Jan 29, 2015Balance of Power
Eccentric, isometric, and concentric. The three stages of a movement aren’t always treated equally. Triphasic training is changing that mindset in order to develop more explosive athletes.
By Cal Dietz and Matt Van Dyke
Cal Dietz, MEd, CSCS, is Head Olympic Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota and coauthor of the book, Triphasic Training: A Systematic Approach to Elite Speed and Explosive Strength Performance. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Matt Van Dyke, SCCC, USAW, is Graduate Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at St. Cloud State University and a former strength and conditioning intern at the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University. He can be reached at: [email protected].
It’s no secret that making athletes stronger is not the key factor in enhancing their performance. It’s about making them more powerful. Over the past few decades, strength and conditioning coaches have been developing strategies to do this, from identifying optimal exercises to deciding on the most effective periodization plans.
Despite the gains made in this area, until recently, a piece was still missing. Even the best programs for developing power seemed to lack a key ingredient–they focused solely on the acceleration phase of a movement, ignoring the stages that come before it.
The deceleration stage and pause before acceleration can make all the difference in performance. A prime example is two equally skilled athletes who perform at similar levels in the weightroom but have a wide gap in their competitive results. This was the case at the University of Minnesota in 2003 when the track and field team had two shot-putters who lifted comparable loads in the weightroom and had the same one-rep max on the bench press. When they entered the shot put circle, however, one consistently threw 10 feet farther than the other.
When we used a force plate to analyze both throwers’ power over the time it took them to complete a bench press, we found that the more successful shot-putter was absorbing more force eccentrically at a higher velocity. In doing so, he was loading up his muscles with energy to use concentrically. In essence, his longer puts didn’t come from being the strongest athlete but from being able to produce more force in the movement.
It’s one thing for an athlete to be naturally powerful, but it’s another to enhance the stretch-shortening cycle of someone who lacks this ability. For strength and conditioning coaches, finding optimal ways to do this has been elusive. Over the years, many have made the attempt with Olympic lifts and plyometric training.
A new idea, however, which we’ve implemented at Minnesota, is to train the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases of a movement separately. By allowing athletes to zero in on each one individually and learn how to optimize it during training cycles, they are better able to reach the ultimate goal of increased power.
We have introduced this approach, called triphasic training, to Gophers athletes in many sports over the past few years with great results. Paired with block periodization, this method is helping basketball players jump higher, soccer players cut more sharply, runners accelerate more rapidly, and so on. It’s also proving helpful for injury rehab.
BREAKING IT DOWN
The concept of individually training the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases does little good without a system to operate in. We’ve had success at Minnesota with block periodization and a careful breakdown of its three stages: accumulation, transmutation, and realization.
The first stage, accumulation, includes the individual block training of the eccentric, isometric, and concentric actions and plays a major role in creating the stretch-shortening cycle. The value of accumulation lies in the fact that basic motor skills are improved in this stage, which serve as the foundation for adaptations such as power and sport-specific speed. Specifically, training the eccentric phase of a movement leads to an increased storage of “free energy” within tendons. This energy is then transferred to the concentric action during the isometric phase, resulting in greater velocities and increased power outputs.
A sample accumulation stage that we use at Minnesota allows for two weeks of training for each of the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases. For example, with the back squat, the athlete lifts at 80 percent of their one-rep maximum and completes three or four reps in each block. The only change comes in the points of emphasis. When training the eccentric phase during the first and second weeks, the focus is on a slow, controlled tempo down into the squat. When working the isometric phase in the middle two weeks, the athlete concentrates on the pause at the bottom of the movement. And the concentric phase in weeks five and six prioritizes completing a dynamic, quick squat.
While the accumulation stage improves the building blocks of a movement, they are applied to sport-specific means for the first time during transmutation. In this training stage, maximizing power output is the ultimate goal. Power is increased by completing high-velocity repetitions with slightly lower loads, ranging from 55 to 80 percent of one-rep max.
The realization phase takes sport-specific training a step further by maximizing the transfer of skills the athlete worked on in previous phases. It utilizes the high velocity peaking method, which calls for athletes to lift at less than 55 percent of their one-rep max. Using lighter weights at a maximal velocity continues to increase power outputs and the rate of force development.
In realization, the nervous system and muscles must also be trained to fire at high velocities to reflect the instantaneous movements of sport. This can be achieved through plyometric exercises, antagonistic facilitated work, and oscillatory training.
We incorporate triphasic training into our existing strength and conditioning regimen using an undulated training cycle. Undulation allows for daily changes in load intensity and volume, which stresses the body, ensures constant adaptation, and provides a wide range of variability.
A typical week during triphasic training splits the work into three separate days: medium intensity and medium volume, high intensity and low volume, and low intensity and high volume. It’s beneficial to place the low intensity, high volume day at the end of the week to allow 72 hours of recovery between the two higher-volume sessions, ensuring the athletes stay fresh and are able to complete quality lifts.
The daily variety of undulation can be further enhanced by incorporating timed sets into workouts instead of numbered reps. Timed sets both push athletes to lift using maximal velocity and regulate the amount of stress that is exerted on the body, making them a valuable tool in training sport-specific energy systems. For example, football players engage in quick bursts of activity in their sport, so we put them through short timed sets. Distance runners, meanwhile, require endurance and stamina, so they perform exercises over a longer period of time to better train these traits.
Block periodization and undulation can be combined with the concept of residual training effects to set up an annual triphasic training cycle. While block periodization determines how long to train each phase and undulation ensures constant adaptation from the body, residual training effects set the framework to ensure athletes peak at the right time.
For instance, say an athlete is approaching a competition and you are deciding what to train and when so he or she is firing on all cylinders on game day. Aerobic endurance and maximal strength have the longest residual effects at 25 to 35 days, which means these qualities can be trained earlier in the workout cycle and not decline in the time until competition. On the other hand, the residual effect of the nervous system (speed work) is two to eight days, so this ability should be trained just prior to competition in order to reach maximum levels. When block periodization, undulation, and residual effects are utilized correctly in triphasic training, all abilities will be near maximal performance after all stages are completed. This leads to optimum performance and results.
It’s important to note that our triphasic training has benefited from using the French contrast method. French contrast training supplements a primary strength exercise with three different plyometric actions–bodyweight, weighted, and accelerated. A sample sequence could be a back squat followed by a tuck jump, a weighted squat jump, and a band-assisted jump. The plyometric movements provide additional stress at maximal velocities to improve an athlete’s power output and rate of force development, preparing them for the high-velocity peaking phase.
In addition, we have had success incorporating weeklong de-loading periods after each block. These sessions include general preparatory exercises and circuits, such as contralateral and super endurance, to maintain aerobic energy system gains, while helping athletes recover. De-loading weeks promote super-compensation and lead to an improved athlete when beginning a new block.
In addition to boosting performance for active athletes, triphasic training can also help players who are sidelined by injury. Because triphasic training is ideal for improving general strength and the ability to absorb force, rehab is an opportune time to introduce it to athletes.
Consider a traumatic knee injury. Several force plate studies have shown that rehabbed knees may experience a 30 to 40 percent decrease in their ability to absorb force compared to pre-injury levels. Training explosiveness with the triphasic method can help bolster the knee’s ability to absorb force and get the athlete back on the field at full strength.
A slight tweak is made to apply the accumulation stage to rehab. When an athlete is recovering from an injury, they should start with the less impactful isometric exercises, followed by concentric. Eccentric exercises should be last because they are typically the most taxing on muscles and joints.
A quad rehab, for example, should begin with isometric exercises to increase range of motion and strength. These movements emphasize a gradual buildup of the muscle contraction to a maximal level, a five to six second hold, and then a slow and gradual decline to full relaxation before the next repetition. Examples of isometric exercises can include: quad contractions without motion, straight-leg raises, and hamstring sets where the athlete sits supine with the affected leg slightly bent while pushing their heel into a table.
Once these movements can be completed without pain, the individual should move on to knee extensions, lunges, and hamstring curls in the concentric phase. Finally, eccentric activities should be introduced to challenge the muscle by slowing down its elongation, which leads to strength gains and faster repair. Effective exercises at this point include double- or single-leg eccentric squats on a foam block or slant board, double- or single-leg eccentric wall squats, and eccentric leg presses.
The rehab transmutation stage serves as a transition between the healing stage of accumulation and the strength and sport-specific stage of realization and prepares the player for a more functional phase of exercise. It focuses on improved function and movement technique, which includes the start of a running/sprinting program. The athlete should begin with straight running and slowly move to directional changes and quick starts and stops.
Finally, the realization stage in rehab is a high-velocity phase that advances the athlete toward large, powerful, sport-specific movements. For example, a rehabbing basketball player may focus on explosive jumping, speed, and directional changes. Once these skills are mastered, the athlete is pain-free, and strength associated with the injury is back to 75 or 85 percent, return-to-sport skills can start and a normal return to team weightroom activities.
To ensure that athletes have time to heal and advance in the safest way possible, the strength and conditioning coach and athletic trainer must be on the same page as the rehab progresses from accumulation to transmutation to realization. When working with players who’ve suffered knee injuries, we urge them to continue with as much of their regular upper-body lifting program as possible, but once the athlete is ready to start a lower-body program in the weightroom, we work closely with the athletic trainer to devise an ideal plan. Both staffs must be in constant communication every step of the way.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
The great thing about triphasic training theories and concepts is that they are fluid and can be seamlessly implemented into any strength and conditioning program. We have integrated triphasic training into thousands of different workout regimens and have yet to find one case where it did not mesh effectively and improve athletes’ performance.
Strength coaches looking to add the triphasic protocol can start by gradually training the eccentric, isometric, and concentric phases in a single exercise. This strategy allows coaches to implement triphasic theories slowly, giving athletes the chance to grasp the concepts without altering their whole program.
As for the results at Minnesota, we’ve seen triphasic training make an impact in the weightroom and on the field. Over the years, we’ve had athletes add six inches to their vertical jumps, increase 200 pounds in the bench press, and gain a 300-pound bump in the squat, all after switching to triphasic protocols. In combination with recruiting great athletes and hiring excellent coaches, we believe triphasic training has been a key part of the dozens of Big Ten Conference titles and six national championships won by Gopher athletes in the past decade.
SIDEBAR: TO THE TEST
By Matt Shaw
Matt Shaw, MEd, CSCS, SCCC, is Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach and intern coordinator at the University of Denver, where he works with the men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s soccer, golf, and diving programs. He can be reached at: [email protected].
I first heard about triphasic training a year and a half ago when a coworker introduced me to Cal Dietz’s book, Triphasic Training: A Systematic Approach to Elite Speed and Explosive Strength Performance. Intrigued by its concepts, I reached out to Cal with questions about the method. Using his feedback, I conducted a 10-week program evaluation with the University of Denver men’s ice hockey team to test the efficacy of triphasic training. Our results showed it was tremendously effective.
To start, I formed a partnership with DU’s Human Dynamics Lab because I wanted a way to evaluate neuromuscular adaptation while testing. We designed a multiplane, plyometric-based force plate protocol to assess three neuromuscular performance variables: peak force production, rate of force production, and temporal variables such as ground contact time and amortization time. We augmented the force plate evaluation with our standard pre-summer strength and vertical jump baseline testing.
Over the course of the 10-week training period, we completed five two-week phases. We did six weeks of accumulation (subdivided into two-week phases of eccentric, isometric, and concentric exercises), a two-week transmutation phase, and two weeks of realization.
The accumulation phase utilized French contrast training as the primary source of neuromuscular stress and secondary plyometric exercises to match the intensity, volume, and tempo demands for that day. Dynamic effort methods and cord-resistance exercises were used in the transmutation block to keep training within strength/speed and speed/strength ranges, and athletes completed ballistic exercises in the realization stage to elicit the highest training velocities.
Because triphasic training includes methodology our athletes had not been exposed to yet, I added it to our workouts conservatively. With 13 returning players training four days a week, the team completed lower-body pushing/upper-body pulling on days one and three and lower-body pulling/upper-body pushing on days two and four. This gave us systemic training stress every day and allowed for a 48-hour break between similar movement patterns.
The athletes trained moderate volumes and intensities on the first two days and high intensity and low volumes the second two days. This format allowed for one day of tempo training per week during the accumulation phases, where I was concerned that stress would be at its highest due to greatest time under tension.
Typically, a triphasic training program includes one high-volume day each week, but I removed that from our plan because it was the team’s first exposure to tempo training and plyometrics at high volumes. Doing so placed increased emphasis on recovery. Although the high-volume training days were eliminated, additional training volume was gained through supplementation of secondary exercises that matched each day’s training volume, intensity, and tempo.
After completing the pilot program and analyzing the data collected from the force plates, we saw striking results. Measurements from a repeat skater jump test (side-to-side jumping as fast and forcefully as possible) showed a reduction of 44 percent in ground-contact time, 38 percent increase in rate of force production, and 22 percent increase in peak concentric force. When it came to vertical jump displacement, 10 athletes jumped at or greater than 30 inches, up from four athletes in pre-training, and the team average increased from 28.75 inches to 31.12. In addition, the amortization period was reduced by a team average of 61 percent.
Not only did the data clearly support the performance benefits from 10 weeks of triphasic training, but I could see anecdotal results as well. As the athletes progressed from block to block, I noticed greater eccentric loading speeds, faster amortization periods during plyometrics, and greater force production.
What truly validated the triphasic training program for me was the subsequent success the team had on the ice. After reintroducing triphasic-based protocols in-season, the squad won the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s inaugural championship. Every strength and conditioning department aims to improve competitive performance by enhancing physical abilities, and triphasic training helped us make it happen at DU.