's, you just feel bad for him.
The other major problem with this rule is that the stronger you get, the further you want to stay away from max weights on a regular basis. It'll fry your nervous system and destroy your joints if you lift heavy all the time. That's the theory behind Jim Wendler's fantastic 5/3/1 system. And Jim's theory actually makes sense.
TM: What about the inverse relationship between the training load and the rest interval?
JF: There's some merit to that, but coaches often misapply it.
Think about it this way: if you squat 315 for 20, it requires far more rest than a set of five with 365. This is just common sense. When a strong guy does a high-rep set of squats, he'll usually be on the floor for five minutes.
I know that the rule is based on CNS recovery, but you have to take other factors into account as well, such as the fact that people can actually see your heart beating through your sweatshirt after a set of high-rep squats.
However, in certain circumstances this rule does make sense. If you're training for strength and working up to a maximal set of 1-3 reps one day of the week and training for hypertrophy with sets of 8-10 on another day of the week, I could see the lower rep day having higher rest periods.
That would make perfect sense. But it really depends on the specific goals, the individual and the exercise. A deadlift is a lot different than an incline curl. A guy who weighs 250 and has trained for ten years is a lot different than a guy who weighs 150 and has trained for 10 weeks. So you can't adhere to this rule blindly because often times it makes no sense at all.
TM: Lastly, regarding the slaying of sacred cows of training, you question the merits of training the external rotators, right?
JF: Right, gotta train the rotator cuff every upper body workout; I mustn't have gotten the memo. I didn't realize this was such a big thing in the training world.
My buddy, rehab specialist Keith Scott doesn't train the external rotators, nor does Chad Waterbury or Alwyn Cosgrove, and I'm pretty sure Yates and Ronnie Coleman didn't either. When you're injured or if you're a pitcher, there's definitely some value in training the rotator cuff muscles in isolation, but otherwise you should be training them with overhead presses, unstable pushups, hand walking and exercises like that. Why add yet another exercise to your routine that you don't even need?
TM: Let's switch to diet: you don't buy into the notion that a bodybuilder or strength training athlete requires a lot of extra protein?
JF: I've tried it a million times over, both on myself and my clients, and I have never seen any benefit to consuming more than a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight a day.
Recently, a lot of people have been writing about the study that showed little to no benefit in consuming more than 20 grams of protein at one feeding. Following these guidelines would put most people at around a high of 180 grams or so per day, assuming they had thirty grams in six meals. This is about what I have been recommending to my clients for quite a while now. The highest I would ever go would be one gram per pound in some kind of extreme low carb phase.
TM: But in the bodybuilder's list of priorities, a high protein diet ranks somewhere between squats and proper peri-workout nutrition. So if not protein, what should a hard-gaining lifter focus on?
JF: It's always going to come down to total calories, and for skinny guys carbs are more important than protein. The majority of my athletes live on carbs and they always grow. Now I know someone will argue that that's due to the fact that most of them are 16-22 years of age and their Testosterone levels are naturally high. Fine, point taken. But then I would argue that if that's the case and you're older than that, what you really need is more Testosterone, not more protein.
TM: Many of our coaches suggest that proper peri-workout nutrition can make up for an otherwise less-than-perfect diet.
JF: I've read that and I have to admit, at first I thought it was bull****. People who know me know that I don't use a lot of supplements and I don't buy into a lot of hype.
But some guys that I trust in the industry like Dave Tate, Jason Pegg and Chad over at Elite Fitness Training Systems have been telling me some incredible things about Surge Workout Fuel and Anaconda. Again, I trust those guys, and it definitely sounds like Biotest is onto something there. I'm amped to give that stuff a shot.
TM: Let's switch gears: as a trainer, tell me the dumbest thing you used to believe.
JF: Where do I begin? It would be hard to pick just one.
Tempo training would definitely be up there. What a waste of time that is. Great for boring guys to tears and for getting weak. But not so good for anything else. I apologize to all the guys I ever subjected to that scam. Muscles are made for speed. Don't fight it.
TM: Everyone seems to be hating on counting tempo these days. What's the matter, you all fail to make the high school band? Moving on, what can I do tomorrow that will kick start my gains?
JF: Stop thinking about the gazillion different training concepts that there are to consider, like the best split, the perfect angle to perform an incline press at, and whether you'd be better off doing supersets instead of drop sets.
Instead, just go the gym and focus only on setting PR's. Not just on squats or bench presses, but hammer curls and every other exercise you do. Get stronger at every workout no matter what it takes. If that means reducing your volume and your training frequency, then do it.
Most people constantly over analyze **** and try 52 different training systems per year. But at the end of 12 months their numbers have barely gone anywhere. And in the end, increasing your poundages is the absolute most important thing.
TM: What's the number one thing wrong with 99% of training programs you see?
JF: Much like my answer to the previous question: too much horse**** volume and a focus on the minutia.
Forget supersets and drop sets and iso-quasi-eccentric ballistic reps and all that. Just get ****ing strong. Like I said, the most important thing is beating what's written down in your training journal from your last workout. That's the one thing that I've always stressed at my gym and have always had all my clients do. No matter what, they have to add weight or reps at every workout. If they can't do that, I know something's wrong.
TM: The biggest scam in the training business is:
JF: Long assessments has got to be right up there at the top of the list.
If you can't properly assess a client in 30 minutes, you should really find a different profession. All you have to do is train he or she once or twice and watch them run and you'll know all that you really need to know. Problems present themselves as the training progresses.
Now don't get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for the functional guys and the rehab/prehab guys who know a lot more about this subject than I do. A lot of these are my friends as well as my colleagues and they're experts at what they do. But in my experience, a lot of that stuff is just impractical and unnecessary. I've heard of guys doing 2-3 hour assessments on people before they even train them. It's ****ing insane, and you're robbing people of their money.
Somehow, the human body has devolved so much that it's not even safe to attempt a pushup without doing twelve weeks of corrective exercise first. And God forbid you have a guy squat! Do you honestly think that everyone at Westside or in the World's Strongest Man Contest has perfect alignment and balance and whatever else is deemed necessary for 'optimal joint health'?
Or is the new cool term 'optimal joint integrity'. That's what all the smart kids say, right? My joints have no integrity; they're lying little bastards who always tell me I can squat more than I really can. But I digress....
As a strength coach, you'll usually have an athlete for twelve weeks, max. If in your four-hour assessment you find some imbalances, is that all you're going to work on for the entire summer with this kid? Because I got news for you; that **** RARELY evens out in just 12 weeks; sometimes it NEVER does.
And even if it did, the first time they meet on the field, your perfectly balanced linebacker who has been doing single-leg slide-board work all summer is going to get blasted into next week by the unbalanced running back who was squatting massive weights the last three months.
If a guy has major problems and is coming off an injury, of course you need to do this stuff. But I think it's safe to say that the average human won't be risking death by starting to train without a day-long assessment and six months of corrective exercise.
Boy, I hope that doesn't upset all my friends who send me their assessment DVD's!
TM: You're omnipotent. Like Oprah. What would you change about the fitness industry with one snap of your all-powerful fingers?
JF: I think nowadays it would have to be the "internet coach or trainer." These are guys who have never trained anyone and want to start writing articles and selling products before they have any training experience to warrant that.
TM: Even the coaches who count tempos are on the same page as you there.
JF: It's really frustrating. Guys email me all the time and ask how they can get into the magazines or get their name out there. I ask how long they've been training people and the response is usually that they just graduated college a year or two ago and work at the Y with three clients.
I propose that you should have to train people for five years before writing an article about anything fitness related, and ten years before writing a book about it. The internet has made it possible for anyone to be an expert.
TM: With that in mind, what's the worst thing that an aspiring trainer can do?
JF: Definitely trying to focus on becoming "famous," becoming a big name trainer and writing articles and selling products. Nowadays everyone wants to fast track to success, and the growing, disturbing trend is for trainers to "escape the grind" of training people and start writing for a living and selling stuff.
First of all, if you don't ****ing love training people, then get the **** out of my industry. Because after 15 years I still do it on a daily basis and love it. And if I get away from it for too long I freak out and go right back to it.
Also, when you aren't training people you run out of ideas to write about and lose your 'MacGyver instinct' (as my friend Bob calls it) for coming up with cool new ideas that work. At that point, you're left to just theorize and come up with stupid **** that would never work in a real world setting but sounds cool in an article.
So, be in it for the long haul and love it, otherwise, if you're just using training people as a stepping-stone to your writing career, you'll never be successful in this business.
TM: And finally, the most important question of all. The franchise question, if you will. Tell us something we don't know?
JF: I could probably give you quite a few, but here's the first thing that come to mind: auto-regulation is probably the most important factor in long term training success.
TM: Well, Christian Thibaudeau beat you to that scoop. He's been advocating a move to auto-regulation during the build-up to the release of the I, Bodybuilder program.
JF: Has he? Well he's right.
For almost everyone but the novice trainee, straight sets are a complete waste of time. Sure, almost all of the training programs you see will say something like 5x5 or 4x8-10 or 3x12-15. But I rarely do that with my guys and never do it in my own training.
As I said, for beginners straight sets are fine. And when you're writing programs, I understand the need to do that because it's difficult to explain exactly what you're talking about. But the reality is that very few big, strong guys use straight sets. They almost all "work up" or do "working warm ups" and then sometimes, a back-off set or two.
TM: Can you explain why auto-regulation is the way to go?
JF: Lets use an example. If most people were doing flat dumbbell presses for 8-10 reps, they would usually be inclined to do 3-4 sets. Now let's say you're pretty strong and can do the 150's for ten. Most of the advanced guys I've trained with or observed will do warm-ups with something like 50's, 75's, 100's, 125's, 135's, and maybe even 140's or 145's.
Then they kill one set with the 150's. When you're that strong, each of your warm up sets takes a toll on your body and can also count as a kind of "working warm up set," where it's kind of a work set but still kind of a warm up for your main set.
TM: So just one all-out set?
JF: There is no need for four sets with the 150's. One big, top end set is more than enough and that would be what you would try to beat next week.
TM: Okay, but the strength training purists will argue that instead of one set at 150 pounds, you could just do the four sets with 135 or 140.
JF: BORRRRRRING! Plus, the extra volume just adds to more stress on your shoulders. Unless you're doing speed work or jump training or working with beginners, I see very little point in doing more than one or two sets of the same exercise, at the same weight, in the same rep range.
TM: So what happens after that top set?
JF: After the money set you have a few options. You could either decide that you feel great and want try to hit the 155's for 5-8, you could just go back down to the 140's for another set of 8-10, you could rep out a set of 12-20 with a lighter weight, or you could just move on to the next exercise.
Everyone has their own preference, and truth be told; sometimes it just depends on the day. Some days you might feel great and want to go heavier, other days you might just want to get a pump with a lighter weight, and on ****ty days you might just want to go home.
There have been times where I did hit the number I wanted for the day, but it was far easier than I expected it to be. These are great days and they should be taken advantage of. So I go up on the second set and then since I'm feeling great, I throw in a higher rep back off set at the end. Other days, I might just hit my intended goal weight for the day and then shut it down.
TM: Sounds eerily like instinctive training...
JF: This isn't to say I don't follow a program, because I do. But I allow for some day-to-day tweaks based on how I'm feeling. As an advanced lifter, you are actually hurting yourself if you don't do this and will end up with more injuries.
Of course, this is a somewhat advanced concept and you have to be fairly well experienced to know how to auto-regulate your training. The majority of guys would do best sticking to a program for their first few years of training.
But even in the advanced programs I write I usually leave a lot of room for auto-regulation. For example, if I have someone do a heavy set and a back off set, instead of a narrow rep range like 5-7 and 8-10, I like to widen it to 5-8 and 10-15 or something like that. It gives you more leeway based on how you're feeling that day. If you feel like ****, we may skip one of the two sets.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that at the end of the cycle your overall numbers are up significantly. But on a day to day basis, you have to be prepared for the fact that you won't always be able to make linear strength gains, and thus you adapt as necessary.
TM: Well, it may not be something we don't know, but it definitely was worth repeating. Thanks for doing this today Jay!
JF: It was my pleasure.
For more information on Jason Ferruggia, visit JasonFerruggia.com
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