(photo courtesy of www.NathanCrumpton.com)
Last week, I returned to the UK from the beautiful Swiss Alps town of St Moritz, where I was working with a few bobsleigh and skeleton athletes during their World Championships. While there, I enjoyed a few good chats with USA bobsledder Nic Taylor. A former sprinter at Boise State who joined the bobsled team after a stint as the multi-events coach at UCLA, Nic is a pretty sharp dude. Not surprising, as his time at UCLA put him into the company - and trust of - coaching legends such as Art Venegas, Bobby Kersee, John Smith, Jeanette Bolden, and Jim Bush. One of the things we discussed was my blog-post on MED, and how it can be related to training theory. In the past, I have employed it mainly from a strength and conditioning perspective during the competitive season - a time when the competitive event itself takes precedence over what we may do in the weight room; essentially, it means doing the minimum amount of work to maintain the specific strength quality you’re trying to maintain - this is not to say, however, that these qualities cannot improve through the course of a season through MED - in fact, I find that they normally do. And it is this fact that led me to run thought experiments on how to best employ it in areas of our training other than S&C - as surely if the methodology is sound, it can be applied across all disciplines? I’ll get into this a little later....
but first - some background....
I began experimenting with non-traditional timing back around 2000-01, with some US and Irish National Team bobsledders. Basically, what I wanted to find out was how often I had to hit each strength quality to at least maintain its current level. Generally, this is what I found:
- acceleration development qualities needed to be trained at least once every 2-4 days
- speed qualities needed to be hit at least once every 4-6 days
- elastic strength qualities needed to be stressed at least once every 4-5 days
- strength-speed qualities needed to be trained at least once every 6-9 days
- maximum strength qualities needed to be stressed at least once every 7-10 days
Nothing too surprising there...
...this was the range for most of the athletes I was working with (an admittedly small group of about 15), and to be honest, I wasn’t really able to define much of a pattern, other than the stronger the dude, the longer the time we could take between maximum strength sessions and still maintain current ‘function’ (I hypothesize now that this logic would hold true with the other qualities, also - i.e. the guy who has exemplary speed qualities would not need to stress them as often as a guy who wasn’t so swift-gifted). The best example of this was American bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic, who was one of the top bobsledders in the world at the time. Earlier in the season, we hit maximum strength (i.e. back squats or deadlifts at an intensity of greater than 90%) every 3 or 4 days. As the preparation season progressed, we began to increase the time between sessions, and as we entered the competitive season, we were doing max strength sessions once every 10 days, and while still increasing his numbers every single session. For some reason, I never took it out further than 10 days - in hindsight, I really wish I had, as I’m sure we could have pushed it to over 2 weeks. Pavle remains probably the strongest athlete I have ever worked with - at one time repping back squats at 250k for five at a body weight of less than 100k (he and Canadian freak-show bobsledder Lascelles Brown are a pretty close match).
Returning to my conversations with Nic - he told me that legendary throws coach Art Venegas (UCLA Track & Field Head Coach, and also former strength coach to many sprinters, such as Mike Marsh, Steve Lewis, Kevin Young, Quincy Watts, Gail Devers, Ato Boldon, Maurice Greene and Jon Drummond) had provided him a weight program that had reminded Nic of my MED article. Essentially, Venegas outlined how each strength quality should be trained - with a long recovery between session; so Nic squatted once every __ days. A few days later, he did cleans. A few days later, jerks, etc...and hit each exercise only once every __ days. Nic was astounded by the success: he added 50k to his squat and 30k to each of his power clean and his jerk - fantastic results for an experienced - and already quite strong - athlete (for privacy reasons, I cannot provide the specific intervals between each session - only to say that they fit what you would call 'MED").
So - getting back to how we can apply MED to our methodology in general...
MED is gaining in popularity with the ‘rise of the bio-hackers’: Original ‘life-hacker’ Tim Ferris - in his book ‘The Four Hour Body’ - recommends completing 2-3 sets for a maximum of 20-30 reps per week; Jones, Mentzer, and HIT-inspired Dr Doug McGuff , in his book ‘Body by Science’ feels all you need is 12 minutes per week; while ‘bio-hacker’ Dave Asprey doesn’t recommend training at all! But these dudes are speaking to a totally different set of folk - they’re interested in what is effective - and more importantly, what is efficient. They argue - if you can get 80% of the gains with 20% of the effort (Pareto Principle), then why waste your energy on the rest? Fair point - but we must be very careful if and how we apply this to high-performance sport. Because in high performance sport, effective is not good enough. In high-performance sport, we are interested in optimal. Having said that, is optimal often attainable with less than the recommended volume of work? In my opinion - most definitely! And if the MED principle can work so well maintaining squat strength of an elite bobsledder, why can’t we apply it to the rest of our programming?
The traditional speed-power program (whether a sprinter’s, a jumper’s, a weightlifter’s, or a power lifter’s) begins the year with higher volumes, and lower intensities, and reduces volume and increases intensity over the course of the year. Pretty basic to pretty much every program out there....
...but why the relatively high volume for sports/events that require minimal time to complete (Olympic snatch = <2s; Olympic clean & jerk = <4s; bobsleigh push = <5s; powerlifting squat = <7s; long jump = <8s; 100m sprint = <10.5s)? Why spend weeks/months developing a quality that seems to be at the opposite end of the specificity continuum?
These sports definitely require a minimal level of work capacity to allow the athlete to complete effective volumes of intense work - but I think this volume is probably lower than what we think; the work capacity required for this is definitely lower than we think; and the way in which most coaches-programs train it is simply wrong! I think most of us just need to be more efficient in the types of loading we prescribe, the specific exercises that are being prescribed, and perhaps more importantly, the way in which we prescribe it.
I’ll discuss my thoughts on specific application in an upcoming post...stay tuned!
**By the way - there is clinical research supporting a MED/HIT hypothesis as it relates to exercise - at least for the joe blow. Much of the research comes out of McMaster University, and is carried out by Professor Martin Gibala and his team. They recently discovered high intensity training (HIT) delivers the same physical benefits as traditional endurance training, even though it involved doing considerably less exercise; and had previously shown improvements in insulin sensitivity and aerobic fitness with as little as 3 minutes of exercise per week.