Freelap Friday Five with Angus Ross
Angus Ross is currently employed by High Performance Sport New Zealand in a power physiology and strength and conditioning role, primarily working with track and field. He has worked with a number of sports at an elite level within the NZ system, including sprint cycling and skeleton in recent years.
Freelap USA: What are some ways to approach training for an athlete who lacks ground reaction force stiffness, or is too “compliant” in their movements? Is the issue more of the muscle, tendon, or a combination?
Angus Ross: The issue could be muscle, tendon, or motor program, so potentially all these areas could be addressed. With regard to muscle and tendon adaptation, both have been shown to do particularly well with both eccentric and isometric training modalities. I quite enjoyed some of the comments from Alex Natera in a recent podcast where he alluded to complexing or at least complementing isometric work with ballistic and plyometric training.Eccentric training is certainly also a useful tool for addressing stiffness issues. Click To Tweet
Such a combination (plyos + isometrics), to my mind, will address both the physical and motor program aspects of any stiffness deficiencies. With regard to the use of eccentric training, much of the global details of its use are further addressed below, but certainly it is also a useful tool for addressing stiffness issues.
Freelap USA: What are your favorite means of administering eccentric strength training, and why? How long should these generally be utilized?
Angus Ross: Tough question to answer succinctly! There are a multitude of both exercises and approaches to this, and exercise choice will depend on the performance outcomes you are looking for, how far out you are from competition, etc. In general terms (and with mature athletes), I use overloaded (manually and/or mechanically) eccentric (ECC) phases. With regard to exercise selection, I go from relatively general to somewhat specific (where possible), and in terms of eccentric speed I tend to go from slow (2+ sec) eccentric phases to fast—inside 0.8 of a second or faster (aiming to get beyond joint velocities of 180 degrees per second).
The rationale behind starting with the slow eccentric training (and isometric work being done concurrently) is that you get high tensions and structural muscle and collagen adaptations as a result of this work, arguably preparing the system for the greater rate of force development in subsequent blocks. Moving to the higher-speed ECC work then potentially facilitates a fiber-type shift towards fast, and allows much higher eccentric powers to be developed with the obvious potential for transfer to “on field” performance.
I don’t generally favor long unbroken blocks of ECC work, as in my experience it’s too tough physically and mentally with regard to DOMS and wear and tear on the system. Similarly, the ECC loading can compromise other training units and technique, resulting in potential maladaptations if this is not managed appropriately.
Potentially, I have been inadvertently administering excessive session volumes or intensities of eccentric loading, but certainly that has been my experience of it. (Though I’m happy to admit there may well be other ways of addressing the issue!) With that in mind, I have often used two weeks of eccentric loading followed by a week or two weeks off, and have even had success with as little as one week on and three weeks off. Obviously, the approach taken will be dictated by individual athlete needs, response to ECC loading, type of loading, time available, etc.
Finally, there are clearly strong individual differences in response to eccentric training and since ECC training will potentially affect passive (and active) musculo-tendinous stiffness qualities, muscle strength, cross-sectional area (CSA), fiber type, and neuromuscular control strategies, and often instigate significant muscle damage, the time course of adaptation (positive or negative) will differ dramatically between individuals. In my opinion, many published training studies often fail to show performance gains with eccentric interventions simply because insufficient recovery time is allowed between completion of the training and final testing.
Notably, in practice it is not uncommon for some athletes to take eight weeks post an eccentric block to come into personal best type form, while others, as detailed below, may reach it immediately. My guess is that such different responses are a result of different rate-limiting steps in their performance and the different time courses for changes in different parameters to manifest (e.g., CSA vs. fiber type vs. stiffness vs. neural, etc.).
Freelap USA: When would an athlete generally be ready for eccentric strength work? Are there some who would be better geared for this work than others?
Angus Ross: I don’t tend to use overloaded higher intensity work with development athletes; it’s not to say that you couldn’t, it’s just that I see it as an extremely potent stimulus that you probably don’t need to use first up when you can get the easy gains from more traditional modalities. Then, add the ECC work later to ensure training continues to progress in subsequent years or seasons.
There may be exceptions to this rule, and arguably you could come up with strength scores or technical abilities that may better discriminate between those that are ready and those that aren’t. To date though, I have used both training and biological age plus my own intuition and experience as to when I think the athlete warrants significant use of eccentric loading. With regard to some athletes being better geared to eccentric loading—yes, definitely, on a couple of fronts.
First, there is definitely some sort of eccentric need hierarchy in terms of event or sport that will dictate terms here, as obviously, some sports or events have massive eccentric demands (e.g., javelin, triple jump, etc.), whereas others have minimal eccentric load (e.g., cycling). Thus, athletes in the high eccentric load events with a strong SSC component need significant eccentric strength to even perform the events at moderate levels and often limitations in this quality will be weak links that may limit development of the technical model. Arguably, in such events, technique improvements may not occur with all the great coaching cues in the world if simultaneous gains in eccentric strength are not being made.
If the system strength capacity limitations are not addressed, you may be resigning an athlete to engraining a compromised technical model driven by a physical capacity weakness. It should be noted, however, that I do believe that even sports without a significant eccentric load (e.g., cycling, kayaking) can benefit from appropriate eccentric training due to the structural and consequently contractile adaptations that can occur if the loading is managed/periodized appropriately.I’ve seen remarkable changes in very elastic & compliant athletes doing an eccentric training block. Click To Tweet
Second, I have also seen pretty remarkable changes with very elastic and compliant athletes undertaking an eccentric training block. In a sprinting example, such athletes may be stride length dominant but with excessive ground contact times. One of the documented effects of eccentric training has been an increase in leg spring stiffness and, in line with this, athletes displaying below-par stiffness may well benefit significantly from such an intervention.
Indeed, anecdotally at least, I have seen relatively dramatic gains in speed with an extremely compliant hurdles athlete (of international caliber) on the back of an eccentric training block. (Notably, the same almost immediate gains in speed were not seen for his training partner, who already had impressive GCT and stiffness qualities.)
Freelap USA: What’s your take on designing strength training to selectively train or grow fast twitch fibers (either through direct or overshoot means)?
Angus Ross: Many may debate this, but I would suggest that designing training to preserve or enhance fiber type should be one of the primary considerations for how training should be targeted for power/speed athletes (assuming the anthropometric needs are covered—i.e., athletes are of appropriate size for the sport demands). Certainly, there is sufficient biopsy evidence to show that for most people, general hypertrophy-type resistance training compromises fiber type, either via general down regulation of contractile speed characteristics (fiber type or MHC shift of IßIIaßIIb/x) or a bidirectional shift in fiber type (IàIIaßIIb/x).
All other things being equal, this sort of adaptation will compromise the unloaded shortening speed of the muscle and, in practical terms, high speed power. So, assessing how different training interventions affect training (noting that there are individual differences and responders or non-responders to everything) is important. With that in mind, below are a few potential options to consider in terms of maintaining or improving IIb/x fiber type percentage:
Velocity-based training guidelines. In general terms, there is experimental evidence to show that fiber type can be maintained (i.e., not compromised as per above) by autoregulating the number of reps in a set by limiting decrement in contractile speed to less than 20% of peak velocity (for a given load) (Pareja-Blanco et al., 2016).
Eccentric training. As already discussed, some studies suggest fast (joint velocities of 180o.s-1) eccentric loading can improve fiber type and moderate velocity eccentric work may maintain it (Paddon-Jones et al., 2000).
Periodization options. Time off from high volumes of heavy resistance training can serve to increase the percentage of fast twitch muscle. The work of Andersen et al. (2000), and prior to that, Staron and associates (1991), has given a strong indication that while hypertrophy-based strength training rep schemes appear to downregulate the coding for fast twitch muscle, significant time off from strength training post such a training block will instigate a rebound in fast twitch muscle above and beyond the original levels.
Such an approach can be successfully applied in sport to maximize fiber type during a competition peak. Note, however, that months off from strength training may have other negative effects (potentially decreased low-velocity power and force, neural downregulation, decreased CSA, etc.), and programming needs to balance the positive and the negative relative to an individual’s needs.
Cluster training. In line with the above, cluster-type training (significant time between some reps within a set) works to maintain the quality of repetition, minimizing the number of low-quality low-speed reps. As a consequence, it appears likely that such an approach may be advantageous with regard to maintaining or improving muscle contractile qualities in response to prolonged blocks of strength training.
In summary, by the appropriate and planned use of some or all of the above options, I believe that, in addition to low-end force (an obvious consequence of strength training), high-velocity power can be maintained or even improved. Given the greater need for the latter in most sports, strong consideration to the above options should be given!
Freelap USA: What are your thoughts on training muscle relaxation rate in athletes, or the ability to turn muscles on and off rapidly for dynamic sport movement?
Angus Ross: This is an interesting question, and begs the question as to whether this relaxation or turnover quality is performance-limiting in a specific sport. (And whether it can be with one strategy and not with another—e.g., a stride rate or stride length dominant approach to sprinting.)
As something of a hybrid between researcher and practitioner (with greater emphasis these days on the practitioner side of things), I still feel some compulsion to find established peer-reviewed literature showing the ability of a training intervention targeting RFD/RR (relaxation rate) and/or the speed of excitation contraction coupling to actually improve applied performance. And in that respect, it’s difficult to find papers that demonstrate that “high turnover” training has a performance effect—either I am using the wrong search terms or the papers just aren’t there in Western literature.I’ve had difficulty finding research that shows ‘high turnover’ training has a performance effect. Click To Tweet
Anecdotally, I know a couple of leading sprint cycling nations have used short cranks in training to train cadences in excess of 300 rpm, and am aware of an elite sprinter that has trained high turnover specifically since about 6 years of age and now runs a very low 10-second 100m at 20 years old. So, yes, perhaps there is some transfer. That said, perhaps those interventions did nothing and the current performances were going to happen anyway?! Who knows, that’s why research is required!
There is, however, some limited experimental evidence showing greater sarcoplasmic reticulum development in response to some exercise interventions in untrained subjects. Likely the ability to pump Ca2+ in and out of the cell to trigger muscle contraction/relaxation in response to these training interventions is also improved, though the trickle-down to performance enhancement does not seem to have been clearly established.
Intuitively, however, it makes some sense to train both RFD and RR, given the limited time frames available for force application in sport and the need for antagonists to shut off rapidly and not impede contractile performance of agonists. Similarly, I am sure many coaches and physical prep specialists will have seen the graphs from the Russian system espousing RR as a more dramatic differentiator between athletes of different abilities than RFD. Hence, I have tried a variety of options for stressing alactic turnover (ceasing as soon as cadence declines), including:
- Loaded fast feet: Sprinting on the spot, trying to maximize turnover and continuing to add load until the athlete can no longer exceed 10 contacts per session—on the rationale that even with zero flight time, 10Hz ensures ground contact time of 100ms or less, which is roughly in line with sprinting.
- Prone banded leg flutters: Lying prone feet over the end of a bench with heavy strength bands around the ankle.
- Speedball/speedbag: As per Alan Wells and colleagues from the 1970s and ’80s, but with single rather than triple bounce.
- Bike sprints: Zero or minimal resistance, noting that 200 rpm = equivalent of ~6.6 steps per sec in terms of contractions per second.
Does it work? I really don’t know, but if nothing else, it provides an interesting change of training stimulus and good training options for injured athletes to at least feel like they are staying in touch with speed. I certainly have had athletes come out of a block using such methods and perform at or beyond personal best levels, though it is again hard to be 100% sure that stimulus was the performance catalyst.