10-Year Changes in Upper Body Strength and Power in Elite Professional Rugby League Players—The Effect of Training Age, Stage, and Content: Summary
The study seeks to observe changes in maximal body strength and power in elite rugby athletes over a period of 10 years. Six elite rugby players were used as the subjects of the study according to two distinct stages of the test itself. The first stage saw Training to Compete, according to the LTAD model where the players sought to become established professional athletes with the second stage being the Training to Win.
The results of the study correlated with results seen in earlier studies which observed a strength and power ceiling for elite athletes reached between the ages of 21 and 22, after 4 to 7 years of training experience. There are a number of key explanations why this ceiling was reached, including nature of the sport and the correlation between strength, power and mass. It is shown in the study that the variation and manipulation of the training programme can be used to improve strength and power marginally even after the ceiling is reached.
It has been theorized that the current knowledge about the long-term adaptation to resistance training is lacking significantly, because of the short term nature of the majority of the studies undertaken on the topic by university-based training studies. The gap is the applicability of these studies to athletes who have been training for a long-period of time (Baker, 2013). These short-term studies focus on novice athletes with a shorter history of resistance training and those longer-term studies conducted have been done so over a period of up to six years in duration and have shown that muscular functioning reflects the nature of the training as well as a correlation between increased training experience and decreasing levels of improvement (Baker, 2013). Baker (2013) proposes the use of Balyi et al’s Long-term Athlete Development (LTAD) model (1995a, 1995b, 1996) which identifies differences in the overall objectives of the final stages of the model. This leads to a hypothesis proposed which suggests that magnitude, nature of strength and power adaptations could differ through the athlete’s career based on competition demands, training content or a decrease in levels of improvement as suggested by earlier studies. The purpose of the study aims to report on changes in upper body strength and power levels and shifts in the load-power curve for a sample group of six high-resistance trained rugby players over a period of ten years encompassing the last two stages of the LTAD model.
The two training stages identified within the LTAD model by Baker (2013) are the Training to Compete and Training to Win stages. A number of tests, measuring upper body strength and power were conducted over the ten year period. The two stages were then tested independently, where the first stage was associated with an emphasis on physical development through training as the subjects attempted to establish themselves as professionals within the national rugby league. The second stage monitored the strength and power of subjects already established in the league with a longer competition schedule and less time devoted to physical improvement. This provides an overall view of the nature, magnitude and scope of changes as the training or competition regime changed.
The training program used was a three stage annual approach which consisted of general preparation, specific preparation and in-competition training. In the Training to Win stage, the in-competition training was longer with shortened general and specific preparation. The training periods of the study within each stage used varying combinations of strength and power training according to the goals of the specific stage with an adjustment of training time devoted to strength, power and hypertrophy in year 8 (2004) of the study according to a change in rules of the game requiring more strength-endurance training. These results were then analyzed using quantitative statistic procedures.
The results of this study were briefly as follows: In respect to the two different stages of the test, the change in strength was 19.3% from 1996 to 2000 (Years 1 to 4) and 2.5% from 2000 to 2006 (Years 5 to 10). The change in power was 16.6% from 1997 to 2000 (Years 2 to 4) and 5.6 % from 2000 to 2006 (Years 5 to 10). In addition, there was an overall gain in body mass of 5.4% over the entire duration of the study.
The results with regards to improving maximal strength agreed with previous studies conducted over shorter periods of time (Baker & Newton, 2006; Appleby et al., 2012). The studies proved that maximum body strength can be improved in experienced strength-power athletes over a multi-year period, but that increased training experience does diminish the degree of positive adaptation. The results also note that there is an established correlation between strength and power, however that the results seek to understand this correlation over a long period of time (Baker, 2001). The correlation between the increases in maximum strength and power indicate that increasing maximum strength is essential for athletes seeking to increase power. This however does not suggest that strength training is the primary method for increasing power, as the strength ceiling reached by the athletes indicates that alternative training methods may be used to increase power.
Baker (2013) attempts to explain the power and strength ceiling through a number of cross study explanations. The first is that elite rugby players are not strength/power specialist athletes and therefore do not concentrate solely on the enhancement of this. With the higher running conditioning volumes specific to the sport, it is possible to maintain strength and power, but that gaining is made more difficult (Baker, 2001; Agus et al., 2009). The second is that the ceiling is hard to surpass without gaining mass or using pharmaceutical enhancers (Sale, 1986). The final explanation looks at the overall combination of skills required to perform as an elite athlete in the Training to Win stage, where athletes would be more concerned with maintaining their strength and power levels while they focus on other factors associated with winning at this level.
Baker (2013) also attributes this to incomplete muscle recovery seen in rugby athletes due to the highly traumatic nature of the sport and intense competition schedule (McLellan, et al., 2010), as well as an unwillingness to gain physical mass as it is deemed to negatively affect running ability (Sale, 1986). Despite an initial separation between elite and sub-elite athletes at the beginning of the study, it was shown that increases in training experience and age leveled the difference between the increases in strength and power between the two sub-groups, and in the absence of gaining physical mass, it was not possible to surpass this ceiling regardless. The sub-elite athlete group had an average of two years less experience than the elite athlete group, and Baker (2013) concludes that this lack of age and experience accounts for the higher gains made by the sub-elite group in the first four years of the study. The difference in age and experience between the two groups also allowed for an accurate prediction of the performance of the sub-elite group in the second stage of the study based on the outcomes of the elite group.
Baker (2013) concludes that a strength ceiling does exist in two ways: a true ceiling for specialized strength/power athletes and a false ceiling for athletes with a varied training regime that does not specialize in strength/power training. The study indicates that this ceiling is reached after 4 to 7 years of intense regimented resistance training. For elite rugby athletes, the study indicates that a strength/power ceiling is reached by the ages of 21 to 22, when the athlete becomes established and trains to maintain rather than to increase. With all of the participants becoming national athletes by the end of the study, Baker (2013) notes that competition requirements supersede physical development training requirements and this reflects a normal process for elite athletes. Maximum upper body strength may be achieved in advanced strength/power athletes, however this diminishes with increased strength and training experience, and the time frame of this observation becomes longer in more experienced athletes. Maximum upper body power follows a similar trend and this can be attributed to the correlation between strength and power. Maintaining strength and power is possible in experienced athletes, however the study also notes that the change in rules in 2004 requiring more strength-endurance training may have had a negative effect on the results of the study, but that it proved it is possible to manipulate training regimes to increase power and strength as a gain was seen after the removal of this training element one year later.
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