Tell me, how many times have you went to the gym and seen the endless sea of bicep curls, skull crushers, and sit ups all in the name of “getting stronger”? Now sure, most first time weightlifters are actually getting stronger as almost anything will help, but what about the club rugby player who you see doing this, or the competitive ultimate frisbee player? As sports get more competitive, many athletes and coaches need to understand what kind of weight training helps athletes perform and what just helps them look good on spring break. Let’s dive in about weight lifting for performance and why 4×15* bicep curls or calf raises probably won’t make better athletes. If you aren’t an athlete this information will still be useful to you! *This is primarily in reference to athletes who have 3-6 months of weightlifting experience already. This isn’t as crucial for newbies who haven’t lifted a weight before, or those intentionally doing high rep schemes for mass, rehab, or learning.
Why weightlifting helps performance
First of all, why even lift weights bro? It depends on a person’s goals, but for athletes, that goal is usually to be better at their sport. There are many aspects to athleticism and strength is one important feature which helps one become a better athlete. Improved strength helps with:
- Power. Strength is needed to have better power. Force x velocity = power. Using speed as an example, being stronger helps an athlete go further with every step. Velocity can also be improved by faster muscle recruitment patterns (aka full speed sprinting) which takes a lot of patience and technical coaching, which a coach may or may not be knowledgeable in. Speed is an expression of power, and most elite field athletes are rather fast, which is an important enough reason to strength train.
- Injury risk reduction. A strong body gets hurt far less than a feeble one. Stronger muscles increase tension on the joints which keeps them more secure. Strength training also helps balance out the imbalances that come with sports. Each sport has certain body parts and movements that must be exceptionally efficient to be successful at the sport which often leads to imbalance. These imbalances unfortunately are also a precursor to injury that strength training helps reduce. An example is how a baseball pitcher or cricket bowler has one shoulder much stronger and more flexible than the other
- Neuromuscular efficiency. What? The body runs on electricity to function but the frequency and coordination of the signals varies tremendously. This is the basis of practice makes perfect. Movements such as squats and lunges have high turnover to sport as hip extension — hinging at the hips– is the most powerful movement the body goes through. Also, maximum and near maximum strength is largely determined by the strength of the electrical signal sent from the brain, many times more important than size. Being stronger at moving increases the brain to muscle coordination helping make the movement more smooth, powerful, and quicker. Think jumping, sprint starts, and pushing people around for example.
Why body building training falls short of athletic performance needs
Typical body building style weightlifting falls short of sport performance needs for 3 key reasons:
- It’s too isolated. The goal of body building is strictly to make muscles bigger. Many body builders have specific days to train chest and tris(triceps), back and bis(biceps), and sometimes, every now and again, leg day. In performance, muscle specific exercises are usually done for rehab or preventative care means. Remember, these simply having big muscles won’t make a better athlete, and if done incorrectly, could decrease your athleticism.
- It’s not heavy. To get stronger (not including beginners) you need to stimulate the brain to use large amounts of muscle fibers, quickly. This happens from lifting heavy weights, especially in sagittal plane movements (forward/back/up and down) as they can usually be loaded heavier due to how the body is built. Typical body builder style lifting actually causes endurance adaptations in muscles because they typically are 10-20 repetitions and are purposely slow to break muscle down. Much of the “bulk” in the guys at the gym is largely water due to increase aerobic nutrients. along with bigger muscles The only time an athlete needs to lift in such high volume for isolated exercises is during rehabilitation, or certain injury prone areas.
- It’s not functional. When in the world is a rugby player doing anything remotely like a mere cable tricep extension, or anything that doing that contributes to? Conversely, when would a quidditch athlete (go watch here before you ask) need to be explosive off of one leg? Often, if you watched the video, just like every other field sport. Most body building programs (and arguably a number of strength and fitness programs) don’t include ANY rotational training, meanwhile nearly all sports put athletes in position to rotate and move in combinations of left, up, and around all at the same time. In football (soccer) points are scored on max intensity efforts, parts of training needs to reflect that. Athletes simply have different needs for sport, which means the training must be different.
Points for athletic strength development
Having said all that, I will highlight a few points about what is best for gaining strength. I will refer to athletes no younger than their later teens who have some prior weightlifting experience and have more of a developed body.
- Compound movements (uses more than one joint) gives more bang for your buck. First of all, competing in sports consists of movements, not flexing muscles. Therefore an athlete should train movements forward, sideways, and rotationally. Squats, rotational cable or med ball lifts, lunges, pull ups, step ups, cable presses, etc. are examples of compound movements that target large muscle groups in particular, and require varying amounts of total body stability, very important for sport.
- Make the exercises heavy. Flat out, with movements like squats, presses, deadlifts, etc. where an athlete is using both legs/arms, the load should be a weight that can’t be lifted more than 6-8 times. Studies show that strength gains are increased the best with heavy weights and less repetitions, due to the strength of the neuromuscular signals coming from the brain. *In simplicity, sets like *8×5-7, 5×5, 6×4, 6×2, 8×1, are often used with heavy exercises throughout training cycles, although the timing and decision about when to do those must be very intentional and understood. Rotational movements typically do not fall under this rule as it is hard to get too heavy under such conditions. These and supplemental exercises that are usually smaller movements (such as shoulder press, lateral lunge) will be effective to do in the 7-10 repetition range. There are appropriate times for lifting beyond 6 reps with “main lifts” but rarely is it ever beyond 12 (learning to lift, rehab, trying to build muscle).
- Rest and recover. With neuromuscularly challenging sessions, there is a central nervous fatigue that’s induced due to repeatedly using large amounts of muscle in short efforts (think a 100m sprinter racing 4x in a competition). There generally isn’t too much soreness that happens with this in training, just a likely decrease in performance the next day or 2 if an athlete were to try to lift it again. Such training sessions takes 2-3 days to recover from and if an athlete is elite, this is can be 4 days and beyond (they expend more effort). It must be stressed that appropriate rest is a part of training. One only actually get better when you are resting. “The grind” is only as effective as its’ recovery techniques. Mobility stretches, foam rolling, and sleep are imperative to recovery with proper nutrition. An intentionally planned training program gets the most gains with the least effort possible, of course while still going hard.
In sports, it’s imperative that athletes are trained to be athletes, not body builders. There are many other factors at play in regards to weight training for athletes, especially rotationally, but that’s outside the scope of this article. Also understand, that this information can be privy to YOU who may not be an athlete but want to achieve high levels of strength. Be on the lookout for how you can gain size and “tone” (toning is actually putting on a bit of muscle) while still not lifting much like a body builder and spending less than 5 days in the gym.
*1/13/18 Update: Hypertrophy/muscle gain has it’s place. When rehabbing an injury, gaining weight to intentionally get bigger, high rep isolated movements are key. Those are specific protocols. There is more to it than this, but this is fundamental to powerful training. A couple of clarity edits were made as well.
As a follow up to this article, I am willing to send you my personal ultimate frisbee training program that I was using and gaining great strength from to cut and accelerate hard until I recently hurt my knee. Just comment your email address!
Please comment with any questions that you may have on the subject!