Q&A With University of Alabama Gymnastics Strength and Conditioning Coach Dave Albaranes
Dave Albaranes is in his first year with the Crimson Tide as their strength and conditioning coach. Previous to Alabama, he worked with both the men and women's gymnastics programs at the University of Illinois as their strength coach for 1 season. Dave recieved his masters degree from Springfield College where he was the graduate assistant sport coach for the men's gymnastics program. In his free time, he enjoys reading and coaching gymnastics.
He loves old school Adam Sandler movies!
1. You were a gymnast yourself--how did your gymnastics career influence your professional career choices?
I started gymnastics when I was 10 and because I came into the sport at a pretty late age, the one thing I had going for me was that I was stronger than most kids. Needing to improve my gymnastics specific strength ignited my interest in strength training and exercise science. I did gymnastics throughout college and studied exercise science and kinesiology at The College at Brockport. Once I graduated I was a personal trainer and a gymnastics coach back home on Long Island NY. I knew I wanted to keep learning so I went to Springfield College for their graduate degree in Strength and Conditioning. I was lucky enough to get a graduate assistant position as one of the men’s gymnastics coaches. Because I was the team’s sports coach, I also became their strength coach during my two years there. I moved on after Springfield to The University of Illinois as a strength coach for the men’s and women’s gymnastics teams. Training The Fighting Illini was an experience that dove me head first into what life is like as a collegiate strength coach. Working with Head Coach Justin Spring was especially unique as I grew up following his career as an athlete. The men’s team really bought into the training, and getting to be a part of that team’s culture had a profound effect on how I view coaching. I even picked up a part time job coaching JO boys during the week while in Illinois!
To ask how gymnastics had an effect on my professional career is an odd question for me. I’ve always been involved in gymnastics whether it be coaching the sport itself, or coaching gymnasts as a strength coach. They’ve both had an effect on each other! I consider myself lucky it has culminated into a position with The Crimson Tide.
2. In terms of coaching, what has been your biggest challenge your first year at the University of Alabama? Conversely, what has been your favorite part?
I believe I have two big challenges this year. First,as the team’s strength and conditioning coach, I work with the student-athletes in both the weight room and during practice; this gives me the unique opportunity to control many facets of their physical preparation. During our weight room lifts we train for 1 hour (the number of times each week varies throughout the year) and when I see the team post-practice the time can range from 20-40 minutes depending on the day. Each window of time I get to work with my gymnasts I need to make sure it is the most efficient use of our efforts. Figuring out how to best use this time has been my biggest challenge thus far. My programming for the team has drastically changed from when I first got here. I attribute this to becoming familiar with the training schedule, the equipment we have available, and what works with each athlete as I’ve gotten to know them. Still, the challenge remains to always deliver the best training stimulus to the athlete.
Along with that, my favorite part is that women’s gymnastics is my only team here. That means I can be fully invested in just Alabama Gymnastics. Many strength coaches aren’t able to attend every practice and team event for their sports, so it's a unique opportunity that lets me really build relationships with each of my athletes. Also, the culture here is different than other programs I’ve been a part of, and that is a big driver of the team’s work ethic and standard of excellence. Coming into a program with a strong culture of hard work and respect has made my position as a strength coach much easier. The athletes here are ready and willing to do what is needed to improve themselves and their teammates,they will get the job done.Therefore, I spend most of my time outside of the gymnastics gym growing my knowledge in training, sport science, and anything I think I can use to help the team get at least 1% better each day.
3. What is the most common issue that you see with incoming freshmen gymnasts with regards to their experience with strength and conditioning?
With any incoming freshman that comes to Bama, they go through a Block 0 program. This program spends an extensive amount of time teaching fundamental movement patterns. These movements include the squat, the deadlift (or hinge variations), upper body pushes and pulls, and core exercises. This builds the foundation for more intense exercises and training methods when the student-athlete is ready. As the student-athlete advances from underclassman to upperclassman, the program scales with them, eventually focusing on more advanced strength and power development methods. If strength and conditioning was more prevalent at the JO and club level the Block 0 program wouldn’t be as necessary. The athlete would be able to develop their sport-specific needs earlier and this would help them further improve their athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury. However, many athletes (especially gymnasts) come to college having never lifted a weight before in their life. If you know you want to pursue college gymnastics in the future, learning the basics to strength and conditioning at an early age could be the difference-maker you need to stand out in your college career.
4. In your experience, what is the most important thing to focus on when training gymnasts? Of course, the process is multifactorial, but if you had to choose only one training goal for 1 year, what would it be?
As a strength coach I’m biased towards saying lifting heavy weights, but here’s my reasoning. Gymnastics strength training has typically revolved around body weight training. This includes jumping and plyometrics, static core exercises, and gymnastics specific conditioning. That’s great as a starting point, but when was the last time your gymnastics athlete has ever lifted anything heavier than themselves? If the answer is never, then you’re missing out on applying progressive overload.
Sport Demand > Physical Capacity = Injury. How can we increase an athlete’s physical capacity if we aren’t progressively overloading their ability to withstand the stressors and impacts of their sport? I see resistance training and proper conditioning as the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to injury reduction in our sport.
For the sports performance people out there my answer would be eccentric training in the off-season and pre-season. Due to the plyometric nature of the sport many athletes develop tendon stiffness, which is important for the necessary elasticity of the sport. However, as discussed in Cal Dietz’s two spring model lectures, many gymnasts underload the muscular component of that “spring” (tendinous structures). Eccentric training is a great way to create overload in your athletes that can lead to increases in motor unit recruitment (increasing max strength and therefore power) it creates hypertrophy by adding sarcomeres in series (meaning you can increase lean body mass and improve mobility), and helps build connective tissue compliance. While increasing lean body mass can be seen as a negative for the gymnastics athlete, I think the benefits far outweigh the cost. Increasing muscle mass helps retain the neural adaptations gained from lifting, meaning your strength and power can be better maintained in-season when you won’t be lifting as much. Also the added muscle will be able to help reduce the impacts on your joints from the constant pounding the sport demands of the athletes. When we’re in our eccentric and isometric phases of training, I call it the “Body Armor” phase because the goal is to increase tendon and ligament compliance. Most injuries occur during the eccentric phase of a muscle action, so it’s important to expose our athletes to that stress in controlled movements. We can then increase the time under tension (duration) and the amount of tension (intensity) our athletes are under to create a physical capacity that is greater than the sport’s demand.
Sport Demand < Physical Capacity = Injury Resilient & Increased Performance
5. What advice would you give club gymnastics coaches who feel lost about training/conditioning their gymnasts?
First,I would suggest seeking out a S&C professional that can guide you in the right direction. You wouldn’t expect a strength coach to teach your kids a tkatchev, but I feel gymnastics gyms often expect their coaches to nail down a proper S&C program. They are two different disciplines and should be treated as such!
That being said, if a club gym decides to keep their S&C program in house I would suggest that they designate one or two coaches to become the S&C gurus for the gym. Yes, it then becomes an investment in time, money, and effort, but isn’t that better than the alternative? If you’re a gym that cares about maintaining the volume of athletes you train, wouldn’t it behoove you to keep them training for as long as possible? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
And if you’re a gym that cares about winning, wouldn’t it then make sense that you give your athletes a resource that makes them more powerful than your competition?
The short answer is that there is no shortcut to creating a good S&C program for your gym. As a starting point for gyms that are looking to grow their S&C knowledge and application, I suggest learning about the basics of periodization, movement patterns (I suggest strength coach Mike Boyle for both of these), and long-term athlete development (LTAD model).
6. What, if anything, would you do differently working with a men's gymnastics team versus women's?
In men’s gymnastics, ⅔ of the events are upper body focused and in women’s gymnastics ¾ of the events are lower body focused. That right there should tell you where you need to spend a majority of your training time. I’ll talk about 1 key point for each athlete, with men it will be the shoulder, and with women it will be the ankle.
A key position seen across every event for the male gymnast is a handstand. This puts male gymnasts in the classification of an “overhead athlete”. Other examples of overhead athletes would be pitchers, volleyball players, tennis players, and swimmers. With this population, a key programming difference is inclusion of scapular stability and proper glenohumeral mobility. To get to a handstand, you want to ensure that the athlete has active control of this range of motion without compensations. If the athlete can go overhead but that causes their ribs to flare, you now will be in extension anytime you hold a handstand position, and your shoulder angles will have a harder time reaching 180 degrees of overhead flexion. I think about how many half pirouettes I missed as a kid where I pushed myself off the bars. It could be that I didn’t have the core control to stay hollow, or my poor shoulder angles caused compensations that made the skill 10x more difficult. For proper upper body health it’s important that your handstand position be as perfect as possible, and for me that comes down to having great scapular control. One key that can help your athletes regain their overhead motion is activating your lower traps, the muscles that posteriorly tilt your scapula (a key action for overhead motion) A very simple drill for this is to lye down on your stomach on top of a table or stack of panel mats, bring one arm off of the side, and try to raise that arm up in a “Y” position while keeping your scapula fixed to your rib cage. Another overhead athlete (gymnastics) programming tip would be to inclu de more rowing variations in your strength training. It’s a great way to balance out all the stress gymnasts place on the front of their bodies (think maltese and planche holds).
Women are almost the opposite to men’s gymnastics, although there are more similarities than differences. With female gymnasts the emphasis becomes improving mostly the lower body. In gymnastics ankle injuries are highly prevalent so I’ll discuss a bit about what I do for Bama’s ankle work. I find that improving and maintaining ankle dorsiflexion is key. Dorsiflexion is the ability for you to flex your toes towards your knees. Constant impacts from landings as well spending so much time in a toes pointed position (whether in the air, or in a releve on beam) can limit the ability to dorsiflex. This means that repetitive short landings can cause undue stress because the ankle isn’t mobile enough to disperse forces from landing stress, and often this leads to bone and joint injuries. My athletes do a lot of soft tissue work for the calves and ankles and mobility exercises that stress the toe up position.
I also have the gymnasts here do a lot of foot isometric exercises.We work on heel elevated foot isometric exercises to help maintain intrinsic foot strength as well as improve our achilles tendon health. One example of our exercises is a single leg heel elevated flat foot quarter squat. The athlete stands on an elevated surface with only the balls of their feet keeping the rest of their foot parallel to the floor. The athlete then bends their knee to a quarter squat position and attempts to hold this position for 1 minute. If you can get to one minute, try it again adding some load!
7. Tell us about the Shift x Bama collaboration. What are you most looking forward to about the event?
Dave Tilley is so passionate about improving the safety and health of our sport, it will be exciting to have that energy down here in Tuscaloosa. I’m looking forward to being surrounded with like minded individuals who want to improve the health and performance of their athletes. It will definitely be the place to be for all things gymnastics, strength & conditioning, and sports medicine this July. I’m excited to learn from and network with everyone that attends!