So you are a strength coach and one of your athletes just walked into the weight room. Is he ready to train today? Not his mind-set or his gear, I’m talking about his biology. Can you look at him and see the state of his nervous system? The fact is, with the naked (albeit trained) eye, you can’t. What you need is a tool to help you see inside the athlete. Lucky for you, technology is bridging the gap between a coach’s observation of an athlete and a medical analysis of biology. On the surface, medicine and coaching might seem somewhat unrelated.

Take a deeper look, however, and the relationship becomes apparent. Look at it this way, strength training programs are meant to literally alter an athlete’s biology. That’s the whole point; the training adaptation is an alteration of the organism’s structure. This makes being able to monitor the development of the athlete on a biological level a powerful tool in the hands of a strength coach. I’m talking about being able to monitor what is going on inside of the athlete. This is where technologies like HRV can play a vital role for S/C coaches.

Heart Rate Variability is what HRV stands for, genius. It is an analysis of an ECG scan taken from the beating heart. Here is a picture for all of you primates, to show what I mean.

HRV breaks down the different phases of the beating heart. A few things the software looks at are the frequency of the beats, the time between beats, the strength of the beat, the length of the beat, and the rhythm of heart as it pumps blood, just to name a few. Data is taken by placing sensors on the wrist and ankles, or directly on the sternum. (The upside of this is that it’s not an intravenous assessment like testing blood lactate, for example.) By recording the afore-mentioned criteria over the course of about two minutes (in most software applications) HRV then interprets the data and provides feedback as to the state of the athlete’s Autonomic Nervous System at that moment in time. Notice I said, “at that moment in time”.  I wanted to point that out because, in order to determine the most accurate picture of how an athlete adapts to stress, a one time test isn’t going to cut it. Often, frequent (1-4x daily) assessment is needed.

The larger the pool of data, the more accurately you will know how that individual adapts to stress. The heart is a great indicator of how stress is affecting the body. Taking a look at the heart with HRV can be a valuable insight into how, not only your training is affecting the athlete, but life in general is affecting them.

Now is a good time to take a step back and talk about stress. Robert M. Sapolsky, in his book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, provides an insightful description.

“You sit in your chair, not moving a muscle, and simply think a thought, a thought having to do with feeling angry or sad or euphoric or lustful, and suddenly your pancreas secretes some hormone.   Your pancreas?  How did you manage to do that with your pancreas?  You don’t even know where your pancreas is. Your liver is making an enzyme that wasn’t there before, your spleen is text-messaging something to your thymus gland, blood flow in little capillaries in your ankles just changed. All from thinking a thought.”

I like that definition because it helps demonstrate that many things, which have nothing to do with training, can affect stress; which in turn affects training. Basically stress can be anything from waking up to an alarm clock to having a near death experience on the way to practice. I asked coach Mark McLaughlin to weigh in on stress and the effect it has on athletes.  He said that there are many different things that can affect stress and the cascade of effects it has on athletes. These can include sleep, hygiene, social activities, nutrition, travel, heavy competition schedule, school, poor fitness and or over-training, recovery methods i.e. using at them at the wrong time or using the improper method.

With so many factors affecting stress, there’s no way you can look into an athlete’s eyes, see their Sympathetic nervous system hammering away and say, “Looks like you need to take it easy today.” That is why it’s so critical for S/C coaches to have accurate tools that look at the effect of stress on the organism. Take it from Tom Myslinski of the Jacksonville Jaguars, “to me, really all we are [as coaches] is stress regulators.”

When an athlete tests their readiness on HRV software, the results will show the state of both sides of the ANS. Generally speaking, athletes will be overreached one way or the other. On Omegawave (pictured above), the green area is considered within the norm or “good to go”.  A certain degree of variation to the right or left is considered acceptable. In other words, you don’t have to totally overhaul the day’s training if the athlete is a little off. Also, HRV doesn’t diagnose problems. It simply points out that, at this moment in time, there seems to be an imbalance in the ANS.  It’s the coach’s job to figure out the cause of the imbalance and correct it, which is where the ART of coaching comes into play. This is done through asking the athlete questions and evaluating training. That being said, when an athlete consistently (over the course of weeks or months) is testing Sympathetic overreached, something needs to change. If the coach continues to work him down despite the data, what the hell is the point of having the data? HRV is useless in the hands of the incompetent coach.

As a coach, it’s important to understand that the body’s systems are always seeking to be in equilibrium. So if an athlete tests overreached one way or the other, it’s important to consider that the body is constantly attempting to reverse that imbalance. Pushing an athlete who is overreached can further inhibit allostasis. If this trend continues over time, you have an injury on your hands. Example? Kevin Ware. It’s important to recognize what exercises cause which adaptation in the ANS.

Activities which activate the SNS are max effort or high intensity exercises. Again, having HRV software can be pivotal in determining what activities are causing your athletes to become Sympathetic overreached. For some, even sprinting in practice can cause a large stress response and throw them out of whack. We’ll get into that in a minute.  Activities which stimulate the PSNS include low intensity exercises used with high volume. Again, I asked Mark McLaughlin how he would train to stimulate the PSNS or in other words, stimulate recovery through training. He said it would be an easier session (an example would be cardiac work with HR between 100-130 bpm), extensive warm-ups, and easy medicine ball circuits.


Now that we’ve covered the in’s and outs of what HRV is, let’s talk about application of the science. Let’s be honest, nobody really cares how much a football player can bench. All they really care about is if he will help them win games. Physical performance comes second to actual game-time performance. That’s why guys like Kembo Slice don’t play football.  Ever heard the phrase, train like Tarzan play like Jane? That’s what I’m talking about. A quote from Henk Kraaijenhof is instructive,

“Train as much as necessary, not as much as possible.”

The whole point of training is to make the players more effective at winning games. If the training doesn’t translate to winning games, because the athletes are over-trained, then what the hell are we doing in the first place? Finding that optimal point where athletes are ready to perform is the trick of the trade. HRV is giving coaches one more tool to help them find that fine point. It’s helpful to know the difference between readiness and preparedness when searching for the right amount of training.


Purely physiological status of how close to 100% the athlete’s body is ready to display preparation.


The level of tactical skill acquired by the athlete in playing their respective sport. Being in an optimal state of readiness means that an athlete can display his or her skill to best of their ability. The training has prepared them just enough so as to not hold them back from being the best they can be. This is the ultimate goal.  Having tools like HRV to gauge readiness during training can be of great value. Knowing how training affects the individual can help to tailor the training to each person’s specific needs.


It’s important to bear in mind that HRV isn’t the only tool. HRV doesn’t tell you the flexibility of the ankle joint or the state of the CNS.   It can’t show you metabolic function or track gas exchange. (Omegwave can, though). The takeaway?  There are many tools at your disposal as an S&C coach.  Don’t get stuck using only a few of them. There are no shortcuts when it comes to biology, so don’t mistake this article as me advocating HRV as the end all solution. Do what you must to be as efficient as possible in preparing your athletes for the task at hand. Then stop and don’t do any more.  I will leave you with a quote from an article on HRV I read on Mr. Kraaijenhof’s blog.

The danger is that by marketing HRV as THE way to measure recovery, using it as the single parameter indicating whether the body has recovered from a workout or not, leads to big mistakes. This mistake is logical and natural, very few people take the effort and trouble to deal with the complexity of physiology, biochemistry and adaptation. Most of us are looking for the one singular parameter that will tell it all.   Somebody very smart stated a long time ago: “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution……. and it is wrong."