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Tony Gentilcore Interview: Lifting Heavy & Staying Injury Free

By Kristin Rooke / February 20, 2016

Tony Gentilcore is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA, and is the co-founder of Cressey Performance located just outside of Boston, MA. Recognized as one of the premier trainers in the Northeast, Tony has a no-nonsense approach to training and a well-honed perspective on unique program design.

His background includes experience as a college baseball player, where he was named Most Valuable Pitcher and “Division II Player To Watch,” which helps him relate to his trainees, whether they are aspiring student athletes or experienced professionals. He is also a regular contributor to Testosterone Magazine, Livestrong.com, and has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine. For more info on Tony, visit his website at TonyGentilcore.com. Enjoy his awesome interview with us to pick up some great pointers you can use to start strength training or to incorporate into your current program.

1. How did you get started in the fitness industry?

It all started when I was in 7th grade and noticed girls were completely ignoring me! I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. I’m sure it was equal parts weighing 110 lbs soaking wet and wearing tube socks like it was no one’s business (and, yes, I admit it, wearing vintage Vanilla Ice sunglasses), but suffice it to say, like most guys with raging hormones at that age, I got started with the whole “lifting weights thing” as a way to get chicks to want to hang out with me.

Well, that, and I was sick of getting bullied.

The fitness industry can thank my parents (I mean Santa!) for bringing me my first cement/plastic weight training set for Christmas when I was 13, which I happily set up shop in our basement.

As I worked my way through high-school as an avid baseball player looking to play in college, I viewed physical fitness as a way of life. Looking back, I was always an active kid growing up.

I eventually did end up playing college baseball – 4 years as a starting pitcher, and then had to make a decision between pursuing my degree in health education and being a health teacher or following my true passion and seeking a career in fitness.

I could wear ties to work everyday, or sweatpants. To me it was a no brainer.

Long story short: I spent the first five years of my career working in corporate fitness and various commercial gyms in Upstate New York. In the fall of 2006 I moved to Boston, and in the summer of 2007 I, along with my business partners Eric Cressey and Pete Dupuis, opened up Cressey Performance.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

2. Do you believe heavy lifting is appropriate for everyone? Is the 1-6 rep range safe for the typical desk jockey?

Well, as with anything….it depends. “Heavy” is subjective: most deem working in the 1-6 rep range as too advanced for most, and I don’t beg to differ.

Traditionally speaking most deem working in that rep range (as it relates to your % of your one-rep max) as too aggressive, and there’s no golden rule which states you HAVE to go that heavy.

While there is a huge part of me which feels far too many people “dog” it in the gym, I do recognize that not everyone is ready from day one stepping foot in the gym to go that “heavy.”

Conversely, I do feel that the 1-6 rep range is a perfect way for someone to learn how to hone in on his technique. Once we start including compound (technique heavy) movements like squats and deadlifts into the picture, I don’t see much merit in performing them for high(er) reps, because, well, things start to get dicey and technique falters. Once fatigue sets in – which is bound to happen when someone goes higher rep – everything changes.

That’s why – when I’m coaching someone – whether they’re a seasoned athlete or desk jockey who spends way too much time on Facebook – on a new exercise, I’d much rather keep the reps low so that I can ensure they’re focusing more on quality of movement over quantity.

What’s more, as a side benefit, it never hurts to work in the lower rep ranges because it allows people to use more weight, which is a fail proof way of getting stronger. And I’m all about getting people stronger.

3. What is the value of heavy lifting if someone’s goal is to get lean?

Piggy backing on the last sentence above: I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when their goal is getting lean is not placing a premium on strength.

More often than not, what ends up happening is someone will watch something like Man of Steel or Wolverine or (insert any Super Hero movie here), decide they eat way too many carbs, and become motivated to get their sexification on.

What inevitably then happens is that they jack up their training volume (lots of high rep training compounded with copious amounts of cardio) and start eating really low calories, and while it works for a while, before long they feel like poop and have sacrificed a lot of lean mass (muscle).

Even if fat loss and getting lean is someone’s goal, it’s still important to save as much muscle as you possibly can. What makes muscle is what keeps muscle. It’s important to give the body the stimulus it needs to hold onto as much muscle as possible – especially when dieting.

I’m not saying incorporating things like finishers, circuit training, HIIT training, and the like, are a waste of time and that they can’t help expedite the process. But I do feel people place far too much emphasis on those protocols and “may” end up losing muscle in the long run. Sadly, a lot of people end up becoming a smaller, weaker version of themselves.

4. Do you apply the same training protocol to women?

In terms of muscles, men and women have the same parts and I find it interesting/infuriating that many (not all) women are programmed from a young age to think that they can’t (or shouldn’t) lift weights; that they’re these delicate flowers who can’t get after it like the boys.

The mainstream media is a huge culprit of this mentality. Walk through any grocery line and you’ll notice any number of “gossip mags” extolling what women should look like. Sadly, the message is to be skinny.

Likewise, many things that are marketed towards women – yoga, pilates, Zumba, etc – are marketed in a way that pawns them off as the panacea, end-all-be-all of health. While every single thing mentioned above has its benefits, I wholeheartedly feel – and admittedly I’m a little biased – that strength training will trump each and every one of those things ten-fold.

When training women I tend to focus on performance based goals (working up to doing an un-assisted chin-up, deadlifting 1x bodyweight for reps, performing “x” number of push-ups) rather than focus on something meaningless like scale weight.

Almost always, something cool happens. Once they realize that they “can” lift weights, and that they “can” see results, a switch turns on where they’re hooked, and it’s a beautiful thing.

5. What are your 3 favorite exercises where you like to lift heavy?

If you forced me to make a list of things I love it would look something like this: sleeping in on Sundays, bacon, zombies, Jason Bourne movies, deadlifts.

Without question deadlifts are on top of the list. What I love most is that there’s no way to cheat the deadlift. Either the bar is going to be lifted off the ground, or it’s not. In that regard it’s easy to note progress.

Second on my list would be squats.

Now with both of those exercises – deadlifts and squats – it’s important to learn proper technique (and entire books have been written on both), but it stands to reason that if your goal is to get stronger (and subsequently have glutes so big they have their own area code), these should be the at top of the list.

And even if your goal isn’t to add mass or to deadlift a Fiat, both exercises offer a bevy of other benefits that translate well to everyday life: improved body composition, stronger joints, increased core strength, increased bone density (stave off osteoporosis), offsetting bad postural habits (from sitting in front of a computer all day), as well as fixing a bad hair day. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Lastly, I feel push-ups are a very underrated exercise. Most people butcher technique, and while telling a guy to nix bench pressing in lieu of performing push-ups is like telling a woman not to watch a Channing Tatum movie, I’d make the case that (loaded) push-ups offer way more training benefits than the bench press.

6. Is this a training method that can be performed alone, or should it be practiced with a coach?

You can do it alone. I think if someone isn’t accustomed to pushing the envelope with their weight selection it’s never a bad idea to have a training partner you trust to offer feedback and/or spots and hand-offs, or to be under the watchful eye of a coach or personal trainer.

7. How should someone warm-up for heavy workouts?

This is something I see a lot of trainees missing the boat on. I often have to put on the brakes with many of the athletes and clients I train in person because one second they’re warming up, I turn away, and the next they’re attempting a close to one-rep max.

At my facility everyone performs a 10-15 minute warm-up that includes foam rolling (addressing soft tissue restrictions) as well as a full dynamic warm-up that addresses, activates and mobilizes “problem areas” like glute activation, thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility etc.

From there let’s say someone has squats on the docket. I’ll often tell them that they’ll want to perform 2-4 “build-up” sets to prime the body for the heavier loads a head.

So, for example, if someone’s goal is to work up to a 300 lb squat for sets of three, a warm-up may look something like this:

Bar x 10
135 x 5
185 x 3
225 x 3
275 x 1
300 x 3 (and then they’ll gauge how to proceed from there).
Fist Pump x infinity

In conjunction with not warming-up at all, another major mistake people make is warming up too much. Ie: they perform way too many sets/reps before they even approach their “work sets.”

You’ll note that the warm-up above doesn’t include a ton of reps. The whole notion of warming-up is to increase core temperature, increase joint lubrication, groove technique, and to get the nervous system ready for “go time.” You don’t want to waste all your energy and tire yourself out before you even get started in the first place.

8. Is range of motion or flexibility a consideration or concern when it comes to lifting heavy?

Yes and no. If someone doesn’t have the flexibility or mobility restrictions to, say, squat to ample depth, I’m not going to force it.

We can still squat – regress the exercise to work on technique with sub-maximal load – and still garner an ample training effect while simultaneously addressing any postural imbalances and dysfunctions that may exist.

Even if someone is “cleared” and has no injuries or major contraindications, I’m still adamant that they do not sacrifice technique – full ROM – for more weight.

Where many people fall into trouble is when they allow their egos to get the best of them and start loading more and more weight on the bar, to the point where range of motion is an afterthought, and at best they garner a few high-fives and YouTube views from their equally dubious bro-friends and at worse they develop some serious faulty movement patterns and imbalances and end up hurting themselves.

9. Can you provide a sample workout appropriate for the average busy guy who has strength training experience and works out a few times per week?

I think for 90% of the people reading, 90% of the time, following more of a full-body template 3x per week is spot on.

Each day should start with a “main movement” like a squat variation, deadlift variation, or a bench press/chin-up variation in the 3-6 rep range.

From there, it’s a matter of hitting your “accessory” lifts that compliment that main movement and/or implement exercises that help to address and weaknesses that may exist. For most people this will include:

Here’s a sample day:

A1. Trap Bar Deadlift 4×5
A2. T-Spine Work (dedicated mobility work for the mid-back)

B1. DB Reverse Lunge 3×8/leg
B2. Push-Up 3×8 (band resisted if too easy)

C1. Seated Cable Row – Neutral Grip 3×10
C2. Pallof Press 3×10/side

D. Some kind of conditioning: 10-minute bike interval, Farmer Carries paired with med ball work, killing zombies, jump roping, etc.

10. Is there a Youtube video(s) that you suggest will give our readers a more tangible understanding of this topic?

Box Squat Technique
Deadlift Technique
Squat Mistakes – the Set-Up


  • Hank says:

    Great interview with sound advice and I like how it ties in with health first and lean second. Strength is important and overlooked by people who use their brains for a living. However, it is comforting to be able to achieve work tasks at home that require strength without either fatiguing oneself or causing an injury.