Sport-Specific Weight Training – Don’t Just Go Through the Motions!

Lifting for your sport specific weight training is VERY important, but what does ‘sport specific’ really mean?

Many athletes and coaches are constantly searching for sport specific weight training tips that involve the design of weight training programs and sport specific weight training. Far too often, athletes and coaches fall into the trap of performing sport specific training without first laying a foundation through sport specific weight training. In particular, sport specific weight training has a unique place in the design of a weight training program and deriving maximal benefit from future sport specific training.

For starters, any type of sport specific training immediately implies there is a need to take into account several variables unique to the sport. Sport specific weight training, in particular, involves dissecting the forces involved with a given movement that may be performed within a sport. Alternatively, sport specific training refers more to movements and highly dynamic activities that mimic gameplay. A true understanding of physics and dynamics is essential to train all the subtle yet overlooked forces as part of a complete sport specific weight training program. But before delving any further into sport specific weight training programs, it important to first remain aware of and define which exercises may truly be considered weight training exercises.

Weight training involves overloading of the skeletal structures in a very unique way. Almost all activities during sports will overload the muscles of the body, but not all these actions may be considered as part of a weight training program. To begin, weight training exercises must consist of two essential components: (1) a concentric, or lifting phase under resistance, and (2) an eccentric, or lowering phase under resistance. In addition, the weights must allow for overloading of target muscles without being overly complex and/or requiring high degrees of balance. In this regard, it is crucial to not perform highly dynamic sport specific training before sport specific weight training to lay the proper foundation. This is tantamount to learning to crawl before walking.

Sports specific weight training example:

Take the sport of football, for instance. With football weight training, every position has unique demands. Furthermore, football weight training involves many components unique to game-play and situations that must be taken into account while designing sport specific weight training workouts. For example, an offensive lineman must begin from a low squat stance and remain low throughout the play while moving his feet and absorbing contact through the upper body and effectively transferring it to the legs and feet.

To begin, sport specific weight training must be performed before sport specific training. Sprinting and footwork drills may be considered sport specific training but may not provide maximal benefit if the athlete’s weight training hasn’t been implemented correctly first.

Furthermore, when choosing weight training exercises, the force pattern of the activity must be taken into account. If incorrect weight training exercises are chosen as part of the sport specific weight training program, the athlete’s improvements in the weight room may not transfer over to the field of play, and may even hinder performance while increasing the risk of injury. In the case of a lineman, a leg press exercise, albeit a weight training exercise that involves the major muscles of the legs, can incorrectly train the lineman’s neuromuscular system under a completely different force pattern where the athlete is laying with the hips initially at 90 degrees. A more sport specific weight training exercise is clearly the barbell squat in the case of football weight training for the offensive lineman.

Nonetheless, what if one simply performs all the movements that occur in the transverse (i.e. horizontal) plane under resistance (e.g. with a sled and harness)? Would this qualify as sport specific weight training? Not quite. Although these are sport specific exercises and are being performed under resistance, the eccentric phase is missing. This is due to the fact that the resistance is from a non-conservative force, namely friction. Gravity, alternatively, is a conservative force and always involves an eccentric component for weight training exercises. Realizing that many transverse plane movements still involve triple extension of the hips, knees, and ankles, the barbell squat is still the best choice for a sport specific weight training program.

Thus, design of sport specific weight training programs first involves analyzing the movements of the athlete’s sport. Next is the selection and design of true weight training exercises that cater to sport specific weight training and allow for true overloading of the musculoskeletal structures. This is the purpose of sport specific weight training and ultimately will set the foundation for future sport specific training under more dynamic scenarios and higher speeds for complete athletic development.

Speed Training 101 – Run Faster, You Are ONLY as Fast as Your SLOWEST Link!

Every athlete has heard how one is only as strong as one’s weakest link. But how about speed? Just like the cylinders of an engine, if all cylinders are not “clicking” at the same speed and rate, then the engine will not be able to maximize its power output. The same is true for the human body and the athlete looking to run faster, where the cycling of the legs is tantamount to the cylinders of an engine pumping.

In order to generate speed and run faster, triple extension of one of the legs is performed, thrusting the body’s center-of-mass (COM) forward along the kinetic chain. At the same time, triple flexion is performed with the other leg, placing the other leg in position to subsequently perform triple extension. In this fashion, both legs alternate performing triple extension and triple flexion, propelling the body’s COM forward. If the flexion mechanics are not optimized due to any imbalances amonst the flexors, the extensors will not be able to position the joints and limbs at the optimal pre-loaded angles in time to subsequently generate maximum force. Thus, precious seconds can be lost due to a delay in the flexed leg getting in position to perform triple extension.

Nonetheless, it seems that the muscles that are responsible for the “thrust” are overemphasized while those muscles that allow for “re-cocking” of the cylinders overlooked. Specifically, the extensor muscles of the ankle, knee, and hips all provide the thrust, or propulsive force, that results in linear speed. The flexor muscles at each of these joints, alternatively, provide the “re-cocking” mechanism to run faster. An athlete that wishes to run faster must address both aspects of speed and power generation EQUALLY!

The main flaw in speed training routines is the predominant overloading and training of the hip extensors at greater intensities, speeds, and frequencies than the flexors. Exercises are frequently chosen and designed to oppose the direction of triple extension. For instance, exercises involving dragging an object (e.g. sled) force the extensors to produce greater force; yet the flexors are getting no additional stimulation. Other common exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, plyometrics, and many more. Alternatively, with regards to the flexors, the hamstrings are overemphasized through exercises such as leg curls in relation to the other flexors of the hip and ankle.

This type of training and scenario, in turn, creates a potential imbalance in the rate of extension and flexion at all three joints, creating unfavorable running and speed mechanics. In order to maximize speed and to run faster, training of the flexors and extensors must be balanced. Granted, the force production may not be equal to that of the extensors, which are naturally stronger given the anatomy and leverages of the hinge and ball-and-socket joints at the knee, ankle, and hip, respectively. However, this is not an issue as the extensors are responsible for moving a greater load – the mass of the ENTIRE body. Alternatively, the flexors are responsible for moving a significantly smaller load – the mass of the leg.

Thus, appropriate exercises must be developed that equally stress the flexors at similar intensities as the extensors. Commonly, intensities for extensors are far greater than flexors as light loads are usually prescribed for flexors. Although the flexor muscles may be smaller, they must be stressed equally relative to their maximal force profiles. Additionally, any speed and power development exercises (e.g. plyometrics) geared towards enhancing neuromuscular efficiency for the extensors must also be complemented with similar exercises for the flexors.

Ultimately, the main goals of speed training and variables of speed program design include:

  1. Quantifiable comparison of the speed and rate of force development of the extensors and flexors in relation to the masses they are each responsible for displacing
  2. Training the slower phase to balance the speed of both phases (i.e. extension and flexion)
  3. Efficient kinetic-chain mechanics calculation for each phase to properly position the joint angles, given the athlete’s anthropometry

Although an athlete may be very powerful in the triple extension phase as verifiable through an activity such as vertical jumping, running faster and speed involves two phases that cannot be separated. This is also why an athlete can be a tremendous vertical leaper, but have little to no carryover to speed. Without the flexion phase being equally as fast as the extension phase, the athlete will only be as fast as his/her slowest phase.

Basketball Conditioning – Maximize Fuel Efficiency

Basketball conditioning has routinely been misapplied by many coaches and trainers. Specifically, most coaches and trainers are under the impression that the game of basketball relies heavily on endurance. However, it is important to not confuse low-power endurance with high-power endurance and to try and isolate a workout purely for one trait as this may be counterproductive. For a more detailed explanation of how endurance and power can negatively affect each other, please consult the article Bioenergetics and Conditioning – Avoid becoming OVERconditioned.

Oftentimes, basketball conditioning is overtrained through running the length of a court, where maximal distance is covered in a continuous fashion at high speeds. This trains more of a longer-distance endurance than is actually required for the game of basketball. This leads to an overconditioned player whose power output has been compromised and will not maximize performance specifically for the game of basketball. Instead, several variables must first be considered for the basketball player, in terms of conditioning. When analyzing the game of basketball, several unique characteristics are evident. First is the element of power. Basketball involves a high frequency of changes in direction and rapid accelerations and decelerations. Ultimately, this is an indicator of high force and power outputs.

Furthermore, the playing area that is available to cover during a basketball game is relatively small. The longest distance is from two opposite corners of the rectangular playing surface. Thus, how much endurance can truly be expected of an athlete under these constraints? In order to answer this, one must consider what endurance can represent.

An interesting experiment I once performed with the game of basketball involved the number of fullcourt trips that an NBA team would make within a 5 minute, real-time, period. A fullcourt trip constituted when the ball passed over the halfcourt line twice. In other words, when the ball changed possession and both teams went to the other end of the court and then returned back to the initial end, one fullcourt trip was counted. Using a standard stopwatch set at 5 minutes, several data points were taken. The number of trips taken during a random five-minute period during each quarter of 18 different games was taken. Take a guess at how many trips were taken during this period. Despite having a 24-second shot-clock, the average number of fullcourt trips during an NBA game was 4.22 trips, with a standard deviation of 0.83 trips, and a maximum of 8 fullcourt trips during one of the 5-minute data points taken. I highly encourage anyone reading to duplicate this same experiment for proof.

Another interesting statistic that may actually corroborate these experimental results is provided by basketball-reference.com. The “pace” statistic is defined as an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team. Taking the average pace over the last 20 seasons dating from present back to the 1991-92 season, th average pace is 92.055 possessions per 48 minutes. If we assume that a basketball game lasts 2.5 hours in real time, then this equates to an average of one possession every 1 minute 37 seconds of real time. This is an even slower pace than the experimental results, which showed one possession every 1 minute 11 seconds. Clearly, there is a lot less endurance involved in running the court due to changes in possession than may be emphasized by current basketball conditioning practices.

An NBA court is 94 feet long. If we assume the player goes from one baseline to the other and back, this would represent 188 feet covered. Even with this assumption, the average speed over a 5 minute period with 4.22 fullcourt trips being made would only be an astonishing 1.8 MPH! If we use the pace statistic, this average speed becomes only 1.3 MPH. Almost everyone would agree that this is a snail’s pace and represents a very low degree of work. In other words, the distance covered due to changes in possession and running the length of the floor is relatively very low – only 3.28 miles covered over the course of the entire game (assuming 92.055 changes in possession). Given the number of times play stops due to a foul, out-of-bounds, timeouts, shooting foul shots, substitutions, referee discussions, player injuries, and many more time-stoppage events, this average speed is actually very plausible. Furthermore, given that a 48-minute NBA basketball game is typically spread over 2.5 hours of real time, there is certainly a large degree of rest involved. Actually, this represents a theoretical maximum work-to-rest ratio of 0.32. If we also take into account the maximum average minutes per game for an NBA player during a season, such as during the 2009-2010 NBA season of 41.4 minutes/game, this work-to-rest ratio decreases to 0.276 over a period of 2.5 hours (source: basketball-reference.com).

So what exactly is going on here? What is truly occurring here since we know that basketball can be very demanding and players actually reach much higher speeds during different points of a game? Majority of the work is actually due to extremly high instantaneous, not prolonged, force and power output phases in short bursts followed by lengthier, lower-power recovery phase. An NBA game is indeed very demanding, but this isn’t surprising. More specifically, majority of movement may actually be occurring within the halfcourt set of a basketball game. The nature of these movements within the halfcourt set is equally important to mimic during conditioning in several ways including:

  1. Highest frequency in changes in direction including      accelerating and decelerating
  2. Postural consideration such as having to keep one’s      center-of-mass (COM) lower
  3. Multidirectional movements such as lateral and      rotational
  4. Jumping
  5. Generally shorter distances covered (i.e.      sideline-to-sideline, 3-point line to basket, etc)

Essentially, this is where most of the underlying work is really occurring during a basketball game. Although some of the work during a basketball game is accounted for when changing possessions and performing a fullcourt trip, the nature of a fullcourt trip involves:

  1. Two changes of direction towards farther baseline      including accelerating then decelerating
  2. Unidirectional movement (i.e. forward linear      locomotion)
  3. Longer distance, allowing for nearing top speed and      diminishing power output

Essentially, the fullcourt trip is used during training for endurance purposes, but is actually not basketball-specific endurance. As mentioned and observable during an actual game, running the length of a basketball court in continuous fashion is very different from what actually occurs during a halfcourt set. Thus, using fullcourt endurance training, the basketball player’s neuromuscular, metabolic, and energy pathways will not be trained in the most sport-specific manner possible.

Instead, proper basketball conditioning must rely on mimicking the frequencies of the peak force and power outputs required. The fullcourt sprint will logically diminish force and power outputs due to a longer distance being covered and fewer changes in direction. When one experiences “heavy” legs in basketball, this is primarily due to fatigue from the higher power outputs required. Although a cardiovascular deficit may be perceived as well during competition, other factors may also be involved. Specifically, as one’s muscles fatigue, technique breakdown may occur and there may be less efficient running mechanics and posture at the torso, for instance. Poor posture from fatigued muscles may also stress the cardiovascular systems by affecting breathing mechanics and inhibiting tidal volume, lowering overall oxygen consumption and temporarily inducing states of hypoxia. Furthermore, rapid bursts during the game are anaerobic and the body must cope by temporarily increasing heart rate to overcome this temporary state of hypoxia as the body attempts to recover and restore equilibrium.

Essentially, all factors affect one another. If one area of the body is trained improperly or demands not calculated accurately, a submaximal training response and carryover to the intended activity will occur. This has many undesirable consequences not only from a performance standpoint, but also an injury prevention standpoint. Stay tuned for future articles that will delve into detail on the most scientific techniques to maximize conditioning for basketball.