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What makes a program “sport-specific”?

Summertime & the living’s easy….unless you’re an athlete.

For most athletes, the summer is actually the busiest and most crucial time of all. Off-season strength & conditioning programs are where a lot of athletes have the time to focus on their bodies and make huge gains in strength- more so than any other point in the season.  With that in mind, it got me thinking about all the components that go into planning for performance enhancement & how to evaluate if a particular program is appropriate for an individual’s sport.

For most people just looking to lose weight, or incur some type of body composition change, this type of evaluation might not be necessary. It doesn’t matter WHEN certain phases occur throughout the year [speed, hypertrophy, strength, etc], and the exercise selection isn’t as narrowly focused. But for an athlete, planning every step of the way is crucial. It is essentially like comparing cooking to baking. With cooking, you can experiment more freely – you can add ingredients, deviate from a recipe, get downright crazy and still probably achieve greatness. Baking, on the other hand, is a whole different ball game. There is a reason for everything in the recipe – deviate from the proportions and you’re going to have one dried up cake. But if you plan and you are exact with the measurements, everything will come out balanced and delicious.

Sometimes, however, athletes get so caught up in the little details of the program that they don’t stop to think  “why”. Why certain exercises are included in certain phases (or at all); Why intervals are run with a particular work:rest ratio; Why this program is better suited than that one, etc. It is very rare to come across anything that steps back to really discuss the “big picture”. So this evaluation is to help athletes analyze their sport a bit more, and for coaches to make sure they’re considering all the variables when programming.

There is still some crossover with personal training here, i.e. assessing an athlete for individual goals, physical limitations, previous injuries, training history, etc – because you never want to lose the individuality component.  But what makes a program ideal for a particular sport vs just a really great workout?

Categories of Evaluation

1. Requisite movements by position (the endurance of a point guard is > than a center in basketball, for example. or a midfielder vs an attack player in lacrosse)

2. Energy systems and related dynamics (primary contributors?)

3. Dominant/minimal speeds and related factors (sprinting? long, steady pace? varying intervals?)

4. Force/velocity factors (high speed movements? repeat submaximal efforts?)

5. Factors that determine success outcomes (is flexibility important?, endurance? conditioning?)

6. Factors that limit success (injuries, etc)

7. Morphological relevance (body comp – does the player need size? strength? speed?)

These are just the broad categories to consider when analyzing a particular athlete & their sport. To get more specific, we have the movement analysis that breaks down the sport into specific components to ensure that a program is balanced and focused, the physiological analysis that looks at all the metabolic components, and the limitation analysis that considers the barriers and differences in levels of success.

Movement Analysis

1. Movements used during the activity

2. Speed or rate of movement & frequency

3. Directional/plane variations/speed

4. Muscle-joint considerations and efficiency or resistance to economy

5. Muscle balance, stability, acceleration, deceleration and force couples

Physiological Analysis

1. Energy systems used

2. Duration of power output

3. Magnitude of force demands

4. Frequency of force/recovery

5. Additional physiological demands (i.e. total caloric output)

Limitations Analysis

1. Common injuries in the sport

2. Difference between “good” & “great” (for example, it has been shown that the velocity around the elbow joint is what separates the elite pitchers from the non-elite. other characteristics might include VO2max, or simple body composition factors like height & weight)

3. Recovery/fatigue

4. Flexibility, body fatness, strength/power weight ratio

With all that said, a pre-conditioning evaluation (or fitness assessment) would take into consideration the following:

1. Identify all deficiencies

2. Injury analysis – a past history of the athlete

3. Training history/tenure

4. Training status

5. Physiological assessments

6. Identification of neural efficiency/aptitude

7. Program level decision (beginner, intermed, advanced)

Secondary considerations:

1. Limitations first – flexibility, distortions

2. Minimal strength needs – at least enough

3. Force rate development – power/speed

4. Neural efficiency – skill specific overlap

5. Metabolic conditioning – conditioning vs weight training

As you can see, it is more than just becoming “bigger, faster, stronger”. There is a lot that goes into evaluating an athlete – both at the individual level & for sport application. Using this checklist will help ensure that the program you’re following (or creating) makes sense.

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“So that’s like…a personal trainer, right?” [Part 1]

Despite being one of the biggest facebook/twitter/social media creeps on the planet, there’s nothing quite like coming home after being away for so long and getting to catch up with family and friends.  Its what makes the holidays so awesome, and I always enjoy the opportunity to just kick back and take time off.

That being said, there is always that moment in the conversation where someone comes up to you and goes, “so, how is school going? What are you there for again? What are you planning to do after?”…and I just shake my head.  There is no way anybody outside of the fitness industry can understand the hierarchy of certain positions, nor do they appreciate the differences in skill set needed for certain professions.  I don’t expect them to, either – but when everyone responds with, “Oh, so you want to be like… a personal trainer, right?” I get all hulked out and want to scream ITS SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.

SO, for my completely biased (but completely true) account of the fitness industry, you’ve come to the right place.

In the field of kinesiology/exercise physiology, strength & conditioning, etc, the term “personal trainer” is kind of like saying to a teacher, “oh, so you’re basically a babysitter.”  You don’t need a degree to babysit.  You don’t even really need a certification – maybe just something that says you know CPR in case the kid chokes on a hotdog.  Even then, that’s not always required.  Teenagers can babysit for extra cash because it is convenient and requires very low levels of competency.  They think, “hey, I like kids, and I can pretty much just hang out and get paid for it! Sweet!” Same thing goes for personal trainers. A lot of them are just like, “I love the gym and I’m always there, I might as well get paid for it!” – and it’s easy to do.  There are a million certifications out there – most just requiring a membership fee, a few [easy] exam questions, and bam – certified. (Fun Fact: to make a point, a well known coach signed up online for PT certification course and was able to get his dog certified as a trainer. THAT’S why the term is such a joke).

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t some awesome trainers out there, because there are, but how do you really know the difference between competent and cyber dog status? Here are some KEY tips to look for when seeking out a personal trainer:

  1. Look for some type of exercise degree. Does this guarantee they know something about programming? No. BUT, it does convey some kind of competency in terms of body mechanics, metabolism, anatomy, kinesiology and just generally how the body should work. It also shows they have more of an interest in the field than a mere 2-day certification course. Kinesiology, exercise physiology, sports science, and even athletic training are just a few examples.
  2. If they offer to write up a diet plan for you, RUN. Unless they are a registered dietician, this is not only beyond the scope of their skill set, but it is ILLEGAL. Yes, you can SUE a personal trainer for writing you a step-by-step dietary eating plan.  This includes prescribing supplements.  They can suggest a supplement to you, but they absolutely cannot write you a recommendation of “x grams/per day, 5 x a day” for example.  If they don’t know this, and they’re providing this service, they don’t know what they’re doing.
  3. Look at their certifications closely.  NASM, ACSM, NSCA and NCSF are some of the gold-standard certifications.  Does this guarantee they are competent beyond the scope of these certifications? No. But some training is better than others, and in this case, these are the ones you want to see.  Also, do a little research on your own to find out what kind of certification YOU think is best for YOUR goals.
  4. Do you feel comfortable? This might seem like a ridiculous thing to ask, but if you’re constantly being forced into signing contracts, or you’re being pushed into services you’re really not feeling, stop! You have the power, and you should find a trainer that is willing to sit down and talk with you about YOUR goals – not shove a pre-meditated sales pitch at you in order to get you to spend more money.  Unfortunately, it is a business, and a lot of trainers are just chasing paper.  In some jobs, that’s okay, but you have to remember that this is your BODY you’re talking about – you only get one, and you want to make sure you take care of it.  After all, that’s why you’re seeking the services of a qualified professional, right?

Those are just 4 of the most important tips I can think of when judging if a trainer knows their stuff. There are a million more and I’d be happy to divulge – just leave a comment if you’re interested.  But the real point of this post is to differentiate between strength & conditioning coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists. There is such a gray area even WITHIN the field that I understand why people outside of it don’t understand. (I still judge you though). In part 2 of these posts, I’m going to cover this in more detail. Stay tuned! 😉