Look at the two sporting superpowers of post war era, Germany and the Soviet Union/post-Soviet states, and you find two very different approaches to training. Both have produced amazing results, but interestingly ideas like periodization, the concept of transfer of training, block training, complex training, special strength, etc. came just from one of the two powerhouses. Try to think of the most influential names in training methods and you’ll have to scroll well past luminaries like Leo Matveyev, Yuri Verkhoshansky, Vladimir Issurin, Vladimir Zatsiorsky and of course my coach Anatoliy Bondarchuk before you find many Germans. How come so many revolutionary ideas came from just one of these countries? Read more
You’d think that making presentations is about teaching others, but for me it is as much an exercise in improving my own knowledge. I get to meet new people, hear new ideas, and, most importantly, the act of presenting helps me understand what I know and what I don’t know. This final point inevitably leads me to pick up more books to fill my knowledge gaps. In preparing for presentations this fall, one of my weaknesses related to the basic science of strength training. Therefore I decided to recently reread a classic in this area: Science and Practice of Strength Training, Second Edition by Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky and William J. Kraemer.
On Tuesday I had the chance to sit down with Yosef Johnson of Ultimate Athlete Concepts and Jeff Moyer of DC Sports Training for the latest edition of their video podcast. We covered special strength, training intensities, transfer of training, Bondarchuk’s analytic approach, and some other interesting aspects in training with him. Many of these topics will be looked at more in depth in our upcoming seminars, so check it out below and sign up if you are interested in learning more.
So far our first coaching roundtables have gathered some of the world’s best coaches to provide technical feedback emerging international throwers like Julia Ratcliffe and Chris Cralle or training advice like how to implement weightlifting in training. But I want to switch things up for the next roundtable and get some perspective on how we can grow the sport as a whole as well as individual events, a topic which is of great interest to me as I try to replicate the success of the informal American youth hammer project here in Switzerland.
When I do a presentation about transfer of training, one of the points I emphasize is that almost anything transfers for a beginner. Even take a look at any of Bondarchuk’s correlation tables and you’ll see nearly every exercise with a high transfer. Just get them to work and they will improve. Because of this there are numerous ways to get an athlete to an intermediate level. You can rely on maximum strength. You can rely on size. You can rely on explosivity. You can rely on technique. You can rely on grit. You rely on special strength. All roads lead to Rome if being good is your goal.
Earlier this week Nick Garcia posted about exercise classification for throwers and provided some great examples of specific/special strength exercises in the shot put and discus. Along those lines I thought I would share a great series of videos on special strength for the hammer throw by world championship finalist Marcel Lomnicky.
If there is one thing to take away from Bondarchuk’s most recent book, it is that what we call strength is not a singular concept. The book is a difficult read, but it is does lay out why the athletes with the highest maximal strength are not necessarily the fastest or the most explosive. Each of those activities feature different types of strength and should be trained differently.
I think the biggest plague affecting training is the cookie-cutter approach to it used many coaches in all sports. Individuals are different. Sports are different. And there are different training methods to choose from. An optimal training program comes not just from tailoring a template to individual- and sport-specific needs, but from also starting with the right template in the first place.
That is my periodization manifesto. So I read with interest last week as an article explained there is actually only one type of periodization:
“We have 97% genetic concordance with Gorillas, 98%+ with Chimps, and 99%+ with every other human on the planet. Humans respond to training in almost identical ways qualitatively, but differ only in quantity of response.”
-Dr. Mike Israetel in “5 Questions with Dr. Mike Israetel” on Juggernaut Training Systems
Israetel’s ultimate point in the article is a bit more nuanced and semantic; he concludes that what we think of as different types of periodization are merely variants of the same and the current debates just concern the specifics of implementation. In other words, we are all cooking Thanksgiving dinner and we only disagree about portion size, how much salt to use, or which dishes might be included. But whether we bake a turkey or ham, we we are all making Thanksgiving dinner. Israetel clearly does not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, but I have heard this same argument used before to defend that approach.
On the one hand I don’t really care how we lump approaches together as that does not really affect what we do. But on the other hand it affects how we talk training and therefore it is an important topic. Framing the issue this way glosses over the specifics, but the specifics should be front and center as there is no meaningful training without them. In fact, the specifics of training are in the definition of periodization itself:
Periodization is the timing, sequence and interaction of the training stimuli to allow optimum adaptive response in pursuit of specific competitive goals.
-Vern Gambetta in “What is Periodization?”
In the grand scheme of things the changes may be small. Human beings are indeed more similar than different. But those differences are still huge. I am not a biologist, but if a 1% change in genetic correspondence means the difference between a human and a chimp, then the variance within humans, even if smaller, is significant and needs to be taken into account in training. Those differences can make or break an athlete’s program. The difference between using classical block periodization or complex periodization for a sprinter can affect performance and injury rates. The difference each period’s length can mean the difference between an extremely effective program and a waste of time. And the balance of specificity is crucial. These types of specifics matter whether you consider it all one type of periodization or not.
And let’s be clear: the differences between individuals are both quantitative and qualitative. There are some common points with everyone. For example, introduce a stressor and the body will attempt to adapt to it. But individual differences are not just in how much the body adapts (quantity) but also in the process of adaptation itself (quality). When talking about individual differences, I love to cite a University of Alabama looking at swimming warmups. Researchers tested three different warm-up variations: a normal long warm up, a short warm up, and no warm up. After each warm up athletes performed a time trial. Unsurprisingly, the normal warm up generally proved the best option, but only for 44-percent of the athletes. Another 19-percent performed better with a short warm up and 37-percent performed the best without a warm-up. The conclusion: there is no best warmup. What was best for the group in general was actually worse for the majority of athletes. This example is a bit simplistic and does not look at periodization or the longer adaptation process, but the same type of individual variation applies there too. My coach Anatoliy Bondarchuk, for example, has shown that what was once thought of as uniform adaptive response varies widely among individuals and should be taken into account in planning. But he is hardly revolutionary in this regard:
“In recent years substantial evidence has emerged demonstrating that training responses vary extensively, depending upon multiple underlying factors. Such findings challenge the appropriateness of applying generic methodologies.”
-Professor John Kiely in “Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven?”
Just as there is no best warmup, there is no best program. There are only best programs for an individual training for a specific sport at a specific point in time. As much as I love concrete answers, this is a case where it is relative. Relativity might not sell books, but it is what makes coaching such a fun art form. We need to focus the conversation on what ingredients we use, the proportions, and main course. Heck, we need to take a step back and decide what occasion we are even cooking for before we even open up the cook book and find a recipe. Let’s talk about this, because this is how we become better coaches together.
There has been lots of good material online over the last month about training. Below are some excepts from my notebook with some of the quotes and articles I found most insightful.
Bondarchuk is best known for his work on transfer of training. But so much focus on the specific side of his training, the special strength exercises for example, blurs that fact that our training is very holistic in nature as I’ve written about before. Some common misconceptions of Bondarchuk are that he thinks:
- General strength is not important for throwers.
- Maximum strength is not important for throwers.
- We do not train general strength.
- All we do is throw.
None of those are true. General and maximal strength play a role in throwing and thus we do train them. While we throw frequently, it is not an absurd amount and I actually threw more before working with Bondarchuk. What we do have is a balanced approach to training with a slight emphasis on those things that transfer well.
Sprint coach Henk Kraaijenhof posted a great piece on transfer of training this week and further emphasized them when we had the chance to meet in Zurich yesterday. His post talks a bit about Bondarchuk and uses the hammer throw as an example, but he also incorporates his own input form his experiences as an athlete and coach. To sum up the topic of transfer, he perfectly puts together how training requires an individual holistic combination of all elements of training:
The bottom line is that transfer is important. You need to do in training what will increase your performance on the field. But finding that exact recipe for each individual athlete takes into account a variety of factors.
It is the combination and integration of general exercises and specific and special exercises. It depends on the level of the athlete, on his/her development over the years, the periodisation and the adaptation dynamics of this athlete to training. It’s the subtle balance between a lot of factors and here the elite coach distinguishes him/herself from the average coach. He/she sees/realizes this complexity and manages it without getting lost in it. Or getting sidetracked.
Bondarchuk has published his thoughts on what this is in general for the throwing events, but like all data this has its limits. He would even admit this too as he tailors each athlete’s training to their own indviidual needs since those will not always align with the group’s needs. Copying and pasting a program is never the best way to find optimal transfer. Kraaijenhof ends his thoughts with two recommendations along these lines that he has learned for his years of experience:
1. Be careful to take your own career or experiences as an athlete as a reference for coaching other athletes, they might not be like you.
2. Never copy training methods if you don’t know (in this case) the fibre type and so the responses, as published in research or by other coaches.
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