There are a few intellectual traps that nearly all rugby players and strength coaches get sucked into as they develop:
- The idea that gym based maximal strength is a cure-all and will benefit every area of on-field performance at all stages of the athletes career
- That frequent stand alone testing days are a worthwhile and necessary part of a successful training programme (check out why I disagree here in part 1 and part 2 of this series)
- Misunderstanding sport specific programming by either utilising exercises which simulate/look like the sporting skill, or do not share enough physical and biomechanical similarities with the sporting skill (check out my podcast with Martin Bingisser if you want to get schooled on this topic!)
Another topic which can be added to this list is the topic of today’s post: expression versus development. This is the notion that the training or sporting conditions in which a physical ability are expressed, are the same which optimally develop that quality.
We coaches have a number of different tests or protocols at our disposal to measure an athlete’s expression of a physical quality. These include the use of sprinting (speed), 1 rep max lifting (strength), maximal jumping or throwing tests (explosive power), Yoyo or MAS tests (aerobic development), RAST or phosphate decrement tests (repeat sprint ability) and so on.
These tests have their place, and can be used on a sporadic basis throughout the training year to provide actionable information that guides the training programme. However a trend that I see in developing coaches is using these very same assessments as training tools to develop the very qualities that they measure; using weekly 1RMs to develop strength, running the yoyo test every session to develop aerobic capacity, endlessly repeating the RAST test in the hope of increasing repeat sprint ability.
This is a big mistake for a variety of reasons:
Where is the weak link?
I have written before about one of the most profound lessons I learned from Coach Louie Simmons: that the best training programmes find an athlete’s technical or physical weak link, address the weakness with highly targeted training, and then reintegrate the parts back into a whole (and improved performance). The problem with utilising “expression” tests is they completely lack this element:
Repeating the same test ad infinitum applies at best a random physical stimulus that is unlikely to target your weaknesses. It might even make you worse; let’s imagine the biggest reason for your poor RAST performance is an inability to sprint with efficient technique. Is running maximally 10 times to the point of fatigue likely to develop and cement the kind of sprinting mechanics you need to address that weakness? Nope! It’ll probably just reinforce the bad habits you have. Examples like these apply to all the physical abilities and the tests that measure them.
Balancing stress and adaptation
I’ve written many times before on the importance of finding the sweet spot in training: working at a load that allows you to adapt and improve at a good rate, but not pay too high a price in terms of the fatigue or physical damage it costs you to train in such a manner. This applies to both volume and intensity: pay the price you need to and no higher. If you spend $10,000 to buy a $5,000 car in the real world, you’re an idiot. The same applies in training.
The problem with so many physical tests is that they are maximal in nature. They create unnecessarily high fatigue which may lengthen recovery periods and impede the amount of productive training that can be performed, or even heighten the risk of injury. No matter how well we manage the risk, the likelihood of an injury rises with exercise intensity.
Worse still, due to the mixed physiological environment that a lot of physical tests create (starting easy, getting progressively harder and ending in failure like, say, a yoyo test), any training stimulus derived from the test will be equally mixed. Mixed stimulus, mixed results. Identifying the optimal load to operate at, then investing as much training resources as possible at that intensity/volume will result in a far more focussed stimulus, and much faster progress.
Intensity is typically built on a foundation of technique and volume
Whilst maximal training has its place in virtually every training programme, successful training programmes recognise that intensity is built upon a foundation of technique and volume. Technique must always come first in the programme because of its powerful influence on several factors, namely more efficient application of force, indirectly improving conditioning through reduced wasted energy, and reduced injury risk through safer joint positioning. Obviously this cannot be achieved by operating at high intensity.
Once technique has been established, you have to earn the right to utilise maximal intensity in the programme. Higher volumes at lower intensities should be used to cement technique, to prepare the tissues of the body for maximal loading, and to build work capacity so that the fatigue cost of maximal training is not excessive when it does eventually feature in the programme.
Even if we ignore the fact that it is a crappy idea to train for rugby, jumping straight into maximal intensity activity like a 1RM, a MAS assessment or a RAST test without earning the right to do so is doomed to fail like a house built on sand. Unless time is taken to build the foundations, we cannot be sure of long term success.
There are countless examples from the world of elite sport which show that the activities which express a physical ability are NOT those which develop them:
- The best Olympic lifters typically average 75-85% of their 1RM in the bulk of their training training.
- Elite endurance athletes perform huge volumes of low intensity aerobic work, with less than 20% of total training performed above lactate threshold.
- Even sprinters will perform a ton of tempo work and 90-95% intensity work to get faster. True maximal sprinting makes up a tiny proportion of the training (as demonstrated in this post on Yohan Blake- not one effort is maximal).
- Across multiple sports and exercise modalities, the biggest predictor of absolute repeat sprint or power ability remains maximal speed or power. If you’re slow as shit and you just repeat endless RAST tests, congratulations, you’re now just shitter for longer! Better to get fast first before you worry about repeating or extending your efforts, and training in the same way you test is 100% not the way to achieve that.
If you are a coach, or a player who designs your own programme, avoid this classic mistake. Remember that the most productive training programme will be one which addresses your weaknesses, targets them with optimal intensity and volume, and progresses them in a logical and proven manner, rather than just skipping to maximum intensity right away.