Iso’s- if you are familiar with the term, chances are that word conjures up anxious sweat and quaky limbs. I was first introduced to the agonizing sear of isometric training during my college football days. Put bluntly, the season is a bear. Four months of two-three hour practices, watching film, academic work and diets that are usually less than ideal can shrink even the most robust of frames. Physiques that were jacked and tan in August withered to pale and frail by November. With this loss of size driving our collective psychology, once the season concluded we plowed head first into the world of iron, chalk and pain.
The priority was to add size, clang some weights and if I’m being honest-try to impress the co-eds in the fitness center with our homemade cut off Ts and puka shell necklaces (ah early 2000’s).
Sad but true
In addition to the weight training work we also had a circuit training element thrown in to our training regimen. We called it plyos (which in retrospect, it most certainly wasn’t-Sorry Verkoshanski!) and it consisted of 45 minutes of nonstop, vomit inducing misery, with a work to rest ratio of about a billion to one.
As a team bonding experience it was a galvanizing force. Our shared misery brought us closer and forged stronger bonds throughout the squad. As a performance based system, well, it had more holes than a block of Swiss at a mouse farm. Not enough rest, not specific enough and tip toeing at the edges of actually causing injury.
One of the more memorable stops of our plyo circuits were the iso hold stations. Here, we would attempt to hit a specific position in a lunge, squat, pushup or plank and fight it for time. It was miserable. Already in a state of zombified fatigue from the previous stations, we now were attempting to hold these spots as our bodies were imploding like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Galloping Gertie didn’t last long
I remember hating them, was glad when it was over and once my football career concluded pretty much forgot about all things isometric.
Fast forward a couple trips around the sun and I hear Cal Deitz-the head strength coach at the University of Minnesota speak about his new book Tri-phasic training. In it, he explains how isometric contractions are the forgotten pathway to moving dynamically and explosively. I’m intrigued. I always assumed that just lifting heavier would help with everything. Now I find out just slapping more weight on your bench and squat might not be the end all, be all in moving better on the field of play.
Hundreds, if not thousands of coaches have picked up gems from this well known book.
Look at any athletic movement- be it running, jumping or cutting and you will see a blend of the three muscular contractions-eccentric, concentric and isometric. In eccentric, the muscle lengthens under tension. Think of the descending portion of a bench press or the counter movement of a jump. It essentially is the slowing down or resisting element of a muscular contraction. This is huge in preventing injury and resisting outside forces in play.
In concentric, the muscle shortens under tension. Think of curling a set of dumbbells up to your chin or running past someone on the soccer field. It essentially is the overcoming/explosive element of a muscular contraction. This is huge in the “wow” factor in sports; the big jump and the violent swing are all concentric animals.
In isometric, the muscle stays the same length under tension. Think of it as the split second transfer between the eccentric yield and the concentric pop. The stronger (or stiffer) the isometric, the bouncier/faster or more violent the movement becomes. One of my favorite analogies in describing this is in looking at an inflated basketball getting bounced vs. a deflated basketball. When the inflated ball hits the ground it is able to use the force from the descent and transfer it to a high bounce. Nothing is wasted.
Now think about what happens when you try to bounce a deflated ball. No stiffness, no strong iso, when it hits the ground, it bounces nowhere. Not ideal athletically. For me, I want my athletes to be like an inflated superball coated in flubber. When that foot hits the ground, BOOOOOM! No loss of energy, just pure elastic recoil. One of the best ways to train this quality is through jumping and sprinting with maximal intent. But, there are a few choice exercises that can train the position you are trying to enhance and they can be supplemented by strong isometric holds.
This list is scratching the surface of the world of the iso, but here Ill focus on three different isometric holds and the reasoning for working these particular positions.
Iso single leg lunge
Unilateral lower body strength work has become a sexy topic in the world of strength and conditioning. A couple reasons for this include the facts that we run on one leg-not two, it seems to spare low backs more than the bilateral lower body options and lastly it generally is easier to teach single leg movements than double leg ones. With those factors at play the iso single leg lunge is a great option for training different positions in acceleration and maximal speed. Depending on the moment in the gait cycle the leg angles can differ, so you can play around with different positions here, too.
How long we hold these…well it depends. But it should not be unreasonable for a high school level athlete to lock into these positions for a minute. In older trainees I have seen 5 minutes prescribed, but lets remember this is all context specific.
More of an acceleration look here. Knee will drift over the toe, tension in the forefoot.
More of a maximal velocity look here. Knee will stay back more than acceleration. Straighter back leg/greater hip flexor stretch
Iso 1 leg pin smash
While the first two examples require nothing more than your body, the floor and (potentially) some outside resistance, this little number is a little more complicated in terms of the set up. The posture we are trying to hit here is when the foot touches down in maximal velocity sprinting. This requires a rack, bar, some crash pins and a weight plate or two to drive into. Stack a 10-25 pound plate or two on the floor inside the power rack. Once that is accomplished the next part in the setup of this exercise is setting the crash pins at an appropriate height for the athlete.
Keep the heel up, blast through the forefoot and stand tall
Pins too high and you won’t be able to apply force, too low and we are looking at a posture that may not be conducive to the positions seen in max velocity. Once the sweet spot is in place with the pins the next step is to place a bar on your back, step up on to the plates, drive your forefoot into the plates on the floor (up on your midfoot/toes). The bar should rocket up into the crash pins. Hold this position, driving down into the plate with your foot and up into the pins with the bar. Again the time held can vary, for this variation I have found a 5-10 second contraction to be effective.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, this can get you thinking about adding some isometric work into your current program and moving better out there in your sport.
If speed is king, then change of direction/agility is an ambitious prince waiting to snatch the throne. Linear, maximal effort sprinting is extremely important in many team sports. Whether covering a kick in football, clearing a ball in lacrosse or tracking a fly in softball- there are many scenarios where an player needs to get from point A to point B as rapidly as possible. But, the ability for an athlete to switch up tempos, feign a movement and go in the opposite direction happens more frequently than just bombing down the field or court like a cheetah in gym socks.
Closed vs Open
This quality, traditionally referred to as change of direction or agility, has become a hot little item in the world of strength and conditioning. Once thought of as interchangeable terms, they have since split ways and have two different definitions based on new criteria. One of the major differences in separating the two lies in anticipation and how the brain reacts to outside stimuli. I will now refer to change of direction (closed) as one quality and agility (open) as another.
Change of direction drills are largely closed in nature-meaning they are scripted. They follow a set pattern the athlete needs to track and complete as quickly as possible. They are a major component of many combine style events like a lane agility drill for basketball players or a pro agility drill for football athletes. They can tell coaches a lot about how quickly an athlete can stop and start within the confines of the drill in question.
The big hang up many folks have with the closed change of direction drills is they remove the reactivity out of the equation completely. These drills are robotic, can be broken down to the step in an attempt to shave time off of the clock and aren’t a true representation of what happens in sports. The argument for agility drills over COD drills is true agility is a cognitive animal. They are open in nature. A beast that relies heavily on timing, visual processing, perception, anticipation and reaction.
Now, some coaches rely heavily on the closed approach, others keep it completely open and some combine a blend of the two. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong attack on how one gets their athletes flying around the field or court. The purpose of this article is to break down the differences between the two, give some examples, list pros and cons and give some practical experience I have seen in my years doing this.
Some examples of closed change of direction drills would be an agility ladder, 3 cone agility drill, L drill, NBA lane agility test or running a route tree in football. The pattern is set, predictable and intended to be performed as quickly as possible. These are intended to practice movement patterns that can be used in sport and clean up any deficiencies the coach can see when the athlete is performing the drill.
Some of these movements are hugely important in sports mastery. A wide receiver running a route tree on air or post player perfecting their footwork on the block can benefit tremendously from hammering those skills daily. The knock on them however is there is no opposing player to react off of, which again is the basis of all things sporting.
Can practice “perfect” cutting/movement mechanics.
Can do an exact movement one would use in ideal sport conditions.
Can slow down the steps in the process and script the pattern exactly.
Don’t require another player to perform.
Many closed drills don’t transfer over to sport (Icky shuffle on a ladder for example).
No reactive visual stimulus involved.
Could argue aren’t as “fun” as many open agility drills.
Not a ton of variety.
Open agility drills have become extremely attractive in recent years because of the reactive element that is omnipresent in all things sport. The reaction could come from a ball, opposing player, visual stimulus or auditory cue. They are a better indicator of how the athlete will perform on the field/court as the reaction/anticipation feature of athletics often separates the good from the great. Think about Barry Sanders in his prime, #20 in blue was moving like Baryshnikov in shoulder pads based off how the other players moved on the field.
The king of shake and bake
Closer representation of what happens in sport
Oodles of movement variability
Fun and competitive
Can practice sports timing
Not as precise movement patters
Usually need another person to practice
I have and still use both approaches. If there was an athlete I was working with that had to get really good at the NFL pro agility drill (closed) it just makes sense to practice that drill and get really good at it. Also, it can be a good drill for younger athletes to work cutting off of both feet. You can take it a step further, take that closed look and make it open with having one athlete react off of the other (a closed open look if you will).
When you think about it, many sports do have that closed open feature. A receiver running a post knows where they should be making their break in the route (closed), but may have to alter the cut based off of the coverage (open). A basketball player dribbling around a screen (closed) may have to shift their offensive strategy depending on how the defender approaches the screen (open). Click this link for a couple closed/open options.
A blend of both strategies is important to not only work the movement you are attempting to do but to add real world sport application as well. Have fun with it, pick drills that transfer, move with intent and PLEASE don’t spend all day just doing the Icky shuffle ;).
Folks in this field often talk about “bang for your buck” ideas and programs in regards to training athletes. Exercises and methods that matter, stuff that transfers and ultimately wins games. It’s a great conversation to have as it forces us as coaches to look at things a little more critically and not just do stuff for the sake of doing it. This way of thinking can break us out of the bench more, squat more, run em into the ground philosophy that has existed in the world of strength and conditioning for far too long.
One idea that I don’t think is discussed or analyzed enough in this field is the concept of residual training effects. Namely, in regards to the world of “conditioning.” This effect was popularized by Dr. Vladimir Issurin, another Soviet gem who is best known for his work with block prioritization. In 2010 he published a study on certain physical qualities and their stickiness within a group of athletes. What he found is that some qualities can see performance drop offs in the matter of a week without training them, while others can be held at a maintenance position for about a month without any direct work.
Aerobic endurance can stick with your athletes for a month without training. Maximal speed can diminish in a week.
I’m no sports scientist but I’ll take the lessons learned from the white coats that came before me and try and use them practically. I have tried to do some degree of block prioritization with athletes before, but have found its application challenging for the group that I train (high school team sport athletes). Basically, the concept is that you want to train different physical qualities at different intensities and volumes throughout the year depending where you are in the sport season. Instead of training everything together, you train different “blocks” to harness their effects and peak for a certain event or meet. This concept works tremendously on paper and in real time with track and field or other sports specialists.
The concept gets a little murkier when dealing with team sport athletes that have other demands besides one specific skill like throwing a hammer or running 200 meters. Still, Issurin’s work can be extremely valuable for sport coaches when addressing the idea of residual training effects. Namely, why the heck are folks slowly conditioning their athletes into the ground when they should be sprinting and jumping with much more frequency?
For most team sports, power is king. It could be a 40 inch vert in volleyball, 450 foot bombs in baseball or pushing the ball up the court in 3 steps in hoop. The “wow” effect in sport is a speed and power driven animal. Yet, we still see coaches placing a premium on this antiquated notion of needing to do long slow distance work for sports that don’t live in that universe (baseball anyone?)
The occasional salt and peppering of some conditioning work can have some value for the team sport athlete. If the squad is in need of a kick in the keister after a bad loss or for violating team rules then go for it, get your troops right. But to run JUST to run-I don’t get it. The team should be in shape before entering the competitive season and according to Issurin once they are in shape it doesn’t take a lot to keep them there.
Just think of it this way. Skill set aside. What would you want as a team sport coach. A fresh powerful, explosive group of athletes or a fatigued, slow, conditioned bunch? You don’t need to have a PhD like our friend Vladimir to figure out that one. Get your squad in shape before the competitive season, practice at a game pace and you will keep them there the whole year!
Daily conditioning sessions are simply going to over fatigue the players, get them dreading practice and could potentially set up an overuse injury. The pros seem to have it figured out to some degree. Bill Belicheck isn’t having Tom Brady run 10 100’s during a practice and Lebron isn’t mindless running line drills till he can’t feel his legs. You can work hard AND smart. Focus on performance, learn from Issurin, feel better going into competition and win some games!
The world of fitness/sports performance/health is a minefield of misinformation. Be it diet based (Eggs are bad…wait now they are good!) fatigue (no pain, no gain!) or anatomical (the knees should never be over the toes!) old “rules” die hard.
Knees over toes…a completely normal part of accelerating, being an athlete or human being for that matter.
It can be extremely confusing to sort out fact from fiction for the average person. Couple this with the extremely low barrier for entry in this field (have you worked out? Congrats you are now a trainer!) it’s no wonder why some of these proclamations have stuck around longer than they should. In my world I run into several running based cues that have no basis in actual facts. Below I have highlighted several myths that continue to hang around even as research, video analysis and plain old common sense have proven otherwise.
Keep your arms at 90 degrees
This one is probably the most frequent and egregiously incorrect running cue I encounter. Simply put, the arm should mirror the opposite leg. If the leg is in a long lever position (extended)the opposite arm will also be a long lever and vice versa. The legs certainly do not hang out at a perfect 90 degree bend and neither do the arms. Don’t believe me? Check out these stills.
The worlds fastest man showing off arm angles that differ greatly from 90 degrees
The arm itself works more in a pulsing, flapping manner than it does as a robotic 90 degree pendulum. The challenging piece in changing people perception of this is that many coaches are still telling their athletes to keep the arms at 90 when video tells us that that does not occur. In fact, if you YouTube arm sprint mechanics the first video that pops up has over 61k views. In the video the coach describes how you want your elbows as close to 90 degrees at all times. He then goes on to demonstrate an arm swing where his back arm approaches 135 degrees!
That back arm though
He isn’t even practicing what he preaches because what he preaches doesn’t happen! It would be like a weatherman live reporting that he is in the middle of a balmy May evening as he is being pelted by hail stones from all directions.
Feet should be straight when running at toe off
This one seems simple enough. If I want to run in a straight line my toes should be completely straight right? Well, let’s go to the video John. Just before ground contact in both elite and novice runners you will see an external rotation of the foot, a strike on the outside edge of the foot and a roll of the foot to the big toe or inside edge.
The degree of the foot turn can vary. Looking at biomechanics again we know that the glutes are both a hip extensor and an external hip rotator. Meaning if they are doing their job (and everyone seems to want to have glutes that fire) they will bring the leg down and also out. Check out Tevin Coleman and Reece Prescods 9.94 100 meter right here.
Both have feet turned out, Prescod slightly, while Coleman’s is much more noticeable. Regardless, the point is it happens naturally. Your feet aren’t ramrod straight when you run, don’t tell your athletes they should be.
Hip flexor training
Most coaches would agree that the hip flexors are extremely important in high velocity sprinting. It has been said that Olympic level sprinters have hip flexors that are 4 times as strong as average humans. So, it’s no shock that you would want to train these muscles to run faster. The problem with most applications of hip flexor training is HOW it’s performed.
Biomechanics will tell us that the hip flexors contract BEHIND the body to drive the knee forward. Yet we still see many instances where the flexors are trained in front of the body in an attempt to get faster. Now, this isn’t inherently horrible, the muscles will still get stronger. But the transfer to what actually happens when you sprint will come up short, unless you train them behind the body. An easy way to combat this is by learning the knee drive exercise and its various derivatives.
Knee drive exercise in the left picture. Hip flexors being trained behind the body, just like running in the picture on the right.
Popularized by Dr. Michael Yessis this under utilized movement is a great way to strengthen the hip flexors in the exact motor pathway that they are used when actually sprinting. Get better at firing the flexors behind the body-experience more speed on the field or court.
Old myths die hard. Hopefully this article can serve as a way to get you to think a little differently about what actually happens in high velocity sprinting and out of the model of believing everything your coaches tell you. Dig a little deeper in all aspects of sports performance, you might be surprised what you uncover.
“It ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish.”
In life, this parable has been hammered into our collective consciousness with tales of slow starts concluding in sparkling endings. Be it Colonel Sanders franchising KFC’s in his 60’s, or the classic photo of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in his spartan “office” in the late 90’s, through grit and perseverance, slower beginnings often transform into unparalleled achievement.
This guy is now worth over 100 billion
However, In power based sporting endeavors, where you need to get somewhere in the blink of an eye, lets be real, a good initial start can set you up for more accolades than being a turtle out of the gate. Whether it’s getting to a closeout in hoop quicker, scooping up a ground ball before the opposing color in lacrosse or blowing past a left tackle and having a sack lunch on the gridiron, the first couple of steps matter. Sure, there are some athletes with either extremely long limbs or tremendous top end speed that can overcome a slow start, but for the vast majority of folks it would be in your best interest to add a some pep in your initial step. In no particular order I have listed a couple of considerations to ponder when trying to add a little more burst to your start.
Attack ankle and knee strength.
Sure, you squat and lunge and address your lower body when strength training. But have you considered just HOW you squat and lunge? The first couple of steps are largely tied to relative body strength (how strong you are in relationship to your own frame) most namely the strength of your ankles and knees. How can we address this in the weight room? Good question, easy answer, conflicting opinions. Start by bending at the ankle and knee first instead of the hip (hinging) in your squatting/lunging exercises. Here is where it is tricky in the strength training world. It’s possible that you may have been coached in the squat to sit “Back! Back! Back!” Yelled at to push through your heels and been forced into the international brotherhood of “get lower.” All common cues. But, I gotta tell you, that hinging on squats is an incorrect application of what actually happens athletically when we move and accelerate.
If I want to be going forward, why would I be sitting back? If I want to accelerate through my forefoot, why am I pushing through my heels? If strength is specific to the task why would I care to hit ass to grass when I never approach this position on the field or court? Enter someone saying “But Brian, what about the posterior chain?!”
Sure, the posterior chain and glute recruitment and all those trendy buzz words are great, but don’t focus on what is popular and miss out on what is actually true. Yes, you need hindquarter strength like the next athlete (it is tremendously important), but I think there are other exercises out there that can address that better than a squat or conventional lunge.
Hip hinge squat on the left, ankle/knee squat on the right
4.22 40 yard dash with tension in the forefoot and knees well over toes.
For starting I want prodigious quad and ankle strength. And in order to start well, your knees have to be over your toes so you can push out horizontally. If you are hinging at the hips for every lower body exercise that simply isn’t happening. Because of this, it will be challenging to actually work and strengthen the ankles and knees. In the start you are initially overcoming inertia and need legitimate ankle and knee strength to put force into the ground. No ankle and knee bend, no big push. The bigger the push, the more distance covered in the step. Two great ways to expedite that are as follows.
Want to accelerate more aggressively? Change the grade of your surface and try to bomb up it. Hills are great for a number of reasons. They naturally put your body into a forward position, you are required to push through the earth even more than if you were on a flat surface ( you would fall backwards if you didnt), they reinforce solid foot striking mechanics (almost impossible to heel strike up a hill) and they are just a great opportunity to text your own mental resolve.
On top of that, there are great anecdotal stories of olympic and pro athletes challenging themselves with gargantuan hills and reaping the rewards. Football legends Walter Peyton and Jerry Rice, sprinters Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and even the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt have all utilized hills in training and produced some pretty amazing numbers.
Broad Jump Variations
I have yet to see an athlete that broad jumps under 7 feet run “fast.” You can technique the heck out of a start, but if you don’t have the ability to powerfully push and overcome time and space then you will come up slow in your start. You may have heard the “car analogy” before but it bears repeating here. It doesn’t matter how great a driver (skills, technique, timing) you are, if you have a V4 under the hood and the car next to you has a V12, good night and good luck my friend. Power trumps technique alone. Now power with technique, that can be something special.
Nearly every pro sports combine has some standing broad jump variation. And for good reason. There is a strong correlation to the broad jumping ability of athletes and their initial 10 yard splits. If you can project your own body from a stand still over 10 feet there is a pretty good chance that you will be able to get out faster and farther than an athlete who is only hitting 8 feet. Jump better, start more powerfully.
So if you have the relative strength and power piece in play, then begin to work at the skill associated with the start itself. There are options abound. Falling starts, partner reactive starts, two point starts, three point starts, sled starts, banded starts, there are a ton of different options you can choose from to hone in on the ability to put your body in the right position, push really hard and get out fast.
The banded explosive lunge is a great option for developing the strength in the biomotor pathway that is specific to the start. However, It is a little different that your run of the mill lunge you see at the gym. I have attached a video from Dr. Michael Yessis, the man who has popularized this exercise so you can get a tutorial on how to do this movement.
The winter doldrums are over and the summer is kicking into gear. It’s time to get outside and work on getting faster for the upcoming fall seasons. Jump, bomb up a hill, attack those ankles and knees and practice your technique. Speed kills, a quicker start just kills em faster 😉
I hate to go all middle school essay on you good folks but I have to start this blog with a definition.
Functional– of or having a special activity, purpose, or task; relating to the way in which something works or operates.
Functionality is such a broad and all encompassing term that it really could mean anything based off of whatever is required of that athlete. It goes in line with another concept I have touched on before- the SAID principle.
Both are tremendous ideas that can benefit parents and athletes in their quest to perform at higher levels.
However, while the SAID principle has remained shrouded in mystery, reserved for coaches and people that are really into training- the term functional is everywhere. And that CAN be cool, but it can also be a problem.
Where it’s cool is when people understand that functional can mean anything and is context specific to the task at hand (great example of that here). A rotational med ball throw is functional for a baseball athlete but might not be so much for a distance runner. Nice, got it.
Sprinting-functional for a basketball athlete, maybe not so much for a bowler.
What isn’t cool and can trend toward dishonest and dangerous is when people label certain training implements or modalities as inherently functional and everything else is crapped on as dated and barbaric.
Take the kettlebell for example. Initially developed in Russia in the 18th century, this apparatus was utilized by old school strongmen for feats of hoisting, twisting and bending in circus tents all across Europe and Asia.
Fast forward a couple hundred of years and now this hunk of iron has been marketed and branded as a more functional piece of equipment than a barbell or dumbbell.
Tools in the toolbox folks. Hunks of metal, plastic and rubber.
It’s a piece of metal. It isn’t good or bad. It isn’t functional or dysfunctional. It just is. HOW you use it could be functional for a sport or task. For instance, if you are involved in kettlebell sport, and need to do 1 arm snatches for time- a kettlebell is as functional as it gets!
Take that same movement and try to sell that as a functional must for a basketball player and I’m calling BS. It’s a cool exercise and it might have some degree of transfer but is it a necessity for a kid on the hardwood?…I’d say no.
Somewhere, somehow, parents are being told that this spine shattering abomination is functional
The same can be said of balance training sold under the functional blanket. Yes, balance is an important feature for many athletes but balance without any general strength is missing the forest for the trees. If you or your kid is spending all their time on a bosu ball and has the general strength of a newborn mouse it is going to be tough to move explosively or dynamically.
If i was only using a kettlebell here imagine how much more functional I would be 🙂
Louie Simmons once said you can’t shoot a cannon ball out of a canoe. If an athletes frame isn’t stable or robust it doesn’t make a difference how many “functional balance exercises” they try. They lack the horsepower to put something into the ground, opponent or a ball they will be doing a functional move many Americans do for most of their day-sitting on a bench or chair.
Anatoliy Bondarchuk is credited as being the best strength coach of all time. He himself was an Olympic champion and trained other gold medal winning hammer throwers as well. Some of the functional exercises he developed for his sport included throwing different weighted rocks and sticks. Again, a rock or stick isn’t innately functional itself, but how you use it could be.
To sum it up. Anything can be functional. See if the exercise you are using has value to you as an athlete. If it does, then tremendous, continue with what you are doing. If not you might have to re-evaluate what it is you are trying to do. Don’t get caught up in what something is sold as, or what it looks like. Focus more on what it actually is and does. Train smart, have fun and don’t get pulled into the fitness marketing machine.
Late March 2018. What a time to be alive. I tend to stray from hyperbole in my assessments of certain things, but for me, this age of humanity feels like the most polarizing in the history of our species.
Scientists are creating machines that are straight out of Star Trek, while flat earthers continue to peek their heads out from under a Bronze Age rug. In June, the wealthiest person on the planet, Jeff Bezoz, green lit a factory in Mobile Alabama, while the state itself was just dubbed as the poorest place in the developed world.
Thanks to smart phones, all the information you could want is at your finger tips. Unfortunately, all the misinformation in the world is there too.
The opposite end of the spectrum phenomenon also exists in the world of strength and conditioning. Depending on the source, squats are both great AND horrible for your knees, carbs are essential AND the cause of all obesity related issues, and Olympic lifting is a tremendous OR fruitless power producer.
Of all these black and white declarations, one holds a special place in my heart and also makes me want to run into a brick wall- strength/weight training will stunt the growth of youth athletes. Le sigh.
The how, when, and why, of this frequently quoted proclamation remains fuzzy, but it shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. I speak with parents frequently (many that have been around sports their entire lives) and hear the same concern that somehow being around a dumbbell will turn their kid into a permanent member of the lollipop guild.
Quick! Get away from that medicine ball before this happens!
I’ll engage in the discourse, but it’s a tough conversation to have as it falls in line with the BS asymmetry principal. Meaning- the amount of energy needed to refute BS is a magnitude bigger than to produce it. Basically it’s easier to make stuff up than it is to dispute that made up claim.
I’m no physicist, but one most certainly has to take into account force and how it impacts the body. One of the key components of force is speed (mass times acceleration anyone?). The speed factor is hugely important because it determines just what kind of shock is being put into those developing growth plates.
A highly controlled, light weight movement (squat, push-up, pull up, it really doesn’t matter) will have infinitely less force on the frame than even basic jumping or running. Hell, jumping on a bed might have more stress on an 11 year olds frame than an 8 second negative goblet squat with a 10 pound dumbbell. Are we going to ban bed jumping in households across America for fear of stunting growth?
You kids are playing a dangerous game with your height
Strength training doesn’t even have to be weight lifting. Of course it eventually could be, but I need to see a movement look legit before even considering loading it. Master your own body first. Ultimately, if an athlete can’t move their body well it most certainly will be challenging to perform out there on the field of play.
Fundamental movement skills trump all. I have referenced the pyramid of athleticism before, but it bears repeating here as well. As you can see, the base of the structure starts with how an athlete moves. Think of the top players in professional sports, Serena Williams, Lebron James, Antonio Brown- all tremendous movers with great relative body strength.
Important to understand
Fredrick Douglas said it’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men. Well, it’s easier to learn how to lunge and run well when your nervous system is more malleable than to re-teach a pattern that is mechanically unsound or prone to causing injury.
This guy was on to something
Now, some pell mell, max effort, sloppy form, incarnation of a deadlift or squat could most certainly put some undue stress on a youth athlete. But, who in their right mind is doing that sort of intensity with that type of athlete? (Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know).
So what age to start? It depends. I think youth athletes can do some movement based training (learning to run, jump, and cut more effectively) as early as 8 or 9 years old. It really depends on their maturity level and attention span. I have had kids as young as 11 do more classical “strength” based training, using their own body weight. But again, it really comes down to if they can pay attention, enjoy it, and are able to work in a group. Moving better and getting stronger using a thoughtful approach won’t stunt your child’s growth. In fact, it will make the whole athletic experience more enjoyable for the child and set them up for future physical success.
Recently, there has been a movement in the athletic preparation community to finally acknowledge that yes, you can in fact train your lower leg (calf complex and foot). For years the common thought was that if you run and jump on the field or court, somehow that “got” your lower limbs enough to warrant not touching your calf and foot within the confines of the weight room.
Thankfully, some folks got around to asking why this was. Invariably, no one had a real legitimate answer and here we are, it’s cool to train that body part again. And for good reason. The foot, ankle, and calf, are extremely important in terms of setting your body up biomechanically for success (example- the knee only does what the foot can control). Squatting, running, jumping, and cutting are all made more robust and effective with a lower limb that does its job. Check out this video explaining how your lower leg can totally transform how your squat looks and feels.
In addition to the performance piece, we can also look at the injury prevention side of the coin. Foot and ankle sprains are still plaguing athletes in multiple sports throughout the USA. An estimated 10-30% of all sports related injuries are of the ankle sprain variety. While that’s a substantial figure, there is hope in combating that number. Primarily, a strength training program that focuses on making the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the feet and ankles stronger and less yielding to outside forces.
While not exhaustive, here is a quick list of exercises/movements that you can throw in to your training protocol today.
Standing Calf Raise
A classic that can be done almost anywhere and anytime. In the gym, on some stairs, one legged, two legged, fast, slow, isometrically…there are a ton of variations to this basic movement. The shin stays vertical in this application with the gastroc being the primary muscle used in its completion. This is of importance to athletes that maximally run, as your shin is more vertical when sprinting and jumping. If you have mastered this exercise with your own body weight, it can be made more difficult by adding weight, raising the surface, or putting less of the foot on the elevated surface.
Seated Calf Raise
Often forgotten, but of extreme value for athletes that need to accelerate, the seated calf raise works the other muscle in the calf (soleus). If you are lucky enough to have a seated calf raise machine in your gym then three cheers to you. If not, you can still perform this exercise, though you might have to pull a MacGyver to make it work. A lot of times I will have an athlete I train sit on a bench or box and drive their knees forward over their toes. From there, we will either load a set of dumbbells or a barbell on the knee and elevate the heel up and down, stretching and strengthening the ankle in one fell swoop.
Big Toe Extend To Flex
In addition to your ankles, getting your toes to move well is another game changer in making your lower leg more resilient. Big toe extension is particularly important in setting up the ankle to move better. Depending on the literature you read, some prescribe that you need between 50-70 degrees of big toe extension. Lacking this ability won’t necessarily turn your body into a sea of injuries, but improving the movement quality through the feet is still a key component in creating awesome athletes. This video demonstrates how to perform this tough little number. I initially struggled mightily when attempting this drill, but have since improved by simply continuing to practice it. Crazy how that works eh?
Banded Ankle Distractions
This is a great complementary exercise to the seated calf raise. All you need is a band and a place to elevate your foot slightly. The point of the band is to aid in how the joints slide across each other. The band here pulls the talus bone backwards as the shin moves forward. Check out this picture sequence from the folks at Squat University to fully grasp how this setup works.
Roll Bottom of Foot/ Train Barefoot
There are approximately 100,000-200,000 exteroceptors (nerve endings that gather information from the outside world) on the bottom of your feet. With most of our time spent locked up in shoes, these nerve endings often become extremely sensitive to the outside world. A post from the Barefoot Professor explains more. The professor writes,
“The perception of pain takes place in the brain, not the body. Most of us have been told to wear shoes since early childhood; consequently, our brains are unaccustomed to receiving tactile information from the feet. On those rare occasions when we do walk barefoot, our brains receive ‘sensory overload’ and interpret the strange sensations as painful. Deaf persons who receive their hearing through cochlear implants report their first sounds as painful for the same reason. However, once the brain figures out that the new stimulus is not harmful, the pain subsides. Indeed, what was once considered painful is now re-interpreted as pleasure.”
Get out of your shoes and show your brain that it’s okay to strengthen and expose the soles to different tactile information. Once the gray matter starts to see that the feet can handle more than what we usually give it, then it’s amazing to see how the rest of the body will follow.
Great athletes have strong feet and ankles. Use these exercises to move better, feel better, and step your game up a notch on the field of play.
As the year comes to a close, I’m looking back on some of the eurekas and re-eurakas I encountered in my seminar circuit, reading, and gym chatter. In no particular order, I have drummed up a list of the five biggest hitters that blipped across my radar this year. Here’s to a happy, prosperous, and athletic 2018!
RPR is an absolute game changer
Skill work daily, strength training 1-2 times per week
Do you look like what you are trying to do?
The best guys in the business are also surprisingly accessible
Athletes should do more vision work
In October of 2017 I joined a club- a league of not so extraordinary men and women that wanted to learn something extraordinary. Inclusion in this league didn’t come with a time share in the Carolinas or a chance to drive a Mary Kay caddy. In fact, the material wares one picks up for membership pale in comparison to the intellectual capital this enabled me to pass on to my clients.
Reverse Fight Club in full effect
I feel like I’ve entered into a world of reverse fight club, with the first rule being- I really want to talk about RPR. There’s only 541 members on the Facebook RPR account. Each curious sole in that clan took a metaphorical red pill to hack human performance. I wish 541 million folks were included in that facebook account. That’s how strongly I feel about RPR/ Be Activated. While there are a laundry list of benefits to this system, for me the best feature is once you get it you can take ownership of your body.
In the medical/sports/rehab/injury prevention world, there is a general underlying vibe of learned helplessness. You have x wrong with you… run to the doctors. Y hurts… time to see the chiropractor. Z feels tight… is the trainer available? Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons that you need to spend close to a decade getting degrees in high levels of medicine. And I would love to have a seasoned surgeon operate on me if I broke a leg or got a nasty cut. The traumatic acute injuries that athletes run into are unfortunate and best tended to by those highly skilled professionals. But, the chronic bad back or constant hamstring pulls that many athletes suffer from, I honestly believe can be fixed by yourself.
Knowledge is power and the learning of muscle activation can be the keystone that health and performance is built on. These quick links can give you an idea on what this whole movement is about. Check them out. Or, schedule a session with me and let’s see if you can start feeling and moving better.
Daily skill work, less strength work
Weird to hear a guy who works in the world of getting athletes bigger/faster/stronger to prescribe less time lifting. But, here we are. I deal with mostly high school athletes. And quite honestly, for the average high school athlete 1-2 lifts a week, consistently over the course of the year, is more than enough of a stimulus to get bigger, faster, and stronger. Now, some kids love the Iron more than Tony Stark loves a new maroon and gold suit.
But, let’s not forget that you do not get stronger in the weight room. You get stronger recovering from the weight room.
The daily sets of max effort squatting, 400 meter runs until you barf, and sleeping like Malcom McDowell in a clockwork orange often do more harm than good. Remember, I work with athletes that have a relatively young training age. I want to slow cook the means of adaptation as long as I can. Many coaches use advanced methods on athletes that are way too young. No reason to use a wrecking ball when a hammer will do. To that end, if your 13 year old athlete’s training “cup” can hold 12 ounces, why would you dump a gallon on them?
The skill stuff is something that you can certainly work on with more regularity. Ball handling for basketball players, fielding for baseball athletes, and stick work for lacrosse players can be done on a daily basis. All of those movements are low intensity and easily recoverable.
The faster and more intense the movement – throwing a baseball, sprinting, tackling, lifting- the more time you need to recover. MLB pitchers don’t throw 100 balls a day. NFL guys don’t play 5 games a week. Olympic runners don’t maximally rip out 2,000 meters of daily sprinting. Likewise, your young athlete shouldn’t lift as hard as they can every single day.
Do you look/measure up with what you are trying to be?
Dream big young athletes. But, also be conscious of what you are dreaming about. There are levels to each rung of the sport’s ladder you climb, and at some point you are going to have to stack up to a base standard. Looking to play running back in high school? Tremendous. But, if you run a 7.5 40 and can’t do a single body weight push-up, well sorry son, you are going to be in for a rude awakening.
Want to throw 60 mph and pitch for the local summer league softball powerhouse? Awesome. But, if you weigh 95 pounds soaking wet and broad jump 4 feet? Good luck young lass. Maybe it’s because I have been doing this for so long and it’s in my wheelhouse, but to me it is pretty easy to see if you measure up or not. Sure there are outliers that break the mold, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on being one of them. Generally speaking there’s is a size, strength and speed standard for each sport. Move better, get stronger, master your sport skills, and stack up with the physicality of whatever level you are shooting for.
Big names in the industry are surprisingly accessible
I have been fortunate enough to do some freelance work for a national publication (hint, it rhymes with “Hustle and Witness”). In that capacity, I have had the opportunity to interview some titans in the field. With their vaunted resumes and jam packed schedules, it would be exceedingly easy for them to say they don’t have the time or even blow me off all together. Not one has.
J.L. Holdsworth, Perry Nickelston, Jim Wendler and Cal Dietz. All great coaches.
In fact, their willingness to work with me and tremendous professionalism through the process, has reaffirmed that it takes a whole lot of people-skills to get to an appreciable level of success in the athletic performance field. Results matter and knowledge matters, but being a good person matters just as much.
Visual athletes NEED to Visually Train
This idea falls in line with the daily skill work idea (meaning you can do this frequently). The human eye is controlled by six muscles and like the other 314 bilateral muscles in your body, they too can be trained. However, most athletes train their eyes about as often as the Buffalo Bills make the playoffs (mama we made it!). There are some great resources out there for visual training. Slow the Game Down, and Max bp, are completely game changing in my opinion. You just have to use them with fidelity.
Reigning NL MVP and current Yankee Giancarlo Stanton has worked with slow the game down for 10 years.
Back in 2006, Colombian pop star, Shakira, penned a smash hit that still remains one of the biggest digital music downloads of all time. She also inadvertently reintroduced a coaching term that still holds water 11 years after the crooner’s song hit the airwaves. Yes, Hips Don’t Lie goes beyond the dance floor and touches all areas of sports and athletic performance.
Still a killer song
I’ve heard “the hips don’t lie” used in contexts from squatting (lower back hurts- your hips might be lying), sprinting (not as fast as you could be- fibbing hips), and lunging (poor posture- hips might be stretching the truth).
Yet there’s a hip movement out there that gets overlooked more often than brussel sprouts at an all you can eat buffet. It’s a a little clunky of a term for the lay person, but if you are a throwing athlete you need it like a fish needs water- medial hip rotation.
Take a look at a baseball swing.
Back hip rotating forward
While you are at it check out a lacrosse throw.
Back hip rotating forward
Take a gander at a tennis forehand.
And why don’t we end with a hockey slap shot.
Wait a second
Notice something? Bio-mechanically, these very different sports aren’t so different after all. If you are looking at the hips, hopefully you can notice a key action that starts those movements. We have a weight shift from back hip to front hip, and an internal rotation of the back hip towards the object they are trying to hit or propel forward. Once that happens- BLAMO! The object flies off the bat, towards the cage, off the racket, or into the net. Violent medial hip rotation rules the world of throwing/hitting/striking sports.
Power lies in the transverse plane and force travels in spirals. Sprinting, jumping, and throwing all have elements of rotation in their execution. Throwing and swinging athletes desperately need this ability to maximize their power to throw/hit/propel an object farther.
There are many exercises that enhance this skill ranging from general to more specific. I’ll focus on two that are of the more general variety. I’ve attached a link here that shows the execution of two types of medial hip exercises.
Both exercises are done on the ground and can be executed with minimal equipment. The first works on the separation of the hips and the shoulders. Bio-mechanically, this is the best way to have a transfer of force from the lower half to the upper half.
The athlete will lay on their back, arms extended to the side. From there, they will either keep their knees bent or extend them (making a longer lever is a more challenging variation). Once the lower half is set, they will rotate at the hips, side to side. The lower they bring their legs, the more challenging the exercise will become.
The second exercise in the video involves a Yessis Active Cord, available on his website. The ankle strap can be attached around the toes or ankle (toes is tougher and not shown in this video). Once the athlete is set up on their back with the band in place, they will bring their foot in towards their mid line with tension. While it doesn’t look like much, this is extremely challenging and also an important joint action in the force production sequence.
There are many other exercises you can perform to build on this ability. From medicine ball variations, to actual throwing movements, the application can vary considerably based on the level of the athlete. The main point is to include some degree of this hip action in your athletic programming. Squats are great and presses are tremendous, but make sure you are working some sort of hip rotation into your strength regimen. Your coaches will thank you for it, and opposing competitors will hang their heads after letting up a 3 run homer or having a puck whiz past their goaltender.