Monday, November 5, 2012

The Strength & Conditioning Profession - Part 4

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote during my time as a Master's student at the University of British Columbia (The State of the Strength and Conditioning Industry in North America).  This section looks at the difference between fitness and performance.  There is a difference, and one that is often not recognized by coaches and athlete alike.  Thanks to the contributions from Scott Vass (head strength coach at Vancouver College in Vancouver, BC....his athletes are lucky, and in the minority in Canada in terms of quality strength & conditioning at the high school level).  Forgive some of the scientific plugs in this section, I had to jump through some academic hoops.   

Fitness vs. Performance
 A key differentiation must be made between fitness and performance when discussing the state of the strength & conditioning industry in North America.  As Scott Vass (2011) discussed, fitness is the ability to perform an action repetitively.  In a competitive sense, fitness, for example, would relate to an athlete who has attained the bare minimum work capacity necessary to complete a marathon.  Work capacity can be divided into aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity.  Aerobic capacity, as defined by Baechle & Earle (2008), is the “...maximum rate at which an athlete can produce energy through oxidation of energy resources (carbohydrates, proteins, fats)...”(p.251). Baechle & Earle (2008) also define anaerobic capacity as the “...maximal rate of energy production by the combined phosphagen and lactic acid energy systems for moderate-duration activities” (p.251).  Anaerobic capacity would be exemplified by the ability to complete a sprint.  Vass (2011) describes performance as the ability to excel in a sport.  To excel, an athlete must possess a high level of strength, speed, technique, and coordination.  Development of strength will help prevent injuries in an athlete while also increasing the amount of applicable ground reaction force, thus increasing their ability to produce power.  Technique and coordination development would lead to increased movement economy, meaning that each repetition of a sport skill would require less energy (Baechle & Earle, 2008).  Many athletes fail to differentiate between fitness and performance, and in the end fail to reach their true potential.  It is unfortunate when an athlete feels they are sufficiently preparing for their sport by simply becoming fatigued as a result of exercise.  A very appropriate quote which must constantly be on the mind of strength & conditioning professionals is delivered by the late Mel Siff:
“To me, the sign of a really excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces progressive long-term improvement without soreness, injury or the athlete ever feeling thoroughly depleted.
Any fool can create a program that is so demanding that it would virtually kill the toughest marine or hardiest of elite athletes, but not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain.”


  To accomplish this long-term improvement, progressive enhancement must be made in regards to the six laws of strength training, along with the four principles of strength training.  From a standpoint of conditioning, an athlete will often fail to utilize and progressively improve the appropriate energy systems.

As listed in Tudor Bompa’s textbook “Periodization Training for Sports” (2005), the six laws of strength training are:

1) Develop Joint Flexibility: Sufficient joint flexibility is necessary for the development of sound movement patterns.  The risk for injuries to joints during activities performed through a full range of motion will be greatly decreased with sufficient flexibility. 

2) Develop Ligament and Tendon Strength: Muscle strength improves faster than tendon or ligament strength.  Proper time and attention must be allowed for strengthening of the tendons and ligaments during the general physical preparation phase of a periodized program.

3) Develop Core Strength: Core muscles act as shock absorbers during jumps, rebounds, or plyometric exercises.  A strong core will stabilize the body and represent a link, or transmitter, between the legs and the arms.  A common analogy is that trying to perform sports skills with a weak core is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe.

4) Develop the Stabilizers: Stabilizer muscles contract in an isometric fashion to immobilize a limb so that another part of the body can act.  Proper strength of the stabilizer muscles is very important to keep an athlete healthy and performing at their best.

5) Train Movements, Not Individual Muscles: This is a concept that was lost to athletes for many years due to the popularity of bodybuilding which preaches the isolation of individual muscles with aesthetic goals in mind.  Strength training should emphasize movement patterns such as squatting, deadlifting, pulling and pushing.  Specialized forms of training may be used with exercises such as more sport specific jumps and sprints for example.

6) Don’t Focus on What is New, but on What is Necessary: “In the past few years the North American sport and fitness market has been invaded by many products that claim to improve athletic performance greatly.  An understanding of biomechanics and exercise physiology, however, reveals that many of the products intended to improve strength, speed, and power actually inhibit them (Bompa, 2005, p.51)”.  Instability training is one of the most overused methods of training used by strength & conditioning coaches and fitness trainers alike.  The general explanation given by those who use it is that it helps to develop a greater level of core muscle activity.  Since ‘core’ training is a popular phrase to use by many in the industry today, they automatically assume this must be the best way to develop an athlete.  However, while unstable surface training does increase the electrical activity of the rectus abdominis, along with stability, the force output of the targeted muscles is decreased.  In the bench press exercise, force output was decreased by 59.6% when performed on an unstable surface compared to on a bench (Hubbard, 2010).  Unstable surface training is useful for rehabilitation of the knee and ankle, as it has been proven to develop the proprioception required to prevent re-injury.  It is also useful for developing joint stabilizers by promoting joint agonist/antagonist activity.  While unstable surface training is effective for rehabilitation, and preparing the athletes joints for more intense training, stable surface training is required for improving maximal force production.  To further invalidate the overuse of unstable surface training: during exercises such as the deadlift, squats, and overhead, maximal force production is decreased when performed on an unstable surface.  Furthermore, there is no difference in core activation in these exercises when performed on an unstable surface.  There is actually a greater level of core activation when an athlete performs abdominal bracing in preparation of lifting increasingly heavier loads in the deadlift (Hubbard, 2010).    

Bompa (2005) also lists the four principles of strength training:

            1) Progressive Increase of Load: Physiologically, progressive training increases the body’s functional efficiency, increasing work capacity, and resulting in performance improvement.  Progressive increases in load will also allow the tendons and ligaments sufficient time to strengthen, thus decreasing the risk for acute and chronic injury.

            2) Variety: “Any athlete serious about training must dedicate four to six hours each week to strength training, in addition to technical, tactical, and energy system training (Bompa, 2005, p.55)”.  Under such conditions, boredom and monotony can become obstacles to the athletes’ motivation and continued improvement.  While sufficient variety is an important component of a well-designed training program, too much variety provides much less improvement to an athletes’ performance.  A ‘same but different’ approach should be taken in regards to variety.  Subtle changes to an exercise can be made without changing the overall purpose of the exercise. “Concentrate your gains on...and a handful of big payoff strength exercises, or spread them thinly over random acts of variety” (John & Tsatsouline, 2011, p.49).

            3) Individualization: A strength & conditioning professional must have the ability to prescribe or modify exercises and training programs based upon each individual athletes’ needs.

            4) Specificity:  Once an athlete reaches a certain level of dedication to a sport, and has achieved a high degree of competency in general fitness and athleticism, they should work to develop sport-specific strength and conditioning.  Please refer to the section titled “Movement and Sport Specificity” to learn when to incorporate sport-specific exercises.

We have discussed the six laws and four principles of strength training, however, appropriate conditioning principles must also be followed by the strength & conditioning professional.  An awareness of the three energy systems must be held.  The three energy systems are: the ATP-Creatine Phosphate (CP) system, the glycolysis system (fast and slow), and the oxidative system.

            ATP-CP:  The ATP-CP system relies on the hydrolysis of ATP and the breakdown of creatine phosphate to provide energy.  A creatine kinase reaction occurs at a high rate and in the absence of oxygen (Baechle & Earle, 2008).  To solely train this system, the strength & conditioning coach would need to prescribe exercise bouts lasting no longer than six seconds.  From six to thirty seconds there is a contribution from both the ATP-CP and fast glycolytic energy systems.

            Glycolysis: The glycolysis system relies on the breakdown of carbohydrates to resynthesize ATP.  The glycolytic process can be broken down into fast glycolysis and slow glycolysis.  During fast glycolysis, ATP is resynthesized at a faster rate, however, pyruvate is subsequently converted to lactate.  During slow glycolysis, pyruvate is shuttled into the mitochondria, where it it will undergo the Krebs cycle.  This will result in a slower ATP resynthesis rate, but can occur for longer durations.  To solely train the fast glycolytic energy system, the strength & conditioning professional should prescribe exercise bouts of 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  This energy system will also contribute in bouts lasting 6 seconds to 30 seconds.  The slow glycolytic energy system will begin to contribute to the resynthesis of ATP in bouts lasting two to three minutes.  Use of the slow glycolytic energy system often leads into use of the oxidative energy system.

            Oxidative: The oxidative system relies on the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats in order to resynthesize ATP.  A breakdown of proteins may occur in exercise bouts lasting greater than 90 minutes.  The oxidative system is used in bouts lasting greater than 3 minutes, as well as at rest. 
As Pavel Tsatsouline points out in ‘Easy Strength’ (2011), fitness is performances’ ugly cousin.  Fitness is the development of the required work capacity to complete a given activity.  Performance is the strategic manipulation of training principles and protocols, energy systems, technique, and movement patterns in order to excel at the same given activity.  Too many strength & conditioning and fitness professionals today are willing to sell consumers the shortcut to performance, fitness, or wellness (Cook, 2010).  A skilled strength coach has the ability to differentiate between an exercise or training program that is difficult, and one that is challenging.  A difficult exercise is one that is hard to accomplish (i.e a struggle).  A challenging exercise is one that tests ones abilities.  Any strength coach can create a difficult exercise or training session, it takes wisdom to design challenges (Cook, 2010). 

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