For several years I had a difficult time describing my work when people would ask. All of my degrees, credentialing, and career interests fall under the strength & conditioning umbrella. My day-to-day work, however, typically consists of what conventional falls more into the physical therapist and athletic trainer realm. It wasn’t until a year or two ago, I latched on to the term- Restorative Strength Training (RST), which I feel is the most accurate description of what we do. At its most simplistic view, I describe RST as “the delicate balance between performance training and rehabilitative applications”.
For the sake of clarity and context, allow me to provide some background- I’m going into my 5th year at Virginia High Performance and have been head of strength & conditioning for the last two. I hate the term “unique”, but in fairness, we have some unusual/non-conventional athletes and situations. At VHP, we work exclusively with a tactical population, the majority of which are from the Spec Ops/Spec Forces communities. The only reason I even mention this is to provide some reference for the items discussed below, most notably, the extensive injuries and demands we work with. Roughly, about 80% of our population has had multiple and/or severe surgeries, and nearly every single one battles with daily chronic pain while still being expected to perform at the highest level. Our goal, fundamentally, is to improve injured areas, restore movement, and ultimately do so without compromising operational performance. Admittedly, we walk a fine line with some of our training due to the complexity of some athletes we’ve had. But we do work in tandem with a network of professionals (i.e., Physician, Dietician, etc.) who collectively help through our multimodal approach.
When I first began working with this population, which was all but intended, it was fairly overwhelming and vastly challenging. I also won’t be too proud to say that I still damn sure don’t have “it” figured out either, as there is still no shortage of situations I run into that I have no idea how to solve. But I’ve made considerable progress along the way, and much of that is due to the people I’m surrounded by on a daily basis. We have had some tremendous success over the last several years, and what we have come to figure out is that the model must be derived from physical, mental, and emotional wellness. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that none of the training or performance applications are even relevant without first establishing the wellness foundation. RST is developed around this premise that there are multiple systems that are constantly at work and constantly influencing and interacting with each other. As such, there must be multiple pillars, or disciplines, involved working in concert with one another to provide the optimal plan and treatment for the athlete.
While conventional strength training models are largely focused on load intensities/volumes and conditioning parameters, there is generally a complete negligence of other biological systems/functions. What I’ve come to believe is that this is a self-limiting approach, as it often ignores or overlooks individual deficits, weaknesses, and intolerances, while overtly fixated on “measurable” outcomes. Also, an unintended consequence of this is creating greater margins between where the athlete is already strong, and where they’re weak. In my opinion, this margin of difference between strengths/weaknesses effectively becomes a window of vulnerability for injury. The general principle of RST then essentially becomes elevating the athletes’ floor, rather than raising the ceiling, to put it colloquially.
Let’s look at this visually using the sample chart below. Assume we have two athletes with identical physical profiles, and we’ve identified their strengths as upper body strength, aerobic capacity, and strength-endurance; all in the “80th” percentile. Their weaknesses, all in the 20th percentile, include lower-body strength, anaerobic capacity, and global tissue extensibility/joint mobility. And for the sake of this let’s assume a conventional model is a simple conjugate strength program, and for all intents is written very well. Examine below:
What you notice with RST is that while the improvements in identified strengths only improved marginally (80-->85), the dramatic improvement in identified weaknesses (20-->45) created a more significant impact on closing the margin between the two. Or, at least in my view, reduced the margin of vulnerability. And despite the conventional model demonstrating what would be perceived as “better results”, by testing standards, I would argue those improvements would be minimally impactful with regard to performance. And, again in my belief, would actually increase that vulnerability window, making them more susceptible to injury.
Before I go any further, I should be clear that this isn’t some reductionist approach. By focusing our efforts on the athlete’s weaknesses, this doesn’t mean we avoid high intensity training; nor does it mean we pander the athlete with gimmicky movements/exercises. It’s critical to understand that this model still absolutely relies on conventional applications such as overload, supercompensation, high force/intensity, etc. The difference, however, is that this is not at the precipice, whereby we want to address the supporting pillars first, and then work into heavier demands. Another important distinction is that we simply want to treat the athlete as if they are at ground zero, and rather than just chasing external validation, we want to create intrinsic resonance.
What I mean by internal resonance is the athlete is fully aligned with the training process and is autonomous with decision making and direction. Something I often say to my athletes- “everything effects everything”, and that they need to understand performance training goes well beyond the confines of the facility. This also encourages the athlete to remain mindful of the spectrum of variables involved and not fixate on just one or two. I feel strongly that the athlete should have ownership in their training; I suppose a slight caveat here is that I work exclusively with an adult population so this isn’t much of a challenge for me, but even with younger athletes this should be considered.
By empowering the athlete with decision making ability, it will indirectly improve the athlete’s confidence and commitment to their performance. By having more ownership, they tend to accept more responsibility, thus giving them the inclination to want to improve outcome measures even more. This requires them to understand how the “extraneous” variables influence the bigger ticket items. By putting the onus on them, it allows me to be less of a micromanager with items such as mobility/tissue work, breathing exercises, sleep hygiene, etc. Ultimately, the more that the athlete can be autonomous with, the more time we have in person to work through more technical/sophisticated items.
As profoundly confident as I am in this approach, I will also be the first to say that this is not something to be applied with all athletes. For instance, if you have high level college athletes with minimal injury histories, I’d advise against this model. In those cases, athletes need to continue to push to see where their genetic caps really are. Similarly, younger (high school and below) athletes do not have much demand in training beyond simply establishing fundamentals and stressing the shit out of the body. However, even though the training approach may not be conducive with these populations, I still firmly believe the concepts (health/wellness, aerobic, base, tissue work) all still apply, just in a reduced capacity. The RST approach, as outlined here, is mostly suitable for athletes who have already established physical peaks, and now have transitioned into more of the durability and longevity battle. I’d also argue that most “recreational/general” population would benefit greatly from the RST approach, given that their peaks are generally low and unnecessary (impractical) for the most part.
While peak performance and ability are obviously inextricably important to develop in training, I feel that we have again misappropriated our efforts by consciously assuming we know what the athlete needs. What I have found in my work over the last 4 years is that by simply emphasizing making weak areas less weak, and not allowing what’s strong to get weak, it has a substantial impact on the athlete’s tangible training performance, and subjective report of daily pain. And when athletes are in less pain, they often begin to feel more confident. When you feel more confident, you tend to perform at a better rate. Not to mention, the influence a reduction in pain has on sleep quality and consistency. And as we know, when sleep improves, so does (basically) everything else.
All this being said, I hope the main points taken from this is that there are multiple major systems involved with human function/performance, and we need to address each of these systems in training. While concurrently, we need to emphasize elevating what’s weak, as opposed to improving what’s already strong. Although the grassroots of our field reside in musculoskeletal and aerobic/anaerobic principles and practices, I believe we’ve reached a point in our field evolution where we’ve firmly revealed that these “extraneous” systems are tremendously important for function and performance. Moreover, I strongly believe that consequentially we’ve overemphasized and overtrained the muscular system, while chronically overlooking several others vital to performance (i.e., fascia, neural, vestibular, etc.). I feel that it’s on us to now adapt and perhaps even expand what we define to be foundational and customary practices.
-Don’t rely solely on what you know, or how “it’s always been done”
-Success leaves clues, failure leaves evidence
-Be curious not causal
-Please stay tuned as I will be posting a hell of a lot more regarding this topic of
Restorative Strength Training.