Derek Hansen is an accomplished strength and conditioning coach based in British Columbia, Canada where he is the Head of Strength and Conditioning at Simon Fraser University. Derek has worked with athletes from a variety of sports including Olympic champions and as an advisor and rehab specialist to a number of teams playing in the NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS and NCAA competitions. Derek is an expert in speed development having worked with the great Charlie Francis and is a key contributor on www.strengthpowerspeed.com.
ES: Derek thank you very much for taking time out to talk with me for this blog post. To begin could you give an insight into your background and what led to you becoming a strength and conditioning coach?
DH: I really started coaching in the athletics/track and field realm and that’s what eventually got me started working with other sports. The idea that everything can be measured as output after you’ve completed a program or season and see improvements in a time or distance or jump – which is the essence of track and field – was part of my make up. Even as a youngster, I would enjoy naturally getting better every year, even if the coaching was very basic. I wouldn’t train for track and field all year around. I would go play other sports and come back and see my long jump was 50cm better and think “that’s awesome”. That is always something that sticks in the back of my mind. The question, “Are we getting better?” Of course, it’s interesting in team sports because there is always that intangible of winning and losing. Is that a result of the physical training program or numerous other factors?
ES: That’s an interesting point as athletics is so measurable while team sports have so many variables to consider that make it hard to pinpoint the correct factor that contributes to success or needs improving…
DH: Yes, and some people may take liberty with it and say the fact that they won was down to them and I don’t truly believe that is how it works. Its nice to be part of a winning team but even with the successful teams I’ve worked with I’m still thinking how much of it was because of the training program and what could we have done better? I think it is a mindset you have to have in this field: How do we keep getting better? That doesn’t mean you have to change things every year, which a lot of people do. We just need to do things better. Perhaps it is a reflection of the climate we are in now where technology turns over so quickly and we feel everything has to turn over. I’m from the the old school side where I think if something is working, let’s not throw it out. We should try to improve it and make it a little better. If people look for exceptional improvements all the time then you are living in a fantasyland. However, we can still always improve incrementally in many different areas.
ES: I was at a conference recently with Tim Gabbett and he suggested that when it comes to training speed ‘you can make someone faster, but not necessarily make them fast’. Focusing on team sports, taking your background and expertise in speed development do you feel that sometimes sports such as rugby and soccer maybe spend too much time focusing on speed development? Spending too much time with complicated drills and methods when some basic mechanics might be sufficient?
DH: This is a difficult issue because in a team sport setting you are constrained by so many factors: the practice, the tactical and the technical and the preferences of coaches and players. You may only have fifteen minutes to work your magic. It depends on the level of the team. If you are working with kids then, yes, you can develop speed. However, if you are working at the upper levels of performance, in many cases you are simply trying to maintain whatever you have and do all the injury prevention work from a technical point of view. I don’t know if anyone is getting faster in the NFL once they get to that level. If anything you are just trying to prevent them getting slower and weaker through the season. Because of the demands of all the practices, the meetings and the travel that is really the job of the strength coach to a degree these days. And, of course, don’t injure anyone.
ES: I think that’s a very important point. I was shocked when I first saw the NBA and NHL schedules where they play two to three games a week. Injury prevention must be the main priority in those sports.
DH: Yes and the top one would be MLB where they play up to six games a week. As a strength/physical preparation coach what can you do? It’s going to be recovery, injury prevention, readiness, preparation, but there isn’t much development going on. The NFL is slightly easier being once a week but the degree of physical punishment is significant and the practice loads can be quite demanding depending on the team. If you want to be a physical preparation coach who actually develops people then you have to start with a younger age group.
ES: On working with developing speed in a team setting (with an adult team), considering you may only have a short twenty-minute window twice a week, what would be your recommendations to include?
DH: Ten years ago I would have said technical but there has to be some a high level of stimulus present. You can include technical cues as part of your delivery, but too much “coaching” will mean less time can be dedicated to accumulating enough work. There has to be an intense stimulus as part of the training and it has to be in the form of a fast run – a 100% effort in order to advance someone’s ability and create an adaptation. Running at 80% with great technique will not do anything for you but running at 100% with less than perfect technique will provide some transfer from the effort, some peripheral adaptation and most importantly some central adaptations from the effort. If you only have 15 minutes they may only get four or five reps completed, given the need for adequate recovery. However, at least you will be able to attain some higher intensity sprints and make an impact on the athlete’s capabilities.
“There has to be a stimulus and it has to be in the form of a fast run, a 100% effort in order to advance someone’s ability and create an adaptation.”
ES: So the stimulus is the important factor over reaching a certain volume in each session?
DH: It’s difficult to arrive at a minimum volume as there are many factors involved. You are often constrained by time, the facility you are using, weather, temperature, etc. Everyone would like to be able to put in 300m of work but if you only a 20m distance and 15 minutes it can be become a task of doing a lower volume of work with more frequency throughout the week.
ES: If that window for speed development isn’t available is the carry over strong enough from rate of force development and strength work that you can see an improvement in speed?
DH: Possibly, it depends on what you are doing in your lift, and if you are getting some jumps, plyos and med ball work in. If you are covering off some of those other high intensity elements you don’t need as much volume on the sprint side. Optimally it would nice to get more volume in your sprints but if that is not possible, you have to work other points along the force-velocity curve.
ES: With power development for acceleration are you focusing on your larger displacement jumps/horizontal force?
DH: Yes, but I am also getting away from relying on certain aspects like Olympic Lifts and saying that everyone should do one thing. For instance, I think Olympic lifts have a stimulatory benefit but the technique doesn’t carry over to other sporting movements as readily as people might think. It is an acyclical activity and I don’t believe the benefits transfer over to a cyclical activity as much as people would like to think. At the higher levels you have to decide what tools you are going to use and move forward with rather than diluting the program with activities that could compete for central nervous system energy. No one cares how much Usain Bolt power cleans, but he can run really fast, so let’s focus on how he is doing that!
ES: Something I have come to believe is that the method of improving something is not necessarily important once the outcome is achieved, do you think this applies to speed?
DH: It does and I am in daily battles with people about “this is how we do it”. You’ve been doing “that” and the person isn’t getting better. People are too process-orientated now where the results don’t matter and it’s individual egos driving an idea. We need to start looking at results. Those are difficult conversations but I want to be the first to say, if my idea isn’t working I’ll be honest and say, “Let’s try something else.”
ES: To change topic I’d like to speak through the rehab strategies you use for the hamstring injuries…
DH: The hamstring is interesting, as there doesn’t seem to be any end to hamstring injuries. A lot of people seem to think you can strengthen your way out of it but I’ve seen this do more damage from the weight room than benefit for hamstring rehab and injury prevention. My personal experience and research shows me that the hamstring is quite a complex muscle for its application to running. You have three muscles that don’t necessarily fire at the same time. It’s a sequential contribution and if you don’t take that into consideration in your rehab you will have repeat issues. The problem arises because it is a neurological issue, not a peripheral issue. Most of the time if you flex the knee and palpate the hamstring it’s going to feel like a big mass of muscle that’s cramped up with no sort of dissociation between the hamstrings. That’s your first guess. When you get to the point where people are back running well with no pain you can feel that there is dissociation and relatively low muscle tone. I don’t recall having any hamstring rehabs that had very high tone and were ready to go. We first brought the tone down and integrated runs. It’s almost like hitting a reset button on the muscle tone and then essentially reprogramming the whole system.
“get rid of the inhibition, the compensation and other atypical firing patterns and then reset and re-educate”
That’s my process: get rid of the inhibition, the compensation and other atypical firing patterns and then reset and re-educate. The re-education doesn’t take long as you’ve already been there. An interesting concept was put forth to me by my friend Giuseppe Gueli. He told me that a lot of injuries arise because proper signals are crowded out by background noise in the system. It’s your job to reduce the noise in the system and create an opportunity for a clear signal. If things aren’t firing properly you cant necessarily program or strengthen your way out of it. Those programs are hardwired and you have to change the wiring and work on a software level with the brain, and re-educate how things should be firing. That’s the complex answer! When I worked with Charlie Francis it was just loosen them up and re-educate them, which is the simple answer.
ES: When it comes to reeducating that pattern, what is your process?
DH: Most of the people I deal with have to run in their sport so it logically follows that I use running as that re-education method. It will start with a vertical emphasis with marching, skipping and running ‘A’ drills and then transfer to more horizontal/vertical movement. A lot of the time they hurt themselves while running so running has to be part of the rehabilitation process. Similar to a pitcher who injures their shoulder during the throwing motion, they don’t strengthen the shoulder in the weight room and then go straight back to throwing a 100mile an hour fastball. There is a progression that involves throwing at higher velocities from a neuromuscular point of view and it’s no different for running.
ES: That’s a major issue that is commonly seen, “pain is gone and it feels fine so off you go!” In my experience hamstring injuries have been caused from biomechanical issues when running coupled with consideration of a lack of exposure to high intensity running. Is this something that factors into your consideration when designing a rehab program?
DH: A lot of the time when there is an injury, especially a soft tissue injury it can be a red flag that something is wrong. Maybe your body is telling you there is something that needs to be rectified and so sends pain to the hamstring rather than somebody simply miss-stepping or just not being strong. What ends up happening through my rehab process is we end up making them better runners as a result of that initial injury by identifying and improving upon any issues. For the most part, athletes do not reinjure because we have rectified the issue.
“A lot of the time when there is an injury, especially a soft tissue injury it can be a red flag that something is wrong. Maybe your body is telling you there is something that needs to be rectified and so sends pain to the hamstring rather than somebody simply miss-stepping or just not being strong.”
ES: With a longer-term injury and having to address other factors such as strength, hypertrophy, rate of force development, conditioning etc. what strategies do you use?
DH: I try to work around the injury as much as possible. I use a lot of electrical stimulation to get around those issues. Contralateral work does help but we will do a lot of isolated stimulation on both the injured and non-injured side, especially with joint injuries, as it places no stress on the joint and still working the muscle creating a level of stimulation that sends a signal back to the brain that things are still working. Any level of disuse is bad so if you can artificially help with that with EMS then it makes it much easier once the joint is cleared for loading.
ES: That’s a great point on disuse. Feedback from the joint is probably something often overlooked in the rehab process…
DH: You’ll see someone get injured and their muscle will atrophy dramatically. Its not because of time off it is because something traumatic has happened and your brain has shut something down. You have to reverse the direction of that process and do it early in the process. Its not from disuse its from lack of neural innervation or some sort of inhibitory reflex that is preventing your brain from sending a signal there for risk management reasons. You can override that with electrical stimulation.
ES: What would be your preferred conditioning methods for an athlete rehabbing a lowerbody injury if running and/or bike work is not feasible?
DH: Anything that you can do that doesn’t compromise their recovery or the rehabilitation process. You can implement some sort of low intensity repetitive medicine ball work from a seated position or pool work that is upper body dominant. Anything that creates an aerobic stress that does not create a peripheral stress that will interfere with the rehab process. That is the art of coaching, you find something they can do given the facilities and equipment you have, it doesn’t matter how simple it is.
ES: Moving to upperbody injuries can you talk through your shoulder injury process, what injuries you have commonly dealt with and methods you have sued?
DH: I’ll be honest I’m not a great shoulder person. I usually refer to Rob Panariello who has 30+ years in that area or Joseph Horrigan who is a shoulder expert out of California. I would say that their recommendations are usually more progressive than most. They will be doing more work overhead than an average person and won’t fall into the trap of “don’t do this exercise or that exercise.” I’ve worked with coaches who have said overhead work is bad when the reality is the overuse/over repetition of overhead work in the sport is creating a weakened shoulder and not allowing us to do what we should in the weight room. While I’m not as adept with the upperbody work I would follow some of the same principles I do with lowerbody. If it’s a throwing injury we are eventually going to have to do some progressive overloading with throwing, working on range of motion and loosing up other areas around the neck, traps and lats, taking a global approach.
ES: It may be simplifying things too much but I have found that with a lot of injury rehabilitation it boils down to finding the faulty pattern and addressing that. This had led to me looking at the program as a whole rather than just including individual specific exercises to address injury prevention. The overall program should be the injury prevention in itself. Is this what you meant by taking a global approach?
DH: It goes back to what we spoke about originally when we look at the question of “are we improving?” And if we are not effecting an improvement, we have to step back and look at what we are doing. You see all this work on balance with unstable surfaces yet we see more ACL and ankle injuries than ever before. It’s not an exercise fix, it’s an approach fix. Whether it’s your overall program or the equipment you are using or training too much in the wrong areas. It has to be a big picture issue. You can’t just say “oh we are balancing on one leg so no one will get ACL injuries”, that’s an oversimplification but you’d be surprised at how many people think that is the answer.
“Its not an exercise fix, it’s an approach fix…It has to be a big picture issue.”
ES: When planning return to play work do you have standards for progressing to return to agility or return to contact work?
DH: You are going to have indicators in the weight room and indicators in terms of the agility that you do in terms of what you see, what weight they move etc. I had one athlete with chronic knee injuries who could squat a lot of weight and could power clean significant loads. However, the athlete didn’t feel good on the court and it wasn’t until we intervened with some high intensity EMS that they felt ‘natural’ on the court. If someone can do something great in a testing situation but doesn’t feel right in a sporting situation then they are not ready. It’s a communication thing. You are watching them and talking to them. Ask them “how do they feel?” If they show any hesitation then it is their brain sending a signal to let them know they are not ready. Regardless of what anyone else says around them, they will know if they are ready. And you will know if you watch them and speak to them over time. It’s a sample size issue. You don’t just watch one exercise. You watch a whole week of preparation and if there is anything that is out of place, then you are not ready – you are not playing.
ES: Derek thanks again for taking time out to be part of this blog, it was extremely interesting and definitely worthwhile. Best of luck with everything in the future and I look forward to speaking again.
For more on Derek’s work check out http://www.strengthpowerspeed.com