In the fitness profession, there is a lot of discussion and debate over the multitude of training methods employed by various “experts” and which one reigns supreme. The truth is, however, that no single training method is going to be effective for every individual. When working with people in a training environment, instead of pushing a particular brand of exercise, we should be concerned with how we are going to achieve our goal for the individuals we are training. The question we must ask ourselves as trainers and coaches is what qualities of fitness does my client/athlete need to improve in order to improve performance?
When you consider that a single training method will affect individuals differently depending on their fitness level and genetic variation, the task of designing a training plan becomes a bit complicated. In order to take an individual’s current abilities from point A to point B you have to not only consider your methodology, but the individual differences of the person you are training. Having a solid understanding of how training effects work will contribute a great deal to your ability to do this. Training effects can be classified into four major categories: Neurological, Metabolic, Structural, and Cardiorespiratory. We’ll begin with what is probably one of the most complex and comprehensive training effects: neurological adaptations.
Other training methods also take advantage of neurological adaptations. Increased speed, agility, coordination, and reaction time are the result of practicing complex movements at their required intensities. Cardiorespiratory, structural, and metabolic adaptations also support these training effects while increased neurological efficiency plays a dominant role in muscle fiber recruitment. Neurological adaptations are also responsible for spatial awareness and proprioception; one’s ability to react and adjust to one’s environment. For example a cross country runner needs to be able to use visual and sensory cues to adjust to obstacles and uneven surfaces.
In addition to structural changes, the muscles must be able to efficiently use oxygen and nutrients to fuel efforts at the required intensities. Muscle cells conditioned to strength or power training will develop an increased ability to store glycogen. Muscle cells adapted to endurance training have a greater capacity to take in a utilize oxygen (VO2 max) through increases in enzymes used for aerobic metabolism. This enables the cells to use fat as a substrate at higher exercise intensities. An adaptation associated with this increase in VO2 max is an increase in the number of mitochondria within the muscle fiber. Mitochondria are the cellular structures responsible for converting cellular nutrients into ATP via aerobic metabolism. Simply put, the muscle fibers are able to supply and utilize more fuel for long-term efforts.
Lastly, cardiorespiratory adaptations include: Diaphragm endurance, circulatory efficiency and blood volume increases, increase in vital capacity and efficiency of lungs, and physiological (not pathological) hypertrophy or enlargement of the heart. This means that the heart actually becomes bigger and stronger and can pump larger volumes of blood.
All four of these adaptations occur in individuals participating in training programs. However, the most dramatic adaptations occur in untrained individuals in the first few months, or even years of training. Strength, power, coordination, and endurance all improve dramatically with the simplest of training input in the untrained person. Your average untrained, or undertrained, individual will benefit from increased cardiovascular conditioning, muscular endurance, strength, and coordination from participating in a training program. However, the less intelligent the programming, the more rapidly the individual may plateau and/or begin to experience overuse injuries and strength imbalances. So, even though “everything works for a while”, its always good to have a well-thought out plan. It is also necessary to consider that the structural changes that support increased coordination take longer to develop and be sufficient to support dramatic increases in training load and volume.
As individuals become more advanced in their training, more advanced training methods are required. How exactly does one shave a second off their 100 m sprint time? Or take 10 minutes off their marathon time? Or increase their clean and jerk after being somewhat plateaued for several months? Or get better at competing at wrestling or judo?
There is no single answer to these questions. It requires that one have a full understanding of the individual’s abilities and his or her training history. Deficiencies in speed, power, endurance, coordination, etc. can be addressed a number of ways.
Does the individual need to get stronger? Moving loads, whether it is your own bodyweight, an opponent, or an external weight all require that you have the capacity to move the load at the speeds required. Strength training, speed training, power training, all contribute to improvements in the ability to move loads. However, if the movement is fairly complex, practice and adjustment of technique may be all that is required.
Does the individual need to develop more endurance? The ability to sustain an effort at the required intensity longer than one’s competitors can determine the outcome of a competition. The ability to continue to make 1 rep max efforts on the platform, hold one’s opponent down on the mat, or continue to run a 6 minute mile for 2.5 hours are all different kinds of endurance. Again, sport specific practice may be all one requires, but for higher intensity and longer duration efforts, interval training as well as volume training are usually required in one form or another.
Does the individual need to practice more? Specific endurance and strength can be developed while developing better coordination simply through practice. Practice can mean anything from shooting a bow to simply learning to squat correctly. Performing multiple repetitions of a single exercise makes you stronger and more coordinated simply because your body learns how to efficiently and correctly perform the movement.
Once you determine what the deficiencies are, you can then think about your training methods more completely and understand how they may or may not benefit your client. In fact, you may find yourself applying methods in an atypical although correct and beneficial manner to achieve the desired training effect. Some examples:
Low intensity agility training can benefit older folks who have lost some of their balance, joint stability, and coordination. Although these qualities can be improved simply through resistance training, they can be enhanced by adding in agility work which puts stress on the joints and supporting muscles in multiple directions.
Strongman and odd object training can be used to condition strength athletes to give them more endurance in competitions where they may be attempting mutliple maximum efforts over several hours. This kind of endurance requires metabolic adaptations to occur in the muscle fiber as well as increased cardiorespiratory endurance without overstressing individual joints or muscle groups.
Everyone can benefit from cardiovascular training even if it is simply walking around the block for 20 minutes a day. In your untrained couch potato, simply walking at a brisk pace will increase leg strength, balance, cardiorespiratory and musuclar endurance. For those of us who strength train or endurance train regularly, a long walk on our rest days can simply increase blood flow to ease sore muscles and restore some range of motion.
Learning how to effectively evaluate yourself and the individuals you train is the first step in being an effective trainer. From there, the challenge lies in being able to see what is needed and how you can address these needs based on the equipment and expertise you have available. Experience is certainly the best teacher, but learning to think about training methods and goals objectively is a good start.
Zatsiorsky, Vladimir, and William Kraemer. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2006.