It ticks me off when fitness writers publish training articles that misinterpret information from scientific papers. When writers fail to completely understand their source material, they have no business sharing their opinions about a topic as important as strength training. These poorly written articles are one thing, but what really infuriates me (and should infuriate anyone in the same position) is when the information they are trying to interpret is something I originally wrote!
The problem of poorly researched and/or bad writing is getting worse because it has become easier to get articles published exactly as the author wants them published (ever since Al Gore’s “invention” of the Internet). In the past, if fitness writers wanted to see their names in print, they would have to go through at least one editor who would screen the material. And because there was competition for this coveted print space, often only the best articles were published. Now pretty much anyone can get their work published or even build their own web site and play editor for their own work.
The basic issue here goes beyond having good intentions and common sense. Authors need to learn how to evaluate the value of research studies as well as the significance of such phrases as, “Based upon the limits of this study…” This type of analytical skill is taught at any first-year exercise science class – at least it was when I went to college. For one thing, you’ve got to read the entire paper and not just the abstract to evaluate the limitations of a study. Maybe then you’d find out that perhaps one reason that “statistically significant” improvements were made with so many “one-set-per-exercise” training protocols was that the studies often lasted only a few weeks or used untrained subjects. Understand that and you’ll realize it doesn’t necessarily mean that the same workout will enable different subjects to make linear increases in strength and quickly challenge world records – or that an elite athlete will make any gains on the same system.
Let’s take another example. Two highly touted research studies that emphasized this point were conducted in the 1970s by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. His 1973 Colorado Experiment studied workouts consisting of low volume, high density training sessions. The big news about the Colorado Experiment was the amazing before-and-after photos of former Mr. America Casey Viator. Viator, who had lost a considerable amount of weight due to detraining and a reaction to penicillin (which had nearly killed him), was able to quickly return to his top form. In fact, as dramatically illustrated in the before-and-after photos, Viator gained 63.21 pounds of solid muscle in four weeks! Does this mean that if Viator had trained another four weeks he would have developed muscle mass to a level that would have dwarfed eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman? Of course not.
Two years after the Colorado Experiment, Jones followed up with a six-week study of West Point football players. Using the same type of training protocols Jones had used with Viator, the study involved West Point football players who had just finished their football season. Naturally, they were down in strength and made what appeared to be great results with the unique training protocols. In point of fact, however, much of the strength and muscle mass gains simply reflected the players return to their pre-season levels.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
A big concern when looking at strength training research studies is the protocols used. Several decades ago, much attention was focused on finding the optimal training protocol for sets and reps. A study would compare, say, three sets of 10 reps versus three of five versus three of three and would conclude that three sets of five reps was the superior protocol for developing strength. Such a study would be wrong from the start, since there is an inverse relationship between sets and reps. It would have been more appropriate to compare three sets of five reps to five sets of three reps, but that comparison still would have had problems because the researchers were looking for the single best workout program. It would have made more sense to compare simple programs of three sets of five reps and five sets of three reps to a protocol that alternates weekly between those two set/rep schemes.
Sometimes studies don’t look at whether a one-set/rep protocol is best. Instead, they look at whether weight training is superior to other types of training or even to no training at all. For example, one study on swimmers found that adding three weight training workouts to their training did not significantly improve swimming performance. Now, that was an exercise in futility if ever there was one. Since swimmers often are grossly over trained, adding an additional workout (whether it be weight training, plyometrics or even performing Tae Bo) would undoubtedly make these athletes even more over trained! In this case, the appropriate guideline should have been, “If you’re going to add something to a workout, you have to take something away!” On the other end of the spectrum, over trained bodybuilders often find they actually make significant gains for brief periods on low-volume training programs not because this is a superior training method but simply because they were overtraining. It pays to remember that fatigue masks fitness.
Sport Specific Gurus?
Fitness writers are often a pain, but often so are those who write research papers. I’d like to give one striking example, using the topic of sport specific training.
Recently, a colleague of mine sent me a copy of a research study about the value of weight training for gymnasts. The credentials of the four authors included two PhDs, one graduate degree and one undergraduate degree. The study was also reviewed by a PhD with an extensive background in weight training. In fact, he was a former world record holder!
The article cited a host of impressive references, respected sport scientists with last names familiar to any serious strength coach, names that included Hakkinen, Baker, Schmidtbleicher and Zatsiorsky. And what really interested me was the fact that one of my articles was cited eight times, giving the impression that I was endorsing their conclusions (or at least that the authors respected what I had to say). But here’s the kicker, a recommended exercise protocol that staggered me: “Gymnastics-relevant lifts and exercises may be reduced to only four: squats, presses, pull downs and deadlifts.” Say what?! Where the heck did that come from? Did a new world order come about when I wasn’t looking?
At the very least, anyone who knows me understands that I preach that pull ups and chin ups are far superior for training athletes than pull downs. And if I did indeed believe that presses and deadlift movements were vital, why not save time and do a power clean and press or power clean and push press? And what about including some exercises to correct muscle imbalances from extensive sport specific training? Including me as a reference for these authors’ conclusions simply didn’t make sense.
I bring up this example because I believe there are basically only three sports where you can do sport specific strength training: gymnastics, weightlifting and powerlifting. That’s it! Anybody who says that they have a “sport specific” training program is probably misdirected. Go ahead. Attach a racket to a low pulley and do tennis swings all you want. It won’t make you Roger Federer. It is not sport specific, and it will quickly destroy any inherent timing you might have to hit a tennis ball. And from my own coaching experience, I’ve found that “creative training” can also cause injury.
For example, when I started working with the Canadian Synchronized Swimming Team in the 1990s, there was an epidemic of shoulder injuries. To resolve the problem, I didn’t give them rotator cuff exercises. I had them stop all of the work they had been doing with surgical tubing. The problem was that the tubing had caused the long head of the biceps, which acts to protect the shoulder, to shut down as the tubing decelerated the arm. Then, when these athletes would swim, this muscle group did not function properly.
Can strength training make you a better golfer, a better judoka, a better pitcher or even a better gymnast? Of course, but the design should be based on logical principles. Since there is a group of well-educated gymnastic gurus who have serious problems correctly inferring information from my articles, let’s use the example of some of the steps I would use to train a gymnast.
- First, correct muscle imbalances and prepare the connective tissues for the demands of the sport. Due to the tremendous amount of hip flexor work gymnasts do in practicing their events, a gymnast should do heavy resistance training for the muscles of the posterior chain, such as the hamstrings. Also, there is insufficient eccentric overload in the sport because athletes use only their own bodyweight, so this deficiency would need to be addressed in the tempo prescriptions.
- Prevent injury in problematic areas of the sport. One PhD sport scientist said that one of the best ways to determine the exercises to do for a sport is to notice what muscle groups are sore after a hard sports training session. How about being proactive and looking first at what areas are commonly injured and performing additional exercises for them? An excellent reference book on this subject is Epidemiology of Sports Injuries by Caine, Caine and Lindner (Human Kinetics). Ankles are one of the most commonly injured areas in gymnastics, so this would be a good area to address in a strength training program.
- Increase maximal strength and rate of force development for the prime movers of the sport. To increase jumping ability, a gymnast should focus on explosive exercises for the major muscles used in jumping with Olympic lifting movements such as power snatches, power cleans and push presses.
- Teach maximal activation of the cross section of the muscles. Gymnasts not only need to use explosive exercises such as power snatches but also need to use the appropriate training protocols. Performing power snatches for sets of 10 would negate the effectiveness of the exercises. It’s better to use relative strength training protocols with methods such as cluster training.
If there’s one guiding principle to take away from this article, it’s to adopt a “skeptical” approach to reading – and this goes for my own writing. You’ll find that compared to my programs of 20 years ago, for example, I generally include much more variety in my current training programs, especially for elite athletes. At the time, I was going by the best information available. Now there’s the added benefit of 20 years of my own empirical experience and 20 years of research by the scientific community – for those of us who actually take the time to read and understand it! That’s the bottom line.