How to Develop Efficient Athletes by Jamy Clamp


[This is a guest blog by Jamy Clamp. Jamy is an Undergraduate Sports Science Student at Loughborough University, currently Interning at Athletic Lab as a Performance Coach.]

Efficiency, in sporting terms, refers to the ability of an athlete to perform movements, whilst limiting the amount of energy used. In order to be economical, energy output would be greater than, or equal to, energy input (Joyce and Lewindon, 2014). Conversely, when energy input outweighs energy output, onset of fatigue becomes prominent.

For example, excessive rotation of the cervical spine and trunk whilst running is a common trait, particularly in younger sportspeople. Simply put, that movement is expending more energy than is really necessary. Particularly in field sports, inefficiency becomes increasingly problematic because the ability to maintain performance levels will fall, substantially.

Muscular fatigue is defined as being a decline in maximal force production and, therefore, application (Enoka and Duchateau, 2007). Fatigue is not the point at which a muscle is exhausted. Rather, it is where force generating capacities degrade. Essentially, fatigue inhibits the quality of muscular contractions.

Joyce and Lewindon (2014) further explain, force production and force application are the determining variables in movement efficiency. Generating large amounts of force is the first goal, then applying that force to the ground, or object, is the secondary target. If fluctuations in generation and application exist, inefficiency also exists. During prolonged periods of performance, as is the case in so many sports, continuity in force application is critical (Ranson and Joyce, 2014).

runnerThe issue surrounding inefficiency is that it is metabolically draining and it predisposes injury. Metabolically, the breakdown of molecules to fuel movement, or catabolism, increases and the synthesis, or anabolism, of those molecules consequently rises (Tipton and Wolfe, 2001). In human performance, that is far from desirable. In terms of injury risk, fatigue has been correlated with a decline in proprioception and, perhaps most importantly, an inefficient movement pattern places excessive stress upon joints (Prangley, 2016). Joint stability, or rather instability, is the variable that will either reduce or increase injury risk, particularly at the hip, knee, ankle and shoulder joints. It’s no coincidence that they are the areas that tend to leak energy. Excessive rotation, both internal and external, is noticeable during running as an excessive pelvic tilt develops, generally. Although the primary role of the knee is flexion and extension of the hamstrings and quadriceps, there is naturally a small amount of both medial and lateral rotation. At the ankle, a limitation in dorsiflexion ability will reduce the power application potential, as that is the point of contact with the ground. Essentially, if joint instability exists, the likelihood is that both synergists and fixators would be utilized to produce movement, not assist and support.

One of the many goals when analyzing movement is to achieve neuromuscular efficiency (Lloyd et al, 2011). This is the combination of both the neurological and the muscular system. The broad idea is that, as fatigue increases, our performance will suffer as a result. Sporting movements are prompted as a result of perceptual senses. They are visual, auditory and physical. I have left out taste and smell because, although very important in daily situations, they don’t influence our sporting performance. In order for the necessary action to be performed, the Central Nervous System (CNS) has to receive and send impulses to recruit individual motor neurons and, collectively, motor units. If in a state of fatigue, it becomes a matter of supply and demand. The muscular system would be demanding a greater quantity of impulses than the CNS can supply. Therefore, neuromuscular efficiency declines and so do the force generating qualities of a muscle unit (Gates and Dingwell, 2008).

Within youth development, it’s important to remember that children are still developing, physiologically and psychologically, and their mechanics are always going to vary. With that in mind, developing efficient movement patterns is paramount. Research indicates that there is a period of opportunity, roughly between the ages of 10 and 13, where adaptation to training stimuli is accelerated (Lloyd et al, 2011). On the basis of that research, integrating movements that promote the development of local stabilizers (efferent nervous system), global stabilisers (directional control) and global movers (joint movement) would be beneficial, as the athlete progresses (Barr and Lewindon, 2014). Nervous system development should also be placed at the top of the pile, within the 10-13 age bracket. Although it’s still possible to build motor skills at a later age, the research (Lloyd et al, 2011) suggests that it is optimal to do it sooner rather than later. If adaptation to training stimuli is enhanced, recovery is also likely to increase. However, don’t just assume, because there are too many factors that will influence recovery, especially amongst younger adults.

As Mike Young says, true learning is the ability to retain information. So, if the motor learning process starts earlier, there is a longer period of time for retention.

canadian-rugbyAt Athletic Lab, scholastic classes, directed by Nick Newman, are the perfect example of developing efficient movement patterns. Their approach is built upon the fundamentals. In analogical terms, they are training their athletes how to walk before they start to steam down the track, generating large amounts of force. They build a foundation of strength, which is a prerequisite for force generation.

One of the main reasons behind inefficiency is a lack of core strength. Firstly, it’s important to locate the core because, contrary to popular belief, it’s far more than the abdominals. The predominant role of the core, during athletic movements, is to provide a ‘pillar’ like base, from which force can be generated. It includes the lumbar (lower), thoracic (middle) and cervical (upper) spine. The musculature of the hips, the gluteus maximus and the trunk are perhaps the most vital region because they are at the focal point of every movement. We don’t move without activating our core (Barr and Lewindon, 2014). Simply put, postural integrity is extremely important. Both kyphotic (abnormal rounding of the thoracic region) and lordotic (abnormal curvature of the lumbar region) posture are common, across all age groups, as a large number have predominantly sedentary jobs. In conditioning terms, coaching postural correctness during movement is essential. A simple cue such as, “retract the scapula” generally has the desired effect.

Training for movement efficiency

large_Rotational-MovementAnti-rotation movements are an excellent tool, that can easily be applied with a medicine ball or a resistance band. The necessary equipment is reasonably cost effective and it trains the athlete to retain core integrity. Using a medicine ball also provides a constant stimulus, further developing motor learning skills. So often, especially in younger athletes, the core doesn’t remain rigid and, therefore, loses the majority of its force generating capacity. There are also opportunities to introduce creative movements. Below are a number of exercises that can be used when addressing efficiency.

  • Medicine Ball catch and toss
  • Medicine Ball low-high press
  • Band trunk rotations
  • Band knee drive
  • Band lateral sidestep
  • Band shuffle, with a trunk anti-rotation focus

Depending on the age of the athlete, specifically their training age, overhead movements are beneficial. They recruit the global stabilizers and the global movers, whilst also adding a degree of coordination. If, for example, an overhead weighted lunge was used, it would force the athlete to retain their posture.

  • Overhead plate lunge
  • Broom overhead hip flexion
  • Hands overhead whilst stepping over hurdles, with a focus on hip flexion and extension

Finally, incorporating multi-sprint starts for field based athletes allows for a degree of self-reliance because, more often than not, the position assumed from the floor is far from ideal. If a coach points out the mistake, they should learn not to end up in the same situation, in theory.

  • Sprints from prone start
  • Sprints from supine start
  • Sprints from bounding start
  • Lateral shuffling to sprint

In summary, if optimal athletic performance is on the agenda, achieving movement efficiency is more than important. As with most elements of performance, the earlier that movement patterns are enforced, the greater the outcome.

A special thank you to Nick Newman, whose insight towards youth athletic development has added to the information within this article.


  • Barr, A., Lewindon, D., 2014. High Performance Training for Sports. 1st ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  • Enoka, R., Duchateua, J., 2007. Muscle fatigue: What, why and how it influences muscle function. The Journal of Physiology. 10, 11.
  • Gates, D., Dingwell, J., 2008. The Effects of Neuromuscular Fatigue on Task Performance During Repetitive Goal-Directed Movements.Experimental Brain Research. 187 (4), 573.
  • Joyce, D., Lewindon, D., 2014. High Performance Training for Sports. 1st ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  • Lloyd, R., Meyers, R. Oliver, J., 2011. The Natural Development of Plyometric Ability During Childhood. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 33 (2), 24.
  • Lloyd, R., Oliver, J., Hughes, M., Williams, C., 2011. The influences of chronological age on periods of accelerated adaptation of stretch-shortening cycle performance in pre and postpubescent boys. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25 (7), 1889.
  • Prangley, I., 2016. Sports Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation: Integrating medicine and science for performance solutions. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Ranson, C., Joyce, D., 2014. High Performance Training for Sports. 1st ed.  Champaign: Human Kinetics.