Do you have any ideas about training for bobsleigh? Specifically, aiming to pass selection tests of 130kg power clean, 80cm vertical jump and standing 30m sprint in 3.8 seconds? (Current baselines are 110kg clean, 75cm jump and 3.95 second run.) How would you train for this, what proportion of lifting to running and how to structure as running v short sprints and strength lifting on alternate days doesn't leave a lot of recovery time for the nervous system? Also, do you like separate cycles of strength training and power training or prefer doing both in the same cycle or even same session?
Great question and one which really doesn’t have a definitive answer as there are several different schools of thought over the most effective methods for developing the speed and strength needed to pass your tests. Without knowing your limiting factors to development, which can range from training methods to physiological reasons, it is hard to give you an absolute on the best approach for you to take. So, let’s review some options for structuring your program for optimal results!
On the broadest level, there are two approaches for structuring training programmes. These go by several names depending what you read, but are basically called concurrent periodization (or complex periodization) where you aim to develop several abilities at the same time (i.e., strength, speed and dynamic strength). Then we have sequential (conjugated sequence or unidirectional) periodization where each phase of training is geared to the improvement of one specific area of the desired end product. These two systems are commonly recognized as the primary methods of structuring training for athletes. Both of these approaches differ from the traditionally taught linear progression that is often distilled down to a matter of volume and intensity. To fully discuss the merits of each system is beyond the reach of this article, but you can find out more from the recommended authors below.
Author's Note: A search of the Internet can lead to some confusion as some authors refer to a system called conjugate periodization where they train different focuses on each day of the training week. This is different from conjugate sequencing and more closely resembles what is also called “daily undulating periodisation.” To avoid confusing the issue, we’ll leave it at that for now!
During a concurrent training program, you would look to improve your strength, dynamic speed and explosive strength together by addressing each variable in a training phase. A week’s microcycle may look like this:
- Monday – Lower Body (Quad Dominant Complexes)
- Tuesday – Upper body (Pushing Complexes)
- Wednesday – Rest/Flexibility
- Thursday – Lower Body (Hip Dominant Complexes)
- Friday – Upper Body (Pulling Complexes)
*See below for information on using complex training for power development
Concurrent training may also mean training separate variables over the course of a training week. This method is similar in principle to that of the Westside barbell club periodization approach and is based around the work of Vladimir Zatsiorsky. This type of training is intense, so to prevent overtraining, use it over a three-week cycle with a week recovery at the end. A typical week training different variables for explosive power may look something like this:
- Monday – Maximal Strength Day
- Tuesday – Recovery – Skills
- Wednesday – General Strength
- Thursday – Rest - Skills
- Friday – Dynamic Strength
- Saturday - Recovery
- Sunday – Rest - Skills
Again, it is beyond the scope of this article to give these approaches the full attention they deserve. To find out more, check out the recommended authors below who specialize in increasing athletic power using these methods.
In a sequenced approach, each phase of training is dedicated to the improvement of one area of development. In conjugated sequencing of training, the idea is that the sum is only as great as its parts. Again, we are simplifying this approach to stay within the scope of the response. For example, we know that true explosive strength requires a combination of maximal strength and dynamic speed, developed on a good base of functional strength and excellent movement patterns. So a sensible approach to the phases on this could be as follows:
- Phase 1 - General Preparatory Phase - Develop a base of functional strength and mobility.
- Phase 2 - Max Strength Phase - Developing maximal strength as main focus, characterised by high percentage 1RM lifts and multijoint movements. This phase could also include work from the GPP particularly on active flexibility.
- Phase 3 - Dynamic Speed Phase - This phase is concentrated on the speed of movement and would include high and low intensity plyometric training. Again, elements of the GPP would still be present on recovery days.
- Phase 4 - Explosive Strength Phase (Specific Preparatory Phase) - Combining the two previous focuses to concentrate on developing the explosive characteristics you are looking for. This phase may include the use of functional isometrics as well as plyometrics and would have the greatest crossover to your performance tests.
Between each phase would be a recovery/transition period to allow the body to restore and compensate. The length of this would be dictated by the length of each phase and could be between one to four weeks.
Exercise complexes are an excellent technique to use in either concurrent or sequenced approaches. They are ideal in the concurrent model as they give you the opportunity to select training methods with biomechanically linked patterns of movement that also address the various speed and strength demands, which together form the explosive strength that you are looking to develop. Complexes can range from the paired exercises complex to the multiple exercise complex.
Paired Complex – The paired complex uses a heavy maximal strength exercise for maximum neural stimulation followed rapidly by an explosive speed exercise. The first example is for improving the lower body (quad dominant), but the same principle applies for the upper body as shown.
- A1 Barbell Back Squat – three reps at 90 percent max
- A2 Med Ball Jump Squats – 10 reps at 15 to 20 percent 1RM
- Rest three mins and repeat up to five times
- Upper body (pushing) complex
- B1 Barbell Bench Press – three reps at 90 percent 1RM
- B2 Plyometric Press Ups – 10 reps at bodyweight
- Rest three mins and repeat up to five times
Multiple Exercise Complex – The multiple complex takes things to a higher level, addressing more whole body exercises and covering maximal strength with high and moderate intensity plyometrics. There are many different permutations to play with; you are only limited by your imagination. Remember though, for maximal transfer of training effect, select means close to your desired target activities.
- Back Squats – three reps at 90 percent 1RM
- Power Clean – three reps at 85 percent 1RM
- Jump Lunges – 10 reps at 40 to 60 percent 1RM
- Depth Jumps – 10 reps bodyweight
- Vertical Leaps – 10 secs AMRAP (as many reps as possible)
Complex training can be very fatiguing and is not for the faint hearted. A routine such as the multiple complex should not be performed more than two to three times a week and for a period of only three to four weeks before allowing the body to supercompensate with a recovery period.
You can see that complexes and concurrent periodization are an excellent method of addressing several needs at once. In reference to your question about training strength and power together, traditional strength training is performed with lower percentage 1RM weights (typically at approximately 75 percent of 1RM) at slower tempos than your desired performance velocity. I would not recommend combining these types of strength exercises with your power exercises. Remember our specificity principle: if you train the body to move slowly (such as more common hypertrophy programs), then it will learn to move slowly, and that’s not good news for athletes!
For your sprint training, this could be integrated into your program design as either a separate phase of a sequenced approach or as a separate component of a concurrent approach. To prevent excessive fatigue, cycle your training over three-week periods with at least a week for recovery between cycles. By selecting appropriate exercises during your strength training, you can directly improve sprint performance. You can also work on technical skills such as starts as part of a recovery phase or day in your training cycle.
Each system is not without limitations in its application. One of the major limitations of the sequenced approach is that coaches are often concerned that an extended period of focus on one aspect will lead to a decrement in others. This needn’t necessarily be the case as it is possible to maintain other areas while concentrating on one by using appropriate levels of rest, restoration and skills training. In a similar way, the concurrent system has an inverse limitation: "jack of all trades, master of none" may be the adage that best sums it up. Can you really improve all aspects of performance by training them together? Some feel that at the elite level, all-round performance is often not the issue, and that the improvement of a single performance factor is likely to be needed in order to overcome a certain point. For this purpose, the sequenced type of approach may be better suited for elite athletes.
Of course, aside from this there are other areas that we haven't considered that can limit performance in all three of your tests; mobility, flexibility and of course nutrition all interact with the body and, if not optimized, can have deleterious effects on training and performance.
There are no hard and fast rules for these methods. Each has its own place in the trainers' repertoire. Choosing which method comes down to what you want to achieve and where you are starting out from. This answer scratches the surface of a very complex subject. For more reading, check out Supertraining by Mel Siff and other excellent work by Tudor Bompa, Zatsiorsky, Charles Poliquin and Chris Thibadeau. Hope this gives you an insight into ways you can address your training needs. I also hope it gives you some ideas on how you can adjust other variables other than simply load or intensity in order to get some great results. Good luck!