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The importance of understanding the context.


The world of strength and conditioning and even general health and wellbeing for that matter, can be an absolute minefield of confusing and contradictory information. The age of the internet has discombobulated things further, with everyone (fitness professional or not), having a free licence to throw out any form of information they feel like. It’s not all negative of course, and social media can be a wonderful thing in this respect. I can, for free, follow all of my favourite coaches online and have unlimited access to their content, all within seconds. However, due to the lack of filter and lack of a minimal qualification / experience entry requirement needed to post online, how do young coaches decide what is good information and content and what is not? The same can certainly be said for the general public too. You may say that one of my favourite people I follow is saying that all I need to do is walk to get fit and lose weight, another one is saying I need to lift heavy weights, and another is saying I need to lift light weights for high repetitions.


The aim of this blog is not to talk about ‘boom bod’, or 4 minute ‘ripped abs’ routines, so I won’t go down this route when discussing context and how to filter out the ‘bullshit’, that might be left to a separate blog. In this blog, I will look at a thing’s with a bias towards strength and conditioning training and coaching.


Phases of a coach:


If you’re a coach reading this, or even a keen gym goer, this might sound familiar. When I first started going to the gym, I did the good old faithful 3x10 and split body parts and trained in more of what you would call a typical bodybuilding routine. I must of done 15-20 exercises a session and a million sets and reps in total. Some people make the mistake of sticking with this kind of routine forever, and although it is most certainly better than doing nothing, we can say with absolute certainty that it is not an advantageous way to train long term, even if your goal is to become a bodybuilder. I was probably quite lucky in the fact that I didn’t stay bogged down in this phase for very long at all, however at the time, I thought it was the be all and end all, and that training any other way was just completely ridiculous! I was ‘all in’ with this type of training. Even with my very sporty background, I didn’t think you needed to necessarily do much if any cardio, I didn’t think you had to put silly amounts of weight on the bar, and if anyone did any sort of mobility work, I wondered what the hell they were doing.


After that, I discovered the world of strength training and powerlifting in particular. I became fascinated by this, and really brought into all of the advantages that came being strong. I still of course, as an experienced strength and conditioning coach, very much value the importance of being strong and still see it as the most important component of fitness. However, similar to my bodybuilding phase, I went too deep! I would read these articles, train in a very particular way, and apply no context to the situation I was in. It certainly did me some good on a personal note. In my young Rugby days, I was very different to what I am now. I was about 80kg, compared to being around 105kg now, and I was fairly quick and agile (believe it or not), but I was also nowhere near strong enough, both in the contact area and also from an injury prevention point of view (I did not have the muscular strength to absorb the forces of sprinting, change of direction, manage contact etc). Because of this, I picked up a seriously impressive number of injuries between the ages of 18-24, so much so that I retired (for 4 years), before coming back when I was about 27/28. Therefore, learning about these strength coaches and powerlifting coaches did me the world of good, and made me a better athlete and a better coach. The only issue, however, is that I went too far with it. I was only concerned about hitting top end numbers, making sure that I was always working around squat, bench and deadlift, and I didn’t focus on any other components of fitness and did no ‘bodybuilding’ / accessory work. Basically, as a Rugby player, I was training like a powerlifter, and not a very good one at that. And as a coach, although I would look back and say I was still a decent coach at the time, I trained my clients in a bit of a powerlifting bias way. This is certainly not the worst thing in the world, my clients became strong and still are, but my point is that I did not look at the context of the situation, both with my own training and with what my clients wanted and perhaps needed.


After my powerlifting phase, I went into an Olympic lifting phase. Now all of sudden, Olympic lifting was the be all and end all! I still liked powerlifting and that style of training, but I loved the athleticism required for Olympic Lifting, and was very drawn to studies that showed the rate of force development / power, that could be developed with the Olympic lifts. So as a Rugby player, I thought this was the absolute golden ticket! Of course, this would be the most important thing for a Rugby player. Rugby players need to be powerful, and what produces more power than the Olympic lifts! Again, little context was taken into consideration. Later I would ask myself…is an athlete producing that power if the form of these very technical lifts is poor? Are the movements too technical to learn for an athlete? Are there simpler, more effective ways? I’m 6ft 4, so is the snatch the best movement for me? But at the time, I was ‘all in’ with it. Now luckily for me, I still very much respected the importance of maximal strength, so I kept in my squat, bench and deadlift, and added some Olympic lifts. But I was pretty obsessed with them. Overall, without doubt, my training plan started to look better. I was now pretty strong (relatively speaking), and I could also Olympic lift pretty well (relatively speaking), so therefore I was strong, powerful, and I was naturally pretty fast anyway, so it was certainly an improvement from a few years ago when I was just bodybuilding, certainly from a performance point of view, and I would very much argue also from a general health and fitness point of view. I started to use the Olympic lifts with clients too. You’re an accountant? Yeah, no worries, we need to get you overhead squatting, we need to get you doing a hang power clean…etc, etc. Now, I’m certainly not saying that people in office jobs shouldn’t learn to overhead squat or even learn the Olympic lifts, because there can be benefits, but what I am saying is that it’s important to take the context of the situation into consideration. As well as the Olympic lifting phase, I probably had a bit of a mobility phase, and a bit of a ‘anti running’ phase, and probably one or two other bias’s too.


“It depends”:


Sometimes I wish I was little more single minded and naïve when it comes to the world of fitness. That way, I could go ‘all in’ with certain ideas and promote certain products and perhaps philosophies. But, when someone asks me a question in regard to our industry, the first response, or what I normally want to respond with initial is…”it depends”, and that’s because context is so important.


It is so easy to ‘throw the baby out of the bathwater’ with your answers, to read the headlines of a newspaper or the abstract of a piece of research and go ‘all in’ with that. Rarely do people / coaches look into the context of the situation, and I believe that’s what separates an average coach, to a very good coach, and a person of average intelligence, to a person of higher intelligence.


For example, imagine you ask Coach ‘A’, Coach ‘B’, and Coach ‘C’ the same question.


Q: Is Olympic Lifting good for a Rugby player?


A: Coach ‘A’ says that Olympic lifting is the best way to train for a Rugby player ever because it produces high levels of force output and rate of force development, it therefore makes you ‘powerful’ which is amazing for Rugby. You must do it! Now, it’s not the most ridiculous statement ever, and you can certainly see their point of view.


Coach ‘B’ disagrees and says that Olympic Lifting is the worst thing ever for a Rugby player. It is far too technical; it is difficult to teach and for the player to learn. Again, you can see their point!


However, Coach ‘C’, is more experienced and has a more analytical and critical view of the world, so he says “it depends” …. yes, the Olympic lifts can be a fantastic TOOL for a rugby player, they certainly do produce high levels of force and a high rate of force development which is advantageous for a rugby player of any position. However, they are very technical and can be difficult for the player to perform safely and efficiently. So, my question back to you is…. how much time do I have with the player? What is the players age, injury history, and mobility restrictions? What is the players co-ordination levels like and his/her learning like? Are we in-season or off-season? And therefore, if we are off-season perhaps, I have time to teach a hang power clean from the blocks? He might say, I am very efficient and experienced at teaching the Olympic Lifts, the athlete is a young academy player, and I have the contact time with him / her to spend on drilling some technical aspects of the variations of the lift. I certainly don’t need to teach a full snatch or a full clean, but I could certainly teach a snatch-grip high pull, or a hang power clean from the blocks. Both of these are actually fairly simple to teach for a coach with the right knowledge. On the contrary however, if I am working with an academy of 30 players, and I see them twice per week for 60 minutes each block, am I going to bother with the Olympic Lifts? Perhaps not, I will teach a trap bar jump instead and implement a med ball toss!


As always, it comes down to the context of the situation, and the devil is in the details! The reason Coach ‘C’ not giving a straight answer to your question “Is Olympic Lifting good for a Rugby player”, is because it really does depend! We need to consider context, and not throw the baby out of the bathwater with our answer. We need to find out details behind the question.


The same could be said for any situation. Is walking 10,000 steps every good for Bob who works at Deloitte? Rather than giving the obvious answer which would probably be YES, let’s find out about Bob and what his current level of activity is, let’s find out if he has any injury issues, let’s find out how stressful his job is and how he is planning his time away from the office. Once we find out more about Bob, although 10,000 steps a day might be something that we aim for further down the line, it might be that aiming for an average step count of 4,000 steps a day would be a better start, especially as I have found out his average step count currently is 2,500 a day and he weighs 500 kilos! Bob is a big boy! Now this is obviously a very basic example, but hopefully you see the point. Am I good at Rugby or am I not? Am I rich or am I poor? It depends! We have to take the context of the situation, subject and surroundings into consideration.


If you are a coach, try to apply context to situations, questions, and statements. The back squat is a wonderful exercise, but it might not be the right movement for your client at the moment, so we might want to look at a goblet squat or a box squat, or maybe even a split squat. Don’t train your clients like you want to train yourself. Look at the goals, the injury / training history, and take into account what a sustainable amount of training is for them and start off slow. Also, in relation to my training history earlier in this blog, you don’t have to go ‘all in’ with bodybuilding, or powerlifting, or Olympic lifting, or ‘functional’ training (whatever the hell that is)!


Important things to take:


To follow on from that, you will find that generally speaking, a mix of all types of training mentioned above is going to be what you will find most beneficial. I’ve not really mentioned anything about conditioning work, but this would come into it too. If we condense ‘Olympic lifting’ into ‘power’ work, then what you will find is that most athletes / general population that will train very well, will include a mix of maximal strength, power, hypertrophy / accessory work, speed, aerobic, lactate and a-lactate work.


Even your very specific athletes, for example a rugby player, would look to include all components and even a very specific strength sport athlete such as a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter would benefit from including at least most of the above into a vertical integration method. This means that all modalities will be trained all year round, however, there will be particular focus on one or perhaps two of the modalities.


A very quick and brief example of this might be a Rugby player, who obviously wants to all of the above, might train off-season by training all of those components, but focusing mainly on hypertrophy to increase muscle mass by increasing the amount of volume (work) done on that area, whilst simply maintaining strength, speed etc. Then in pre-season he might focus more on power. He would not neglect the others, but simply manage the work load in a positive way to focus on the primary objective of each phase.


A less obvious example would be a powerlifter. Surely the powerlifter just needs to train the squat, bench and deadlift all year round? Well actually, the powerlifter would benefit massively from implementing some bodybuilding methods and accumulating volume and doing some isolation work, as well as their main compound lifts / variety of those lifts. They would also benefit from a little power and speed work and even from the odd bit of aerobic work believe it or not!


As always, the devil is in the details, and context must be taken into consideration. Of course, the primary objective of the powerlifter is to hit the top numbers they can in the 3 competition lifts, however that doesn’t mean that other lifts and other methods of training can’t be beneficial.


Conclusion:


What you’ll find is that going back to my training history, all of those things I were doing were great, in their own right! They all have a place, and all have benefits. It’s all about the context.


If you are reading this as a coach or a keen trainer, then try to be open minded about your training, and try to question statements from your favourite social media followers a little more. Question whether that’s good for you or is your situation and set of goals different? Consider the context. Be aware of the advantages of all types of training. Do not neglect bodybuilding work, do not be afraid to get strong with the barbell, and do not be afraid to be able to get yourself into an overhead squat position. Try not to automatically say that Olympic lifts are bad, or that you shouldn’t use a barbell if you’re not a powerlifter, or that running is terrible for you or that it’s the best thing in the world for everyone. Running might not be the best way for Bob to burn calories if he does one run and then can’t move for a week! Poor Bob! Be critical, be analytical, and remember the importance of understanding the context.


Mark.

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