Exactly who is an athlete? Everyone!
That's right! It doesn't matter if you're a professional athlete, sedentary office worker or weekend warrior - you use your body in ways that place countless demands on it every day. People have the option of conditioning themselves for those demands or living with a higher risk of injury. Often, the loads on the body from work activities are largely under estimated.
So what's the best way to go about conditioning an athlete? Many trainers seem to focus solely on the performance enhancement aspect (i.e., to help an athlete to jump higher, run faster or throw further), and it appears all they need to do is strengthen the muscles involved in those actions. Is this really the best approach? Does stronger necessarily mean better?
To make a car go faster, does it only take putting in a bigger engine? Will the car's suspension handle the extra power? Are the tires okay? How's the wheel alignment? What about the fuel mix? Are the brakes sufficient to stop the car if extra power is added? Is the chassis straight? The list goes on!
Now I know that your clients are not cars, but there is more to enhancing performance than just increasing strength. So first, we need an inspection report on the car - or in your clients case, a musculo-skeletal assessment as well as a "needs analysis." A needs analysis is one of the major components of program design (Fleck & Kraemer 1987), (Chek 1999) and is essential in developing an effective conditioning program.
When developing a conditioning program, you need to look at a number of issues such as, does your client have to use specific sporting equipment or perhaps at work do they use various tools or machinery? For example, a plumber uses electric drills, hand drill, pipe threaders etc. He also has to be able to crawl around under houses, working in very tight confined spaces. He's exposed to heights, water, wind and rain, all on a daily basis. It's understandable to expect he will have greater demands placed on him in certain areas than an office worker sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day. Do you give them the same conditioning programs? I sure hope not.
If you don't know what is involved in your clients' work or sport, ask them! Or better still, go and watch them in their specific work or sport environment. This will give you a much better understanding of their individual needs. At work and sport, many issues need to be considered as they will create different demands on your clients' abilities; for example, the surfaces your client is performing on. If we look at our plumber again, he's climbing up and down ladders, working on roofs of all pitches and dimensions requiring abilities such as balance, agility, flexibility and coordination.
If he is deficient in any of these areas, it will be beneficial to program exercises into his training to help improve them. I don't think three sets of 10 reps on the bench press is going to help him much when he's hanging off the top end of a six-foot ladder while using his claw hammer to pull down the rusty old gutters he's replacing.
Look at an Australian rules football player. He needs to withstand forces from multi directional impacts on the ground and in the air while playing on surfaces that aren't always flat or level. Nurses have to lift heavy and often uncooperative patients in and out of beds, wheelchairs, toilets etc.
Realize each environment has it's own unique set of physical requirements and each client is an individual with varying abilities. One size will never fit all no matter how you slice it!
Note: For a lot more comprehensive look into the factors influencing training priorities and needs analysis, I highly recommend Paul Chek's "Program Design" and "Advanced Program Design" courses.
Work and sports use a combination of biomotor abilities. By rating their importance for the individual's chosen work or sport, then testing and comparing them, you gain a good idea of the areas that need work in training (Chek 1999). There is no formula for determining the biomotor abilities; for a given activity, it is subjective and could be the topic of much debate. But watching your clients in their environments and listening to them gives you a basis to rate them. Biomotor abilities can be codependent on each other. When assessing biomotor abilities, it is important to choose tasks similar to the activities performed during your athletes work or sport.
Examples of Biomotor Abilities
Flexibility is the range of motion about a joint (Anderson 1981). It refers to the state of the muscle's length, which restricts or allows freedom of joint movement (Kreighbaum & Barthels 1990). It is specific to each joint, as someone may have a large range of motion (ROM) at an ankle but restricted ROM at the hip or limited movement within the spinal column (i.e., loss of extension, which can be further broken down to specific vertebrae). Flexibility is essential for optimum joint and muscle function. There are many excellent books on assessing muscle length and tension as well as joint function. I highly recommend "Muscles Testing and Function" the 4th edition, which also includes "Posture and Pain," by Florence Peterson Kendall, Elizabeth Kendall McCreary and Pactria Geise Provance (published by Williams and Wilkins).
Simply by watching your clients perform movements relevant to their work or sport, you can also identify possible muscular imbalances or joint restriction. This is important because, while isolated testing is useful, assessing movement will give a more informed picture of the ability of your clients musculo-skeletal system to function as an integrated unit.
Agility is a combination of biomotor abilities, combining speed, power and coordination. It is the ability to change the body or body parts rapidly under control (Anderson 1981).
Coordination is a complex ability and correlates closely with strength, flexibility, speed and endurance (Bompa 1983). If your clients have poor ability in any of these areas, this can limit their development of coordination. When improving coordination, you should emphasize developing a large variety of skills and progressively increase exercise complexity. Variety is important in exercise selection and equipment used. For example, it is beneficial in the development of coordination to have your client perform activities and skills with their non-dominant limbs.
To assess coordination, agility and balance, complex multi direction movements are useful. Using unilateral movements and balance tests are also helpful to determine the athletes' abilities in these areas. Take care to look at how quickly or slowly they perform the various movements, remembering that the physiological basis of coordination relies heavily on the coordination of the various processes of the central nervous system (Bompa 1983).
There are many types of strength. The following classifications are adapted from 1). Poliquin. C. Classifications of Strength Qualities National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal Vol. 11, No 6; aand 2). Poliquin. C. Advanced Strength Training Certification Course manual.
- Isometric Strength. Tension develops within the muscle without it changing length to any significant degree. Also known as static strength.
- Eccentric Strength. Tension is produced while the muscle lengthens, which slows or controls the speed of movement.
- Concentric Strength. Tension develops and the muscle shortens, producing movement.
- Maximal Strength. The maximum amount of force that can be produced in a single maximal voluntary contraction without regard to time.
- Absolute Strength. Is the maximum force, able to be produced irrespective of body weight and time.
- Limit Strength. People under hypnosis or in life threatening situations have been known to display limit strength. It's the maximum amount of force produced by your muscles in a single contraction exceeding ordinary levels of absolute strength; for example, the mother in a motor vehicle accident who lifts a car off her injured child.
- Relative Strength. The ratio between an individual's absolute strength and his body weight; sometimes known as strength to weight ratio. Sports like gymnastics require a high degree of relative strength, as do sports involving weight classes such as boxing, wrestling, etc.
- Optimal Strength. Optimal strength is the optimum amount of strength for a given sport or activity, where any further increase in strength would not enhance performance.
Various exercises can be used to assess strength, making sure they have relevance to your athletes' work or sport. For example, to assess the strength of a man working in a warehouse that has to pick up boxes and place them on shelves above head level, you could use exercises like a squat push press at a slow tempo or a deadlift and shoulder press as work specific movements.
In the sports field, a lot of traditional strength tests do not have a high degree of relevance to the sport. Take the bench press, commonly used to assess the upper body strength of a rugby player in a push pattern. Having a great bench press doesn't necessarily mean that strength will be useful on the rugby field where the athlete is standing up, bending or in various stances (not lying flat on his back on a bench bolted to the ground!). On the bench, he is in a very stable environment requiring little of his muscular systems ability to stabilize. He's even able to use his neck muscles, bracing himself by pushing his head and neck into the bench to help provide greater strength. For the purposes of his sport, he would be much better assessed in a standing position or any other position relevant to the sport using a cable column requiring greater stabilization and integrated use of body segments. This could be done unilaterally or bilaterally.
Look around your gym and start to imagine ways you could use various pieces of equipment to simulate more work or sports specific environments in assessing and building strength for your clients.
In physics, power is precisely defined as the rate of doing work (Meriam 1978) where work is the product of the force exerted on an object and the distance the object moves in the direction in which the force is exerted. Quantitatively, work and power are defined as:
- Work = Force x Distance
- Power = Work/Time
Power can also be defined as
So power is the product of the force exerted on an object and the velocity of the object in the direction in which the force is exerted (Dudley& Harris1994). Or simply put, power describes force with respect to time. Biomotor abilities strength and speed combine to create power. You can be strong and able to move a heavy load but not necessarily powerful where you would move the load rapidly. Movements such as vertical jumps, standing broad jumps, different types of tossing, passing or throwing with medicine balls (measuring the distance thrown or jumped) can all be used to test power.
Speed is the rapidity of movement (Anderson 1981). From a mechanical point of view, speed is expressed through a ratio between space and time (Bompa 1983). Heredity plays a large part in the speed potential of an athlete. According to De Vries (1980), muscle fiber make-up is important in the performance of quick movements - fast twitch (white) muscle fibers contract quicker than slow twitch (red) fibers. So skeletal muscle properties (proportion of white versus red muscle fibers) represent one of the factors in speed potential (Dintiman 1971). Technique, reaction time and muscle elasticity also affect speed potential and development. An athlete’s psychological qualities will also affect speed as a high degree of concentration and will power are necessary in achieving high speeds.
Endurance is how long (time) work of a given intensity can be performed or maintained. An athlete that doesn't fatigue easily or can continue to work in a state of fatigue is considered to have endurance (Bompa 1983). Efficiency of movement and economical use of physiological abilities amongst other things (such as speed and technique) are important factors in an individual’s endurance capacity. Endurance can be general or sports specific and broken down further in cyclic sports into long, medium and short duration endurance. Distance, intensity of work performed and level of performance influences the percentages used from the energy systems. The athlete’s anaerobic capacity will affect his intensity of exercise while his aerobic capacity largely determines his endurance capacity.
Breathing - in particular active exhalation - is critical in endurance. Getting as much of the used oxygen-depleted air out of the lungs as possible is extremely important. Un-exhaled used air will dilute the oxygen content of the newly inhaled air and negatively affect performance.
- Muscular Endurance requires a high development of strength merged together with endurance and is the degree to which muscle groups can continue to contract against a given load for a certain time (Kreighbaum & Barthels 1990).
- Speed Endurance requires both maximum speed, strength and endurance.
When assessing your clients’ biomotor abilities, it's important to develop a solid understanding not only of their overall strengths and weaknesses across the various abilities but in respect to the biomotor demand of their sport or activity. You can then focus on developing the high-need areas with a full understanding of how they will impact performance.
For more on Biomotor abilities, Tudor Bompa’s book "Theory and Methodology of Training" gives an extremely in depth examination and explanation of biomotor abilities and factors involved in their improvement.
Looking at your clients' previous athletic history will give you an insight into their nervous system and biomotor abilities. For example:
- Client A lives on Sydney's northern beaches and was a wax-head from the age of five - surfing whenever there was a decent swell - but hasn't surfed for the last 12 months. At eight, he proceeded to pursue a variety of sports including Australian Rules football, tennis and field hockey, all of which he continued to play until his mid twenties. He is now 30 years old.
- Client B is a 25 year old distance runner (road races). He has been racing for 10 years and has worked out in a gym on a machine-based training program for the past 10 months; he averages 60 miles a week in training.
Who will most likely have the better-developed nervous system? Most likely Client A, as he has been involved in sports with a high demand on a wide variety of biomotor abilities challenging the nervous system with many different complex movements from an early age, whereas Client B has participated in a sport that is cyclical in nature over long distances with little challenge to the nervous system and little demand on the various biomotor abilities. Even though Client B may appear in better ‘shape’ with the neurologically sedate training environment of the last 10 months - using muscle isolating exercise machines in a gym – he has done little to teach his body to function as unit.
Leading authority on corrective and high performance exercise Paul Chek developed and teaches the flexibility- stability- strength - power formula, realizing that if you have an athlete with poor flexibility and stability, any attempts to increase strength and power will be unproductive and can further increase the risk of injury. Break the formula, break the athlete!
A length tension and postural assessment will aid in assessing muscle balance and postural alignment. Good posture is important for optimum joint and muscle function. A joint that is properly aligned moves easily and efficiently. The joint is less effected by the forces generated during movement and loading and will have a lower risk of injury.
Muscle pull on bone can be considered in mechanical terms. If the chassis of a car is twisted, performance is reduced, and it becomes more dangerous to drive. In the same way, as an athlete’s posture is distorted, his performance suffers and the risk of injury increases. (Barker 1993)
Postural and muscular imbalances are rife among modern day society with the widespread use of computers and modern machinery; the public's general physical condition is poor. Many postures are adaptations to work or sports environments, often reinforced by incorrect exercise program design.
It is important to assess your clients' posture, and postural corrections should be high on the list of priorities when developing an exercise program (Chek 1999).
A thorough medical history, including past and present injuries is also vital. Are they currently recovering from an injury? If so, the injury should be the full focus of your initial programming; this may require the services of relevant medical professionals.
Past injuries should also be considered when designing an exercise program. Previous injuries can hinder the athlete's ability to achieve or maintain correct exercise technique, as loss of ROM, joint stability or muscle function may still be present.
It is important not to train a client in pain.
Training through the pain can set up pain avoidance patterns, muscular inhibition and alter normal movement patterns. Once developed, they will require a lot of work by a skilled therapist to correctly restore joint and muscle function. Faulty movement patterns must be identified and corrected before exposing structures to the demands of strength and power training.
In training circles, there has been heavy emphasis on first increasing athletic performance. The problem with this approach is that, as you can see from above, there can be many factors currently influencing an athlete's performance, which - if not addressed - can leave your client on a path to pain or injury. If you ignore these factors, it's likely your program will help to get them there quicker! How many potentially world class performances have ended up on a therapist's table, never to see the light of day, because an athlete has broken down?
One of the most common mistakes I see many trainers make is training their clients as they train themselves. For example, a trainer who does a lot of resistance training also heavily uses resistance training with all of his clients regardless of the client's goals. Conversely, if the trainer does countless hours of aerobic training, then aerobic training often dominates the exercise programs she prescribes. Listen to your clients for they are the best people to tell you what areas they need to improve!
While there are many more factors to consider when developing a physical conditioning program, my goal in exploring the function of biomotor abilities has been to get you to think more about what you and your clients want to achieve with their programs, and perhaps rethink the way you approach physical conditioning.
We must all continually upgrade our skills. Go out and search for more information; there is an abundance of it if you know where to look. Be proactive - don't wait for it to come to you.
- Anderson. B. Flexibility testing. NSCA Journal 3(2):20-23. 1981 ek.
- Barker. Dr. V Posture Makes Perfect: Japan Publications Inc. 1993
- Bompa. T.O Theory and Methodology of Training: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. 1983
- Bompa. T.O Power Training for Sport: Mosaic Press. 1993
- P. Chek. Advanced Program Design correspondence course/Seminar: 1999
- De Vries. H. APhysiology of Exercise of Physical Education and Athletics 3rd Ed. Dubuque, Iowa, Wm. C. Brown Company Publisher, 1980
- Dintiman. G. B Sprinting Speed. Springfield, Ill. C. C. Thomas Publisher, 1971
- Dudley.G.A & R.T. Harris Essentials of Strength and Conditioning: Chapter 2: Neuromuscular Adaptations to Conditioning: NSCA: Thomas R. Baechle ed. Human Kinetics. 1994
- Fleck. S.J & W.J. Kraemer Designing Resistance Training Programs Champaign.IL. Human Kinetics. 1987
- Francis. C. Training For Speed: Canberra,ACT: Faccioni. 1997
- Kreighbaum.E &K.M. Barthels Biomechanics: A Qualitative Approach For Studying Human Movement: 3rd ed. New York. Macmillan Publishing Company. 1990
- Luttengens. K,. & K.F. Wells. Kinesiology: A Scientific Basis of Human Motion, 3rd Ed. Philadelphia: Lea & Frebiger. 1991
- Meriam.J Engineering Mechanics, vol. 2 Dynamics: New York: Wiley. 1978
- Norkin. C, Levangie. P Joint structure and function: a comprehensive analysis: 2nd edition. F. A. Davis. 1992
- Peterson. Dr. L& Renstrom. Dr. P Sports Injuries: Their prevention and treatment: Martin Dunitz. 1986
- Poliquin. C Advanced Strength Training Certification Course manual Trew. M, Everett. T Human Movement: an introductory text: 3rd edition Churchill Livivngstone. 1997