Are You Training Like an Athlete?

by | September 18, 2014, 6:30am 0

In the world of strength and conditioning coaching, we have a word for folks who come into the facility looking to get a good workout in, stay in shape, and look good naked. These folks are “gen pop” clients. “Gen pop” is short for general population. Gen pop clients are treated differently than the athlete clients. Their motivations are different. Their workouts are different.

If you want to be a gen pop, that’s totally fine. Eventually, we will all be gen pop. But while you are training for ultimate, you don’t want to be gen pop. You want to be an athlete. You need a training plan with a focus on athletic performance.

The Ultimate Athlete Project is open this week (until Sunday). In the UAP website, you’ll find programming created with the goal of performance on the ultimate field. The programming in the UAP follows the principles outlined below.

No matter what program or plan you choose to follow, I don’t want you to get stuck in the land of gen pop mediocrity. In this post, I’ll outline the differences between training like an athlete and training like a gen pop so that you can better tweak your own training plan or choose to outsource with confidence.

Training for Aesthetics vs Training for Performance

Look at the marketing language for any mass marketed exercise programs or equipment and you’ll see the emphasis is on how the program/equipment will make you look more attractive. While I am not opposed to you being more attractive, that should not be your primary focus when training for ultimate. It may be a happy byproduct. How the aesthetic priority shows up in a program is most easily seen in the type of strength training recommended.

Isolation Exercises vs Functional Movement

Programming designed for aesthetics will sometimes mimic body building exercises and rep schemes. Exercises used are isolation exercises. An isolation exercise targets one muscle group at a time. For example, the bicep curl isolates the bicep.  Contrast this with a functional strength training approach. In functional strength training, complex movements are chosen that not only target large muscle groups, but also engage stabilizing muscles (those that guide the prime movers.) An example of a more functional movement exercise would be a split squat to row or a single leg SLDL. In functional strength training we often use the phrase “train movements not muscles.” You can see how the preceding exercises would be more transferable to performance on the ultimate field where cutting and jumping occur on one leg and where coordination is paramount.

Circuit Training vs Strength Training

Another hallmark of programs designed with aesthetics in mind is circuit training. I’m not saying athletes never do circuit training. But it is not the dominant type of strength training protocol used. Circuit training is excellent for improving body composition (aka burning fat and enhancing metabolism). However, it is not good for increasing strength.

Tangential note – 90% of the current traffic to my old blog is fitness folks looking for info about circuit training. I’ve written way too much about this topic and you can check it out here if you like.

Strength Training for Performance

Strength training for performance uses functional strength exercises rather than isolation exercises. Single leg strength and bilateral strength are both important. Ultimate players will also want to build strength and stability around the shoulders.

Rather than doing only one type of strength training, sets and rep schemes will change throughout the offseason and throughout the year. In general, strength training for athletic performance will include more high weight, low rep work than general fitness programs. Strength training for athletic performance must also incorporate some high speed lifting (olympic lift variations, medicine ball work, etc) in order to express strength quickly as power.

Training vs. Exercise

I’ll start with my favorite quote from Mark Rippetoe: “Capital-T Training is the process of driving a physical adaptation in a specific direction for a specific purpose, while capital-E Exercise is what we do for the way it makes us feel today: before, during, and after the workout itself. For most people – housewives, car salesmen, fat people, the dull and torpid – Exercise is enough. It’s better than sitting on your ass. But at some point, some of these people will graduate to Training, and when this happens, planning must occur.”

Quantity vs Quality

In training there will be some workouts that aren’t hard. You might not get to feel like you crushed it. Some days might be easy! Low volume, heavy lifting or sprint work may leave you feeling like you didn’t do much. But low volume, heavy lifting is what you need to develop true strength.

The truth is, workouts that lead to better athletic performance often stress the nervous system more than the metabolic system. We cannot immediately feel stresses to the nervous system. Our heart rate or breathing won’t increase the way it does when we run repeat shuttles. You don’t feel the burn from a max effort jump or short acceleration– there’s no way to feel that you’ve just recruited as many muscle fibers as possible in a short amount of time. Training for a max vertical jump does not feel like a workout. But it is exactly this type of training which leads to increases in speed, agility, and vertical jumping that ultimate players seem least inclined to do.

Random Workouts vs Training Specificity

For the general population looking for a good workout, variety is extremely important. A personal trainer needs to keep things interesting and somewhat fun or she will lose her clients!

For athletes, variety is less important. Where there is variety, it serves a purpose. The main problem with fitness programs created for the general population is that they often have NO long term planning.  Yes, they have progressions (things you can do to make exercises easier or harder).  But there is no long term plan to build one athletic quality upon another.

The body adapts best if you focus on one main athletic quality you’re trying to improve.  Rarely do you want to completely neglect any aspect of your training, but you always want to have a clear emphasis. You must also make sure your training goals do not contradict one another. For example, you cannot effectively make serious gains in max strength and endurance at the same time unless you are a beginner to training. Sometimes during the year you will let some athletic qualities suffer a bit so that you can focus on others. While this can be psychologically difficult and you may fear getting out of shape, you will come out and a much better place athletically over the long term than if you try to make gains in everything all at once as general fitness programs do.

Planning for Performance

Furthermore, it helps if you put the athletic qualities you focus on in the right order.  If you’ve been on a team that does track workouts, you may have experienced attempts at this.  You start out doing 400’s, then 200’s then gradually decrease the distances.  The thought is endurance first, then speed. However, many strength and conditioning coaches are questioning this method of training.  If you don’t have speed in the first place, are you really training to help that speed last longer?  Now the more common thinking is speed and power first, then speed and power endurance.

Having a well thought out plan emphasizing one main goal at a time and putting these training blocks in order is what will get you the best results.

In The Ultimate Athlete Project, we start with a preparation to learn proper form and get used to different exercises.  Then we alternate between building strength and power through the offseason.  Late offseason is when we’ll hit speed and jumping work hard.  Pre-season is when we’ll focus more on conditioning and move to more sport-specific work.

However you decide to plan your training, I hope you’ll start early and create a well thought out plan that will enhance your performance in the spring. If you want a complete plan designed with ultimate in mind, you can check it out here.


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