If our strength and conditioning program does not look, smell and feel like our chosen sport or function, are we leaving our athletes untrained? We know the ability to enable our athletes to move fast and efficiently around their chosen sporting environment in all three planes of movement should be the holy grail of our program design. Are we, however, helping them to do this?
Our training programs should be applicable to our athletes, not the other way around. We should ask ourselves, should the conditioning for a squash player and a rugby player look the same? For me, the answer to that question is a resounding no. The reasoning behind such a definitive answer is that the predominant movements are completely different. The rugby player is moving forward, although in the context of throwing the ball backwards, whereas the squash player is holding a racquet and moving predominantly laterally. Although these are only two movements out of many executed by the competitors, the point is that this specificity of movement should be mirrored by and should dictate our training programs.
Our explosive strength and conditioning programs involve movements and exercises created from other gym based sports, such as power lifting and body building, and we apply a one-size-fits-all approach to strength and conditioning, quantifying the results by the amount of weight we are lifting rather than sporting performance. The problem is that these exercises, such as the snatch, clean and jerk, squat and bench press, have evolved as a safe and effective way of lifting as much weight as possible and are dictated by the major environment in which they are performed: the gym and the equipment available within the gym. Add to this the quantification of success by the weight lifted, and we have created a new function, something to which we apply sports specific strength training rather than an individual set of strength exercises for individual sports movements with individual variables.
The above images show the start (Figure 1) and finish of the snatch (Figure 2).
The exercises that have evolved in the world of power lifting and bodybuilding are phenomenal at achieving results in their desired function and environment and also have a place in sport specific strength development. Should we, however, apply wholesale one type of training to another without looking at how to improve specificity, force production and dimensionality, according to the variables of the sport for which we are training? Also, because the weight has dictated safety and success, it seems to have dictated a predominantly saggital plane of movement, something that does not take prominence in our athletes’ sporting functions. In fact, strength gains are angle specific, so if we reduce angle or plane possibilities as dictated by safety and effective movement of exceptionally heavy weights, are we reducing the strength potential of our athletes in their chosen discipline and increasing it in a completely different sporting situation? According to Tudor Bompa, “Strength adaptations are angle specific and thus all possible angles must be utilized.”
Does this leave our athletes to some degree untrained in their sports specific movements? Can we produce equal force by decreasing weight and increasing other variables for a more specific outcome? The answer to these questions is yes, and we will explore this later on.
Another question to ask is this: is the amount of weight lifted important in a functional environment? My answer is no. The more important outcome of training is the improvement in our ability to assume positions and exert force in the angles and planes specific to our sporting movements.
This brings us to the point where we must look at how to improve our training programs, evolving what we have now into something stronger, faster and more applicable to our athletes’ chosen disciplines, much the same as we would do as coaches with our athletes.
First of all, we must know the predominant movements, planes and speeds of our sport or position within a team sport. Secondly, we must know how to adapt the variables of our training to enhance performance through our understanding of muscle function and how dimensionality, load and acceleration and deceleration can improve muscle function and applicability. Gary Gray addresses the first question both eloquently and concisely: “No function, no performance, Know function, Know performance,” and Bompa tells us, “It is important to classify one’s sport. Knowing the physiological /bio-motor breakdown of the sport enables you to plan the training towards optimizing the required skills and components. This is how you bridge the gap between the requirements of a sport and an athlete’s physical abilities.”
These seem wise words, indeed. Fully understanding what you are trying to enhance should be the first step in a good strength and conditioning program. Our athletes’ movement deficiency, in the context of their sporting movement, is another area for exploration, but it is far too broad a subject to be adequately explored in this article.
Verkhorshansky tells us in his “Organization of the Training Principles” article that, “the trend of the athlete’s functional state provides a clear indication of the effectiveness of the training process. It can be evaluated by monitoring the functional parameters specific to the chosen sports discipline.” Awareness of the parameters of our chosen discipline means that we can effectively quantify our success by functional performance, rather than just the weight we have lifted. This could take the form of the ability to hit consistently, with more force and control a shot we found difficult before training, coupled with the ability to regain our ready position more quickly than before. Or the ability to exert more tackling force in a specific direction or from a position of instability that was not possible before the training program.
Weight will always play a major part in strength training. However, more focus should be placed on the planes, speeds and joint angles within our training programs. It seems that exercises that enhance or incorporate function are used mainly in the foundation stages of training and then changed in favor of more traditional strength exercises, whereas these functional movements should be carried through to a point where we are using traditional power variables, rather than reverting to completely different exercises dominated by weight. Increasing knowledge of our specific sports and training processes will enable us to create movements and loads tailored to the sport or movement for which we are training.
We must also look at our understanding of muscle function and the interaction of muscle and the physics of our environment, such as gravity, laws of motion and how loading affects the differing types of muscular contraction.
Proprioception has come to be understood as the major player in the world of muscle function, together with an appreciation of the way proprioceptors control joint and muscular movement. We must learn how to incorporate their actions and reactions into our training programs. Increasingly, studies are finding that to get effective movement and force production, the proprioceptors have to be stimulated in a three dimensionally rich environment, alongside ground reaction, gravity and momentum, to load muscles eccentrically to unload concentrically. This indicates that our training must recreate to some degree sports specific proprioceptive input to gain a specific muscular output. “To stimulate the proprioceptors,” according to research by Mcardle, “real and relative motion must occur in all joints in all three planes. This in turn switches the muscles on to decelerate joint motion in all three movement planes, then motion is accelerated in all joints in all three planes.” Therefore, the more three dimensional our training programs, the more effective joint and muscular propreoceptive stimulation, leading to more force produced in more applicable positions and joint angles for our athletes’ chosen sports.
Proprioception is also stimulated by deceleration and acceleration forces on muscles. Mel Siff discusses the use of the myotatic reflex, also known as the stretch reflex, in his seminal book “Supertraining.” The myotatic reflex is defined in the American Heritage Medical Dictionary as “contraction of the muscles in response to a stretching force, due to stimulation of muscle propreoceptors.” This stretching force and rate of change obviously increases significantly as muscles decelerate an external force. Siff further states,“The myotatic stretch reflex has great significance for increasing the working affect of concentric muscle action, with the greater the rate of stretch, the stronger this reflex. Most explosive movements in running, jumping, lifting and throwing rely on intense recruitment of this reflex.”
The rate at which our muscles change length according to decelerative or accelerative forces have a considerable feedback affect on our muscular propreoceptors, mainly the muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs, which in turn determine muscular response to the imposed change. Our ability to improve and control this response through training will give us improvements in muscular performance. First, however, we must give them the proper input.
The implications for deceleration and acceleration on our muscles in strength training are huge, firstly in the area of proprioceptive stimulation and secondly in improving the elastic response of our muscles and finally in terms of the physics of the world around us and its impact on our muscles.
Chantler, Jones and Rademyer looked at a barbell dropped from a given height and an athlete having to actively decelerate the barbell and then thrust it upwards. This study found that the barbell’s kinetic energy was transformed into elastic energy to be used during the following concentric contraction. The elastic or concentric energy was equal to the kinetic energy of barbell when at the end of its fall. The less time between eccentric and concentric contractions gave better muscular force production. Siff responds with the following comment, “Therefore, muscle stimulation by the absorption of energy of a falling body can be a very effective method of loading, the basis of which lies in the ability of the muscles to contract more powerfully after a sharp preliminary stretch.” This “sharp preliminary stretch” would be the eccentric or loading phase of a movement and is increased by the deceleration of an external falling force. Although studies have been done in mainly saggitally dominant plane movements, this empirical data should have the same implications for a multi planar loading environment.
Let us now put this scientific research into a real world context. Our muscles look to stretch under load (eccentrically contract) before they concentrically produce force, after effective three dimensional proprioceptive stimulation. Ask someone to jump as high as he can, and first he will flex at the hips and knees to load the extensors. With this understanding, we can look to improve the eccentric stage and myotatic reflex of any movement by increasing load, speed and deceleration and acceleration to improve muscular response and concentric force production. This could be defined as the elastic capabilities of our muscles.
A more tangible example would be a boxer’s punch, which utilizes mainly rotation or the transverse plane. The boxer increases power by counter rotation to wind up or “load” the punch. If we can increase the elastic response by the external loading of the counter rotation or eccentric stage of the movement, we can create a more effective unload or concentric phase of movement with the upshot being a faster and stronger punch. We can adapt the load by using weight, weight type (cable, medicine ball, free weight... all giving a different response) and joint angle. We can also change tempo (deceleration and acceleration) and movement range to affect muscular response and therefore power output. We could quantify our training by the ability to move faster with a certain weight or at the same rate with a heavier weight and, in a sporting environment, the force of the punch, both from the boxer’s perspective and those sparing or coaching with him.
The above images show decelerative eccentric loading of a left hook (Figure 3) and accelerative concentric phase of left hook (Figure 4).
Would we get equal power applicability from a heavily weighted bench press or squat? In my experience, the answer would be no.
One area for exploration may be whether repeated eccentric contraction with load increases the efficiency in the relationship between amount of eccentric load and concentric unload, or put more simply, less load for more force production!
“Time under tension” is a phrase that is used liberally in the fitness industry. This concept has a huge influence in the application of training variables. However, more often than not, time is adjusted according to the desired muscular response. Tension is created solely by weight and then applied to the same old set of strength exercises. We must look at our advanced knowledge of muscular response to see that tension is also affected by joint angle, planes of movement and also deceleration and acceleration when we are defining the parameters of our training programs to gain more sporting applicability. Different movements and tempos will also give us the ability to create more muscular tension than simply by weight alone.
An interesting observation is that of deceleration, acceleration and multiple changes in joint angle in the area of hypertrophy. A “time under tension” approach would look at 0-2-0-2 tempo with a weight that we can lift for eight to 12 reps in a mainly saggital plane to gain muscular hypertrophy. When, however, have we seen this type of movement from tennis or soccer players whose lower body development is phenomenal and who display large variations in joint angle, plane and deceleration and acceleration in their particular sporting function?
This brings us to the physics of the world around us, and its interplay with muscular contraction. Obviously, large weights are moved through more singular plane actions to increase safety and efficiency. However, Newton’s second law decrees that the resulting force of a smaller weight moved quickly can still be larger than that of a heavier object moved more slowly, or more concisely put: F=MA. If we move smaller weights through three dimensions with effective deceleration and acceleration, muscular tension and net force outcome may be larger than that of heavier weights moved more slowly through a single plane. So now that the implications of external forces on muscles and their responses are understood, they can be utilized to suit the needs of our training programs.
Therefore, by increasing acceleration, we can produce more force, which has a more functional crossover than weight, maintain levels of safety and increase proprioceptive stimulation and dimensional specificity to our athletes’ sporting demands.
The adaptations at the beginning of any new training regime are always significant, so by training previously untrained angles and planes of muscular strength and tension, we will get immediate training overload, adaptation and crossover to functional or competitive movement, with huge scope for further increases in the variables!
So if we are not incorporating these variables into our training program, are we leaving our athletes untrained for their sporting activities? My answer would be to look at the components. First understand and organize the training in response to the specific sport, looking at what movements are required and how to quantify the progress or final outcome of the training. Also, muscle recruitment and subsequent force production is a result of proprioceptive stimulation, so have we utilized the three dimensional input, loads, joint angles and tempos to elicit the muscular responses that will give us the performance our athletes require where and when they require them?
If all of these factors have not been taken into account, then the validity of the training in relation to the needs of our athletes and the sport for which they are training must be brought into question.
- Bompa, Tudor (2000) "Perodization of Strength Part 1 - Anatomical Adaptation" http://www.PTontheNET.com
- Bompa, Tudor (2000) "Perodization of Strength Part 2 - The Hypertrophy Phase" http://www.PTontheNET.com
- Bompa, Tudor (2000) "Perodization of Strength Part 3 - Max Strength Phase" http://www.PTontheNET.com
- Hardy, John (2007) "Train for function principles" course information document-'Faster Health and Fitness certificate in functional training'
- Mcardle and Katch (2006) "Exercise physiology:energy, nutrition and human performance" Lippincott Williams and Wilkins
- Siff Mel c (2003) "Supertraining" Supertraining Institute Denver
- Siff Mel c (2002) "Starting Clean and Deadlift Movements" http://www.PTontheNET.com
- Siff Mel c & Mcgill S (2006) "Transverse Abdominus Revisited" http://www.PTontheNET.com
- Verkhoshansky (02/09/07 English Translation) "Main features of a modern scientific sports training theory" http://www.verkhoshansky.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=H73qB64r6EE%3d&tabid=80&mid=435
- Verkhoshansky (1991, 02/09/07 English Translation) "Organization of the training process" http://www.verkhoshansky.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=H73qB64r6EE%3d&tabid=80&mid=435