What are we even adapting for?!!

This issue drives weightlifting and powerlifting coaches crazy!  We were going to discuss the various tools for eliciting adaptations in programming, but I think we need to take a second to look at this issue. 

We started by introducing programming as "the structure by which we elicit desirable, sport-specific, adaptations to the body through the careful manipulation of training variables like volume, intensity, rest, tempo, exercise selection and exercise order."

The key words for today, is "desirable, sport-specific, adaptations to the body."  If you tell a weightlifting coach or powerlifting coach that you want to be a better weightlifter or powerlifter, they will write a program to cause those adaptations that will be most favorable to these sports.  If you tell a CrossFit coach, or other coach you are looking to increase your general fitness, they will write a program to cause those adaptations that will be most favorable for fitness.  If your goal is fitness, you are exercising.  If your goal is increased sports performance, you are training.  

On a side note, CrossFit is a fitness program that blurs the line between exercising and training in two places.  The first is that the definition of fitness for CrossFit includes performance.  This means that for CrossFit you can train for fitness in as much as you focus on the performance attributes of fitness.  The second is that CrossFit also has competitions.  You are training in CrossFit if you are focused on performing better in these competitions.  CrossFit begins to move 'beyond exercising' if an athlete is focused on performance goals and performing better in competition.  BUT let's just keep that as a side note.      

HOWEVER, the sport specific attributes that make you a good weightlifter, or a good powerlifter, or a good CrossFitter, ARE NOT THE SAME!  They are different sports that require different adaptations.  Below a list very quickly the different primary energy systems for the different sports and the primary physical attributes required to excel in the sport.... 

Wait!  I am suspecting that most of my audience does not know about the three energy systems of the body that produce muscle contractions...  So, we got three energy systems that are always working.  However, the three work differently and are utilized at different times with different impacts. 

Three Little Energy Systems...

  1. Phosphagen System: High energy output for short duration.  The duration of effort should be less than 20 seconds.  The primary fuel is in your muscles in limited quantities (creatine phosphate and stored adenosine triphosphate - ATP), and it takes awhile to have those quantities restored.  In general it will take a work to rest ratio of 1:25 to 1:15 to get the phosphagen system working again for another high intensity effort.  So, if your set takes 10 seconds to perform, you will need to rest about 2 to 4 minutes.  The rule of thumb we generally advice is 3 to 5 minutes depending on the intensity of effort and duration of the set.   
  2. Glycolytic System:  Moderate energy output for efforts of about 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  This is where we breakdown glucose into energy when limited oxygen is available.  The primary source for glucose is carbohydrates, by the way.  In general it will take only about a 1:3 work to rest ratio to recover the glycolytic system.  You will know when you are targeting the glycolytic system because your muscles will start 'burning.'  There is a build up of lactate in your muscles and your muscles undergo metabolic acidosis from the use of this system.  While the process is complex, and way beyond this little article, suffice to say that if your muscles are burning too much, they can't continue to work at the same level of intensity.  
  3. Oxidative System: Relative low energy output for efforts of 2 minutes to forever.  The Oxydative system uses, get this, oxygen, to produce the fuel you need to keep going forever.  It is the energy system you use when you sit on the couch, and to run a marathon.  AND becomes the primary energy source for any effort where the other two become exhausted.  Generally, it takes about a 1:1 work to rest ratio to train the oxidative system.   

If you ever did an all out sprint for as long as you could, you would find that you would start really fast, for about 20 seconds.  After that 20 seconds you would have to down shift, but still be running pretty fast for about 2 minutes.  Finally after 2 minutes you would have to down shift again and you would hit your maintenance speed.  If you spend more time training one of these energy systems over the other you may be able to either get more explosive within that time domain, OR push the length of time you can maintain that intensity level.

Now if we are training for a sport we need to choose how best to train for it and what energy system it uses.  Not only do want to be careful with our limited time for training and limited ability to recover from the fatigue of training, we also have to be careful because training one system can have negative effects on our ability to perform in the others.  This is mostly a problem with the oxidative system.  Training our oxidative system has been shown in numerous studies to have a negative impact on our ability to utilize our phosphagen system for strength training.  However, training your phosphagen and glycolytic system does not seem to have a destructive effect on our oxidative system.   Now if your sport utilizes all three systems you need to carefully plan for that catabolic effect of the oxidative system, and realize that training that system can negatively impact your ability to be strong and explosive.  THAT IS NOT TO SAY THAT YOU CAN'T BE STRONG AND EXPLOSIVE, BUT THAT YOU WONT BE AS EXPLOSIVE COMPARED TO WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF YOU DIDN'T TRAIN YOUR OXIDATIVE SYSTEM OR CAREFULLY PERIODIZED SUCH TRAINING.  But discussions like that will be much later.      

 Physical Attributes to be trained....

So we want to train the RIGHT energy systems for the sport and the RIGHT physical attributes for the sport.  Now we can look at a sport and analyze it according to the physical attributes we need.  All sports need some kind of combination of strength (ability to overcome resistance), speed (maximize quickness and high frequency), endurance (long distances, long durations), flexibility (maximize range of motion), and coordination (complex movement patterns).   If we look at the sport we can determine what kind of strength we need, what kind of speed we need, what kind of endurance, flexibility, and coordination we need.  What are the demands for the sport to be played? 

Well let's look at our three examples from above, the Weightlifter, Powerlifter, and CrossFitter


As you can see, in comparison to weightlifters and powerlifters the CrossFit is an endurance athlete.  Of course, a CrossFitter is not an endurance athlete compared to a marathon runner, but all things are relative.  The focus on increased endurance and stamina for the CrossFit athlete costs time and energy that can not be devoted towards increases of absolute strength or absolute power.  Two very important attributes for a powerlifter and weightlifter.  


A CrossFit athlete can make gains in the attributes that will make a good weightlifter or powerlifter, but it will be slower and incomplete.  Now this issue is compounded because of the potential negative effects of endurance training on absolute strength gains and speed. This doesn't matter too much if absolute strength or absolute power is not your desired training goal.    

We can see that training multi sports requires more time and more energy than most of us have!  The focus for any athlete is on the attributes that will make the most successful for the sport of their choice.  In the next article that will come out next Tuesday at 10am, we will talk about all the tools the coach uses to get those adaptations!  

Kurt Roderick, CSCS, USAW-ASPC L2, CF-L3, AOLC