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Does Practice Make Permanent? How Practice Rewires Your Nervous System

In our younger years, many of us likely heard the expression “Practice Makes Perfect.” This usually came from a parent, coach, or teacher. Some took the saying a step further, adding “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect.” Some even say, "Practice Makes Permanent". Regardless, still the message was clear – if you want to improve, you need to put in some time and focused effort. You need to practice.

But is all about simply practicing or do we need to have a different focus?

Research has provided a better understanding of how practice influences skill development, helping us understand how the nervous system is rewired during the process. While there are many components to consider during the process of motor learning and skill acquisition, in this article we will be discussing how a unique tissue to the nervous system called myelin plays a critical role in the acquisition and mastery of skills.

Practice Rewires the Nervous System
When we are exposed to a movement or sport skill that is new or unfamiliar, the result is typically feeling awkward and uncoordinated. To some degree, we may be apprehensive. This is normal and to be expected. But, as we practice, something happens. Things get smoother, we feel more comfortable, and the movement/skill becomes more natural.

What is happening?

What practice is actually doing is rewiring your nervous system to become more efficient during complex movement tasks through a process called myelination.

The Role of Myelin
Understanding all the intricacies of the nervous system is not the point of this article, but a little background will be helpful. Myelin is a tissue that covers our neurons, the cells that make up the nervous system. Myelin is mostly a fatty substance, with cholesterol being an essential component. It serves to insulate nerve cells and has a characteristic “white” appearance. This is why most people refer to myelin as “white matter” when discussing the nervous system. What science has helped us understand is that myelin improves the speed and strength of nerve signals, meaning that myelinated nerves transmit signals faster than non-myelinated nerves. Myelin helps our nervous system function at a higher level.

Ok, so how do we get myelin onto our nerves?

To begin with, the majority of myelination occurs during the early stages of development. These stages of development occur during the 2-3 years after birth and into early childhood. Children are myelin-generating machines. This can be seen not only in respect to movement, but also with language and comprehension skills as well. Where there is development, you will find myelin. This is why there are critical developmental stages that exist in long-term athletic developmental (LTAD) models. LTAD models help us understand that we cannot make up for lost time. Sure, as we get older we can continue to generate myelin, but it happens at a slower rate and requires more effort. This is why most young athletes who miss critical developmental stages tend to get passed up later in their athletic careers.

So what’s the big deal about critical developmental stages?

It provides children with graded exposure to skills through practice and repetition. The process of practice and repeated effort triggers a pattern of signals through our nervous system. With time and repetition, myelin is produced to increase the speed, strength, and coordination of these nerve signals. It’s a streamlining effect that your nervous system undergoes due to exposure to a repeated sensory stimulus and motor (movement) output.

Practice Makes Myelin, So Practice With Purpose
Understanding the role of myelination in skill acquisition has tremendous implications. Yes, volume and frequency of practice matters, but myelination makes a case for understanding why quality of practice matters. Practicing with an extreme focus on quality is equally, if not more important, than simply practicing a lot. Don’t just practice to practice. Corrections should be made as they are needed. You don’t want to spent the majority of your time practicing bad habits, as bad habits are hard to correct. Bad habits arguably are not permanent. However, the longer they exist, the harder they are to unlearn. Myelin is a big reason why.

In the context of training and sport skill development, if you lift/sprint/jump/practice with poor technique and no one corrects your mistakes, you will be myelinating those nerve pathways – which does you no good and only serves to lowering your athletic potential. Sure you may improve, but you will never reach your true potential. And the longer your bad habits remain, the harder it is to correct them.

The takeaway: practice of movement skills over time causes specific neural pathways to work better via myelination. To improve your performance, you not only need to practice FREQUENTLY, you also must practice CORRECTLY and receive plenty of feedback from a qualified coach so you are able to properly develop your movement and sport skills.
More related reading:

https://gallagherperformance.com/unlock_your_potential_with_this_powerful_tip/

https://gallagherperformance.com/movement-improves-brain-function/

A Few Words on Athletic Development

We get asked quite often about our training philosophy when it comes to athletes. Many parents want to know if the training their child will receive at GP is going to be sport-specific. While specificity in training matters, many of our athletes and their parents are surprised to learn how general or fundamental their training must be in the early phases. What needs to be clarified is understanding how much training experience the athlete has and the physical traits that must be developed. The vast majority of athletes we work with are involved in the sports of football, hockey, baseball, and basketball. Success in these sports are highly dependent upon power-speed qualities. We must train these athletes to develop the abilities that allow them to jump, sprint, cut, and dominate their opponents with brute strength. It's our job to make them bigger, faster, stronger, and more durable. It's our job to physical prepare them for the demands of their sport.

Aspiring young athletes are in need of building a broad foundation rooted in movements that will develop strength, speed, flexibility, and body awareness. For the evidence-based fans out there, we use movements and exercises that all have been proven through research to work. But more importantly, the exercises used have stood the test of time and have served as the backbone to athletic development programs for decades. Sprints, jumps, throws, compound strength exercises, Olympic weightlifting movements when appropriate, and general calisthenics have all play a role in the training of some of the greatest athletes in the world.

But the exercises are not simply enough. Almost every single one of our athletes must be exposed to a high volume of training without a high degree of variation. It's important to respect the neural adaptations young athletes or novice trainees undergo during the training process. High volumes of training will help ensure motor learning and skill acquisition while developing the connective tissue strength needed for more intensive training down the road.

This template serves to lay the foundation for the neuromuscular qualities required to meet the increasing needs for speed and power development. It's simple math really. If an athlete improves relative strength, that athlete will be faster and more explosive. Keep in mind that that other factors can be at play too. For instance, that same athlete must also maintain or improve movement quality to improve speed and explosiveness.

However, these are only portions of what goes into a quality athletic development program. It's much more than simple "strength and speed". This is why we feel the value of a qualified strength and conditioning coach or athletic development coach is severely under appreciated. Unfortunately, far too many people have been misinformed by either poorly educated trainers or by the internet. They haven't experienced the difference guided athletic development can make in their performance. Having a coach to guide young athletes not only in their development, but also in areas such as nutrition and cultivating the mind set needed to achieve their goals can give them a huge advantage over their competition.

That's why we love what we do at GP. Not only do we get to work with clients and athletes that have big dreams and big goals, but we also help them develop habits that create a healthier lifestyle. When we have them giving us their best, they deserve nothing less than our best!

More related reading:

https://gallagherperformance.com/understanding-the-benefits-and-concerns-of-youth-strength-training-programs/

https://gallagherperformance.com/periodization-keep-athletes-track-fo-success/

https://gallagherperformance.com/the-essentials-of-speed-training/

How to Develop Physical Fitness

Recently, I was having a conversation with one of our clients about what it takes to be ready to compete in sport. The conversation mostly centered around athletics and how to be in the best "condition" possible. Specifically, this client was talking about certain people they know and hold in high regard as having a high level of physical fitness. All was going well until they said something very interesting.

In regards to someone they know, they said, "Man, are they fit. They are probably the most fit person I know."

When I asked them what makes that individual the "most fit" person they know, they just stared blankly back at me. There was no response and you could see the wheels churning away trying to figure out the answer.

Fitness is a craze nowadays. Women want to be fit. Men want to be fit. Athletes want to be fit. People want to be fit. Health clubs, personal trainers, smart phone apps, and infomercials want to sell you on becoming more fit. Slogans such as “Forging Elite Fitness” and titles such as “Fittest Man on Earth” or “Fittest Woman on Earth” make the concept of fitness very intriguing. Many people have come to believe fitness is a complex process. To most, the idea of “fitness” brings to mind someone who is muscular, lean, strong, and has stamina for days. This “idea” of fitness seems to be nothing but mere marketing and often leads people down the road of overcomplicating their exercise or training program.

So, that begs the questions, "What is fitness?"

Physical fitness is actually quite simple if we define fitness as “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular physical task”. If your task is to compete in the 100m dash, then your fitness levels must enable you to successfully compete in that event. If your task is to start in the NFL, then your fitness must enable you compete at your highest level possible week after week.

Developing Physical Fitness
Physical fitness is achieved during the process of physical preparation or how prepared you are for competition. The ultimate goal of physical preparation is to have each athlete at their best during competition and is accomplished via a systematic process to promote adaptations that raise levels of both fitness and preparedness. Fitness adaptations thus follow the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). Meaning, if you want to gain muscle, get stronger, and be more explosive, you better be sprinting, jumping, throwing, and lifting weights to allow those specific adaptations to occur. The SAID principle also means that an athlete’s level of fitness should always be specific to their sporting demands.

Debating who is the most “fit” athlete or individual on the planet is a ridiculous conversation. How can someone say that an NHL defensemen who plays almost 30 minutes per game over an 82 game is more or less fit than an Olympic caliber decathlete? How is that Olympic decathlete more fit than a Navy SEAL? How is a Navy SEAL less fit than the “Fittest Man on Earth”? How is the winner of the Boston Marathon more fit than the World’s Strongest Man?

Do you see what I am getting at?

An athlete’s fitness levels (strength, power, stamina, energy system development, etc.) will always be specific to what is required by their primary sport form. Just because someone is the “Fittest Man on Earth” does not mean they will have the ability to withstand the demands of competing within another sport at elite levels. Personally, the “Fittest Man/Woman on Earth” title would be better renamed to “Fittest CrossFitter on Earth” because that’s all the title means. The notion that elite fitness in one event or sport is somehow superior to the fitness required in another is either arrogant or ignorant (possibly both).

Understanding Physical Fitness Adaptations
To better understand physical fitness and the specific adaptations that result from training, we must first consider the training system commonly used to achieve improvements in endurance, strength, and power. This training system is known as concurrent training. Concurrent training is defined as, “the simultaneous inclusion of strength training and endurance training within the same program.” Concurrent training may be a necessary means for some athletes and individuals. However, for most, the application of concurrent training is widely misunderstood and poorly organized in the pursuit of all things “fitness”. They want to improve endurance, so they do a lot of aerobic exercise. They may run, bike, or swim for hours each week. They also want to get lean and strong, so they lift weights 2-4 times per week. These are the people who train and train and train, yet fail to see significant improvements in any number of neuromuscular adaptations.

Aerobic and strength adaptations are very divergent. The human body is simply not capable of adapting appropriately to two very different training stimuli. You can go run for a long period of time or you can be explosive and strong from weight training. Now, I understand nobody wants to be both an elite marathon runner and Strongman. However, there are people who want high levels of aerobic capacity while also becoming muscular and strong at the same time. Unfortunately, many of these same people plateau quickly or fail to see significant improvements because concurrent training attenuates muscular growth, strength, and power gains. There is an interference effect created when one attempts to simultaneously improve both aerobic fitness and neuromuscular qualities such as strength and power. The training approach is doomed from the beginning if specificity and attention to detail in training organization does not enter the picture.

To understand why, we must then understand the competing long-term adaptations that occur from strength training and endurance training.

Competing Long-Term Adaptations
1) Strength Training (short duration, high force output)

  • Neural Adaptations – synchronous firing, recruits large populations of motor units, rapid rates of force development, improve rate coding
  • Endocrine Adaptations – Growth Hormone (GH) and Testosterone release, anabolic environment, stimulation of satellite cell activation and muscle protein synthesis
2) Aerobic Training (long duration, low force output)
  • Neural Adaptations – asynchronous firing, recruits small populations of motor units, slow rates of force development
  • Endocrine Adaptations – impaired anabolic hormone signaling, elevated Cortisol and catabolic hormone production, inhibition of mammalian target of rapamyacin (mTOR), essentially shutting down the pathways for stimulating muscle protein synthesis
This means that regardless of whether you perform aerobic exercise and strength training in separate sessions or during the same exercise session, the results can be negative depending on your “fitness” goals or needs as an athlete.

Fitness is Specific
Physical fitness is thus specific to the end goal of physical preparation. The physical preparation of an American football player should be different than that of an MMA fighter. Football players do not need to have the "fitness" levels of MMA fighters. Each of these athletes must develop their physical fitness qualities to meet the demands of their sport. Consider that American football players must develop power-speed qualities that are essential to their success at high levels of competition. Some trainers and coaches feel that some of their football players need better aerobic fitness or conditioning, so they have them perform high volumes of gassers or long distance runs in the off-season. As said before, this can prove to be a huge mistake. Being "fit" for football has very little to do with how many gassers you can complete, how fast you can run three miles, or what your Fran time is.

The same is true for other power-speed athletes (hockey, baseball, lacrosse, sprinters, throwers, etc.) Senseless and poorly implemented aerobic conditioning will have negative impacts on the neuromuscular qualities needed for successful participation in these sports. These qualities are important to their “fitness” as an athlete. Sure, go ahead and perform endless miles of running or biking. Go on with your absurd amounts of circuit-based training. But when you rob these athletes of their ability to develop higher levels of strength, speed, and power, it should be no surprise as to why it happened. Aerobic fitness cannot be prioritized to the point that more important qualities (strength, speed, and power) suffer.

But, isn’t a decent aerobic conditioning base essential for these athletes as well?

Yes. However, there are more optimal ways to develop their aerobic energy systems to meet the demands of their sport. Don't make the mistake of assuming aerobic capacity is the same as being "fit". Aerobic energy system development will always be specific to the athlete's needs. Similar to resistance training, aerobic development should be periodized and appropriately dosed to developed the specific energy system demands without impairing performance.

Conclusion
Fitness is not simply achieved by going nuts, but rather being productive in specific approaches to your sporting demands. If you are unsure of how to appropriately address your fitness goals or needs as an athlete, then first start with a knowledgeable coach who understands the complexities of physical preparation for sport and is able to guide you in the process. For some, the concept of fitness requires a bit of a “reality check”. Sure you may want it all. You want the elite level endurance, strength, speed, and power. But, often this is not realistic. Prioritize your fitness goals and address them accordingly in specific phases of training. This process requires patience.

Remember, fitness is a highly specific quality that is ultimately dependent upon the physical preparation process for your sport of participation. Understand your training must mirror your demands for sport. If training is not addressing your specific needs as an athlete, you are wasting your time. Don't let some general or poorly defined concept of "fitness" guide your training.

More related reading:

https://gallagherperformance.com/physical-preparation-vs-fitness/

https://gallagherperformance.com/the-truth-about-functional-exercise/

https://gallagherperformance.com/ultimate-runners-guide-to-injury-prevention/

Athletes Must Understand This to Be Successful

The emphasis of many athletic development programs is typically rooted in developing the physical qualities needed in the sport of competition. Physical qualities usually emphasized are endurance/work capacity, strength, body awareness, agility, quickness, speed, and explosive power. Improvements made in any of the previously mentioned physical qualities can certainly improve an athlete’s fitness and physical preparedness for competition. But great athletes are rarely defined by their level of fitness and how ‘in-shape’ they are. They are defined by their ability to play the game and perform the skills of the sport. Great coaches and trainers understand this, being able to take an athlete’s newly developed physical qualities and transfer them to into improved skill execution or technical mastery of sport related movements.

This is accomplished by specificity of training.

In order to ensure specificity of training, it is first necessary to determine the exact physical qualities an athlete is in greatest need of. Many coaches and trainers refer to this as ‘identifying the deficiency’. Once the deficiency is identified and an understanding is developed as to how the deficiency is limiting on-field performance, the deficiency can be trained appropriately.

To identify deficiencies, the majority of coaches and trainers utilize tests to determine an athlete’s level of strength, endurance, explosiveness, and even flexibility. While these tests are often necessary and provide quantitative information that will help assess how an athlete stacks up in comparison to others, what these tests fail to indicate is how efficiently an athlete can perform sport-specific skills or maneuvers.

Physical performance tests fail to indicate an athlete’s needs in relation to game performance. To ensure transfer of training into improved sport performance, identifying an athlete’s developmental needs must take into account an analysis of all components involved in successful competition. Often, this involves a complete biomechanical analysis of movements related to sport-skill execution.

For example, the deep squat is often a staple of many strength and conditioning programs. It can be a tremendous exercise for building hip strength and power and for a variety of other reasons. But when you examine the sport-related movements of many athletes, one can come to the determination that the need to deep squat is not a priority for many athletes. Consider hockey and basketball players. These sports require hip external rotation strength and power to execute sport-specific movements (skating, lateral cuts, change of direction, etc.). Rather than placing greater and greater emphasis on improving strength in the deep squat, these athletes will be better served in developing hip external rotation through other exercises which more closely mimic the external rotation demands of the hips in competition.

Again, great athletes are rarely the strongest or the fittest. There are studies that demonstrate Olympic-level athletes and World Record holders are not the strongest athletes (with the exception being in strength sports such as powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting). Athletes on the highest levels of performance do not lift the greatest amount of weight in commonly used exercises, such as the clean, squat, bench, or deadlift.

More commonly, athletes will fall in the midrange of strength numbers. What this is demonstrating is a ‘point of diminishing returns’. Many athletes reach a point at which increases in strength or other physical qualities do not always equate to improved sport performance.

Successful athletes must be able to execute sport skills with technical mastery and precision. Regardless if you are a hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis or track athlete, you need great acceleration, speed, agility (ability to change direction quickly), and the ability to jump high (which also requires explosive power). But arguably most important is the ability to perform all sport skills with mastery and precision of movement.

An athlete will never be successful if they do not have the ability to execute sport skills successfully. This is why technique must be closely analyzed and why the training of physical qualities must directly enhance the performance of sport-specific skill execution.

Analyzing an athlete’s sport skill technique and the demands of game play becomes a necessary first step to determine exactly what their training program should consist of. Often to correct and/or enhance technique, special strength exercises are implemented to develop the specific strength an athlete needs to execute movements more efficiently.

We addressed special strength exercises in this article. Special strength exercises are intended to replicate the exact neuromuscular pathways utilized in the execution of specific sport skills.

With proper analysis and identifying the ‘deficiency’ of the athlete, it enables the training program to have greater transfer into sport performance. The training program is continually adjusted as improvements in strength, speed, agility, and explosive power are integrated into technical mastery of skill execution.

Related Articles:

Training for Elite Athletes
Common Mistakes in Developing Young Athletes

Why Athletes Should Avoid HIIT Programs

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a system of training characterized by high-intensity resistance or metabolic training with short/incomplete rest periods in between working sets. An example of HIIT is often advocated by Crossfit WODs (workout of the day) and other similar programs.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, HIIT is now the most popular fitness trend. HIIT has tremendous appeal to those looking to shed unwanted body fat and ‘lean up’ or ‘get in shape’ quickly because of its ability to burn body fat more efficiently. HIIT has been shown to produce greater improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic capacity with less overall training volume when compared to individuals who only perform steady-state aerobic exercise. In the public eye, a huge upside to these workouts is they typically take less than 30 minutes to complete. Sounds too good to be true, right?

However, what is rarely if ever mentioned, is the number of injuries sustained by participants.

In my opinion and experience, which may be similar to what others are also observing, the number of injuries associated with HIIT appears to be on the rise. What is especially significant to note is that these injuries are often debilitating in nature.

Not only is HIIT growing in popularity among the general population, but it also seems to be a growing trend among athletes. The point of this article is to discuss why HIIT is not an appropriate training program for athletes and provide some insight into why athletes should avoid programs that advocate high-frequency application of HIIT methods.

Why Athletes Should Avoid HIIT
First and foremost, when training with heavy weights or performing complex motor skills (i.e. jumps, throws, sprints) it is highly critical that proper technique is learned during the initial stages of training. This is the key to not only continual development in regard to strength and all other physical abilities, but is fundamental to injury prevention.

Proper technique is the key to ensuring that strength developed becomes more useful not just in athletic skills, but also in everyday activities. For athletes, proper technique serves as the foundation for efficient execution of sport-related movement skills.

So why does HIIT fail athletes?

What appears to be most important in HIIT is overcoming a prescribed amount of resistance or finishing a prescribed number of reps in a designated amount of time, regardless of how it is done. From the start, HIIT does not place technique as the number one priority. For your viewing pleasure, Youtube provides numerous examples of this. I can recall watching a Crossfit workout during which a young female participant is doing her best to finish an overhead press. She had to contort her body in every way imaginable in her attempt to get the bar locked out overhead. Needless to say, I did not like what I saw.

What was even more disturbing to me was hearing the other members of the class cheering her on and applauding her when she finally locked out the bar overhead. They were encouraging her effort with absolutely no attention or care about her technique and safety. This is just one example of many that indicates how overcoming the weight was more important than how the lift was performed.
Other daily workouts may prescribe high-intensity metabolic conditioning that often requires participants to train to the point of exhaustion and, sometimes, to the point of throwing up. The mindset and main objective is primarily focused on overcoming a specific quantity of work as opposed to expressing quality in the work.
It is this mentality that can be detrimental to athletes and the general fitness population as well. There is a reason why physical therapists and chiropractors love Crossfit and other HIIT programs. HIIT programs are pretty good at producing patients.

Another unwanted factor associated with HIIT is the high degree of fatigue and lactate training loads. For athletes, how can they master movement and skill execution or build speed and strength in a fatigued state? The answer is they cannot. This is something the majority of coaches and trainers must understand. Lactate-based training is widely over-utilized and misplaced. This ultimately cuts into more productive training methods and increases the need for recovery. When it comes to HIIT programs, recovery is often not sufficient and will potentially push participants into a chronic state of fatigue or create an over-trained individual. Keep in mind, injuries are more likely to occur in a fatigued or over-trained state.

When it comes to HIIT, training principles regarding periodization, progressive overload, mastery of technique, specificity of training, and individualization of training are completely ignored. These principles, among others, are highly important when it comes to the safety and effectiveness of training athletes. They have been proven to be foundational in producing the most effective results from any training program.

Final Words
Training and sport science tells us that HIIT programs or any randomized high-intensity program is not conducive for efficient training and development of athletes in regards to strength, speed, power, and other physical abilities. Sure it may be trendy, but ask yourself does the program or exercise routine provide the development you want? Remember, development is always specific to your training demands. Also, ask yourself if your current training methods are more likely to make you a better athlete or a patient.

Related Articles:

Interval/Sprint Training vs Cardio: Which is Better for Fat Loss and Physique Development?
Training Hard vs Training Smart
Have You Mastered Your Movement?
2 Reasons For Your Lack of Results
Training for Elite Athletes

GP Athlete Spotlight: Todd Summers

Todd Summers (Murrsyville, PA) will be a sophomore at Franklin Regional this fall. At 6'3" and 181 lbs, Todd is a power forward for the FRHS varsity basketball team and also plays AAU ball for the Pittsburgh Pressure and BSA.

GP is aiding Todd in his preparation for the upcoming basketball season. His program has focused on improving lower body strength/power development while adding size to his frame. Todd has a tremendous work ethic and with his vastly improved physical abilities, he is on the path for long-term success.

Welcome to GP, Todd!

Have You Mastered Your Movement?

This article was originally published for MPG New England. It has been republished here with permission.

"The word ‘athlete/athleticism’ is used too loosely amidst the sporting community. It is one thing to participate in a sport and it is another thing entirely to be an athlete."

-James Smith
Athletic development is a long-term pursuit. The organization and implementation of sport training programs can pose many challenges. Programs should never be a simple concept of various exercises for a given number of sets and reps combined with exhaustive conditioning sessions if individualization in the process of long-term athletic development is of any importance to the coach and athlete. Athletic development is a process in the mastery of several components. One component of athletic development that is often overlooked (or ignored) by many coaches is proper mechanics as they relate to the acquisition of sport skill. Or in its simplest sense, the concept of movement efficiency. This is especially evident in youth sports, arguably when the instruction and learning of proper mechanics matters most to an athlete.

The training of fundamental athletic qualities should start early in life. These athletic qualities have been described as coordination, mobility, balance, rhythm, relaxation, timing, and kinesthetic sense (awareness of one’s body in space). It is these qualities or biomotor abilities that separate a true athlete from someone who simply participates in a sport. James Smith wrote, “The word ‘athlete/athleticism’ is used too loosely amidst the sporting community. It is one thing to participate in a sport and it is another thing entirely to be an athlete.”

We all can appreciate this concept. Be it a youth soccer game or an international track and field event, we have seen the ‘superior athletes’. The highest-level athletes standout by their ability to make complex sport movements look effortless due to their high degree of mastery. They simply make things look easy because they have learned to move efficiently.

Whether it is the ability to sprint, jump or throw, several athletes participating within a high level of sport do not demonstrate efficient mechanics. Let’s consider sprinting. Yes, the ability to generate high levels of power and ground reaction forces will allow an athlete to move fast, but speed potential cannot be realized until efficiency of movement is mastered. This often requires the eye of a coach/specialist who understands biomechanics as it relates to sprinting and the ability to instruct what is necessary to the athlete.

The concept of teaching ideal or efficient movement should take priority before increased training loads or demands are implemented. This holds true for sprinting as well as any sport skill or weight room movement. The more a movement or sport skill is practiced at increasing velocities or against greater loads, the more concrete that exact movement pattern becomes programmed at the neuromuscular level. Meaning that that athletes who perform a specified movement without regard for proper mechanical efficiency only get better at moving inefficiently. This becomes detrimental to their long-term potential as an athlete and elevates their risk of injury. It is the proper mechanical instruction of the sport skill(s) combined with proper management of training load variables that becomes vital in setting the stage for athletic development.

Training Hard vs Training Smart


"People are incredibly innovative in their efforts to screw up training."

- Charlie Francis, Canadian Speed Coach

When it comes to sport training and many training systems, there are aspects that are poorly managed or misused in their application. One that is very common is the lack of understanding of physiology as it relates to bioenergetic training parameters and workload compatibility in sport.

Programs and coaches may frequently implement high lactate training loads into their program for a variety of reasons. Exhaustive shuttle runs, suicides, gassers, extended sets, and 'circuit' style workouts are all examples of lactic training. The problem is even though they may be performed with perceived 'maximal effort', in order to accomplish the prescribed work, individuals are training at a medium intensity. This level of intensity is too slow to develop speed. They teach muscles to behave slowly. Furthermore, the recovery requirements are high and thus cut into the ability to perform more intensive work that would directly improve speed and explosive strength.

There is not much justification for the frequent use of lactic training loads when the nature of most field/court based sports is alactic/aerobic with varying degrees of lactate influence. This is illustrated by the influence of bioenergetics on mitochondrial concentration in skeletal muscle. Mitochondria are responsible for energy production and oxidative potential. More mitochondria means greater energy supply and faster recovery. Mitochondrial concentration is elevated in skeletal muscle by anaerobic-alactic and aerobic training, while anaerobic-lactic training results in their destruction. Lactate threshold training must be appropriately prescribed and closely monitored.

This is just one example of why training loads and parameters must have compatibility to ensure the greatest transfer into sport performance improvement. The sports training world has fallen victim to a number of gimmicks in the name of profitability. Gimmicks such as high speed or anti-gravity treadmills, ladder drills, and exhaustive circuit-based training are examples of training that has very little to no carry over into athletic performance. Read more about this here.

For athletes and individuals who take their training and health seriously, your results are too important for someone to 'screw it up'.

Understanding the Role of Olympic Lifts in Training

The Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk) and their variations are often used in the training and preparation of athletes that require explosive strength and power. Although Olympic lifts may be useful for teaching an athlete of low preparation how to rapidly generate force, overall they are not ideal for developing explosive strength for a number of reasons. Of primary importance is the increased risk of orthopedic injury associated with Olympic lifts, namely the overhead portions. So how does one efficiently develop power and explosive strength without undue risk of injury?

If the end goal is to improve explosive strength of the leg and hip musculature, as measured through vertical jump and standing long jump, coaches must select the most efficient and safest means. Charlie Francis placed sprints, jumps, and throws just as high as the Olympic lifts on his motor unit recruitment chart. Sprints, med ball throws, weighted/unweighted jumps all become wiser alternatives for power development as they require far less time to learn and impose less risk of injury.

This is not to say Olympic lifts serve no purpose. They certainly can be useful, but their positive effects are greatly misinterpreted by most coaches. For instance, some coaches utilize various volume and intensity schemes with the Olympic lifts to develop bioenergetic pathways used in acceleration phase of sprinting. Others will use it to develop tremendous starting strength. Keep in mind, there have been Olympic-level weightlifters with remarkable vertical jumps. Some have the ability to keep pace with or beat Olympic-level sprinters in the first 30m out of the blocks.

This sounds like pretty amazing stuff, right? Simply hit some cleans and snatches to get powerful and fast?

However, there's a big problem.

You aren’t as good at the lifts as an Olympic-level weightlifter. Remember, weightlifting is a sport. It is a skill and unless you have a lot of years under your belt, perfecting the lifts, you aren’t even remotely close to having the lifts make a significant impact on your athletic performance.

If you are going to get the most out of training the Olympic lifts, it absolutely matters that you are skilled from a technical viewpoint.

For example, outside of elite status Olympic weightlifters, very few lifters actually achieve full hip extension during the lifts. Meaning, they aren't fully developing powerful hip extension. Full, powerful hip extension is essential to developing explosive athletic qualities seen in sprinting, jumping, and throwing.

So, as an athlete, why would you perform a series of exercises that are ultimately going to take years of practice to learn while reaping little benefit from that effort? Sure, plenty of people think they have "learned" the lifts, but reality is they are far off the mark.

It takes time, a lot of time, to learn how to do the lifts properly. Achieving rapid, full hip extension is not an easy task and don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Nobody ever mastered the lifts in a matter of weeks.

So when it comes down to appropriately addressing power-speed development in athletes, it should become clear that there is potentially wasted time and energy in truly learning the Olympic lifts. Similar training results can be achieved with more basic exercises without the high technical demands.

Looking for ways to develop powerful hip extensions? Variations of sprints, jumps, and med ball throws get the job done faster with greater dynamic correspondence. Unless you are competing in weightlifting, the Olympic lifts don't offer much in dynamic correspondence to many athletes. Consider movements specific to your sport. Whether it is skating or shooting in hockey, throwing a baseball, covering a wide receiver, or kicking a soccer ball, there are very few specific connections with the Olympics lifts when you look at the movement patterns.

For an athlete, the Olympic lifts become very general in their ability to train resisted hip extension and reactivity.

As an athlete, your goal is to get better at your sport. Specificity in training matters. You could be wasting valuable time and energy resources on learning lifts that have little impact on your abilities to perform in competition.

Concluding Thoughts
I’m not here to bash on the Olympic lifts. They can serve a purpose in developing explosive hip extension and reactive/plyometric qualities. However, there are problems that exist with their use and implementation in the training programs of athletes. As mentioned previously, outside of competitive weightlifters, the Olympic lifts lack specificity. Specificity and dynamic correspondence are critical for any athlete. The Olympics lifts also impose greater structural risk and this could be considered unnecessary when developing athletes. The goal of athletic development is to maximize training results while minimizing structural risk. Consider variations of sprints, jumps, and throws. These alternatives are easier to implement and progress, thus providing both athletes and coaches the ability to master power-speed qualities specific to the athlete's sport form.

Drop the Confusion, Athletes Need Consistency for Efficiency



What you need to know:

  • Neural efficiency is the key to becoming a better athlete, this is known as athletic mastery.
  • Mastery requires time, intelligent programming, hard work, and dedication to consistency.
Consistency Matters
The primary goal of any athletic and strength development program should be neural efficiency. Fact of the matter is the nervous system controls and coordinates every movement and every function in your body. The nervous system thus is the regulator of strength and movement coordination. This is why ALL successful athletes have periodization implemented into their programming. Periodization is a fancy word for structured, intelligent programming to address individual needs.

Any athlete that has reached elite status in their sport has used periodization to address their needs and to ultimately promote positive, long-term adaptations from the learning of repeated actions by the nervous system. One observation that can be made of such programs is how little they seem to change or when a change is implemented, it follows a progression based on what the athlete is displaying or what they are capable of from day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month.

Don't Let Fitness Trends Confuse You
Programs and/or trainers that endorse 'muscle confusion', randomized daily workouts, or continual change to exercise without following proper programming will always fail to develop an efficient nervous system. Sure for the ADD crowd and those that get bored easily, this appeals to you. Or maybe you are that person obsessed with 'fitness' and have become convinced workouts of this manner are the Holy Grail. If you are one of these people, be my guest. That's your choice. This article is specific to athletes and those that want to see consistent, sustainable results from their hard work. Not to simply have a workout entertain them.

Randomized workouts may sound interesting, even cool. The marketing placed around these workouts will spin words and science to make them appealing to the masses. Ultimately the end result is not allowing the athlete or individual to properly adapt to their training and achieve mastery.

How can adaptation and mastery be a bad thing when you want to improve? Want to be great?

Mastery is the Goal
For many, the frustration with mastery is it requires time. A lot of time. Mastery is a long-term process. This is exactly why great coaches and great athletes stress fundamentals at any level, from 7 year olds all the way up to the professional ranks. Think about it. Coaches don't just go through random drills at practice and if they do, they likely don't last long or frankly shouldn't be coaching in the first place. Fundamentals are reinforced because the better an athlete is at the fundamentals, the greater chance of success they will have when performing more complex sport skills.

Mastery is a grind. Its prerequisites are consistency and discipline. Mastery takes years to develop and this becomes a problem when the fitness industry wants to sell a 'quick fix'. And most Americans want that 'quick fix'. They want results now, not later. They don't want to put in years of work when they see programs that advertise how they can 'get ripped in 60 days' or 'get faster in 4 weeks'.

That's a Wrap
Athletes should recognize that their goals will not be solved with today's latest fitness trend. The only way to achieve mastery is through consistent, focused effort to become efficient in all fundamentals and sport specific skills. The message should be clear. At GP, this is something we feel strongly about and want to provide you with the information needed to make the best decisions for your goals. Mastery and efficiency are critical to the athlete and we addressed the importance of that in this article.

Is your training program allowing you to develop the mastery needed to achieve your goals?

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