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Q & A strength/conditioning: part I.

Since inheriting the PowerLine from my good friend and strength/conditioning mentor, Dan Riley of the Houston Texans, I have received hundreds of questions and requests on a wide array of strength and conditioning topics.

Almost all of these queries are on pertinent facets of the topics and we would like to offer our answers and insights on the most challenging of them.

Q What is a safe age to begin an organized conditioning program?

A It wasn't that long ago when pre-teen boys and girls could be seen climbing trees, jumping fences, playing "tug of war," competing in up-hill bike races, playing ball games in the neighborhood playground, and being challenged in physical education classes with push-ups, chin-ups, and 12 minute runs.


You get the point. Kids just seemed to be more physically active than they are today.

Video and computer games, DVD's, and the other ubiquitous forms of entertainment that barely require a muscle twitch in the thumb, have transformed many youngsters into breathing seat covers. Compounding this problem is the unfortunate deemphasis of the physical education curriculum in many school districts.

Is it any wonder that our nation is being saturated with unfit youngsters and a high rate of teenage obesity, and that we have to begin involving them in some form of year-round exercise program? It doesn't have to be sport-oriented, just so long as it maintains an acceptable fitness level.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports an active lifestyle for medically screened youngsters, and approves of supervised conditioning and strength training activities for kids as young as 12.

After evaluating the child's secondary sexual characteristics and physical maturity via a tool known as the Tanner Staging System, a physician may determine that a program can be initiated even earlier.

Sure, make it challenging, interesting, and fun--but get it done.

The bottom line: Make sure to get them to a physician for a comprehensive physical, find a qualified fitness coach/instructor who will get them active! One day, they will thank you for hiding the remote control.

Q How often should a high school/collegiate athlete lift?

A The subject of lifting frequency, as with several of the questions to follow, isn't as clearly defined in the literature as we would like. But several other questions must be answered first:

What are the goals of the lifting program? Is it attuned to the time of the year; that is, in-season, off-season, preseason?

What other physical stresses are being placed on the athlete?

How frequent are the games?

A close examination of the most popular approaches will indicate that lifting frequency will vary from two to four times weekly, depending upon the coach's philosophy and the time of year.

During the off-season, some coaches will choose to perform what is known as a four-day split: The upper body is trained on Monday and Thursday, and the lower body on Tuesday and Friday.

Others coaches will choose to perform total body workouts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

A third contingent will train the total body on Monday, the lower body on either Wednesday or Thursday, and the upper body on Friday.

Still others will use some combination of all of the above systems.

During the in-season, most coaches will observe one of two formats with the players who put in the most significant playing time: a format consisting of two non-consecutive, total body workouts (e.g., Monday and Wednesday), or a total body workout followed by an upper body workout on a non-consecutive day.

So, which is best for each time of year? There is no silver bullet. You will not find any definitive scientific literature that crowns any one of these methods with superiority.

Our suggestion: Train hard, but train smart.

Simply put, regardless of the time of year, make sure to give your athletes enough time to recover from the physical stresses imposed on them. If you are conducting grueling, two-hour practices with post-practice conditioning sessions, don't expect to get much out of an additional one-hour lift immediately afterwards. You may, in fact, quickly achieve a state of diminishing returns--or, what is aptly termed "over-training."

Without question, the in-season period is a time for skill enhancement, repetitive execution of plays and schemes, with more than enough running to accompany them. Two 30- 45-minute strength-training sessions per week--preferably performed on lighter practice days--are more than optimal.

The off-season period is a time to gauge your strength-training frequency by the frequency, duration, volume, and intensity of your running program.

Which one are you emphasizing? If it is the lifting program, you should manipulate one or more of these variables (frequency, duration, volume, or intensity) so that less overall work is being done on the running.

If your emphasis is on running, the same assessment should be performed with the lifting component.

Remember: You don't abandon either component; you simply adjust your training schedule to improve in all areas, while accruing the most out what is truly important at that specific time

Q Sport-Specific Lifts?

A Basically, there are two camps of thought on this subject. One camp says yes--pointing to any number of preferred procedures and techniques, primarily those related to competitive-style lifting. This camp may additionally contend that free weights (barbells, dumbbells, etc.) offer sport-specific characteristics (balance, stabilization, etc.) not inherent in machines. (More on free weights vs. machines will follow in Part II.)

The other camp says no, citing the fundamental Principle of Specificity. "Specific" is not "similar." Specific is exactness. If it isn't identical, it isn't specific.

Both sides extract bits and pieces from the scientific literature to support their contentions, and what usually ensues is an intellectual diatribe on (cast-iron) apples vs. oranges.

I've gathered one very important gem of wisdom from all of these discussions: Both sides are deeply entrenched in their beliefs, with neither side willing to yield to the other.

What is my stance? It can be best explained by relating a personal experience.

In 1986, while working at the U. of Toledo, I was having one of my frequent conversations with Dr. John Drowatsky, UT's Chairman of the Department of Exercise Science, an internationally renowned researcher and author in the science of motor learning.

Our discussion eventually led to the nuts and bolts of our training program and, quite by accident, the topic of specificity.

While talking about the running and agility phase of the off-season football program, I used the term "football-specific" training. Before I could utter another syllable, Dr. Drowatsky politely interjected, "Excuse me for a second, but what do you mean by football-specific?"

I couldn't give him a satisfactory answer. Dr. Drowatsky let me down gently, but he took a firm stance on the subject of specificity.

"Are the players wearing football gear when performing these drills?"

"Are the players given the exact verbal, auditory, and visual cues they receive in practice and games?"

"Are the responses, playing environment, tempo, etc., exactly in line with practice and game situations?"

To those and several other specific questions on "specificity," I had to answer, no.

One of the few points we agreed on was footwork specificity in a few of our drills, but most of what we were doing failed Dr. D's litmus test for specificity--exactness.

"Well, Ken, in that case, most of what you are presently doing with the team may be 'football-similar,' but it most certainly isn't 'football-specific,'" stated Dr. Drowatsky. He concluded the lesson by telling us that "specificity" was the most misused term in the sports literature, and that it should be used wisely and discreetly. Since then, that's exactly what I've done.

As a result, I no longer concern myself with the sport-specificity aspects of a lifting movement, but rather its role in the overall physical development of our players.

The raging argument of, "Should you train muscles instead of movements, or movements instead of muscles," is moot, in my opinion. In reality, you can't do one without doing the other. And I believe that neither case is sport-specific. At the very best, any exercise performed in the weight room, with any type of modality, can be "sport-similar," but never "sport-specific."

There are a lot of great possibilities and excellent exercise choices with a wealth of outstanding equipment modalities. I've mentioned some of my favorites in this column. Some coaches will agree with these selections; others will differ.

I believe you have to respect everyone who has the best interests of the athletes at heart and will teach whatever methodology he believes in--with prudence, intelligence, conviction, and great care.

By KEN MANNIE, Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University
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Title Annotation:PowerLine.03
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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