In 2015, I wrote in a letter to Texas Showdown that ultimate players were, on average, too weak.
“Too weak” referred to weight lifted in the powerlifts, the Olympic lifts, and bodyweight strength standards like the pushup and pullup. Ultimate players, in my mind, had a training problem of too much cardio and too little strength. In the two years since, I have learned that, despite coming from completely different sports and having an allegedly “enlightened” view of training, I was very much a part of ultimate’s training problem.
Calling the traditional methods used for training for ultimate “The Training Problem” is a crass generalization. While few players that I encountered came from structured, established sports (like football, hockey, basketball, track & field), they were all very well-intentioned. They observed that the game requires 70 minutes of work — that meant endurance. The game requires running — so they took to the track. As physical qualities go, that pretty much covers it for the beginner.
Players at the highest levels went beyond endurance and running. Where many novice players still pound the pavement at 3- and 5-mile distances, thinking it addresses both running needs and endurance needs, high-level players started thinking about ultimate as similar to basketball and soccer. Interval running has been a smash for the community, even if misapplied or overdone.
All this to say, well-meaning players thought about the sport, tried some things, and even sought help. But why, in more cases than not, do the running, jumping, and lifting fail to produce on-field results? Why, when every fitness magazine, online forum, and strength & conditioning coach (including me) suggest lifting is the path to more power, more speed, and more endurance, are few players really making those gains?
Ultimate is a “fuzzy” sport. Dan John introduced me to that concept: fuzziness refers to the number of qualities required to play a sport well and how improving any ONE quality may have ZERO impact on the field. Endurance is important in ultimate, but it has to be defined carefully. The same is true of speed, of power, of focus, of tactics, of sport skills, and of toughness.
Fitness writers paint with broad brushes, none of which could possibly be specific to ultimate. I would argue that the traditional lifts are poor, if not irrelevant, metrics for playing great ultimate. And this, despite how I had believed for years that they were perfect guidelines for every sport.
If online magazines like Breaking Muscle and T-Nation are correct, the path to building better, faster, more resilient athletes is simple. According to their articles, squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and pullups are the solution to any and all athletic problems. Lifting builds intramuscular coordination! Lifting builds intermuscular coordination! Lifting builds neuromuscular coordination! Lifting increases Type IIA and Type IIX muscle fibers! Lifting makes you faster! Lifting makes you more explosive! Lifting makes you sexy! Lifting makes you smarter! Lifting makes you special!
…let’s think double for a moment.
How can lifting negatively affect your performance?
Lifting can make you sore. Lifting can make you heavier. Lifting can get you hurt. Lifting can … slow you down?
Now, let’s think double again.
What else can negatively affect your performance in the same ways?
Stress, lack of sleep, illness, overeating, undereating, recklessness, laziness.
Let’s depart for a moment: recognize that nearly everything we know about lifting comes from the art of bodybuilding. Bodybuilding, as the name implies, is the process of building up the tissues of the body specifically for aesthetic purposes. It began in earnest in the Industrial Age, as circus acts became popular and professional strongmen became models for health.
Bodybuilding has been the elephant in the room for all the strength sports that followed it. Bud Houser is renowned in discus throwing for pioneering the spin technique. He threw the 4lb plate a world record 160 feet weighing 185 pounds. It is likely he rarely, if ever, touched a weight in training. But with every generation of thrower after him, bodyweight has gone up.
(Hey, the discus flies farther, too, with a current world record of 243 feet from a 240lb man, but that’s not the point. Keep reading.)
Pause for a moment to consider this: a disc in ultimate weighs just over 1/3 a pound and many players still struggle to throw it over 50 yards. Bud Houser was a fairly skinny guy who put a 4 pound disc 53 yards downfield.
(Never mind aerodynamic subtleties for now.)
In the strength sports like lifting and throwing, bodybuilding became a solution to their key goal: bigger body = better leverage against heavy object = more weight lifted/distance thrown.
But is the only key to great ultimate throwing farther?
(And would bigger lifts even help you do that, since the implement is so light?)
Fast forward to the present. Nearly all the information disseminated to the public about strength training comes from one of three camps: powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and CrossFit. All three camps have one goal above all others: Lift More.
And other than hurdling (when I was too young to know anything) and rugby (when I was too… college… to know better), my entire background, like that of many strength coaches, came from powerlifting, weightlifting, and CrossFit. The coaches whose material I read, the programs I copied, the athletes I looked up to were all powerlifters, weightlifters, and…well, I don’t really care for CrossFit.
And when your entire philosophy is built on Lift More — when all you have is a hammer shaped like a barbell — it feels pretty easy to see the keys to improving everything in life.
Just lift more, dummy.
I love the strength sports. I love the throws. I have solid technique in every competition lift and could learn any new lift in under a week and be pretty strong at it in under a month. But I’ve been asking myself a question lately:
Do the lifts improve athleticism?
Because my sprinting didn’t get better when my powerlifting total went up. My sprinting didn’t get better when my weightlifting total went up. During my brief CrossFit phase, my sprinting didn’t get better when my Fran time dropped either. Nothing I did in the weight room seemed to make my sprinting better. As a person whose foundations were “Lift More = Perform Better,” that made me a little worried.
I won’t drag you along any more.
Q: What are the best lifts for improving your ultimate game?
A: None of them.
(Would have been a shorter article if I had just opened with that.)
Listen, technique is the key to transfer from a training exercise to performance on the field.
The technique of sprinting and jumping can be broken down into component skills. Practicing those component skills is called “specific strength development.” Basically, developing exactly the sort of strength needed to execute a particular technique.
Jumping, for example, breaks out into balance on one leg, certain reflexes, power, and external intention (an object to catch, maybe?).
Quick fact: power is coordination between your brain and your muscles.
Wait, check this: strength is coordination between your brain and your muscles.
And check this: efficiency, highly correlated to endurance, is simply excellent coordination between your brain and your muscles.
In this fact lies the solution to BOTH Ultimate’s Training Problem AND my Lift More Dilemma.
Unless your technique is excellent, not a single lift in the weight room matters.
… AND …
If the technique of an exercise is relevant to ultimate, literally any exercise you choose will work.
Okay, pop quiz: What have we learned?
Lifting matters and doesn’t matter at the same time and I still have no idea how to train to get better in this sport.
Awesome, I think we’re finally on the same page.
So speed, power, and endurance are critical to ultimate. Speed, power, and endurance are coordination training. Coordination training is addressed with “specific strength development.” But, somehow, and this is key, lifting is NOT specific strength development for ultimate.
Here’s what you need to do — and what those well-meaning players were trying to do before all of us professionals threw our “expert” opinions into the mix.
Identify your specific weaknesses as a player
Break those weaknesses down into specific skills or movements
Select exercises which address those specific skills and movements directly
And here are a few conditions:
- IF, and it’s a big “if,” core strength, previous injuries, or awful coordination are your biggest limiting factors, learn to lift with any competent coach.
- IF, and it’s a more likely “if,” throwing, catching, defensive positioning, or marking technique are your biggest limiting factors, go learn the sport better.
- IF, and it’s a useful “if,” accelerating, sprinting, jumping, or recovery are your biggest limiting factors, come see me.
Lifting is ONLY specific strength development IF your goal is to Lift More.
Somehow, it took me years of poor results to understand this.
(According to theologians, one of our deepest human struggles is viewing new information objectively, rather than filtering it through our current belief system. Fun topic.)
If your goal is to take a better first step, to run faster, to jump higher, to dive farther, or to recover faster between points or between days of a tournament, there is specific strength you need to develop and I’m quite skilled at teaching it. Join our Austin Ultimate training class or work with me in private.
See, I still believe ultimate players are, on average, too weak.
Based on the number of ankle, knee, and hip flexor injuries I encounter; based on the number of players wanting to run faster and jump higher; based on how severely performance fades for some players on day 2 of tournaments, there just isn’t any other explanation.
But I no longer think weight room training will fix that — at least, not the traditional squat, bench, deadlift, clean, press, snatch, and bodybuilding work that you find in every fitness magazine or website.
Every player who thought running and endurance were good training…
Every player who thought sprinting with short recoveries was good training…
Every player who thought playing the sport was the absolute best training…
You have always been on the correct path. Forgive me for distracting you with unnecessary billboards and warning signs. You have sound ideas and valuable experience. I just know a shortcut.
Together, we could have a very fast, very efficient training path ahead. I can’t wait to join all of you on the journey.