February 2, 2015
February 2, 2015
Kell Brook

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IN August 2014 Kell Brook beat Shawn Porter to become the IBF welterweight champion of the world. Over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of being Kell Brook’s and Team Ingle’s sport scientist and in part one I present how we trained Kell up to this point. We left part one as Kell beat Alavro Robles before beginning a comprehensive 16 week training programme in preparation for the showdown with Porter.

During the 16 week period Kell and the Ingle team spent almost half of the camp in Fuerteventura at the Ingle gym and the final three weeks in the USA in Las Vegas training at the Top Rank gym. When back in Sheffield, Kell was accompanied by European and Commenwealth super-bantamweight champion Kid Galahad as they undertook strength training with Dave Hembrough and high-intensity interval training with myself (Alan Ruddock) at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science and Sheffield Hallam City Athletics track.

Our interval training prescription was based upon his test results recorded in our laboratory, and his performances during the previous training block. Initially, our focus was on developing his maximum aerobic capacity, as this sets the upper limit of our endurance capabilities (at least measured in the lab).

More specifically, we were interested in developing his heart and respiratory (breathing) muscles. This was because he needed improve the way blood-carrying oxygen, required to generate energy in his muscles, was transported. These are often called ‘central’ adaptations because they involve central cardiovascular systems.

As scientists we know that the amount of blood the heart can pump is very important to performance firstly because elite endurance athletes have well adapted hearts to be able to do this and secondly because there’s some very good scientific evidence to suggest that if you can’t deliver blood to your muscles you’ll stop exercising pretty quickly.

So if you’re taken 12 rounds by Shawn Porter you’d better have the heart to be able to do it – both physiologically and mentally.

What type of training did we do to improve the way Kell’s heart worked?

Well, this is what we wanted the heart to do better during exercise:

1)  improve the way the blood entered the heart chambers, so it could fill up quickly

2) improve the size and mass of the left side of the heart because this is the side that sends blood to the muscles

3) improve how the heart produced force to eject the blood out of the heart

We could have done traditional endurance training, such as long-slow distance running, but we think high intensity interval training works just as well, and this has been supported by several pieces of scientific research.

A typical early central adaptive training phase would include a session popularised by soccer research. It involves 4 minutes of running at 90% maximum heart rate or an effort of 9/10. We call it the red zone and we want Kell to be dominant in the red zone. As I’m sure you’re all aware training isn’t just about physiological adaptations and this type of red zone training makes sure that Kell is pushed to the limit physically and mentally.

Back to the heart of it

The session is 4 min at 90% HRmax or 9/10 intensity with 2 min recovery repeated 4 times. What does that do to the heart? 

The intensity of exercise forces the heart to increase the amount of blood that’s pumped each beat because if the muscles don’t get blood they fatigue quickly. During these types of session the heart works at near its maximal capacity to pump each beat. Remember the heart is a muscle and it can be trained.

So by training in this way, we can improve the way blood enters its chambers, the left side will get bigger because it is being stressed (trained) to near max and because the chambers are being stretched (almost like plyometrics for the heart) it produces more force to eject blood.

If we train consistently and progressively over this training phase we’d expect to see these types of adaptation.

But there’s a hole in our work here, because we don’t know how Kell’s heart is adapting. We have to use scientific literature and assume it’s working. We also don’t know what the optimal dose of training is per session or indeed how long this training phase should last.

So we have to assume a few things. But luckily, some numbers stack up.

I did a test on a treadmill, just like Kell, we measured my heart rate and the amount of oxygen I used during running. I then used a few equations to predict how much blood my heart pumps every beat. It’s not the gold standard way of doing this (that involves tubes in the heart) but it gives us an estimation of how the heart is working.

At around 90% of my heart maximum, the amount of blood being pumped by my heart in one beat is also about 90% of it’s maximum. This demonstrates that 90% HRmax figure we used in the session seems to be about right (but we don’t know for sure).

We could have used other ways of getting the heart to work in a similar way, but these would have required Kell to run faster, putting extra stress on his foot (that he injured before the Devon Alexander fiasco) and we wanted to avoid that.

The next step

In the next phase I wanted to improve how his muscles coped with very high intensity activity. An sample session would be 2 min or 3 min (again red zone 9/10 effort) repeated 6 to 8 times. The intensity, how fast Kell ran was dictated by how much lactate I measured in his blood. I wanted Kell to run so that he’d produce, what the research suggests, as an optimum to help cause some adaptations that help with what you might know as ‘the burn’!

The burn you feel during this type of exercise, is not caused by lactate – lactate is actually your friend and a convenient indirect measurement how what’s called ‘metabolic acidosis’. What I wanted to do was train Kell in a particular way that would increase the number and activity of ‘shuttles’ that help to control the amount of metabolic acidosis in the muscle.

This was important because if Kell was in a scrap with Porter for a round, he’d need to call on these shuttles to deal with the burn.

Another reason for its importance was because if Kell wanted or needed to step up the intensity on Porter for 20 to 30 s he would have to use a particular energy system that’s sensitive the burn. The burn causes this energy system to ‘switch-off’, not good if you want to put the pressure on with a lot of force. The adaptation of these shuttles helped Kell to be more forceful over a 20 to 30 second burst and manage the amount of burn he felt.

Simple versus complex

Now, this is a very simplistic and mechanistic way of looking at training and performance and I appreciate there are many parts to the performance puzzle. But if you don’t take a step by step, mechanistic approach to some of your training, and you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve you could be in no-man’s land. Don’t just do something because that’s what somebody else does. Personalise your training.

If you are serious about performance, consider asking these questions to start with.

  • What physiological adaptations are needed for your athlete?
  • How will you assess what adaptations are needed? What tests will you use?
  • What physiological adaptations are needed at specific points in the training cycle?
  • How will you prescribe training and manipulate the amount of training you do to induce these adaptations?
  • How much recovery do you need to maximise these adaptations?
  • How will you know you have achieved an appropriate amount of adaptation?

Alan Ruddock is a sport physiologist at Sheffield Hallam University and writes for www.boxingscience.co.uk

*For training information and workouts from some of the biggest names in combat sport don’t miss the Fighting Fit: Train like the Stars special*