Tuesday, 23 August 2011

How do you train the elite athlete?

Over the last decade, the face of sport performance has changed drastically.  The days of showing up to practice and games for increasing performance are all but gone.  For athletes from the development level up to the professional level and everything in between, requires the aid of strength and conditioning coaches, therapists, mental coaches and family/community support.  In this article I will explain the Level 10 Fitness philosophy for strength and conditioning and touch on some of the more popular methods of training athletes.  It is important to note, that there are many ways to skin a cat and all of them can be effective.  For the most part, there are thousands of strength and conditioning coaches out there and at the end of the day all clientele are seeking the same thing-RESULTS.  As a reader, it is important to understand that we may all have different training methods as strength coaches, yet we all yield positive results to varying degrees.  There are many strength and conditioning coaches using completely different methods than the ones we use and they still are having success.  We feel our methods are the best for the populations we work with, but it should be understood that we are very open minded in our approach because success should not be solely measured by data, but performance in your perspective sport.  We believe that an athlete should not get hurt in the weight room regardless of what phase they are in or what movement they are executing. 
In Canada, we do not have the luxury of having a team of doctors and therapists waiting to help our athletes.  We have to consider the safety of these athletes and understand that if we take them out of their sport because of something we incurred due to negligent programming, we are costing the athlete (in some cases millions of dollars) time away from training and competition.  I firmly believe that we can train athletes at high loads and intensities with minimal injuries if we are cautious of what we are prescribing them.  Too often, we get caught up in numbers (who can lift the most etc) and choosing exercises that we think or are told are the best without looking ahead to what the potential damage can be.  All of our athletes go through a comprehensive movement screen and physical testing regimen.  Our testing protocols are not necessarily designed to see who is the fittest and strongest or most powerful, but to see what type of deficiencies or imbalance we may need to correct along the way and what type of improvements they can yield from test date to test date.  We firmly believe that an athlete can be trained to increase power, strength, size, agility and conditioning while still working on deficiencies.   As strength and conditioning coaches, we must look at the bigger picture of long term success. 

There are 3 main methods that most strength coaches draw their periodization and program design from: Olympic lifting, Power Lifting and Bodybuilding.  With these, there are other subsections that include: core training, Pilates, yoga, physiotherapy, stretch therapy (there are others, but this will do for now) and with those there are some sports that utilize specialized methods such as track and field and gymnastics as a style of training.  At Level 10 Fitness Inc. We tend to use a combination of all of the above to fit the individual athlete or teams.  I will touch briefly on why some of these methods are chosen from other professionals in our industry along with why we tend to use the combination of all of them with our clientele.  It is important to note: As strength and conditioning coaches, it is our job to help build better athletes, not just better weight lifters or sprinters (unless they are weightlifters or sprinters).  We have to breakdown the movement of a given sport and identify the following: what is the athletes physical age and training age (how long have they trained for), physical capabilities, past injury concerns and common injuries of the given sport, sport position, physical and mental demands of sport etc.  Given every sport is different (although most athletes will have the same goals of becoming leaner, bigger, faster, more powerful, stronger etc) we cannot attempt to train them all the same.  Don’t get me wrong, for the most part I believe athletes in general need to do very similar movements, it is the intensities/loads and auxiliary exercises that may differ.  The body positions required to change elevation/direction, create force, jump, run etc are very similar for all sports.  It is also important to note that we do not want to just target an athlete’s strengths and weakness’.  We need to keep the strengths strong and bring their weakness’ up to speed.
Olympic Lifting:
Olympic lifting is based off of the Olympic sport “weightlifting”.  In competitions athletes complete 2 lifts: the clean and jerk and the snatch (highest total for weight class wins).  Their style of training involves high speed, ballistic style movements with complimentary exercises such as deadlifts and squats.  Olympic lifting is thought to be the fastest sport in the world.  There are not many athletes that can move well over their bodyweight from the floor to overhead in a blink of an eye!  You Tube Reza Zadeh if you want to see power (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FwIDwBDcnA)!
All of our athletes use some form of Olympic lifting in their programs.  The difference from using it as a weight lifter vs. athlete (field, court, mat, track or other) is in the loads and the variance of the movements.  We tend to use variations of the traditional Olympic lifting variety with hang and dumbbell variations.  These movements are extremely complex and require attention to detail from both the strength coach and the athlete.   The benefits of these movements are that they are extremely athletic in nature and require the entire body (multi-joint) to be switched on (fast twitch fibres and CNS), they incorporate a rapid knee and hip extension similar to jumping and sprinting, they incorporate acceleration and deceleration similar to that in sport (the foundation of speed development and change of direction ability) along with the rapid change of elevation of the hips.  For me, one of the most important aspects is that it teaches the athlete the motor pattern of developing force through the ground.  There are many strength coaches that discredit the use of Olympic lifting because of the technical demands and the fear of injury.   I have used Olympic lifting as an athlete and as a coach for over 15 years and have not had an injury occur as a direct result of these lifts.  To be fair, I have had the luxury of working under some great strength and conditioning coaches that have helped me to become a better athlete and coach myself.  Although these lifts may be dangerous, if proper instruction, progressions and time is taken to learn them, I feel the risk of injury can be reduced greatly.
 Although these movements are highly athletic, they must be coupled with other movements to compliment the specific sport.  The loads used in Olympic lifting can tend to be much higher for the weightlifter vs. athlete.  Many of our athletes are competing or training year round and the stress of both can lead to injury.  This doesn’t mean we will not take our athletes to a higher load, but we have to be cautious and pay close attention to where the athlete is with regards to their season/training loads.  The traditional movements involved in the sport require the athlete to move the bar from the ground to overhead (highly technical).  Many of the athletes we train are overseas or out of province and rely on programs being sent to them with unmonitored training sessions.  Most of our athletes do not have the flexibility or technique to safely execute these movements without supervision (this is why we use hang variations, deadlift variations, jerk variations).  For the “Jerk” (the lifting of weight over head from shoulders) we have to consider the sport.  Many of our athletes have pre-existing shoulder injuries or postural issues making this movement difficult to use.  We also need to consider the nature of their sport-High contact sports place a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulders and spine.   We will still use this movement, but in variations and during the off-season.  All of the athletes we train do utilize at least one of these variations in all of their workout sessions (both in season and off season). 
Purists of the sport of weightlifting may disagree with some of the modified techniques and variations we use, but it must be realized that we are training better athletes, not better weightlifters.  Some movements are modified for reasons such as: learning to extend the hips explosively, using cue words that may not necessarily correspond with traditional techniques but do correspond with how athletes respond to audible and visual cues (jump, explode, drive etc), generate force through the ground, accelerate and decelerate quickly etc.
Power Lifting:
Power Lifting, takes the total of the athletes squat, deadlift and bench press.  For the most part, these athletes train with their big 3 lifts along with a myriad of auxiliary lifts that will help supplement the major movements.  It is also important to note, that in competition, these athletes train with knee wraps, squat and deadlift suits and bench press shirts-See Kirk Karwoski with a ridiculous 1000lb squat for 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oo1tU1YqPp0).  Like Olympic lifters, the sole goal is to increase your total of all lifts.  Again, we use similar movements as power lifters only we tailor them to suit the athlete’s needs. 
As in weightlifting, we utilize all 3 or variations of all 3 power lifting movements with slight modifications.  As above, the ultimate goal is to prepare the athlete to reach the highest total possible, not to build an all around athlete.  In general, the power lifting program like the weightlifters will use auxiliary lifts to enhance the major 3 lifts.  Although much of what we draw (even with auxiliary lifts) from these two strength and power sports are great, there still must be a balance to suit the sport and athletes individual needs.   Deadlifts have always been one of the great strength and power exercises since the dawn of time.  Who can lift the most weight off the ground was usually touted as the strongest!  Although it is a great exercise, we have to consider the loads involved, flexibility concerns of the athlete, technique and supervision and functionality of the movement.  Just like the Olympic lifting movements, the athlete is required to pick up a heavy load off the floor.  I prefer to use a rack or box deadlift or a Romanian dead lift unless I am assured the athlete has flawless technique.

They build their bodies.  Bodybuilders are judged on their posing routines, symmetry and size of muscle etc.  All though these athletes may physically look great, the training regimen does not support the athletic nature of sport.  Strength and conditioning coaches have utilized many of the exercises popularized by bodybuilders for years; we have just modified the intensities and tempo of movements to support a particular sport.  

I firmly believe that all athletes need to have lean mass on their bodies.  Fat serves little or no purpose for the elite athlete other than in some power sports (football, wrestling, rugby etc) and even then, it should be limited.  I heard a story of an NFL lineman that had a trainer that felt he was overweight and wanted to drop his bodyweight from 310lbs to 275lbs.  I don’t have a problem with this, so long as the athlete is increasing his conditioning, strength and power to make up for the 35lb deficit.  We have to consider that some positions require large athletes to move other large athletes.  Giving up that type of weight may result in a negative performance, and in this case it cost the athlete a renewal of his contract.  We are not just in the business of building better bodies; our sole goal is to increase performance.  Watch an NFL game on any Sunday and you will see some chunky dudes doing the most athletic things you have ever seen.  I have trained many athletes that look like Greek gods and play like crap and I have also seen guys that look like crap but play like Greek gods!
It is also important to note that when training women, there is a stigma that if they weight train they will end up looking like a bodybuilder!  Part of our role as strength coaches is explaining to them that we are in the business of increasing performance and that in all likely hood you will increase your lean mass.  It is also important to mention to them, that there is zero probability of them looking like a female bodybuilder unless they decide to embark on a similar chemical regimen.

Track and Field:
Although track and field is an actual sport, much of their training is utilized by strength and conditioning coaches as a style of training (like the above 3).  For the most part, their weight training regimen is very similar to that of the Olympic Lifter.   One thing that all athletes benefit from with regards to their performance is SPEED and POWER (regardless of sport).  So, it seems natural that as strength coaches, we may draw from the experiences of the track and field coach.  Sprinters and jumpers are amongst the fastest and most powerful athletes in the world.  Track and field coaches tend to also act as the athletes sport coach as well as strength and conditioning coach (or are very involved in both) giving them a great deal of contact hours with the athletes both in the weight room and on the track. 
  • Track and field events are all linear for the most part.  Most sports involve lateral and backward (multi-directional) movements.
  • Track athletes increase their performance in the weight room!  You do not get faster just by trying to run faster-the same can be said for jumping and throwing events (unless you are improving your technique.  I am touching more on the elite athlete).  You must increase your strength and power for you to decrease times on your event or increase your jumping or throwing ability.  Unlike other sports, track and field athletes generally compete in events that do not have many external factors such as: contact with other athletes or the ground, lateral or backward movement, fierce weather conditions, intermittent burst and the use of multiple energy systems, long durations (throwing, jumping and sprinting events are done in seconds).
  • Track and field has a very defined in-season and off-season allowing for the use of traditional periodization models. 
  • Track athletes are measure in 100’s/per second!  As strength and conditioning coaches, we have to determine if it is more valuable to have an athlete run as a track athlete and shave a 100th of a second off their sprint or to have them run as they would in sport.  The technique of running on a track is quite different than running in sport.  It is rare that you will see an athlete run over 10 meters in a straight line before they either have to change direction or make contact with another player.
My final thoughts:
            I wanted to write this article after reading many programs and many hours of meetings, emails and phone calls with other strength and conditioning coaches.  The fact is, it is impossible to determine that there is only one way to train an athlete.  To this day, I disagree with many of our competitor’s methods for programming, but they still are having success with their athletes, just as we are.  So how can we determine what is best?  I feel we need to work together with sport coaches, athletes, therapists, mental coaches and high performance directors to ensure the athlete is the one that is benefitting the most-not the coach.  Too often coaches get caught up in data and results, but lose sight of the bigger picture.  We need to have a blend of practical and scientific knowledge married with common sense and a common goal of winning.  We must draw from previous experience and make educated conclusions to make sure the athlete is getting what is best for them.  At the elite level, everyone’s head is on the chopping block.  Everyone in the chain of command all the way down to the athlete needs to be held accountable for performance.
Our success has come from using a combination of the above mentioned methods, with some of our own to help increase the overall performance of the athlete or team.  Over the last ten years I have learned that most coaches are forced to validate their positions by results in the gym or on the track.  As strength and conditioning coaches, specifically in Canada-what is most important for us to win?   Making a 600lb squatter squat 610lbs, or keeping his/her strength and power as high as possible but look at reducing the chance of injury and increasing performance and the longevity of their career?  Through combining all of the above methods of training along with corrective exercises we can help build an elite athlete and keep them at the top of their competition for years to come.
If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me at joe@level10fitness.com
Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum

No comments:

Post a Comment