Today’s article is an interview with Natalia Verkhoshansky. Natalia is a prominent international figure in Sports Science. Her father, Yuri Verkhoshansky, co-authored one of my favorite texts Supertraining with Mel Siff. The interviewer, Will Vatcher, was kind enough to grant me exclusive rights to this interview. I hope you enjoy it as I much as I did!
Hello Natalia. It is a pleasure to speak with you. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in a family dedicated to the sport and grew up on the Track-and-Field stadium, which was just next to where we lived, and where my mother and my father usually worked with their athletes.
In 1972 I was student at the Moscow Central Institute of Physical Culture and Sport, where I also began my first scientific research at the Biochemistry department under the influence of Nicolay Volkov, the leading scientist in the field of bioenergetics. At that time, his researchers were finalized to find out the best method for evaluating the metabolic factors of sport performance, so my baccalaurean thesis was on the modification of the Margaria-Kalamen Anaerobic Power Test for the bicycle ergometer.
In 1977, I finished my studies with summa cum laude and successfully passed exams in doctorate. I wanted to avoid the influence of my father on my scientific career and, for this reason, I chose, for my research, issues in which he was not involved.
Despite my initial intentions, the results of my research clearly showed that the increase in maximal anaerobic power was related with the improvement in strength abilities and that brought me to investigate how the training methods elaborated by my father could be applied for this purpose. As a result, my PhD dissertation was dedicated to applying the Block Training System for increasing the speed of tennis displacements. Some years later, when I worked with the Soviet National Tennis team as a member of the Scientific Assistance Group and as a physical preparation coach, I was the first who successfully introduced the barbell squat in the physical preparation of the soviet national tennis team.
In the early 1980’s, after finishing my post graduate studies, I continued to work in the Central Institute as a researcher. In my opinion, that was the most productive period in the history of sport science. I was a witness of the development of new ideas and of some of the most advanced scientific debates regarding the preparation of high level athletes. However, at end of the 80’s, when the atmosphere in the Institute became unproductive and too heavy, I decided to change.
I worked as a lecturer at the Physical Education cathedral in the Moscow Technical University where I lectured on Track and Field, ski, yoga, calisthenics and gymnastics. At the same time, I worked as a tennis coach.
In the early 90’s, I worked in the professional fitness industry in several Moscow Fitness gyms as an instructor of Bodybuilding, aerobics, postural gymnastics, and Yoga. I thought that it would have been the work of my life, but soon I returned in sport.
In 1996 the Italian Olympic Committee invited me to Italy to work with my father in their scientific department. I have been a physical preparation coach of the female Italian national basketball team and of the Italian national junior fencing teams. I was the physical preparation coach of the 1999 junior fencing world champion. From 2003 on, I lecture in the motor sciences faculty of the Italian University Tor Vergata (Rome).
Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky has been deemed “The Father of Plyometrics”. His main “finding” was probably that of the shock method. How did he come to discover these findings?
During the harsh Russian winter, he was forced to train his athletes in the cramped space under the institute’s staircase and in its meager corridors. It was there that the accidental discovery of an old barbell led to his first use for exercises with weights. The most used exercise was the barbell squat, which involves the same “antigravity” force effort as the push off movement in jumping. However, very soon, he discovered that, in this exercise, the level of strength effort was not as high as in the triple jump. The results of his research on the biomechanics of the triple jump, which he was conducting at that time, showed that the pressure during the last contact phase reached upwards of 300 kg. None of his athletes were able to perform barbell squats with such a high weight. He returned to reflect on the incredible strength effort of the triple jump and how he could replicate it in training. He thought that it would be possible to obtain such strength effort by using the kinetic energy of the falling human body. It was in this setting that the Depth Jump was invented (in Russian, it was named, literally, “the jumping up after the fall in depth” or simply “the jump in depth with rebound”).
Later, this new discovery, named the Shock (or Impact) Method, was adopted further to use falling weight’s kinetic energy to increase the strength effort in upper body explosive movements.
How did this discovery spread into athletics and sports?
What became mostly widespread in sport training was the Depth Jump. This exercise was described for the first time in the article “New method of the strength preparation of jumpers”, published in 1959 in the bulletin of the Central Researches Institute of Physical Culture. A wider range of trainers got to know this exercise from the article “Novelty in the strength preparation of jumpers”, published in 1964, in the magazine “Track and Field”.
At the beginning, nobody considered its content seriously. At that time, the Track & Field jumpers were accustomed to a great volume of jumping exercises, with great number of repeated take-off movements. The 4 series of 10 Depth Jumps from 0.75 cm (40 take-off movements) in the single training workout, suggested by Verkhoshansky in his articles, seemed to them to be too light of a training load. So, the coaches began to use a greater number of Depth Jumps.
Verkhoshansky already had observed the effects of this kind of training when his jumpers used the Depth Jump for the first time. After their usual heavy work with the barbell, they perceived this new exercise (Depth Jump) as a joke. They enjoyed the ease of the exercise so much that they carried out a great number of Depth Jumps. The following day, their legs were incapable of executing any kind of exercise.
There were also coaches who decided to upgrade, or “modernize”, the way of applying this exercise. Their athletes began to carry out Depth Jump with a higher height of falling or with the barbell on the shoulders. To show that these “modernizations” would not have brought to increasing the training effect of this exercises, Verkhoshansky conducted a series of simple empiric researches with his athletes. He showed, that: “… Additional weight will increase the magnitude of maximum strength effort, but will decrease the speed of its development during push off – In this way, the exercise will have lost its main advantage. … The athletes, who want to increase the training effect of depth jump by increasing the height of falling can be compared to those zealots who follow the principle: instead to take 15 drops of medicine two times per day, it’s better to drink the whole bottle immediately..”. The results of these researches were presented in the article “Are the Depth Jumps useful?” published in 1967 in the magazine “Track and Field”.
In this article he also noted that the use of Depth Jumps needs a very careful planning of training loads in the preparation period. Nevertheless, this warning was often neglected by many coaches. In the 1970’s, the Soviet javelin thrower Jānis Lūsis used the depth jump during his preparation for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Lūsis obtained a so tremendous increase in Explosive Strength from his training that his javelin technique became inadequate to his new level of physical preparedness. He did not have enough time to adjust his technique before the Olympics, and consequently he won only the silver medal in Munich.
In the 1970’s, the Depth Jump came to be considered the most powerful training means for improving Explosive Strength. The East European Track & Field coaches began to largely use Depth Jumps in their training practice, as also other exercises with applying the kinetic energy of falling weight. They named them “pliometric exercises” or “pliometria”. Later, Fred Wilt, who popularized the East European training methods in the USA, set down this term as “Plyometrics”, giving to this term his own interpretation (see my version of how it happened in the post: http://www.cvasps.com/why-plyometrics-are-called-plyometrics-dr-natalia-verkhoshansky/). However, from the end of 1970’s, thanks to the works of the prominent Finnish scientist Paavo Komi and his collaborators, a new understanding of Plyometrics was introduced: the exercises involving Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC). It was a rare and odd case in which a scientific achievement had a negative influence on the training practice: the results of this research compromised the reputation of the most powerful training means for improving Explosive Strength and led to the confusion in the rules of its application.
In his studies, Komi used the Drop Jump as a test model of SSC adapted to study its mechanics and energetics in standardized conditions. This exercise was very similar to the Depth Jump of Verkhoshansky, but it had some significant differences in the execution technique. Since the terms “drop jump” and “depth jump” were considered to be synonyms of the same exercise, as a consequence, many coaches began to apply the Drop Jump in the training believing it was the Depth Jump developed by Verkhoshansky. An in-depth analysis on the research of Depth Jumps and Drop Jumps showed that they are different exercises, they must be used for different purposes and they should be applied according to different rules (see my post: http://www.cvasps.com/category/natalia-verkhoshansky/).
Could you explain a little about “The long-term delayed training effect”?
The long-term delayed training effect was discovered at the end of 1970, during an experiment organized at the Central State Institute of Physical Culture and Sport, in the laboratory for optimizing the training of elite athletes headed by my father. The goal of this experiment was to verify the efficiency of his new training program elaborated for the elite Track & Field long and triple jumpers who should participate at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
At that time, the training load volume of elite athletes had been progressively increased until a level no more suitable for human beings. In this contest, the sports scientists began to search for ways of optimizing the training process. The starting idea of my father was to decrease the total volume of training loads through the integration in the training process of more powerful means and methods of special strength training, i.e. be able to produce a higher level of training stimuli. Applying this idea, it was verified that the use of these new means and methods needed also new forms of training process organization.
The problem was that the training means, having different emphasis, were usually applied concurrently, i.e. with their “rotation” over the week. In this case, the training effect of one means can negatively affect the training effect of the other. This negative effect was observed, first of all, when the athletes used the barbell exercises in the same period of the training means finalized to improve the speed ability and the technical skill.
The innovative idea of my father was to “concentrate” all the volume of barbell exercises, which was used by the athletes during the whole preceding preparation period, in an isolated training stage during which the athlete would not carry out other kinds of training loads (“strength block”). This “block” should be placed at the beginning of the preparation period and should be followed by the consecutive stages of applying primarily jumping and sprinting exercises and, finally, the stage of training work finalized to improve the execution technique of competition exercise. This way of organizing the training loads in the preparation period would create a focused training stimulus for increasing the maximum strength and, at the same time, would avoid the negative influence of resistance exercises on the speed ability of athletes and their specific skill (the technique of competition exercise’s execution).
It was thought, that, in this way, it would be possible to obtain an increase in the maximum strength of legs extension muscles before the athletes would begin to improve their ability to realize the maximum strength in specific explosive take-off movements. Despite that, when a group of high level T&F jumpers began to use the training program, starting from using only barbell exercises, unexpectedly the level of maximum strength began to decrease. This decrease continued until the end of the “strength block”, but when the athletes passed to the jump training, the strength parameters began to rise. At the end of the training program, they reached an exceedingly high level, which was never achieved by the athletes in their preceding experiences: the level of explosive strength was 30% higher than the level at the beginning of the experiment.
The most common explanation of this phenomenon is usually related to the accumulation of neural fatigue during exhausting workouts, which cannot be eliminated during the short period between the training sessions but only after the end of the whole training stage. Nevertheless, during the last phase of the strength block, the athletes were able to apply the barbell exercises according to the Maximum Effort method, which requires a fresh condition of the nervous system. In fact, the “concentrated” training load does not mean very high exhausting loads, but only that they are isolated from the other.
Searching for the ways to explain the mechanisms involved in the long-term delayed training effect, my father turned his attention to the issues of the human adaptation to the intensive physical activity. In the article “The long-delay training effect of strength loads”, published in the May of 1983 in the monthly magazine “Theory and Practice of Physical Culture”, he wrote that the mechanisms of this training effect might be related to the dissociation and separation in time of the short term and the long term components of specific adaptation: the restitution of the body’s energetic resources and the body’s morpho-functional reconstruction.
These two processes are usually deployed sequentially after every workout: first, the restitution and super-compensation of the body’s energetic resources and after, the re-synthesis of structural and enzymatic proteins, inducted by metabolites accumulated in the previous phase. In some way, the functions of these sequential phases in specific adaptation processes might be likened to the functions of two sequential phases in the nutrition process: the food digestion and its assimilation (intestinal uptake). So, the phenomenon of the long-term delayed training effect might be seen as a delay in the “assimilation” of the strength training work, which happens because the training regime allows only for its “digestion”.
Unfortunately, the lack of specific research does not allow asserting it on a strictly scientific base, but we could realistically hypothesize that the following mechanisms are involved in this effect.
What happens in the case in which the strength loads are uniformly distributed over the preparation period and are used together with training loads of other emphasis (the complex-parallel form of the training process organization)?
The intervals between the strength workouts are long enough for assuring not only the restitution of body’s energetic resources (the strength training work “digestion”), but also the development of specific the body’s morpho-functional reconstruction processes (the strength training work “assimilation”). The problem is that during the days between the strength workouts, other kinds of training loads are carried out. So, the specific morpho-functional reconstructions of the neuro-muscular system take place at the same time with the specific morpho-functional reconstructions of other physiological systems that are involved in the training work carried out in the same period. The superimposition in time of such multidirectional adaptation processes leads to the dispersion of “adaptation energy” (the functional reserve of the sympathetic-adrenal and hypophysial-adrenocorticoid systems) and to the “leveling” of cumulative training effects which decreases the specific training effects of strength loads.
If the strength loads are concentrated in separate training stages, during the intervals between workouts, the process of body morpho-functional reconstruction does not have time to fully develop itself: the body is able only to realize the restitution of its energetic resources and to accumulate metabolites. That brings us to accumulate, at the end of the strength block, a great volume of metabolites, which are the main inductors of protein synthesis. This synthesis can be fully activated only after the end of the strength block, and the high volume of accumulated metabolites provokes a kind of “detonation” for the processes of the body’s morpho-functional reconstruction. In addition, because the other kind of training loads were not applied in this period and the “adaptation energy” was not dispersed, the level of “assimilation” of strength work should be very high. During the following stage, the processes of adaptive reconstructions provoked by the strength loads carried out in the previous period, superimpose the current process of adaptation to the jump training loads. In this way, a kind of consolidation and “potentiation” of their training effects occurs, assuring a very high increase in the explosive strength of the athletes.
Dr Verkhoshansky’s use of weight training in athletics was radical and way ahead of his time. What did his fellow coaches think of this at the time?
I have to say that he didn’t invented the new methods of weight training per se; these methods were well known before him and were successfully used in such sports as weightlifting, shot putting and others.
His merit has been to show how to apply them for the specific requirements of Track-and-Field runners and jumpers, who didn’t use the barbell exercises at that moment. At that time, the common way of thinking was that these athletes must have “the muscles of a deer, not of a buffalo”. Training with weights was associated with increasing muscle mass that had a negative influence on speed. Even if somebody used the barbell exercises, these exercises were applied only with rapid movements using low weights; they were carried out at the end of the training workout, as an “addition” to the specific work on technical skill. Nobody dared to apply the barbell squat with heavy weight also because the push-off movements are too slow in comparison with those expressed in Track-and-Field jumping and running. My father showed that exactly this exercise helps to obtain ‘the muscles of a deer’ and to improve speed ability. But he also pointed out a very important issue: to achieve these specific training objectives, coaches should be able to manage the training effects of barbell, jumping and running exercises, using them in a definite combination and in a defined sequence.
This novelty was really radical and way ahead of its time. Even if his fellow coaches were amazed by the incredible success of my father’s athletes, they skeptically accepted his training methods. Nevertheless some years later, the barbell exercises became an essential part of the physical preparation of Track & Field jumpers and sprinters. At the end of the 1970’s, when my father became a leading sport scientist, he was involved in solving the problem related to the excessive use of the barbell exercises by the Soviet sprinters.
Such training concepts and methodologies as the Block Training System & the Conjugate Sequence System are methods Dr Verkhoshansky used. Could you explain a little about them please?
The essence of the Conjugate-Sequence System consists in utilizing the morpho-functional reconstructions resulting from the stage of adaptation to a certain training work, as the base for increasing or adjusting the training effect of the subsequent training work.
Originally, the Conjugate-Sequence System was referred to as the progressive application of the special-strength training means having the same training emphasis, but different training potentials. This system was finalized to assure continuity and stability in the development of explosive strength during the multiyear’s training process and during the single preparation period. This continuity is assured by the gradual increase in the intensity of the training stimuli through a consecutive introduction, in the training process, of training means with higher training effect.
In such sequence, each previous training means creates the morphological-functional basis for the training effect of subsequent means. For this reason we may say that their training effects are conjoined (or conjugated) in sequence to assure constant increasing training stimuli. For example; to increase the power output of specific push-off movements in jumping events, the following training means progression was proposed by my father: 1) bounding and jumping exercises, 2) barbell jumps, 3) kettlebell squat jumps, 4) depth jumps (see http://www.cvasps.com/progressing-the-jumping-exercises-practical-application-for-coaches-dr-natalia-verkhoshansky/).
It was the early version of the Conjugate-Sequence System, where the sequence of applying the training means was used to assure a continuity and stability in the development of a particular motor function. Later, the same sequential application of training means were used for another purpose: to integrate the training effects of training means having a different training emphasis. It concerned the way of applying exercises (training means) integrated in a system, in which each training means solves its specific task but their combined effect allows to attain the solving of a global training task. For example, to increase the power output of specific take-off movements in jumping and running, several different exercises should be applied, which are able to influence each of the factors that determine its performance: barbell exercises, jumping exercises and running exercises.
Usually these training means were applied in special workouts. These training workouts were used concurrently with other training workouts aimed at improving other parameters of the sport performance. All of these workouts, considered as training loads having different training emphases, were uniformly distributed over the whole preparation period. The training process was organized via their consecutive repetition in turn (‘rotation’) during a weekly microcycle; that assured the gradual improvement of all the fitness factors of specific performance, as also the technical skill.
At the beginning, the second version of the Conjugate-Sequence System foresaw the application of each of the SST means separately in the subsequent training stages. The elaboration of this second version led to the development of a new system of temporal organization of different training loads in the preparation period of the speed-strength Track & Field disciplines. The coaches, who began to use this system in the training practice, gave it another name: Block Training System.
The Block Training System is finalized at increasing the power output of a complex motor action (the competition exercise). It foresees to organize in sequence the training loads which influence the determining factors of such increase. In speed-strength sports, the preparation period includes three training stages finalized at solving the following tasks:
1) Enforcing the main muscular synergies and the other body’s working mechanisms, involved in the competition exercises and increasing the magnitude of maximum force effort in the key movements (Maximum Strength stage);
2) Increasing the speed of force employment in the key movements (Explosive Strength stage);
3) Increasing the power output of competition exercise as a whole (Speed and Skill stage).
These three consecutive stages were termed “blocks”, the blocks A, B and C, because the training loads used in these stages have a monolithic (uniform) content. As a matter of fact, the training means of each block can vary, but what must be the same is the training objective. During every stage, the training means having the same training emphasis have to be applied with progressive increase in the intensity of training stimuli.
From the more general point of view, the blocks A, B and C assure the gradual passage from the increasing of the motor potential of the athlete to the improvement of his ability to apply the motor potential in the specific competition exercise. The high efficiency of such a preparation period model is assured by the Long-Term Delayed Effect of strength loads concentrated in the block A. That allows for the increase of the training effect of the Block B and C, and also to avoid the negative influence of the barbell exercises on the training effect of the exercises aimed at improving the speed and technical skill.
At the end of the 1980’s, my father elaborated the model of the Block Training System for cyclic sports and sport games. This model is based on the same principles of the model for speed-strength sports, but with some important particularities which distinguishes them very much.
With regard to your own career, what further developments have you made on Dr. Verkhoshansky’s methods?
We should take into consideration that the methods of my father regard two different types of methods: the first type concerns applying training means during the training workout and the second concerns the organization of the training means in the training process.
The first type of methods, such as for example, the Shock Method and the Stimulation Method, have been wholly elaborated and successfully used in the practice of many sports. So, these methods per se, do not need further development.
It’s necessary only to define the way of their application in the training process of those sports in which they could be useful but where they are not still used. Such issue concerns the application of the second type of methods. They allow for the solving of the problem of how to use the first type of methods in order to obtain the increase in the athlete’s performance in specific sport discipline. To solve this problem, it’s necessary to define the ways of organizing their training process as a whole.
I have to say that this issue was the main objective of scientific studies of my father. He proposed many ideas, which were ahead his time. Many advanced coaches were able to successfully apply his ideas in practice. However, sport science is still not able to give an irrefragable answer as to why these ideas work in practice leading to good results. Now we have much more scientific information, however, they concern mostly results of fragmentary research focused on a partial issue. Many of these researches are well made and their authors also give high-level information about the practical meaning of the results obtained. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to find somebody who tries to synthesize the results of these researches, with the same high level of theoretical analysis, and give new input towards the development of the methodological aspects of sport training.
In my career as the physical preparation coach, I worked with tennis, basketball players and fencers. Each had a moderate level of physical preparedness and they never before used the methods of my father. So I was involved, mainly, in solving the problems of applying some of my father’s methods in the training process of these athletes. My practical work turned me to the methodological concepts of my father, which were not fully elaborated twenty years ago because of the lack of fundamental researches in specific fields of sport science. To better understand some of his training concepts, I needed to go into details of the issue of motor learning and of the issues of physiological adaptation. Trying to find the additional information about these issues, I discovered the results of much research that has helped to clarify the essence of the training methods of my father.
My current work is mainly dedicated to the divulgation of the scientific ideas of my father. I am collecting, organizing and systematizing them, trying to give them a new interpretation with the integration of new research data.
This is a huge body of work. My father’s methods and ideas on the new vision of the training design have been illustrated, at the beginning, in his books and articles published in Russia. Later, these editorial materials have been translated in the West with many inaccuracies (for example the early non authorized Charniga translations) and often his concepts have been reported not clearly and, some time, even with mistakes.
The first step of this work has been made with the publication of the book “Special Strength Training: Manual for Coaches”. It is the summation of the main ideas of my father and it is the basic book for coaches who want to professionally apply the strength means and organize strength training.
I am proud of the result of this editorial challenge; the professional coaches appreciate the book, looking forward to some formal inaccuracies due to my lack of mastery of the English language. I wish to quote in this interview what a coach, who I personally don’t know, wrote:
“I have been in coaching many years with some high level athletes and practiced much of these theories and practice. This book made me realize how much I had forgotten or overlooked and believed that modernization would produce more effective material. Not so, I call this book the bible and all other books are derivatives of this and believe that all coaches have a responsibility to seek out proven theories that would be in the best interest of their athletes, regardless of which sport.”
Soon I will publish a second edition with some updates (for example on the Block Training System). At the same time I am working on my father’s book “Shock Method” which will integrate all of his findings on the matter that are in different parts of his past publications and even never published. It is also in progress the project to make a prototype of the equipment that my father used to measure the strength parameters. I think that is enough to keep us busy for a long time.
About the Interviewer
Will Vatcher is a strength & conditioning coach based in Cambridgeshire, England. He has written several articles on training and published interviews with Louie Simmons & Fred Hatfield (Dr. Squat) on www.about-muscle.com. He can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on articles and training.