This article arises from some recent conversations I had on the role of numbers in strength and conditioning. In all conversations a clear theme was (as I am sure readers might be able to relate to) that in this field there is a pretty large obsession with numbers, answers, evidence of theory and evidence of practice (or progress). But most importantly, both conversations planted the question in my head:
What numbers am I looking at or am I looking for, and what am I using them for?
Introduction: A train of thoughts
I have had the privilege of visiting many S&C programs in different places around the world and I’ve also had the privilege of listening to very successful coaches speak about their methods. All over the world there is a growing emphasis in strength and conditioning on numbers… think of some of the few: bodyweight strength targets, barbell displacement velocities, hamstring strength numbers, injury statistics, sprint times, conditioning targets, reactive strength index, anthropometry, … the list seems never-ending! Even subjective things like perceived exertion had to get a scale, because simply saying “that was fucking hard” or “nah, piece of cake” wasn’t good enough, things must be quantified (for the better or for the worse).
One of my personal weaknesses is that I can be impatient, and particularly when a list of things is too big (for example, if I am looking at a ton of different scores across multiple tests for a squad of players and I am expecting improvements in everything) I can find this process quite overwhelming. But of major concern for me with all these numbers we are looking for as evidence that the athletes are progressing and that our job hasn’t been a waste of time essentially, is the amount of time invested. A few years ago, when I was first learning about coaching in strength and conditioning, I remember spending time with coaches that dedicated a full session to testing athletes on a monthly basis or every 2 weeks. In the scenario that you have let’s say 3 gym sessions a week with the athletes, 12 months a year (probably not the case), that means an investment of 12 hours out of 144 that year to testing… Bear in mind we are not regarding the sessions which will be cancelled due to logistical issues, holidays or where not all players will be present (i.e. it will end up looking something like 12 out of 70-90 full-attendance full-productivity sessions a year, if you are lucky). Long story short, feels like a lot of time to me…
In addition to this, I am yet to come across a perfectly transferable battery of tests to field performance or injury prevention; so not only is it a lot of time, but equally a lot of time invested in squeezing numbers out of tests that do not guarantee ecological validity. Yes, I know eccentric strength lowers hamstring injury risk, yes, I know if you back squat 2 times bodyweight you will solve world hunger... if you keep reading this article you’ll see I’m not saying don’t test, rather I am saying use your time better (i.e. don’t adapt to the numbers, make the numbers adapt to you). I am also yet to come across an athlete that is ready for testing every start or end of the month for the duration of a competitive season.
And the biggest concern to me is what is happening with those numbers?! Yeah fair enough people need to protect their jobs, but simply think mathematically, the more numbers you have, the less clear your picture will be anyways… Yeah fair enough people want to see that their program is working, trust me I get that; but it is quite unrealistic to see improvements in all the different numbers or physical performance parameters for all the different athletes unless you have the perfect program every time, which if you do please message me at email@example.com or on Instagram.
When I have pretty fundamental questions like this one (i.e. what to test, why and what to do with it?), I tend to refer to the essence of whatever I am doing, in this case preparing athletes physically for competition. So first I reflected by myself, and then I asked two mentors, two head sport coaches I have worked with and two athletes what they thought were the key things an S&C coach should deliver regardless of sport, this in hope of informing what to test (it was a simple downscaled market research – ask the customers what they want from you).
I received quite a variety of responses ranging from “just know your shit” to “help my mobility” to “keep the players fit” to “make me stronger and more powerful” to “know your head coach’s style of play” … all important things. But there were three clear themes across the board. So, I went and sort of took a step back after speaking to the last guy and thought maybe the answer is a lot simpler than I thought. These guys want to be strong, fast and injury-free (no shit). So, I made a little figure schematic (see below).
So far, I’ve told you nothing you didn’t already know, you must be thinking “wow, this social isolation is making Adriano crazy!!”. You’re half right, but just bear with me. Essentially, I’ve tried to develop a model for you as the coach to make the numbers adapt to you instead of you having to adapt to the numbers (and lose time testing). I originally made this for myself with the purpose of collecting valuable data without having to directly invest time in the process. Then, I would be able to focus the time I had to other more important things like actually coaching exercises, talking and getting to know the athletes better every day, addressing any individual concerns / niggles, talking to the coaches that are assisting our sessions and gathering feedback from everyone involved. This model branches from the figure above (i.e. the ultimate targets or KPI’s of an S&C coach), ultimately ensuring that the numbers you are looking at or for align with the essence of your role as an S&C coach. I must say that I don’t want to tell you or anyone what to do or how to do things, I am far too inexperienced to do that. Therefore, this model is purposely malleable, so you can tailor it to your specific coaching environment, philosophy and principles, preferences and most importantly, to the athletes.
Section 1: The model
So, here it goes… Your big rocks are essentially what you believe to be the purest expression of the respective characteristics. For example, this is where Mike Boyle may put the split squat under strength, Louis Simmons may put the back squat, Bret Contreras may put the hip thrust and Bob Alejo may put the barbell deadlift (all valid, yet different across coaching preferences [see? I told you it would be flexible]). My advice when choosing what to fill these first three boxes with would be: think of something that you know will be a regular part of your program for the entirety of the season. It’s a big call to make, but the reason for this is that if you regularly change this one assessment, the precision of your data will be at stake. Yes, I know there are conversion tables that will tell you how much you can clean based off your front squat, but bear in mind these come with important assumptions including technique proficiency and disregard inter-session and inter-individual differences in neuromuscular capabilities (i.e. I’ve seen an athlete make 90% pred-RM look piss easy, and I’ve also seen athletes grind an 80% pred-RM). Again, consistency of measurement will allow you to paint a clearer picture; also, the less technical requirements in a test the better. Think, consistency of performance reduces the chances of a learning effect (i.e. I would always pick a vertical jump to assess explosive strength over an Olympic lifting derivative).
Your grains or spices, whatever you want to call them, are corresponding but secondary expressions of the above characteristics, with room for change and technical progressions / regressions; but that you still want to track on a shorter-term basis. Essentially, these are key data that should supplement that picture you want to make, whilst allowing for change. For instance, I may want to progress a single-leg kettlebell deadlift to a single-leg landmine deadlift but because the latter has greater loading potential, but I can’t be looking at both and expecting linear improvements (which you shouldn’t expect anyways, but you get my point). Under the health category, you may for example want to implement subjective ratings (e.g. muscle soreness) (see below) during especially strenuous times of the season or training blocks to get a feel of who is in what state, but this may not be the best use of time always (particularly if it doesn’t yield consistency in your group of athletes).
The reason why there’s three boxes under the strength category is quite logistical. Given that we are in a more controlled environment with the athletes when we are in the gym, it may often be easier to collect numbers, but also to breakdown physical performance characteristics into individual subcategories (e.g. for strength: upper body push/pull, hinge, squat, uni-lateral, bi-lateral, rotation, anti-rotation, etc.). Whereas, an extensive battery of tests for speed, health, agility (don’t get me started on agility) is where we can often over-complicate things and this can become overwhelming and confusing for the S&C coach. But anyways that is just my personal point of view currently.
Section 2: Example of structuring the model
I’ll briefly outline the structure that I have proposed here based on what I believe are some of the most valuable components of athletic performance training programs. However, I encourage readers to fill in the boxes based on their individual coaching intuition, philosophy and principles. Under strength I would suggest that the big rock involves a whole-body bilateral grinding movement, which provides an indication of maximal strength. Ideally, the movement has low technical requirements, which ensures that athletes can perform it consistently well. To complement this, the structure I suggest under grains or spices would involve 1) a uni-lateral movement that corresponds to your big rock, this will give you insight into possibly asymmetries and magnitude of bilateral deficit 2) an upper body push and 3) an upper body pull, which again can reveal possible asymmetries and give a solid indication of shoulder health. In one of the conversations I had with one of my mentors I actually thought that if I had access to force plates, I wouldn’t even test strength movements; the reason for this being that you can extract peak force (indicator of maximal strength) data from a CMJ which we can be pretty certain that will produce less inter-session variability (i.e. error) and allow the athlete to use the energy (that he otherwise would on the strength test) on other (more important) components of his training.
For speed it is very simple, I think every athlete should sprint (and probably should jump too [and in most cases it will be in that order of importance, but let’s make our lives easier]). Therefore, it makes sense to have such an assessment. We know that sprinting is the single-best practical assessment and training stimulus of velocity and testing is quite simple, so this is probably a no brainer. Similar to strength assessments, the speed big rock will be succeeded by a micro-level (i.e. short-term, grains or spices) corresponding speed assessment (in Section 2 I will take you through some practical examples). Again, if you think differently to me or work with athletes with different priorities this is by no means a ‘set in stone’ approach, you may feel it is more appropriate to have jump instead of sprint assessments.
Finally, under health, I have suggested that the big rock involves some form of injury tracking statistic, which would naturally be a primary outcome of your work as an S&C coach. Under grains or spices you may want to include a measure of wellbeing which is more vulnerable to adherence from athletes and fluctuations across cycles of the season (more on this to follow).
Section 3: Example of filling the model
So hopefully if you are still reading this article, you are beginning to see the picture I am trying to make. Your big rocks will provide insight into the chronic or longer-term changes in the athletes, whereas your grains or spices may give you an indication of more acute or shorter-term changes from the current training block they are on and the adaptations you are pursuing. With strength, grains or spices will help massively with load prescription (more on this to come in Part 2) Although still a work in progress, sticking to this model can provide a sustainable means of tracking physical progress in the athletes and simultaneously having data to validate your training program without dedicating any direct time to testing (more on this to come in Part 2), Now let’s work through some examples.
By following the structure that I initially proposed, I have now filled in the model with practical content. In this particular case, my three big rocks will be the Trap-bar deadlift (strength), the 20m sprint (speed), and the injury time-loss (i.e. burden) statistic (health). What do you think? Pretty gold-standard representation of the three characteristics? Maybe you agree, maybe not… but it doesn’t matter because you can fill it in as you wish!
I must reinforce that prior to deciding on the three big rocks (e.g. at the start of the season), I must be sure that I will have regular data from the three. For injury time-loss it is not a worry because this is simply how much time is a player restricted from full-participation following an injury event, so this can be treated on a case-by-case basis. However, for the other two, I would ideally have the athletes sprinting 20m maximally and deadlifting trap-bars every week (this DOES NOT mean maxing out on trap-bar deadlift every week, I will describe loading strategies later in Part 2). Essentially, this approach helps providing weekly data to describe adaptation and fluctuations across a season, for example.
Let’s suppose that in this case we are starting a new training block in week 10 of a 35-week season. I may have progressed the athletes through a range of single-leg hinge movements, horizontal pulls and horizontal presses and have arrived at the single-leg barbell deadlift, inverted ring row and barbell bench press. I will now prescribe these, based on the level of technical proficiency the athletes are at currently, and I will also track these for the next 6-weeks (Important note: these exercise variations may well be different across athletes in the same group, which is why, the simpler the big rock, the better). Collecting this sort of short-term data may not solve all your problems, but it may well inform exercise prescription for the next training block and bring plateaus, decrements or areas for potential improvement to your attention. The same holds true with the second speed or velocity assessment (10m accel.), although an issue with this may be the practicalities of collecting this data in your regular sessions without directly investing time and resources to it; which is why I will propose an integrated collective-team approach to testing this one, which takes less time, in Part II. During this 10th week of your season you may have an increased number of games or tournaments ahead and it may be in your best interest to assess acute wellbeing accordingly. You may want to implement subjective sleep quality ratings (grains or spices) to get a feel of who is in what (acute) state, but this may not be the best use of time always if it doesn’t yield consistency in your group of athletes (but it is definitely easier to get them to do it for 3 to 6 weeks consistently than for a whole season). Chances are that these numbers will not dramatically change much, but they may spark a discussion with the rest of the coaching staff on who is ready for what and what areas of the program should hold priority at present.
Hopefully this illustrated somewhat my current approach to testing athletes and best use of time (still evolving). Please bear in mind, that as everyone I am also biased to certain elements and particularly, the approach I have suggested related to available resources I currently have in the program that I am involved with. The whole point of this model as I’ve said before is for the data to collect itself, and for you the coach, to crack on with your business and look at the numbers later (posteriori). With this said, taking this approach has spared me an enormous amount of time (but I am yet finetuning!).
I know that this was a long(ish) read, but in Part 2 (which I will probably do in video format) I will take you through what this actually looks like after a 30+ week season on a Google spreadsheet.
Thanks for reading.
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