By N. Travis Triplett, PhD, CSCS*D, FNSCA
The field of strength and conditioning encompasses many different career paths and consists of individuals who work with people representing every conceivable part of the human spectrum, from high-performance athletes to the general population to individuals with disabilities or health-related conditions to children and adolescents. The COVID-19 pandemic largely put a halt to most forms of in-person supervised physical activity and training, and professionals in the field had to make extreme adjustments to how things were done to keep their clients training and their livelihoods intact.
The biggest lesson learned during the pandemic was the importance of planning training for what is sufficient versus what is optimal. This shift in thinking required greater flexibility in which types of training implements and exercises were utilized, less rigidity with regard to the training load (level of resistance), and increased attention to perception of effort as a means of assessing workout difficulty. In addition, time efficiency of workouts became a priority due to the COVID-19-related restrictions regarding the number of individuals in a facility at any 1 time and the need for social distancing. Training the lower extremity was specifically affected as the optimal development of muscular strength and power in the lower body musculature necessitates the use of heavier loads and explosive activities, and typically utilizes barbells and free weights, which were less available to those at home.
More specifically, practitioners had less equipment available overall, especially as training shifted remotely, and had to rely on body weight exercises, elastic resistance bands, and smaller dumbbells or kettlebells (that clients typically had available at home), as well as non-traditional methods of applying resistance (canned goods, wood logs, sand or water-filled jugs, etc.). This, in turn, limited the number of exercises that could be performed safely, especially without direct supervision, resulting in shorter workouts. Loading was therefore challenged because the alternative forms of training did not precisely mimic the typical use of barbells and free weights, so set and repetition schemes had to be adjusted (often increased) to physiologically stress the body so pre-COVID-19 training adaptations were not significantly lost. These changes often resulted in some maintenance of training adaptations but also a reduction in the ability to achieve peak strength and power, which was more impactful for athletic populations.
Going forward, practitioners will need to re-think training practices as well as facility hygiene practices. COVID-19 is very likely to be present for the foreseeable future and will need to be managed rather than eradicated. Procedures will have to be developed in the instance of a local outbreak so a transition back to “pandemic mode” of facility operation and client training can be made quickly and seamlessly. While it will now be easier to manage practitioner and client expectations when normal training has to be adjusted, more research is needed for the efficacy of different training methods relative to preservation of training adaptations, as well as comparative research with non-traditional forms of resistance exercises, so that the most effective combinations of equipment and exercise selection can be put into action.
Travis Triplett, PhD, CSCS*D, FNSCA, is professor of physiology of exercise, Exercise Science Undergraduate Program Director, and on the Graduate Faculty at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She is also the current president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
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