Total Strength Training for Athletes - Methods for Sports Performance

Total Strength Training

Always be open to new and unique training methods to break through plateaus.

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Yuri Verkhoshanski, a highly regarded Soviet sports scientist, wrote in his book Fundamentals of Special Strength Training in Sport that "qualified sportsmen...spend a lot of time utilizing ineffective means [of strength training], none of which augment their level of strength preparedness. Beginners, on the other hand, utilize 'virulent' means for which they are not yet prepared and have done nothing to justify the premise of overloading the organism and therefore disrupt the natural process of attaining sport mastery." Translation: Of the various types of strength that can be developed in an athlete, it is quite common to find that many athletes use training methods that are improper for their level of development. This may, in fact, slow down their development as athletes.


Soviet sports scientists and coaches have determined that there is an optimal sequence for developing athletic strength. Which type of strength is ultimately emphasized is, however, determined by the specific needs of each sport. Observations of American athletes, whether they be recreational, interscholastic, intercollegiate or professional athletes, in many cases might lead us to believe that there is only one type of strength and that it is developed by training like a bodybuilder.

If athletes require several types of strength to be successful, what are they, and how are they developed? Basic (or absolute) strength is the type of strength we are most familiar with and is considered to be the easiest form to develop. Absolute strength boils down to how much force you can develop. Period. If you can lift a heavier weight now than you could before, your absolute strength has increased. We associate this type of strength with powerlifting and bodybuilding training, where the goals include the building of "brute" strength and muscle mass.

Basic strength is undeniably valuable to athletes, particularly those who are required to work against a heavy resistance (such as football linemen). This is the foundation upon which the other types of strength are built. Young or novice athletes should concentrate their efforts on building basic strength, but it should not be an end in itself. Verkhoshanski suggests that, unfortunately, this type of strength may be the least valuable form to all but beginning athletes.

In beginners, improvements in basic strength do lead to faster body movements. Both running speed and jumping ability improve. If an athlete continues to emphasize this type of training movement, however, speed may decrease. Some (not all) re-search suggests that slow movements, which is how we typically train our basic exercises, tend to develop "slow strength," whereas fast movements will improve "fast strength."

Since speed is of such importance in many sports, especially those involving running or throwing, training to improve the athlete's speed is the next step. The second means of strength training an athlete, then, is aimed at improving speed strength, or power. This is the ability to develop force quickly against sub-maximal resistance. This speed strength can be seen in the baseball player whipping the bat and the football lineman firing out.

The objectives behind speed-strength training, and thus the means employed to develop it, can be quite different from the means employed to develop basic strength. With speed-strength training your maximum lifts may either drop or just maintain their current levels; however, the time it takes you to lift a particular weight is reduced. In other words, if it now takes you three seconds to complete a bench press with 250 pounds, after speed-strength training it might take only 2.5 seconds.

An article in the National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal a couple of years ago described the results of some strength tests conducted on elite shot-putters-including Edward Sarul, the world-record holder at that time. It was pointed out that Sarul was markedly faster in lifting submaximal weights than the other shot-putters. It was his speed, rather than his raw strength, that appeared to explain much of his success.

There are several means available for developing speed strength. The best one for you depends on the characteristics of your sport and your weight-training experience. One approach employs medium-to-heavy weights. Rather than lift to exhaustion, the number of reps should be fairly low, but you execute them with maximal speed.

A "complete" rest between sets is needed or else your speed will drop off. You must avoid fatigue. In practice, the number of repetitions should be no more than half the maximum number of lifts you could perform in normal fashion. This approach is commonly employed by competitive weightlifters, who, along with shot-putters, have been shown to be among the most powerful of the Olympic athletes.

Recreational athletes who are lacking in heavy weight-training experience might try an alternative means of improving speed strength. Research has shown that power output is greatest with weights that are only 20 to 40 percent of our single-rep max. Thus, if we lift fairly light weights at maximal speed, we can also improve speed strength. Again, fatigue is the enemy. Your repetitions should not be so high that speed slows during the set. Rest periods between each set should be complete.

We have compared slow versus fast movements. It is important to recognize that a variety of movement speeds is really what an athlete needs. The Bulgarians approach the problem of varying movement speeds in an interesting manner. In his U.S. Weightlifting Federation/National Strength & Conditioning Association-sponsored tour during the summer of 1989, Angel Spassov of the Bulgarian Weightlifting Federation outlined the results of their work on lifting speed and strength development. The greatest increase in strength was found in a program employing variable lifting speeds; however, lifting speed was varied solely by the weight on the bar-not by the level of effort. Each lift is at a maximal speed for that poundage.

In order to vary lifting speed within a workout, the Bulgarians work up in weight for several sets, then drop down. They then work up again using different jumps. The poundages are dropped down once more and then increased-again using different jumps. At this point in the routine the Bulgarian weight-lifters rely primarily on single at-tempts-rarely doubles. The same basic approach might be used to train athletes in other sports, but the rep/intensity combinations should be modified.

After developing "general" speed strength, the next step in the progression is to improve sport-specific speed strength. You do this by mimicking the skills of your particular sport while employing very light resistances. This appears to be particularly effective for sports in which the resistance is also low when you use the sport skill-such as in running or throwing a baseball. For example, very light weights can be attached above the knees of runners to add resistance. The added resistance should not, however, be so heavy as to alter your technique. If a runner's stride frequency or stride length changes too much, the weights are too heavy.

It is important to recognize that speed-strength training demands a solid foundation of basic strength training in order to be truly effective. A 1981 Soviet study, translated by Dr. Michael Yessis and published in his Soviet Sports Review, pointed out the importance of basic strength work in the early stages of a training cycle. Weightlifters, who must demonstrate exceptional speed strength, realized better results with more emphasis on basic strength exercises early in their cycle than did those lifters who initially devoted more training to speed strength exercises.

You may also be more susceptible to injuries if you undertake speed-strength training without adequate basic strength conditioning. In addition, it is critical that you have mastered the technique of your specific sport before adding any resistance to the skill.

The third means of strength development is aimed at improving explosive strength-the ability to develop peak force early in a sports movement. A pitcher, for example, would want to develop maximal force early in the throwing motion.

The goal of this type of training is to enhance the "reactive" capacity of the nervous system. The most popular method of doing this is to employ "plyometric" exercises, in which a muscle is first stretched and then allowed to contract as quickly as possible.

Plyometric exercises you may be familiar with include the "depth jump" for leg explosiveness and the "Marine Corps" pushup for upper-body explosiveness. Do not use weights in these types of exercises! This only serves to defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is to train the muscles to react very quickly when stretched. Any added resistance will not only increase the amount of time required for us to change the direction of a movement, but will also increase the risk of injury.

Explosive strength training, then, does not require much in the way of equipment-nor does it require weights. What it does demand is an excellent conditioning base so that the body can tolerate the forces of jumping and falling. It is also important to use a well-cushioned mat (such as two wrestling mats) and wear good shoes. Although this type of training may appear to be easy, it is quite taxing if performed correctly. Your efforts must be maximal, and you need to have complete recovery between sets. This type of training is becoming more commonplace in the U.S., but it can cause injuries in athletes who are improperly conditioned or who train on inadequate shock-absorbing surfaces.

Entry-level athletes and young athletes must concentrate on exercises that will develop basic strength. Speed-strength movements and explosiveness training are blended into the program as the athlete develops and matures. The exact recipe, of course, depends on the level of the athlete and the demands of the particular sport.

Well-conditioned, mature athletes will rely on more of the specialized training methods but should always begin a conditioning program with basic strength conditioning. Indeed, some coaches believe that athletes should do some basic strength work throughout the year; others believe that they need only include it periodically.

Interestingly, while basic strength exercises encourage muscle growth, speed-strength and explosive-strength training do not. Thus the latter two are especially attractive to athletes in sports where added muscular bulk may be a detriment- just added luggage to run or jump with.

Another way of looking at this is to examine whether you, the athlete, have achieved a desirable amount of muscle mass for your sport/position. If this is the case, why should you continue concentrating on a training regimen geared to improve that for which you have already achieved a desirable standard? Would it not be better to shift your training to develop weaker areas?

Another benefit to the advanced athlete is that functional athletic strength can show continued improvement even while you are reducing the total tonnage of strength-training. By reducing strength-training loads, there is less likelihood of your becoming over-trained (and perhaps injured), so you can devote a greater amount of time to improving sports skills. Athletes who continue to rely heavily on basic strength-training methods often find that their work loads must increase dramatically in order to squeeze out only small improvements in performance. The proper application of specialized strength-training methods provides a very attractive alternative.

You need a long-term plan to realize the greatest benefit from these principles. You should not apply them haphazardly, but should locate them precisely in your training plan to meet particular objectives. Such an approach is quite amenable for developing high school and collegiate athletes over a four- or five-year period. Even recreational athletes can benefit from a more structured approach to training, since it provides a more rational solution for realizing multi-year goals.





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