S&C

Shiny Pennies: How to Evaluate Trends in S&C

Paul Talty

[7-min read]

Trends in S&C, like every other industry are always evolving. So there are always shiny pennies to distract you. A popular practitioner appears on a podcast/YouTube video/blog post and describes a methodology they are using, or are researching, which has helped them make a big gain with one or more of their athletes, it gets the listener(s) thinking that it could be the missing piece in their programming puzzle and they give it a go. Invariably they post about it on their Instagram or X account, because we all know that if you don’t post it then it didn’t happen. Suddenly this training approach appears in your feed and you feel like you can’t be left behind so you give it a go and then all of a sudden your previously well-planned training programme is full of poorly thought-through additions that may or may not be helping your athletes. 4-12 weeks later it has been ditched and you are on to the next trend.

I am as guilty of this as the next coach. Early on in my career as a personal trainer, it was FMS assessments. Then it was TRX straps. 10 years later Repeat Power Ability was going to solve every short-term issue we had before Run-Specific Isometric Strength Training appeared and was going to cure can… ok that was going to be a bit of an exaggeration but you get the picture.

The thing is, in most cases, the shiny pennies, or trends in S&C, may become useful tools in your toolbox. You just need to give them proper consideration and apply them in a way that aligns with your own philosophy and practice and not someone else’s. Some simple steps to follow before implementing the latest trends in S&C into your programming could look like this:

  1. Consider the context in which the practitioner/company you are listening to has applied the concept and how that may differ from your own.
    • Did their circumstances dictate that they couldn’t pursue a more traditional option which remains open to you?
  2. What was the theoretical basis for the new methodology?
    • There is a good chance that the methodology has been tried before in some fashion and has been subject to scientific investigation. Go find that information and see if it stacks up to what is being suggested now.
  3. If you are still interested, contact the coach/company that caught your attention and discuss points 1 and 2 with them.
  4. Plan out how the new methodology can be applied within the context of your existing session/programming structure without taking away from your “Big Rocks”.
  5. Have a plan for how you will assess its impact and decide whether it is going to form part of your updated philosophy and practices.

One of the biggest trends in S&C in recent years, and therefore one of the shiniest pennies, is Run-Specific Isometric Strength Training (RSIST), primarily thanks to the excellent work of Alex Natera and Rob Pacey which builds on some excellent output from numerous researchers but most notably Danny Lum. The general concept here is using Isometric strength training conducted at specific ankle/knee/hip angles related to key positions during running gait.

This allows for the development of position-specific strength characteristics in the belief that this can have a meaningful impact on running performance above and beyond that which can be achieved using traditional strength training movements alone. It is not intended to act as a standalone training methodology but can be used in that manner when dealing with athletes who are particularly averse to completing traditional strength training for whatever reason.

This topic really took off in 2022 following Alex’s appearance on the Pacey Performance Podcast and later, an online course on the topic area through the Sportsmith platform. Isometric training of course was something familiar to S&C coaches and physios but would have been viewed primarily as the preserve of the rehab setting rather than something that could be a meaningful component of a performance programme.

Now we had a suggestion that it could be the key differentiator in our search for performance impact in the gym with some excellent working examples of its application, all underpinned by up-to-date and ongoing scientific exploration from Danny Lum and colleagues. Hey presto, you have a perfectly shiny new penny which everyone was clambering to involve themselves with. Ourselves included.

There was one catch, swimmers don’t run. They swim. So what use is RSIST to athletes who don’t run? This is where points 1 and 2 of my list above become quite important. The theoretical basis of RSIST is simply isometric strength development which is angle-specific. Therefore, you are not bound by the concept of RSIST but rather the programming principles that underpin its application.

You can therefore apply the concept to general positions of interest, e.g. key sticking points in a bench or squat pattern. Alternatively, you can apply them to other sport-specific positions such as swim stroke positions. It was in this Swim Stroke-Specific manner that we first applied this methodology in our programming.

We spent time with the athletes identifying what they felt were the positions most appropriate to the catch position in their stroke (Figures 1-3), where they felt they needed the most help and then applied the appropriate programming principles to those positions. We have also played around with the use of more general push/pull/squat isometrics (Figure 4) as well with varying degrees of success.

RYPT-blog-Trends-in-SC-Paul-Talty-First-Iteration

Evaluating Trends in S&C Figure 1: The first iteration of Swim-Specific IST using a bench pull to replicate the early catch phase of the Freestyle stroke

We had an intention to use them as a non-fatiguing means of maintaining maximal force capacities in taper periods but in some cases, the athletes didn’t like the “feel” of the work, or they simply got too much of an energy lift from the execution of low volume heavy work in those same sessions where focusing on isometric work had been planned. Due to the significance of the targets for some of our senior athletes this season, asking them to do things that they don’t like the feel of in their taper may not be the wisest strategy.

RYPT-blog-Trends in S&C-Paul-Talty-Second-Iteration

Evaluating Trends in S&C Figure 2: A more successful, iteration of Swim Specific IST using a cable machine to replicate the early catch phase of the Freestyle stroke

To be honest, we also got a little nervous about moving away from tried and trusted options at key points in the calendar for athletes who are in critical stages of their careers.

Having experimented with the use of isometrics, we were still uncertain of how best to factor them into session and programme plans without taking away from the big rocks of what we wanted to achieve, like developing good movement patterns for athletes who spend a significant amount of time in a suspended environment AND build robust strength characteristics. This combination was particularly important for our development squad of athletes aged between 13 and 18.

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Evaluating Trends in S&C Figure 3: An early iteration seeking to replicate the early catch phase in breaststroke

When I read a further article by Tim Rice on the topic it showed me another way of factoring in the use of isometrics to a good athlete development session where you can use an isometric push as your primary force production component of a trio of exercises and pair this with a traditional barbell movement and a jump or throw of some description. This is how we are now seeking to incorporate isometric strength training into our athlete development programme.

Specifically, our development programme consists of athletes with a mixture of training backgrounds and experience. Some have been in the programme for 2+ seasons and have been engaged in a traditional S&C development programme throughout. Alongside them is a new intake of athletes who are closer to the bottom of the age band (13-15 years old) and while they can move well, they are not competent enough just yet to be able to produce a large amount of force in traditional barbell movements. So, we are going to use push/pull/squat isometrics (Figure 4) as a key part of their session plans but do it in a way that still leaves space for the development of good quality movement competency and confidence with traditional movements/exercises.

The success or otherwise of this approach will be measured using force plates to measure the force outputs in training at key time points in the season. We will also track jump outputs over the season and compare the progression in key jump metrics to age-matched competitors.

RYPT-blog-Trends in S&C-Paul-Talty-Mid-Thigh-Pull-1

Evaluating Trends in S&C Figure 4: Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull. Followed immediately by a set of RDL’s, hence the weight remaining on the bar. The holds are submaximal and longer in duration than would be typical in testing situations so straps were deemed to be unnecessary.

While this approach isn’t perfect, it will allow us to further develop our understanding of how to incorporate this concept into our training programmes and philosophy and hopefully further our own understanding of how best to support the development of swimming athletes in the gym. It will also act as part of the process of understanding how to better engage with future trends in S&C and avoid being unnecessarily distracted from what matters in our own practice. If anyone else out there is following similar processes it would be great to hear from you so we can learn from each other and quicken up the learning process.

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Performance Programming Trends

About the author

Paul Talty

Paul Talty is the Associate Head of Performance Services (Physical) for Swim Ireland where he leads the S&C support for the National Centre (Dublin), the National Squads, and the National Teams. In addition to this, he assists in the management of other performance service support to athletes in the National Centres (Dublin and Limerick) and through the Sport Northern Ireland Sports Institute (SNISI). Over the last 10 years, Paul has delivered S&C support to a wide variety of sports and athletes including competitors at European, World, and Olympic levels while working at Coventry University and SNISI. Alongside his role at Swim Ireland, he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. investigating the mechanical determinants of change of direction performance in Gaelic football through the University of Salford.

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