Almost every Monday during the academic year is the busiest day of the week at my school. Over the course of the day 400 student athletes come in for workouts with the bulk of them in between 6 am to 730 am, and the rest between 230 pm and 530 pm. It’s a busy time and with a limited staff of a grad assistant and a few undergrad interns, things have to be laid out almost perfectly and ran with precision otherwise there is too much down time and athletes are cooling off while waiting to get the the rack for their next set. While I’m fortunate that we technically could have 24 people lifting in a rack at once with another 24 spotting the lifter which accounts for 48 people, but we typically have groups of 60-75 lifting at one time. That could be half of our football team or combined groups like both the men’s and women’s hockey team. It seems like there should be enough work for everyone to stay focused but with large groups of people in at once and staff members doing too many things at once sometimes people decide to make their rest times longer than they should. What’s an overworked coach to do?
Of the many things I’ve tried, what worked best was programming the rest activities for the athletes. While active recovery is not a new idea, Dr Zatsiorsky talks extensively on this, but looking at recovery activities as a way logistically control the flow of the room and a way to spend enough time doing those extra but easily skipped over pre-hab exercises. So now when we have athletes set up in groups of 3 to 4 people and while one person is doing the main exercise, everyone else has a job to do and no one should be screwing around being a distraction anymore. Sounds good, right? It is,but the hard bart is what comes next. You have to decide on what exercises are important to program and how much time you need in between sets.
Say for example you have power cleans programmed for the athletes and they are going to do 4 sets of tripples at 85% of their 1RM. I would aim for about a 3 to 4 minute rest, so if you have groups of 3, then each of the recovery exercises will need to last about a 60-75 seconds. With the people rotating drills and some extra time built in for the lifter to get their head right before making an attempt, that should workout just perfectly. The art comes into deciding what type of focus you want for the recovery exercises though. What I’ve typically done was to spend some time addressing the injuries that the athletes I work with experience. These will be different than what the national averages show.
SportMost Common Injury Risk Least Common Injury RiskFootball ConcussionShoulder (A/C Joint)Shoulder (G/H Joint)Lower Leg Muscle StrainWomen’s Soccer Lower Leg Muscle StrainConcussionLow Back StrainACL RuptureWomen’s VolleyballShoulder (A/C Joint)Shoulder (G/H Joint)Finger Fracture or DislocationLow Back StrainMen’s BasketballFinger Fracture or DislocationAnkle InversionPeter la Tendonitis Lower Leg Muscle Strain Women’s BasketballAnkle InversionFinger Fracture or DislocationConcussion ACL RuptureMen’s Hockey Groin StrainShoulder (A/C Joint)ConcussionLow Back StrainWomen’s HockeyGroin StrainLower Leg Fracture Low Back StrainConcussion
Addressing any way to fix those common injuries is a good first step to keeping the athletes in the competition arena versus the training room. But for the athletes I work with, improving their performance is not limited to the typical exercises you would expect to see in a weightroom.
As our athletes will tell you, I am obsessive about the number and quality of grip exercises that we do. It might be a reflection of society with the avoidance of physical work people do, or it might be my own personal belief that you are only as strong as your hands but many of our athletes come in as freshmen with embarrassingly weak grip strength. With the overwhelming majority of team requiring grip strength in some form be it securing a tackle in football, holding onto a basketball, keeping a finger from jamming, or being able to pull a heavy deadlift without straps I have placed an emphasis on grip strength. The way I describe it, there are three types of grip strength: a pinch, crush and twist grip. Pinch grip exercises focus on just using the thumb and finger tips to secure an object. For crush grip exercises think of anything that you are trying to close your whole hand around something and well, crush it. Lastly, the twist grip is using your wrist to turn something forward or backwards. Below are some examples of our plate pinches done with an overhand and single hand position.
To really work on the pinch grip you are going to need two sets of plates and put them together front to back. At the gym I’m at, we don’t have metal plates anymore which is a blessing and a curse. The bumper style plates are easier to grip with the rubber vs metal, but these bumpers are also thicker than standard metal plates. Either way, stand the plates up then put them face to face (so that the back of the plates are facing out). Pinch the plates between your thumb and fingers and pick them up. For the first couple of runs, chalk defiantly will help.When you are ready to step up to a new challenge, try the single hand version. The final and most difficult evolution is to try a plate flip. Here is a video for it. Finishing with a mic drop moment is not needed, but it is deeply satisfying.
If a crush grip simulates closing your hand to make a fist and crushing anything in its way, then using something as simple as a towel should be enough to accomplish training your it. For both of these examples,it involves the athlete doing some sort of pulling exercise and the only thing I ever tell athletes is to keep their grip on the towel, no wrapping it around your hand. Towel Pull Ups are about as easy as it gets, simply hang two towels from a pull up bar and start your rep from there. Partner Towel Rows take a little more coordination since you are pulling against another person. I coach a three second eccentric tempo and both people hold the towel in their right or left hands which will give you a angled pull which also doubles as an anti rotation drill too.
Lastly, my main go to exercise that targets the twist grip is a KB Bar Twist. As you can see, a standard Olympic bar is set bout at shoulder height, and a weight is tied to a stretch-band while the other end is looped around the sleeve of the bar. What you don’t see is a 45 pound plate on the opposite side to provide a counter balance to the kettlebell hanging from the bar. When I program this exercise, I talk about each rep is going up with wrist flexion (turning your palm down) with a controlled eccentric with wrist extension (turning your palm up). The next rep just go the other way, of extension then flexion. These examples of the three of the grip exercises types (pinch, crush, and twist) are a starting point for getting strong hands since I believe that you are only as strong as your grip allows you to be.
Finally, the last of my programmed rest exercises are done working the most overlooked aspects in sports. Training to improve the visual acuity of athletes, or to help them see better. If you use basketball for an example, watch how much their eyes are moving around looking at the ball, the opponents, their teammates, coaches, officials, or even the people in the stands. See what I mean? As strength and conditioning professionals we do all sorts of work to help improve people’s speed, power and stamina when why don’t we spend time helping the same people track, focus and identify targets faster? Sticking with the basketball example, it doesn’t matter how fast an athlete if they keep visually losing track of the person they are guarding. If you believe in progressive overload as a way to force a supercompensation of muscle, then there should be a way to overload the muscles that control eye movement and focusing the pupal. Let me state the obvious: Adding weights to the eyeball is not what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is that you can get these muscles in a fatigued state by forcing them to move fast and quickly adjust their focus.
Like every other muscle group in the body our eyes have a few main movement patterns which work in opposite relationship to each other to stabilize the joint or in this case the eye. The main movements of the body are flexion and extension, internal rotation and external rotation, protraction and retraction. The eyes are the same, but I’m not comfortable using the correct optometrist terms so I'll stick with my common terms of: up and down, left and right, all the angles in between those, slight rotation to or away from the nose, convergence (cross eyed) and divergence (bug eyed). All of these movements come into play one way or another when the eyes focuses on a target. As your eyeballs move to best see the target, the colored part of the eye relaxes or contracts to change the amount of light that is ultimately transmitted to the back of the eye where the retina is located and then your brain “sees” what you are focusing on. What I just described is an overly simplistic portrayal of how our eyes focus, it does have one thing in common with every other movement pattern the body produces: muscles make everything in that sequence happen. Which means if there are muscles involved then, you can train the muscles surrounding and inside the eyes so they become more efficient and faster in their movements. Here’s how I do it.
The most basic skill I start with is having the athletes match letters and numbers together from two sets of charts. One is smaller (4”x6”) held in their hand, while the other is larger (8.5”x11) and is posted about 6-8 feet away from the athlete. Their job is to read their handheld card like a book (left to right and top to bottom) and then find the find the matching character on the far sheet as fast as they can.
When doing this sort of vision work, the goal is for the athletes to move their eyes as much as possible while specifically focusing on a target. We’ve had people do this while running their feet, doing some jumps, up-downs, or even switching cards during the set. Another progression is to hold the card or move their body into in different positions. To your right or left. Over your head or at your hips. Feel free to change the font size and colors to make it a bigger challenge. You can even do this with one eye closed. Let you imigation be your guide in how you want to challenge the athletes and overload the eye musculature.
Once people start getting good with the vision charts, the next step up is helping them track an object as it moves in space. This is not something overly complicated, all I am talking about is playing catch. Well there is a twist though. You need two different colored balls, in the video example they are a red and white lacrosse ball, and you tell the athlete what hand is going to catch what colored ball. In the video the white ball is (or should) always be caught in the right hand, the red ball is caught in the left. We start off fairly easy, only going one ball at a time then once the athlete has their rhythm they turn 90 degrees to me with his left shoulder pointing at me but still need to catch the ball with the correct hand. Lastly, the athlete turns 90 degrees the other way so his right shoulder is pointed at me. This is a relatively easy progression and I would later throw both balls at once with high-low, both sides, or even a crossed arm catching pattern. As with the vision charts, we will do this with one eye closed and even starting with both eyes closed and opening on a “go!” call. These drills are there to help the eyes focus on targets, not about catching. Some people have never practiced catching drills before and will be discouraged quickly if you put emphasis on the catch. What you should coach them up on is their ability to see and react to the different balls.
The last of the vision skills we teach is done with some high tech equipment. A 6’ ling piece of string or rope, five ½ nuts, a one inch washer and a dedicated carabiner. To get set up you tie off the washer to one end of the string, loop the nuts though the sting (so they don’t slide off) every foot or so, and then tie the other end of the string to the carabiner which gets secured to your rack. When the athlete is ready hold the washer on the top of their nose right between their eyes then step back until the string is straight.
The goal is to either converge or diverge your eyes so you experience a blurry double vision of the string crossing at the first nut. Once that happens, relax your eyes so they come back to normal and then converge or diverge your eyes at the next nut, working up the string. This harder than you would think, and if you’re worried that you’ll always look awkward while you’re doing this drill...Your right!
The overall idea behind these drills is to fill the athletes’ time with quality work and not just keep them busy. All three of the areas: pre-hab, grip, and vision work are all areas that I have been quick to overlook in the past but yet are vital to the overall development of the athlete. Like you, I’m naturally drawn to watching someone set their new squat max, or shave a tenth of a second off their ten yard sprint time because it is fun to watch and it’s something you can feel proud about to be a part of. Seeing someone set a new PR on their string target convergence drill is not something I’m going to ever post on social media or brag out to other coaches because it's not that glamorous.
On the other hand, if you are like me and believe that you will get the greatest improvements in performance by attacking people’s deficiencies then maybe you should celebrate those improvements. Say you already have a basketball player who is strong (a double bodyweight back squat), fast (a 1.6 second ten yard sprint), and powerful (30 inch vertical jump). What more can you really do with that person that is going to make an impact on their performance? If I was working with a person like that, I’d try to simply keep them healthy, fast, and strong. But that isn’t improving the way that athlete performs on the court. Would helping their eyes move and focus faster to what is happening on the court change their performance? What about making sure their hands are strong enough to hold on to the ball coming down from a rebound? Save your answers, those were rhetorical questions. Seeing people improve and stay healthy are always my goals for athletes. Just because the improvements happen in a non-traditional exercise doesn’t change the fact they people are still getting better and their training is making an impact when they compete.