CrossFit Exercise selection Skill training Strength training The map or the territory Training theory

The map or the territory pt 2

In the realm of sports science what can be thought of as classical periodization was originally discussed by Russian scientist Leo Matveyev and further expanded upon by Stone and Bompa. Periodization is a logical method of organizing training into sequential phases and cyclical time periods in order to increase the potential for achieving specific performance goals. All while minimizing the potential for overtraining.

Phase Potentiation is the strategic sequencing of programming phases to increase the potential of subsequent phases and to increase long term adaptive potential. Theoretically, using this concept, peak performance occurs in a controlled way as the phases are stacked on top of each other.

When examining the success of classical periodization concepts they fail to convince of their superiority over more concurrent approaches to the planning of training.

Not only are these long detailed and rigid plans vulnerable to unplanned periods of non-training – what do we do when the athlete gets ill? – but also that we just miss our mark, either on the resources available for training, or the speed of progress we ended up with. As we are working under either of the two false assumptions that averaged group-based trends accurately reflect likely individual responses, or that the individual response can be extrapolated to work for a group – our plan will only provide a false sense of security.

These methods with long cycles of mostly general work are also quite time consuming. For most sports disciplines, the packed competition schedule makes it difficult for coaches to adopt them, as there is simply not enough time during the season to improve poor form.

However, the most important drawback is their very low rates of effectiveness. When scientists have looked at the amount of athletes who are achieving the season’s best result at the seasons most important events, like World championships and Olympic games, the results are disheartening. Seldom if ever more than 1/4th of the athletes manage to deliver their top results for that season.

The theoretical and speculative “delayed training effect” concept assumes that training basic capacities at earlier phases of the training plan has positive effects on actual performance long after they are taken out of the training programs, replaced by more sport specific exercises. They also produce unwanted adaptations, such as significant decreases in power and speed abilities. Coaches might ask themselves whether basic training is a real basis for competitive performance, or whether it is a loss of precious time to athletes.

To be fair, basic training is not only done for peak performance but also for the sake of injury prevention. There is also plenty of evidence suggesting that what is likely responsible for a large proportion of non-contact, soft-tissue injuries is not training load as such, but rather excessive and rapid increases of them.

It is likely that the positive adaptations in muscles and tendons provided by longer periods of basic training may also be obtained by typical strength and power exercises. Exercises which can be implemented with little to no negative effects during the course of the season.

The stakes of unsuccessful performance at key competitions are high, with evidence suggesting that more severe psychological consequences are a distinct possibility. Failure to meet performance expectations include anxiety, interpersonal hypersensitivity and coach-athlete relationships falling apart.

“Speed is the most precious thing in swimming. It is what it is all about. I do not understand why you would spend weeks and months not training speed, then hoping it will come back when you taper and race. I believe you must always be within one second of your personal best time at all times of the year. That you must train for speed all year round. That your sprinters must sprint often and race regularly throughout the year.”

Gennadi Touretski

In the 90s the “Speed through Endurance” philosophy that reigned supreme in Australian swimming was challenged by the Russian coach Gennadi Touretski. This “more is more” philosophy was to work hard to first develop an aerobic base for 10 to 16 weeks (or even longer!), then to significantly reduce training volume close to the competition. The idea was that the more you swim, the more efficient you become and the more efficient you are the faster you can swim.

Touretski, the coach of one of the sports all time greats, Alexander Popov, was recruited to rejuvenate Australian swimming after a poor Olympic result and he did so by removing the (imaginary) certainty of linear adaptations provided by a base training phase.

He warned to assume speed will return once it is lost, and was wise doing so. The “delayed training effect” is not completely supported either by science or practice and its use as a tool to improve actual results are very unpredictable. There is simply not much basis to sustain the idea that the body is ordered into basic and specific capacities and that the overloading of a given basic capacity will suddenly “supercompensate” later in the training cycle.

When you have a capacity, you can certainly lose it (and haven’t we all experienced that). But that risk is way lower than the hope for you to gain a completely new capacity at a later point in time. For that reason he included speed training at all times of the training program, throughout all of the year.

“I think coaches do too many drills. Drills do not improve technique. They teach the basic movements of the stroke. To improve technique you must work with the individual swimmer, over a range of speeds, from slow to race speed and give them constant feedback about their technique, talk to them about how it feels and help them to develop their own technique. Every swimmer is different – every technique is different.”

Gennadi Touretski

Instead of general drills he believed that technique is a personal thing, and that training prescription should not be about doing a lot of general drills. Rather it should be about optimizing the technical efficiency of the stroke of the individual swimmer. Start with what you see, and practice what you see is needed for that particular athlete.

He would walk with his swimmers continuously throughout the session, ask them to swim initially at a slow speed, then have them progressively increase speed until he would notice a technique inefficiency. He would then describe rather than explain what happened and then figure out a cue to address the inefficiency he had seen.

There is plenty of evidence to support that increasing the physical load of training in the form of exercise intensity, volume or duration can be successful in order to enhance training adaptations.

When looking for the optimal adaptation found at the upper limit of tolerance, we expose ourselves to very small safety-margins of error. The presence of deep uncertainties linked to working with human beings challenges decision making by questioning the robustness of all purportedly optimal solutions. Knowledge about historical adaptation yields little to no information about how our “optimal” solution performs if the future surprises us, and they do not guide us to solutions that might work well if the predicted future does not come to pass.

Physical load can only be increased so much, and often this “progressively do more, do harder”-philosophy eventually pushes athletes into injury. And regardless of the progress made before this, injuries put and end to all progress.

Traditional methods for decision making require agreement about the current and future conditions and only then to analyze our decision options.

In a paper published by the World Bank on developing new processes for decision making under deep uncertainty, the research group suggested that alternative methodologies can help in managing uncertainty. These methods start the other way around by stress-testing options under a wide range of plausible conditions. All without requiring us to agree on which conditions are more or less likely, and against a set of objectives.

In the context of sports performance the traditional methodology would be to construct a training plan by starting out estimating the future capacity, form and other factors. For example to predict how much a specific squat cycle would increase squat numbers, and how much that in turn would affect sport performance in specific numbers. Only after these predictions are made we would evaluate the possible upside and downside under these assumptions.

This is problematic on two levels. First, many important assumptions are buried in models, rather than in front of decision makers and therefore vulnerable to bias. Second, many factors are difficult, if not impossible, to predict and risk to cause a gridlock in the decision process. 

As an alternative, we could identify the plan that is robust, working well across all the scenarios by “stress-testing” our options under a wide range of plausible conditions. All without requiring us to decide or agree upon which conditions are more or less likely.

This means to imagine different outcomes from many possible methods. Squat numbers increasing by 15kg, 10kg, 5kg, staying the same or even regressing. Which methods end up with the highest satisfaction and lowest regret under all possible outcomes, including high or low transfer to sport performance?

When faced with the possibility of multiple outcomes we will end up choosing “no-regret” or “low-regret” decisions. Decisions on reduced time horizons that have high utility no matter what the future brings. They will be more reversible and flexible, and have larger safety-margins.

In order to learn a skill, like the strict muscle-up as shown in the video above for example, do we really have to increase the physical training load? Or could we limit explanation and predictions in order to concentrate on when our athletes struggle now in the skill.

Continuously challenging the individual participant by progressively increasing task difficulty during long-term motor practice enhances motor learning and optimizes performance. Such progressive long-term adaptation to individual skill level not only enhances learning, but does so without necessarily increasing either the volume or the intensity of training.

Simplicity is key both for scalability and to see what is actually driving the trend without the distraction of too many variables. Managing a program of only slight changes and frequent evaluations allows for it to be data driven (as trend analysis is time-sensitive and time-powered).

All of this seems to suggest to use different, not more and often but little-approaches rather than to speculate on theoretical basic capacities, then build a base and to expect linear adaptations.

The old “more is more” approach is still very much ingrained in our way of thinking and planning. That is quite obvious when one looks at and listen to coaches who would subscribe to these theories of learning, but often still feel obliged to offer a progression of physical overload throughout their athletes cycles. Change is quite hard.

Is this the perfect progression to learn or strengthen a skill? Certainly not!

If anything should be clear by now it is that there will always be cases that are different from all other cases. Every method has its place. 

I can also picture you thinking that, well, “those examples you have given are too easy. Sure, in strength sports you can get away with performing the specific skill, not something more basic or different, but simply overloaded at the level that the athlete is, but what about other sports not practiced with a barbell or a set of rings?”. Well, stay tuned for more examples of practical implementations of these principles in part 3.

I’ll leave you with the words of the great Touretski, who may have passed on last year, but whose actions and words hopefully will live on for long.

Dare to be different. Doing the same thing as everyone else is a doomed strategy and a flawed philosophy.

Acceleration Cycling Exercise selection Sprinting Strength training

These boots are made for walking pt 2

Got to hurry, got to hurry, I don’t believe you worry
Take it back, take it back, You know you can’t do that
Don’t want no sleep, Just hide and seek
Yes, I’m a speedfreak, Baby, I’m a speedfreak


As sprinters we want to be able to move our feet as fast as possible. Regardless if we are clicked into pedals on a bike, wearing spikes running down a track or on the field in a team sport we do want to get our speed of movement as high as possible for our activity. But we are not thrown out of an airplane, finding ourselves moving as fast as we possible can with no effort. We need to get up to speed all by ourselves, by accelerating our body.

With every step or every revolution of the pedal, if our power is higher than the braking forces acting upon us our speed of movement increases, until at some point the net forward momentum equal to those braking forces and we are now moving at maximum velocity.

In track and field events extending the acceleration phase is something positive and largely correlated with lower sprinting times and better chance of winning. This comes from the fact that if you can push your acceleration phase from 25m (normal for a beginner) to 70m (world record 100m runner) then your speed at the end of that acceleration is higher, but also, since that maximum speed cannot be maintained for a very long time, that the deceleration phase of the race will be shorter. Even a short race like the 100 meters is damn long if there is 70m to go when you’re entering the “die a glorious death”-phase (or, if you’re unlucky, just the “die a death”-phase).

Actually, when it has been modeled, a longer acceleration phase always wins over a shorter one and thus the objective for a 100m sprinter should always be to increase the maximal speed, as this will also emphasize to keep accelerating. For as long as the race is if that was possible.

For the team sport athlete, or the cyclist, there are however other things to consider. The dream scenario of the straight sprint down the full fields in football or rugby, is never more than just a dream as the opponents are eager to crush you with a tackle. This makes the rate of acceleration even more important as you want to be able to get up to speed and past that defender in the little time and distance available.

One would think situation for the cyclist would be similar to the 100m runner, but there are several differences that motivates him or her, similarly to the field sport athlete, to increase the rate of acceleration rather than to extend the distance of it.

While the braking force of air resistance for the runner is not something that he or she can affect much – it is what it is – this is not true for the cyclist but something that can be changed to a large degree by assuming more aerodynamic posture on the bike. While the biomechanical characteristics of the standing position offers the higher power outputs suitable for creating the high forces needed to accelerate, the seated position offers kinematic, energy cost and mechanical efficiency.

Aerodynamic drag is by far the most significant variable for cycling, increasing by the square of our speed until accounting for 90% of total resistance over 50kph. The cyclist will at some point be able to increase his speed more by sitting down forming a smaller frontal area rather to try to extend the standing acceleration phase. Because of this the cyclist benefit from accelerating quickly in order to reap the advantages available by “going low” earlier than his opponents, spending less energy while preserving his or her speed.

If we consider track cycling there are even more constraints, as we also will not be able to keep standing up when going fast. The speed will increase the G-forces in the curves which will eventually push us down into the saddle. This makes most track cyclists stand up only until riding into the second curve (turn 3 or 4 if you talk “track geography”), giving them a distance to accelerate of something between 150 and 200m, depending on how strong and fast they are and what gearing they ride.

Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.

Aldous Huxley

So there is a difference between how to approach complementary training of maximal speed in track and field versus in field sports and cycle sprinting. In the former you could anchor the training prescription from the speed side, as it should also carry over to the improved acceleration necessary to reach higher speed, but in the latter ones we probably should address the training from more of an emphasis on acceleration. Limited by time or distance we likely should seek to improve the rate of acceleration, always get stronger and more powerful.

While there is a lot to gain at high stride or pedaling frequencies from increased tendon stiffness, when it comes to increase the rate of acceleration at lower velocities we would likely need to produce more muscular force down into the pedals or ground, something ordinarily categorized as increased strength.

Similar to the acceleration phase in track and field there is an change in the relative contribution of horizontal (forward motion of the hip) and vertical application of force in cycling. In the track and field this relative horizontal movement is largest when exiting the starting blocks until at maximal velocity almost all force is directed straight down into the ground. When out of the saddle in cycling, as speed and cadence is increased, horizontal movement of the hip also is reduced until it is more or less locked over the saddle. So when selecting exercises to provide overload to support the acceleration phase it seems reasonable to have some orientation of the force forward.

During a sprint the max power is reached within the very first seconds of the effort, but does not last long because the optimal loading conditions for power are changed with the increase of speed. With so little stimulus at this optimal velocity for power per interval of training it makes for many hard efforts to provide enough “hits at the system” to force adaptation.

Like I highlighted when describing a process for selecting complementary exercises for the start in my last article, we should seek to find exercises that provide some similarity of sensory patterns and intention. This should enhance the possibility of transferring the strength from the gym to the field of the sport. This though process should make us give prominence to exercises that has a somewhat similar finishing position as in the sport. It would also be a bonus if the starting position is distinct and if there is some actual movement of the body in the direction that the sport.

Pictures borrowed from Dan McPartlans prestentation “Why are ankles important to cycling”, see article notes.

Pedal force is ultimately produced by the muscles that span the hip, knee and ankle joints. The main function of the hip extensors and knee extensors is to generate force that is to be transferred to the pedal. It has been shown that exercises where the muscle is shortening (concentric) and exercises where the muscle is lengthening (eccentric) both are able to increase the muscles ability to forcefully open these joints.

However, as discussed in the previous article, there are some possible downside with pre-loading with a counter-movement or a slow eccentric action as it might impair the body ability to use co-contractions. Co-contractions are the only efficient option available “on the field” to reduce the muscle-slack that has to be taken care of before being able to produce movement, and this ability should be safeguarded.

The calf muscles have two functions: in addition to producing pedal force themselves they must also stiffen the ankle so that the force developed by the knee and the hip can be effectively transferred to the pedal. If your ankle-foot system is not able to transmit that force, “deforming” under tension, this impairs your technique and by extension radically impairs your performance. This stiffening of the ankle also has to happen really quickly in order for as little as possible of such leakage of force to occur.

The maximum force developed by a muscle is proportional to the number of sarcomeres, the basic contractile unit of muscle fiber, in parallel while the maximum shortening velocity is proportional to the number of sarcomeres in series.

With their pennate structure, allowing for more sarcomeres in parallel, the calf muscles are perfect for very brief efforts of very high force production. In order to support this they are also designed for a “pumping” or recurring function such as in running and cycling. In longer duration actions the blood circulation needed for this is impaired, as exposed by the sensation of pain (“the pump”) that accompanies such exercises (for example the calf raise).

Because of it’s muscle fiber orientation the calf muscles are not really suited for generating a large range of motion, and when they are used in sports remains more or less the same range (isometric). This optimum length of tension in muscle can be shifted to longer muscle lengths, especially by large range of motion eccentric exercise, but altering this length-tension relationship in a muscle could also alter it’s function and might be something to avoid for muscles of this type.

Let’s reiterate.

When selecting complementary exercises for the acceleration phase (out of the saddle) of cycle sprinting we would like to find exercises that

  1. Extend the time at high power production, at what we can call “optimal velocity”, in order to get “stronger” and be able to accelerate faster.
  2. Limit the possible pre-stretch or slow eccentric action that could affect the co-contraction ability that is necessary for the muscles to be efficient at going from slack to tense.
  3. Work the muscles around the hip and knee joints mainly through shortening (concentric action) while at the same time work the calf and ankles mainly at constant length (isometric action).
  4. Provide muscular overload and if possible, provide sensory similarity in body positioning and movement.

Sprinting on a slight incline is a good way of adding resistance and by doing that also maintain the athlete at conditions around maximum power. However doing this in the gym, where higher overload than in the specific conditions that is to be found on the bike could and should be sought, is more complicated. One could try to use a air and magnet resisted devices like the Wattbike, but while providing both a resistance increasing both exponentially and linearly with speed, it fails to provide the high force demands found in the inertia of the initial acceleration. While coming close, it just does not feel the same at those first few seconds.

When adding load to a sled and pushing or pulling it, we also, in addition to the increased resistance of the mass being accelerated (bodyweight plus sled) have to fight friction. While this coefficient of resistance will vary with different sleds (new, old, rusty?) and different surfaces (dry asphalt, wet turf?) it will always provide resistance to prolong conditions similar to the “optimal velocity” in the beginning of the acceleration, and provide more “stimuli per set” than unloaded acceleration.

The overload generated by heavy sleds should add to lower limb strength, and possibly also help to transfer strength from other less contextual strength movements like the squat into cycling (or running). This overload is placed upon all the joints simultaneously, including the often forgotten ankle joint. The sled push is also working the hip and knee joints with concentric action, while the ankle joint works isometrically, supporting their respective functions in forward acceleration.

While the definite answer to if one should load the sleds heavy or light is not yet established, there are vast amount of data suggesting to go heavy rather than not. The eminent French scientist JB Morin notes that without heavy loads, mechanical exposure to very acute angles is not possible compared to when using light loads.

Considering that we established that the sprint cyclist would rather seem to prefer increased muscular strength over tendon stiffness in order to increase the rate of acceleration, and if we accept that more overload likely shifts the adaptation in this direction then it seems reasonable to go for heavy loads.

I would make three arguments for deciding to push the sled, rather to pull it forward. First, the pushing style seem to make athletes to be able to work with heavier weights, which might be able to shift the adaptation to our muscular preference. Second, pushing with the arms does appear to further increase forward lean and alter foot placement, which may favor increased horizontal impulse. Third and possibly most important, having tension throughout the whole body, from the hands to the feet pushing into the ground is more contextual than having the hands free. The longer chain of activation is, even though in cycling we pull ourselves down rather than push our way forward, likely to be more similar in intermuscular demands of transferring force through joints all the way down to the feet.

How heavy is heavy? Well, rather than trying to find the optimal individual load it has been shown that to use a percentage of body weight correlates well between individual load and performance. In studies the groups using “very heavy” loads has been using ~80% of their body weight on the sled, but since this has been pulled rather than pushed I would not hesitate to go heavier.

In our never ending pursuit to ride bigger gears, maybe we should also strive to always push heavier sleds?

Cycling Exercise selection Strength training The standing start

These boots are made for walking pt 1

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.

J.P. Morgan

The posterior chain is primarily composed of four muscle groups: the calves, the hamstrings, the glutes and the spinal erectors.

The benefits of strengthening the posterior chain in cyclists is not as well established in cycling as in running, but there is no reason to doubt that they are significant. We want to avoid injuries of the like of that hamstring strain that kept four time Olympic gold medalist Laura Kenny on the sidelines in 2017. Secondly, the posterior chain seems to be a substantial contributor to performance.

Hamstring injuries are usually caused by a moment of rapid acceleration, deceleration or intense physical effort and while all too common in running, football, rugby and athletics unfortunately we do experience them in the sport of cycling as well. Knowing of the increased exposure to risk of injury when applying high power to the pedals, it should come to no surprise that they are common in the sprint oriented disciplines. Because of changed behavior between and within muscles when exposed to fatigue, that too could be the cause of a “pulled hamstring”.

While the amount of injuries of the posterior chain in cycling are not to be taken lightly, they are less common than in sports where you absorb higher forces from the ground. This makes performance the more important reason for training the muscles of the posterior chain for cyclists.

When the relationship between the exercise performance and lower limb muscle fatigue in cycling has been explored it has been shown that the two muscles most closely correlated with producing and sustaining high power are the Vastus Lateralis and the Hamstrings. Vastus Lateralis of course, the big muscle of the front legs, would be the usual guess but the significant role of the Hamstrings to the influence of exercise performance might come as a surprise.

Maximum force development takes time, and because time is limited in cycling as in almost all sports, the capability to rapidly develop force is crucial to maximize performance. When we pedal we need to be able to generate as much force as possible, as quickly as possible, before the pushing leg must relax in order to not act against the push of our other leg. Also, both for performance and for injury prevention, we should be as fatigue resistant as possible in order to turn around our pedals as efficiently as possible

The use of Hip thrust, Leg curl, Nordic curl, Deadlift – or the nowadays more popular Romanian deadlift – and Kettlebell swings are commonly used in the gym to train the posterior chain, and while all of these exercises do train the right muscles and do have merits I believe there are even better ones available.

“If risks are known, good decisions require logic and statistical thinking. If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb”

Gerd Gigerenzer

The strategy of embracing uncertainty, to deploy an intermittent decision process rather than to make that grandiose plan that could only work in a fixed and predictable world would tell us to give up finding the perfect solution. One should probably do a little of everything, all the time, as growth and self-organization in an dynamical complex system can be the result of an amplification of change elsewhere in the system. However, as we simply cannot do this, do everything, we still need to decide upon where to start.

So, let’s reiterate the list of criterion for strength work in the gym that we settled on in the Strong legs makes their own path articles, in order to see if we could use those criterions to help us in our decision process.

  1. Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
  2. Overload as much as possible while satisfying the first rule. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.

When we are keeping volumes lower and intensity higher, we get what we need from a strength point of view while avoiding being overly tired from too much complementary training. Something that could render us unable to do well on the field where that important true specificity is to be found. If we’d like to keep volume low we’d be smart to stick to few, but efficient exercises.

We could get some help to discard the exercises that are not efficient enough by examining academic studies that has been researching the muscle level activation performed with different exercises. From doing that we seem to learn to favor the Romanian deadlift and the Glute ham raise/Nordic curl rather than the leg curl and good morning.

We have more to consider! To assist the rate of force development and fatigue resistance, I would like to add the following to the list of criterion:

  1. We should prefer exercises that increase our ability to generate force, quickly, and should avoid exercises that negatively impact this capability
  2. Seek to improve strength endurance sufficiently in order to sustain power and decrease the risk of injury

“Faster, Faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”

Hunter S. Thompson

When a muscle is not activated, it is relaxed. There is slack in both the muscle and tendon. Before they can generate movement of the body it first has to take up the slack and go “tense”. Some athletes struggle to produce this tension and removal of slack quickly (early phase rate of force development) and it can hinder their performance.

In many athletic movements, such as sprints, changes of direction, throws, kicks, etc, the time which force can be generated against the ground or an object is lower than 250 milliseconds. If we are inefficient at going from slack to tense this can take up to 100 milliseconds of that time without even accomplishing movement, something that could severely hindering performance. This is also likely the case in cycling, where the optimal pedaling rate for high power sprinting seems to be somewhere around 120 revolutions per minute. 120 rpm’s means 500 milliseconds per cycle, where about half of that is comprised of leg extension and the rest needed to finalize relaxation in order to let the other leg take its turn.

Strategies to reduce muscle slack is to create pretension using co-contractions, using counter movements or by adding load. This is, for instance, why a rebounding “counter movement jump” is always higher than a “squat jump” starting from a static bottom position. Better results in training can be deceiving, as practicing counter movements leads to decreased ability to produce co-contractions without the counter movement (which most sport lack time to perform on the field, and which does not exist in cycling).

Observe that claims of adding load to a movement with the use of barbells or dumbbells should be questioned, simply because of it’s potential to reduce muscle slack as it may not challenge the body to learn to develop proper pre-tension with the use of co-contracting muscles.

There are other benefits of high overload of course, but it is important to search for a balance between the possible negative effects on pre-tensioning abilities and the positive effects force production. This balance may well be carried out by emphasizing movements from a “dead” start rather than with an eccentric movement. Seemingly this could make us prefer, for instance, the regular Deadlift over the Romanian deadlifts and the Nordic raise.

For the high power ballistics movements such as jumps and throws this means to include variations, possible more often than not, from static positions even though it likely means less impressive results in the training hall.

Force production is linked to related movement patterns, not only in similar physical structure but also in similarity of sensory patterns (seeing and feeling) and intention. This means that we should, if we can, try to get some similarity of the end, and if possible, start positions when overloading a sport specific movement in the gym.

I would argue that all barbell versions of the Deadlift as well as the Nordic curl, despite highly activating the right muscles, lack in this area for all movements performed on a bike regardless if it’s in or out of the saddle. I would probably argue the same for most other sports as well, and I would want to propose the Death march as an alternative that should be strongly considered.

Regardless of being performed by “from the top”, lowering the weights, it has a finishing position similar to both cycling and running, and when used with a dead start it also has a similar start position. Adding to this is that it, similar to most sports, offers actual forward movement rather than standing still. This could very well offer better transfer into the field of play while still be possible to overload with quite large loads.

When it comes to injury prevention to fatigue resistance the slow negative provided by the Romanian deadlift or the Nordic curl are both viable solutions, but as we recognized, possibly with a cost when it comes to explosiveness.

It has been proposed by the same dutch scientists that popularized the concept of muscle slack, Bas Van Hooren and Frans Bosch, that contraction intensity may be the main stimulus for improvements seen with negative training and that isometric training – when the muscle doesn’t noticeably change length and the affected joint doesn’t move – could therefore also be highly effective when performed at a high contraction intensity.

Further, isometric exercises permits us to control at which muscle-length they are performed, opening up the potential for them to be performed at a sport specific length or around the optimum length where higher forces than a lowering only exercise can produce. This could allow for more adaptation with less overall volume, leaving more energy to hit the sport specific work.

Van Hooren proposes integrating progressively harder single leg holds, around 10 seconds of work performed for three sets, going from bodyweight only into slightly weighted into upper body rows and I have used this progression successfully.

Dealing with the radical uncertainty of biological systems it is probably wise to hedge our bets with multiple types of exercises, as we do not know what will be pushing the system into that state of increased performance and injury sustainability. Therefore, for athletes with two days of strength training per week I tend to program the Death march and the isometric holds on one of those, and to do a Deadlift variation and Nordic curls for the other session.

Maximum Speed Practical application Problem solving Strength training Strong legs makes their own path

Strong legs makes their own path pt 2 – Finding your balance

”The aim of physical preparation is to go beyond the level of motor ability that can be achieved by the sole practice of the chosen ability”

Michael Pradet

The only training that is certain to stimulate exactly the parts that makes up the full competitive movements and pathways for performance are training that is consisting of exactly those movements, performed in the same context as in competition. That is, doing the actual sporting events, and this is where training should start and what should always be included in a training program. But there is reasons for not only training the sport in specificity, such as the need for overload and variance. At some point we just can’t get better from doing the sport alone.

Training should certainly be designed to provide similarity when it comes to muscle action, cooperation, joint movements and energy systems as the movements performed on the field in the sport. But sport specific training should not only focus on physiological aspects of adaptation. Movement control needs to be universal because, possibly, of limited storage capacity for “motor memory”. Regardless of “size” of the memory, storing fixed sequences for all possible movements would certainly result in “choking”, because that would mean that you would have to find the exact match for the situation at hand before acting.

Instead movement seems to be structured by “patterns” so that the central neural system can let the body self-organize to a certain extent, and therefor fulfill both the need for speed to action and ability to handle variation in the environment where movement is performed. The same patterns would allow us the flexibility needed, for instance, to run both on grass and in sand.

Also, strength is not an isolated quality, but an integrated aspect of eventual performance. The ability to use a high number of muscle fibers in order to produce a a lot of force depends on how skilled or trained the athlete is in the specific movement.

There is a sort of “parental control” at work in order to protect the body from forces it is unsure that it can handle. A 100m sprinter can not be allowed to produce the same amount of force in a football game as when he or she is on the track. A football player have practiced to absorb the force produced when faced with the need for a sudden change of direction. A sprinter, who can produce force something like 6 times the bodyweight per leg, have not and if allowed to express this force on the pitch it would mean to risk serious injury

To cope with this, force production is linked to related movement patterns, not only in similar physical structure but also in similarity of sensory patterns (seeing and feeling) and intention. Exercises that are very specific to the sporting movements are very specific in all of these, but hard to overload without changing these sensory and intentional qualities. Movements that are easy to overload, are also very different and will therefor “unlock” less force production to use in the field of the sport.

This line of thought concerning the role of coordination and learning in order to express force and power is outlined to great detail in Frans Bosch landmark book “Strength Training and Coordination”. In the book this dichotomy between specificity and overload is neatly presented in the image above, as the central/peripheral model, a problem that all coaches have to deal with. Then he goes on to notice that most inexperienced coaches spend a lot of time in the ends of the model, which is a safe starting point, but advising that more time should be spent in the middle zones of the model. A zone where both some similarities when it comes to those sensory and intentional qualities can be included, while still also offering some overload when it comes to force production of the muscles.

“Do you want to be strong, or do you want to lift heavy weights, they are not necessarily the same”

Jerome Simian

Last year I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation from the French coach Jerome Simian, who thinks in similar terms when it comes to movement quality. Jerome, who is the coach of Kevin Mayer – world record holder in Decathlon – talked about the importance of technical movement, the fundamentals of human movement that are common to all efficient movement patterns. He gave the advice that acquiring the ability to do a strict, perfectly coordinated, full squat will help improve the hip, pelvis and spine relationship. The ability to synchronize the opening and closing of these joints in order to maintain balance is one of the fundamentally common efficient movement patterns. The main point being that there is nothing to gain for an athlete, other than a powerlifter perhaps, in sacrificing perfect form for more weight on the bar.

Actually, too much time spent during strength training on movements that are not similar at all to the sporting movements, or performed in a synchronization between joints vastly different from the sporting movements can actually lead to a lowering of the performance in the sporting. This negative transfer can arise due to changes in coordination (from changes in muscle action and cooperation) or too much fatigue, no matter how much the athlete can improve the lifts used in training. And just because there is no general answer of “how much is too much” (and if there were this would also change with time), it makes good sense to prioritize keeping track of improvements in the sporting movements rather over whatever kilos someone can squat.

But back to the question regarding single leg versus double leg and heavy versus light weights. Both science and practice has repeatedly shown increases in various measures of sports performance with the inclusion of bilateral exercise in the training program. But single leg training too has been shown to do that. A caveat being that for single leg training this has, as far as I know, only been studied in untrained subjects. My own experience however is that, if done heavy enough, single leg training is also a potent stimuli for strength.

Learning from coaches like Frans and Jerome we start to get a good idea that we would like to

  1. Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
  2. Overload as much as possible while satisfying rule #1. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.
  3. But do not let the main movement mechanics break down or change during the set

Similarity should be sought in producing force using the same muscles, in similar directions. That means that I would argue for single leg movements for developing maximal leg strength for sports played on one leg (cycling, team sports, track and field, racket sports, etc) and double leg movements for those that have movements performed symmetrically (power lifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc). Similarity in sensory and intention in this context is obviously hard, but means mostly to have a clear, and similar, beginning and end of the movement.

Further, I would generally do these movements heavy: 1-5 repetitions per set, and I would not do as many sets as the athlete could do being cautious of unnecessary muscle-damage.

(Nothing should ever be set in stone and obviously what the athlete in front of me enjoy the most will also matter when making these choices, but we are talking general rule of thumb here.)

Still the main problem is that for “the reps that count”, the ones where we have to use our strongest muscle fibers, the mechanics are likely to change. But I think that there is a solution: a “hack of the system” to duck the problem with lack of balance affecting the movement mechanics. Regardless if this mechanical change comes from fatigue and/or intensity.

Hand assisting the movements allows you to provide just so much balance so that the movement mechanics are kept the same (maintaining good movement), but not too much to provide sufficient neuromuscular stimuli. Further, the help maintaining stability can be controlled and increased when fatigue accumulates. This might decrease the load placed on the body slightly, but – and this is important – to exactly the extent that you are capable of handling that very moment.

In many ways it seems to provide a perfect compromise in order to build maximum usable strength! So how could this look when it comes to strengthening the legs?

My two favorite movements are for this is the hand-supported split squat fathered by Fred Hatfield and Cal Dietz performed with the safety-bar.

The key is to not allow the hips to open quicker than the knee, and slightly “leaning into” the support makes this possible with quite heavy weights. This also provides the feeling of “going forward” which might provide som similarity to the sporting movement from a sensory information standpoint. Clear and distinct final position is coupled with an equally clear starting position, that could be varied with elevation of front or back foot.

If you have access to a flywheel training device then you can replicate my next favorite exercise that we call “old man with a stick”, which is similar in design just that using the belt makes it easier to really “go for it” with less possibility for a missed lift. And with the sticks it’s also not possible to “cheat too much”.

I quite like the relative balance of the trap bar and use that quite a lot too, but apart from that I haven’t used many other movements for the maximal strength of the legs (for sports played on one leg) in quite some time.

Fewer movements and less volume on “the far end” of overload leaves more time to work that “middle zone” that Frans Bosch talks about in his central/peripheral model. Movements that might not working maximum force production but still overload force produced and with more related movement patterns. Movements as (weighted) jumps, throws and weightlifting derivatives, which I think adds so much much both to transferrable force production and to include sufficient variety in training to avoid the stress of boredom and monotony.

Just a small selection of the exercises that could be done in this “middle zone”

Since implementing this line of contextual thinking for my athletes concerning their maximum strength work I’ve seen very good results on the field while doing way less of it.

I think it’s very easy for coaches to get stuck “chasing kilograms on the bar” and ending up thinking that every athlete should commit to a “starting strength” type of power lifting program in the weight room, where in reality probably not many should. A more efficient program might yield better transfer of force production, but still free up time for specific work in the gym or on the field.

Maximum Speed Practical application Problem solving Strength training Strong legs makes their own path

Strong legs makes their own path pt 1 – Does it really take two to tango?

A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Stronger legs is associated with enhanced general sports skills as rate of force development and external mechanical power expressed in movements like jumping, sprinting and change of direction as well as specific sport performance. It is also enhanced with decreased injury rates. Since athletes started accompany their on field training with exercises in the weight room, the undisputed king of the movements to get stronger legs has certainly been the squat.

The Hegelian Dialectic holds that conventionality, staying within the box of conventional thought, gives rise to a thesis. Every thesis eventually gives rise to an antithesis, a challenger: a rebel arises, assaulting the conventional barricades of the thesis. A fight ensues and out of the ashes rises a third idea, a synthesis, resolving the conflict, and becoming the new normal, the new thesis.

It’s hard to find more obvious examples of this than when Mike Boyle stood up in 2009 and said “don’t do squats anymore” declaring the first and foremost tool used to create strong athletes is obsolete.

I am no cultural anthropologist, but it seems to me that this very moment was important in order to create the rift between the functional movement-crowd, who laugh at those training like powerlifters, and the old-school weight lifters rolling their eyes when seeing the guys doing the split squats.

Obviously the initial idea was met with a backlash, and both sides have since then sharpened their arguments. And the main arguments for single leg exercises goes something like this

  1. Most sports are played on one leg at a time, hence they are more specific and should transfer better to sports performance
  2. The requirements of proprioception (the sense that people have of knowing where the parts of their body are) and core stability is greater when doing single leg rather than double leg variations
  3. Single leg exercise balances out imbalances in strength between sides of the body, as you can no longer shift more onto your potentially stronger side making up for the lack of strength of your potentially weaker side.
  4. Less stress placed upon the lumbar spine, decreasing the risk for back injury

Whereas the bilateral (double leg exercise, like the squat) proponents line of arguments would be similar to the list below

  1. You cannot load the single leg lifts like you can the double legged variations.
  2. Specificity and mimicking is not the same thing: the goal is to strengthen a function, regardless of how it looks.
  3. The loading on the spinal column might be less in absolute terms for single leg exercises, but it is also both asymmetrical and done with less balance.

Basically the first arguments form both sides is regarding specificity and transfer of complementary training into sport performance. The main point for the unilateral-side is that regardless of the lesser overload being put on the athlete performing the single leg exercise, the movement being more similar in the joint-synchronization, the coordination of movement between body parts, to what he or she does on the field should yeld more carry-over of what capacity is increased.

Car analogies are popular to use with this line of reasoning, such as that if we “increase the engine while still driving on bad brakes and tires” we would still not be able to express the strength of that engine. This strategy seeks to increase the robustness of the movement pattern by keeping them contextual, so that the system as a whole will shift towards a greater force production.

And single leg training would potentially allow for more overload of the legs, as less core strength is likely to be required when moving lesser loads. Removing this as a limiting factor might just build stronger legs.

The comeback would be that this still limits the possible overload that you can place on the system as a whole. And because of this you would limit both the mechanical loading on the whole muscle and tendon, as well as not stimulating the central nervous system and synapses, thus missing out on neural aspects of improved force production.

Both arguments are sound to me.

Next, there is the argument of structural balance, leveling the differences in mobility and strength between sides of the body, from training one side at a time. Which is an argument that both “sides” share to some extent, for neither is advocating to train muscles fully in isolation. And with compound movement a synchronized chain of action is strengthened while being carried out.

Something that could be said against the idea to make all athletes symmetrical is that the fastest man we’ve seen so far, Usain Bolt, showed that you could be running with an asymmetrical stride (from scoliosis and a right leg a half-inch shorter than the left) and still be the apex predator of the track and field.

So while addressing all asymmetry seems overly categorical, when faced with pain or dysfunction we need to react and remedy somehow. And when the hands or legs are not connected by a barbell, or one side is trained at a time, more degrees of freedom are appears. This could good for the people with dysfunction in the hip or shoulders, because that means that they can let their body “solve the problem”, finding ways to move without pain.

So, again, both arguments would be sound depending on the context.

Finally, the loading of the spine is usually mentioned. Lesser loads on the spine and the injury risk should decrease with it. Yes, but one would not want to spare the spine from loading altogether, because this would not build the muscles needed to stabilize the spine in sports and life. So the truth would seem to be somewhere in between to much and too little. If you tolerate high loads, then that might be better. And certainly, as we shall see, lesser loads calls for higher volume of training, which translates into something that is also a possible cause for injury: fatigue.

The argument of bilateral force deficit, that the total amount force produced during two unilateral contractions is greater that the force produced a single bilateral contraction, seems quite irrelevant as it seems that both types of training can improve strength to a similar degree, but with specificity of movement yielding the most benefits (an argument already made).

When it comes to training strength there is multiple ways to skin the cat, but all of them includes sets of exercises that are completed close to, or to the point of failure to work the largest motor units and to induce sufficient mechanical and neuromuscular stimuli. This means we could be using either moderate loads and higher number of repetitions or heavier loads coupled with a lower number of repetitions.

But by keeping volumes lower and intensity higher, we would be where we need to be from a strength point of view, and never tired from too much complementary training. Which could render us unable to do well on the field where true specificity, and true speed, is to be found. Excessive fatigue alter movement mechanics both in and outside of the gym, having implications for training practice and injury risks. If we are making our athletes unable to train at the speed demanded from them come game time we are at best not setting them up to win, and at worst they are not able to react quickly enough to unexpected events rendering them susceptible to injury.

As a general rule: chasing maximal neural drive and velocity in each lift enables us to get more out of less. With more stability and balance, as you get standing both legs, you get just that which should seem to favor double legged exercises.

But irrespective of exercise used movement mechanics are changed when approaching that point of failure. Specifically a reduction in moment at the knee made up for with an increase at the hip and the lower back. And when this coordination in movement between body parts is changed we are no longer being contextual and we are now overloading muscles, rather than the desired movement.

The triple extension, the synchronized opening of the ankle, knee and hip, that is so important in sports because it allows to produce maximum power against the ground, is compromised when the knees extend ahead of the hips. This could even lead to altered extension mechanics, if we do it often enough, something deeply undesirable for most athletics.

So, heavy weights coupled with intent might offer improved force production from central stimulation – but when doing so also changes joint synchronization and muscle coordination. This seems to me very problematic for heavy strength training. At best meaning the capacity will not carry over as well as it could to the field, and at worst actually decreasing sports performance.

We are faced with a dilemma where there is no correct choice to be seen.

  1. Overly fatiguing athletes is just not ok, they must be able to perform their best in their sport specific sessions.
  2. Double leg strength movements might be less intentional, but suited for heavier loads coupled with a lower number of repetitions – minimizing fatigue – but might because of that disrupt joint-synchronization.
  3. Single leg strength movements, while more intentional, are nicely suited for moderate loads and higher number of repetitions. But when doing that, the repetitions up until those last ones are neither working the largest motor units nor giving much neuromuscular stimuli. But causing quite a bit of fatigue. And when we get to the “money reps” we still have the drawbacks of the altered movement mechanics.
Disillusioning, but we shall try to find the best way forward in the next part.