Alan Bishop has been Director of Sports Performance for the University of Houston Men’s Basketball program since May 2017. In that role, he plans and coordinates strength and conditioning programs for the team and for individual student-athletes to perform at their highest levels, both physically and mentally.
Bishop came to Houston after four seasons at Utah State. He spent his first three seasons with the Aggies as an assistant coach on the sports performance staff before being elevated to Director of Olympic Sport Strength and Conditioning in July 2016.
Freelap USA: Squatting bilaterally seems to be fading in interest, but there are still many programs that succeed with low injury rates using back and front squats. Can you share some details of what you see, besides leg power, when athletes are properly coached?
Alan Bishop: There is an interesting trend where a few coaches have drawn a line in the sand and will only perform unilateral squat variations, but I disagree that bilateral squats are fading in interest. In fact, I’d go the other way and say with more high school strength coaches and the popularity of private sector strength and conditioning facilities, more people than ever are bilaterally squatting.
A very small minority of coaches apply the “unilateral only” philosophy, usually citing the “bilateral deficit” or safety concerns, but the overwhelming majority of coaches (myself included) utilize both unilateral and bilateral squat variations as part of a well-rounded training program.
For those coaches who adhere to the “bilateral deficit” as a reason to only perform unilateral squats, I’d encourage reading Carl’s article on the subject. If injury risk is a concern, it is important to remember that any exercise is dangerous when not properly executed and intelligently progressed. Check your ego at the door and be a coach: The athletes will be fine if you know what you’re doing.Bilateral movements can absolutely have a time and place in a safe and effective training program, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
It is important to remember that whatever the goal (strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance, etc.), you can accomplish it by utilizing unilateral or bilateral modalities. But there are certain athletic capacities where bilateral movements, specifically the front squat, perhaps yield better results.
- Disagreements about the benefits of Olympic lifting for athletes aside, there is no arguing that the incorporation of bilateral squatting into a well-coached program corresponds directly to better improvements in weightlifting performance, much more so than unilateral-only variations.
- Bilateral squats, when coached correctly, have direct correlation to improvements in athletic attributes. The flexibility and proprioceptive capacities required to perform the front squat are second to none, and they make it an excellent choice for complementing the development of sprinting and jumping ability.
- There are crucial muscle adaptations that are range of motion specific, namely fascicle length. An argument can be made that “full” range squatting, where the hamstrings cover the calves, is much more prevalent during bilateral movements where the range of motion is not inhibited by the knee contacting the floor.
The reality of coaching is that no single exercise should make or break a program or define you as a coach. The goal of a strength coach is to evaluate situations and create solutions. Bilateral movements can absolutely have a time and place in a safe and effective training program.
Freelap USA: Some NCAA nutrition departments seem to have disconnections with the strength staff. When Rice Krispies are seen as glycogen replenishment and pretzels are seen as pre-workout “fuel,” could you explain the frustrations coaches have and the day-to-day work involved to get athletes to repair and fuel better?
Alan Bishop: I think this answer needs to be prefaced with the understanding that there are some really good nutrition departments at the Division 1 level, providing the resources necessary to enhance development and promote health.
With teams all over the country bringing in high-level athletes and training hard, nutrition becomes the X factor. I’ve been fortunate to work with good people over my career, but like everybody working in athletics, I’ve also had challenges. Two frustrations I’ve had in the past as a strength coach dealing with nutrition departments include:
- There not being a plan in place, with us instead just checking off boxes.
- We didn’t have everybody on the same page philosophically, and so we sent mixed messages to the athletes.
With that being said, one of the biggest frustrations I’ve encountered from a nutrition department is relegating everything back to a “calories in/calories out” model. Make no mistake about it, caloric intake is very important, but so is nutrient quality, nutrient timing, addressing nutrient deficiency, etc.Caloric balance is a starting point, not the end game. We need to also address nutrient quality, timing, deficiency, etc., says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
If caloric balance was all that mattered, 3,000 calories from Coke and pizza would produce the same results as 3,000 calories from steak, broccoli, and brown rice. We all know this isn’t the case. Caloric balance is a starting point, not the end game. Athletes need to be provided with an individual path to success. Improving body composition is a big part of athletic performance, and when it comes to packing on muscle mass, a lack of caloric intake is rarely the problem.
The reality with college athletics is that many athletes’ eating habits mirror the Coke and pizza option when they’re away from us, making it critically important we provide the steak, broccoli, and brown rice option when we have them in front of us.
Food is information that triggers a cascade of physiological responses within the body. Liebig’s Law of Minimum states that: “Growth is limited not by total resources available, but by the scarcest resource.” When dealing with athletes, this often plays out as needing to address those things like nutrient deficiencies, nutrient timing, and nutrient quality rather than just throwing more calories at them.
I understand that resources— namely time and money—are limited at most places. But if you don’t win games, the strength coach gets fired. Everyone needs to get on the same page and understand that, no matter what we’re doing, there is always room to do it at a better level. The goal should be constant growth. No matter how many athletes we’re working with, we need to provide each one with the tools to accomplish their goals, not just throw something at them to check a box.
Freelap USA: You do a lot of upper body work for performance, but it’s more than just adding mass. Can you share what benefits back and arm training give for athletes outside of confidence and more physicality? Perhaps it’s about joint health and durability?
Alan Bishop: I’m a big believer that health drives performance. This is not just from a nutrition standpoint, but from a structural standpoint as well. If joint or tissue health is compromised due to injury, performance suffers.
Sports-related injuries, especially non-contact, are multi-faceted and can be very hard to pin down to one underlying cause. Neuromuscular imbalances such as ligament dominance, quad dominance, and unilateral imbalances have been written about extensively as underlying problems in ACL injuries, but the same concepts and principles apply to the upper body.
The body is inhibitory by nature; it is a really good self-preservation mechanism. If the supporting tissue can’t support the load, the brain will not allow the body to continue driving up strength. These strength plateaus are nothing more than a lack of compatibility between the capacity to apply force and the capacity to absorb force. These relationships between different muscles’ ability to generate force and the corresponding effect that has on other muscles’ ability to generate force is known as structural balance.Driving up strength and packing on muscle mass is a priority, but from a robustness standpoint, don’t neglect structural balance, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
A mentor of mine, Dave Scholz, first introduced me to the concept that the upper body is a whole lot “smarter” than the lower body. The lower body can thrive for a long time with squats, deadlifts, lunge variations, and hip- and knee-dominant hamstring variations. The upper body requires substantially more variation.
The substantial amount of upper body work that my athletes engage in is an extension of this concept. Driving up strength and packing on muscle mass is a priority, but from a robustness standpoint, don’t neglect structural balance. As mentioned with the ACL injury risk indicators above, a structurally imbalanced athlete is more prone to injury. If the kinetic chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then we must look at training those weak links as a means of enhancing joint durability and driving up strength capacity.
Freelap USA: Monitoring the training load is important but being prepared for it is far more important. Besides sleep, nutrition, and strength training, how do you keep your athletes healthy? What is the role of conditioning in basketball for keeping athletes fit and injury-free?
Alan Bishop: This is a great question. Our job is to build durable and robust athletes. This encompasses many things, including strength, power, body composition, mobility, conditioning, etc. I think many sport coaches miss the mark of developing important athletic attributes by focusing too much on getting into game shape too early.
One of the biggest misconceptions in strength and conditioning is that the strength coach is responsible for getting the athlete into “game shape.” The only way to get into game shape is to play games. The role of the strength coach is to develop robust athletes in the off-season in order to have productive practices during the preseason, leading to the ability to play at a high level in-season (game shape).Many sport coaches miss the mark of developing important athletic attributes by focusing too much on getting into game shape too early, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
If everything goes according to plan, Division 1 basketball players will spend a total of 10 months training for and playing their season. This calendar starts in June and continues, ideally, through the end of March. Players are permitted eight weeks of training during the June and July summer school semesters. This is usually followed by a brief two- to three-week break, and then another six weeks of training before practices start in October. Games are played November through March.
This means we have almost four months to prep our athletes to have productive practices, one month of a heavy practice emphasis, and five months of playing games. We don’t need to be in game shape in June. Instead, we need to have a plan in place to develop and maintain robustness during our entire 10 months of interaction.
I classify our training as a concurrent periodization model. This means that at all times we’re developing multiple attributes, but we always have an emphasis/priority of saturating one attribute. Because sport athletes are not strength specialists (weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, etc.), I focus on a strength generalist approach.
During the months of June to August, we emphasize structural adaptation and strength development in the weight room, complemented with conditioning consisting of tempo runs, jump rope, and metabolic/strongman circuits.
I classify our preseason as the four weeks leading into our first practice. During this time, the priority shifts to a conditioning emphasis meant to prepare the body to have productive practices. Change of direction and competitive drills become the bulk of our training day, complemented by power and joint angle specific strength work in the weight room.
In-season, the priority is the basketball court. Basketball, and the demands that come with it, is sport-specific training. Our job in the weight room is to complement this. It is important to remember that, because it is a concurrent periodization model, we still train for strength, power, hypertrophy, etc. in season, albeit at a less emphasized rate.
To sum it up, the best way to manage load and stay injury-free is with a well-thought-out and designed training plan, implemented as pristinely as possible.
Freelap USA: The craft of strength training is sometimes a little mind-numbing to some, but it seems you are getting better every year. Tell us how you find progress in what you do mastering and polishing the basics? We have a lot of coaches who know more sports science, but their knowledge of the barbell is less than it should be. What is your recommendation here?
Alan Bishop: One trend I’ve noticed is that far more resumés are coming from kids who’ve graduated with exercise science degrees and enjoy working out but have little to no experience training. When you lack true training experience, two things happen:
- It is hard to truly understand and value the importance of technique.
- You don’t know what DOESN’T work.
This obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, but the reality is that applies to many.
I’ve noticed that prospective coaches who’ve actually trained in disciplines like powerlifting or weightlifting understand the nuance of technique and the importance of transference from one lift to another. This also holds true for many student-athletes who get into strength and conditioning because they’ve got 4–5 years of understanding what works, what doesn’t, and how their training translated to their on-field performance.
Many people peg me as a “basics” guy, which I am fine with. The reality is, I’m not doing anything novel that anybody else isn’t doing from a standpoint of we all squat, we all press, we all chin, etc. I just emphasize it a bit more, perhaps, because I don’t get caught up in the trends and I don’t program exercises that I don’t think will make my athletes better at another exercise.
For example, front squats carry over to back squats and, to a lesser extent, carry over to lunges. Overhead pressing carries over to incline presses and jerks and, to a lesser extent, bench pressing. These “basics” provide a lot of bang for our buck.I’m a big believer in range of motion preceding load. When range of motion and technique are emphasized, increased load will always follow. The inverse is not true, says @CoachAlanBishop. Click To Tweet
A few years ago, coaches had their athletes laying on their backs and blowing up balloons while staggering their feet on the wall. I’m not sure what exactly that would make you better at other than laying on your back and blowing up balloons. I’m not knocking this “advanced functional balloon blowing technique” (or whatever it is called), but I’d rather program something that provides a much bigger bang for my buck, and the “basics” always seem to be the exercises that check the most boxes.
One area in which I do think I differ from other coaches is that I’m a big believer in range of motion preceding load. When range of motion and technique are emphasized, increased load will always follow. The inverse is not true.
Technical proficiency, attention to detail, health, and longevity are all things I value. It might be “mind-numbing” as you called it, but it is important to me. If it is important to me, I emphasize it, and my athletes will hopefully buy into it. If it isn’t important to me, why would they buy into it? I believe it was Christian Thibaudeau who said, “Show me a man who constantly cheats technique, and I will show you a man with joint problems.”
The emphasis on sport science and data collection is a good thing, and many coaches can carve out a niche in that area. It is important to remember that the data collection is just more information to help guide training decisions, but the training should be technically sound.
I recommend that a coach who has never trained should take up the sport of weightlifting for at least two years. Pay for coaching or join a weightlifting club. Learn to understand the intricacies of technique and learn what it means to truly train. This will make you a better coach. The earlier in your career you can do this, the better.
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