Jan 29, 2015Prepared to Launch
A training program that draws inspiration from a variety of sports helps Oklahoma State University throwers develop the attributes they need to send their implements into orbit.
By John Baumann
John Baumann, CSCS, is in his ninth year as an Assistant Track & Field Coach at Oklahoma State University, working primarily with men’s and women’s throwers. He has also worked at the University of Illinois and George Mason University, where he was Head Strength Coach. He can be reached at: [email protected].
All too often the throwing events of track and field are treated like strongman contests. Athletes are asked to hurl heavy implements as far as possible, so it’s assumed the best way to train them is to simply make them as strong as possible. However, the top discus, shot put, hammer, and javelin athletes have training regimes that are far more complex. Great throwers require a unique synthesis of abilities associated with a number of other sports. They need the athleticism of multi-event track athletes (decathletes and heptathletes), the strength of powerlifters, the speed and explosiveness of Olympic lifters, the dynamic strength of gymnasts, and the fluid movements that integrate all these attributes. Over the years, I’ve built a comprehensive training program for throwers by tapping into experts in all five of these areas, and by finding athletes who are willing to take on a high volume of work, improve their weaknesses, and develop the qualities needed to succeed in their particular event. This program is not the only way to successfully train throwers, but it’s the one that has worked best for me. BUILDING BLOCKS
During my career, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my throwers win national and conference championships and I’ve coached athletes who have competed in the Olympics. However, I wouldn’t have enjoyed nearly as much coaching success without the varied group of mentors who helped shape my training philosophy along the way. I learned from Cliff Rovelto, Kansas State University’s Director of Cross Country and Track & Field, that the speed, strength, agility, and explosiveness required of multi-event track athletes are also needed in the throwing events. His workouts showed me how to build strength without sacrificing speed and agility, and vice versa. The key is to find the right balance of exercises so you can accomplish your goal without taxing other energy systems in the body. Powerlifting has become a significant part of my program because it is great for building absolute strength. There’s no time limit within which the throwers have to finish a lift, and no explosive movement is necessary at the end, so absolute strength is the primary requirement. And the slow movements of the lifts require the throwers’ bodies to spend a great deal of time under tension, which also helps make gains. This aspect of my training regimen comes from legendary strength coach, Louie Simmons, owner of Westside Barbell, who has been a competitive powerlifter for more than 50 years. He helped me see that throwers require the same absolute strength that powerlifters possess in order to defeat inertia when starting a throw. The Olympic lifting component of my program drew a great deal of inspiration from two giants of the sport, Roger Nielsen, two-time USA Men’s Olympic Weightlifting Team Coach, and Mike Gattone, MS, CSCS, USA Weightlifting Senior International Coach. They showed me that Olympic lifting is perfect for throwers because it emphasizes power and explosiveness by having the athletes move sub-maximal weights at a very high rate of force development. Olympic lifters begin their lifts slowly and then apply a massive amount of force to finish, which is the same process a thrower undergoes on every attempt. I use Tendo Units to measure the wattage and speed of Olympic lifts like snatches and cleans, which is invaluable in optimizing a thrower’s movement. It allows me to train throwers to perform cleans at an ideal range of 1.3 to 1.7 meters per second and snatches at around 2.0 meters per second.
The fourth pillar of my training philosophy may be surprising to some strength coaches: gymnastics. My gurus in this field are Yoshi Hayasaki, former Head Men’s Gymnastics Coach at the University of Illinois, and Bob Starkell, an Assistant Gymnastics Coach at North Carolina State University. They both taught me the importance of bodyweight workouts in preventing injuries, and Starkell showed me the usefulness of gymnastics bar apparatuses for pushups, pull-ups, and upper-body, lat, and triceps work. Hayasaki also explained how to use various circuit-type, full-body workouts that include exercises such as seated and floor twists, arm swings, rotations with barbells, and different types of sidebends and snatches to train highly dynamic movements. Using these exercises in my workouts has really helped our throwers develop as athletes.
Over the years, I’ve also come to understand the importance of zeroing in on training a thrower’s movement instead of focusing on particular muscle groups. Because each throw in an event involves only a few seconds of explosive exertion, to be successful, throwers have to use every muscle in their bodies when launching their implements, so I train their bodies to perform through their full, natural range of movement. Exercises such as compound lifts and various presses provide this motion while also activating a number of muscles, and I keep my workouts low in reps and high in intensity to train that explosiveness. This concept is central to the work of strength and conditioning innovator Vern Gambetta, MA, President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems and former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. MAKING A PLAN
I design individualized strength workouts for each thrower, and I begin by determining if they are more in need of strength work or explosive (neural) work. To do this, I test their vertical leap on a jump mat, once while they hold kettlebells and once without them. Based on the results, I put athletes into three categories that indicate their balance of strength and power: – 80 percent strength, 20 percent power – 60 percent strength, 40 percent power – 40 percent strength, 60 percent power.
Athletes in the 80/20 category have great strength but need a lot of power work, so I incorporate squats, deadlifts, pushing, and pressing into their workouts. However, I’m also careful not to neglect maintaining and enhancing their strength. Like the 80/20 athletes, those in the 60/40 category need to focus more on improving power, so I assign them a few more strength exercises and a few less power exercises than those in the 80/20 group. Athletes in the 40/60 group need to concentrate more on building strength, so their workouts have a higher number of strength exercises. However, I use many of the same exercises for all three groups. The difference is that I vary each group’s reps on these exercises according to the strength and power needs of the athletes. Besides testing, another factor I consider when creating workouts is the gender of the athlete. For female throwers, I incorporate more bench and power-clean exercises, at or above bodyweight. These are traditionally difficult exercises for women to perform, so they make great training tools. This is an approach I learned from track and field coach, Dan Pfaff, who is the Education Director and Jumps Coach at the World Athletics Center. In my workouts for male athletes, I tend to emphasize their strengths. For example, if an athlete excels in deadlifting but has a difficult time with squats, I’ll give him a number of exercises reinforcing pull strength, while also building leg strength to assist with the squats. I take this approach because I’ve found males generally respond to positive reinforcement in keeping their confidence levels up. I give special strength exercises to all the throwers to improve work capacity and structural development, including rotations with a barbell, snatches beside the body, sidebends with weights held overhead, and narrow grip snatches. I also use plyometric exercises such as hurdle hops and box jumps to increase speed and power. WORKING OUT
My workouts for throwers, both in-season and during the off-season, bring them into the weightroom five days a week. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are strength days, while Tuesdays and Thursdays are power days. Each workout session lasts about 30 to 45 minutes. Three of the main exercises throwers focus on in the weightroom are squats, Olympic lifts, and deadlifts.
Squats: Since the legs are the prime movers in throwing events, squats are great for developing the driving, blocking, and lifting movements required. When it comes to training, I have a 12-week squat routine that I use year-round. It was introduced to me by Olympic weightlifting coach John Thrush, CSCS. The routine changes in its degree of difficulty every 12 weeks based on where we are in our competitive calendar. On average, my throwers increase their squat maxes by about 50 pounds during each 12-week period. However, the first time athletes do the routine they tend to increase their maxes by an average of one hundred pounds. My squat program includes front, stop, and back squats. The front squat is always done in sets of three, with two reps per set, and I vary the weight max according to the athlete. When I’m looking to develop speed using this exercise, I use what the athlete can clean as the front-squat max. But when I want to focus on building strength, I get a true max. I sometimes have the athletes lift a log during the front squat because it provides a great lower-back exercise. It’s difficult to lean forward with a log curled in your arms, so this movement helps develop strength in an upright position. The loads for the stop and back squats vary. Because the stop squat features a one-second pause in the bottom position instead of the one continuous motion of the back squat, we use less weight for the stop squat. The stop squat is usually done in three sets of three reps. Due to the difficulty of the lift, the weight stays almost constant throughout the workout. For the back squat, we generally use four sets consisting of five, three, two, and five reps, with the weight increasing in increments from set to set. The athletes rotate the bars they use for the stop and back squats every four weeks during the 12-week routine, utilizing spider, safe, camber, and normal squat bars. By doing this, different muscles are worked and the athletes’ vertebral columns don’t have to bear the weight the same way each time. Because the straight bar is the only safe one to use when performing a front squat, it does not get rotated. Olympic lifts: For Olympic lifts, I determine the volume of each lift based on what the athlete needs to work on. For example, if a thrower needs to work on pulling, I add a large number of sets to their routine. Here is a sample routine for an Olympic hang power snatch lift that includes sets, reps, and volume: Hang Power Snatch 3 x 3 @ 50% (of predicted max) 4 x 2 @ 60% 5 x 5 @ 70% 1 x 3 @ 80% 1 x 2 @ 85%
Deadlifts: For deadlifting, I like to use the rickshaw bar from Elitefts. It’s easy to use and forces athletes to use their legs and glutes to finish the lift, maximizing their ability to defeat inertia.
I determine these deadlift reps based on what an athlete does after reaching 60 percent of the predicted or actual max. Below is an example of a rickshaw deadlift rep scheme for a female who lifted 500 pounds and a male who put up 800 pounds:
Rickshaw Deadlift 1 x 9 @ 50% (of predicted max) 1 x 8 @ 60% 1 x 5 @ 70% 1 x 8 @ 60% 1 x 5 @ 70% 1 x 3 @ 80% 1 x 2 @ 90% EVENT-SPECIFIC TRAINING
Along with strength and power exercises, throwers receive event-specific exercises that isolate the different attributes required to excel in their event. For example, a program for a shot-putter will emphasize bench presses, incline presses, pull presses, and regular squats, while a hammer thrower’s program will feature snatch pulls, clean pulls, deadlifts with rickshaw bar, and stop squats. Throwers complete up to 15 reps of each exercise in the workout, with the reps varying based on whether it’s the regular season or off-season and how close the athlete is to the next competitive event. We reduce the number of exercises and reps as competitions get near. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my years of working with mentors in various different sports is that a strength coach can never stop being a student. I’ve been in my job for many years, yet I strive to learn something new in every training session.