Training Activities for Athletes: The Logical Steps to Determine Their Value, Part 1
A multitude of training methods and tools have evolved and now exist in the strength, conditioning, and fitness industry. The inevitable result of an increasing number of fitness professionals, the refinement of training methods, and all parties attempting to carve out their own niche. More people in the industry (relative to the increasing population of planet earth) and each attempting to add his or her own spin to existing training methods and tools has created not only more options to choose from, but more confusion as to what works relative to meaningful and measurable benefits.
Before I move forward with the juicy stuff, take a look at some past and present advancements in the industry:
- The advent of the Nautilus machines back in the day was a positive step toward improving muscle overload throughout a full range of muscle function. For those who have no clue about this, download this for a basic tutorial.
- Low-friction machines have been developed that better facilitate muscle overload, especially for slow-speed movement protocols. Think you're a bad ass when it comes to the intricate details of muscle contraction, work output, loading, and the mechanism behind muscle hypertrophy? Fabulous. Read Ken Hutchin's Super Slow: The Ultimate Exercise Protocol and then write me a book report. Good luck.
- More ergonomically correct strength training and other exercise devices are now sitting on the showroom floor.
- Some phone applications, computer-oriented training software, and a tincture of nutritional supplements can now be reasonable options for trainees seeking a magic bullet.
Backward or lateral steps can be seen in some of the gadgets and gimmick programs promulgated in numerous periodicals, catalogs, and web sites seeking primarily a positive profit margin. Functional training, sport specificity, balance-enhancement, and the supposed elusive core-stability bandwagons are a few to jump on. Sadly, much of the former comes down to their ineffectiveness and a lack of peer-reviewed research to support them. On the surface they may seem plausible, but upon further review they can raise a red flag, especially for healthy athletes. It can be embarrassing to the formally educated.
It's also time to inject an important point. Many of the aforementioned advancements have their genesis in rehabilitation programs designed for injured athletes. Returning from an injury does require the need to regain basic qualities such as balance, stability, simple motor skills, and baseline muscle strength. However, applying this to healthy athletes can violate the basic principles of motor learning, interfere with precise skill acquisition, and essentially be a waste of valuable time.
The proliferations of these gadgets, contraptions, and programs - coupled with the current popularity of boot camps, cross training, and the personal training field - can make training decisions a head-scratcher. This is analogous to the skepticism surrounding the nutritional supplement industry where a product is hailed to be the latest breakthrough even though the FDA has its hands tied provided the manufacturer includes that microscopic disclaimer on the product label. Buyer beware. Plenty of lawsuits and scams in the nutritional supplement industry exist. Likewise, many exercise devices and supposed breakthrough training methods need to be scrutinized relative to actual results. Do they work or are they a waste of time?
How to Determine Whether a Program Works or Wastes Time
A bit of common sense along with a step-by-step procedure can be used to determine the validity, efficacy, and safety of any training activity, method, or tool. Let’s take a look at the step-by-step process of determining a program’s value - legitimate or specious - and subsequent questions that either validate its use or renders it useless at some point in the process.
Step #1: What Is Its Classification?
All athletic events essentially involve three components in one-way or another and in varying degrees: force exertion, energy expenditure, and skill execution.
Force execution: Athletic actions or skills require force be produced by the muscles. Varying degrees of force are required for different sports and different situations encountered. To optimally prepare for all force situations, strengthening the muscles through a variable strength-training program is desirable.
Energy expenditure: Muscle force must be produced repeatedly over the course of most athletic contests. Sport-related conditioning - whether it’s short-term anaerobic or long-term aerobic - is necessary to improve the energy supply for the repeated forces needed over an entire event.
Skill execution: The limbs and body segments moved by muscle contraction must be guided in the proper sequence, in the right direction, and with the proper amount of force during sport skill execution. This includes both gross movements (i.e., running, jumping) and precise movements (i.e., a baseball throw or basketball free throw). The correct practice of these movements with attention to proper timing and coordination is thus essential for proper execution during competition.
Any training endeavor should therefore fall into one of three categories for it to be considered a legitimate pursuit:
- Force enhancement via strength training
- Energy system improvement via sport-related conditioning runs or drills
- Skill improvement via sport-specific skill training
Anything that does not fall into any of those categories should be put into a “gray area” category. This categorization means the activity, method, or tool is questionable, particularly for a healthy athlete not coming off a prior injury governed by the aforementioned rehab protocols.
In part two of this series, I will cover in detail the next steps in the evaluation process - the rationale behind strength training for force exertion, energy system enhancement to augment energy expenditure, and proper skill training for accurate skill execution.
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