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Weight Training for Sports: An Introduction

By Alan Frost, updated February, 2014

male atheleteTraining for sports is one of the most common weight training goals among gym goers. Sports as a concept vary immensely in regards to the demands placed on the athlete, however whether your game is football, soccer, tennis, or basketball, there are a number of things that they will have in common.

This article will provide an introduction to help you understand how to design a program to match your specific sport and to avoid making common mistakes.

The Importance of Power & Acceleration

Speed, acceleration, and power are crucial in most sports. Now, what about marathon running I hear you ask. Indeed, the statement I made does not strictly apply to all sports (off the top of my head I could add all endurance sports in general, bowling, curling, darts, and so on). It does however apply to the majority of popular sports, where the common element is a need for explosive power, whether to propel your own body or to exert force upon an object (e.g. a ball, puck, shuttlecock, etc.), and perhaps to maintain that high level of exertion over a certain period of time.

So what is power? Power is basically work/time or forcexdistance/time. The time aspect is what separates power from strength. The greater the time it takes to move something a certain distance, the less power is generated. For instance, if you lift a 100lbs barbell 2 feet in the air over 2 seconds, you would have generated 100x2/2, or 100 foot pounds per second. If you lift an 70lbs barbell the same distance but in 1 second, you would have generated 70x2/1, or 140 foot pounds per second. In other words significantly more power but not necessarily more strength.

You can see the importance of power and speed everywhere you look in common sports. In baseball you see it when the pitcher pitches the ball, when the batter strikes it, and when players sprint for the bases. In soccer you see it whenever the ball is kicked hard, whenever a player sprints or jumps, and when the goalkeeper dives to make a save. In weightlifting you see it when Olympic weight lifters do a clean and jerk (in contrast to a slow lift movement that might be performed by a bodybuilder).

Grand Slam champion

None of these movements are slow and controlled; all of them combine speed explosively to generate maximum force as quickly as possible. For these movements, your maximal strength (i.e. the maximum amount you can lift without using speed – roughly equivalent to your 1 rep max) is not as relevant when taken on its own – as many people seem to focus on at the gym - but it too plays a role in helping you generate more power.

Weight training should aim to improve this all-important aspect, while other kinds of physical conditioning and cardio focus on improving the endurance aspect (present in some but not all sports).

Understanding Movement - The Strength Curve

The strength curve (see diagram below – this is a simplified version of the strength curve by Hatfield, 2004) shows how our bodies execute a movement. First there is a preparation phase (point 1 in the diagram below) where you bring your arm back, bend your legs, etc. Then, in phase 2 (the amortization phase) you change direction in preparation for the desired movement. At point 3 you apply force and execute the movement. The force is maintained for the duration of the movement or until you cannot exert any more force. Virtually always however the movement itself is the limiting factor since it is very brief (e.g. striking a ball in tennis, pushing off for a high jump, etc.). Powerlifting is perhaps the only sport where max force should equal maximal strength, since the lift itself can take several seconds.

strength curve

So what does this mean?

Two of the key points on the graph are marked Q and A. Q represents your starting strength, i.e. your ability to fire as many muscle fibers as you can at once. A represents your explosive strength, i.e. your ability (or lack thereof) to maintain your muscle fibers active and to accelerate through the movement. The steeper the graph at point Q, the better your starting strength. At point A we are interested in the steepness of the graph as well as what happens at each subsequent point. A steeper graph means an increased rate of acceleration while a less steep graph means decreased acceleration.

Weight Training for Sports - Implications

The movement can be broken down into specific trainable areas.

  1. Improving the amortization phase
  2. Improving starting strength (ability to fire as many muscle fibers as you can at once)
  3. Improving acceleration & speed (ability to maintain as many muscle fibers as possible active)
  4. Improving maximal or limit strength (essentially your 1 rep max)

I will discuss these individually in future articles. For now let me just provide some general guidelines: To improve explosiveness, acceleration, and starting strength, incorporate accelerated and explosive weight training into your routine. This can be done by lowering the weight (e.g. on the squat) to about 60-70% of your 1 rep max and focusing on accelerating throughout the entire movement. Olympic lifts and plyometrics are also great tools to improve overall power, speed, and explosiveness. Remember to watch your form however since the risk of injury is even higher when performing these kinds of exercises badly.

strength curve

To improve limit strength, which is also important but secondary to the above, incorporate heavy sets with low reps and long breaks between the sets. Training this heavy requires very thorough specific warm-up (as well as the normal general warm-up and dynamic movements) and it also places great strain on the body – so give yourself time to recover. E.g. for the deadlift, squat, bench, and overhead press (each on a separate day) you might do 4 light sets of 3 reps at 40%, 50%, 60%, and 70% of your 1 rep max, leading up to a couple of working sets of 3-5 reps at 80-90% of your 1 rep max., taking 5 minute breaks between sets.

The goal is to identify your weaknesses and work on them. You can take a broader or a more specific angle, but the idea is that your training routine should reflect your sport-specific goals, always seeking to improve the areas/muscles you feel you are deficient in.

Just remember, this kind of training is hard on you, so you must first build a solid foundation to avoid injury. Begin first by focusing on core training, conditioning, and general weight training (for a few months). Also focus on perfecting your form. Then start to incorporate some of the techniques above – I would suggest simply by starting with controlled acceleration for the big four lifts (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press).

References:

Hatfield FC (2004), "Fitness the Complete Guide edition 8.6.6", International Sports Science Association’s Certified Fitness Trainer Program

Bagget, K .(2005), "Power, What it is and How to Get It", www.bodybuilding.com, accessed February 26, 2014 from: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/kelly17.htm

Waterbury C. (2011), "Why You Need More Strength", www.t-nation.com, accessed February 26, 2014 from: https://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/why_you_need_more_strength



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