The Road To HIT is Paved with Good Intentions
(I originally wrote this article in 2002 as a response to a debate that was raging at the time between Louis Simmons from Westside and the Mat Brzyski of the HIT crowd on Supertraining but never ran it cause I couldn't locate the complete original articles . We've just had some HIT promoting posts on the site, so rather than holding back- Here Goes!)
No doubt, the concept of an injury- free training environment is appealing. The pursuit of this goal led to the development of the universal gym and every other "machine" we see today. Unfortunately, the only way to guarantee that no training injuries occur is not to train. High Intensity Training (HIT) has become football's version of the next- best thing.
In 1981, Al Vermiel, then strength and conditioning coach for the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers (later with the Chicago Bulls), brought me in as a consultant. When I arrived, Al was on the phone, fending off Arthur Jones, who wanted to replace Al's Olympic weights with Nautilus equipment. After Al had dismissed Jones, I asked him why so many teams had moved away from Olympic lifting and he replied that, sadly, 20 years of machines had created a lifting "Dark Age" where there was almost no-one left who could teach the classic lifts. The success of the 49ers (and the Dallas Cowboys) was partly responsible for a renaissance of classic lifting in football, but now, 21 years later, we are descending into a new "Dark Age" led by the HIT crowd.
Mat Brzycki (MB), a strength coach at Princeton and a principle HIT proponant, wrote a rebuttal to an article written by Louis Simmons. In it, he defends the HIT system, claiming that only some linemen entering the NFL from HIT schools have vertical jumps below 19 inches and have squats below 300 pounds and further suggests that some linemen entering the NFL from non- HIT schools might also have vertical jumps below 19 inches and squats below 300 pounds.
What kind of debate is this? A 300 pound squat for a lineman? Is this with one leg? A 19 inch vertical jump? When I was at the Denver Broncos training camp a few years ago, there wasn't a single lineman below ELEVEN FEET in the standing long jump! (Needless to say, this was not a HIT program)
Have you ever noticed that training concepts like HIT always take root where comparison is difficult? A track athlete who prepared this way would have his answer in the first race. Speaking of getting your ass handed to you on a plate, too bad MB didn't test out his arguments on the Princeton debating team first! They would have jumped all over his leaps from valid observations to illogical conclusions. (Some of them can probably squat 300 pounds too).
MB rightly points out the pre-eminence of the requirements of the game (open skills) over the strength qualities that are tested (closed skills). If he understands this, why then would he train one element, which, by his own admission, is NOT the most important, to FAILURE? All training components are interrelated, thus, every other aspect of training will be compromised by HIT. This is the central flaw in the HIT philosophy.
The ability to prioritize training components, objectively time and measure the impact of the work asigned, and to adjust workloads accordingly is the cornerstone of any reasonable training program. MB neatly sidesteps HIT's fundamental failure by claiming all times and measurements are irrelevant. Hedging his bets, he says they don't matter because some of the fastest and strongest players don't make the squad. Granted, some players are more skilled than others, but shouldn't you make those who DO make the squad fitter, faster and stronger, and shouldn't you be able to PROVE you've done it? He tries to obscure the issue further by suggesting that it's impossible to compare bench presses due to differing arm lengths, then, in the next sentence, provides a formula for doing just that, down to the last inch-pound.
MB points out that some HIT schools have produced better results than some other schools with non- HIT strength programs. This is undoubtedly true, but, given HIT's fundamental limitation, this is not a vindication, but, rather, a condemnation of the other programs' inability to capitalize on HIT's weakness.
MB paraphrases Ken Mannie, the strength and conditioning coach at Michigan State, as stating; "Using potentially dangerous movements in the weight room to prepare for potentially dangerous activities is like banging your head against the wall to prepare for a concussion". This statement is true, of course, but where is the real danger? Performing cleans with proper technique, progressive loading, and supervision, or sending an athlete onto the playing field with his muscles in the severely over-trained state that HIT guarantees?
MB has difficulty understanding why linemen should have a greater problem in surviving HIT training than players in other positions. "Is it because they were not mentally and physically capable of completing such a challenging type of strength training in a highly aggressive fashion?" he asks. "Is it because of their relatively larger size? Is it because they begin each play in a 3-point stance?" He quips.
For MB's information, linemen reside on the extreme left hand side of the strength to endurance continuum, along with shot-putters and weight- lifters. Their ability to deliver incredible force makes them by far the most vulnerable to the over-training that can result from a coach's attitude, so aptly described by the statements above. I'm sure that MB would consider the HIT program that made me mad enough to write this article, a success. After all ONE player got stronger. The other 57guys that got weaker obviously had bad attitudes.
MB correctly defines muscular reserve: "If your muscle fibers become stronger, fewer are needed to sustain a sub-maximal work output (creating) a greater reserve to extend the sub-maximal effort." But then he contends that the principle is reversible. That muscular strength, gained under conditions of total fatigue (Failure) will improve explosive power. This is certainly NOT true.
Explosive power can only be optimized during the maintenance phase of an organized weight program after maximum strength is already in place. The maintenance phase extends the period over which maximum strength can be maintained while allowing the entire organism to super-compensate.
Maintenance phase lifting consists of slightly sub- maximal weights in numbers well below maximum rep capacity. It takes 10 to 12days to rebound, after a 12week maximum strength phase, followed by a 6week super-compensation "window" in which explosive power can be maximized before the gradual loss of strength outweighs the benefits of additional recovery. This concept of peaking is completely alien to HIT.
MB correctly states that the speed of movement in lifting is not that important. Increasing lifting speed increases risk and lifting rates are so slow compared to the movement rates of the sport itself, it renders any lifting speed change irrelevant. But he doesn't quit there.
He attacks the clean, stating: "There's no study that shows the power clean produces an honest- to- goodness, full fledged improvement in explosiveness in a specific "open" skill during game conditions. And if there is no scientific evidence, then there is only wild speculation, anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking."
Along this line, I might point out that there's no scientific proof that there will be a tomorrow. There is however speculation, anecdotal evidence, and, indeed, wishful thinking!
Does he seriously suggest that the clean is the only lift that does NOT improve on-field performance, whether directly or indirectly?
I have no special attachment to the clean. I have used it successfully with some athletes, but my most successful athlete, Ben Johnson, never used it in any of his programs. I don't buy the concept that the clean is specific either. Specificity comes from the sport itself. What can safely be said is that the clean represents a means to recruit a very large percentage of the body's motor units in a single lift and, for the athlete with the skill to employ it, and it can reduce the total number of lifts in training, when required. The real reason the HIT crowd hate it is because it can never be reconciled with training to failure.
MB extrapolates, suggesting that practicing skilled movements with added resistance may train the neuromuscular system to move slower. With an inappropriate load, yes, but lightly resisted sport-specific actions are used with success in many sports. Resisted sprints up to 30meters (generating no more than a 10% slowing of best time) will not alter sprint mechanics, and, when mixed with un- resisted runs, can generate significant gains in acceleration performance. Likewise, short sprints up a slight grade will help an athlete to improve his mechanics by allowing him to achieve optimum joint angles before he can generate enough acceleration to achieve them on a flat track. I have the CV to back me up on this. Sorry, I forgot. MB doesn't believe in performance measures.
MB speculates that bodybuilders, who often train using HIT principals, might be explosive, but to quote Milos Sarcev: "We are not athletes, we are athletic mannequins"!
MB also spends a lot of time trying to "ferret" out the names of the nay- sayers. In the finest tradition of the Inquisition, he wants to know who is not "Catholic" in the weight room. It's no surprise that he operates this way. Once a program like this gets hold of a team, it's hell to get rid of, since players, fearing their complaints will get back to management, keep their mouths shut. Then they're double- damned. Most players in the NFL need the work- out money they get for doing the team's off- season training program. So, even as they see their performance deteriorate, they have to put up with this dumbing- down of their training.
Why then is HIT gaining ground in the face of a flawed concept, fierce criticism from the outside, and grumbling from the inside? I'm afraid it comes down to laziness. The "culture of the cubicle" has entered the weight- room.
Annual Plan? Who needs it? As MB so aptly puts it: "Why "overcomplicate" your lifting program with periodization"?
Want to work different strength qualities? Don't worry about it! There are no different strength qualities. One set to failure covers everything.
Spending too much time supervising your athletes? Get machines in there and you can post your workouts on the bulletin board and hang out in your cubicle "surfing the net".
But HIT crowd take warning. Team owners didn't get rich by being entirely stupid, even if they did hire you. Can you expect them to accept forever that the failure to meet expectations is due to lack of talent or poor player attitude? If they should happen to stroll through the weight room and see what's going on, how long will it be before they figure out that THEY can post your workout on the bulletin board and let you spend your time in a cubicle at the unemployment office?