Strength training is an essential element of fitness for virtually every sports man and woman. Long gone are the days when coaches believed resistance exercises only added unnecessary bulk to the athlete, hindering their ability to execute skill.
The benefits of strength training to athletic performance are enormous and many. Not only is it an integral conditioning component for power athletes such as football and rugby players, performance in the pure endurance events can be improved with a well-structured strength routine.
However, aside from perhaps bodybuilders, sport-specific resistance training requires a more refined approach than simply lifting heavy weights to complete exhaustion. A physiological analysis of any game or event will confirm that most athletes require explosive power, muscular endurance, maximal strength or some combination of all three in order to excel. Rarely is pure muscle bulk the primary concern and when it is, other elements of strength are equally as important.
Elements of a Strength Training Program
Synonymous with most people’s perception of strength training, hypertrophy refers to increased muscle bulk and size. This is only one aspect of a sport-specific strength training program and one that should be included for only a select group of athletes. Football and rugby players require significant bulk to withstand very aggressive body contact. For most athletes, however, too much muscle bulk is a hindrance. And remember that a larger muscle is not necessarily a stronger muscle.
Maximal strength is the highest level of force an athlete can possibly generate. Its importance will vary between sports but this relates more to the length of the maximal strength training phase than whether it should be included or not (1). The greater an athlete’s maximal strength to begin with, the more of it can be converted into sport-specific strength endurance or explosive power.
Maximal strength training can improve exercise economy and endurance performance (2,3). Interestingly, it does not appear to lead to a significant increase in muscle hypertrophy (4).
Rarely is an athlete required to produce a singular maximal effort in their sport. With the exception of powerlifting, most sports require movements that are much more rapid and demand a higher power output than is generated during maximal lifts (5,6). So while maximal strength training lays an important foundation increasing the potential for additional power development, if there is no conversion of this strength into sport-specific power, the program as a whole is much less effective.
An athlete can be exceptionally strong but lack substantial power due to an inability to contract muscle quickly. Power training is used to improve the rate of force production and a range of methods such as plyometrics can be employed to convert maximal strength into explosive power.
Explosive power is not always the predominant goal of the strength training program. For events such as distance running, cycling, swimming and rowing, strength endurance is a major limiting factor. Again, the greater amount of starting maximal strength, the more of it can be maintained for a prolonged period.
Strength endurance can be developed through circuit training or the use of low weights and high repetitions. However, many strength endurance programs are inadequate for endurance-based sports – a set of 15-20 repetitions, for example, does not condition the neuromuscular system in the same way as a long distance event.
The concept of periodization is key to sport-specific strength training. Dividing the overall training plan into succinct phases or periods, each with a specific outcome allows sport-specific strength to peak at the right times, whilst minimizing the risk of over-training.
It also allows more specific elements of strength to be built on a solid and more general fitness foundation. Athletes cannot progress week-in week-out indefinitely so periodization permits variations in intensity and volume to promote performance enhancements for as long as possible.