The strength and conditioning coaches’ role within the team has evolved over the years. With the emergence of sports sciences, what a strength coach needs to know has grown as well. The role of a strength coach can be a lot of things: exercise programming, injury prevention, sports science. The role extends to a speed coach, biomechanics coach, and most importantly, a communicator between the sports coach and the athletes. The strength and conditioning coach probably spends the most amount of time with the players beyond their actual position coach, and their role is to create buy-in and belief into the organization. They are and should be much more than rep counters.
In a study by Coutts et al. (2004), they looked at the effect of direct supervision of a strength coach on muscular strength and power measures in young rugby players. They took two groups of young athletes with the mean age of 16.7 and divided them into two groups of 21 subjects. In those two groups, they each had 12 weeks of a training program. They found improvements in all strength markers and found better adherence in the supervised group, leading to more completed sessions, ultimately leading to greater strength gains. This goes hand in hand with the strength coaches creating more athlete buy-in to the program. By building adherence, the athletes spend more time together, which builds cohesion and comradery amongst the athletes. Beyond the Xs and Os, this is where the strength coach makes the biggest difference.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at some of the jobs a strength coach can and should be responsible for.
Programming and Injury Prevention
They are in charge of creating programming for the athlete’s understanding of their needs and demands of sport.
A strength coach who works with football players has to know the offense and defense scheme the coach runs to provide the appropriate forms of conditioning to keep up with the coaching philosophy.
They also need to understand the demands of the position and to be able to cater a program to help meet and improve those demands.
They will need to work with and around athlete’s injuries to help improve the injury and to also help prevent injuries down the road.
They need to understand the stress demands being imposed on the athletes and to be able to adjust training accordingly to work within those domains rather than to add to the stress.
They have to put together a strength training program to keep the athlete healthy, strong, agile, and explosive—in the weight room and out.
A study conducted by Durell et al. (2003), surveyed collegiate strength and conditioning coaches to see what kind of methods they used in training their athletes. They got responses from 137 coaches out of the 321 surveys sent out, and those coaches rated injury prevention/reduction as the goal/benefits of strength training programs at 80 percent, increased strength/power/mass at 74 percent, enhanced/improved athletic performance at 68 percent, and intangibles at 66 percent. They also stated that the biggest risk of strength training programs is injury at 58 percent with overtraining a distant second at 12 percent.
With injury prevention being at the top of that list and understanding that strength training can also create injury, that should be the priority of any strength coach's program.
Can Strength Programs Actually Prevent Injuries?
It was thought for a very long time that introducing some type of movement assessment would help strength coaches avoid injuries by fixing those limitations. The most popular one used today is the functional movement screen (FMS). A systematic review performed by Moran et al. (2017), looked at the FMS and its ability to predict injuries. They found 24 studies that matched their inclusion and exclusion criteria, moderate evidence to recommend against using the FMS, and a very small association between FMS scores and subsequent injuries. They concluded that the FMS does not support the idea that it can help prevent injuries.
To understand sports injuries and how to prevent them, one must look a little deeper. A study by Bahr and Krosshaug (2005) looked at the mechanisms of injury as the key to preventing them. They recommended a multifactorial approach to looking at injury prevention, one that accounts for the events leading to the injury situation (playing situation, player, and opponent behavior). It also included a description of whole body and joint biomechanics at the time of injury. The approach is especially helpful for non-contact injuries, which happen far too often, especially in the ACL, which can put an athlete out for over a year. Some never return the same.
A study conducted by Boden et al. (2010) looked at non-contact ACL injuries and the mechanisms and risk factors associated. They found that three-fourths of ACL injuries are non-contact and that the hamstrings, ankle, and hips play a pivotal role in those injuries. They concluded that an external impulsive axial force is the primary force resulting in the injury and knee valgus playing a pivotal role. By understanding these injury mechanisms, a strength coach can start to build out a plan to improve ankle dorsiflexion, increased hip flexion, stronger hamstrings and glutes, and force absorption drills teaching the athlete to stop, land, and pivot properly.
In a study by Monajati et al. (2016), they reviewed the effectiveness of injury prevention programs to modify risk factors for non-contact ACL and hamstring injuries in uninjured team sports athletes. It is one thing to say a strength coach can help prevent injuries but does the data back that up? In this review it did just that. They concluded that multifaceted programs, including hamstring eccentric exercises, increased hamstring strength, hamstring to quadriceps functional ratio, and promoted a shift of optimal knee flexion peak torque toward a more open angle position. These findings will help modify those risk factors of ACL and hamstring injuries. Even just the inclusion of a simple exercise like the Nordic hamstring curl can reduce the rate of hamstring injuries by 50 percent shown by Van Dyk et al. (2019). In this study, they looked at 8459 athletes. The athletes who included the Nordic hamstring curl into their program reduced injury by 50 percent.
If a strength coach can look at the mechanisms of action that lead to injury and dissect it into individual sections, they can build a plan to help facilitate an improved risk of injury. If the athlete can stay healthier, they can participate in their sports training more often, which will improve their skill and strength. Whether or not the training program makes them better athletes can be up for debate. What cannot be up for debate is if an athlete is injured—they are doing nothing and degrade in all aspects of training and skill. The ability to prevent injury cannot be overlooked. As a key role, a strength coach can curate a program that facilitates injury prevention.
Injury prevention should play a huge role in program design, but what else should be included? What actually can drive an athlete to perform better on the field? Understanding that when we as strength coaches implement new stressors, we must undulate what gets prioritized because we can’t build things together infinitely. That’s what the idea of periodization should look like—a continuous week-to-week understanding of stress management, with things being prioritized as the season approaches or comes to an end. Understanding what the athlete has coming up will allow us to modulate their program to meet their demands of what is to come. The SAID principle is the idea of specific adaptation to imposed demands.
Coaches get confused by making training too specific without understanding what exercise, intensities, and volume can drive adaptations that translate to the field without making everything they do specific to the field. Periodization can come in handy here but not in the way that is espoused in the research based on the GAS principle presented by Hans Selye. It's a more dynamic integrated/holistic approach that looks at many dynamics that make up an organism and how they adapt to stressors.
Researcher John Kiely writes in his paper Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth that a fundamental assumption, emanating from the early stress research, is that physical stress is primarily a biologically mediated phenomenon. Since this theory has emerged based on Hans Selye GAS model, the science of stress has evolved extensively, but the periodization model has not. He suggests that aligning periodization with contemporary stress theory will give us a better model to create a periodized plan that looks at both neuro- and bio-chemical adaptations to stress. For a strength coach, understanding where an athlete is at in their season will allow them to dictate what their program looks like to better manage stress for where they are. If they are getting closer to the competition season, they may lower volume in the weight room because conditioning and sports practice increases. In the off-season, they can ramp it back up because sport skills and conditioning aren’t as important. Research done by Mattocks et al. (2016) shared the same sentiment and concluded that a periodized program may be advantageous for an athlete in certain sports due to practice and competitions throughout a season. However, it may not have a benefit for those only interested in increasing muscle size and strength.
With the concept of periodization being the thought of undulating stressors put on the body via biochemical and neurochemical response, we must choose the appropriate exercises, intent, reps, and sets to get the most out of our time with the athletes we have. Prioritizing injury prevention via exercise selection is key. It includes body awareness through movement, correcting imbalances, fixing any pain or impingements, and building up weak muscles to make them stronger. From there, I want to focus on building as much power and strength as possible. I say power and strength because I think that those are the next best adaptations to elicit to improve sports performance.
A paper by Steele et al. (2020) looked at increasing strength to improve sports performance. They concluded that muscular strength typically differentiates elite and non-elite athletes and is correlated with proxy measures of sports performance. They go on to say that the evidence is insufficient to make a definitive statement regarding the casual effect of muscular strength. That being said, if a strength coach looks at the research and it says the best players are usually stronger, and there is no evidence to contradict that statement, I will focus on improving that component even if it is mostly correlational data.
In another paper, McGuigan et al. (2012) looked at strength training for athletes and if it really helps performance states. In their conclusion, evidence exists that strength and power can be a discriminator of performance level in various sports. They go on to talk about that the higher-level athlete, the more one must look specificity and program design more closely. A meta-analysis by Seitz et al. (2014), looked at increases in lower body strength transfer positively to sprint performance. They concluded that there was a transfer between increases in lower body strength and sprint performance by a very large significant correlation (r=-.77; p=.0001) between squat strength ES and sprint ES. Between the correlations that show an elite athlete is stronger, some of the research shows an improvement in strength can lead to an improvement in speed. It is hard to argue against its uses, and again, there is no evidence that shows a better solution or a negative correlation.
In conclusion, the impact of a strength coach goes beyond program design in the weight room. It is about building relationships and a team dynamic that solidifies group dynamics that transfer into comradery on and off the field of play. They are the heart of the team in the offseason and a helping guide during the season. They use periodization to manage stress and to make sure the athletes are ready for the demands of sport when the season starts. The focus of the strength coach should be on injury prevention with proper stress management and exercise selection. That is priority number one. Next, they should focus on building up the weak links of the individual athlete, and improve both power and strength. The goal should not be to increase size and strength but to make the athlete better equipped to handle their sport.
- Bahr, R. (2005). Understanding injury mechanisms: A key component of preventing injuries in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(6), 324-329. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2005.018341
- Boden, B. P., Sheehan, F. T., Torg, J. S., & Hewett, T. E. (2010). Noncontact anterior cruciate ligament injuries: mechanisms and risk factors. The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 18(9), 520–527. https://doi.org/10.5435/00124635-201009000-00003
- Coutts, A. J., Murphy, A. J., & Dascombe, B. J. (2004). Effect of direct supervision of a strength coach on measures of muscular strength and power in young Rugby league players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18(2), 316. https://doi.org/10.1519/r-12972.1
- DURELL, D. L., PUJOL, T. J., & B ARNES, J. T. (2003). A survey of the scientific data and training methods utilized by collegiate strength and conditioning coaches. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(2), 368-373. https://doi.org/10.1519/00124278-200305000-00026
- Kiely, J. Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Med 48, 753–764 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0823-y
- T. Mattocks, K., J. Dankel, S., L. Buckner, S., B. Jessee, M., R. Counts, B., Mouser, J., C. Laurentino, G., & P. Loenneke, J. (2016). Periodization: What is it good for? Journal of Trainology, 5(1), 6-12. https://doi.org/10.17338/trainology.5.1_6
- McGuigan, M. R., Wright, G. A., & Fleck, S. J. (2012). Strength training for athletes: Does it really help sports performance? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(1), 2-5. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.7.1.2
- Monajati, A., Larumbe-Zabala, E., Goss-Sampson, M., & Naclerio, F. (2016). The Effectiveness of Injury Prevention Programs to Modify Risk Factors for Non-Contact Anterior Cruciate Ligament and Hamstring Injuries in Uninjured Team Sports Athletes: A Systematic Review. PloS one, 11(5), e0155272. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155272
- Moran, R. W., Schneiders, A. G., Mason, J., & Sullivan, S. J. (2017). Do functional movement screen (FMS) composite scores predict subsequent injury? A systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51(23), 1661-1669. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2016-096938
- Steele, J., Fisher, J., & Crawford, D. (2020). Does increasing an athletes’ strength improve sports performance? A critical review with suggestions to help answer this, and other, causal questions in sport science. Journal of Trainology, 9(1), 20. https://doi.org/10.17338/trainology.9.1_20
- Van Dyk, N., Behan, F. P., & Whiteley, R. (2019). Including the nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 8459 athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(21), 1362-1370. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-100045
- British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(21), 1362-1370. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-100045
Tony Montgomery lives in Tampa, Florida. He studied exercise science at Florida Atlantic University and is currently pursuing his master's degree in exercise science at the University of South Florida. He owns Strength Union, Team Phoenix Performance (an online coaching company), Subject Zero Supplements, and Coaches Corner University (an online education platform). He competed in strongman and powerlifting, where he's hit a 2,001-pound total in the 242-pound class with wraps. Now he competes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and coaches athletes. He also served four years in the United States Marine Corps with 2nd Recon Bn.