Strength training is known to have a number of positive benefits to our body, including causing large increases in strength (obviously), improving the size and quality of our muscle tissue, promoting fat loss, and even enhancing cognition and mood.
But despite all this, it is rare for people to see the benefits of strength training for athletes. It is commonly thought that the time of an athlete is best spent undertaking skill based training (where they can improve their ability to perform sport specific skills), or cardiovascular exercise (where they can improve their aerobic fitness and endurance performance) – and as a result, strength training is thought of as a mere afterthought (if it is thought of at all)
Which is actually terribly unfortunate, as while both skill based training and endurance exercise can have a positive impact on an athlete’s performance, strength training is hands down on of the most effective ways to improve physical performance – bar none.
Although it may go against more traditional recommendations, strength training should be an integral component of any athletes (this includes endurance based, power based, and field based athletes) training regime – and in the following article, I will outline why.
Strength training reduces the risk of sustaining an injury
One of the most effective ways to guarantee both successful athlete development and successful sports performance is quite simple – keep your athletes healthy and competing. By ensuring you, as an athlete, are completely injury free effectively guarantees that you will perform at the highest level possible when it comes to game day.
Even more so, by remaining healthy and injury free, we can train at a high level every single training session. This can improve both our skill and fitness development, increasing our physical and skill based performance, and improving our rate of athletic development.
And strength training can play an important role in making sure this happens.
Undertaking strength training with relatively heavy loads creates a huge demand on both the muscle and connective (think tendons and ligaments) of the body. This demand pushes the body outside of its comfort zone (and actually causes small micro tears in those stressed tissues), forcing it to adapt and become strong enough to handle this demand comfortably.
In doing so, the tissues of the body become stronger and more durable – which ultimately means they can handle the rigours of both training and performance better. This will greatly reduce the risk of that tissue developing an injury.
As a bonus, by increasing the strength of our muscle tissue, it becomes much more efficient at absorbing force during powerful movements such as jumping, landing, bounding, and twisting. This reduces the load absorbed through the joints (and the ligaments surrounding them) during those same movements. This will further reduce the likelihood of devolving an injury at those joints, while also making our movements more efficient – which I promise is a good thing!
Strength training makes us more explosive
When it comes to athletic performance, it is often those who can sprint the fastest, change the direction the quickest, and jump the highest who are most successful. While strength training is undoubtedly a way to improve strength, it is incredibly important to note that strength training is also an incredibly effective way to improve power (and subsequently, our ability to perform the powerful movements outlined above).
Power ultimately refers to our ability to express force rapidly. The faster we can express force, the higher we can jump and the quicker we can move. To put it very simply, our strength describes the maximum amount of force we can produce.
So for an example, if we have two individual athletes weighing in at 190 pounds, one of which can squat 350 pounds, and the other 500 pounds – the one who can squat 500 pounds has more strength, and can, therefore, express more force. And while these examples may seem somewhat unrealistic, they are certainly not out of the realm of possibility when it comes to athletes who compete at the elite level.
Now, as power is simply the speed at which we can produce force, the more force we can produce (or the stronger we are), the greater our potential power output is. This means is we improve our strength, we have a much better capacity to improve speed, jumping ability, and our ability to change direction rapidly.
So again using the above example, the stronger of the two athletes will have a much higher celling when it comes to their ability to develop speed, acceleration, jumping ability, and change of direction speed.
Strength training can improve endurance performance
And while the benefits of strength training for power athletes may now seem quite obvious – it is important to reiterate that strength training can also have positively impacted the performance of endurance athletes as well.
It was traditionally thought that strength training and endurance performance were at completely opposite ends of the spectrum – where improving one will negatively impact our ability to do the other.
But, in more recent times, there has been a huge amount of evidence demonstrating that this is in fact not the case in the slightest – with strength training having been shown to cause significant improvements in our ability to perform endurance based activities such as cycling and running.
And this is actually very logical if we think about it for a second.
If we are talking about either cycling or running, the activity itself is ultimately the process of repeatedly producing small amounts of force (in either a single step, or in the case of cycling, a single pedal stroke). Each step or pedal stroke with have the same repeated force output.
As mentioned above, if we get stronger (through strength training) the amount of force we can apply each step (or pedal stroke) increases. As a result, we would actually use less force each individual step to maintain the same speed we did prior to getting stronger. This means that each step we will be able to move further (because we are applying more force into the ground) and faster, despite using the same amount of energy.
This has been demonstrated in both running and cycling athletes, where strength training combined with endurance training has shown much greater improvements in endurance performance than only endurance training.
These improvements are suggested to come from an increase the body’s efficiency. It becomes more efficient at both absorbing and producing force, and as such requires less energy. This means that after getting stronger, we require less energy to work at any given intensity, which can cause a huge jump in our endurance performance.
So we now realise that traditional strength training methods can have HUGE improvements in our athletic performance – and that these improvements hold for both power-based athletes, field based athletes, and endurance based athletes.
Despite this, there is still a number of important things we need to consider when looking at the practical applications of this information.
Prioritise large compounds movements
While this advice generally holds true for everyone, it is absolutely essential for athletic populations. Large compound movements, such as squats and deadlifts (and their single leg variations) closely replicate more athletic movements (such as jumping, sprinting, and bounding).
As such, by prioritising these movements, we directly develop the muscle tissue involved in these movements. This improves their ability to produce force during these movements, while also increasing their efficiency during these movements (which will reduce the risk of injury during these same movements)
Moreover, large compound movements allow us to lift the most weight. The more weight we use, the greater that the stress placed on the nervous system is. This increases the adaptation that the neural system undergoes, which greatly improves both our efficiency and our force producing capacity during these more specific movements – which as we know, improves both our power and endurance performance.
Ensure technique is on point
Similar to our first point, this suggestion is not only applicable to athletes but everyone strength training in a gym setting – despite this, it is unquestionably much too important to ignore. Training with the correct technique is absolutely integral for two key reasons.
Firstly, training with a high degree of technical proficiency ensures that we are loading the correct muscles during the exercises we are performing. This subsequently reduces the load absorbed through the joints and the passive structures surrounding them, which greatly reduces the risk of developing a training-related injury. This becomes increasingly important with more athletic populations, as they are generally stronger, and as such use more absolute load during their training.
Secondly, by using the correct technique and ensuring that we are loading the correct muscle groups, we will get improved strength development of those muscle groups. This will improve the translation of strength training over towards athletic movements, increasing their effectiveness.
Slow down the eccentric portion of the lift
The eccentric portion of a strength training exercises describes the ‘lowering’ section, where the muscle is actually lengthening under load. A couple examples of this would be the descent of a squat, lowering the bar to your chest during a bench press, or when you’re returning the bar back down to the ground in the deadlift.
By slowing down the eccentric portion of a given exercise, we improve the muscle’s ability to handle stress when they are under stretch (which is a position where muscle tissue is at a higher risk of injury). By increasing the eccentric strength of our muscles, we can greatly reduce the risk of soft tissue injury.
It is also important to note that we only want to slow down the eccentric portion of the lift – once we are at the bottom it is essential that we explode through the concentric portion (or ‘up’ portion) up position. This allows us to develop the explosive strength and power necessary to increase improve our athletic performance.
Putting it all together
So taking all of this into consideration, an example full body strength training program geared towards improving athletic performance may look something like this:
|1A||Barbell Back Squat (2 second eccentric)||3x4|
|2A||Romanian Deadlift (3 second eccentric)||3x6|
|2B||Barbell Bench Press||3x8|
|4A||Single Arm DB Overhead Press||3x8|
|4B||Single Arm DB Row||3X10|
In this example, we are prioritising compound movements while placing a primary emphasis on the eccentric portion of lower body lifts. A, B, and C, exercises are used as a super-set, to both save time and create a slight aerobic demand between exercises (although it is important to note that we are swapping between the upper body and lower body exercises, so fatigue from one will not impact the other).
This example would be suitable for both power and endurance athletes as it focuses on using more traditional rep ranges recommended for strength development and as such places an emphasis on developing the efficiency of the neural system.
Strength training should be an integral component of any athlete’s training regime – irrespective of the sport they compete in. Strength training can improve both power and endurance performance, and can greatly reduce the risk of developing injuries.
By implementing the tips outlined above, you can see serious improvements in performance safely and effectively, while causing a massive reduction in injury risk.
Why not check out our other Strength Training Guides:
Lehance, Cédric, et al. “Muscular strength, functional performances and injury risk in professional and junior elite soccer players.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 19.2 (2009): 243-251. Viewed at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2008.00780.x/full
Wisløff, U., et al. “Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players.” British journal of sports medicine 38.3 (2004): 285-288. Viewed at: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/38/3/285.short
Häkkinen, K., et al. “Neuromuscular adaptations during concurrent strength and endurance training versus strength training.” European journal of applied physiology 89.1 (2003): 42-52. Viewed at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00421-002-0751-9
Askling, Carl, Jon Karlsson, and Alf Thorstensson. “Hamstring injury occurrence in elite soccer players after preseason strength training with eccentric overload.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 13.4 (2003): 244-250. Viewed at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1034/j.1600-0838.2003.00312.x/full