When I was a teenager, my father frequently reminded me that I didn’t know shit-from-Shinola. (Thanks to the Google, I finally know what Shinola is.) In retrospect, he was generally correct.
As a new strength coach with only three years of experience, were my father still alive, he could say the same thing and be right again. There is so much I don’t know, which is why Mike’s know-it-all vs. learn-it-all article made me chuckle. I’m not worried about being a know-it-all. In fact, I look forward to the day when I can be a know-a-hundredth-of-it-all.
To fix these yawning gaps in my knowledge base, I have to read constantly. This can be a bit of a crap shoot: some of the books you pick up really open your eyes and some end up being rather vacuous and you feel like the author just wanted to say s/he wrote a book.
Of everything I have read over the last year, the book that I feel expanded how I think about strength training the most was Triphasic Training, a relatively new book written by Cal Dietz and Ben Peterson, a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota and a former strength and conditioning coach and current Ph.D. candidate at the UofM.
In my limited experience, Cal seems to have one of the most unique approaches to strength and conditioning that I have encountered. I liked the book because it really made me think and forced me to look at what I was doing and most important, why I was doing it.
Before I highlight what stood out for me, I want to put out two disclaimers. First, I think their approach is different from typical programming approaches discussed on the StrengthCoach.com site and other places. However, because I am a new strength coach, maybe a lot of coaches have been doing what they recommend for a long time and it is just a matter of my lack of exposure.
Second, I want to be clear that I am not advocating for their approach…I am just saying it made me think…and I am not saying the Triphasic Training method is better. “Better” is an empirical question that can be challenging to research. I will say a little more about the empirical nature of this “better” question at the end.
Here is what stood out for me:
1) Their primary goal is to create more powerful, faster athletes
That’s not unique, you say, we’re all trying to create more powerful athletes. However, it is interesting to me that many coaches don’t say they have that as they primary goal. I have more often seen that coaches have three goals: eliminate weight room injuries, reduce on-field injuries, and improve athletic performance in that order. Dietz and Peterson say their goal is to create more powerful, faster athletes. It is not that they ignore mobility/prehab work and weight room safety. But their primary objective is to create more powerful athletes.
I am thinking about this because I know that how you state your goals can have a big effect on your approach and your outcomes.
Here is one particular way that plays out. I have read in multiple places that the ideal plyometric progression is from double leg to single leg. In other words, the athlete goes through a double leg progression from jump-stick, to jump-hop, to continuous jumping and then onto roughly the same progression on one leg. This is seen as ideal to prevent injuries.
The Triphasic approach turns this typical progression around and advocates for moving from single leg plyometrics to double leg plyometrics because they feel the double leg plyometrics are better for power development and on-field performance, which is what they are primarily solving for.
2) Though we all want to create more powerful athletes, many aspects of the Triphasic approach are different from approaches I have read about on this forum and other places.
I will give several examples in this article but here is one example to illustrate the point. In a 12 week off-season, they will spend half the time working heavy loads (above 80%) and the other half of the time, dramatically de-loading the athletes. By the last 3 weeks of training, their athletes are lifting between 25 and 50% of their 1 RMs.
I know many coaches deload as they get closer to season, but I have never seen this dramatic of a drop off in load in other off-season programs. Dietz and Peterson strongly believe that the last phase with the dramatically reduced loads is absolutely key to developing power that translates into athletic performance.
Here is another, perhaps more minor but nonetheless significant example of a difference in their approach.
3) Olympic Lifts might not be the best way to develop power.
Triphasic Training rarely programs Olympic Lifts. On the one hand you say, so what, there are many coaches who don’t program Olympic Lifts and they still improve athletic power.
On the other hand, you scratch your head and say, wait a minute, one of the guys is in a collegiate setting and he has his athletes for 4-5 years. He clearly knows how to do the Olympic lifts and knows how to teach them. Many other strength coaches say Olympic lifts are one of the single best methods for developing power. Why then wouldn’t they be using them if they say they are focused on developing powerful, reactive athletes?
Here is the reason: They don’t like to program Olympic lifts because Olympic lifts don’t support the physiological adaptations they are trying to drive in their multi-phased approach.
I am guessing many strength coaches think of cleans/snatches as the rapid acceleration of load and I am also guessing that is part of the reason they like and use them. Olympic lifts are the epitome of power.
The characteristic of Olympic lifts that make them not work in Dietz and Peterson’s Triphasic approach is that the time between reps is too slow. They want their athletes to develop a powerful, repetitive hip extension and they believe they can develop that more effectively by taking a squat through their five phases.
The Clean and Snatch are too slow? Now you might not agree with that, but I had never even factored the time between reps for those exercises into my thinking about their value.
4) They don’t organize their workouts into exercises focused on Power (like Olympic Lifts, plyos, and med ball throws) and strength (knee/hip dominant, vertical/horizontal pushing and pulling)
Every workout is built around two main lifts…squats and bench. They take typical, easy to teach, lifts and uses them to develop power.
They do this by working each lift through their five phases. (Yes, go figure, the Triphasic Method has five phases.) The five phases are eccentric, isometric, concentric (all above 80% of 1RM), a 55-80% phases with the lower weight complimented by the use of chains and bands, and a 25-55% phase focused on as many reps as possible (AMRAP) in a fixed amount of time. (The times are aimed at optimizing for the sport you are training for…longer for, say, hockey or lacrosse, shorter for football). I will say more on these phases in a moment.
Around those two main lifts, they program assistance lifts as recovery from the main lift, thus creating program density and also to ensure they are hitting prehab movements for reducing injury. More on these assistance exercises in a moment as well.
The simplicity of the two-big-lifts approach appeals to me. If they are right, I may not have to teach all my athletes to clean. I can teach them to squat and then take multiple approaches to that squat…isometric, rapid contractions for time, high and low loads…and develop power that way. That is appealing when you work by yourself with groups of 16 or more, which is what I do.
5) Power increases by “narrowing the V”…the time it takes to move from eccentric through the isometric “pause” to concentric contraction stages of muscular action.
Muscular action has three stages: eccentric, isometric, and concentric. They feel the key to power is “narrowing the V”…the time it takes to move from eccentric through the isometric pause to the concentric muscle action. And the key to narrowing that V is training, for extended periods of time, in all three phases.
Everyone knows the three phases of muscle action. And everyone, of course, does concentric training. Many also work eccentrically on a regular basis. But I don’t see much isometric work (do a search on the SC.com Forums). Moreover, this was the first time I encountered someone programming the three phases, separately, for three and four week blocks of time.
6) In focusing on developing power, training the nervous system is as, if not more, important than training the muscles
This is where their most provocative or controversial or flat out wrong (depending on your perspective) idea comes in: the idea that mixed training…training heavy loads for low reps for max strength and lighter loads for high reps for strength endurance in the same session and even in the same week or block “confuses” the nervous system and does not produce the desired homeostatic adaptation:
“When different training parameters are targeted within the same workout they must be seen as having a negative or detractor effect on one another. That is, stress placed on one training parameter (max strength) detracts from the stress that could be placed on a different training parameter (speed strength)…“Differing neurological signals interpreted by the athlete’s body cause confusion within the homeostatic response. With no one stressor clearly signaling for adaptation, the multiple training targets worked during mixed training elicit conflicting responses within the athlete.” (Pages 42 and 43 of Triphasic Training).
Everything is aligned to support the desired adaptations. Even their conditioning changes by phase and is oriented towards supporting the adaptations they are attempting to drive in the weight room across the various phases. Moreover, they are thinking about adaptations very broadly…enzymatic adaptations, neurological adaptations, muscular, skeletal adaptations, etc.
The focus on nervous system adaptations is why two main lifts…one upper body, one lower body…work. Even in their six day programs, where they are alternating squats on M-W-F with bench on T-TH-S, they are moving the bench press through the five phases and “teaching” the nervous system to move load quickly.
As a new coach, I never even really thought about what it meant to train the nervous system. This not only gave me some idea about what it meant but it also gave me an approach.
It also gave me a big ah-ha about exercise selection. I used to look at exercises and say does that seem like a good exercise to me? Is it safe? Is it functional? Does it seem like a good progression or regression for something I am trying to accomplish? Does it give me a lot of bang-for-the-buck?
Triphasic Training adds one more filter: does the exercise support the phase my athletes are working in? In other words, an exercise is not good or bad in and of itself. It is only considered “good” if it supports the adaptations they are trying to accomplish in a particular phase.
For example, most consider the Turkish Get-up a darn “good” exercise…multi-planer, strength and mobility, core to extremity, etc. Dietz and Peterson might program Turkish get-ups in their over 80% phase, but you would never see Get-ups programmed in their final two blocks. They are too slow and would counteract the nervous system adaptations they are trying to foster.
7) Triphasic Training outlines a number of specialized training approaches I had never been exposed to.
A) French Contrast. The French Contrast is a fancy name for a combination of complex and contrast methods. A “complex” is a heavy compound exercise followed by a plyometric that mimics the same pattern. A “contrast” method is a heavy set followed by a drop set.
The French Contrast follows the heavy set with an unloaded plyometric (complex), then a drop set (contrast), and another plyometric (complex). The authors are big advocates of this approach for improving sports performance in those sports requiring high rates of force production.
B) Timed Drop-offs. The idea here is that you have your athletes repeat sets (same load, same number of reps) until the performance (speed of the bar) drops off by more than some specified amount (generally 3-5%). This seems like a great way to work near max loads, without overly fatiguing athletes. This was interesting, but I have to admit, I didn’t pay as much attention to it because I don’t feel I can implement it in my situation.
C) Antagonistically Facilitated Specialized Method (AFSM). They cite research showing that the main difference between the most elite athletes and great athletes was not the speed at which they could contract the agonist muscle but the speed at which they could relax the antagonistic muscles. They employ a number of means to increase that ability. Here are a couple that I really liked:
- Timed Sets. I referenced this earlier. In the final phase, with loads in the 25-50% 1-RM range, their athletes are performing AMRAP in a fixed amount of time, with the time a function of the needs of the athletes’ sport.
- Oscillatory Method. This involves short, rapid pushes and pulls with the bar or dumbbell only traveling a few inches. To illustrate, think of doing a bench press with the bar two inches above your chest and pushing up about three or four inches and then pulling the bar down and repeating that for, say, ten seconds. They are trying to teach their athletes to contract and relax, in this case, in the weakest part of the lift.
The authors use a lot of Oscillation sets, especially in their final two training blocks, to help athletes prepare for the rapid rates of force development needed in their sports.
8) Triphasic Training lays out multiple methods and means for adding program variation.
Everyone emphasizes the importance of varying the stress applied and keeping it interesting for the athletes. The Triphasic method provides multiple ways to add variation to your programming. First, there are the phases themselves. The loading and focus of the various phases vary but the loading parameters are also changing across weeks within a block or phase.
Second, the loading varies within a given week from a focus on high load/low reps, to lower load/ relatively higher reps relative to the phase the athletes are in. This is commonly referred to as “undulation” or the undulating block method.
I recognize that many feel undulating blocks are overly complex and unnecessary. I am not going to argue for it or against it; I am just saying that it is a kind of programmed variation that may help coaches mix it up.
Finally, the variety of exercises they present, especially assistance exercises for injury prevention is off-the-dial. As a new strength coach, this greatly added to may repertoire of progressions and was worth the price of the book in and of itself. (You have to by the ebook to have the links directly to the exercise videos.) I especially liked the Inclined Cuban Press and the reactive lateral drops. I also think that adding a couple of their forearm variations (Thor’s Hammer and Bam-Bam ) into my own routine for several weeks helped me clear up a nagging tennis elbow injury that even ART hadn’t fully addressed.
All this, together with the specialized methods mentioned above took me way beyond the progressions and regressions spreadsheet I had been using to add variation. I now feel I have a better mental model for thinking about variation and a better system for programming it.
9) An unbelievable number of sample workouts.
The book lays out hundreds of sample workouts that are actual workout sheets used at the University of Minnesota. The sheets illustrate how to program for the various phases, but they also show how they program depending on if you are in-season or off-season and if you are working out 3, 4, 5, or 6 days a week. There are also specific workout sheets tailored to various sports.
Sharing workout sheets in a book is not new, but it was still helpful for me to see how their approach could be implemented depending on how many days one had to work with.
10) Coach’s Corner and Coaching Tips
Throughout the book they provide coaching tips. They cover programming tips and suggestions on how to coach various exercises. But they also provide coaching suggestions around a wide range of topics that were great for a rookie like me:
- Transferring force through the foot and ankle
- The Sport Back Squat (narrower stance and not as deep) and why it is better for peaking athletes
- Breathing and post exercise strategies for recovery
- Accelerated plyometrics (absolutely wild the first time you see it and even more wild the first time you try it!)
These coaching suggestions often revealed how much I didn’t know, wasn’t doing, and wasn’t even considering. Some I can’t use, but most I can and I benefitted greatly from the authors taking the time to get deeper into the nuances of what they were doing and why.
So there you have it. Those are the ten things I took away from this book and some of the ways it affected how I think about strength training. For many, these points will probably seem pedestrian and I apologize. For others, they may represent things you hadn’t considered and if it gets you interested in exploring these ideas further, well then, mission accomplished.
I mentioned up front and I will say it again, I have no idea if Dietz and Peterson’s Triphasic Methods are better than other approaches…only that they seemed different from other stuff I had read. The authors obviously feel their approach is better, but “better” is an empirical question.
If these Triphasic methods do represent a different way to program, then it seems to me there are only four possibilities:
1) The more mainstream programming methods used today are better ways to develop power and speed and increase athletic performance…approaches like Dietz’ have been tried before and don’t work as well as the ones we are currently using,
2) The Triphasic methods represent distinct improvements in how we approach the development of power and speed and how to increase athletic performance
3) The current approaches and the Triphasic approach are essentially equivalent…it is like parenting…there is no best approach…it depends on your kids…almost anything works…except the really stupid stuff, or
4) Neither approach really has any affect on power or athletic performance.
I guess it could be #3 or #4, but if either of those were true, it doesn’t seem to me that many people would be interested in being strength coaches.
If the Triphasic approach does represent a significant departure and if #2 is possible, I would think strength coaches everywhere would be very interested in researching these methods to see if they really do represent a better approaches to the development of power, speed and on-field performance and if so, incorporating them into their programs.
After all, small changes in an athlete’s game performance can have huge effects on game outcomes, seasons, careers, and program reputations.
Dennis Adsit is the Strength and Conditioning coach for the Golden State Elite Youth Hockey in San Mateo, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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