By Jeff Casebolt
When taking a first-semester Physical Education class as a major there are two lists often introduced that become the backbone of understanding physical fitness: 1. Health and 2. Skill Related Components of Physical Fitness and will focus on this and subsequent discussions. Under the heading Health-Related Components of Physical Fitness, you have the following subcategories: 1. Cardiovascular Endurance, 2. Muscular Strength, 3. Muscular Endurance, 4. Body Composition, and 5. Flexibility … and for Skill Related Components of Physical Fitness, the list is comprised of the following: 1. Agility, 2. Balance, 3. Coordination, 4. Quickness/Reaction Time, 5. Power, and 6. Speed/Velocity. Taking into consideration these two lists and a basic understanding of human nature, my suggestion is to focus your initial efforts on modifying only one or two components until you or the firefighters you are training to develop a command of the intended lesson.
Armed with the knowledge that your firefighter is coming to you with a developed appreciation for their chosen profession and a fair amount of previously developed skill, the above information, and a closer examination of Health and Skill Related Components of Physical Fitness — Muscular Strength should be considered as one of the first components to be addressed, given the positive influence on each of the other components. When I was a young trainer, first starting in the fitness industry, given the importance of the cardiopulmonary system and heart as a muscle, my focus was to improve Cardiovascular Endurance first and then gradually address the remaining components thereafter.
However, it was more than twenty years ago when I gradually started questioning everything I knew about my responsibilities for properly conditioning athletes in the service industry. In my mind, everyone in my weight room trains as an athlete. It was then, I compared training for Cardiovascular Endurance and Muscular Strength as a starting point when working with individuals who engaged in physically demanding jobs as a career. Training for Muscular Strength gradually started to make the most amount of sense as the first component to “install” when conditioning firefighters; because of the positive influence increased strength plays on all the other components on the Health and Skill Components of Physical Fitness lists.
The influence of developed Muscular Strength on Cardiovascular Evidence is well documented as of late and better understood today, than say, 25 years ago. What we have learned is the increase in Muscular Strength improves the metabolic pathways at the local – muscular – level, which has shown to play a positive role in improved Cardiovascular Endurance with significant increases in Lactate Threshold and VO2 max, even among highly trained endurance athletes, which is one of the main reasons you have seen a trend towards increasing anaerobic workload for a continuum of athletes – endurance to ballistic. In fact, what we know today is too much time spent conditioning athletes on the aerobic end of the continuum the ballistic properties associated with athleticism among power athletes may be negatively affected in both the short- and long-term development.
In fact, we now know that even for endurance athletes looking to spend time in the weight room – the high repetition, low load model without reaching momentary volitional fatigue (MVF), appears to be too much-added stress and the increased volume potentially leads to overtraining. The result is what has been termed the Interference Effect, which loosely translates to too much “repetition or time” spent stimulating the working muscles with a similar stimulus resulting in overtraining or inefficient running economy. Even though many endurance athletes, still today, tend to gravitate towards low resistance with high volume strength training – research suggests, and anecdotal evidence supports that endurance-based athletes who minimize time spent in the weight room while maximizing effort-based training will experience improved running economy and decreased time per distance with a similar effort. If Muscular Strength development works well for the endurance athlete on the aerobic end of the continuum, then we absolutely need to consider and explore the power of the ballistic athlete.
Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance – also known as Repetition Strength – are more closely related, based on almost every piece of literature I could get my hands on, and further supported by anecdotal evidence than believed or accepted when I first started in this profession. There is a positive correlation between Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance – in other words, Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance typically increase at a similar rate, with genetics and strength training years accounting for any major differences noted in the data. Traditionally, load-based strength training takes precedence in today’s weight rooms when programming strength training; however, how closely you can train an athlete to MVF and allow for proper recovery: 1. Sleep, Hydration, and Nutrition – makes more of a positive impact when developing strength long-term. There appears to be little difference in strength development among our athletes with MVF training for repetitions between 5-20 … when weightlifting is not a primary sport. Another point that needs to be mentioned and briefly discussed here is the amount of muscle damage induced by stress placed on a contracting muscle … in other words, how many reps or sets are needed for the athlete to cross the “magical or mythical” threshold to strength development. The answer is going to be slightly different for every athlete, but research supports if correctly executed one set to MVF is all that is necessary. However, this is not always conducive, especially if the firefighter is on-duty at the time of the lifting session and a call comes in.
Therefore, my recommendation would be to induce fatigue with intentions of recovery based on the amount of time needed post- strength training session for full “bounce back.” Research suggests that one set to or near MVF is enough taxation to stimulate the neurological systems without excessive muscle damage; therefore, Muscle Strength and Endurance are increased through the preservation of the neuromuscular interaction, improved pennation angle, and tensile strength of the muscle and supporting connective tissue.
Training for Muscular Strength with decreased angular momentum through a full range of motion (ROM) in all available planes of motion will increase flexibility, ROM of the joint, and result in improved mobility when movement skills are included in your athletes’ training programs. The current research suggests controlled strength training – minimizing angular momentum about the joints of action – is equivalent at minimum or preferred for increasing ROM when compared to static stretching. Loading the neuromuscular systems through the intended ROM under control without compromising good strength training “technique” stimulates the sensory feedback loops “convincing” the body that you are intent on moving in the desired pattern and will start to “release” the tissue: connective and muscle – for improved ROM. The result is an increase in developed strength and flexibility which along with skill development the result becomes an opportunity for improved dynamic stability – to be discussed in greater detail when addressing Skill Related Components of Physical Fitness. Therefore, strength training has been proven to be just as effective, if not more so, than static stretching for maintaining or improving joint flexibility.
As Muscular Strength is consistently used over time, muscle density – tensile strength of the tissue due to stress and myofibril response of the muscle – is improved. As a result, lean body tissue in the form of muscle, bone, and connective tissue is increased, and the composition of the body is more likely to remain in what would be considered the “healthy” zone when body composition is analyzed. This point is more mainstream today, but years ago during the aerobics era of exercise, many people spent hours on cardio equipment or jogging endless miles to maintain a body profile recommended to play their chosen sport. In addition, we now know that the preservation of muscular strength to bodyweight ratio is an important variable, often overlooked, when working with individuals who participate in physically demanding occupations, such as those working in our fire departments. Furthermore, we now know from scientific evidence and years of trial and error that long-term, excessive Cardiovascular Endurance training can interrupt muscle quality, density, protein synthesis, and strength development.
In conclusion, by choosing to focus my efforts on Muscle Strength development knowing the interdependence of the other four components of physical fitness I am better able to prepare my athletes for injury minimization by reducing overtraining, simplifying the process, maximizing recovery time, and with added skill development help develop superior athleticism.
Jeff Casebolt has been associated with the fitness industry since 1991 working as a personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, corporate fitness coordinator prior to going back to school to work on a Ph.D. in Biomechanics and as a professor. Jeff’s research interests include increasing function with strength training across all ages, occupations, and abilities, lower body power development, injury mechanisms among athletes and occupations, and fall prevention among the elderly. In addition, Casebolt is associated with Dynavec Resistance Systems and the Fire Fit Trainer assisting with research, development, marketing, and sales.