This post is intended to give an overview of several aspects of coaching science, in particular surrounding provision of feedback to athletes, something which numerous coaches (both strength and technical/sport coaches) often don’t do effectively.
There are two main types of feedback – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic feedback can be viewed as ‘self’ feedback and something that the athlete knows occurred, for example if an athlete bails from a snatch they are intrinsically aware that this occurred. Extrinsic feedback comes from external sources such as, and most commonly, a coach, but can also come from video analysis and the use of mirrors.
In terms of extrinsic feedback, most authorities in coaching science (i.e. Gabriele Wulf and Nick Winkelman) agree that using external feedback/cues is more effective than using internal – for example in a vertical jump ‘touch the ceiling’ instead of ‘extend your knee and hips quickly’. There are two types of extrinsic feedback, you can inform them of what you saw (descriptive) or elaborate on what they need to do to fix the error you witness (prescriptive). Descriptive is regarded as better for athletes with a lower training age/less experience, whereas prescriptive is better for more technically mature athletes.
The author of the article referenced below (Wrisberg) talks about when to give feedback, providing a key quote – “when in doubt, be quiet”. He (Wrisberg) is of the opinion that coaches should resist the temptation to provide assistance and coaching cues too often and instead permit the athletes to practice skills on their own (a form of guided discovery). He then goes on to say that the least helpful form of feedback is simply providing extrinsic feedback that is the same as their own intrinsic feedback – provide feedback only when an athlete can’t identify the error or pick up on the intrinsic feedback. An example of this is if an athlete drops the bar mid-way through a deadlift there is little point in informing them that their grip failed/was weak. The most beneficial form of feedback for an athlete will direct them towards sources of intrinsic feedback. I recently encountered an example of this in my own coaching practice whereby an athlete who I was teaching to clean wasn’t keeping the bar close and ‘brushing’ the thigh. To rectify this I put lines of chalk from the middle to the upper portion of his thigh and told his to try to brush the chalk off with the bar with every repetition.
Once athletes are proficient at identifying relevant intrinsic feedback on their own, they will eventually need less extrinsic feedback and cueing from the coach. The caveat to this is that if athletes have not fully ‘bought in’ to strength and conditioning they may not be interested in learning the skill we are teaching (such as the clean) thus they are unlikely to ask for feedback and they will not focus on their own intrinsic feedback. This highlights a motivational aspect to this element of coaching science.
Recent research in coaching science has suggested that giving more frequent feedback is not more effective when it comes to promoting skill development when compared to giving less frequent feedback. Wrisberg suggests that coaches give the minimally effective amount of feedback to avoid overloading the athlete. If more feedback is deemed necessary then it may be appropriate to utilize summary/average feedback after a session during a breakdown. Athletes’ performance will still improve in the absence of frequent extrinsic feedback as the athlete is required to solve their own movement errors and they are able to focus more acutely on their own intrinsic feedback. If feedback is provided too often athletes may become dependent on it, as they will immediately attempt to incorporate the feedback in the next repetition and, if they’re provided with different feedback each time, they will be incapable of achieving any stability in their performance. As a result of this they will not gain an understanding of what they’re doing and the outcome that they’re achieving. Thus an overall rule is to give feedback to athletes more regularly during early learning phases and progressively less frequently as their skill levels improve.
Quality of feedback is more important than quantity; to achieve higher quality feedback coaches must consider the content, precision, timing, and conciseness of the cues in order to deliver the most effective message to the athlete/s. Wrisberg also says that delaying feedback has some benefits as it encourages athletes to become self-sufficient. The best way to delay feedback is to first ask athletes questions such as ‘why do you think ____ happened?’, which will force them to evaluate their own intrinsic feedback, only after they answer will extrinsic feedback be provided by the coach. Challenging athletes to detect their own errors and come up with solutions will facilitate skill development and improve their ability to detect and correct mistakes.
Increasing feedback precision is another important aspect of skill acquisition and coaching. Wrisberg suggests the use of bandwidth feedback, something that I have utilized regularly in my coaching practice. Bandwidth feedback requires establishment of a performance bandwidth – this being the amount/extent of error you will tolerate before cueing/providing extrinsic feedback to the athlete (a tolerance zone). If an athletes’ skill performance remains within the tolerance zone, there’s no requirement to give feedback, if it deviates outside of this zone then corrections must be made via feedback. With lesser skilled athletes the bandwidth will be wider, which allows coaches to provide more general feedback in order to improve gross performance of the skill. With athletes of a higher level (and where precision is more important) the bandwidth should be narrowed, meaning feedback will be given for even minor performance errors. From a skill acquisition perspective I believe this is a very useful tool. If working memory can only store seven +/- two pieces of information then it’s important to avoid overloading the athletes’ memory with excessive cues (particularly if they’re poorly thought out). In my coaching I try to focus on three main points for every skill/lift in the session (plus any general safety considerations), for example when coaching band resisted acceleration drills in speed/agility sessions I inform the athletes to focus on a good torso lean, powerful arm drive (hip pocket to eye socket), and to apply maximum force into the ground with every step. I then only emphasise these points (or cues relating to these points).
Being aware of the science of giving feedback not only allows us to coach our athletes more effectively and efficiently, it also helps in preventing reinvestment. Reinvestment is the attempt to consciously control your own movement during skill execution by constantly trying to apply explicit and rule-based knowledge to the skill. For example immediately prior to the second pull in the clean an athlete might think ‘how do I catch the bar?’ if they’ve been over-coached/had excessive feedback in their rack position or catch technique. This can also be known as choking, freezing, or the ‘yips’.
In 2007 Ian Jeffreys released an article titled ‘Warm up revisited–the ‘ramp’ method of optimizing performance preparation’. His intention of writing this article was to provide coaches with a framework of how to write and conduct a warm up relevant to certain sports, and to clarify the rationale as to why we do warm ups and what the physiological and biomechanical aims of them are. It’s essential to make the most of all warm ups as, over the course of a year, an athlete might spend (at a minimum) a total of 35 hours warming up (assuming ten minutes a session, four sessions a week). Thirty-five hours is a huge amount of training time that shouldn’t be wasted – or perhaps worse, spent doing exercises with improper or injurious technique.
Jeffreys begins the article with an explanation of (physiologically) why we warm up, going into more depth that just ‘raise the heart rate’ or ‘prepare for exercise or competition’. His reasons are:
- Improve the physiological function of working muscles (faster contraction and relaxation)
- Increase rate of force development, reaction time, strength, and power (prime the central nervous system)
- Lower the viscous resistance in muscles (greater muscle temperature will warm up intramuscular fluids improving mobility)
- Increase oxygen delivery (Bohr effect/shift)
- Increased blood flow (due to higher heart rate)
- Enhanced metabolic reactions
- Prevent injury (via a number of potential mechanisms)
He also mentions that a warm up is an excellent coaching opportunity as it gives coaches a chance to improve an athlete’s mechanics in basic exercises (cueing and encouraging the athletes in a warm up may also ‘wake up’ the athletes psychologically). Personally I also use it as dynamic movement screen to watch for movement deficiencies/restrictions, imbalances, and proprioceptive issues.
The aforementioned elements are most relevant to the initial part of the warm up with the focus being on the energy system and muscular aspects of the physiological processes involved. However there are more components to include, such as joint range of motion, nervous system stimulation, and psychological preparation. To ensure these additional components are included in warm ups, Jeffreys suggests the ‘RAMP’ method. This stands for:
The raise component is based on what I’ve previously discussed in this article review so far, it’s general and doesn’t have to be specific to the exact workout or sport. Often this will include jogging, shuffling, lunging, skipping, hopping, and backpedaling, but coaches can be more inventive than this (I’ve seen wrestling S&C coaches use gymnastic movements, and weightlifting coaches use light barbell complexes or bodyweight circuits for example).
The activate and mobilize components fit together reasonably well, and have the aim of activating key muscles (for the exercise/drill) and mobilizing key joints and ranges of motion utilized in the sport. Activation exercises can include band rotator cuff movements, glute bridges, and face pulls (etc.), however if applied to a speed/agility context I would encourage the athletes remain on their feet and moving, so lateral band walks, linear band walks, and crawl variations (etc.) may be more appropriate. Mobilization exercises may be similar to what has been included in the raise or activate components; however they will generally be more dynamic and involve moving through greater ranges of motion (compared to raise/activate exercises). These exercises should become more drill/sport specific (appropriate for the specific movement patterns occurring in the sport), such as a decent volume of lunge-based movements for a squash player, or overhead squats for a weightlifter preparing to snatch.
The final component is the potentiation phase, this has two main goals – to increase the intensity of the warm up so that it blends into the workout/first drill, ensuring that the athlete/s are fully prepared to perform optimally. The second goal is to get a post-activation potentiation (PAP) effect, which aims to ‘fire up’ the central nervous system and should augment subsequent exercise performance (research into this area is largely inconclusive, even ten years after this article was published). This component can include progressive intensity sprints, jumps, throws, agility drills, or warm-up sets for lifting-based exercises.
One thing I like about this article is his suggestion of the term ‘performance preparation’, rather than using the term ‘warm up’. I think that telling an athlete simply to warm up is only asking them to do half of what is required – i.e. raise their heart rate and get warm. There are a million ways to elevate an athletes heart rate (sit them on a recumbent bike for example) however many of these methods are not conducive to improved performance. ‘Performance preparation’ or ‘movement preparation’ suggests that an athlete should not just ‘get sweaty and breathless’ but should actually prepare their body and mind for exercise or competition. This can be achieved by following the RAMP method outlined in the article.
Overall I like this article and the methodology it presents as it gives a framework for coaches to use, rather than a ‘set in stone’ approach. This allows experimentation and provides the fluidity to adapt the warm up method to the environment the coach is in.
- Jeffreys, I. (2007). Warm up revisited–the ‘ramp’ method of optimising performance preparation. UK Strength and Conditioning Association. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280945961_Jeffreys_I_2007_Warm-up_revisited_The_ramp_method_of_optimizing_warm-ups_Professional_Strength_and_Conditioning_6_12-18
Whilst observing and working with numerous coaches conducting speed/agility/change of direction workouts I’ve noticed that a good amount of coaches do not allow the players to perform a false step (also known as a plyo step/rhythm step/backward step) before accelerating. I’ve had debates with several coaches in the past about this at various universities and training facilities, as my philosophy is to actively promote this ‘step back’ and develop my athletes ability to use it effectively, whereas theirs is to either deliberately set the athlete up in a split stance or to tell the athlete to consciously avoid stepping back. I wanted to investigate this difference in coaching philosophy and give a definitive, research-supported answer.
If positioned in a parallel (shoulder/hip width) stance, an athlete’s natural reaction will be to take a false/backward step prior to commencing forward motion. Many coaches deem this backward step to be literally ‘a step in the wrong direction’ and believe it is less time efficient (a ‘wasted movement’) than a forward step. This has resulted in coaches deliberately stopping their athletes from using this technique. Numerous articles (both academic and non-academic) have been published that state that taking this approach may be a mistake.
To provide an evidence-base I recommend reading the research paper by Frost (2008). The researcher took 27 male athletes and tested them in three sprint-start stance conditions – parallel with a false step, parallel with a forward step, and a split stance. They found that the false step was superior to the forward step, particularly over the first 2.5m. The split stance resulting in quicker movement over the first 2.5m and was therefore superior to the false step in this regard. However another study cited in the article found that more horizontal force and power could be generated at push off due to the presence of a stretch-shortening cycle in the false step (hence the alternative name ‘plyo step’). The reason the split stance results in slightly quicker sprint times is because the center of mass does not have to be shifted and thus sufficient horizontal impulse can be generated more rapidly (albeit not as much total force as the false step). The article concluded that they are unable to justify the deliberate removal of the false step when coaching athletes as it is clearly effective in improving sprint performance in distances as short as 2.5m.
Despite the results of the aforementioned study I can understand many coaches’ rationales for not utilizing the false step in sports such as football. Firstly in football there are numerous stoppages between plays, due to this the athletes are able to set up in a split stance which was shown to be effective over short distances, and if athletes have perfected this starting position they may get better results than the participants from Frosts study. In addition, this split stance is a more stable position (particularly for the defensive/offensive line) as players only have fractions of a second to hit or brace to be hit.
In other sports I believe that the false step should be encouraged, particularly in those sports that lack sufficient time to allow players to reset into a split stance position before commencing play. It is a natural response for athletes and will result in faster sprint times than a forward step and almost equally as fast as a split stance, with the added benefit of more horizontal force being produced due to utilization of the stretch-shortening cycle. Also with practice and coaching the false step may promote a more horizontal torso position that will be beneficial for optimal acceleration mechanics and force production, whereas the forward step may actually increase the likelihood of an athlete stepping forward excessively and creating a braking force thus slowing them down.
- Frost, D. M., Cronin, J. B., & Levin, G. (2008). Stepping backward can improve sprint performance over short distances. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(3), 918-922. https://www.cscca.org/document?id=162
Youth Strength Training FAQ
In the past 30 years’ childhood obesity in the US has more than doubled. The percentage of obese children (aged 6–11 years) in the United States is now 18% (as of 2012). Children are more inactive than ever, preferring to spend their free time playing video games instead of being outside, socializing, or exercising.
In addition, this ‘Xbox’ generation has developed shorter attention spans, postural issues, and other inactivity-related diseases.
Going to the gym to run on a treadmill or to cycle on a stationary bike is unlikely to appeal to most kids, it’s boring, there’s little obvious progression, and (especially for bigger kids) it’s very hard work. Strength training has been recommended for children as young as six by multiple, major professional organizations (including the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the UK Strength and Conditioning Association, amongst others). However unfortunately common opinion is that it’s dangerous, stunts children’s growth, it’s pointless because they lack testosterone to get stronger, and will compromise their performance in other sports. These statements are false, and this FAQ will provide reasons why.
First off, there are numerous clear benefits of strength training. This type of training will result in improved self-esteem through positive changes in body composition and perceived body image, it’s also more accessible for bigger kids (compared to running, swimming, etc.) which will therefore allow them to experience success in a sporting environment. Getting the child active will reduce body fat, improve attention span, promote stronger social skills, and positively affect their mood. Strength training can also improve motor skill performance, enhance physical literacy, and strength bones, ligaments, and tendons, which will reduce their risk of injury.
Will strength training stunt my child’s growth?
Absolutely not, there is no evidence to indicate a decrease in stature in children who regularly strength train in a supervised environment with qualified instruction. Additionally, no growth plate damage has been reported in any research studies. In all likeliness, participation in weight-bearing/resistance training activities will have a positive influence on growth. The myth of strength training stunting growth came about due to people watching Olympic Weightlifting competitions and noticing that all the athletes were short, however this is simply a commonality of elite performers in the sport – to be successful you have to be short, the sport didn’t make the athletes shorter.
My child needs to be fast, won’t training with weights make them big and slow?
Maximal speed and maximal strength are both largely based around adaptations to the central nervous system, and therefore positively complement each other. In order to increase sprinting speed to their greatest potential, a young athlete should be training to improve both of these qualities.
I thought children couldn’t get strong because they don’t produce enough testosterone?
Testosterone is not essential for achieving strength gains. Children will make neural adaptations that will benefit their strength levels. Hypertrophy (muscle gain) is limited, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate with strength.
My child is too young to begin strength training, isn’t he/she?
As previously stated, strength training has been recommended for children as young as six years old by numerous organizations. In general, if you determine a child to be old enough to take part in organized sports, then they’re most likely ready to begin a progressive strength training program (this will also counter the fact that young athletes under-train and over-compete). Chronological age is inherently flawed as a way to determine readiness for training, as every child matures mentally and physically at different rates. It’s much more appropriate to use common sense and simple observation to determine this. Can they move well? Do they have enough of an attention span? Do they look ready to lift? Are they stable during basic movements?
Isn’t strength training dangerous?
Under proper supervision and ability-specific instruction, strength training is considerably less dangerous than most other common sports/activities.
Every time you do an activity, you are putting huge amounts of stress on your body:
- Walking = 1.5 x Bodyweight
- Running/Sprinting = 3-6 x Bodyweight
- Jumping = 4-11 x Bodyweight
By strength training we are increasing the child’s ability to cope with the demands (specifically forces) of whatever environment they’re in – whether it’s a sport, general ‘play’ activities, or simply walking to the bus stop. Young athletes in particular are suffering sports-related injuries because they are poorly-prepared for the demands of their sport. Up to 50% of youth sporting injuries could be prevented if more emphasis was placed on developing fundamental motor skills and fitness abilities before participating in a sport.
Strength training isn’t always about lifting super heavy weights, however at appropriate times healthy children should be exposed to heavier loads (when technically capable and under supervision). Working with heavy weights is often thought to be dangerous, particularly for a one repetition max (1RM) because it’s a single, all-out effort. However, this isn’t dissimilar to a football tackle, a throw, or a jump, and actually occurs in a much safer, less chaotic, and more controlled environment. Children with less than three/four years training experience are unlikely to attempt a 1RM, but instead may do a multi-rep max test (2-5RM) which would involve slightly lighter loads. What is considered heavy weight for a child? This depends on mental and physical maturity, training experience, and technical proficiency. And of course everything is relative to their existing strength levels.
Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23, S60-S79.
Lloyd, R., Faigenbaum, A., Myer, G., Stone, M., Oliver, J., Jeffreys, I., & Pierce, K. (2012). UKSCA position statement: Youth resistance training. Professional Strength and Conditioning, 26, 26-39.
Hamill, B. P. (1994). Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 8(1), 53-57.
Malina, R. M. (2006). Weight training in youth-growth, maturation, and safety: an evidence-based review. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 16(6), 478-487.
But, P. (1993). Youth Injuries in Sports are Preventable. Sports Medicine Digest, 4-1.
Why does my shoulder hurt?
(and what can I do about it?)
Shoulder pain is a common complaint for numerous athletes, ‘weekend warriors’, and gym users, and it’s often left either poorly treated (rest, painkillers, and/or cortisone shots) or only partially treated through incorrect exercises or an inadequate variety of exercises. If you’re currently experiencing shoulder pain (or you want to prevent it in the future) then it’s time to figure out what’s wrong and get some treatment.
The shoulder complex is made up of the glenohumeral, scapulothoracic, acromioclavicular, and sternoclavicular joints, and is one of the most vulnerable areas in the body due to the extensive range of motion it has available. During full body movements, forces produced in the lower extremities, hips, and trunk are transmitted through the shoulder complex to the the arms and hands. If the shoulder complex is unstable, immobile, or otherwise dysfunctional it will be unable to cope with the load placed upon it, exposing you to injury.
The main region for most shoulder injuries is below the acromion process, and generally involves tendons of the rotator cuff muscles and biceps being impinged/’squished’ between bony structures. This is known as subacromial impingement syndrome.
Having healthy shoulders (without subacromial impingement) depends on a number of factors, including rotator cuff strength, appropriate ratio of pushing to pulling exercises, adequate warm ups, good exercise technique, and (perhaps most importantly) good posture. Ensuring good posture (consisting of optimal shoulder and thoracic spine [upper back] position) gives the scapula (shoulder blade) a stable base and enhances its ability to move freely on the rib cage, allowing full mobility.
During movement of the upper extremity, the scapula and humerus (upper arm bone) move in tandem to allow full motion (known as scapulohumeral rhythm). As previously mentioned, if either the scapula or humerus (and associated joints) are unstable or immobile then injury can, and probably will, eventually occur.
- Thoracic extensions over the foam roller
- SMR Lats
- Lat Stretch
- SMR (LAX ball) Pecs
- Pec Stretch
Another possible cause is a weakness of the serratus anterior – this is the muscle that holds your scapula/shoulder blade to your rib cage. If it is weak then ‘scapula winging’ can occur, which obviously puts the scapula into a suboptimal position.
- Scap Push Ups
- Cable bear hug
Ensuring your rotator cuff muscles are strong and healthy is also essential, as these act as dynamic stabilizers of the shoulder (holding the humerus in the correct place during motion).
- External rotations (never perform these to failure)
- Bottoms up kettlebell presses
Having an appropriate ratio of pushing to pulling exercises will also balance out the musculature on the front and back of your shoulders – excessive mirror muscle exercises (bench presses, curls, shoulder presses) will cause shortness and imbalances in anterior (front) muscles (a syndrome known as upper crossed).
- Try and have a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing exercises, so more rows and vertical pulling!
Warming up adequately will prevent injury by increasing the temperature (and therefore extensibility) of your muscles, and will increase mobility at the joints required for exercise.
- A 10 minute jog on the treadmill is not an appropriate warm up prior to lifting. Performing a well thought out warm up routine that includes mobility and activation drills for all the joints and muscles associated with the workout is the best option. Raise (heart rate and temperature) – Activate (muscles) – Mobilize (joints).
Finally, good exercise technique is imperative. Find a qualified strength and conditioning coach to go through correct exercise technique with you, particularly for barbell, kettlebell, and dumbbell exercises (such as the bench press).
*Remember to always consult a physician (or a physical therapist) if you’re experiencing pain, and prior to beginning a new exercise/treatment regime. Your shoulder pain may not be due to the reasons mentioned in this post, so get it checked out first!*
Understanding the physiological and biomechanical demands of a sport and the current ability of an athlete to meet these demands is of paramount importance when both preparing for competition and providing late stage rehabilitation following injury.1 In order to evaluate these demands a needs analysis of the sport and athlete is undertaken, this will consist of varying elements depending on the sport in question. It will often include, for example, a time motion analysis, a profile of energy systems, strength diagnostics, sport biomechanics, and research into injury epidemiology and aetiology.2 3
An essential component of the athlete-specific needs analysis is a movement screen, commonly consisting of a battery of assessments with the aim of determining potential injury sites, movement restrictions, and kinetic chain dysfunctions from a global perspective. The presence of dysfunction and restrictions will force the body to create compensatory movement strategies (CMS) in order to retain its ability to carry out movement tasks, These CMS are often kinesiopathologic,4 5 due to suboptimal load transference throughout the system and causation of undue mechanical stress to bodily structures. As such, it is important for a strength coach/sport rehabilitator to perform movement screens since it is far more effective and efficient to be proactive in addressing dysfunctions and restrictions rather than being reactive to injury when it occurs.
Movement screens are generally based around functional movements rather than isolated motion on a plinth, this allows the strength coach/sports rehabilitator to determine any CMS the athlete uses when performing sport-specific tasks. This is highly important during initial screening, but maybe more so in late stage rehabilitation as it must be ensured that the athlete is sufficiently robust and mechanically sound to avoid re-injury. This is particularly evident as previous injury has been demonstrated as the most reliable predictor of re-injury.6
Numerous function-based screens have been developed and demonstrated to be effective, some of these include; the Y Balance,7 Performance Matrix,5 and Functional Movement Screen (FMS).1 All of these screening systems have their individual merits, however currently the FMS is the most well-known and used. The aim of this paper is firstly to discuss, critique and provide possible modifications for the FMS. Secondly an evaluation of an athlete’s deep overhead squat (OHS) will be provided, whereby restrictions will be highlighted along with potential interventions to improve their performance of the movement.
The FMS1 consists of a battery of seven fundamental movements which challenge mobility, stability, and motor control (see Cook1 and Cook8 for full details of the movements involved). These movements theoretically form the foundation of all other sport-specific patterns.9 The premise of the FMS is that athletes may be predisposed to injury and suboptimal performance if asymmetries, weaknesses, limitations or imbalances are present in any of these movements.1 10 This subsequently alerts strength coaches/sports rehabilitators to these issues and permits them to carry out diagnostic testing on the athlete concerned.
To determine movement competency each movement is scored on a zero to three ordinal scale. A score of zero signifies that pain was experienced in the movement. A score of one indicates an inability to fully complete the movement. A score of two signifies movement completion but with a degree of compensation. A score of three is given if optimal performance is demonstrated. Five of the tests are given a separate score for the left and right side of the body to account for asymmetries, although only the lower of the two is taken for analysis. The sum of these scores forms a composite score of between zero and 21.
The FMS has been demonstrated to have an acceptable ability to predict injury in male military personnel,11 male athletes,10 and female athletes12 when the composite score is <14 (determined via use of a receiver-operator characteristic curve.13 In fact findings from Kiesel et al10 stated that football players were as much as 12 times more likely to be injured with a score below this cut-off point. There are, however, issues with 14 being a cut off score. One argument is that it is possible to score more than 14 even with asymmetries in all of the two-sided tests. Asymmetries are suggested to be a risk factor for injury by a number of authors.1 14-15 Yet little evidence exists to support this suggestion. In a study by O’Connor et al11 no statistical evidence supported asymmetry as a risk factor for injury in military personnel. Additionally it is possible, as in the case of stroke victims, amputees, and cerebral palsy patients, to function and live pain-free with compensations and asymmetries. On the contrary, an athlete in a lower-limb dominant sport may receive a composite score of 14 but still have scored mostly threes in the lower-limb movements. This raises the question of whether this athlete is truly at risk of injury.
Research has additionally critiqued the FMS composite score as a whole, stating that it lacks internal consistency and does not function as a unidimensional construct,16 thus changes to the scoring system have been.17-18 In one study18 it was suggested an objective motion capture system could be used. The researchers compared manual grading (standard subjective FMS criteria) to an objective grading criterion using video and kinematic thresholds related to each FMS grading criteria. The rationale for this research was that the FMS scoring system assumes the tester can adequately distinguish the mechanics relevant to each of the grading criteria in order to grade them accurately. The results of this study showed discrepancies between the manual grading and objective grading methods, highlighting that manual grading may not be a valid method. Butler et al17 also proposes changes, suggesting a 100-point grading scale. The researchers theorise that this will promote greater precision (higher inter-rater reliability) and provide more distinction between scores along with offering more detail as to when movement issues occur.
Despite the aforementioned scoring system faults the FMS has been shown to have high levels of inter- and intra-rater reliability19–21 And although content validity, construct validity, face validity, and sensitivity are deemed to be suboptimal, its specificity and injury prediction abilities are regarded as strengths.18 20
Within the suboptimal elements, lack of content validity may be an issue. This presents itself in the fact that the FMS only tests low load/low threshold movement strategies, whereas in sport the majority of tasks are high load/high threshold (different neural pathways). Frost et al22 looked at the influence of load and speed on five different foundational movement patterns and found that the subjects adapted their movement strategy as a response to heightened task demand. A screen should be a comprehensive, global approach to determine sport specific ability. A lack of high load movements in the FMS prevents it from fully achieving this aim. To improve this aspect of the FMS it would be advisable to borrow from the Performance Matrix method5 which utilises screen for both low load/motor control and high load/strength and speed deficits to identify problems.
The OHS is a commonly used screening tool due to its ability to test global mobility, trunk stability, control of posture, and overall total body mechanics. As a triple flexion/extension movement pattern, the ability to perform a bilateral squat has application to numerous physical activities. In the OHS, as per FMS criteria, an ideal technical model would include the points outlined in Figure 1 along with the ability to descend and ascend in a stable and controlled manner and maintain stability whilst in the bottom position.
Figure 2 was taken from the video provided and demonstrates an athlete’s ability to perform an OHS as per the FMS protocol. When comparing the screenshots in Figure 2 to the technical model in Figure 1 it is apparent that the athlete has a number of limitations in their performance of this movement. In the sagittal plane there is an excessive anterior trunk lean, an inability to break parallel (hip crease below knee level) in the bottom position, and a noticeable lack of dorsi-flexion. In the frontal plane the athlete demonstrates uncontrolled motion manifesting as a weight shift onto the right side, this is also apparent due to the angulation of the dowel held overhead. Due to these dysfunctions, the athlete would have scored a one on the (albeit flawed) FMS scoring criteria.
If an athlete scores a one on the FMS OHS they are permitted to attempt the movement with a two inch heel lift. Figure 3 shows the effect of this on the athletes’ performance. Noticeable improvements in depth, trunk angle and movement control are visible, which suggests that a lack of closed kinetic chain ankle dorsi-flexion is a limiting factor for this athlete. This athlete would now score a two on the FMS scoring criteria.
The ability to dorsi-flex the ankle has been demonstrated as essential when performing the OHS.23 To complete a full OHS with the foot in full contact with a flat surface evidence has demonstrated that 39 ± 6° of dorsi-flexion24 is required. Without ankle dorsi-flexion this athlete will likely be predisposed to injuries such as Achilles tendinopathies, anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL) sprains, hamstring strains, and flexion-type lumbar spine injury. These injuries may occur as the body will compensate for the lack of ankle dorsi-flexion by prolonging or increasing the velocity of pronation (to allow dorsi-flexion to occur at the mid-foot) which has adverse effects further up the kinematic chain. Decreased ankle dorsi-flexion may also cause inhibition of the peroneus longus muscle (amongst others); this muscle is required to decelerate ankle inversion (part of the mechanism for ATFL injury). If the body is unable to compensate through the foot complex, motion may come from increased hip flexion, increasing spinal loading during high load tasks. In addition to this, if a joint can not feel motion (due to restriction) mechanoreceptor function will be compromised, preventing afferent signals travelling to the central nervous system.
This athlete has previously had treatment on the contractile, non-contractile and neural tissues surrounding the ankle in order to improve dorsi-flexion range of motion (ROM), however these had proven to be ineffective. Therefore in order to address this restriction it would be prudent to now address the arthrokinematics of the talocrural joint.25 Reductions in dorsi-flexion ROM is linked to an inability of the talus to posteriorly glide on the tibia,26 potentially due to an anterior positional fault of the talus due to previous lateral ankle ligament injury.27
Mulligan28 29 suggests the use of mobilisations with movement (MWM) for individuals with this articular positional fault. These techniques have been demonstrated to cause a significant increase in ankle dorsiflexion ROM in 60 healthy subjects in functional tasks.30 An MWM for ankle dorsiflexion will involve a continuous passive mobilisation whilst performing full ROM active dorsi-flexion movements; these can be carried out either weight bearing or non-weight bearing.
A weight-bearing (half-kneeling) MWM was used as an intervention for this athlete. Prior to the mobilisations the athletes’ ankle dorsi-flexion range was measured objectively using the weight-bearing lunge test (WBLT)31 (Figure 4), this was important in order to determine if the MWMs were having an effect. If the WBLT score did not improve it would have been evident that the restriction may not have been articular in nature. Three sets of 15 repetitions (approximately 60 seconds) were performed on each ankle at a sustained and controlled pace. Upon re-doing the WBLT significant improvements were noticed in ankle dorsi-flexion ROM. This new ROM was then tested globally in the OHS, where improvement in squat depth and trunk angle were observed (similar to when using the heel lift), indicating that the MWMs were effective as an intervention. In light of this, the athlete was instructed on how to perform a self-mobilisation reported to have the same effect26 (Figure 5).
This paper has highlighted the importance of movement screening in athletic populations. A movement screen is comprised of battery of movements with the aim of detecting movement faults, which then enables strength coaches/sport rehabilitators to retrain these faults to prevent injury/re-injury. It is important to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ screen, as every sport involves different movement patterns and has different injury sites, thus it is appropriate forstrength coaches/sport rehabilitators to create their own. Every test, movement, exercise, or performance therefore can be used as an assessment. A number of screens have been suggested (such as the FMS) however these ‘pre-packaged’ screens commonly have flaws which can impact their application to clinical practice. These include limitations in scoring techniques, movement context (high vs low load) and sensitivity. An analysis of an athlete’s OHS was provided; optimal performance of this movement indicates good global mobility trunk stability, control of posture, and overall total body mechanics, which demonstrates good athletic performance potential. This athlete showed compensations when performing the movement, which upon investigation were due to a lack of ankle dorsi-flexion. Leaving this unaddressed could predispose the athlete to injury (ankle dorsi-flexion is a common probable suspect for injury). After a treatment of MWMs the athlete improved dorsi-flexion ROM and overall OHS performance. It may therefore be appropriate to recommend that this athlete (and others who lack dorsi-flexion) incorporate self-mobilisation of the ankle into their training regimes in order to enhance athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury.
- Cook G, Burton L, Hoogenboom B. Pre-participation screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function – part 1. N Am J Sports Phys Ther 2006;1:62–72.
- Kraemer, W J. Exercise prescription: Needs analysis. Strength Cond J 1984;6:47–8.
- Newton R, Dugan E. Application of Strength Diagnosis. Strength Cond J 2002;24:50-9.
- Sahrmann SA. Diagnosis by the physical therapist–a prerequisite for treatment. A special communication. Phys Ther 1988;68:1703–6.
- Mottram S, Comerford M. A new perspective on risk assessment. Phys Ther Sport 2008;9:40–51.
- Schwellnus M. A clinical approach to the diagnosis and management of acute muscle injuries in sport: review article. Int Sport J 2004;5:188-199.
- Plisky PJ, Gorman PP, Butler RJ, Kiesel KB, Underwood FB, Elkins B. The reliability of an instrumented device for measuring components of the star excursion balance test. N Am J Sports Phys Ther 2009;4:92–9.
- Cook G, Burton L, Hoogenboom B. Pre-participation screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function – part 2. N Am J Sports Phys Ther 2006;1:132–9.
- Minick K, Kiesel KB, Burton L, Taylor A, Plisky P, Butler RJ. Interrater reliability of the functional movement screen. J Strength Cond Res 2010;24:479–86.
- Kiesel K, Plisky PJ, Voight ML. Can Serious Injury in Professional Football be Predicted by a Preseason Functional Movement Screen? N Am J Sports Phys Ther 2007;2:147–58.
- O’Connor FG, Deuster PA, Davis J, Pappas CG, Knapik JJ. Functional movement screening: predicting injuries in officer candidates. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011;43:2224–30.
- Chorba RS, Chorba DJ, Bouillon LE, Overmyer CA, Landis JA. Use of a functional movement screening tool to determine injury risk in female collegiate athletes. N Am J Sports Phys Ther 2010;5:47–54.
- Fan J, Upadhye S, Worster A. Understanding receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves. CJEM 2006;8:19–20.
- Parkin S, Nowicky A V, Rutherford OM, McGregor AH. Do oarsmen have asymmetries in the strength of their back and leg muscles? J Sports Sci 2001;19:521–6.
- Gorman PP, Butler RJ, Plisky PJ, Kiesel KB. Upper Quarter Y Balance Test: reliability and performance comparison between genders in active adults. J Strength Cond Res 2012;26:3043–8.
- Kazman JB, Galecki JM, Lisman P, Deuster PA, O’Connor FG. Factor structure of the functional movement screen in marine officer candidates. J Strength Cond Res 2014;28:672–8.
- Butler R, Plisky P, Kiesel K. Interrater reliability of videotaped performance on the functional movement screen using the 100-point scoring scale. Athl Train Sport Heal Care 2012;4:103-4.
- Whiteside D, Deneweth JM, Pohorence MA, Sandoval B, Russell JR, McLean SG, et al. Grading the Functional Movement ScreenTM. J Strength Cond Res 2014;1:10-12.
- Elias JE. The Inter-rater Reliability of the Functional Movement Screen within an athletic population using Untrained Raters. J Strength Cond Res 2013;11:5-8.
- Beardsley C, Contreras B. The Functional Movement Screen: A Review. Strength Cond J 2014;36:72-80.
- Smith CA, Chimera NJ, Wright NJ, Warren M. Interrater and intrarater reliability of the functional movement screen. J Strength Cond Res 2013;27:982–7.
- Frost DM, Beach TA, Callaghan JP, McGill SM. The influence of load and speed on individuals’ movement behavior. J Strength Cond Res 2013;12:11-20.
- Kasuyama T, Sakamoto M, Nakazawa R. Ankle Joint Dorsiflexion Measurement Using the Deep Squatting Posture. J Phys Ther Sci 2009;21:195–9.
- Hemmerich A, Brown H, Smith S, Marthandam SSK, Wyss UP. Hip, knee, and ankle kinematics of high range of motion activities of daily living. J Orthop Res 2006;24:770–81.
- Loudon JK, Bell SL. The foot and ankle: an overview of arthrokinematics and selected joint techniques. J Athl Train 1996;31:173–8.
- Cosby N, Grindstaff T. Restricted Ankle Dorsiflexion Self-mobilization. Strength Cond J 2012;34:58-60.
- Cosby NL, Koroch M, Grindstaff TL, Parente W, Hertel J. Immediate effects of anterior to posterior talocrural joint mobilizations following acute lateral ankle sprain. J Man Manip Ther 2011;19:76–83.
- Hing W, Bigelow R, Bremner T. Mulligan’s Mobilization with Movement: A Systematic Review. J Man Manip Ther 2009;17:39–66.
- Mulligan B. Manual Therapy: NAGS, SNAGS, MWMS, etc. 6th edn. Minnesota: OPTP, 2004.
- Guo L, Yang C, Tsao H, Wang C, Liang C. Initial effects of the ankle dorsiflexion mobilization with movement on ankle range of motion and limb coordination in young healthy subjects. 物理治療 2006;39:93-94.
- Konor MM, Morton S, Eckerson JM, Grindstaff TL. Reliability of three measures of ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2012;7:279–87.
Muscle hypertrophy – increasing muscle size/promoting muscle growth. Probably the most popular reason for most people joining gyms and/or beginning lifting (alongside fat loss). Gaining lean muscle mass makes you look better and feel better, it’ll also help with fat loss (muscle tissue is highly metabolic/’energy hungry’) and can lead to improvements in strength and power – and therefore sports performance.
Many people join gyms, begin a programme and see results fairly quickly, and these results continue for a few months until the ‘beginner gains’ plateau is hit. At this point things slow right down, frustration sets in, and the person will inevitably quit or at best end up stuck in a rut, miserable, and paying an expensive gym membership for nothing. This usually occurs because trainers and trainees have no understanding of how to trigger muscle hypertrophy (following the initial ‘honeymoon’ period of being a beginner), and therefore don’t really know how to write an effective, science-based programme that progressively produces results and avoids plateaus.
There’s been a plethora of research on muscle growth over the past decade in an attempt to fully understand how hypertrophy occurs and, although it’s difficult to determine for certain, several researchers have some fairly good ideas. One of these researchers is Brad Schoenfeld (http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/), who published an excellent study in 2010 titled “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training”. This blog post is heavily based on that article and others by Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras.
As previously stated hypertrophy simply means muscle growth and is the opposite of muscle atrophy (muscle loss).
Hypertrophy has two secondary categories;
Transient Hypertrophy – the short lived, post-workout ‘pump’
Chronic Hypertrophy – long term lasting gains, actual changes in muscle architecture (i.e. what we’re training for)
Chronic hypertrophy occurs in two ways according to research –
Contractile/Myofibrillar/Functional Hypertrophy – This involves the addition of sarcomeres (basic muscle units) in parallel. Contractile elements (actin and myosin) also enlarge and multiply and the extracellular matrix (everything else inside the cell) expands. This is deemed ‘functional’ as the tissue that is hypertrophied and supplemented is ‘contractile’ and thus capable of contracting and generating force. This is ‘powerlifter hypertrophy’ to put it simply.
Non-contractile/Sarcoplasmic/Non-functional Hypertrophy – This is the increase in size of the non-contractile elements inside the muscle cell (collagen, glycogen) and sarcoplasmic fluid. This is ‘non-functional’ as it doesn’t directly involve changes to the contractile elements and therefore doesn’t produce changes in force expression. This is ‘bodybuilder hypertrophy’ – big but not necessarily strong. This form of hypertrophy can have knock-on effects which promote contractile hypertrophy – hydration and thus cell swelling may lead to subsequent cell growth due to pressure on the cell wall.
In order to get bigger we need to maximise protein synthesis (create an anabolic environment) and minimise protein breakdown/catabolism. Multiple mechanisms/factors are proposed for this.
Three Main Factors
- Mechanical Tension
- Muscle Damage
- Metabolic Stress
This is a combination of force generation and stretch. It’s the amount of tension that muscle fibres produce when a load stimulus is introduced.
Mechanical tension disturbs the integrity of skeletal muscle, it facilitates molecular and cellular responses that trigger hypertrophy.
There are two types of muscular tension:
– Passive tension – which occurs during eccentric contractions (‘stretching’ a muscle under load)
– Active tension – relating to the contractile elements of the muscle. Occurs during hard, forced contractions of a muscle (i.e. lifting heavy stuff).
This is localised damage to the muscle tissue caused by novel/unfamiliar exercise, slow eccentrics (lowering part of the exercise), or forced stretching of a muscle whilst it’s in an activated/contracted state.
It creates ‘myotrauma’ (muscle trauma) which triggers an acute inflammatory ‘healing’ response that stimulates growth factors that mediate and promote hypertrophy.
Putting a muscle under repetitive, sustained stress causes metabolite accumulation which triggers an anabolic response (raises testosterone, IGF-1, growth hormone, and mechano growth factor).
Metabolic stress can be induced best via anaerobic glycolysis (hard, intense exercise with limited amounts of oxygen, lasting 10s – 2min). This causes a build up of metabolites – lactate, hydrogen ion, inorganic phosphate, creatine (amongst others) and promotes an acidic, ischemic, and hypoxic environment in the muscle (which can also trigger hypertrophic adaptations).
All three of these elements are inter-related, and training in a way that optimises and combines all three will produce the greatest results.
Application to Training
Train with a minimum intensity of 65%1RM (15 rep maximum), in moderate repetition ranges (6-12 reps). This prescription will cause a metabolic build up which boosts testosterone and growth hormone. It will also induce a pump (ischemia and hypoxia) which triggers hypertrophy and an increase in protein synthesis.
Additionally the more repetitions that are completed the longer the time the muscle is under tension which means more microtrauma/damage to the muscle (through eccentric contractions).
For maximum hypertrophy a higher volume, multiple set approach must be taken. Greater volume will stimulate greater growth hormone release and hypertrophy will result.
To facilitate this a body part split routine may be more beneficial that a full body routine as it will allow more regular training whilst still permitted muscles to fully recover. Again, more total reps also equates to more eccentric contractions which results in more muscle damage.
Multi-planar and multi-angled exercises must be included to allow for variance in muscular structure (i.e. fibre orientation) and to fully stimulate the entire muscle. Regular rotation of exercises will also make sure of this.
Whilst selecting exercises it’s essential to incorporate a mix of multi-joint and single joint exercises. Single joint (“isolation”) exercises will help to prevent imbalances and can develop weaker areas that may be neglected during compound/multi-joint movements.
Not all exercises are created equal, some lend themselves better to different rep ranges, different tempos, and different focuses (hypertrophy, strength, power). Certain exercises will produce a ‘pump’ effect more easily than others, some will create tension in a muscle better than others, and some exercises are more suited to slow eccentric contractions or tempos that will damage fibres.
Big, multi-joint, compound exercises are best for developing high tension in a muscle and activate the greatest amount of muscle mass – squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows, pull ups (etc.). Incorporate variations and assistance exercises to ensure all fibres are hit.
Constant tension exercises are best for creating the pump effect – lateral raises, concentration curls, leg extensions (etc.).
Exercises that produce high tension whilst the muscle is in a lengthened state are best for creating muscle damage – dumbbell pec flyes, RDLs, incline curls (etc.). It’s important to be careful with these highly damaging exercises as, although damage is an effective hypertrophic stimulus, excessive damage can prevent you from training and cause more harm than good.
Moderate (60-90s) rest will allow sufficient metabolic stress, adequate strength recovery, and create a more anabolic environment within the body.
Training to Failure
Training to concentric muscular failure is highly beneficial and should be done regularly (although not necessarily in every exercise/set), it’s important to ensure that the repetitions are still technically good (and safe) – a spotter is usually important here. Reaching failure allows the maximum number of motor units to be recruited and creates high metabolic stress.
A moderate concentric speed (one or two seconds) with continuous muscle tension creates a greater metabolic demand than very fast or very slow repetitions. Slower eccentric repetition speeds are beneficial for hypertrophy as they will inflict more muscle damage and positively affect protein synthesis.
Employ intensification methods sparingly to push a set or exercise to the limit. These methods can include eccentrics/negatives, drop sets, rest-pause, cluster sets, supersets, tri-sets, and quad-sets. These methods can trigger additional hypertrophy stimulating signals that can lead to augmented muscle growth over time. Using this as a finisher at the end of a session for the final exercise or final set of the final exercise may be most beneficial and will limit the potential for injury.
Example Session Structure – Leg Day
Tension A1) Back Squat – 5×6 @ 80%1RM, 90s rest interval, 3 sec eccentric
Tension B1) Split Squat – 4×8 @ 75%1RM, 60s rest interval, 3 sec eccentric
Damage C1) RDL – 3×8-10 @ 77.5%1RM, 4 sec eccentric
Damage C2) Nordic Hamstring Curl – 3×6 @ BW, 90s rest interval, 4 sec eccentric
Metabolic Stress (“pump and burn”)
D1) Leg Extension – 3×12 @ 70%1RM, 3 sec eccentric
D2) Leg Curl – 3×12 @ 70%1RM, 3 sec eccentric
D3) Calf Raise – 3×12 @ 70%1RM, 60s rest interval, 3 sec eccentric
High Intensity Technique Finisher
E1) Leg Press – 2×12+ @ 70%1RM, 60s rest interval
Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
Fry, A. C. (2004). The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports medicine, 34(10), 663-679.
Very few people seem focused on getting strong anymore.
This isn’t just limited to the general public, it extends to college/high school athletes, and even professional athletes. Naturally this isn’t the case everywhere (there are some great coaches and programs around) but it seems to be the trend in many settings.
The commercial gym environment has been broken by “functional” training methods, body-pump(and similar) classes, typical body-bulding routines (done with zero focus/intent by people who are a million miles away from being body-builders), and the ‘wrap them in cotton wool’ approach of so many personal trainers.
Even the training of professional, collegiate, and high school athletes has been affected by coaches with a poor understanding of exercise science and an unhealthy obsession with the newest ‘fad’ training style (for example solely using crossfit-like high density programing for the training of non-crossfit athletes).
In general there seems to be a tendency to provide “entertrainment” for our athletes/clients (always do something different each session, use every piece of equipment available [etc]) rather than sticking to what actually works – lifting heavy implements (predominantly barbells) and progressive overload. It’s not sexy, it often hurts, and it requires focus – but it works, and is has done since the beginnings of recorded history in ancient Greece.
Why train to be strong?
If you train to get strong you’ll look good, you’ll have better posture and be in less pain, you’ll be able to better perform physical tasks in sport, at work and at home, and you’ll feel million times more confident and better about yourself. Differentiate yourself from the masses (the people you see at the gym, at work, or at the doctors surgery) – stop being weak.
“Strength is the foundation of athleticism.”
“Maximal strength is the ability to exert maximal force on an object.”
Athletes, by being strong you will perform better in your sport. This was demonstrated in 1991 by Fry and Kraemer who studied several hundred division 1, division 2, and division 3 (American) football players including both offensive and defensive positions. Measures of strength and power clearly followed a continuum of the better players (D1) being stronger and more powerful, and the lower levels (D2 and D3) less so. Having greater levels of maximal strength will (after a short lag-time for transfer of training effect) allow you to generate force faster due to increased power (force x velocity). Put simply, power is strength displayed quickly. Power is a defining factor in sporting performance – power is essential to jump, throw, kick, punch, lift, sprint, and rapidly change direction. Being stronger (being able to produce more force) increases your capacity to be more powerful (athletic). I like the analogy that you’re basically increasing the size of your glass (see image below).
How do I get stronger?
All the curls, tricep push downs, flyes, lateral raises, and crunches in the world will not get you strong – unless you’re a raw beginner. Heavy squats, bench presses, deadlifts, rows, presses, pull ups, and dips – these build strength. If, after 5×5 heavy back squats, you have the energy, motivation, and desire to do curls and crunches, then be my guest. But remember 80% of the results you get from that session will come from the 20% that you’ve already done.
Doing power based exercises (snatches, cleans, jerks, plyometrics) won’t build maximal strength (they’re limited by your ability to produce power and your technical ability), they refine it and transfer it to power/athleticism. Therefore if you lack strength in the first place, you’ll never get as powerful as someone who is already strong. Build a foundation of strength.
“But what about my stabiliser muscles?” Supporting a heavy bar will challenge your TvA/deep trunk musculature, rotator cuff, spinal erectors (etc.) in the way they’re supposed to work – in conjunction with each other as a unit. You may not feel a ‘burn’ like you do by isolating them and doing high repetition sets, but that isolationist approach (for healthy athletes) is inefficient and ineffective.
Having the necessary degree of strength to deal with the demands of your environment (be it sport, work, home) is considered the bare minimum. However your intention should be to exceed these demands and be prepared for any eventuality. For athletes – you need to be as strong as you can in order to develop the capacity to produce more power so you can dominate your competition and rise to the top of your sport. Providing the strength you’re developing is given time to transfer to your sport, then you are never too strong (Stone, Moir, Glaister, & Sanders, 2002).
Stone, M. H., Moir, G., Glaister, M., & Sanders, R. (2002). How much strength is necessary?. Physical Therapy in Sport, 3(2), 88-96.
Fry, A.C. and W.J. Kraemer, Physical performance characteristics of American collegiate football players. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research, 5(3): 126‐138, 1991.
Becoming a fan of this as a warm up/”activation” exercise, relatively easy to set up and less space requirement than a (supine) barbell hip thrust.
It gets extra merit as, since it helps ‘switch on’ the glutes, it may help prevent anterior femoral glide. This is where the head of the femur moves forward in the acetabulum during hip extension due to the hamstrings ‘overpowering’ the glutes. Resulting in hip pain and (eventually) injury.
(See Sahrmann’s 2002 book, or Eric Cresseys article below for more info).
Over the past few years I’ve encountered a number of lifters who have either done Smolov, or are thinking about doing it. And of the former category I can genuinely count on two fingers the number of lifters who got through it without some kind of injury (be it acute or over-use). I’ve personally done only the base cycle (higher volume phase) and I even found I got niggles from that.
So what’s going wrong here? Are we squatting wrong? Is there some kind of Russian secret to finishing Smolov?
What is Smolov?
Smolov is a squat routine/programme that was created in Russia by Sergey Smolov and popularised in the West by Pavel Tsatsouline. It’s effectively a 13-week ‘peaking’ programme to increase your squat – which is said to increase by over 20kg if you do the programme properly (and don’t get hurt).
It consists of an introduction cycle, base cycle, switching cycle, and intensity cycle (each phase is a different length and carries different instructions in terms of frequency, volume, and intensity). The programme requires regular squatting at varying (generally high) percentages of your 1RM. For example during the base cycle you’ll be squatting 4x/week for 3 weeks. 4 sets of 9 reps Monday, 5×7 Wednesday, 7×5 Friday, and 10×3 reps Saturday.
To see the programme, visit http://stronglifts.com/how-to-add-100-pounds-to-your-squat-smolov/ – there’s information on a lot of different programmes on there, great resource.
Should I try it?
As far as I’m concerned there’s only a small population who can realistically justify use of the Smolov routine.
First off – do you have excellent squat technique?
If your squat resembles a good morning, you’ve never felt what ‘breaking parallel’ feels like, or you’ve got the biggest butt wink anyones ever seen, then I’m afraid you should NOT be trying to build up your squat. Fix your technique and get mobile first – maybe hire a qualified coach to teach you, or see my post about the technical model for the back squat here.
Secondly – are you an intermediate or advanced lifter?
If you’re brand new to training (beginner) then improvements in strength/power within the first (supposedly up to) 20 weeks are largely due to neuromuscular adaptations –i.e. you may get stronger without seeing any noticeable increases in muscle mass. These adaptations include improved motor unit firing frequency, synchronisation, and recruitment. I’d be lying if I said beginners would see no improvements…but they’d see improvements following something like 5×5 for 13 weeks as well, which is incidentally far less taxing and carries much less risk of injury (particularly in this lesser trained population).
If you’ve been training regularly a little longer (i.e. six months or so) your squats looking good and you’ve added a few kilos/pounds to it, then I’m sorry, but you’re still basically a beginner. At this stage progressive overload (consistent training with gradually increasing loads) will enable you to get stronger and bigger – think 5×5, 5,3,1, or starting strength.
How do you know if/when you’re an intermediate/advanced lifter? Well I’d personally suggest (along with having excellent technique) that being able to squat at least 2x your bodyweight is a good determinant of this (more to be classed as advanced). If you fall into this category it may be time to consider use of the programme.
Finally, does your sport require you to have a big squat?
This is my final criteria – is it worth even doing the programme? Do you NEED to get a bigger squat?
If you’re a not a weightlifter/powerlifter/strongman/(maybe) bodybuilder then you probably don’t (or at least I’m sure you can get a little stronger using less intense, drawn out, single minded methods).
My reason for this – realistically how much extra direct transfer does it actually have to the sport itself? If you’re a rugby player and can squat 200kg/440lb, how much better a rugby player will you actually be if you can squat 210kg (and spend weeks and weeks doing it)?. That strength may not transfer to the sport. A lot of the best rugby players I’ve worked with have been in the middle group in their club when it comes to squatting, it’s not worth wasting the time and risking injury to get them a tiny bit stronger.
So what’s going wrong here? Nothing, besides being weak and not requiring the kind of intense stimulus that the Smolov routine provides. When I last ran Smolov (the base cycle only) I saw improvements (more so to my deadlift as opposed to my squat) and found I gained a fair bit of mass, I was squatting a little over 2x bodyweight at this time. I’d recommend trying the base cycle first, or even Smolov Jr (an adapted version of the routine).
If you’re going to do the full Smolov:
– EAT…A LOT. You probably won’t be eating cleanly, you’ll need the calories for recovery.
– Get at least eight hours sleep each night, consider supplementing ZMA to help.
– Recover – foam roll, stretch, regular baths, sports massage if you can get it – you’ll break otherwise.
– Minimise other training, particularly lower body, you just won’t be able to tolerate the load. Don’t worry though, your legs are getting more than enough training. Train upper body, but don’t go crazy – maybe just bench and a rowing variant.
– Get out of the gym – don’t spend long in there, short and sharp workouts. You’ll begin to hate it otherwise.
– Warm up properly. Enough said.
– Supplement – creatine, fish oil, glutamine, additional protein, etc. Give yourself a fighting chance.