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Strength sports and athletic development – The Bigger picture9 min read
The sporting world, without doubt, owes a lot to strength sports: Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting have provided physical firepower to countless sporting champions in team sports, track and field, combat sports, and a whole host of other physical pursuits over the past century. There is so much more detail and skill behind sporting pursuits than simple barbell strength, but it’s been clear to see that over the past 100 years, from Soviet and German Olympic champions in the 1900’s, Jamaican sprint superstars, the British track cycling team that took the London Olympics by storm, and the England Rugby heroes of 2003, the best athletes in the world have always performed Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting in some form.
The general strength and robustness that comes from being strong and powerful really cannot be understated. Looking solely at the back squat, for various reasons around relative strength, tendon stiffness, load tolerance, and a whole host of other physiological variables, great things seem to happen to injury incidence, jump performance, and sprint speed around the magic number of a double bodyweight back squat. Romanian deadlifts are one of the biggest hitters for team sports athletes looking to bulletproof the hamstrings, and whilst not strictly an O-lift or one of the powerlifting big 3, as an exercise it undoubtedly has its roots as an accessory lift of weightlifters, being named after Nicu Vlad, who competed for Romania throughout the 1980’s at world championship and Olympic level.
These are 2 simple examples but the list goes on. Back squat and power clean strength correlate well to vertical jump improvements, 5m sprint times, and acceleration ability, and Olympic throwers going back a hundred years have always sworn by the snatch as a constant in their training.
Even some sports that you wouldn’t immediately see as requiring strength now have a growing body of research around the physical capacities determining performance. Club head speed is one key variable amongst golfers that determines drive length and although you wouldn’t think it to look at, the biggest biomechanical factor feeding into club head speed is vertical impulse. The best way to train for large vertical impulse? Squat, jump, and Olympic lift!
This isn’t to say that the strongest people are always the fastest or the highest jumpers, but without doubt if you get stronger, you get faster, more explosive, and you get injured less. Sure there are other ways to get big and strong, but there is a reason things often boil down to squat, bench press, deadlift, clean, and snatch.
When the absolute strength of powerlifting and the power that comes from weightlifting are combined with the absolute speed of sprinting and jumping, you really are 80% of the way toward building a complete athlete.
These things considered, the world of strength training for sports performance has always been heavily influenced by programming originating from strength sports, but as a coach with a significant vested interest in managing injury and keeping athletes healthy, I always approach such programming with some hesitation and try to keep a wider view on things.
As much as an athlete can gain from these practices, there is still so much more that factors into becoming a good athlete that the traditional strength sports cannot give us. As a team sport athlete you spend a huge amount of time on one leg, moving laterally, moving at speeds far in excess of even the fastest clean or squat, and rotating in ways that bare little or no resemblance to anything you’ll see on a lifting platform.
As an amateur, a youngster, or somebody who has spent little to no time on out and out physical development, the best way you can spend your time, apart from actually playing your sport, it to develop competency and capacity in BIG HITTING, global lifts. Get very good at the basics of powerlifting and Olympic lifting and you build up a physical toolbox that will take you VERY far, so long as you continue to devote as much time as possible to actually playing sport!
BUT, as you move through your career and become a better and better athlete, these general strength builders provide less and less crossover to your chosen sport. We begin to see a point of diminishing returns where an athlete with a double bodyweight squat doesn’t really get any faster or more agile by improving to a 2.5 x bodyweight squat. Plus, the energy and time it takes to build numbers like this are only going to detract from your ability to give it all in the sporting arena as you get stronger and stronger.
An elite powerlifter has to put in so much effort to simply add 2.5kg to a 3.5 x bodyweight deadlift, but a youngster who has only been deadlifting for 6 months can go above 90% twice weekly if they want to. The stress is that much lower, and the adaptation is that much greater, that it is actually worth spending the time doing it and it will provide some crossover to a vast array of sporting qualities.
It’s at this point where as an experienced lifter you need to be spending time applying the strength to moving heavy weights FASTER. Being able to move at high speeds and put out high power is a huge distinguishing factor between elite athletes and the rest of the population. The more weight you can move at a high speed, the higher you jump, the harder you can hit, and the more agile you become.
At this point, you also really have to start looking at more specific injury reduction exercises and developing movement strategies that begin to look a little more like the sport itself. For a beginner, learning to back squat and hinge properly might be a very appropriate ‘sport specific’ training tool, as it gives a big benefit to all field based movements by simply learning to move more efficiently, but as an expert, ‘sport specific’ almost takes on a whole new meaning.
To the naked eye an isolated machine hamstring curl or adductor machine at a pure gym might look like the least sport specific athletic development tools in the world, but if you play a sport like football or hockey where the biggest time loss to injury comes from hamstring and groin strains, you better be working these muscles hard and frequently to make sure they are as robust as possible.
This is just one example and the list goes on: whilst powerlifters may only ever use a split squat or reverse lunge as an assistance exercise for sets of 8-12 at the back end of a session, basketballers and triple jumpers who rely hugely on jumping off one foot should spend a lot of time and effort working up to some seriously heavy numbers and prioritise these single leg efforts as an ‘A1’ lift at the start of sessions.
Powerlifters proudly proclaim themselves as members of ‘team no-calves’, but if you are an endurance track athlete or a sprinter that relies on stiff, spring-like ankles, calf and ankle training are a must!
To summarize, the world of athletic development and sports performance has a lot to learn from the strength sports. Beginner athletes can gain a lot from a traditional strength training approach centred on the movements of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting.
Despite this, we cannot get sucked into 5×5 or starting strength as all encompassing athletic development tools as they leave so much on the table and miss the point entirely of what good strength and conditioning really is: the process of preparing an athlete for the demands of their chosen sport and the tactical training required to compete at their level.
Good athletic development programmes should focus on what the athlete needs to perform at the highest level possible, and identify the biggest areas of injury risk to ensure they can be minimised from the outset. Whilst for many this should be addressed with heavy compound strength exercises, try to see the bigger picture and make sure you address yourself as an athlete first, and a weightlifter second!