The Blind Leading the Blind
It’s often been said that program design is an art more than it is a science. While I don’t completely agree with this assertion, I think we can all agree that some “artists” are a lot better than others. In this article, I’ll discuss why some strength and conditioning coaches really do deserve to be “starving artists” – or at least employed in some other field.
Mistake #1: Lacking Knowledge in All Realms
I figured I’d put this one first, as it’s part of the foundation of the other nine. The best coaches recognize that they aren’t just strength and conditioning specialists; they’re performance enhancement specialists. It might seem like wordplay, but there are a ton of factors involved in improving as an athlete and being able to display that athletic prowess when it’s most needed.
Limiting the scope of your education to training-based strategies is a shortsighted approach that ignores the importance of nutrition and supplementation, recovery modalities, motivational techniques, tactical preparation, injury prevention and rehabilitation, and manipulating loading parameters to allow for peaking at opportune times (when applicable).
If you want to be a great coach, you need to not only know something about each one of these realms, but how those “somethings” relate to each other in the grand scheme of things.
Mistake #2: Implementing Extra Conditioning to Make Up for Poor Diet
It never ceases to amaze me how many coaches fail to understand that training and proper nutrition go hand in hand. When training an athlete, two important factors to consider are:
1) The metabolic demands of that athlete’s sport. You have to consider the nature of the sport. Is it primarily anaerobic, aerobic, or a combination of the two?
2) Total tolerance to a given training volume. You must realize that some athletes are blessed with the ability to handle much greater training volumes, so their training parameters must be adjusted accordingly so that you don’t overtrain or under-train them.
Let’s assume that you get everything set for your athlete’s program and then decide that he’s too fat. Why on Earth would you add in more conditioning work? In doing so, you’ll probably upset the metabolic specificity of your program (e.g. doing aerobic training in strength athletes). Moreover, you’ll likely compromise the value of the
volume-specific program you’ve already created. You either have to modify it or accept that you’ll probably overtrain the athlete.
Or, you can simply do the intelligent thing and a) get your athlete to stop eating junk and b) avoid boring, steady-state cardio like the plague. Using extra conditioning to make up for poor dietary practices is the mark of a poorly educated coach who doesn’t appreciate the interrelationships among all the factors influencing a person’s progress.
Mistake #3: Attempting to Make Up for a Lack of Knowledge with More Attitude
Everyone has had one of those super-intense coaches at some point. While it’s okay to be intense at times, it can ultimately work against a coach in the long run, especially if the angry coach persona is just a front for someone who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow.
You can scream, swear and say terrible things about an athlete’s mother, but that won’t change the fact that you’re still stupid. Stupid always shines through. Perhaps you’d be better off turning down the Guar on the CD player for a few hours a day in favor of some quiet reading with a host of the modern strength coaches who are still in the trenches with athletes.
Moreover, the omnipresent intense attitude can actually desensitize an athlete to your attempts to motivate them. Think about how parenting works. When typically quiet parents yell or get noticeably angry occasionally, it really gets their children’s attention. If those parents are always angry and yelling, their kids simply ignore them and end up dysfunctional.
Some might fault me for being somewhat reserved by “normal” coaching standards, but I think it’s to my advantage in that people pay attention when I do significantly raise my voice. Perhaps more importantly, it’s easier to comprehend the cues that one receives when they’re spoken to – and not yelled at – during the performance of an exercise.
Take home message: Get fired up when the athletes need it most, not when you are in the mood to blow off some steam about your own inadequacies.
Mistake #4: Falling Too Far Toward One End of the Continuum
Truthfully, this applies to two different broad training approach continuums:
The Static-Spring Continuum: Although this is a concept that’s been around for several decades, I credit fellow coach Kelly Baggett with giving it a sweet name.
On one hand, we have coaches who only care about maximal strength. Their athletes move impressive weights when it comes to limit strength; unfortunately, these athletes must do so at slow velocities, and therefore lack the rapid rate of force development that makes a good athlete great.
“Spring” proficiency – one’s reactive ability – takes this theme one step further. It’s not only how quickly you can develop force from a dead stop, it’s how quickly you can utilize rapid eccentric muscle actions (as in landings) to facilitate subsequent concentric action (as in jumping).
One must condition both the soft tissue structures (like tendons) as well as the neuromuscular system to really learn to use the spring. Sadly, all too many athletes with great limit strength but no power spend hours trying to get stronger (more “static”), but in reality they’re just spinning their wheels in the weight room.
Conversely, there are those athletes with remarkable (and often natural) gifts in terms of reactive ability. This spring proficiency is further magnified by the fact that young athletes simply play their sport, which is characterized by high and low-force plyometric activities, but don’t really get into strength training until later, if at all. These athletes need to bump up their maximal strength in order to give the power component even more room to grow.
In fact, many athletes are so gifted in terms of reactive ability that they can devote little to no work to power training, focusing instead on pure maximal strength, and make continual progress on both ends of the continuum.
The Maximal “Functional” Continuum: I’ve often referred to maximal strength as the base of the pyramid as it represents the foundation for power, acceleration and deceleration, and agility. In order to get “overall” strong, you need to have significant external loading on compound, multi-joint exercises. These exercises yield the best increases in muscle strength and size, and therefore are outstanding choices from a training economy standpoint.
Then again, all the strength and power in the world won’t make you a successful athlete unless you’re able to apply it in sport-specific contexts and integrate it with finer motor qualities (e.g. shooting a basketball). Depending on how often one actually plays his sport, simple participation in the athletic endeavor is often a sufficient stimulus to allow for carryover of weight room strength and power to on-field or on-court improvements.
The latest catchphrase in the fitness world is “functional training.” The term itself has been around for roughly five decades, but modern self-proclaimed “gurus” have skewed it to their liking such that it now includes excessive use of unstable surfaces, wobble-blade thingamagiggies, stuffed animals, clown costumes and the occasional fluorescent dildo.
Unfortunately, these “gurus” fail to realize – or do realize, but choose to ignore – that functional training originated in rehabilitation scenarios. Physical therapists designed programs that catered to the functions most prominent in patients’ daily lives. In other words, what’s functional for one patient wasn’t for another. Why would athletes be any different? It’s amazing that the gurus can give seminars and write books on functional training and attempt to apply it to every sport simultaneously. It just goes to show you how shortsighted they are.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for functional training – real functional training, that is. Learn what’s really functional and you’ll see that it isn’t much different than some of the traditional maximal strength and power exercises. So, I suppose this could very easily be called the “True Functional-Phony Functional Continuum.”
Mistake #5: Treating All Athletes the Same
You wouldn’t train a tennis player the same way you’d train a rower, right? Well, you shouldn’t train athletes who play different positions within the same sport the same way either. A few common examples:
1) In basketball, you can’t train your big men like you train your guards. Beyond the simple lever-length issues that come along with being seven-feet tall, you also have to note the body weight differences when doing running in conditioning sessions. Considering that as much as 80% of the NBA may have degenerative disc disease, just imagine what all that pounding is doing to your center’s lumbar spine!
2) You might think that all track and field throwers can be trained similarly. Not the case. Those utilizing lighter implements (hammer throwers) need to prioritize speed-strength, whereas those utilizing heavier implements (shot putters) need more strength-speed.
With the heavier implement, lower-end speed work won’t be as sport-specific. Obviously, both need to train for maximal strength in order to optimize power production at a given percentage of their 1RM. The amount of speed and maximal strength work is determined by the throwers’ weaknesses.
3) If I need to tell you why quarterbacks and defensive linemen need different programs, you aren’t very bright. I’ll be nice, though, and give you the benefit of the doubt by offering a hint: count how many times the linemen throw the ball in a season.
Obviously, the individualization component can be difficult in team training settings. Modifying programs for players of different positions can and has been done; it just takes some extra effort and legwork to get it done. Perhaps most importantly, coaches need to educate their players so that the players can simply be handed a program and expected to go get the job done.
Mistake #6: Ignoring the Ancillaries and/or Weak Links
Let’s face it, people like two kinds of exercises: those that allow them to hoist big weights and those that make them look better in the mirror. Now, if you’re at all knowledgeable about the overwhelming value of the compound, multi-joint exercises in “accidentally” taking care of the physique aspect of things, you’ll see that the former is a means to the latter.
Unfortunately, when you only stick to the basics – especially when this limited training approach is paired with repetitive movements in the actual sport – you stand a good chance of developing weak links and imbalances. As such, “prehab” and supplemental movements are of paramount importance in achieving athletic success in the long-term, as they allow one to stay healthy and make the most of the big-weight movements (e.g. squats, deadlifts, bench presses, Olympic lifts, rows).
The most common weak links I encounter are:
1) Grip: pinch, supporting and crushing – The nature of the sport in which an athlete participates will dictate the grip training needs. I encourage you to checkout Mastery of Hand Strength by John Brookfield.
Chad Waterbury’s Old School Grip Training will also put you on the right track.
2) Rotator Cuff – Specifically, this refers to the external rotators of the humerus. The infraspinatus and teres minor are extremely important to depressing the humeral head in the glenoid fossa during overhead activities. For a more in-depth write-up and a specialization program, checkout Cracking the Rotator Cuff Conundrum.
3) Scapular Stabilizers – You can have all the rotator cuff strength in the world, but it won’t make a bit of difference in keeping your shoulder healthy if your scapular stabilizers are weak. If the scapula is out of position, scapulohumeral rhythm gets thrown all out of whack. The most common weaknesses occur in the rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius, and serratus anterior. Conversely, the pectoralis minor, upper trapezius, and levator scapulae tend to be very tight and overactive.
4) Glutes – This group includes the gluteus minimus, medius and maximus. All of these muscles tend to be dormant as part of the postural problems – internally rotated femurs and anterior pelvic tilt – that plague our society. The results are knees that fall inward during squatting (lack of frontal plane stability) and inappropriate firing patterns in hip extension. The hamstrings and erector spinae will take on an excessive burden in order to compensate for the lack of gluteus maximus contribution to hip extension. You’ll see people hyperextending at the lumbar spine to make up for the shortcoming.
5) Overall Core Strength – This is a broad category that encompasses stabilization, trunk flexion/extension, hip flexion, lateral flexion and rotation. Suffice it to say that the core is arguably the most important contributor to athletic success, and if you can’t transfer strength and power from your lower body to your upper body and vice versa, you might as well just take up stamp collecting.
6) Neck – How extensive your neck training should be is largely dependent on the nature of the sport. Obviously, those involved in contact sports will require a more dedicated neck approach. Other athletes can use supplemental neck extension training to improve their main posterior chain lifts and neck flexion work to maintain muscular balance, correct/prevent forward posture, and reduce the risk of chronic headaches.
7) Dorsiflexors – A few sets of dumbbell dorsiflexions can go a long way in preventing shin splints and the typical lateral rotation of the feet that accompanies today’s most common postural abnormalities. These interventions can be paired with PNF and static stretching of the plantarflexors with great success.
Mistake #7: Ignoring the Importance of Rest Periods
This mistake applies to both acute and chronic settings. Acutely, too many coaches try to cram as much into one session with an athlete as is humanly possible. Everything is supersetted and rest periods are nowhere to be found. As a result, more work is performed, but the quality of that work takes a backseat.
For example, incorporating an extra 50 reps of core work may seem like a good thing, but if it’s significantly interfering with the volume and intensity at which an athlete can squat, is it really worth it? I’m certainly not down on core training; I’m just trying to make the point that program design is a true balancing act, and rest periods need to be emphasized as part of the task.
Ignoring rest in a chronic manner is a surefire recipe for disaster. Athletes have lifting and conditioning sessions, practices and actual contests, so it should come as no surprise that given poor program design, they can become legitimately overtrained more “easily” than the ordinary weekend warrior.
Coaches need to understand not only how to manipulate volume and loading, but also how to appropriately integrate back-off weeks and recovery methods.
Mistake #8: Not Understanding Metabolic or Biomechanical Specificity
To train someone for a sport, you must understand the sport itself. The biomechanical and metabolic realms are undoubtedly of paramount importance to this understanding.
From a biomechanical standpoint, if one doesn’t know what roles different muscles play in the sport in the first place, how can he be expected to optimize their function? A fundamental understanding of the prime movers, stabilizers and decelerators is an important prerequisite to designing effective programs.
I always wonder why so many coaches love to get bench-happy with baseball pitchers (or any overhead activity athletes, for that matter). Perhaps that focus would be better directed at the real prime movers (humeral extensors), stabilizers (rotator cuff and scapular retractors), and decelerators (external rotators, scapular retractors and depressors, elbow flexors, core musculature, and contralateral leg musculature). Oh wait, I know why they bench so much: you can’t make “400-lb Chin-up Club” or “Shut up and Externally Rotate” T-shirts. How ignorant of me.
Metabolic specificity is just as important. You must consider the predominant energy systems utilized in the sport in question. Too much attention to aerobic activity can have negative consequences not only in athletes engaged in pure strength and power sports (ATP-PC), but also in those where the ATP-PC system and anaerobic glycolysis account for the vast majority of energy provisions (such as 100-200m sprinters).
As duration increases and average intensity decreases, you must be more cognizant of training aerobically. This is a true balancing act, as a field hockey player requires more endurance than an ice hockey player, for instance. Essentially, you need to be proficient enough in all three realms to allow for frequent displays of maximal strength and power (individual all-out sprints), prolonged anaerobic power (a few sprints in succession), and aerobic endurance (low-intensity “game flow” activity and recovery between maximal efforts).
It’s important to note that these two categories of mistakes give rise to a subcategory of mistakes: using non-specific testing protocols. Honestly, folks, is it really useful to have your shotputter’s VO2max quantified? Moreover, do the bench-press-for-reps tests have any carryover whatsoever to football, hockey or basketball? I can’t remember the last time I saw a lineman throw 31 consecutive blocks in a row, a hockey guy throw 22 punches or checks in rapid succession, or a point guard make 17 chest passes without resting…not even with instant replay!
Then again, I think Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal launched about 45 haymakers apiece in that brawl with the Pistons fans, so there may actually be hope for ignorant coaches applying for a position on the Pacers’ strength and conditioning staff.
Mistake #9: Not Knowing When to Back Off
There’s a time and a place for almost anything; nonetheless, there’s a ton of room for error when it comes to deciding what methods to incorporate and when to do so. In the acute sense, there are going to be days when athletes walk in and don’t feel up to lifting. These are the days when you need to determine if it’s just that they’d rather be somewhere else, or if they’re genuinely rundown.
In the former case, you need to “get your motivation on” and light a fire under their asses; in the latter case, you either lower the volume or intensity of the session, or send them home altogether. In order to set PRs and improve athletic ability, you must be motivated psychologically and up-to-the-task physically. It’s your responsibility to offer athletes the programming to make progress, but the empathy to understand when it’s time to take it easy.
This leads into a discussion of training economy. Simply stated, coaches need to select the exercises that offer the greatest benefits in the least amount of time. These benefits must be both time-specific (in-season vs. off-season) and sport-specific (biomechanical and metabolic specificity).
A good example of the time component is that one won’t need as much (if any) power training during the competitive season, as this ability will have received prioritization in the immediate pre-season phase. Plus, the athletic activity itself involves a ton of speed-strength/power activities (e.g. running, jumping); therefore, the maintenance of maximal strength needs to take priority in-season.
Biomechanically, the bench press may be an extremely beneficial movement in a broad sense, but for pitchers it needs to be secondary to movements for the true prime movers (lats) and those that improve the athlete’s ability to decelerate arm movement that’s fast enough to propel a ball at greater than 100 mph.
Metabolically, sprinting is a great way to improve VO2max, but will it be a good idea for a shotputter or a powerlifter? Orthopedic stress and muscle fiber shifts to a slow-twitch profile head the list of problems these athletes would face in such a scenario.
You can’t ride a dozen horses with one ass, so trying to attain superiority in all the traditional measures of fitness simultaneously is a recipe for disaster.
Mistake #10: Jumping the Gun on Rehabilitation
This is really just the manifestation of a larger problem: most coaches simply don’t understand mechanisms of injury or healing, so there’s no “bridge” between an athlete’s rehabilitation (or just rest) and the normal training that’s expected of him.
You can’t rehabilitate forever, but at the same time you can’t cut corners on your rehab. In this middle ground, physical therapists and athletic trainers need to act as pseudo-performance enhancement specialists, and performance enhancement coaches need to act as pseudo-PTs or ATCs. As you can probably imagine though, many individuals aren’t well-read enough to fulfill these roles; as such, injury recurrence rates are much higher than they ought to be.
Some injuries may simply require rest to heal properly, while others will require both rest and some sort of rehabilitation to restore proper neuromuscular function. Both cases, however, require that one not jump the gun on rehab. In other words, variables such as volume, intensity, loading, range of motion, acceleration, duration and rate of force development must all be considered individually in a progression model.
Keep in mind that this is certainly not an exhaustive list of errors that coaches make; it’s merely the stuff that I most commonly observe. You might think that some of these are no big deal, and that good athletes will just overcome “minor” mistakes. This assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, poor coaching can often account for the difference between good and phenomenal athletes, injured and healthy athletes, and overtrained and overachieving athletes.
If athletes are giving their all during practices, conditioning sessions, and games, it’s your responsibility to ensure that these efforts are backed by the best scientific knowledge and practice available.