Tag Archives: Program Design

It’s never wrong to be strong!

There are very few sports where absolute strength is unimportant. Regardless of whether or not the athlete’s bodyweight is important to performance, strength is always beneficial. A strong athlete will often be able to make up for skill more often than we like to admit. We have all seen clumsy, brutish athletes simply overpower and overwhelm more skilled opposition. In combat sports the argument is that two fighters of equal skill, bodyweight will be the defining factor. This is the reason for weight classes. Now, in a particular weight class we recognize that the stronger fighter will have the advantage.

Despite this we still argue that strength isn’t everything. While I believe other factors are just as important I will present a case for absolute strength being a critical factor. First we will look at the debate of relative strength. The Powerlifter/strongman vs. Olympic lifter is one such example. On one hand we have the Olympic lifter, a master technician who can shift weight more efficiently than most other athletes. They have incredible strength relative to bodyweight. Then we look at a powerlifter or strongman. They demonstrate tremendous strength while not being as technically efficient as an Olympic lifter. They also have much greater bodyweight which diminishes their strength to weight ratio. The following video shows how they compare when asked to squat their own bodyweight for max repetitions.

While the strongman and Olympic lifter achieve the same total reps the powerlifter has a greater total load lifted. Work done is an extremely important factor in all sports. This simply demonstrates that despite him not achieve the same reps his absolute strength allows him to beat more efficient lifters.

In the case of endurance athletes the argument may not be as obvious. Endurance athletes must sustain workloads in order to be successful. Our initial thought may be that their conditioning is going to be the critical factor. Again this is not the case. The greater an athlete’s maximal power output is, the easier he can manage submaximal work. Relative workloads become less intense. An athlete who must sustain 300watts when his max is 350watts will struggle against an athlete who maintains 300watts with a max of 400watts.

Crossfit athletes are also a very good example of this. They are often prescribed workloads which disregard any differences in the size or strength level of an athlete. In this case an athlete who must complete 20 deadlifts of 100kg, having a max effort of 150kg will need to work much harder than an athlete who has a max effort of 200kg. The first athlete is lifting 75% of their max in comparison to 50% with the second. This allows for a large advantage which may be too great to overcome even with a more efficient technique.

While I do not advocate neglecting technique or conditioning, it is important to realize the advantage that absolute strength provides. A weak yet technically good athlete will automatically be at a disadvantage. For this reason it is a very good idea to ascertain strength standards which athletes should look to achieve in their discipline. If they fail to do so it may highlight where they might struggle during competition. Very often direct attention to strength development can make a very significant impact on an athlete’s performance. Neither coach nor athlete should ever disregard the benefits of an effective strength program. It is often overlooked especially in technical sports. At high levels of competition this oversight may be the weakness that gives the opposition the opportunity they need to win.

Stalled progress!!!!

There are times in our training when no matter how much effort we put in, progress seems to stall. Our natural inclination is to do more work. This is rarely the solution. We know that the body adapts well to stress stimuli. We use progressive overload programs to take advantage of this to make us stronger and fitter. If we use one training program for too long the abilities it focuses on will improve significantly up to a point. Over time weak links can appear as some abilities greatly exceed others. It may simply be caused by a lack of practice or perhaps a more physiological based reason.

There is an expression that says the best training program is the one you are not doing. We naturally tend to focus on the skills we have an aptitude for. We become addicted to progress and we generally progress best at things we have a natural disposition for, largely  because we enjoy doing them. The things we avoid or neglect do have a tendency to catch up to us and often hold us back.

For example an athlete may be training specifically for strength. They have a low rep high load program to do so. Initially there is great neural response and they become stronger without significant increases in muscle mass. Progress then stalls. They may try to force weight onto the bar during his lifts but does not successfully achieve the reps. They become frustrated because they are seeing no progress. The problem is not with the rep scheme. The problem lies in that they may have achieved maximum strength for their current muscle mass. Contractile strength is largely determined by the cross sectional mass of a given muscle. At this point they should look to increase mass and raise the level of force that they can produce. After addressing this they could return to a strength program and once again see steady progress.

In the case of endurance athletes it is not uncommon for them to perform large volume at low intensity early in a season to build stamina. When they go to race they may find that while they do possess good stamina, they lack high end pace for faster races and at the finish. Some assume this is a lack of fitness when it is in fact a lack of both power and sprint capacity. Spending some time focused on shorter sprints will allow them to have a higher ceiling of power that they can utilize during more intense stages of a race.

While these scenarios seem obvious on paper they are rarely easily identified by an athlete. When there is an emotional attachment to the training and performance it is easy to become distracted from the obvious. Coaches and athletes all have certain styles they favour and rarely venture too far from what they are used to. Often stagnation occurs due to lack of variety in their training.

The best way to overcome this is to have an appropriate testing procedure. Athletes and coaches must be analytical and honest with where they are and where they need to be. Things are often quite clear and the solution quite simple when regular testing is implemented. What is difficult is having the confidence to leave their comfort zone of training to address the problem. Endurance athletes in particular can be extremely hesitant to utilize strength training despite the benefits, which have been detailed in a previous article https://hamiltonsport.com/2015/03/16/weight-training-and-endurance-athletes/. A good athlete and coach need to have the confidence to address an issue even if it does not fit with their current training methodology. It is simply a waste of effort to continue when there is no progress being made. Identify what is missing and improving it will often jump start progress all round. So if you think your progress is stalled stop and think what your program is missing.

Science of strength!

In this post I will discuss the physiological components that make up physical strength. In general the strength of a muscle is determined by its cross sectional mass. When we assess the improvement of strength in a muscular contraction, we see a significant increase in force output in a short space of time with no change in mass. This shows us that there is also a neural component that plays a significant role in strength. In order for a muscle fiber to hit a peak contraction it must be stimulated fully. A beginner to strength training will be unable to reach his true max because he will be neurally untrained. This means he is not capable of using all his muscle fibers or even capable of using the select few to their full potential.

When we want to move, we send a chemo-electrical signal from brain to the muscle which results in a contraction. The more signals we send the more forceful the contraction. In order to achieve maximum contraction we must have a constant and rapid train of impulses coming from our brain. The route the impulse takes down the nerves must be capable of sustaining and transmitting these signals. Early in our training it is these nerves which improve at delivering stimulus, that results in strength improvements.

There are several factors which can prevent us achieving maximum contractile forces. We have safety mechanisms which prevent us reaching our limits in order to prevent damage to our muscle tissue. These mechanisms are largely involuntary and are not simply a case of pushing harder. When we train the thresholds for these “safety switches” raise, allowing us to lift more. This is partly because our muscles become more conditioned and less susceptible to damage but also because our overriding mechanisms improve. We can prove this theory by using a simple maximum voluntary contraction test on a muscle. An athlete produces their strongest contraction and when it peaks we add extra stimulus externally with an electric impulse. The peak will increase significantly higher than voluntary stimulus could achieve, proving there is more force possible.

So how do we increase strength? There a couple of areas which can be improved. First we need to train the movement. Becoming more accustomed to the movement helps us learn the pattern of muscle activation required to perform the action effectively. Second we must improve stimulation and muscle activation. The obvious method is working closer to our maxes which in theory requires a “close to max muscle contraction”. Become accustomed to producing maximum force will improve the mechanisms involved over time. This can be taxing on both the central nervous system (CNS) and the muscle structure itself. It will require structural recovery which takes time. Speed training is an excellent variation as it allows us to improve the rate of impulses coming from the brain. More ballistic type exercises such as jumping are a good way to improve rate of neural transmission. Adding bands or chains to sub-maximal weights for particular lifts can also be another variation to include. The increased resistance over the range of the movement requires an accelerated contraction.

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

These types of training are excellent ways to improve the neural component of strength without needing any structural recovery. They are demanding on the CNS and as always adequate recovery is necessary. The next area to work on is increasing muscle mass. This involves hypertrophy of the muscle fibers which occurs over a much longer period of time.

Becoming strong is important to all athletes but understanding what makes them strong can be just as important. The body adapts quickly and so a multidirectional approach can help progress in terms of consistency. Often athletes employ the maximal lifting approach exclusively and plateau quickly. Combining different methods over a periodised training plan can make sure that an athlete continues to improve in the long term and achieve full potential.

Watts Vs. Heart rate.

This post may be a little controversial amongst endurance athletes but it is an important topic. Any serious endurance athlete will have a training plan. This plan will generally use heart rate or wattage as the variable around which they structure their training sessions. In recent years wattage has become a very popular training variable. It relates more directly to actual speed and performance than heart rate. Team Sky Cycling highlighted the importance of accurate data in their training program and heavily relied on wattage during their Tour De France preparation. It can be very successfully used to build an effective endurance training program. For this reason there has been a big shift towards Watt training and away form the traditional heart rate zone style training. Heart rate data has now become a bit of an optional add on for analysis rather than a training variable, especially with more tech orientated athletes.

While watt training for sure has its merits it also comes with an often overlooked disadvantage. The sessions’ power output targets are pre determined post fitness testing. The athlete knows exactly what wattage needs to be achieved and maintained per session in their plan. The sole focus is to stick strictly to these wattage prescriptions. The issue is that watt training does not factor in readiness to train or physical state. For example an athlete may have a poor nights sleep or be particularly stressed due to some lifestyle factor like work etc. he may even be fatigued from a previous training session. When this athlete comes to their training they might struggle to maintain the prescribed wattage but force themselves to be strict. This can result in a much higher level of stress or intensity than intended when their program was designed. Too many forced sessions can result in overreaching and eventually overtraining. It can also be mentality hard on an athlete to realise they cannot keep up with their training. Things can quickly become counterproductive.

While heart rate does not translate as well into speed or power outputs it is auto-regulatory. This means if you are fatigued, stressed or sick heart rate will reflect this. Heart rate will be generally higher and so you will reach the desired zone with less work. If you use heart rate zones as your training variable things are automatically factored in. In a fatigued state you may achieve the desired HR and duration prescribed but the performance might appear to be poor. In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. You are still getting time at the intended intensity and your recovery can cope, avoiding any overtraining type scenario. Over the long term this is actually more productive in terms of physiological improvement and mental state.

While I’m not trying to put people off using wattage for training I think it is important to highlight the issue. If you choose to use watts over heart rate you must be diligent in assessing your training state. You must accept that sessions need to be flexible to account for external factors that wattage on its own will ignore. As with any program following blindly is never a smart approach. There are many factors which can influence performance and success will always be a balancing act.

Make it quick!

An issue I have encountered with younger athletes is the issue of bar speed during lifts. Typically younger athletes that I’ve worked with have come from school sports. In some cases these school teams have an organised lifting program attached. Most of these programs centre primarily around the weight lifted. This causes a slight problem as from the very onset of training these athletes create a mindset where weight on the bar is all that matters. As long as the weight increases when moving the bar from A to B, they are progressing.

I have a fair amount of “Dynamic” or “Power” work in the programs I set. I think it’s obvious that athletes benefit from speed work as well as strength work. The issue arises during these sessions. I’ll use the power clean as an example. Many of the athletes I work with believed that as long as they get the bar from floor to the front rack position it is a successful clean. Luckily they understand for the most part that this should be a smooth and fluid motion and rarely do I find them in compromising positions. However, bar speed was often compromised. As long as the bar is heavier they believe that they are improving. At times these lifts become a slow heave to move the weight, accompanied by a massive spread of the feet to get into the catch position. I believe this acquired technique is the product of simply trying to shift weight.

I spend a lot of time detraining this mentality. At times the purpose of certain exercises in our program is to build power and speed. They should therefore be done as fast as possible even if that means decreasing the load. I leave the strength work to the core lifts like Squats and deadlifts etc. When we do power work I want their mentality to be focused on speed and explosiveness and a precise and swift movement. When we incorporated banded bench press into the program I think the athletes realised that a lift which they typically considered a “How much do you lift” exercise, could be utilised very differently.

After a few months we now squat and bench press at near maximal loads weekly, as well as incorporate their more dynamic variations successfully. I was happy to be able to change their way of thinking when it comes to bar speed and purpose of the lift. It’s great to now hear feedback on how lifting more quickly and more explosively has helped some very strong players become quicker on the pitch.

Everything works!

I heard a really good quote recently from rising UFC star Conor McGregor. He said “Everything does work. There’s a time and a place for every single move”. I think this really applies to training and human performance. I regularly see trainers and coaches making sensational claims about different training techniques and simultaneously bashing others. I think it really reflects a poor understanding of human physiology when these types of claims are made. From my experience every technique or protocol is beneficial in its own way. The trick is to know what works when, and why.

The body responds accordingly to any stress it’s placed under. How it responds varies greatly from one thing to another. A perfect example for training protocols is the LSD vs. HIIT debate. The recent consensus is that HIIT is far more effective in promoting cardiovascular endurance and that LSD is a waste of time. What may take three hours of slow jogging can be achieved in minutes with hard sprints, making LSD totally redundant. HIIT has been proven to be an effective training tool but so too has LSD on numerous occasions. Both methods create different physiological impacts which cause adaptations, which in time lead to improvements in overall performance. Despite this, LSD has taken a huge amount of criticism in recent years. The same goes for several other training techniques.

The worst possible approach we can take is to think that there is a black and white in terms of training. There are so many complexities in the way our body functions that we cannot possibly assume to understand it fully. We need to accept every concept, every theory and every idea. We don’t necessarily need to act on them all but we must at least consider them.

Part of the reason I became so interested in human physiology was because of the endless ways in which we can make improvements to performance. I felt that by understanding and studying human physiology I could make the best use of the vast amount of training techniques to achieve a goal. So McGregor’s quote is something I’m pretty fond of. I believe there is a time and place for every technique and by learning more about how our bodies function we can utilise an appropriate strategy to achieve the desired result.