Let’s get started with an outline of the benefits of strength training for athletes, and why athletes should engage in a structured strength training program.
Why is strength training important for athletes
In my work as a Strength & Conditioning Coach for Olympians, we follow the approach that everything we do is ‘athletes-centered and coaches-driven’.
What does that mean?
The athlete is in the center of attention, and everything we do as coaches is geared towards the best for the athletes.
When speaking about the coach, and coaches, it’s not only me, the Strength & Conditioning Coach, it’s also the Head Coach of the sport, who is in charge of the sport and program, and everything I do is supporting the Head Coach as good as I can in the best interest for the athletes.
Why is strength training in the best interest of the athletes
There are two main goals:
- Preventing injuries
- Improving performance
Preventing injuries, why injury prevention?
Pretty simple and straightforward, only a healthy, non-injured athlete can perform and can bring his or her best possible performance.
In addition to that, the lesser you are injured, the longer your career. This is often overlooked, but the history of sports is full of athletes, who had to stop their career at some point because their body simply didn’t hold up anymore. In many cases, this could have been prevented, if the athletes would have taken better care of their bodies.
Bold statement? Maybe, but definitely true. Why do you see some athletes retiring before their 30’s whilst other athletes from the same sport perform well until mid to end of their 30’s?
Improving performance, why improving performance?
This is probably a no-brainer, that’s what competitive sport is all about, competition and to bring the best possible performance into the competitive arena.
Now, that I have outlined the goals and responsibilities of a strength and conditioning coach, the next question is, why is strength training important for athletes, and can help to achieve the goals of preventing injuries and improving performance.
Why is strength training is important for athletes to prevent injuries
In a nutshell, there are two types of injuries, acute injuries, and chronic injuries.
- Acute injuries are injuries that happen due to a single traumatic event, like sprains, strains, dislocations, etc. These incidences are part of the sport and can’t be changed, as Strength & Conditioning Coaches, we have very little influence on this type of injury.
- Chronic injuries are damages to the body due to overloads, imbalances, etc. This type of injury, we can influence and this is where the Strength & Conditioning can help with a well-balanced dedicated and directed strength training program for the athlete, that considers the demands of the sport and the individual needs of the athletes.
In very simple words, a stronger muscle is a more resilient muscle, the stronger the muscle groups surrounding a joint, the more the joint is protected, the stronger the active movement apparatus, the less load on the passive movement apparatus.
Why is strength training important for athletes to improve performance
From my experience, no other topic is debated as heatedly in some sports, as the benefits of strength training for athletes.
Why is that?
To be honest, I don’t really know. Part of the answer can be found in the fact, that strength training seems to be used synonymously for any weight training activity, and it is important, that strength training is not strength training.
What do I mean by that?
I have outlined in the article 6 Facts what Strength Training does to you that there are different types of strength training and the different types of strength training lead to different adaptations.
As simple examples, if you employ maximum strength training methods, you will become stronger, if you train for muscular hypertrophy, you will gain muscle mass, you will become faster and more powerful if you work with different power training methods and you will endure longer if you engage in strength endurance training.
To explain the effect of different strength training methods and the resulting adaptations, check out the table from the article How often should I Back Squat, that shows different strength training methods and the effect of the different strength training methods on muscular hypertrophy.
This table explains well, that different strength training methods can have either a large influence on muscular hypertrophy or literally no effect on muscular hypertrophy.
Also, check out the article The Importance Of Strength Training For Athletes from Bridge Athletics outlining the relation between strength training and motor learning, inter-muscular and intra-muscular coordination and the muscular system.
How to choose the right strength training method for athletes
The first step for the performance expert is to look at the demands of the sport and what is needed in this particular sport. With this information, you select the right strength training method or strength training methods.
With this in mind, and coming back to the example from above, that also means, if you choose the wrong training method the strength training can be counterproductive.
And this is probably where the discussions start, that strength training makes athletes slow and whatever ideas are out there.
If I look at some of my athletes, especially from the speed and power dominant sports, like Track Cycling and BMX Supercross, by no means are they slow and that is because we choose the correct strength training methods to make them even faster.
However, if I would choose the inappropriate training methods, I would end up making them slower.
Bottom line, strength training is not strength training, and you need to know what are the adaptations of the strength training method you are choosing.
The benefits of strength training for athletes regardless of sport
Let’s have a look at the general benefits of strength training for athletes.
Why strength training is important to optimize your nervous system
Depending on the strength training you are choosing, you can optimize the nervous system or better said, there are neurological adaptations following your strength training.
What does that mean?
With the right strength training methods, you can
- improve the rate of recruitment, which is the total number of muscle fibers and motor units that are recruited
- increase and improve the firing frequency, which means the signal from the brain traveling to the muscles will travel faster and the muscles will contract faster
- optimize the synchronization, which refers to different muscle groups and muscle fibers working together efficiently and effectively
Ok, let me expand on the last one. The muscle that is working is called the ‘agonist’, and the opposing muscle is called the ‘antagonist’. In an ideal scenario, you want to see the agonist is working and the antagonist is not working. This has been shown in electromyography studies with sprinters, where the could show, that when the agonist is highly active, the antagonist is almost completely inactive, like being switched off. That means, that is in order to have ideal synchronization, you want to have the agonist, working/activated and the antagonistic muscles not working. What you see in beginners or athletes inexperienced with strength training, is that also the antagonist, opposing muscle is working, which gives two different signals and conflicting signals to the body. Take the simple example of the biceps, if the agonist, the biceps is activated, the arm is bending, however, if there is also a certain degree of activation in the antagonist, the triceps, it gives a signal to the arm to resist the bending and extend the arm.
In very simple words, synchronization means the synchronized effort of the muscles and muscle groups to work in harmony.
- optimize force modulation; force modulation enables you to use the right amount of force that is needed for the particular action.
A very simple example of force modulation is, that if you want to pick up a pen from the ground, you need some force, but this force is very little because the pen is very light. If you would work inefficiently, you would send a signal to activate more force than needed to pick up the pen. Consequently, force modulation refers to the body’s ability to send the right amount of force needed for a particular action.
Why is that important?
In most sports, not all actions require a maximum effort, but much rather a coordinated effort.
If you have a look at these benefits, you can see, that regardless of the sport you do, some of these benefits apply to the sport you are participating in.
Even though you might participate in a sport where maximum strength development and power development is not crucially important, but you could surely benefit from a more efficient use of your force output which will enable you to last longer or to maintain a higher level of performance within a given time frame.
What does ‘maintain a higher level of performance within a given time frame’ mean?
I agree, it sounds a bit abstract, let me explain.
Imagine you are a basketball player, the game has a given time frame (4 * 12 mins for NBA games, FIBA regulated games are 4 * 10 minutes), it doesn’t really matter, if you can last 4 * 15 minutes, but it does matter if you can display a higher level of performance within 4 * 12 mins or 4 * 10 mins.
Why strength training is important to maximize your metabolism
How can strength training optimize your metabolism and energy systems?
There are different energy systems, that your body uses.
The ATP-CP energy system, which gives energy for short periods of time, up to 6 to 10 seconds.
The glycolytic system can be further divided into the fast glycolysis or anaerobic glycolysis and the slow glycolysis or aerobic glycolysis.
- the fast glycolysis is the main energy provider for durations of 20 – 60 seconds
- the slow glycolysis is the main energy provider for durations of 60 – 120 seconds
The oxidative system is the main provider of energy for efforts lasting 120 seconds or longer.
It is worth noting, that all energy systems provide energy at the same time, just the distribution and contribution changes at different intensities and durations. Check out the short explainer video below
Depending on the sport, you can use the strength training benefits to maximize and optimize your energy system.
For endurance based-sports, where you want to maximize the oxidative system, you need to select training methods that also work on longer durations.
An example could look like the workout 3 from the image below, taken from the article on strength training and weight loss
Another example can be found in the article section about the work-rest ratios for different strength training methods
As you can see, you can use the benefits of strength training also strategically to elicit adaptations for the different energy systems.
Why strength training is important for the muscular system
Well, this one seems to be a bit of a no-brainer, as strength training and building muscles are very often used synonymously.
However, there is more to it, than just the growth of your muscles.
You have different muscle fibers, ranging from so-called slow-twitch fibers to fast-twitch fibers.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers can generate a lot of force, but fatigue quickly and slow-twitch muscle fibers have a limited ability to generate force and are more fatigue resistant.
I have outlined the individual characteristics and force generating capabilities in the article Why understanding the Mechanics Behind Plyometric Training will make you jump like Michael Jordan
Depending on the demands of the sport, you can target with your strength training the fast-twitch fibers or the slow-twitch fibers.
In strength and power dependent sports, you choose a strength training method that targets the fast-twitch fibers, whilst in endurance-based sports, you target the slow-twitch fibers.
If you choose the wrong training method, for example, you target the slow-twitch fibers for strength and power dependent sports, over time you can see a shift in the fiber type distribution from fast-twitch to slow-twitch and basically over time, you will get more slow twitch fibers and less fast twitch fibers.
Furthermore, when we talk about muscular hypertrophy, there is a phenomenon called ‘selective muscular hypertrophy’, which refers to that you can choose specific training methods to for example selectively target the growth of the fast-twitch fibers without any growth of the slow-twitch fibers.
Therefore, it is important to understand what are the specific adaptations of each strength training method.
Why strength training is important to improve your technique
When looking at coordination and technical improvements following strength training, I like to look at certain movement patterns.
I have outlined the different basic movement patterns in the article The Magnificent 7 Fundamental Movements
These fundamental movements are
- rotation and stabilization
Every sporting movement can be broken down into these fundamental movement patterns or series of fundamental movement patterns.
How could that look like?
One of the best and most illustrative examples I have ever seen comes from Paul Check, where he describes how a complex movement such as a throw is a series of fundamental movements.
Check out the image
You can see, in a throw, that the lower body performs a lunging movement, the trunk a rotational movement and the shoulder and arm complex a pushing movement.
Of course, if you would look at the details of a throw a little bit more in depth, it would become more complicated, however, this simple movement analysis gives strength & conditioning coaches a good opportunity to dissect each sporting movement into fundamentals patterns and use these fundamental patterns in their training for that particular sport.
Why strength training is important for the athlete’s psychology
The strength training benefits on the psychological aspect are often underestimated.
I have seen so many athletes, that have grown in confidence over time as a result of their strength training.
When they became stronger over time, they saw that strength training improves the performance of their sport which has helped them to be more confident in their own sport and in competition.
Strength training for athletes – does it really help to improve sports performance?
No article is complete without a critical look at the topic strength training for athletes and does it really help to improve sports performance?
Well, first and foremost, it’s important to understand, that one of the most fundamental training principles is the SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) principle, which in very simple words means, if you want to run faster, then run; if you want to jump higher, then jump; I guess you get the gist. It also means if you want to prepare for a marathon, you will better train your aerobic endurance by running, then by cycling or swimming.
So, what does all that mean, when you want to answer the question does strength training really help to improve sports performance?
The first answer is, if your training for your sport isn’t optimized, optimize it first before thing about any additional training.
The second answer, some sports benefit more from strength training than others. Some sports are strength dominant, such as Olympic Weightlifting, Powerlifting, but also the throwing disciplines in track and field, such as shot put, hammer throw, discus and javelin. Why do you think these athletes look the way they look?
However, for endurance athletes, the influence of strength training as a means to help improve performance is less. And the longer the discipline, the less of an influence it has.
Does that mean endurance athletes should not do strength training?
Well, firstly I said it has less of an influence, not it has no influence. And secondly, if you remember, why athletes do strength training because they want to prevent injuries and improve performance, then if endurance athletes want to prevent injuries, they’d better do some appropriate strength training.
But there are also some lesser obvious influences of strength training on sports performance. The article Strength Training for Athletes: Does It Really Help Sports Performance? clearly outlines a very strong correlation could be shown between maximum strength in the Back Squat and sprint performances, and maximum strength and jump performances, hence the stronger you are (in the Back Squat), the faster you sprint and the higher you jump.
So, does strength training help improve sports performance? In order to determine the importance of strength training for your sport, analyze the demands of your sport and what the performance structure of your sport is.
Further recommended reading
- How do strength gains transfer to sport? from Chris Beardsley on Medium
- What is Sport Specific Training and what is Dynamic Correspondence from myself
Concluding why strength training is important for athletes
The goals of strength training from the standpoint of a strength & conditioning coach is to prevent injuries and to improve performance and a well-designed strength training program can help to prevent injuries and improve performance.
The strength training benefits are highly dependent on the strength training method you are choosing.
If you chose the wrong strength training method, you might end up with un-wanted adaptations, that are detrimental to your sports performance.