Strength Training: A matter of coordination from the outside in.

Every once in a while, you read something worth talking about. Frans Bosch’s 2015 book Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach is one of those things. I’ve been making my way through this at a fairly slow pace (not unlike the last time I read one of his books,) but it’s been phenomenally rewarding. Those of you who know me, know that I read anything I can get my hands on – and this is the single best piece of writing I’ve come across in my short career.

Science teaches us to observe with curiosity, and the more you learn, the more questions you will have. In the best of times these questions will make you uncomfortable, and compel you to look for answers. In the first half of this book, I’ve found answers to questions I’ve had since 2011. Bosch presents ideas based on things that I feel are typically deemed too abstract to be of relevance. Maybe it’s just that we (generally speaking) tend to shy away from things we don’t understand. Keep in mind I’m not saying emphatically “I get it” yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.

With that said, here are my top takeaways so far.

1. Increasing capacities in sport and movement training.

The athletically coordinated body is remarkably self-organizing. The best “athletes” are those who intrinsically possess a broad and deep database of movement solutions, these are answers to movement problems. In a quickly changing environment, circumstances allow only tenths or thousandths of a second to come up with an answer to the question “what do I do next?” Some of this is conscious control, some of this is self-organized by the body. If we think in the context of a soccer match, a player may be approaching the offensive end of the field with several problems:

  1. Can I take on this defender, and can I beat this keeper based on the information available?
  2. Should I shoot along the ground, or should I aim higher?
  3. My teammate to my left may have a better chance of scoring, should I just pass to them instead?
  4. Now there are two defenders in front of me, I have an entirely new list of choices to consider.

As the clock is running during the game, there is not time to consciously ponder the best answers to these questions, and movement must occur reflexively. Instantaneous recognition of the situation must therefore occur automatically with result-driven intention. Knowledge of the desired result must also exist in order for the correct action to be taken. Ultimately the result must be “ball in net” and the steps taken to get there will be provided by the players motor program. Probabilistic Prognosis Theory (Feigenberg, 1998) states basically that there is an unconscious appraisal made about the relationship between current circumstance, ability, and desired outcome. Probabilistic Prognosis provides the answer to those questions in the above scenario. From an extensively built list of memories and outcomes, the player will recognize which combination of actions have had the highest success rate in the past. This is why a stronger, faster player may choose to take on the defender, and make the shot themselves. The more timid player who has learned to take a lower appraisal of their athletic ability may choose to pass to a teammate who they believe has a better chance of succeeding. A poor player may altogether not have the experience to make a decision quickly enough and end up turning the ball over to the defense.

So where does training fit in?

Central governor theory states that there is what is called an “autonomously protected reserve.” Basically, the higher levels of the central nervous system will only send signals strong enough to recruit about 75% of the body’s ability. This is done in order to keep movements safely within the loading capacities of joints and tissues. For example, if elite sprinters were capable on any given day of recruiting closer to 80 or 90% of their full potential, we would see hamstring tears and strains FAR more often in competition.

Training can increase these limits, through several mechanisms, some are physiological, some are coordinative, both are effective in different contexts. Increasing the loading capacity of tissues and joints can be done by creating more stable and efficient movement strategies (improving coordination) and/or by increasing loading capacities of joints and tissues (physiological, but also requiring coordinative improvements in the end.)

The second, more timid player in the example above who chooses to pass instead of take a chance themselves, may turn into a better player over the course of their career by improving these capacities. The stronger and more efficiently they learn to move, the higher their “75%” becomes, until ultimately their 75% is greater than that of the defender.

2. Improving the coordinative capacity.

Within every movement, there are loads of different moving pieces. We think of teaching “whole” or “part-to-whole” methods. The “whole” movement is ultimately the outcome, the parts of which are the things we aim to correct or teach and we call it technique training. However, the body sees things much differently. Throughout a movement, there are pieces in which we have higher levels of competence – these are the fundamental, nearly mathematically exact components of movement which we can execute with high degrees of stability and low levels of energy expenditure (coordinative efficiency.) These are also known as ATTRACTORS. They are what we might consider “safe zones” as we transition from one stable movement to another. Typically, closed-skills and part-practice are used to try and stabilize these movements even further by removing degrees of freedom which would be present in more complex contextual movement. Degrees of freedom are presented not only within the body but without, a shoulder joint has greater degrees of freedom than say, a healthy knee. This is a mechanical law. Agility when defending an opponent has greater degrees of freedom than sprinting around a set layout of cones on the soccer field.

These degrees of freedom represent the unstable areas in phase transitions from one stable and economical movement to another. They are also known as FLUCTUATORS.


Taken from twitter: @fransboschbook

In the above picture, the blue line represents a skill. The red spheres represent components or pieces of the skill. The red spheres which appear to be embedded in “pockets” of this line represent ATTRACTORS (stable, efficient factors or components of the skill.) The red spheres that appear to be precariously balanced on the peaks of the blue line represent FLUCTUATORS (unstable, inefficient factors or components of the skill.) As the image suggests, the fluctuators are credited to the environment, these are things that are contextually contingent. The attractors necessarily contribute to the matrix of specificity (known and familiar movement strategies of the body and nervous system) and therefore have transfer to other skills.

This image demonstrates a movement for which there is a strong competency as compared to a new skill (which would look much more like a flat blue line with red spheres prepared to roll in any direction.)

If we consider for a second that the skill above might be a tennis serve by a fairly proficient player, the attractors (pocketed red spheres – stable components, things that don’t change in ideal circumstances) may hypothetically be hips and shoulders square to the target at contact, shoulder elevated and close to the head coming through the ball, final push off the trail leg in the middle third of the swing. The fluctuators (balancing red spheres – relatively unstable components) may hypothetically be things like wind affecting the quality of the toss and shifting the center of mass to accomodate, playing surface dictating security of foot position and compromising stability of support points, or even tension in the racquet strings affecting force transfer from the upper extremity to the ball. All of these fluctuators have the potential to throw the attractors off their course, and the less concrete those attractors are, the more unstable the entire movement may become.

You see, the more stable the attractor components are (the deeper the wells which the red spheres sit in,) the less opportunity for degrees of variability (narrow peaks in the blue line) to destabilize the movement.

Training can improve these movement layouts, both through coordination and strength training. Ultimately there must also be a result, in this case a strong, stable, and accurate serve. This result provides feedback to the athlete about the quality of execution in the movement pattern, however the coach may also provide feedback.

As I mentioned before, the human body is insanely proficient at self-organizing. Without instruction or training it is likely that over time, the most dedicated athletes will arrive at the most efficient technique possible. Baseball players on the sandlots of the Dominican, through practice and knowledge of result commonly arrive at points where they have big league swings, and pitching mechanics without ever having seen them on TV. The body is smart, and the nervous system will start broadly attempting to perform a skill when the brain tells it to, eventually it will whittle away the pieces of that skill which have poorer results, until ultimately it “finds” the best way to do it.

Bosch likens this to searching for a book in a library database. You start with a list of thousands of books and enter the first word of the title, immediately the possible results may be cut by 70% (early improvements in performance are easy.) You then type in the second word of the book, possible results may be cut by 85%. Then the last words of the book title, and even the author can be added to the search criteria until you are left with one answer. The final product of whittling away the useless interference or possibilities.

3. Knowledge of Performance vs. Knowledge of Result. 

I’ll start with this taken directly from Bosch’s book, because there is nothing more clear than an example:

“There is a famous and much-replicated study of discus coaching, involving two groups. One was given instructions about correct technical performance by a leading coach (knowledge of performance); the other was simply given a tape measure to record how far the discus was thrown (knowledge of performance…) The results were measured in terms of ‘retention under stress’ i.e. some time after the practice sessions, in competition settings with no opportunity to practise at length beforehand. The improvement in performance in the second group was at least as good as in the group with a leading coach. Were instructions from a leading coach no better than a tape measure?”

– Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach. Frans Bosch, 2015. 

In this example, we must consider at least for a second that at some point the body teaches the mind, the knowledge of result deepens the wells of attractors and improves movement to the point where it becomes stable, reliable, and consistent. This is the same as in training. Strength training (as implied a few times earlier) is a function of coordinative learning. The role of the strength coach must not always be to act as a technician. Technical cueing and information is critical for providing safe learning. Otherwise, encouragement and assistance in realizing improved results may be the most important part for us.

Let’s face it, if we’re talking about lifting MORE weight, we’re talking about raising physiological limits at some point. But let’s not forget we’re talking even more about improved coordination. Performing the same exercise with more weight on the bar is directly the combined result of improved coordination and loading capacity. Some of the adaptations are physiological, some are coordinative (I don’t know how many different ways I can say that.) Some training necessarily needs to be process-driven (knowledge of performance) but some definitely needs to be outcome-driven (knowledge of result.) The improved, increasingly positive results will continue to drive knowledge of performance. More specificaly, the effective and efficient patterns of movement (attractors) will stabilize as a positive and familiar component of that skill.

That is not to say that increasing the amount of weight used in a back squat will help that tennis player serve better. But in a round about way, increasing hip strength, and  therefore deepening the wells of those controllable and increasingly stable attractors can better prepare the athlete to navigate and be less affected by the more variable components of the circumstance.

The way in which this happens may be less controllable by the coach as we have traditionally thought. In the end, it’s not the coach lifting the weight or performing the exercise for the athlete, they have to do it on their own. When they begin to gain competence and familiarity with these movements, the more capable they become of controlling them. A person first starting out in squatting may use a very rudimentary approach, things like controlling posture and breathing may be a new world for them, and therefore their attention can only handle the things that prevent them from getting crushed by the bar. As competency and familiarity improve, they may begin experimenting with things like activation of the hips and hamstrings, pushing their knees outward to make use of the adductors in pulling the hips up and forward. Isn’t this starting to sound like improvements in strength will be heavily reliant on improved coordination? Knowledge of the result will build knowledge of the performance.

One thought on “Strength Training: A matter of coordination from the outside in.

  1. Pingback: Dynamical Systems Theory; A rational approach to understanding variability in movement systems. | Alex Carnall: Physical Preparation

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