THE INSIDER BLOG — Posted by: Sean Potter

INSIDER IN-DEPTH: STRENGTH TRAINING OVERVIEW FOR AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL

My name is Sean Potter, and I am the strength coach and development high performance manager for the Northern Blues Football Club in the Victorian Football League. I’m writing this blog is to share our insights to the training methods that we implement to state level athletes, talk about the limitations that we deal with on a daily basis, provide some problem solving questions in order to help provide some solutions to these limitations and provide some basic guidelines for strength training with Australian rules football. When I was studying at university and starting out in the industry there was and is still very little out there in terms of the practical application of the general strength training guidelines.

Putting the Sport in Context

For those of you who are not familiar with Australian rules football, this will put some context around the sport. Over the past 10 to 20 years, the high performance area of football has made huge improvements. The 1990’s introduced the first “strength and conditioning coaches”, many of which were personal trainers at the time, worked as volunteers and had limited knowledge on athletic training at the elite level. Currently, the elite level has a multiple disciplinary high performance team all working together to achieve maximal

At the elite level, pre-season will generally start around late October-early November, pre-season games are mid-February to mid-March and the main season starting late March and finishes in late August, with finals during the month of September. As with most team sports, Australian rules football is very physically demanding due to the high intensity and intermittent nature of the sport.

An Australian rules football match can last for approximately two hours in length (four quarters worth twenty minutes each plus time on for each stoppage in play). At the elite level, an athlete will generally cover 10 km’s (6.2 miles) — 15 km’s (9.3 miles) (depending on position), along with having to deal with body on body contact (Gray and Jenkins, 2010 & Hrysomallis, et. al. 2006). Elite Australian rules footballers spend very little time in steady state running (20% total game time), compared to the time that was spent in high intensity running/sprinting, with high intensity efforts ranging from 158 in forward and back athletes to 208 in midfield athletes (Gray and Jenkins, 2010). 80–85% of these high intensity efforts lasted less than 3 seconds, while 100% of the high intensity efforts lasted less than 6 seconds, with a work to rest ratio ranging from 1:2–1:6 (Gray and Jenkins, 2010).

Predetermined speed zones are as follows standing and walking ≈0–1.66m/sec, jogging ≈1.94–3.88m/sec, running ≈4.16–5.55m/sec and sprinting ≈6.11; 10m/sec. GPS’s were used in order to determine these results and are commonly used amongst all elite Australian rules football teams for both training and match day.

A link to an Australian rules football 2015 highlights is here:

The state league level of Australian rules football has many different limitations that a strength and conditioning coach will have to try and overcome to get the best out of their athletes. The limitations listed below are general across the state league and each team will have their own case by case situations:

  • Lack of access to football ovals during pre-season and in-season.
  • Due to cricket some teams are left to find an alternate oval during pre-season and due to the traffic some ovals have, some teams are relocated during the in-season.
  • Many of our athletes have other jobs (trades or office worker) or study.
  • This means that they are in poor positions for an extended period of time throughout the day.
  • Lack of strength equipment or old/poor facilities.
  • Many state league teams have poor set ups and/or old/lacking equipment to properly service a strength training session. This means many teams have to outsource or send away athletes with programs and “hope” that they are completing each session correctly.
  • Access to the athletes.
  • Generally as training sessions will run in the afternoon/night time for roughly 3–4 hours, 2 to 3 times per week, which can include game vision, skills sessions, recovery, strength sessions, etc. This means that the time we get with our athletes needs to be effective and efficient.
  • Keeping athletes motivated for the duration of the season
  • The number of weeks that an athlete is with us for a season can get up to 44 and sometimes more depending on finals. Keeping athletes motivated for this length of time can be challenging.

In order to overcome some of the limitations mentioned above, the following questions will help to determine the direction of a strength program:

1.) Where are the athletes performing the prescribe gym program and exercises?

  • At the club gym, local gym, private gym, etc.

2.) What equipment do the athletes have access to vs. what do they require?

  • Barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, weightlifting platforms etc.

3.) How long do the athletes have to complete each sessions?

  • 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour, untimed, etc.

4.) What is the desired outcome/training stimulus?

  • Hypertrophy, Strength, Power, etc.

5.) Based on time constraints, how do you structure a program to obtain the desired response?

  • Super-set, circuit, pyramid, drop set, etc.

6.) What is the athletes level of ability (technique, strength power, etc.)?

  • Beginner, intermediate, advanced.

7.) What are the norms of the sport vs. where do they need to improve?

8.) How does the athlete compare to the rest of the team/competition?

9.) What movements does the sport require?

  • Jumping, running, kicking, marking, etc.

10.) Does an athlete require specific exercises compared to the rest of the team to elicit performance improvements?

  • Weak gluteal muscles may limit squat performance, Pilates, etc.

11.) What will keep the athletes motivated?

  • Changes in programming, competitions, music roster, best/worst in gym, goal setting, leader boards, etc.

While some of these questions may seem general it is still important to cover the basics and keep the program simple for the athletes.

Strength/Power Testing

We are all well aware that strength training is utilised in sports for the purpose of enhancing performance, assisting with rehabilitation and the aid of preventing injuries. Since there has become a much greater emphasis of strength and power, due to the way the sport has evolved, strength and power training has become more important to the coaches and athletes.

When determining the strength levels of an athlete we use three tests 1RM B/B Bench Press, 1RM B/B Bench Pull and 1RM Box Squat, along with the movement efficiency of various other lifts (generally used for beginner/developmental athletes). The standard that we set for our athletes is 1.5 X body weight for upper body tests and 2 X body weight for lower body tests. We will generally test for upper and lower strength three times during the pre-season and will usually get another one to two upper body tests completed in season depending on the fixture.

For determining power levels of the athlete we use a gymaware and force plate for squat jumps (set at certain percentages from the athletes 1RM Squat) and also use the gymaware for smith machine B/B bench throws (again set at certain percentages from the athletes 1RM Bench Press). Generally, this is tested at the start of each pre-season and end of in-season. Ideally this is what we complete with all athletes, however sometimes time restrictions limit us. If this is the case, we get our “core” athletes to complete the above-mentioned testing and get the remainder of the to complete a vertical jump test and medicine ball throw test.

In order to determine how my athletes are tracking I compare them against their own previous scores (increases/decreases), team averages (above/below), rank amongst position (best/worst), height (smalls vs mids vs talls), rank amongst competition they are competing in and rank amongst competition above. The following table (Bilsborough et. al., 2015) gives a guideline of how each level of athlete is performing for certain tests:

After identifying what limitations are placed on your athletes, where the athlete stands based on testing and identifying what the desired response is, you can start to work out the athlete’s programs. We have four groups of programming, beginner, intermediate, advanced and core athletes.

At the state league level, we get many athletes through the junior ranks with very little previous strength training. Many of the junior athletes will get stronger and develop, purely just by following a strength program, nearly regardless of what exercises are programmed into it. For many of these junior athletes they get programmed a series of lifting/movement progressions over their first season to ensure that correct movement efficiency is performed during the following seasons with more complex loads, lifts and intensities. The majority of these junior athletes will be on the beginner programs.

For athletes that have been in the state league system for a year or more get planned either an intermediate program or an advanced program depending on anthropometry, movement efficiency and strength/power levels. For many of these athletes they get programmed a periodised plan throughout the pre-season and in-season. For our core athletes they will receive very similar programs to the intermediate/advanced programs, however these programs are further tailored to the athlete’s specific needs. During the pre-season some athletes are programmed strength training four times a week and others three times a week, depending on individual needs. For those who are training four times a week the program is split into upper body strength, lower body strength, upper body power/speed, and lower body power/speed. For those who are training three times a week the program is split into an upper body session, lower body session and a full body session.

During the in-season we ideally would like the athletes to get two sessions in per week, however the program is influenced largely on the turnaround of matches and the injury status of the athletes.

Generally, we have an ideal plan of what we would like our athletes to complete and have to modify it on a player by player case. Simple formula, ideal world — real world = work actually completed.

As far as the exercises we program we focus the start of our strength sessions on our main lifts (squat variation, bench press, bench pull, etc.), followed by our accessory lifts (shoulder press, pull ups, etc.), and then if time permits isolation exercises. When working out what weights the athletes are expected to lift we use the following table (Haff, 2013):

Since we don’t always want to train to our RM (failure) we further use another table, which allows us to further periodize our strength training (Shier, 1999):

Due to the time constraints that are placed upon us we have to look at super-setting/circuiting exercises in order to get the required amount of volume in. These super-sets will involve opposing actions (push and pull) or body segments (upper and lower).

As a strength and conditioning coach at a state league Australian rules team we do not have excessive budgets to be able to afford many of the “elite” programs, applications and licenses. Due to this factor we rely heavily on excel to design and track strength programs, databases and so on. This unfortunately means that we spend numerous hours behind the scenes inputting data and reporting. However, it is beneficial for the young strength and conditioning coach to get a handle of how excel works and the different functions that are present within it. Too many young strength and conditioning coaches are so reliant on programs or applications that they don’t fully understand what the figures/results/reports actually mean and what they represent.

During my time as strength coach I have used Mladen Jovanovic’s Strength Card Builder (http://complementarytraining.net/product/strength-card- builder) and have further adapted it to certain requirements of our high performance team. More recently I have been trialling a program called TeamBuildr (http://teambuildr.com). I have found with TeamBuildr I am able to export the csv file into my database without having to enter in every athlete’s weights, reps, etc. I have found it is much more time effective and the athletes really enjoy using the technology.

Examples of some of the programming that I used the strength card builder for can be seen below.

I hope that this blog has provided an understanding of how we program for strength training at the Northern Blues Football Club and how we deal with some of the limitations posed. There are many different ways to achieve the same end result as someone else who could train completely differently or who has different methodologies, however it is the journey that you take as a strength coach with your athletes that’ll make the biggest difference.

It is important that you can connect to your athletes as people and not just athletes who are in and out of the gym. You will be able to understand what gets them up and motivates them and also what brings them down. When your athletes see that you care about them, they will care much more about your program. There is never a one program fits all or a plan that fits all. It is forever changing and you need to be able to adapt your coaching/philosophies/methodologies to the group of athletes/organization that you are Thanks to the guys at Insider Training for giving me this opportunity to blog about a topic of interest and experiences. Also thank you all for taking the time to read it as well.

REFERENCES:

1. Bilsborough, JC. Greenway, KG. Opar, DA. Livingstone, SG. Cordy, JT. Bird, SR. Coutts, AJ. Comparison of Anthropometry, Upper-Body Strength, and Lower-Body Power Characteristics in Different Levels of Australian Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29(3): 826–834. 2015

2. Gray, AJ. and Jenkins DG. Match Analysis and the Physiological Demands of Australian Football. Journal of Sports Medicine. 40(4): 347–360. 2010.

3. Haff, GG. Periodization Strategies for Youth Development. In: Strength and Conditioning for Young Athletes. Lloyd, RS. and Oliver, JL eds. Science and Application Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2013. pp. 149–168.

4. Hrysomallis, C. Buttifant, D. and Buckley, N. Weight Training for Australian Football. South Melbourne, Vic: Lothian Books, 2006.

5. Shrier, I. Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: A critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 9(4):221–227. 1999.

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Feel free to contact me on spotter7@our.ecu.edu.au or on Twitter @CoachSeanPotter if you have any questions or want to have a chat about this blog.

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