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Developing Key Athletic Qualities

At Central Performance we pride ourselves on helping our clients not only recover from injury but reach new levels of physical performance. In an earlier post we discussed how we classify movements into 6 basic patterns: hip hinge, squat, push, pull, rotation and gait. One of the other key considerations when designing our clients training programs is what physical and athletic qualities we want to develop. The key physical qualities we look to develop in our clients are:

  1. 1. Mobility
  2. 2. Strength
  3. 3. Power
  4. 4. Speed
  5. 5. Endurance

We find that in their own training clients have traditionally missed one or more of these categories. Classically it may be someone who loves jogging (endurance) and may occasionally do yoga (mobility) or lift weights (strength). However, they very rarely run fast or move explosively due to their focus on improving their endurance. This is unfortunate as power training, such as plyometrics, can have a positive effect of performance in endurance sports by improving movement efficiency. Conversely, we see some clients who love resistance training to develop strength, power and speed and also do yoga or some form of mobility training but avoid endurance training for fear it will reduce ‘gainz’. Similar to power training in endurance athletes endurance training in the right dose for people focused on strength and power development can have a significant positive impact by helping improve recovery and allowing more frequent or harder training.

Following the hierarchy of the Functional Movement System (FMS & SFMA) we look to clear mobility restrictions first in our clients. A restriction in mobility reduces the amount of proprioceptive feedback the Central Nervous System (CNS) receives from the mechanoreceptors (nerve endings that provide info on joint and body part positions) in the body. If the CNS is not receiving full proprioceptive feedback then it isn’t able use optimal muscle recruitment and movement patterns strategies, and this is when movement compensations occur. Optimising  mobility also allows for greater strength development. A restriction in mobility limits the range of movement over which a muscle can develop force, ultimately robbing the muscle of force. This is one reason why training movements like the deadlift and squat result in greater strength gains than using partial ranges of movement.

The next quality we look to develop is strength. We consider strength to be the master quality as it has a direct influence on power, speed and endurance. Power and speed both rely on the rapid development and application of force while endurance is the ability to produce force over a prolonged period of time. By increasing strength it increases the ceiling on the amount of power, speed and endurance a person is capable of displaying. An example of this is a rugby player who needs to be powerful when going in to make a tackle. If you are able to increase their level of strength, even without making any changes to their rate of force development (RFD – how quickly force can be developed) you have made them more powerful because they can now produce more force quickly. 

No wonder he’s so hard to tackle!

Another benefit of increasing strength in our clients is that it helps to build resilience and prevent injury. The literature on sports injuries shows a consistent theme that strength plays a protective role against injury. A prime example of this is the relationship between eccentric strength of the hamstrings and hamstring tears (eccentric strength is the ability of a muscle to produce force while it is being elongated or stretched). Most hamstring tears during sprinting occur at or just before ground contact while the knee and hip is rapidly extending and the hamstrings are having to produce force while rapidly being stretched. Increasing hamstring eccentric strength through exercises such as Nordic hamstring curls have been found to be protective against hamstring tears.

Power is the ability to quickly produce force and it is vital to improve performance in most sports. As mentioned above, one of the easiest ways to increase power is by increasing strength. Even without increasing RFD an increase in strength can cause a shift to the right (a positive thing) in the strength-speed curve.

Increasing strength can move everything to the right

Once a sufficient level of strength has been reached (1.5 x bodyweight squat is a good starting point for the lower body) more targeted power exercises can be very beneficial. The Olympic lifts and their derivatives, jumps, medicine ball work and kettlebell swings are some of the best and most popular power exercises. As mentioned above, power training can be very beneficial for athletes participating in endurance events, particularly running. By increasing power, especially RFD, running efficiency improves leading to improved running performance. By improving RFD a runner is able to have less ground contact time with each stride, meaning the muscles are working for shorter period of time and each stride becomes more energy efficient.

The big difference between power and speed is power is generally the application of force to an external implement (e.g. an opponent) while speed is how fast you can move your own body or limbs. For most people speed training will involve sprints or similar bodyweight only exercises and is the commonly missing element to our clients training programs. Seriously, when was the last time you sprinted flat out? Unless you are still actively involved in a sport chances are it was a long time ago that you last sprinted. However, speed is really important quality to maintain, especially as we age. Falls are one of the biggest health risks for people as they age, post-menopausal women in particular. One of the best falls prevention strategies is speed and power training. In a lot of falls the person trips or knows they are about to fall but are unable to move quickly enough to prevent falling. Maintaining speed training, especially as we age is extremely important. It is also a way to keep training enjoyable, running fast is fun.

Sprinting puts a smile on your dial

The final athletic quality we want to develop is endurance. Endurance training is probably the easiest and most commonly used form of exercise. It costs nothing to go outside and go for a walk or run, or a swim in the ocean and it is widely known that endurance training has lots of cardiovascular health benefits. Another added bonus is the positive effect endurance training can have on stress and recovery. Steady state cardio is a fantastic way to facilitate recovery from a heavy session of strength, power or speed training. Steady state cardio helps us to come out of the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) which is utilised in high intensity training and takes us more towards the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest response). By reducing our sympathetic drive and increasing our parasympathetic state we help recover from training and other daily stresses better.

Every person will require a different blend of the 5 athletic qualities. That blend will depend on their training history, their injury history and the requirements of the sport or day-to-day activities.

To design a suitable exercise program for our clients we start with a thorough movement screen and assessment as well as take an injury history and goal setting. From there we are able to build a program that addresses or clients weaknesses while also building on their strengths.