Is My Training Actually Making Me a Better Athlete?

Is what I’m doing in the gym actually making me better at my sport, or is it making me better in the gym? It’s probably not a question you’ve asked yourself when you stepped into the gym to get stronger for your sport, but it’s one you should ask yourself quickly if you want ensure you’re improving, or worse, actually hurting your sport performance. If you’re looking to get faster, hit harder, make quicker decisions, improve your conditioning or any other sport performance marker read on to see some of the key questions and concepts you should consider

Movements vs. Muscles

If you know how much weight you can use on the leg extension machine, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not training effectively for your sport. Bodybuilding and fitness training has taken over social media, which is awesome, however, this often gives the impression that this is the only way to train. I cannot think of a single sport where the quadriceps contract in isolation, in fact, unless you call going to the doctor to get your reflexes tested, I’m willing to bet my entire life’s savings that there isn’t one (dirty bet by the way, there’s actually no such thing as true isolation). The point is that in sport you’re required to produce power in specific movements, with contribution from many muscles all working together in incredible synergy to produce force in a specific direction. The further you get away from using common chains of muscles to do these movements and training one muscle at a time, the less likely you are to see an improvement in your sport by strengthening them. I wish we could all bicep curl our way to the NHL, but sadly biology screwed that one for us.

Athlete Specificity: Beginner vs Advanced

At the time of writing this article the 2016 Olympic Summer Games are underway, putting the best in the world on display in many sports, and along with all the coverage of the sports themselves, there’s little snippets of how the athletes are training, which is probably one of my favourite parts of the whole games, however, for sake of entertainment they usually cherry pick the most intriguing parts of the training process, leaving out the whole foundation of what makes those methods effective for that person at that time. Sports science has shown us that what may improve a beginners performance can actually make an advanced athlete worse and what may improve an advanced athlete’s performance may actually decrease performance or injure a beginner.

Let’s quickly define what I mean by beginner, intermediate and advanced. First and foremost this has nothing do with sport skill; you could be the best player on your team but still be considered a beginner when it comes to strength and conditioning. Since most sports require some level of leg strength and contact with the ground/ice/field for simplicities sake we’ll be using the squat as a basic measure of strength requirements.

Beginner: Anyone with less than 2 years of strength and conditioning experience involving a barbell. You squat less than 1.5x your bodyweight.

Beginners need to get stronger with basic compound exercises, meaning all the basic human motions: the squat, the hip hinge (deadlift, pull throughs, kettlebell swings etc.), the horizontal press (pushups, bench press etc.), horizontal pulling (barbell row, dumbbell row, t-bar row etc.), vertical pull (chin-ups, lat pull downs, single arm cable pull downs etc.) vertical press (military press, kettlebell press, barbell angle press etc.) core work and loaded carries (farmers walk variations, planks, rotational drills). now is a great time to learn some explosive drills like olympic lift variations, but these shouldn’t be loaded significantly until adequate strength and technique has been acquired. At this point getting the entire body stronger in al directions will make you faster, more efficient, and more powerful

Intermediate: 2-3 years of strength and conditioning experience. You squat between 1.5 and 2x your bodyweight. You have almost reached the required strength levels for your sport.

Intermediates have gained significant levels of strength and have seen some improvements in their sport performance due to their training. They can still get some performance improvements from further strength but we’re starting to reach the level of diminishing returns, more of the training time should be spent on the movements relevant to your sport, for example a sprinter would want to work more on the hip hinge and horizontal speed than on upper body pressing movements. Training organization should fluctuate in accordance to the time of the year (off season vs. in-season training). At this point you will have to start working on general qualities (i.e. power, speed, power endurance) with separate methods – as simply getting stronger won’t lead to the same level of fitness as separating these methods

Advanced: At least 3 years of strength and conditioning experience. You have reached the strength requirements needed for your sport. You squat between 2 and 2.5+x your bodyweight or more depending on the demands of your sport. You can no longer improve sport performance by simply getting stronger. Your training is now highly specific depending on time of the year, your specific qualities that need to be improved. How these qualities will be transferred from weight room skills in a closed environment to the unpredictable environment of competitive sports is one of the most complex and highly debated issues in all of sport training. At this point every athlete has a strength and conditioning coach, or at the very least a coach that also programs the strength and conditioning aspects of training.

Sport Specificity

First of all, there’s actually more similarity in many sports than athletes like to admit “Rugby is way different than American football, it’s not even close to the same sport!” it’s true, in terms of tactical means, there are some similarities but a ton of differences, but from a physical preparedness standpoint both sports involve contact with the field, quick cutting ability (aka agility), explosive straight line speed, contact with other athletes, etc. each position in each sport will require these in varying degrees, where the real difference lies is in the conditioning requirements of the athletes. Rugby is much more continuous sport whereas American football is divided into plays with separate offences and defences and special teams; this requires completely different energy system training. So here are some questions that you want to ask when determining the needs of your sport:

  1. How do I produce force? Is it in a straight line, or am I required to generate forces in many different planes?
  2. How much force do I have to produce? Think shot-put vs badminton
  3. How long to I have to produce this force?  Think powerlifting (unlimited, but average of 6s per lift) vs long jump (0.2s or less)
  4. How stable is my playing surface (field vs ice vs snow etc)? How will I balance?
  5. What do I come in contact with, and how predictable are these collisions? Remember to factor in collisions like hitting an implement like a puck or ball. What muscles will need to stabilize these collisions?
  6. How long are my games? Do I have breaks or shifts, or am I required to move for long periods of time?

These are just a start, but if you can answer all these questions, you’re well on your way to designing an effective program

Strength to Weight Ratio Requirements

“I gained 25lbs this off season!” is something you want your offensive lineman to say, or maybe your net front presence defenceman, power forward, or shot-put athlete. If your sprinter comes back and says the same thing you may have a problem, and if your cross country runner or triathlete comes in and says that, you definitely have a problem (provided they weren’t severely underweight to begin with).

As an offensive lineman your job is to put the D-Line on their ass, or make room for the running back etc. you generally don’t cover a ton field during a play, and that extra mass is going to make you harder to move, provided a good amount of it was muscle, you’ve improved your sport performance. Now a sprinter is required to move as quickly as possible, so 25lbs of mass is more weight that he or she now must move at an incredible rate. The name of the game in speed sports is power to weight ratio, so unless that 25lbs came all from fast twitch muscle fiber growth (which by the way is almost impossible)  you have a problem. Sure you may have marginally increased strength, but if it doesn’t offset the amount of mass that came along with it, you’re now slower.

If the endurance sport athlete comes in and says they’ve put on 25lbs over the off season, i don’t care if that weight was muscle or fat, you have a problem. 25lbs of extra tissue is 25lbs more you now have to keep alive, and supply oxygen to during your races, meaning that the demand on your metabolic systems is now much higher than it was before, and since the forces you’re required to generate in long distance running is between 6-10x less than those generated in sprinting, you’re not going to see much of a performance enhancement coming from that extra muscle mass. Don’t get me wrong, distance runners absolutely must strength train – it improves running efficiency and reduces injury risk, but their training had better have minimal impact on bodyweight.

What Type of Conditioning Do I Need?

This topic really deserves it’s own article, and it will get it, but for now, appreciate that the body has different energy systems and different fuel sources. Although there is some value to training some systems outside of the ones that you normally compete, the take home message is that as the season approaches you should be using conditioning exercises that closely replicate the duration of movement and the duration of rest that you’ll see in your competitive environment, which leads me to my last point

When Do I Practice and Compete?

Are you training in the weight room the same way in season as you are in the off season? This might be the biggest mistake I see athletes making, they either train way too hard during the season, trying to add 4-5 sessions on top of 4 practices and 3 games a week, then they wonder why their performance is suffering and they feel so tired all the time. On the other hand there’s the athlete that continues their 2x per week program into the offseason and doesn’t use the extra recovery ability to significantly improve their performance and therefore misses a huge opportunity to get an advantage over their competition. Your training should vary around the other demands in your sport training schedule, giving respect to the emotional demands of competition and their effects on the body systems. Some sports require general athletic abilities to be kept at a relatively high level most of the year, where some, like many fight sports, may require those abilities to peak at specific time several times a year – your training plan should reflect this!

If you take anything away from this article make it this: Training programs should be athlete specific first and foremost, sport specific, and take into consideration the other demands of the sport competition and practice schedule. If you do this, you’re way ahead of the guy following the program they got off



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