A martial arts instructor once told me that “black belt” to him doesn’t mean “expert”, it means “interested learner.” The same could (hopefully) be said of a person with a Kinesiology degree or CSCS certification.
I hear from more and more ultimate players going into exercise science and related fields. This is extraordinarily exciting to me. I’m glad that so many ultimate players will be contributing to the knowledge base of strength and conditioning within the ultimate community.
The field of strength and conditioning is fairly new. The widespread use of strength and conditioning principles in training for ultimate is newer still. We’re all learning and we’re all in this together! It’s in this spirit that I share with you and all other aspiring ultimate strength and conditioning coaches a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Five Things I Didn’t Learn in School
1. Training for athletic performance is much different than training for general fitness.
In school we learned about the basic principles of overload and adaptation. But we did not learn much that would help with what happens as an athlete gets closer and closer to genetic potential. After a year or two of serous training gains in strength or any other athletic quality gets progressively harder.
Most people with exercise science degrees won’t end up working with serious athletes and so we actually are not trained very well in how to deal with them. This is something you should be aware of if you’re looking around for a personal trainer of strength and conditioning coach. A degree or CSCS certification does not necessarily mean that a person is prepared to train you as an athlete (though they are far more likely to be able to do so than someone without a CSCS cert.)
2. Functional Strength Training
Count on any disciplines textbook to be at least 10 years behind what’s actually being practiced in the field or what’s actually known from the latest research. Writing a textbook takes a long time. Consequently even what’s in the CSCS exam prep textbook is a very far cry from the type of strength training that is used by most modern strength and conditioning coaches and facilities.
3. How the endocrine system really works.
Like many things, we learned about the endocrine system in isolation. We learned about human growth hormones, testosterone, estrogen etc. But we did not learn about the endocrine system in connection to anything else. We did not learn how to vary a training protocol to elicit a beneficial hormone response. We did not learn how nutrition, and more importantly sleep, influence hormone release.
Or maybe we had a day or two of lecture where I just didn’t pay attention.
4. Practical Periodization of training for multi-sprint athletes
This, I think, is the most glaring omission. Each athletic quality is treated separately. Textbooks have examples of periodized endurance training or periodized strength training. But there was very little provided for how to think about athletes who need to use ALL of the athletic qualities.
There was also very little discussion of periodization models other than linear or undulating periodization. Perhaps this is why so many ultimate players are stuck on the idea that they need to do linearly periodized track workouts.
I’m still learning about and experimenting with different types of periodization. Nonlinear periodization has proven especially effective for in season training. And I recently heard an amazing lecture on triphasic periodization at the NSCA conference that has my head spinning (in a good way)
5. How to do science.
My chemistry degrees taught me how to do science and how to read the research with a critical eye. I am very thankful for these skills. Many of my peers are lacking in these skills and are easily swayed by every new research study, or worse, every new blog post.
I will never forget sitting in a sociology of sport class and learning about the scientific method. One of the acceptable ways of doing research was to “form a hypothesis and search for supporting evidence.” Really? Ok so granted we were in a sociology course but still… the professor was supposedly doing hard research in the field of kinesiology and didn’t seem totally horrified by this sentence in the textbook or in his own Power Point slides.
The University of Illinois has a highly respected program and is doing some great research. However, the whole field of Strength and Conditioning is very new. Remember when physics research consisted of dropping objects off the tower of Piza? Well, that’s kind of where we’re at in the field of strength and conditioning research.
I am not saying school is a waste of time. I am grateful for my education at the University of Illinois. Despite my statements above, it was a very good program with some excellent professors. It’s inevitable that most learning occurs afterwards. Since graduating and trying to practically apply what I know to my own training and to other ultimate players, I have learned by reading many books and many blogs. Other things I learned through experience and by watching others.
I spent a year working at Power Train Sports Institute as their content and social media manager. Power Train specializes in training professional athletes and those aspiring to be professional athletes or earn college scholarships. I won’t claim that I personally trained professional athletes. However, I spent a lot of time looking at their programming and watching them train. Much of what I learned and use in The Ultimate Athlete Project I had figured out prior to my Power Train experience. Working there reaffirmed that the programming I had developed and thought was how professional athletes trained was, in fact, correct. Still I learned a few important lessons.
1. What plyos are supposed to look like.
You would not believe how quietly an elite track athlete can land and rebound. When you see high hurdle hops done soundlessly by a D-1 track star, it makes you wonder if any but the most elite athletes can do high intensity plyos as they’re truly meant to be done.
2. Muscle mass is powerful stuff!
People who worry that strength training will cause them to gain weight have never seen a 250 lb athlete do box jumps. It is equal parts frightening and inspiring to watch that much mass move that explosively. Sure, if you train like a bodybuilder you might not improve your vertical. But if you train for functional, powerful strength you will become much more athletic. Don’t let your fear of getting bigger prevent you from getting stronger and jumping higher.
3. Many professional organizations are far, far behind the times.
Just as in ultimate, coaches really, really want their athletes to do the same training they did when they were playing. (At Power Train Sports we had athletes in the off season. When they went back to their organizations for preseason training, they had to do the team workouts. They would tell us stories of the workouts they were subjected to.) Consequently you will still find professional baseball players running long distances, football players focusing too much on their bench press numbers, and professional endurance athletes who refuse to do any strength training.
4. Some professional athletes are lazy.
It’s just an inconvenient truth for strength and conditioning coaches. Some extraordinary athletes barely do any strength training. Or they just do the bare minimum required by their organization (which is at least something). Some athletes just have a natural athletic abilities that will surpass what the average person can do regardless of how hard they work. Still, longevity in professional sports is reserved for those who figure out how to take care of their bodies. And this care, of course includes mobility work and functional strength training.
5. Creating an effective program is part art, part science.
When I started Ultimate Results I paid a lot of attention to the primary research. I still do. However, the more research I read, the more I realized it’s just very difficult to do really high quality, highly rigorous scientific research about the human system. You cannot do a controlled study on elite athletes because there are not enough of them. Furthermore, professionals cannot afford to risk training time on protocols that might not help them further their careers just for the sake of science. Consequently, most research is done on (mostly) male, fairly untrained kinesiology students.
I’d like to use methods only proven by science but that’s just not possible. I’ve learned to pay attention to what’s being used by experienced strength and conditioning coaches. There is usually a method to the madness regardless of what the science says. I’ve also learned that many schools of thought can lead to similar results in performance.
I continue to be an ultimate player first and a strength and conditioning coach second. As I stay current in the strength and conditioning field, as I try out new things on myself and my UAP members, everything I learn and share is with the goal of enhancing performance on the ultimate field.
I’m thrilled to be writing regularly again for Skyd Magazine and for you guys. In my upcoming articles I’ll continue to strike the balance between theory with immediate applicability.
Please leave a comment below and tell me what topics you want to learn more about!