By Carl Valle
My earlier article on hacking training made enough of an impact that coaches wanted more. I developed this second article after some coaches advised me on better ways to make the tried-and-true smarter or more effective. This article also digs slightly more into rehabilitation, technology, and practical monitoring, as the role of a strength coach is sometimes that of an extra therapist in the return-to-play phase or of an applied sport scientist. Also included here are a few tips and tricks that make coaching more fun for everyone, not just your athletes.
1. Amplify Deep Water Running
The mix of deep water running and occlusion training works wonders for older athletes and athletes who are desperate to restore their body back to normal, says @spikesonly #traininghacks Click To Tweet
After a long season, athletes need active recovery, and pool workouts are my favorite. This year, I am adding full body blood flow restriction training (BFR) to the equation. With little time to recover from extended competition schedules, BFR is a spark that makes a difference in a matter of weeks. While the research is not clear on aquatic resistance, the mix of deep water running and occlusion training works wonders for older athletes and athletes who are desperate to restore their body back to normal.
One strong word of caution, though—not much research is available on how hydrostatic pressure interacts with blood flow restriction, so I recommend being conservative at first and using systems that quantify the pressure. If you are a university strength and conditioning professional, see if someone in your department or school can give you guidance on how a body responds. Anecdotally, the combination feels great, but I am not sure of the exact mechanisms that could enhance the outcomes or if the combination is just a product of doing multiple interventions at the same time.
2. Play Long Medicine Ball Toss
A common question I get is what to do with very light medicine balls that have been purchased without a coach’s recommendation—say, a kilogram or lighter. My experience is that the super light balls are great for soccer throw-ins from a running approach, similar to javelin training. A large athlete can throw the balls half a football field depending on the warm-up and bounce of the ball, creating a perfect work-to-rest ratio that can be leveraged for early circuit work or just teaching the body to eccentrically stretch the anterior chain of the torso.
Video 1. Using a very light medicine ball that is designed to bounce is great if athletes are properly prepared. Combine the ballistic throws with conventional lifting and the results are outstanding.
I was afraid that the load would be a little rough for athletes who don’t have much shoulder preparation. However, incremental steps to throws and approach distances should be enough to not have to worry about preparing specifically for an exercise that really has limited transfer in performance. Sometimes athletes need gross fitness and to get out of specific comfort zones, and adding a long toss with super light medicine balls is gold for athletes who tend to get stale quickly.
3. Use a Superquake Bar
Video 2. I am not a fan of unstable training, but the research on specialized bars is enough to use the modality for a short phase with some athletes. Only use the barbell when athletes are skilled in traditional training.
The oscillating barbell is similar to a conventional bar, but the material properties resemble a pole vault bend when used. A similar bar, called the Tsunami bar, is available, but my colleagues prefer the Earthquake bar for several reasons. They also feel it’s a great return-to-play option for both the lower and upper body. Oscillation and vibration are similar, and coaches that don’t have access to a 1080 Quantum or Syncro will want a similar training effect.Oscillating bars, if prescribed with a goal, are excellent additions for athletes who require more than therapeutic exercises, says @spikesonly. #traininghacks Click To Tweet
From my experience, the activation of load and oscillation increases muscle activation, but the long-term training effects over years is unknown. During the return-to-play period, the small amount of perturbation is a great way to wake up the body and provide challenge that has a purpose. It’s easy to add randomness or variety for the sake of keeping things interesting for the athlete, but the oscillating bars, if prescribed with a goal, are excellent additions for athletes who require more than therapeutic exercises.
4. Single Leg Squat on a High Box
I love single leg squats provided they teach pelvic control and spine positions I can use for heavy bilateral exercises. One trick I learned is to use a high box—it isn’t very novel, but the reason was brilliant. If you look at the center of pressure of the foot and watch high repetitions, look at the supported leg.
Video 3. High box single leg squats are staples and I program them year round. You can use the exercise as a screen with athletes from time to time as well.
Usually, we see a lot of fishing for balance or changing of the flexion of the free leg, a fair strategy for an athlete who wants to perform a lot of reps in a short time. If the athlete is able to prance with the free leg—meaning pop and drive the knee like a step-up—cramping of the hips decreases and coordination of the prime movers increases. The research on EMG and single leg squat variants isn’t overwhelmingly exciting, but differences in stance create different recruitment patterns. I just care about how well athletes learn, and the use of a coordinated leg drive without cheating or cunningly compensating is what we tend to look for in training.
5. Cool-Down with Drills and Motor Skills
Most drills are used to help warm up, but I stole a few ideas from coaches who do a lot of cool-down training. When I reviewed the science, the practice of cooling down seemed to be very limited or even contraindicated for recovery. What I learned is that a simple 20-minute cool-down seemed to do wonders for coaches, and I was of the belief that they were manipulating learning and consolidation of information with motor skills performed in an aerobic session.
It was also interesting that if you can’t warm down without limping, the main session is likely too much. I love that concept, since athletes tend to empty their bucket and just go home with perhaps a session that was too much. With no checks and balances on the main training session, it’s easy to light up athletes and feel that the session was ideal because nobody was injured. Microtrauma is a very grey area, and sometimes we do too much without knowing it. I don’t know if enough research can really explain everything, but it’s a good idea to try warming down with drills once in a while and see what works for you.
6. Program Attachments with More Frequency
The easiest way to keep athletes alert without resorting to randomness is to request different grips or versions of the same exercise. I learned from a few coaches that you always go heavy on the traditional movement and use supportive repetition ranges and efforts with the alternative grip or movement pattern. The reason is simple: You will need to compare apples to apples, and having an athlete be polished in the primary version is safe as well. Young athletes crave novelty, or better yet, a human’s nervous system craves new challenges.Movement variability will happen on its own without a coach needing to apply additional change, so a small tweak is all you need—not an overhaul of a workout week to week, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Adding a little bit of spice without ruining the rhythm of the workout is great. Movement variability will happen on its own without a coach needing to apply additional change, so a small tweak is all you need—not an overhaul of a workout week to week. Remember that attachments won’t turn a weak grip into a crushing hand or add pounds of muscle, but they do keep athletes sharp and alert with conventional movements.
7. Modulate Light Wearable Resistance
Repetition without some fresh challenge becomes a war between the need to refine movement and having the learning session become transferable in chaotic situations. Sometimes a small load reminds an athlete to be sharp, as deterioration is a possible path that athletes experience with technique. Wearable resistance is continuous feedback, and using EMG and Exogen adds extra hours to a coach’s day, but if you are in the private sector and doing complex return to play or post-surgical rehab, you can’t guess. Many athletes get injured in the early part of the season, not because of acute chronic work ratios being off, but because rehabilitation programs simply failed. Wearable resistance is not a cheat code by any means, but it does allow an overload without annihilation to the body.
Video 4. Keeping the plantar surface parallel with the ground reduces “fishtailing” to the knee and hip. Micro-loads to the lower leg makes a small but useful change to this error immediately, but you still have to coach the movement to deprogram athletes fully.
It’s great to manipulate different limbs and the center of mass with the Exogen, especially with change-of-direction training. I prefer using symmetrical loading during sprints, and asymmetrical loading for plyometrics with rehabilitation. Again, I am new to using Exogen, but a lot of bright people are getting great results with the product. Small changes in load can make a huge difference at high velocities, so be careful.
8. Customize and Build PVC Pipe Hurdles
The cost of hurdles of any type is sometimes a strain for coaches, especially high school strength coaches who want to do plyometrics. My recommendation is to make your hurdles and spray paint them every other year as they start to chip. When you break a molded hurdle, the entire hurdle is broken, so the low cost tends to be a poor investment in the long run. Coaches who want hurdle mobility routines or need to have wide hurdles to use a contact grid should consider building their own hurdles.
Along with PVC pipes being easy to cut and buy at the local hardware store, the addition of insulation makes them great for the visual requirements if you need them for actual hurdling. If you build hurdles for actual hurdling, remember that going wider than normal helps the optical perception for youth male hurdlers who may need something that doesn’t look intimidating, and for both sexes who need to prevent hooking when hurdling solo if they have bad habits. You can still buy commercial PVC pipe hurdles, but if you don’t have the budget, remember you have options.
9. Keep Athletes Honest with Load Cells
Isometric holds become boring very quickly. Also, isometric holds for time with very light loads in groups are popular because they keep an athlete honest. Short intense maximal isometric holds are very difficult to perform without measurable feedback. If I had to make any changes to the biofeedback article, it would be adding a load cell to popular resistance and isometric exercises.
If an athlete only uses subjective effort, things can become very loose. When athletes perform isometric testing repeatedly, the challenge starts to get old quickly. While they will always want to beat their score, with immediate feedback athletes can see instantaneous changes in force. When pushing or pressing against a static bar, a set of force plates is appropriate, but most of the time using attached cables will do the trick.
10. Repurpose Fitness Equipment
Battling ropes and push sleds can be great general training options for horizontal pulling. I am not a fan of most heavy sled use for speed development, but do respect the equipment for general training needs. The same can be said for battling ropes, as I tried them and found nothing to write home about. If you used battling ropes and found them to be a nice change during long training years, you can repurpose them for horizontal pulling from seated, standing, and lying positions.If you used battling ropes and found them to be a nice change during long training years, you can repurpose them for horizontal pulling from seated, standing, and lying positions, says @spikesonly. #traininghacks Click To Tweet
You can go light or you can go heavy—just know that it’s better to be resourceful with what you have than sell equipment you don’t think you need anymore. Again, I understand that storage can be an issue, so if you don’t have the space, don’t stress about keeping older equipment. Just know if you do have room or use battle ropes and sleds often, you can do more.
11. Learn Diving and Gymnastics Core Exercises
I think some simple tumbling and rolling exercises help, but I have said multiple times that diving and gymnastics build the core better than anything else because of the torque and coordination. I do appreciate bang-for-your-buck exercises on the ground, but gymnastics and diving build incredible torso strength. You don’t have to do everything, just do more aggressive core exercises and move away from a steady diet of planks and bracing. The low-load core training that was supposed to stabilize the pelvis worked great on paper, but we now have more research on the actual forces that transmit through the spine.
Don’t spend forever looking at books and videos; just go to your local college and ask for a few tips or exercises that are appropriate for team sport athletes with a few years of training under their belt. You can still do pull-ups with controlled technique, but adding speed and manipulating the legs can put a lot of extra strain on the rectus abdominis. Some training philosophies say you need to train isometrically to prepare the body isometrically, but the truth is you just need a complete program that builds strength that transfers.
12. Mount Security Cameras in the Weight Room
A mounted security camera may be one of the most vanilla #traininghack as it doesn’t excite, but it solves problems and removes headaches. Within 24 hours, watch sessions change from good to great, every single day, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Not having a security camera in 2019 is insane, as they are very easy to install and are very inexpensive relative to the past. When you add a security camera, an array of things change. One, you improve athlete behavior when you are there and when you are not. Second, you improve safety, as plenty of staff members use facilities past normal hours.
Don’t be confused between mounting a camera for security purposes and mounting a camera for video feedback. Use both cameras for separate reasons. It’s amazing what you will see when you mount a camera, especially watching yourself coach or instruct a session. Some school districts require a mounted camera, and a good mounting pattern—such as the entrance of the facility and corners of the weight room—works wonders. This is perhaps one of the most vanilla “hacks” as it doesn’t ignite excitement, but it solves problems and removes headaches. Within 24 hours, watch the sessions change from good to great, every single day.
13. Fine-Tune Assisted Nordic Hamstring Curls
One of the challenges with Nordic hamstring curls is the complaint of tendon irritation behind the knee. It’s the reason I avoid the exercise with most athletes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t modify it. The use of a large elastic band is great—it supports the end range of the exercise and it’s very easy to progress by reducing the thickness or resistance of the band.
Video 5. The Nordic Hamstring Exercise has some evidence behind it, but you don’t need to stress out if you are not incorporating it or have modified options. Just keep in mind that variations are not the same with regards to adaptation, so be careful.
I have used assisted band push-ups as a replacement for kneeling or angled push-ups for years, and now creative coaches are adding bands to the Nordic hamstring exercise. There’s one problem though: While progression is fairly simple and straightforward, the quantification side becomes a little confusing. Adding a load cell—a growing trend in performance—turns a simple band-assisted exercise into a lab-quality solution. The primary reason besides measuring force is the speed of the movement, a valuable way to track how athletes get stronger and more advanced.
14. Create a Bound and Broad Jump Index
Bounding is alternating between right and left legs, and broad jumping is bilateral jumping horizontally as well. The issue with the research of power is that the bilateral deficit is confusing to coaches who assume that bilateral jumping is a waste of time. One researcher mentioned the broad jump as an overspeed option for early acceleration, and I like that thinking, but it’s still early to use the exercise as a solution for everyone.
Some athletes improve their broad jumping with general training, while others must deliberately work on horizontal jumping to get horizontal speed. Many athletes just get better from “wiring” sprinting and jumping with general strength training, but it doesn’t hurt to profile and prescribe individualized training if necessary. If you have athletes who are polished with bounding and jumping out, look at the distance they cover with their best three explosions.
A standing triple for both double and single legs is easy to do as athletes perform 3-4 jumps and measure the best three or first three scores, whichever is greater. Average the jumps and see if they are clearly better at one or the other. Don’t fret about the numbers as much as how their norms match up individually. It’s not a perfect test, but it does get you thinking about your unilateral leg training. Don’t forget to measure leg lengths, as broad jumping and comparing athletes to each other becomes messy with players of different heights.
15. Use the 3D Strap Year-Round
Video 6. I love the 3D strap and can’t say enough things about it. If you want to really add more to your program, make sure you utilize them every week as they are more than just rotational tools.
The 3D Strap is deceivingly simple, but makes a basic cable system into a dream machine. From a design standpoint, the strap is a clever way to leverage the offset loading and spiral attachment patterns of muscles. You can do countless exercises, but to me the value comes from the rotation of the hips and shoulders and learning to hinge with load, rather than spending excessive time teaching a young or veteran athlete to basically bow. You can do more than just hinge and rotate—you can help increase the recruitment to stabilize the joints with fundamental movements without getting lost in excessive balance demands.The 3D Strap is deceivingly simple, but makes a basic cable system into a dream machine. Its value comes from the rotation of the hips and shoulders and learning to hinge with load, says @spikesonly. #coachbetter Click To Tweet
The 3D Strap should be used year-round and not as a phase, since it really makes training more effective. I have seen the techniques of loading with straps in the past, but the clarity of the videos that came from Joe Bonyai was eye-opening. Within a few days, his straps transformed something that was cumbersome for me to a way that I could allow athletes to independently use the solution, convincing me that every gym should have one.
16. Buy Refurbished Technology When Possible
Large companies that provide refurbished technology options are great, because the cost is low and the value remains high. I used to feel icky about used equipment, but when you are in a weight room and need a lot of tablets, think about what you need, not what looks great new. Usually (but not all the time), a reseller company offers a better maintenance program and warranty and will ship out a replacement if you have a great relationship with the vendor. Outside of going to the Apple store, working with a local rep is the best service you can get. They will find ways to get the job done for you without having to be a technologist yourself.
The reason I prefer refurbished technology for gyms is that bleeding edge is always what it sounds like. You can save a lot of headaches, not just money, by using equipment that is a generation behind. On average, you will save enough money to purchase the best protective cases, as well as getting charging docks. A modern weight room has more responsibilities than it did in the past, but the small time investment pays back in the long run.
17. Digital Detox with a Sanctuary
I don’t believe in using nutritional cleansers, but there is something to be said for a “cleansing” space where athletes can’t look at glowing screens. A room free of smart devices is a “no-brainer,” as the consumption of information from a small glowing rectangle can be nauseating. I admit I need to work more on removing the smart devices from my own life, but a good start is going cold turkey for small periods of time and using natural “noise.” In my experience, having a location, versus forcing a habit, tends to work much better at ungluing athletes from their phones.
Consider a room free of smart devices, where athletes can nap, meditate, read, zone out—but not talk at all. Two teams that added sanctuary rooms say improvements in moods and decreases in injuries, says @spikesonly. #traininghacks Click To Tweet
I recommend adding a fish tank and yoga cushions to lounge around on, and piping in instrumental music when possible. Athletes can nap, meditate, read, zone out—but they can’t talk at all. Another recommendation is to toss in craft-like activities such as sketchbooks or even coloring books if an athlete needs to shut down. It really works, and I expect coaches to add more mental recovery areas along with their float tanks and regeneration areas.
So, how much does this help? Two teams that added sanctuary rooms saw improvements in moods and decreases in injuries. It’s hard to quantify the exact impact with small sample sizes, but some interesting results I saw were inflammation and chronic injuries responding well, and less apathy and irritability during practice. I recommend trying it, and you will see who goes into the room for different reasons if you connect their wellness surveys or subjective questionnaires to their use patterns.
18. Add Logic Flows and Triggers to Your Questionnaires
Want to add compliance to your recovery monitoring and actually change behavior? Cut the soft skills hype and do what works. It’s important to establish trust and confidence with athletes, but on day three of freshman orientation, a coach juggling an influx of hundreds of kids means they are fighting a losing battle. With most high school programs, a strength coach wants to make sure they high-five and know names—it’s nearly impossible to know athletes beyond their training.
Make sure you can communicate with surveys and questionnaires. Athletes sometimes give you more information than you need, and questionnaires are a way to funnel athletes to medical and recovery services. A kid skipping breakfast on their checklist may be a kid living alone and not able to go grocery shopping because they are in a household that is struggling. An athlete who hears gunshots at night may not sleep well.
Monitoring is seen as just technology or sport science, but it’s actually the most dignified thing we can do for athletes. If you are not using subjective questionnaires, you need to be firmer; otherwise, an athlete may be more limited by their environment than your training program. Make sure you allow for athletes to communicate without feeling embarrassed. Technology can’t solve the problems of the world, but it certainly empowers those that do help.
19. Include One Muscle-Monitoring Technique
Most of the time, a joint or muscle is injured from non-contact events in sport. Why not monitor them before they happen? So much effort is spent on measuring workload because it’s convenient, but we still have issues with injuries regardless of the GPS and other player tracking. Continue to measure the work being done, but focus on the direct response to at-risk injuries. I don’t care if you use tensiomyography or elastography, but do something for high-risk areas. For me, a combination of thermography and other direct measures listed in the Buyer’s Guide for Muscle and Joint Monitoring is a great start.
Athletes will get hurt eventually: Even Lebron James, a marvel in sport, is breaking down. The solution is not one magic bullet but a shotgun with smarts. Measure what you can to assist the process: Make it a rhythm that is not only sustainable, but also enlightening for future generations of athletes. Monitoring muscle and joint risk isn’t a lot of fun, so do it more intelligently with just enough frequency to make it worthwhile without transforming it into a burden. We are top-heavy with data concerning practices and games, but the responses to those activities need to catch up.
20. Train the Foot and Ankle First
Coaches can do two things: They can toss calf and foot strength work at the end of training as an afterthought or use it at the beginning. During the GPP and SPP time periods, or weeks away from competition, I prefer to add in one foot and one ankle exercise with 2-3 sets each (4-6 reps) to prepare for the rigors of intense training. If you are not using eccentric calf exercises you should switch, as the research won’t tell us much outside of just getting overload versus being sedentary.
Using seated calf-raise machines or a leg press when needed does work, but don’t forget to mix single leg options with bilateral options to ensure you don’t favor a leg, unless you are using a very advanced force analysis machine. As for foot training, single leg rotational hops and stiffness jumps up and down on mini boxes (use 10-20 reps) are great as a warm-up, but you need to add dumbbells or other overload options to get more out of them.
I know more foot exercises are out there, but that requires a series of articles and the effects are overblown. If you can remember to have two exercises at least twice a week for a few months, you will reap the benefits later.
Use What You Like, Modify What You Need
These recommended tweaks won’t transform a bench-warmer into an all-star, but they work and they are great options. It’s likely that you won’t use many of them the next time you train athletes, but it’s wise to stockpile all of these techniques I have learned from coaches over the years, as the collective experience is older than vampires.Be creative and make modifications based on what you need. It’s not rocket science to transform simple exercises into more efficient training, but it does take a craftsman to know when something could be better, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Be creative and make modifications based on what you need. It’s not rocket science to transform simple exercises into more efficient training, but it does take a craftsman to know when something could be better. I have learned a lot from asking and observing better coaches, and I hope what I shared can make a difference in your program.