The science behind strength and conditioning is always changing and if coaches can’t keep up, they’ll find themselves left behind. The best examples of the ever-changing science can be found in the drafts for pro sports. Every sport has famous draft busts that were thought to be great because of a number of physical attributes but didn’t translate well to the pro level. To prevent these mistakes from happening again, coaches must learn more about what truly makes an athlete successful at the next level and they must be able to figure out what it is they need to be looking for.
For those of us who are not pro athletes but enjoy pickup games of basketball, soccer, tennis, etc., our competitive nature still leads us to be curious as to what we can do to improve our performances for friendly competition. Even further still, there are many fathers/mothers who would like to know what they can do to improve their child’s sports performance and how they can sniff out a strength and conditioning coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing. For more information on what you’re doing in the gym and whether or not it’s actually helping you meet your training goals, check out the article You Are What You Lift.
Below are research updates that can not only help you in your own quest to improve sports performance, but will also educated you and give you a greater understanding of how strength and conditioning coaches today are finding the best ways to train athletes:
The Squat vs. the Box Squat
It’s easy to get confused as to the appropriate times to use the squat vs. the box squat. Typically powerlifters and athletes can be seen doing the box squat in an attempt to increase power. However, lately many bodybuilders have been performing the box squat under the assumption that the increased time under tension will lead to muscle growth.
According to the research however; even though the box squat is great for increasing force production, it is only marginally better for sports applications. The reason for this is that the box squat negates the use of the pre-stretch which is a key factor for high velocity movements. In which instance do you think you will jump higher? Out of a chair sitting down, or standing up ‘dipping down’ before jumping up?
Also, as far as bodybuilding is concerned, the regular squat proved far superior in terms of muscle activation, so it is still irreplaceable for bodybuilding. However, the take home lesson is that the box squat is still an effective tool to use from time to time to aid in your attempt to increase sports performance. But it will never replace the good old regular squat.
McBride, Jeffrey M; Skinner, Jared W; Schafer, Patrick C; Haines, Tracie L; Kirby, Tyler J. Comparison of Kinetic Variables and Muscle Activity During a Squat vs. a Box Squat Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3195-3199, December 2010.
Can Vertical Leap predict Sprint Performance
One of the latest trends in strength and conditioning research has been pinning down the correlation between vertical leap and sprint performance. Numerous studies have been done to reveal that there is in fact a correlation, and vertical leap can be a predictor of sprint performance.
However the reason multiple studies are still being done is because vertical leap does not take into account the low ground contact time (length of time your feet spend on the ground when running) and the long stride length that are necessary to run at high speeds (ex: NFL running back Chris Johnson is not only explosive, but he has an unusually long stride length for someone his height and his ground contact time is low, which means he’s going to cover a very large amount of ground in a very short period of time...hence his 4.24, 40 yard dash time, the lowest ever recorded in the era of the laser timer).
So because it fails at predicting these two major factors, this research study determined that it is best to use vertical leap to correlate with short distance sprints (25 meters) where stride length is less of a factor.
McCurdy, Kevin W; Walker, John L; Langford, George A; Kutz, Matt R; Guerrero, James M; McMillan, Jeremy. The Relationship Between Kinematic Determinants of Jump and Sprint Performance in Division I Women Soccer Players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3200-3208, December 2010.
New Trick for Improving your Bat/Golf Swing
There may be a new trick to improving your swing speed (bat swing in this particular study), however most gyms still don’t have the equipment for it. There are whole body vibration machines available, and recent research shows that training to improve your swing while under whole body vibration can increase swing speed.
The direct mechanism of action responsible for increasing swing speed is still uncertain. However I hypothesize it is most likely a result of the improved control you have due to training while vibrating, because fast movements are highly central nervous system based. It could also be due to the simulation of the quickly changing weight of the bat during different periods of the swinging motion.
Reyes, GF Cisco; Dickin, D Clark; Dolny, Dennis G; Crusat, Nolan JK. Effects of Muscular Strength, Exercise Order, and Acute Whole-Body Vibration Exposure on Bat Swing Speed. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3234-3240, December 2010.
Drills Alone Can’t Separate the Average from the Elite
Deciding who the best athlete is from simple combine style drills is a thing of the past; there are enough draft busts and low picked draft gems in every sport to prove it. In this study, researchers found that elite rugby players and lower level rugby players had similar times when performing an agility drill.
In an attempt to separate the ‘Pros from the Joes’ they included a screen with a simulated rugby player and had to react to his change of direction when performing the drill. Only when the drill was done with the simulated rugby player could they find a significant difference in performance between the top tier players and the lower level players.
So the next time you bench press the same amount of weight or run the same time as your favorite athlete...remember it’s about simulating performances on the field that is best for determining the better athletes.
Serpell, Benjamin G; Ford, Matthew; Young, Warren B. The Development of a New Test of Agility for Rugby League. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3270-3277, December 2010.
Weighted Vest/Sled Training for Speed
It seems like common sense lifting right? If you run while pulling or carrying extra weight, you will become faster. Well the truth is that using extra weight while sprinting is only good for improving strength, but it won’t do much of anything for you in the speed department as researchers discovered.
What researchers also observed, was that un-weighted training DID increase sprint performance....’How can this be?’ you ask. Simple, as stated earlier speed is affected by ground contact time and stride length, how can a training style that increases ground contact time and reduces stride length be beneficial? How does it help to train slow if you want to be fast? This is the issue for many who want to increase athletic performance but train like bodybuilders.
Bodybuilders lift slow, and that style of training cannot be done year round for sports. If you want to be fast you need to incorporate more lifts that incorporate velocity and faster movements in the gym. (Ex: power cleans, jump spuats, medicine ball throws etc.)
Clark, Kenneth P; Stearne, David J; Walts, Cory T; Miller, Anthony D. The Longitudinal Effects of Resisted Sprint Training Using Weighted Sleds vs. Weighted Vests . Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3287-3295, December 2010.
The Importance of a Dynamic Warm Up
The researchers in this next study were attempting to reinforce the importance of a dynamic warm-up before exercise. They used cold water immersion on participants and tested their vertical jump after. The numbers were compared to previous tests by the same participants during which they were able to dynamically warm-up. The result was a striking difference in performance between both tests.
Dynamic warm-ups can involve the upper and lower extremities and usually mimics the movements of a given exercise to prepare the central nervous system for exercise, increase blood flow, and enhance pliability of the working tissues. Research has already proven static stretching to be inappropriate pre-exercise because it relaxes and weakens the muscles and their surrounding tissues. Although your muscles are highly complex, they are often compared in action to rubber bands; when you overstretch a rubber band, you weaken it.
Dixon, Patrick G; Kraemer, William J; Volek, Jeff S; Howard, Robert L; Gomez, Ana L; Comstock, Brett A; Dunn-Lewis, Courtenay; Fragala, Maren S; Hooper, David R; Häkkinen, Keijo; Maresh, Carl M. The Impact of Cold-Water Immersion on Power Production in the Vertical Jump and the Benefits of a Dynamic Exercise Warm-Up. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3313-3317, December 2010.
Here is a research study that further goes into the negative impact of static stretching before exercise and the importance of a dynamic warm up. The effects of passive stretching were tested with male competitive golfers; the results showed a staggering decrease in performance for up to 60 minutes because of the static stretching.
Gergley, Jeffrey C. Latent Effect of Passive Static Stretching on Driver Clubhead Speed, Distance, Accuracy, and Consistent Ball Contact in Young Male Competitive Golfers. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(12):3326-3333, December 2010.
For those football fans who watch the NFL combine, it is important to note that while it’s still interesting to see; many top strength and conditioning coaches only consider it to be just a public display of athleticism while the real tests are in the private workouts that break down an athletes abilities even more.
The key to testing is to duplicate game-like conditions. There is a big difference between asking a receiver to sprint 40 yards unscathed, and asking him to sprint 40 yards while constantly halting his momentum and changing direction. Hopefully some of the science above will give you a greater understanding of just how deep sports science can get.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.