North American football is one of the most popular and exciting sports in the world, and while the term ‘football’ in North America will typically refer to the American game, north of the border, Canadians have their own unique version of football that overall has similar physiological demands. However, there are several noteworthy differences in rules and gameplay that will change an athlete’s approach to physical preparation. As a result, the purpose of this article is to compare and contrast how the differences in Canadian and American football might alter an athlete’s strength and conditioning program. Athletes who may benefit from this article will include:

  1. High school athletes (Canada/USA) transitioning to play 3-down football in the CIS.
  2. Collegiate athletes in the NCAA who are preparing to play professionally in the CFL.
  3. Professional athletes coming from the NFL who are preparing to play in the CFL.


Needs Analysis

In general, North American football  is an intermittent, field-based contact sport that primarily stresses the phosphagen anaerobic pathway, which is responsible for explosive, high force/power movements such as sprinting, jumping, and cutting.  This energy pathway powers high-intensity anaerobic activity lasting 0-10 seconds; as high intensity activity exceeds 10 seconds, energy production switches to the glycolytic system (lactic). However, because the average football play lasts only 5-7 seconds in duration, the glycolytic system will rarely be stressed in competition.

Despite the short-duration of each play and the corresponding importance of explosive movements, these short-duration, high-intensity movements are interspersed by long breaks in gameplay that may last anywhere from 40-seconds to several minutes. As a result, the oxidative system is also a primary contributor, as the ability to recover fully between plays will draw upon on an athlete’s aerobic fitness.


General Training Strategy

From the aforementioned needs analysis,  it can be summarized that North American football is purely an alactic sport, which is where most of the training focus should lay. In terms of on-field work, this means that coaches should focus on a short-to-long linear sprint program that emphasizes technique and acceleration, particularly in the 5-20 yard range. Moreover, given the agility demands of the sport, a quality football strength program should also involve a sound progression of multi-directional running and jumping skills. In the weight room, exercises and their respective volumes and intensities should be structured in a way that supports the development of alactic qualities. Examples of this include Olympic weightlifting movements and squatting/pressing variations at high-intensities, in addition to medicine ball throws and plyometrics to develop explosive strength that will transfer to gameplay.  Additionally, extensive tempo and accessory circuits can be implemented, which will elicit cardiovascular adaptations and aid in recovery.  Of course, weight room activities should also place an emphasis on promoting both hypertrophy and mobility, which will transfer to performance as well as injury risk mitigation.


Major Differences in Gameplay

Despite the commonalities, there are several noteworthy differences between the Canadian and American games that warrant consideration when developing a football strength and conditioning program.  The first major consideration is the field of play, as the Canadian football field is both longer and wider than its American counterpart. Additionally, the Canadian end zone is also 20-yards deep as opposed to 10-yards. Despite there being an extra player on both-sides of the ball (12-players total, versus 11-per-side in American football), this larger playing field offers receivers significantly more room to make a play, and consequently makes Canadian football a much more pass-oriented game.

Another big consideration is the difference in rules on offence.  In Canadian football, the offence is allowed 3-downs to advance the ball 1o-yards. Moreover, all personnel in the backfield may be in motion (in any direction) prior to the ball being snapped; this is referred to as a ‘waggle’.  In contrast, rules in American football allow for 4-downs to advance the ball, however, only one receiver may be in motion (parallel to, or away from, the line of scrimmage) before the ball is snapped.  Again, these rules will typically favour a passing offence, as the waggle will afford receivers a ‘flying’ start as they enter their routes, while the shortage in downs will make the run game less viable.  There will also be more emphasis on special teams, as there will be more opportunities to kick the ball.

Defensively, in Canadian football, the defensive line must line up 1-yard behind the line of scrimmage, whereas in American football, the defensive line lines up directly on the line of scrimmage. Tactically, this will make it more difficult for pass-rushers, as they will be less likely to beat offensive lineman purely off of quickness and athleticism.

Lastly, on special teams, in American football, the receiving team may call for a ‘fair catch’, which allows a returner protection from blindside hits. In contrast, in Canadian football, no ‘fair catch’ is allowed; however, the kicking team must allow the returner a 5-yard “halo” when the kick is initially caught. While the halo does offer much more protection from injury as it will prevent unexpected hits, returners should be cognizant that they will encounter more contact overall simply from being required to field the ball on every kick.

The major rule differences that may affect physical preparation are summarized in the table below.


Training Considerations for Canadian Football

While all North American football strength and conditioning programs should be very comparable given the demands of the sport, special consideration should be given when transitioning between the Canadian and American game.

  • 1.) Overall, Canadian football players are comparatively smaller than their American counterparts.  Of course this is partially due to long-established recruiting standards, but it is also reflective of the unique demands of Canadian football.  The larger field requires athletes to cover more ground, while fewer downs and a shorter play clock collectively translate to shorter rest periods. Correspondingly, this tends to favour smaller athletes that are more mobile and better conditioned.

  • 2.) Training considerations for offensive linemen in Canadian football remain relatively unchanged. However, since defensive linemen are forced to play 1-yard off the line of scrimmage, more emphasis can be placed on hand-skills and sport-specific technique, as the increased distance will make it more difficult to beat O-linemen cleanly via pure athleticism. Moreover, the smaller active roster size in Canadian football requires more athletes to play special teams, which increases the likelihood of D-linemen getting an additional tap on the shoulder for kick return/coverage.  This will require greater levels of conditioning, and the ability to cover more ground during kickoffs and punts. As a result, while strength programs for Canadian D-linemen should still emphasize hypertrophy and the development of lean muscle mass, it may be less critical for athletes to gain mass simply to hit a number on the scale, and more utility might be found in developing a versatile set of athletic abilities instead.

  • 3.) Skill players (wide receivers/defensive backs) and big-skill players (running backs/linebackers) in the Canadian game should place a greater emphasis on high-speed upright sprinting, as the larger playing surface will allow athletes to reach higher speeds during gameplay.  Training strategies may include involving more flying starts to increase specificity to the waggle, as well as including sprint distances that approach 40+ yards in order to reach higher top-end speeds.  Consequently, skill players should also focus more attention to eccentric strength, as change-of-direction tasks will require athletes to decelerate from higher velocities. Also, it is noteworthy that even if high relative velocities are not reached in gameplay in some cases, the development of a higher maximum velocity and the corresponding speed reserve would translate to increased stamina and recovery.

  • 4.) Due to the absence of a fair catch rule, it may be advisable for kick return specialists to increase focus on injury prevention strategies due to the increased number of collisions they will face upon fielding the ball.



Due to the unique requirements, some athletes who might struggle finding their place in American football may in fact thrive in a Canadian football environment. While strength and conditioning programs for each should overall be quite analogous given the similar demands of the sport, careful examination should be made when transitioning between each version of the game. While the development of alactic qualities will be the cornerstone of any successful program, an increased emphasis will be placed on high-speed & upright running, conditioning, and mobility in the Canadian game.


This blog is an off-the-cuff response to an email that I received from a former student of mine.  Some details have been removed for privacy, and others have been added for clarity, but generally, these are my thoughts on the Functional Movement Screen.  In summary, it’s all about how it’s administered and what is done with the data; the context and environment must be conducive to utilize the information in a productive manner.


I was an exchange student in your KIN303 Lab. I’ve had a longterm injury, which  only started to get better while I was in Canada, rehabbing with the FMS. I can feel myself leaning toward the FMS side of things and I just wanted to ask you some questions as you definitely seemed to lean on the strength side of things. The last thing I want to do is narrow my thinking this early on. I think it’s best not to become too one sided, already I can see there’s times when the FMS way is seems best and times when the strength way is best, but I still have so much to learn.

From you I just want to know what negatives you have on the FMS? And what makes you choose such a strength-based outlook? And then also what negatives you have on the strength-based outlook and the positive you have on the FMS side of things. I’d also be keen to look through a bit of your work (think you were writing a thesis) on strength based training. Appreciate your time.


The FMS/strength debate is a contentious one, so I wanted to make sure I had the time to sit down and give you a thoughtful reply. Firstly, it’s great that you’re already starting to think critically about these things early on.  I’d agree with you that it’s potentially dangerous to become narrow minded, no matter what stage of your career you find yourself in. That being said, jumping in head first into a particular stream or philosophy is the best way to learn about it, so long as you keep an objective/critical mindset and don’t drink too much of the kool-aid.

As for my own philosophy, I hope I didn’t come across too strongly and give the impression that I’m very pro-strength and anti-FMS.  They are two approaches to two distinct, yet somewhat overlapping, areas of sports performance. In my view, the “strength” approach falls in the realm of strength & conditioning in a performance setting, whereas the FMS falls more in the realm of rehabilitation in a more clinical setting.

I was influenced very heavily by the FMS for the first 3-4 years of my career. I took FMS level 1 & 2, and a number of semi-private mentorship courses before becoming an auditor and helping to facilitate and teach the FMS. The clinicians that I worked with are brilliant and taught me a great deal about the FMS and how the human body works. I’ve also been treated under its principles for injuries of my own, and I agree that what they do with rehab works. I’m without a doubt a better coach for knowing what the clinicians taught me, and I’m certainly glad I have the certification, knowledge, and experience with the FMS under my belt.  Not only is it becoming an industry standard, my experience with it also allows me to speak critically about it with my colleagues if I need to.

In terms of any “negatives”, that all comes down to the context and how it’s being used. If all you have is a hammer, everything ends up looking like a nail.  I’ve seen trainers try to forcibly apply FMS and corrective exercises in a high performance manner, yet they have no idea how to coach or program for sprinting, weightlifting, and other developmental aspects of performance. Correcting movement dysfunctions and improving movement quality certainly helps to a point, but past that point you run into diminishing returns and I’ve found the low threshold stimulus of common corrective exercises is not enough overload for the system to adapt.  Also, there’s the notion that asymmetries exist naturally both among individuals, and within particular sports, and in turn may be required or advantageous for performance. So, spending time trying to balance these asymmetries out may either be counter productive or an inefficient use of time. In the high-performance environments, particularly in collegiate and professional systems, time is money; contact time with athletes is extremely limited, and the priority is to win games. Time is often better spent practicing the sport, or training to improve transfer to sport. You also can’t forget that taking time away from strength training in order to correct movement may put an athlete at greater risk of injury if an athlete’s strength levels are sub-par compared to his/her peers and they enter competitions weaker than their opponents.

One common way around the issue is to provide corrective ‘homework’ to a client. However, despite your best intentions to educate the client, some individuals just want to lose weight and get a good sweat on, and might get irritable if you have them doing low-threshold work for too long. The same goes for the high-performance athlete; the athlete may have performance goals that they may be required to hit, or they may need to prepare for a competition or event in a very short amount of time; spending time on corrective exercises in this regard may be counter-productive. The measure of a good coach would be how to effectively sneak in corrective work, while keeping stakeholders happy with what you’re doing. Or, is it possible to “correct” movement with strength work, which would be even better.

On the “strength” side, insofar as 303 was a “high performance strength & conditioning” course, I was attempting to convey that in order to improve in the “high performance” athlete (as opposed to general population), you must progressively load the organism in order for it to adapt and see an increase in strength/power. From my experience, I was indoctrinated so far into the FMS, that I was ignorant of the other extremely important aspects of high performance training, such as advanced periodization models, linear speed training and sprinting mechanics, tapering strategies, and getting hands-on programming/training experience with high level athletes and teams, which is ultimately where I wanted to be in terms of my career. I always say jokingly that I want to be a great strength coach and not a crappy physiotherapist. I’ve learned the FMS to an extent where it suits/exceeds my needs as a performance strength coach; if I wanted to get deeper into the rabbit hole, I’d become a physiotherapist or athletic therapist.

Apologies for the long email, but hopefully that answered some of your questions.  To be honest, I’m still finding my place on the spectrum of FMS/strength.  I have had experiences where I’ve banged my head against the while trying to apply corrective strategies when all the athlete needed was more strength work. Conversely, I’ve come across situations recently where very “strength-based” coaches have tried everything in the book to correct their athletes’ movements, and have come to me for a screening where the FMS found and “corrected” the issue immediately. Here again, I like to use the tool analogy; a hammer is a great tool, but you’re not going to use it to screw. FMS and strength training are merely tools in your toolbox; how and when you use them determines whether you’re a good or bad coach.

Poor Training Methodologies: Unstable Surfaces

One of the most misguided ways that speed/power athletes can train is by using unstable surfaces. In a gym setting, unstable surfaces usually come in the form of BOSU balls, exercise balls, and balance boards. Uneducated athletes and trainers will often perform weight training exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifting and even pressing variations while standing or kneeling on these unstable surfaces. In a lot of cases, the athlete will even perform the exercises unilaterally (i.e. standing on one leg) in order to further decrease stability during the exercise. The thought process behind doing this is that the unstable surface creates a more “functional exercise” by throwing the athlete off-balance and forces the athlete to increase the activation of “core” and stabilizer muscles. However, as we will outline below, this is one of the worst ways to train when it comes to strength and power development.

The importance of external load and intensity

In order for an athlete to become stronger, faster, or more powerful, an athlete must progress in intensity.  In strength & conditioning, “intensity” is defined as a percentage of maximum load or velocity. Therefore, for a workout to be classified as “high-intensity”, the work you do needs to be upwards of 95-100% of the 1RM in a particular lift, or 95-100% of the maximum velocity you can sprint. Anything outside of these percentages is, by definition, not high-intensity. Intensity does NOT equate to ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) during a particular exercise (how difficult the exercise feels), or outward signs of fatigue. 

Therefore, for an athlete to become stronger in the weight room, he or she must successfully lift an external load (i.e. weight) that is heavier than what they have ever lifted before, or in the case of power development, they must perform the exercise with a faster rate of force development (RFD)  – that is, more powerfully – than ever before. Likewise, if an athlete is training for speed, they must sprint at a velocity that is faster than they have ever run before. This ensures that the human organism is appropriately stressed, and has a reason to positively adapt and supercompensate. Conversely, if the exercise does not meet a minimum threshold of intensity, the human organism does not have a reason to adapt and the athlete will not improve.

How unstable surfaces hinder force production

Unstable surfaces greatly decrease the level of intensity that an athlete can train at by decreasing the external load that an athlete can lift, and this has overwhelming support when doing a quick search through strength and conditioning literature.  Behm et al (2002) found that force production decreased as much as 70% when using an unstable surface compared to a stable surface, and Kohler et al (2010) found little supporting evidence for the use of unstable surfaces or loads due to the decreases in force production. Chulvi-Medrano et al (2010) found that the use of instability devices does not increase performance during the deadlift.  McBride et al (2010) found that unstable surfaces decreased the amount of load used in squatting exercises, and recommended against their use due to the potential to limit physiological adaptation. Not limited to the lower body, Saeterbakken & Fimland (2013) found an inferior effect of unstable surfaces on muscle activation and strength during bench pressing. This list of refuting evidence against unstable surface training goes on and on.

Opportunity cost and Risk

Another important consideration when choosing which exercises to use with an athlete is the opportunity cost; how beneficial is the exercise, how much time will it take to coach or perform, and is there another exercise that could be used instead that might lead to faster performance enhancements in the same amount of time? Even if there was some merit to doing single leg squats on a BOSU ball with 25lb dumbbells in hand, wouldn’t we get a greater physiological adaptation by doing a barbell squat on solid ground with even a pedestrian 135lbs on the bar?

Also in the opportunity cost analysis is the determination of the inherent risk of an exercise. One of the main objectives of a strength coach is to take measures in training that will mitigate the risk and likelihood of injury during training or competition.  In that light, training with unstable surfaces can greatly increase the risk of acute injury due to the inherent instability of the exercises. Anecdotally, I have heard horror stories of a trainer who had a young athlete stand on a soccer ball because it was “functional balance training,” only to have the athlete fall off and break his ankle. Needless to say, sometimes unstable surface training is just not worth the risk it presents.


In conclusion, using unstable surfaces when training is one of the poorest training methods when attempting to develop strength and power in an athletes.  Unstable surfaces greatly decrease the intensity of training by limiting the external load that can be used. This ultimately prevents the athlete from getting stronger and faster because the ability to progressively overload the exercise and stress the human organism (which is crucial for positive adaptation) is greatly diminished.

The acronym BOSU stands for “both sides up,” meaning that the exercise tool can be used with the athlete standing on either the dome side, or the flat side up.  However, with unstable surface training clearly being inferior to stable surface training, “BOSU” might as well stand for “both sides useless.”


In his book “Training Systems,” Charlie Francis defines recovery or regeneration to be the: continuous management of muscle tension/spasm, accelerated removal of the effects of fatigue, rapid restoration of body energy systems and substrates, and improved ability to renew physical activity without wasting unnecessarily the energy of the athletes. Low-intensity aerobic exercise, or sub-maximal exercise, for recovery purposes can be implemented in a variety of ways including running, biking, or swimming. This recovery strategy has the ability to attenuate some of the negative effects of fatigue via its circulatory effects and may aid in maintaining or improving performance in subsequent bouts of high-intensity exercise. Determinants of the type of exercise chosen, it’s volume, and intensity, will be contingent on the demands of the sport and the individual status of the athlete game-to-game.

Mechanism #1: Lactate Clearance

In order to discuss the mechanisms of action behind the recovery benefits of low-intensity aerobic exercise, we must first understand the acute effects of high-intensity exercise that may temporarily hinder performance. During anaerobic glycolysis, lactate accumulates as a by-product of ATP re-synthesis. This accumulation of lactate results in an increase in hydrogen ions and metabolic acidosis, which negatively affects the excitation-coupling process within a muscle cell thereby decreasing its ability to produce force. As a result, this accumulation of lactate must be cleared in order to maintain an athlete’s performance capabilities.

Lactate is removed via oxidation, which can occur at the muscle site where it is produced, or it can be transported via the blood to be oxidized in other muscle cells. Lactate can also be removed via the Cori cycle, where it is transported to the liver to be converted to glycogen. Therefore, the increased activity of the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems during low intensity exercise accelerate lactate clearance and recovery by delivering more oxygen and transporting lactate around the body’s cells for oxidation.

Mechanism #2: Reduction in Muscle Soreness

Another response to high-intensity exercise is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is caused by the eccentric component of exercise, which causes tearing and micro-trauma within a muscle cell, and a corresponding perceived level of pain within the athlete due to the resulting inflammation.  This pain and microtrauma reduces both the range of motion and contractile strength of a muscle.  As a result, the damaged muscle cells must be repaired in order to restore optimal function. Protein synthesis and skeletal muscle repair is a process that requires the delivery of both nutrients and hormones, which are delivered via the circulatory system. Therefore, the elevated heart rate and blood flow that occurs as a result of low-intensity exercise may aid the recovery process by increasing the rate of delivery of nutrients and anabolic hormones to the affected skeletal muscle.

Mechanism #3: Enhanced Circulatory System

Lastly, these circulatory effects are augmented by physiological adaptations that occur as a result of low-intensity exercise.  Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase cardiac output and stroke volume  resulting in an increase in overall circulation.  Furthermore, long-term aerobic exercise increases the density of capillaries which act as the exchange sites for the diffusion of oxygen, nutrients, and waste.  Consequently, these chronic cardiovascular adaptations cumulatively enhance the rate at which the aforementioned recovery processes take place.

How to implement low-intensity training

As with any training modality, recovery or not, each athlete has a set of individual circumstances that will dictate what exercise prescription will elicit the most benefit for them. For example, a swimmer who is not used to the eccentric forces that are faced while running may obtain superior benefit from a pool tempo session as opposed to a field-based one. Contrary to this, a large football player would likely swim inefficiently resulting in a higher perceived effort relative to if they had completed a pool-workout in shallow water or an on-field tempo workout. Therefore, when considering implementing the following modes of low-intensity aerobic exercise it is important to consider the physiological status of the athlete, their training history, injury status, skills, and training demands.

Extensive tempo running, if implemented correctly, can facilitate recovery. This exercise consists of athletes running intervals that are “performed strictly in the aerobic energy zone [which] promotes general fitness development and recovery via circulatory mechanisms,” (Hansen 2014). This training can often be completed on a field to allow for easy prescription and tracking of volume. However, if various circumstances such as weather, size of athlete or their preferences, or injury may preclude the use of a field, the same concepts can be applied to completing a workout on a stationary bike or treadmill and using time as the measurement of work:rest as opposed to distance.

As an alternative to land-based workouts, athletes and coaches can opt to facilitate recovery in a pool. This option has that added benefit of hydrostatic pressure which “may be beneficial in reducing the symptoms of muscle damage and general fatigue,” (Joyce, 2014). Furthermore, as water is weight bearing, impact on the lower extremities is reduced relative to running which may be beneficial for larger athletes or injured athletes. A typical pool recovery session may incorporate calisthenics and dynamic motions such as water jogging, knee lifts, side-shuffles, and lunges in the shallow end of the pool in addition to swimming lengths at an easy pace.

As alluded to earlier, intensity must be manipulated in a way that is conducive for recovery. A sprint coach, of runners or swimmers, may use a percentage of best time for a given distance (Francis, 2008 & Lomax, 2012). Specifically, Hansen suggests that “…coaches and athletes shoot for a 60-65% effort to be on the safe side, particularly for newcomers to the technique who have yet to find their tempo ‘groove’,” (Hansen, 2014). This is congruent with findings by Lomax who found that 20 minutes of swimming intervals at 65% of maximum velocity resulted in an approximate 82% reduction in blood lactate levels (2012). This method is only valuable to athletes in sports where time is the standard measurement of performance.

The efficacy of this method of recovery, like any training, is partially contingent on if it is practical to implement and how it is implemented. Although this type of recovery modality can be extremely useful, one must make sure to keep the goal of recovery in mind and not let excessive volume or intensity creep into the sessions: “excessive use of intensive tempo workouts can result in excessive fatigue, overtraining, blunted recovery and central nervous system disruptions if the volume is too high or sessions are too frequent,” (Hansen, 2014). Furthermore, sometimes athletes do not have access to the required facility or they simply lack the energy to complete even a light workout. In these instances, alternative recovery strategies should be sought out.


High-intensity training sessions, where an athlete is producing maximum forces and velocities, are necessary for positive physiological adaptations.  However, these high-intensity sessions elicit acute effects that temporarily impair performance.  These negative effects include central and peripheral fatigue, muscle damage, the accumulation of lactate, and the depletion of energy stores.  As a result, it is imperative for an athlete to facilitate the recovery process in order to attenuate these adverse effects prior to subsequent training sessions or competition. Low-intensity exercise provides a viable active recovery measure that augments the natural regenerative processes in the body.  Namely, low-intensity aerobic exercise increases both circulation and capillary density, which aids in the delivery of nutrients and elimination of waste from skeletal muscle cells. This type of recovery can be implemented in multiple ways and the chosen mode should be representative of the needs of the athlete as it relates to familiarity, physiological status post-game, and availability of facilities. It seems that approximately 65% of best time or effort is an appropriate level of intensity with volume being contingent on the training status of the athlete and demands of the sport. Furthermore, athletes and coaches alike must keep the goal of recovery in mind and resist increasing intensity or they risk perpetuating fatigue as opposed to attenuating it.

Special thanks to Kit Wong, MKin, CSCS for his contribution to this article.  Kit was a colleague of mine at SFU, and a fellow graduate student at UBC. He is currently the IST Lead and Head Strength Coach for Canada Cycling and the National Men’s Field Hockey Team. 

Why does Canadian sport struggle?

In sports, conditioning is paramount.  All else being equal, the strong, quick, powerful, agile, and efficient athlete will always dominate the weak, slow, and uncoordinated athlete.  Given this common knowledge, why then in typical Canadian athletics is formal strength and conditioning an afterthought?  In the typical Canadian athletic program, largely due to early specialization and the misnomer of “sport specific” training, it seems like teams focus almost solely on skill and team development, and spend very little time, if any, in the weight room to develop the conditioning that will produce better, well-rounded athletes.  Moreover, if a team does possess a weight training component, chances are that it is administered simply by leaving inexperienced athletes to work out on their own with little or no supervision from coaches/trainers who may have limited knowledge of effective strength and conditioning principles.

1297515980545_ORIGINALThere are obviously exceptions to this, as powerhouse schools such as Terry Fox and Vancouver College that are consistently in the top ten in both ‘AAA’ basketball and football have formal strength and conditioning programs.  Moreover, after working with Simon Fraser University’s strength and conditioning team, I can tell you that their program is at the pinnacle of the industry.  However, why is the culture of Canadian athletics so poor aside from these elite programs?  Is it funding?  Lack of interest?  A feeling of helplessness that these elite programs will never be defeated?  Or is it merely because we can’t cultivate a passion for sports?

Sports Culture on Steroids

I’ll never forget the experience I had when I traveled to California for a Christmas basketball tournament in my “junior” year of high school, where I was awe inspired just by the difference in the magnitude of the facilities.  The hosting school had multiple, dedicated full-sized fields for soccer and football, Olympic sized swimming pools, bleachers that seated thousands (not hundreds), locker rooms so big you could get lost in them and pristine weight rooms with every piece of equipment imaginable.  The list goes on and on.  I was jealous.  My years of playing high school basketball were arguably the most fun in my life, yet south of the border kids were having the same experience on steroids.  Why can’t our Canadian athletes experience this as well?

Creating a Culture

Physical therapist Kelly Starrett touches upon a notion of cultivating a culture of Supple Leopards.  That is, creating interest and excitement around the concept of movement and mobility by relating it to increased athletic output so that athletes will take care of their own bodies, which will ultimately make them exponentially better athletes, and in turn, happy winners.  The fitness industry has successfully cultivated a culture of health-conscious, active people, particularly here on the West Coast with Lululemon and the yoga movement.

In that same light, I think it’s our responsibility as strength coaches, trainers, athletes, and fans of sport to cultivate the same culture and excitement around sport itself and in particular, excelling at sports.  After all, isn’t that what a lot of us are training for in the first place?  Recall the excitement of Canadians dominating the 2010 Olympics, or the Vancouver Canucks run to the Stanley Cup.  Wouldn’t it be cool if the casual fan were THAT passionate about sports around here, too?

Some Clarification

My intent isn’t to spark a political debate regarding sports versus healthcare or education, or American funding versus Canadian funding. My intent was to highlight the fact that with the current allocation of resources to sports (or lack thereof) in our community, certain elite schools are consistently on the top of the rankings. Why do they keep producing the best athletes? I believe it’s because they create a culture where excelling and upholding their tradition and reputation of being provincial powerhouses is important to the coaches and the athletes, and the sense of pride filters down and influences them to do everything they can to maintain that reputation, i.e. strength and conditioning, which most other schools are lacking.

This is in contrast to schools with failing sports programs, where there is barely enough interest to field a team, and the emphasis isn’t as much about excelling at sports, but rather merely participating. To create passion for sports, you need to create a winning environment (see the Canucks recently versus the rebuilding years and the corresponding buzz in the city about the team). To create a winning environment, you need to produce good athletes. How do you create good athletes? Place importance on strength and conditioning, which overall I think is lacking. It’s part of our job as strength and conditioning coaches to sew the seeds and get kids excited about strength and conditioning so they can excel, which will start the process of developing PASSION for sport, rather than a passing interest in it.

Caffeine and Performance

After talking with other coaches and athletes, it seems that caffeine is one of the most underrated and underutilized training aids in strength and conditioning.  This is surprising considering that the ergogenic benefits of caffeine supplementation are well documented in the literature. Caffeine is taken as a pre-activity supplement in order to enhance performance outputs during training or competition, and it is one of the only supplements used to increase performance for both aerobic and anaerobic activities (Baechle & Roger, 2008). It is one of the most widely available and affordable drugs in the world. As a result, competitive athletes and strength coaches may want to consider adding caffeine to their sports nutrition and supplementation recommendations in order to maximize the training, recovery and physiological adaptation processes.

Power, and Endurance

Caffeine contributes to performance enhancement on all portions of the power-endurance spectrum. There are several potential mechanisms at work but the most basic premise is that is that caffeine increases the strength of muscular contractions at the molecular level by facilitating the release of calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, thereby lowering the calcium threshold required for actin-myosin cross-briding (Nehlig, Daval, and Derby,1992).  This is vital, because the number of cross-bridges that are attached to actin filaments at any given time dictates the force production of a muscle (Baechle & Roger, 2008).  As a result, caffeine increases an athlete’s ability to produce force in both competition and training. Research has also shown that caffeine can increase the endurance capabilities during long-duration training or competition (Ganio, Klau, Casa, Armstrong, and Maresh, 2009).  This is because caffeine is thought to increase fat utilization, which spares muscle glycogen, the body’s primary and preferred fuel source for physical activity (Spriet  & Graham, n.d.).  This has the effect of delaying the onset of fatigue, allowing an athlete to train longer before exhaustion.


Alertness and Recovery

Caffeine can increase mental clarity and focus (McDaniel et al, 2010). This is because of caffeine’s properties as a stimulant, which has a direct effect on the central nervous system, increasing resistance to fatigue, alertness and focus.  This increased level of cognitive function can be helpful in both competition and training scenarios.  There is also research to suggest that taking caffeine post-training enhances recovery.  A study by Pedersen et al (2008) showed that caffeine enhances the replenishment of glycogen stores by 66% when caffeine was ingested with their meals post-exercise.   Further, a study by Hurley et al (2003) showed that caffeine may be effective at reducing perceived muscle soreness in the days following resistance training.  These cumulative effects contribute to an elevated state of readiness for subsequent training bouts.

Potential Side Effects

There are a number of potential side effects when supplementing with caffeine, though most can be managed with preventative measures.  The first concern is overstimulation.  If an athlete is unaccustomed to caffeine, they may experience symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness and insomnia due to the stimulatory effects of the drug (Baechle & Roger, 2008).  The second potential concern is that caffeine is a diuretic. As a result, there is a potential risk that excess or unaccustomed consumption may lead to dehydration, which would in turn increase the risk hydration-related performance issues.  The severity of this side effect is exacerbated in high-temperature environments, and adequate hydration in these situations is critical. Thirdly, caffeine may act as a laxative, and may cause gastro-intestinal discomfort or bowel movements (Baechle & Roger, 2008).   This may compound the diuretic effects, and further dehydrate the body. Fourth, caffeine is physiologically addictive (Baechle & Roger, 2008) and an athlete may experience withdrawal symptoms including sluggishness, irritability, and headaches.  Fifth, caffeine interferes and negatively affects the body’s ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, phosphate, potassium as well as A and B vitamins (Johnson, 2014).


To prevent adverse effects, it is recommended that athletes begin experimenting with caffeine supplementation in small doses, particularly if they do not regularly consume caffeine.   The generally recommended dosage in the literature is 3-9 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight (Spriet & Graham, n.d.), with greater adverse affects appearing in quantities exceeding 9 mg/kg (Baechle & Roger, 2008).  Caffeine should also be avoided late at night, so to avoid negatively affecting sleep quality.  Furthermore, athletes who are supplementing with caffeine should ensure they are adequately hydrated, and also administer their dose well in advance of training or competition to allow for time to use the restroom and allow for an uninterrupted training session or an undisturbed competition in case of a laxative reaction. Athletes may also consider consultations with sports nutritionists in order to ensure that the caffeine consumption is not negatively affecting performance by causing vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  Lastly, if an athlete is cycling off caffeine but is accustomed to the routine use of caffeine during training, they should reduce dosages gradually in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms, which may negatively affect performance.


In summation, the body of research in strength and conditioning shows that caffeine has an ergogenic effect that may increase speed, power, and endurance, as well as increase the rate recovery between training sessions.  While the mechanisms may be somewhat unclear, the potential benefits of caffeine use as a performance enhancer during training greatly outweigh any potential risks, which can be mitigated by smart and progressive administration of the drug.  As a result, strength coaches and athletes would be wise to take advantage of the potential training and adaptation enhancements that caffeine provides.