The (so-called) Expert
A few years back I was in a hotel in Orlando for Strength and Conditioning/Exercise Physiology Convention/Conference (it obviously wasn't that valuable to me!), and in the hotel bar I got chatting to a so-called expert about the strength and conditioning of athletes. He was heavily into Olympic lifting (O-lifting from here-on), and as the conversation developed he also advocated sports specificity as resistance exercises. The conversation became a little when I presented my stand-point on high intensity training, avoiding ballistic movements (including O-lifting), and stating that since there was no evidence for, and some evidence against it; I didn't use the concept of sports specificity in my exercises. He seemed horrified, and essentially questioned my abilities as a Strength and Conditioning coach. Needless to say the debate ended when I made a couple of simple statements and posed a couple of simple questions.
I'll to get to them.
Conditioned to play or Conditioned to pass Governing Body tests
The aforementioned colleague (whom I know best as an excellent physiotherapist and sports masseuse), recently asked my advice about training a young tennis player. When we discussed his existing workout I expressed that I wasn't a huge fan of TRX (although I have previously posted a blog that doesn't dismiss their use completely: http://jpfisheruk.blogspot.com/search/label/TRX) and instability exercises especially in young athletes, and as the conversation progressed it came out that she primarily uses them to assist in single leg squat exercises. I found this in itself quite interesting (having previously worked as an S&C coach with the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) I asked why their was an affiliation to single leg squats. She stated that the LTA use them as a functional testing assessment, which as part of a group of tests, assists in directing funding. My question back was simply that I would love the LTA to tell me how they can prove (or even intelligently suggest) that a single leg squat is in any way representative or indicative of current or potential tennis performance. For the record, her response was that she trains the athlete to play tennis, and she also trains him to pass their functional assessments.
The Steroid perspective
I have recently finished another book about steroids (it's a fascination, what can I say!?) in which was an excellent piece by Dr. Roland Carlstedt; a Sports Psychologist. His comments were interesting in that he was discussing that ultimately the best athletes in the world can well be defined by their ability to make instinctive decisions in high pressure situations. (This might be true of other professions; think fireman, police officer, etc.) And he commented that with all of the media around the few athletes that have been hugely successful and then failed drug tests, can steroids or doping really be that big of a factor. As you think about this, try to count the number of Gold medalists/world champions/etc that won, and then were tested positive. (For a second also assume that testing is 100% accurate and that if they were 'dirty' they would have been caught). If you've got into double figures then you're doing better than me. You see his discussion was based around what doping/steroids might do for you; get you stronger (which in turn might enhance speed, vertical jump, etc), help you recover from injury (by building back muscle and connective tissue quicker), and perhaps a few other benefits. As a psychologist he was suggesting that perhaps those with the anxiety enough to feel that they need steroids or illegal performance enhancing supplements might simply not have the mental toughness to be successful at their sport irrespective of what they take; and hence the higher number of positive tests that aren't winners, and the lower number of tests from those who are at the top of their sport. He also argued that perhaps those that were successful with illegal measures might have been successful anyway!?
So to the point of this blog if you haven't arrived there already......the list of variables in a sport is huge. Essentially infinite. Think if you will the physical factors of a basketball player that could vary from one game to the next, not just an individual's but a teams, and then add the variables that could affect performance from the opposing team, and then the environment as well, and now add a few of Dr. Carlstedt's psychological issues, you might have something that looks like this; strength, hydration, fatigue, visual acuity, foot speed, heart rate variability, heart rate deceleration, cognitive processing, hypnotic susceptibility, subliminal attention, neuroticism, anxiety, arousal, repressive coping, body composition, team attribution of previous performance, social loafing, aggression, indigestion, minor aches/pains/injuries, agility, motivation, and arguably the most significant; skill level. (Of course, if the skill is Olympic lifting then a lot of what is coming is a little redundant). In the sense of training a skill, when did strength and conditioning coaches become experts or coaches for most sports. They train strength and they condition an athlete. Ultimately anyone worth their salt will tell that an athlete is best conditioned by performing their sport, but other attributes can be enhanced with proper resistance training.
1. You see, the point here is simply that when you do any strength and conditioning with an athlete the first thing you should do is not harm them (e.g. minimise any risk). If a football quarterback get's blindsided in a game and breaks his leg then so be it. If he gets a sacro-lumbar fracture from performing snatches (an Olympic lift) then the S&C coach is gonna get in a lot of trouble.
2. The second is to enhance the performance of measurable variables; strength (1RM or isometric/isokinetic testing), speed (10m, 40yd, etc; whatever is most appropriate), agility (illinois/sport specific agility test, etc), vertical jump (using a jump mat, force plate or whatever is available), and so forth. You see my point; measure the measurables. This was my question to the strength and conditioning coach at the top; how does O-lifting enhance performance? It is proven to not be optimal for strength/speed/vertical jump, etc. Essentially the answer to this question is a tenuous link discussing triple-extension (forced/explosive extension of hips, knees and ankles) in the idea that almost all sports have this.
In this sense, train the athlete with what you know; with what science supports. Or even with strong anecdotal evidence of your own experiences. But let me ask; watching a basketball player one season, and then a season later seeing (through your eyes) that he is more explosive or performing better (rebounding, blocking shots, etc) and attributing it to O-lifting is absolutely ridiculous. Perhaps his timing increases, perhaps everyone else got worse, perhaps it was going to happen regardless of what he did!! I recently saw an article in a magazine by a friend of mine that showed an image suggesting that their training modality was wearing a gas mask doing deadlifts (or at least holding a heavy barbell) between their legs and being hit by a sledge hammer (forgive me if I am mistaken). Without question this is a phenomenally physically taxing act that will possibly cause intended physical changes. But do the risks out weight the evidence!? Generating a cause and effect relationship between things is at best very difficult and requires the control of all other variables. In reality we can't control these variables in any open sport.
Think how complex a regression or other statistical model would need to be to demonstrate that any single factor significantly affected an athletes performance.
Thus my summary is simply to stick with what we know; optimise body composition, make the athlete stronger and more resilient to injury/impact, make them faster, more agile. But do it properly, measure it. I am not stating that O-lifting and sports specific training does not enhance performance, but I'm saying that there is no evidence. Organisations are blindly and ignorantly advocating methods that are not proven. If O-lifting had all of these merits the evidence would be there. Drinking pork fat might make you see better but you wouldn't do it without evidence!!?
In that sense I would seriously love to see any support for O-lifting so if anyone has ANY then please send me the link or contact me via this blog and I will be in touch.