In sports, strength is necessary but not sufficient, even in strength-based sports such as strongman, power lifting, and olympic weightlifting, the top levels are ruled by those with superior skill or technique.
Strength is the underpinning quality of all movement. However, it is not sufficient to bring about high level sporting performance.
This is a common mistake made by athletes and their coaches, and a big reason why strength training for sports often gets a bad rap, or the benefits are not fully realised.
Take this common scenario:
Rugby player X has been playing for 10 years (8-18), he decides that his on-field performance could use a boost and undertakes a training program in the gym.
The program is a standard bodybuilding program focused on building muscle mass. He trains legs on Monday, chest and tri’s on Tuesday, back and bi’s on Wednesday, shoulders and abs on Thursday, and an extra arms and calves day on Friday.
The program focuses on higher reps, time under tension, short rest times, extended set options like drop sets/strip sets, and taking muscles to failure.The thought process is that increasing muscular size will make him better on the field.
Unfortunately this doesn’t really work. While increased muscle mass can set a good foundation from which strength and power can be built, muscle mass itself doesn’t improve athletic performance.
The program is a standard powerlifting program focused on increasing his strength in the big 3 lifts – squat, bench press, and deadlift. He trains squats on Monday, bench press on Tuesday, deadlift on Thursday, and some upper body accessories on Friday.
The program focuses on lower reps, accumulating volume through multiple sets, heavy weights, maximum recovery between sets, and avoiding taking sets to failure. The thought process is that increasing strength in these lifts will translate to better performance on the field.
Unfortunately this isn’t necessarily the case either, while strength is an important component of athletic performance, increasing your numbers on the powerlifts doesn’t result in improved sporting performance.
So what is the right way?
Well, there is no right way. If there was, it would be obvious which program was superior and every athlete would follow that program to the promised land of athletic performance.
There are many successful athletic development programs that can look completely different from the outside looking in, but they will all have similar underpinning principles.
The following are a few of the ingredients (in no particular order) that I believe are vital to long-term success in training and competition.
Almost all athletes will face the issue of developing imbalances in their sport. Tennis players and golfers have rotational and left/right dominance, rugby players will have imbalances depending on which side of the field they play on, or which side of the scrum they push from. Even track athletes will have imbalances from always leaning left into the bend.
One of the most important functions of training is to address these imbalances that are created simply by playing the game, as well as the postural deficiencies that people develop as a result of everyday life. Correcting these imbalances allows us to spend more time in biomechanically optimal positions, thus reducing our chances of injury.
It is also important to build a reserve of strength in certain muscle groups and movement patterns that will help us better withstand the forces placed upon us in our sport. If we can prepare ourselves in training to handle loads and forces over and above what we are likely to deal with on the field/court/track, we drastically reduce our chance of injury.
In the gym we can expose ourselves to high-force situations in a safer and more controllable manner than we would ever be able to in our sport, thus giving us a much larger capacity to handle high forces when exposed to them in the game.
Teaching good movement
Top tier athletes have an exceptional understanding (conscious or subconscious) of how their body works. Some have learned it through thousands of hours of playing, some have learned through an injury and the subsequent rehab process, some say they were ‘born with it’ (a discussion for another time). For those that need to improve their physical awareness, the gym is a perfect environment for athletes to learn how their body works.
While improving performance in sport is always the number one priority, the game situation is a poor environment for teaching athletes movement. This environment is too complex, ballistic, unpredictable, inconsistent, and full of distractions to attempt to learn movement skills at the same time.
Conversely, the gym is a safe, predictable, consistent environment where we can build skills from the ground up, eventually transitioning these skills to more complex and dynamic situations where we will see the transfer to our sporting performance.
One of the most beneficial functions a training program can provide, is that it positively affects an athlete’s mindset. If your team can run onto the field believing without a doubt that you are physically superior to your opponents, the game is already 90% won.
Your training program should be set up so that players feel like they are constantly making progress, even if only in small amounts. When athletes feel good, they play good.
Regardless of what we are doing for training, we must always be looking to improve on our loading parameters:
-Exercise (more difficult variation)
-Weight (more load)
-Sets (more sets)
-Reps (more reps)
-Tempo (more time under tension)
-Rest time (less rest)
As long as we are improving on one of these parameters we know that we are progressing with our training, note that the demands of the chosen sport will determine which loading parameters are the most important to improve on.
Last but not least, 90% of athletes do NOT enjoy training, they just want to play their sport, because it is enjoyable to them. Athletes train because they accept that it is a necessary component for long term sporting success, what this means is that they will generally approach training with a less than 100% effort mindset.
If you can make your training more enjoyable, you will unconsciously have a higher output, Enjoyable training also means you are less likely to miss sessions when you are tired, busy, etc.
There are plenty of ways to make training more fun; creating competition, playing games, adding variety, anything that distracts from the fact that you are working hard will go a long way to making training more enjoyable.
To wrap up, while strength is a vital part of athletic dominance, it is not enough.
A superior athlete will also have less imbalances, more resilience, sound movement patterns, be more confident, be consistently progressing, and be having fun.