Questioning Coaching Heuristics

Think of a heuristic as a ‘rule of thumb’, a solution that is less than optimal but works most of the time.

Most heuristics are fairly accurate, especially for a young coach working with inexperienced athletes.

Problems arise when people confuse a heuristic with an actual rule or law; or continue to apply them when the situation requires increasing subtlety or nuances.

Below are some coaching heuristics that might require some questioning and explaining.

Heuristic 1: Use Body Weight Before Using External Resistance

While it probably does check the egos of many strength and conditioning ‘Cowboys’, this heuristic should be clarified to specify that it applies more to lower body exercises (think: squats, lunges, etc.) than it does to upper body exercises.

As our collective athleticism decreases, and fewer youngsters can perform the basic movements (think: push ups, pull ups, etc.), using external resistance in the form of bench press, lat pull downs & seated rows become viable options.

In fact, these exercises can often provide significantly lower forces than the body weight variations.

Some might argue that it would be for more beneficial to adapt the body weight exercises to allow the young (un)athlete to be able to complete them, for example, an incline/wall push up.

Personally, my aim (heuristic) is to find the minimum stimulus that will allow my younger athletes to adapt and improve on a consistent basis. Sometimes that’s in the form of some light dumbbells or barbells.


Heuristic 2: Progress from Single Leg to Bilateral Movements

This is a tough one to understand, though it is quite common.

Single leg exercises require the same mass (body weight) to be supported and moved on one limb, when it’s probably less stress for it to be supported by two limbs.

Throw in a greater chance of hip and spinal movement deviations, slower progressions (potentially frustrating the young athlete) and decreased training ROM (due to balance) and its application becomes less relevant.

Following on from the previous heuristic, it might be useful to adopt the following heuristic: Use the lowest amount of stress that will improve a novice athlete.

Heuristic 3: Choose Multi-jointed Exercises over Single-jointed Exercise

In a recent catch up with the QUT ‘Hamstring Group’ we discussed coaches who refused to use the Nordic Hamstring Exercise (NHE) because it was single-jointed. This, despite the fact that research suggests this exercise might decrease the incidence of hamstring injuries by up to 70%!

The belief in this heuristic over-shadowed their ability to apply the evidence.

The interesting thing about the NHE is that it could be argued to be a multi-jointed exercise, it’s just the muscles in the other joints (for example the muscles of the hip) are just working isometrically.

Of course, the real point here is that if there is evidence to suggest you should include an exercise and that exercise goes against your heuristic, throw the heuristic out.


Heuristic 4: Dumbbells Before Barbells

While I have never heard this in a weightlifting or powerlifting context, there are coaches who apply this with other athletes.

The idea probably stems from the fact that the load is less when using DBs and ties in with heuristic suggested at the end of Point 1. Of course, it could also be to help correct any ‘imbalances’.

It should be pointed out that trying to control two implements (DBs) instead of one (BB) is often more difficult.

So if the novice athlete is all over the place with the DBs, try a BB (remember, it doesn’t have to be an Olympic BB!), and in this case the progression might be to include DBs as their neuromuscular control improves.

Heuristic 5: Choose Free Weights over Machines

Coming from a powerlifting and weightlifting coaching background I held onto this belief quite dearly: Squats and deads? Yeah! Leg press? Never!

That all changed when one of my tennis players and I were invited to spend time with Gil Reyes at the adidas Camp in Las Vegas.

For those who aren’t familiar with Gil’s work he was Andre Agassi’s personal S&C coach for 17 years.

Anyway, it bothered me that Gil’s programs relied heavily on machine resistance while mine was almost totally free weights so I asked him to explain his rationale.

It was simple, being used in a consultant role (adidas players can call and book Gil for a training block before a major tournament) he didn’t always have the time to teach his chargers the correct technique of a deadlift, never mind a snatch. He found that he got some great results using machines (the ‘learning’ phase of machines is generally considered to be shorter than that of free weights) in a significantly shorter period of time.

Applying this to my own environment I found that, since tennis players spend so much time playing tennis (plenty of highly specific movements), their strength training didn’t need to be that specific; and they got greater muscle mass gains in shorter time (not rocket science).

Summing up, for most athletes apply the FW over Machine principle, but if you have limited time, or a large volume of their training is highly specific machines could be the better option.

Heuristic 6: High Reps for Novices

A few instances when this doesn’t work:

1)   When teaching an exercise it is often better to use low reps (3-5) so bad habits are corrected quickly between sets.

2)   Following, the novice might not have the endurance to hold the correct postures and this needs to be built up over time.

3)   Nowadays a push up or pull up is very often a 1 to 3RM, yet the ‘body weight before external resistance’ fraternity seems to ignore this.

4)   If the young player is, for example, a front row rugby forward, where their body will have to withstand their teammates compressing their spine from one end and the opposition compression their spine from the other end, it may be useful to prepare their bodies for this type of stress.

This might be low reps and high(er) weight. Not many people are comfortable about this and takes time to decide whether to commit to this paradigm.

In fact, not preparing them might be seen as negligence.

So, some food for thought. Happy to be challenged.

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