Home Posts tagged "Strength and Conditioning"

Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 10/9/20

Here's some recommended content to get October rolling:

Darcy Norman on the Value of Working with Interesting People - I really enjoyed this multi-faceted podcast by Mike Robertson with Darcy Norman, who has a lot of experience in the elite soccer world.

Digital Minimalism - I've enjoyed each of Cal Newport's books, and while this one wasn't as big of a hit for me, it does provide some important discussion points about how technology excessively shapes our existence - and what to do about it.

Play, Practice, or Train? - This was an awesome article from Gray Cook that provides some insights on how to improve organization of our training among these three key classifications. They all have their place, but we have to know how to best fit each one into our planning.

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Creative Conditioning: Installment 2 – Proteus Circuits

As a follow up to my recent Creative Conditioning post (here), here's another good one I've been using - this time featuring the Proteus Motion units we have at both our Cressey Sports Performance facilities. This is just a three-exercise 30s on: 30s off interval approach, but you really could utilize a number of different options.

Here's why I like it:

1. Similar to a medicine ball medley, Proteus is concentric-dominant, so you won't elicit much, if any, soreness the following day. That makes it fit more easily with the rest of your strength and conditioning programs. Unlike with med balls, however, you can vary the loading the resistance in the line of motion. This is a key differentiation; just going heavier with a med ball changes the patterning; that isn't true of the Proteus, where movement quality is preserved.

2. Traditional cardio approaches typically get you "stuck" in sagittal plane, repetitive initiatives like cycling, elliptical, and even sprinting. Similar to hopping on a slideboard or doing change-of-direction movement work, this exposes you to reps in different planes to stimulate different body systems (fascial, lymphatic, etc) to unique patterns. As you can see, I need more of this in my life!😂

3. Depending on the exercises you choose, there are limited ground reaction forces, which can make this helpful if you have heavier athletes/clients who may not be able to take the pounding of sprint/change-of-direction work.

You can learn more about Proteus Motion by visiting www.ProteusMotion.com.

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A Coach’s View on Internal vs. External Cueing

Today's guest post comes from Matt Kuzdub.

Stay on top of the ball. Extend the arms. Stay tall. Finish high. Stay back. Follow-through. Use your legs. Snap your wrist...

You’ve probably heard these cues before. Maybe you’ve even used them yourself. From individual sports like tennis, to team sports like baseball, and even in the weight room, coaches have been using verbal cues like these for decades.

While some may be effective, many have issues. For instance, if I tell an athlete, “use more of your legs” when trying to jump higher, what does that really mean?

You see, most of these cues are a bit vague and leave room for ambiguity. But the root problem is this: the types of cues we give an athlete will direct their focus and attention. And this, in turn, will impact their ability to change a movement and learn a new skill.

So the question becomes: what should coaches bring their athletes’ attention to during practices and drills? The same question can be asked about the gym; does cueing differ on the field vs in the gym? Surely learning to hit a 95mph fastball with the game on the line isn’t the same as setting a bench press PR in the weight room.

That’s what we’ll explore in this post. We’ll set the stage by outlining the difference between two types of cueing strategies: internal and external. We’ll then present additional focus of attention research (a branch of motor learning theory) - and suggest a rebuttal to that research. Finally, we’ll provide additional examples to gain some clarity from a coach’s perspective.

One caveat before I continue. I played competitive tennis (the equivalent of the minor leagues in baseball) and hold a MSc degree in sport science. Given this, my role is often one of bridging the gym with the court. In other words, I can relate to both sides of the coin: the technical and tactical elements of the game, along with the off-court elements needed to be physically prepared. Eric, who I have admired for years, is someone who not only can relate to these two elements, but can also bring sports medicine into the mix.

I’m bringing this up because, first, I think that no matter where you lie on the spectrum - on the field as a skills coach or in the lab as a researcher - knowing a little bit about cueing and learning is probably a good thing so that you can have at least have a meaningful conversation about it.

Second, a lot of these principles are interchangeable with different branches of the performance world. Even physios can apply some of the research on attention and motor learning with their patients, just in a slightly different context.

Lastly, because of my experiences in tennis, a lot of the examples you’ll see in this post will stem from there. I’ll do my best to tie in other sporting examples, especially from the baseball world, but please don’t be too hard on me if I’ve made a baseball nomenclature mistake along the way.

What’s the Difference Between External and Internal Cues?

Internal

Remember the cueing examples in the intro? In tennis, we see similar ones. Things like "turn your shoulders" and "move your feet." The commonality here is that each instruction is focused on a body segment or part.

Gabriele Wulf - prominent researcher in attention and motor learning - would say that these cues are bringing an athlete’s attention to internal factors. More specifically, she defines internally-focused cues as “where attention is directed to the action itself” (2007).

But how does a player interpret a cue like, “bend your knees?” How low should the athlete go? Is a 90-degree knee bend as effective as a 100 degrees of knee flexion? At what point in the swing/movement? Should one knee be bent more than the other?

As you can see, this cue can be interpreted in a number of different ways, depending on the athlete and the context.

Now, I’m not saying this cue can’t be used or that it’s not effective. The fact is, however, it’s got to be much more specific. For example, perhaps I want my player to load the rear leg on the forehand side to initiate a more forceful hip and trunk thrust towards the oncoming ball. So, instead of “bend your knees,” you might say, “put more weight on that rear leg during your set-up, then use it when accelerating to the ball.

See how much more specific that is compared to “bend your knees”? You might be saying to yourself, “but that’s a pretty long cue”. Yes, it is. But we may only have to use that entire cue once (or periodically). The athlete will now understand a shortened version of it like "load that rear leg" or "add pressure to that back foot" or some similar alternative - and we’ll still end up at the same outcome.

External

Here’s an example of an athlete practicing their serve (and missing a lot) using external cues only (i.e. a target):

Orienting your attention externally, on the other hand, is described as “where the performer’s attention is directed to the effect of the action” (Wulf 2007).

To clarify, external focus instructions are aimed at factors outside the body, like an implement, support surface, the trajectory of an object, or a target. A baseball batter, for example, could direct his/her focus to the bat (its path, velocity etc), the ball (its spin, speed, trajectory etc.) or to the area of the field they’d like to hit into (target).

In tennis, hitting with depth (i.e. getting the ball to land near the opponent’s baseline) is a pretty important skill. Because in today’s day and age, if you hit just a touch short, you’ll soon be on defense. To practice this ability, we often use an externally-focused cue, and it’s usually a target. For instance, with our elite guys, we might mark a line three feet from the baseline and get them to focus on hitting the ball past the line. With younger players, a starting point for "depth training" might simply be to get the ball to land past the service line.

In this example, the cue is not only external, but it’s also distal and has an environmental component - meaning that the focus is further away from the athlete. An example of a proximally-oriented external cue would be focusing on the movement of the racquet. This would not fall under the environmental component, but what researchers call skill-oriented (i.e., we’re directly attempting to target the skill of swinging the racquet - or some sort of technical outcome).

On the gym side, as we’ll see below, there’s been a fair amount of research suggesting the benefits of cueing athlete’s externally to produce more force, more power or during speed training. For example, instead of asking an athlete to use more of their legs during a countermovement jump, you might ask them to “push the ground away” or simply pick a spot on the wall (or use a basketball hoop) and see how high they can touch. I like the latter as a form of competition amongst a group of athletes (see vid below) it’s also more distal/environmental vs. proximal/skill oriented.

Here's an example of athletes trying to touch the highest part of a ceiling during a jump.

The Theory

If you haven’t figured it out already, a lot of the recent evidence points to bringing an athlete’s attention to external - instead of internal - factors. But why is that?

According to Wulf (2013), internal focus of attention instructions contribute to a conscious awareness of the desired movement. And if we’re more conscious of what we’re doing, this will inhibit automatic processes. The opposite is true for externally-focused cues - they almost deliberately facilitate a subconscious control of movement.

One theory behind this - one which Wulf (2013) suggests - is that directing attention to a particular limb for example, will provide a neural representation of the self. The result, according to Wulf, is we over-regulate our actions.

So instead of moving with more grace, we end up increasing tension. Instead of effortlessness, our movements are rigid and more mechanical. We’ve all been there before, right? You’re given feedback to keep your wrist locked at impact, for example, and what happens? Your entire arm, shoulder, neck, etc. get tight, and you can’t even make clean contact with the ball.

But perhaps there’s a place for being more aware? To consciously move the elbow into a certain position. At least for some period of time.

What’s the Research on Attention and Motor Learning Have to Say About This?

If you’re like me - and get really hyped up about this sort of stuff - then you’re probably eager to find out, what’s the research suggesting? Which is best for learning and ultimately, performance?

In a review article by Wulf (2013) where close to 100 studies were investigated, significant differences exist between externally and internally-focused cueing across a variety of sports and disciplines

Specifically, it’s externally-focused cues that significantly and consistently outperform internal cues. Apart from a few studies that showed benefits to internal cueing - or no significant difference between the two types of cueing strategies - external seems to be the way to go.

But here’s the thing, most coaches use internally-focused cues most of the time. In fact, Porter (2010) found that 84% of track & field athletes reported that their coaches gave instructions that were specific to the movement of a body part or segment. Van der Graff et al (2018) reported a similar finding in elite Dutch league pitchers; they only heard externally-focused cues 31% of the time. If collected, I’m sure data would reveal similar findings across many sports.

Specific Research Examples

In a 2007 study on golfers, Wulf and Su found that external instructions were superior in both novices and experts. When attention was directed at the swing of the club or a target (instead of a specific movement of the arms), performance was better. Conversely, Perkins-Ceccato et al. (2003) found that internal instructions were more beneficial with less skilled golfers than more skilled golfers.

In baseball, the results vary based on a number of factors, including the skill being coached. Out of four different attentional conditions, Castaneda and Gray 2007 found that highly skilled batters performed best when attention was focused on “the flight of the ball leaving the bat.”

These same batters performed worse when attending to “the movement of their hands” where the focus was internal. Interestingly, however, the less-skilled batters performed worse when attending to environmentally-oriented external cues. These batters fared best when the attention was aimed toward the execution of the skill - and there was no significant difference between external and internal instructions. So, in less skilled performers, both internal and external cues benefited performance.

In other sports, we see more of the same (Wulf 2013). Basketball free throw shooting accuracy benefited more from external cueing vs internal - i.e. focus on the trajectory of the ball instead of the flexion of your wrist. On the performance side, agility scores were better after external cues versus internal ones (Porter et al 2010).

There’s a host of other studies that have reported better results for externally-focused groups versus internally-focused ones (Wulf 2013). Benefits include greater maximal force production, more reps being performed during a bench press test, reduced 20m sprint times, increased broad jump distances, further discus throws, and a host of others. For specifics, I direct you to Wulf’s review, Attentional focus and motor Learning - A review of 15 years.

My Counter-Viewpoint

By now, you’re probably ready to throw all your internal cues out the window and completely switch over to external cueing strategies. Before you do, hear me out.

Let me be candid for a moment. Yes, there’s some compelling evidence suggesting that directing an athlete’s focus externally is more effective compared to internally. But after dissecting some of the research, conversing with world-class coaches - and testing it with my own athletes - I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced.

Because there’s an issue with a lot of the research. First, most studies are short lived. Learning is similar to typical training adaptations; there’s often a latency period (and at times, a pretty lengthy one at that). So, we’re still not quite sure if long-term retention and learning would be better served by using external versus internal cues.

Second, most seasoned coaches employ a combination of these two cueing strategies. They assess the situation and the athlete, and then provide a cue that corresponds to the needs of that particular moment/setting.

Do you really think a basketball player will become a better shooter, in the long run, if the only thing they focus on is the target (i.e., the basket)? That improving elbow position, and sequential extension of the elbow and flexion of the wrist won’t help the player perform better, eventually? If so, I’m sorry but you haven’t been around sport enough; and in particular, you haven’t seen less skilled athletes evolve their skills.

Sure, tell the basketball player to “flick the wrist” after releasing the ball and you’ll probably see them tense up certain muscles...initially. But over time, as that movement becomes automated, and they now have the ability to add spin and height to their shot, those muscles will eventually relax. And now tell that player to focus more on the hoop.

Personally, I believe there's a constant tug and pull, a back and forth, a mix and match type scenario that should occur. Sometimes, we need to focus on the positioning and/or execution of a particular body part. Other times, we should focus more on an external factor like the flight of the ball or a target. But this will all depend on the athlete, their preferences, their skill level, the time of year, the complexity of the task, the sport in question, and probably a host of other factors I haven’t yet considered.

My Experiences and Personal Observations with Cues

1. With beginners, I’ve used a mix of strategies from day 1. I have never been a fan of a kid standing in line waiting to hit a tennis ball from a stationary position. So instead, we would try to get kids rallying as quickly as possible. And a good way to do that would be to get them to focus on some external cues first. Drills that would help with the perception of an oncoming ball, the trajectory of the ball, a target, focusing on bouncing the ball off the string bed and so on. Then, we would try to tie in some interna’ cues to help them rally with more power, get more spin and so on. Things like “get your chin to touch your front shoulder” to facilitate more of a shoulder turn worked well.

2. In certain cases, external cueing can be more beneficial when approaching competitions. Many tennis players I’ve coached don’t want to hear anything about “traditional” technical cues (e.g., arm position, leg drive) when a big match is around the corner. In these instances, I’ve found that talking more about targets and trajectories works well. Things like “add shape” (using my hands to show the shape I’m looking for) to the ball might help to get more height (and safety) over the net. “Aim for the baseline” might help achieve more depth on shots when players are hitting short. Those types of external cues are also more distal - which get players thinking even less about their bodies (and letting automation take over).

3. While most players I’ve worked with don’t want to hear much about technique during competition time, there are some that need that type of feedback. In most cases, keeping cues familiar and simple has worked best. The key though, is that it should be specific to that player, and what you’ve been working on (and reinforcing) of late. For instance, one of my “minor league” pro guys was getting stuck with his forehand. He just wasn’t creating enough space between his elbow and his torso, which took some power off the swing (less leverage). We tried many cues but what worked for him was the feeling of getting his elbow “straighter” at contact (even though it was never completely straight). This actually forced him to prepare a little sooner, so that he could strike the ball earlier (more in front), which led to more distance between his elbow and torso (and all the other benefits - kinematically - that come with that) and which resulted in more speed on his forehand. This internal cue (“get that elbow straighter at impact”) worked for this player, no matter the time of year (even hearing it during the warm-up before a match helped).

4. I believe that some of the externally-focused cueing has been blown way out of proportion. On certain tasks, do we really need to bring an individual’s attention to an external source? Here’s an example I heard recently that a coach was cueing an athlete’s stance during a squat and said, “Imagine you’re standing on two railway tracks.” Really? Can we not just say, “stand shoulder width apart”? Is that going to make a big difference? Perhaps a cue like “I want to see your shirt logo during the entire squat” could help an athlete maintain better trunk positioning...but some athletes might be just fine with, “Keep your chest up”. As you can see, a lot of this is probably very athlete-dependent, which means a coach needs to know their athlete. And a lot of the cueing will be trial/error. And I think that’s completely fine!

5. One cue in, one cue out. This has been a game-changer for me, as I believe certain athletes are intelligent individuals and can process more than one cue at a time. For this to work well, tell the athlete to focus on one cue at the beginning of a movement - usually internal. And then one cue after that movement, or during the execution portion - usually external. For instance, during a jump, you might tell an athlete to “swing the arms back” as they are loading the movement and then ask them to “push the ground away” just prior to the propulsive (jumping) phase. The same can probably be done with swinging a racquet and hitting a baseball - keep the elbow [insert internal cue] during the prep phase and aim for the [insert external cue] when in the midst of striking.

6. The type of sport matters. Running, track, strength training, all have less opportunities for external focus cues compared to open-skilled sports like tennis and baseball. Therefore, it’s no wonder that more track coaches employ internal vs external cues with their athletes; there’s logic to that. Tennis and baseball, on the other hand, probably allow us to use a bit more externally-focused cueing strategy and just let the athlete go at it for a while.

Wrapping it Up...And What’s Next

I’ve heard the argument from researchers before - because most coaches use internal cues instead of external cues, athletes are accustomed to them and prefer them. But I’m not entirely convinced of this. Many elite settings - like Cressey Sports Performance, Altis, and others - have coaches who understand and employ both.

Either way, as you’ve noticed, I don’t believe we should use one type of cueing exclusively. Both have their place. Dan Pfaff, an elite tack coach (and mentor of mine), offered me this advice: “Most successful coaches are the ones that know when to use one over the other, and how to tread that line.”

He also mentioned that the timing/frequency of cueing - when, how often, etc. – is equally, if not more important. And when it comes to internally-focused cues, maybe that’s the issue. Maybe it’s tough to learn when you’re hearing five different cues in the span of ten seconds? But that’s a whole other can of worms...one we’ll explore in a follow-up post.

Note from EC: if you're looking to dig a bit deeper on this topic, I'd highly recommend you check out this podcast I did with Nick Winkelman:

 About the Author

Matt Kuzdub, MSc, (@CoachKuzdub) is best known for creating www.mattspoint.com - an online platform for all things tennis training - including coaching, resources and ebooks. He also coaches a small group of elite players (college & pro), both on and off the tennis court. Previously, Matt was the lead sport scientist at 'Train with PUSH' and holds an MSc in Strength & Conditioning from the University of Edinburgh. You can follow him on Instagram at @mattspoint_tennis.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 5/4/20

Here's a list of recommended reading/listening since our last update on this front.

EC on the Vigor Life Podcast - I recently joined my buddy Luka Hocevar on his podcast to talk about career development and the skill sets fitness professionals will need for the future.

Athletic Shoulders with Eric Cressey - I was also a guest on the Science for Sport Podcast, where we discussed preparing shoulders for competition, and touched on the difference between the private sector and working for a team.

Youth Single-Sports Specialization in Professional Baseball Players - This study was recently published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, and it shows the early specialization isn't the right path for developing a professional athlete. I thought that the most interesting part of the study was Figure 5, the Reasons for Single-Sport Specialization. It's implied that pressure from parents and coaches isn't a leading cause of early specialization, but I have a hard time believing that kids specializing before age 14 make that decision all on their own, and without outside influence.

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Everything works - until it doesn't. And, pushing maximal strength is certainly no exception. 👇 Early on, building strength is an absolute game changer. A little strength goes a long way in providing the foundation for joint stability, power, and endurance. Over time, though, added levels of strength don't provide the same significant return on investment (point of diminishing returns). Instead, you need more specificity to develop these qualities. And, the stress of continuing to push for maximal strength effectively squeezes out other training initiatives because it's competing for a limited recovery capacity. Eventually, pushing maximal strength actually interferes with the development of those qualities because it's such a massive toll on the body to preserve. And, the risk of injury during training rises exponentially. Quality of life goes down dramatically as lifters are constantly banged up in their quest to gain 5-10 pounds of bar weight in an entire training cycle. "It is what it is" if we're talking about a strength sport athletes where all that matters is what's on the bar. It's a terrible path to be on if we're talking about an athlete or just someone who wants to feel, look, and perform well in their daily lives. #cspfamily

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The Biggest Mistake in Program Design

Today's guest post comes from former Cressey Sports Performance intern and current Boston Bruins Head Performance Coach Kevin Neeld. It's timely, as he's a co-creator of the new Optimizing Adaptation and Performance resource that was just released. I've reviewed it and it's outstanding; definitely check it out HERE, as there's a $50 off introductory discount in place this week. -EC

My programs look at a lot different now than they did ten years ago. This is true despite my “big rock” principals and general exercise progression-regression strategies changing very little.

The evolution of my programs has come largely from acknowledging my own biases, recognizing parallel paths to the same training adaptation, and generally trying to avoid the major program design mistake of training the sport, not the athlete.

[bctt tweet="All athletes competing in the same sport do not have the same needs."]

This may seem like a simple statement, but the overwhelming majority of training programs are designed based on the demands of a sport, and not the specific needs of the athlete.

More Than Just Exercise Selection

My first exposure to this concept came early in my career when athletes showed up with a unique injury histories that required finding substitutions for exercises that provoked past injury symptoms.

This is certainly a step in the right direction, but effective program design involves a lot more than just picking exercises that won’t hurt.

Simply, exercise selection does not determine the physiological adaptation; loading parameters do.

The table below displays several common loading parameters, and the adaptation stimulus each creates within the athlete.

The same exercise can be used to groove a specific movement pattern, develop muscle size, increase maximum strength, and improve power.

Using movement-based assessments in conjunction with injury history to find exercises the athlete can perform correctly and safely is an important foundational step, but it won’t dictate the athlete’s training outcome.

Acknowledge Individual Goals

Each athlete trains for a different reason.

Some want to get bigger and stronger. Most want to get faster. Some simply want to be healthy (i.e. durable).

A general program with well-thought out phase progressions may lead to improvements in each of these areas, particularly in young and untrained athletes.

However, a general program is unlikely to optimize the development of the qualities the athlete is most interested in improving.

Several years ago, I started asking myself a simple question: “How would my approach change if my entire career depended on the success of this one athlete?”

Prior to wrestling with this question, I had overlooked opportunities to further individualize training programs because I over-emphasized logistical constraints to athletes following different programs within the same group, and frankly, I didn’t realize the results the athletes were getting weren’t as significant as they could be.

Consider two athletes that both have a 12-week off-season. One has a goal of putting on size and strength, and the other just wants to get faster. Will the same program lead to optimal improvements in both areas?

Unlikely.

Fixating on the Destination, Ignoring the Starting Line

Every time I’ve added a new assessment or test to my intake process, I’ve learned something.

For example, early on I thought all that was required to get an athlete to perform an exercise well was good coaching and a little practice.

When I first started implementing movement assessments, it became immediately apparent that athletes had wildly different structures and movement capacities, and that certain athletes simply could not get into optimal positions to perform specific exercises correctly.

Of course, unique characteristics don’t only apply to movement capacity, but to all physical qualities. This became really apparent when I started analyzing team/group test results using aggregate scores.

Aggregate scores combine performance in different tests of the same quality to create a score for that quality. For example, if a testing protocol involves 3-RMs in three different exercises (e.g. Trap Bar Deadlift, Pull-Up, and Bench Press), performance on the three tests could be combined to create a single “Strength” score.

With an appropriately comprehensive testing battery, these aggregate scores provide a very simple and effective tool for identifying the athlete’s performance profile, and communicating areas of need to the athlete.

The graph below presents four different athlete profiles. From left to the right, each column represents performance in Movement Capacity, Speed, Power, Upper Body Strength, Anaerobic Conditioning, and Aerobic Conditioning.

Red and green bars represent position averages and best performances, respectively.


Should these athletes follow the same program?

This process is extremely important for two reasons.

First, the athlete may not be communicating the most optimal training goal.

Athletes express training goals for different reasons. Ideally, the goal would be based on identifying a limiting factor that is preventing the athlete from earning an opportunity to compete at their desired level.

But frequently training goals are arrived at much more arbitrarily. For example, an athlete may want to get bigger and stronger because they have a friend (or older sibling) that is stronger.

Or they say they want to get faster…because that’s what everyone says, even if it’s not their most pressing need.

A comprehensive testing process can help illustrate the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses so decisions about the best training target can be discussed with better context.

Second, the athlete may not possess the fundamental physical capacity to make optimal progress in their desired training goal.

This comes back to a very straight-forward idea: even if the destination is the same, the starting point is not.

In the most simplistic terms, expressing speed requires creating high amounts of force, quickly, in efficient movement patterns.

If an athlete wants to improve speed, but lacks sufficient strength, creating a program that emphasizes improvements in the athlete’s ability to produce force will be the most effective “speed training” program for that athlete.

Alternatively, an athlete with above average speed but severely limited movement capacity may have the right “engine” to be fast, but can’t get into the optimal positions to express that engine’s capacity within efficient sport movements.

As a third example, another athlete may have above average strength and appropriate movement capacity, but simply can’t apply force quickly. This athlete will benefit from a program that emphasizes speed, power, and rate of force development.

Finally, an athlete may simply be under-trained and benefit from a more general program that addresses multiple qualities of need.

This may seem like a hypothetical scenario, but these are the exact cases presented in the graphs above.

Top Left: Lacks sufficient strength.
Bottom Left: Lacks sufficient movement capacity.
Top Right: Lacks speed/power
Bottom Right: Under-trained

Wrap Up

Optimizing an athlete’s training progress requires having an individualized target, and an in-depth understanding of the athlete’s current capabilities. It’s only with a clear vision of both the starting point, and destination that the most effective path can be determined.

The biggest change to my training programs came when I stopped thinking about how I could design the perfect program, and started asking how I could design the best program for a specific athlete to achieve a specific goal.

I’ll leave you with the question that still guides my program design decisions today: “How would your approach change if your entire career depended on the success of this one athlete?”

To learn more about Optimizing Adaptation and Performance from Kevin, Mike Potenza (San Jose Sharks), and James LaValle (authority in nutrition and supplementation), head HERE. It’s on sale for $50 off as an introductory discount, and I’d highly encourage you to give it a watch.

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5 Strategies to Avoid Overthinking Strength and Conditioning Programs

I frequently run Q&A sessions on my Instagram stories, and sometimes, I'll get an inquiry that warrants a detailed response that goes beyond a 15-second time limit of the small amount of text I can squeeze into a respond. This question is one such example:

The more I learn, the more stressful I find programming for athletes. Any tips for this?

First off, I should acknowledge that this is an incredibly common problems for not only new trainers, but experienced coaches as well. The curse of knowledge is a very real thing that can lead to a lot of frustrated tapping on the keyboard as you write up programs for clients that really don't require things all that advanced. Here are a five strategies I've found to help:

1. Identify the biggest rocks and circle them.

After I write up all my notes on an evaluation, I go back and circle 2-3 things that I view as the highest priority items. Maybe it's very limited cervical range of motion, or brutal single-leg strength. If it's a resting heart rate in the 80bpm range, maybe we need to hammer aerobic capacity. Regardless, I find that when you definitively identify and highlight the highest priority items, it makes it easy to get the ball rolling on the program and build some momentum in the "don't sit in silence and overthink things" direction.

2. Think quality movement first.

When joints move efficiently (work from "neutral"), it impacts a host of other systems. You take longer to shift from aerobic to anaerobic energy systems strategies. The length-tension relationship is optimized to enhance strength and power. The lymphatic system works more efficiently to optimize recovery. Effectively, moving efficiently has a "trickle down effect."

These downstream benefits are why we take so much pride in our warm-ups. They shouldn't just get your body temperature up, but rather, they should also work to reduce bad stiffness and improve good stiffness. For instance, with a back to wall shoulder flexion drill, we're reducing bad stiffness in the lats, scapular downward rotators, and lumbar extensors. Meanwhile, we're establishing good stiffness in the anterior core, deep neck flexors, and scapular upward rotators.

3. Acknowledge that you very well may never use some of the tools in your toolbox.

If you're working with post-pregnancy women who are just looking to lose their baby weight, don't expect to use French Contrast Training. And, if senior citizens are your niche, your extensive knowledge of plyometric progressions probably isn't going to have much of an impact (sorry, bad pun).

If you hire a contractor to fix something at your house, he rolls in with his toolbox, but isn't emotionally attached to the idea of using a chainsaw, hammer, screwdriver, or any other specific tool. Rather, he matches the right tool to the job in question, even if it means all the other tools are unused that day. You have to be willing to recognize that a ton of the things you've learned over the years may, in fact, be completely useless for you.

4. "Batch" your programs.

Believe it or not, I have an easier time writing a program for a professional baseball player with years of training experience with us than I do writing a program for an untrained female. The reason is very simple: I write a lot more programs for baseball players, so it's familiar and I have a lot of related cases from which I can draw perspective ("X athlete is similar to Y athlete, so I can build on the success I had with that athlete instead of reinventing the wheel"). For this reason, try to write multiple programs for similar demographics in the same sitting instead of breaking them out to different programming sessions. As a general rule of thumb, I never sit down to write a program unless I'm doing at least 3-4 programs in that sitting.

5. Build on the previous program.

Most of the time, when I write a program, I'm writing it right over the top of the previous month's programs, as doing so allows me to contemplate progressions and regressions quickly and easily. Never, ever start by staring at a blank programming template!

Wrap-up

In closing, remember that program design is only as complex as you make it. When in doubt, simplify!

This post delved into programming strategies, but the truth is that our programming is just one aspect of the systems that make our two Cressey Sports Performance facilities what they are. In our upcoming Cressey Sports Performance Business Building Mentorship, CSP co-founder Pete Dupuis and I will pull back the curtain on these systems to help other gym owners improve their systems. Our next offering will be in an online format September 22-24. For more information, click here.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 12/1/18

I hope you've had a good week and are looking forward to the weekend. To kick it off, here's a little recommended reading and listening:

Relationship Between Range of Motion, Strength, Motor Control, Power, and the Tennis Serve in Competitive-Level Tennis Players: A Pilot Study - This research study was just published in the past few months, and it once again demonstrates that sagittal plane power exercises (e.g., broad jump) don't predict performance in rotational sport activities (e.g., tennis serve). I've been saying this for close to a decade: power is plane-specific! If you're looking for more details on this topic, here's where I first put it out there: What I Learned in 2010.

Andy McCloy on the Physical Preparation Podcast - I was a huge fan of Andy's first appearance on Mike Robertson's podcast, and this sequel didn't disappoint, either.

Frank Duffy on the Robby Row Show - Cressey Sports Performance coach Frank Duffy was a guest on Robby Rowland's podcast to discuss Functional Range Conditioning concepts and how we apply them with our baseball players.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 9/3/18

Happy Labor Day! I hope you're enjoying a long weekend with family and friends. In case you get a few quite minutes to catch up on some reading and listening, here are some good things to check out:

International Youth Conditioning Association High School Strength and Conditioning Certification - I was one of the contributors on this resource, and it's on sale for $100 off using the coupon code HSSCSFLASH through Tuesday at midnight.

9 Ways to Help People Change While Staying Within Your Scope - I thought Krista Scott-Dixon did an excellent job with this article for Precision Nutrition. As she notes, sometimes, the line between "coach" and "therapist" gets very blurred.

Stacey Hardin on Purposeful Collaboration in Pro Sports - I loved this podcast from Mike Robertson, who interviewed Stacey Hardin of the Minnesota United soccer club. There was some great information on how sports medicine teams should collaborate for the best care for the athletes they serve.

Forget About Squat Depth - This was an excellent JL Holdsworth article about why squat depth should be individualized to each lifter.

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The adductors (groin muscles) have a complex structure, but a solid knowledge of functional anatomy in two specific regards can help you to keep these tissues healthy. 👇 First, stretching into abduction alone isn't enough. You have adductors that flex the hip, and others that extend the hip - so you have to account for both in your mobility work. Second, they have a large cross sectional area that runs from just above the knee all the way up to the pelvis, so you need to use both broad and specific approaches to self myofascial release. Swipe left to check out some approaches you can implement to cover all your bases. 👍 1️⃣Adductor Rolling w/Med Ball on Table: Just don’t make eye contact with anyone while doing this one. 2️⃣Adductor/Ab Rolling on Lacrosse Ball: You’re working on the adductor tendons as they attach on the pubis (bottom of the pelvis). 3️⃣Split-Stance Kneeling Adductor Mobilizations: Stretch the hip into both flexion and extension without substituting low back motion. 4️⃣Half-Kneeling Adductor Dips: This “open” position can be more comfortable for those with limitations to hip internal rotation. This option also provides ankle mobility benefits. 5️⃣Split-Stance Hip Abduction End-Range Lift-offs: Here’s a good @functionalrangeconditioning inspired movement to build some motor control at end-range hip abduction to make ROM changes “stick.” Don’t let the hip “fall out.” 6️⃣Lateral Lunge w/Band Overhead Reach: Get the arms overhead without arching the lower back to integrate some core stability with your hip mobility changes. 💪 Give these a shot and let me know how they went in the comments below! #cspfamily

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What Research Can Tell Us About “Super Champion” Athletes

Today's guest post comes from Matt Kuzdub.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had the magic formula when it came to building the ultimate sporting champion? Or how bout a step-by-step recipe? Just add 10 years of skill training, a half-decade of physical development and a sprinkle of mental skills...and voila, a world-class competitor is served!

Jokes aside, this topic of ‘what it takes to get to the top’, is eternally interesting. Whether you’re a coach, parent or athlete, achieving high levels of success in your chosen sport, is often a lifelong dream. But very few actually get to realize these dreams.

Why is that? Why do some achieve greatness while others are left wondering where it all went wrong? Coaches and athletes aren’t the only ones asking themselves these questions. Researchers also want to gain more insight into this puzzle - now more than ever.

This article will explore some of the newest research on this topic - particularly by a group of applied researchers, Dave Collins and Aine MacNamara. Their work will help us attempt to solve the perpetual question - what separates the greats from the almost greats?

In particular, we’ll look to their research to aid us in distinguishing between, what they classify as ‘Super Champions’ (SC), ‘Champions’ (C) and ‘Almost Champions’ (AC). A secondary aim of this post is to explore their claim - that adversity (whether related to sport or life), plays a pivotal role in the success (or failure) of an athlete. In revealing their findings, we’ll look at how each class of athlete responds to setbacks, how a support team ‘should’ act and the characteristics necessary for athletic excellence.

Super Champions Have a ‘Learn From It’ Attitude Towards Setbacks

Note, before we continue, it’s important to know that SC were defined as athletes who not only competed at the highest level, they won multiple international championships at that level. Conversely, C competed at the highest level, but did not have the same pedigree of success (1 or none when it came to championship victories). AC consisted of athletes who achieved well at the youth level but only competed at the second tier professionally.

According to Collins et al (2017), the biggest factor that separates SC from C and AC is a ‘learn from it’ attitude. There’s no argument that all athletes, at some point in their careers, experience adversity, challenges and what Collins calls “the rocky road” - these setbacks aren’t reserved for the chosen few. Ultimately, it’s the response to this that enables some to flourish while others to wither away.

Take for example, what one Almost Champ recalled of a serious injury:

“I sort of lost enthusiasm for it because I did not feel like it was – I almost felt let down, especially before the second operation. . . why was my injury different from anyone else’s, how come mine had to be 14 months for the same surgery that someone else had done for 3 months.”

Even Champs - those who competed at the highest level of their sport - echoed similar sentiments, blaming injury for their lack of progress:

“Well the sort of 10 to sort of 17, 18 years should be a natural yearly progression. But because I broke my arm, I wouldn’t say I didn’t improve but I just stood still. Well I’d say I didn’t improve, I just sort of stood still for 18 months. And it was an issue because when my arm got fixed I hadn’t grown, and everyone else seemed to have grown.”

Super Champs had a completely different outlook when it came to a traumatic setback, like an injury. By no means was it an easy situation - they also felt the disappointment, the frustration, but rather then blaming and projecting to external factors, they framed the incident as an opportunity for growth:

“That injury was pretty crucial I think. . .I was going well before it but the disappointment. . .the pain. . .it just kicked me where it hurt and I was determined to get back.”

And another SC had this to say about the prospects of throwing in the towel after an injury:

“No never, never ever thought about giving up. There was days when I was like ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m so frustrated, what am I going to do? How long is it going to take me to get back?’ But then the other days were like, ‘right what do I need to do? I’m going to do this, do this and get back’. But I never ever thought I wanted to quit. I think I still would have worked hard and still trained and done everything I could have done. But I think it gave me a different mental capacity. Because I’d never had to deal with anything like that before, so I definitely did think it changed me and made me achieve what I then went on to achieve.”

Given these reactions, you get the sense that Super Champs use setbacks as motivation, a driving force that catapults them to not only get back to where they were pre-injury, but to learn from the experience and to be better than ever. It’s difficult to explain exactly why that is - researchers (Collins et al 2016) suggest that high achievers may have better inherent coping habits. But further to that, they argue that these SC either don’t acknowledge the setback the same way as low achievers OR they don’t perceive the ‘trauma as traumatic as others do.’

On the flip side, this self-defeating attitude, most commonly typified by the behaviors of Champs and Almost Champs, inhibits growth. For instance, instead of putting things into perspective and finding solutions after a setback, low achievers would do the opposite:

“rather than staying at training and thinking ‘right I’m going to work hard, I’m going to really focus on my crossing, or really focus on that,’ I did no extra work. I didn’t go in the gym, I didn’t eat the best foods.”.

High achievers, on the other hand, saw the same challenge in a completely different light:

“Not making that selection, especially after all that work. Several others just said f*#! it, but I was never ever going to let them beat me. I just did double everything!”.

And beyond the setbacks, even when things were going well, Super Champs were striving for more:

“I was never kind of satisfied, I was never like ‘Oh I’ve done it now’ I was always like ‘This is the first step of my journey’”.

Many factors contribute to the above responses to setbacks and challenges. One area where researchers seem to point the blame are Talent Development (TD) pathways. The argument being that these centers for excellence are actually ‘smoothing’ the road for young up-and-coming athletes. The adversity necessary for growth, from their point of view, isn’t seen until later in a TD athletes’ career, when it’s perhaps too late. To resolve this, they propose that ‘structured traumas’ be strategically implemented into the programs of emerging sports stars.

These ‘manufactured traumas,’ according to Collins, could include training with a new group, being de-selected from a camp or a temporary increase in training load. Is this the answer? Whether it is or not is still up for debate - but one thing’s for sure, the path to the top is anything but linear.

Sure, many young athletes excel and progress rapidly early on. As they get older, however, and begin competing with others of similar class, that progress comes to a sudden halt - at times, it can even mean a step or two back (not something youth super-athletes are accustomed to).

How many Michael Jordans, Roger Federers and Tiger Woods’ are there? Not many. Some of the greatest athletes of all-time had to overcome adversity, naysayers and their own internal demons just for a shot at competing at the highest levels of their sport. Tom Brady is just one example - drafted at no. 199 in 2000.

It’s not that the AC can’t make it, it’s that they lack certain mental traits and skills to stay the course, especially in the face of adversity. The best of the best, on the other hand, according to Savage et al (2017) perceive their personal potential as significantly higher, following a setback. Those ‘rocky road’ moments leave a lasting impression on Super Champs - propelling them to learn and grow.

While this attitude by no means guarantees their spot in the history books….it at least gives them a fighting chance.

Quiet Leaders - The Role of Coaches and Parents

But perhaps it’s not the athlete’s fault. Research seems to indicate that there’s both a nature and nurture element to coping with adversity. Some athletes are born with personality traits that favor key mental aspects like optimism, hardiness and resilience. That doesn’t mean that these attributes can’t be developed. So instead of throwing in the towel, support staff should frame these ‘tough’ moments as opportunities for skill building and character growth.

But according to Collins, a big difference exists between the involvement of coaches and parents of SC versus those of C and AC. Interestingly, SC recalled their parents being supportive but not very closely involved in the process. In other words, they would encourage their children to pursue their goals, drive them to and from practices, attend games and cheer from a distance but they would leave the nitty gritty details to coaches. Here’s one account from a SC:

“[my parents were] not really pushy, it was kind of just gentle encouragement. They were never really involved, they’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and they never really got involved in that way, and that helped.”

ACs, on the other hand, were constantly being pushed by parents and coaches. To the point where one athlete actually felt as if the joys of sport were taken from them:

“My parents, dad especially was always there. . .shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home. Really, I just wanted to be out with my mates, even though we would still be kicking a ball around. I felt like [sport] stole my childhood.”

A few years ago, coaching Britain’s next female tennis hope, I encountered a similar experience - a father who attended every session, not as a casual observer, but as a vocal distraction. He would shout when he thought his daughter’s effort was lacking, grimace when she missed a forehand by mere inches and not once did he have a kind word to say. The result of this constant bombardment...at 15 years old, this rising star left the game and never returned.

This isn’t just a one off example, this happens all too often in youth sport today - parents obsessing over their children’s every sporting move.

What About Coaches?

When it comes to coaches, there was a clear dichotomy between the experiences of Super Champs, and Champs/Almost Champs. These mid to low achievers seemed to work with coaches who were either always in their face or looking for a way to ‘ride the athlete to the top.’ One athlete stating - coach was ‘always wanting to dissect my performance...He was very intense and, as I got older, it really started to antagonize me.” An Almost Champ had a similar recollection:

“X was the driving force. When I was younger, he would collect me from home, drive me to the club, train me then drive me back. . .talking about [sport] all the way. Let me tell you it was f∗∗∗∗∗ intense.”

Contrast these experiences to that of Super Champs:

“I think [coach's name] was great in the fact that he never wanted to rush anything whereas I always did. I wanted to be better, and I wanted to start winning things straight away. He always had in his mind that it was a long journey. And that’s the sort of thing that worked so well, he developed me as an athlete really slowly so I would always achieve the things I wanted to achieve later on in my career.”

Many successful coaches across a variety of sports realize the commitment involved at the top. They understand that athletes are devoting their lives to sport and this constant analysis and over-analysis of practices & games can be too much. It’s another form of stress. One pro hockey coach says that most of the time, he’s talking about anything but hockey with his players. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and place to ‘dissect’ a performance, but when it’s constant, that’s when it can be detrimental.

Perhaps a better option, one that ALL elite coaches use, is to simply engage in regular debriefs. After a practice, a game or a season, it’s absolutely vital that athletes sit down with a member of their support team for a review. These debriefs, according to elite coaches and researchers, can be more important than practices - the key is to know your athlete and when the right time to talk is (it can happen directly after a practice/game or several days afterwards...each athlete is different).

But it is a time where full transparency and honesty are at the forefront. Didn’t have the right mindset at practice, the athlete has to know. Focus and concentration on relevant tasks were absent, that’s a talking point. The truth has to come out. The important thing to remember here is:

[bctt tweet="Critique the behavior, NOT the individual."]

Overall, it’s a facilitative approach, rather than a directive one, that seems to contribute to that ‘learn from it’ attitude seen in high-achievers while low-achievers, having too much info thrown their way, have a poor time coping with adversity. Thus, coaches and parents can adapt their involvement to fit the needs of each individual athlete. While researchers agree that an expert (like a mental skills coach) is likely needed to help shift the mentality of many athletes, they still advocate that coaches be a big part of the process - echoing the words of experts because of their day to day involvement with the athlete.

The ‘Unique’ Traits of Super-Champs

These findings are taken from only a handful of studies - and less than 100 athlete responses. So there’s still a lot we can learn - but some of the early signs are promising. For one, we now know that high-achievers internalize setbacks, go through a reflective process, which ultimately drives their behaviors in a positive manner. Low-achievers, on the other hand, seem entirely ‘reactive’. As we noted above, this is likely a combination of Super Champs ‘learn from it’ approach to challenge and their encouraging (but not overbearing) support structures.

Furthermore, at this level, all athletes have at one point (whether at the youth or senior level) been internationally successful. We can’t tell for sure whether a gap in skill or physical stature existed - if it did, it was likely small. The main differences between the best and the rest, according to Collins, were the psycho-behavioral characteristics of Super Champs - including commitment, coping with pressure, self-awareness, goal setting, effective imagery and more (for the full list, here is a link to the study itself).

Researchers once thought these characteristics were solely developed after a traumatic event - the literature terming this ‘post-traumatic growth theory’. The premise being that athletes need regular opportunities to deal with traumatic events and that these events in themselves, build the necessary mental skills & behaviors, over time. In other words, ‘talent is caused by trauma.’

Recently, however, autobiographies from several Olympic swimming champions (Howells and Fletcher 2015) found that they didn’t have to learn anything new when coping with a trauma, rather, they used skills that were already established. Other Olympian medalists (Sarkar et al 2015) supported this and concluded that “performers should be given regular opportunities to handle appropriate and progressively demanding stressors, be encouraged to engage with these challenges and use debriefs to aid reflection and learning.”

The take-home, athletes need to possess some of these skills and traits before being encountered with a trauma or setback. As Savage et al 2017 exclaim, talent isn’t caused by trauma per se, ‘talent needs trauma.’

Inevitably, what this tells us is that even when things are going well, coaches should be constantly seeking to improve all facets of an athlete’s game - including aspects that aren’t necessarily as noticeable as a player’s batting skills or squat strength. But how often do we take part of a training session to improve imagery skills? Or to improve one’s self-awareness? Overall, mental toughness isn’t a result of suicide drills and grinding training sessions. As coaches, we must plan the development of these skills just as meticulously as we would a block of strength & power training.

Lastly, from a research perspective, we’re only scraping the surface of what we know about ‘super champion’ performers. A lot of the same can be true in practical settings - even elite coaches aren’t always sure why a certain athlete had great success, while another didn’t. This, however, is a starting point - if we have an idea as to which behaviors are championing vs those which are defeating, we can devise a proactive plan to facilitate the growth of the latter. For the moment, it’s up to coaches to facilitate rather than direct, the athlete’s growth - mental, physical or otherwise - and treat the training process as a playground for learning.

References

Collins, D. and Macnamara, A. (2017). Making Champs and Super-Champs—Current Views, Contradictions, and Future Directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Collins, D., Macnamara, A. and McCarthy, N. (2016). Putting the Bumps in the Rocky Road: Optimizing the Pathway to Excellence. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.

Collins, D., MacNamara, Á. and McCarthy, N. (2016). Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Howells, K., and Fletcher, D. (2015). Sink or Swim: Adversity and Growth-related Experiences in Olympic Swimming Champions. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 16, 37–48.

Sarkar, M., and Fletcher, D. (2014). Ordinary Magic, Extraordinary Performance: Psychological Resilience and Thriving in High Achievers. Sport Exerc. Perform. Psychol. 3, 46–60.

Savage, J., Collins, D. and Cruickshank, A. (2016). Exploring Traumas in the Development of Talent: What Are They, What Do They Do, and What Do They Require?. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29(1), pp.101-117.

About the Author

Matt Kuzdub, MSc, (@CoachKuzdub) is the content creator at Mattspoint, an online tennis and strength and conditioning resource for coaches, players, and tennis enthusiasts. Matt has helped tennis players at all levels—from juniors to the professional ranks—achieve high levels of performance on both the national and international stages. Mattspoint is steadily establishing itself as a go-to source for cutting-edge tennis and fitness research, articles, and training videos.

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Crossfit and Confirmation Bias

Last month, I published a blog about the importance of building strength in the teenage years. In case you missed it, you can read it here.

The gist was that strength is foundational to many other athletic qualities: power, stability, endurance, and even mobility. In short, building strength in untrained lifters is low-hanging fruit that can have a massive impact on other domains. However, if you train many of the qualities higher up on this pyramid early in a training career, you don't see very profound changes to athleticism. It's why the kid who just does agility ladders doesn't get much more agile, and the cross-country runner can't go faster just by running slow.

As is always the case with my new articles, I sent it out to my newsletter list - and there are always a dozen or so people who'll reply to the article. One, in particular, stood out for me:

"This reads as an incredible endorsement of multimodal training like Crossfit! Which highlights the very different skills in the article! Thanks for sharing!"

This is an incredibly well-intentioned person, but unfortunately, he could not be any more incorrect. And, it's a nice illustration of the confirmation bias we often encounter in the training world.

This gentleman really loves Crossfit, and that's fine. He can train a bunch of different qualities and have a lot of fun. That does not mean, however, that concurrent training of all these qualities is a way to optimize long-term athletic development in teenagers (or any age of athletes).  His confirmation bias leads him to believe that what he enjoys (and likely what has worked for him) will be good for every scenario he encounters.

Sure, you can build a lot of these qualities simultaneously, especially in untrained individuals. However, you are not going to develop a 95mph fastball or run a 10-second 100m dash if you're consistently rowing 1000m, doing sets of 15 power cleans, or rocking kipping pull-ups like they're going out of style. And, you're going to have a much harder time staying healthy as you embark on these goals, as each sport has unique energy systems requirements and position-specific demands. How often do you see aggressive hip-shoulder separation, appreciable single-leg work, and end-range shoulder external rotation in the typical Crossfit program?

Again, if you want to do these things, by all means, go for it and have fun - but don't confuse them with a plan that's optimized for athletes. Random programming might keep training novel, but it delivers random results - and athletic success is much more the result of targeted efforts to meticulously address the growth windows one can identify. In short, you can't take general solutions to specific problems.

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