Charles Poliquin is one of the world’s elite strength and conditioning coaches, having contributed to the success of numerous Olympic and world champions across equally numerous sports. In the fitness world he’s one of the few ‘names’. You go on a ‘Poliquin course’, you become a ‘Poliquin trainer’. John Shepherd caught up with the French Canadian.

Poliquin was raised as a Catholic. He explained that next to his regular church was a university library and instead of going to church, he’d go to the library and read. He discovered ‘teachings’ of a different kind and in particular a periodical called ‘Kinesiology’. On reading this he found his ‘calling’.

“The day I read that, was the day that I decided to be a kinesiologist.” This desire for training and conditioning knowledge was also a product of Poliquin’s own sporting efforts – he was, at the time, Canada’s second youngest Karate black belt at age 14.

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“Poliquin became specifically interested in strength training when he did weights workouts with his Karate coach”

Poliquin became specifically interested in strength training when he did weights workouts with his Karate coach. This led to him training in the weights room on a regular basis and developing prodigious levels of strength. “I was weight training one day and a guy from the Canadian volleyball team approached me and asked him to write him out a training programme.

I did this and he became the fittest guy on the Canadian team.” By the age of 18 I had my first Olympian and then a few more others on the volleyball team and then the whole team and then I was approached by a cyclist –who got a silver in the Olympics. So I got my actual first Olympic medalist when I was 23.”

Since then he has contributed to the Olympic success of a further 17 medalists, in different sports from six different countries. Sports include track and field, speed skating, volleyball and cycling. Poliquin explained that despite this that it took him 20 years to be seen as a guy who can make an athlete a world-beater regardless of sport.

At first he was seen as, ‘the guy who could improve your vertical jump’, (for volleyball players) or ‘the guy who could make you faster’ (for track) and that it took quite some time before his abilities were seen as being be able to transcend numerous – if not all – sports.

Olympic lifting?

Numerous sportsmen and sportswomen train using the Olympic lifts (the clean and jerk and the snatch). Does Poliquin believe these are necessary when conditioning for sport. “You do need them, but only when you are biomechanically sound (i.e. you can lift safely).” The conditioning expert went on to say how, particularly in the States opinion is often polarised – like the nation.

Being a Canadian he grinned and explained that his nationality enabled him to say this! He explained that for some US coaches the Olympic lift are the answer to everything. Not obviously worried about his border neighbours he said, “They (Americans) can’t think for themselves, so for some it’ll be like, ‘you’re late for your taxes, gotta do some power cleans’, whilst others will say, ‘power-cleans are dangerous, use a fixed weight machine’.

But in reality it’s a continuum, it’s not just black and white. I’m, red … because I do what I want.” Basically Poliquin is a ‘conditioning and knowledge magpie’ taking information and theories from here and there to formulate his own approach. He discussed the greatest martial artist of all Bruce Lee and said that he was so good because he took something from everything (from the other martial arts).

I talk about another great strength training expert – the oft-called ‘father of periodisation (training planning)’ – Tudor Bompa. Charles explained that he’d actually lectured with him (Bompa is based in Canada). “He’s the guy that first made us realise that you don’t have to train hard every day”.

Reflecting on Bompa, the strength and conditioner recounted the success of the Canadian team at the recent Vancouver Olympics as testimony to Bompa’s work and influence (Canada finished third in the medal table behind the US and Germany Ed).

“In the personal training and fitness world, Poliquin is well-known for his BioSignature (BioSig) methods”

We begin to talk about the knowledge variations between coaches and fitness trainers worldwide. Forthright as ever, Poliquin commented, “The difference between the US and the UK is that the top American coaches are better than the top UK experts, but the average is about the same.

And in terms of personal trainers I would say that the US ones are marginally better than the UK ones.” It is very apparent that Poliquin has a unique skills and knowledge-set having worked across so many different sports. “If you look at my career I should be called ‘the dysfunctional strength guy’”. What does this mean? “I believe in squatting, pulling….. I don’t do any ‘monkey exercises’”.

I ask for further clarification. Charles talks about the role of the abdominal muscles in sports performance. He sees these as ‘force transducers’, not ‘force producers’ – they transfer strength from the lower to the upper body. Consequentially he does not train then with isolation exercises.

“I improve your squatting, I improve your concentric press and I’ll improve your sports performance.” Poliquin then showing that his theories are based on fact quoted research that indicates that the core’s oblique muscles are actually un-trainable.

BioSignature – diet and nutrition

In the personal training and fitness world, Poliquin is well-known for his BioSignature (BioSig) methods – which he succinctly describes as ‘nutritional forensics’. Expanding and exemplifying how he ‘treats’ and analyses people’s nutritional needs he noted how from birth and through personal evolution ‘environment’ takes over.

He cites poor sleeping patterns and poor diet as prime causes, which results for example, in the body storing body fat in certain areas. He uses this to determine what’s ‘wrong’ with a person’s hormonal system. The specific example of a female who stores fat around her bottom is provided. BioSig would identify this fat accumulation as attributable to increased oestrogen secretions.

Through BioSiganture supplements would then be administered to clear these secretions up. “It is essentially ‘spot reduction’ i.e. what we (as coaches and fitness professionals) were essentially told doesn’t exist.” Poliquin’s supplements and the associated exercise routine work to remove fat from body areas and create a positive hormonal balance.

Like Poliquin I’ve become aware that spot reduction might be possible – although I don’t claim to have anywhere near his knowledge. Apparently there are thousands of research papers that have appeared in the last year that vindicate the potential of spot reduction. Bio-sig supplements are manufactured to very high standards.

From next year Britain will have regulatory standards in place that make the supplements sold in this country of the highest standards and levels of integrity. Poliquin explained that these might be very difficult to achieve for some companies. He then entered into a lengthy explanation of where the supplement companies source their products and why his are best.

Most companies get their main ingredients from the same sources – this means that there is potentially little real variation between products. Where he believes his products are superior is in the ‘added’ ingredients, such as the herbs that are specifically and specially produced for him.

These are produced so that, for example, they contain no impurities or contaminants. Poliquin talked about magnesium and went into detail about how it is absorbed into the body’s cells and how his products are the best absorbed. So much so that they sell significantly to the medical world where they have an application for benefitting children with autism.

I go out on a limb and ask whether for sports and fitness purposes we really do need to take supplements? “Well, maybe 150 years ago when the quality of food was so much better we didn’t, but not nowadays.” So how much can supplements improve for example, sports performance? “For athletic performance it’s very small, less then 5%.

But in terms of body composition changes (for fitness and weight loss purposes) it could be as much as 30%.” I ask about Usain Bolt and his famed ‘lightening Bolt’ ‘diet’ of chicken nuggets. Poliquin answers this by talking about the more healthy Jamaican diet of farm produce that the Olympic and World champion probably grew up on, adding that this is superior to the diet that many inner-city kids in the UK have.

Crucially he added, “It’s the diet in the formative years that can make such a big difference.” Organic food, for example, is crucial in enhancing the body for fitness and performance. Poliquin then commented on the present lack of sound nutritional and dietary advice given out to sportsmen and sportswomen, “We’re in an age where we have so-much information that we can get so much quickly, yet I don’t think we have made that much progress.”

He provides an example from his own coaching. When working with the US 4x400m relay team for one Olympics he discovered that the most commonly eaten food was cheese puffs! “Ok, at Olympic level I’ve seen guys do well without supplements or a good diet, but what could they have done with these?”

He believes that becoming a world-beater is 50% genetics, but that a good diet could add as much as 20% of the athlete’s performance. Charles’ knowledge and methods have been in so-much demand recently that he has also worked with the military.

Here he also becomes frustrated with the lack of sound advice. “I find it particularly frustrating….. some of the (nutrition) knowledge that has been around since the seventies yet has still not become accepted or mainstream.”

Dwight Philips Olympic long jump champion –a ‘Poliquin case in point’

As a former international long jumper and current coach, I was very interested to find out about the work that Poliquin did with the 2008 Olympic Champion Dwight Philips. The strength and conditioner identified that the long jumper had a lot of dysfunctions. He had weak hamstrings and vastus lateralis (part of the quadriceps muscles), for example.

“Charles’ knowledge and methods have been in so-much demand recently that he has also worked with the military”

Poliquin decided to train the athlete a bit like a body builder for the first 6 weeks of his training plan. This was because he wanted Phillips to increase his muscle mass (of which more later). Initially the athlete was sceptical. The training was designed to get Phillips’ muscles to ‘fire’ properly and once this was achieved they began to train more specifically.

Such were the returns on the athlete’s strength and conditioning programme in terms of improved speed, that he began to beat top US sprinters and ran close to 10.00sec dead for the 100m. I delve deeper looking for more ‘trade secrets’. I find out that Phillips was weak eccentrically (an eccentric muscular contraction occurs when a muscle lengthens under load – as occurs during the lowering phase of a biceps curl).

Poliquin emphasised eccentric training in the long jumper’s training. Sample eccentric workouts included, 10sec lowering phases on single reps (10 reps). The aim was to improve, what Charles explained the German’s call, the athlete’s ‘strength deficit’ (the ratio between what the athlete can lift eccentrically and concentrically).

The aim is to get the athlete to lift eccentrically 140% above their concentric 1 rep maximum (a concentric contraction occurs when a muscle shortens under load, as occurs during the lifting phase of a biceps curl). It was explained that the ‘eccentric, concentric’ strength ratio is closed as the athlete peaks.

When peak performance is required the athlete should be weak eccentrically, but strong concentrically. “In order to have good eccentric potential you need to have friction in the muscle. The way you get friction in the muscle is to increase size, but it can’t be body builder size – it has to be ‘functional’ size,” explained Poliquin.

The training programme starts with multiple sets designed to develop fast twitch muscle fibre (see page 30). These emphasise concentric muscular action – this is the hypertrophy, or ‘growth’ phase. An eccentric phase is then moved onto. During this period the aim is to achieve an eccentric capability of 140% of 1RM – as noted.

Then a training phase is introduced which is designed to develop maximal explosive power. Low, but very dynamic, heavy concentric weights exercises are performed. Here the athlete’s eccentric strength will usually increase marginally, but crucially their concentric strength will do so significantly, providing them with greater power and speed potential.

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