In my first article, “What I’ve Learned from 7 Years of Working with High School Athletes”, we discussed that there are 3 “pillars” that make up a balanced training plan: skills training, game play, and performance training. Although the examples I used were specific to basketball players, the concept is universal. If you want to be your best, you must improve your technical skills, tactical knowledge, and physical abilities so that you can perform at the highest level. This article will kickstart the process of understanding how to develop your body by introducing the 5 biomotor abilities. These are the 5 physical qualities that can be improved through training. I will introduce each one and describe why they are important to your overall performance.
- Mobility - the ability to express range of motion.
- Coordination - the ability to demonstrate appropriate technique for optimal movement efficiency.
- Strength - the ability to produce force.
- Speed - the ability to move the body through space at a high velocity.
- Endurance - the ability to produce energy for a given task.
If your joints cannot move through their full anatomical range of motion, your body may not be able to access the positions needed for your sport or activity without compensating somewhere. Mobility can be thought of as movement potential. It is often the first rate-limiter for progress in the development of the other biomotor abilities.
Mobility limitations can exist for a number of reasons. Previous injuries can certainly limit joint range of motion due to scar tissue buildup or the presence of protective neurologic tone. This is often seen in the muscles around the foot and calf after an ankle sprain. A few minutes of myofascial manual therapy work can do wonders for desensitizing the surrounding tissues, opening up degrees of freedom, and beginning the graded exposure process to return full function to the joint.
Another common cause of joint restriction is simply that the outer ranges of motion are neglected during training. Ben Patrick (Knees Over Toes Guy) speaks about the importance of “strength through length” in his programs. Functional Range Conditioning prescribes “Controlled Articular Rotations” (aka CARs) to provide a daily opportunity to “communicate” with your joints that the outer ranges of motion are safe (assuming you can move through them pain free). If you sit in a chair all day, you can’t expect your hips to be able to flex, extend, and rotate as well as someone in a third world country who squats on a regular basis. After all, you are what you repeatedly do.
Here is a framework you can use to improve your mobility:
- Step 1: Identify mobility restrictions. You can use full body functional tests like the toe touch, squat, overhead reach, etc. CARs are also a great way to do this because you literally move through every possible joint action (flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, external rotation, internal rotation).
- Step 2: Reduce scar tissue/protective tone. Technically you can do this through exercise, but it’s often a lot more efficient to have someone who knows how to perform quality manual therapy do it for you. In the case of reducing protective tone, a 20-30 second “trigger point release” to the myotendinous junction of a toned up muscle can often help to “reset” the system resulting in improved range of motion and motor output.
- Step 3: Progressively train the outer ranges of motion. I think isometric holds work great for retraining a very particular joint position. Isolate the joint position that is restricted, learn how to produce force in that position to re-educate the brain that this movement is safe to “unlock”, then re-integrate back to multi-joint compound movements through full range of motion. This process is akin to fixing the alignment of a single tire to reduce the amount of compensatory stress on the rest of the chassis. (I’m not a car guy so I don’t know if that’s actually true, but the concept makes sense in theory.)
A concept I learned from Pat Davidson is that human movement can be thought of as being either rigid, chaotic, or variable. I will relate this tangent back to coordination in a second. What is the difference between an old man that can shoot 90% from the free throw line (but only in an empty gym and by only shooting bank shots), an 8 year old, and Steph Curry?
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The old man needs to use a bank shot strategy because he has limited wrist extension which prevents him from getting the appropriate amount of arc on his shot. He can only shoot free throws because he can’t jump due to pain in his arthritic knees. He needs an empty court because if there is too much noise in the gym he gets distracted and his performance (number of made free throws) drops significantly. In other words, he needs everything to be perfect in order to maintain a high level of performance. He is an example of a rigid mover.
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An 8 year old will likely have no mobility limitations, but will probably be unable to consistently make shots regardless of rim height. He or she might use a variety of different movement strategies to try to accomplish the goal - shooting with 1 hand, shooting with 2 hands, granny style, etc. Despite their ability to express full range of motion in the joints needed for shooting, they have not learned proper shooting form nor practiced enough repetitions to execute the motor pattern under a variety of conditions. They have plenty of movement potential, but they are inconsistent and unreliable. He or she is an example of a chaotic mover.
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Steph Curry is the greatest shooter the game has ever seen. He can shoot from half court, off step backs, with 3 hands in his face, with the game on the line, and probably even with his eyes closed. The man can simply get it done anytime, anywhere, under any condition. I’ve never tested Steph Curry’s joint range of motion, but let’s assume that he has no mobility limitations. The important thing that separates him from the rigid old man and chaotic 8 year old is that he has mastered technique and has developed the body control needed to shoot in every possible game situation he might encounter. He is an example of a variable mover. Now tying it back to the topic at hand…
The development of coordination is a two step process. First, you need to demonstrate movement potential, aka you must have enough mobility in order to get into the positions needed for a particular task. This is why mobility can be thought of as a prerequisite to coordination. For example, if you lack an appropriate amount of wrist extension (like the old man), you will not be able to position your hand under the ball in order to get lift on your shot. It would probably be more beneficial for your long term shooting ability to improve your wrist extension mobility before repping out thousands of shots with “bad” technique.
The second step in developing coordination involves motor learning. While having adequate range of motion theoretically enables us to perform a movement task with appropriate technique, we know that in reality this isn’t true (refer back to the example of the 8 year old). Those who possess movement potential are ready to be taught proper technique. This process usually starts with an introduction of basic movement skills (basketball example: form shooting; training example: goblet squat with elevated heels) and progresses to more complex movement skills as the trainee improves in their level of technical mastery (basketball example: step back jump shot; training example: power clean from the floor). If someone can maintain technical proficiency with complex movement skills in an unpredictable environment (ex: during live play), we would consider them a more variable, more coordinated mover.
Strength refers to our ability to produce force. When force is applied to an object, it moves. The amount and direction of the movement that occurs is dependent upon the magnitude and direction of force that is applied.
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If you are a strength sport athlete (ex: powerlifter), there is a linear relationship between strength and performance. In other words, the strongest athlete who is able to produce the most force wins. However, if strength were the only thing that mattered, the strongest powerlifters would also be the best overall athletes and we know that this is not the case.
So in sports where speed, explosiveness, and change of direction ability also contribute to performance, the question that begs to be answered is, “how strong is strong enough?” This has been a heated debate amongst clinicians in the performance training industry, but a full explanation of the topic is beyond the scope of this article. My personal take on it is that until strength becomes a deterrent to either speed or movement quality, more is not a bad thing.
Here is the important point: Strength is specific. Despite the fact that I believe more strength is not a bad thing (assuming it doesn’t slow you down and prevent you from moving well), you have to be mindful of the methods you use to improve it. If you train like a bodybuilder and put on 20lbs of muscle mass, carrying around extra weight will negatively impact your athletic performance. If you train like a powerlifter and only lift heavy weights, your ability to express speed may become impaired, and your athletic performance will be affected. Understanding how to build strength while preserving speed and movement quality is critical for the long term development of athletes.
Speed refers to your ability to move through space at a high velocity. It is determined by two things.
- How much force you can produce
- How efficiently you can apply force (in a given amount of time)
When it comes to training speed, power is more important than absolute strength (1 rep max). Without getting into a physics discussion, power refers to the amount of work done per unit of time. This is an oversimplification, but if running 100m is a measure of work performed, the athlete who can do so in the least amount of time is the most powerful.
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In most team sports, time is a critical variable. A passing or running lane might only be open for a split second, and whether or not you can read and react in that time frame is often the difference between making the play and being a step too slow. A common observation as you climb the ranks of your sport is that the speed of the game seems to exponentially increase. Fortunately, speed and power are trainable qualities.
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The force velocity curve is a helpful concept to understand so that your weight room work supports your athletic performance and does not detract from it. Force is represented by the vertical y axis and velocity is represented by the horizontal x axis. Maximum strength development is a high force, low velocity activity. Maximum speed development is a “low force”, high velocity activity. Low force is put in quotation marks because the amount of force due to external load is low. You don’t sprint with a barbell on your back. However, the forces involved in sprinting and jumping can actually be up to 5x your bodyweight (BW). Imagine squatting 5xBW. That would be insane.
This graph does a great job of highlighting specific types of exercises that will train each of the qualities listed on the force velocity curve: Max strength, Strength-speed, Speed-strength, and Max speed. The best way to include all of these qualities into your program is to focus on the development of one at a time while maintaining the rest. A simple thought process is as follows: improve max force production (max strength), then learn to convert that strength into power via strength-speed and speed-strength methods, then convert that power to athleticism via max speed work. Though you cannot develop all qualities to the same degree at the same time, following this kind of process will ensure that you are not only getting stronger, but also more powerful and faster as well.
I describe endurance in two ways:
- The ability to produce energy for a given task
- The ability to continue the training process
The first definition describes the biomotor ability of endurance which is improved through training the energy producing systems within the body. Whether or not you are “in shape” is dependent upon the overall robustness of these systems and how well their development matches the demands of your particular sport or activity.
The degree to which you use each system (since more than one can be used at a time) depends on the intensity and duration of the activity. For example, running a 7 minute mile feels a lot different than sprinting 100m. You can be “in shape” for one, but not the other. You could choose to ignore the energy demands on the opposite end of the spectrum, or you could be well-developed across the board.
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If you are a one mile specialist, you don’t need to sprint all the time in your training, but having the ability to do so might help you close out races. Similarly, if you are a 100m sprinter, you shouldn’t train to be an endurance runner, but having a more robust aerobic system will help you recover better between sprints and will allow you to maintain high movement quality during your high intensity reps (since you will be less fatigued overall).
Do not misconstrue what I’m saying as a recommendation to be a generalist and to equally prioritize training all biomotor abilities. If you do this, you’ll probably be better than you were, but you might not be elite at anything. The key to achieving elite level performance is to increase the amount of specific training you do. However, increasing the amount of specific training is not a linear process. It is unrealistic to continue to do more each day and expect there to be continued benefits. You will eventually hit a point where doing more is actually detrimental to your progress.
This brings us to our second definition of endurance - the ability to continue the training process. Short term wins are good for psychological motivation, but life-changing results take time. There are no shortcuts to greatness, but you can get there faster simply by not wasting time. Let’s talk through an example.
If you want to jump higher, you must jump often (the law of specificity). The more often you jump, the more coordinated and efficient your technique will be. If you are a beginner, this alone will probably improve your vertical. However, you will eventually reach a point where if you continue to jump more (and only prioritize jumping), you will start to develop knee pain. If you have better mobility and strength, this point is likely to come later than if you don’t. If you continue to jump despite your knee pain, your pain will get worse. As a result, you will have to take time off of training in order to rest your knee. During that time, you will become “detrained”. You will then have to retrain your body back to the point it was previously at, but you can only truly begin that process after your pain resolves. Over the course of the year, you will have accumulated far less specific training (jumping) due not only to your injury, but also to the time spent having to get yourself back to where you were before getting hurt.
Here’s an alternative approach.
This is how you build an effective program. It really is that simple.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to thank you for your time and attention. I truly appreciate it and I hope you’ve found value from this article. Now that we have a clear framework for why we do certain things during the training process, we can dive into more specific topics. Be on the lookout for future articles! Talk soon.