Misconceptions of Strength in Athletics and General Fitness

All you need is a barbell and plates . . . . . . .

Bodyweight training is the only thing you really need . . . . . . . .

A kettlebell and an open field will be all that is necessary to make you strong . . . . . .

Strength training will make a female bulky. . . .

If you have been into reading anything about physical preparation or fitness,  you may have come across statements such as these.  There are professionals in the field of exercise that will tout certain training modes over others, especially if it is their “thing”.  What is going to be discussed are some issues as they relate to strength training that individuals commonly perceive to be absolute truths.  Falling into some of these thoughts could hamper some of your progress as far as your fitness goals are concerned.

However, there are truths to the above statements.  For instance, if someone where to do push-ups, pull-ups, bodweight squats and lunges everyday, they would get stronger and achieve a certain level of conditioning.  The same can be said for any of the above methods in the initial statments; there are countless stories of athletes, strongmen, and bodybuilders who had nothing but a barbell and some rusty plates in their garage to train with.  Without getting too deep into this, the human body will adapt to a stress which will cause changes to the body.  The problem is that once the body adapts, one will cease to see changes occur.  If you do limit yourself to one execise mode or another, it is definitely important to some how vary your stimulus with your exercise to continue to progress.  This becomes all the more important for competitive athletes who limit their training to certain types of training.  As a for instance, I knew a coach once who had his athletes performing a plyometric (or a jump program as individuals who understand this stuff would refer to it) and thought (no, he knew for a fact according to him) that this was all his athletes would need to make themselves better on the field.  What he failed to realize is that without some level of strength, the benefits from this type of routine would be limited– it’s that whole needing to be able to apply force thing.

So without going any further with this I will just address some of the issues as it relates to how people understand strength development.  What I don’t address here will be discussed in a future post.

1. Bodyweight exercises are all you will ever need

I think bodyweight strength movements are outstanding for helping to develop strength and just overall conditioning of the body.  As a matter of fact, I think most young athletes would all be better served is they could actually perform bodyweight movements (I could have counted way to many athletes I dealt with at the college level who would not perform ONE good push-up).  The problem here again lies in functioning in absolutes.  If you are a competitive athlete (no matter at what level) you at some point will have to add external resistance to your exercise, or for that matter, work on the development of MAXIMAL strength (which depending on your sport or chosen activity, can become very important to your overall development).

While anyone who is a football fan has heard the legendary stories of Herschel Walker (who was an athlete at a level that most people cannot even dream of getting to) doing is regimen of push-ups, pull-up, and sit-ups, there will be other things that have to get done, most notably using resistance.  This also means that athletes at some point should train HEAVY.  Now there are right and wrong ways to go about training to get to that point, but notheless it is something that eventually is necessary for athletes to do.

2.  Strength training and females

Everyone has dealt with the issues of females not wanting to strength train heavy for fear of getting “bulky” or too muscular.  While I am not looking to get into a discussion of physiology for the purposes of this post, females (yes, I am saying females as in all, don’t start telling me about your “genetics”) don’t have the capability to add on muscle mass due to lower resting levels of testosterone.  This means females resort to limiting themselves to spin classes, the lates froms of dance aerobics (I refuse to mention any by name), or the next “bootcamp class”.  Meanwhile, much of the complication with their training and meeting their fitness goals may be achieved by doing some basic strength training with RELATIVELY heavy weight.  This means not only doing high rep sets which do not tone muscles, but rather doing even some 3-5 reps sets of basic compound exercises.

The strength training issue is something that particularly needs to be addressed with young female athletes.  While working at the collegiate level, it amazed me at how when some athletes just dedicated themselves to basic strength training how their performance improved and the number of injuries they experienced decreased; or, when they did get injured how quickly they recovered.  It almost made things easier for me when I worked with these athletes because just about anything that covered working on their strength seemed to help them.  The bottom line is that for females to improve in their sport, they need to train to improve their strength.

I will address some of the other issues in a future post.  For now just remember that everything as it relates to strength training is a tool to be used to achieve a goal; their is not one perfect training modality that works best for everything.

Energy System Training and High Intensity Continuous Training

Conditioning the energy systems is a vital component for training athletes and to achieve general fitness.  The problem with most applications of conditioning is that most coaches or trainers are more concerned about constantly taking their clients to maximum fatigue through constant inappropriate application of exercise intensity.  This has become the trend pariticularly in “bootcamp” style fitness classes where individuals perform various circuits and exercises to exhaustion.  And while this approach will work for a certain period of time (particularly with those that have general fitness goals such as losing weight), at some point the intensity at which you work at with these modes of conditioning will level off and you will have a dimishing level of returns.

So is there something better than just doing burpees until you vomit?  The problem with an appropriately designed program that promotes improved levels of conditioning (or biological capacity and power), is that most individuals don’t understand one basic principle: it takes time.  This process should have long-term benefits and goals for your training to truly be effective.  Before getting into the means of how to condition, I just want to give a brief mention of the 3 energy systems:

1.  Alactic or ATP-PC system (immediate energy system)

2.  Glycolytic or lactic system (intermediate energy system)

3.  Aerobic system (long term energy system)

Over the past few years I have been reading a great deal of information from Joel Jamieson’s website on training the different energy systems, and I would highly suggest some of his articles for anyone to read who is interestested in this topic.  One of the main errors that many people make is the overtraining of the intermediate system, or the glycolytic.  There is this belief by many that individuals need to overload this system to condition when in many sports/activities, this system actually doesn’t contribute as much.  I can remember running gassers during football practice 2-3 times per week in-season, and always remember them being hard to run regardless how often we did them.  The same can be said for individuals with general fitness goals.  Molly Galbraith makes this point in an article she wrote when she referred to the misinterpretation of the Tabata research; these four minute rounds of exercises were suppose to work wonders for fat loss and conditioning (after all, who wouldn’t want to just do something for 4 minutes).

As I stated before, anything performed in the short term will yield benefits (law of adapatation).  The problem comes in (and is typcially a problem for non-competitive athletes looking for more general fitness goals) is that you reach an intensity barrier where you can no longer get the benefits from exercise, and raising the intensity to try and achieve further benefits becomes pretty much impossible.  This is typically when injuries set-in, or the individuals just looks for the next training fad to work its magic.

This brings in the importance of using conditioning to both establish an aerobic base (yes, I said aerobic) and for recovery puposes and establishing a base level of conditioning.  No matter how difficult you want to make you training to work hard and achieve goals, everyone needs to follow these principles in order to have long-term improvements and avoid injuries.  This is not to advocate for just long-distance running (which is also misused and abused).  There is absolutely no point in worrying about timed miles unless you run cross country or marathons.  But some forms of aerobic training should not be left out of your training regardless what your conditioning goals are.

High Intensity Continous Training

This is a conditioning mode that I learned about from reading information by Mark McLaughlin.  What this bascially entails is utilizing high intensity work over a prolonged period of time to facilitate recovery and improve the oxidative capacity at the muscles.  An important item to note is that while it is high intensity, you need to stay below your anaerobic threshold.  What you essentially do is pick an exercise and perform a repetition of it approximately every 2 seconds, with a resting pause in between each rep.  The resting pause is a vital elemet to this as it reestablishes blood flow to the muscles.  Mark likes to use a the spin bike with a high level of resistance to acheive this effect.  Using a high resistance, he has an athlete peddle and pause doing it continuously from anywhere from 5-20 minutes.  Now for individuals who don’t have a spin bike, I will outline methods for achieving  this below:

1.  Walking Lunges

This is a variation that I use many times, particularly for onlin clients because it is an easy one for them to follow.  This involves performing lunges continously for 5-20 minutes with a brief pause between each repetition.  It is important that during the pause that your muscles are completely relaxed.  I would recommed starting with looking to get in 20-60 minutes of total work, beginning with 5 minute rounds with 2 minutes between each round.  You can keep the rest periods active by performing abdominal work, push-ups, mobility work, or small rehabilitation based exercises during the rest periods.  It should be noted that you can, and probably should, add resistance to this exercise (dumbbells, barbel, weighted vest).  Just be careful not to overload it and begin working over your anaerobic threshold.

2.  Step-Ups

This variation involves just doing a weighted step-up for time in the same manner as the walking lunges.  You need to set the step at an appriorpriate height.  One way to do this is set the step to align with the bottom of your patella.  The perform step-ups for the allotted time with complete relaxation between each repetition.  Again additional resistance should be employed.

In regards to when to perform this type of exercise, one way is to do this the day after a hard training session (i.e. an intense lower body strength training session or sport practice).  While this form of exercise can seem difficult, athletes and trainees should feel refreshed after doing them from the recovery they help promote.  They will also improve conditioning at the muscular level, which is a forgotten element to training.  I have had some individuals do this after a weight training session if they have limited days in which they can train.  While it would be ideal to utilize a heart rate monitor for this type of exercise to make sure you are staying below your anaerobic threhold, I would not limit the use of this type of conditioning if you don’t have one.  However, they are relatively inexpensive (a basic model of a good name brand will cost around 40-50$).

Coaches need to realize that constantly just running athletes into the ground not only is non-productive, but it also limits ones ability to condition the biological systems of the body.  There are better things for basketball players then contant windsprints, and better things for combat athletes than continous burpees until they fall over.  While it may seem hardore and fit the bootcamp model, constantly working individuals to exhaustion by training lactic-based conditioning has limited effects for long-term development.  By establishing an aerobic base and focusing on recovery, one can not only avoid injuries in the short-term, but also exeperience more benefits in situations when glycoltic based training is warranted.  Coming up, I will do a few more posts on other aspects of conditioning for both athletes and general fitness enthusiasts.

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