Training to Fail Part 6: Biomechanics, Injury Prevention, and Performance
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05 Jul 2010 21:58

The last post about the concept of optimal strength training was more philosophical than practical. Even so, many practical ideas are derived from an underlying philosophy concerning training. Nevertheless, I promised to get more technical and “sciency” in the next post so this one is about science itself being applied to strength training.

Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

A prevailing habit of many trainees that I’ve had to contend with is something very much akin to “throwing out the baby with the bath water”. For example, a student of strength training learns something about technique and injury prevention and begins to focus exclusively on this one aspect of performance, forgetting all he or she has learned about various other performance parameters. We do not need to “unlearn” everything each time we discover something new! We simply need to incorporate. But wait, don't go "incorporating" every single thing you read!

Perhaps surprisingly, this habit is not the sole province of trainees. It happens in the professional strength training world as well! This brings us to one more important trend that students of strength training must be aware of and this is where the science comes in.

The Current Bias and Science

Science being applied to the improvement of human athletic performance is nothing new. The desire to train scientifically is not a recent development. Only our understanding has taken great leaps forward in modern times.

Nowadays we see many kinesiology majors becoming involved in strength training. We also see physical therapists from many different educational backgrounds or philosophies. Some of them are great up and coming coaches and some are just people with letters after their name.

The problem however is that many people with a bachelors degree in kinesiology or some similar major would like you to believe that they basically studied “deadlifting 101” and that their studies put them on the cutting edge of performance improvement. Nothing of the sort. They are ahead of those starting from scratch but most of the improvements and innovations in improving strength come from the “trenches” rather than research studies.

No, no, this does not mean that some keyboard legend telling you that “the real studies are done under the bar” is right. That’s not science, of course, its just somebody repeating some tough guy rhetoric they’ve heard. I read another similar statement about nutrition on a comment post at Alan Aragon’s blog the other day to the effect that “real nutrition research is done at the table” or some such similar nonsense.

There is relatively little study directly concerned with improving performance compared to preventing injuries. The discipline of biomechanics tends to lag behind those developments. To perform studies you need funding. Well, ask yourself whether there are a lot of studies concerning lifting big old heavy things. Sounds like I’m kidding doesn’t it?

I’m not. “Strength training” research, when it is done, is not concerned with strength for the sake of strength. It’s concerned mostly with power or endurance athletes. The bulk of the research is about injury prevention, however, or something that is related in some way to injury prevention such as studying the effects of over-training.

Of course preventing injury is part of improving performance! Corrective exercise is all the rage right now and it’s got a right to its popularity because trainees are seeing vast improvements in their movement quality with quite simple interventions. But, they are also spending a large amount of time creating and fixing problems that don't exist, on the thin promise that some type of perfect movement will prevent an injury that is sure to happen.

There is yet another backlash to this trend because strength coaches don’t want to be known as ‘soft corrective exercise types’ so we get “strength training is always corrective” and that sort of thing. In the past I’ve referred to this as a demonstration of the “is-ought” problem.

For instance, let’s say that I tell you “being stronger makes you better” and that I consider this a factual statement. Now let’s say I go a bit further. “Being stronger makes you better and therefore all strength training is corrective.” See, I have gone from a general statement of what IS to a statement about what I feel should be. There is nothing in the statement about being stronger making us better that leads to the conclusion that all strength training is corrective. Yet, upon first glance this leap in logic may be hardly detectable. Well, in the strength training world these kinds of logic leaps are the rule rather than the exception, so be on guard for them.

"Being stronger makes you better" is itself a value statement since the word better speaks to values rather than an objective performance criteria. So here we have a value statement disguised as an objective statement of fact and then a leap to a baseless conclusion. Yet this statement is very much like most statements about strength training.

You can read more about the is-ought concept in my post about specificity and transfer of training effect.

Trainees are NOT Patients

We must prevent injuries and correct deficiencies in order to continue progressing in our strength training. However the pendulum seems to be swinging so far to the “prevention” side that trainees are being treated like patients. Strength coaches seem to be becoming apologists to physical therapists rather than performance specialists. I’ve spoken of tools many times before. The tools are the servants. Trainers and coaches should not be the servants of theory, assessments, corrective exercise, pre-hab, and the like. These things should be the servant of the coach.

Sometimes when trainers get precious about preventing injuries we hear statements like "injury prevention is always a goal!" This is much like saying that your goal with using a screwdriver is to turn a screw. The GOAL is to screw in the screw, not to play with it. The goal of strength training is to improve strength performance. Injury prevention is a tool that helps allow the continued realization of that goal. Nobody ends a great strength career by saying "I didn't get injured."

It makes sense why such a servile attitude toward these tools could emerge. Many coaches have a very firm foundation in biomechanics but the fact of the matter is there are few cut and dry answers and even little problems can be quite complex. There is just so very little data. Trainers are forced to experiment and innovate and there is a great desire for concrete information.

Enter the physical therapist or other professional armed and ready with the information that will save all the hapless coaches who are running their athletes to an early retirement. Ready and willing to take anything and everything they can to improve their athletes some of the strength community has forgotten that they are not therapists and their athletes are not patients or therapy clients!

Injury prevention and “prehabilatative” techniques are great. And technique IS crucial. But there are other factors that are routinely ignored. Just because your favorite guru only harps on form doesn’t mean that is the only factor in your weight lifting success. This new-found craze that turns strength trainees and athletes into patients I call the "medicalization" of strength training.

There are Many Aspects of Performance

Sometimes we complain about quantity over quality. I myself base my training techniques on quality. But I also base them on success which means there are certain quantitative means I must use. And they can be quite aggressive. For instance, while we must maintain quality as much as possible we also need a certain tolerance to workload in order to see incremental improvements in our lifting range. I try to bridge that with quality which makes me stay away from simple volume loading protocols in favor of more more "creative" strategies, for lack of a better description. But the simple fact of the matter is there is a need for physiological changes as well as motor changes.

A great example is running, or in particular, sprinting. I am not extremely knowledgeable in this area but I can recognize fallacies when I see them because I understand performance. Log on to any running related forum and you will find pages and pages of discussion into technique. So much so that it seems as if the trainees think that they will be the fastest in the world if they can just make that one small and magical change in their technique.

But the simple fact is that in already accomplished sprinters technique changes have shown only very small improvements in studies. Running fast is mostly about physiology and training. You’ve got to run fast a lot to run fast. Perfecting technique can make that training more effective and efficient; it can help prevent injuries. It can do all sorts of things but another second is rarely about a little tweak in technique!

There are no hard answers and I am not trying to make any hard statements. I only wish for you to be aware of the current bias. I also wish for you to be aware of the population bias in the strength training literature. That is most of it is aimed at either the professional athlete (of any sport you can imagine) or the professional Powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter.

For those of us who train for absolute strength simply and solely for the sake of absolute strength, which are very few of us I know, there is not a whole lot of love out there! Information aimed at basketball players, baseball players, hockey players, or rugby players does not apply to us. Information aimed at a lifter who is concerned solely with his numbers on deadlifts, squats, and bench press may not apply to us if we don’t compete in these lifts.

Therapy won’t get you a 600 pound deadlift or a big squat. There is still a need for those who know how to train for strength and let’s not forget it.

Be that as it may many strength and performance coaches seem to take this as an excuse to ignore technique altogether. What’s even more disturbing is the teaching of corrective exercises with bad technique, let alone the primary movements. It’s becoming a mess with every Tom, Dick and Harry thinking they are qualified to not only train people but also to rehabilitate them. I have found many ridiculous practices being recommended in a wholesale way and qualified by simply labeling them with a ‘rehab’ tag.

The selling of strength training has made it a commodity much like fatloss and fitness and the experts are cashing in with watered down advice for the masses.

Tests Don't Move Weights

Be aware that there is no hard science attached to movement screens and functional evaluations much of the time. The testing is very subjective and depends on the administrator with the screens themselves often based on the opinion of one or two people. What’s more, many of these screens lack face validity, content validity, and reliability. Often they aim to predict that which is subjective rather than concrete. Also, and perhaps the biggest sin, is they don't stop at assessment but pass over into diagnosis! I discussed the overhead “deep squat” in the GUS Overhead Squat Book to demonstrate this. You can get that book by signing up for the Ground Up Strength newsletter in the box provided at the bottom of this page.

Please do not take any of this as simple opposition for the sake of opposition. I embrace many of the things I’ve discussed here. But I try not to let them become biases. You cannot make a bad strength training plan a good one by tacking on some mobility drills and external shoulder rotations!

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This page created 05 Jul 2010 21:58
Last updated 23 Jan 2014 21:47

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