It often feels like debates within the strength & conditioning/human performance industry are insufferable, never ending, and lack intention of attempting to grow the field. In lieu of constructive open-source information sharing, we seem much more inclined to rather reinforce our own personal bias or preference. While discourse and some debate should be a part of our collective growth, we are often left with aimless arguing that ignores the critical focus of influencing decision making thereafter (i.e., offering insight or value for others). A fundamental necessity for this to be achieved, is context and reasoning.
I came across an article the other day, Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century, and I must say, it was a genuinely refreshing piece of literature to go through. Effectively, the purpose of the article was to challenge the conventional framework and perspective of periodization and program structure and how our industry has been misguided into trying to automate our practice through predictive programming schematics. And as Kiely addresses in that article- this is fundamentally flawed and lacks nuance.
(Excerpt from Kiely, 2012)
After thinking about the material for a little bit, it prompted me to write this article- a similar concept in that we have become overwhelmingly committed to ascribing ourselves to a specific style, approach, or methodology of training. In doing so, it has disincentivized us to think with versatility, or in other words- encouraged rigidity and confirmation rather than fluidity and curiosity. But for the sake of this article, I wanted to focus on the growing versatility of strength training, and specifically on how strength training can be utilized in both a preparation (i.e., performance) or restorative manner.
I had a unique opportunity at VHP, and it being my first “big boy job” it has proven to be fundamental in my framework for how I see and apply strength training. Being an S&C coach while working in a setting that is ~80% injured athletes makes for an interesting learning curve. We effectively had to figure out how to use the tools and skillsets we were taught- largely performance driven methods- and reshape them to be more conducive to this injured population. Mind you, although injured, the majority of our athletes still had accompanying demands for performance as well, as many were Active Duty personnel.
What it’s since allowed me to realize and understand, is that strength training, mobility and stretching, conditioning, speed and plyos, etc. are all nothing but modes of applying a specific stress to the body. And while this is anything but a new or revelating point of view, I do think we overlook the versatility of strength training concepts and how much our trade has expanded. And by all means, this is a great thing, as more versatility permits more utility, which then creates a broader potential for application. Nevertheless, I’ve come to describing this hybrid approach as restorative based strength training- not performance based, but also not physical therapy.
The Pyramid of Performance
Performance functions in an undulating manner, in that there are peaks and valleys on small and reoccurring cycles that over time produce bigger peaks and valleys that create patterns (and patterns determine outcomes). This can also be represented like a pyramid, in which we have a clear point or event (peak) that has an ascending and descending period on either side of it. The problem is, the vast majority of our time, effort, and interest has been funneled into viewing S&C as something that exclusively applies in the preparation and performance aspects.
Having my foundations of S&C being enrooted at VHP, unlike most S&C coaches who are implicitly focused on improving performance or ability, my primary utility with strength training has been to take people out of pain. And it’s worked. Beyond that, most of the same fundamental principles and applications of strength training are no different whether you are aiming for performance or restoration. The primary difference between the two pursuits isn’t what you do, but the way in which you apply the inputs.
So many people (coaches, athletes, general fitness, etc.) have been misled into believing that strength training, or any of its subcomponents, must be done in a certain or particular way. This is often envisioned as things like “we have to back squat if we want to improve leg strength”, or, “if I’m not on the verge of puking, it wasn’t a real training session.” Obviously, these things are far from true, but it’s a widely pervasive and accepted ideology of strength and conditioning. The truth is, there is so much more room for interpretation than we think. A variable or contributing factor to overtraining is neglecting variation, or in other words, not doing too much, but doing too much of a certain thing. And my theory is if we created more variability to training (still performed at high loads/intensities) we would reduce unfavorable joint stress and tissue overload, while also still checking our boxes for performance. Unfortunately, most are too trapped in their own echo chamber to explore this.
It isn’t just niche markets like the one I described of VHP that a restorative approach is applicable for, the potential reach is broad. For starters, essentially any person I’ve worked with in the “general fitness” population, particularly individuals over 40, I would venture to say I have utilized this restorative approach. I don’t know how to put it other than it just feels better for this crowd. The bonus is, they tend to love the diversified style of training, and it effectively addresses pain while maintaining common outcome like fat loss or muscle gain.
*Note: Every day is "total body" with a different focus of application, almost everything prescribed is unilateral or contralateral, multiple planes of motion, variable load types.
Early off-season periods for athletes at all levels, athletes in late phase return to play, and retired professional athletes are all candidates for this approach as well. But for the sake of illustrating the point, let’s consider something like the retired athlete population. These are individuals who have spent several decades in developmental phases. Almost all efforts exhausted to squeeze out every last drop of athletic potential and prowess. After years of rigorous training, violent collisions, and an amalgamation of injuries, a restorative based approach is a pragmatic route to maintaining health & fitness while also amending the damage that’s been done.
For situations such as these, it offers a great opportunity to address site-specific injuries, ankle and foot specific work being a good example. Moreover, removing all compound/bilateral movement and replacing with split, kickstand, and single leg variations to give their spine and hips a better opportunity for loading. The unrelenting pursuit of intensity and overload being supplemented for pursuing variance and open movement. And of course, I have to include- undertaking a fascial focus which collectively is more conducive for athletes that have accumulated such wear and tear.
Understanding Strength as a Restorative Application
Just as what goes up must come down, what is once built up will inevitably break down. Although there are circumstances where what has been done, will be, there are plenty more that can be influenced and attenuated through the medium of strength training and conditioning. For instance, let’s consider an individual who has had multiple back surgeries due to chronic disc compression. While the compromised joint space between the affected vertebrae will never necessarily be “undone” no matter what the applications or treatment plan consist of, a well prescribed strength training and mobility plan can help to preserve the space that remains. Additionally, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective way to improve chronic pain and limited function from events like back surgery than a well-designed and balanced strength training program. And that’s a hill I will happily die on.
The important thing to recognize in that little example is that the typical instruction most would be given (and believe) after something like a back surgery is to “never lift heavy weights again”, and this is categorically inappropriate to suggest. Do I recommend having someone 2 days off of a microdiscectomy under a squat bar? Of course not! But have I had individuals with the same surgery squatting and deadlifting at some point? You bet your ass I have. Time and context are key.
But let’s examine some of the primary distinctions between performance and restorative focused training in a little more detail. Let’s discuss:
Target and Priority
The most significant difference between preparation and restoration is the target goal and the priority of outcome. When in a developmental or preparation phase, the target is simple- game/event/competition. In light of the singular focus, the priorities too become rather self-explanatory- improve the physical qualities that are needed for sport and emphasize the ones that are most glaringly deficient in the athlete. This can make things like exercise selection and programming parameters much narrower to choose from, because we essentially already have the answers to the test.
As for the restorative side, the target very purely becomes the individual. Thus, our priorities are generated based on the observations and measurements we collect from the individual. Whereas with the preparation phase we are governed by what’s demanded of them, a restorative based approach will be governed only by what the individual aspires for, what you determine to be a priority, and your creativity to guide them to the solutions. This gives us much more freedom of expression, and also, importantly, is not nearly as constrained by what “has to be done”.
Perspective & Relationship with Training
An underlying but critical element to restorative strength endeavors is reframing the perspective of training, and their fundamental relationship with it. This was something that I never anticipated or would’ve thought to be an issue. People who are in chronic pain or have sustained traumatic injuries often develop an adverse relationship with conventional training. They have only ever been taught to train a certain way (for performance) and following injury can quickly become a case of “jamming a square peg in a round hole.” Conventional applications often reinforce pain, which inclines them to feel hopeless about their situation. It’s extremely important that you help them reshape the framework and feel for modified training outcomes. Redefine what needs to be done and what constitutes a successful outcome. And beyond the instructional piece, creating an environment that is encouraging and positively reinforces the individual’s relationship with training is critical.
This limited perspective can also be the case for retired athletes, as these are individuals with robust training histories, and, as mentioned, with significant injury histories. People who have been exposed to strenuous training or have competed at a high level will fundamentally lack the ability to understand not feeling depleted or exhausted from training. And trust me, it creates for a difficult conversation to be had. But we need to consider how to help them understand and feel comfortable with a protocol that improves feel and function.
Timeline & Intensity
The timelines during developmental phases are clear cut, and typically are reverse engineered by the dates set in place for you (i.e., pre-season period, high academic stress periods, games/competitions). Referencing back to the Kiely article, this is why I believe we have become so obsessive about predictive models and autogenerated programming… timelines are built for us, so we can anticipate when athletes will or won’t be capable to tolerate volume or intensity. Again, one of those things that in theory makes sense, but is far more complicated to put into practice.
On the restorative end, the timeline is not necessarily set out for us, and this can provide a great advantage. An undefined timeline can create a more natural pace of progression, as we’re not prompted to feel like we are rushing against arbitrary deadlines it allows us to be more thorough and thoughtful in our approach. Additionally, the intensities are purely determined by what the athlete or individual demonstrates they’re capable of- if they show linear improvements, continue riding the wave. If they aren’t responding well, create a detour. Simple.
Exercise Selection & Parameters
Here’s what it all boils down to- how we prescribe movement, irrespective of what type or the individual, is what ultimately determines the efficacy, effectiveness, and outcome of exercise. Understanding the base principles should be the initial priority for any S&C coach but imploring how we can create versatility and precision is what separates good from great practitioners. And sticking with the theme of this article, is how we can apply mostly the same exact criteria and modify it to precisely fit the demands of the individual we are working with.
Bringing it All Together
Strength and conditioning is an evolving field, and one that is rapidly continuing to expand into new niche markets. What we, as coaches or practitioners, must begin to recognize is that we are responsible for ratifying the archaic narratives that try to put S&C in this rigid box of what it “should” be. Ultimately, S&C and all its subcomponents are just ways to apply certain stress to the body, and there are innumerable ways we can apply this. When you have athletes in a preparation or development phase, do just that- prepare them for the competition in front of them in the safest and most efficient way you can. When you have athletes or individuals who are non-competitive, or in certain times of their sport calendar, then help them understand training from a different lens. It doesn’t have to suck, or be monotonous, and there are very few absolutes if any.
Take a step back from what you’ve conventionally been taught, suppress the biases, and if nothing else just re-evaluate the possibility of reach strength training can have. A restorative approach can be a genuine breath of fresh air, particularly for those who suffer from chronic pain, and not to mention more effective. Injured athletes and individuals in pain need to recognize this versatility and understand that avoidance doesn’t have to be your default plan. There is absolutely a way to train without reinforcing pain, and to make tangible improvements.
This isn’t reinventing the wheel or being different for the sake of it. It’s pragmatism. There is a tremendous amount of versatility to what we do. But if we continue to only see the performance aspects of our job, then we will only continue to be seen as a nominal and often interchangeable position. Demonstrate our value before we demand our respect.