Bondarchuk on Long-Term Development
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This month I will be posting about three new books from Bondarchuk. Even though he just turned 75, he has been as busy writing as ever. The first book I will cover is Champion School: A Year to Year Model for Developing Elite Athletes. With the help of Dr. Michael Yessis, who also translated Bondarchuk’s successful Transfer of Training series, he turns his attention to the big picture of long-term development.
→ Click here to learn more and get a copy of Champion School. Order together with Bondarchuk’s Olympian Manual for Strength and Size and get $10 off.
This topic is very important and coincidentally we just covered it with Vern Gambetta on the HMMR Podcast earlier this month. It is actually one topic that I have little chance to discuss with Bondarchuk, but have been quite curious about lately. Since he moved to Canada Bondarchuk has worked almost exclusively with national and international level athletes, but my coaching career has begun at the grass roots and I’m trying to translate these methods to beginners. This book helps bridge that gap.
Long-Term Development Theories
Bondarchuk start out in the book by looking at historical approaches to long term athlete development and using the commonalities to start his discussion. All kinds of names and stages have been developed, but the general theme is that an athletes career can be divided into a period of development, a period of maintenance, and a period of decline. As athletes develop over different periods of time and reach peaks at different ages the form of development is quite individual and influence by both genetics and planning. As I’ve written about before, Bondarchuk identifies the talented athletes as those able to lengthen the period of development rather than those who have the highest starting point.
Most coaches and sports scientists also agree that the general trend in an athlete’s career is from general to more specific work, along with a steady increase in volume and intensity. Athletes build a base as they are young and refine it by specialization as they mature. Coaches and sports scientists often have different views on how this is implemented (the theoretical approach is more linear, but in practicality while the trend is linear things like volume do not always increase as it is reduced again each year during the competitive season), but there is a core agreement on the trend.
Despite being well known for specific strength, Bondarchuk would agree with this; training does become specific over the course of an athlete’s career, but what is different for him is that beginners also need a significant portion of specific work implemented alongside the general work. It does not have to be one or the other; general development can happen in parallel to specific development. He calls this the principle of unity.
The underlying theme of this whole book is that the best long term development plan is one that can help the athlete improve as long as possible. To do that you need to focus on two concepts: adaptation and transfer of training. If you are always doing the same thing the body will no longer adapt; therefore systematic change needs to be integrated into the program. And the exercises and methods selected should help improve results, creating continuous transfer of training.
“After achieving a positive effect from one complex of exercises, at the end of one or another period of sports form development, we transition to the use of the following, even more effective complex, according to its training effect. Such a strategy utilizes means of specialized preparation over the duration of the entire process of sports improvement of the individual athlete.”
-Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk in Champion School: A Year-To-Year Model for Developing Elite Athletes
How do you do this? For starters if you start out doing only specific work you will have nothing better to change to in order to improve. It prevents further adaptation. General development does have good transfer for all sports at beginning levels and should be utilized while there is still transfer from it. But specific works also has transfer and it is also necessary to learn and refine technique at an early age. By combining the two together you allow for a strong transfer and the possibility of continued adaptation and growth over the athlete’s career.
Looking at transfer, remember that the amount of transfer is always changing for each exercise and programs need to change with it. General development loses its direct transfer after the beginning stage and instead produces more indirect benefits such as helping restoration. As a result of this change, moderate and high level athletes therefore rely on specific exercises as their only source of transfer. And the focus for these athletes should be less on the ratio of general to specific work, and more on the ratio of local specific work to global specific work. Specific exercises start out simple and very localized but will progress into more global and integrated forms. For example in gymnastics a specific exercises for beginners might be one element, where the more developed athlete can combine those elements into routines. It is not just a matter of general versus specific, but also specific versus more specific.
Methods, Periodization, Volume, and Intensity
In Chapter 2 Bondarchuk takes a step back to look at how the body ages and matures, citing some interesting work on how different systems and abilities development among different timelines. Then in Chapters 3, 4, and 5 he gets back to the theme of continuous development and how training methods, periodization, and volume and intensity can assist in this quest.
In his Olympian Manual For Size and Strength Bondarchuk outlined several muscle work regimes (overcoming, eccentric, isometric, etc.) and strength development methods (maximal effort, dynamic effort, repeated effort, combined, etc.) of training. You can increase strength with all methods and the amount of strength you need is sport dependent. Therefore, as with the programming of general and specific work, the strategic use of options and change can prolong the period of development. Overcoming exercises with dynamic effort might be the best for the hammer throw. But if you only do that adaptation will stop. You need a long-term plan that incorporates various methods in a way that will sustain continuous development.
The periodization chapter follows the same philosophy. Using the numerous different periodization models outlined in his Periodization series, Bondarchuk discusses how different methods can be alternated to create a long term plan with continuous development. Again we tend to find one method that works and stick with it, but once we find something that works it is actually time to change in order to continue to improve. It’s the same with intensity and volume, although special attention needs to be paid to volume subtotals. Using traditional periodization models it is assumed that volume declines throughout the year, but actually it is just lifting volume that declines. Specific work volume increases substantially. These details matter when you want to keep getting better.
Many people make the leap from Bondarchuk’s transfer of training to creating plans that only use the best exercises or best methods. But in order to create long-term transfer you need mix and match various different elements that have varying levels of efficacy. This is why his top athletes now still spend about 30% of their time on general exercises, a category that Bondarchuk concedes has no significant transfer for them. If you only do the perfect exercise it quickly becomes imperfect.
It isn’t possible to give a 10-year training plan for all sports in one book. So if you are looking for a copy and paste solution this isn’t your book. In fact, you shouldn’t be looking to Bondarchuk at all in that case. What the book is helpful with is looking into the process of a good coach. He has this philosophy, continuous improvement, and this books details hundreds of examples of how different elements can be used, combined, and altered to keep moving the mark. In the end, that’s what we are all after.
Interesting topic, I look forward to seeing more post on the subject as well as reading the book myself.
It seems as if there is a secondary gain behind general training that is deemed to have a low transfer to the competitive event, in that it enables the athlete to make further adaptations in their specific training. So although there is no direct improvement is sport performance from general work, it must be done in order to lay the groundwork for an improvement in the future. Although this sounds an awful lot like the old model of GPP/SPP, I think it is different in the Bondarchuk system, as the general work is always built into the yearly program, instead of dedicated periods. Definitely an interesting set of ideas.