Monday 6 June 2016

12 Important Advances in Athletic Performance Training Over the Last Decade

A lot has changed in the last decade in the strength & conditioning industry. In my previous post I started to answer the question a former student and athlete of mine recently asked me: “what’s changed in the last decade?” Last time I looked at this question from a fitness industry standpoint. Now, let’s look at some of the most important changes and advances to athletic performance training over the last decade and what that means for you and your training. 

1. Training athletes as athletes
Traditionally athletes were trained the same way that their coach was. If the strength coach was a powerlifter, they did squat bench and deadlifts. If the coach was an Olympic lifter, they did snatch and clean & jerk. If the coach’s background was track & field, gymnastics, physiotherapy or bodybuilding – well you get the idea. 

In the last decade we seen more and more strength coaches are starting to train athletes as athletes. Now this does not mean we should ignore the amazing training gems in powerlifting, weightlifting, track, gymnastics, kettlebell sport, calisthenics, bodybuilding or physiotherapy. As a strength coach, I have and will continue to study from all these disciples. However, training must be adapted to the needs of athletes instead of blinding copying these traditions. 

Your takeaway: learn from all these disciplines, but don’t blindly copy another sport to improve athletic performance.

2. Individualized selection of exercise variations
One of the great things about training athletes as athletes is that you don’t have to be married to a particular variation of a movement. For example, while a powerlifter has to back squat, bench press and deadlift, an athlete can front squat, incline press and trap bar deadlift. 

As a university strength coach, I’ve get several athletes who are already beaten up by the time they arrive on campus. This may mean that traditional lifts such as squats and deadlifts cause back pain even when the form is great. These situations forced us to look for alternative ways to increase lower body strength without taxing the spine (e.g. split squats and hip thrusts). We found that if the athletes got really strong on their low back-friendly variations, they still improved their performance. 

As a coach this has been liberating. I no longer try to force a particular variation of a movement on an athlete. If something doesn’t feel right to the athlete, look right to me as a coach or is not progressing as it should, I look for another variation of the movement that delivers the results we need.

One more note: don’t take this to the other extreme where you stop using things like back squats with everyone. I still have athletes that have a great structure for back squatting. They enjoy the lift and get great results.

Your takeaway: your program should be based on important movement patterns, but don’t lock yourself into trying to use a particular variation of a movement if it is not working. 

3. Contrast training
One system that found really effective for performance training is contrast training. While the concept is not new, it has gotten more attention in the literature over the past years. This involves pairing several rounds of a heavy, low-rep non-exhaustive strength exercises (e.g. 2-3 reps of squats) with a speed, power or explosive exercise (e.g. vertical jump). The heavy strength exercise tricks your nervous system and you get what’s called post-activation potentiation. The result is you can actually perform the speed/power exercise faster and more explosively. This also allows you to work on strength and power – which is great for time efficiency. 

Your takeaway: if you are trying to improve your explosive strength and power, consider contrast training. 

4. Velocity based training
Traditionally strength training programs were based off of a percentage of your 1RM (1 repetition maximum – i.e. the most amount of weight you can do one time). Besides be time-consuming and potentially dangerous to test, your 1RM is not a set variable. It changes based on how you’re feeling on a particular day and as you get stronger. 

A better, more personalized approach to selecting your optimal training loads is to base them off of your velocity (i.e. bar speed). Velocity correlates very well with your 1RM. Also, by knowing the ideal velocity of an exercise based on your goals, you can select the right weight for you.

While this is a great concept, the problem was how do you measure this? While experienced coaches can gauge this, it is still quite subjective and not helpful for most athletes. Now, there are affordable devices you can get that will measure bar speed, calculate power output and give you useful feedback. Recently we started using a device called Train with Push with our athletes. You simply strap the device on your forearm, download the free app on your smart phone, punch in the exercise and load and you are good to go. 

Your takeaway: if you are training for explosive speed or power, considered getting a device to measure bar speed and use this to select optimal load. Here are some bar speed guidelines (note: m/s = meters per second):
  • Strength-Speed: 0.75-1m/s
  • Speed-strength: 1-1.5m/s
  • Power Cleans: 1.45m/s
  • Explosive Starting Power (e.g. jump squats): 1.3-1.8m/s 
You can also experiment with different exercises to find the load the yields the highest power output. 

For more information on this topic, check out this fantastic article: 

Mann, B.J., Ivey, P.A. & Sayers, S.P. Velocity-based training in football. Journal of Strength & Conditioning, 37(6): 52-57.

5. Testing tools for training  
Another thing I have used with great success over the last several years is to use testing tools in training. For example, if I have athletes doing sprints, I bring out the electronic timer and have them time each sprint. This allows them to see progress. It allows me to make adjustments to their form and both of us can see (by the numbers) if those form changes made a positive difference. Another fantastic benefit is that athletes get competitive and do every set at max speed (which is vital to get the desired training effect).

Your takeaway: if you have access to testing equipment, use it for training and log your numbers in your training journal like you would your strength training exercises.

6. External Cues 
Traditionally a lot of trainers (myself included) fell into the trap of using internal cues when coaching. For example, if I was trying to improve an athlete’s vertical jump technique and I would cue the athlete to full extend his/her hips. However, over the last few years, more and more research is showing better results with external cues. If we go back to the vertical jump example, I know coach my athletes to “get tall” or “hit your head on the ceiling”.  

Your takeaway: when training or coaching for performance, think external cues

7. Simplified Olympic Weightlifting 
Both research and real-world evidence shows that Olympic Weightlifting is a fantastic way to improve explosive power and athletic performance. However, the big knock on Olympic lifting is that it is very technical and takes a considerable investment in time and coaching before an athlete can reap the benefit.  The use of weightlifting movements is also quite polarized. Some coaches love them while others don’t bother. However, athletes don’t have to copy the technique of Olympic lifters (e.g. full squat snatch) to get the benefits of Olympic lifts. Even a high pull from the hang position can offer tremendous performance benefits and be coached to reasonable technical proficiency much faster.

Your takeaway: pull versions of Olympic lifts are great, but you may find that a more simplified version of the lift suits you better.

8. Specialty Bars
While I’ve been using some specialty bars for a long time now, I’ve come to appreciate them more than ever over the last 10 years. Specialty bars give you many of the great benefits that straight bars do (endless loading options, ease of progression, easy to get progressively stronger at) with the added benefit of more joint friendly hand/body positions.  

From top to bottom:
Women's bar: lighter and thinner diameter - ladies love them!
Swiss bar: great for pressing with a shoulder-friendly neutral grip
Safety squat bar: great for shoulder-friendly squattingand split squatting
KettleClamp: turns a dumbbell into a kettlebell
Trap bar: nice neutral grip, easier on low back
Your takeaway: if you have access to specialty bars – use them!

9. Loaded carries 
Since reading the work of Coach Dan John, several years ago I started adding loaded carries to my own training as well as with clients and athletes. The benefits of doing loaded carries include:

  • Simple to do
  • Fast and easy to learn
  • Great for performance/real life fitness
  • Easy to regress
  • Easy to progress 
  • Can be programmed in a variety of ways to improve a variety of different goals

Your takeaway: consider adding some type of loaded carry to your program.

10. Low-intensity training
Traditionally it seemed that aerobic work was over-emphasized. This lead to a pendulum swing where people went from doing too much aerobic work to none. It seemed like everything was high intensity training. Now, high-intensity interval training and heavy weight training is great! However, you can only do so much high-intensity work. Some low intensity aerobic work is great for beginners to build a base. However, if not over-done, low-intensity aerobic work is also great for advanced athletes as a recover method. Also, low-load movement training can improve movement quality and also aid in recovery. 

Your takeaway: train hard, but don’t be afraid to add some low intensity stuff in. 

11. Breathing
This last decade has brought an increased awareness of the importance of breathing. Learning to breathe properly with your diaphragm can improve your mobility (especially in the thoracic spine – upper back) and enhance recovery. Exhaling can be a great way to properly engage and activate your abdominal muscles.

Your takeaway: use deep diaphragm breathing with your mobility work and for recovery. Try forced exhaling on your abdominal exercises. 

12. Trimmed down warm-ups
A decade ago it seemed that everyone started their training session with rolling, stretching, mobilizing, activating and potentiating to the point where there was no time left for training. I’ve move to stream-lining warm-ups and to using things like foam rolling more as a recovery tool than a warm-up tool. 

Your takeaway: do what you need to do to get ready for training, but don’t get carried away. While you can use rolling before training if you feel stiff, you can also use it for recovery.

How about you? What are your thoughts on these changes? What other changes came to mind as you read this? As always, I invite you to leave your questions and comments below or on my Facebook Page.


  1. Another great article Andrew!

    1. Thanks for reading Josh and thanks for the feedback!