May 22, 2012 • Strength & Conditioning

The five game-changers in strength and conditioning

All educators in this profession need to know how these principles affect coaching

Goals and accomplishments vary when strength and conditioning coaches moves from working with football players in one season to a less-impact sport in the next.
Goals and accomplishments vary when strength and conditioning coaches moves from working with football players in one season to a less-impact sport in the next.

Just as with every individual sport, there are varying methodologies, philosophies, likes and dislikes among strength and conditioning coaches. Even with the different twists, ideological nuances and discrepancies in administration, however, there are some scientifically and empirically founded indices serving as references when making decisions on the what’s, why’s and how’s of proper strength and conditioning procedures.

As we wind down another academic and athletic year, I thought this Powerline installment might provide a good opportunity to illuminate some of the high watermark points (listed in no particular order) in strength and conditioning. They are so important in our planning and preparation that we refer to them as “Game Changers.”

1. Keep your bottom line goals/objectives in the forefront when designing strength/conditioning protocols.

Here at Michigan State, we want to provide our athletes with the most effective, challenging, demanding, productive and time-efficient strength and conditioning program possible to achieve championship-caliber minds and bodies. In this process, however, we must never lose sight that training variables consist of only one phase of our players’ development. For example, while there are many similarities and common objectives among Powerlifters, Olympic lifters and athletes who are not engaged in competitive lifting, there also are a host of differences. Football players, for instance, use strength-training and weight-lifting procedures and techniques as a means to an end–not as an end in themselves.

Athletes as a whole invest a great deal of time in position-specific footwork and drills, film study and skill enhancement on a year-round basis. The amount of time and energy available to engage in strength and conditioning–especially during the in-season period–is limited, which makes time-efficient protocols even more important.

Take-home point: Just as there are myriad offensive and defensive strategies and philosophies in all sports, strength and conditioning coaches must examine, dissect and determine which approaches best fit their specific situations during every phase of the training year (i.e. off-season, pre-season and in-season).

2. Understanding the process of muscle fiber recruitment.

I’ve always believed that anyone who serves as a strength coach at any level should have at least some rudimentary knowledge on what is happening at the cellular level in terms of muscle activation. What follows is a simplified overview but is nevertheless paramount for any coach who is in charge of the strength training program.

A motor unit consists of the neuron, its axon and all the muscle fibers it innervates.

A single motor unit innervates anywhere from a few to several hundred muscle fibers and each specific muscle contains a few to several hundred motor units.

The size and specific force capability of each muscle fiber in a motor unit contribute to the total force capacity of the given muscle and the variation in the number of innervated fibers is the predominant factor in differences in motor unit force and therefore, in total force capacity. One of the most studied and accepted precepts in neuromuscular physiology is the “Size Principle of Motor Unit Recruitment.” It states when the central nervous system recruits motor units for a specific activity, it begins with the smallest, more easily engaged, least powerful motor units and progresses to the larger, more difficult to engage and most powerful motor units to meet the needed force requirements. The initially recruited fibers fall into the higher endurance, “slow twitch” category, and the higher force fibers fall into the more powerful, “fast twitch” category.

Through what is known as the “interpolated twitch technique” (ITT), in which researchers evoke an electrical stimulus via electrodes onto a muscle/nerve, this gradation in muscle fiber recruitment has been validated (Allen GM, et al., 1998, Gandevia et al., 1998, Suter, Herzog, 2001). The ITT is an indirect measure of the level of motor unit activation during a maximum voluntary contraction. Gradation of force is a result of the activation of a number of active motor units (i.e. orderly recruitment from smaller to larger fibers), as well their rate of discharge, or what is known as rate coding.

A key point of emphasis here is that reaching the sought after recruitment of the larger, more powerful, size-producing and “explosive” type fibers is not dependent as much upon the repetition speed (i.e., rep duration), or even the weight load, as much as it is the physical effort required to complete the set. Simply put, was the set–regardless of the number of repetitions in the range and/or movement speed–a maximal, or near-maximal effort? If so, there is a greater possibility that a higher number of muscle fibers were called upon–especially those high-power, fast-twitch fibers that are so crucial to “explosive” athletic skills.

Take-home points: There is a significant body of scientific knowledge indicating that highly productive strength training can be achieved with the selection of a desired rep range (e.g., three to five, six to eight, eight to 10, 10 to 12) with the concomitant use of the heaviest weight load possible for the selected range. Thus, the end result is a maximal effort, meaning the last few reps in the range are very difficult to achieve without compromising technique. The tools used in this process are negligible; free weights, machines and any combination thereof get the job done. My suggestion here is you do not handcuff yourself to an unsubstantiated notion of superiority with regard to any type of equipment.

Tip from the trenches:
Overload Principles

Progressive overload is one of the key constituents to muscle growth, strength, and power enhancements. Tom Kanavy, head strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Vikings, offers these overload perspectives:

• The goal of physical training is the development of the physiological systems of the body (i.e. muscular, connective tissue, metabolic, etc.). Physical development is an adaptation to intense physical work. The workload (intensity) of the exercise must be sufficient–whereas the system being trained is stressed beyond its current capacity. This is the only way to experience an adaptation or training effect.

• The Overload Principle dictates once a system has adapted to a workload, then the workload must be increased–even if ever so slightly–in a progressive manner for continual adaptations to occur.

• Adaptations to exercise-induced stress occur during recovery from training, not during the training itself. Therefore, the Overload Principle demands an adequate period of system recovery between training sessions. Failure to do this may result in the athletes experiencing a catabolic state, where growth and development are hindered or stalemated.

3. Knowing crucial aspects of muscular fitness and recovery.

Basically, strength training serves two primary functions: to enhance physical abilities and hopefully to reduce the incidence and/or severity of injuries. Granted, no one has discovered a fail-safe injury prevention plan. Your muscles, however, can be thought of as the body’s shock absorbers, so it is important to develop them at the highest level possible. This is true of every major muscle group: the neck region, anterior/posterior upper body, anterior/posterior lower body, including the so-called “core” region of the abdominal and low back muscle compartments.

The ability to generate strength gains and muscle is primarily determined by an athlete’s genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, components such as body type (fat-to-lean weight ratio), muscle belly length (longer bellies equal greater growth potential), bone length (responsible for pressing/pulling advantages/disadvantages), muscle insertion points (can affect leverage advantages/disadvantages), neurological efficiency (the central nervous system’s ability to recruit motor units efficiently), are uncontrollable. All of this makes it more important to make sure we are paying attention to detail regarding the controllable factors of exercise intensity, progression, duration, nutrition (check the “Power Hour” rules in last month’s installment), recovery and rest.

Here is another nutrition gem you want to remember and implement whenever possible. Make sure your athletes have eaten two full meals–or at least one full meal and a generous snack–before a practice or training session. Sure, this is a difficult rule to follow during some heavily loaded pre-season camp periods but giving the players extra rest and additional nutrition pays dividends in their energy, recovery and production levels over the long haul. The “hard gainer” athletes (i.e. those who have a difficult time gaining and maintaining good muscle weight) have a much easier time gaining good weight with the extra calorie boost.

Athletes should get a minimum of seven to eight hours a night of quality sleep and also be afforded two to three days per week during off-season training periods when no hard, physical practice or workouts are scheduled. During the in-season period, at least one to two complete recovery days during the week should be slotted whenever possible.

Take–home points: We’ve already discussed intensity and effort. Here are some tips for accomplishing gradual overload in a progressive manner:

  • Add weight when the top end of a range is met.
  • Add reps to a range with the same weight.
  • Increase the time under load (TUL). Thirty to 60 seconds of continuous TUL are optimal in most instances.
  • Decrease the respite between sets (e.g., a progressive reduction from two minutes to 90 seconds to 60 seconds) once adaptations are made to the current rest period.
  • Increase total exercises and/or sets of particular exercises. Note: This component, in my opinion, has a ceiling, though. Three to four work sets of any one particular exercise, and around 20 total work sets within a workout, are at the very high end. (More on overload in the Tip From The Trenches section.)

4. Training must be performed with function in mind.

I often am asked about our thoughts on “functional training,” and my answer is always, “I am all for it!” Make no mistake about it: Function is a crucial ingredient to success in all phases of athletics, including strength and conditioning.

In the engineering world, a commonly echoed phrase is, “function dictates design.”

With that axiom in mind, it becomes clearer how we define “functional training.”

Our outlook on functional training is that it is any type of training that affords us the following results:

  • To be able to compete with great physical strength and power.
  • To accomplish this over a longer period of time without falling prey to fatigue.
  • To perform the required position-specific skills of the sport in question with great force, speed and power.
  • To execute these skills with a high rate and level of precision for each individual game for the entire length of the season with a lower susceptibility to serious injury.

Take-home points: Functional training–at least in our vernacular–is not so much about the equipment or movements used, as it is about how it answers our needs and fits into accomplishing the goals and objectives we have established. In that sense, everything we do is functional. And, just as with the Size Principle of Motor Unit Recruitment, the equipment used takes a back seat to proper form and great effort.

5. Stay true to the Principle of Specificity in conditioning procedures.

The conditioning procedures for your particular sport may start out in a general fashion, with low-to-moderate intensity aerobic protocols in the 20- to 45-minute duration range, two to three sessions per week. These procedures should continue for two to three weeks to increase exercise tolerance and gradually to prepare muscle and connective tissues for the bouts of more intense running drills to follow.

Explosive-type sports require a systematic training of the anaerobic, ATP-PC and glycogen system, and normally commence with the higher-end ATP-PC runs of 300s, 200s, 180s, 110s, half-gassers (i.e., the width of a football field and back), etc., a minimum of two days per week, for another two to three weeks. Upon completion of that phase, higher-intensity, shorter-distance runs and COD (change of direction) drills are implemented. These include runs and drills in the 60-, 40-, 20- and 10-yard category with a brief one-to-three work-relief ratio as standard operating procedure.

Even though these shorter, more explosive bouts of exercise are closer to the requirements of “power” sports such as football and basketball, they are not necessarily “specific” to the vast variations in technique, skill and tempo components. This is why it is crucial to incorporate a segment of training coinciding with the anaerobic, high-intensity running phase inserting position-specific footwork, mechanics and game-like tempo to accomplish specificity of training as a lead-in to the in-season period. Doing this aids the central nervous system in laying down “engrams” in the motor memory (check last month’s column), which enable more efficient use of expended energy.

Take-home points: The off-season conditioning program, while specific to energy system requirements (i.e., aerobic vs. anaerobic), are general in nature when compared to the actual requirements of the sport. In other words, most early conditioning programs are designed to develop the “raw material” of the musculoskeletal and metabolic energy systems–you cannot understate this process but it must be placed in proper context. Eventually, these general entities must advance to position-specific, skill-specific and tempo-specific procedures to successfully transition to the aforementioned functional goals of the program.


Allen, GM, Mckenzie, DK, Gandevia, SC, Twitch Interpolation of the Elbow Flexor Muscles at High Forces, Muscle Nerve, 21: 318-28 (1998).

Gandevia, SC, Herbert, RD, Leeper, JB, Voluntary Activation of Human Elbow Flexor Muscles During Maximal Concentric Contractions, Journal of Physiology, 512.2:595-602, (1998).

Suter, E, Herzog, W, Effect of Number of Stimuli and Timing of Twitch Application on Variability in Interpolated Twitch, Journal of Applied Physiology, 90:1036-40, (2001).

Leave a Reply