A Summary of the 2012 Middlesex Strength & Conditioning Conference

The weekend of the 3rd March saw Middlesex University host their third annual Student Strength and Conditioning Conference. The conference is a great opportunity for young practitioners get together and learn from some of the leading experts in the field. Keynote speakers in previous years have included Ian Jeffreys, Jeremy Moody and Liam Kilduff, and the line-up for this year certainly did not disappoint. In this post I’ll provide my overview and interpretation of the keynote presentations from this year’s conference as well as linking to some of the literature they referenced and to any further reading which may compliment their content. I hope you enjoy!

Raph Brandon – Preparing Olympians

The first keynote of the morning was from Raph Brandon, head of strength and conditioning for the English Institute of Sport.

What is strength and conditioning?

Raph started out by highlighting the role S&C should serve in in high performance sport. As he stated, it’s about providing ‘a tailored solution to each sport’. Force generation training is clearly the ‘sexy’ part of S&C but emphasising this type of training isn’t the best option for every sport. Specific conditioning and robustness, metabolic conditioning, and speed/agility/movement skills are all part of the jigsaw that the S&C coach must put together. Our practices should be evidence based and determined by thorough need analyses (both of the sport and the individual) and knowledge of key performance characteristics. S&C is a specialist vocation requiring a skilful blend of scientific knowledge and practical application, our expertise should not be underplayed.

Chassis training

Raph likened programming to fine-tuning a car. You either work on building up the chassis or work on improving the engine. The chassis has to be the first consideration to the S&C coach, we need our athletes to be robust enough to a) deal with the demands of their sport, and b) handle any improvements we wish to make to the ‘engine’. Chassis training is based on stimulus-tension theory – this assumes that hypertrophy is a function of intensity and duration of tension experienced by the muscle. Raph cited studies by Fry et al (2004) and Holm et al (2008) which demonstrate that loads of 50-80%1RM are preferable for chassis training goals. Training dosages between the larger, more tonic muscles and the smaller, more phasic muscles were highlighted – a reminder that the structure and function of a particular muscle or muscle group must dictate how you training it.

Engine training

Overload is the key to engine training – this doesn’t necessarily mean overloading in strength terms, characteristics such as rate of force development can also be overloaded. The principle is that you train either with a maximal load or maximal acceleration. Raph emphasised the importance of lifting with maximal intent and ensuring that at least one session a week is of a very high intensity.

Specificity of training

Training is either specific or it’s not; there’s no middle ground. Exercises are specific not because of their apparent ‘external’ specificity but because of the demands they place on the neuromuscular system. Exercises can be intra-muscular specific or inter-muscular specific, discussed further here.

Tendon adaptation

Be aware of muscle-tendon unit adaptations as a whole – tendon carries a slower response/adaptation time in comparison to muscle. Be aware that if you make large improvements in muscular strength and/or power with an athlete in a short period of time, their tendons may not yet have caught up and they may be more prone to injury.

Philosophies

Performance (sport) is the only thing that matters. The best S&C in reality may not always be the best S&C technically. The improvements we make in the gym are indirect. I’m guessing most of us have seen the video of Usain Bolt training in the gym (almost 2.5 million views). Reckon you’d get him in running any faster if you tidied up his form a bit? The best S&C compliments and facilitates the athlete’s involvement with their sport. Raph demonstrated this with an example programme from one of the athletes he worked with. The key thing to take from the format was that all training was listed together (i.e. sport training followed by weights) and that sport practice was the focus. Remember that we’re training for performance, it’s not a battle of sport training vs S&C.

Raph’s recommended reading:

  • Ives and Shelly (2003)
  • Translations by Anatoly Bondarchuk and Yuri Verkhoshansky (love this video)
  • Research from Aagaard and Andersen’s Danish lab
  • Texts on muscle physiology and structure

Rhodri Lloyd – Windows of LTAD

Rhodri Lloyd is a senior lecturer in S&C at the University of Gloucestershire with a keen research interest in the development of youth athletes. Rhodri operates the UKSCA special interest group for youth training – if you’re a UKSCA member I strongly recommend that you get involved with this if you’re not already.

Long term athlete development (LTAD) windows

Rhodri’s presentation was based around the windows of adaptation, proposed in the LTAD model by Balyi and Hamilton (2004), and how they influence the ‘Five S’s’. The principle idea is to target key training windows to exaggerate gains beyond those that can achieved by maturation alone. He took us on a brief tour through some of the models predating LTAD, such as those by Bloom (1985) and Cote (1999), highlighting the necessity of Balyi and Hamilton’s and how it has progressed the field of youth development.

Speed

LTAD proposes two critical windows for speed development, between 7-9 and 13-16 years in males, and between 6-8 years and 11-13 years in females. These windows only consider chronological age however, maturation is also a factor. There may be differences in the training adaptations experienced by young athletes depending on the stage of maturation. Responses in pre-pubertal athletes may be a consequence of primarily neural adaptations (i.e. practicing the movement) whereas adolescents may respond with both neural and structural adaptions.

Stamina

Stamina was for long time believed to relate to the trigger hypothesis and, consequently, that only post-pubertal athletes were therefore capable of significant training increases. More recent evidence suggests that pre-pubertal athletes can also achieve significant gains in aerobic performance as a consequence of training (Baquet et al 2002, 2010, McManus et al 2005).

Suppleness

The key window for development is thought to be between 6-10 years. As a guide it may be suggested that training looks to develop flexibility up to adolescence and then maintain it post-adolescence. Special attention may be warranted during the peak height velocity stage of maturation. Obviously, the sport will be key in determining appropriate levels of flexibility around specific joints; for example, specific measures have been shown to relate to sprint swimming performance (Geladas et al 2005) as well as baseball throwing (Stodden et al 2001).

Skill

The key window for skill development is believed to be 9-12 in males and 8-10 in females. The type of sport an athlete is performing in is important here, early specialisation sports are associated with increased injury risk. As S&C coaches, we need to be aware of the volume of sport specific motor patterns young athletes are performing (especially in sports such as golf and tennis where specific motor patterns will be almost endlessly repeated) – there needs to be enough to elicit an appropriate training effect but not too much to risk overuse injuries.

Strength

As S&C coaches I guess that most of us are of the opinion that strength is the most important quality. Strength training has been shown to result in an array of health benefits of strength training (Sung et al 2002, Watts et al 2004, Benson et al 2006, Shaibi et al 2006) and may be able to play an important role in tackle in youth obesity. There appears to be a much better buy-in to resistance training from obese children and this type of engagement is of crucial importance if an intervention is to be successful. All age groups can benefit from strength training, adolescents will accelerate faster because of their capacity for structural changes but younger athletes will still experience neural adaptations (Behringer et al, 2010; 2011). Given that neural plasticity is greatest in pre-pubescents, and also as strength underpins the ABC’s, should strength training not form part of the FUNdamentals stage of development?

S&C doesn’t cause injuries, it reduces them

The injury risk is of strength training negligible when training appropriately and with qualified individuals, highlighted by studies such as Pierce et al (1999) and by the NSCA position statement on youth resistance training. Furthermore, there is no evidence that such training has the potential to stunt growth. Compare this to the risk of injury associated with the sports themselves (ankle sprains, muscle pulls, etc.). No one has a problem with young athletes playing competitive football, but what happens when the word ‘gym’ is mentioned? Appropriate resistance training can play an important role in reducing these types of injuries – Valovich-McLeod et al (2011) demonstrated that over half of injuries occurred due to a lack of appropriate physical conditioning. Can ‘failing to adequately condition children for the physical demands of the sporting environment’ be classified as neglect? Working on movement patterns is great, but there needs to be strengthening work in there too. Of course, the risk of overtraining must be considered by the S&C coach. All types of training need to be taken into account and strength training must be incorporated into the overall programme, not the core that the programme is built around.

Problems with LTAD

There is currently a lack of longitudinal data available (Bailey et al 2010, Ford et al 2011) so we can’t really determine the long term effectiveness of LTAD – surely the key point of the model. The LTAD model only on focuses on physical development, youth training needs to consider holistic development with a long term focus (Oliver et al 2011). Furthermore, power and agility are not accounted for by the model and there is also a danger of windows being misconstrued – does missing a window really result in a blunted response at the end of the LTAD pathway?

The Youth Physical Development (YPD) model

Rhodri is one of the key developers of the YPD model, a proposed step forward from LTAD. In the YPD model strength is the cornerstone – it’s about ensuring that youth athletes’ development is built upon a strong chassis – and strength training begins at the outset of the model, not just in adolescence. In comparison to LTAD, endurance has been slightly deemphasised in the YPD, the rationale being that young athletes will generally be exposed to adequate volumes in their sport training. Once again, it is important to stress that all training programmes must be designed and implemented by appropriately qualified S&C professionals.

 

Nik Diaper – The Paralympic Athlete

The final keynote of the afternoon came from Nik Diaper, head of Paralympic sports science and sports medicine for the EIS.

High performance athletes

Much as with Raph’s presentation, the theme of performance resonated throughout. Paralympians are high performance athletes, not disabled athletes. These athletes want to be treated as such, not dismissed as disabled and wrapped in cotton wool. This point was illustrated by a video showing a serious hit from a wheelchair rugby contest; definitely not a sport for the shrinking violets.

Paralympics by numbers

To put Paralympic sport in some context, Nik provided us with some figures and asked us to guess what they represented. Here’s a pick of some of them:

  • 22 Paralympic sports – including the 2 new sports para-canoe and para-triathlon
  • 4011 athletes from 146 countries competed at 2008 Beijing games
  • Great Britain won 42 gold medals in Beijing
  • 10.57s is the world record for the T13 (visually impaired) 100m
  • 290kg is the world record bench press in the over 100kg weight class
  • China has a disabled population exceeding 90 million

            Medals and competition

China is the dominant force in Paralympic competition due to the sheer volume of disability athletes. GB has consistently maintained the number two slot over a number of years, however, the recent progressions made by Ukraine, South Africa, Russia and Brazil were highlighted. These nations have shown improvement for the last four games and may threaten GB’s second place in the standings, Brazil in particular as they will host the 2016 games. Performances from both Australia and USA declined after they hosted the games, perhaps symbolic of funding dynamics, and we want to ensure that GB doesn’t go the same way. On the competition theme, Nik also talked through how athletes were classified. The system is there to ensure that athletes are grouped fairly and facilitate a good level competition.

Athletes with spinal injury

The level of lesion, and if it’s complete or incomplete, is a key factor to consider when working with these athletes. These points were illustrated with three different tennis players (with L4, T6 and C4/5 lesions), showing how the level of lesion impacted on design of their wheelchairs. Uncompsensable heat stress is a risk we need to aware of with these athletes, cooling strategies will need to be devised as a consequence.

Amputees

Naturally, the nature of amputation will affect the training that the athlete will perform. Stump care needs to be considered and reinforced by the S&C coach, athletes aren’t always the best at taking care of this. Asymmetry is likely to be a problem in these athletes and the S&C will also have to deal with the logistical issues surrounding the loading of prosthetics (i.e. they’re not indestructible and they’re not cheap to replace).

Visually impaired athletes

This group of athletes is highly trainable, however, the S&C coach may have issues with communicating and providing feedback due to the removal of visual cues. Balance and spatial awareness will be affected in athletes and they may also suffer from problems with sleep which can greatly impair recovery.

Cerebral Palsy

CP is an umbrella term for certain movement disorders so athletes may not necessarily have CP. It is important that we do not assume an intellectual disability in athletes with communication issues. Spasticity (‘velocity dependant resistance to stretch’ or hypertonicity of muscles) is a problem with many athletes, the S&C coach will have to work alongside the physio to address short, tight and stiff muscles. Athletes may have problems with posture, fine motor control and fatigability.

Tips for working with Paralympic athletes

  • Remember that performance is key
  • The amount of specific knowledge required largely directed by the level of disability – most severe disabilities will require more specific knowledge
  • Flexibility in your coaching is paramount
  • Be creative and innovative
  • Work with the athlete to solve problems and overcome obstacles – they know their body better than anyone
  • Understand the disability and how it impacts training, competition and daily life
  • Monitor training regularly
  • Consider the training age of the athlete – they may be new to elite competition

 

Wrap Up

Hopefully this summary has given you a little snapshot of the three keynotes, although they only scratch the surface of the knowledge on offer. There is never a true substitute for actually being there in person. Thank you to all the speakers who have kindly allowed me to summarise their presentations and to the team at Middlesex University responsible for organising the conference. I hope to see you there in 2013!

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