S&C aficionados often have passionate debates among themselves when its time to pick the best exercise for such or such sports/ activity. Everybody has their favorite and it seems that you must absolutely crown one of them king of all exercise!
When your livelihood depends on the results of athletes who will judge your contribution solely on their on field performance, you cannot afford such debate. Especially if said athletes would rather not lift weights at all. North American culture is in love with lifting weights and most athletes are happy if they just look better naked. Unfortunately, such is not the case every where in the world. Which means that picking exercise to help an athlete win a medal and thinking “ the (insert your favorite lift) is the king of exercise!” may just get you nowhere. It may also get you fired even if the athlete looks better naked.
Be Realistic in Your Choices
What is the goal of strength training, aka physical preparation (PP) ? French scholar and PP specialist Michel Pradet states that:
“The goal of physical preparation is to further the level of motor competency beyond what the sole practice of the chosen sport activity would allow “
Everybody can easily agree with this statement. However it clearly implies that strength training must transfer to the sports activity. Before every body says duh!!! Please consider that it does not seem to have been common thinking when one sees the mad chase for weight room numbers in college sports, for example. That would not necessarily be a bad thing if these numbers were not obtained by shortening range of motions and using advantageous levers. Both of those techniques that are highly relevant in powerlifting for sure, but questionable when it comes to other sports performance.
So what should be the principle when choosing a strength exercise? Research seems of help at first, but gets very confusing if you read beyond the abstracts, really. As an example, recently, a paper came out showing quarter squat being more effective at improving running speed and jumping than full squat. Except that under slightly different conditions Hartmann and Schmidtbleicher found the opposite quite a few years ago. Who should we believe? The issue is even more confusing when it comes to EMG studies. Better activation of single muscle structures may be consistently found in certain exercises versus other ones. However, these studies did not measure performance increases. That leap of faith has to be made. In the trenches though, you cannot sit on the fence or you’ll get shot. You gotta pick a side and take action!
Analyse the athlete's need
Now the solution I propose comes from field knowledge that I have acquired over the last twenty years. Do not hope for a series of double blind placebo controlled peer reviewed study. I got a few Olympic medals earned as an outsider -not as national coach who gets the cream of the crop handed to him- that I can offer as guarantee that’s all.Sports technique is traditionally thought of as separate from physical ability. I think however, that they are intimately intertwined. When I first met Charles two decades ago something he said in a conversation during a break stuck with me. He said bodybuilding is about hormones but sports are all about the nervous system. That line of thinking started me on the path that lead me to believe that:Proper sport technique is nothing else than the optimal sequence of contraction / lengthening of muscles, in the right order, the rhythm and velocity adequate to the achievement of an intentionally predetermined goal
The role of S&C is to remove any obstacle that may disrupt that optimal sequence. Power is very motor pattern specific and it is why huge gains in the weight room often do not always translate to better performance on the field. The reason must be found in that sequence.When picking a weight room exercise the question must be asked whether the problem that has to be solved in executing the said exercise is the same that the athlete encounters in her sport movement.That is the key to transfer of performance. I say solve because that is what the nervous system does. It creates changes in the body in response to a question asked (stimulus).
What does it imply?
–– not the least is use of rigorously proper form . How can you ensure transfer if you let the athlete solve the exercise another way that the reason for which you picked it in the first place? When I see hip extension followed by spine kyphosis in sequence, I cringe! Nothing justifies it, especially not a “sometimes you gotta go balls to the walls” type of thing. Patterns taught in high intensity contexts stick! Notice that I talk about patterns and not positions. Some sports may require strength in kyphotic position, that is another matter entirely.
– when an athlete cannot display proper form in a relevant exercise doing the work in order for him to be able to do so will transfer positively to sport performance. Performing squats might be relevant to a rugby prop but if he cannot get into position or shows weakness that disrupts his squat form, improving his ability by other means will benefit his performance better than letting him squat with bad form.
– you need a healthy disregard for the amount of weight on the bar. It is very hard to do if you sport a shaved head and a goatee and work in a major NCAA football program, I know! The amount of weight does not matter so much that its progression. Absolute performance in general exercise is a poorer predictor of specific performance the higher the qualification of the athlete. You may outsquat a whole lot of olympic medalists but you ain’t stepping on that podium anytime soon!
– blanket statements such as “ athletes never need to perform single joint exercises” are short-sighted at best. You may very well encounter athletes who’s aforementioned disrupted sequence might be solved by sets of preacher curls! I am not particularly fond of them either, but I’ll prescribe them if they make them better.
– track and field’s great coach Dan Pfaff is known to say that the line between rehabilitation and high performance training is really thin. I cannot agree more. The cause of disruption may not be just strength. It will require a coach deep knowledge of the inner working of the body to solve the athletes problem. When the optimal sequence is not possible, a compensation pattern takes place to achieve the intended goal.Our job is to render that pattern useless by improving what limits the optimal sequence
And as one compensation is solved, higher specific power is achieved. At this new level
another limiting factor will show up and so on.
Our job is to find and solve those patterns before they inhibit the athlete or cause injury.
Just like the search for the best program is a pointless quest, the debate over what is the best exercise does not deserve to waste any more of your time. Instead, adopt a transversal problem solving approach to picking exercises in the weight room for better transfer on the field.
Influence of Squatting Depth on Jumping Performance.Hartmann, Hagen1; Wirth, Klaus1; Klusemann, Markus2,3; Dalic, Josip1; Matuschek, Claus; Schmidtbleicher, Dietmar. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research:December 2012 – Volume 26 – Issue 12 – p 3243–3261
Joint-Angle Specific Strength Adaptations Influence Improvements in Power in Highly Trained Athletes, by Rhea, Kenn, Peterson, Massey, Simão, Marin & Krein, in Human Movement (2016).