Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Developing the Athlete: Build Strength in the Gym, not Skill.


Every so often I still see comments about “sport specific training”. This whole idea has led to the creation of many products, programs and facilities dedicated to this niche.

I have trained many athletes, of all levels, from a wide variety of sports in the last 20 years and I can say I’ve never met one that had too much strength, too much speed, too much power, or too much endurance.

There are two types of preparation that apply to athletes, general and specific. For simplicity’s sake, we can say that specific preparation is what the athlete does in the practice of the sport and general preparation is everything else. The trick for the athlete is to ensure that the general preparation enhances the specific skill. Due to this the line between general preparation and physical preparation becomes blurred to the point that strength coaches try to mimic specific skills in the weight-room. This is a big mistake.

I believe it is the sole responsibility of the strength coach to focus on the development of all the physical requirements of the athlete, not specific skill development. There are position coaches and skill coaches to fill those roles. To do this effectively it is imperative the coach has a thorough understanding of all the physical skills required by the athlete, and properly assess where the athlete is currently and where they need to be at the start of the competitive season.


The physical skills required of an athlete, and in what concentration vary sport to sport. They include, but are not limited to, strength, speed, power, endurance, mobility, and flexibility.

Usually the topic of debate centers around strength training, and rightfully so. Since force development is critical for sport performance, the development of strength in all velocities is essential for the athlete. Again, I have yet to see an athlete that is too strong for their sport, yet many strength coaches seem to live in fear of this daily. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard an industry professional at a conference or seminar say something to the extent of “we are not training weightlifters or powerlifters, we are training athletes”. This is true but unfortunately it has resulted in athletes that do not come close to their strength potential.

I worked with a D1 football player who, while doing a set of kettlebell swings with a 24kg kettlebell, was hit with a massive back spasm. Here was a college senior who played outside linebacker. He weighed 236lbs, had a 40-yard dash of 4.85 seconds, a vertical jump of 29.5”, and a parallel free squat of 535 lbs. All that and swinging a 53 lb kettlebell made his lower back lock up. This is what a program of front squats, bench presses, power cleans and no direct lower back work resulted in. I see this in virtually every athlete I’ve worked with. Apparently, sumo deadlifts are cheating, wide stance back squats are somehow less athletic than front squats, and direct low back and neck work is to be avoided at all cost. This is also why some of my female powerlifters ran circles around another collegiate football player I worked with recently.

To fix this I switched him to wide stance box squats, sumo deadlifts (both of these exercises are fantastic for developing hip strength) and we attacked his lower back with Louie Simmon’s Reverse Hyper Extension machine for tons of reps, 80-100 per workout with 50% of his squat max were the norm. In addition, we did a ton of glute / ham raises, good mornings, back extensions, and kettlebell swings.

My approach to programming is heavily influenced by the work of Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell Club. We did maximal effort work one day a week where we worked up to a max single in a squat or deadlift variation, or a 3-5 rep max in a good morning followed by the accessory work listed above, reverse hypers plus 2 or 3 more exercises for hamstrings, low back and abs. We did dynamic effort work one day a week where we did box squats with average bands for 10-12 sets of 2 reps with 50-60% of his squat max and speed pulls with 50% of his deadlift max and doubled mini bands for 10 sets of 2 reps followed by the reverse hypers and other accessory work. We did a lot of walking with the sled, heavy weight for shorter distances and lighter weight for longer distances. Jumps and bounding drills were done on the lower body days as well. Two other days of the week were devoted to a maximal effort upper body and dynamic effort upper body training session.


After only 6 weeks of training like this we had raised his parallel squat from 535 lbs to 600 lbs, his body-weight was up from 236 lbs to 247 lbs and he made these official results at his school’s Pro Day scouting event, his 40-yard dash dropped from 4.85 seconds to 4.60 seconds and his vertical went from 29.5” to 39.5”. Strength and power training lead to these results, not running and agility ladders.
Strength and power training improves force production. People love to say in athletics speed kills. You want to get faster? Increase ground contact force. 


A study done by Weyand titled “Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces not more rapid leg movements” confirms this. All those ladder drills may make it look like you’re moving fast but if you want real speed you may want to “in out, in out” your way to the deadlift platform and squat rack. Click here for Weyand’s study.

This general approach to strength and power development is not just for power athletes. According to a study by Leena Paavilainen titled “Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power” an experimental group of endurance runners who replaced 32% of their running training with a strength training program showed a statistically significant drop in running times when compared to the control group who did their normal running training only. What’s interesting here was the experimental group showed no improvement in VO2 max and their improvement was attributed to increased ground force production and decreased ground contact time. Click here for Paavilainen's study.


This is about that time when many strength coaches love to reiterate “we’re training ATHLETES, not powerlifters and weightlifters. Train athletes like DAMN ATHLETES!” I get lost on this statement. Since when has lifting barbells been the sole right of powerlifters and weightlifters? Just because strength development is most often sorely lacking in athletes, form youth all the way up to professionals, doesn’t mean other physical qualities should be ignored. All athletes require strength, power, endurance, flexibility, mobility, etc. Some are quick but weak, some are strong but slow, some are hyper-mobile and some are wound tighter than a drum. No athlete can get by on a cookie cutter program and it is responsibility of the strength coach, or I guess physical preparation coach is the cool new term, to determine the individual needs based on the sport, the athlete’s position within the sport, and their current level of readiness. I have worked with climbers, football players, baseball players, volleyball players, combat athletes and strength athletes; to name a few; and none of them train the same way. Ever.


Do not waste time on the fads in the sport specific industry. Athletes need to be as strong as they possibly can while at the same time developing the appropriate energy systems and establishing the appropriate range of motion needed for the sporting form. So yes, train athletes like damn athletes but do not neglect strength and strengthen the muscles that they need. This will likely mean deviating from the typical front squat, bench press, and power clean protocol that is easy to plan for a large group, but that’s ok. As trainers and coaches it is our responsibility to program the most effective, efficient and safest means so the athlete is at their strongest, most resilient, and best conditioned state when we turn them over to their skill development coaches for their specificity work. 

P.S. If you haven't read Barry Ross's book, "Underground Secrets to Faster Running" you should fix that. Click here to check it out on Amazon.

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