Beyond The Basic Methods For Sport Specific Athletes
Getting wickedly strong and powerful, developing speed and building muscle like a Greek God are all at least fairly commonly known practices and trained/developed in many athletes, regardless of sport. These are all pretty important qualities to develop for most athletes and help to build a solid foundation for improved athletic performance on the field, court or rink.
However, beyond some of this foundational development, there are multiple more specific qualities that can be trained and developed for different physiological requirements of different sports. Today, I’d like to focus in on some modalities that I’ve effectively used for athletes that need to display prolonged speed and power, specifically in the weight room. While I have specifically used these with speed skaters, runners and bikers (with slightly different twists), they can be applied to any athlete who needs to be able to maintain good force output for a long period of time and has the goal of becoming devastatingly powerful in ALL stages of a race or competition.
A Brief Scientific Recap on Muscle Fiber Typing
If we are going to understand the rationale behind using specific modalities, we need to be sure that we understand the action going on behind the scenes. If you are reading this, you probably already have at least some understanding of the fact that there are different fiber types that compose our skeletal muscles.
The two main types that are most commonly agreed upon are type 1- slow twitch fibers and type 2- fast twitch fibers, with type 2 generally being subdivided into type 2a and type 2b (although there are multiple different possible subsets depending on what source you are looking at). The NSCA’s most recent book classifies these fibers as type 2 x and type 2ax based on some newer research. “Traditonally muscle fibers have been classified according to their myosin heavy chain protein complex.
Research using gel electrophoresis fiber typing indicates that the muscle fiber previously classified as type Iib in human skeletal muscle (because it was believed to contain the MHC Iib isoform) actually contains an isoform more closely resembling the MHC Iix isoform.” (NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, P.9) To keep things simple, we’ll just call them type 2 a and b for this article. Just be aware that there are many possibilities here.
These fibers are activated and controlled by fast twitch and slow twitch motor units of the nervous system. Fast twitch motor units and their partner fibers produce force and relax at a fast rate while their slow twitch opposites produce force and relax at a slow rate. Fast twitch fibers can produce a respectable amount of force and power but lack endurance while slow twitch fibers are endurable but can’t do a whole lot on the power or force side of the equation. One key thing to point out here is that type 2 a fibers have a greater potential to be more endurable and oxidative than type 2 b fibers since they have greater capillary and mitochondria density than their type 2 b brothers. All of this forms the backdrop of the why behind many of the training modalities that we will cover in the rest of the article.
Disclaimer: While the following training modalities are all wonderful tools, it is of utmost importance that an adequate movement and strength base is in place before utilizing these methods. We can’t put the roof on before the frame is finished. That being said, let us begin.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather some of my favorite big bang methods that I have used successfully with multiple racing athletes. Also, while the sets/reps/series that are mentioned here can work well, they might need to be modified based on the athlete and sport you are dealing with. Here are 5 weight room methods to develop the ability to prolong speed, power and strength output to create more effective athletes in their specific competitive arenas.
1. Oxidative Tempo Squat Series
While some people realize that we have fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fiber types, not many realize that we have varying subsets within those two types as we discussed above. Taking things even deeper, not many realize that we can train and develop specific qualities within those subsets. With the right kind of specific training, we can develop the oxidative capacity of our type 2 a fast twitch fibers (we can train them to be more endurable and help us longer in our races).
Using speed skating as an example, a skater needs to be able to be powerful and fast throughout an entire race, not just for a quick burst. Specifics will vary based on the distances and whether they do short or long track but the overall concept remains the same. In order to develop this quality, I have combined some methods from great coaches like Yuri Verkoshansky and Joel Jamieson and come up with some modalities that work well to help improve race performance.
The Method: Using a yoke/safety squat bar, we perform a set of 15 slow tempo reps (3 sec down, 3 sec up) and then drop ~20lbs and perform a set of 20 explosive reps right after. This is performed for up to 3 series with 3 to 5 minutes of rest between each series. Using a decent enough load will tap into those higher threshold fast twitch motor units and fibers and doing enough reps with that load will help to develop their oxidative abilities. Combining the slow and explosive tempos also helps to train both slow and fast twitch fibers to function better at varying speeds, just as they need to do in a race.
2. Slow Twitch Hypertrophy Sets
While this is not something totally new for veteran strength coaches, it is something that I feel is important to mention since it can have some nice benefits for the racing. Slow twitch fibers are definitely not known for their hypertrophy capabilities like their step brother fast twitch fibers are; however, they can still be trained to be more resilient and developed to a certain extent. We can specifically train our slow twitch fibers and make them stronger and more resilient by utilizing specific tempos with our training. (We accomplish some of this with the slower tempo set mentioned above)
The Method: Double and single leg squat and hip hinge variations, push and pull variations can all be used here. Using a 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up tempo for 2 to 3 sets of 10-15 reps works well here and can have those slow twitch fibers working extra hard for you as the race goes on. I typically like to use either a goblet or yoke squat variation so that the shoulders are not stressed too much from being stuck holding a bar for too long. Single leg rdl’s or pull throughs work well for hinging. Pushups and inverted rows work well for upper body work.
3. Explosive Reactive Endurance Hurdle Work
The ability to be “twitchy” and effectively utilize the stretch reflex over and over again is essential for a skater or runner to be successful in a race. If we can only do this briefly and then gas out and lose it before we get halfway through, all of the explosive ability in the world won’t matter. I like to use aerobic plyos here, a great modality that I picked up from Joel Jameison in his Conditioning Coach Course.
The Method: We will set up 4 to 5 low hurdles and have the athlete perform 4 hops down and 4 hops back, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and then repeated for 5 minutes straight. This is followed by 3 to 5 minutes of rest and done for 2 to 3 series. This develops the ability to maintain the stretch reflex utilization for long periods of time and is very beneficial for those who do longer races.
4. Sled Tempo Work
Utilizing a great tool like the sled gives us the opportunity to tap into some of the specific fibers we’ve discussed so far and it allows us to do so in a race specific, locomotive manner.
The Method: I’ll load up a sled with a challenging but manageable weight and perform two 40 yard trips. The first trip is done at a slower, more controlled tempo while the second trip is performed at an explosive pace. With a skater, we will typically perform the trips with somewhat of a anterolateral projection, similar to how they move on ice. This not only allows us to tap into different fiber types like we did with methods above, but it allows us to do it in a sport specific, locomotive fashion.
5. Multi-Planar Control Training
Developing different fibers with the modalities we have gone through are all great; however, in my opinion, much of that work will be wasted if we have poor control between our pelvis and ribs in 3 planes of motion. Energy leaks will pour in and economy will suffer, causing performance to suck a lot more than it should. As we move through our gait cycle, it is essential that we can effectively pull into one hip while pushing off of the other along with reciprocal thorax activity, with the proper muscles engaging to make good things happen. This is a drill that I like to use as a progression of PRI (postural restoration) exercises. If you are not familiar with PRI principles, I’d highly recommend checking them out.
The Method: Stand in front of a wall, plant your front foot on the floor and take your back foot and place it on the wall. Be sure that your back is not overextended and squat down about a quarter of the way while pulling into the same side hip. Use the back foot to push into the wall behind you and essentially think about using that glute to “drive” yourself into the front hip on the down leg. Hold this position and take 3 to 4 deep breaths. The adductors and quad on the front leg and the glute on the back leg should be engaged and felt nicely. As seen in the video, alternating reaching can be added in to drive thoracic motion and apical expansion along with the hip and pelvic activity.
More on this: Developing control between the hips and thorax in three planes of motion should be a component of any good training program for any racing athlete. In the exercise shown, he is training stability and control in left stance with a solid right push off, while being sure to PULL INTO the left hip rather than rotating the pelvis or compensating in the trunk. Using the right glute to “drive” into the left hip while reciprocally using the left adductors to “pull” into the left hip (and vice versa the other way) is essential with real time movement.
Training single leg stabilization and control as shown here can pay dividends when it comes to producing more efficient movement and control. In addition to the hips, he also utilizes reaching to drive quality thorax and rib motion concurrently. In this instance, we use the left reach along with an inhale to encourage expansion of the right chest wall and upper right ribs along with right thorax rotation, followed by driving the ribs down and thorax left with the right reach and exhale. Thoracic function, pelvic/hip function and breathing all need to work efficiently together in sport and should also be trained together in the weight room.
*Note: There are preliminary ground based progressions that might be needed for some athletes prior to performing this variation and these might not be the right fit for everybody (like anything else).
Transferring Weight Room Work Into Sport Specific Skill
When it comes to more advanced training with athletes, we need to get specific with what qualities we are training. As discussed in this article, the fiber types that we are stimulating and the qualities that we are targeting within them can make up an important part of a training program. Developing these specific qualities off of the rink or trail can go a long way into improving performance on them. Give these a shot with the right athletes and help improve their race performance in multiple ways.
About The Author
Nick Rosencutter, founder and owner of Rosencutter Ultra Fitness & Performance in Milwaukee, is a strength and conditioning coach, manual therapist, competitive power lifter, martial artist and writer. Since graduating with a degree in Exercise and Sports Science and Strength and Conditioning from the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse, he has worked with hundreds of clients, ranging from elite and youth athletes to people who want to shed fat and improve their bodies. His blend of experience with both therapeutic and performance modalities along with his years of personal in the trenches experience give him a unique hybrid like viewpoint on the body and its movement and performance.