Training Athletes 30 Years Ago – Has Anything Really Changed?

The message is simply this: if it worked years ago, why change it today?

Trainers and coaches under the age of thirty have been exposed to a different world. Although you have access to conventional paper books, scholarly periodicals, and profit-driven magazines from years past, you also thrive in a world that emphasizes all the information splattered over the Internet, television, and other media outlets. We’re talking about the vast array of training and nutrition websites and the endless display of these topics on the Internet machine, social media, and the long-standing boob tube.

Does More Information Mean Better Training?

When I was progressing through the personal training profession during the early 1980s, there were only books, periodicals, word of mouth, and hands-on experimentation when it came to program design and exercise implementation. The Internet was non-existent. We went with the aforementioned and did what we could with what we had. We did so successfully.

In the present day, it’s simple math. You have more information at your fingertips than someone who endeavored in the fitness industry back in the 1980s. With more available resources, all should be better than it was thirty years ago, right? Absolutely. No questions whatsoever. Are you sure, though?

Like I’ve often stated, “The wheel is round and will always be round if you want that object to function optimally.” Don’t change anything if it’s not broken. With that in mind, has training truly advanced way beyond that of a generation ago? Take a look at this eye-opening presentation on athletic performance enhancement before moving on:

If It Works, Why Change It?

The message is simply this: if it worked years ago, why change it today? The inevitable desire to change lies in the supposition that anything outdated or over-used needs to be changed to make room for more modern approaches. Human nature assumes previous methods and protocols eventually become obsolete and more current methods should trump them.

In laymen’s terms, it gets boring using the same protocols, so let’s find a way to change them even if it’s not necessary. Understand the cha-ching! factor resides here as well.

Drug-Fuelled Successes

It’s time to reminisce. The advent of organized strength and conditioning at the collegiate level was the National Strength Coaches Association in 1978. Yes, that is what the NSCA stood for back then. It became the National Strength and Conditioning Association years later.

My entrance into the field in 1984 can be considered relatively early in the grand scheme of it all. This entry was with a track and field participation and coaching background. Understand the sport of track and field is the essence of primal athletic performance – humans competing to run faster, jump higher and farther, and throw an object farther. Much can be taken from those goals and applied to other sports.

It was then when we began paying attention to the training methods of the old Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. We ate it up like free snow cones on a hot summer day. Those countries began producing world record holders and Olympic champions following the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Previous to this, the United States dominated prior Olympiads.

Post-1968, other countries stepped it up, until the 1988 games when drug testing became more serious (see Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson). The old Soviet Union and other Eastern-Bloc training methods from the early 1970s until the late 1980s were eventually exposed. Unfortunately, many continued to use their training methods despite the fact much of their success was due to drug-enhanced training programs.

I could go on, but here is my point. The aforementioned drug-enhanced regimes – the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Albania – used specialized training for those genetically programmed for certain events. In layman’s terms, they took the best talent for each event and enhanced it via their drug program. Imagine a talented, 6′ 5″ tall, and 325lb offensive tackle on steroids. It was the perfect storm.

Old School Strength Training

Drug use aside, thirty years ago we implemented strength and conditioning programs that included these:

  • Plyometrics
  • Olympic lifts
  • Powerlifts
  • Periodization schedules
  • Training to muscular fatigue
  • Interval running
  • Speed drills
  • Sport-specific exercises and drills

More specifically we implemented two-, three-, or four-day per week strength training that addressed the total body, upper body, and lower body with various pushing and pulling exercises. Single and multiple sets per exercise were used, such as the following:

  • One set to momentary muscular fatigue (MMF)
  • A two to four set script to MMF
  • A two to six set script based on percentages of a one-repetition maximum (1RM)

We also used other single or multiple-set protocols that emphasized MMF or designated percentages of the 1RM for a specific number of repetitions per set performed, including:

  • 3 x 10
  • 8-6-4
  • 3 x 15
  • 1 x 8-12
  • 1 x 10-15
  • 5 x 5
  • 5 x 10
  • 1 x 50
  • 2 x 12

The last time I checked, these are all being used today in one way or another.

Old School Conditioning Training

Conditioning-wise it was similar. We used a variety of methods, including:

  • Sport sprints
  • Long sprints
  • Shuttle runs and agility drills
  • Steady-state runs
  • Stadium steps and hill runs

Again, the aforementioned are still components of present-day training programs.

We ran athletes hard to not only improve their conditioning, but to augment mental toughness. There were days when we would run their dicks into the dirt with no concern for exertional disorders. The topic of rhabdomyolosis received only a tincture of discussion back then. Sickle cell trait was more of an issue, but it was all about pushing the athletes as hard as possible. If they survived it, then they were warriors. If they cashed their chips in they had to deal with the consequences.

Same Training, Different Name

But here’s my point. What we did thirty years ago is still being done today. It may take on another name or be implemented differently, but at the core are similar forms of progressive-overload strength training, sport-related conditioning, and attention to nutrition and recovery. As the presenter alluded to in the above video, equipment, competition venues, and other technology have impacted athletic performance more than advances in exercise.

Thirty years ago we did it and it still applies today. Get off your butt, train hard, train smart, and train consistently using time-proven exercises and methods.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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