October 5, 2012 • Strength & Conditioning

Five points of emphasis for any successful strength program

Keep your athletes safe, healthy and improving with these ideas

It’s time to present some of the cornerstone points of emphasis for any strength and conditioning program. These points represent a combination of both technical tips and safety considerations. In all cases, giving these suggestions their due diligence enhances your program by making it more efficient and assists in keeping your athletes as healthy as possible.

1. Emphasize head, neck strength.

Providing as much protection to the cervical spine as possible via strength training procedures must be a requisite endeavor by coaches of all sports — male and female. The intricately woven and vital structures of the head and neck are responsible for forward flexion, extension, lateral flexion, rotation, assisting in raising the ribcage during inhalation, and also swallowing. Think of the neck as a flexible cylinder that stabilizes and offers protection to the vertebrae and spinal cord in the cervical region, as well as serving as a support base for the head and delicate brain structures.

As everyone in coaching is well aware, we are in the midst of what some sports medical professionals are referring to as a “concussion crisis” in athletics. Estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that there are anywhere between 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions (annually) in the U.S.

The relevance of neck strengthening with regard to concussions can be summed up in the following statement from Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the top researchers of NFL brain trauma: “It’s just a matter of straight physics. If you see the blow coming and you have a very strong neck and contract those neck muscles, you will have a much greater chance to significantly reduce the forces that the brain will incur.” (FOXSports.com interview, 2010)

Coaches are consistently sending me their strength training programs for review and suggestions, and the most glaring omission I note is the absence of direct, progressive resistance training for this area. With the exception of some form of shrug work for the trapezius, the neck is virtually neglected.

At the very least, the movements of neck forward flexion, extension (shown in the opening photo), lateral flexion for both sides, and the inclusion of both unilateral and bilateral shrugs should be performed by all athletes where the risk of collisions is even minimal. One to two sets of eight to 12 documented reps on each movement, at least twice per week, is my personal recommendation.

Several four- or five-way (i.e., one that includes the shrug movement in its design) neck machines should be a mainstay in every weight room in the country. Our personal preference is the Roger’s Athletic Pendulum Five-Way Neck Machine. Currently, we have six units, and we have plans to add-on to that in the future. They are the most important pieces of equipment in our weight room.

A viable alternative — when properly taught and administered — is manual resistance. While it has its limitations, manual resistance can be used very effectively in the absence of neck machines, or until they can be purchased.

2. Total participation by all team members.

Strength training is important for all athletes of every athletic team — not just for a chosen few, or those who happen to enjoy it. If for no other reason, a properly designed and administered strength training program can serve as an injury deterrent, making it an unmistakable requirement for athletes.

Troubleshooting the weekly frequency for the various times of the year and scheduling the weight room so that everyone receives their fair share of service can be accomplished through the efforts of the administration and coaches working cohesively with a common and unified purpose. Most importantly, it takes a dedicated staff of coaches to run the program effectively, efficiently and safely. At the high school level, this sometimes involves sacrificing extra time without compensation.

When people ask me to name the most critical factors in the success of a strength training program, I answer it with four words: great coaching and compliance.

3. Posting safety, administrative protocols.

The weight room environment has no dearth of risks and potential hazards. Therefore, it’s crucial that every conceivable safety and daily operating procedure of note is discussed in detail with everyone who uses the facility.

These regulations must also be clearly and definitively written, and posted in a prominent, highly visible area of the weight room.

4. Documentation leads to knowledge.

The majority of our workouts are charted for progression and to keep track of the volume, frequency and intensity of the work bouts. One exception is our time under load (TUL) protocols, which are timed sets (e.g., 30, 45 or 60 seconds). Effective strength training over time requires an upward, stair-step approach; one that is centered on gradual, incremental progress. Additionally, in the unfortunate–but inevitable–cases of injuries, knowing the most recent, healthy strength status of the athletes is vital in determining the point of return after rehabilitation. 

Overload systems are abundant, and most of them work well — at least in the short-term. If a period of stagnation arises, it’s wise to insert a change-up in one or more of the following areas: sets per exercise, repetition range or target, total volume, order of exercise, recovery between sets and/or different movements, or frequency of the workouts.

Usually, you find overtraining, as opposed to under training, is the culprit in a lack of progress; so, manipulating one of the aforementioned training variables might provide the jump-start your athletes need to get out of a slump.

5. Keep injured athletes active.

Another area often overlooked in many high school programs is that of alternative training protocols for injured athletes. Of course, the transition from the athletic training room to the weight room for the second stage of rehabilitation must be approved by the medical staff overseeing the process. Once the green light is given, along with a plan for progression based upon the complexity of the injury, the strength coach must have the expertise and available equipment to proceed with proficiency and effectiveness.

Most sports medicine and conditioning professionals recommend returning an injured athlete to approved activity as soon as possible to maintain some semblance of fitness and strength. Doing this requires a combined effort by all parties in designing and administrating appropriate protocols within the injury’s limitations and documenting the results to determine how close the athlete is to the pre-injury status.

Many injuries are joint-related (e.g., shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee, ankle, etc.), so a composite of movements along with their accompanying modalities should be scripted and ready for use. Training in a unilateral (opposite limb), superior (above the injury site), or inferior (below the injury site) fashion–when approved by the primary care physician and/or sports medicine staff–can pay dividends in preventing unnecessary muscle atrophy and enhancing the healing process. Dumbbells (as depicted in the picture) provide an excellent source for unilateral upper body training.

Final rep

Regardless of the philosophy a coach adopts, the underpinning of comprehensive training should always be evident. Specifically, the major muscle groups of the neck, legs/hips/low back, chest, shoulders, upper back, arms/forearms and abdominals should be addressed in earnest on at least one to two training days before the end of any given week.

This is achieved with myriad modalities and exercise choices–and, in the name of variety, the more the better, in most cases. We suggest as much variety and innovative ideas as possible, as long as safety in execution is at the forefront in the decision-making process.

Strength training should be tough, demanding and challenging work–and anything that relieves the mental tedium while still accomplishing the desired goals, should be considered.

Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 

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