With recent losses to teams in many different sports including ice hockey and soccer at the international level, it comes to no surprise the merit of Canadian amateur and professional sport development organizations is under much scrutiny. Considering the large talent pool available, Canada is failing to produce a large number of high ranking quality athletes. What’s the problem? Is it the coaching strategies and training methods or is it the lack of money available for development incentives? Some believe the problem goes far beyond those mentioned above.
In order to rectify our recent losses, we must collectively agree to take a serious look at what has transpired in the past so as to learn from the experiences. Let’s start by addressing those areas in which we as trainers and coaches have a direct and immediate impact. I am referring to the training methods we employ. From this perspective, there is an apparent need to revamp Canadian amateur sports development so as to remain competitive at the international level. Let’s start at the grassroots level.
Too often, we have seen coaches and trainers throw their athletes in a weight room with a sheet full of exercises that have basically been recycled over the past several years. The typical bench press, arm curl, lat pulldown and shoulder raises program will simply not suffice any longer. We must change now, and not later if we really want to make a difference. Yes, there are benefits to performing the aforementioned exercises, but bear in mind that there is a proper time and place for each of them. Where many of us have gone wrong with respect to training is in the planning aspect. So all you coaches and trainers out there pay close attention.
First of all, it is important to note there is a difference between training for improved fitness as opposed to enhanced sport performance. The methods used must be treated as two separate entities totally divorced of one another. Thus, in training for sports, the concept of periodization, or breaking down the training plan into different phases, must form the foundation from which to work. This will ensure the athlete reaches peak performance levels at the appropriate times throughout the year. For example, with respect to planning, one must first develop basic joint strength and flexibility before developing power. As well, one cannot be fast unless he/she is strong. What these statements are eluding to is the importance of classifying one’s sport in order to develop a training plan consistent with the demands of the sport. For example, a soccer midfielder must race to the open space for a pass or get to the ball first many times within a 90 minute game. This implies the need to develop both speed and endurance. The same can be said for ice hockey players who skate up and down the ice many times within 60 minutes of play. In any case, most sports involve a combination of speed, power and muscular endurance (not to mention agility, balance, coordination …). However, in athletics, the component most overlooked is strength training. It seems ironic since this component is probably one of the most important when developing an athlete. There are many misconceptions about strength training. Many people feel that lifting heavy weights will slow athletes down or decrease their flexibility. This is nonsense. Just look at Olympic wrestlers and gymnasts. Have you ever seen an inflexible gymnast or a slow wrestler? It just so happens that strength training plays a large role in their training regimens. Think about it!
Improved strength can lead to increased speed, power and muscular endurance when properly planned. This indicates that there is a proper methodology behind the development of strength. For example, you cannot just throw an athlete in the gym and expect him/her to start lifting loads equal to 80 to 95 percent of their maximum effort. A step type approach must be used to allow the athlete to adapt to the demands gradually in a safe manner. Remember, you cannot build a house overnight. It takes a lot of time, patience, planning and effort!
In training, nothing happens by accident, but by design
The periodization of strength is simply a systematic progression that matches the body’s anatomical and physiological rhythm. The training plan is broken down into a preparatory phase, competitive phase and a transition phase. Each of these is broken down further, and the components will be discussed as we take a closer look at the phases of training (see Figure 1).
|Figure 1 - Anatomical Adaptation Phase
||Conversion to =
|Periodization of strength for a mono-cycle (C=cessation of strength)
During the preparatory phase, an athlete first undergoes an Anatomical Adaptation (AA) phase. The main objective of this phase is to involve the largest number of muscle groups possible so as to prepare the muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints to endure the following strenuous phases of training. The focus is on "prehabilitation" in order to decrease the risk of rehabilitation after an unnecessary injury. An important aspect to keep in mind during this phase is that all muscle groups are worked in every possible angle. In other words, solely performing a flat bench press movement would not suffice. The athlete should also be encouraged to perform an incline and decline press in order to facilitate angle specific training. Case in point, strength adaptations are angle specific, and thus all possible angles must be utilized during this phase of training. Keep the loads low to moderate in this phase. As well, exercise selection must be general and not sport specific. Finally, really emphasize training the core region of the individual, especially the abdominal and lower back areas. The amount of time spent in this phase depends on the age, level, experience and sport specific needs of the athlete.
The AA phase is followed by a maximum strength phase. At this time, the objective is to develop the highest level of force possible. Such a task is achieved by increasing the total number of motor units involved in the action along with increasing the ability to synchronously recruit the maximum number of muscle fibres. This will eventually enable an athlete to develop optimum levels of power or muscular endurance. The loads used should range between 80 and 95 percent of the athlete’s maximum contraction. As well, rest periods between sets should be longer (i.e., three to six minutes) to allow for nervous system recovery. Use mainly compound movements or multi-joint exercises where the objective is to move the weight as quickly as possible. This will facilitate maximum nervous system adaptation. Such an adaptation will allow the athlete to be capable of lifting heavier loads along with tapping into some of the previously unused strength reserve. Please note that while the individual is attempting to quickly move the load, the actual barbell movement will be slow due to the high resistance. Keep in mind that power is the sum of strength multiplied by acceleration. This phase namely concentrates on the strength component of the equation while the upcoming phase (if power development is the key) will develop the acceleration component of the equation.
Following the maximum strength phase is the conversion phase. This represents a very integral part of the athlete’s training regimen. It is in this phase that the prior gains in maximum strength are converted into competitive, sport-specific combinations of strength such as power and muscular endurance. In a nutshell, this phase represents the time when the athlete is forced to utilize all the physiological gains achieved in the previous phases.
If the main scope of the program is power development, the athlete is urged to attempt moving the weight as quickly as possible. A greater number of explosive type exercises that allow the athlete to explode through the full range of movement (e.g., medicine ball tosses, jump squats) should be used in conjunction with traditional weight training strategies to guarantee that the deceleration of phase of a particular movement is not overly emphasized. For instance, simply performing explosive yet breaking bench press movements in which the athlete stops the weight at the top of the lift, may actually further aid in the development of the deceleration phase. Keep in mind that acceleration is an intricate key in maximum power development.
If the main scope of the program is the development of muscular endurance, the athlete should concentrate on slowly increasing the number of repetitions to a total volume which closely approximates what is achieved in their particular sport. Once again, a gradual progression is the key to achieving optimal performance and athletic shape. The number of exercises should be kept to a minimum, and greater emphasis placed on performing the movement in a consistent and controlled manner.
As mentioned earlier, this is why it is important to classify one’s sport. Knowing the physiological/biomotor 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. It’s quite simple. If the sport involves mostly power, then gear the training program towards maximum power development using periodization.
The conversion phase is followed by the maintenance phase whereby strength work must continue. This will eliminate a detraining effect such as a loss in speed, power, strength and neural adaptations. The main objective is to maintain the sports specific standards achieved during the previous phases. The volume of training should be decreased. However, intensity should only be slightly decreased so as to maintain optimal physiological adaptation.
Finally, we have the cessation phase. This phase of training begins five to seven days prior to the main competition of the year. All strength training should be stopped in order to facilitate full recovery and overcompensation as the athlete prepares for PEAK performance.
There you have it, a general plan for achieving optimal sport performance through strength training. Bear in mind that many variations are available, and nothing is written in stone. Our hope is you begin to question your training methods to continually improve and provide your athletes with the best possible programs.