Evolution of Strength Training – A Personal Perspective Over Fifty Years (Part Two)

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After graduating from Fresno State I went to University of California Santa Barbara for my teaching certification. While there I was fortunate to take a class from Sherman Button on Fundamental of Conditioning. He was way ahead of his time with the material and concepts that he presented. (I appreciate that even more as look back at what he taught us) It was a great class because of his comprehensive approach to conditioning built around weight training. The two textbooks for the class were especially helpful. Pat O’Shea’s book “Scientific Principles and Methods of Strength Training.” and “Foundations of Conditioning” by Falls, Walls and Logan. As a class assignment we had to design a yearlong comprehensive training program for our chosen sports. I put together a program for track and field that incorporated all components of training. It was an initial attempt at periodization, but most importantly it forced me to look at strength training in a new light. I was now a coach as well as an athlete. I was responsible for other people’s performance. I had to teach them skill and have them ready for competition, so I had to pay attention to the big picture. Strength was only one part of the equation, although a most important part.

That spring, in my first track coaching assignment, I got the opportunity to coach one of the best athletes I have ever coached, Sam Cunningham. He became California State Champion in the Shot Put that year and also an All American football running back. He was 6’3″ tall, weighed 225, he could run the 100 in 9.7, but by my thinking he was “weak, ” because he could not lift much weight in the weight room. Yet he had tremendous explosive power. This led me to begin to ask the question: How much strength is enough? A question I would continue to ask throughout my career. A question I continue to ask today.

In the fall of 1969 I began training for the decathlon. I did all my strength training with Curt Harper, a world-class discus thrower. Working with Curt we trained on a varied program that involved Olympic lifting and power lifting. I got very strong. The only problem was that the work in the weight room was not transferring into performance on the track and in the field. I obviously had the emphasis wrong. Once again I begin to question the whole place that weight training had in the program. Three things led me to modify my approach 1) The writing of Ken Dougherty in his books Modern Track and Field and Track and Field Omnibook, especially the latter. In these book he talked about concepts that would latter evolve into my thinking on special and specific strength. 2) Training for the decathlon in Santa Barbara gave me the opportunity to train with some of the greatest athletes in the world. I saw how they trained. It also gave me first hand exposure to the European methods of training that up until that point I had only read about. This exposure to the Europeans let me to question the traditional approach that we were taking. They spent less time in the weight room, when they did come to the weight room they were not to be as strong as we were, but they seemed to be able to do a better job of expressing their strength and transferring to their events. They did fewer exercises and seemed to emphasize lighter and faster movements. They engaged in more varied activities like jumping and all types of throws. 3) In the fall of 1971 Pat Matzdorf, from University of Wisconsin, moved to Santa Barbara to train. He had broken the world record in the high jump that year. His strength training was very different than anything I had seen. Bill Perrin, the track coach at Wisconsin, and a real innovator designed his program. It involved what he called simulation training, which consisted of specific strength training exercises that worked on various parts of the whole jump using a variety of methods including weights and rubber tubing. He also utilized depth jumps in his training. This was my first exposure to a systematic application of Plyometric training.

From 1969 to 1973 I coached at La Cumbre Junior high school in Santa Barbara, California. It was first hand experience working with growth & development in the pre-pubescent and pubescent male athlete. There was not much equipment or even free weights. The strength program consisted primarily of push-ups, pull-ups, dips and rope climb. At this age, with the tremendous linear growth that was occurring body weight exercises were very appropriate loading. I felt that the key objective was to lay a base of athletic fitness that they could harness when they went to high school. Although at the time I felt somewhat shortchanged that we did not have more weights, in retrospect I was on the right track.

Another key milestone in the evolution of my ideas on training in general and strength training in particular was the 1972 AAU Learn by Doing Track & Field clinic in Sacramento, California organized by Fred Wilt. Many of the top track & filed coaches in the country were in attendance. The opportunity to interact with them was invaluable. Two of the “Learn by Doing” stations were devoted to Plyometric training, which was new and revolutionary at the time. Each evening there were presentations by Polish triple jump coach Tadeusz Starzynski, he presented the whole spectrum of his training program for triple jumpers that had produced Joseph Schmidt, three time Olympic Gold medalist. It obviously involved a lot of jumping exercises, but it included medicine ball work and some very specific weight training. Certainly nothing heavy like our jumpers were doing at the time. There was nowhere near the extent of weight training we were having our athlete do and the weight training that was done was much more specific. This experience had profound influence on how I trained my athletes for explosive power from that time on. I immediately incorporated his concepts and ideas in my own training, as well as with the athletes I was coaching. The results were a tremendous increase in explosiveness and speed.

Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta

@coachgambetta

Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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