By Carl Valle
Here are the top 20 hacks that have helped me do a better job and can be used at any level of competition and training. Most of the tips are for strength and conditioning, but I’ve included some tips on nutrition, recovery, and technology. These are the best ways strength coaches and other sports performance professionals can improve their athletes’ training.
Remember that the tricks of the trade require one to know the actual craft first, so keep reading the core research and essential coaching information. And understand that hacks are not cheats, they are effective ways to refine the process and improve efficiency. Hacking is a legitimate modification to suit the user’s needs. I’ve used things I learned from my father and grandfather to get the job done with technology and good old-fashioned hardware like machines and training equipment.
As a starting point, nothing beats the eyeball test to evaluate the workflow and the effectiveness of training. A hack can be as simple as changing the direction of a sprint or replacing a straight barbell with a cambered one. Hacking doesn’t need to create awesome formulas in Excel or perform automated regression analysis. It can improve the meat and potatoes of a workout.
1. Swap Chains for Sleds When Sprinting with Resistance
Use chains instead of sleds if you’re strapped for cash and want to perform assisted sprinting. Chains let you see surges in propulsion and the reduction of acceleration by watching the links. Coach Davenport suggested using chains when there are problems with other equipment. It’s a great replacement that I recommend to coaches who don’t have big budgets. Accommodating resistance is popular, so it’s almost a two for one deal.
William Wayland wrote an important article that explained the details of performing push-ups with the chains. Several coaches love using chains on the hip for the Copenhagen adduction exercises, but these are only for very developed athletes. Since chains are sold in 10-15 kilogram sets, they’re great for organizing resisted sprints based on ability. Finally, chains tend to be less jerky than sleds, so they can be a better option for return-to-play programs.
2. Squat Deeper with Elevated Heels
Deep squats with medium load are great for adding work for athletes who need hypertrophy and joint stability. Although deep squatting no longer seems to be standard, it’s still part of a complete program, based on one’s anatomy, for those who keep the principles in check. Shallow and quarter squats provide benefits for monitoring long-term health and maintaining mobility.
A slant board helps athletes who have a good hip range of motion but are poor squatters because of ankle restrictions. While several products are on the market, the best options come from Prime. We’ve been blessed by having actual metal workers who designed similar models, but when it comes down to it, Prime’s wedges are built to last.
The size and angle matters when investing in squat wedges, and I recommend 10-20 degrees for most tall athletes. Also, the company has a nice line of handles and other accessories made with excellent craftsmanship. Thanks to Alan Bishop from the University of Houston for sharing this suggestion.
3. Test Squats with Better Repeatability
Dr. John McMahon used a Brower Timing System to get depth feedback with an audio response. When I saw this on Twitter, I immediately shook my head, wondering how I didn’t think of this earlier. One of the reasons I’d forgotten about Brower was my use of Freelap and Ergotest, but now I use an LPT for barbell stroke distance. Squat depth for repeatability is important, but don’t forget about personalization of other variants like quarter squats. While everyone can likely perform partial squats similarly because anatomy doesn’t impede the movement, the relative depth depends on one’s deep squat.
Electronic timing devices might be the right solution for those wanting to add a little refinement to the testing process. Either way, an instrument that adds objective measurement to barbell displacement is a great solution for maximal strength testing, regardless of the exercise used.
4. Add Targeting to Jump Testing
Targeting for force plate measurement is sometimes confusing. The term describes how someone changes their walking or running strategy to land on the instrument for a reading. Targeting for jump testing is different. It gives an athlete a reason to jump higher, be it with the hands or head. Some programs add or retain countermovement jumps with arm action because they like legacy tests for comparison. Using a Vertec or similar device provides excellent motivation and feedback.Using targets for jump testing motivates an athlete to jump higher. Click To Tweet
The feeling one has after seeing a ball or flag move is extremely motivational for better efforts in jumping. A number on a tablet isn’t the same as seeing a physical milestone. Think about the feedback from old school carnival High Strikers. You could see the mallet’s power on a thermometer-like display, and if there was enough power, the bell rang. Targeting with something visual and tangible makes conventional jump testing a little more spicy, leading to better quality data.
5. Use Tennis Balls for Video Markings
For some reason, cutting tennis balls in half for video isn’t widely used. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only guy who has adopted Gary Winckler’s hack. I like the cut balls when there’s a high wind because plastic mini domes tend to fly off the track. Also, the markings are perfect for giving just enough visual aid to keep an athlete running in a straight line on the grass compared to cones. Too much visual debris tightens up athletes, so using low profile markings is great for video analysis later and for helping athletes know what zones to focus on when working a technical aspect of speed.
6. Throw Medicine Balls with Pre-Jumps
Potentiation is growing in popularity and research. Using pre-jumps to add a little extra overload may be enough for some athletes to assist in the warm-up, although the effect may result from arousal and not potentiation. Still, this is a routine that we think is safe and effective when we want to be sharp a day later without exposing the body. We load the body 48-72 hours in advance, and between we still use micropriming sessions to keep from being flat rather than just potentiation for the session.
I’d like to see more about the use of specific medicine ball exercises for both warm-up and specific potentiation. Heavy medicine balls approaching 15-20 pound loads are similar in mass to lightweight vests with 5%-10% of an athlete’s body weight. Exercises that potentiate are usually heavy movements like squats and other barbell exercises. Sleds with 75% of an athlete’s body mass have shown success in the literature, but a medicine ball of that load isn’t going to happen. So what about jump squats with light vests? Not much good research exists on explosive or ballistic training for potentiation. Some plyometrics have shown potential, but medicine ball training is still in the dark.
7. Add a Contact Grid for Plyometric Training
Contact mats are only useful for vertical jumping; horizontal bounds and frog jumps are not possible with such small real estate. The Ergotest contact grid, however, creates a 40m-span of measurable space. Extended bounds and bounds for speed give far more information when we have contact times and air times. Adding a timing gate or laser makes the activity a rich evaluation tool for coaches.
A contact grid’s biggest benefit is that it lets athletes train on their normal surface, such as tracks and hardwoods. Sometimes freshly cut grass can be used with a thin strip for elevation, but not every field is level enough to capture data. I can’t say enough good things about how a contact grid improves nearly any speed and power training session.
8. Replace a Tempo Day with a Dodgeball Session
Traditional team conditioning can be difficult when heavy training starts to affect the athletes’ mood and morale. I’ve lost buy-in a few times when we were training hard and competition was still far away. Instead of tempo running, we did an express game of Dodgeball, and it was awesome. The sport doesn’t matter. Simply adding play to training, within reason, is important at any age. Older athletes are still humans who enjoy playing.Instead of tempo running, we played an express game of Dodgeball. It was awesome. Click To Tweet
The risk of injury is super low. There’s not much eccentric stress because the game is about quickness and athletic skills. Athletes will build fitness quickly when placed into intelligent training. Gator Skin balls are super soft, so head hits are not a problem. And you can repurpose the balls for other sports training elements like ball squeezes for the groin and targeting for jumps.
9. Invest in Ankle or Foot Cuffs
I stopped using Bird Dog exercises after seeing the results of standing hip extension work versus four-point kneeling positions. A weighted quadruped is far more valuable. It also forces an athlete to be strict as compensations exaggerate errors visually, making it better for coaches who are working in groups. While it’s nice to do rehab one-on-one, many programs can’t. We can use ankle and foot cuffs for more than a hip extension; they’re great for working around an injured joint, for example.
Invest in cuffs with a little padding. When used with heavy loads, some cheaper strap versions tend to cut the skin. Leather ones are nice if you have the budget because they tend to conform to the joint complex.
While wrist cuffs are used less often, have one in your desk drawer for hand injuries. If it’s left out it in the gym, it will be used for the ankle.
10. Replace a Mobility Circuit with a Barbell Complex
Over the last few years, I’ve seen barbell complexes far outperform isolated mobility patterns and circuits. I’m starting to remove more and more self-care therapy options from programs because I’ve learned that most corrective exercises are overrated. Most mobility sessions offer busy work because joint structures don’t change. Ankle range of motion doesn’t improve because the bones become more mobile.
A series of joints, however, learn motion and coordination by working together. So where do the changes come from? I don’t have a good answer, but I do know that barbell complexes heat the body and challenge an athlete’s range of motion needs safely.
I am all for self-therapy when needed, but the trend to tinker with joints all the time has not ensured long-term health. Some at home exercises are great, but they should make up a very small part of a program. Do your own comparison experiment. Some athletes will see tremendous gains, and some just may find barbell complexes a welcome change.
11. Hydrate Smarter and Easier
It’s 2018 and hydration is still neglected, rejected, or overthought. Many teams expect too much from sports drinks and make application either too much of a priority or become lazy about the science. Hydration is overrated. It’s still a problem, though, because overall nutrition is treated as an afterthought. During the year before Rio, I spent time preparing not for the games of 2016, but for the rising need of heat stress for all levels of performance.
To simplify things, I would have athletes drink less during practice and more during the rest of the day. For safety purposes, training indoors and outdoors are different stories, and hydration supervision is recommended. So why the lax attitude towards hydration?
Hydration is the most overrated part of sports nutrition. Sports drinks are the most hyped product on the market and barely make a dent in total health and performance. Hydration matters, and if you want to do it right, invest in near-freezing preparations, focus on the recovery environment with parasympathetic enhancements, and use functional fruit drinks in moderation instead of conventional sports drinks.
12. Add Healthy Tree Nuts and Seeds to Snacks
Not every athlete is allergic to nuts, and if they like seeds and nuts be grateful because many healthy fats provide important benefits to athletes. This is a modification to Jordan Mazur’s method of adding healthy oils to smoothies. Jordan is the sports nutritionist for the San Francisco 49ers and is responsible for the players’ dietary practices.
I love sneaking smart fats and extra calories to those who need it. I also like the “snack hacks” by Katie Mark, who explained that lean athletes could stay satiated longer with whole food options that are semi-broken down. Almond slices and Omega 3 boosting walnut crumbles give enough of that mouthfeel without losing the crunch that countless athletes crave.
We tend to look at seeds as the second class citizens of the food world, but seeds are great for adding healthy calories to an athlete’s diet without resorting to sports drinks and empty calorie options.
13. Juice More
It’s better to eat your fruit than drink it, but sometimes it’s more practical to use a juicer. Juicing helps athletes who need calories. But be warned, it’s better to consume fat calories than only fructose calories. Blenders help athletes meet many of their nutritional needs, though they’re not ideal for nutrient preservation or helping with slowing digestion.
Some interesting research on fats and fructose is creating speculation about how SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) not only improves the bioavailability of testosterone but also contributes to liver function.
As to how much, if you’re trying to gain mass, a tall glass of juice will give enough calories each day without disrupting your androgens. I still see testosterone as a fatigue marker, but with the current science, we can’t say how much influence hormones have on muscle repair and growth.
14. Stack Saunas When Possible
Exposure to heat stress as a way to equip athletes for environmental strain is receiving a lot of attention. For some athletes, saunas feel like a workout even when prescribed as a recovery option. While much about heat training has yet to excite me, I believe larger power and speed athletes should add saunas to their training.
Two to three sessions a week for a month has made impressive changes for some NFL teams. Linemen, who are larger and harder to condition, need the most help with fitness because they have more snaps than any other position. Based on some very sensitive data, it looks like some teams are seeing a surge in the trench war of the game’s second half at the end of the season. Heat training with saunas is worth exploring for other sports.
15. Foam Roll After Training
The foam rolling first crowd is finding themselves in a corner with the latest research on HRV responses post-treatment. We already know that warming-up for performance and training is important, but the details about which method is most effective is still an enigma. Some people think doing stretching and mobility exercises first makes a difference. Others believe a general light training session is more fruitful.
If you want to foam roll because you find it valuable and use it as part of the warm-up, consider cooling down with it instead. Based on the current research, if you foam roll at the end of a session, you won’t need to foam roll at the beginning of the next session. And any way to help the recovery process early makes sense. Some conflicting research has hinted that the results of foam rolling may not be significant either way.
16. Use EMS During Down Time More Often
Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is a popular topic, and there are plenty of resources for buying one and using one for a specific sport’s needs, and there’s also a primer on the science. EMS is a great travel tool and strength support option after injury. With the popularity of the Firefly device, it makes sense to have athletes use it to stimulate their legs to help with flights and bus travel more often. While not technically a hack, I also like EMS as a way to educate athletes on muscle function so they can become more responsible with their bodies.
I’m not sure if the interstitium will become a new area to address regarding recovery. Made of fluid-filled structures in the body, it’s more of a shock absorber. But it’s also connected to the lymphatic system. If we can help support this new organ system of the body, perhaps we’ll see less swelling after surgery and better outcomes after injury.
17. Train Circuits Outdoors
I’m not a fan of outdoor strength workouts unless you’re in the north and need some sun during winter training camps. Training outside with circuits, though, is a nice change of pace for those who spend too much time indoors. Due to the increase in multi-million dollar facilities, outdoor training is decreasing. Too much attention is put on technology and not enough on nature.
The mental recharge from nature is priceless. I’ve seen a few teams achieve notable changes in mood and recovery measures when doing more outdoor circuits, especially when they’re away from the city. Teams in the NHL and NBA are looking for ways to escape the arena, hotel, and airport curse during long seasons, and small patches of nature make a big difference. If you track recovery, add the nature metric as a part of the equation.
18. Randomize Power Naps Before Dinner
One of the best life skills is managing stress, and having the ability to relax is very important. What’s the ultimate relaxation? Taking a nap. While many athletes may not be able to sleep randomly, just having the intention to nap can be a great way to get rest. If you fall asleep great. If not you still get a meditation effect without the burden of trying to focus.
I recommend downtime. Those who can nap at-will improve their recovery indices significantly. One note, we’re not fans of naps past 5 pm since that doesn’t jive with biorhythms. This this is highly individualized, though, and I recommend checking the nap science research.
Personally, the coffee nap works for me. I drink a cup of joe and immediately get some rest. Instead of waking up groggy, I wake up fresh and alert. Athletes should only do the coffee nap after lunch; any later will interfere with sleep.
19. Give Options for Training and Recovery
Many of the athletes that I work with decide on interventions and give input to their workouts, and some research is supporting this approach. I know I’m not the only one who offers flexibility with training and recovery, though I wasn’t aware of how it improves the outcomes of training and the recovery process.
When looking for variety without losing track of session goals, let athletes pick the supportive exercises to finish the session. Although they’re mentally tired by this time, their choice between a lateral squat with dumbbells and lateral lunges with a weighted vest will not make or break a program. I’d rather have an athlete do something with more effort that’s different from my choice than go through the motions half-heartedly.
Recovery is similar, and letting them choose is very informative. You can tell if they want something physical or mental, so I like to have 4-6 options at the end of the sessions. Even the choice between doing recovery immediately or as homework is a big learning opportunity, as it tells the coaches whether an athlete just wants to go home.
20. Use Plyo Boxes for Bulgarian Lunges
I give credit to Joe Defranco for making the Bulgarian lunge an exercise that complements skate or ski squats. While I don’t have a favorite, I like elevating both the front leg and rear leg a little. Too much elevation is unnecessary, as the goal is to allow for range and not to add complexity or risk. While I have yet to see an acute injury in a person, it’s likely because I’m not a fan of programs that push the limits of any exercise.
Why plyo boxes? The lower height allows for a less aggressive stretch on the hip while keeping people honest with rear leg contribution. Many may read my complaints about split squat and single leg exercises in my previous article as being resistant to heavy single leg training—I feel all max strength work has risks that must be mitigated.
Small adjustments like using plyo boxes with an active foot to improve support exercises is a good way to enhance dumbbell Bulgarian lunges, or if needed, heavy split squats. Heavy split squats can use elevation equipment or low boxes so the toe is active.
Share Your Tips and Hacks With the Community
This is my call to coaches to share more. Often hacks and tricks of the trade help everyone do their job better and should not be considered trade secrets. If you have a great way to do something better, share it or document it and share after retirement. As the great Tony Wells said long ago, I have wars to fight. He knew that sometimes we need to keep a few ace of spades up our sleeves!