Interview with Mike McGuigan
It was a great pleasure to interview professor Mike McGuigan from AUT (New Zealand). I have been reading his work for years and was lucky enough to correspond with him on a regular basis lately. Mike is always happy to chat and share his viewpoints and insights, which he also did with this interview.
Mike and I share the interests in Velocity Based Strength Training, Strength/Power profiling, monitoring and data analysis/visualization so I picked his brain on those topics.
Mladen: Mike, although I am pretty sure that most of the readers are familiar with your work, can you provide some information on who you are, what you do and what are your future plans and interests?
Mike: Thanks Mladen. It’s a pleasure to answer a few questions and I really enjoy reading your blog. I’m currently a Professor in Strength and Conditioning at AUT University in the Sports Performance Research Institute. Prior to this, I was a Power Scientist with High Performance Sport New Zealand working across a range of different sports (mainly Athletics, Rugby Union, Rowing and Netball). I have had a number of different academic roles in the US and Australia since graduating from Southern Cross University. A definite highlight was doing my postdoc with William Kraemer from 2000-2001. My current role with AUT mainly involves Masters and PhD supervision and my own research in the areas of strength and power development and monitoring training. I am fortunate to be able to supervise a number of students working in elite sport environments. I also continue to work closely with Netball and have a role with our national team as their Sports Scientist/Research and Innovation coordinator. This works really well as it allows me to continue to work closely with elite sport and continuing to pursue my passion of applied research. I also do editorial work for various journals such as Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning and Journal of Sports Science and Medicine which keeps me up to date with the latest applied research.
Mladen: You told me that you like discussing the links between research and practice, so let’s start with that. In my opinion (and in opinion of many others) research is solely focused on finding averageeffects in the population by using sample sizes with appropriate power. Usually the outliers are problematic as well as non-normal distributions. On the flip side, coaches are not interested in averages, but individual athletes (or should I say cases). How is research in sport evolving to take this into account (effect ranges, magnitude-based inferences, single case studies, etc)?
Mike: I agree with you but I have seen a real shift in recent years with an increased awareness and understanding of how statistics can be used more effectively in sporting environments. I have been greatly influenced (as have many others) by Will Hopkins over the years. I was fortunate enough to have Will as a lecturer during my undergraduate degree so I was exposed to his ideas very early on. I think most people are now aware of his website “A New View of Statistics” and it is a fantastic resource for application of statistics in sport. An exciting development is the increasing acceptance in academic journals (e.g. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance) of these types of approaches which will only encourage more researchers to apply these methods. However we still have challenges with some journals, editors and reviewers who would prefer to see more traditional approaches in journal articles. I definitely think though that a “case” based approach is more appropriate when working in and researching sporting performance. Concepts such as smallest worthwhile change and individual responses to training interventions are more meaningful for practitioners. In a new book coming out later this year from Human Kinetics called High Performance Training for Sport (edited by David Joyce and Dan Lewindon), I have contributed a chapter “Evaluating Athletic Capacities” where I have attempted to explain some of these concepts and how practitioners can use them in their practice.
Mladen: You recently published a paper in Strength and Conditioning Journal regarding strength and power profiling of the athletes. Why is this important and how is it influencing training prescription and individualization, especially in team settings?
Mike: Again I have been really fortunate to work with some great practitioners and scientists over the years and this paper was a collaboration with two of those individuals, Stu Cormack and Nic Gill. One of the problems we have in our field is how do we appropriately test different physical capacities and then use that information to inform our programme design. I am sure a lot of readers are familiar with situations where fitness testing occurs but then very little is done with the information and in some cases coaches and athletes never see the information. I believe this has been a significant barrier to getting more buy in from coaches for sports science. Rob Newton has been my main influence in this area and the work we did in collaboration with Stu at West Coast Eagles (Australian Rules Football) was always driven by this principle – how can we use this testing information to make a training programme better? This is also something that Nic does really well with the All Blacks. Other former students such as Jeremy Sheppard, Sophia Nimphius and Travis McMaster are doing great work in this area also. Hopefully in the paper we have been able to give readers an idea of how they can implement strength and power profiling and use that information to make adjustments to the training programme.
Mladen: I still wonder why did you choose to present profiles graphically using radar chart ~ they are definitely over-rated :). What are your thoughts regarding the importance of visualization of the data to convey information to the coaches?
Mike: I began using radar plots after being introduced to them by Tim Doyle and Rob Newton back in 2004. Of all the various presentation methods I have used for reporting data for coaches and athletes over the years, they have consistently gotten positive feedback and seemed to have been easily understood. I really like the first sentence of the reference“The test of a graph’s usefulness is its ability to communicate efficiently and effectively”. Clear visualization of data is critical for conveying information to coaches and I would see radar plots as being one potential tool that can be used to do this. However, I don’t think you necessarily have to stay with a method of presentation. For example, with netball we have moved away from using radar plots as we felt after four years they were losing their impact with the coaches and players. So as a practitioner you need to be open to using presentation tools that will most effectively relay the information and this may vary depending on the environment you are working in. These principles are also important for educators as we need to be able to clearly present complex ideas in a way that students can understand.
Mladen: One thing that bothers me and I have already wrote about it HERE is the concept of peak power in load~velocity (or load~power) profiling and the concept that training at that intensity will magically improve “power”. I believe that these are “mental constructs” and that power is load-specific and measurement-specific (we can see a lot of discrepancies between research regarding methods and thus results) and that goal of training should be improving movement velocity at certain (for a given sport, specific) load (which will result in improved power at that load anyway)? What are your thoughts about it and why are researchers still trying to find this ‘magic bullet’?
Mike: Excellent question and I know that this is an issue that bothers a lot of people. The first thing I would say on this point is that there is no “magic bullet”. The research that has been done by Rob Newton and many others has shown that it is more effective to train across a range of loads. I would encourage people to read Prue Cormie’s review in Sports Medicine on this area. I do think that measures such as peak power and velocity can be useful and we have tended to use fixed loads such as bodyweight only and 20-60kg (depending on exercise and athlete/sport) for testing purposes. Another advantage of using fixed loads in testing for team sports is it makes things a lot more efficient. If you are testing a squad of say 30 athletes then expecting to do individualized load profiles based in %RM is going to be a challenge. The final thing I will say about this area is that if you want to improve power in the majority of your athletes then get them stronger! There is an overwhelming body of literature that shows this.
Mladen: Talking about profiling, what are your thoughts regarding injury prediction and reduction? What about gait analysis (foot pressure mapping), asymmetries between limbs, manual testing (e.g. groin squeeze)? Are they cause or the effect of injury? What is the next step in applied research regarding those?
Mike: I definitely think the profiling can make an important contribution to injury prediction and reduction. However it’s important to recognize that we can’t be experts in all of the areas. I think the key here is to have a multidisciplinary approach to athlete preparation with professionals such as physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, and performance analysts working closely together. The current research makes a strong case for high levels of integration of fitness testing data with injury and medical screening. For example, Mike and Meg Stone and their team at East Tennessee State University are starting to publish some really interesting multidisciplinary work using sport performance enhancement groups. I think we will start to see more of this type of approach and research studies in this area being published. It is vital that the tests employed are understood by the entire performance team, that the results yielded provide information of real value in assessing the status of the athlete and that this information is communicated effectively.
Mladen: What are your thoughts on the novel velocity-based strength training prescription and monitoring? Do you plan any studies on the topic?
Mike: I think this is a very interesting area and there is some good evidence supporting its use. I know this is something you have also discussed on your blog and it is a training approach that practitioners are starting to consider and implement. With the advent of more affordable monitoring technologies its use will only increase. My colleague John Cronin did a study with one of his students where they investigated the effect of instantaneous velocity feedback during resistance training and showed some positive performance benefits. This has implications for both training prescription and monitoring. What we need now are more training studies with high level athletes and this is an area I am very interested in exploring further – it would definitely make for a great PhD!
Mladen: When it comes to monitoring readiness in strength related sports, what seems to correlated with performance the most: HRV, grip strength, subjective indicators, vertical jump, reactive strength? Besides, where does the concept of training when you are in the highest readiness yield highest adaptation comes from? Waiting to train hard when we are in the best shape might be self-limiting. What about self-fulfilling prophecy: where athletes know that their monitoring metrics are down and thus expect lousy performance? Do we need to approach these using “single blind” approach?
Mike: It really depends on which research study you read :). This is another fascinating area and I don’t think we are at a point where we have any definitive answers. I wonder sometimes whether we are overcomplicating things here with this concept of training readiness. The problem here from a research perspective is it is really difficult to design a good study to answer this question. As you suggest there is actually no evidence to suggest that training when you are in a state of “readiness” results in more effective training adaptations. Having said that though, I do think monitoring of athletes provides useful information (already discussed very well by Stu Cormack in your blog previously). Perhaps with training readiness we just need to keep it simple and go with actually just asking our athletes how they feel before they start training? This is what good practitioners do anyway and they make adjustments throughout the training session as needed based a variety of sources of information. This also comes back to an earlier question and the issue of individual differences. Perhaps for some athletes knowing their performance metrics are down at the start of a session could be a problem whereas for others it could result in greater effort during the session? By incorporating additional tools such as monitoring training velocity during specific sessions for individual athlete, we can then look at whether is it possible to optimize the training stimulus. Current evidence would suggest that individualizing the training programme is going to be more effective than having a standard training programme given to a squad of athletes which doesn’t take into account individual differences.
Mladen: Thank you Mike for sharing great insights and good luck with the future projects.
Mike:Thanks Mladen. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more of your work online!