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April 27, 2015
Guest post: UPenn Head Strength Coach and Powerlifiting Record Holder, Jim Steel

JIXMAHKWACCNPOW.20140826183836This weeks guest post comes from Jim Steel, University of Pennsylvania’s Associate Director of Sports Performance. The 2015-16 season marks his 12th year at Penn. Steel is also the American Powerlifting Association record holder in the State of New Jersey in the squat (820lbs), deadlift (740lbs) and total weight (2,065 lbs). 

Coach Steel was asked to write on ANY topic, so the below piece is unaltered and unsolicited. The piece is a direct reflection of his personality; not separating relationships in his work from his personal life so any edits would also detract from his natural writing style which is more personal storytelling, which can also be found on his blog on Bas Barbell.

I have been a strength coach for a long time, I started in 1989. The ability to individualize athletes’ programs has always been a process of gaining practical experience and a certain amount of guesswork for me and the strength coaches with whom I have have worked . In 1989 I was learning on the run, hoping that the exercise prescriptions that I gave the athletes would work, that the programs I wrote and the observations I made were spot on. Even with the best intentions, there was a lot of guesswork.

As a self taught coach and lifter, I have searched for a long time for a tool or tools to cut down or eliminate the guesswork from programming, injury prevention and regeneration. I am going to admit that I am biased, Dr. Phil Wagner and I have known each other for quite a while. We worked together at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 2000’s when Phil was in medical school. We immediately hit it off upon introduction; our philosophies were relatively the same—lift heavy and hard with the simple exercises for maximum results. We were doing it on the fly, reading and studying Eastern European texts and talking to other folks that we felt were on the cutting edge to expand our knowledge. We spent many hours discussing training methods and the most effective ways for athletes to succeed while remaining injury free.

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When Phil moved to California we lost touch, he was coaching at UCLA and attending medical school at USC, and I was moving into a full time position at Penn. A few years down the road I began reading about Sparta and their mysterious Sparta Signature. Then out of nowhere Jeremy Lin hit the news with his amazing year with in the NBA. Where did he come from? Where did he train? Turns out he had trained that off-season at my old friend Phil’s place, Sparta Performance Science. I had no idea exactly what it all meant, but I wanted to know more.

I began to read more and saw that the University of Kansas was a pilot program for Sparta’s software and force plate system. I heard Coach Andrea Hudy (from Kansas) say that the Sparta system kept their athletes healthy and strong throughout the season. Healthy was the word that stuck out the most. We were always fighting the injury battle. Kids these days come from high school with so many injury issues, preexisting conditions that leave the strength coaches and athletic trainers struggling to catch up when it comes to program design. I wanted a way to be proactive as soon as an athlete arrived on campus. I wanted to identify their strengths and weaknesses and then be able to act on making them better right away.

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So we pulled the trigger on the SpartaTrac system at Penn. The software and force plate were purchased and we began the process of implementing the program with our teams. Immediately I begin to see the results. The story of one of our female athlete stands out as an example. Over the course of a few weeks her Sparta signature had degraded severely; LOAD, EXPLODE and DRIVE had all decreased significantly. I had been testing her frequently because of her injury history, she had a torn ACL coming out of high school and was on the road to recovery. Watching her train, I could not detect the problem, but the force plate told a different story.

I remembered a consulting session with Phil where we discussed that it may not be the exercises in an athletes’ program that are causing the problem, that it may be more of a global issue. I sat her down to talk to her and asked her what had changed in her life.

Well, I am pledging a sorority, I am studying for midterms, I am not eating very well  (evidenced by her regen scores ) and not sleeping like I should.

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SpartaTrac Regen dashboard (click to enlarge)

Nothing had changed with sport practice or training/conditioning. We needed to make some changes, We counseled her on the importance of nutrition and rest, emailed the athletic trainer about keeping an eye on her during workouts, watched her force plate scans to identify injury risks and developed a plan for frequent re-testing. Athletes log their regeneration habits daily on their phone, allowing seamless communication between the strength staff, sports med, and the athlete.

We scanned a few weeks later after the regen and lifestyle changes and her signature was back to healthy levels. The level of detail and insight that the force plate and software allow for enabled us to prevent a potentially dangerous situation with this athlete. Seeing the big picture was the answer to creating a healthy athlete.

We have had tremendous success with some of our other teams, reducing training volume while at the same time reducing injury risk. Both volleyball teams are healthy and strong, showing great improvement since we began using the Sparta system. We have actually reduced their volume by half; only training an average of 50 minutes a week, but reducing their injury potential by 32% (as evidenced by their scans). When I expressed my pleasure with the results to Phil he explained that I have given the athletes a great gift—time. Time to focus more on academics and more time to recover.

It really comes down to efficiency. The ability to see the big picture and regulate training according to the force plate scans and the athlete’s regen scores has changed the way that we as a strength and conditioning staff approach our athletes’ programs.

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April 27, 2015
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