Think you have what it takes to make it in the world of elite sports? Do you have immense talent and ability? Great, but so do a few thousand other guys. Unfortunately, all of these things will only get you so far in this world where good isn't often good enough. At this level you have to be one of the best just to get your foot in the door.
Where do the best athletes go to get even better? More often than not, they contact one of the coaches whose articles you read right here in T-mag. King, Poliquin, Tate, Chek, Staley, Telle, Batcheldor and many more make up what's arguably the best team of coaches in the business. Well, almost the best. We couldn't really make that claim until we landed one more guy. Guess what? We got him. We're proud to welcome international Olympic coach Charlie Francis to the T-mag team.
Since the beginning, we've been asked to have a special section geared toward athletes. So, we're going to make Charlie our high-performance guru. No matter what sport you play, Charlie can make you better. And if you're not a competitive athlete? That's okay, you're sure to still pick up a thing or two.
Abs for Athletes
Q: What's your take on ab training for athletes as opposed to ab training for bodybuilders?
A: Wow, my first question for T-mag and I'm already going to open a can of worms! I know that new studies have shown a high percentage of white fiber in abdominal muscles, however these studies have primarily involved bodybuilders. That often means steroid users. In nature, white or "power" fibers are found primarily where needed — that means the drive muscles, i.e., quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, erector spinae etc.
Red fiber predominates in support structures where endurance is paramount and the power requirements are lower. Steroids can covert transitional fiber toward Type-II fast-twitch fiber universally, both where it's desirable, like in the drive muscles and where it's not, like in the support structures. In other words, these studies are misleading.
You have to think about the role of the muscle in the particular activity. The role of the abdominals is as a support structure where power is less important and endurance is much more important. Additionally, the overall drain on the limited supply of energy the body has to deal with is better served in this way.
Red muscle fiber is much more energy efficient. Now, I don't presume to speak for bodybuilders since appearance is all that matters in that arena. But in sport, you'd be better served to reconvert those fibers toward a natural state rather than trying to train them as white fiber. What are we talking about here? High reps! These reps can be done daily as well, because when you do low intensity work you don't have the 48 hour limitation that you would have on high intensity work.
My athletes don't do hundreds of repetitions, they do thousands! We try to hit all of the muscles. This brings up another issue. In high performance sport the hip rotates toward the center line, meaning that there are rotational forces involved in the support structures as well. This requires all of the muscles in the abdominal complex to work.
Now, if you were doing high power (low-rep) work with the abdominals, then you could only work them straight ahead, as you would in conventional crunch-type movements or some variation thereof. This means that a large number of the muscles (obliques) would only be exercised through the crossover effect, meaning they wouldn't be worked directly. They'd only receive some indirect benefits from the work of the muscles in the front.
If, however, you try to use power to develop these other muscles involved in rotational support you'd surely be injured.
Obviously, it's a complex issue, and the type of training you do varies from sport to sport.
Nookie Before Competition?
Q: Back in the day, people thought athletes shouldn't have sex before competition. Now some studies have shown a slight Testosterone increase after sex. So what's the deal? What do you recommend to your athletes? Any nookie before big events?
A: Well, I wouldn't have to "recommend" it to any of my athletes!
Here's a funny story. At a Grand Prix meet in Brussels, Ben Johnson was cornered and propositioned by the female manager of one of his top rivals. He didn't get out of the sack until 15 minutes before the race. Ben barely made it in time, took a few stretches and blew everybody in the race away! Afterwards, the female manager told her athlete — the rival Ben had just beaten, "Well, I did my job, you didn't do yours!" So in that case, pre-competition sex didn't harm performance at all!
The only specific sport organization that ever had a specific policy on sex was the East Germans. The policy was very successful because they were highly in favor of sex before sports! They even literally "paired up" their teams to accomplish this objective, although I don't know who they were finding for the big shot putters! I even joked with one of their male middle distance runners once about who got to team-up with their world record shot putter. He relied, "Me, if I lose!" In Rome in 1981 I even witnessed the East Germans pack up the bus with athletes to take them to the porno movies downtown in preparation for the World Cup!
But back to your question, I wouldn't have any policy other than you don't want to create any unusual circumstances. If it isn't usual to have sex before competition, then don't do it. If it isn't usual to abstain, then don't abstain. Do whatever you normally do.
Q: Have you ever used Swiss balls with your athletes? I see guys at my gym doing Swiss ball crunches with 80 pounds on their chests.
A: I think the Swiss ball is great, but I've also seen people holding big weight plates while doing ab work on them. Don't ever try to do two things at once. For God's sake, when you're doing heavy weight, don't destabilize yourself! Whenever you're doing something that involves a high power output, you should never be unstable. That's a recipe for injury.
I've used Swiss balls some, but back in Ben Johnson's day we didn't have them per se. We did tons and tons of medicine ball work for the abdominals using very high numbers as I explained in the previous question.
40 Yard Dash For Football Players
Q: I plan to try out for a professional football team in the near future. One of the required tests is a timed 40 yard dash. Got any general tips for me?
A: Sure. Keep in mind that there's a change in your energy system between seven and eight seconds, between alactic anaerobic work and lactic anaerobic. Take home message: all the high speed training work should be kept below 7 seconds and should be directed towards as complete a recovery as possible. Generally speaking, you should have 48 hours between the speed sessions.
The volume in the speed session, where high speed is the most important factor, should usually be below 500 meters in a session. That's actually quite a bit when the intensities are high. The runs should be no longer than 60 meters, usually in sets of four. Recovery should be such that quality is maintained. When the quality begins to drop off marginally, then the workout should cease whether or not 500 meters has been achieved.
Editor's note: Charles Staley explores this same notion, but applies it to weightlifting, in his article, "A Thinking Man's Guide to Sets and Reps." It's also part of this week's issue. Check it out.
You can tell if quality has dropped if the time of the individual runs has degraded or if you become heavy on the feet or begin to strain. All runs should be carried out in a very relaxed manner. Keep this in mind:
Practice only makes permanent, not perfect.
If you're tight in practice you'll be tight going into competition. You've got to learn to be as smooth and relaxed as possible in the execution of all the running drills. Good luck in your try out!
Improving Your "Ups"
Q: What's the best way to improve my vertical jump for basketball?
A: I understand you may be wanting to hear a list of specific exercise suggestions, but I want to throw a new idea at you. If you're already a basketball player, you may have more improvements in your vertical jump by not doing any jumps in your training. This is because you'd get more recovery from the jumps you're already doing in your sports specific activity. A lot of people tend to add more to improve a quality that's already being overstressed in their day to day activities.
Now remember, I'm thinking about elite level sports here. For example, I've worked with some professional basketball teams whose players make it into the playoffs, play in the All Star game and so on. It became more and more clear that they should never do any jumping activities in their training outside of their games and practices. After all, these guys were so intense, they were already blowing out a pair of shoes every game.
With athletes at this level, I'd suggest replacing jumps during training with Olympic lifting. This would give you good power response, but doesn't tax the elastic portion of your ability too much.
The Canadian basketball team for years and years was doing high numbers of jumps. What they found was their ability to maintain a particular level of jump was enhanced but their ultimate jump was reduced. You should, on your second, third and fourth attempt, go higher and higher, and then start going lower and lower as you get more tired. The Canadian team just flattened right out and stayed up for 25 to 30 jumps, but so what? If you want to win the high jump take one jump at 7 feet not 7 jumps at one foot each!
While plyometrics can be helpful they should only be used if the number of games is low enough. Depth jumping, for example, must generate an elastic response. I'm against all forms of drop jumping. The jumps should always elicit an elastic response.
Exact techniques are beyond the scope of this article, but I'll try to address this type of training in the future.
What should I eat before the big game?
Q: Do you have any guidelines concerning pre-game meals?
A: This is an important issue. With my sprinters, we were very much for eating normally, but restricting or limiting carbs before competition. We'd just eat a small amount well away from the event. Because of the nature of the energy system involved in sprinting, it would be better to supercharge the body with a small amount of creatine, arginine or both pre-competition, certainly not carbohydrates. For every gram of carbohydrates you take in, you store two grams of water. Carbs can cause bloating, which is hardly desirable in sprinting.
In general, we'd keep pre-race meals very small and limited in carbs. Also, as a general rule, the more nervous you are, the less you should eat and the farther away the meal should be from the competition. You're simply not going to digest it anyway in that situation.
Editor's note: Keep in mind that this advice applies predominanty to sprinters, or athletes who's actual competition is of extremely short duration. Obviously, a football player would need more carbs, as he's likely to be running his ass off for two or three hours.
Nootropics, Brain Food, and Water Intake
Q: I've heard of elite level athletes using certain "smart drugs" or other nootropics in training and in competition. What's interesting in this field right now?
A: Honestly, I like this Power Drive stuff Testosterone sent me. L-Tyrosine can be directly administered with a supplement like this or indirectly administered through a very high protein diet (which frees a lot of tyrosine across the blood-brain barrier). What happens after a typical meal is that tryptophane starts hitting the receptor sites in the brain and begins to sedate you prior to the onset of lactic acid. By bringing in large amounts of tyrosine you can block out tryptophane because they compete for the same site. When tyrosine gets there first, you're ahead of the game.
There are a lot of nootropics that are interesting. Hydergine is one used commonly in Europe. This is a popular prescription drug in France used mostly by old people to help the circulation system. Choline, inositol, inosine, noortropil and others are all being used extensively by elite athletes.
The number one nootropic of them all, though, is water. This is simply because it's the carrier of all the "signals". If you're not properly hydrated then none of the signals go. Here's a macabre example of what I mean: When people get fatal diseases and they're dying, they don't want to drink any water. The reason they instinctively stop drinking is to reduce the pain. Without the fluid the transmission of signals is reduced. Of course, athletes need the feedback to perform, but you see how water plays an important role.
My suggestion is that once you find the optimum amount of water to take in, you should carry it with you in a bottle so you can see exactly how much you've consumed. This way you'll know if you'd had the amount you think you have. You're just eliminating the guesswork. Also, watch out for things you know take water out. For example, don't count as part of your fluid consumption coffee, soda pop and stuff like that. Juices should also be avoided since they're just sugar water.
Q: What do you think of pulling tires or other weights? I read a book that said this should be a staple exercise for sprinters.
A: I think it can be good. The East Germans, in fact, did this almost exclusively (you know, if they weren't busy having sex). Only a few of their athletes actually lifted weights on their sprint team, although I don't think it's necessary to be that specific. My athletes would use a resistance device called an Isorbic Exerciser which was good once we added extra line to it.
The idea here is to have very limited resistance. You don't want to slow yourself down by more than 20%. If you do, you're losing the elasticity of the sprint action. If the resistance is too much and you resemble a sled dog coming out of the start, then you're not getting any of the effect you want.
Now, the best way to do this is to time the intervals. You can't judge it by weight because it depends on the slickness of the surface, so you have to judge it by time. So if you're running 30 meters in 4 seconds you wouldn't want it slower than 4.4 to 4.8. The majority of the acceleration in sprinting is achieved by 30 meters, so I wouldn't use distances beyond 30 meters.
Q: What do you think of overspeed training?
A: Downhill running alters hip position and towing is useless and dangerous. Everyone can move their legs fast enough through the air, it's only ground contact that slows you down. In simplest terms, the shorter the ground contact the faster the runner. Towing causes the foot to land too far ahead of the center of gravity causing the sprinter to spend more time on the ground. The only overspeed training we ever used was running with the wind.