Strength Goals for Mastes Rowers

February 19, 2009

 

Ed McNeely

This is the third part of the series of articles that started with How Strong is Strong Enough. You should refer back to that article for the background information on the development of  strength goals for rowers. The four points at the end of the article apply to masters as well as younger rowers.

Strength is important for rowers. It is even more important for Masters rowers. As I discussed in a previous article the start, where strength is most important, is a much larger part of a 1000 m race than a 2000 m race. You don’t have the time to make up the distance you could lose if you aren’t strong off the start.

The strength factor tables below are based on the ideal strength level of younger club rowers and corrected for age. This was done to accommodate the greatest number of masters rowers possible. Basing these strength goals on international competitors would not create a realistic picture of the strength level a masters rower needs to be competitive against their peers.

Men

 

35-39

40-44

45-49

50-54

55-59

60-64

65-69

70+

Squat

1.37

1.30

1.2

1.15

1.03

0.95

0.82

0.60

Deadlift

1.37

1.3

1.2

1.15

1.03

0.95

0.82

0.60

Bench Pull

1.02

0.98

0.94

0.88

0.78

0.71

0.62

0.45

Women 

 

35-39

40-44

45-49

50-54

55-59

60-64

65-69

70+

Squat

1.22

1.16

1.08

1.00

0.91

0.80

0.72

0.50

Deadlift

1.22

1.16

1.08

1.00

0.91

0.80

0.72

0.50

Bench Pull

0.93

0.88

0.82

0.76

0.69

0.60

0.55

0.38

 

Using the Tables

To use the table take your body weight and multiply it by the appropriate factor. If  you were a 200 lb. 53 year old male rower you should be able to bench pull 176 lbs. one time (200 lb. Bodyweight  x 0.88 strength factor = 176). If you currently are able to meet these goals you can focus your training on other areas. If you can’t meet these goals strength may be one of the things holding back your performance.

Strength Concepts for Masters

1.                  Balanced Approach

 

While there are only strength factors for three exercises it doesn’t mean these are the only three exercises that you do.  Rowing strength exercises can be broken into two major categories, Specific and General. I will provide a brief outline of these categories in this article and provide a more detailed look at the exercises in the near future.

Specific exercises are those that are intended to strengthen all or part of the rowing stroke or that improve explosive power that can be converted to boat speed. Specific exercises can include traditional weight room exercises and rowing simulation exercises like a can or bungee row.  Specific weight room exercises include cleans, deadlift, squats, front squats, bench pull, back extensions and seated row. It is tempting to build a program using only specific exercises. After all, these are the exercises that simulate part of the rowing stroke. Specific exercises will only improve rowing performance when they are balanced with the proper mix of general exercises.

General exercises help prevent injury and develop stability and balance. Muscle imbalances, either bilateral (differences between right and left side) or agonist/antagonist (muscles that are on opposite sides of a joint), have been implicated in the development of injury. Several studies have found  that a muscle imbalance of greater than 10% increases the risk of injury by 20 times. Other researchers found that all their subjects with a strength imbalance of 25% or more developed an injury in the weaker leg.

Muscle imbalances are a serious problem for rowers. Sweep rowing in particular causes the oarside leg to become stronger and non-oarside trunk muscles to become over developed. The quads and hip flexors become strong and inflexible while the glutes and hamstrings remain relatively weak. The same thing happens with the back and abs.

The number of general exercises that can be done is almost limitless. Stability ball exercises, step ups, split squats, snatch squats, bench press, arm curls, tricep extensions, rotator cuff exercises, trunk rotations and leg curls are some of my favorites.

 It is important to include a specific and general exercises in a program. Choose exercise  for the muscles on both the front and back of the body. Always make sure to train both the right and left sides equally. If you are strength training 3-4 times per week you don’t need any more than six exercises per training session. Select two specific and four general exercises.

2.                  Machines vs. Free Weights

From the e-mail I have received I get the impression that many Masters use machines for strength training.  I am not a fan of most strength machines for rowers. Some like a lat pulldown machine, seated row or leg curl have their place but they should not make up the majority of a program. The movement path is fixed in machines this means that the muscles don’t have to work to stabilize the weight during exercise. The small deeper layers of muscle that provide balance and stability in the boat never get trained with machines. These small muscles become the weak link in your rowing strength and prevent you from transferring the strength you develop in the weight room to the water. In addition, most machines don’t allow the right and left to work independently. The stronger side will often take more of the load, leading to greater and greater muscle imbalances and increasing your risk of developing an injury.

I understand that many people use machines because they are easier to use than free weights and they may not know the right way to do a free weight exercise. Others have been given machine exercises by the trainer at their local gym. It is in your best interest as a rower to take the time to learn how to do at least some free weight exercises. The balance, stability, and athleticism used in free weight training will have a greater impact on your rowing performance and injury prevention than any machine.

3.                  Strength Train All Year

If you strength train during the winter months and then stop once you get back on water any strength gains you’ve made will be lost within 6-8 weeks. This may be fine if you are rowing for fun and fitness but if you are competing and trying to improve your race times you need to keep your strength during the season. I have always found it a little strange that many rowers are their strongest on the first day they get on water and weakest for their final, and often most important, race of the year. You will need at least 16 weeks of winter strength training to see appreciable gains that will transfer to rowing performance. Once you get back on water you will need 1-2 days a week of strength maintenance training. If you notice the weight you are using during the maintenance training starts to decrease you are losing strength and will need to increase the amount of strength work for 2-3 weeks or until strength returns to normal.

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How Hard is Hard Enough?

February 19, 2009

Ed McNeely

2000 m races typically last 6-9 minutes depending on the boat, age, and level of the competitors. This has lead many researchers to examine the role of VO2 max in rowing performance.  VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. It is a measure of how efficiently the heart and lungs can deliver oxygen and how well the muscles can extract it from the blood and use it in energy producing chemical reactions. As a result of this many coaches and athletes feel that they are only going to improve if they perform high intensity training. While there is no doubt that this type of training does have a place in a rowing program the question is how much and when should it be done.

There have been several studies that have looked at the training programs used by the top rowing countries in the world. They have consistently found that the top rowers perform only 5-10% of their total training volume as higher intensity intervals. Increasing the volume of these intervals doesn’t seem to increase VO2 max or rowing performance any more than the lower volume. In fact many countries have their athletes spend more than 90% of their training time below anaerobic threshold, the point where lactic acid begins to accumulate and cause fatigue and discomfort.

The question many of you are probably asking is if racing is done at high intensity why train at low intensity. The answer is muscle fiber types. Depending on the analysis method there are usually three or four distinct types of muscle fibers. Their characteristics can be seen in table 1. While the general population has about equal numbers of slow twitch fibers and fast twitch fibers, rowers have a much larger proportion of slow twitch fibers. These slow twitch fibers are capable of using lactic acid as a fuel source. In other words, efficient, fit slow twitch fibers will eat up the lactic acid that your fast fibers are producing. This helps to decrease the impact of lactic acid on performance.

During exercise your body activates muscle fibers according to the size principal. The size principal states that motor units are activated from the smallest to the largest as intensity of exercise increases. Slow twitch fibers tend to be in the smallest motor units and are activated at lower intensities.

In addition to the use of slow twitch fibers low intensity training offers that advantage of allowing you to do a higher volume of technical work. Skill learning is most effective at lower intensities. This is because lactic acid and fatigue impairs the ability to learn skills. It is only once the skill has become automated, following 5000 repetitions done exactly the same way, at low speed that the skill can be successfully transferred to higher intensity training and performance.

So how do you know when you are training hard enough? There are several ways to do this and a couple that I would caution against. Let’s talk about heart rate first. In the August 28, 1998 issue or IRN I wrote an article on the rules of heart rate monitoring. One of those rules is heart rate must be used in conjunction with other physiological variables. In other words picking a heart rate or heart rate range doesn’t tell you anything about how the muscles are working. The generic heart rate ranges, that you see on charts at most health clubs or many training books, were developed as guidelines for improving cardiovascular health and fitness. They were never intended to be guidelines for improved performance. I would suggest staying away from heart rate unless lactate or oxygen consumption are also measured.

Lactate analysis is the best way to determine your training intensity. Lactate tests involve a drop of blood being drawn from the fingertip and analyzed. These tests are normally multi stage affairs where the intensity is increased after every stage. The draw back to this type of testing is that it requires a trained technician who has access to an analyzer. There are currently a couple of relatively inexpensive analyzers on the market that do a good job in the hands of a qualified technician. If you are serious about your rowing a lactate test or two during your winter training is a worth while investment. It doesn’t matter what boat or oars you have if you don’t have the fitness to make it go fast. If you do have a test done you want to spend about 80% of your training time at the power output or heart rate that corresponds to 2 mmol/L. 10% of your time will be spent between 2-4 mmol/L and the remaining 10% is higher intensity intervals.

A 20-minute performance test can be used to estimate training intensity. In the 20-minute test, the athlete is required to row as many meters as possible in 20 minutes.

Dr. Volker Nolte, former Canadian lightweight men’s coach and a professor at University of Western Ontario, has developed some guidelines for using a 20-minute test to predict exercise intensity. He has suggested that the average split from the 20 minute test plus 13-15 seconds is a good indicator of the intensity that corresponds to 2mmol/L of lactate

Estimates from a performance test to categories can be affected by several factors. Performance tests do not rely only on the physiological capacity of the athlete. A good score on a performance test is a function of physiological, mental, technical, and tactical components working together. There are many athletes who either under or over perform according to their physiological data simply because they did not treat the test like a race and were not properly prepared mentally. If you use this test be prepared to make some individual adjustments. You will have to adjust your pace down if you cannot maintain a normal conversation with out an increase in breathing rate when training at this intensity. It is very rare to have to adjust the intensity up. If you are ever in doubt, you are better to slow down rather than speed up.

Many rowers subscribe to the ‘NO Pain No Gain’ theory of training. These are the same people that struggle from year to year to make substantial improvements. Through a combination of skill improvement and development of the slow twitch fibres lower intensity training is the key to rowing success. To conclude, if you want to go fast you have to go slow.

Table 1. Muscle Fiber Types and their Characteristics

Charateristic/ Fiber type

Slow Twitch

Fast Oxidative Glycolytic

Undifferentiated Fast Twitch

Fast Glycolytic

Speed of Contraction

Slow

Moderate

Fast

Very Fast

Fatigue Resistance

Very High

High

Moderate

Low

Anaerobic Power

 

Low

Moderate-Low

High

Very High

Aerobic Capacity

 

Very High

High-Moderate

Moderate-Low

Very Low


Jump Training for Rowers part II

February 3, 2009

Ed McNeely

Plyometrics are a very high intensity for of training that can quickly lead to overtraining and overuse injuries if the training program is not carefully planned. The proper manipulation of volume, total number of repetitions, and intensity decreases the risks associated with this training method.

Determining Training Intensity

Intensity is a measure of how hard you work, often compared to the maximum amount that you can do, it is a factor in determining the overall stress a training sessions creates. As a power training technique, the speed of movement and power produced in each rep of plyometric training determines whether or not you will get a training adaptation. All repetitions in a plyometric exercise are performed at maximum speed and power, anything less deceases the stretch shortening response and plyometric effect of the movement.

The overall intensity of the workout is determined by the drills and exercises selected. Table 1 ranks the relative intensity of plyometrics by drill type for low to high intensity movements.  While there are several hundred plyometric movements, the classification system will help you to determine what you should do as well as help you create your own.  The intensity level is determined by the initial pre-stretch or counter-movement prior to the actual movement itself.  Intensity is also determined by the degree of difficulty in performing the movement, and the landing.  Lunges would be classified as low intensity because there is little countermovement or pre-stretch required, and the landing is very light. Jumping off a box, landing, then rapidly jumping again would be considered high intensity.  A moderate intensity movement would be performing a vertical jump.  Whether you land on one leg or two, the intensity level is still determined by the initial movement i.e. taking off on one leg is high intensity than taking off on two legs. 

Table 1. Relative Intensity of Various Plyometric Drills and Execises

Drill Type Intensity Example
Hops Low Rope hops, Calf hops, Octagon hops, Pattern hops, Lunges

 

Double Limb Single Response jump and throws Low-Moderate Vertical jump, Standing long jump, Box jump, Pike Jump, Tuck jump, Overhead toss, Med ball chest pass

 

Full body Single Response throws Moderate Med ball vertical jump and toss, Med ball backwards toss, Med ball long jump and toss, Shot put, Rotational throws

 

Double Limb Multiple Response jumps and throws Moderate-High Multiple long jumps, Repeat vertical jumps, Box jump and leap, Speed box jumps, Rope jumps

 

Single Limb Single Response Jumps and Throws High Single leg vertical jump, Single leg long jump, One arm chest pass

 

Single Limb Multiple Response Jumps and Throws Very High Repeat Single leg long jumps, Single leg pattern hops

 

 

When progressing with your exercises it is important to understand what constitutes a progressive step.  In other words, since it is important to perform all movements at 100% intensity, increasing speed of performance to increase difficulty level doesn’t make sense.  Rather, to progress from medium to high intensity, for example, you would increase the height of the box, which in turn increases the possible pre-stretch. Or you may increase the length of a jump, or the distance and duration of an exercise.  Unfortunately, there are too many exercises to discuss every single movement but a guideline would be that generally the higher and longer the distance covered is and the faster the movement is performed, the higher the intensity level.

Contacts per Session

Plyos are recorded by the number of single foot contacts with the ground.  For example 80 contacts would be 4 sets of 10 reps with a two-legged type movement or a total of 80 steps with walking lunges.  The volumes listed in table 2 represent the total number of contacts per training session, not the number of contacts per exercise. This table assumes that each movement is at 100% effort.  Plyometrics performed at anything less than 100% does not get the benefit associated with rapid elastic force production.  However, new plyo drill should be done at 70%-80% until you are comfortable and confident with the technique of the exercise.

Level

Low Intensity

Med. Intensity

High Intensity

Beginner

80

60

40

Intermediate

100

80

60

Advanced

140

120

100

 

Plyometrics should not be performed more than twice per week unless you are training specifically for a sport that requires rapid change movement.  If you are looking to incorporate them into your current conditioning program, two sessions per week is more than adequate.

Rest Between Sets

Rest and recovery are crucial variables in a plyo program. Rest refers to the time that is taken between each exercise or set. Recovery, discussed in the Periodization chapter refers to the amount of time that is needed before the workout can be repeated.

The amount of rest that is taken depends upon the duration of work and the type of drill or exercise used varying from 0-7 minutes between sets or exercises. Table 3 summarizes the duration of work and rest periods for a variety of work periods. In this table the work period refers to the period of continuous work and may not represent the total time for each set. In the case of single response drill it is common to take 5-10 seconds between reps to reset your body position, this can make the total time for the set quite long even though the continuous work time is very short, usually less than one second.

Table 3. Work and rest periods

Work Time Rest between reps Rest between sets Rest between exercises
< 1s 5-10 s 1-2 minutes None
1-3 seconds None 2-3 minutes None
4-15 seconds None 2-4 minutes None
15-30 seconds None 3-5 minutes 5-10 minutes

 

Note that the rest periods between sets are not less than 2 minutes unless the work period is very short. It is important  to keep rest periods to this duration rather than trying to work on 30-60 second rest period that are often recommended in popular magazines. Short rest periods will limit the total amount of work that can be done and thereby decrease the effectiveness of the training program.

This is because very short rest periods do not allow a complete recovery of the ATP-CP energy system or time for removal of lactic acid. Plyo drills with sets of fewer than 8 repetitions uses predominantly the ATP-CP energy system. These two compounds, known as the phosphagens, are available for immediate use. The stored supply of these compounds is relatively small, they can provide energy for about 5-15 seconds of all out effort.  Once all the stored energy is used the body requires about 3 minutes to fully replace the phosphagens. While shorter rest periods will make you think that you are working harder in the long run you are only defeating the purpose of plyometric training by producing less power because of artificial fatigue.

Plyometrics can be a good addition to the training program for a rower provided the program is well designed and the individual needs of the athlete are taken into consideration, they aren’t for everyone and shouldn’t be done without a good level of base strength.


Jump training for rowers part I

February 3, 2009

Ed McNeely

Many rowers and coaches include jumpies and other plyometric activities into their program.  Jumping can be a great alternative to weight training for developing power as you approach the racing season, it has the advantage of being done at much higher speed than squats or leg press and combined with on water strength rows it can save trips to the gym for those with limited training schedules. However, jumping can be very taxing and there are several precautions that should be taken before starting into a jump training program.

Plyometrics are a very high intensity form of training, placing substantial stress on the bones, joints, and connective tissue. While plyometrics can enhance an athlete’s speed, power and performance it also places them at a greater risk of injury than less intense training methods. Prior to starting a program there are several variables to consider so the training sessions are performed in a safe and effective manner.

Landing Surface

Plyometrics can be performed indoors or outdoors. The landing surface should be able to absorb some of the shock of landing. Gymnastic or wrestling mats are good indoor surfaces as are the sprung wood floors found in many aerobics studios. Thick exercise mats will absorb too much impact, are unstable, and eliminate the stretch reflex needed for plyometrics. Exercise mats should be less that 15 cm thick. Outdoors, plyometrics are done on the grass or sand. Jumping on concrete or asphalt can lead to knee, ankle and hip problems and should be avoided.

Equipment

One of the advantages of plyometric training is that it can be done almost anywhere with very little equipment. Most equipment that is needed can be made or bought at very little cost.

Cones

Plastic cones can be ordered from sporting goods catalogers and many sports stores. Several height cones are needed. Cone heights should range from 15-60 cm.

Steps or Stadium Stairs

Steps are a useful plyometrics tool as long as they are safe and of suitable material. Concrete steps should be avoided because the landing surface is too hard. The stairs should be deep enough to allow the athlete to easily place their whole foot on the step. The steps should be closed to prevent the toes from getting caught under a step.

Boxes

Boxes can be constructed out of wood. A sturdy frame is covered with plywood. Several different box heights are recommended 15cm, 30 cm, 45 cm, and 60 cm are the most common heights. Boxes of 90-145 cm may be needed for advanced athletes. Angled boxes can be created for lateral jumps and drills. Boxes should be of solid construction with a non slip surface.

Medicine Balls

Medicine balls can be made of rubber, plastic, or leather. Leather balls should only be used indoors with a partner because they are less durable than rubber or plastic balls. Medicine ball typically range in weight from 0.5-15 kg. Several different weights towards the lower to middle of this range are sufficient for most programs. Medicine balls can be quite expensive. Individuals or institutions that are short on money can make medicine balls from old soccer, basketball, or volleyballs. Cut a small hole in the ball insert a funnel and fill the ball with sand to a desired weight. Patch the hole using a bicycle tire patch and some duct tape.

Hurdles

Hurdles should be adjustable and can be made of wood or pvc piping. Hurdles can also be made by placing a dowl or taping string between two cones. Hurdle heights can vary form 30-120 cm. The cross bar on the hurdle should readily fall when hit during a jump or hop.

Shoes

Footware should provide a good grip, lateral support, ankle support and still allow the foot to move naturally. Cross trainers and court shoes are better than running shoes, which often lack adequate lateral support. If landings are done on a proper surface the cushioning provided by the shoe is not very important. 

Other equipment

Shot puts, dumbells, kettlebells, and bars can all be used for throwing and increasing resistance while jumping. Weighted vests, with adjustable weights, are a good way to increase resistance without excessive low back strain.

Physical Requirements

Medical Clearance

Athletes should have an annual physical in which joint stability and strength are assessed. Any athlete with a history of spinal, shoulder, or lower limb injuries should be cautious when starting a plyometric programs. Strength or flexibility imbalances between the right and left side or between agonist and antagonistic muscle groups increases the likely hood of injury during plyometrics. Strength differences between the right and left side of the body of as little as 5% can increase the risk of injury 25 times. When returning from an injury the athlete should have full strength in the injured area prior to returning to a plyometrics program.

Body Size

Large athletes, over 100 kg, need to be cautious when doing plyometrics. Large athletes are at a greater risk of developing injury due to the compressive forces on the joints experienced during landing. High volume and high intensity plyometrics should be avoided. Depth jumping from a height greater than 45 cm should be avoided completely.

Strength

Plyometrics is the link between strength and power. In order to take advantage of the stretch shortening cycle and make sure the plyometrics are done safely the athlete should achieve specific strength goals prior to starting plyometrics. The athlete should be able to squat at least their bodyweight for lower body plyometrics and bench press 0.75 times bodyweight for upper body plyometrics. Until these strength goals are met the training program should focus on developing strength. If plyometrics are done, limit them to single response double leg jumps.

In the next column we will look at designing a jump training program.


Balance and Stability for Rowing

February 3, 2009

Ed McNeely

Balance and stability is the very foundation that athletes are built on.  There is an old saying that goes, “You can’t build a cathedral on the foundation of a house.”  The same is true in athletes and balance provides the foundation on which to build.  This is because balance effects all the other aspects of training, including weight lifting, aerobic training, and explosive training. 

It is important that a good athletic base is built before incorporating balance devices into your training program.  This athletic base is essential for injury prevention.  The stronger the muscles around a joint, the more stable that joint will be. This will greatly diminishing the risk of injury. 

While strength training can create the muscular and nervous system adaptations necessary for strength development, it cannot improve balance.  Only training that is designed to specifically improve balance and stability can do this. 

Static and Dynamic Balance

Athletic balance occurs as a result of both skill training and specific balance training. Regardless of how much balance training is done, if an athlete does not know how to move and position their body to execute a skill in the most efficient manner they will never have good balance. Skill instruction should focus on not just the skill itself but follow through positions and preparation to react following the skill, this will greatly enhance balance and overall performance. Athletic balance can be divided into two major sub categories static balance and dynamic balance. Static balance, often referred to as stability, is used to hold or maintain a body position. Gymnasts use static balance to hold a cross on the rings or support themselves on the parallel or uneven bars. A basketball  or hockey player would need static balance when trying to hold a position in front of the net or in the low post. Static balance requires the ability to react to an external force that is attempting to upset an athlete’s equilibrium. This requires both a high level of isometric strength as well as a certain amount of anticipation and preparation that comes with experience. Rowers require static balance when rowing rough water that will tend to cause them to shift body position quickly to accommodate the conditions.

Dynamic balance is the ability to maintain body positions during motion and is often referred to as body control. Moving up and down the slide requires a certain amount of balance, athletes who have the ability to change direction effectively, under control not only have excellent speed and power but can get the blades in the water and get out of the catch without checking the boat. Better body control, dynamic balance helps the athlete to correct body positions that may result in injury.

All the muscles of the body can potentially be involved in balance. In upper body support activities the pecs, delts and rotator cuff will all act to maintain body stability and balance. All the muscles of the foot and lower leg will be involved in maintaining ankle stability while the quadriceps and hamstrings help with balance and stability around the knee joint. Because all force and power is transferred through the trunk during athletic activity the trunk muscles are particularly important to balance and stability. Superficial muscles like erector spinae of the back, rectus abdominus and the external obliques of the trunk all have a role in maintaining posture and balance, particularly dynamic balance. However, the deep muscles of the trunk may be even more important. Muscles like the internal obliques and transverse abdominus help stabilize the trunk and improve the body’s ability to react to changing positions. Deep spinal stabilizers like quadratus lumborum, and multifidus play particularly important roles in spinal stabilization.

Improving Balance and Stability

Because balance training is relatively low intensity it can be done as part of a warm up or in a separate training session. While balance training does involve the muscles traditionally known as the core, balance training and core strengthening are different. Balance training for rowing does not require high loads as it is designed to train your ability to detect and respond to changes in position. Core strength, while initially developed by balance training will eventually require the use of heavy loads, after all we are talking about strengthening muscles. Relying solely on unstable balance exercises for core strengthening will prevent the use of adequate resistance to stimulate strength development.

Reps and Work Time

It is difficult to count repetitions for some balance exercises, static position holds like the plank for example are normally done for a prescribed time period rather than a number of repetitions. Initially you will only be able to hold many of the positions for only a few seconds but eventually you will need to work up to 2-3 minutes of hold time in each position.

In more advanced balance exercises that incorporate dumbbells or medicine balls, the sets are normally not taken to a failure point, it is unsafe to experience the breakdown in technique that occurs just before failure when using the unstable base of support that the Balance Disc or Swiss ball provides. Once you are capable of doing 15 repetitions with good technique it is time to move on to a harder drill, in a more unstable position or add resistance. Doing more repetitions than this will not increase the training effect and will only take time away from other components of training that may be of greater benefit to your overall performance.


Skilled Agility

February 3, 2009

Ed McNeely

The term agility is often used synonymously with change of direction speed, athleticism, and sport speed.  While the ability to change direction is definitely part of the equation agility is much more; encompassing perceptual factors such as the ability to anticipate and react to a stimulus, select the appropriate movement and direction, and make necessary body adjustments to optimize stride rate and frequency for the movement (Young et al. 2002).

 Over the past few years agility training has become an important part of athletic conditioning programs. Many strength coaches now specialize in teaching body mechanics and movements associated with agility training. Virtually every strength and conditioning conference includes at least one lecture on some aspect of developing agility and yet there is little evidence that agility training as it is typically practiced is important to sport performance or enhances sport performance. In fact there have been a few studies that suggest that agility may not be related to performance.

Hoffman et al. (1996) examined the relationship between basketball playing time over a four year period and athletic performance tests. Testing vertical jump, 1RM squat, 1RM bench press, 27m sprint, Agility T-test, and 2414m run they found the 1RM squat to be most consistently correlated to playing time. Agility was not significantly correlated to playing time (r= -0.26 year 1; r=-0.30 year 2; r=-0.33 year 3 and r=-0.30 year 4). This suggests that either a players athleticism is not accurately measured through traditional agility testing or that it plays very little role in a coaches impression of the players ability.

In a recent examination of skating ability in hockey players Farlinger et al (2007) found very low correlations between on ice cornering ability and performance on a hexagon agility test (r= 0.19).  Lateral shuffle was correlated to skating cornering ability (r=0.53). These results are similar to what we have seen in our work with NCAA, Professional, and Youth hockey players. It has been our experience that changes in off ice agility test and drill performance does not translate to performances in on ice agility and change of direction ability.

Roetert et al. (1996) examined the relationship between tennis performance level and selected performance tests. They found a significant contribution by side shuffle, vertical jump, push ups and sit and reach to their prediction equation. The hexagon agility test did not contribute to the accuracy of their prediction. 

Empirical evidence suggests that higher level athletes who are typically getting more playing time are more agile than lower level athletes. So, one has to wonder why there is no research showing the relationship between agility and sport specific performances. The answer to that may lie in the way that agility is measured. Performance tests like the hexagon test, T-test and Pro -Agility test are among the most commonly used agility measures in both practice and research.  All of these tests measure only the change of direction aspect of agility and they do so using a predictable predetermined pattern. There is considerable research suggesting that better athletes produce faster, more accurate responses because of their ability to anticipate what their opponent is about to do based on body angles and other behavioral and visual cues (Young and Farrow, 2007).

In a novel approach to agility testing in netball Farrow, Young, and Bruce (2005) used a life sized video image of an attacking player about to pass a ball. The subjects were required to side shuffle, move forward and then break left or right depending on the direction the ball was passed in the video. They found that more highly skilled players had faster overall test times than lower skilled players due in large part to faster decision times in assessing the direction of the pass.

If we accept that agility, as it is performed in a game situation, is more than just the ability to change direction we need to reexamine the way we do agility training.

Skilled Agility Training

Sport specific skills are the most important factor in sporting success. There are plenty of examples from all professional sport leagues of athletes who did very little conditioning yet excelled because of their superior skills. There are far fewer stories of athletes who had long successful careers based solely on physical conditioning. Skilled agility training links sport specific skills to physical conditioning, creating a better transfer of physical conditioning to game situations.

Gabbett (2006) compared traditional a conditioning program that consisted of vary duration sprints of 10-40m with skill based conditioning games that were designed to develop passing, catching tackling and other skills needed for Rugby. Overall training time was similar between the two groups and both groups participated in team skill sessions. At the end of the 9 week program the traditional conditioning group had improved both their 10m sprint time and their aerobic fitness scores. The skill based conditioning group improved their 10m, 20m, and 40m time and aerobic fitness and vertical jump scores. The 20m, 40m and vertical jump scores were significantly different between the groups after training with the skilled conditioning group outperforming the traditional group. Of greater significance was the performance in actual game play. Both teams played eight league games during the study with each team compiling a 6 win 2 loss record. The traditional conditioning team had an average score of 28-18 while the skill based training team had an average score of 45-12. While there are a variety of factors that can effect the final score of a game this study clearly shows that skill based conditioning is at least if not more effective than traditional conditioning programs at producing not only fitness improvements but on game performance improvements.

It has been our experience that skill based agility training has several advantages over traditional training.

  • Skilled agility training is time efficient allowing both skill and fitness to be trained simultaneously. This can be a big advantage in sport programs that only have limited gym, field or ice time. Coaches do not feel like they have to choose one over the other.
  • Skills can be practiced under fatigued conditions similar to those experienced late in games.
  • The conditioning coach has more control over the athlete’s total training volume. Very often the work done in practice is not counted in the overall training volume when conditioning programs are designed. Traditionally the conditioning coach has no control over the type and intensity of work done in practice so in many instances athletes show up for speed and power sessions already fatigued from a practice, making the conditioning session less effective
  • Intensity is higher. Skilled agility training makes use of games and game like situations to create a competitive environment that forces the athletes to train at a higher level of intensity than normal. We saw this quite clearly when we conducted a practice evaluation and analysis of a Professional hockey team. Using video analysis of the practice we found that on average during drill players were skating at about 75% of the peak velocity that was found during testing in training camp. At the end of practice when a competitive drill was introduced average velocities increased to 83% of peak velocity even though it was the last drill of the practice and the players were fatigued.
  • Athletes learn to use perceptual cues to make their reactions and agility performances better.