Yesterday, I volunteered at my old high school to instruct some PE classes. Then I went to the gym and instructed our elite hockey players.
In both situations, I found myself explaining the same thing: cardio and interval training does not improve strength & power.
I found this odd. In my mind, it is ridiculously obvious that fatiguing your body is not the best way to increase speed and power. But obviously there is a disconnect between what I think is obvious, and what a younger generation thinks is obvious. This post is to address that disconnect:
In my mind, I have constructed a logic chain on how to develop strength and power that looks something like this:
- Teach athletes to move with proper movement patterns. These proper movement patterns should:
- Use the muscles as they are designed to be used: Hips – Movement, Core Musculature – Stability
- Teach the athlete to be able to handle more load with proper movement patterns
- Teach athletes to move loads at higher speed, maintaining correct movement patterns
- Develop an athlete’s capacity to handle high loads, at high speed, while under fatigue
I find that athletes and parents associate fatigue, intensity and volume with workout value. Here’s the thing: anybody who can yell at athletes is capable of making people fatigued and sweaty. And yes, there is a chance that said person is going to develop the strength and power of their athlete. If they are really lucky, they’ll inherit an athlete with great movement mechanics and great work capacity, and that athlete will respond to that training, and will then go on to do well in fitness testing…thus “proving” the efficacy of the fatiguing, high intensity workout. The huge problem with this (and I know, because I’ve previously been the coach to prescribe high-intensity, fatiguing workout after high-intensity, fatiguing workout), is that the players who don’t move well and are not able to adapt to the increased workload, well, they get left behind. They just “aren’t working as hard as those other guys”.
If we go back and look at point #1 (Teach athletes to move with proper movement patterns), there is a new challenge for coaches with today’s athletes. I have noticed that there are less and less multi-sport, natural athletes. As a result, I’m inheriting athletes who might be excellent hockey players, but lack BASIC HUMAN MOVEMENT. The main problems I see with young hockey players is that their hips are so tight, that they have to their knees and spine to generate their movement. Of course, the hips are capable of generating much more power than both the knee joint and the spinal muscles combined, so players with tight hips are leaving a lot of strength and power generation on the table if they are not correctly moving their hips. And simply put, we cannot train the athletes to properly move their hips if they do not have the mobility to do so.
Someone might tell me that by doing squats, deadlifts and lunges you can fix this problem. I’d agree, but only if the athletes are doing squats, deadlifts and lunges like they are meant to be performed by the body. Again, the tight hips often prevent squats, deadlifts and lunges from being performed properly, so the body learns and reinforces sloppy movement mechanics. Under fatigue, this problem gets even worse because the body is already not using its most effective and efficient muscles, so now those muscles start failing and recruiting even less effective and efficient muscles.
For me, I cannot in any sort of good faith condone or prescribe consistent workouts that do not first address movement quality. I believe it would be negligent of me to do so. Of course, I do not believe that athletes should not be placed in challenging and fatiguing situations to prepare them for camps. But this type of work should be done with conscious attention towards minimizing risk, and it does not need to be done all the time. Furthermore, I of course believe in developing a high aerobic and anaerobic capacity in our athletes, but there are more effective ways of improving that specific capacity than running them into the ground every day.
Measurement and Value
Like I mentioned, fatigue is often associated with the value of a workout. Let’s please change that.
I can understand that void of any other metric, valuing a workout by the amount of fatigue it generates is a very reasonable thing to do. And I can also imagine that if a trainer is not actually wanting to put a lot of thought into how their workouts make on ice contributions, then they’ll want you to think that fatigue is a useful value measuring stick.
What metrics actually matter? Some will say that a strength and conditioning coach should only worry about the fitness variables they can effect. So they will tell you they have improved the athlete if they improved their squat weight, their bench weight, their clean weight, their broad jump, and some measure of aerobic capacity. Others use those metrics as well, but also consider their role to be to help the athlete in their sport. They may take a bit of emphasis off of the bench, squat, clean, jump and VO2, and spend a bit more time and effort trying to translate or transfer the skills to the sport.
I fall into the second camp. Not radically so. I believe that improvements in athletic movement principles (needed for hockey) will manifest themselves in improved lifts, jumps, sprints, and aerobic tests. Therefore, those tests may provide an indicator as a proxy for improved sport performance. The reason that I fall into the second camp is because I am in (what I think is) a fairly unique position of having almost amassed my 10,000 coaching hours (I’ve been coaching for about the last 9 years consistently) and also having amassed my 10,000 hockey playing hours, meanwhile I’ve studied Kinesiology. Because I am also continuing to play while doing all this, I’d say that I am very in touch with the process of what it takes to get better. I’ve made committed almost every mistake by enthusiastically following every person who has a claim that they can help improve my game. I have ruthlessly thrown aside any and every method that does not provide immediate and lasting results. I’m also 100% in touch with the demands of the athlete, and the psychology of the athlete. So I remember the days when I crushed a fatiguing workout, went to the farm to work and pushed a lawn mower and carried a weed whacker and didn’t have time or energy to develop my skills. I remember dropping 400lbs on my back in a back squat with incorrectly adjusted spot arms and no spotter. I remember lunging around my backyard with a friend (who never worked out with me again), for 2 hours, and then not being able to walk for a week (my mom literally carried me up and down the stairs…embarrassing for a 12 year old).
After almost 20 years of hockey, I’ve realized that the most valuable physical skills I learned were actually very different than what a strength & conditioning coach might suggest. They are:
- Not to tense up in pressure situations.
- Not to “try” too hard. Give 100% intensity instead.
- Not to tense muscles that are not immediately involved in performing the skill.
- Generate and receive contact through the core.
- Learn to generate elasticity through the core on shots and passes.
- Don’t bend your knees too much, use your hips to generate power.
- Under fatigue, stay calm, breathe deeply.
- Correct posture (shoulders, pelvic alignment, ribcage alignment) matters as much to physical performance as it does to psychological performance.
All of these things are movement quality related. They were sprinkled throughout my career, with many of them only coming into crystal clear focus very recently. Disappointing, then, that all the fatiguing workouts I did never taught me those things. Some I learned when I used to play the violin, others I learned through martial arts, golf and soccer. A few teammates have given me pointers on others. The rest I learned by researching information from the best minds in sports and strength and conditioning.
Of course, I’m now also blessed with great aerobic capacity, strength and power. While these occurred as a result of my training, I still believe that my training was not the most efficient way of improving all of those things. For example, I learned that I didn’t actually need to lift as much volume as I thought I did. I also wish I had adopted a different running style when I was back racing, as that would have made running so much more enjoyable. In any case, all of this was a valuable learning experience because I can now do a lot more with a lot less time and energy.
So what are we doing this summer? We are trying to boil down 20 years of my enthusiastic pursuit of excellence through training into one summer. We are drawing the straightest line through the sand. I’m hoping it can help everyone we are training get better faster.