Blog by Karl Trounson
The many and varied applications of wearable resistance continue to be explored. To date, researchers have done excellent work chartering the landscape of sprint kinematics and kinetics, and how wearable resistance provides a great movement-specific overload stimulus in this context. There also appears to be utility as a training intensity modulator, which coaches can use strategically in periodisation, and as a means of enhancing energy system development. However, personally, the application that I’m most excited about is the use of wearable resistance as a motor learning tool. Specifically, how can it be used to enhance athletes’ ability to functionally vary their co-ordination patterns in accordance with the dynamic constraints of their sport? Allow me to clarify.
Research has demonstrated across many sports that higher-performing athletes are more readily able to vary their movement patterns in order to adapt to different on-field situations. Consider the best performers in your sport of interest – they are probably able to successfully execute a task goal (e.g. passing, scoring, dodging, throwing) under varying levels of pressure, different weather conditions, fatigue levels, etc. To get to this point, they obviously needed to put in a heap of practice hours. But during this practice time, the most consequential instances that accelerated their learning and performance would have occurred when their motor skill was perturbed and adjustments had to be made. Repetition of this over time affords an athlete with many degrees of freedom to use in different contexts and their movement becomes highly adaptable. So where does the wearable resistance come in?
As we know, wearable resistance alters the inertial properties of body segments. This means that athletes need to slightly modulate their temporal sequencing in order to maintain successful performance of their skill. See the link now? Small perturbations of this kind promote exploration of slightly different co-ordination patterns that can satisfy a consistent task goal. By way of example, imagine a soccer player lining up for a free-kick late in the game. In all likelihood, they will have accumulated metabolites from previous sprint efforts, muscle damage from high force decelerations, and maybe even a contusion from opposition contact. Repetitive training under idealised conditions will not hold them in good stead for performing this free-kick. Variable training with perturbations (like wearable resistance) will.
A few considerations when implementing the use of wearable resistance for this purpose:
1) Start light. As with most wearable resistance applications, I recommend starting off using light weights. This may be just 100-200 grams affixed to a particular body segment. Always better to under-load than over-load in the first instance.
2) Understand the skill of interest. Do your homework on the skill you’re trying to train, as this will direct you in deciding where to load. Steffan Jones has great rationales for loading the arm in cricket bowling. For a skill like kicking, it makes more sense to load lower body segments. You should also consider whether the skill is “open” or “closed”. In general, the performance of open skills is more strongly influenced by factors in the athlete’s environment that need to be attuned to and react to. In this instance, teaching athletes to “read the play” may be a higher priority than training the emergent movement. In contrast, when the skill is closed (i.e. self-paced) more attentional resources can be devoted to the movement itself, and this is where I see the wearable resistance being really impactful.
3) Experiment. Because we are trying to promote functional variability, I would encourage coaches to regularly vary the placement of loads. The beauty of the wearable resistance is that load placements can be quickly and easily manipulated. By doing this, athletes can rapidly gather a lot of information about the effects of different perturbations on their movement patterns, and the learning process is really accelerated as a result.
4) Use your coach’s eye. There are no hard and fast rules about how much to load. The trick is to load to the point where the athlete is exploring slightly varied movements, but the fundamental co-ordination pattern is still retained. That is to say, the amount of variability induced hasn’t become unfunctional. Communicating with the athlete about their experience is strongly encouraged in this instance and can be a really powerful way of facilitating joint learning in order to keep hitting the athlete’s movement challenge points.
Continue to watch this space as my research findings on wearable resistance in running and AFL kicking become available!
Karl Trounson is a PhD student at Victoria University in association with the Western Bulldogs football club in Melbourne, Australia. Karl’s research interest is at the intersection of strength and conditioning and skill acquisition where he seeks to understand how novel coaching approaches can lead to improvements in athletic movements. Wearable resistance presents utility as a kinaesthetic learning tool (for athletes who prefer to “feel” movement technique changes rather than just being told). Karl is investigating how this can be applied in the context of running and kicking among Australian football players.