Anyone seeking evidence on the obsession for strength and conditioning which has swept through the GAA should have been at a seminar in Belfast.
The key speakers were Mike McGurn and Mick Clegg. When McGurn’s credentials are touted, it’s often pointed out that he has coached professional rugby teams.
That’s impressive. But to my mind, the most impressive part of McGurn’s CV rests in his association with Anthony Tohill.
Anyone who knows Tohill will readily testify that the multiple Allstar could smell a spoofer from 100 yards. And in the field of weight training, Tohill would be particularly difficult to bluff.
After two years with the Melbourne Demons, Tohill returned to Derry physically transformed. Convinced by the merits of the barbell, Tohill persuaded Eamon Coleman to get the Derry players pumping iron. Coleman agreed.
In short, Tohill believes in weight training. And when Tohill became manager of the Ireland International Rules side, he recruited Mike McGurn. Tohill’s trust in McGurn speaks volumes. The fact that McGurn is currently working with the Swatragh U16s perhaps says even more.
If Anthony Tohill is a shrewd judge of competence, he would still be put in the shade by Alex Ferguson (though Tohill would never have bought Djemba Djemba).
Mick Clegg worked under Ferguson for 11 years. It was under the tuition of Clegg that Cristiano Ronaldo went from being the step-over jester to the king of speed. Clegg is a bona fide expert.
Tickets for the talk cost £42 (€58). In the not too distant past, interest in such an event among the GAA fraternity would have been negligible. But the whole field of strength and conditioning has exploded in popularity and the GAA is one of the main agents pushing the expansion.
Interestingly, despite the fact that more GAA players than ever before are lifting weights, there is still an incredible amount of ignorance about the real benefits of strength and conditioning.
While squats and deadlifts will improve power, and perhaps speed, the main advantages of a good strength and conditioning programme will be seen elsewhere – the physio bill.
If injuries cripple players, it’s fair to say that medical bills cripple GAA clubs. Injuries caused by overused and imbalanced muscles can be remedied by a strength and conditioning programme which addresses the huge volume of running and single leg action done by footballers and hurlers.
The more enlightened GAA clubs have already cottoned on that investing money in a strength and conditioning coach can lead to savings in the long term.
At this juncture, as someone who has just opened a new fitness gym, I should now be stating that every club in the country should now be hiring a new strength and conditioning coach.
But I don’t believe that’s feasible or even necessary. Like all fitness trends which come into vogue, the benefits tend to be over egged.
I have no doubt that leading coaches like Clegg and McGurn would be the first to admit that there is a limit to what can be achieved in the weights room.
Ultimately, if you want to become a better footballer, you need to play football. And if you want to become a faster runner, then you run. Weight training can assist and enhance but it’s not a cure all.
Besides, at club level there is a much cheaper way for players to significantly improve their performance. Forget about hiring a strength and conditioning coach. Take a look at your average club team and a significant number of them will get faster and fitter by simply taking their heads out of the fridge.
As someone who loves sport and food in the same measure, I can speak with considerable authority on this subject.
For instance, I know from experience that it’s possible to train six days a week and not lose an ounce of weight. The clichés are true.
Yes, it is 80% diet. And no, you can’t outrun a bad diet. Trust me, I’ve tried. And tried. And tried.
As a personal trainer, I’ve also witnessed the jaw-dropping importance of diet.
A few months ago I started training two ‘busy dads’. Both work long hours and are married with children.
At the start, the pair of them tipped the scales at around 16 stones. I put both men on the exact same training programme.
During their 6am sessions, they lifted the same weights and performed the same circuits. So far, so good. I also recommended virtually identical nutrition plans, (approximately 2,200 calories per day).
However, there was one key difference. During the first two weeks while ‘Paul’ followed the nutrition plan to the letter of the law, his training partner ignored it. Realising that he had a couple of ‘big weekends’ on the horizon, ‘James’ decided to skip the food plan until he was ready to give his total commitment.
The outcome was astonishing. Even though both men did the same physical training, after two weeks Paul had shed 12lbs. ‘James,’ who emptied himself in every session, dropped the grand total of 0.6lbs.
It’s worth repeating. You can’t outrun, out lift or out burpee a bad diet.
Yet, amid the current obsession with strength and conditioning, the most important weight of all is being conveniently overlooked – body weight.
Nowadays, if a GAA club hasn’t already invested at least €70,000 on a new fitness gym, then, chances are, plans are afoot for one to be built. Clubs are spending a fortune on facilities which are designed to make their players fitter and faster. Yet, during the next couple of weekends, take a long, hard look at the players in the club championships. It can be guaranteed that three or four players on every team are carrying too much fat. That’s about a quarter of your team.
Now consider the body composition of the players who dominated the discussions after Sunday’s All-Ireland final. Brian Fenton. Jack McCaffrey. James McCarthy. Cian O’Sullivan. All four are lean, lean, lean.
So, the clubs that can’t afford to build a new fitness suite shouldn’t despair. There is a budget option.
They can start by informing their players that there are 100 calories in a slice of white bread, 233 in a pint of beer and about 2,200 in a typical Chinese takeaway.
By all means, players should work on lifting weights above their heads, but they should start by reducing the amount of weight that’s hanging from their waists.
Train Station, owned by Paddy and Sian Heaney, is a studio fitness gym which offers classes, personal training and nutrition plans. For more details visit the gym’s Facebook page or follow them on twitter @TSMaghera
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