Mike Young joined us on Coach’s Corner this week. Mike is the owner and founder of Athletic Lab in North Carolina and has spent his career focusing on how to improve performance in athletes. From his exercise physiology degree, to his coaching science masters degree, and his biomechanics PhD, Mike has incorporated data, science, and education throughout his career.
Mike has also worked with professional sports teams, collegiate sports teams, and in the private sector with younger athletes as well. Mike has a unique perspective as both a coach and sports scientist and we were thrilled to speak with him, enjoy!
Perch: Tell us your story and how you got to where you are today?
Mike Young: I’m from western New York originally, and I was an athlete growing up, mostly in track and field. From a pretty young age, I geeked out on things, I remember asking for sport science journals and coaching journals for christmas as early as 12 years old. I didn’t realize until later that it was a failed athletic career that set me up to coach. Coaching was my passion. And I went into bio pre med thinking I’d be a medical doctor. I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do so I switched gears into exercise physiology. Got a masters degree in coaching science. And then a PhD in biomechanics. All the while I was coaching, so I went through the whole GA and volunteer assistant route in both track and field and strength & conditioning.
I remember asking for sport science journals and coaching journals for christmas as early as 12 years old.
Professionally, I’ve worked with four Division-I track and field teams, and won 6 national championships when I was on staff at LSU. I’ve worked with four professional soccer clubs, most notably the Carolina Courage, that was my little detour into team sports and I’ve been there for quite awhile. I’ve also worked collegiate strength & conditioning in two different Division-I schools. During that entire period I had my own business running Athletic Lab which is a sports performance training facility in North Carolina that has been open 11 years. Sometimes I take on collegiate or pro jobs at the same time and wear two hats. The private sector is obviously different, you have people who are coming to you instead of you being given athletes. And along that whole route, I’ve done quite a bit of coaching, consulting, coaching education, sports science work etc in a lot of different sports ranging from speed skating, rugby, football, soccer, track & field, you name it. I’ve bounced around a lot living in quite a few different places working in different sports and different capacities as a sports scientist, educator, and coach, but absolutely love all of it. Can’t wait to get back to it more fully after this pandemic too.
You’ve worked with such a wide variety of sports, what is your philosophy on that sport specificity piece in the weight room?
MY: That’s an important and hot topic question. I think first and foremost you have to look at the physiological demands, that’s the way I like to look at sport specificity instead of the sport itself. So the first thing I would ask would be what are the commonalities across sports, and anything that is ground-based locomotor (so does it involve running and running fast) the commonalities will be greater than the differences. Think about soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, track and field, people may think you need to do something vastly different but in terms of the physical qualities they differ in scale more than kind. So lower-extremity multi-joint explosive strength, can you create rotational power etc. And then from there you add on nuance. I’d say in my warmups, my plyometrics, my speed training, my strength training, the training across sports is probably about 80-90% similar rather than different. That remaining piece is where any specificity will come into play. Of that specificity, the sport is just a part of it, individualization and injury history also plays a role. The questions you need to ask are things like: what is the physical capacity of that individual? Do you have someone that needs to be better at generating eccentric force? Are they a novice athlete where developing strength is most important over specificity?
I think first and foremost you have to look at the physiological demands, that’s the way I like to look at sport specificity instead of the sport itself.
The periodization will be different among sports that vary in competitions and what a season might look like, but the individual sessions will look relatively similar. The physiology doesn’t change based on the sport. We adapt it a certain way and try to create specific physiological load that will create the adaptations necessary for the athlete.
Does the cultural portion of specific sports impact the buy-in you gain from athletes?
MY: That is one of the most important factors. In track and field for example you often get athletes that want to do too much. They recognize the physicality of the sport and the necessity to do physical training. And then in other sports you see there’s almost a disconnect. So in men’s soccer in particular, you don’t really see a lot of them connecting the physical training to their performance in a game. There’s many reasons for this, but basically you can succeed at the highest level in men’s soccer without the best physical training in the world, especially if you’re talking about that top teams are buying talent, and you can be technically, tactically, and psychologically very good and not have the greatest physical development. And you can overcome physical deficiencies just by having played the game for years at the highest level. In sports like that, there’s a big disconnect between what they develop and how they perform on the pitch. That said, developing those physical traits is still very important.
In sports like track and field, bobsleigh, you’re really looking to eek out that last 1% of physical capacity and most of the time athletes will recognize that. You get hyper buy-in as a result of that. In other sports you do have to create the culture and educate as much as possible, and earn the respect of players. You have to show how it is important for their performance and injury reduction and that is probably where you start to get the most buy-in. I’ve lucked out in my team sport settings in that I’ve been brought in instead of hired, so I do come in with a big buy-in already. Occasionally, I’ll come in as a consultant and you can see that lack of buy-in is problematic, especially in team sport settings.
In sports like track and field, bobsleigh, you’re really looking to eek out that last 1% of physical capacity and most of the time athletes will recognize that. You get hyper buy-in as a result of that.
Can you elaborate on creating that cultural piece? What role does education play?
MY: It varies a little per sport, and that is usually due to the need. In between sets, I’m usually explaining. I tend to attract athletes that tend to be a little more cerebral and ask questions and what to know why and that kind of thing. I try to connect dots for them, and try to help them understand why what we’re doing is helping performance. For soccer players, if we can contextualize it as far as being faster means being faster to the ball and getting there first, that’s the kind of thing they will be able to connect to. Nobody wants to be off the field either, so often with team sport athletes pitching the injury-reduction standpoint is the best route by saying “hey, if nothing else, I can keep you healthy. If you want to play, I can help you ensure that you are available and ready to play at all times.” And that is the most compelling argument, especially in team sport settings.
How does all of that lend itself to your overall coaching philosophy?
MY: I take things very holistically. In certain sports, the performance coach makes a big difference. In team sports, you are important but not always the executor in a lot of situations. I inform our manager, and sometimes I take the lead, but sometimes I take a back seat on decisions. I look at it as being able to inform and educate people to create that buy-in so they can recognize what you’re doing to create value.
From a programming standpoint, I think a lot of people are shocked when they see our programs and realize how simple it is. Especially for team sport athletes, because they’re typically not as physically developed. So the program is shockingly simple. Our basic template across all athletes is relatively simple. We’ll do some kind of lower body power in the form of an olympic lift which will be stand alone with appropriate load and rest. And then we’ll move into a triset of some kind of lower body unilateral movement paired with an upper body push or pull exercise. And essentially creating rest and being as efficient as possible. And then we’ll finish with some posterior chain type of work, potentially with some loaded core which will vary between simple bracing and anti-rotational depending on the athlete and sport.
And that is pretty much it. A total of five exercises usually with a total of 20-23 sets distributed across them, more heavily toward the front end of that workout and in and out of the gym in about 45-50 minutes. Now with my track and field athletes that I have about 50 weeks of the year, three times a week, we can get very nuanced with things we wouldn’t normally. But this means we have to focus on the things we know work: basic multi-joint exercises using the fundamental movement patterns, loading reasonably heavy and/or moving loads quickly. We don’t have time to waste on fancy, gimmicky exercises. We know we’re going to get high performance by doing the basics savagely well, so that’s where we focus our attention.
You mention lifting weights fast, I’m curious what role VBT plays in your programming?
MY: My first experience with VBT was reading some of those journals when I was 16 or 17 years old. This was soviet stuff, very out there and not yet available in the US commercially. And then in the early 2000s I saw a tendo unit and was very intrigued by the thought of being able to track velocity and power. I didn’t start to really use it until maybe 7 years ago or so. I’m very data-driven with a sports science background. And I knew the importance of velocity based training, but until recently there weren’t many options out there commercially that could provide a solution for coaches. In the past couple of years, there have been a couple, of which Perch is one obviously. And it really brings fantastic data and a training tool to the masses. Or at least to people who are really performance oriented.
I’m very data-driven with a sports science background. And I knew the importance of velocity based training, but until recently there weren’t many options out there commercially that could provide a solution for coaches.
We incorporate VBT quite a bit, and there are some limitations. We are private sector so we can bring it to some athletes and our larger groups too, though not to our bigger team setting just yet. It gets used a lot with our track and field groups. And it’s been fantastic, it helps on several different fronts. Much like my training philosophy and exercise selection, I keep it simple. I’ve toyed around with all the VBT uses and really honed in on a couple different ones where we use it on these key points.
What do you think the biggest benefits of using VBT are?
MY: I think one of the biggest benefits is motivation and driving intent. A lot of people mistakenly think VBT is just moving light weights fast, and that really undersells it. It is just as important to attempt to move heavy weights fast and have a metric on that. So motivation can be a really critical component. I even joked around that I should create an app that is a fake number generator, because it would still have some benefit if an athletes sees a number and thinks he’s moving too slow, obviously I’m not going to do that. People will try to move the bar faster if they think they’re being assessed, and it points to the motivation and the fact that people will try harder if they think they’re being assessed. So we use it a lot both within an individual and between individuals. It allows you to create a competitive atmosphere in the weight room and that is very beneficial. Especially when you’re working with athletes who are trying to eek out the last percentage of their talent, driving intent is very important.
It allows you to create a competitive atmosphere in the weight room and that is very beneficial. Especially when you’re working with athletes who are trying to eek out the last percentage of their talent, driving intent is very important.
We are also using it for velocity loss quite a bit, so restricting the velocity loss in a set. One of the things I’ve been doing for 20 years now is a rep-redistribution strategy. We just published a study on this. But the idea is somewhat perceived as cluster setting, though cluster setting is more of a variation of this. Basically it is just keeping volume and total session duration the same, but instead of doing sets where there are very few reps in reserve, you do more sets with a higher number of reps in reserve left. And what this does is allow you to have a higher quality in terms of technique, quality of movement, and power output remains high across the entire volume. So I used to just prescribe something like 3 sets of 10 at 70% load and hope what I was saying was happening is what happened, but now what we can do is prescribe open ended sets. So each set has a velocity drop of 15% or something, and it keeps the goal the same, it drives intent, and can be very useful. It is basically a form of autoregulation, but we also autoregulate in other ways. What we sometimes will do is say “I want you to lift until the velocity drops out of this speed threshold” so it doesn’t matter what your load on the bar is (some days it’ll be higher, some days it’ll be lower) but we create these bandwidths to operate in. You need to hit a velocity at a certain intent, and I don’t care if they’re under a certain percentage or over a prescribed percentage, as long as they can stay within that velocity bandwidth.
You need to hit a velocity at a certain intent, and I don’t care if they’re under a certain percentage or over a prescribed percentage, as long as they can stay within that velocity bandwidth.
I’ve found velocity based training to be very valuable, we keep it simple and don’t use it on a ton of exercises, but it has been very very valuable to us and our athletes. I call it “very good icing on the cake.” Your exercise selection is probably your cake, but if you can do data driven programming with informed motivation and driving intent, it is going to go a long way I think.
How are your athletes reacting to VBT?
MY: It’s been interesting. Our younger athletes spend half their day on the phone or tablet already, so it is what engages them. We haven’t found anyone who found the technology to be an issue, some of the earlier solutions were glitchy and athletes don’t respond well to that. But now we have it so that it is pretty good. And if you can show an athlete that it will help them, that it doesn’t take long to set up, that it isn’t obtrusive to the training experience, then there is going to be nearly perfect buy-in. If an athlete has to fiddle with a device or worry about a bluetooth connection or plug in data themselves, then you’re going to have problems. So if you can show the value, and a lot of athletes will see that right away, and show them how engaging it is to see that real time data, then you can make it inobtrusive.
My goal with all sports technology (and we have quite a bit at Athletic Lab) is to make it invisible. The athlete should have very little awareness it is being used. We don’t want them to set it up or troubleshoot or what have you. Now it is at the point where, at least the solutions we are using across the board we are checking those boxes. You can run a session and it is seamless, it doesn’t get in the way, and it provides value.
Now it is at the point where, at least the solutions we are using across the board we are checking those boxes. You can run a session and it is seamless, it doesn’t get in the way, and it provides value.
What role do you think data plays in the weight room and how do you think that will evolve?
MY: I think you’ve got some people who think technology is still a gimmick, these are people who are denying the inevitable. This data is going to become more accessible, more accurate, and more seamless into the platforms. And then what will happen is the people that thrive will be the people that can take advantage of that data and know how to use it. The use of data is what is inevitable, that’s what’s going to happen not just in the weight room but everywhere else. The closer we can get to this information really informing the training process the better. So that data needs to be readily available for coaches and athletes, so the more immediate and real-time the better, and obviously the more accurate the better too. And then if we can get to the point where we have AI or machine learning incorporated, where it can help recognize things that coaches might not be able to see, I think this will help longitudinally.
This data is going to become more accessible, more accurate, and more seamless into the platforms. And then what will happen is the people that thrive will be the people that can take advantage of that data and know how to use it.
For example, athletes who you’ve been training over time and you may not see certain changes based on exercise selection, exercise order, set and rep schemes etc that perhaps machine learning could pinpoint. That is where things will get really interesting. That is the point you turn your strength room into an almost research quality lab. And while training studies take 6-8 weeks and are constrained to upper level research institutions, this type of data can be used for research all the time. There will be mountains of information available. Data is the new money. We can have individual data, team data, this is really where the future is. Right now coaches are still in charge and that will remain for a long time, but it will shift to informed coaches who know what they heck they’re doing with data pretty soon.
With that in mind, do you think the future encompasses better athletes due to more precise training?
MY: With AI coming (if it is not already here), I think we’ll be able to profile more athletes more accurately. Right now we have coaches, including myself, doing force/velocity profiles on athletes, antagonist/agonist profiling and that kind of stuff. Right now it’s not even bronze-age type stuff. This field is going to accelerate so fast, if we can create longitudinal data based off of power and velocities across different athletes, body weights, points in a career alongside their injury history and success.
That is the kind of million dollar research questions that could conceivably be done by AI relatively easily that would take a human being a lifetime to go through that type of thing. So really, the data itself is of limited value unless you have a practitioner to interpret and make sense of it. If you have a practitioner who knows how to make sense of the data, and make it actionable, and change the training intervention based off of the data that is provided, that is when we will see a big breakthrough. Coaches may be willing to do more individualization because they have the hard longitudinal data to back it.
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