Book Review: Special Strength Development For All Sports by Louie Simmons

I just finished reading Louie Simmons’ new book, Special Strength Development For All Sports. I don’t know if there is a person that has influenced strength training in the United States more than Louie Simmons. He has created some of the strongest powerlifters of all time at his Westside Barbell gym, in Columbus, OH, and has worked with athletes in a variety of different sports along the way. His training system, which he refers to as Conjugate training, and methods have been heavily influenced by many of the Russian sports scientists and the work he did with the late Mel Siff. While Louie is quick to give these people credit for their concepts and ideas, which have shaped his methodology, his approach to training is truly unique and there probably isn’t a strength coach in the USA who, at one point in time, hasn’t tried “Westside Training”.

Certainly, this methodology of training is something that has influenced me when I first started reading about it back around 2002. If I had to describe the three methodologies that have influenced my training approach the most over the years I would say:

  1. Undulating Periodization – The work by Kraemer & Fleck as well as a lot of the research that has been published
  2. Charlie Francis – The concepts of High-Low and Vertical Integration
  3. Westside Barbell/Louie Simmons

These three approaches have been instrumental in how I think about training and how I set up a training program based on what things we look to focus on in each block/phase of training, which  then determines how we distribute the volume of work. These three approaches were the backbone of the training programs that Keith and I wrote when working with the athletes during my time at Nike.

Louie’s new book is a deviation from the books and DVDs he has previously put out, which are more focused on improving strength for the sport of powerlifting. While Louie has provided a vast amount of information on the web (for free, mind you) and has discussed using his methods for other sports, I think this may be the first time he has ever collected his thoughts on the topic in one single manual.

The manual begins by covering the concepts that shape the Westside Barbell approach to training. It goes over the methods of strength training, which Louie learned from Zatsiorsky’s work, and some of the approaches to strength development that most people have heard Louie talk about over the years.

The book then goes into a broad range of topics, discussing everything from the role of strength in sport to training methods for improving fitness qualities for different sports (Endurance sports, Olympic weightlifting, Team Sports, Combat sports, etc) to recovery and regeneration techniques.

One of the nice things about the book is that, while Louie is a powerlifting coach, he takes the time to discuss how these methods can be translated to other sports. I think a misconception that people have is that you have to train exactly as he advocates powerlifters to train. Louie discusses different methods of training and, particularly, incorporating plyometric activities into training, which could be thought of as a component of the “Dynamic Effort” method. Louie also explains strength-speed and speed-strength and makes recommendations of bar speed and intensities to appropriately develop these qualities. Additionally, Louie spends considerable amounts of time discussing the role and importance of General Physical Preparedness and provides a variety of training approaches to improve this quality.

Some key things Louie discussed were:

  • The importance of general fitness and how to develop it for athletes in different sports.
  • An approach to programming and periodization that encompasses training multiple qualities but having a key focus/emphasis in specific blocks. Team sport athletes need to have multiple qualities trained at a high level to have success and it can be difficult for some people to understand how to set up training phases without just trying to improve everything all at one time. Louie does a great job addressing this and talking about the various programming approaches using a three week wave.
  • The idea that you don’t need to max out each week. I am glad Louie touched on this, as I think it is something that people believe when they think about Westside Barbell training. The max effort day(s) within the Westside system are very important for increasing strength and motor unit recruitment; however, this doesn’t need to be forced each week. I believe this is important for team sport athletes, especially, as the rigors and intensity of training can be incredibly taxing on the body and trying to force a max effort lift each week could be detrimental to performance.
  • The volume of strength training. Strength coaches tend to prioritize the work they do in the gym to the detriment, oftentimes, of other things, such as fitness training, jumping/plyometrics, sprinting, etc. It was interesting to see Louie discuss the volume of strength training and share some of the volumes of strength training for athletes in different sport in countries like Russia. Louie is big on matching the appropriate training volume with the training intensity and draws heavily on A.S. Prilipen’s table for this. Louie mentions that, during a max effort session, you really only need to try and take 3 lifts above 90%. That is a very small amount of volume than what most strength coaches prescribe. As mentioned above, I think strength coaches tend to over prescribe a lot of their resistance training work and not pay attention to the actual volume that is being accrued over the training block. The idea that we want to do enough to force that adaptation we seek without going overboard is something to keep in mind. Finding the optimal amount of training is critical to allowing the athlete to continually train at a high level.
  • Supplemental and Accessory Exercises. Louie is big on using your accessory exercises and supplemental work to develop any weaknesses you may have. I think sometimes people think of this type of work as “optional”, as they put all their emphasis on the main/core lifts, but it serves a key purposes and Louie really drives this point home. Additionally, this type of work may be in a non-traditional form, for example, following your box squat, your main lift for the day, you may go and perform sled dragging in different directions as your accessory activity. This is very non-traditional compared to what most people would do, which would be just do a bunch of different exercises, but is highly useful for an athlete that has to run, cut, and change direction in their sport. A lot of your exercise selection here may also come down to the time of the season (offseason, pre-season, inseason) in terms of what exercises you select.

Over the years, Louie has been incredibly generous sharing his ideas and concepts with the strength and conditioning community. The blog on his current website even contains videos of training sessions that take place each week at Westside Barbell, posted to his youtube channel. Louie’s commitment to give back to the strength and conditioning profession has been second to none and his new book Special Strength Development For All Sports, is a wonderful resource for strength coaches looking to understand how his approach to training the strongest powerlifters in the world can be applied to developing athletes in other sports.

The Ebb & Flow of a Strength & Conditioning Program

I’ve talked a lot about training stress and adaptation in the blog over the years. As simple as it sounds, training really comes down to two things:

  • Stress the body
  • Recover and adapt

That’s it!

How you stress the body is one of the key components. Are you doing the appropriate training to obtain the physiological changes you seek? This has been discussed many times over on this site.

The other key component is the frequency of stress. Today’s article comes from a conversation I had regarding this topic, last week, with Walter Norton. For those that don’t know, Walter owns Institute of Performance & Fitness in Andover, MA. Walter has worked as a strength coach for over 20 years. He has worked for three professional sports teams in three different sports (NBA, MLS, and NHL), has served as a strength coach for a number of collegiate programs, works with a number of high school athletes everyday, and still makes time to train groups of general population folks who are trying look better, feel better, and move better. Aside from all this experience, Walter is one of the best coaches I have ever seen. When it comes to taking a group of athletes, setting up a training program to meet the needs of those athletes, and then coaching the hell out of everything – Warm Up, Speed & Agility, Lifting, Recovery/Mobility -  Walter Norton can deliver.

This past week we were discussing training and the ebb and flow of the week when writing training programs. Walter was sharing some ideas for training his groups of general population clients. His ideas match with my thought process and approach to training – the ideas are good for anyone (general public or athlete).

It is always a tough sell when training people because no one likes to hear that the intensity of some of their training sessions needs to be regulated. Walter was explaining that the most difficult day of the week for his clients is Tuesday because they have a hard training session on Monday and a hard training session on Wednesday, which means Tuesday needs to be a lighter training day. Most of the clients at the gym dislike this session. When I used to have my gym people didn’t love those days either. I think Walter phrased it best when he said, “We try and educate the clients to understand that we go easier on Tuesday to set you up for success on Wednesday.”

Let’s face it, it is easy to sell hardcore workouts that make people feel sick to the stomach or leave them lying on the floor in a puddle of sweat. People love the sense of accomplishment and like to feel that they worked hard. (Side NOTE: Training should be hard and we need to push ourselves to achieve results. The flip side is doing too little that we don’t get enough training stimulus! Good programming should walk the line between the two – doing too much and doing too little.) The problem is that there is always a cost of doing business and at some point you are going to have to pay that cost. People can usually string together a number of really hard training sessions or even several weeks of very hard training, but eventually something gives – they either start to feel bad (joints ache, muscles hurt, etc), they start to feel fatigued, tired, and irritable, or their progress begins to stall.

Most coaches don’t understand this concept. They want the clients/athletes to always feel like they got after it. The problem is that we aren’t really making the person better when we do this, we are just making them tired. Training is a process. It is not defined by one single “hard” workout. You need to educate your clients/athletes about this process and show them that there is a way to achieve their goals without foolishly applying a training session. While this may be difficult for some clients to hear (heck, you might even turn some people a way), at the end of the day you have a goal, as the coach, to help your client/athlete achieve success with their training program. Your job is not to be a drill sergeant and beat people down in every session. Your job is to educate them on what it means to be healthy. Part of that education process means teaching them what it means to regulate their training appropriately so that they can see continued results/improvement. Mark McLaughlin once said something like, “True discipline is the athlete that can do 60min of aerobic work with their HR at 100-110bpm and not push the pace because they want to “feel like they are working hard”. That is an athlete who understands what they have to do and understands the process.”

As stated earlier, these types of ideas are not unique to strength and conditioning. More sports coaches would be better off understanding this concept when they run practice. The hardest thing for a sports coach to understand is the role they play in the injury of an athlete because they don’t consider practice intensity. The sports coach who can embrace logical coaching methods and an understanding of how his/her practice impacts the physiological state of the athletes will be a coach who has a team that is always healthy, fresh, and ready to compete.

2014-2015 NBA MVP (Canadian)

A little over a week ago I posted some analysis of the three players currently in the running for MVP of the 2014-2015 NBA season – Curry, Westbrook, and Harden. This week, I wanted to look at the current crop of Canadian stars who are playing in the NBA.

There has been a lot of basketball talent coming out of Canada recently and the 2014 NBA draft was full of young stars, with Andrew Wiggins leading the pack as the number one overall pick (Choosen by the Cleveland Cavaliers who then sent him to Minnesota, in a trade that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland to play with Lebron James and Kyrie Irving). Additionally, some of my best friends happen to make up the sports medicine, sports science, and strength and conditioning staffs for the Canadian Men’s National Team leading up to the 2016 Olympics (so obviously I am cheering them on).

OH CANADA

OH CANADA

Players Analysis

One of the biggest issues with the analysis is that several of the players don’t play very many minutes. That being said, I included them anyway.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 6.20.15 PMThe main players to play significant minutes were Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas, Kyle Olynyk, and Robert Sacre; so we will concentrate the analysis on them.

Each player played in over 70 games and over 1000 minutes, with both Tristan Thompson and Andrew Wiggins making an appearance in all 82 games and playing over 2000 minutes (Wiggins played nearly 3000 minutes in his rookie year).

As you can see in the chart below, Wiggins had the highest average points points per game of the group – averaging around 17 points per game.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 6.37.12 PM
However, as discussed in the previous blog article, points aren’t everything. To be an MVP you need to help make others around you better. There are times where players score a lot of points but are actually problematic to their team and cause less winning opportunities. For example, a ball hog who takes a lot of shots, has a poor field goal percentage, and turns the ball over frequently because he is always trying to control the court rather than distributing the ball to his teammates. Allen Iverson was a good example of this, at times, and, if my memory serves, there were three seasons where he led the league in turnovers and despite scoring a lot of points he had a poor field goal percentage and scoring efficiency. In Berri and Schmidt’s research, Iverson actually cost his team wins because of his play, despite the fans enjoying the show – everybody likes to see a guy score lots of points!

Wins Produced

Speaking of Berri and Schmidt’s research, as we did in the previous blog article, we will turn our attention to the Wins Produced model, which allows us to understand the player’s contribution to his team winning games throughout the season. How many things does the player do well and how good is the player at minimizing things that cause the other team to score points?

Going back to Wiggins, while he scored more points than the other guys in the analysis – he had a lot more opportunities to score given the high amount of minutes he played – he only produced about 2 wins for his team (or 0.03 wins per 48min). One reason may be due to his high amount of turnovers.

Looking at Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson, we see that both players helped contribute about 7 wins to their team. While Joseph’s first two NBA seasons were nothing to write home about, he has put together a great season on a stacked San Antonio Spurs team and might be a guy they look to in the future to run the point guard position as their team continues to age. Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson finished fifth in NBA 6th Man Voting and had a great season coming off the bench on a Cleveland CAVS team led by King James.

Kyle Olynyk pops out in the Wins Produced stat as actually being a bit detrimental to the Boston Celtics. Here is an example of a guy who played a lot of minutes, however, his production is actually less than what an average Center would be able to do given the same number of minutes he played (Olyny played about 100 more minutes than the average for Centers). Olynyk was good for 93 offensive rebounds and 211 defensive rebounds, while Centers, on average, this season pulled down 123 offensive rebounds and 264 defensive rebounds. Kyle did do better than the average in scoring, 656 points to the league average, for Centers, of 522 points. However, he did turn the ball over more than the average, 98 turnovers versus the league average of 74. When looking at all the factors that go into the model, Olynyk didn’t seem to be effective. During his rookie season, 2013-2014, one of the criticisms is that he is not a true center and lacks the ability to defend some of the best big men in the league.
Stauskas produced 0 wins for his team, the Sacramento Kings and Robert Sacre was actually more detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers than Olynyk was to the Celtics!

Some Other Thoughts

Looking at the stats, it appears that it is a toss up between Joseph (who actually played really well despite playing about 800 minutes less than Thompson) and Thompson for the Canadian MVP. Both had great seasons and contributed a lot to their teams.

Wiggins had a good season as well and, as a rookie, has a lot of room for growth. Controlling the ball is going to be something he will have to work on in the offseason.

Olynyk just finished his second season on a young Celtics team. Perhaps playing Center isn’t his position but he may just need more time to grow into it. Despite having a negative wins produced stat for his team this year, he did start to show promise towards the latter half of the season.

One thing I think about, from a health stand point, is the number of minutes some of these young players are playing. With 3936 available minutes in an NBA season, not counting overtime games, Wiggins logged a massive amount of minutes. Keeping players healthy is the name of the game and managing their health by managing their minutes played (as well as how you help them recover off the court) is going to be critical for these rising stars.