Ben has an interesting role with Reeds School as their strength and conditioning coach. I have a feeling that high school strength and conditioning positions in the UK will continue to grow in the coming years. This Q and A gives you a few pointers as to how you would go about approaching this age group as well as some insights into Ben’s training philosophy. Enjoy!
Q: Can you fill us in on your strength and conditioning background?
A: My interest in Strength training began in my year out in Australia where I became friends with a group of bodybuilders (I was terribly puny and skinny at the time believe it or not) and trained regularly in a gym called ‘Hornsby World of Fitness’. I then became interested in Strength and Conditioning during my Sports Science course at Loughborough University and whilst I was training hard in the gym for my sports of Basketball and Rugby the whole area of training became a passion of mine.
My Strength and Conditioning career began on a voluntary basis with Sussex County Cricket Club Academy in 2002. My Basketball career was winding down (I was not getting picked!) and I gained the opportunity to complete some speed and plyometric training sessions with the academy players on a voluntary basis whilst I was still a PE teacher. Sussex liked the work I completed and one thing led to another until I was offered the role as head of Strength and Conditioning for the club in 2004. I carried out this role from 2004 until 2008. At this time I took on the role as Strength and Conditioning Co-ordinator for the South East of England for the LTA. I completed this role until very recently when I switched to become Head of Strength and Conditioning at Reeds School and to complete consultancy work with Surrey CCC and other athletes.
Q: Where are you based and how can people get in touch with you?
A: Reeds School- Cobham Surrey:
Q: Who are you predominantly working with there at the moment?
A: Reeds School athletes across a wide range of sports (from tennis and rugby to skiing), Surrey CCC and I am part of the AMS team working with British Number 1 Tennis player (59 WTA) Elena Baltacha.
Q: Tell us a bit about the qualities you are working on developing with these clients?
A: With all of the athletes I work with irrespective of their age and experience I try to develop and improve all components of their fitness. Clearly screenings, testing and a needs analysis of them in relation to their sports and their specific roles influences the individualised qualities I prioritise to develop with each athlete. This is essential because two athletes maybe competing in the same sport but the qualities they need to improve may be very different.
The needs of a 14 year old male tennis player going through his PHV growth spurt are likely to be different from for example an adult professional cricketer who needs to lose body fat but also improve speed and power.
However, irrespective of who I am working with I want to develop strength through excellent ROM and make sure that before I start moving on to advanced techniques, higher loads and or greater speeds that I have excellent physical quality and movement competency. Don’t worry though I am not completely soft and we don’t just stretch and hug trees, I like to push the envelope with my athletes but they have to earn the right to progress at each stage to the next level. Nobody improves if you are to cautious but if you are cavalier and not evidence based you will break someone!
Q: What are your 5 ‘go to’ exercises and why?
A: This is a tricky question as each situation often requires a different exercise prescription, but these following exercises are ones I use a lot as they can easily be progressed or regressed dependent on the situation and they build strength/power in key areas. I like to stay away from benching too much for overhead athletes but love press up variations. The Back exercises sort out the wheat from the chaf and if completed with good form and quality act as useful injury prevention exercises as well as strength builders for a balanced physique/athlete.
You have the back squat which is so good for leg and total body strength development supported by a unilateral exercise (Bulgarian squat) which requires strength and flexibility through the hip flexors- good for speed development.
Pretty simple stuff really- the clean, front squat, deadlift, chin are all in the frame but they were the first 5 to pop out of my head so I guess they should be in. I also like these because you could do these with no load or could make them horrendously hard work e.g. Weighted pull ups etc
•Wide Grip Pull ups (Not too wide a grip):
•Supine Pull Ups (Variations):
Q: I know you from our time working with British Tennis. On the tennis front, what do think are the key qualities needed in today’s tennis players and how do you go about developing this?
•High Total body strength with strong focus on leg, back and posterior chain strength.
•High anaerobic fitness
•Agility and the sharpest stimuli recognition and reaction skills around.
•Excellent training adherence and diligence
•Mental strength (tough, tough sport)
How to achieve this? Send them to us at Reeds or Leeds!!!!!
Q: One area causing some debate in the industry at the moment is core training. What are your thoughts on exercises like squats and deadlifts providing enough of a core training stimulus?
A: I will answer this briefly because it could turn in to a bit of a rant: ‘Core training’ is the most contentious issue we deal with. Am I a fan of planks, bridges, activation exercises?…..absolutely particularly if the athlete concerned has a clear pelvic, hip or back related problem which requires segmental improvements or if they are developing in the early stages of an athletic development programme. If you just say ‘man up’ and load up the plates on the bar be prepared for a thoroughly deserved law suit.
I am a big fan of McGill’s work on training the abdominal hoop rather than isolating muscles like the pilates teachers favourite the magic TVA’s. If somebody tells me sucking in their belly and holding their pee/pelvic floor will help athletes generate more force and not break down with injury then my backside is a cream bun. Controversial?
To be fair this is where the physio/S and C coach relationship can be brilliant or a disaster- two good practitioners will dovetail and progress from low level ‘core’ exercises through to lifting and advanced training and will be skipping in the fields together. The nightmare scenario for the athlete is where the S and C is too pig headed and the physio too careful: result arguments/injuries and blame culture.
Sorry starting to rant. If an athlete can squat double their body weight, clean over 100% their body weight and do a single leg squat with 40% of their body weight I doubt a 60 second plank will add much more value. How many athletes do you know who can do that though?
Q: How do you stand on the unilateral/bilateral leg training debate? Briefly let us know your views on this.
A: On one leg? Simple: Both are important- In multi directional sports you spend a great deal of time moving at high speed on one leg, so if all you do is develop strength and power on two you are likely to have a gym/performance deficit. I have worked with athletes who can squat a house but can’t single leg squat their own body weight or stick a hop jump without a danger of ACL reconstruction being the result. Skiers for example have to be outrageously strong and effective on one leg as do fast bowlers.
However, Squats, cleans, deadlifts are critical for force and power development and if you disappear up your own backside just doing single leg stuff with no significant load then be prepared to be not able to generate force on the pitch/court.
In essence both are the way forward in my humble opinion! On the fence on this one.
Q: You work a lot with young athletes and female athletes. What is your general philosophy on strength training for children and adolescents? And what are some of the key considerations when working with female athletes?
A: You could write papers and books on this area: here is my simplified philosophy:
Children and adolescents
•Screen and identify areas of imbalance or potential problems
•Focus massively on child safety.
•Rectify problems and build a young athletes programme based on movement competency.
•Introduce load gradually and progressively with a clear evidence based, relevant rational.
•Regularly monitor PHV and natural adaptations that occur during puberty and adjust loads and levels accordingly. Don’t be afraid to ease off at times.
•Don’t feel under pressure to chase load if movement quality is poor
•Don’t be afraid to go for load increases if technique is excellent.
•Educate and reassure parents with regards to the process to tackle any ‘fear’ or prejudice.
•Punch idiots in the face who think or argue that resistance training stunts athletes growth…just kidding but be prepared to challenge dinosaurs and highlight that when the child performs their sport the forces they put their body through are often far greater than lunges with 8kg in each hand!!!!!!
•Girls mature physically (generally) more quickly than males and thus strength training can progress earlier. Plus the window of opportunity is sooner.
•Reassurance is in my experience very important with females- often they will be fearful of ‘getting too big’ and sensitive in relation to their body composition so choice of language and explanation can be very important.
•Menstrual cycle considerations may need to be considered at certain times during training cycles/volumes.
•RESPECT them as athletes very often my female athletes are the most mature, focused, hard trainers and make some of the boys look weak and soft!!!
Q: What are the key qualities required to be a successful strength and conditioning coach?
1)Excellent research/ training principles’ knowledge base
2)Ability to communicate effectively and present your methods and engage athletes/get ‘buy in’.
3)Genuine hunger for your athletes to succeed
4)Patience: You will encounter a range of professional frustrations and challenges.
5)Have the highest work ethic and professional standards in your coaching team.
Q: Whats in the pipe line for you in the next year?
A: To keep improving building the elite athlete programme at Reeds, to hopefully maintain my working relationship with my external athletes and complete a sprint Triathlon so I lose a bit of weight!