Strength and conditioning training is becoming more popular within athletic populations, as it should be. Research has shown that improving specific fitness qualities, relative to the sport and athlete’s needs, can reduce injury risk and improve performance. Does that mean that all S&C programmes will look the same?
In short, no. There are some elements of S&C that can be viewed as generalisations regardless of the athlete in front of you. This may include elements such as movement quality, intent, coaching standards etc, but S&C coaching and programming is not about cookie cutter templates are not S&C programmes. That is not to say that all training templates you can buy or download are bad, far from it. Some of them are excellent, however they are not individualised training programmes. Having a coach (Specifically, a good coach) will always trump a template. If you are unsure what makes a good coach, you can check out an article I previously wrote on picking a coach (INSERT ARTICLE LINK HERE)
Even within team sports, there is still levels of individualisation, however the level to how individualised a programme will be is constrained by external factors such as number of staff, time available etc. Speaking from experience, if you are one coach dealing with 20+ athletes at one time it can start becoming logistically difficult to individualise everything to the minute degree, but there are things that can be done. However, that is a separate article in itself.
What this article aims to do is look at some of the considerations for working with specific populations within S&C. It is by no means a comprehensive list, however it will give you an idea of some of considerations for an S&C coach when dealing with these populations.
It was previously thought that youth athletes should not undertake any form of resistance training as it was previously thought that it would stunt growth and cause developmental problems. However, it has been shown that resistance training, when implemented in a safe and thought out manner has no impact on growth. However, that doesn’t mean you can just throw the same type of training you would implement with an adult at a kid.
As we all know, kids go through maturation (Puberty) at different ages / stages. The stage they are at of maturation can have an impact on the training which they undertake. When kids go through peak height velocity (PHV) they undergo anthropometric & morphological changes at an accelerated rate. During this time, they often become more uncoordinated and are at higher risk of injury. If working with you athlete’s, it is worth measuring height (Both seated and standing) and bodyweight at regular intervals.
Previous organisations I have worked with monitored this quarterly and carried out further individual measurements if necessary. By tracking where about in their maturation phase, be it pre-pubertal, pubertal or post-pubertal, you can manipulate training to appropriately. Movement patterns that are taught pre-PHV may need to be relearned with new body shape and size, Don’t assume they will remember how to organise themselves physically!
In terms of youth training S&C, there is a variety of research investigating what is most efficacious. 2 models which reoccur frequently in the literature are the “long term athletic development (LTAD) and “youth physical development” (YPD). There are many similarities between the 2 in terms of the over-arching themes of how you athlete’s should be trained. In my experience, this has then been taken and been manipulated to suit the needs of the athletes in the youth academies I have worked in.
The worthwhile youth athlete development models follow a similar pattern. They suggest learning fundamental movement patterns (Squat, hinge, push, pull etc) are learned through basic bodyweight / very light loads to begin with. By doing this, you engrain movement patterns over a focus on load. Whilst this is very important for youth athletes, it is worth mentioning that movement should be prioritised over load (Weight on the bar) with all people beginning with resistance training. As the kids begin to demonstrate movement competency, then they begin to move to exercises with greater weigh bearing. Once they have progressed through the exercises and developed sufficient strength (This can be open to interpretation and often varies between academies / sports) they will move on to higher intensity exercises and movements. Having a clear movement matrix / plan for the progressions of each stage can help to develop the athlete’s movement, but it also helps to keep them engaged. They can see where about they are at in terms of progression, and where they need to get to.
Masters athletes & ageing clients
Sport is not just for younger individuals, far from it! Older individuals often participate in sport and recreational physical activities. But should they be treated the same as everyone else? Or are there population specific considerations for masters athletes?
One consideration that needs to be made initially, is the experience of the athlete (Although this is true for any athlete). What sports do / are they competing in? what have they competed in in the past? What level of gym / resistance training have the had? And are they currently participating in any form of S&C?. By determining this first you have a far better idea of where you will be starting from. You also need to find out how old they actually are. Masters can be anything from 40+, however the difference in a 45 year old to a 65 year old can be staggering.
Considerations for ageing in general
As we age we are susceptible to muscular atrophy. This may be from lack of usage, or from a disease called sarcopenia where skeletal muscle wastes away. Loss of muscle mass can lead to an increase in the risk of slips, trips and falls. Coupled with issues such as osteoporosis (Where the bone wastes away) these falls can be devastating, causing issues such as broken hips, legs, shoulders etc. Whilst a young person may be able to recover fairly quickly, this could be life changing or even fatal for an older person.
By encouraging ageing populations to engage in resistance training, you are encouraging them to pursue improvements in strength and potentially muscle mass. This can lead to a reduction in these types of injuries, and also give them a better quality of life. Looking at an injury prevention perspective, if an older person is stronger, and has improved balance & coordination, then they are more likely to be able to stop / catch themselves in the event of a trip or fall. In the unfortunate event they do get injured, their body is stronger so that when they are overcompensating to protect the injured limb (e.g walking on crutches) then they are strong enough to manage it, and the physical toll of this becomes less so. Resistance training also promotes growth if muscle tissue, which can at the very least slow down the rate of atrophy, but potentially even offset it. Whether you are an athlete or not, resistance training has huge benefits for longevity, and I would recommend everyone to participate in it to some capacity.
Looking at masters athlete’s, one of the main considerations is their ability to recover. Older athlete’s take longer to recover than younger athletes. So things like training volume / load need to be monitored more closely. It may also take longer to peak / taper for masters athlete’s leading into competition, and the recovery from competition itself will take longer. If they have been participating in sports / resistance training for many decades of their life, they are going to have had some wear and tear in the body. There may be far more underlying health issues and injuries, so more flexibility in exercise / movement selection may be required to accommodate this. They may also need to work through more partial ROM movements throughout training as well.
In many ways, general population are the easiest client’s that a strength and conditioning coach can work with for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, unlike working with many team and some individual athlete’s, you work with the client and the client alone. Goals tend to vary, dependant on the client themselves. Sometimes they are more simple (and general) such as improve body composition and general strength. However, they may seek you out for specific performance goals themselves. It is not uncommon for someone in the general pop category to start working with an S&C course, to then become interested in participating in a sport or activity such as powerlifting, mid / long distance running and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
The other advantage of working with gen pop, is your potential for exercises and training modalities becomes far wider. I personally am a firm believer for most people, that if you don’t enjoy something then don’t do it. However, when looking at athletic development, there are elements and exercises that are implemented for a specific reason. They may not always be the most enjoyable, but they are the most bang for your buck. However, there is still room for manipulation within that. It is incredibly frustrating when coaches become married to one specific exercise or training style. The phrase “many roads lead to Rome” is very applicable here.
With endurance athletes you want to 1) reduce risk of injury 2) improve posture 3) improve performance. Looking at point 1, this is achieved through improving strength and stability in the skeletal musculature and connective tissue in the limbs used for locomotion. This can be generalised to all athletes though. Secondly, posture is a big part of endurance athlete’s regardless of their activity. Being able to maintain proper posture allows better positioning for locomotion (Discussed in point 3). Maintaining correct posture relative to the activity is also usually the most aerodynamic position, causing the least drag effect. The less drag there is, the greater movement economy becomes which improves performance. Which brings me on to point 3. Improving performance is largely due to 1) improvement in locomotion economy through increased impulse / power production and 2) improvements in the physiological energy systems which underpin their activity. Particularly in endurance athlete’s, it delays the onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA).
A real consideration for endurance athletes is bodyweight. The heavier you are, the more energy is required for locomotion. Ideally, endurance athletes will be able to maintain a low body mass whilst being as strong and powerful as possible (I.e high power / weight ratio). As a result, hypertrophy will be far less of a focus so higher repetition / high volume work from a resistance training perspective will be less of a focus. Endurance athlete’s fall into the category where they can be “peaked” for performance. Where there is a deliberate “over reach” in training, to cause a super compensation effect causing an increase in performance. For further information on over reaching, check out my previous article on “what drives adaptation” (INSERT LINK)
Combat athlete’s training will be dependent on the type of sport they compete in. As an overall look at combat sports, they can be classified as 3 different types. 1) grappling / wrestling (BJJ, Ju jitsu, freestyle wrestling etc) 2) striking (Boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai) and 3) mixed disciplines (MMA).
Looking at grappling sports, they tend to demand greater strength endurance efforts, as their “work” periods can last up to 30s. Longer duration anaerobic pathways become predominantly responsible for providing energy for performance. They also tend to have shorter Work: Rest ratios, suggesting the need for aerobic capacity (for recovery) can become a crucial factor. There is also more of an emphasis on maximal force production, with isometric and dynamic contractions being evident during matches. When watching grappling competitions, this does become quite apparent.
Striking sports tend to have longer Work: Rest ratios than their grappling counterparts, alongside shorter periods of work performed. Anaerobic energy systems are again the predominant fuel source, however recovery is an aerobic process so aerobic capacity still plays an important part. Force production is still important, but rate of force development (RFD) i.e power appears to be more important when compared to grappling counterparts. This is appears fairly logical. A punch or a kick to the face is going to hurt a lot more if it’s delivered with quickly opposed to slowly. Don’t believe me? Try it on yourself and report back. However, power is still important for grappling.
Looking at mixed disciplines, S&C training is going to need to incorporate a variety of elements to accommodate for the mixed demands. Your approach may be to play to your strengths, and spend more time emphasising the areas in which you are better. I.e if you are a better striker, you may choose to spend more time emphasising short bursts with linger recoveries and working more on RFD than max force. Or, you may choose to try and narrow the gap between your strengths and weaknesses, by working on the areas you are weaker on and maintaining your strengths. This may also be influenced by what your skills coach recommends – This is where the importance of an S&C coach, working with other coaches becomes crucial.
Track & field athlete’s
Similar to combat athletes, the discipline in which the athlete’s compete in will dictate the needs of their sport. Track and field can cover throwing (Javelin, hammer, discuss), sprinting (100m, 200m) Mid distance running (400+), jumping (Long jump, high jump, triple jump) longer distance running and also mixed events where athletes compete in mutli-disciplines.
The mid – long distance running athletes can benefit from the same considerations from endurance training, however they will also spend more time focusing on the higher intensity running, working on lactate tolerance and speed. Mid distance runners can afford to be a little larger than their long-distance counterparts, but not necessarily.
Sprinters are unsurprisingly, trying to get as fast as possible. As a result their training is going to be looking at improving rate of force development (RFD). The idea of improving RFD is that it will increase the impulse generated. Greater impulse = greater locomotion = Running faster (In Laymans terms). They need to be able to produce as much force as they possibly can, whilst also spending as little time on the ground as possible. In some ways the needs of a sprinter are simple, get as fast and powerful as possible. But doing that is no easy task. It requires time, patience and a lot of hard work for incredibly small improvements in performance. But when you have races that last between 9-11s (At elite level over 100m) you haven’t got particularly big margins to be dicking around with.
Throwers are looking to chuck an object as far as possible, basically. The object in which they are throwing will determine (To an extent) their training. Javelin and Discuss throwers are throwing a far lighter object, so working on ballistics and closer to the “velocity” end of the force / velocity curve will be beneficial for them to work on RFD. However, RFD is determined by the total force that can be produced in the first place. Looking at events such as shot putt and hammer throw, they need to move objects which are a LOT heavier. As a result, they need to be fucking strong to shift it, as well as powerful. Ever seen a small hammer thrower? They are freaky strong athlete’s.
Jumpers are looking to either jump as high, or as far as possible depending on their event. Either way, they need to be able to produce huge amount of force during the take off to propel themselves. They will focus on a lot of max strength and max power training to build the qualities required to displace themselves to their greatest height or distance. Similar to sprinters, jumpers can get away with a little bit more body mass, specifically muscle as they are very much explosive athletes. The extra muscle mass can help with force production, and hypertrophy may be a focus in the off season dependant on the athlete’s needs.
Team sport athlete’s
Team sport athlete’s can be in many ways the most complex group to train, due to the nature of their sports. Team sports are utterly fucking chaotic in nature, and become even more so if contact is involved. You have accelerations, decelerations, changes of direction, long periods of low intensity work, endless amounts iof high intensity work. The list goes on. Team sports also have a crazy schedule, ranging from 25-40 weeks of they year being “in-season”, alongside matches 1-2x per week. On the professional level, you also have to consider international duties for players. They are a logistical nightmare. So how do you deal with it?
Fluidity & adaptability is key when coaching team sport athletes. You can create the perfectly periodised approach for a team, accounting for the entire year and competitive schedule.. only for 3 of the starting players to get injured in the first match. That is an extreme example, but shit like that happens on the reg. You need to be adaptable to situations and what is thrown at you. It goes back to the old adage “what doesn’t bend, breaks”.
The level of the team from both a resistance / gym training and also playing level will influence what the outcome of S&C training is going to be. If you have a team full of noobs in a lower competitive environment, you are likely to see fair improvements throughout the season from an S&C perspective. And you will definitely see improvements in the off season (Depending how this is defined within the sport) and in pre season training. Assuming you implement a sensible plan.
When you get into the elite level, things become more nuanced, and slower. The off season for elite athletes is often completely off from all direct training, particularly in contact sports, to allow for physiological and psychological recovery. Pre season is the time where the S&C coaches will have their work cut out for them. They need to try and drive as much adaptation in a short period of time. This may continue into the bvery early stages (More likely pre season friendly) stages of the season. Once the season begins, the job of the S&C coach is to ideally slightly improve fitness parameters required for the sport, although maintenance is more realistic. Skills training increases during the season, as does volume of games. Athlete’s need to recover. There is no sense in killing athlete’s in the gym, leaving them unable to train or play for their sport. If an athlete’s performance becomes worse due to poor S&C training, you have failed them as a coach. The purpose of S&C is to aid the physical qualities they need for their sport, but their ability to play the sport is what is most important. No one will give a fuck if your prop managed to back squat 300kg, if they are getting out scrummed by their opposite number because they are buggered from the gym.
Get them better at the movements they need for their sport, and get them as strong as possible. That’s pretty much strength sports in a broad nutshell. They are the only athlete’s where their sport is literally lifting weights. An S&C coaches dream in a sense. Their needs will be pretty individual and often are more technique focused. The physiology required often speaks for itself dependant on the sport.
Powerlifting: Get as strong as possible in squats, bench press and deadlifts.
Weighlifting: Get as strong and as powerful in the clean and jerk and the snatch
Strongman: Get as strong and as powerful as possible picking up the most awkward bloody objects you can find. Carry out some conditioning whilst carrying said objects.
Little bit tongue in cheek on the last one, but it isn’t entirely inaccurate. Strength sports also fall into the category where they can peak for competition. Off season training is often about getting as jacked as possible, ironing out as many technique issues, rehabilitating / sorting out injuries and completing large amounts of volume. The exercises performed in the off season are also less specific than the competition lifts. As they get closer to competition, the specificity of the exercises they utilise increases. One of the main things that needs to be considered with Strength athlete’s is monitoring bodymass. You want to be ideally filling out your weight class with as much muscle as possible. If you are already fairly lean, and struggle to cut weight for competition then it may be worth looking at moving up a class. If you are new to the sport, weight cuts don’t matter. Focus on enjoyment and practise, don’t break yourself trying to lose weight for an arbitrary class when you are unlikely to be in any way competitive in the first place. Enjoy it, because trust me, forcing yourself to cut weight, particularly a lot of weight is bloody miserable and often hampers performance.