I’m often asked which areas of training are the most difficult to quantify. When working with human beings, be it physical education, elite performance, or even elderly rehabilitation, the work ultimately is about finding a way to balance stress and recovery. Most coaches are familiar with the science of resistance training, but the devil is always in the details.
This article maps things I learned the hard way. My hope is to create more clarity with such resistance workouts as traditional weight training, aquatics, accommodating resistance, pneumatic options, and flywheel training. I’ve distilled my research to make this process much easier for those wanting to jump to the next level.
The purpose is to find the most effective option for each unique goal. To help others decode what may be complicated at first glance, I often share the analogy of the Five Elements of Buddhist samurai swordsmanship and tactical strategy described in The Book of Five Rings. In this article, I use the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and void as my framework.
The Biggest Mistake Coaches Make with Resistance Training
The cardinal sin most of us will make is to focus too much or too little time in the weight room and not enough time using the variety of options available. Some coaches live in the weight room, some avoid it, and most try to take advantage of it as best they can. The weight room is a concept in crisis.The weight room is a concept in crisis. Click To Tweet
Many coaches are afraid to externally load athletes. We are often addicted to one modality and allergic to others. But we need to embrace a comprehensive approach.
I still believe the majority of training needs to be conventional and vanilla, although absolute approaches never seem to work without problems. We need to liberate ourselves from our preferences and do what’s best for our athletes.
This article presents a clear progression of appropriate training for the beginner to the elite to the aging. Eventually, gravity and time win at the end, and managing the decay of our bodies is the name of the game.
It doesn’t matter if one teaches physical education, works with elite athletes, or is trying to help senior citizens become more functional, we need to embrace all types of resistance training. Our primary goal is to understand each element and know which principles to follow; a scientific wisdom, if you will.
First Element: Earth (Gravity)
Gravity always plays a part in sport. Most of the coaches I know feel comfortable with weight training, either with body weight or external loading. Most coaches, however, limit weight training to only bodyweight exercises and barbells and ignore the fact that loading is more complex than just adding up the numbers.
Loading athletes is very complicated because it’s not about the type of force used but how anatomy remodels. Our bodies are designed to handle land-based locomotion, so we must consider how our bodies’ biology responds to loading with gravity and select appropriate exercises.
I read one blog, for example, that tossed out exercise selection as if it didn’t matter. This thought process combined with a lack of understanding of loading progressions is just as dangerous as being a zealot to one modality.
- Exercises should be selected based on needs analysis, not culture or tradition. Cross-pollination helps prevent the natural inbreeding of former athletes becoming strength coaches in their sport.
- Loading should be based on biological models and the training calendar, not trendy periodization schemes from 1980’s Eastern block literature. It’s important to become familiar with periodization concepts, but actual loads are very athlete dependent.
- Factors limiting rate based on health considerations is paramount. An example is tendon remodeling rather than muscle repair. Most strength coaches should think of themselves as tendon conservationists and not muscle enhancers.
- Progress athletes in this order: body coordination, internal loading, external loading. Progression isn’t perfect or neat in the real world, but lacking foundation skills will crumble improvement like a house of cards later.
- Contraction velocities and muscle physiology are important for long-term adaptation. It’s ok to work with linear and traditional programs of strength before power development.
- Risk should be based on the value of potential transfer from acute and chronic loading. Avoiding risk is risky, and taking unnecessary risks is foolish.
The rise of wearable technology has increased awareness of G forces. This is a big improvement over thinking only about kilograms and wattage.
As we use performance modeling during the next few years, the emphasis will shift from body load to joint load, and then we’ll be able to better identify risk and develop strategies to reduce non-contact and some contact injuries.
Second Element: Water (Aquatic)
Water workouts balance and contrast land exercise. While both mediums create resistance, the unique properties of water are valuable enough to invest solid time in using aquatic training for nearly every sport.
When many coaches consider pool training, they face the burden of getting a group of athletes to train in the water. It’s hard to believe it’s worth the effort until we spend time looking at year-long data. The facts are crystal clear; athletes are getting burned out and blown up. Coaches who avoid pool training should ask themselves if it’s because they’re not convinced it has value or if the logistics don’t seem worth the effort.
As a resistance medium, water is part space and part terrestrial loading. Hydrodynamics are not easy; water unloads eccentrically and offers multidirectional concentric resistance. Also, the hydrostatic pressure allows for major lymphatic benefits from a compromised ground reaction experience and the water’s exerted effects on the body.
Is water only good for recovery workouts? Most of the time–yes. It’s like yoga; by itself, it’s not enough to cover the bases for sports preparation, but it is a complementary tool for most land-based team and Olympic sports.
The pool workouts challenge the heart and lungs and rest the joints and muscles. Like bike routines, they complements running and other forms of locomotion. Consider adding aquatic work but don’t use it as a primary training option.
- Use aquatic work along with other low impact options to help with body composition. Running people to death and performing junk circuits are a waste of time and risks overload.
- Nothing reboots a career like a return to the water. Water is a natural rebirth both symbolically and as an appropriate way to get people moving without fear of pain. Even though much of pain science is hard to digest, working with injured athletes is more a people process than a biological journey.
- For recovery work, it’s cheaper and more effective to get groups of athletes into the pool than to buy recovery tools. Motion trumps the pumps. I believe in pneumatic recovery therapies, but they’re more for convenience than anything else. I’ve written a very comprehensive compression article here.
- Deep water running and other interval options address duration rather than distance. Work hard and don’t worry about anything other than challenging the heart and lungs.
What makes the water unique is its properties that we simply can’t duplicate on land. I strongly suggest scheduling a pool session once a week instead of recovery circuits or mobility sessions. Add mobility exercises to the land cool down. Finally, keep in mind that sometimes even easy workouts just add wear and tear to broken down legs.
Third Element: Fire (Bands)
I’m not a fan of most elastic options and despise most resistance band work. Speed and agility catalogs have tons of elastic gadgets and prey on high school coaches with good intentions who simply aren’t aware of the limitations of elastic resistance.
I have a rule with bands: use them for range of motion restoration work or when going into freak mode for lifting. Think of bands as assistance for restoration or accommodation for resistance.
Bands are useful for traction work and assisting athletes during self-therapy routines. I like the rise of ownership athletes are taking of their own bodies as an alternative to relying on someone else’s pair of hands. Bands should not replace conventional or physical therapy, but they can assist and enhance therapy routines.
My first successful use of accommodating resistance occurred in 2004. I’d been humbled as an athlete about my poor lifting background, invested in the EliteFTS workshop with Dave Tate and Jim Wendler, and became competent with the core power lifts.
After a few years, solid intermediate approaches were no longer driving change, and I added accommodating options mapped out by Dan Baker and others. I found injury rates decreased among contact sport athletes.
I believe bands are a serious option for those working with athletes who have large mass, like linemen, or strength-based sports. Most of my experience is with two exercises and only a handful of athletes, but the results were better than I expected, and I tend to be extremely skeptical.
Fourth Element: Wind (Pneumatic)
During the mid-2000’s, Keiser promoted the success of several high profile coaches as examples that the company’s pneumatic equipment offered a progressive alternative for sport performance. While pneumatic resistance isn’t necessary to achieve absolute performance, it’s a very nice option to have.Pneumatic resistance is a rare breed of equipment that combines machinery with fluid motion (air). Click To Tweet
Pneumatic resistance is a rare breed of equipment that combines machinery with fluid (air) motion. How does one include pneumatic options in a program? The answer is fairly straightforward; only include the exercises you can’t perform with conventional options.
Cables with selectorized weights are not the same as air-based options. Most non-pneumatic machines may appear the same, but they do not deliver the same type of resistance. Since velocity-based training is popular now, the outputs of the Keiser options are rather useful for measuring unconventional work like chops and other core movements.
While torso training doesn’t perform miracles for performance or rehabilitation, global body training makes sense and effectively distributes workload for tapering and developing the capacity to tolerate fatigue. Pneumatic training is also a great option for older populations, but it has a price tag.
Fifth Element: Void (Flywheel)
The first time I saw isoinertial training was when Mark Verstegen demonstrated the VersaPully in the late 1990s and early 2000s at NSCA conferences. But it wasn’t until 2008 when my friend Hakan Andersson explained that flywheel technology created “EMG readings through the roof.” I did my homework, and he was not embellishing. Something special and unique was happening with the flywheel, and I wanted to find out more.
My early research compared flywheel to other common options. I always start my research with the historical origins of a specific type of training. The age and culture of strength training really started 100 years ago. Archibald Hill, a Noble prize winning godfather in physiology, led the path to negative strength work with his experiments on muscle.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that flywheel technology, developed by Per Tesch and NASA, became popular in sport training. Sure, for decades we had the technology, but it wasn’t until the nineties that coaches were able to harness the benefits.
Flywheel technology redirects back the forces one generates, so while the equipment is used terrestrially, it’s not gravity dependent. Flywheel training uses the return of energy (void), and conventional weight training uses gravity (earth). Void uses the unique benefits of peak eccentric forces, a quality that must match one’s Rate Force Development (RFD) to fully prepare for durability.
Flywheel technology’s unique benefits are found in tensiomyography (TMG) research and electromyography (EMG) studies about how muscle fire differently with both time and magnitude.
Here are three primary reasons I believe flywheel technology has a role. Keep in mind that, while an athlete may achieve great results using only a flywheel system paired with playing their sport, most athletes will experience greater results from combining different training options.
- Injury prevention of the ACL and propulsive muscle groups
- Rapid return to play following injuries to soft tissues and tendons
- Career longevity based on durability adaptations and alternative options for power
I use flywheels to save time when I want to hit specific muscle groups differently and when I want to improve deceleration and redirect momentum. My goals are to reduce ACLs tears by improving gross eccentric strength and to ensure specific high-risk areas are protected, like hamstrings. I integrate flywheel work into heavy training phases and include one or two exercises a week for injury prevention.
Becoming a Black Belt Coach With the Five Elements
Each case is unique and should be adjusted to the circumstances. If an older athlete is involved in collision sports, flywheel and pool sessions should replace elastic bands. When someone opens a gym or small facility, it’s sensible to invest in weights and not expensive pneumatic equipment.
One of my former assistants is perhaps my smartest friend. He uses martial arts analogies and parables to explain complicated concepts to me. While I like the analogy of the Five Elements, in the real world we must start with application. Look at the elements and see if you’ve included all of them in your martial arts toolkit.
Are you strong in each area or do you need to improve in a specific area? Most coaches are well-rounded, but some of the elements can be refined and improved. Every year examine how the environment shapes the decision about which options are used and make sure compromises are minimized as much as possible.
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