Flight Performance and Fitness

Variability in Strength and Conditioning: The Newest Misunderstanding

            The concept of variability in training is a hot topic in strength and conditioning right now. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of coaches are using too much variability in training their athletes and clients without an understanding of the correct application. Variability seems to be the new buzz word used as an excuse to add complexity or progression before fundamental skills and movement competency are learned. Some coaches even seem to use the “need for variability” as an excuse to be less detailed oriented with their coaching and programming, as if there isn’t such thing as a “bad” movement strategy. I will tell you right now, there are plenty of bad movement strategies that athletes and clients use every day. It is our job as a strength and conditioning coach, performance coach, physical preparedness coach, skill acquisition coach or whatever the new label is, to take the athlete or client through appropriate progressions and positions to improve the likelihood of them using the most efficient/powerful strategy. Sorry folks, but this is without a doubt NOT going to be at full speed, in multiple planes, with a competition or a decision-making element. The poor movement strategy will likely never improve if you load it differently every time you do it.  
 Is it more fun to have every exercise be loaded in a different way every week? Probably. 
Is it more fun to add a competition element to drills?  Yeah.
Does every movement need to be “perfect” before adding progression? Of course not. 
There is no such thing as a perfect movement. 
Should there always be a reactive element if you’re training athletes? Yes, but skills and movements need to be built separate from the reactive component first. 
 How much variability do athletes and general public clients need in their training?  Now that is the million dollar question. 

 Before we can answer this question, we have to determine who we are working with. 
What are the goals of this individual? 
What is their training experience? 
What is their level of movement competency?
What is their affect toward training?
            If we are talking about training athletes, then ultimately, you want them to train in all positions, planes, and velocities, with varying intensities.  I use the word “ultimately” because starting out a new athlete doing all these things would actually be detrimental to their progress. 
 Imagine you have a new 15-year-old athlete come through your doors with no weight room experience. On that first day, they might be able to display some athletic qualities such as speed, relative strength, agility, maybe even rate of force production. They were either given these abilities genetically or they gained them playing their sport. Either way, the odds are that they also have some inefficient strategies that they use to display these qualities. The goal of the first block of training for this athlete should be building competency in basic movement patterns. If you have been coaching long enough, I’m sure at some point you have started a client or athlete out on an exercise that they were not prepared for. 
What happens?
You end up beating your head against the wall trying to get them to do the exercise correctly and they usually don’t really get better at it. 
            They don’t get better at the exercise because they didn’t go through the prerequisite movements that give their brain context for how to display this movement correctly with the right musculature being used. If I get an athlete or client really good at goblet squats, the transition to a barbell front squat shouldn’t be that difficult. They have built competency in the movement pattern of squatting. They know where to put the weight in their feet. They know how to keep the pelvis stacked under their ribcage as they descend, and they also know how to maintain that stacked position while they drive their feet into the ground and come back to the start position.  The athlete no longer has to think about these cues or technique points because it is drilled into their wiring. We call this stage of motor learning unconscious competency.  Meaning, it’s automatic. The pattern does not go out the window when you change the load slightly from the goblet position to the barbell front rack position. However, you changed a variable. So, for a short amount of time the athlete might have to think about the cues again… BUT, because the main pattern is so locked in, this should be very short. 
            The same goes for non-traditional weight room exercises like jumping, running, and change of direction.  The need for open loop speed and agility work is obviously important to have somewhere in the program for an athlete. Creating a more chaotic, reactive environment with training is definitely valuable but I would argue that drills or exercises done in this fashion serve better as assessments to drive your exercise selection than actual exercises themselves.  
            Open loop drills are a chance for the athlete to blend all the specific skills they have worked on in more game-like situations. Due to the increase overall demand of these drills, the athlete’s weaknesses should be more apparent, giving the coach a good idea of what skills they need to break down and spend more volume and time on with that athlete. 
            This concept is easy to understand if we take it back to our weight room movements.  A lot of lifters will squat with good technique up to a certain percentage, then they will compensate in some fashion. Let’s say that percentage is 90%. This compensation strategy that the lifter is using is the result of a specific weakness in that movement pattern. For example, imagine a lifter that pushes their hips back as they come out of the hole in a back squat. You might have the lifter lighten the load and work on extending their knees to drive up. Or you could have them do more front squats to work their quads. The point is that the demand of that over 90% back squat highlights the weaknesses of that lifter.  Knowing the lifter’s weaknesses is extremely important, to reduce/ eliminate compensation at higher intensities. Putting high enough demand on the lifter was important to be able to clearly see their weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean you should have your lifters squat over 90% every time they lift.  The 90%+ squat also didn’t do anything to fix their weakness in that movement pattern, it just exposed it.  If the goal is to squat more weight, the lifter needs to be exposed to high intensity work often. But they will not actually get stronger or more resilient unless they spend a lot of time and volume building the foundation by addressing their weaknesses. Spending inappropriate time at high intensities will be teaching their body to use the compensation strategy whenever the intensity gets high. The overall 90% squat is just like the use of open loop drills to build speed and agility. They will expose weaknesses. They are needed to give you a taste of the full speed competition. Most importantly, if you train open loop drills for the majority of your training you will not get better at the skills it takes to be successful because you aren’t building competency, you are testing it.
            High level movement competency drives good movement variability, not the other way around. Consider coaching a youth quarterback in football how to pass. When you first start coaching them on proper mechanics, they will have no consistency. The movement will probably look different every time they do it and the ball may rarely reach the target. You could consider the variability too wide with this young athlete. The more the athlete practices efficient mechanics, the more consistent the throws will get. As the young quarterback starts playing real games in Pop Warner he will be put in different circumstances almost every play. Some plays he will have to change his throw to get over a defensive lineman that is tackling him. Some plays he will have to throw on the run. If you build the basics of the movement pattern to an extremely high level with an athlete, they will be able to take the fundamental core of the pattern and alter it to match the situation. This is the variability that we are looking to build as coaches.  On the flipside, if you put the athlete in those difficult circumstances before he engrained the proper motor pattern, he would have no fundamentals to call upon and the intensity and variability of the situations would never allow the athlete to build enough consistency to be effective. The athlete would just be left with variability, which by itself does not lead to better performance. 
            The job of a strength and conditioning coach is not to put clients and athletes and difficult positions and expect effective  “self-organization”. It is our responsibility to use specific exercises at the right time, in the right progression to build performance. This is the sweet spot of coaching! If you want to help your clients and athletes get better at moving at any level, focus on building high levels of competency in the fundamentals and you will give them the tools to have true movement variability. 

VariabilityPerformanceOpen loop drillsStrength and conditioning
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Four Principles of Effective Coaching

Take a moment to reflect what you define as an effective coach. This can include qualities of a coach who had a particular impact on you or qualities you’ve learned through coaching. What are some qualities of coaches that have made incredible impacts on their communities?
Aside from the fundamental knowledge required to be a competent coach; including human biomechanics and physiology for strength and conditioning coaches, sport theories and game play for sports coaches, or macronutrient and micronutrient knowledge for nutrition coaches, there is a required knowledge about people and their behaviors. The common end goal amongst the coaches listed above is to positively impact someone’s mindset and behaviors. Creating a true impact on someone’s mindset and current behavior requires the coach to possess a certain set of competencies, skills, and behaviors. Surrounding these are four principles that define effective coaching; building trust, unlocking potential, creating commitment, and executing goals. 

            Building trust is the coach’s entry fee. Trust is the pillar in which the other principles are built upon. If our athlete or client does not trust us, how can we expect them to commit to us? Trustworthy people demonstrate integrity, honesty, and sincerity repeatedly. Integrity being the most important of these qualities. Many times, coaches face clients or athletes who share things in confidence with us. Our integrity is defined by what we do with that information. It is after a coach gains the hard earned trust of an individual that a coach can get to experience their true potential.

            Individuals seek out coaching because they have a particular problem in which we hold the particular solution. Therefore, our goals as a coach are driven by the goals of the individual we are coaching. This means guiding them in finding, understanding, and growing their own potential around the goals important to them, which can be done by asking insightful questions. By asking insightful questions, coaches can gain a deeper perspective on the individuals deeply held beliefs or values, or paradigms, surrounding these goals. Oftentimes these paradigms are negative in nature and are holding our clients and athletes back from reaching their potential, or readiness and openness to accept change. A common faulty paradigm coaches hear is that setback means failure. We must challenge these faulty paradigms, despite the challenge, by creating a new lens for the individual. We can look to reframe experiences through a series of questions highlighting the positive outlooks on past experiences. Our ultimate goal for our client or athlete is to get them to think in terms of the heights of potential rather than the valleys of limitation. Now that they are fully aware of their potential, we need them to commit to their goals.

            Commitment is internally driven. Therefore, the only thing we can do is to ask the right questions in order to drive commitment from the inside out. The three areas of questions that we focus on include defining the goal, defining howto achieve the goal, and obtaining commitment. At first, it is important that we challenge their purpose and desired benefit of the goal in order to provoke deeper thought surrounding their goal. We often encounter people who haven’t thought about WHY they want to achieve their goal. After we’ve allowed our client to tell us about their specific needs, issues, opportunities, or achievements, we will start to ask questions about HOW they believe they are going to achieve that goal. In getting an individual to advance on commitment, it is important we ask questions that allow them to anticipate any potential barriers that may hinder their achievement. If they can predict what may go wrong, they can plan an alternative route around that obstacle. Finally, we need to obtain commitment by asking questions that narrow the focus of the goal, provide next actions to be taken, and summarize how they can achieve their goals. Once we’ve asked for and received commitment from an individual, it is our task to aid them in executing their goals.

            This is the sweet spot of coaching. We get to implement our expertise to guide an individual through the execution of their goals. It is up to us to utilize our knowledge to guide our clients through methods that will work best for that person. Ultimately, our job as an advisor of potential never stops. It will always be up to us to reframe the mindset of our client or athlete when the inevitable “one-step back” happens. This requires trust from our client or athlete at all times, as they will most likely seek us out when they experience a pitfall in their mindset. By asking insightful questions, we can allow our client or athlete to reframe their mindset and therefore regain control over their actions. 

            At the end of the day, we all have our niches: be it powerlifting, nutrition, sport, finance, or life, we are all coaches. It is up to us to gain trust, challenge paradigms, seek commitment, and support execution of goals. We can be successful by showing integrity throughout the entire process. We can ask questions to provoke thought and encourage proactive behavior in order to challege current, unsuccessful paradigms of the individual. It is only after we achieve commitment, that we get to employ our specialty knowledge in guiding them past the finish line.

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Check out our video about training with knee pain

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The Ins and Outs of Back Down Sets

What are back down sets? 
Back down sets are a programming strategy that we use to increase the amount of quality volume done by the athlete at higher intensities. The strategy is based on the principles of post activation potentiation. High intensity (heavy loaded) strength exercises recruit high threshold muscle fibers. As the intensity increases, more of these muscle fibers are recruited. Studies show that these high threshold fibers (explosive fibers) could stay stimulated for up to 30 min following a high intensity set (Chiu, Fry, Weiss, et al., 2003; Rixon, Lamont, & Bemden, 2007)..  Do to the increase in muscle fiber activation from the heavy loading, lower intensity work should be easier for the client/ athlete to complete. Long story short, doing a heavy set of a strength exercise should increase your ability to be stronger and more explosive at lower intensities within the same session.  
The beautiful gift of back down sets is their versatility.  The use of PAP for building power is pretty well documented with methods like the French Contrast System, but drop down sets can also be a great tool for strength and hypertrophy. It’s all in the application.  Below are a few examples:
Powerlifter looking to improve maximal strength:
Heavy sets: 2x2 92%, 
Drop down Sets:3x2 88%
Football player looking to improve basic strength:
Heavy sets:3x4 88% 
Back down sets: 2x6 85%
Hockey player looking to build muscle: 
Heavy sets: 3x5 85%
Drop down sets: 2x8 80%
     Powerlifting is a sport that tests maximal strength. For the powerlifter, the back down sets only added 6 more total reps but the key is the quality.  If the powerlifter had tried to do 5x2 at 92% it would have been extremely stressful to the system and their would likely have been a drop off in technique as they got past the second or third set.  The drop down sets allow the powerlifter to add sets to their overall work, stay at a high percentage, and assure that the quality and speed of the reps stay the same throughout. 

     The football player in this example needs more basic strength. The goal for the back down sets are going to be to stay in an intensity percentage that will stimulate strength  (>80% )but also get more reps per set so they can get enough overall volume to stimulate hypertrophy (>20Reps). 

     The hockey player is this example is looking to build muscle. Given the athletes goal, the percentage drop off for the back down sets is higher compared to the powerlifter and the football player as we aren’t chasing intensity as a priority. This larger percentage drop allows you to add a greater amount of reps per set and accumulate more overall volume, thus driving more of a hypertrophy stimulus.
Psychological Gains: 
Along with the physiological benefits via PAP, there are also psychological  benefits to this strategy that are worth noting, Two of the biggest factors in an athletes ability to lift heavy loads is the intent and confidence they have going into the exercise. For most athletes, this confidence takes some time to build. Doing lots of volume at high intensities can be extremely taxing from a central nervous system and joint perspective, but it can also be extremely taxing mentally. Doing back down sets allows the athlete to build confidence and skill at higher intensities , while  decreasing some of the injury risk that is adherent with increased physical and mental fatigue as the number of sets proceed.  With most athletes, you will see confidence and focus carry over to the slightly lighter sets giving the athlete a mental advantage as well as physical over the submaximal loads.
Technique  Gains:
When your dealing with high intensities, it is likely that there will be some technique breakdown. We are looking to minimize this as much as possible, but the reality is that any weakness you have will start to show as the intensity increases. High intensities don’t lend themselves well to conscious correction of technique because your focus and attention needs to be on being as powerful as possible to complete the reps. Back down sets are effective because they give you an opportunity to immediately address any technique weakness that manifested in your heavy sets with a now slightly lighter, more manageable load. 

To sum it up,  drop down sets are a great programming tool that you can use in your own training or with your  clients and athletes regardless of training goals. The key with any training method is always in the application.  Figure out what the goal is and apply this principle to whatever main compound exercises you are using. I think you will be pleased with the results. 


back down setsstrength trainingpowerliftingPAPPost activation potentiation
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