John Cissik is the president and owner of Human Performance Services, LLC (HPS), which helps athletics professionals decipher and address their strength and conditioning needs. He coaches youth baseball, basketball, and Special Olympics sports, and runs fitness classes for children with special needs. Cissik has written 10 books and more than 70 articles on strength and speed training that have been featured in Muscle & Fitness, Iron Man, and track and field and coaching publications. He is also the author of Human Kinetics’ Speed for Sports Performance DVD series.
Cissik specializes in education; strength training for baseball, basketball, track and field; and speed and agility training. He has worked with athletes from high school to Olympic levels. In addition to his role at HPS, he is the director of fitness and recreation at Texas Woman’s University. Cissik is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a strength and conditioning specialist and personal trainer and by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. He has held level I and level II certifications from USA Track and Field and was certified with the former U.S. Weightlifting Federation.
Freelap USA: What are the fundamental movements that athletes need to be good at in the gym before moving on to anything more advanced?
John Cissik: First, keep in perspective that strength and conditioning is about giving athletes the physical tools to be successful in sports and prevent injury. Athletes don’t lift to lift, and they don’t lift to have big numbers—they lift to get better at their sport. So, we’re not training powerlifters, bodybuilders, or Olympic lifters—we want stronger athletes. Among other things, this means that we’re only developing what we need.Athletes don’t lift to lift, and they don’t lift to have big numbers—they lift to get better at their sport, says @jcissik. Click To Tweet
Now, having said that, I think there are a few movements that are essential for athletes to master in the weight room. Once these are mastered then variations of them always need to be included in an athlete’s strength and conditioning program. To me, squats, pulls from the floor, hip hinges, presses, and rows are essential for athletes. Combined, these exercises train the entire body. Basically, they are also all that an athlete needs from the weight room.
Squats refer to back and front squats, pulls from the floor are variations of the deadlift or the Olympic lifts, hip hinges are RDLs and good mornings, presses and rows are pretty self-explanatory.
After the athlete has performed these exercises for a period of years and mastered them, then variations can be added. For example, bands and chains, split squats, etc.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on the implementation and progression of the Olympic lifts in sports performance?
John Cissik: Let’s start with progression. I take a different approach with athletes than with Olympic lifters. With athletes who use the Olympic lifts to help make them better at their sport, I start with the following:
- Back squats
- Romanian deadlifts
- Front squats
Back squats teach hip movement, using the legs and protecting the lower back. Romanian deadlifts teach the hip hinge. Front squats teach how to rack the bar with the power clean.
From there, I begin with progressions for the power clean. I use the top-down approach that was popular with the old Soviet methods of coaching Olympic lifting. The first few exercises are done from the hang with the bar at mid-thigh:
- Slow second pull (i.e., slowly extend the hips, rise up on the toes, and shrug the shoulders up). This teaches the motion of the second pull.
- Jump and shrug. This teaches performing the second pull explosively.
- Jump and shrug without leaving the ground. Essentially this is a clean pull from the hang. This teaches an efficient second pull.
- Power clean, hang, bar at mid-thigh.
- Power clean, hang, bar at knee height.
- Power clean, hang, bar below the knees.
- Power clean from the floor.
Steps 4-7 may take six months to master.
If we’re teaching the power snatch, then I follow the following progression:
- Back squats
- Romanian deadlifts
- Overhead squats
- Slow second pull
- Jump and shrug
- Jump and shrug without leaving the ground
- Muscle snatch
- Power snatch, hang, bar at mid-thigh
- Power snatch, hang, bar at knee height
- Power snatch, hang, bar at below the knees
- Power snatch from the floor.
I don’t see any point in teaching athletes the full version of the snatch and clean.
Now, regarding whether or not to use these lifts with athletes. These lifts take a long time to learn, and that’s time that’s not spent training optimally (we’re training to learn as opposed to training to improve performance). You are the only one who can decide if that is a good use of an athlete’s time.If you want the power that Olympic lifts generate without all the technical headache, perform the pull instead of the clean and snatch, says @jcissik. Click To Tweet
These lifts do generate a lot of power and are performed at a high velocity. However, the power and velocity don’t match up to an athlete’s experience in sports. In other words, they are not specific to sports performance; they are still only a general tool.
In addition, keep in mind that the second pull is what generates the power in both the clean and the snatch. Finishing the lift by catching the bar doesn’t generate more power. So, if you want the power that these lifts generate without all the technical headache, then you want to perform the pull instead of the clean and snatch.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on building horizontal versus vertical force production for athletes in the weight room?
John Cissik: The weight room is all about developing vertical force production. All the lifts we do in the weight room are about exerting force vertically. Squats, you stand up. Romanian deadlift, you stand up. Power snatch? You stand up. So, by and large, the weight room develops general strength that can be applied horizontally but does not do a good job of specifically addressing the ability to exert force horizontally.
Is this important to address? Yes. In fact, I’m going so far as to call it a physical ability that needs to be trained in a new book that I’m writing. Research shows that the ability to exert force horizontally has a bigger impact on sprinting speed than vertical force development does. In other words, there’s a strong relationship between horizontal jump performance and sprinting speed, but not necessarily vertical jump performance and sprinting speed.The weight room develops general strength that can be applied horizontally but doesn’t do a good job of specifically addressing the ability to exert force horizontally, says @jcissik. Click To Tweet
So, if we can’t do a good job training this in the weight room, how do we train it? There are several tools that we can use.
First, horizontal plyometrics. This refers to the standing and running long jump, triple jumps, hops, hops and jumps over objects, etc.
Second, bounds are a great exercise to help teach horizontal force production. They can be bounds for distance (e.g., 40 meters, 100 meters, etc.) or they can be done for a specific distance with the focus on taking as few foot contacts as possible to cover that distance.
Third, sleds are a great way to teach horizontal force application. We can pull or push the sleds. This can be done for distance or for a shorter distance and be done for weight.
Finally, resisted sprints are important for teaching this quality. Here, we need to remember that if speed slows down too much or if form breaks down, then we have too much weight.
Freelap USA: What are your thoughts on the organization of training over an extended period of time? With novice athletes? With advanced?
John Cissik: Let’s start with someone who is not advanced. First, I like a daily undulating periodization model. I like to focus everything around physical qualities and link training modes together. So, a typical week might look like:
- First training session: Maximal strength, acceleration, plyometrics
- Second training session: Power, maximum velocity, plyometrics
- Third training session: Hypertrophy, conditioning
- Fourth training session (if needed): Hypertrophy, conditioning
The week starts off heavy, which maximally recruits the nervous system. Then the next training session seeks to take advantage of that recruitment (thus, power is day two). The third and fourth training sessions focus on hypertrophy and conditioning (so higher volume, less recovery).
Weight room workouts might look like the following:
- First training session: Back squats, RDLs, bench press, bent-over rows, military press (all for 3 x 4-8 x 80-90%)
- Second training session: Power snatch, power clean, clean or snatch pull (all for 3-4 x 60-70%)
- Third training session (lower body emphasis): Front squats, lunges, good mornings, reverse hyperextensions (3 x 8-15 repetitions per set)
- Fourth training session (upper body emphasis): Dumbbell bench or incline press, dips, pull-ups, lateral/rear deltoid raises, biceps/triceps
This is a general approach and is preparatory phase training. Special prep training would have two days of maximal strength and two days of power training each week. In-season training is totally different: Basically, the focus is on training as much as the schedule allows (usually two to three times a week).
Because in-season training is so limited, exercises are combined. This is the time to make extensive use of complex training. For example, squats and vertical jumps might be combined, presses and medicine ball throws, etc.
Things are different with advanced athletes. They are closer to their genetic potential, which means we’re not making big gains on strength anymore. At this level, it’s about application of strength and power to the sport. Other changes with advanced athletes include a longer season, shorter off-season, more competitions, and a longer/more extensive training history.With advanced athletes, my goal is for them to do one more rep each workout until either they can’t make more gains, or they’ve reached their goal range on reps, says @jcissik. Click To Tweet
I don’t do much with percentages at this level. The focus is on improvement. I have a range of repetitions in mind for an exercise; for example, sets of 4-8 on squats. My goal is for the athlete to do one more repetition each workout until either we cannot make any more gains, or we’ve reached our goal range on the repetitions.
For example, our athlete performs back squats. He can lift 350 pounds for five repetitions. Today, he did three sets of five reps at 350 pounds (so 15 total repetitions). Our goal on the next session is for him to lift 16 reps with that weight (so a set of six and two sets of five). This will continue until either the athlete cannot add another repetition or until the athlete does eight reps. When either of those happen, then we will rotate the exercise to one with a similar movement pattern (maybe box squats, squats with bands/chains, pause squats, etc.).
This is done on a large scale for every exercise that is incorporated into the athlete’s strength and conditioning program.
Freelap USA: What have you found to be helpful for reducing the incidence of hamstring injury in athletes?
John Cissik: By and large, hamstring injuries are thought to be about eccentric contractions during the sprinting motion. So, hamstrings have to be trained to be strong in the lengthened position. There are several ways we can address this.To reduce hamstring injuries, we need to train hamstrings to be strong in the lengthened position. There are many exercises that do this, says @jcissik. Click To Tweet
First, in the weight room, we can do squats and hip extension exercises. The hip extension exercises include Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, back raises, reverse hyper-extensions, deadlifts, and even the Olympic lifts. Second, we need to address this during the warm-up for speed work. Largely, this means marches and straight leg bounds. Finally, we should use bodyweight exercises that train the hamstrings, like crab walks and inchworms.
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