by Mike Mahler
Tudor Bompa is known to many as the man who single-handedly revolutionized Western training methods. After more than forty years of work in the arena of international sports, he's widely considered one of the world's leading specialists when it comes to periodization, planning, peaking, and strength and power training. Name your favorite strength coach and very likely he's been strongly influenced by the work of Tudor Bompa.
Like many top coaches, Bompa began as an athlete himself and competed as a rower in the 1956 Olympic Games. As a coach (if one can even use that limiting term to describe him), Bompa has worked with athletes in eleven Olympic Games and World Championships, and has helped create four gold medals and 22 national champions. He's presented his training theories is over 30 countries.
In other words, this guy knows his stuff!
Currently, Bompa is a full-time professor at York University in Toronto Ontario. Luckily, he took the time to sit down to an interview with T-mag.
Testosterone: How did you first get interested in strength training?
Tudor Bompa: My athletic background is in track and field, and later on I got into rowing and cross country skiing. I was amongst the first athletes to incorporate a great deal of strength training into training for skiing. That was back in the early 1960's! My improvements were so visible that many other competitors were aghast. Because of my gains in upper and lower-body strength, I was able to use the skating technique for many parts of the race. Equally important was the use of my superior force in the arms.
T: How did you first begin coaching the things you learned as an athlete?
TB: The most critical innovations in the approach to strength training came in 1963 when I was asked to train a nationally ranked javelin thrower. Her coach had moved to another city and I was the only person who could train her. I have to mention that at that time, as is the case today in many sports, athletes were training year-round only for power, using some free weights but also a great deal of medicine ball training. Before I started to train this athlete in early 1963, I'd logically concluded that power is a function of maximum strength [he highest force one can display in one attempt or 1RM], as well as speed and quickness of action. While speed has more genetic limitations than strength, I had decided to look for improved power by increasing maximum strength to the highest possible levels.
As I continued to train this thrower, I also continuously monitored and tested both speed and quickness and maximum strength. After a year and a half of training her, I found out that gains in power come 95% from gains in maximum strength, and only 5% from speed. That year represented the year when I created periodization of strength. Using this strength training strategy, my javelin thrower improved by 15 meters within a year and a half. She became the Olympic champion in 1964 and set a new world record as well.
T: You've written a great deal about periodization and its application in strength training. In your terms, what exactly is periodization?
TB: In the case of training, periodization has two elements. First, periodization of the annual plan, or how this type of plan is divided into specific phases of training. Therefore we have the preparatory, competitive, and transition phase. These phases are further subdivided into macrocycles and microcycles.
Second, periodization of motor abilities — strength, speed, and endurance. In order to maximize the development of these abilities, another kind of "periodization" exists, with specific training phases and training objectives. In case of periodization of strength, the sequence of these phases are: Anatomical Adaptation (AA phase), Maximum Strength Phase, and conversion (transformation) of such gains into power.
Periodization represents a clear structure to follow and is thus the most effective way to improve athletic performance.
T: What are some of the most common mistakes that athletes make with regard to training?
TB: This question is really big! I'll try to provide a brief answer. The first problem is the influence of bodybuilding on strength training for sports. Many people believe that strength is proportional to size.
T: Not true?
TB: Completely incorrect! Hypertrophy is necessary only in very few sports, such as linebackers in football, shot putters in track and field, the super heavy-weight category in wrestling, or if an individual is far too slim. In such a case, the periodization of strength has to include three to six, or even nine weeks of training for hypertrophy. For any other athletes, bodybuilding methods are completely useless!
Sports do not require mass! Sports require power, quickness, and fast application of force. Bodybuilding methods do not result in increasing power. On the contrary, bodybuilding methods make the athletes much slower. And this is a no-no in most of the sports that require quickness and acceleration in force application.
T: Okay, what's another major mistake you see?
TB: The fallacy of Olympic weightlifting exercises! There are several strength coaches with Olympic lifting backgrounds. Unfortunately for them, they can't adjust their knowledge to the needs of strength training for sports. Strength training programs for sports must recognize that almost each sport involves different and specific muscle groups. These muscles are called "prime movers" or the muscles performing the actual technical moves. Therefore, strength training exercises have to target the prime movers. The Olympic lifting exercises are rigidly targeting only certain muscle groups, often not very important for many sports.
T: Give us an example of what you mean.
TB: Take judo for instance. Once I listened to a presentation regarding strength training for judo. The speaker was your typical Olympic lifting coach. He went over snatches and the clean and jerk! When the organizers asked my opinion, I simply said that the whole idea is wrong because judo involves primarily the flexor muscles of the hips, abdominals, and trunk, not the extensors normally targeted by Olympic lifting moves. The lifting coach became very upset when he heard me say this and left the room!
The exact same thing happened with swimming. An Olympic lifting coach once again suggested (what else?) the clean and jerk and the snatch. I pointed out that he was really missing the actual prime movers used in swimming, the arms flexors. The coach's exercises were targeting exactly the opposite group of muscles, the extensors. How difficult is to understand such a basic concept in sports training? Personally I'd use power cleans only for few sports such as linebackers in football and Greco-roman wrestling. I'd use clean and jerks for basketball players, performed with a medicine ball or a power ball.
This leads to another problem. The Olympic lifting coaches are using their own periodization, specific to Olympic lifting. Well, how much common sense does one need to have in order to understand that the Olympic lifting coaches have to adapt their training methodology to the periodization of that particular sport and not the other way around?
T: Good point. Any other mistakes you see that drive you nuts?
TB: Many athletes and coaches use the same type of strength training, irrespective of the physiological requirements their respective sports require. Each sport has its specific physiological profile. The sports where the alactic energy system is dominant are basically sports where speed and power are necessary to achieve high results [jumping and throwing events in track and field, linebackers, baseball, sprinting, etc.]
For sports where the alactic-acid system has a high percentage of ergogenesis, or breakdown in percentage of the three energy systems, it's required that power-endurance and muscle-endurance [30-50 reps per set] be trained. Finally, for endurance-dominant sports, one needs to develop muscle-endurance [tens and even hundreds of reps]. If this isn't achieved, a good adaptation to such training won't occur.
What we see here is a very important training principle — strength training has to play a physiological role; it has to tap the same energy system to add to the specific adaptation to the physiological requirements of a given sport. If one doesn't follow the above principle, he or she is entirely missing the point in strength training. I can strongly state that in athletics there is no strength for strength's sake, but rather just strength training with a specific purpose: maximum adaptation for performance improvement.
T: Are there any strength-training exercises that all athletes should be doing?
TB: Certainly, especially as they target the ankle, knee, and hip muscles. Most sports performed on the ground [all team sports, track, martial arts, etc.] use knee extensors and flexors, and gastrocnemius and soleus for the ankle actions. Therefore squats, leg curls, and toe raises are very popular with most sports.
Although many coaches do use squats and leg curls, toe raises aren't utilized as much as the other two exercises. Somehow they miss the fact that ankles play a very important role in any type of sprinting, quick changes of direction, and any agility actions. In many cases, the gastrocnemius and soleus are stronger than the quadriceps! This is why improvements in quickness and agility will come faster after these two muscles get stronger.
T: How about abs?
TB: Yes, this is equally true with regard to abdominal muscles. Abdominal curls with all variations and rotations are very necessary for all sports. A strong back is also crucial in many sports. Therefore, back extensions should be considered.
As for the arms and shoulders, there are more sports-specific variations than for the lower body. Look at the technical moves to figure out the prime movers in that sport. In sports training, it's more important to think about training movements and not muscles since exercises that mimic a technical move are better for targeting the prime movers.
I also believe that training has to be simplified. Especially nowadays, when there are so many gimmicks being introduced on the market and some individuals come up with all kinds of "novelties"! If you were to listen to each individual promoting a novelty [i.e. overspeed training, balance-training, etc.], you'll never have the time to actually train the athlete to reach the optimal adaptation level. Remember that high levels of specific adaptation results in athletic improvements!
T: What are some of the techniques you've used to blast through training plateaus?
TB: An athlete doesn't reach a plateau very quickly. It takes time — several years of training at a high level — before something like that can even be considered. In my career of many years I've rarely seen athletes reaching a plateau in strength training. This situation is mostly discussed in bodybuilding and at times in football. Nevertheless, let's try to discuss some possibilities for breaking through training plateaus. Here are five:
- Use a maximum strength phase to stimulate higher percentage of fast twitch muscles into action. In many sports, strength training is poorly designed — lifting weights for strength's sake. There's no plan, no periodization. Athletes and bodybuilders that use periodization very rarely reach a plateau, in my experience.
- Design a good periodization program with phases of maximum strength and phases of power training, where the objective is to increase the firing rate of fast-twitch muscles. In my strength training book, Periodization of Training for Sports, I discuss that in detail.
- If one has a longer preparatory (pre-season) phase, several phases of maximum strength and power could be alternated. This alternation of maximum strength with power would certainly have the probability of breaking the plateau.
- Under normal conditions I wouldn't suggest a maximum-strength phase for longer than six weeks. It's quite stressful to cope with. However, if an athlete has reached a plateau, I'd use a nine-week long maximum strength phase. Under these conditions, the muscles are stimulated at much higher levels than before.
- Use more eccentric (negative) contraction techniques. Eccentric contractions require a much higher tension in the fast twitch muscles. Eccentric training shouldn't be used before the athletes have a better background. Unfortunately, many coaches can hardly wait to use everything they know; in this way they themselves are contributing to reaching a plateau.
TB: Often a plateau is reached because of a coach's ignorance. Poor selection of training methods and their logical sequence also contribute. Similarly, the lack of patience in applying the right method at the right time also contributes to a psychological plateau, meaning that the coach thinks "I have used everything I know!" What's next then? Don't rush to throw everything you know at your athlete!
Organize a longer-term sequence of training methods. Plan everything you do well. Be more methodical in what you use in training. Allow the necessary time for the athlete to grow, to get ready for the next method, load increment, or alternation of types of strength. Remember that you can help a great deal, but you may also do quite a bit of damage. The coach has to wisely use maximum stimulation, high recruitment of fast-twitch muscles, and alternate with power training, where the firing rate of the same muscles are trained.
T: What about altering tempo? For example, taking more time in the concentric and eccentric ranges?
TB: Altering tempo is mostly a bodybuilding concept, though some people promote it as a sort of strength-training novelty, good for everything and everybody. The scope of altering the tempo of a lift is to create the highest tension in a muscle for the longest period of time, using both concentric and eccentric contraction.
Here's the main difference between bodybuilding and strength training for sports. For bodybuilding, the scope of increased tension is designed to induce hypertrophy. In strength training for sports, using heavy loads [> 85-90% of 1 RM] the scope is not to increase the duration of tension, but rather to apply the force against resistance as quickly and dynamically as possible so that the highest number of fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited in the action.
Therefore, a major reason we use heavy loads in training athletes in different sports is to stimulate the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and as a result, to use them during the performance of athletic action. The more fast twitch muscle fibers are used during the performance of a technical skill, the higher the application of force and the benefit for an increased performance.
The use of eccentric contraction in strength training for sports isn't as popular as concentric contraction. However, in some sports like throwing events in track and field and linebackers in football, it's used both to increase maximum strength and hypertrophy.
T: What role does nutrition play in recovery and do you provide nutrition and supplementation advice for athletes?
TB: The efficiency of an athlete's performance depends on his or her quality of training and nutrition. The energy used by the body strictly depends on the nutrition, diet, and training supplements one uses. But nutrition has to also be periodized according to the periodization of strength and endurance training. One can't just talk about nutrition in disregard of training.
For instance, diet has to be different for an individual working to improve hypertrophy, doing maximum speed training, or working on long-distance aerobic endurance. All these examples refer to completely different types of training which require a very specific type of nutrition. Unfortunately, most nutritionists haven't grasped this very important concept yet. They've never heard about periodization of training and the specific needs of nutrition as per a training program planned for given days. They're still talking about nutrition in general.
Two years ago, I specified such a concept to a small group of nutritionists. Most of them wanted more information about it. I suggested they look into my book, Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, where integrated periodization is discussed.
T: Fair enough. I've read that in Bulgaria, Olympic athletes train five times a day, seven times a week and that Russian powerlifters bench press up to 21 times a week. What do you think of this training frequency and would these types of programs be beneficial to a natural trainer?
TB: I just wish that people wouldn't compare apples to oranges. In order to discuss this we have to better qualify what Bulgarians and Russian Olympic weightlifters were doing in the time of the communist system. Yes, the Bulgarian Olympic lifters were training from 9:00 AM to 5:00 or 6:00 PM, 45 minutes on and 30 minutes off, except for the lunch break of some two hours. The Russians weren't powerlifters. They were Olympic lifters and what they were doing is something they've adapted to progressively over several years. Most of these athletes had a background of eight to ten years before they were doing that kind of training.
Also, remember that their training regimen was done in national training camps, where training, sleeping, and food ingestion were the only things they were doing. In addition, they weren't working on anything else, just lifting the bloody barbells! I'm not as impressed — exaggerations and myths aside — as many seem to be, simply because I have a similar background, where my athletes were training two to four times per day with a total of five to eight hours of training!
Now let's examine what pro-athletes are doing in the US. They train technically, tactically, speed, agility and strength/power several times per week, some up to three times per day. Is anybody suggesting that these athletes have to bench press 21 times per week? Team sports, however, aren't the best examples regarding training. Many amateur athletes train much more than pro-players. Also, the quality of coaching in many team sports, especially with regard to strength and conditioning, is quite pathetic. Similarly, some of the professional coaches — in fact, the majority — have a very poor understanding of training theory.
What do I think about the programs you mentioned? Who cares? Would I like to duplicate in this continent what my athletes have done in training camps in Romania? Not at all! Different societies, different times and mentality! Yet several of the athletes trained or consulted by myself in this continent have won against the East Europeans several times with just half of the amount of training time!
One of the key elements in training is to have high training knowledge and excellent methodology in applying it. Being equipped with such knowledge can do miracles. Forget about the "locker room gossip" regarding Russians and Bulgarians.
T: What books do you recommend on strength training — besides yours, of course? Who are the best strength training coaches out there?
TB: This is a very difficult question to answer, the reason being that I don't feel comfortable discussing the books written by other authors. However, I'll try to be as frank as I can. To be honest, I'm really dissatisfied with the level of strength training books available on the market. It seems to me that there's a great mess regarding this important area.
One of the greatest frustrations I have is that to some authors, there's no clear distinction between the objectives of strength training for sports, bodybuilding, and Olympic weightlifting. Authors with a football background expect everyone to do what a linebacker is doing. The same thing is valid for those who have a bodybuilding background. They discuss split routines, supersets, etc. This is totally inadequate for strength training for sports.
To me, a strength training book must serve the needs of a given audience. Use the best sports science information possible and most importantly, be practical. Just going through the process of reviewing the literature (as many do) isn't serving anybody's purpose.
T: Do you feel that some or most strength coaches have a tendency to make their programs too general at times and too complicated at other times?
TB: Yes, you're perfectly right. Let me try to explain what happens. There are several situations that are necessary to examine. Hopefully, from this analysis, some strength and conditioning coaches may start reflecting on their own situation.
First, both the technical coach (head coach) and the strength and conditioning coach are attempting to do their best to improve their athlete's performance. Each of these two coaches is trying to prove to themselves what they know and what they can do. Unfortunately, these two individuals don't cooperate well together to create programs specific to the needs of their athletes.
The head coach, not knowing much about strength and conditioning, doesn't take a leadership role regarding how much training to do, in which areas, what to stress in order to make the athletes better, etc. The result of this lack of cooperation is a high level of fatigue. When the athletes are reporting to the coach, each coach considers them rested, which is hardly the case. Fatigue is a cumulative outcome of training. If improperly monitored, fatigue will affect an athletes potential, their focusing potential, their accuracy of passing and shooting, and their performance.
Another problem is the "cocktail" strength and conditioning coach. Often, training programs are very general, a sort of "cocktail," doing all sorts of things for every athlete in the group. There isn't specificity regarding the needs of the sport, position played, or to relate the program to the dominant energy system in that particular sport. Knowing the proportions of energy systems in that sport dictates the type of training one must do.
T: Give us an example of that please.
TB: In sports where the anaerobic alactic system is clearly dominant — baseball, linebackers in football, jumping and throwing events in track and field — training should be focused on maximum strength, power, and maximum speed. In other words, they're focused on training elements which are tapping this energy system.
What business does a linebacker have running three miles? During the game he performs like a bulldozer, demolishing the opposition, but only for a two to four-second duration. To have such an athlete run three miles is a blasphemy! I wouldn't call this "general training," but a high degree of ignorance!
T: A "cocktail" strength and conditioning coach, huh? Interesting term. Any other categories of coaches you notice?
TB: Yes, the "busy-bee" type of strength and conditioning coach who wants to do too much in a very short period of time. Let's face it, a strength and conditioning coach has two to three hours per week to work with team sports athletes. Depending on the phase of the annual plan, a strength and conditioning coach has to do specific work according to the periodization of a given motor ability. The closer to the competitive phase, the more specific and simplified training should be.
And yet many coaches are doing everything under the sun: lifting weights, power training, using medicine balls, working to improve maximum speed, etc. The uninitiated "greenhorn" coach, the one with a shallow level of knowledge in sports science, will easily bite into the gimmicks of the day, such as overspeed, balance training, rotation training, and functional training.
In addition to the fact that some of these training ideas don't work at all, attempting to use them in training creates a crisis! A time crisis! If one has two to three hours to work with the athletes, when do they have the time to use all these novelties? Simplify your training! To be effective, training must be simplified.
To create an efficient program, one has to be very selective in what he does in training. Never forget that your training must result in a very specific adaptation. When superior adaptation occurs, performance will be superior. If one is using too many training elements, it's almost impossible to have a good adaptation. Just think about that! If you do, you'll see that you don't have time and room for totally unproven gimmicks.
This is my case for position-specific training programs. In team sports, almost each position requires different qualities and taps specific proportions of the three energy systems. Take for instance a mid-fielder in soccer vs. a sweeper, or a linebacker versus a wide receiver in football. These positions are so different from each other that a "cocktail" training program impedes the improvement of these athletes. Therefore a strength and conditioning training program has to be specific, to train the necessary qualities for that position.
T: That makes total sense. By the way, do you have any new projects in the works?
TB: The newest book that will be launched is the second edition of Serious Strength Training. I'll have a new co-author, Dr. Mauro DiPasquale. This new edition will be published by Human Kinetics in August, 2002.
Another project I hope to start very soon will refer to endurance sports. I do believe, together that we'll bring several training novelties for endurance sports. Then, in the fall, I'd like to start to update my strength training for sports book, Periodization of Training for Sports, where the title has to be corrected to incorporate the term "strength." My intent is to make this book the most popular training book [it already is really, since it sold more copies than any other books.] The book will have many additions regarding sports science and practical application.
I'll also refer to several fallacies used in training, from balance training to others. In my opinion, sports scientists have to take a strong and critical stance regarding the newest gimmicks invading and polluting the market.
T: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Tudor.
TB: My pleasure.
For more information on Tudor Bompa, go to TudorBompa.com.
Mike Mahler is a certified kettlebell instructor and has been a strength athlete for over ten years. Mike is available for phone consultations and personal training in the Washington DC area. If you'd like more information on a personalized strength training and nutrition program to address your needs or to set up a phone consultation, please e-mail Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 703-848-8979.