Jan 29, 2015Ahead of the Curve
Insiders at elite private training centers discuss the present and future of athlete development. From treadmills you can skate on to weight machines that record the details of each user’s workout, they say new technology is helping revolutionize the way athletes train.
By R.J. Anderson
R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
They are names you’ve likely heard: Athletes’ Performance, Athletic Republic, Velocity Sports Performance, Nike Sparq Training, and Tom Shaw. They’re the specialists and gurus who prepare football players for the NFL Scouting Combine, put Major Leaguers through their off-season paces, and train Olympians, professionals, and gifted high school athletes on a daily basis.
Because of their years of experience and resource-rich environments, the methods and philosophies of these well-respected experts and their training facilities push the envelope and help drive innovation in athlete development. In many cases, their ideas are eventually incorporated by the broader strength and fitness world.
We picked the brains of several of these professionals for insights into the latest trends and technology advances in strength and conditioning. In this article, they share their methods and reveal some of the most innovative and state-of-the-art tools currently lining their training arsenals.
These days, top strength and conditioning specialists know that training an athlete is like preparing for battle: It’s imperative to have a plan before striking the first blow. While it’s no secret that a conditioning program should address an athlete’s deficiencies, Rett Larson, Program Coordinator for Velocity Sports Performance, says more and more strength coaches are learning the value of corrective exercise and designing workouts that train movement instead of just building muscles.
“Modern sports performance is more about focusing on movement mechanics, and from there, backing up to find which muscles need to get stronger, which are dominating others, and what imbalances may exist,” Larson says. “By correcting movement imbalances instead of just building strength, we’re creating a better athlete.
“It’s pointless to train an athlete to have a bigger engine if his alignment is off,” continues Larson, who relies on the principles of Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen to guide him. “So we train each of our coaches to develop an eye for picking out poor movement patterns, then utilize the right exercises to correct those deficiencies. And there are no magic exercises–everything is individualized based on an athlete’s needs.”
Assessing movement patterns and identifying deficiencies also helps reduce injury risk. “Movement screens aren’t new, but they mark another contribution to our profession from the physical therapy world,” Larson says. “It’s the type of information that makes strength coaches smarter and helps us better grasp what’s happening in the body and what causes injuries.”
In the same vein, Larson says there has also been an enhanced focus on building recovery into a workout plan. “Instead of just worrying about building an athlete’s muscles, strength coaches need to teach their athletes about the role of rest and recovery between workouts, and how that will make them stronger,” he says. “For example, we are seeing more and more studies on the role of sleep in tissue regeneration and how ice baths, massage, and other active rest techniques ultimately make athletes stronger and faster.”
Larson, who also helps design the education and training programs for Nike Sparq-certified training centers and coaches, is working to develop programs that cater to the needs of both elite and younger athletes. “We only have an hour and a half twice a week with most of our athletes, so in that short time we need to be mentors and teach them about the things that will help them improve every day,” he says. “We design recovery programs they can do on their own and talk to each athlete about proper nutrition and the dangers of overtraining.”
AIRING IT OUT
When putting athletes through weightroom workouts, coaches at Athletes’ Performance’s three training centers rely heavily on the air-based resistance of pneumatic Keiser equipment. The theory behind pneumatics is that by removing momentum and the inertia generated when an athlete accelerates mass and replacing it with air pressure, more constant resistance is provided throughout the entire range of movement.
“Once we’ve developed an athlete’s lifting and movement fundamentals, we’ll put them under the air, working with rep schemes of less than five and focusing on velocity of movement,” says Nick Winkelman, Education Manager for Athletes’ Performance. “With pneumatics there is no inertia, and unlike lifting a traditional load, there’s no deceleration at the end of the lift. It’s basically the same idea behind using chains and bands, but with more dynamic effects.
“For example, if I’m doing a front squat with a Keiser air machine for three reps with max power output, I have to go all the way through triple extension and finish hard for that last little bit,” Winkelman continues. “We really emphasize pneumatics when we get closer to an athlete’s preseason, when speed of movement and power become the dominant training factors–the air machines teach athletes to produce power through the entire range of motion.”
Pneumatic equipment is also improving the way Athletes’ Performance measures strength and evaluates progress. As part of a baseline athlete evaluation program, coaches incorporate pneumatic-based exercises to help them collect in-depth data for each athlete. For instance, when measuring power levels using pneumatic machines, athletes perform upper-body chest presses and lower-body leg presses. The air-driven technology allows a coach to seamlessly modulate the amount of weight during each test.
“We start by having them do a single rep with a light weight to see how quickly they can move it,” says Winkelman. “Over the course of 10 reps, we go from very light to very heavy to get an idea of their upper- and lower-body power levels. Not too many facilities have this equipment yet, but it’s a major advantage because it allows us to get that full-spectrum power curve reaction time and then look at any power asymmetries.”
For Athletic Republic, a chain of 160 athletic development facilities based in Park City, Utah, recent years have seen a strong emphasis on developing and integrating new measurement tools to more accurately assess each athlete’s progress. With more precise, individualized information, the strength coaches can dial in highly efficient and effective training programs for their nearly 80,000 clients, who range from Olympic athletes and players training for the NFL Scouting Combine to athletes in high school and younger.
One of their favorite tools is a proprietary instrumented leg press featuring a high-tech force plate. Used both for diagnostics and as an everyday training device, it can be applied in both performance development and rehab settings.
“The leg press is basically a sled that moves horizontally and has a footplate at one end,” says Steve Swanson, Chief Officer of Science and Technology at Athletic Republic. “The athlete lies down with a set amount of weight on the stack, and they press or jump on the force plate. It provides us with a safe environment where we can overload the body without risk of injury.
“For example, during weighted jumps, it allows for force output beyond that of a standard squat or body weight jump,” continues Swanson, adding that the machine can be used for one- and two-leg presses. “By measuring the force the athlete applies, we can gauge power output precisely, evaluate their progress based on that data, and adjust their training regimen accordingly. It allows our coaches to push the envelope for what the athlete can do in terms of raw power output.”
Complementing that piece of equipment is a portable force platform utilizing similar technology. Athletes use it for a variety of closed-chain exercises, including body weight jumps. Swanson says the platform measures force in three directions, which adds a balance component to many exercises, giving him and his staff the ability to assess stability levels during push-offs and landings.
“For us, the focus is on training movements, and everything we do is rooted in developing sound movement skills before progressing to the next phase,” he says. “For example, an athlete shouldn’t be doing depth jumps if he can’t properly execute the landing from a body weight jump or if he isn’t able to consistently stabilize his center of mass. These tools help us decide when they’re ready to progress.”
Athletic Republic is on the cutting edge in other areas as well, including information management. Traditionally, collecting and analyzing data has been a chore not many strength and conditioning coaches look forward to–if they do it at all. At Athletic Republic’s flagship facility in Salt Lake City, an official sport science provider for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the once-tedious process of collecting and processing data is quickly becoming part of a system-wide automated solution.
Using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology like that found in retail stores for theft prevention, some of Athletic Republic’s training and testing equipment contains a prototype data entry system that instantly records the athlete’s workout information and enters it into a database. Before stepping on a treadmill or using the instrumented leg press, athletes scan an RFID wristband and the details of their lift, run, or sprint test are tracked by computer software.
“If I test somebody on the leg press or treadmill, their performance is automatically uploaded to our database and the athlete can immediately log on to see it and get feedback,” Swanson says. “It helps us more efficiently manage the information and allows athletes to get more out of their time with our coaches.”
Swanson says the future of strength training lies in taking an evidence-based approach to improving program design, and bringing less experienced coaches up to speed more quickly. He says data management and analysis are major keys to this trend.
“If we can capture and analyze this mound of information effectively, our new coaches and those with less experience will have access to planning strategies rooted in the successes and failures of a large population,” Swanson says. “They hit the ground running, and benefit from the collective wisdom of others.”
Long a staple of training facilities, treadmills have undergone some impressive upgrades in recent years. Currently, Athletes’ Performance is testing a new treadmill from Woodway called the Speed Board. It has no motor, and its free-motion deck lends itself to speed training.
Because the Speed Board slows with the athlete’s pace and doesn’t force the user to step off when they can’t run fast enough to keep up with the machine, it allows athletes to train at top-end speed in a safe, low-impact environment. “We typically use it in short intervals,” Winkelman says. “For max velocity work, it will be for less than 10 seconds. Once we see posture break down, a typical indicator of fatigue, we have the athlete step off.”
Winkelman says it also helps him advance a concept called potentiation, which he defines as using high-velocity or high-force movement to increase neural drive to the muscles during unloaded repetitions. “With our advanced athletes who are more confident in their running mechanics, we use it as a short-term potentiator by keeping them on it for a five-second burst,” he says. “They feel like they’re moving faster than they would be on the ground, but none of the speed is artificial because it’s not created by a motor. When they get back on the track, the potentiation from that short burst translates into real speed gains.”
Athletic Republic has integrated its treadmills with technology that could be described as a slippery slope. The Hockey Treadmill contains a synthetic ice-like surface designed to train skaters to move more efficiently. Capable of tilting to a 32-percent grade, it uses two-inch slabs of fake ice implanted on the foot bed and can operate at speeds over 16 miles per hour. A handful of elite college hockey programs, including Cornell University and the University of Minnesota, also use this technology.
“The Hockey Treadmill allows skaters to work on their movement mechanics while watching themselves in a mirror or in front of a coach,” Swanson says. “The athletes can work on getting down in the proper stance and use hip muscles that are really tough to train in the weightroom. It also offers the potential for video feedback after each session.”
NEED FOR SPEED
When a top NFL prospect wants to lower his 40-yard dash time and elevate his draft stock, he is often referred to Tom Shaw. A longtime strength and conditioning guru and former speed and conditioning coach for the New England Patriots during their recent Super Bowl runs, Shaw has trained over 117 NFL first-round draft picks and coached five of the six top 40-yard performers in Scouting Combine history. His calling card is speed development, and though he claims his methods aren’t sexy, his results are off the charts.
Shaw’s philosophy on linear speed development is simple. “We try to increase each athlete’s vertical jump, standing long jump, stride length, and stride frequency,” says Shaw, who is also one of six Nike Sparq Master Trainers.
Among Shaw’s favorite tools for increasing stride length are stride checkers–50-yard patterns of ropes or sticks laid out on grass or a track that athletes try to strike with their feet. “The first 10 markers are 18 inches apart, and then the distances are progressively lengthened by four inches every two targets until there is a distance of eight feet between the last two sticks,” says Shaw, whose training facility is located inside Walt Disney World’s multi-million dollar Wide World of Sports Complex. “The runner’s goal is to stay in a forward-leaning position while keeping their elbows pumping at the same rate of speed even as the strides lengthen. You want to maintain that frequency while improving stride length.”
For most athletes navigating the course, which is run at top speed, one pass takes six to eight seconds. “We’ll start off running it two or three times, and depending on how tired their legs are after that, we’ll do up to five,” Shaw says. “It’s the most important part of our training sessions.”
Shaw also utilizes both assisted and resistance running with bungee cords and a launch belt. For assisted running, he hooks a bungee cord to the athlete’s waist and attaches the other end to a partner, who then pulls the athlete forward as they run at top speed, creating an effect similar to sprinting downhill. The resistance drills operate in reverse, with the partner pulling backward on the bungee cord. In other resistance drills, the athlete pushes against the resistance of a cart driven by Shaw.
“I try to get them in a power position with their legs driving straight ahead and their feet pushing into the ground.” Shaw says. “The weight of the cart provides resistance on their first step, which is very important in a 40.”
A typical speed workout with Shaw might start with three 30-yard resisted runs. “Then I may have them do three more 20-yard sprints, but I’ll release the launch belt after 10 yards so they run the last 10 with no resistance,” he says. “Then, they might do three 30-yarders with no resistance. At that point, they usually feel a lot faster–and eventually, they are.”
More information on the ideas and equipment detailed in this article can be found at the following Web sites:
www.AthletesPerformance.com www.AthleticRepublic.com www.SparqTraining.com www.CoachTomShaw.com www.VelocitySP.com
Sidebar: VIBRATION TRAINING
One innovative tool that’s quickly growing in popularity is vibration training. Using Power Plate platforms from Power Plate North America, coaches at Athletes’ Performance’s three training centers utilize vibration as a stimulus during prehab and movement prep, and as part of movement and strength training sessions.
The idea behind vibration training is simple: Repetitive impulses from the platform excite muscles’ motor neurons, causing the fibers to contract. Vibration has been shown to affect the sensory, neuroendocrine, and cardiovascular systems. For athletes, benefits are thought to include increased flexibility, increased bone density, synchronization of motor units, increased hormonal secretion, and preactivation of the musculoskeletal system.
“Vibration plays a large role in our training programs,” says Nick Winkelman, Education Manager for Athletes’ Performance. “It’s primarily for neuromuscular activation, corrective exercise, and movement awareness–we’ll ask the athlete to perform a movement pattern on the plate, then repeat it on the ground.
“We’re also using it more and more as a preactivation tool,” Winkelman adds. “Vibration is great for enhancing power movements, whether it’s with plyometrics or in the weightroom.”
To read an article about vibration training previously published in T&C, visit: www.Training-Conditioning.com and type “Vibration Training” into the search window.