By: Steve Thomas
Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine
Provided by: USTFCCCA
Most Americans cannot identify our sport from this list (see below). It is the second one, Athletics. At one time, our national governing body was known as The Athletics Congress (TAC). The average American did not know who this was, so the name was changed to United States of America Track & Field (USATF), to clearly identify our sport to America. Our world governing has recently changed its name from International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to World Athletics.
The very first governing body of our sport was the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU). There are only seven countries in the world who identify the governing bodies of our sport with the term track and field; the USA, Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Palau, Myanmar, and the Philippines. The remainder of the world knows our sport as Athletics.
Where does the term athlete come from?
What is the difference between a sport and a game? To play a game requires four things: (1) Rules, (2) Playing Area, (3) Game Pieces, and (4) Players. If you and I play a game of chess, we must know the rules, have a chessboard, have all the chess pieces (8 pawns, 1 king and queen, 2 bishops, 2 knights, and 2 castles), and you and I are the players. In a Football game, we must know the rules of Football; we must have a field 120 yards in length and 53 1/3 yards in width. We must have game pieces. Who are the game pieces in a Football game? The eleven offensive and defensive people on the field are the game pieces. Who are the players? The players are the people (we call coaches) on the sidelines maneuvering their game pieces in an effort to win the game.
The difference between the chess game pieces and the football game pieces is that the chess pieces are inanimate and cannot make mistakes (only the chess players can make mistakes). The Football game pieces are animate and can make mistakes, as can the players ("coaches"). So, the objective of the players ("coaches") of a football game is to keep their game pieces from making mistakes that lead to defeat. We have allowed games to steal our identity and use it as their own.
The players ("coaches") in a game can call time outs and make adjustments to their game pieces. In our sport, a coach cannot call a time out half way through a 110/100m hurdle race and fix the trail leg. The Player ("coaches") can substitute their games pieces if a game piece makes a mistake. If a Long Jumper fouls their first attempt, the Coach cannot put in a substitute Long Jumper. They have to make the adjustment to get the Jumper on the board.
One of the major objectives of the player (coach) in games is to have superior games pieces to the opponent. If you and I play a game of chess, and your chess pieces are 15 queens and a king, but my chess pieces are 15 pawns and a king, how can I win with inferior chess pieces? It is only an upset in a game if a team with perceived inferior game pieces wins against a team with perceived superior game pieces.
In collegiate competitions in America, you see the same teams vying for championships year after year in baseball, basketball and football, etc. because of their ability to recruit more superior game pieces than their opponents. In games, recruiting is far more important than coaching.
Should athletes train for strength the same way as a game piece? Are their strength needs the same? Most strength coaches have a one size fits all program that they administer to everyone. Strength training is essentially problem solving, and each athlete is a unique problem. Strength training has to be individualize to maximize the athletes talent.
In Athletics, results are the combination of two factors: motor ability and technical mastery. Motor ability is strength, speed, coordination, flexibility, and stamina (endurance). Strength greatly influences the other motor abilities. Technical mastery is the athlete's ability to effectively display their motor ability. Strength must precede technical preparation. To improve the athlete's performance, it is necessary to increase the force-generating capacity of the muscles involved in competition.
An increase in the athlete's motor abilities must precede the improvement of their ability to utilize it in competition. In Athletics (especially sprints, jumps and throws), technical mastery is characterized by the ability to coordinate maximal force output and is insured by the fast and full deployment of one's motor abilities. In the jumps, sprints and throws, the purpose of technical preparation is to maximize muscle strength potential in competition
Improvement in the athlete's technical mastery is strictly correlated to the increase in the maximal magnitude of force output in competition and to decrease time in which force is applied. One of the differences between a sport and a game is that the athlete has to train to apply maximal force in the shortest amount of time.
Essentially, when an athlete goes into the weight room, they are not training muscle, they are training the Central Nervous System (CNS)/Neuromuscular System to do two things: recruit as many motor units as possible and to recruit motor units as fast as possible. The objective in Athletics is to apply maximum force in a short amount of time (Explosive Strength).
The real problem for the athlete and Athletics coach to solve is one of speed. It takes approximately 0.30 of a second to achieve maximum force, but the problem in Athletics is that nothing is that slow. A sprinter gets .08-.10 seconds to apply force to the ground; the Long Jumper gets .11- .13 to apply force to the board; the Shot Putter gets less than .20 to apply force to the shot. In the weight room, these athletes are teaching the Neuromuscular System to recruit motor units maximally with speed to succeed in their event.
The athlete's ability to perform with maximal force in minimal time is not a mixing of separately developed speed and strength motor abilities, but is determined by several independent characteristics of the neuromuscular system which interact in an orderly manner to achieve the competitive task.
How do we go about teaching the athlete's neuromuscular system to recruit maximum motor units with speed in strength training? First, we must determine what level of athlete we are working with. If you look at the system the Eastern European countries have been using for over 50 years to classify athletes, it gives evidence to the fact that training must be based on the level of the athlete's ability.
Their classification system is based on the performance the athlete has achieved and not on their experience. They have seven classifications based on performance:
In Athletics, there are many different strength qualities that the athlete must master based on their event(s) and classification. They are:
Maximal Strength-is the greatest voluntary force that the athlete displays isometrically when there is no time limit. Explosive Strength-is the athlete's ability to achieve maximal force in the shortest time.
Rate of Force Development (RFD)-is simply how fast an athlete can develop force.
Relative Strength-is strength per pound of body weight and is vital to performance in the sprint and jump events.
Elastic Strength (Reactive Strength)-is the ability to overcome resistance with high speed of contraction using the tendons, muscle and ligaments to absorb, store and release energy.
These strength capabilities are rarely displayed separately in competition.
For athletes in Class III, II, and I Maximal Strength training will improve results. Athletes that are weak (Back Squatting less than 1.5 times their body weight) can greatly improve performance by training Maximal Strength. Maximal Strength is a prerequisite for high speed movement. Because most incoming freshman athletes lack Maximum Strength, that has to be the first priority. It is the best method for improving neuromuscular coordination (motor unit recruitment, rate coding, synchronization, and the entire coordination pattern).
The goal is for female athletes to be working toward squatting two times their body weight and cleaning their body weight, while male athletes should work toward squatting 2.25-2.50 times their body weight and clean 1.5 times their body weight. This insures that the athlete has the ability to apply maximum force. As the athlete increases Maximum Strength, they increase the cross-sectional area of Fast Twitch (FT) muscle fibers, and increase the rate of motor units recruited by the nervous system.
Yuri Verkhoshansky, the renown Russian strength expert, wrote of three methods for improving Maximal Strength: (1) Maximal Effort Method-lifting a maximum load;
The Maximal Effort Method produces the greatest strength increment and is superior to the other methods in producing maximum strength by recruiting a maximum number of MUs. The fastest MUs are recruited, there is a higher frequency of motoneuron discharge, MU synchronization is enhanced, and intramuscular and intermuscular coordination is improved. Because of the low repetitions and high intensity, there is no muscle hypertrophy, which is ideal for events where Relative Strength is important (sprints/jumps). The regime consist of 1-2 repetitions at 98-100% of 1RM. Because of the high intensity, the recovery between sets is 5-6 minutes. Other muscle groups can be trained between sets.
The major fault of the Maximal Effort Method for the Class III, II, and I athletes is the risk of injury. The Refusal Method is probably best for these athletes. Using a 5 or 8 Repetition Maximum (RM) to failure allows these athletes to improve maximal strength with less risk of injury. The 5RM is going to be approximately 85-89% of the athlete's 1RM, while the 8RM will be about 78% of the athletes 1RM. In the sprint/ jumps events, one must be careful not to go higher than 8RM with the Refusal Method because of muscle hypertrophy.
The athlete will perform 3-4 sets at the chosen RM; the longer rest (4-5 minutes) between sets reduces muscle hypertrophy.
The Dynamic Method uses Newton's Second Law (F = M X A) in developing force via acceleration. We can produce the same amount of Force by reducing the Mass (M) and increasing the Acceleration (A). In strength training for Athletics, all weight should be moved a maximum speed. Obviously, heavy weight cannot be moved fast, but moving it as fast as the athlete possibility can creates more Force. This method is used not so much for increasing Maximum Strength, but the development of Explosive Strength and Rate of Force Development (RFD). One of the best Dynamic Method workouts for sprinter/jumpers is Louie Simmons Westside Barbell's 12 sets of 2 reps with 45-60 seconds between sets for Back Squats. During week one, the athlete uses 50% of their 1RM Back Squat; week 2-55%; and week 3-60%. Week 4 the 1RM Back Squat is tested again and the cycle is repeated. The rest between sets is kept short to maintain an excited nervous system. This can also be done with the Bench Press. The key is to move the weight at fast as possible.
Explosive Strength is Athletics-the ability to produce maximal force in minimal time is required in all jumps, sprints, and throws. The prerequisite to Explosive Strength is Maximum Strength and Relative Strength. Performance is superior with greater maximal force, and the higher the Relative Strength, the more impulse is produced. Performance is the ability of the athlete to display their Explosive Strength capacity.
Explosive Strength can be enhanced in one of two ways: (1) Increase maximal force (Class III, II, and I athletes); (2) Increase Rate of Force Development (RFD) (Elite Athletes-everyone above Class I). Rate of Force Development is how fast the athlete develops force, and is a measure of Explosive Strength. RFD is the speed of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) and improving RFD makes for a more explosive athlete. Improvement in RFD is the result of increased muscle-tendon stiffness, improved muscle force production (Maximal Strength), and enhanced coordination of the neuromuscular system in the SSC. RFD training is for elite level athletes-Class I athletes are at the beginning stages of RFD training, but for athletes above Class I, it must be the primary training method.
The mistake made my many athletes and coaches, is to continue to train Maximal Strength when RFD is necessary for improvement. If the time available for force development is short (less than 0.3 seconds), RFD not Maximal Strength is the deciding factor. An athlete who squats their body weight has a standing long jump of 2.50m. When they squat two times their body weight, their standing long jump improves to 2.80m. When they squatted three times their body weight, there was no improvement because of the short takeoff time. Therefore, how fast force was developed (RFD) became the limiting factor, not Maximum Strength.
After Maximum Strength is achieved, how do we train RFD? There are two methods used to increase RFD: (1) Fast bursts of muscle action against heavy loads; (2) Training the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). With the first method, the high load makes the movement velocity slow, but the muscle action velocity (RFD) is extreme. The bursts of muscle action must be performed at maximum speed with maximum effort. These exercises should be done immediately after warm-up in a rested state. Using a load of 85-90% do 3 sets of 3 repetitions, and because of the high load, 5-6 minutes between sets is required. Other muscle groups can be trained between sets. To increase RFD, these exercises are trained four times a week and twice a week to maintain RFD.
The lifespan of the cross-bridges between actin and myosin strands is short (15-120 milliseconds). To utilize stored elastic energy, it is critical that the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) be short. The elastic energy of the cross-bridges is wasted with a long stretch because of the slippage between actin and myosin. The faster the SSC, the higher the force and power output, and energy expenditure decreases. The SSC is best trained with Plyometrics.
We grossly misinterpreted Russian plyometric training in the 70s. We call any jumping activity plyometrics. Plyometric training focuses only on a fast SSC.
Anything with force application longer than 0.15 is not plyometrics, but simply a jumping exercise. Bounding and hopping are not classical plyometric training. The original Russian plyometric training was called "Shock Method" or Drop Jumps. This method uses the body's kinetic energy, generated from the drop to stimulate neuromuscular tension. The landing creates a quick "shock" (stretching of the muscle) creating neuromuscular tension. The neuromuscular system increases motor neuron stimulation intensity and creates elastic ability through muscle tension.
The athlete stands on a box 40-110cm (depending on ability), steps off the box, and upon landing explodes vertically or horizontally off the ground as fast as possible.
For first time "Shock Method" athletes, use 2 sets of 8 repetitions with 4-6 minutes easy running/skipping between sets; working toward no more than 4 sets of 10 repetitions with the same recovery between sets. The cannot be emphasized enough: "Shock Method" training is for HIGH LEVEL ATHLETES ONLY!
In the sprints and jumps, Relative Strength plays a major role in performance. The formula for Relative Strength is: Relative Strength = Maximum Strength/ Body Weight. Relative Strength is improved by increasing Maximum Strength, reducing Body Weight, or doing both. In Athletics, the athlete's Relative Strength will effect performance, particularly in the sprint and jump events. The two lifts that are most used in these events to determine Relative Strength is the Back Squat and the Clean. When adding those two maximums together and dividing the athlete's body weight into them, minimally, female athletes should have 3lbs of strength per pound of body weight, and males should have 4lbs of strength per pound of body weight.
The higher the Relative Strength, the more potential for superior performances. Jonathan Edwards, the World Record Holder in the Triple Jump, had a Relative Strength of 5.34 with a Back Squat of 515 and Clean of 330, and his Body Weight was 158lbs. Just as a comparison (Relative Strength is not important in the Shot Put), Ulf Timmerman, the former East German World Record Holder in the Shot Put, had a Back Squat Max of 805lbs and Cleaned 485lbs weighting 262lbs, putting his Relative Strength at 4.92.
Athletics coaches were strength training long before there was an NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), and the multiple over Strength certifying bodies in America. What these certifying bodies have not recognized is the difference between a game and a sport.
Unfortunately, Athletics coaches in the collegiate system in America turn their athletes over to these strength coaches (usually by force from athletic administrators), and these coaches have been certified to improve game pieces-not athletes. Most of the certifying bodies know little about what an athlete is attempting in competition and even less about the strength training objectives they require to compete.
The American strength and conditioning coach is oriented towards team sports and approaches strength training with a one size fits all mentality. Strength training has to be individualized to the athlete depending on their ability.
The Class III athlete will improve Significantly with basic strength training. While the Class II and Class I athletes will improve by increasing the Maximum Strength. Once these athletes maximize their Maximum Strength levels, to move up to Candidate for Master of Sport and higher will require improvement in Explosive Strength and Rate of Force Development (RFD).
Siff, Mel, Supertraining, Sixth Edition, Supertraining Institute, 2004
Simmons, Louie, Book of Methods, Westside Barbell, 2007
Verkhoshansky, Yuri, Verkhoshansky Forum, Verkhoshansky.com, 2011
Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M, Science and Practice of Strength Training, Human Kinetics, 1995
STEVE THOMAS IS AN ASSISTANT COACH AT MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY WITH OVER THREE DECADES OF COACHING EXPERIENCE. THOMAS IS KNOWN ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE FOR HIS INSTRUCTION SKILLS, CONDUCTING CLINICS IN AUSTRALIA, BELGIUM, ENGLAND, GERMANY, MEXICO, SWITZERLAND AND CHINA IN ADDITION TO THE U.S.