Zach Kinninger joined Rutgers Athletics in July 2016 and currently serves as Assistant Director of Strength & Conditioning, working as the head strength coach for both men’s & women’s track & field, softball and field hockey. The job includes implementing yearly training programs for each program and leading the strength and conditioning internship program for Olympics sports.
“You are only as strong as your weakest link.”
This is a phrase I hear often from both sport coaches as well as sports performance coaches. Most of the time in sports, athletes have specific strengths or skills that make them great at what they do. Many also often have some sort of weakness in their game. For some, that weakness is glaring and other teams will try to expose it during competition; while for others, these weaknesses can be very minimal. I have found the same to be true when it comes to evaluating physical performance as a sports performance coach. For this reason, it is critical that sport performance coaches implement a consistent measurement system to track performance baseline and improvement and make this a key part of your strength and conditioning program. At Rutgers University we have done this by implementing the Sparta Science technology system.
Using Sparta, we are able to measure and evaluate three key metrics that tell us how the athlete handles force. All of these are basic concepts that are performed at some point in every sport, especially in acyclic sports that primarily involve applying high amounts force. The combination of these metrics outlines the optimum performance parameters which we use to coach or change the intent of exercises. We know these three key metrics as Load, Explode, and Drive. Load evaluates eccentric rate of force, which we know has high correlation to the athlete’s pure strength. Explode is specified as the concentric force which correlates with the athlete’s ability to generate power efficiently with optimal stiffness. Then finally Drive, which evaluates vertical impulse.
As sport performance coaches, our favorite day is the high intensity day, or at least it’s my favorite day. It is the “go big or go home” mentality. Let’s slap the weight on the bar and get after it! It is the day where you get to see your athletes push beyond their perceived limits and reach new heights. By constantly improving an athlete’s strength, you will also see an improvement in the athlete’s Load and Explode variables. The trait that is often forgotten or not trained specifically is Drive, which incorporates an athlete’s range of motion and timing.
With athletes it is important to keep a fine balance between stability and mobility. If an athlete lacks that specific range of motion to their sport, they are at an increased risk of injury because if their body gets into that untrained position it will not be operating efficiently. After watching and evaluating many of our athletes scan, I noticed that the athletes who consistently lacked Drive were athletes that used a high hip angle to jump. We see this typically in basketball, which they often lack active range of motion. Active range of motion is different from passive range of motion and therefore it takes a different approach when it comes to training it. Passive range of motion is the athlete’s ability reach a specific range of motion in a relaxed state. It requires assistance from some sort of stimulus to aid to increase range of motion. Active range of motion is the athlete’s ability to reach a specific range of motion without assistance or aid.
For my athletes who consistently had low Drive, I trained them in the lower squat range of motion often giving them a target, a box for example. I also have them perform some type of squat variation with a safety bar where the athlete can use handles to help themselves up through that range of motion. This allows the athlete to feel more stable and safe as you train the athlete in a new range of motion where they are not yet comfortable. An important note I have found: when it comes to reprogramming an athletes motor patterns, always train them slightly lower than what is optimal because the athlete will compensate and meet you halfway.
Once the athlete was comfortable in that new range of motion, I have them move explosively through it. I would give them a velocity zone as well attach some sort of accommodating resistance such as bands where they had to accelerate through that full range of motion. This creates a more sport specific stimulus that trains the athlete to mimic game like situations. An additional tool I have implemented is using exercises where we can increase the range of motion. For example, using deficit deadlift, high box step ups, and walking sled drags where we emphasizing pushing through the full range of motion and finish through the big toe.
Male Track Athlete
Women’s Track Athlete
By measuring these metrics we are able to establish a baseline in which to evaluate an athlete’s improvement throughout the year. As an athlete becomes stronger, their connective tissue is going to become stronger and denser which can lead to greater stiffness. If that athlete, at some point, is not trained through an exaggerate range of motion, then they will lack optimal mobility. Because it is not as simple as “strength”, Drive is often the forgotten piece of the puzzle… but without it we are unable to maximize efficiency and utilize strength. So it is true: “you are only as strong as your weakest link.” Not only will this keep your athletes in a balanced training state, which will reduce risk of injury, it could possibly limit their previous weaknesses in their sport, creating a better product on the field.