There are a huge number of training systems/ approaches out there designed to improve sports performance. Some work exceptionally well, and some are flawed. These flawed systems are easy enough to spot if you know what to look for, but most often, it’s the perfectly good systems- the ones WE KNOW WORK- that cause the problem.
They are used out of context, and slowly but surely, start to fall apart.
This has resulted in a huge problem: Sports coaches telling players that the best approach is to “stick to the sport”. Weaknesses are never improved, strengths never maximised, and ultimately, talented athletes don’t get the opportunity to reach their potential.
As an S&C Coach, solving problems for sports coaches is a priority for me, and unfortunately, too many S&C coaches do the opposite, and create problems. A perfectly good approach, in the wrong context, can lead to tired, slow, and injury prone athletes.
The right approach, at the right time, can build robust, strong, sharp, and confident athletes on the pitch.
Here I’ll address some key concerns for athletes, coaches and support staff when it comes to using the gym to help athletes and teams reach their potential.
Why would athletes need to train more than just the sport itself?
Gym work takes time and energy that could otherwise be spent on the field, so why do it in the first place?
Well, here’s a couple of reasons:
- Improved power/ speed
- Improved physicality
- Injury prevention
- Improve sport specific conditioning
Improved Power/ speed:
In all running based sports, we DO lift something. We lift our own mass, and that mass is enough to require an underlying level of strength to move it effectively. So, for weaker athletes, simply getting stronger in the muscles required for sport WILL improve performance, by helping you to move faster and more efficiently.
If the sport allows any level of contact, being more physical and balanced will help you to have the advantage. If you lack physicality, perfectly reasonable levels of contact from the opposition may disrupt your performance. If you can improve overall strength, balance, and movement quality, then this contact (within the limits of the game) won’t disrupt your performance.
Reduced risk of injury:
Sport is inherently unbalanced, meaning differences build up in the body side to side, or front to back. This can lead to problems in movement, overuse injuries in specific areas, and weakness that becomes a problem further down the line.
In addition, sport is chaotic. We may not be exposed to a stimulus for weeks at a time, then suddenly, be exposed to a huge force that we’re not used to (we may stumble, overstretch, land awkward, etc). Being ill prepared for this is almost certain to result in injury.
Ensuring that we’re exposed to an appropriate and progressive stimulus over time (AKA, the muscles are trained) helps to reduce these types of injuries.
Improved specific conditioning:
All sports have some key qualities associated with them. It may be strength, acceleration, jumping ability, change of direction ability, skill, ability to repeat high intensity actions, VO2 max, or any other key physical quality.
The most efficient way to train these underlying qualities is to focus on specific development for it.
Sometimes, this can be built into the specifics of the game (think small–sided games in football for skill and specific fitness qualities), but often, qualities such as strength and power are best trained in the gym, or at least in focused strength/ power sessions.
Clearly, Gym work can have some huge benefits to performance.
The following questions have all come from coaches, expressing their reasons for wanting to avoid strength programmes with their athletes.
Coach Question 1: Will athletes get slow and bulky if training includes lifting weights?
Absolutely not, if done effectively. The problem is that most of the time, people confuse “bodybuilding” with athletic development in the gym. They use exercises, reps, sets, and effort levels far more suited to bodybuilding training rather than athletic performance.
This is a fault of the coaches. Programmes that will make the athlete stronger, but will also disrupt their performance.
The solution is simple. Train athletes like athletes. Recognise the gym is there to assist the outcome of making better athletes for their sport.
Be selective, cut out unnecessary work, focus on the key areas that need training, and manage fatigue and recovery.
Coach Question 2: Will athletes be less sharp and tired from gym work?
Building on the previous response, the simple answer is no, this shouldn’t happen. But we know it does, so why is that?
Mismanaging recovery can mean that athletes burn out much faster, or are sore from gym work when they should be fresh for the game.
This isn’t an inherit part of including gym work, and again mainly comes from driving the new stimulus too hard, or not recognising the importance of recovery.
If we are clear on the goals of the training session, build it into the plan that allows for enough stimulus for adaptation (but not too far beyond this), but also adequate time to recover, then athletes shouldn’t see a negative carry over to performance during the training phase.
The point is that they should see huge benefits after a couple of weeks of training, with positive carryover to their performance anywhere between a few days to a few months, depending on the training goal.
Coach Question 3: Is it worth training strength/ power qualities during the season?
Absolutely. In the past, athletes have seen the off season as the only opportunity to get in the gym. Whilst it’s true that this presents us with a huge opportunity to work strength and power without needing to balance this with other fitness qualities, neglecting these areas throughout the season only leads to weaker, more injury prone athletes as the season progresses.
With an intelligent plan, we should absolutely be including some form of strength/ power training throughout.
I’ll speak about this in the coming weeks, as we dig deeper into topics such as concurrent training, speed development, velocity–based training, and more.
Hopefully, this article has helped to clarify that “gym work” is a valuable part of an athletic development programme for sports.
Strength and Conditioning works to enhance performance. But it must consider the full context. To get started with us, and take your performance, or your teams’ performance to new levels, drop me an email: Josh@fxfitness.uk, and we can get started.
Josh Kennedy MSc, ASCC, CSCS
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