Is the Risk-Reward Worth It (Program Design)?

In talking to an athletic trainer yesterday, he seemed to be under the impression that there are blanket great and blanket terrible exercises.  While there are some exercises that would benefit almost any sports team, and some that probably wouldn’t, there are no inherently good or bad exercises. It’s easy to think things are black and white, but everything depends on two main points- 1) the goals of the program, and 2) whether or not the pros of an exercise outweigh the cons for your situation.

Any type of training is going to have a risk of injury involved, just like any type of practice or game will as well.  However, in a controlled environment, with coaches present and the athletes “aware” of their form and movement, the risk in training should be practically zero.  This risk depends on the program’s exercise progressions, whether the athlete is ready for an exercise or training method, and the athlete’s current state (mobility, fatigue, tightness, “athleticism,” etc.).  The risk of training should never be significantly high, because if athletes are constantly getting injured while training, it doesn’t matter how strong they are!

Lets take the deadlift for example.  The risk-reward all depends on how ready the players are (see the article, Deadlifts for Softball Players?).  We don’t start deadlifting until a large amount of time is devoted to hip mobility, core strength with a neutral spine (so not just crunches and sit-ups), and correct hip hinging patterns.  Once the athletes have sufficient movement to perform a deadlift, the risk significantly drops and you’re left with the reward of a much stronger core, legs/hips, and posterior chain from lifting heavy weight over time (arguably the heaviest possible weight to lift is through a proper hip hinging deadlift pattern).  Deadlifts from the floor on the first day of training are probably not worth it if you have a team with immobile hips (in which case this should be one of the main focuses); instead it may be “worth it” to perform mobility exercises and reinforce that mobility with less aggressive hip strengthening exercises.  What’s the rush?  Is it worth the higher risk of injury?

Remember that trade-offs can also simply include “time.”  Is an exercise worth teaching if it takes the majority of the athletes’ time to learn in the weight room?  Could an athlete get the same benefit from a different exercise, but get twice as much productivity from it because they’re able to perform it right away?  Again, this all depends on the progressions of the program and the athletes’ readiness to handle the exercise.  Throwing them into cleans and snatches on the first day of lifting isn’t necessary “wrong,” but know that a) it is going to take quite a bit of time to get them sufficient, b)  they’re deriving very little benefit from it until they do have sufficient form, and c) your risk of injury with a complex exercise is relatively high if the athletes aren’t ready for it (which most are not on the first day).  If they’re substituting hip extension with lumbar extension, you may be doing more harm than good!  Instead, using hip extension progressions can give them a large training benefit while making the exercise easier when they do arrive to it down the road, if that is part of your goal.  However for softball/baseball/overhead athletes, I agree with Cressey amongst others that cleans & snatches are not worth it from an injury perspective.

Finally, the risk-reward of program design isn’t just about exercise selection, but also volume, intensity, frequency, and other stresses that the athletes are receiving.  Are you having them condition hard 3x per week, practice hard 6x per week, and lift 4x per week?  Then you might want to consider backing “something” off.  What is most important for your sport?  Sometimes fresh practices are the most important, sometimes making huge strength gains are the most important, sometimes it’s a little of both…it all depends on the time of year.  Think about the risk-reward.  Is it your goal to run them into the ground every day? Even if so, where do you draw the line?

You can only “keep adding” so much before risk of injury will increase too.  The goal is to find that line where the players are being overreached and stressed (at appropriate times in the year, of course), but never to the point of training injuries/overtraining.  That is your responsibility as a coach, and that “line” is not very black and white, hence why so little is known about overreaching/overtraining.  The amount of factors that go into this is also very large- nutrition, sleep, recovery, other “stresses,” training experience, and more.  So it’s not just strength and conditioning.

There is definitely a time and place for everything.  Is high volume, heavy training worth it in-season, or even during the start of the year for a spring sport?  Why not progress up to higher volume or heavy training so the athletes are ready for it?  We perform our high volume lifting in the early off-season when the players are only getting a few hours per week of actual practice time (plus whatever practicing they do on their own).  High volume and eccentric training means you’ll be a bit more fatigued and sore, and won’t be 100% physically fresh every day.  However we are willing to make those sacrifices to develop great strength and work capacity, and once the pre-season hits, our volume and frequency drops (only 2-3 lifts per week) and exercise selection changes to accommodate the extra sprinting, throwing, and swinging they will get at practice- since now we’ll be practicing more than 4x per week at a few hours.  Again, it all comes down to whether or not something is “worth it.”

One thing I love about program design and training efficiency is that it helps question other things in our life.  Are things that you do on a regular basis “worth it” to you?  Maybe so on some, and maybe not on others.  Each present moment is the only resource in which we have to act- in designing programs, in practicing, and in our daily habits to improve, so always question, “is this worth it?”

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