Tag Archives: Training methods

Hamstring savers!

The hamstring is a major risk area for many athletes. Hamstring strains and tears are possibly one of the most common soft tissue injuries amongst sportspeople. The most common presumption amongst athletes when they suffer from hamstring issues is that it’s a flexibility issue. Not an outrageous assumption but often not the problem. Many athletes spend a considerable amount of time stretching and foam rolling etc. to improve flexibilty in hopes of preventing issues with little success. While there are qualified medical professionals to provide information on the epidemiology of hamstring injuries we will focus on what can be done in your training to help.

In terms of flexibility we have often seen athletes with excellent flexibility strain a hamstring. Our first thought is to examine the warm-up protocol. A good warm-up should improve elasticity within the muscle fibres and reduce the chances of injury. Even with an extensive and effective warm-up the same players seem to be susceptible to the same injury. Eliminating flexibility and warm-up from the list of causes has led to another much less discussed issue which could be the cause.

Muscle imbalance is often associated with small stabilizer muscles but can also be present in much larger muscle groups. When an athlete has got good overall strength, muscular imbalances can be hidden. This is especially true for the lower body. Most strength programs will have a squat type movement. It is an excellent full body exercise. When time restrictions are present in training it is often used as the sole lower body exercise. For many athletes this is not an issue and they see great overall development using the squat on its own. Some however, develop a technique which utilizes the Quads and Glutes much more so than the hamstring. They can lift heavy loads and so we assume they are strong even though the hamstrings may not be doing nearly as much work as they should be. When these athletes sprint they have great power generated from quads and glutes but the hamstrings are lacking. This weak link is where the break in the chain occurs.

In order to prevent injuries athletes should make sure they develop all the muscles involved in the movements they perform. This sounds obvious but can often be hard to achieve. There are several strategies one can employ. Firstly using a unilateral exercise in addition to the squat can help fill in the gaps. Adding a lunge or step-up type movement can be a major benefit and is highly recommended. It puts an athlete in a different movement plane which is often more movement specific and utilizes more appropriate muscles and activation patterns.

The second approach would be to train the temperamental muscles directly. Most good strength programs will have a hamstring orientated exercise present, owing to the high prevalence of hamstring injury in athletes. The concern here is the execution of such exercises. Again alternative muscles can take over and hamstrings can still be neglected. Exercises such as Romanian Deadlift (RDL or Stiff Legged Deadlift), Glute-ham raises and Reverse Hyperextensions are all popular hamstring exercises. It is very common for these to be performed incorrectly. Athletes with strong lower backs can easily perform these movements with high load and work around the hamstrings. Obviously the first recommendation is to make sure they are being observed carefully to ensure proper technique. In a team training scenario this is not always possible or effective.

In efforts to overcome these issues and protect the hamstrings a solution is needed. The Nordic hamstring curl may be the answer. It is extremely hard to cheat on this exercise and it will promote excellent hamstring activation. Using a slow or even paused eccentric phase, the hamstrings cannot hide. It is relatively easy to instruct and needs very little equipment. Often an athlete with enormous deadlift strength will be humbled by this simple bodyweight exercise. For that reason it should be high on the list of priority exercises. It can be easily scaled for athletes from beginner to elite level. Research has also suggested it to be quite an effective tool. The preventive effect of the Nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players – a randomized controlled trial, Van der Horst, Smits, Petersen, Goedhart, and Backx, in Injury Prevention (2014).

Often injury prevention is a little like detective work. The obvious answer is not always correct and the solution is not always clear. Ensuring an athlete has strong well developed hamstrings can be the missing piece of the puzzle. Hamstring injuries can be both debilitating and frustrating. The level of recurrence can be quite high. There are a number of considerations which have been discussed which should be considered when constructing an effective strength program.

Keeping it simple!

The world of fitness is heavily influenced by marketing and advertising. Fitness now seems to be not so much concerned with sport as it is body image. With a result knowledge and theory have been diluted by sensational claims and marketing. You do not have to look too far for new radical training programs that guarantee all your goals to come true in half the time of any other program. This is all part of the industry and things are unlikely to change.

Most high level athletes have qualified coaches to help them avoid such distractions. Young athletes and the average Joe on the other hand, often rely on what is put in front of them. As a result, they either follow outrageous plans or jump from one to another as the sales pitches keep getting better. The ironic thing is that the basics work best. More often than not the most advanced athletes train with the simplest programs.

Often when discussing training with coaches of other athletes or teams it becomes clear that there are no secret weapons. The best athletes all seem to be doing extremely similar programs competing in totally different sports and cultural backgrounds. There are tweaks based on the nature of their sport and individual needs but the basic structure is always pretty similar.

The Squat, Lunge, Deadlift, Bench Press, Row and Chin-up are the foundation of all strength programs. They cover all basic movement patterns. There are variations but these exercise patterns are always present. Any additional exercises are determined by the sport and any prehab/rehab needs of the athlete as an individual. Rep schemes are dependent on the goals. Strength, Power, Hypertrophy and endurance goals will have appropriate and fairly standard rep ranges. A standard strength session will rarely last much longer than an hour to an hour and a half. If it does then there is either some special consideration to duration or technique/skill that is being addressed. If a session lasts longer, then one should question the efficiency of the workout design.

Some might question why they cannot achieve elite level abilities following simple programs. The answer is quite simple. Elite level athletes achieve elite level status as a result of genetic suitability to their sport coupled with years of execution of appropriate training. You don’t look like a 10 year veteran weightlifter after a year of training no matter how hard you train. Also important to note is the support structure of an elite level athlete. Having dietitians, chefs, doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists and coaches available at all times makes a very significant impact. In addition, having the time to focus on both training and all that makes up recovery puts them at a huge advantage. One could follow one single program in both an amateur and professional setting and there would be no comparison in the results.

"The missing piece of the puzzle"

“The missing piece of the puzzle”

The take home message is that no matter how things are pitched the basics work! Simplicity leaves less room for error and when consistent it is very rare one cannot make steady progress. Short cuts do not exist in natural circumstances. It is important not to fall for the most glamorous program as you will simply be fooling yourself. We have a very simple philosophy with our athletes. If they are making progress then things are working. “If it aint broke don’t fix it”, athletes often want the next stage of their training before progress stalls. It is important for coaches and athletes to realize that progress is key. Deviating from a plan can often be greed related. It is important to have modest goals and the discipline to not get carried away. Often trying to do too much is the biggest error in training. Often our athletes make their best progress when we strip their program back to the basics.

Isometric training!!

There are three types of contractions that muscles can perform. These are Eccentric, Concentric and Isometric. Each one refers to the action of the muscle.

  • Eccentric contractions are where the muscle contracts while the fibres are lengthening.
  • Concentric contractions are where the muscle fibres contract while they are shortening.
  • Isometric contraction is when force is being applied in a situation where the muscle fibre neither shortens or lengthens. The joint is generally in a fixed position when this occurs.

There are also some scenarios where the rate of lengthening or shortening is slowed to a point where it can become quasi-isometric in nature. This resembles the type of slow grind that can be experienced when performing near maximal lifts.

Isometrics are useful in training as quite a lot of force can be applied in a relatively safe way. The high forces require an extremely large neural input. It can be a great way to train the neural aspect of strength. In addition it can prepare muscles and tendons to tolerate very high forces which may occur suddenly during sport. This makes isometric training quite an effective injury prevention strategy.

While there are benefits to training with isometrics it can be difficult to perform safely. Certain equipment may be necessary in order to effectively perform a movement isometrically. It also requires some experience of lifting in order to breathe appropriately. Because you must maintain a valsalva or “Bracing” position for a prolongued period there are some risks associated. People with high blood pressure or who may be prone to fainting should avoid such types of training.

Performing these types of movements is relatively simple for the experienced lifter in an adequate facility. Take for example a squat movement. The athlete should set the spotter pins above the bar at an appropriate height (1/4 squat depth etc) with safety bars just below. Using proper technique they simply squat the bar until its path is impeded by the spotter pins. They should continue to exert as much force as they can for a prescribed time. Because they are squatting against a “fixed” bar they wont need to the load the bar as load is now redundant.

Isometrics can be a useful tool in an athletes training method arsenal. While it should be utilized by experienced lifters, certain applications and variations can be utilized by other athletes also. Used in an efficient training program isometrics can be effective in improving strength levels and preventing injury.

The Great Offseason!

For many sports in the Northern Hemisphere we are now entering the offseason portion of the annual cycle. For some this is simply a period in which they can cut loose and not worry too much about their training. For others this offseason could be a make or break point in their career. It can be very hard for an athlete to make progress in their offseason for a number of reasons. A lot of athletes fail to stay committed and motivated when they are outside of their team environment or without any immediate competition scheduled, others can be over eager and try to do too much. This can often lead to overtraining and burnout despite being outside of the competition period. Planning and organization is key to a successful offseason. The following article will discuss how to get the most out of an offseason and hopefully allow athletes to step up their ability for next season.

Step 1: Analysis

At the end of a competitive season athletes and coaches should review the performance of the season. Often mistakes are pretty clear at this point and athletes will have a good idea of their weaknesses. In order to maintain motivation and commitment it is important to identify areas where progress can be made. There is nothing more disheartening than finishing a season and being clueless as to where to improve. Regardless of success or failure, the notion of progress is a powerful motivator. Honest analysis of strengths and weaknesses is essential at this point. Building an offseason program is relatively simple if an effective evaluation has been completed.

Step 2: Rest

Often the first thing we tell an athlete to do is rest. A few weeks rest can be very beneficial at this time. Mental and physical strain stacks up over a season and often a couple of weeks rest can have a major impact on an athlete. The amount of rest depends on the time available but even a week can be enough to reset the athlete. Often this rest also makes an athlete restless and eager to train. This can be beneficial in an offseason where there is no competition to create that eagerness to work.

Step 3: The Program

This is obviously a very important component and will depend on the outcome of their end of season evaluation. The offseason should be approached with a triage perspective. Take care of the biggest weakness first. One caveat to this is timing. Some adaptations occur over very different time frames. For example an athlete may be a little undersized but definitely too slow. Addressing speed is essential but should not be done until the athlete is at a consistent weight. Hypertrophy may take more time and energy from an athlete. Often it can be hard to address hypertrophy inseason relative to speed and so the offseason period is more suitable to address it. Speed can then become a part of late offseason/preseason period. Careful planning is essential to ensure that the focus on one ability does not overwrite another.

There is great debate on the structure of programs and their efficiency. We take an approach with our athletes where we utilize block periodization in the offseason and then move towards concurrent and/or conjugate style during preseason and in season. The reason is most athletes tend not to lose their strengths significantly and if they do they usually regain them quite fast. In the offseason we use block periodization to really focus in on their weaknesses and make as much of an impact as possible. Sometimes this may neglect some of their stronger areas. When we move towards a conjugate style we hit on a little of everything. We then see a rapid return in their strengths while maintaining the progress made in their weak areas. The offseason then serves to fill in the holes in their abilities. For the majority of athletes this approach is effective in improving their performance from one season to another.

The offseason period can make a huge difference to an athlete. If it is individualized and shows the athlete a genuine prospect for improvement then motivation won’t be a major problem. Diligent monitoring of program will then make the program effective as it can be tweaked where needed to suit the needs of the athlete. The biggest mistake to make is to use a generic program which does not address the individual. This often makes situations worse as the athlete may fail to fix his weaknesses. There is nothing worse than the feeling an athlete has where no progress is being made. Consecutive seasons of stagnant performance can be a death blow to many athletes careers.

Clear goals, Clear Progress!

Our body has a remarkable abilty to adapt. There are hundreds of processes and systems which work in unison to keep us functioning. When we apply stimuli or stress to our body, it responds in such a way that allows it to effectively continue to function under that stress. This response is what we use to become faster, stronger or fitter. The downside of this adaptation is that there is usually a tradeoff between the systems. It is extremely difficult to train all capabilities at once. This is the main challenge for any coach or trainer. They must construct an appropriate training program which achieves an improvement in certain capabilities while not negatively affecting the others.

One common scenario is related to body composition. Often an athlete will need to increase body mass while simultaneously reducing body fat. These goals directly conflict with each other. To increase body mass we need a calorie surplus but to reduce body fat we need a calorie deficit. It is contradictory. Many athletes attempt this believing that if they increase muscle mass there will be an increase in energy expenditure associated with greater muscle mass. While in theory this is possible it is a very difficult task to achieve in a real world scenario. A more effective strategy would be to alternate between periods of surplus and deficit, carefully monitoring both variables to ensure gradual progress in both. This would result in small body mass fluctuations but over time it would achieve the goal.

Another example is the athlete who wishes to improve both aerobic and strength capabilities simultaneously. While it is completely achievable, progress will be relatively slow. This is simply because while one promotes the development of type 2 fibres, the other is promoting development of type 1 fibres. This is not the most efficient approach to the task. Depending on time frame it may be necessary, but it is not as effective as partitioning the goals and focusing directly on one capability.

There are many training program designs and methodologies which look to solve the challenge of training multiple abilities at once. The problem is that combining certain training goals can be extremely counterproductive. The strategy for an athlete should be to always look for maximum gains with minimal effort and interference with other capabilities. This is not to advocate a lazy athlete. Instead it advocates a smart athlete who looks to effectively promote some qualities without negatively impacting others.

In terms of programming for an athlete, it is important to keep things as simple as possible. Athletes should have few but specific targets to work towards. Often high level athletes have so many targets to hit that they get lost. A wheelspin effect is created where their efforts counteract each other leading to very little progress. As simple as it sounds athletes should have a clear goal and stick to the process which achieves it. When they achieve this goal, they should identify their next weakness and follow the process to improve it and so on. Keeping goals clear and simple is the most effective way to make solid and consistent progress.

Blueprint for big legs!

My old coaches used to say “The legs feed the wolf! There are few sports where having big, strong legs does not carry over into performance. Many people struggle to build leg size and strength while others have no issues at all. This post will discuss some factors which can influence growth of the leg musculature and how one can use this knowledge to their advantage.

Muscle is not all the same; there are several types and subgroups with different characteristics. Mostly when dealing with skeletal muscle we define the fibers as either Type 1 (Oxidative or Slow twitch) or Type 2 (Glycolytic or Fast twitch). Every muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Each bundle is from all of the same fiber type and innervated by a single nerve. The bundle and nerve assembly is known as a Motor Unit (MU).

Type 1 fibers tend to be smaller in size and produce less force. They also have excellent blood supply and mitochondrial density which makes them very efficient at oxidative metabolism. This means they don’t fatigue easily. Type 2 fibers are larger in size and more powerful. Unlike Type one they are not so efficient at oxidation and rely heavily on glycolysis, intramuscular ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores for energy. They are much more fatiguable than Type 1 fibers.

The recruitment of the muscle fibers is in order of size, from small to large. The rate and quantity of recruitment will depend on the activity. Slow, low force movements may only require a small recruitment of some type 1 fibers, whereas a heavy lift or sprint will additionally recruit a large portion of type 2 fibers.

When we are born we are genetically predisposed to having a larger distribution of one fiber type over another. With training we can influence a switch over, from one fiber type to another. The fibers will be persuaded to take on new characteristics rather than switch totally. In our earlier years of training and sport we have a large influence on the muscle fibers as they develop. In addition, our genetic makeup will naturally direct us into sports we are suited to physiologically as we are more likely to have success.

When we look at body parts and muscles, the fiber distribution can be influenced by the function. For example forearm muscles contain higher amounts of type one fibers, as grip endurance is required for relatively constant movement of hands and fingers. Legs are similar because we spend relatively large durations of time on our legs, walking and standing etc. For this reason legs will always have a relatively large amount of type 1 fibers.

Micro trauma to the fibers is the catalyst for growth. When we recover, micro tears in the fibers are repaired and the fibers become larger and stronger. Tension and metabolic stress are the two things that will cause stress and trauma. Time under tension (TUT) has long been regarded as a key factor in muscle growth. The more time a fiber is placed under tension the more damage created. In addition metabolic stress can also be quite effective at creating trauma. All we have to do is look at a track cyclist or sprinters legs to demonstrate this.

Putting this knowledge into practice is pretty simple. In order to successfully create hypertrophy in the musculature we must stimulate and cause trauma to both sets of fibers. The challenge with type 1 fibers is that they are harder to fatigue. They need higher volume to do this, and so a higher rep strategy should be employed. The challenge with the type 2 fibers is activation. Heavier and more explosive lifts are needed to activate and fatigue them. Lower reps with heavier weight, combined with some power and sprint training will be needed to promote growth of these fibers.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high reps sets to produce bodybuildings most famous legs.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high rep sets to produce bodybuilding’s most famous legs.

This not only applies to athletes but also to bodybuilders. The secret to growth is to cover all your bases and keep things simple and consistent. Using a combination of high and low rep training will provide a good overall stimulation making sure you are covering everything. When used as a part of a simple progressive training plan and combined with adequate recovery any athlete will build bigger stronger legs. The key point is to target the fibers effectively so they respond. If you rely on one technique exclusively it is unlikely that you will have long term success.

As with most training, athletes must try and learn their weakness and how to fix them. They can then target the issues with a balanced program to give them a well rounded base. The more familiar they are with the physiological factors involved the more effective a training program can be!

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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.

4 Ways to improve lactate clearance!

The accumulation of lactate is deemed to be a major determinant of performance during competition. Lactate is a byproduct of glycolysis. The accumulation of lactate in the muscle is linked with a significant degradation in contractile function and power production. Having the ability to prevent accumulation has a significant impact on the ability of an athlete to sustain performance. The onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) is deemed to be the point at which its production exceeds its clearance. In order to delay this point an athlete must train to improve his ability to clear lactate during exercise. Here are four effective strategies to improve lactate clearance.

1) Long slow distance training (LSD)

Also referred to as “Steady-State” training LSD has great benefits for lactate clearance. Even though LSD is performed at low intensity it greatly improves the aerobic system. Having a strong aerobic base usually comes with good proportion of type 1 muscle fibers. Recent studies have shown these fibers to be very efficient at consuming lactate as fuel through a shuttle system which transports it from the blood into these muscle cells. LSD training in conjunction with Lactate producing activity can teach the body to consume lactate in this way, helping to prevent accumulation during higher intensity competition.

2) Threshold training

Threshold training is performed at and around the point of accumulation. This is arguably the most effective zone to train at as it is the “Threshold” at which the body can balance accumulation with clearance. Improving workload at this zone will transfer directly into sporting performance. It is considered to be the sweet spot in terms of sustainable workload. Performing volume at this zone will result in effective lactate management in the body. It up-regulates enzymes which promote the metabolisation of lactate and clearance. The body will also learn to buffer lactate more effectively using intercellular bicarbonate. These sessions can range between 3 and 10 minutes in duration at or around OBLA.

3) Tempo runs

These are somewhat of a combination of the previous methods. During a longer session an athlete will perform a series of high paced intervals spread throughout a longer interval held at a lower, sustainable pace. During these intervals blood lactate concentrations will increase. When the athlete drops eases of intensity, the body will now be able to clear lactate to manageable levels. This promotes how the athlete recovers from lactate accumulation while still exercising. This can be useful in competition where there are varied intensities throughout a race or short rest periods between bouts.

4) Sprint intervals

Short sprints result in a very rapid production of lactate as large type 2 fibers become very active. The body does not have sufficient time to respond and so accumulation occurs just as rapidly. By using short rest periods you only give the body a very short period in which to re-establish homeostasis and so it is forced to up-regulate clearance mechanisms. Training of this type not only improves clearance but also the athletes tolerance to lactate. Sessions of this type can vary in duration for both work and rest. The ratio of work to rest can be manipulated to achieve different results in terms of physiological response.

The after effects of excessive lactate accumulation during a race. Source :www.windsorstar.com

The after effects of excessive lactate accumulation during a race. Source :www.windsorstar.com

In general any activity that elevates the concentration of lactate in the blood will elicit a physiological response. Like any stress appropriate recovery is necessarily. A multi-directional approach must be taken to ensure that an athlete has an adequate exposure to lactate without over taxing the bodies recovery capacity. This can be a difficult balance and must take into consideration a number of factors including the age and background of the individual. If done correctly any individual will benefit greatly from giving focused time and training to helping improve how they handle lactate in their body.