Long Term Athletic Development

When people first begin training to improve their athleticism, they typically have some level of success in the first few months. Unfortunately progress tends to stop before too long. In fact after athletes are full grown, long-term progress seems to be somewhat rare. Obviously there could be numerous reasons for lack of progress, but let’s assume an athlete is generally healthy, eating well, sleeping well, and capable of adapting to stimuli. And let’s assume the training was good enough to produce short term improvement. It can still cease to be successful over time. Why?

It’s critical to understand that physical stress has long-term effects on the human body.

It is not as if the workouts in January produce the athlete in February, and the workouts in February produce the athlete in March. It is the summation of all previous training and adaptation that produces athleticism at a given time. We may put together a month of training that produces dramatic results, but that does not mean repeating that month multiple times over will produce further results. We have to go beyond putting together a good month of workouts and instead have a big picture strategy. Let’s talk about two key factors in the struggle for long-term progress.

FATIGUE

All hard training brings with it some level of fatigue that lowers performance temporarily. For example after a session of 30+ dunk attempts, a dunker should not expect to perform his or her best for at least two days following. After competing in multiple races, a track athlete should not expect to be his or her fastest for several days following. The same is true after a hard strength training session with large scale movements like squat and deadlift. If this fatigue lasts for multiple days, what happens when we train hard three or more days per week? Fatigue accumulates. People are familiar with the concept of needing a couple days to recover after a hard workout. What if you do 50-60 hard workouts in three months? Do you still just need a couple days to recover?

It’s common for an athlete to take on an aggressive program of explosive and strength training that produces good athletic results within weeks. But due to the frequency of hard workouts, fatigue starts to accumulate behind the scenes. Eventually it halts progress or even lowers performance.

What is the source of this fatigue? First let’s be clear that we are not talking about muscle soreness. The general population may think of recovery as the repair of sore muscles, but the stress of physical training involves far more than just muscular effort. There is high demand on the central and peripheral nervous systems as well as the cardiovascular, endocrine, and other systems. The stress of training is global. An athlete can be free of muscle soreness for months and yet still be performing poorly. This is a time when we might say that fatigue is present. But to be honest, we have not really figured out the source.

Is it neurological? In the sports training world fatigue of the nervous system is often the given explanation for poor performance, but we only have speculation on what that fatigue looks like physiologically. Is the neuronal circuitry in the brain worn out somehow? Is the level of neurotransmitters low? We do know that hard training demands a lot from the nervous system, but at this point we cannot make strong assertions on what neurological stress and recovery look like. Claims made by coaches about the condition of the nervous system are typically based on instinct, not data.

Is it endocrine fatigue? We know that physical training provokes strong hormonal response. Perhaps over time the tissue in hormonal glands becomes unable to keep up with the demand of frequent intense training. A shortage of testosterone or growth hormone could certainly interfere with training response. Adrenaline and noradrenaline up-regulate the nervous system to make it more excitable for physical activity. A shortage of those hormones would certainly lead to decreased maximum and explosive strength. Adrenaline production does spike during workouts, but does the adrenal gland get fatigued over time? Attempts to research this have not shown strong evidence.

For now it’s probably best to just call this general fatigue. We may not understand it entirely, but decreased strength, power, speed, etc indicate quite clearly that it is real. The tricky thing is we cannot feel all our biological systems like we can feel our muscles, so we may not have any sense of our level of fatigue. Once muscles grow accustomed to the physical stress of lifting, athletes stop getting sore, which makes them feel able to train harder. This inevitably leads to an accumulation of fatigue over time. People keep training hard frequently, because their muscles feel fine. Meanwhile their body as a whole just gets burnt out. Heavy strength training in particular seems to have the greatest capacity to produce long term general fatigue (more on that later).

NEGATIVE ADAPTATIONS

Strength training plays an important role in athletic development. Increase in neuromuscular strength tends to make people more forceful in general as well as more protected from injury. But at the same time strength training is quite different from sprinting and jumping. It is slower and less elastic, uses longer duration contractions, and often times targets much different positions. The body adapts specifically to the stress placed on it, so a different stimulus produces some different adaptations.

Some of the adaptations to general strength training are bad for explosive athletic performance.

Negative adaptations may include an overall slower fiber type distribution in key muscles and a nervous system trained to build up force more gradually as well as a host of structural, reflexive, and coordinative differences. There is more information on some of these in Strength Training for Speed and Vertical Jump.

When athletes first begin strength training, it is not uncommon to see dramatic changes in strength right away that translate to increased athleticism. But over time negative adaptations tend to become a factor. When an athlete has let's say 10 years of explosive athletic background and begins strength training, for the first few months the explosive background obviously dominates. But if that athlete then continues to train strength as much as sprinting and jumping for a whole year or for several years even, they end up with adaptations that are somewhere in the middle between strength and speed. This scenario may continue to yield weight room progress, but little to no athletic progress. On the extreme end athletes will keep increasing squat strength but actually get less athletic over time. If there is a decent balance, slower explosive things like power cleans, jump squats, and broad jumps may improve but not speed and running vertical jumps. Regardless of the scenario we have to acknowledge that strength training is a different stimulus and produces some different adaptations than sprinting and jumping.

How do we deal with these challenges? This article covers two strategies.

STRATEGY 1: SLOW AND STEADY

The first strategy is designing a program that minimizes fatigue and negative adaptations while allowing steady development of strength alongside regular explosive training. Key characteristics of this type of program are...
  • not training too hard too often
  • keeping much of the strength training relatively fast
  • using exercise variety

The Conjugate System is the champion of this training strategy. It has been the most successful approach to strength development in the sport of geared powerlifting. The conjugate system features just two lower body and two upper body workouts per week. One of the lower body workouts includes maxing out a variation of squat or deadlift. That variation changes every week. The other workout features a light and fast session of a squat and deadlift variation. Both workouts use assistance exercises to target weaknesses and build structure. The assistance exercises change every three weeks if not sooner. This approach aims to avoid fatigue and something called accommodation, a lack of adaptation by the body due to getting the same stimulus all the time. The superiority in the Conjugate System lies in the ability to steadily improve over time. More aggressive strength programs may produce drastic gains within a couple months, but continuing on that type of path inevitably leads to fatigue, decrease in strength, and eventually needing to hit the reset button to have any chance at further progress. Making steady gains is much better in the long run.

What about developing speed and jumping ability? If we are not training strength too much and mostly moving weights fast, we can hope that steady strength development plus a reasonable amount of explosive activity will produce long term increase in athletic ability. This is the desired scenario. It’s simple and sustainable. Think if you could reliably get stronger and add one inch to your vertical jump every two months. If you start with 20 inches at age 14, you will hit 44 inches at age 18. Sounds great, right? This is the athletic development dream. But is it reality?

Does simply getting stronger relative to body weight work in the long term?

In the scenario envisioned above, the young athlete will likely see standing vertical jump improvement as squat strength increases to 1.5xBW and beyond. A lot of athletes in this strength range boast an impressive standing vertical over 30 inches. But what about as squat strength increases to 2xBW and beyond? Will standing vertical keep going up? This is where people typically talk about diminishing returns. Personally I am not concerned about diminishing. Are there any returns at all? More importantly, even if standing vertical does go up, what about approach jumps, jumps off one leg, quickness, and linear speed? Is meaningful athleticism actually improving? If so, great. But beware of relying on progressively slower power measures to validate the training. First it’s standing vert; then broad jump; then seated box jumps with a weight vest; so on and so forth. Don’t fall into this trap. Track performance in the actual sport movements and use that to guide your training.

Truth is plenty of people have experienced gaining a lot of strength without getting more athletic whether they were using something like the conjugate system or not. And in this situation, continuing to push for more strength is not the answer, no matter how amazing the strength training system is.

What if an athlete is not explosive?

An athletically talented person with a history of sport play will likely see easy transfer of strength to athleticism, but someone without great explosiveness and elasticity in place very well may not see much transfer. This could be someone who is not gifted genetically, someone without much athletic background, or someone who has strength trained too much for too long and slowed down force production. In these cases the development of explosiveness has to be prioritized. There has to be a willingness to solve the puzzle of each individual rather than just develop strength over time assuming it will be effective.

What if we have a small window to train?

Some athletes have sports schedules that are too rigorous to allow successful strength development for much of the year. If we only have a few months to really make change, maybe we need a more aggressive approach that builds strength fast and creates adaptation that lasts. An athlete who squats multiple times per week for a few months should make fast gains and find that months without squatting result in surprisingly little strength decrease. This is less likely with a more conservative program.

With these situations in mind, there is another strategy we can utilize for long term success.

STRATEGY 2: CYCLICAL TRAINING

The second strategy is acknowledging that fatigue and negative adaptations are part of the training process and using periods that allow them to fade away. This applies even to specific sport training. In track and field it is common to use a period of high running volume that causes fatigue and may train endurance beyond what is required for an athlete’s event. That should be followed by a period of much lower running volume and less conditioning, which allows the athlete to bounce back from the fatigue and get as fast as possible. The same concept can be used in distance running, swimming, speed skating, and cycling.

When it comes to cyclical strength training, people may think of using lighter weights and more reps and progressing toward heavier weights and low reps. This is the generic approach taught in many college strength and conditioning classes. Another idea is using a series of phases focused on eccentric, isometric, and concentric muscle contraction (triphasic training). There are numerous ways to make strength training cyclical. Any of them can be used to get stronger, but they do not address the issue of strength increase no longer improving athleticism.

Allow me to suggest another cyclical approach: Strength train for a while. Then don’t strength train for a while. Yes, I said that. If negative adaptations to strength training are an issue, maybe try not doing it. If hard lifting is causing fatigue, maybe take a break from it. If getting stronger is not doing anything for athleticism, maybe try something different. This may seem like blasphemy to the strength and conditioning professional, but really it should be common sense. We need to maximize explosiveness, elasticity, and specific sport adaptations. Constantly strength training does not allow that.

This is where we introduce the Long-term Delayed Training Effect (LDTE) of strength training. The LDTE is a significant increase in athleticism that occurs when an athlete stops a rigorous strength training regimen. It was discovered by Yuri Verkhoshansky, a Russian track coach and sport scientist. Back in the 1950s, strength training was widely viewed as exercise that made people bulky and slow. Verkhoshansky was one of the pioneers who first used barbell exercises successfully to improve the performance of track and field athletes. His first observation of the LDTE phenomenon occurred during his career as a track and field coach. In his coaching position he did not have access to an indoor track facility to use during the winter, so his athletes spent the winter performing barbell exercises and explosive jumps in a small training space that was available. In the spring they moved to a warmer climate for their specific event practice. After lifting for the entire winter the athletes reached surprisingly high performance levels in the spring while they were not strength training. Years later Verkhoshansky hoped to duplicate those results in experimental research. He took a group of athletes and put them on an intense strength training program. The lifting initially resulted in decreased performance in all the athletes. Then one of them got pregnant and stopped the strength training, but her athletic measures were still monitored. After rest from training her performance shot up to a significantly higher level than before the experiment. The other research subjects followed suit and experienced similar results. In following years Verkhoshansky continued to study this phenomenon with numerous experiments and identified the LDTE as a verifiable physiological phenomenon. From his research he was able to predict the behavior of the phenomenon. The graph below shows the trends that he found. The area labeled A represents strength training volume. B represents sprinting, bounding, jumping, etc volume. The f curves show athletic performance.

Verkhoshansky found that the lower an athlete's performance dropped during the strength training period, the higher it would shoot up during the following explosive training period (look at f1 and f2). Unless performance dropped too low. Then instead of overshooting during explosive training it would slowly rise back to where it was originally (f3). Verkhoshansky also found that the time an athlete spent strength training was roughly equal to the time it took to reach an athletic peak after the strength training. Think about that. An athlete lifts hard for three months then stops lifting and does not peak athletically until three months later! This shows that fatigue and negative adaptations can be long lasting.

Verkhoshansky’s findings are evidence that cyclical use of strength training can be highly effective. How does it work? Instead of avoiding fatigue this method lets it accumulate in order to get supercompensation later. Instead of carefully balancing strength and explosive training, this method accepts that there will be some negative adaptations, but then abandons maximum strength training later in order to raise explosiveness, elasticity, and other athletic qualities. This is where the real value in this method lies. The break from strength training allows an athlete to maximize athleticism at a given strength level. In some situations this is a necessary step. There are thousands of athletes who have been lifting weights consistently for a long time and are frustrated with a long term drop or stagnancy in performance. They lift and lift and lift and simply cannot get more athletic. They try new things, switch up their approach, lift harder and harder, but the only solution is to STOP.

The obvious objection to this idea is the concern that strength will decrease dramatically and athleticism will be lost as a result. Some points in response to that...
  • If fatigue from hard lifting is present, the initial result of stopping strength training is actually getting stronger.
  • It is so important to understand that training has long term effects. Adaptations that took several months or longer do not disappear in a few weeks. People are often surprised at how strong they can be after not lifting for a while. Of course this does rely on strength training a certain way and also still doing explosive training during the break and not being sedentary.
  • Will you be able to turn around and have the same squat max after months of not lifting? Not likely. You will probably lose some max strength. But a power measurement like hang power snatch or a weighted jump can be the same or even higher after a period of no maximum strength training. Power is more relevant to athletic performance than pure strength.
  • When an athlete returns to lifting after an explosive training period, the max strength that was lost is typically regained easily within a month. The previous strength level can be exceeded soon after. If an athlete trains in a way that causes fatigue, taking a break from maximum strength training can actually be helpful in gaining maximum strength.

Cyclical Strength Training Guidelines

  • If you are lifting weights and getting stronger and more athletic, do not stop. If the training is working, do not interrupt it.
  • To set up a successful break, strength train consistently at least twice per week for at least three months. This helps the adaptations stick around when you stop.
  • To utilize fatigue and supercompensation, strength train more frequently (three or more days per week) for at least six weeks before stopping. Not every workout has to be hard.
  • To set up a successful break, use the most potent strength exercises. Deep squats are the chief. Split squats, hip hinges, and calf raises using deep hip, knee, and ankle flexion are other key examples. These produce lasting strength. You don’t have to exclusively use these exercises, but include them.
  • During a break you may need to keep addressing structural strength in certain spots. For example a dunker should continue doing things to keep the patellar tendons healthy. This could be some daily split squat isometric holds and 1-leg squats to parallel once per week. Or a sprinter with a history of hamstring issues should not abandon hamstring strength for long. After consistent work for the entire off season, something as easy as two sets of hamstring curls with moderate weight once per week may suffice.
  • Power exercises such as loaded jumps, olympic lifts, or lunge jumps can be used to maintain strength during the break. If you measure performance in a power exercise, it can also tell you whether or not you are losing strength.
  • The longer you have been lifting hard and the more fatigue has built up, the longer it will take to fully recover and maximize athleticism.
  • As long as you are maintaining power and staying healthy, you can extend the break from strength training and make sure athleticism is maximized.

Does it work?

Chris, the athlete in a bunch of my early youtube videos, had a great first two months of training. He gained six inches on his vert from 28 inches to 34. This was easy athletic development. After that things got very difficult. When Chris would begin strength training, his vert would go down a bit. After a few months of lifting, he would stop and just play basketball for a couple months before his vertical would shoot up to higher than before. That is the pattern he followed to eventually reach a 40-inch vertical.

I got an email from a high schooler who had been training his vert. He had been making great progress in the weight room for a long time, but his vertical was stuck at 30 inches. I told him to stop lifting and gave him a program with two plyometric workouts per week and nothing else. A month later I got another email... "I’ve been doing that peaking phase you wrote for me and its working great. I’ve got my vert up to about 38" from 30" without making any strength gains." He eventually reached this level.

In the summer and fall of 2012, I trained University of Wisconsin basketball recruit, Bronson Koenig. We put a lot of work into improving his strength in the weight room. He saw athletic improvements early on, because he was coming off rest due to an injury, but then the improvements stopped. A month before basketball season started, we stopped his strength training. A few weeks later, he was quicker than ever and jumping 40 inches.


PUTTING IT TOGETHER

When do we use these two strategies? In spite of the above examples, I do not want people to rush into the cyclical strength training method. If you can steadily build strength and increase athletic performance, that is the simple road to success. One of the common mistakes in training is training too hard right away. This is a great way to make big changes in a month and then run into a wall. I want to encourage you to train patiently. Use the slow and steady approach for as long as it is effective. Employ the cyclical method when (1) slow and steady stops working, (2) you are confident you can get more athletic at your current strength level, or (3) sports schedule or circumstances make a break from strength training advantageous or necessary. With both these methods as options, we can effectively handle various athletes with various sports and training schedules.

THEORETICAL EXAMPLES

Athlete A has decent explosive genetics and a solid background of sport play starting in early childhood. Adding strength training during the teenage years will be effective. The slow and steady approach should be used and may be effective for a long time. The cyclical approach can be used when one of the situations listed above is encountered, or it could just be done as an experiment.

Athlete B was similar to Athlete A but began strength training aggressively. Squat max increased by 25kg and vertical jump by 14cm within two months. Athlete B continued to train the same way, and the next six months yielded some small strength gains, no vertical jump improvement, and some loss of speed. Fatigue and negative adaptations are definitely present. A temporary break from strength training and an overall easy training period is needed.

Athlete C is less talented explosively but excels in the weight room. After a few years of lifting, strength has reached a high level (squat max over double body weight) but speed and jumping ability is average. Athlete C needs to shift force production in the fast direction. Strength training should be stopped indefinitely to allow athleticism to be maximized at the current strength level. This athlete would be an obvious candidate for the Jump Science Shift Program.

A REAL EXAMPLE

In August 2012 I started training a collegiate 400m hurdler, Alex. The first month of training yielded increased strength, power, and athleticism. This was easy athletic development. But soon after, track practice began and the gains slowed down. Alex continued to see slow progress in the weight room but not noticeable athletic improvement. Still he surprised his teammates and coaches with how fast he was at time trials in December. Getting stronger works; the story could stop there. But then Alex stopped strength training during the indoor season while he competed in the heptathlon and set numerous PRs in those events. A break from strength can also be effective.

He did six more weeks of lifting going into the outdoor season and set a PR in the 400 hurdles in his first race. Again the story could stop there, and we could talk about the benefits of strength. But there’s more. After the first track meet, Alex did not touch a weight the rest of the season. Over the next six weeks he got fresh and explosive, and his times kept improving. He ended up running a 53.15 and qualifying for D3 nationals. That was 2.45 seconds faster than his first race of the season and 3.13 seconds faster than his PR from the previous year. He achieved that because he got stronger but also because he stopped lifting.

Another example. Long jump case study.

IN SUMMARY...

Strength train patiently and avoid fatigue to allow long term progress. This is superior to an aggressive approach that produces fast results but is not sustainable. But also...

To the athletes across the globe slaving away in the weight room all year long. I invite you to step out into enlightenment and take a break. Remember who you are. You're a running and jumping athlete. You're supposed to be loose and limber, light on your feet, and explosive. Leave behind the fatigue and the slowness of hard strength training. Let your body get fresh and feeling good. Just be an athlete for a while. The results will amaze you.

Jump Science Training Programs

RELATED MATERIAL

Get More Fast-Twitch. The Explosive Performance Window.