Blog | Coaching | Featured | Programming Lab to Leg Day: How to be a Scientific Strength and Conditioning Coach
Author / Ben Skutnik
Recent research suggests that 6-weeks of whole body vibration training improves vertical jump training (Rubio-Arias et al., 2017). Additionally, drinking an ice slushy will help athletes perform better in heat (Zimmermann et al., 2017). Also, athletes can get the same gains from a single set of 3 reps at 80% 1RM and three drop sets of triples at 30% 1RM as athletes who train with 3 sets of triples at 80% (Ozaki et al., 2017). So, grab a slush machine and head back to the drawing board, coach!
You want to create a science-based training program for your athletes, right? One that can guarantee results based off the latest research…right?
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
— Carl Sagan (@CarlSaganQuoted) April 16, 2014
Over the last few years, there has been a boom of science-based methods of training that promise big gains. But what does it mean to be “science-based”? Is that the same as being scientific? Is one approach better than the other? In this post, we’re going to dissect (@IngoB) the two approaches to empower your performance as a coach and programmer.
When using a science-based approach, one of the primary benefits is the ability to target specific mechanisms of adaptation. Read through books like Verkoshansky and Siff’s Supertraining or Power Athlete Radio alum Cal Dietz’s Triphasic Training and you’ll see what I mean. Whether you’re looking to increase mitochondrial density, strengthen connective tissues, or improve rate coding there will surely be articles out there with protocols for those specific mechanisms. And, many times, these protocols drive innovation in programming and coaching. FORM Collars, PowerDot, and things of the like were created due to outcomes of projects and studies. But, without an understanding of the mechanisms at play, the usefulness of these devices are simply for show.
Where Science Falls Short
Unfortunately, simply understanding the mechanisms won’t guarantee performance gains. Scientific studies often contain limitations in the research design and the applicability to the sporting realm. The most unavoidable one is that many mechanistic studies are performed in a controlled, laboratory setting.
This means that all but one or two variables are held constant. Diet, sleep, training status, etc…all things that can impact performance are typically held constant in human performance research. Life doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but science definitely does. Because of this, you need to create a critical, but not cynical, mindset in order to best digest what the studies conclude.
Sifting Through Science
In order to understand scientific articles, you need to know where to start: the title, author line, and the abstract. In the abstract you’ll find the purpose, the methods, the results, and the conclusion. If the abstract interests you, before reading the article, go to the figures and graphs. Here, regardless of your scientific prowess, you will be able to utilize ocular verification (i.e. the eyeball test) and see if what the scientists are feeding you is the real deal.
You want to see “individual data plots”, that is, a graph showing the response of each subject throughout the experiment. Yann Le Meur, a French PhD in Exercise Physiology, does a great job of illustrating the importance of this. If the author doesn’t provide individual data it raises a red flag but isn’t a deal breaker. We like to see individual data to see what the expected outcome can be. Remember, coach, you are working with a small group of athletes and just because the statistics say one thing, we want to know how each individual fared. From there, approach the study and subsections with the following questions in mind:
Author line: Who are the authors? Are they trusted scientists in their field (like Dr. Bryan Mann)? Methods: who were the subjects? Acknowledgments: who funded the study?
Author line: where is the lab based out of? Major universities are the most reputable, but companies like Nike do have fully functional research facilities.
Methods: what were the details of the intervention? Results: what did they find?
When was it published? Be wary of truly cutting edge stuff as well as research more than 20 years old.
Purpose: why is this important to research? Discussion/Conclusion: why did the results occur (mechanisms of action)?
Discussion/Conslusion: how do you implement this?
If the subjects were elite-level athletes, regardless of the intervention, a performance increase of 1-2% is huge. Just ask Adam Nelson. 2% could mean four more years of a multi-million dollar endorsement deal for the elites. But, a result of a 2% increase in performance might not mean much if the subjects were sedentary schlubs.
Running the Grand Experiment
While it’s important to be scientifically influenced in your program design, it’s impossible to keep up with the research. Constantly varying your approach won’t allow the necessary time for a training effect to occur. You need to utilize the scientific method! You need to develop a hypothesis, create the experiment with measurable variables, collect the data, analyze it, and make necessary changes one variable at a time. These steps are key! Here’s an example:
Reinforcing and strengthening the posture and positions seen in all field and court sports will decrease non-contact injuries seen in athletes of these sports and increase in-game speed.
A 20-week protocol consisting of four days of multiplanar resistance training with a progressive linear increase in external load.
Record reps and weights used in each session in a uniform manner. TrainHeroic has come up with a very user-friendly platform from both the coach and athlete standpoint for this.
Strength numbers went up, injury occurrence decreased, no change in in-game speed.
Changes to be made: continue resistance training protocol but implement additional sprint training.
Idle, Innovative, and Incidental
This is where the great separate themselves from the good. As a coach, you must have a drive to further educate yourself. The above mentioned “experiment” works…until it doesn’t. Remember, you are going to have a long career in strength and conditioning, but your athlete’s career is heavily dependent on your ability to prepare them. Don’t be an incidental coach, constantly trying out new methods without giving time for the old stuff to work. You may find success, but it will be very unpredictable.
On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to be idle. The Old Ball Coach mentality of “it’s worked for 30 years” is a paralyzing mindset for our industry. Basic strength and conditioning programs are built upon principles that have worked for years, but at some point your athlete will develop beyond their effective range. In order to drive accelerated adaptations, their program needs to evolve with them. Principle based programming allows for this. Variables can and will change, but the root purpose of the program remains the same.
Solidify The Method to Your Madness
So, coach, what are your principles? If it takes you more than 60 seconds to answer that, chances are you actually don’t know. That’s okay, you’re not alone. Every coach has been there. Many coaches spend years honing their craft, learning from individual coaches along the way. Thankfully, you have to opportunity to jumpstart that journey by connecting with hundreds of coaches at once.
Embark on your coaching journey and establish a base level of knowledge with the Power Athlete Methodology. By learning the ins and outs of this system, you will be empowered to train every athlete you encounter. Whether it’s elite athletes, warfighters, or your general population, these time-tested principles will be the foundation for whatever methods you choose to drive accelerated adaptation.
Do you want to nibble on the table scraps of other coaches or do you want to crack the bone and suck the marrow, empowering yourself to be the greatest coach you can be?
Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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