In the last decade there’s been a huge surge in the popularity of strength training among athletes, and rightfully so. The performance world is realizing more and more the benefits of developing strength, mobility, and power. Developing physical literacy via strength training provides athletes a foundation, onto which they can build their sports skills. Yet, most young athletes have nowhere to begin with regards to strength training. They do some bench press, some bicep curls, and call it a day. It doesn’t take a pro to realize that this is not the best approach to take with regards to developing a safe and effective strength and conditioning regiment. For all athletes, but especially those just starting out, there are a handful of principles that we use to guide our program design and coaching.
- Learn basic movements
Too often athletes want to try advanced exercises, and the latest fitness fads. However, there is no substitute for the tried-and-true methods that have been used for decades. When starting out, athletes must learn how to squat, hinge, push, and pull, and do this in a safe manner. So many kids want to learn how to back squat and bench press, when they can barely stand on 1-leg without falling. This means starting with the simplest form of an exercise there is, which almost always requires a bodyweight movement. If a young athlete can’t control their spine on a bodyweight squat, there is a very high chance of injury if we throw 50 pounds on the athlete’s back. Master the basic movements, and when it is time to load the movements there will be much less risk of injury and dysfunction.
- Mimic the demands of the sport
“Train slow, play slow”
–Mike Boyle, New Functional Training for Sports
In most traditional sports like soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and basketball, power and acceleration are most often the qualities that separate the good athletes from the great. These sports are not played at a steady state, but rather at alternating periods of sprint and rest. With that in mind, it’s important that our training mimics the energy system demands of these sports. Let’s take soccer as an example. A soccer game is not played at a smooth jog. It’s a mix of sprints, jogs, and walks, with periods of acceleration and deceleration. So how should these players train? With intermittent periods of sprinting and jogging followed by rest. The quote above from Mike Boyle sums it up perfectly. If you train quickly and explosively, that’s how you’ll play. If you train under your maximum output, you will play under your explosive capabilities. So, in our programs the athletes get a fair amount of rest. This allows them to go 100% when necessary, and let their bodies recuperate before the next rep. The goal is not to make the workout as difficult as possible for them, it’s to allow them to push their explosive capacities which will ultimately transfer over into athletics. For most sports, endurance and aerobic capacity should not be a high priority in strength and conditioning. It takes years to get powerful, but only a few weeks to get into aerobic condition. In the weeks leading up to the start of a sports season, we implement circuit training as a method to train the aerobic system. However, the emphasis year-round remains on prioritizing acceleration and power development.
The other important piece to consider is that most sports are not played linearly (except track). They involve lots of changes of direction, acceleration and deceleration in unpredictable positions. In order to prepare athletes for these positions, we must train all planes of motion. So, a training program should involve linear sprints, lateral sprints, and everything in between.
- Do no harm
“Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm.”
We work out to improve performance. Yet, many of us know what it’s like to tweak something in the weight room, and how easily it can set us back. Yes, injuries happen. Oftentimes they are unpreventable. However it is our job to ensure that the chance of injury is as low as possible. The biggest cause of injury is trying to progress from the baseline, bodyweight movements too quickly (see above). Going further, most of the time the injury is related to an athlete’s inability to control their spine. This is what our “pelvic tilt” and core work is for. Teaching athletes how to engage their abdominals muscles and posterior (hamstring and gluteal) muscles, which places the spine in a neutral position, precedes all other weight room movements. Anytime you’re excessively feeling your low back in a movement, you should ask yourself whether your core was engaged, and your spine in a neutral position.
Another method we use to minimize risk while still being able to get athletes stronger is implementing lots of single-leg movements. The squat and deadlift are both complex movement patterns, requiring coordination of the entire body to perform adequately. It takes time to master these with little to no weight. However, an exercise like a split squat or a single leg stiff-leg deadlift can be performed without any weight yet still be strenuous, especially for beginners. So, we can still effectively strength train while using lighter loads which equates to lower chance of injury. Additionally, single-leg exercises ensure that one side of the body is not being overemphasized too much. Often in a bilateral squat, athletes will favor one leg or the other, but in a single-leg squat, this weakness becomes exposed. Single-leg exercises require more activation of muscles that stabilize the pelvis. While playings sports, this stabilization is essential, because very rarely are two feet on the ground at the same time. Single-leg exercises mimic what sports demand more than bilateral movements.
- Wrapping Up
For those starting out in the weight room, keep it simple. Athletes can progress for years and years before their program needs to get away from anything more than basic progressive overload. If you’re not sure how to incorporate these principles into your strength and conditioning program, drop by our youth athletic performance class. Class is currently running Tuesdays and Thursday from 3:00 to 4:00 from now until February 22. If anybody is curious about learning more about these principles, I’d highly recommend picking up Mike Boyle’s book, New Functional Training for Sports.