In this part 2 I’ll be diving into the strategies proposed by Frans Bosch that respect the laws of motor learning and training.
If you haven’t already read part 1 go back and do that first. In this part 2 I wanted to finish up with a final section of motor learning as I still felt there were a few topics that need covering to give coaches more tools on how to give feedback. (Although is not technically the focus of this sport specific blog series I felt it needed to be covered). Specificity of strength training in my opinion is not just about the exercises you choose but how ‘specific’ and relevant your cues are- this will have an influence on transfer outside of the gym too!
Laws of Motor Learning and Training
There are a number of principles of motor learning which have implications for an approach to strength training, such as the decentralised-control mechanism discussed in the last blog for making movements robust.
We already discussed one of the principles, knowledge of results (KR), based on feedback in terms of the intention-action model. Another principle is based on the importance of variable learning. Together these approaches provide room for self-organisation of motor patterns.
I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion on skill acquisition approaches as it is beyond the scope of the blog. But I’ll share you a video from Dr Mike Young in case you want more info
Here is Part 2 of Mike’s Video
The Exception To The Rule: when you can use an internal focus
However, there is one thing I didn’t mention about KR that I wanted to add in this blog. In general it is better to focus on information outside the body rather than within. The body particularly likes to know what the end result looks like.
As previously discussed, KR is the preferred feedback for the body (knowledge of the state achieved FOLLOWING the movement ie., you either land the jump in a balanced fashion or you didn’t, the ball hit the target or it didn’t!) rather than giving feedback on the internal features of the movement, knowledge of performance (KP).
There is a third type that isn’t really talked about but I believe is the secret sauce of the elite coaches. It’s called ‘Intrinsic KR.’
Intrinsic KR may at first seem like KP but if a ‘stable’ position of the head for example, (such as when hurdling or hitting a tennis ball) is termed KP information, it fails to take account that keeping the head still is the RESULT to be achieved through organisation elsewhere in the movement pattern. Basically if you get this right it takes care of a lot of other features of the movement up and down the chain.
So ask yourself what is the most important RESULT you want within the body?
This is subtly different to just giving the athlete all the cues in the world about every single joint position and trying to talk them into position! Pick the most important ‘beacons.’
Example 1: in running if you want the athlete to keep knees high when sprinting. You could just tell them to lift their knees higher…but elite coaches know that a better intrinsic KR attractor is to get them to run with a stick straight above their head. Being able to keep the arm straight is the RESULT of keeping the pelvis high and the knees up! Or hold a dumbbell overhead and punch the dumbbell into the air with the opposite arm.
Example 2: in running if you want to keep the pelvis and shoulders forward and not rotating put a wooden dowel on your back or skip with a rope. The stick must be kept as still as possible as a RESULT of keeping keeping pelvis still.
Example 3: a gymnast approaches the springboard prior to executing a vault. This requires considerable body tension. It can be controlled by keeping the arms high during take off. If the arms are high, body tension will automatically increase. The fact that the arms can be kept high is the RESULT of keeping body tension high.
Example 4: a baseball pitcher often taps the ball with their glove just before pitching. This releases RESULT information that tells them their shoulders are properly turned- otherwise they would be unable to touch the ball with their glove.
Example 5: an athlete often looks up and maintains visual with the ceiling as they complete an Olympic lift. This releases RESULT information that tells them their hip are properly position- otherwise if they popped up too early they would be unable to see the ceiling.
A possible rule here is the further the effect of the movement is located from the cause of the movement, the better the movement can be controlled.
Example in Tennis of the external to internal focus:
- Remote and external: where the ball lands after it is it
- Less remote and external: the shape of the ball trajectory as it crosses the net
- Close and external: the contact point where the ball is hit
- External and process-orientated: the turning of the racket when the ball is hit
- External and result-orientated: where the racket ends up (follow through) after the the stroke
- Broadly internal: extension of the body when hitting through the ball (use your legs)
- Narrowly internal and process-orientated: the wrist movement when the ball is hit
Some attention-focusing strategies work better than others. There is a simple rule that indicates what works best: the further away from the process the better.
What do the best coaches do to improve movement?
First: they know the features or ‘attractors’ of world class movement (by definition- this is a feature of movement that all world class athletes do irrespective of their ‘style.’)
Second: by knowing what the attractors they can direct the athlete to good result information, because good result information can only be found in stable attractor components of movement. Being able to anticipate result information (and therefore plan) is the core of motor control, and the clearer the information, the better the control.
This could be as simple as a tennis coach knowing that a still head position is an attractor meaning keeping the head still is the RESULT to be achieved through organisation elsewhere. So they focus their attention on something further away from the head to keep it still.
I saw a great example with Louis Cayer getting a player to wear a baseball cap over one side of their face so it covered their right eye. If they didn’t keep their shoulders turned (another attractor) so they could see out of their left eye they were effectively running to the ball blind.
Specificity within Strength & Power Training
Now we will look at exercise classification. Please remember that this blog is concerned with exercises that help to improve athletic performance. There are numerous other benefits of strength training but here we are only concerned with the contribution that practising one movement makes to improving another movement, known as transfer of training.
One of the criticisms of strength training exercises is they are almost always ‘part-practice’ exercises, in which a small number of aspects of the sporting movement are trained in isolation. Part practice allows greater emphasis on those isolated aspects, which can be trained without the possible disruptive influences of other components of the sporting movement.
This allows ‘overload’ to be created in the exercises. The rational is that this greatly improves individual aspects, which can have an important impact on the overall movement. Bosch argues that such transfer is not self-evident for the sensorimotor links (the contextual relationship between the sensory and motor information) will be different in part practice and in the sporting movement.
The common practice of choosing exercises that are solely based on similarity of joint angles and angle changes cannot therefore guarantee the intended transfer. To talk about transfer it is useful to ask a few questions.
Question: how does the amount of force produced in the strength exercise relate to the amount of force produced during the sporting movement?
Question: how does the mechanisms of force production in the gym relate to the sporting movement, for example is the sporting movement reflex driven with decentralised control mechanism, and how does that relate to the strength exercise?
Question: are your power measurements an accurate reflection of the power produced in sporting movements? Is it a sport with a fixed speed of movement or a change in speed and hence a change in power produced?
Strength and Transfer
Frans comments ”coaches are far too likely to assume that the maximal amount of force a muscle can produce is always achieved in the gym. We have already seen that a number of sporting movements (running) display an extreme pattern of excitation and inhibition at spinal-cord level owing to reflex support (the stumble reflex, the crossed extensor reflex and so on). As a result, larger peaks of force production occur in such movements than those that can be achieved through maximal voluntarily contraction (MVC).”
He goes on to say, ”If the maximal force that can be produced during the exercise is less than during the sporting movement, the exercise serves no purpose when it comes to providing overload. Simply jumping evidently makes you very strong without any need for strength training.”
Daz comment: I agree with the concept that the maximal load that an athlete can lift with a barbell is not the maximal force that the muscle can produce. But I disagree with the concept that it serves no purpose. For me, there is value in bridging the gap between what the muscle will have to do in the sporting movement and what the muscle is capable of doing in the gym. Furthermore, Frans constantly refers to the shock type movements in sport which occur with very sudden impact forces of 6-8X BWT, as evidence for the lack of transfer of traditional strength training. However, there are many movements in sport that involve acceleration and deceleration forces with 2x or even 3x BWT where we know elite athletes in the gym can approach these force outputs.
Frans constantly refers to the relevance of training the hamstring, calf, and abdominals ISOMETRICALLY, as this is how these muscles function in throwing, running and jumping tasks. They use the elastic muscle action. Interesting he states (pg 278) that:
Since elastic muscle action is optimised by better recruitment of the contractile elements, maximal strength training is particularly suitable for creating conditions for improving elastic movements.
To me this justifies the reason to do maximal strength training, it’s the foundation on which to build up to the advanced isometric protocols you may have seen Alex Natera and Dr Mike Young use with sprinters.
Finally, Bosch states (pg 285) ”sporting movements have to be executed at high speed, making it very difficult to learn complex patterns in stages. Strength training is appropriate for learning and improving certain components of a movement pattern, because the increased resistance allows the characteristics of the high-intensity movement to be maintained without the movement having to be executed at high speed. Strength training thus compliments technique training.”
As I said, if you read the book carefully enough you will see Frans is advocating use of traditional strength training, but he is simply cautioning us to reflect on what role it plays. Hint: it’s not to enhance a specific sport movement 🙂
Power and Transfer
In many sporting movements maximal strength is not a performance determining factor. The intention in many sports is to accelerate either the athlete’s own body or an object that is already moving at some speed. This tends to shift the interest to ways to use power training to create a link between force production and velocity.
Frans comments ”measuring force at a single speed will not tell us anything about a performance in which speed keeps increasing. Even if the sport in question seems to have a more or less constant speed of movement (rowing, speed skating and so on), the speed of muscle action does vary within a cycle. Power measurements may therefore be rather questionable if they are carried out in a movement pattern that differs from the sporting movement.”
He also questions the specificity of power testing when in many cases there is disparity in the similarity between test and sporting movement. Variable to consider include:
- Rate of Force Development (RFD) important in your sport- first tenth of a second (0.1 or hundred milliseconds) versus training of RFD against resistance in strength exercises lasting longer than 150 milliseconds)
- Bodyweight versus Barbell loaded jumps*/landmine punch
- Double leg versus single leg
- Double arm versus single arm
- Deceleration at the end vs no deceleration (speed bench press vs bench throw)
*When you use a barbell on your back the load acts eccentrically on the muscles, thus providing the pre-tensioning needed to reduce the muscle slack. If you start from a squat position without a barbell there will be plenty of muscle slack. Frans also states ”in power training, high resistance facilitates both the beginning (RFD) and the end (deceleration) of the movement, thus making the movement easier to coordinate. Especially at a high level of mastery, such ‘simplication’ of coordination of course does little to help athletes learn the complexity of explosive athletic movements.
Frans comments that ”in virtually all explosive sports the first tenth of a second of the action is crucial, and no major external resistance has to be overcome. Therefore this makes it difficult to determine if training training of RFD using strength exercises lasting longer than about 150 milliseconds yield positive, neutral or even negative transfer to the quality of RFD without resistance.”
Frans does go on to say that there is possible value of a general block of training (of strength and power training one presumes) sought in an area other than applicability within the sporting movement, such as increasing the robustness of the musculoskeletal system.
Frans prefers to focus not so much on the power outputs because it varies across so many speeds and makes it hard to identify the limiting factor for power. The real problem is how to adapt intermuscular cooperation for optimal execution of the high intensity sporting movement. The solution is to use light weights and perform movement patterns that are largely controlled by basic rhythm and reflex-supported muscle control (stumble reflex and crossed-extensor reflex).
twelve sets of five to six repetitions, emphasis on RFD. During a competititon period, preference may be given to reflex training, because of the highly specific RFD and limited fatigue after training.
I would firstly refer readers to the journal article by Andersen & Aagaard (2006) which is one of the journal articles I refer to in my ‘Force Hacks For Strength Coaches’ Training. If you want to sign up for the FREE training click below:
In the journal it highlights that ”At time intervals later than 90 ms from contraction onset maximal muscle strength could account for 52–81% of the variance in voluntary RFD (Fig. 6).” So before you dismiss the role of maximal strength training completely be sure to acknowledge how much it accounts for the variance at sport relevant speeds.
But on the topic of power training I think his statements are valid, which is one of the reasons why I think power testing has more limited scope in actually determining an athlete’s ability to meet the dynamic explosive demands of the sporting movement at the elite level, and is really more a guide to inform whether they have a general ability to produce a certain level of force at a certain speed of movement. This may indicate whether your general programming needs to be directed more to the force or velocity side of the continuum.
As far as my overall conclusions go there is one thing I do 100% agree with Frans. He finishes his review of strength and power transfer with the comment that a lot of the traditional strength training while not suited for transfering to the sporting movement, it is in fact highly suited to optimising the coordination within a single muscle (intramuscular coordination) and for optimising cooperation between muscles (intermuscular coordination).
Specific cooperation between the muscles in a contextual movement is based on fixed building block of intermuscular cooperation
In terms of contextual transfer to non-linear control of the sporting movement, strength training is particularly suitable for exercising and improving these building block.
Hopefully, we now have a common language of what aspect of a strength exercise is specific. It’s NOT specific to the WHOLE movement– hence my title of the blog- there is no such thing as a specific strength exercise for an entire movement! Duh! That should be obvious now!!!
But there are ways muscles can be trained in the gym to target ‘specific cooperation.‘ Has the penny dropped? Still not sure? Let me give you an example. The cooperation between the back muscles and the hamstrings, both of which are attached to the pelvis. The back muscles must work to stop the hamstrings from pulling the pelvis into too much posterior tilt, reducing tension in hamstrings which is not conducive to high speed running. (Remember the elastic properties of the hamstring/achilles is what enables the decentralised mechanism of extremely high force absorption during sprinting- to do this the hamstring must work isometrically at its optimal length). This is why you see a lot of sprinters with their backs well extended.
Six exercises that help this intermuscular coordination:
- Single leg good morning
- Single leg Bosch hamstring hold (60% BWT for 2-3 sec rising to 100% BWT for 3-4 sec)
- Step up (25cm box with heavy Barbell equal to athlete’s BWT)
- Barbell Lunge and forward bend (the body’s centre of mass moving forward increases the moment arm of the mass above the hip. The back muscles must remain at the optimal length, and at the same time the hamstrings must generate a great deal of force to fix the hip).
- Barbell balance (barbell on your back)- can also be done as balance-to-clean* (shown below) or a balance-to-snatch
Intramuscular pattern for hamstring examples:
Single leg Bosch hamstring hold (strength exercise)
Barbell balance (RFD exercise)
*The last exercise ‘barbell balance’ is a specific exercise to running as it give intrinsic KR. The back foot must be kept still and placed on the box in front as a RESULT of keeping pelvis still without rotation.
It’s generally advised to form the fixed patterns ‘attractors’ of the lower limb in a closed-skill setting (mainly sagittal plane) and to train the improved forms without barbells (a broomstick or aqua-bag for instance, is often sufficient).
This principle can also apply to the shoulder girdle. Scapulohumeral rhythm is a fixed rhythm involving upward (lateral) rotation in relation to abduction in the shoulder joint. In this rhythm, there are fixed principles of cooperation between muscles, e.g. the upper and lower trapezius and deltoid muscles. Another example is protraction of the shoulder blade by the serratus anterior and flexion by the pectoralis major muscle.
In a complete pattern such as a throw or a tennis smash, the use of these building blocks (attractors) results in a highly contextual universal movement pattern. The arrangement of the building blocks must be self organising so exercises like the ones below are preferred, by keeping a large number of degrees of freedom in the exercise:
- Single arm dumbbell overhead press
- Scapular wall slides
- Abdominal bracing with plate press
- Bear crawls
- Water filled bags (aqua-bags)
- Medicine balls
Throwing is dominated at the intramuscular level by elastic muscle action (in the same way it is for running). The intention of the movement is defined by the trajectory of the ball. In strength training it is wiser to be satisfied with specificity at the recruitment level in more or less isometric conditions, as that is a key component of the elastic muscle action.
Specificity in terms of intention (wrist movement at the end position and trajectory of the ball) could only be accounted for in types of training in which resistance is close to the resistance faced during sporting movements, such as throwing weighted balls. Be cautious here though, as the kinetic energy has to be transported differently here so even something that seems very specific isn’t as much as we would think. The throw with a weighted ball has to be timed different.
In thrust and push movements (like a punch) with a clear beginning and end, specificity can be increased simply by moving towards a clear end point in the exercise (eg a ball hanging from a string).
One of the biggest criticisms of exercises in the gym is that they provide little or no sensorimotor stimulation. I’m pretty comfortable with that because for me the gym is not a playground to try and overload movement specificity. The limited specificity there is lies in the intramuscular and intermuscular specificity stated above. There are no movements that can combine quantitative overload and movement specificity at the gross level so stop looking for them.
For inexperienced coaches (and athletes) I’d focus on the ‘safe zone’ or choosing exercises at both ends of the overload and specificity continuum. The questions that arise there are fairly easy to answer- how to increase strength in the gym or the control/speed of the sporting movement for example?
These are good starting points for expanding the repertoire by adding types of training that are closer to the centre of the model.
Furthermore, in sport the more important efficiency of movement is to performance (e.g long distance running or any endurance sport) the more variation should be built into strength training. Also, the more complex the sporting movement (e.g. Tennis) the more variation.
Perhaps being obsessed with power measurement and carefully chosen barbell weights for a very specific link of speed and force might only be important in sports that are simple in motor terms, such as cycling.
An approach based on exercise physiology (overload) is then less useful than one based on motor learning (variation).
My take is that overload is important to bridge the gap between forces experienced in the sporting action and those performed in the gym. Furthermore, strength training is highly suited to optimising the coordination within a single muscle (intramuscular coordination) and for optimising cooperation between muscles (intermuscular coordination).
Strength training serves to get force production in the more complex patterns of the sporting movement ‘under way.’ That is why experienced coaches are right to describe strength levels in the gym as good enough. Instead of pushing for higher and higher maximal strength levels, they are satisfied with a reasonable level, for this may ensure that force production will develop further when executing the sporting movement. A good example is the single leg- Bosch hold with an extra 60% of the athlete’s body weight to prevent injury, and and extra 90% of it to achieve good sprinting speeds.
If the level of the athlete is already high and the athlete already has vast experience of high-resistance training, there will be much less progress, or indeed none at all. In that case, it is very useful to look more closely at ways of varying the environment (in the gym).
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