Part 1 of this 3 part post looked at some of the secondary factors behind what makes durability so elusive for today's athlete. Part 2 then captured the training environment that today's athletes and fitness diehards live in, how/why it has changed and what that means for staying healthy. Here in part 3, we finally uncover the #1 reason that durability is so elusive for today's athlete and look at a straightforward solution.
the #1 saboteur of durability
The #1 reason that durability is elusive for today's athlete is because their training environment has been founded on everything but the skills of the weight room/lifting heavy weight. There is one thing that has the ability to directly prepare the support structures of an athlete's body for the demands of sport: lifting, pulling, pushing or generally moving heavy weight. Athletes are playing more during their developmental years and using evidence-based strength building approaches less.
Athletes are playing more during their developmental years and using evidence-based strength building approaches less.
There's only so much time and energy that an individual can dedicate to training. When you add novel training methods, something has to go - traditional barbell and dumbbell strength work is often being pushed aside. There's a solution to this dilemma but let's look at the science and evidence behind it first.
benefits of lifting heavy are far more than anecdotal
Applying forces to the musculoskeletal/neuromuscular system through progressive resistance exercise will prompt muscle tissue to respond by becoming stronger, more robust and more functional but that's not all. Support structures such as ligaments, tendons and bones also fortify in response to this stimuli.
Strength gives rise to athleticism
The topic of this post is focused on durability rather than performance, but consider how the two are intertwined. Enhanced ability to run, jump, react or generally move more efficiently and effectively during sport greatly improves an athlete's ability to withstand or avoid potential pitfalls. It's no secret that building maximal strength at the levels necessary for competition is accomplished through high load resistance training as shown here and here. Improving neuromuscular strength, in turn leads to improved sprinting, jumping, quickness and agility performance as evidenced here and here. In other words lift heavy to gain strength, athleticism, performance and durability.
the muscle-bone connection
Since we're talking about developing the physical resiliency of the human body, obviously bone integrity needs to be addressed. Lifting heavy weight is not just about bigger/stronger muscles or jumping higher, it's about reinforcing the support beams of performance: bones. Neglecting to include traditional progressive resistance exercise during the developmental years of an athlete's body will all but guarantee that the soundness of their boney structures will struggle to be up to the challenge later in life.
Neglecting to include traditional progressive resistance exercise during the developmental years of an athlete's body will all but guarantee that the soundness of their boney structures will struggle to be up to the challenge later in life.
Bone tissue responds to progressive mechanical loads AND forces produced by muscle strength gains by becoming robust enough to stand up to those loads/forces - Wolff's Law and Frost's Mechanostat Model describe this process.
Phasing the skills of lifting heavy weight out of an athlete's training environment in favor of other fitness modes is more crippling than it appears at face value. The necessary loads to stimulate muscle and bone strength are omitted and on top of that, the alternative "functional" fitness modes of training are often more aerobic in nature. Lack of progressive mechanical loading and aerobic work dominance promotes an environment primed for muscle/bone catabolism and atrophy. In this setting the building blocks of these tissues are constantly being undermined and never stand a chance versus competitive sport demands. Our athletes deserve better.
support structures beyond bone
Wolff's Law (referenced above) is a physiological principle related to the adaptation characteristics of bone. It is familiar in name or at least in property by many fitness professionals or enthusiasts - bones need to be loaded/used to stay strong. Davis' Law in comparison tends to fly under the radar - or at least it went under mine. Digging around to refresh myself on the adaptation characteristics of tendon, ligament and fascia brought Davis' Law to my attention. I was glad to learn that there is a physiological principle (corollary to Wolff's Law) dedicated to how soft tissue (specifically dense connective tissue) responds to imposed demands.
Davis' Law along with more than adequate amounts of related research evidence (here, here, here and here) indicates that soft tissue such as tendon, ligament and fascia have adaptation capabilities similar to those of muscle and bone tissue. Soft tissue becomes more robust in response to mechanical loading such as that imposed by traditional progressive resistance exercise.
Soft tissue becomes more robust in response to mechanical loading such as that imposed by traditional progressive resistance exercise.
This has been recognized for quite some time - see the below excerpt from an 1867 book titled Conservative Surgery, as Exhibited in Remedying Some of the Mechanical Causes That Operate Injuriously Both in Health and Disease - Dr. Henry G. Davis:
Make movement a priority. All of this chatter about traditional strength development strategies would be incomplete without mention of movement assessment, literacy and correction. Jumping right into loading up the bar or pushing heavy dumbbells before appraising movement quality and symmetry is a disaster waiting to happen. Just like trying to out-train bad eating habits is impossible, attempting to out-train bad movement patterns is as well. We need to honor and reinforce this especially during an athlete's developmental stages. Waiting until an athlete is knocking on the door of the pros to address movement quality and symmetry is too late - the damage will have been done.
That being said, be sure to acknowledge that overreacting to a specific method or macro-aspect of the training environment can have unfavorable results. The key to movement correction is to assess early, correct rapidly and move on to building a base of strength. As you know there are cases where adding strength can correct movement. It's important to be able to identify those instances to avoid fruitless hammering on corrective exercise work when all you needed was legitimate strength. Movement and strength are valuable parts of a durable, high performance athlete foundation but by themselves, they are much less valuable. Train for both.
Use your body's hormones to your advantage. For the sake of this point, let's zero in on testosterone. Trying to stand up to the rigors of sport competition with less than appropriate testosterone levels is like trying to play an entire hockey game with one player in the penalty box. It's doable but eventually the team with the one player down will suffer the effects of playing catch-up for too long.
Testosterone promotes muscle growth as well as tissue maintenance, recovery and healing. Bone, fascia, ligament and tendon based structures that have adequate exposure to testosterone have a huge advantage in the battle to heal from the micro and macro traumas that competition brings about. In addition, testosterone has the ability to positively impact nervous system related functions, such as cognitive reasoning, vigor, motivation and reaction time.
There is no better way to naturally keep testosterone levels topped off than routine bouts of high load resistance training. To continue the above hockey analogy - when you spend less time "under the bar" you are effectively tossing testosterone in the penalty box, forcing your body to constantly compete with a player down. Making sure that testosterone "stays on the ice" has major implications on human performance and durability - yet another reason to master the skills of lifting heavy weight.
The stimulus of heavy load resistance training is the most effective way to promote structural robustness and durability of the human body. Absence of heavy load resistance training is the #1 reason that durability is so elusive for today's athlete or fitness fanatic alike. The temptation to turn away from traditional resistance training skills in favor of exercises that appear sexier, more novel and generally more exciting will always be there. The solution to capturing durability in human performance is to make a lasting commitment to learning and employing the classic skills of lifting heavy weight.
I caution you not to fall for the false notion that skilled resistance training is strictly for top-level athletes. These durability principles apply to all humans and will help you stand up to the demands of performance - no matter what performance is in your daily life.
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Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and Founder of TD Athletes Edge, where he provides fitness, recovery and nutrition guidance to aspiring and professional athletes. For training advice, visit www.tdathletesedge.com and follow him on Twitter/Instagram through @tdathletesedge.
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