Long and strong: why athletes need both

As young people go through their growth spurts their bones become longer. In the short term this can be detrimental to skill and strength as they become accustomed to their longer levers. They have become long, but not strong. Imagine rolling modeling clay out on a table. You start off with a solid ball and watch as it gradually gets longer and thinner. You pick it up and it flops around, useful for shaping, but more likely to fall apart.

If a young person has grown rapidly, they have less structural integrity. We coaches need to help them adjust and adapt safely so that they continue to be active. They have become long; we need to help them get strong. This means strengthening the foundation by working through a full range of motion at every opportunity.

» Learn more: James Marshall and Vern Gambetta will be hosting January’s GAIN Europe Deep Dive on Foundational Strength in England. Sign up here.

In this article I shall give some examples of how this works, and also how I am applying the concept of ‘long and strong’ to many other athletes too. I shall quote heavily from my GAIN colleagues as they have given me many examples and thoughts to build from over the last ten years.

» Related content: Marshall joins a panel discussion on foundational strength on this week’s GAINcast.

Tension helps control

In order to move, our muscles shorten, so the concept of ‘lengthening’ may seem contrary. Explaining to athletes that as they push a stick above their head, their triceps muscles are shortening, is a sure fire way to confuse them. So I avoid that explanation. But, if we think of our bodies as moving structures, then the thought of pulling cables tight on a suspension bridge, or tightening guy ropes on a tent, then we get the idea.

Initially, most of our athletes find it hard to push a stick away from them and hold it there while doing another movement such as a lunge. As they think about the legs, the stick comes closer to their body. Slack enters the system; the body has less tension and less control.

Why does this matter? Surely the lunge is a leg exercise? Yes, it is, but if we want the lunge to be a precursor to movement on the field or court, then the body has to be ready to move the whole body. If we are to move with control, we need tension. It is possible, and common, to do a lateral lunge by falling into it, rather than push into it. If you watch the stationary foot of someone doing the lunge, you can often see it leave the floor, or the knee collapse in slightly. The athlete that pushes that foot hard into the floor moves fast and the whole driving leg lengthens. This same action helps with a side step. To paraphrase Jim Radcliffe, they are ‘Pushers not draggers.

The athlete that falls into the lunge has slack in the system and will take longer to move again. Anecdotally, the draggers are more likely to get groin injuries. Getting the athlete to do a lunge whilst pushing the stick in different planes helps them learn tension and control. A footballer needs tension in the upper body as they change direction, very often they are in contact with an opposing player fighting for the ball. They have to perform a skill with their feet, brace their upper body, lean into the other player, maintain balance and run or change direction simultaneously.

The simple lunge can be a means of getting tired, or a means of getting better.

The body is a complete system, rather than a series of independent parts

Do you remember studying series versus parallel electrical circuits at school? I spent many lunch times at ‘Electricity Club’ designing and building circuits so lightbulbs would work. Tension in our body works like the series circuit- every component has to be in place in order for it to work effectively.

If you want to sprint or jump, the upper body has to work in conjunction with the lower body. Slack in the upper body affects what happens to the lower body. If the free hip drops below the support hip then the support foot will be unable to recover as effectively as when the free hip is level or higher than the support hip. That can only happen with tension. When the free hip is higher, the athlete is taller (longer).

Dr. Homayun Gharavi demonstrated this concept by putting three super bouncy balls in a clear plastic tube. The whole tube landed and bounced back up. Replace any one of those bouncy balls with a soft ball and the tube just falls to the floor with a thud.

That is why you see so many running drills with athletes working with implements above their head. It is the principle of encouraging length under tension. When you remove the implement, the athlete’s body can remember the upright position and then they run faster, in principle.

Why then do some coaches and many schools insist on isolating body parts and getting young athletes to work through incomplete ranges of movement? Just look at the machines in the school ‘fitness suites.’ As mentioned last month in the core articles, sitting or lying down removes the need for the body to have control. Our reductionist and isolationist approach to developing strength means we can do a concentration preacher curl (if that is your thing) or a leg extension, but we have encouraged slack because the external support is doing the work for us.

By squatting and lunging fully, the boy will improve his strength and length simultaneously. Pull ups encourage length from the brachiation, so biceps junkies can get their fix and improve their posture. ‘Everything is everything’ as Tracy Fober likes to say, or, in the words of Vern Gambetta, ‘Train fingernails to toe nails.’

None of this is new

I regularly use exercises from Robert Kiphuth’s book How To Be Fit (1956 edition). I refer to them as posture exercises, they improve our posture. Posture is often interpreted as a static position, or series of positions. I use the term to define where our body is, its angles and how we can control it.

Even older than Kiphuth’s book is Yoga, that has developed different postures and poses that work on length and strength over 1,000 years. I use some of the principles without the accompanying baggage. Try assuming a bad seating or standing position, the slouch. Now rectify that by moving the crown of your head towards the ceiling. You become longer and those ill-used muscles have to work. ‘Stand Tall’ is one of the three rules at our club for a reason.

Whilst it is deemed cool to talk about ‘crushing the workout’, think about what crushing does to your body. It contracts and constricts your ability to move. I have a rule of thumb when asked ‘How much should I lift?’ – if the movement is good, they can add more weight. The moment the range of movement, or the control is inhibited, that is time to lower the weight. As I am training people to develop their athleticism, I can’t think of anything worse than piling weight on to someone’s back and talk about crushing them. I fail to see how that transfers to movement.

By focussing on ‘Long and strong’ I encourage our athletes to take control of their bodies. They then maintain that control when they use external loads, or when they move faster or against opposition.