Training with Purpose: Strength Training Considerations for Athletes

TAGS: working with athletes, training considerations, exercise selection, Gabriel Naspinski, training athletes, strength and conditioning, max effort

In the public’s view, what some of us do to prepare athletes has a very small scope. The term “strength and conditioning” usually brings visions of a meathead coach loading plates, spotting athletes, and screaming motivational words. However, those of us who are in the field know that this isn't anywhere near the truth. In reality, we program the body to respond correctly and to be prepared for the requirements of an athlete’s sport. While certain sports require larger amounts of absolute strength than others, the reality is most athletes have a large amount of qualities that need to be developed with a limited amount of time to do so. Even in sports that are traditionally seen as strength related, each positional requirement can be broken down with varying levels of what can be developed through lifting weights. The purpose of this article is to examine some considerations when training athletes and to think of the entire process when designating intensity, volume, and exercise selection.

I first became involved in the strength and conditioning field as an intern at Robert Morris University. At the time, Tom Myslinski was the head strength and conditioning coach and he worked with every sport on campus. At this point, my background was very powerlifting influenced. I only knew of some things that I had read on elitefts™ and they were still above my head at the time. I started this position right as practices were starting for football and incoming freshman players were arriving. I remember being taken aback by the programming because the players weren’t moving massive weights in the weight room. There wasn't any max effort or dynamic effort work, and there wasn’t very much volume being performed. I was even more confused when some of the other sports didn't do many traditional barbell lifts such as squats and bench presses.

However, after learning more and starting to grasp an understanding of what was going on, I started to get the idea that a few things were at play. One is the fact that athletes don’t only lift weights, so the other stressors had to be accounted for. The second was that while many athletes may be talented at their sport, they don’t necessarily have a very strong background in lifting weights or strength training. Because of this, basic movements need to be performed prior to progressing to barbell lifting if barbell movements are even necessary for their sport. I will say though that it took me a while after this to not always default to strength work as the "end all be all." Even when interning at Pitt, I kept thinking that some of the volumes or intensities of lifting were lower than what I had preconceived Division I players to be capable of handling in the off-season. However, considering that the work is in conjunction with sprints, jumps, medicine ball throws, and other drills that also compete for the same central nervous system resources, it should make sense that volumes in the weight room have to be conservative.

This leads me to the next point of how many perceive what the preparation of athletes involves. Strength training for a sport like football makes people think of barbells loaded to the very ends of the collar being tossed around with players and coaches screaming motivational phrases. Often times, the public or even positional coaches are surprised to find out that some of the most skilled athletes don’t have the highest levels of maximal strength in the weight room. But these athletes might also be the most skilled at their sport and have the ability to display the strength they do have in the actual competition.

I used to be one of these people who always thought about how much better an athlete might be if he could move more weight or if he was bigger and stronger. However, this doesn’t take into account the qualities that the athlete needs to develop and how being able to lift more weight maximally in the weight room may negatively affect other qualities. In most cases, athletes don't need to lift maximally at high volumes to become stronger.

Intensity considerations

In the case that we're talking about, the intensity of the load could be described as the percent of a maximum, a rate of perceived exertion (RPE), or a measure of physiological response. For practical purposes, most coaches will usually use a percentage or RPE scale for this.

While some sports have a need for maximal strength, athletes don’t have to work maximally in these lifts to improve strength. When it comes to experience in weight training, many athletes aren't necessarily as skilled as they are at the sport they compete in. Due to this, true maximal attempts aren't usually necessary or warranted for certain athletes. For one, they can continue to get stronger and induce other desirable adaptations through other loading protocols (higher rep work to focus on muscular endurance, submaximal and repeated efforts to focus on hypertrophy, etc.). Additionally, part of the training process should focus on motor learning. For this to occur, athletes have to become efficient at movements with submaximal efforts prior to being able to perform them with maximal intensities. In essence, more than one purpose can be achieved by using submaximal and repeated effort loading protocols, but this may not be true of maximal attempts. This is especially true in athletes with limited training histories who have low levels of strength. By having them work up to a maximal attempt, they won’t really have a ton of volume when you perform the max. Contrast this with working submaximal weights and having more total work performed where the total volume will be higher.

Now, I know a few people will play devil’s advocate and say “Well, both you and I agree that athletes aren’t lifters, so why should the form be perfect?” While I understand that athletes aren’t lifters, the point here is that maximal attempts with bad form can open athletes up to injury. While I know that this may happen every once in a while when attempting a true max, it shouldn’t happen all the time. Also, the minority of training would be performed at true maximal intensities and coaches can always decide when to shut a player down. This could be done when technical flaws are beginning to surface as opposed to a true max.

Another consideration is the other stressors in the training load including sprints, jumps, throws, drills, and depending on the time of the year, practices. There will always be some give or take in this area. Central nervous system intensive activity such as sprinting has a strong neurological effect and athletes are able to produce a high amount of force in these types of movements. This doesn’t necessarily mean that high intensity strength training can’t be performed, but it may not be needed on a consistent basis. Also, in reference to lower body training, sprint and jump training provide a high intensity stimulus to the lower body in which true maximal strength work may not be necessary or may end up being counterproductive to the training process as a whole in sports that are alactic/aerobic.

The last consideration is the amount of maximal strength necessary. For certain sports, there isn't a need to display any great amount of force against large, external resistances. For these sports or positions, a greater level of explosive strength and high speed strength is of importance, which may not be developed by lifting heavy weights slowly. For other sports, there isn't any need to display great amounts of force at any point. In this case, true maximal strength training may be a waste of time for the athlete. While this seems like it should be common sense, there are some coaches or trainers out there who probably would have a racewalker (that weird sport in the Olympics where they're penalized for moving too quickly) performing maximal effort work week in and week out and talking about the virtues of training the central nervous system when in reality it has no real carryover to the sport.

Volume considerations

For an athlete who doesn’t compete in a strength sport, volume in the weight room will always be influenced by what other components are being trained. There isn’t going to be a chart, program, set/rep scheme, or any other absolute when determining how much work an athlete should perform in the weight room. The only absolute should be a consideration of the total amount of work. Keep in mind that adaptive reserves are finite.

Again, going back to an example of this, someone may look at a weight room workout on paper, see that there may only be one or two “strength” exercises being performed, and think that it doesn’t seem like very much volume. Many who look at programs with a lifter’s mind may think that the athlete couldn't possibly get stronger. However, all high central nervous system intensive activity that may have been performed on that day—and that will be performed later in the week—needs to be considered. Because of this, there may not be a whole lot of time to include a full-fledged lifting workout. When looking at the amount of sprints, jumps, throws, full speed drills, and similar exercises, it becomes apparent that there is only so much lifting that can be included.

As far as how much volume is too much or too little, this is something that can’t be decided by any one chart or source. Prilipen's chart has been an old standby, but we need to consider that this was based on junior Olympic lifters who weren’t necessarily practicing a sport, running, or jumping. Because of this, many times fewer lifts should be included in a workout than what is listed as optimal. While you can start with a high amount of volume and roll the dice as far as recovery and adaptation, it is a far smarter idea to be conservative and possibly low ball the volume of strength work to allow room for progress.

For an athlete who doesn’t lift as a sport, the weight room will always be only a component of becoming better. Will there be times when maximal strength may have an emphasis over other qualities? It really depends on the sport. We could take a sport like football, which is traditionally viewed as having a need for high levels of maximal strength. However, if we break down the sport by position, it's easy to see that certain positions such as offensive and defensive linemen will have a greater need for maximal strength than their skill player counterparts. However, even in this case, it really doesn’t matter how much weight they can squat, bench, or clean if they're unskilled at the sport, constantly injured, unable to move, and so on. Even for the players who need a level of strength, they also have to focus on a variety of other motor abilities. They might be able to lift the house in the weight room, but this doesn’t mean that they will be able to display this on the field.

There may be times of the year when slightly higher volumes of strength work are being performed, but the strength coach should consider whether or not high volumes of weight room work are redundant or counterproductive. For athletes who engage in true sprint work at maximum velocity with appreciable volumes, large amounts of direct hamstring work may have a negative effect on the ability to sprint or lead to soft tissue injuries. In this case, the hamstrings are already being taxed to a great degree in the top speed work, so further taxing them with intense loading may be too much structurally. This is one of the instances where it is important to focus on what not to do instead of attempting to do too much.

Exercise selection considerations

When working with athletes, we need to consider the actual exercises that we're choosing. Choose movements that actually contribute to what the athlete needs to do in his sport and don't focus on what they don't need. With athletes, our main goal is to strengthen what will contribute to them reaching higher sports results. Far too often, we see coaches having a hard on for certain exercises or the performance of certain exercises. One that comes to mind is squat depth. Some are obsessed with “ass to grass” or full squatting. However, if we look at most sports, regardless of position, it isn’t a requirement or a necessity for an athlete to squat that deep. I know this from my own experience, as I used to require all my athletes to squat to what is parallel by powerlifting standards. However, for most athletes, the depth of a half squat (90 degree flexion of the knee) is as far as they need to go. This applies to any lift including Olympic lifts and powerlifting variations.

Some movements are pretty much expendable, such as all general barbell, dumbbell, and machine exercises. If an athlete isn't capable of performing an exercise efficiently or safely and it isn't of great importance to his sport, consider whether or not the athlete can perform another movement that accomplishes the same thing. Something I learned from Buddy Morris while interning at Pitt is, “Give them things they won’t fuck up.” This is why arguments over Olympic lifting versus powerlifting versus Strongman are irrelevant. There shouldn’t be any blind allegiance to any one exercise because a large amount of weight room exercises are nothing more than general for the athlete. We need to examine what is possible, useful, and appropriate for the needs of the athlete.

I know someone has gotten his panties in a wad and will probably say that having athletes squat high will leave them tight, immobile messes and that this is doing a massive disservice to them. However, let’s not forget that things such as mobility and flexibility should be addressed through other areas of the training process. If dynamic warm ups, supportive exercises with greater ranges of motion, and prehabilitation are performed, it is unnecessary to think that every movement performed needs to be through the greatest range of motion possible. This is reminiscent of those who think that overhead pressing is necessary because athletes will need to place their arms overhead to reach for a ball but "forget" that this is unloaded.

Many of these general weight room exercises aren't always forgiving to a large number of different leverages. Certain long-limbed individuals will be at a disadvantage for movements like squats and benches. Others may be built in ways that aren't best suited for pulling or whatever other general exercise we want to consider. This is why the main consideration needs to be the training effect.

As far as movements, at times, it's best to just write in generalities because being stuck to one particular exercise may be an inefficient use of time. Movements like sprints, jumps, medicine ball throws, and even specialized exercises may be more forgiving to a certain population of athletes. In a question on the Q&A that I had to the Thinker a while back in reference to exercise selection, he stated that movement efficiency is the ultimate qualifier followed by selecting the loading parameters for the desired training effect that will still allow proper execution.

Putting it all together

When deciding on intensity, volume, and exercise selection for athletes, the following questions should be considered:

1. What type of strength is required for the athlete in his sport?

It's important to look at the individual athlete, not the sport. Different positions have different needs. While certain sports may need a certain level of maximal strength, each position may have different requirements. In certain positions, maximal strength may only act as a base for the development of more important qualities like explosive strength or high speed strength. For other sports, maximal strength development may not be needed and it may be a waste of time to develop it to any great extent.

2. How many other stressors are being imposed on the athlete at the current time?

Remember that there is a time and a place to have a greater amount of work in the weight room. At other times, the weight room may have to take a back seat to other stressors that are at higher volumes. In the off-season, sprints or more specialized work for the athlete's sport may be the focal point. Weight room work will have to be conservative in either intensity or volume. At other times of the year, practice and competition may be the greatest stressor to take into account. Weight room work will be a supportive role and possibly may need to be regulated down a good bit to maintain performance in the sport itself.

3. What is the desired training effect, and what is necessary to reach this effect?

Draw up a list of movements that can help reach this goal. Define loading parameters for each that will be directed toward the desired training effect. Also, throw out whatever movements aren't necessary and narrow down the list.

4. Of the movements listed, which ones are possible, useful, or appropriate for the athlete?

While certain movements may be of use to the athlete, they may either not be possible due to injury or structural limitation or they might not be appropriate due to other prerequisites for performance. At this point, the list can be narrowed down further and choices that fit all three of the criteria can be made.

Conclusion

As coaches, it is important for us to remember that the athletes we train aren’t powerlifters, Olympic lifters, or strongman. They are trying to develop skills in a sport that has its own set of performance guidelines. Strength is only one of the motor abilities they may or may not need to be successful. The weight room is only one tool that may be used to develop the various types of strength they need. Proper execution of exercise and loading parameters that reach the desired training effect should always be considerations when programming for athletes.

I'll admit that I'm a guy who in the past has defaulted to the weight room. While I like strength as much as the next person, it can’t be the focal point at all times. Whatever is deemed possible, useful, and appropriate for the athlete in relation to the end goal of the training process is what has to be considered. While some of the exercise selection can end up being dry or boring, it is all about performance in the event or game that matters for the athlete. Everything else is just one piece of the puzzle.

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