Jan 29, 2015Strong Foundation
In our roundtable discussion on successfully training the lower body, five leading strength and conditioning coaches share their secrets.
By R.J. Anderson
R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Michael Boyle, MEd, ATC, is a strength and conditioning coach and consultant based in Boston and co-founder of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. He has been training athletes, from amateurs to Olympians and professionals, for over 25 years and is the author of Functional Training for Sports.
Don Decker, MS, CSCCa, CSCS, is Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Mississippi.
Jason Gallucci, MS, SCCC, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning/Head Varsity Strength Coach at Princeton University. He works with the school’s football, baseball, men’s lacrosse, women’s ice hockey, and field hockey teams.
Andrea Hudy, MA, CSCS, USAW, LMT, is Assistant Athletics Director for Sport Performance at the University of Kansas where she handles the strength and conditioning responsibilities for the KU men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Robby Stewart, CSCS, is Director of Strength Development at Competitive Edge Sports based in Atlanta, Ga., where he has worked with over 1,000 NFL players, as well as Olympic, collegiate, and high school athletes.
In performance training, great athletes are built from the ground up. For just about every sport, improving leg strength and explosiveness will allow an athlete to excel on the field or court.
The good news is that today’s strength and conditioning coaches have a wide range of tools at their disposal when working on lower body training. But with so many choices, it can be difficult to figure out what works best.
That’s why T&C asked five elite strength and conditioning coaches to share their ideas and approaches to lower body training. In this article, they discuss their philosophies, new trends, and incorporating flexibility and balance training into their programs.
T&C: What is your philosophy on training the lower body?
Boyle: Like a lot of coaches, my approach has evolved from a body building perspective to power lifting to Olympic lifting to where we are now, which many call functional training. From an evolution standpoint, we’ve gone from the back squat to the front squat to different versions of a single-leg squat. At this time, we don’t really do back or front squats, but instead focus on versions of one-legged squats.
Hudy: We train the lower body at least four days a week using non-linear periodization. We vary the intensity on each day and instead design our training–whether it is resistance training or conditioning–based on synchronous or asynchronous activities. I define synchronous activities as those that require high muscle recruitment for muscle power-max effort training and asynchronous activities as more muscle endurance-submaximal effort training done over a longer period of time.
For example, on a Monday we might condition synchronously using plyometric activities and short acceleration and agility drills, then we will resistance train asynchronously using a total body work capacity circuit. The next day we switch, but always start with the synchronous activity. We perform a high power output synchronous resistance-training workout, then an asynchronous conditioning activity.
Gallucci: The exercises we use may have changed, and the athletes we get here have certainly changed over the years, but our philosophical approach hasn’t. We focus on injury prevention through sound technique first, and then work on improving performance.
Stewart: Twenty years ago, we were trying to get people stronger and in better shape. Now it’s about evaluating the sport’s movement requirements, seeing how the athlete performs those movements, then correcting their deficiencies and weaknesses. In general, it’s about making the athlete more explosive, not just stronger. Explosiveness is what builds quickness. Now we do more cleans, more step-ups, and more explosive hip and hip flexor-oriented movements as opposed to just trying to get bigger and stronger.
Decker: The principles remain the same: You’re going to pull, and you’re going to squat in some fashion. At the same time, if you’re not learning in this profession, you’re falling behind. Al Miller, a longtime NFL strength coach, used to say that the evolution of your philosophy means adding arrows to your quiver. The more arrows you have, the better chance you have of hitting your target. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a range of athletes who all have different strengths, weaknesses, and needs.
What new trends in lower body strength and conditioning are you seeing?
Gallucci: Trends come and go, but I think the functional movement screen is here to stay. It’s caused a lot people in the profession to go back to basics–especially when training younger athletes–and focus on building fundamental strength through correct movement patterns.
I hope to reap the benefits in the next few years with fewer athletes coming to me with injuries, deficiencies, and functional issues. Too many times, people move too fast when training young athletes–I think we need slow things down and develop better movement patterns.
Decker: The trends have led strength coaches to do more functional training, prehab, and mobilizing of joints so when they’re put under a load, the body is able to respond properly. The hip and ankle mobility work that came from athletic training and physical therapy has made it into our warmups, which has been a good thing.
Boyle: We’re moving toward building single-leg power using the rear foot elevated squat as our central exercise. Based on the same idea, we’re also modifying that exercise to include movements like single-leg rear foot elevated jumps.
Stewart: Kettlebells have been around for a long time, but people are jumping back on them again for unilateral type movements such as one-arm snatches, cleans, and single-leg squats. We also see more isolated single-leg work to train specific sports movements.
How has research validated or caused you to re-evaluate your training programs? Boyle: There is some older research on bilateral deficit that I’ve really paid attention to since concentrating on single-leg work. For example, in a study on grip strength that measured right-hand strength, left-hand strength, and combined strength, it was found that the sum of the right hand plus the left hand strength was greater than the strength level for the combined grip. In extrapolating that idea toward lower body training, we’ve found that right leg strength plus left leg strength is greater than the sum of both legs. It affirms where we were going empirically.
Decker: I saw one study about an Olympic rower who took four weeks off after the Olympic Games and it took him 21 weeks to get back to his peak performance level. Of course, that ratio is not the same for all athletes, but the takeaway is that there will be a significant drop in performance the longer an athlete is on a break.
So if you give an athlete two or three weeks off before starting summer workouts and you have nine weeks in the summer to train, in some cases you’re spending the majority of that time getting the individual back to their previous levels. In response, we’re looking at different ways to break up their time off to avoid having a long period when they’re not training. But that’s proving to be tough with NCAA rules on discretionary time.
Gallucci: As a staff, we meet twice a week to cover some form of research. Each meeting is run by a different person in the department who is responsible for choosing the research article for us to talk about that day. We’ve covered everything from jump training to squat technique. It allows us to sit back and evaluate what we’re doing as a group.
We like to read all of the research to see what’s going on around us, but we take everything with a grain of salt. We know from a practical standpoint what has been working for us.
What lower body deficiencies are you seeing most often in young athletes who enter your program?
Hudy: Our basketball roster is comprised of many different body types, so we deal with different types of deficiencies amongst all athletes. But generally speaking, with the amount of lateral movement that occurs in basketball, I like to put an emphasis on the external rotators of the hip. I believe that mechanically, the external rotators can help athletes maintain good body position. By strengthening the external rotators we can also improve knee mechanics. Hip, groin, hamstring, and posterior chain strengthening are also at the top of our list of target areas.
Gallucci: Now, more than before, there is a lack of strength in athletes’ glute-ham complexes. We see a very high rate of quad dominance in our young athletes. I don’t know if it’s a result of the glutes and hams being under-trained as much as that they aren’t being trained properly. Our young athletes often come in overly concerned about the amount of weight they’re pushing as opposed to how they’re pushing it. The focus needs to be on how they’re moving the weight, not how heavy it is.
Boyle: For us, it’s the glutes and hamstrings. Most coaches and trainers are still living in a squatting dominated world. We try to make sure we’re striking a balance between our anterior and posterior chain work. For every squat-type exercise, we’re also doing a deadlift-type exercise.
Stewart: Hands down it’s hips and hip flexor strength and overall body flexibility. So many of today’s athletes are home sitting around instead of out playing and doing the everyday things that build hip and hip flexor strength. I’m seeing a lot of kids who don’t have explosiveness in their hips and are tight in the hamstrings. I also feel there are too many cases in which the emphasis is being placed on the amount of weight lifted rather than proper technique.
Decker: In our culture, athletes like to train what they can see. In many cases, there is a lack of hip and ankle mobility, and a lack of hip, hamstring, and glute strength. The majority of guys who come into our program have not put a lot of time into activating and using those muscles and developing those areas. So we spend a lot of time working to balance out their lower bodies so they’re not so quad-driven.
What lower body corrective exercises do you use most often?
Gallucci: We do glute-specific training and also incorporate a lot of core work because the core is often a big part of a glute deficiency. Flexibility is also important, so we try to pinpoint issues there. But really, our corrective work comes down to old fashioned technique work–breaking down and building up their movements in the squat and the lunge and making sure our athletes truly know how to perform them properly.
For example, after a functional warm-up, we’ll have athletes do functional isolation work that targets the glutes, such as a single-leg bridge. We’ll also modify exercises like a squat to focus on building glute strength.
Hudy: We have a lot of movement variations and intensity changes in our system that allow us to implement a high number of super, complex, and/or compound exercise sets. This provides us with a high degree of variability, so we have the opportunity to examine movement in each plane. We perform as many ground-based movements as we can while understanding the importance of specific hip, groin, hamstring, and posterior chain strengthening. Exercises such as fire hydrants, hip circles, poor man ham curls, and hypers are implemented daily.
Boyle: For us, it’s some form of a split squat and some form of a single-leg straight-leg deadlift. For a beginner, we would start with body weight split squats with both feet on the ground in order to build hip mobility. As we progress our athletes, we use a lunge matrix as a warmup. We want them to master the pattern before loading a movement so as not to add strength to dysfunction.
Decker: We spend a lot of time teaching young athletes how to activate their lower bodies properly. One of the things we start them out with is plank holds, which are a good indicator of deficiencies in their core. We also do two-leg and single-leg hip bridges and a hip series with bands to show them the areas they need to activate. Those simple body positions allow them to see their deficiencies. We also use Romanian Dead Lifts (RDLs), glute-ham raises, single-leg dumbbell RDLs, one-foot balance reaches, and a variety of single-leg and body weight squat movements. We want them to be very efficient in those movements.
Stewart: I like squats, lunges, and cleans as multi-joint exercises that translate to building sport explosiveness effectively. Also, the glute and ham machines that are on the market today really target those areas well. I like using machines to help correct certain muscle imbalances, but whenever possible I try to use exercises that closely simulate the actual movements the athlete will be performing in his or her sport.
What is your preference for lifting splits when addressing the lower body? Gallucci: We typically train total body. Still, one day a week our primary focus is on the squat, another day we focus on a single-leg movement like a lunge or a step-up, and then we’ll have another day that’s a complementary leg work day depending on how our athletes’ bodies are reacting to the training. For example, we might do single-leg body weight stuff if they’re a little run down, or if we think they can get aggressive, we might have them do a front squat, deadlift, or tire flip.
If we’re in a four-day routine, I like to have two days that focus more on lower body. We base upper body-lower body splits more on how we can run our room most efficiently. We like to pair a lower body push with an upper body pull. It helps the flow of our room and allows the muscle groups to recover a little between lifts.
Decker: We have a lot of variety in our program based on the positional requirements of the football players. For example, in the off-season, our skill players do squatting movements on Tuesdays and Fridays. These players do heavy work later in the week because we don’t want to affect their speed work by having them sore or tight when they run. They are on a four-day routine.
With the linemen, we hit legs three times a week. We may do a one-legged squat on one day, then come back with a back squat another day, and then finish out the week with some front squats or step-ups. We vary our intensities and our volume.
Hudy: For us, it is not about splits, but rather intensity. Monday is our higher volume day, and what we do on Mondays can change from one week to the next. On a daily basis, we are implementing sagittal, frontal, transverse, and multi-planar lower body exercises. Tuesday is a high load, low volume day. Thursday is our strength day, and Friday is our speed-strength day with low to moderate loads.
For example, with basketball athletes, on Tuesdays we’ll start with squat jumps with a bar and pair it with rapid fire box jumps, then do a basketball movement using resisted cables. So we’re getting an explosive movement, a plyometric exercise, and a basketball movement in our superset. From there, we’ll move to snatches and do in-depth jumps and an overhead rip–which is a basketball movement. Then we’ll go to cleans and do more of the same thing along with front squats, incline seated rows, and raises.
Where does flexibility training fit into your program?
Gallucci: It’s everywhere. Flexibility training, unfortunately, has kind of been pushed to the side a little in today’s training landscape, but it shouldn’t be. There has been a big push toward dynamic flexibility, but at the same time you have to have functional flexibility in your training movements.
Boyle: We’ve gone back to static stretching. We foam roll and static stretch before every game, every practice, and every workout, then we warm up. In my mind, stretching has a strong correlation with injury prevention. Whenever I take an injured athlete to a doctor, they tell me they need to stretch more–so why shouldn’t all our athletes stretch?
Decker: We work on flexibility by starting with balance activities and muscle activation work. Then we move to dynamic movements to get the blood flowing–from a backward run to forward and backward lunges, to an easy shuffle. Then we’ll go into stationary dynamic movements like leg swings, Frankenstein walks, and some hip mobility movements. I’ve also learned that you have to implement some static stretching because if you don’t, some won’t think you’ve done enough to get them loose.
Hudy: With proper resistance and movement training, one can increase flexibility or gain functional flexibility. All of our workouts follow a progressive warmup until we get to the heart of the work. If our athletes want or need to increase flexibility, they come in pre-workout and stay post-workout. There is a minimal amount of static stretching.
What role does balance training play in developing the lower body? Stewart: If you’re working on balance and flexibility at the same time, you’ll see fewer injuries and a more well-rounded athlete with less bilateral discrepancies. However, I do believe some coaches overdo it with unstable surface work. You need to make sure you’re concentrating on improving balance when you use those modalities. The push for strength should not overshadow the athlete’s safety and physical well-being.
Decker: We start every workout by warming up with a balance training activity. We start with single-leg movements on a stable surface with their eyes open, and progress to eyes closed. After mastering that, we move to a more unstable surface. We also do exercises on Bosu and physio balls.
Hudy: I usually get players pre- or post-practice so they are already wearing ankle braces, which are required in our program. So performing exercises on an unstable surface might not be as beneficial at that point. We do, however, implement balance exercises on a balance beam and perform many single-leg rotational exercises using our functional power-speed cable columns.
Boyle: With the exception of what we get from our single-leg work, we do very little specific balance training work. A lot of us got caught up in the thought that balance training meant using unstable surfaces, and we may have gotten a little circus-like because of it. We do some one-legged squatting on an Airex pad–that’s about as unstable as we’ll get.
Sidebar: BONUS QUESTION
T&C: What was the most important thing you learned at a conference this year? Decker: I attended the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association conference and a presentation from Mike Gittleson, former head football Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Michigan, jumped out at me. He talked about concussions and what we can do in terms of building mass in the neck and trap area to disperse a blow and help prevent concussions.
Gallucci: I like to find something that’s specific when I go to a conference. For example, I recently heard Brad Pantall, Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Penn State men’s and women’s basketball teams, talk about grip strength and it was outstanding. The way he broke it down from opening grip to closing grip and his thoughts about stabilization grip and the different things he does with odd objects showed a very innovative approach.
Hudy: At Kansas, we have the unique opportunity to host the Midwest Sports Performance Conference, which is held each May. We design the conference specifically for the needs of our athletes and department and bring in some of the top researchers, coaches, physical therapists, and athletic trainers in the field of performance training. It’s fun because most of the presenters are not only professional mentors and colleagues but also friends of our staff.
We also have a Research and Coaching Performance Team that consists of our strength and conditioning staff and Dr. Andrew Fry’s research team. We work together to answer questions that we have regarding our training methodologies. I also attend sports nutrition and massage conferences. We are always looking for new ways to keep the athletes’ attention and keep them learning.
Boyle: The guy who got the most attention from me was Thomas Myers, who wrote a book called Anatomy Trains. He talked about how our whole idea of anatomy is probably wrong and that the fascia are more continuous structures rather than individual muscles. In reality we may not be stretching muscles–we’re likely manipulating fascia. Listening to him made me think that we don’t really know as much about flexibility as we think we do.