The Lessons and Experiences of a Strength and Conditioning Professional’s 30+ Year Career

Here is a guest post from Rob Panariello. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, LATC, CSCS
Professional Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York

 

During my 30+ years of practice as a Physical Therapist, Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Professional, I have been exposed to numerous lessons from some very valued personal and professional relationships as well as the additional lessons learned from my years of experience in these related professional fields. These lessons and experiences have enriched my knowledge and enhanced my skills in the related areas of my chosen profession, the S&C of athletes as well as the Orthopedic and Sports Rehabilitation of both patients and athletes. In specific regard to my career in the S&C profession some of my lessons and experiences to share for consideration in the development of an Athletic Performance Enhancement Program Design include but are not limited to the following:

1. Know What’s Important and Don’t Worry About the Rest.

During one of my recent conversations on a particular topic of athletic enhancement performance training with my good friend Hall of Fame S&C Coach Johnny Parker, he reminded me of a specific lesson that we had each been taught by Hall of Fame caliber NFL Head Football Coach Bill Parcells. In one particular conversation that occurred with his Head Coach during Coach Parker’s tenure as the Head S&C Coach of the NFL’s New York Giants, Coach Parcells stated to Coach Parker, “You know JP, I think I may have this coaching thing figured out. You need to know what is important and not worry about the rest”. As the words left Coach Parker’s lips I immediately recalled how Coach Parcells had also provided me with the exact same advice during a similar conversation one evening while he and I were having dinner together. It’s very solid advice from a highly recognized and successful NFL Head Coach.

The S&C professional should recognize the essential physical qualities for athletic development (strength, power, elastic/reactive strength, and speed), the contribution of each specific physical quality to athletic performance, as well as the most favorable training methods for the development of these specific physical qualities.  Optimal development of these physical qualities is critical for the athlete’s success not only in their sport of participation, but for the specific position played in the particular sport of participation as well. With so many S&C philosophies, exercises, program design models, etc. available for selection, the S&C Professional should make decisions suitable for their particular athletic performance training philosophy and environment of training and not self-question or weigh heavily upon all else that has been omitted.

2. Do Not Compromise Your Values; You Will Never Get Them Back.

The S&C Professional will have to establish and put into practice a coaching philosophy that is conducive to their specific coaching situation and perspective of athletic performance enhancement training. This would include such acceptable character disciplines as ensuring the athlete be on time for their training session, as well as the athlete’s conduct, behavior, and “focus” during their participation in the prescribed training program to name a few.

There are certain athletes whom will question and challenge as others will offer constructive commentaries. There are also various conditions and considerations that certainly will evolve as acceptable training program “exceptions, adaptations, and variations” that may be necessary and incorporated for specific athletes and situations. However, the athlete’s conduct and performance during their participation in the Athletic Performance Enhancement Training program should be determined and guided by the S&C Professional and not by the athlete himself/herself.

3. Know the Difference Between Fact and Opinion

 

The criteria that are incorporated into the S&C Professional’s training program design should be founded upon substantiated scientific evidence and at times, empirical indications as well. The scientific based evidence provides a proven platform of information and techniques to support the implementation of such material into the athlete’s training program design. It is important for the S&C Professional to understand both the basis and validity of all information utilized in the training program design i.e. exercise selection, exercise volume, exercise Zones of Intensity, energy systems, etc. Without the comprehension of such information how would the S&C Professional not only identify if specific information is applicable for their athletes training, but for the S&C Professional to also demonstrate the ability to progress this information as part of the training program design as the athlete’s displayed training performance progresses as well?

Empirical evidence allows for the application of information to the program design based on the successful coaching experiences of the past and the sustained utilization of these same experiences for anticipative continued success.

The S&C Professional should also be aware of the presentation and distribution of unfounded training material that is easily provided and accessible in the present day market share evolution of abundant training information and products available via the fitness, S&C, and Internet Industries. Training information and products without a sound scientific basis of evidence may be determined to be “unfounded” until proven otherwise and thus may be regarded simply as opinion vs. factual in nature.

4. If Your Athlete’s are not Weightlifters/Powerlifters Don’t Make Weightlifters/Powerlifters of Them

 

Unless an athlete is competing in the sport of Powerlifting or Olympic Weightlifting, where the actual specificity of the sport is to lift as much weight as possible, the S&C Professional does not need to make Weightlifters or Powerlifters of their athletes. As S&C Professionals we should keep in mind that our athletes are utilizing Weightlifting and Powerlifting exercises and principles to enhance the necessary physical qualities for participation in athletic competition. Numerous athletes of various sports of participation (i.e. a swimmer vs. a football lineman) require different levels of “strength” qualities.

It should also take into account that no exercise our athletes perform in the weight room is “sports specific”.  Training in the weight room enhances the physical qualities associated with “athleticism” which is much different than “skill”. The athlete will utilize the same neuromuscular system of the body to train in the weight room as well as for their eventual participation in the actual specific sport skills and sport position skills that will occur during team practice and game day competition. It is the athlete’s repetitive practice of these sport “skills”, over time that will “transfer” so to speak, the enhanced physical qualities developed as a result of their strenuous efforts in the weight room to the field of play.

5. Perform an Evaluation

The S&C Professional should perform a physical evaluation of their athletes in an attempt to address the physical deficiencies revealed to assist in the development and implementation of an appropriate athletic enhancement training program. The physical evaluation utilized should be one that suits the preference of the S&C Professional’s philosophy and environment. If a physical evaluation is not performed how may the specific needs and goals of the athlete ever be determined and addressed?

6. Prepare the Athlete for the Ensuing Athletic Performance Enhancement Training Program

Prior to the application of high stress (intensity/load) exercise performance as well as the accumulative prescribed exercise training program volume to the athlete, there are often times when the athlete must be prepared to safely accept these significant high levels of applied unaccustomed repetitive stresses. General Physical Preparation (GPP) periods may be incorporated prior to the athlete’s participation in the formal athletic enhancement training program to resolve any physical deficits that are exposed as a result of the evaluation process (i.e. lack of mobility, strength, work capacity, etc.). The GPP is established to ensure proper exercise performance (technique) as well as to enhance strength and work capacity in preparation for the athlete’s eventual participation in the Specific Physical Preparation (SPP) high stress athletic performance enhancement training program.

7. Apply High Intensity (Load)

Once the athlete has been prepared and equipped to accept the high levels of applied stress (intensity), Selye’s model of adaptation demonstrates the necessity for the application of unaccustomed levels of high stress for the essential disruption the body’s (athlete’s) level of homeostasis, resulting in an ideal “adaptation” of the body to occur. It is these high yet appropriate programed levels of stress that ensures an ensuing optimal physical quality “adaptation” (i.e. physical enhancement) will occur. The application of high, yet appropriate exercise intensities (stress) is one of the most important criteria for successful training program outcomes.

The exercise selection is also a very important consideration with regard to the application of high exercise intensities. Some specific exercise techniques (performance) will allow for the application of superior (yet still appropriate) levels of (exercise) stress throughout the entire body, while performed both proficiently and safely. If an inadequate (too low) exercise intensity is applied during the training process, little if any physical adaptation (enhancement) will occur. Therefore, with inadequate levels of applied stress both the S&C Professional, as well as the athlete will achieve little more than a loss of valuable training time.

8. Control the Exercise Volume

 

The incorporation and performance of excessive exercise programed volume will lead the athlete to the inception of excessive physical (over) fatigue. Excessive fatigue will increase the risk of a consequence in the athlete’s physical quality force output, exercise performance technique, joint biomechanics, proprioception abilities, and work capacity to name a few. Exercise volumes should be initiated at appropriate levels and then progressed over time to where eventual quantities of optimal exercise volumes remain fairly consistent while the quality (intensity/load application) of the exercise performed is continually progressed within these optimal exercise performance volumes. In most instances, it is the quality, not the excessive quantity of exercise training volumes performed that will produce optimal results. This is especially true of athlete’s with heavier body weights as these sizeable athletes lift heavier absolute intensities (loads) when compared to their lighter body weight peers.  When attempting to perform the same proportionately prescribed Zones of Intensity during similar exercise performances, these larger athletes may not be able to execute the same training volumes when compared to the training program design of athletes of lighter body weights.

Any coach can make an athlete tired, the challenge and talent of the S&C Professional is to program appropriate training sessions so that the athlete not only progresses with their performance training over time, but to also ensure the athlete is also recovered when arriving for each subsequent workout.

It is the programing of “excessive” exercise volume that will result in unwarranted levels of fatigue that may cause an undesirable exercise performance technique (biomechanics), proprioception abilities, and force output. Unnecessary high levels of training fatigue will also have a negative effect on the restorative/recovery abilities of the body for the next scheduled programed training sesion.

9. Incorporate Bi-lateral Lower Extremity Exercises and Overhead Press Type Exercises in the Athlete’s Program Design

 

In recent years many conferences, internet sites, training articles, books and products are encouraging the utilization of single leg exercises as well as encouraging the reduction or even the elimination of bi-lateral lower extremity exercises during the program design of an athlete’s training program. As previously mentioned stress/intensity/load is a very important component of the training process for disruption of the body’s homeostasis and adaptation to take place resulting in the optimal enhancement of the physical quality(s) trained. Greater training loads and/or training velocities may be applied to the weight implement utilized during the performance of bi-lateral lower extremity exercises when compared to the exercise intensities and/or velocities that occur with single leg exercise performance. To be clear, this is not to state that single leg exercise performance should not be integrated in the athletes training program, however, the value for the inclusion of bi-lateral leg exercise performance should not be ignored or taken casually.

Similarly overhead strength (i.e. pressing) and power (i.e. jerk) exercises are often “tabooed” for utilization in the program design of the athlete. Although it does appear that the overhead lifts are once again slowly gaining acceptance in the training community, there are still some coach’s who are hesitant to incorporate high stress overhead work to their athletes for fear of a potential shoulder complex injury. The benefits of overhead strength and power activities are beyond the scope of this article. However, if the results of an athlete’s evaluation and medical history deem overhead exercise performance to be appropriately incorporated into the athlete’s training program, these types of overhead strength/power exercises will allow for the freedom of shoulder complex motion, without restriction, as well as appropriate gleno-humeral/scapulo-thoracic rhythm, while producing forces initiated from optimal shoulder muscle and tendon lengths and joint capsule integrity.

Additionally with regard to the matter of exercise selection, two other considerations the S&C Professional should be made cognizant, as instilled upon me by my friends Hall of Fame S&C Coach’s Al Vermeil, Al Miller (Head S&C Coach of the NFL Oakland Raiders) and the great sprint coach Charlie Francis, include (a) just because an exercise exists does not mean it has to be utilized in the athlete’s training program and (b) just because an exercise is difficult to perform is not an indication that the exercise has any value to athletic performance.

10. Establish a Strength Reserve

 

As an athlete enhances their physical qualities through their participation in an off-season strength and conditioning program some of these achieved strength gains may be lost during the trials and tribulations of the athlete’s participation during a competitive athletic season. The stronger and more powerful the athlete enters the season; the probabilities are the stronger and more powerful they will remain throughout the season. An appropriate in-season training program will also assist to keep these strength qualities at optimum levels throughout the competitive season.

As the athlete ages their elastic strength/reactive strength abilities with the ground surface area will progressively decline. The loss of elastic/reactive physical quality via the aging process is two-fold. As the athlete ages not only do they lose specific amounts of collagen in their soft tissues, but the “replacement” collagen produced by the body occurs in (a) decreased amounts and (b) in poorer qualities when compared to the collagen that is produced during the younger years of the athlete’s life. This loss in elastic/reactive strength proficiencies is “offset” or “counter balanced” so to speak to some extent by the superior levels of strength produced.

By also enhancing the athlete’s strength qualities over time (year after year), a strength reserve is established for the prolonging of an (aging) athlete’s career. This is one important reason why the initiation of training as well as the overall annual enhancement of the athlete’s physical (strength) qualities should be introduced at a young, yet appropriate age.

 

 

 

11. Include a Sufficient Amount of Running in the Training Program Design

 

Speed is the most important physical quality in athletic performance. The weight room training utilized to enhance the athlete’s physical qualities will also assist in improved starting, acceleration, change of direction and optimal running velocity performances. The fastest athletes in the world are very strong, powerful, and highly elastic in nature.

The most direct and specific method to enhance an athlete’s running proficiencies, as well as transfer the enhanced physical qualities acquired as a result of the athlete’s labor of effort in the weightroom is to simply run. An appropriate program design (volume and intensity) of tempo running in combination with sprinting performances will assist to enhance the athlete’s running velocity as well as their overall conditioning and work capacity.

Over the years I have participated in many conversations with various coaches and physicians discussing the various lower extremity soft tissue injuries that have occurred to their athletes. Muscle strains and especially recurrent strains of the soft tissue anatomy (i.e. hamstring muscle group) can be very frustrating and detrimental to the athlete’s performance, and often times, depending upon the talent and value of the athlete, the teams performance as well. During the discussions of the injured athlete’s training program, it is frequently revealed that an insufficient volume of running was programed into the athlete’s training program. My good friend S&C Coach Derek Hansen has taught me the value of an appropriate programed running program. To improve an athlete’s running performance, the athlete’s training must be sure to include appropriate volumes and intensities of programed running.

 

 

12.Maintain or Improve the Athlete’s Strength During the In-Season Training Program

 

Often times Head Coaches will comment how they would like to keep their athletes “fresh” during the season of athletic competition. Certainly there are times where the athlete is required to recover from the stress of practice and game day participation that transpires during the course of a long competitive season. However, to keep an athlete “fresh” an athlete must be kept “strong”. Maintaining and/or improving an athlete’s physical/strength qualities during the competitive season will assist to preserve/improve the athlete’s strength levels as well as their strength reserve (previously discussed). Therefore “resting” may often be replaced, when appropriate, with periodically programed high intensity low volume exercise performance during the athlete’s in-season training program. The in-season physical qualities maintenance/increases will assist to maintain the athlete’s optimal level of athletic performance during the competitive season. This in-season training philosophy may provide the athlete with a distinct advantage over their opponent who continues to focus on remaining “fresh” via a “resting” philosophy throughout the competitive season.

13.Make Your Own Luck

During my 10 years as the Head S&C Coach at St. John’s University of New York, I had the honor to work for a Hall of Fame Basketball Coach in Lou Carnesecca. As a young S&C Coach during my time with him I had many opportunities to observe and learn from Coach Carnesecca as well as ask him many questions. Certainly the wisdom and experiences of this great coach would be beneficial to my own coaching career as well.

I recall one particular conversation with Coach Carnesecca where I asked him his opinion regarding which was a bigger factor in winning a basketball game, the players or the coaching? He response was “Rob it’s 60% players, 30% coaching, and 10% luck, but you make your own luck”. Coach then explained to me that when our guards beat their opponent to a loose ball, did the ball really bounce our way or were our guards quicker and faster? When our big men came down with key rebounds, did they just happen to be in the right position on the floor, or were they bigger and stronger to command the right position on the floor? Coach Carnesecca’s lesson was that when a coach develops and instills a good plan in his/her players, and the players work hard based on that plan, do they get lucky or do they really make their own luck? A well planned S&C program in conjunction with the associated hard work of the players will assist in achieving a significant level of individual and team success. The S&C Professional has both the expertise and opportunity to impart a significant influence upon their athlete’s ability to make his or her own luck.

 

14.WINNING IS A MUST!

 

Many years ago S&C Coach Johnny Parker taught me the lesson that for an athlete to accept and “buy into” a S&C Professional’s training program the athlete at some point in time must “win”. Winning may include training results such as positive changes in body composition, establishing new PR’s during an exercise performance, enhanced jumping ability, throwing velocity, or running speed to name a few. However, the greatest reinforcement that may transpire for an athlete, as well as a coaching staff to believe in a S&C Professional’s training program is the scoreboard. Winning is contagious and makes believers of everyone.

9 thoughts on “The Lessons and Experiences of a Strength and Conditioning Professional’s 30+ Year Career

  1. Chris

    In regards to point number 11. “Include a Sufficient Amount of Running in the Training Program Design”

    Would you see this as holding true for all an every sport? I work with mountain bikers and alpine skiers and running seldom gets a look in in any of our programs. The time not spent working on strength/mobility/power or other qualities in the gym is primarily spent working either on technique specific to the sports or energy system development specific on the bike/skis.

    So basically my question is your point of including significant amounts of running in your programs specific to the populations/sports you work in where locomotion is primarily on foot?

    I think I can answer my own question but nice to discuss non the less

    Reply
    1. Rob Panariello

      Chris,

      I certainly understand your thought process. Admittingly I do not have experience training cyclists but will answer your question the best I can based on my experience of training athletes.

      1. If you’re a cyclist the most important thing to do is cycle/ride as this is what is most specific to your sport/activity. That is the emphasis of your training.

      2. When you have an athlete that can only back squat and you teach them to properly front squat, or an athlete that can only power clean with a bar positioned at the knee and over time you teach the athlete to lift from multiple positions i.e. the floor, the hips, etc. or also introduce and have them master the snatch, when comparing the athlete to themself wouldn’t the acquisition and mastering of these additional “training skills” contribute to making them an overall better athlete? The athlete may still not be good enough to crack the starting lineup (or maybe they do), but regardless haven’t they now become a better overall athlete?

      If an athlete improves their running ability, (if you are of the opinion that power and/or elastic strength is important for cyclists, running is the most basic form of plyometric training) haven’t they then also become a better “overall” athlete? I would also imagine that it is necessary to produce force into a bicycle pedal, as it is also necessary to produce force into the ground surface area (running). Now with this said, the percentage of running in the program design of cyclists may be low, but I would think the addition of the appropriate type of running in a program design that is most beneficial for the athlete would be of value in the training of any athlete.

      Yes the majority of the athlete’s I work with produce their locomotion/propulsion from the distal segment of the leg, the foot. But don’t cyclists as well?

      As I stated earlier I do not train cyclists thus this is just my opinion. Thank you for your post.

      Rob Panariello

      Reply
      1. Chris

        Hi Rob,

        Cheers for the extensive reply, could have easily been a one sentence deal, so thanks for your thoughts.

        I still think for the elite athletes I work with finding enough time and more importantly enough “adaptive reserve” to deal with any volume of running based training sessions included with what I would consider the the “must do” components of training for the specific sports, would be very difficult.

        We do however most certainly agree on the fact that becoming an overall better athlete is key for any sport, even if the positive benefits are not evident straight away. General athleticism is so important for continuing improvements in technique, injury prevention and longevity of careers. A similar idea to what you mentioned in point #10.

        Also a point I wish to note is that I don’t primarily work with cyclists (as in road cycling) but primarily mountain biking (more specifically Downhill and Enduro) where gravity provides much of the locomotion (similar to Alpine skiing) and time is gained and top performance achieved by being able to execute perfect technique while dealing with varied terrain and constantly accumulating fatigue.

        So once again athleticism is key to success and it’s importance is something I have trouble convincing athletes of. So while I have always lauded the performance benefits of strength training, bio-mechanically and metabolically specific in the gym conditioning programs and both unilateral and bi-lateral plyos. I have never thought about running as anything but some fun/variety in the recovery /transition phase of training. Even though it is not to dissimilar to gym based activities? Or is it?

        Thanks again, good food for thought

        Reply
  2. Boris Bachmann

    Liked it a lot!

    #10 – “Creating a Strength Reserve” is dead on.

    I think of my job as, largely, creating that reserve of strength and composure for times of stress. Reserve, reservoir, cushion, elbow room, breathing room, leeway, allowance, margin for error, “savings”, are all good ways to express this also. Japanese has a word, 余裕 (yoh-yuu), which is easy to use for these meanings.

    Reply
  3. Rich

    Rob,

    Great reading as usual! Point Number 11 mentions both sufficient and insufficient volumes of running. While I’m sure much depends on the training age of the athlete, where they are in their training, what they’re training for, the intensity level, etc…do you have any volume guidelines for higher intensity work in the 0-30 meter range? The volumes used by track sprinters seems to be quite a bit higher than what’s programmed in many sports training facilities. Is there a minimum threshold which one should not go below? Many coaches talk about the 10,000 hour rule but those same coaches will also say that one only needs to sprint for a total of 15-30″ each week to get faster?

    Reply
  4. Rob Panariello

    Rich,

    To be totally transparent I do not train world class sprinters, so as stated in this article re: weightlifting I also utilize sprinting drills and programs to enhance the athletic performance of athletes who participate in non track and field types of athletics i.e. football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, etc. I’m not trying to make world class 100m sprinters of my athletes as they themselves are not 100m sprinters in athletic competition.

    In addition to the considerations that you mentioned i.e. training age, where the athlete is in their training, etc. I would add the environment of training i.e. the private sector vs. the institutional setting where the NCAA places restrictions upon the time for training. I am not a big fan of long grueling training sessions (as fatigue is the enemy) however, I do want a particular amount of work performed in the training session and at times having the luxury of practicing in the private sector eliminates the NCAA time restrictions in the program design.

    As far as your statement re: the “10,000 hour rule” (I assume you are speaking of Malcolm Gladwell), I certainly respect the positive contribution and effects of repetitive practice over time but don’t forget another and just as an important (if not a greater) factor in the elite athlete is genetics. Great athletes pick their parents well! If this were not the case why do freshmen in both high school and college crack the starting lineup? Does a freshman have 10,000 hours of experience/training?

    As far as your question, I am a fan of Charlie Francis’s “short to long” approach. I first met Charlie in 1998 when Charlie, Al Vermeil, and I were all hired as consultants and worked together with the NFL St. Louis Rams. I assure you Charlie Francis was one of the best. Through recent years Charlie’s methods and techniques are still continually taught to me by his protégé and my good friend Derek Hansen, who in my opinion is one of the best S&C Coach’s in the profession. It’s funny you ask this question as I just had a similar conversation with Derek a few days ago with specific regard to a pro baseball player I’m presently working with.

    With regards to sprinting I don’t know if there is a minimum (yardage) threshold. It all depends upon what you are trying to accomplish with your athlete as well as how they present to you. For instance after a period of “preparation” when introducing the first day of 10 yard sprints with “hard starts” I may only perform 6 sprints of 10 yards for the day as you also have to take into the account the effect of drill work and the stresses that the drills applied to the body prior to the sprinting performance. Over time (weeks) we may go up to 2 cycles of 4X40 yards with appropriate rest between each sprint as well as each “cycle”. Thus with these appropriate rest periods that’s where restrictions in NCAA training hours can effect your running program/training program design. Generally I don’t exceed + or – 320 yards of hard sprinting in a training session. At times I have gone to 400 yards (depending upon the athlete) but don’t forget, it’s not just the sprinting, it’s the total stress placed upon the body i.e. any drills/work performed prior to the sprint workout. I would also suggest that you instruct the athlete to run at 5% slower speed than you would actually like them to run at because all athletes (and studies have proved this) will exceed the “tempo”/speed rate of instruction.

    As you know you must continue to monitor your athlete throughout the training session and make any necessary adjustments that may arise. I also believe that there is a point of diminishing returns if too much work in performed in the training progression/training program but isn’t that aspect the art/talent of coaching?

    Hopefully I’ve provided you with some information that you may be able to utilize.

    Just my opinion

    Rob Panariello

    Reply
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