The main purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the process involved in designing, planning and delivering a strength and conditioning programme. The approach outlined is very much my own, and is not intended to be a definitive answer to the complexities of this area. Rather, it outlines some of the key principles I use when constructing a programme, based on my current thoughts at the time of writing.
What is Strength and Conditioning?
To begin with, it is worth outlining what we mean by strength and conditioning, as this is an area that is often not clearly defined, which opens up potential challenges around clarity.
The definition that I have come to is: ‘Strength and conditioning is the physical preparation of an individual or team for the demands of their performance.’
I delved into this in more detail in my article ‘What is Strength and Conditioning?’, which you can read here. However, put simply, I see this definition as an accurate description of the profession, as we are essentially aiming to prepare people for what they need to be able to do. This is irrespective of what their ‘performance’ looks like, whether we are helping someone to achieve a personal best in the 100m sprint, or working with a full-time office worker who wants to perform at their best in a cycle sportive on the weekend.
Now that we’ve outlined the overall definition for strength and conditioning, we can now look at the key considerations when approaching the development of a training programme.
Capability v Demand
The first consideration is the capability v demand continuum. This essentially means that we are comparing what someone can do relative to what they need to be able to do. If in arbitrary terms an athlete can perform at a 5/10, but their performance requires an 8/10, then we have a physical limitation to their performance which we will attempt to correct through their training programme.
In more detailed terms, if an athlete needs to be able to run at 4.5m/s to achieve a time target for a given distance, but they are only capable of achieving 4.1m/s, then we can begin determining what the underlying problems may be. In other terms, if an athlete needs to be able to produce X amount of force at the ankle joint to withstand the demands of running performance, but they are unable to achieve this, then we can again begin to address this having identified an underlying problem.
This approach simplifies the noise around performance down to the ‘signal’, the important details that determine whether we are making an impact on performance or not.
The only way that we can develop an accurate picture of someone’s capabilities is through the use of assessment. These give us objective information around what an athlete can do, and any potential impact of our programme on their performance.
Assessments aim to answer questions, in the simplest terms possible. But to understand their utility, we must first understand the question that we are trying to answer. If we want to know an athlete’s maximal sprint speed capability, then a flying 10m sprint may well be a suitable assessment to determine the answer. If we want to know the peak force that an athlete can produce through the lower body, then a squat isometric on a force plate may well be a potential option (or a traditional bilateral lift if we aren’t blessed with fancy equipment!)
Ultimately we are trying to determine what an athlete can do, relative to what we need them to be able to do.
Going through this process likely causes us to remove certain assessments, if we cannot answer the questions of ‘what question am I hoping to answer?’ and ‘how will this inform my programme and allow me to more accurately prescribe training?’.
These are also key questions to consider.
Finally, as already eluded to, we can use assessment to determine the impact of our programme. If we have already identified where the athlete is on the capability v demand continuum, then the next step is to use the assessments to see if we have moved them closer towards where they need to be. We can use training as testing information here, as often if we are progressing an athlete in the way in which we intended, then their maximal capability is highly likely to have also improved.
For example, if increased lower body peak force was an intended outcome, and an athlete’s submaximal squat loads have increased over a 4 week period, do we necessarily need to perform maximal testing to know that their capability has increased? These mini tracking metrics can be classified as ‘progress indicators’ as they give us insight into the trajectory of our programme.
What It Takes To Win
Within the English Institute of Sport (EIS) where I currently work as a multi-sport strength and conditioning coach, we use the language of ‘What It Takes To Win (WITTW)’ when explaining the performance requirements of a given sport.
What we mean here is, have we got a clearly defined idea of what the key performance variables are for the sport the athlete performs in? It’s important to understand, in what is traditionally called a needs analysis, what the demands of the sport are. Once this is known, then we can begin determining where an athlete sits in their capability relative to sports demands, and build a programme that bridges that gap.
In team sports, these may be factors such as entries into the opposition ‘red zone’ (rugby) or ‘D’ (field hockey). This is likely a key variable, as the more opportunities in point-scoring field positions, the higher our chances of winning. Once we know this, we can begin working back from this to identify which physical determinants will enable us to contribute to this performance aim (e.g improved repeat sprint ability or maximal sprint speed).
In more linear, ‘stopwatch sports’ such as track cycling or rowing, it may be that a maximal strength number is key in order to contribute towards higher power outputs or velocities relative to world-class norms.
Adaptation Led Programming
This phrase was first explained to me within the EIS, and essentially means working backwards from the intended outcome that we want to achieve. A common, but sometimes flawed approach in strength and conditioning is to use a ‘training forwards’ approach whereby we aim to improve general training abilities. There may well be a place for this in athletes of a low training age, where almost anything will be adapted to, but when programming for higher-level athletes, we need specific interventions to stimulate specific adaptations. We call this the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands).
An example of this in action would be the following. An athlete is rehabbing an ankle sprain, and as part of this process needs to increase cross-sectional area of the soleus to help increase force potential of this muscle as a major stabiliser of the ankle. We know that the best approach for this is to work close to muscular failure in an isolated exercise such as the seated calf raise, as we can isolate the uniarticular soleus in doing so. The primary adaptation we are seeking out is increased cross-sectional area of the soleus, the principle for hypertrophy is proximity to muscular failure, and the method for achieving this is the seated calf raise.
Without first identifying the underpinning principles, we may have picked the wrong option (method) when approaching this scenario. By first recognising the principle, we can select the appropriate method and be more confident of achieving the desired outcome.
The final step is to select our methods.
We’ve assessed the athlete’s capabilities relative to the demands of the sport.
We’ve determined the demands of the sport and understand what it takes to win.
We’ve now got to select the most appropriate methods to increase the chances of achieving our desired outcome.
There are a huge array of variables to consider in this step, and this is why understanding the key principles is so important. Otherwise, we are likely to get caught up in shiny objects or fancy equipment, without first recognising the underlying need. Ultimately this may mean that we don’t deliver the intended outcome, and don’t impact the athlete’s performance (a key overarching aim).
Variables to consider may include:
Each individual context necessitates different approaches, which is why strength and conditioning is such a fascinating area to work in.
Two athletes may respond differently to the same programme.
Two coaches may deliver different results with the same athlete.
Two exercises can deliver the same outcome.
It always comes down to context and principles.
It is beyond the scope of this article to outline all the potential scenarios that you may be faced with, but here are a couple of examples that highlight the need to understand the desired outcome and intended results, using guiding principles to help navigate a clear path.
A 13 year old squash player who has never been exposed to any strength and conditioning before needs to increase their lower body strength with minimal equipment around a busy training and school schedule.
A 25 year old semi-pro rugby player needs to rehab their achilles tendon sprain, having done so during the preseason period. They have access to a range of equipment and a good gym, but their motivation is now lacking.
A 40 year old female triathlete is overtraining and therefore regularly picking up muscular injuries. She isn’t capable of more than 10 single leg calf raises, which you know is an issue based on their training volume requirements.
How you approach each of these scenarios would obviously require more information, and I’m sure everyone would have a different take on each one. The key isn’t to come to the perfect answer (there isn’t one), but rather to recognise what the priorities would be, how you would determine their capabilities relative to the demands of their sport, and identify the key guiding principles which will help you navigate the complexities of human behaviour and performance.
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