By Carl Valle
Every year, we see old bad ideas repackaged as new ideas, and new ideas that just are not true. Strength and conditioning is a big market for education, and many promote borderline ideas (with good intensions) that just don’t pass the test of time. A number of good ideas look great on paper because they are linked to science, but they are not backed by science. Several ideas and concepts in sports training are worth pursuing, but putting too much effort into the minor details is beyond foolish—it’s just not productive.Many ideas only look great on paper because they’re linked to science, but not backed by science, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In this article, I cover 10 concepts that are good to know, but not worth your time to worry about. Training principles are about steady rules that help athletes develop, not ways to glamorize training sessions to the point that they’re more hype than substance. Again, I believe that all the methods below have value and I use them in training, but if we are making 1-3% improvements a year, what can be said for the value from minor components of those training elements?
How I Chose the List of Hyped Theories
These topics are not areas that I don’t like; in fact, I address each training theory and believe that these areas have important value. My main problem is that the topics have reached rock star status in training without really delivering much more than a secondary benefit. A fear of mine is that you will see this as a list of myths, rather than a list of very small variables that have an overinflated importance in performance training or rehabilitation.
This is not a Top 10 list either—it’s just a group of ideas that seem to linger too long in social media debates and get way too much attention in coaching education. All of the topics are important to read more about and actually use in training and rehabilitation, but not get too crazy or excited about. Again, I believe in the details and value of the concepts below; I just don’t want the expectations to be so high that when they fail to be magic, coaches no longer value the methodologies.
My suggestion is to read my take on the topics and be honest with yourself: Do you like the theories because they fit your own biases or agendas, or do they deliver a massive advantage or result? Other ideas and concepts could be on this list—like suspension training, animal flow routines, and whatever the flavor of the month is with stretching—but here are my 10 for now.
Fascia and Therapy Systems
The First International Fascia Congress was held more than 10 years ago, decades after manual therapy schools became powerhouses for therapists. Fascia is a complex tissue structure in the body. Based on the research, I believe that not much can be done to assist in its function directly, but dismissing it as a dead-end is hardly a good idea either.
One of the challenges with fascia is that researching it and measuring its response to training and therapy is extremely difficult. Countless therapy schools overplay their impact on the tissue; while they may do more than we know, it may not be to the actual fascia system but the local and global nervous systems. Bodywork is now seen as bloodletting to some therapists, and biomechanics and manual therapy are now passé.The best way to address tissue is to look for a cause and effect with any intervention, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
So, what is a good takeaway? The best way to address tissue is to look for a cause and effect with any intervention. I have used a master therapist for years, and we saw direct changes instantly; mostly from changing the actual tone of the tissue, which restored function and performance. The question is whether this was from transient thixotropy that felt good acutely but didn’t hold, or was it a neuromuscular change due to new motor pathways that gave confidence and reduced spasms from the simple element of human touch? I don’t know.
When athletes tore their hamstrings again and were lost souls, enough of them contacted us to get better and the results were golden. Continue to do manual therapy, but look at how it works versus the perception of how it may feel.
I am amazed at the number of coaches who poke fun at corrective exercises but still do them, just with different naming conventions, and who have spent years promoting them as part of their screening solutions. Exercises or training programs are the points of connection for change. What we saw more than a decade ago was regurgitating physical therapy exercises from rehabilitation into a prevention option or a “fix” for problems that may not have existed in the first place.
Most of the corrections consisted of getting a muscle to work better, teaching a motion that was a “movement impairment,” or acting in a way to restore posture. So far, most of the exercises simply wasted time and turned rugged athletes that were fine into mentally frail patients. Now the new normal is to use conventional training in a clever way so it’s a corrective process.Corrective exercises are based on a faulty interpretation of the evaluation of athlete movement, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The primary issues with corrective exercises is that they are low in load, low in usefulness, and based on a faulty interpretation of the evaluation of athlete movement. Dysfunctional patterns are easy to find if they are new movements to an athlete, but give an athlete a few tries to learn a body motion and the “faults” will likely change. It’s not that the athlete was dysfunctional to begin with; it’s most likely the screening was just a foreign or odd movement they hadn’t rehearsed before and it looked awkward.
I was duped years ago into believing that wall slides were an insurance policy for shoulder health. The exercise was great in theory, but it was just a strict bodybuilding movement without loading.
Core Training and Stabilization Training
I wrote one article on core training to save everyone a lot of money and time. I have spent $10K since the 1990s on training education, and the core was one of the biggest wastes of money and still haunts me. If I could do it over, I would spend most of the education money I wasted on core to simply go on vacation and visit coaches. Still, today we see massive amounts of videos and manuals on how to train the core, and the sad truth is that the market is still ripe for the taking. I am not saying don’t invest in core training, I just want to make sure your expectations aren’t out of control.
The biggest issue I have with core training is not the increase of core exercises, as variety is the spice of life—it’s that it overpromises to reduce injuries and increase performance. If the experts simply said that they were sharing a refinement to address some of the needs of training, I would be fine, but they are just changing the notes to the same song.My biggest issue with core training is it overpromises to reduce injuries and increase performance, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Today, breathing is the new core training, and we see countless athletes blowing up balloons yet still blowing out their ACLs. Conversely, not working on the diaphragm if it’s truly dysfunctional is negligent as well. Bashing respiration education without evaluating an athlete is just as bad as making breathing training look like it’s a panacea.
I was convinced that the core was sacred and the center of priorities, but the truth is that our body was designed well. Direct work may just be excessively redundant due to the fact great training usually recruits the core without having to apply more training. My word of advice is to have a few routines that develop core qualities, use options that maintain the athlete’s improvement, add in a few exercises for variety, and leave the hype alone.
Exotic Conditioning Principles
Ten years ago, a focus on energy system development morphed into a near-mystical realm of voodoo physiology. Soon coaches believed they were seeing adaptations to the mitochondria, capillaries, and even the heart wall. I believe the science because the textbooks said the adaptations occurred, but the issue is that the workouts were not hard or long enough to elicit those changes.
Coaches presented four weeks of conditioning and these “blocks” were labeled “Cardiac Development Phase” and other wonderful names, but 8-10 sessions of running can’t turn a high school kid into an aerobic machine. During the same time, the awareness and popularity of heart rate variability started to grow, and soon everyone was overdosing on aerobic conditioning and expecting to build monsters. The results were not there, and we are back to doing junk circuits, fatigue repeat sprints, or long trail runs that are supposed to be spiritual.Eight to 10 sessions of running can’t turn a high school kid into an aerobic machine, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Today, we still have issues with conditioning being a little bit raw and confusing, but the good news is that the “energy system” myths are being squashed, thanks to great resources like Steve Magness and others. While I love distance events and road cycling, coaches are more interested in supporting power with conditioning than following guidelines for endurance sports. Simple field testing, basic running programs, and solid practice design for team sports are the name of the game. Don’t be lured into thinking someone is doing something special when they are likely just slightly more experienced and skilled.
Overzealous Barefoot Training
I use minimalist shoes and do barefoot warm-downs, but this is extremely limited in dose and duration. There have been fractures, overuse syndromes, and a general lack of performance changes since all the books and experts pontificated the wrong message. Yes, we are born barefoot and our ancestors likely went barefoot, but walking around outside in the wild is far different than doing plyometrics and sprints with oversized NBA players now.
Besides barefoot running and other locomotive activities, just walking around barefoot and doing exercises in the gym as some sort of passive corrective osmosis were also promoted. The same people who wanted us to do wall slides also wanted us to walk around barefoot, and some teams who didn’t do their due diligence on cleaning the locker rooms and facilities discovered that staph infections can ruin seasons and careers. Barefoot activities in the woods may be a different story, but in a congested area, it was simply an accident waiting to happen.Injuries are very possible with barefoot training, so only do it with caution, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The truth is that the barefoot training hype was unable to live up to the promises made, and now everyone seems to have moved on to whatever the top apparel companies are selling. Injuries are possible with barefoot training, so do it with caution as it’s not something you should jump into.
Activation of Gluteal Muscles
The best example of poor scientific understanding was the decade of glute activation, starting in the early 2000s when firing muscles was all the rage. What happened was simple: Coaches looked at some research and simply couldn’t connect the findings properly into training. They ended up doing isometric bridging to the glutes to solve problems that were just a function of bad training, rather than the absence of magical exercises. True, the development of gluteal muscles is harder to accomplish than, say, the quadriceps, but if you are going to solve problems, a focus on heavy training is much better than fluffy “correctives.”
Activation exercises, and specifically the glute bridge, were some of the biggest wild goose chases in sports training. You can make the argument that it was the gateway drug to barbell posterior chain training, but for years, coaches kept putting the same recipe in, and expecting the same dish every time.If you want to solve problems, a focus on heavy training is much better than fluffy ‘correctives,' says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Activation was probably the result of coaches reading the wrong EMG research and thinking that aligning a single round double leg bridge would “neurologically charge” the glutes for the duration of the training session, similar to drinking caffeine. However, the effects were local to one muscle group. Like potentiation, the expectations were that the athlete had to “turn on” the muscle group and that lifestyle factors would turn the muscles off, like sitting in a car.
There are many options in training the glutes and other posterior chain muscles, but the idea of a quick fix faded. I am not sure if activation is dead or if it’s been reinvented, but the concept is a failed solution to a problem that may never have existed, except in the weak and untrained.
Verbal instruction is a complex interchange that starts with the observation of the coach and follows through with a response of words and gestures delivered to the athlete. For a few years, internal and external cues were debated, and those coaches seemed to be warlocks tapping into the brain with just a few magic words. I approached the topic in detail with a motor learning article, but this section goes into the deeper problems of cues and why they became an out-of-control hype machine. Cues are instrumental to a part of coaching, but some proponents made it everything about coaching and this was usually because they wanted to be the center of attention.
The issue with cues is not that they work or don’t work, as science shows the merits of appropriate word choice. If you do some digging, the issue with cues is that they assume the things that people see live and in real time are actually symptoms of athletes not knowing what to do without verbal encouragement or correction. Some athletes may or may not have the ability to change mechanics at full speed within the practice session.Cues are powerful and can help an athlete, but they can also make things worse, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I have visited some high-level coaches and done video analysis when I got back home, and was amazed by the problems they were able to see, interpret the cause of, and then fix the issue. Unfortunately, I saw a few instances where the coach was clearly wrong and made the problem worse, or created a mechanical change that made the athlete slower or less effective.
Cues are powerful, and they work both ways. As a profession, we need to be more cautious and more analytical before spouting words that may, in fact, make things worse for the athlete.
I believe isometric training has value, but not to the point that it triggers massive gains in strength and size uniquely. Isometric contraction exercises, known as “tension training,” were huge during the 1940s. As barbells and other solutions grew in popularity, the interest in isometrics shrank to just planks and other abdominal training.
In the early 2000s, isometrics made a comeback due to several popular coaches promoting near-impossible results, and after a few years of YouTube and seminar tours, the influx of isometric exercises became the hot way to train. For years, split lunges for super long hold times became the fashionable exercise, and we even saw dangerous bench press methods proliferate as well.Isometric training has value, but it doesn’t trigger massive gains in strength and size uniquely, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The addiction to extreme isometrics is a classic case of an old idea resurfacing with a twist—usually a more demanding component with a few tweaks for marketing and sizzle. Isometric training is a valuable tool, but like any modality its contribution is a small percentage of the entire program, not the backbone of a system.
Isometrics, along with EMS, is now gaining ground. It is important to know that the right education ensures it’s not an overdose, but the right amount of time under tension. Isometrics is again growing in interest because of triphasic training, but instead of being a focal point, it’s a part of the process.
Foam Rolling Zealots
If I had to go back and invest in something besides Bitcoin, I would have done some exploring of the polyurethane foam industry in 1996 to see if was a good place to put my money. It’s not that foam rolling does nothing or has no value; while I think it has its place, it is a prime example of a business hyping products more than the science being strong.
A few minutes of pressure can make some temporary physiological changes, but the sheer amount of time lost looking like beached whales belly surfing on round cylinders was just an embarrassment to the profession. Again, I think it has value and believe some noticeable changes happen for training, but I don’t worship it or consider it a step down from hands-on therapy.Foam rolling results in real changes, but nothing that is major or long-lasting, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Some research, including my summary of the thinking beyond myofascial release with foam rolling, revealed real changes from foam rolling, but those changes are minor and are not long-lasting by any means. The idea of distribution of resources is a common theme in strength and conditioning, and devoting 20 minutes a day is fine if the results are there. However, not much has shown up to indicate it is a primary part of warming up, let alone training as a whole. A few minutes a day is great, but I tried full-body sessions and realized my biggest need is to improve my load management, not try to get rid of internal mistakes with a giant “eraser.”
Flexibility and mobility training are parts of preparing for sport, but since the mid-2000s we have seen a rise in self-mobility that goes beyond addressing a need and into promoting a falsehood. Mobility is about restoring the range of motion in a joint with care and intelligence; it’s not something you do arbitrarily because you see drills or movements on a YouTube channel. For the record, I do think a therapist should sometimes assign self-care, but this can’t be scaled effectively or done without the presence of a coach.
From what I have experienced, we are now seeing a rise in “Mobility Gone Wild,” with joints that are inflamed and permanently damaged due to excessive joint manipulation and aggressive self-treatment. It’s not that joint mobility is a massive risk or not worth doing—it’s just that the wrong information placed at the wrong time is not terribly effective.
Hip labrums, upper spines, elbows, and ankles are all areas that therapists are seeing more and more complaints about from athletes doing too much self-care. Most of the issue is that athletes equate pain with a lack of mobility, when the reality is that sometimes most of the referred pain is just overuse syndrome and inflammation creating discomfort, and overreacting makes the problem worse. When athletes let fear and emotion drive their self-diagnosis, contraindicated movements that actually cause real damage to joint surfaces become the bane and not the antidote.Sports medicine professionals should hand out mobility exercises like they’re dispensing medication, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Nearly every time an athlete felt tight, we looked at the training load and decided that a few days of pool workouts and easy training would restore their range of motion. Anatomy is the prime driver of the way a joint moves, not the inclusion of endless drills that resemble a corrective exercise. My suggestion is for you to work with a PT that is local and has expertise, rather than do everything on your own or prescribe too much therapeutic movement as a coach. If you are a sports medicine professional, hand out mobility exercises like you’re dispensing medication, as joint work isn’t the same as wellness activities like walking and recreational strength training.
Do Your Own Homework
Decide for yourself what you believe in, based on experience and evidence. Most of the concepts listed here are popular ideas that simply became a trend because of agendas. Some ideas are well-intentioned, but influencers took them too far with alleged importance and validity. Some ideas and concepts are viable options, but they are so minor in their impact that they are not worth the spotlight they are given. On the other hand, dismissing something entirely because there is not enough evidence in the research may just be the fault of science failing to understand the mechanisms to create a proper study on it.Do what works and know how it works, and leave the trends for the fashion industry, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In general, this list of topics is a great example that trends and hype don’t just occur in fashion, but in all professions and areas of our culture. Doing what is right for your athletes or your own training will sometimes seem rebellious because it’s easier to join the masses and follow the leader, but blind faith in the wrong direction is a lousy idea. Do what works and know how it works, and leave the trends for the fashion industry.