I've the pleasure to interview Jaakko-Antti Peltola on strength and conditioning for squash players. He used to be one of my regular training partners when I still lived in Finland and at present he works in... Well, I let him do the speaking:
Great to catch up with you, Jaakko. Would you introduce yourself to our readers?
I´m Jaakko-Antti Peltola, strength and conditioning coach and sport biomechanist. I did a master´s degree in sport science at University of Jyväskylä, Finland, majoring in biomechanics. Previously I also did a degree in information technology. I run my own company, Sport Lab, which offers strength and conditioning training for athletes and amateurs. Most of the athletes I work with are squash, badminton or tennis players. My amateur clients are ambitious sportspeople who like setting goals for themselves, and my role is to help them achieve those goals. I also work with individuals who need rehabilitation. On top of this, my company is specialized in sport testing. We help coaches and athletes to maximize their performance by offering them objective information through measured data.
First of all, could you explain what "strength" is? What does it mean in practice for example in squash?
Our performance capability can be divided into three fields:1) energy production mechanisms (aerobic and anaerobic endurance), 2) neuromuscular system and 3) psychological performance. The neuromuscular system is responsible for muscular strength and that way for the movement of our body. Put simply, strength enables us to move. In sports where open skills are involved, strength is closely linked to sensory motor skills and setting the rhythm and pace of movement. Strength is also needed for controlling your balance and body. In racket sports you move the weight of your own body, so you need a good relative strength level. Moreover, a good strength level enhances the "economy" of movement and in this sense improves endurance. If you think about power and racket technique, it all comes down to making the kinetic chain work. The key to achieve a good racket technique is to use all joints as a chain, from big muscles to small ones. This way you can develop racket head acceleration and keep the movement under control. Importantly, controlling the kinetic chain also prevents injuries. In squash you make multi-directional and fast movements. During the first step, you need to develop a lot of power against the floor. In addition, you need pure foot speed. A player with good plyometric abilities can produce a lot of power in less than 250 milliseconds. As a comparison, sprinters need to produce power in less than 100 milliseconds during the maximum speed phase. The speed of power production depends on the qualities of our neural system, and the role of elasticity is also important. That's why it's essential that the stretch-shortening cycle mechanism of the muscles functions efficiently. Squat and bench press are some of the most common exercises to measure maximum strength. Strength endurance can be measured by different repetition tests. Nowadays we have advanced sensor technology at our disposal which makes it easier to follow the athlete's alertness and to optimize training.
What role do our genes play in building strength?
When it comes to strength levels, genetics do matter. Talented athletes have a more favorable distribution of muscle cells, which partly explains why some people are naturally stronger and faster than others. Also, there can be big individual differences in body and muscle structures and in the elasticity of muscles. On the other hand, what makes racket sports so fascinating is that it's possible for individuals with very different attributes to achieve a high standard. This is because ultimately racket sports are about skill and ability to read the opponent. You might have heard the old saying "speed is power controlled by skill". When it comes to squash, anyone can achieve a sufficient strength level to become a good player.
Mobility is an essential attribute in squash. What type of strength does squash require, and how can it be developed without losing mobility?
Mobility is important in sport as well as in everyday life. With mobility we refer to the way joints and tendons function and their range of motion. Good mobility contributes to general health, force production and performance. The notion that strength and mobility are somehow opposites is a fallacy. If you look at weighlifters or martial artists you can easily see that mobility and strength can perfectly go hand in hand. If a person's mobility is poor, rather often the underlying reason is weakness in antagonist muscle groups, stiff muscle-tendon unit or wrong type of (strength) training. I think it´s vital that coaches have a high level of expertise and they should know how to build strength safely and efficiently.
One of the purposes of strength and conditioning training is to maintain mobility and to physically strain your body more than the sport you practice does. Strength training improves mobility when it´s done correctly. It´s recommendable to use free weights and to make sure the range of motion is complete in every exercise. Overhead squat is an excellent way to build strength and improve mobility at the same time. When you squat as low as possible, this exercise measures and improves the mobility of the ankle, hip, back and shoulder joints. However, I have noticed that unfortunately many amateurs´ and young athletes´ mobility is far from sufficient.
In squash what you need is explosive power but you shouldn´t forget to build general strength, particularly in feet and middle body. Anwering more thoroughly your question on what kind of power is required in squash depends on the individual´s training background, age, strengths and weaknesses, and so on. In any case, I´d advice to start building strength by using free weights and making sure that the range of motion is full in every exercise. It´s also important to improve ”pure” contraction and static power of individual muscles and muscle groups in order to strengthen joints and supportive structures. This is essential to prevent injuries. When you do strength exercises, always have it clear in your mind whether you´re training ”the muscle or the movement”. Put simply, this means that you either train the voluntary muscle contraction of a certain muscle group or movement rhythm and efficient chaining of power over different joints.
What kind of strength training can be harmful to a squash player?
Strength training can have potential harmful effects if it´s too monotonous when it comes to the type of exercises or stimuli or when the athlete overtrains for too long a period. In order to achieve higher fitness level, it´s necessary to over-load your body momentarily, but it´s equally important to let it recover after strain and do the next workout when you have recovered enough. This means training at the top of the cycle, when your performance capacity is higher than it was before the previous workout session. If you repetitively exercise during the recovery period, the danger is overtraining.
In the second part of the interview Jaakko-Antti gives us tips on squash-specific exercises and talks about nutrition, among other things. So if you found this interesting, stay tuned for All about strength and conditioning part 2!