Strength Training in Sport Performance◆ ☕️ 5 min read
Strength training is a popular topic in sport performance. Even in sports dominated by high movement velocities and thus not much time to produce large forces, coaches use resistance training means throughout the annual training plan to make the athletes stronger. But what exactly are we trying to achieve with strength training in a sport-specific context?
This is where many coaches fail with implementing strength training for athlete development. Due to the popularity of resistance training, there is an abundance of coaches with a background in lifting weights at the gym themselves. As such, they already have a bias towards lifting weights and that will impact how they develop their athletes.
From another side, the stakeholders behind the athlete want to see clear improvements. Getting your athlete stronger and pushing their strength numbers is an easy way to tick the box of “look, I’m useful” and keep your job.
What this environment creates is a path for strength training to become a goal in itself. Strength training often becomes an entity separate to sport-specific performance, whereas it should remain a tool to improve overall athletic performance, regardless of the sport.
Just because you’re pumping up the numbers in the gym alongside sport-specific training doesn’t mean the athlete will actually perform better. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it helps to a certain degree, then reaches diminishing returns and potentially becomes unhelpful. With the implementation of strength training in an athlete’s program, we have to have a specific goal in mind that strength training will help us reach. The minute we start lifting weights for the sake of just lifting weights, we are failing as coaches.
There will be scenarios in which blind implementation of strength training will lead to performance improvements. But that doesn’t mean it will always be the case.
We can use the concentric force-velocity curve here to illustrate this example. If we’re handed an athlete with a background in sport-specific training in a high movement velocity sport, they would be a velocity-dominant athlete by default. In terms of the force-velocity curve, this means that they operate well at high velocities, where there is not much resistance acting on them.
We could not have a conscious clue about this but still make the athlete more powerful and a better performer simply by implementing some basic resistance training. This would occur because power is the product of force and velocity. Since this athlete is velocity-dominant, their power production would largely be determined by the velocity component and lack in force. Providing them a simple force stimulus and making them better at force production would even out the equation and quickly allow for higher power outputs to be reached. Since power is a crucial quality in most sports where athletic success hinges on producing large forces quickly, we have successfully improved the athlete’s odds to perform better.
This still doesn’t mean the improvements will continue to occur indefinitely. At some stage, strength training will reach diminishing returns even for that athlete, because they’ve made the most out of it and since their sport is still dominated by high movement velocities, extensive strength training will start robbing from their velocity capabilities. Specificity always has a cost. You can’t be exceptional in both force and velocity. Something has to give. You can be good in both or great in either. And in a velocity-dominant sport, you’re far better off biasing the velocity side of things in the overall picture.
Context is king. As illustrated by the example, strength training is an effective tool to deal with the missing link in the athlete’s performance that is force production. In pursuing this, we have to figure out how much force production do we actually need for the task. We have to keep in mind that we’re not chasing force production itself, we are chasing force production for a specific goal.
What happens if we implement strength training with an athlete that is already a competent force producer?
Providing an additional force stimulus while overlooking the velocity capabilities will just dig them deeper into the hole. Sure, the coach and stakeholders might be impressed with the numbers they are able to lift in the gym, but if that isn’t directly related to their success in the sport, we’re making them a worse athlete. Performance has to always remain the goal of what we do in training.
Obviously, strength training isn’t only about force production. We can use it to target a variety of goals, like mobility improvements. As muscles respond to tension, we can use strength training to train muscles through the full range of motion with wisely selected exercises that actually target what we want to target. This will be a lot more effective for mobility than the classic static stretching or foam rolling approaches. Static stretching only facilitates a short-term neurological response. You might feel great for a while after stretching but since there is no tension applied to the muscle we aren’t actually creating any structural changes within the muscle to improve our mobility. Going into the next training session you will be in the same spot as when you started.
Additionally, we can use resistance training as a means to “fill the gaps” in the athlete’s physique and improve upon weak links in the system. Strength training is valuable as we can both make it very specific and targeted as well as use it to induce variability to the training plan to keep the athlete healthy in the long run as enforcing specificity all the time will have an impact on health.
What is common among all the listed examples is that there is a clear goal as to why strength training is implemented. Sport performance is more than just creating force production beasts. Don’t let the numbers lifted in the gym wholeheartedly define your coaching strategy. Consider the bigger picture and act with intent.