Friday, December 30, 2022

Strength and Athletics - By RJ Hicks MS, CSCS

One of the most common misconceptions in the field of strength is that athletes need to train differently than the common non-athlete. Many coaches believe that athletes must always train on their feet, train specific movement patterns, train only with free weight or use ballistic movements in order to best prepare them for their sport. These strength coaches confuse athletics and the Iron Game. They want to be attached to the athletes because of their love for athletics, not for their passion and knowledge for strength. They lose sight of why athletes are supposed to weight training and attempt to blend their training over to what the sports coaches is suppose to do. Athletes will benefit from weight training, but will not become better athletes because of it.

If you want to improve performance in the sports venue, you must train the entire body. It doesn’t matter what sport someone participates in or what position they play. It takes all of the muscles coordinated efforts at once to perform any athletic skill, regardless of their sport. Every muscle comes into play whether it is actively contracting to initiate movement, assist with movement, stabilize the body during movement or resist against movement. That is why the training program should include every muscle in the body, from the neck on down. The more force your muscles can produce the more efficiently your body will be able to move. It is that simple. When athletes train all the major muscles surrounding their joints, they increase their structural integrity. The most important aspect of training is to keep the athlete healthy so they can continue to develop their sports skills and compete in competition. Injured athletes can’t practice their sports skills and hurt the team’s chances from winning. By strengthening the total body, you are increasing the physical function of the body, improving the quality of muscle, increasing bone mineral density, and reducing the risk of soft tissue injuries by increasing the thickness and stiffness of tendons and ligaments. Dan Riley, Mark Asanovich, Ken Mannie and many other great coaches have said it many times that the number one priority in the weight room is to protect the athlete from the high levels of force they are exposed to in their sport.

The program should consist of mostly compound exercises and some isolation exercises to ensure all of the major muscle groups are being trained. There should be equal emphasis on pushing and pulling exercises, executed in both a bi-lateral and iso-lateral fashion. Athletes need to be strong front to back and left to right. Iso-lateral exercises will help balance out strength levels between each limb from the natural imbalance that occurs from playing sports. The program foundation should consist of: vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull, leg/hip/back push/pull. Exercises for the neck, grip, calves, low back and the mid-section must also be included in the program so that the athlete can be strong from their head to their toes.

These basic exercises make up the main part of the program, regardless of the sport. The only thing you can do to make the program more specific it to identify which exercise an athlete can and cannot do and to identify the top injuries for each specific sport. At the end of the workout, you want to include a few exercises that combat those specific injuries. This is something I learned from Jamie Labelle, who coached hundreds of athletes at his old training facility “The Quality Repetition”. If the knee and ankle are the most common injuries for a basketball player, at the end of the workout make sure to perform a specific exercise to strengthen those areas. The more exercises you include in the program the fewer sets you will be able to program. The goal of the program is to strengthen all the major muscles groups of the body, not to develop a high-level skill of lifting. One or two sets for each exercise will be enough to develop strength if meaningful overload is used. Athletes do not need to perform three to four sets per exercise to develop strength. There is no rep/set protocol that produces more significant results than another. What’s more important is the quality of training rather than the quantity of workouts. Remember strength training is only part of the equation for athletes. They must be able to recover from specific skill work, conditioning, sports practice and competition.

The argument of free weights over machines for athletes is purely based on perception. Coaches like to argue that free weights are better for athletes, because they more functional due to the balance and skill needed to use them. Balance and skill have nothing to do with developing strength. They are not in the weight room to recreate different movement patterns in the weight room, they are in there to build strength. Greater instability decreases the amount of muscular force an athlete is able to produce, working against their ability to provide overload to the muscles. The more skill involved in an exercise often times the less effective the exercise becomes. There is no reason to incorporate exercises that require great skill for non-strength athletes. Motor learning experts agree that for positive transfer of a skill to occur, training must be exact not similar or close too. If an athlete is wanting to improve their tackling, they must practice tackling an opposing play with proper technique at near game speed. Lifting a bar from the floor to their knees and violently extending their hips is not the same movement and will do nothing to improve the athlete’s skill.

Athletes should use the best tools available to them, whether it is barbells, dumbbells or good machines. There are some good barbell and dumbbell exercises that an athlete can use, but training the neck, upper back and lower body are limited without good machines. As Bob Whelan says “good machines are nothing but guided barbells”. They are very beneficial to have and allow some athletes to perform movements productively they would not be capable of otherwise. The best option is to use a mix of both, but if free weights are the only option the training principles remain the same. With a mix of free weights and machines you can incorporate more exercises, greater variety and fit the tool to the athlete instead of fitting the athlete to the tool. Below are a few sample programs.

Basketball player-

Military press Iso lateral row Leg press Neck flexion/ neck extension Calve raise Iso lateral chest press Pulldown Iso lateral leg press Abdominal crunch/back extension Gripper

Extra work: Knee and Ankle Leg extension Leg curl Seated calf raise/tibia flex

Baseball player-

incline press iso lateral pulldown Squat Neck lateral flexion Abdominal rotation Iso military press Seated low row HS one legged deadlifts One legged calve raise Wrist roller

Extra Work: Shoulder and Elbow Lateral raise External rotator cuff Reverse thick bar curls Tricep pushdowns

The program is supposed to help protect athletes and maximize their muscular strength to improve their physical function. Moving fast with weights will not make an athlete run faster in competition. The speed at which muscle fibers contract are pre-determined by birth. Power cleans and depth jumps will not change their biological make up or their neurological efficiency. An athlete is either “hook up” or not based off of their genetic potential. Improvement in technique, tactical knowledge, experience, body composition, and an athlete’s determination to make the play are what make an athlete explosive past what was decided at birth. The only thing in the weight room an athlete can do to increase their speed is to continue to strengthen their muscles used for running. A stronger muscle will always produce more force. The safest and most efficient way to do this is to allow the muscles to lift and lower weights through the fullest range of motion. Yanking, jerking, bouncing or throwing weight around in the weight room will minimize the total amount of muscle fibers recruited at best and lead to acute or chronic injuries at worse.

The truth is an athlete’s training program looks very similar to a non-athletes training program. There are no special exercises, equipment or training principles that athletes need. Muscle fibers are human. Human anatomy and philology do not change because of the activities you participate in. The same basic total body training template that works for an office employee will work for a professional soccer player. The weights, intensity and some preventative exercises may vary between the two, but the training principles remain the same. Good form, progressive overload and proper rest will allow muscle to adapt and grow for athletes and non-athletes alike.
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