Friday, 22 May 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART I

I’ve been meaning to write this post for about a decade or so
No - I’m not a procrastinator at all

When I was young, things were easy.

The young strength coach in the early 90s had a few journals they could read in the library (remember those?), a few good books, and - if they were lucky - some good conversations with experts in the field.  

… and that's about it.

The internet was not around yet, DVDs were not available, and S&C Conferences were few and far between.  I say it was pretty easy because of this sparseness of information.  Most of us had access to the same material - and coming up with a training philosophy was not the potential mess of mass confusion that it is now.  

Besides the almost infinite information at our fingertips, today’s coaches have the added (often contradicting) influences of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, Crossfit, etc.  Where does a young coach start?  And especially - where do coaches who do not necessarily have a background in strength & conditioning start? 

I don’t envy these coaches.  It’s great that we have so much information at our fingertips - but without context, and background knowledge, if is nigh on impossible to know where to begin.  

I don’t profess to be all-knowing in this, but as a sprints coach with an S&C background, I feel I am in as strong a position to offer my thoughts as most.  And hopefully provide some context, and some basic information that will help coaches with their program design.  

We offer this Coaching Program at the World Athletics Center - where coaches from all over the world come and spend a week with us.  About half of the visitors are track coaches, but we get a pretty large number of S&C coaches as well (also a few therapists and sport coaches).  We have held almost 20 of these Programs now, and the same few questions as they relate to strength training seem to come up almost every time:

  1. What are the best exercises?
  2. How heavy should the athletes lift?
  3. How strong is strong enough?
  4. How do you organize the weight-lifting into the overall program?

So with this extended post, I will do my best to answer these questions, as well as a few more that came to me though a post I placed on Twitter and Facebook:

  • How do we address weaknesses? (Amir Williamson)
  • Time on track versus time in gym? (Aftershock Fitness)
  • Interplay between volume & intensity (Rich Schimenek, who feels there are too many “more is better - always hard” coaches out there)
  • pre-season strength training vs in-season strength training - Hafsa Kamara
  • Views on eccentric training, triphasic, & French contrast - Adam Scott
  • Physios’ understanding of ‘stiffness’ - Chris Brandner
  • In-season Periodization schemes - ‘Purveyor of Exertion’
  • Progressions of strength training though a season - Mario Gomez
  • Regenerative themes and weight room warm-ups - Jeff Boele
  • Special & Specific Exercises - Stuart Mitchell
  • The most important lifts all high school sprinters should do, and the best days to do them - Norwalk High School
  • Why we need to do specific exercises, and how the exercise works - Jake Awe
  • a) Many track coaches at the development level avoid lifting or limit it to very low levels. What is the potential cost of other abilities, tissue qualities/demand on the CNS/transferability/time constraints? b) What is the "cost of doing business”? - Morgan Alexander
  • Microcycle Structure - as it pertains to technical and speed and lifting sessions - Mike Steen
  • a) balance between maximum strength & other strength qualities across the F-V curve; b) squat depth;  c) Unilateral vs. Bilateral lifts and their anticipated transference - Chris Bishop
  • How much lifting is needed? How does this change throughout their career? Ways to find out how much is needed per individual - Jordan Foley
  • WAC holistic approach to strength training - Jean Carlos Arroyo
  • Balance between instructing highly technical movements with an overall goal of attaining increased power output and postural integrity in acceleration - Aaron Seminski (*potential awesome discussion)
  • a) Specificity of lifts and how much is too much (if possible); b) when to switch from general to specific - Spencer Moe
  • The difference between something that is difficult and something that is complex. A lot of what we're trying to accomplish is difficult for sure, but all too often coaches shroud it in a veil of complexity that only they can decode - Mike LeBlanc (*not sure I'm smart enough for this one!)
  • Thoughts on how certain muscles & muscle groups should be trained. Different muscle contraction profiles? - Jason Ross
  • a) Pre-comp tapering strategies; b) eccentric and contrast methods; c) de-loading schemes - Jack Chin
  • a) Pre/peri/post strength training therapy; b) volume, sequencing; c) how/when/why of loading parameters - Jeremy Wotherspoon
  • Identification of the type of athlete you are working with, and how best to improve them - Andrew Kock
  • Individuality of athletes and training responses - Malcolm Wallace
  • a) The role of eccentric work; b) posterior chain vs anterior chain; c) speed-strength vs max strength - Carson Patterson

Some awesome questions and comments ... thanks to all who chimed in.  This is going to be a long post!   I will do my best to write a 2000 word synopsis once it is all finished - so if you would rather wait for the Cliff Notes version, stop reading now, and check back in a month or so.  In the meantime, I will roll this out in a series of 4 or 5 posts.  

If you're still here, I’d like to start where we always should.  


Why do we lift?
Or - why do we have our athletes lift?  

Until we answer this question - until we have a very clear justification of what is possibly a taken for granted assumption, we are hamstrung before we even get started.  How can we write an effective strength program, if we don’t truly understand why we are doing it in the first place?

Rather than me butchering this rather sciency section, I have asked someone much more qualified than I to write it for me.  Matt Jordan has written a couple of guest posts for me in the past.  Currently completing his PhD in Calgary, Canada, Matt is undoubtedly one of the top strength coaches in the world.  With an in-depth understanding of sport science, as well as almost two decades of practical experience, Matt has a unique ability to combine the two, and communicate it in such a way that makes sense to dummies like me.  

I hope you enjoy the following - what we feel is necessary background information.  Digest this -  then do some additional reading around the areas that are more interesting - or more confusing - to you, and please come back in a few days for section two, which will offer more information on loading parameters.  


Since the times of the Ancient Greeks, maximal muscle strength has been recognized as an important element for athletic performance.  However, in recent years, with the advent of the internet and the tendency for new training paradigms to emerge simply for the sake of the newness factor, it seems that in certain circles an assault on maximal muscle strength and its related muscle properties has emerged - ranging from benign questions such as “how much strength is enough” right up to the suggestion that developing maximal muscle strength is really a thing of the past for an athlete. However, the development of maximal muscle strength is often espoused within certain camps as a key - if not the key - to unlocking athletic potential.  

So, where does this leave the coach who wants to employ strength training to improve athletic performance?

The challenge for great coaches is not to classify a training element using a binary “yes/no” or “good/bad” system, but instead to understand when and how things fit together into a cohesive training philosophy.  


In order to evaluate the relevance of any physical fitness parameter for athletic performance it is valuable to begin with a physiological and biomechanical basis for how improving a specific ability might transfer to a seemingly unrelated skill or sport performance environment. 

The first fundamental observation regarding maximal muscle strength is that unlike many of the mechanical muscle properties related to explosive muscle force production, maximal muscle strength is highly trainable in nearly every type of athlete.  Even more so than the capacity to develop muscle hypertrophy, one could argue that nearly everyone possesses the capacity to gain maximal muscle strength.  With its high training potential, maximal muscle strength should not be overlooked and instead should be at the very least optimized for the sport and athlete in question.

Maximal muscle strength is often defined as the maximum force producing capability of a muscle - or muscle groups - in a single maximal voluntary contraction of either a concentric, eccentric or isometric muscle action.  

jump testing at the CSI-Calgary (photo credit Dave Holland)

The important element here is not how long force can be sustained or how quickly it can be developed, but instead how much force can be generated.  To assess maximal muscle strength, the gold standard laboratory measurement often reported in the scientific literature is the maximal voluntary isometric contraction.  Here the athlete is strapped into a dynamometer and asked to push or pull against an immovable object while force is recorded from a force sensor.  

The criticism of this approach is that most sport movements are not isometric, and require the application of muscle force to overcome an external load (i.e. concentric muscle action), or yield against an external load (i.e. eccentric muscle action).  Alongside consideration for specificity and greater simplicity for assessment, maximal muscle strength is easily assessed in the weight room using repetition maximum (RM) testing that requires the athlete to perform a series of efforts or sets with increasing load until the maximum amount of external load lifted with correct technique for a given number of repetitions is determined.  Maximal muscle strength can be estimated virtually every time an athlete enters into the weight room for a training session.  Of course, some limitations of this approach exist - including the possibility for technical variations, which can dramatically affect the outcome measure (load lifted) in the absence of a real change in general maximal muscle strength. For example, suppose two athletes are assessed using a maximal voluntary contraction of isometric leg extension using an instrumented leg press.  Midway through the training phase, Athlete A makes a significant change in his squat stance, which permits him to make a jump from 100kg to 120kg  in the external load.  Athlete B continues with his existing technique and makes a 10kg improvement.  It is conceivable that the 20% improvement in external load for the squat could occur alongside a smaller gain in the technically independent measure of maximal strength obtained from the isometric leg extension.  The purpose of this example is not to discount one method over the other, but more to introduce the coach to the element of task specificity and the importance of evaluating changes in weight room performance of maximal muscle strength alongside other potential confounding factors.


As discussed above, maximal muscle strength is dependent on the type of muscle action.  The unique behaviour of skeletal muscle during different types of muscle actions has existed for more than 80 years.  In fact, in the late 1930’s, seminal experiments performed by the great exercise physiologist A.V. Hill demonstrated the production of extra heat for a shortening muscle  as the velocity of shortening increased.  This experiment changed our understanding of muscle physiology and yielded the characteristic hyperbolic muscle force-velocity relationship (Figure 1).  

However, further anomalous observations were made when muscles lengthened against an external load (i.e. performed an eccentric muscle action).  Andrew Huxley noted these observations in his 1957 paper that provided a mathematical basis for the sliding filament theory, which we now know as the crossbridge theory.  Huxley remarked that while the behaviour of muscle could be relatively accurately explained using his mathematical equations for isometric and concentric muscle actions, the equations could not predict muscle behaviour during eccentric actions.


In practical terms, maximal eccentric strength is predicted to be as much as 40% greater than maximal isometric strength.  It also uses less energy, despite the fact it produces greater force.  It seems there might be another passive element that contributes to muscle force in an eccentric muscle action.  However, we are interested in the human force-velocity relationship, and comparing the force-velocity relationship obtained from a human to a single muscle as in the experiments of A.V. Hill is not possible.  The first observation of the force-velocity relationship of the human is that the often hyperbolic concentric portion of the force-velocity relationship is much more linear and the maximal shortening velocity need to be extrapolated as most strength testing equipment is incapable of assessing the maximal velocity of shortening for dynamic single joint human movements.  Additionally, the 40% difference between maximal isometric strength and maximal eccentric strength is not found.  In fact, this difference is much smaller.


The discrepancy between the maximal eccentric strength of a muscle and a human performing an eccentric movement is attributable to neural factors, which are absolutely critical for the expression of maximal muscle strength.  The first category of neural factors effecting the expression of maximal muscle strength is called intramuscular coordination, and includes the rate at which a motor unit fires and the number of motor units that are recruited.  Motor unit firing rate or rate coding is important for the early rise of muscle force during explosive movements and is important for increasing muscle force above 85% of maximal muscle force. Put another way, the orderly recruitment of motor units increases as the external load increases - up until approximately 85% of maximum strength (i.e. more motor units are recruited).  After this point, the motor units begin to fire with increasing frequency as muscle force continues to rise.  Intramuscular coordination is highly trainable through maximal strength training methods and this is one of the very critical adaptations of interest for athletes.  Additionally, maximal muscle strength can be inhibited by the afferent feedback originating from muscle proprioceptors such as Golgi tendon organs.  This too is highly trainable and, with respect to improving maximal muscle strength, can be effectively diminished using heavy strength training. Training against heavy loads enables a greater signal to reach the working muscle both through greater efferent drive (i.e. stronger neural signal coming from the central nervous system) and reduced inhibition from afferent sources. 


As the name indicates, intermuscular coordination refers to the coordination between muscles, and can be seen as the optimal recruitment of agonist, antagonist and synergist muscles in a complex movement.  Of course the precise behaviour of the different muscles and muscle groups in dynamic movements is difficult to ascertain, but for the coach, the observation that increasing the activation of the core and trunk muscles to stiffen the spine during heavy lifting often improves the expression of maximal strength, provides a nice example of intermuscular coordination.  


Intramuscular coordination and intermuscular coordination are important neural or tuning factors effecting the expression of muscle force - but as with a car, a highly tuned four cylinder engine can’t compete against a less tuned six or eight cylinder engine.  

This analogy comes from an article written by Warren Young from Australia and in this case, the size of the engine is comparable to the size of a muscle.  In scientific terms, muscle size, or the physiological cross sectional area (PCSA) is directly proportional to the force producing capability.  The bigger the muscle, the greater the muscle force.  Of course, there is important interplay between improving muscle PCSA and neural coordination as it pertains to the long-term development of maximal muscle strength.  

Often, the design of strength training programs has focused on various organizational or periodization structures of training methods designed to uniquely affect either the development of muscle PCSA (hypertrophy) or neural factors.  One of the first suggestions that maximal muscle strength adaptation can be maximized by addressing both muscle hypertrophy and neural factors was made by Dietmar Schmidtbleicher in the 1980’s based on a study that evaluated changes in strength, size and neural drive to three different training programs.  His conclusion: training methods that improve muscle hypertrophy and neural factors (i.e. maximal strength training) should be employed in an alternating manner for long-term gains in muscle performance.  

Many papers since then have elucidated the different approaches for improving muscle hypertrophy and neural factors through strength training.


In addition to muscle PCSA, neural factors, and the force-velocity relationship, muscle length is a key player in the expression of maximal muscle strength.  This observation was most notably characterized in an experiment in 1966 performed by Gordon and colleagues that demonstrated the unique effects of changing muscle length on muscle force, which yielded the characteristic force-length or length-tension relationship with its ascending limb, plateau region and descending limb (Figure 2).  In the realm of strength training for athletic performance, the effects of training on the force-length relationship have often been overshadowed by a somewhat myopic focus on the force-velocity and/or power-velocity relationship.  Why exactly the importance of the force-length relationship has been minimized is unclear - as it is a trainable and influential factor of muscle performance.  In fact, in the mid 1990s, Walter Herzog from the University of Calgary, demonstrated that elite cyclists and runners operated on completely different regions of the rectus femoris force-length relationship, and indicated the highly specific trainability of the force-length relationship.  Force-length relationship shifts are also seen in other contexts such as after eccentric training.  

In practical terms, coaches are aware of the importance of the force-length relationship when athletes with force deficits at specific joint angles or sticking points are encountered.  These sticking points arise in sport performance as well - especially in sports like speed skating or alpine ski racing in which specific, and sub-optimal, knee joint angles are inherent to the sport skill.  For these athletes, developing range of motion specific strength is essential. There are many pragmatic approaches to influencing the force-length relationship such as performing isometric training at specific joint angles or performing accentuated lifting with the use of bands, chains or other barbell attachments.  

However, assessing the force-length relationship in the context of developing maximal muscle strength seems to be less prioritized both in practice and in the scientific literature compared to the emphasis on the force-velocity relationship.  


Until now, the focus of this first section has been on the muscular and neural factors influencing maximal muscle strength in the context of establishing a physiological basis for why a coach might want to employ maximal strength training to improve athletic performance.  Of course, the effects of maximal strength training on enhancing neural drive is of great benefit to an athlete both in sports requiring maximal muscle strength and explosive muscle strength.  This latter point is of great interest - as many sports require the expression of explosive muscle force or explosive strength.  An important side effect of improving maximal muscle strength through heavy strength training is a marked increase in explosive muscle strength - especially in less developed athletes.  A recent meta-analysis by Seitz et al. (2015) in Sports Medicine provides an excellent review of the transfer of maximal strength improvements in the back squat to sprint running performance.  The results are unequivocal.  Clearly, making an athlete stronger is often a gateway to making an athlete faster.  Additionally, the ability to perform high rates of muscle work or mechanical muscle power is critical for many sports, and as with the concomitant improvement in explosive strength observed following heavy strength training, the expression of maximal mechanical muscle power and the ability to sustain mechanical power are positively influenced by maximal strength training.  

The benefits of maximal strength training can be extended to other tissues - including the skeletal and connective tissue.  Heavy strength training imposes important loads on tendons and other connective tissue.  Similar to muscle, heavy strength training increases the cross sectional area of tendons and the mechanical load helps to align the collagen fibres that are critical for bearing load.  These adaptations increase tendon stiffness, which leads to better force transfer between joints in multi-joint movement.  

Additionally, by increasing cross sectional area, the strain capacity of tendons is increased, which has important considerations for injury prevention - especially in sports such as long distance running where repetitive and cyclical movements often lead to tendon injury.  Interestingly, slow heavy strength training is as effective as surgery for dealing with chronic tendonitis.  

For the endurance athlete, the improvement in tendon stiffness is a potential mechanism underlying the transfer of improved maximal muscle strength to improved endurance performance as summarized by Per Aagaard in his 2010 article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.  

Improving maximal muscle strength is also associated with enhanced economy of movement - which is a key factor for endurance performance.  Contrary to intuition that often leads coaches to erroneously conclude that high repetition schemes should be employed with endurance athletes, it is in fact the heavy strength training schemes that have the greatest positive impact on endurance performance.  


With all the scientific and practical evidence in support of using heavy strength training to improve athletic performance, it might seem as though we have identified a panacea for physical preparation.  However, there are other considerations.  

First, while short-term training studies demonstrate improvement in explosive strength following heavy strength training especially in less trained subjects, the long-term (i.e. several years) effects of chronic heavy strength training on sport performance and sport skill are less understood.  In the medium-term (i.e. several weeks to months), chronic heavy strength training results in a muscle fibre type shift from the fast Type IIx fibre to the more oxidative Type IIa fibre. The primary difference between fibre types is the maximal shortening velocity, and it is possible that while on the one the hand, benefits for explosive sport movements are obtained from heavy strength training, the overall slowing of the contractile properties of a muscle could potentially blunt performance particularly when very high movement velocities are required.  This suggestion is not scientifically supported and is highly speculative.  However, in order to present a balanced viewpoint on the how-why-when should maximal strength training be incorporated into the training program of an athlete, this remains an important consideration.

It is also clear that while many sports skills require maximal strength, there are lots of examples of sporting movements that are dominated by other mechanical muscle properties.  

Anecdotally, great coaches often refer to athletes in speed-power and technical sports who uniquely solve motor tasks like sprinting using other strategies that rely far less on maximal strength.  Of course, it is tempting to suggest that in these situations, improving maximal strength would only benefit the athlete and not harm performance - but this has never been shown scientifically. Furthermore, through personal conversation with many high level coaches, it is clear that enough examples examples exist of athletes who avoided heavy strength training, yet managed to attain incredibly high levels of explosive athletic performance to warrant careful consideration of when, and with who, heavy strength training methods are employed.


In order to navigate this complicated process of answering the how-why-when questions, coaches are advised to perform a careful analysis of the sport in question to identify key performance indicators (KPIs).  Using these indicators, it is then possible to objectively determine the success or failure of a particular strength training intervention.  

As maximal muscle strength determined through either RM testing or using isometric dynamometry is often unrelated to many sport skills, coaches should possess the ability to assess other mechanical muscle properties.  As discussed above, two properties that are often of interest are explosive strength and maximal mechanical muscle power.  

Explosive strength is defined as the rapid rise in force during an explosively performed movement.  This can be evaluated by calculating the rate of force development (RFD) in dynamic or isometric movements, although only assessment under isometric conditions is sufficiently reliable to be employed for testing purposes.  

Assessing explosive strength through isometric dynamometry fell out of vogue through the mid-1990s, but it remains an important dimension of mechanical muscle performance for three specific reasons:  

  • As mentioned above, isometric dynamometry has much better reliability when evaluating explosive strength using RFD
  • Per Aagaard, a modern day pioneer in revitalising the relevance of isometric dynamometry, has related the contractile impulse or the area under the force-time curve obtained during an isometric contraction to the limb velocity that would have been attained should the limb have been permitted to move freely
  • Finally, by calculating the time frame for force application in sport, the contractile impulse can be evaluated over the same time intervals permitting a high degree of specificity to the sport skill all the while using a standardized and repeatable testing method

To make this a bit more salient, suppose a coach was evaluating explosive strength in two sprinters.  He is interested in a standardized assessment to evaluate explosive mechanical muscle performance as it would pertain to accelerating and sprinting.  He chooses to compare isometric dynamometry against an evaluation of explosive muscle performance using the vertical jump.  He determines the ground contact time at maximum running velocity to be approximately 90ms and 150-200ms for the acceleration phase.  However, he misses an important aspect of how the two athletes perform the vertical jump.  Athlete A is a slow jumper and he requires 300ms to perform the countermovement jump.  To reach maximal jump output, he descends to deeper knee angles that fall outside the joint angles of sprinting to generate maximum vertical propulsion.  As such, he consistently outperforms Athlete B in terms of jump output, as Athlete B is a much faster jumper and generates a slightly smaller vertical impulse in a shorter but more sport-specific timeframe.  Using the vertical jump output as the outcome measure, it seems Athlete A is as good - or better - than Athlete B.  But the main issue here is that Athlete A will never have 300 ms to perform his sport skill.  At a maximum, the acceleration phase of sprinting involves a ground contact time of 150-200ms.  Using isometric dynamometry, the coach then sets a specific joint angle related to the positions of sprinting.  He then instructs the athletes to perform rapid and explosive isometric contractions to evaluate the contractile impulse over 90ms time-frames.  Again, because the contractile impulse would relate to the limb velocity that would occur had the limb been permitted to move and as the time-frame for force application are evaluated over a duration that is specific to the sport skill, the performance gaps for Athlete A and Athlete B would be better identified through isometric dynamometry.

At this point, you might be thinking that evaluating the jump output alongside the jump strategy could be very telling.  Maybe consideration for the slow jumping strategy of Athlete A would reveal further insight into explosive mechanical muscle performance.  If this is your line of thinking, you are correct.  The vertical jump and its variants (i.e. drop jump, countermovement jump, squat jump, and single-leg jumps) are excellent movements for evaluating explosive mechanical muscle performance in athlete populations.  However, jump performance should be considered alongside jump strategy.  In order to gain insight not only into jump performance but also jump strategy, it is important to have instruments that can measure how the athlete attains a specific jump output.  A limitation with contact mats, optical sensors, and vertical jump ergometers like the Vertec is that only jump output can be evaluated.  Instruments such as the force plate provide greater insight into how a jump is performed through analysis of the vertical force time curve.  With this approach, the coach can identify fast jumpers, slow jumpers, and vertical impulse attained during specific jump phases such as the eccentric deceleration phase and concentric phase.  Additionally, jump performance can further be evaluated by looking at the take-off velocity, or total work performed.  Jump strategy can also be more sophisticatedly evaluated by plotting force-displacement and force-velocity graphs to look at the positional and velocity changes of the body centre mass throughout the jumping movement.

Clearly, the evaluation of explosive muscle performance must be undertaken alongside evaluation of maximal muscle strength - especially for sport skills relying on explosive strength. By identifying KPIs and relevant mechanical muscle properties, the coach is now able to employ creativity in program design and develop new approaches for developing mechanical muscle function as it relates to improving sport skills and athletic performance. Based on personal communication with many high level sport and strength coaches, the approach to strength training program design must expand to include several different types of strength training methods in addition to heavy strength training.  There are in fact many ways to positively affect explosive mechanical muscle performance, and the drawbacks/benefits of each method form the basis of answering the how-when-why questions related to incorporating strength training into a cohesive training program.  


The starting point for any coach wanting to employ maximal strength training methods with athletes is to first have good understanding of the physiology and biomechanics of the expression of muscle force.  These first principles will provide the best basis for answering the questions how and when should different strength training methods be used to improve athletic performance.  By no means was this an exhaustive list of the potential benefits of the various strength training methods provided.  Instead, a few key points were highlighted to shift the focus from what we believe works for improving sport performance to what the science supports.  The benefits of strength training go much beyond this, and include many other factors related to injury prevention and creating athletes with sufficient structural tolerance to support the large training volumes of the modern day athlete.  Do not forget as well that for hundreds - and possibly thousands of years - strength training has been an important element of physical training programs for athletes.  Moving beyond tradition - through experience and on to the science - strength training is critical for the athlete. 

The transfer from the weight room to sport performance goes far beyond developing an exercise that mimics a sporting movement - and includes the many unique neural and functional adaptations to strength training that are of great interest for the elite athlete.


Matt Jordan is a strength coach, the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Canadian Sport Institute-Calgary and the Director of Sport Science and Sport Medicine for Alpine Canada. He also provides private strength coaching and sport science consultation to elite athletes through his business. 

He is currently completing his Doctorate in Medical Science at the University of Calgary focusing on ACL Injury/Re-Injury Prevention in Elite Alpine Ski Racers. He has published his results in peer-reviewed journals and presented at international conferences. As an educator, Matt provides internship opportunities for developing strength coaches and has lectured for the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University. Matt continues to write for lay journals and regularly travels across North America and Europe to lecture on strength and power training for elite athletes.

Over his career, Matt has been a strength coach to more than 20 World and Olympic medalists, and has worked with elite athletes in many sports including speed skating, cross country skiing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, hockey, football, volleyball and mixed martial arts. Matt has also helped many developing athletes and members of the general public with their health, fitness and performance goals.

Matt is on Twitter: @JordanStrength

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Friday, 26 December 2014

Best Books of 2014

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them”
- Mark Twain

2014 wasn’t a great reading year for me - I’m not sure how many books I got through, but it was nowhere near the 100+ I managed in 2012 However, I did still read quite a bit - I try to put aside at least 60 minutes in the morning, and another 60 minutes each evening.  

The reason for the drop-off?  Mainly the high quality of podcasts that are now available - some favorites being Philosophy Bites, WTF with Marc Maron, Modern Day Philosophers with Dan Lobell, The Joe Rogan Experience, The Drunken Taoist, This American Life, Talk Nerdy, Radiolab, and the recent addiction that was Serial. 

But I still managed to get through a few good books - and thought a review of some of my favorites was an appropriate step back into the blogging world (I really hope to be more frequent in 2015).

So - in no particular order:
(FYI - not all of these books were written in 2014 - this  just happened to be the year I read them)

Science Set Free - Rupert Sheldrake

You may be most familiar with biologist and biochemist Rupert Sheldrake from a series of trialogues he hosted with philosopher Terrence McKenna and mathematician Ralph Abraham back in the 80s and 90s. If you haven't seen these, I suggest you check them out - some cool stuff. You also may be familiar with his books The Presence of the Past and A New Science of Life, and some of his slightly controversial views (much of what he says and writes has been termed pseudoscientific by the traditional scientific community, and a TEDTalk he presented in London was controversially taken off the TED site). 

His research focuses predominantly on the kinds of things that science dismisses out of hand "but which people are generally fascinated by and made to feel stupid about".  Designed to challenge “core doctrines of materialism in the light of hard evidence and recent discoveries”, Science Set Free is almost a 'best of' Sheldrake. Taking ten commonly-held scientific beliefs (for example all matter is unconscious, the total amount of matter and energy is always the same, and memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death), and offering ten ‘alternatives’.

Sheldrake is apparently most interested in re-discovering the ‘spirit of radical skepticism’ - and takes issue with a scientific community that he says has become overly reductionist, mechanistic, and materialistic.

I’m not familiar enough with the science behind much of what Sheldrake critiques, but I can’t help feeling like he has an agenda; ‘morphic fields’, ‘morphic resonance’, and ‘perceptual fields’ seem to me to be his theory for almost everything - and it is difficult to ignore his overall defensive tone.  

That being said, I found this book fascinating - he operates at the margins of science, and this alone makes him readable.  But it is more than that - as much as I am often put off by his tone, I cannot help also feeling that perhaps not so far in the future, a lot of his theories may be confirmed, and his legacy perhaps re-established (for instance, one of his chapters posits that the ‘laws of nature’ are not laws at all - that they are prone to evolve in time. He points to what we currently know, and do not know, about the universe, for example - mainly that 83% of it is now thought to be made up of ‘dark matter’, and subject to forces that science today cannot begin to explain).  

In the meantime, I will be rooting for him.  Essentially cast out of the mainstream scientific community upon the release of his first book in 1981, I feel that Sheldrake - and others like him - will more and more be taken seriously as what we don’t know returns to the forefront - rather than what we do know.

“…new discoveries are more likely to happen if we venture off the well-trodden paths of conventional research, and if we open up questions that have been suppressed by dogmas and taboos.”

Take-home for coaches

As human beings living in 2014, we exist in a world of almost infinite information. As coaches, we have a responsibility to make coaching decisions based upon the best information we have available to us.  There is no excuse for dogmatic thinking - to clutch to it as you would a security blanket - too insecure to question.  Too lazy to look.

We assume, for instance, that we already understand the nature of adaptation, and all that Hans Selye has left for us is to fill in the details: choose our method of periodization, and plug the numbers into a graph.  But what if our initial assumption was incorrect?  What if Selye’s work with poisoning mice cannot be translated accurately to elite athletes 60 years later?  Would it change the way in which we program if we re-examined our foundational (‘dogmatic’) principles? It did (and/or does) for many of us - including über-successful coaches Ivan Abadjiev, Mihaly Igloi, Anatoliy Bondarchuk, for example. The success of these coaches have had with emergent, non-traditional programming would seem to suggest that perhaps we don’t know as much as we thought.  

Perhaps there is more left to know than what we know. 

Squat Every Day - Matt Perryman

I hated this book.  Not because it was a bad book - quite the opposite.  
I hated it because I wish I would have written it.  In fact, I very well might have - so similar were much of Perryman’s thoughts to my own.
But I didn’t ... and probably couldn’t.  

Putting my obvious jealousy aside, I offer you my unbiased thoughts:

I’ll admit - I had never heard of Squat Every Day - or of its author, Matt Perryman - until Joy Victoria told me that some of my views reminded her of this book, and suggested I gave it a read. 

Joy was right. It was excellent, and I enjoyed it.  

Using folks like Bob Peoples, Anthony Ditillo, and Ivan Abadjiev as his springboard, Perryman presents his primary thesis - doing takes precedence over abstract PubMed theory - through practical example, a re-examination of some scientific ‘truths’, and plenty of personal emotional-psychological discovery.

Like Sheldrake, Perryman challenges traditional dogma - in this case, most notably, the fact that squatting more than every couple of days is ‘reckless, counterproductive, and dangerous, and is unsustainable without drugs’.  Perryman offers an alternative - one that treats the squat (and you can replace ‘squat’ with pretty much any other movement) as a skill - a skill that requires practice to improve.  And the more we can practice this skill, the better chance we have at improving it.  Pretty simple, really…

He begins by presenting his ‘case for more’, and digs deep into nonlinear progression, auto-regulation, Taleb’s ‘long tails’, central governor theory, Baumeister’s willpower theory, HRV, activity set-points and responder types, genetic determinism, and Dweck’s mindset research. Throughout, Perryman does a fine job of offering alternatives to traditional thought - backing it all up with both practical example and contemporary study.  

My one critique is in his editing.  For example, he spent rather too long detailing his own personal programming.  I am far more interested in the theory that went into his work, rather than his program.  There is plenty of historical and contemporary examples that support his thesis (and he does a fine job of presenting much of it) - without reverting to detailing his own personal experiments.   

Otherwise - it’s a great book.  One I will be picking up again in the near future for a re-read.  And I look forward to his next book - as I am certain one will be upcoming …

“The more you practice a skill, the better you become at that skill.  Practice enough and the skill hardwires itself into the brain.”

Take-home for coaches

Beware the dangers of minimal effective dose.  Although I do not agree with progressive overload ad infinitum, the human being is most definitely capable of more work than we believe.  As long as we can positively adapt to the load we place upon the system, then I have little issue with ‘more is better’, and I most definitely believe that ‘practicing’ the specific skill more often (density of practice - what my good friend Derek Evely calls ‘compression of specific abilities’) leads to more efficient adaptation.  Almost every successful Olympic Weightlifting program relies on practicing the competitive events daily, for example.

Ready to Run - Kelly Starrett

There's probably not a soul reading this who has not now heard of Kelly Starrett. Introduced to the public via 100s of self-produced YouTube clips, Starrett has quickly risen to vanguard status in the industry (notice I didn't say 'guru'). And rightly so. His videos are excellent. Supple Leopard should be read by all coaches. And Ready to Run should be read by all athletes - runners or not. 

Essentially, this is a call to arms to take responsibility for your own body; to take a proactive, rather than a reactive view.  I have written a lot on the need for a new sports medicine model - one that is based upon performance, and not rehab, so no need to go into it further here.  Just go read this book! 

“human beings should be able and willing to perform basic maintenance on themselves. Sports medicine has its place, but you have both a right and a responsibility to know what’s going on in your body, the hard truth is that routine maintenance on your personal running machine can be and should be performed by you.   Routine maintenance on your personal running machine can be and should be performed by you.”

Take-home for coaches  

Demand athlete self-responsibility.

We can very easily fall into a micro-management trap when coaching athletes - putting together the most intricate plans for even the most uninterested of athletes, somehow feeling that the more work you put in will somehow convince the unmotivated to step up.  However, one thing I have learnt over the last 25 years is you cannot want it more than the athletes you coach.  If the athlete is not motivated enough to take on appropriate regenerative responsibility for themselves, for example, then there is no point in you busting your ass putting together a kick ass training plan.  When the athlete proves to me that they are truly committed, then I will do everything I can - and more - to match their motivation.  

Homework of the sort that Starrett suggests will - if taken onboard - tell you a ton about the athletes you work with.  Demand it from them.  Challenge them.  

Tides of War - Steven Pressfield

I'm not sure I enjoy reading anyone more than Steven Pressfield right now. Equally adept at fiction and non-fiction, Pressfield is totally on top of his game.

If you haven’t already, please do check out novels Gates of Fire, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Virtues of War, and his non-fiction Do the Work, Turning Pro, and the classic The War of Art

Tides of War is historical fiction written so well you assume every word to be true.  It is the story of the epic struggle for control of the Helenic world between Athens and Sparta, told through multiple viewpoints - mainly the characters of Athenian General Alcibiades, and his executioner Polemides.  As Polemides awaits his own execution (along with Socrates in a nearby cell), he tells the story of Alcibiades and the ‘thrice nine years’ Peloponnesian War.

It takes a little while to appreciate the alternating narration, but once you get into it, it’s hard to step away.  Like great Russian novels, it requires some patience, but you are well-rewarded in due time!

“Corollary to the principle of minimal force was that of minimal supervision. When Alcibiades issued a combat assignment, he imparted the objective only, leaving the means to the officer himself. The more daunting the chore, the more informally he commanded it. I never saw him issue an order from behind a desk. Always assign a man more than he believes himself capable of. Make him rise to the occasion. In this way you compel him to discover fresh resources, both in himself and others of his command, thus enlarging the capacity of each, while binding all beneath the exigencies of risk and glory.”

Take-home for coaches

There is little doubt that Pressfield’s Alcibiades is a talented leader.  And although Tides of War is a work of fiction, the real Alcibiades was respected as a skilled politician, tactician, and orator - and can offer coaches much counsel.  

Alcibiades changed his political allegiance on several occasions; in fact, he did so three times during the Peloponnesian War alone - leading the Athenians through the Sicilian Expedition before fleeing to Sparta.  Soon thereafter, he defected to Persia after impregnating the king of Sparta’s wife, before finally returning to Athens.  Alcibiades was known to live lavishly, and was somewhat unprincipled, and the austere Spartan warriors were fearful that Alcibiades could corrupt their youth.  But instead, he behaved just as they did - wearing his hair untrimmed, eating stale bread, and wearing simple clothes.  Similarly, to a man like Socrates - who was a great admirer of Alcibiades - he represented the opposite of the simple and humble Socratic ideal; yet Alcibiades was able to win his support and trust by speaking to him at his level - by accompanying him on long walks, and talking only of philosophy. 

It is easy to understand why Alcibiades acted this way - it was not dishonest - rather, he revealed different aspects of his personality to each of the people he came into contact with - with the specific intention of gaining their trust.  And herein lies our take-home: trust is the single most important quality that a coach has to govern with an athlete.  The instillation of unconditional belief is the key to a successful coach-athlete partnership, and by tending to empathy rather than imposing our own ego, we greatly enhance chances of success.

Create Your Own Religion - Daniele Bolelli

Daniele Bolelli is a bit of a modern-day Renaissance man.  Mainly known as a philosopher, his degrees (a BA in anthropology, and graduate degrees in American Indian studies and History) are not philosophical.  He is a writer (Create Your Own Religion is his third book), a martial artist (he has a 4th degree black belt in kung fu, and fought professionally in MMA), historian, professor (he lectures at a number of southern California Universities in a wide range of subjects), and podcaster (his Drunken Taoist podcast is highly enjoyable).  

Although this may be a bit of a controversial title to some, it could just as easily be titled Create your Own Philosophy.  Bolelli is not an atheist - rather, he professes to not know.  And because he does not know, instead of following a pre-set path, he chooses self-exploration. He argues that any decision based upon incomplete information is at best tentative - a work in progress.  His search for meaning is an ongoing quest - with no destination in sight.  The only thing is to remain flexible, and strive to do one’s best.  He spends a great deal of time eschewing the dangers of dogma, and dogmatic thinking.  

Although his overall smarmy tone can be a little grating at times (I actually prefer how he comes across on his podcast), Create Your Own Religion is generally well-thought out, well-referenced, and his thesis is sound:

“On an individual level, one of the healthiest things we can do is question everything we have ever been taught. This is not motivated by disrespect or some adolescent desire to be rebellious. It is simply what becoming an adult is all about. Once we are old enough to figure things out for ourselves, we can look back at the beliefs we were taught to live by and decide what works for us and what doesn’t.

Testing our most sacred values against different options will only strengthen us. We really have nothing to lose by being open-minded. It's a win-win situation.

As Nietzsche puts it, “[I am] a man who wishes nothing more than daily to lose some reassuring belief, who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily greater liberation of the mind.”

Take-home for coaches

Question EVERYTHING.  We must revisit the basics of our coaching philosophy continually.   Every year, sit down and write out a list of what forms your philosophy.  Ask yourself the hard questions: 

1.  What do you KNOW to be true,
2.  What do you THINK to be true, and
3.  What do you GUESS to be true?

Form the majority of your program on the first ‘truth’ - what you KNOW.  But don’t be afraid to mix in a little THINK, and experiment with a little GUESS.  And remember - what we KNOW is an organic-dynamic process.  Your list should change every year.  And if it doesn’t?  You're not learning.  You are more than likely reading only that which is confirming what you already ‘know’.   

Knowledge is fixed in time, whereas, knowing is continual. Knowledge comes from a source, from accumulation, from a conclusion, while knowing is a movement.”
- Bruce Lee

Island - Aldous Huxley

Better known for his classic Brave New World, British philosopher and writer Huxley completed Island a year before his death in 1963. Huxley was considered a visionary thinker, and as a proponent of hallucinogenics, became an inspiration for the New Age philosophy of the late 60s and 70s. 

Detailing a journalist’s stay on the ‘forbidden island’ of Pala in South-East Asia, Island is Huxley’s attempt at at presenting a ‘heaven on earth’ - an idyllic alternative to the nearby, metaphorical Rendang-Lobo - industrialized, militarized, and oil-rich - whose rulers look upon Pala as adolescent and backwards, in light of refusing to adopt technological  ‘progress’.

Huxley described the book as “a kind of pragmatic dream – a fantasy with detailed and practical instructions for making the imagined and desirable harmonization of European and Indian insights become a fact.

Island reminds me a little of some of Ayn Rand’s work; not really following any traditional literary rules, instead it is more of a political, philosophical, and spiritual treatise disguised as a novel.  Like Rand’s books, I hazard a guess that upon re-reading, I might find this departure from novel form uninteresting (and perhaps tiring) - lacking as it does in plot, tension, character development, etc.  However - as a philosophical discussion, I enjoyed it immensely.   

"We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”

Take-home for coaches

Huxley’s primary theme is that art, science, religion, philosophy, etc. provide little meaning as individual disciplines; it is their interaction that yields true understanding.

And it is this interaction - this power of the collective context - that we can relate to coaching.  

Because coaching is the ultimate collective.  

A good coach requires knowledge in biomechanics, training theory, physiology, psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, nutrition, S&C, etc.  The coach who ignores this multidisciplinary nature has no context to judge his information on.  Coaching is the ultimate contextual challenge.  

Context determines the meaning of things - we cannot understand the view without a point of view.  

Context turns information into knowledge, and the only way to provide context is to cast a wide net.

Show Your Work - Austin Kleon

I really dig Austin Kleon’s books (he has two others: Steal Like an Artist, which I mentioned in my best of 2012, and Newspaper Blackout).  He describes himself as a ‘writer who draws’ (I also own one of his limited edition ‘newspaper blackout' drawings).  He writes mainly on creativity and the creative process: Steal Like an Artist detailed combinatorial creativity - how knowledge is essentially a mash-up of what has come before.  Show Your Work exists as a call to folks to contribute to this mash up; that ‘good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.’

While Steal Like an Artist related to the process of idea generation, Show Your Work is more about what to do with these ideas - how to contribute, and how to make your ideas spread.  If you haven’t read either book, I suggest reading both - back to back, and in order.  Great, quick reads…

“The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.”

Take-home for coaches

Share.  You want my programs?  Email me. I have no secrets.  

I have a job where I am surrounded by brilliant people almost every day (I hermit myself most Sundays).  I have over 40 elite athletes continually teaching me about performance.  I am surrounded by a coaching staff with over 100 years of collective wisdom.  Once a month, a dozen or so other elite people converge on our Center, and teach me more than I could ever teach them.  I have friends and colleagues all over the world I can reach out to at a moment’s notice when I am stuck, or have questions.  

But if I was not willing to share my stuff, this well would dry up almost immediately.  Only by contributing to the collective myself, can I expect to gain from others.

So - develop your network.  Share things that you find interesting.  And they - in turn - will share with you.  No one person has access to all the information in the world - but we can greatly expand our understanding by surrounding ourselves with smart people. 

As we share with each other, expect emergence - the appearance of new capacity and intelligence. Not knowing becomes our greatest strength; the ability to ask questions - and to have a network we can ask them of - is far more important than superficial answers borne out of incomplete understanding, or fragile ego.  Openness and sharing will consistently trump individual wisdom. 

There is no benefit to pretending to know more than you do. 

Best of the Rest

Olympian Manual for Strength and Size - Anatoliy Bondarchuk
Mo’ Meta Blues - Questlove
Functional Training Handbook - Craig Liebenson (Ed.)
Essentialism - Greg McKeown
Black Music - Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
The Obstacle is the Way - Ryan Holiday
I Would Die 4 U - Touré
Night - Elie Wiesel
Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl
A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson

Books I’m looking forward to reading in 2015

Waking Up - Sam Harris
Make Something Up and Fight Club 2 - Chuck Palahniuk
Of Africa - Wole Soyinka
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life - Russ Roberts
The Theory of Moral Sentiments - Adam Smith
The Meaning of Human Existence - EO Wilson
A Guide for the Perplexed - Werner Herzog
Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness - Rebecca Solnit
Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe - Curt Stager
Anatomy of Breathing - Blandine Calais-Germain
Wouldn’t it be Nice - Brian Wilson

“Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within. 
Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.”

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