It’s Week 3 of your In-Season cycle and you look on down the program and head to the power rack. It’s time for back squats. You aren’t extremely enthused as you are tired and sore from yesterday’s conditioning session however you really want to close in on your opponent’s sprint time. You lock in and crush out your reps hoping that the agony of squatting improves your sprint speed.
The question I ask is “is there a better way?”. Recent research being published closely examines the comparison of vertical loading and horizontal loading exercises on sport performance. Which method of loading is more likely to improve sport specific abilities?
What is Vertical or Horizontal Loading?
Vertical loading is resistance and effort parallel to the body (IE: a back squat, deadlift, Olympic style lift) while horizontal loading is resistance and effort perpendicular to the body (IE: a hip thrust, glute-ham raise, sled push). Both methods of loading have been proven to improve some measure of performance however analyses of recent research suggests the transfer to the sport setting is not as evident as we think. Research suggests that certain loading patterns are not as transferable when it comes the the elite level athlete.
Looking at the preceding statement, its seems pretty general. The specifics of the analyses suggested that both loading methods improved recreational performance however elite level athletes (national level or higher) failed to demonstrate improvements on a battery of tests. Research focused on three vertical loading exercises and their pros/cons. Before I talk about the lack of transfer, here’s a review of why you should STILL utilize vertical loading.
The back squat is considered one of the core lifts of any strength and conditioning program. The back squat is a multi-joint exercise that builds the muscles responsible for most explosive movements in sport. Countless studies have proven the correlation between relative squat strength and better vertical jumps and sprint times.
The correlation was evident across youth, junior and senior aged athletes. Those subjects who back squatted twice per week improved relative strength levels and change of direction times. The back squat should still be considered a prime component of any strength program.
Pretty simple yet extremely effective. Pick up something extremely heavy off the ground. Research has found that the two most important qualities related to peak jump height (concentric force and eccentric rate of force production) are evident in a deadlift. They found that peak muscle activation in a deadlift was very similar to the peak muscle activation of a counter-movement jump. The research found that increased relative deadlift strength improved 30m sprint times and vertical jump height. They went on to conclude that as much as 90% of the performance variation could be explained by relative strength and peak power output in the deadlift.
The subject base were mostly male rugby players however they also tested novice subjects. Results still indicated significant improvements in both vertical jumps and 30m sprint times. In conclusion, picking up heavy objects from the floor makes you better. I’d recommend doing it.
The staple for power and explosive development, Olympic lifts are a common prescription in many weight rooms. Compared to the squat or deadlift, studies revealed that the second pull of an Olympic lift produced 400% greater peak power. It was found that weight lifting improved vertical jump height 5.1% greater than traditional resistance training methods.
These results were identified using NCAA Division 3 football players, athletes, physical education students and Olympic weight lifters. Across the board, subjects in the weight lifting group tended to have faster sprint times and higher verticals compared to the traditional resistance training or control groups.
So What’s The Issue?
The biggest issue when programming or conducting training sessions is the ability for gains to transfer over to the playing field. Researchers are finding that the transfer of vertical loading movements (squat, deadlift, O-lifts) may not be evident in elite level athletes. Although scientists agree general strength training improves force-generating ability in muscle, they question if it transfers to elite sport performance.
To be effective, training needs to be as specific as possible. One study looked at specific and non-specific training methods on sprint performance in both recreational and elite level athletes looking to see if specificity was a factor for improvement. The non-specific training yielded results for the recreational athletes however it was the specific training that proved best for elite athletes. Although this seems to enforce the obvious logic that sport specific training is more effective, something came up that was interesting.
Over the course of a year, elite rugby and soccer players were programmed using vertical loading strength training methods. They found that although strength improved, sprint times and COD (change of direction) were unaffected. These are two critically important aspects of their respective sports and neither seemed to improve. They found that it took a massive increase in 1RM Back Squat (23-27%) to even slightly increase sprint speed (only 2-3%). An increase in 1RM of that magnitude is extremely difficult to achieve and unfortunately very impractical for athletes and coaches.
Is Horizontal Loading Better?
Possibly. Many research studies have concluded that force application in the horizontal plane has a greater impact and relation to sprint speed. Movements such as broad jumps, lateral jump training, hip thrusts, kettlebell swings, etc. activate the musculature needed for powerful hip extension better than vertically loaded exercises.
Unfortunately the research hasn’t put the whole puzzle together and in reality it’s hard to determine if one method of loading is more superior. We can only conclude that the muscles most activated during powerful hip extension (glutes and hamstrings) are more activated during horizontal loading activities. We then associate powerful hip extension as a key factor in improved sprinting and lateral bounding motion. This is what the research is telling us so far.
As I mentioned, the research can only conclude that maximal hip extension is a key factor in increased sprint speed and vertical jump height. The muscles primarily responsible for hip extension appear to be more activated during horizontal loading in comparison to vertical loading. Horizontal loading appears to be more transferable based on the specificity to sport movement. In short, be as sport specific as possible to elicit the greatest training effect. I know this sounds like a statement of the obvious and you would be right to think so. Science is pretty much just that; proving the obvious. The specific conclusions research tends to deliver is not always as practical to achieve in a sport setting and we must keep this in mind.
In my opinion, a balance of both loading types seems to be most appropriate. Although research states transfer is minimal, the intensity of load possible with vertical exercises increase the strength necessary to produce greater quantities of force. Combine that with horizontal loading to give you the transfer and (hopefully) application of said force.
Training specificity is the best approach however it is only appears mandatory for the elite. For those athletes who lack proper strength and conditioning or weight lifting experience, general work should be the primary focus. Have your athletes build a solid base, gain strength and then have them work towards sport specificity. If an athlete lacks basic movement skills or posture during exercise, specific training won’t be very helpful. Keep things simple and progress as necessary so as to keep the athlete safe for competitions. That’s the best practical advice I can give.
Matrixx specializes in adolescent athletic development. He coaches some of the top athlete prospects coming out of high school in the Niagara region. He also works with dedicated members of the community who are passionate about improving personal fitness. Matrixx is also the author of The Iron Guide to Building Muscle.