Sports Conditioning Fast Track

by Peter Twist, MSc on Jan 01, 2004

Sports Conditioning

What sport-specific training techniques and philosophies will take center stage for future generations of recreational and elite athletes?

Most of us have witnessed or experienced the drama of sports.

Whether after the seventh game of a grueling Stanley Cup finals match, the dazzling late minutes of a college football bowl game or the nail-biting overtime goal in a youngster’s league soccer championship, often the individual victor or the winning team attributes the winning performance to superior training.

Over the past two decades, there have been tremendous progressions in sports conditioning. Indeed, today’s athletes should expect not only to become fitter, but to enhance their sport movement abilities and sport-specific skills through advanced conditioning. Making world-class athletes stronger and faster is a rewarding process; however, improving sport performance for young athletes and adult recreationalists alike—services for which personal fitness trainers (PFTs) have begun to witness greater demand—can be equally rewarding.

The Starting Gate

There is a rich history of coaches who have turned to the sport sciences to get an edge on the competition. Coaches of racing sports such as running and swimming are well-versed in bioenergetic and biomechanical principles that are at the root of their athletes’ daily training on the track, on the road or in the water.

Coaches once focused mainly on primary fitness characteristics including aerobic endurance training, strength training and flexibility. University-based exercise physiologists and related sport scientists advised coaches on how to apply continuous aerobic training and linear anaerobic conditioning, machine-based strength training and static flexibility training in their athletes’ programs. At the time this produced a substantial competitive advantage. Elevated fitness was obviously beneficial, especially for middle- to longer-distance endurance events.

Core training principles of overload, progression, intensity, volume, frequency and specificity were also commonly applied to training themes. Energy systems were challenged during training in the sport environment (i.e., on the track, in the water, etc.) with event-specific repetitive mechanics. Strength work included muscle isolation, using machines for legs and arms, and variations of traditional floor-based sit-ups for the core. The focus was on becoming generally strong and fit, reserving the bulk of training time for repetitive skill rehearsal in the sport environment.

Along the way coaches began to apply sport-specific scientific training principles. Multijoint Olympic lifts and power lifting were added to strength training, and traditional high-impact plyometrics became the standard resource of the elite athlete. Team sports gradually jumped on the bandwagon and essentially borrowed from the training protocols of track athletes. If a football player wanted to become faster, coaches looked to 100-meter sprint mechanics and the track-based plyometric routine.

At Full Stride

Most sport coaches include both aerobic and anaerobic training in their programs. The anaerobic training is most often fulfilled on a track (running sprints) or through repeat intervals on a stationary bike.

Like early sports training that challenged fitness through repeating intervals, anaerobic training remains linear, with little regard for variations of movement. Plyometrics is still focused on jump training, often circuited to keep athletes active with sustained heart rates.

Machine-based strength training still predominates, with more multijoint lifts such as squats and power cleans. While strength and hypertrophy remain goals, endurance and explosive power are also targeted. Abdominal strength has expanded to core stability; coaches have added stability ball and medicine ball training to their programs. The limitation for endurance sports training remains an overreliance on blending sport skillfulness with fitness through high-volume training, which translates to overuse due to repetitive mechanics.

The most dramatic improvement in the world of sports training is that more head coaches recognize their training processes can be enhanced. They are receptive and proactive in searching out information and recognize they need to align with specialists to help their athletes maximize training. Given continued education and practical experience workshops and specialty certifications, this translates into tremendous opportunities for PFTs.

Beyond the Finish Line

In the Twist sports conditioning paradigm, we summarize the future trend of sports conditioning very simply: Train movement, not muscles. Multidirectional sports that involve interaction with teammates and/or counteraction with opponents require practicing seemingly endless read-react-respond sequences. The systems and strategies in basketball, football, soccer, hockey and tennis can best be described as organized chaos: During competition no one knows what will happen in the very next second. Success hinges on individual tactics—the creativity and toolbox of deceptive moves an athlete draws upon to move past defensive players. Likewise, defensive players rely principally on mobility and reactivity to cover and contain their offensive opponents. As in the early days of sports conditioning, athletes gain greater fitness and strength, but only if they are trained in a manner that nets more effective and efficient movement.

Energy System Training

Aerobic fitness is best trained at super-intense levels with the objective of elevating lactate threshold. Aerobic intervals of 2 1 minutes on and 2 1 minutes active recovery best harness high-speed efforts, upper-end aerobic capabilities and overall capacity, drawing upon both aerobic and anaerobic supply. Not only are intervals more specific to the work-rest nature of most sports, the intermittent, high-intensity workload produces better peripheral adaptations to the central system, improving the oxygen- extraction capabilities of working muscle.

When using anaerobic conditioning as a stand-alone workout, we use long intervals (45 to 75 seconds) with a 1:2 or 1:1 work-to-rest ratio. This high-density training helps athletes develop tolerance at the top end of their anaerobic capacities. Such conditioning is critical for fatigued athletes to execute game-breaking plays late in a match. After all, the winning soccer goal is often scored only after repeated attacks and in the dying minutes of a game, under full sprint toward the goal.

We also link anaerobic interval design with varied movement and agility patterns to ensure athletes can progressively “train up” to handle deceleration forces under fatigue. At top transferability our sprint drills incorporate unpredictable demands, blending lightning footwork, directional changes and responsiveness under fatigue to encourage better mind-muscle interaction.

Anaerobic bioenergetics is a key feature of our training paradigm. One of our hockey players may superset four consecutive full-effort strength exercises before resting and repeating, challenging his glycolytic system throughout the strength workout. Therefore, by alternating chest-back, push-pull maneuvers, the athlete can maintain full-strength outputs, yet anaerobic glycolysis predominates rather than the ATP-PC (adenosine triphosphate-phosphocreatine system).

More on Strength

Just how much anaerobic glycolysis contributes to the energy supply on each weightlifting day is dependent on the training phase. Regardless, the basic goal remains to maximize strength with additional emphasis on explosive power and concentration on techniques that prepare the body to move better. To accomplish this, mindful coaches will scrutinize exercises to ensure that muscles fire in the correct sequences. Athletes will be taught how to better exploit their bodies to produce mechanical advantages and select positive angles from hip to ground to add more force to the power equation.

Combining strength and power exercises with whole-body mechanics foreshadows a trend of new lifting techniques. Such exercises will incorporate multijoint, cross-body actions that will harness the anatomical kinetic chain and produce and transfer power through the body. A football player driving through an opponent will apply more power in the correct direction by maintaining aggressive positive angles. This will increase eccentric balance and concentric power simultaneously during combative expressions of power, such as fighting through the defensive line.

Combatives and perturbations— disturbances or anomalies to normal movement that players regularly experience during competition—will be applied to many multijoint push and pull lifts as well as cross-body multijoint shoulder lifts. These will be considered advanced techniques to stimulate muscle reactivity and joint durability to prevent injury and enhance explosive capabilities. Such sensory overload elements will teach athletes to maintain sequential firing for fluid power production in the face of physical disturbances. Athletes at once must counteract the disturbance while continuing to skillfully produce the primary movement. This complex strategy will help transfer full-body power gains into real sport application (not just a textbook study of a perfect skill-oriented movement).

Balance and Strength = Balanced Strength

An athlete’s perfect point of balance is the perfect position from which to apply force. Integrated functional exercises will harness the best of sport specificity, anatomy and kinetic-chain movement through strength training.

Coaches will turn to balance enhancement techniques to strengthen weak links and prepare athletes to seamlessly summon power forces from toes to fingertips. Imagine a hockey player loading his back leg, pushing off from an aggressive skate edge into the ice, extending the back leg with plantarflexed ankle, triggering the hips and rotating the core, and following through to load the front leg as the shoulders and arms snap the stick to transfer all power behind the puck. This is a literal expression of kinetic-chain power that requires tremendous integrated balance and strength!

Balance training will continue to grow in popularity and will be utilized as a stand-alone parameter for dynamic warm-ups that target nervous system activation (NSA). The balanced NSA warm-up will stimulate the mind-muscle connection and prepare the body for explosive action and fine-tuned reactivity. Because the athlete must be out of balance to stimulate the receptors and “mini brains” that make up the proprioceptive system, dynamic balance equipment such as the BOSU and Extreme Balance Boards will be the tools of choice to provide balance complexity, the training variable manipulated to increase balance intensity.

Speed, Agility and Quickness

Before we coach athletes on speed, agility and quickness (SAQ), we teach movement skills that prepare athletes to move more efficiently and effectively and become more visually aware of their surroundings. We emphasize using “no wasted steps” and improving speed during any direction changes.

One forward-thinking basketball coach who attended our sport movement certification course takes his team through 30 minutes of movement skill drills plus quickness and agility before adding ball handling into the equation. Movement skills will eventually be recognized to be among the most important and universal athletic assets. PFTs and conditioning coaches are well positioned to train these skills.

A blending of agility and quickness seems to be the natural progression for the future of SAQ training. Specific drills will harness a plyometric-like action in the muscles, yet be low impact and more focused on the intended direction of travel. Instead of just focusing on acceleration and top-end speed, future athletes will be cued to develop first-step quickness, gear-shifting ability, deceptiveness and deceleration. Deceleration will become central to movement training, strength training, bioenergetic training and, of course, quickness drills. When studying muscle spindles, golgi tendon organs and intrafusal muscle fibers, as well as potential kinetic energy from effective coupling, the role of deceleration in trainability and performance will be crystal clear. Add injury epidemiology and the increasing incidence of ACL injury to the equation, and the focus on training for deceleration will be on its way from the unique to the mainstream.

To accomplish these sport performance and injury prevention goals through more complex movement-focused training, trainers need a well-educated, critical eye to detect errors and cue athletes to proper movement mechanics.

Sport-Specific Training

The principle of specificity will move beyond mimicking movement patterns to integrate information from movement phases, contraction types, tempos, exercise density, joint angles, time-motion analysis, positional variations, skill execution and bioenergetics. Particular emphasis will be placed on providing a bigger toolbox of moves for one-on-one tactics as well as critical moves performed off the central play. Sport characteristics will drive exercise program design, yet even with in-depth analysis, conditioning programs across all sports will become more similar over time! Sport specificity will become overused marketing buzzwords—sports conditioning will more aptly describe the process all athletes undertake to improve.

Due to the efficacy of advanced training methods, athlete-specific training will emerge. Each drill will have a multifaceted purpose and obvious application to several sports at once. The advanced exercises and drills soon to be common to leading sports conditioning programs will be athlete-specific; only by manipulating variables such as bioenergetics and joint angles will the drills become more sport-specific.

The shift to building athleticism will bring commonalities to all sports conditioning programs of the future, as well as provide effective cross training to the racing sports this training niche is modeled upon. Runners and swimmers, at risk for overuse injuries from repetitive mechanics, will embrace more athletic workout styles and link power to their race biomechanics. They will use the same athletic-oriented cross training to balance their workouts and prevent injury. Once runners and swimmers begin to lower the training volume of race-specific mechanics and add more strength, power, balance, reactivity and athleticism into the mix, the future trend will likely become the present.

Bring it on!

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About the Author

Peter Twist, MSc

Peter Twist, MSc IDEA Author/Presenter

Peter Twist, MSc, is the president and CEO of Twist Conditioning, Inc. He is an exercise physiologist with a specialization in coaching science. Having coached in the NHL for 11 years, Peter has worked with over 700 professional athletes. Peter received the National Strength and Conditioning Association's 1998 President's Award and the Can-Fit-Pro 2003 Specialty Presenter of the Year award. Certifications: NSCA