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Ken Mannie

Checks & Balances

Strategies to evaluate your strength-training program

By Ken Mannie, Head Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich. ( 

In the United States Marine Corps text on military strategy entitled “War Fighting,” the principle of “decide, communicate and act” is discussed in detail. In short, it describes the importance of evaluating every situation from the inside-out. It also describes the art of expecting the unexpected, making decisions based upon the best available information, communicating to all involved personnel every aspect of the action to be taken and then carrying out that action with relentless precision.

While the stakes and outcomes unquestionably pale in comparison, the intent of this text and stated axiom is to define how it could be applied to any structured, organized effort — including the daily operations of a strength-training program. With all of the diverse athletic populations, varying seasonal dilemmas, contrasting philosophical approaches, scheduling headaches and the host of other brushfires that invariably surface, it is important for coaches to be proactive in staving-off snags that can hinder progress.

We have compiled a fairy inclusive list of evaluation strategies and suggestions for keeping our strength-training program tuned-up and firing on all cylinders. Here are a few of them.

Play To Your Strengths
The genesis of just about every young coach’s strength-training approach can be traced to his or her own playing days and lifting regimens. From that point, it becomes an ongoing search for new ideas, innovative concepts and unique avenues to make their programs more efficient and productive.

Some coaches do not have a firm foundation in strength training and often become disconcerted when sifting through the plethora of currently available scientific and popular press literature.

Here is some advice for both factions:

❖ Clinic with as many strength-training professionals in the off-season as possible. Here at Michigan State, we hold a strength-and-conditioning seminar every year (usually in early February) for anyone interested in training athletes. We bring in several outstanding NFL, collegiate and high school strength-and-conditioning coaches who disseminate a truckload of useful, practical information. Whether it is attending seminars such as this, or scheduling one-on-one meetings with coaches in your area, keeping abreast of the innovations in this ever-evolving profession is a must.

Powerline Checks1❖ Coaches who are firmly entrenched in a basic strength-training format (e.g., powerlifting movements, Olympic-style lifts, machine-based training, or combinations therein) should learn every aspect of their chosen design, and work diligently to teach the attached techniques with detail and precision. Too often we see strength-training programs haphazardly implemented with minimal instruction, lack of continual feedback and poor overall supervision. Whatever approach you decide to run with, remember that for safety and productive outcomes, it is imperative that you and your staff coach it with the same enthusiasm and attention that is paid to other aspects of the sport.

❖ Believe in what you are doing. Just as you must feel confident about the offensive, defensive and special teams strategies you’ve implemented, the same holds true for strength-training protocols. Your faith and assuredness in the system is transparent to the athletes, so make sure you are sending the right message. To do this, you must know your system from the inside-out.

Vary The Tools & Movement Planes
The equipment you use must obviously coincide with your system. If the heart of your program entails Olympic-style lifting or powerlifting, then you will need a full complement of benches, racks, platforms and the appropriate bars and bumper plates.

Many practitioners use a good mix of traditional free-weight implements, in conjunction with a host of machines and myriad “functional” pieces (e.g., medicine/stability balls, flex bands/straps, balance/slide boards, etc.).

One important suggestion here is this: Make sure you have enough viable types of equipment for injured and special-needs athletes. Basically, this includes tools that can be used in a unilateral (i.e., one limb at a time) or “no-hands” fashion. 

Powerline Checks2For instance, there will be situations where a hand or wrist injury prevents or restricts movement of that limb below the elbow, and machines, stretch bands or manual resistance will have to be employed. The same holds true for an ankle or knee injury, which contraindicates bilateral squat or lunge and other bilateral, multi-joint movements. These circumstances call for a unilateral leg press and compartmentalized hip exercises (i.e., flexion, extension, abduction and adduction) that do not directly affect the injured area.

It is also important to continue training for the contralateral (opposite) limb with as full a training package as possible. This strategy not only keeps the targeted limb musculature from losing size and strength, it also abates some of the strength loss — albeit minimal — in the injured limb through a neuromuscular process known as “indirect” or “cross-transfer.”

The three movement planes — sagittal (runs vertically through the body, dividing it into right-left segments), frontal (runs vertically through the body, dividing into anterior-posterior segments), and transverse (runs horizontally through the body, dividing into superior (upper) and inferior (lower) segments) — should be engaged with a cadre of movements.

The tools used with these movements can vary over time. Sure, there are specific implements that are more conducive to the proper execution of some movements but there is something to be said about variety, as well, even if it is only to relieve the mental tedium of training. And one way to incorporate variety is to occasionally change equipment.

For example: dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, handled medicine balls, Olympic bars and log bars (with neutral handles) can be used interchangeably for many mainstream movements.

Here is a basic, relatively simple template to follow that assures you are blanketing the three movement planes and doing so at multiple angles. (Note: Remember that everything does not need to be performed on every training day but I recommend that most, if not all, of these movements should be addressed by the end of a typical training week).

✹ Upper Body: Choose at least two to three exercises each from the following movements: chest press, upper back pulls and shoulder presses. Vary the movement angles (i.e., vertical above the head, incline, horizontal and vertical below the head — as with parallel bar dips). Also, remember to include one to two sets each of internal and external shoulder rotation for the rotator cuff musculature.

✹ Core: Provide work that engages the abdominal and low-back areas, and performed anterior to posterior (front to back), laterally and rotationally.

✹ Lower Body: The key movements here are hip flexion-extension (both single and multi-joint) via squats, lunges, leg presses, etc., abduction and adduction for the outer and inner thigh and hip compartments, thigh flexion and extension (both single and multi-joint), along with dorsi (toes up) and plantar (toes down) flexion, inversion-eversion, and rotation for the ankles.

And, as we have discussed here in detail, always include neck work — especially when training athletes in heavy contact sports such as football, ice hockey, wrestling, lacrosse, and those with an elevated risk of high-speed collisions, such as soccer.

Train Muscles, Movements
There is a fair amount of discussion and, in my opinion, unnecessary squabbling over what should be emphasized in a training environment: muscles or movements. I see it as a moot discussion, as you really cannot have one without the other. Muscles initiate movement and movement requires muscle action.

That is probably an oversimplified description, yet it still rings true. To be fair, the “train-the-movement” faction is actually referring, for the most part, to “simulating” an athletic skill with a resistance of some sort added to the mix.

Well, this may be viable in some instances, but — in my opinion — there are at least a couple of problems with this as a wholesale approach:

1. The added resistance is very likely to detract from the correct execution of the skill, thus violating the Principle of Specificity (e.g., this is the main reason that the use of basketballs, footballs, etc., that were heavier than regulation have long since gone to the wayside).

2. The involved target musculature may not receive the needed stimulus throughout its predicated movement range, thus causing an imbalance that could be a precursor to injury.

The biomechanical and anatomical architecture of the neuromuscular system dictates an interdependent, sequential engagement of muscle compartments when specific movements are initiated. In other words, there is a synergistic muscle-firing pattern propagated by the central nervous system for all of the basic movements performed in the three planes described earlier.

For example: Hip extension is dependent upon a sequential neurological firing of the muscle fibers of the hamstrings, followed superiorly through the gluteals (maximus and medius) and finally through the contralateral quadratus lumborum (opposite-side low back region). This holds true for all athletes, male and female, regardless of the sport.

If this sequential firing pattern is not evident, or if one area is lagging in its contribution to the action, it is a prominent red flag for some type of neuromuscular deficit (e.g., as in the case of the gluteals being bypassed and the recruitment pattern jumping track from the hamstring to the low back). This anomaly would require extensive physical therapy in order to “teach” the gluteals to fire in sequence or the risk of overcompensation and injury to the low back loom on the horizon.

Powerful hip extension is a requisite movement for running, jumping, change of direction and innumerable sports skills. The involved musculature, therefore, must be trained in the weight room with movements that best stimulate, engage and overload them over time.  Squats (front and back), lunges (in a multi-directional, matrix fashion), leg presses, dead lifts, etc., all fit the bill — and they can be performed with multiple tools. Glute-ham raises and other hip-back modalities should also be evident.

In conjunction with these traditional strength-training movements, there should be a scripted, progressive, skill-encoding process undertaken through which the athletes learn how to apply this newly acquired strength and power to the requirements of their position or sport. This is known as Skill Specificity…as defined in the motor-learning literature by those who possess scientific acumen in that area.

Final Rep
Evaluation of your strength-training program — just as with any other aspect of your specific sport — is an ongoing process that requires more than just a patronizing glance every now and then. Here, we covered a few of the more prominent issues but there are certainly many more.


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