Home Articles Ask EC: Installment II

Ask EC: Installment II

Written on January 27, 2008 at 9:37 am, by Eric Cressey

By: Eric Cressey

Q: I was looking around some internet forums in search of information about training programs for high school basketball players, and your name came up as the expert in that field. If you have any time, I was wondering if you could help me out. Basically, here’s the breakdown. I have an athlete who’s 18 years old, 6’6, and about 290lbs.  He’s never touched a weight before in his life and I get to work with him for a little more than 6 months.  As you can tell, he’s fat and slow. So, my main concern is getting his diet in order and shedding some pounds.  Then I want him in the gym 4 days a week working on basketball specific drills. I also want to design workout program for him that will increase his speed, quickness, and strength. That’s where I need a little help.  I was wondering if you could help me outline a program for him, or give me any advice at all. If you could, that would greatly be appreciated. Thanks for your time…

A: There are quite a few things that you need to take into account.  First, he’s overweight and deconditioned.  The single worst thing that you can do with him right now is getting him doing all sorts of basketball-specific conditioning work where he’s running all over the place.  The kid will have a stress fracture, or patellar or Achilles tendinosis so quickly that you’ll be amazed.  You need to lean him out to reduce the amount of weight he’s going to decelerate with every step and landing, but this can’t be done in an exclusively weight-bearing exercise sense.  I recommend you a) clean up his diet (easier said than done with an 18 year-old) and b) incorporate some energy systems work that is comparable metabolically to his sport (i.e. interval training) but is easier on the body (e.g. swimming, elliptical, rowing, and – although I don’t really like the idea – biking).  No treadmills or distance running.  He’s obviously going to need to be on the court some, but you need to really watch what you do with him right now; I’d stick with skill work specifically and only use a few drills in order to improve his footwork.  Save the more challenging on-court conditioning for when he’s more fit.

In terms of resistance training, he’s a beginner, so you need to treat him as such.  Start him off with higher reps and lighter weights in order to foster proper technique, build confidence, and promote connective tissue strength.  As he gets more and more neurologically proficient, you can increase the weights a bit.  By six months, he definitely ought to be ready for some significant loading; in fact, his performance will go up simply because the resistance training will teach him to recruit more muscle fibers.

Just because you have to start him from scratch does not mean that you should just plop him on machines with fixed lines of motion, though; get him training with free weights. Taller guys are always more susceptible to the classic postural perturbations, so make a point of including plenty of horizontal rows, glute-activation (supine bridges, X-band walks), and single-leg exercises (most tall guys have terrible frontal plane stability). Above all, you need to hammer on his core strength (specifically from a stabilization standpoint) and posterior chain (most tall guys are very quad-dominant).  Watch to make sure that he isn’t hyperextending at the lumbar spine with any overhead lifting that you’re doing.  If you have access, a trap bar will be your best friend in his programming.

All in all, just remember to fit the program to the athlete, and not the athlete to the program.  You seem to have a preconceived notion in your head that he needs to be in the gym four days per week; what if his body can’t handle that?  You can’t run your big men like you run your guards, and although 6-6 isn’t giant, it still warrants consideration, especially since he’s deconditioned.  Also, you seem to be very enthusiastic about this, but can you say the same for him?  If his heart isn’t into it, it won’t matter how perfect your programming is; that’s one of the fundamental challenges of coaching.

Good luck!

Q: I read your article on Cluster Training in Men’s Fitness. In the program you wrote, the clusters were only performed in two of the four sessions; why not include them in all four?

A: The logic behind the cluster training only being done on two of the four training days each week is that it’s a very neurologically demanding protocol, so performing clusters at each workout is too much for the vast majority of trainees.  Therefore, we’re working on hypertrophy (an increase in cell size) from two different perspectives:

1. Max Strength days – geared toward functional adaptations and maximal protein degradation through heavy training.  These methods lead to sarcomere hypertrophy (increases in the size of the actual muscle proteins – e.g. actin and myosin).

2. Repetition Days – geared toward structural adaptations and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (proliferation of non-contractile elements – such as collagen – in the muscle cell) and promotion of glycogen storage.

So, basically, twice a week you’re going to be hitting it heavy (and then doing assistance work), and twice a week you’re going to be focused on just getting your reps in.

Q: I know that stretching is somewhat controversial (if, when, how much, what stretches) and I’ve tried doing a minimal cardio warm-up (10 or so minutes) just to raise my body temperature a bit and then going directly into my training routine. I still felt stiff, though, and just not anywhere near as good as I did when I did a more adequate cardio and stretch warm-up. I just couldn’t give it 100% in training. I also like to stretch between sets sometimes because I’ve read that it can promote muscle growth (supposedly by stretching the connective tissue surrounding the muscle belly – therefore creating more room for the muscle fibers to increase in size – kind of like how you could fit more sand into a bigger sock). Could you please shed some light on this and include some rationale on why stretching 4-6 hours after is preferable? Should one do some cardio preceding this or can you stretch cold?

A: First off, let me say that warm-ups must be completely unique to the individual; some people take 30 minutes, and some can just go right to it.  I’m an example of the latter; two minutes and a few warm-up sets and I’m good to go.  It has a lot to do with neural efficiency, and also (I’d assume) with resting body temperature.

Be careful how you define flexibility; passive and active flexibility are two completely different things.  Just because you can really get good ROM when you passively force a muscle into a stretch does not mean that the muscle will automatically be able to work through an optimal ROM on its own.  Moreover, hyperflexibility can actually be a problem.

The jury is still out on why static stretching impairs force production, but it’s been demonstrated in dozens of studies.  Many (myself included) believe that it has to do with:

a) decreasing stiffness of the cytoskeleton (stiffness is important, as there is lateral pull on the cytoskeleton from the sarcomere – the contractile unit of skeletal muscle – when muscles shorten linearly; if there’s no stiffness, there is no lateral “tethering” upon which to base forceful contraction)

b) reduced intramuscular tension, presumably among the contractile units (e.g. actin, myosin) themselves

c) nervous system factors related to motor control and reflex sensitivity; basically, the stretching makes it harder for the nervous system to tell the muscle to fire.

The solution to this problem is dynamic flexibility drills, which consist of controlled movement through joints’ active range of motion. This is something on which the resistance training and performance enhancement communities are light years behind, and they’re really missing out as a result. In light of this ignorance, Mike Robertson and I recently finished shooting our “Magnificent Mobility” DVD, which outlines 32 drills we use as components in more efficient and productive warm-ups. You can pick a copy up at the t-nation.com store (my apologies for the shameless plug). Just give the dynamic warm-up a try and let me know how you feel.  Most people love it and never go back to boring steady-state cardio; it blows this ineffective traditionalist approach out of the water, as you can warm-up and improve your functional range of motion and dynamic flexibility at the same time.

Stretching during training does have its proponents, although it’s never been proven in the literature.  Anecdotal evidence is valuable, but personally, I think the value of being able to do extra work on an exercise because you haven’t reduced force production capabilities is more valuable than the *possibility* of increased size from stretching.  The best way to implement this, in my opinion, is to simply do it after your last set on a particular movement.  Most of the time, loaded passive stretching is recommended, and keep in mind that this is a pretty damaging protocol; most people will be very sore for the next few days.  As such, it’s best to use it for 2-3 weeks here and there rather than during the entire training year.

The 4-6 hours recommendation has to do with avoiding stretching when skeletal muscle blood flow (i.e. “the pump”) can actually impair full range of motion.  Given that body temperature is still somewhat elevated at this point, there really isn’t any need to warm-up beforehand.

Q: Just to be sure: My left scapula is elevated and you recommend that I do more work for the left lat?  To me it seems wrong to do more work for the elevated side, so please confirm if this really is right.

A: The latissimus dorsi and upper trapezius are antagonists in their scapular depression and elevation roles, respectively.  By strengthening the lat along with the mid and lower traps and rhomboids, you’ll be pulling the scapula downward.  Because you don’t have issues with internally rotated humeri, we don’t have to worry about the “side effect” of lat training (increased internal rotation of the humerus); your problem is purely at the scapula.

Q: I enjoyed your Cardio Confusion article and I had a question about the best way for a powerlifter to train cardio. I need to get my 2-mile run time down for the Army physical fitness test, but I would like to know the best way to train something like this without sacrificing my lifts. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

A: As for your particular question, it’s a bit of a different situation from the topic addressed on the forum.  In essence, you have two goals: one maximal strength related and one endurance related.  These goals are completely contrary to one another, so you really have to accept that training for endurance will attenuate the improvements (or even maintenance of maximal strength).  The discussion at t-nation was more related to utilizing aerobic activity as an adjunct to the facilitate strength and speed improvements – not a separate training initiative in itself.

That said, you should work to keep your maximal strength up, obviously.  How you approach this training will be to some extent influenced by your body size.  If you’re a really large guy, I’d recommend getting in some non-impact stuff (e.g. rowing, elliptical) for parts of the week to avoid orthopedic problems.  Moreover, I encourage you to watch your diet more closely, as dropping body fat will in itself improve VO2max.  If you’re a lighter guy already, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem getting into the running; just slowly build up your mileage and frequency.

In terms of specific training initiatives, I’d use longer interval bouts (200-400m) with varying rest periods (diminishing rest intervals over an extended period of time), two-mile runs in themselves (not always at max pace), and some long, slow duration jogs (less than 60% max heart rate) to promote recovery and improve capillarization.

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