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On Purpose: Asking the Right Questions to Deliver the Right Training

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

What’s the purpose? I need to stop and ask myself this question every day. I not only ask this when I see crazy things on Instagram or YouTube, but I also ask this when I fall into the trap of trying new exercises because of their novelty effect rather than their effectiveness. Look at what gets all of the hits on Instagram and YouTube: you find a lot of “likes” on such crazy movements as a side plank single arm kettlebell snatch with the top leg on a bench.

I give my teams their programs a week in advance and ask for their feedback. They can let me know if we have something on their card that they’re uncomfortable with, they can ask me questions about why we do have certain exercises in the plan and why we don’t have others, and they can point out any mistakes that I’ve made.

This has helped me get to know my athletes better because we can get on the same page regarding our goals for the training sessions and how to reach those goals. My athletes bring up good ideas and questions that I would have missed if I were the only one editing the plan. And if I can’t answer their questions with a thorough response about my purpose, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing the exercise they questioned.

Progression plays a big role in which exercises athletes should perform. Most coaches start with basic movement patterns, such as a squat, hinge, push, and pull. But where do we go if we have a couple of athletes lagging in the squatting and hinging? Do we slow the group down and hope that they catch up? Do we modify the plan to allow certain kids to still train with a purpose? This is where we’ll get different answers from different coaches.

I like to slightly modify an exercise when an athlete is lagging and turn it into an assistance exercise that will lead them toward performing the original exercise. For example, three girls on a team I coach struggle with hip hinging (RDL). So, instead of changing their program or forcing them to perform the RDL until they figured it out, I gave them PVC pipes to learn the movement. I had them place the PVC pipe along their spine starting at the top of their head while keeping both hands on the pipe, maintaining the pipe’s contact with their head and lower back. The activity helped them learn to hinge properly (see video below). Once they learned to hinge correctly, they could translate the movement into a true RDL—an exercise programmed to develop strength.

Video 1. When an athlete lags behind in a programmed exercise, I like to modify the exercise into an assistance exercise. For example, when athletes have a hard time with the hip hinge for RDLs, I teach them the hinge movement using a PVC pipe to guide the movement correctly.

Evaluating an Exercise

Back to the side plank single arm kettlebell snatch mentioned earlier—I have actually seen a coach program this for his athletes. It’s an example of how some exercises can get into a team’s regular training program when the key question “What’s the purpose?” is not asked.

In this case, the coach included the exercise during the team’s off-season training. I asked him how the athletes’ Olympic lifts and squats were progressing. He said he hadn’t included either of them in the program because the athletes weren’t “good movers.” His response puzzled me because, generally, if athletes are not good at moving in the squat pattern, our job as coaches is to get them good at moving in the squat pattern.

So next I asked, “What have they been working on instead of Olympic lifting and squats, and how are they loaded to train for strength and power?” He said they were working on a side plank single arm kettlebell snatch. I had to ask, “Okay—what’s the purpose?” The coach replied that it trains strength, power, and balance and gets the athletes moving outside of the sagittal plane.

After a 10-minute discussion, I realized his reasons were the same reasons I, like many others, program squats, deadlifts, cleans, and snatches. His concern was injury prevention since his athletes were bad movers. But, if we believe that our athletes are so flawed that they can’t put a barbell on their back, squat down, and squat up in a controlled and closed environment, how is a side plank single arm kettlebell snatch going to solve the problem?

I asked that question, and he responded, “well volleyball players aren’t competitive powerlifters, so they don’t need to squat.” Well, volleyball players aren’t competitive circus acts either, so they don’t need to do side plank single arm kettlebell snatches.

But back to the purpose of the exercise. The coach claimed it trains strength, power, balance, and movement outside the sagittal plane. Let’s review each.

Strength: I can’t make the case that the side plank single arm snatch would train strength very well. Even if we could load it heavy enough, we know that strength is also context-dependent. Can you load the movement in a way that will carry over to sports? If you’re using a 20-kilogram kettlebell, will it drive significant strength gains? Will it overload the nervous system enough? Will it load the musculoskeletal system enough? Can you progressively overload it for a long time (like years and years)?

It does none of those things. It does, however, get you stronger and better at doing a side plank single arm kettlebell snatch, which could be called a skill rather than pure strength. It may have a carryover to other activities on some level, but I don’t know how much carryover it will have to college sports. Maybe it does have its place, and I’m just not equipped enough to program it for a strength purpose.

Power: I can’t say that I would train it for power either because power is the product of force and velocity. I don’t see the exercise as a tool to improve one’s force output or velocity in the context of a movement in sports.

Balance: I do see the exercise as a great tool to develop an athlete’s balance, with balance defined as maintaining a position for a given time period. Sports are played on one or two feet, however, so I don’t see the carryover. I think we can train for balance with other exercises such as back squats and deadlifts.

Movement: This exercise does get athletes moving outside the sagittal plane. One could argue that it’s important to train in all three planes of movement, and I believe that’s true. But I disagree that the sagittal plane is this dogmatic plane to move in. Athletes are moving in all planes throughout the day, in practice and games, and it’s sometimes difficult to load the body in the frontal and transverse plane practically. Maybe the sagittal plane is the most practical because of various reasons, such as the equipment we use, the load we can place on it, etc. One could argue that it’s most effective when targeting a specific strength or power goal.

Ultimately, though, why do something that’s so elaborate? If athletes are bad movers in the context of squatting and Olympic lifting, is a side plank single arm kettlebell snatch a requisite movement before squatting? Will it help someone improve their squat magically? Consider the specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID) principle—you get good at what you do.

This exercise doesn’t seem to provide a better way to get athletes stronger, more powerful, or moving better. You’ll get much more bang for your buck putting a barbell on your back and learning to squat properly than doing a side plank single arm kettlebell snatch.

Variety to Alleviate Boredom with Plyometrics

Fancy trends are the most interesting with plyometrics. Hurdle hops, box jumps, and broad jumps become very monotonous. I implement too many obstacles with too much variance, which ends up wasting time. What is the purpose of plyometrics? From the Greek words plio, meaning more and metric, meaning measure. More practically, plyometric exercises are quick, powerful movements with a pre-stretch or a countermovement. They train power, the rate of force development, landing mechanics, and the stretch-shortening cycle, which train a short amortization phase in sprinting and bounding, etc.

Their purpose is not to see how many hurdles you can jump while spinning a 360 and holding dumbbells. That may be fun and look cool, and athletic individuals may be able to perform it better than less athletic individuals, but is it a more effective training tool than broad jumps, power skips, bounds, or hurdle jumps? If you’re looking for variations outside these exercises, here are few effective ones that might be helpful:

  • Broad jumps—lateral broad jumps, single leg broad jumps, depth drop broad jumps, multi-directional broad jumps, and any combination of these

  • Box jumps—depth drop box jumps, pogo jumps to box jumps, single leg box jumps, lateral box jumps

  • Bounds—zig-zag bounds, straight leg bounds, single leg bounds (for height and distance), lateral bounds (with or without a stick), Heiden jumps (for height and distance), cyclical bounds, bounds to sprint, sprint to bounds

Strength, Power, and Speed Work

On the platform and in the rack are also areas where coaches sometimes forget to ask “What’s the purpose?” Everything we do is meant to create change, to produce an adaptation that will benefit the athletes with their sport. So, what adaptations are we looking to produce when we lift weights? A strength adaptation. That means we must lift heavy enough, frequently enough, and incorporate enough volume to produce a strength adaptation.

We have to consider whether we’re actually doing this when we develop programs for our athletes. Shouldn’t our exercise selections produce the most global (full body) stress possible? If we don’t effectively stress our systems, we don’t adapt. Typically, here’s what happens when athletes have two primary lifts on their card and then six to seven accessory lifts: after they finish the first two movements, they rush through the remaining exercises on the card because each exercise requires two to four sets with moderate to high volume. With limited time to train each week, are they truly lifting weights with the purpose of getting stronger?

We don’t need to target strength, power, speed, aerobic, and whatever other adaptation we may deem important for our athletes each day. If our focus is too broad, there’s a high chance our athletes won’t develop how we would like them to develop. Aim small, miss small. Instead, dedicate each day to a specific purpose.

If you want to hit all areas in one day, however, you can do that. Dedicate x amount of time to speed work, x amount of time to power work, x amount of time to strength work, and x amount of time to conditioning. Don’t let the speed and power work turn into conditioning, and don’t let the strength work turn into circus acts. Make sure the program is done with a purpose; this purpose must create a positive change in the athletes’ physiology that will improve their ability to perform.

Lastly, I always ask coaches who use barbells for speed work, “What is the purpose?” I don’t understand it. We agree that barbells are a great tool, but loading it with 30-50% of a 1rm and moving it fast doesn’t make sense to me. While I understand the argument of wanting to move the weight fast within the force-velocity curve since power peaks in that percentage range, when lifting a barbell loaded so lightly, a majority of the range of motion occurs during deceleration.

Yes, the initial acceleration will be much higher than a load of 80-90%, but unless we project the bar into the air, we’re decelerating the movement just as much as accelerating it. So is the purpose of 30-50% to train for power? If it is, and power is the primary focus, is that going to produce greater adaptations than Olympic lifts? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m skeptical. Power is the product of force and velocity. Lifting a bar with such a light load will not improve force, and I’m skeptical that it will improve the athletes’ velocity.

A common power measurement is a vertical jump. Theoretically, getting someone to squat heavy takes care of the force component of power. We can take care of the velocity component in a number of ways; practice jumping or projecting an object seems like a better way than moving a light weight fast if a majority of the range of motion occurs during deceleration. That’s not to say we shouldn’t train our athletes with intent to move the bar fast—intent is always important.

Final Thoughts

As a general rule, it’s okay to say that certain methods aren’t necessarily better or worse than other methods. A program works when the athlete understands the purpose of each exercise, training block, etc. And if we can communicate that purpose to each athlete, we have a greater chance for their buy-in, which likely leads to greater results.

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