Balancing Intensity With Intelligence

We have definitely become addicted to fatigue.Puke, faint or die

Programs like CrossFit, P90X and Insanity have gotten us to crave the feeling of fatigue.  If we’re not crushed at the end of a workout, it couldn’t have been that great.  But, if we’re puking in a bucket, it MUST have been a great one.

Hard work and intensity are very desirable qualities in an athlete, so it’s no surprise that coaches would try to use their training programs to develop them.  In the training world, there seems to be a growing trend toward making workouts as hard as possible in the name of developing these traits. Unfortunately, many of these attempts are misguided, and athletes aren’t always getting what they need.

Making a kid tired is easy.  Anyone can string together a bunch of hard drills with short rest periods and completely blow kids up.  Creating fatigue is simple and pretty mindless.

Creating a complete athlete is much more difficult and requires much more thought and planning.

Let’s be clear, I love hard work.  Developing the physical and mental capacity to overcome enormous obstacles is a huge part of strength and conditioning, and I’ve used just about every tactic in the book at some point.

I love pushing kids hard and using training programs to develop work ethic, intensity and the psychological benefit of being able to push through discomfort of all sorts.  In my opinion, the benefits of raising work capacity through intense training cannot be under-estimated.  I’m not one of those guys who freaks out when a kid pukes or thinks that everyone should be “comfortable.”  On the contrary, I think that more than ever, we need to teach kids how to push themselves so they get the most out of their body and mind.  There is no question in my mind that intense, general physical preparation has a solid place in training football players.

But, GPP is not COMPLETE training.  It’s only PART of a comprehensive performance training program.

Puke Bucket 2When done correctly, a good training program can positively affect all of these areas.  When done poorly, it can cause injuries, lack of progress, over-training and can develop a poor sense of what training is all about.

Always remember, just because you’re tired doesn’t mean it was a great workout, and a harder workout is not necessarily a better workout.

A good training session will usually begin with “quality” work.  This is where you develop speed, power, technique or learn/develop a skill.  Work periods are fairly short and rest periods are fairly long so that each rep can be done with high quality.

Think of acceleration work where you are training the first 10 yards of a sprint.  Each rep needs to be done with 100% intensity, which requires long rest periods before performing another high-intensity rep.  This is not conditioning – this is speed training with a focus on quality.

High-intensity plyometrics are another example.  Think of doing high-intensity jumps like long jumps or vertical jumps.  After 5-6 jumps in a row, power begins to drop rapidly.  If you’re truly working on power, the set needs to end at this point and rest is needed before another set can be performed.  If you try to do high-rep sets of a power exercise like a vertical or long jump, you are no longer working on power – it is now a conditioning drill, and there are better ways of conditioning.  The same can be said for any power exercise done for high reps like Olympic lifts, tire flips, sled drags, etc.  They are all great tools as long as you know how to use them to accomplish your goal.

Doing too much high-intensity conditioning near the beginning of the workout pretty much relegates the entire session to general conditioning.  Once you burn a kid out, the quality of work is going to drop dramatically, so be careful when you insert super-intense conditioning if you plan on doing anything high-quality afterward.

I’ve heard many coaches say things like “We do our speed work while the kids are tired because we need them to be fast at the end of a game when they’re tired.”

While I understand the goal, the approach is ignorant.

Doing speed work in a fatigued state does nothing more than reinforce “tired” nervous system firing patterns.  Our bodies are very complex and are constantly adapting to the stimulus they receive.  If we are doing sprints in a fatigued state where our max speed or power output is significantly lower than when we’re fresh, our bodies start to learn that this is optimal.

Think about it.  Say you can run a 4.6 40-yard dash when you’re fresh, and a 4.8 when you’re fatigued. When you run the 4.8 in a fatigued state, your power output, turnover and mechanics will all be different (in a bad way) than when you run fresh.  If you’re constantly performing this “speed work” in a fatigued state, your body will “get used” to running with a lower power output and poor mechanics because that’s what it’s always practicing.

Instead of this approach, start the workout with the high-quality work so the nervous system gets the quality stimulation and the rest that it needs to perform multiple reps.  After that, you can start to work on what we call repetitive speed, or the ability to recover quickly so that multiple high-intensity reps can be performed.  This can be done by performing repetitive, high-intensity sprints, gradually decreasing the rest periods over time.  Plenty of research has shown that this approach will develop the ability to perform high-intensity bouts over and over again and will decrease recovery time between intense bouts.

That’s what most sports are all about.

Sled PushAfter the quality work is done, I like to use “finishers” as a way to increase the intensity of a workout.  A finisher is an exercise or drill that is very difficult and can be used to develop the traits listed above.  Finishers are done at the end of a workout to give you the feeling of fatigued that we’ve all grown addicted to.

That addiction should not be fed all the time, but during conditioning sessions, it’s usually a good idea to increase work capacity by finishing with a very challenging drill.  The end of the workout is a perfect time to insert this type of challenge because nothing else has to be done afterward.  The need for quality is done, and it’s time to push.

This is how you combine high quality work like speed or power training with conditioning to develop a complete athlete.  If all we had to do was develop explosiveness, we could eliminate a lot of the conditioning and focus on quality.  Conversely, if all we had to do was get in great shape, we could eliminate the speed and power work and just push the work capacity envelope.

But, developing complete athletes is more complicated than this.  Athletes need strength, power, speed, agility as well as work capacity, conditioning and….oh yeah….we almost forgot….they have to be able to play the actual sport.

All of these physical attributes (and more) go into developing a complete athlete, so it’s important to balance and sequence them properly so they can all be addressed and developed.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every workout needs to end in a puke-fest for it to be productive. Certain times of the year don’t call for high levels of conditioning.  For example, why perform multiple 300-yard shuttles when season is months away?  Or, why perform multiple 300-yard shuttles at the beginning of a  practice when you’re going to expect high-quality work afterward?  Neither are productive.

Instead, use these periods of time to develop qualities like strength, speed and power which take a lot more precise work to enhance.

Like I said before, conditioning is easy and it doesn’t take long to get someone in shape.  On the contrary, it takes a tremendous amount of work to improve the qualities listed above.

So, the next time you feel like administering a “beat-down” workout in the name of hard work and intensity, make sure that all of your bases are covered first.  Be sure that all of the quality work for the day has been done before you induce complete fatigue upon the team.  At that point, you’ll know that it’s OK to push.

I hope this helps you think about how to structure your workouts when you intend to train work capacity.  Don’t be afraid of teaching good, old fashioned hard work.  Just make sure you’re doing it at the right time so you can get the most out of your athletes every time you train.


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One Response to Balancing Intensity With Intelligence

  1. Mark Watts October 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Outstanding, Jim. Thank you for writing this.

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