sport specific strength training

As race season approaches we need to pay special attention to the application of the principle of specificity to our training.

Increased specificity towards our competition sport(s) is common enough for fitness and skills training, but strength training very often defies this convention and many programs fail to adapt muscular conditioning to the needs of the sport(s).

Here are some general guidelines regarding muscular conditioning preparation for longer distance events

General preparation phase: safety awareness, learning and consolidating technical lifting skills, movement pattern acquisition (for sport it is core to extremities NEVER extremities to core), joint strength, range of motion and stability, etc. In this phase,exercises are mostly general base building (1-3 sets of 8-12 reps on a slower, steadier tempo) and aerobic base building (1-3 sets of 15-30+ reps on a gentle but steady tempo). Also important at this time are laying the foundation for core stability and balance work.

Specific preparation phase(s): technical skill consolidation continues, core focus incorporates sequencing of larger peripheral muscle groups (and proper joint sequencing), introduction of higher resistance exercises (aka strength building- 4-6 sets x 4-6 reps at a slower tempo), higher movement velocity exercises (2-8 sets of 4-12 reps on faster continuous tempos), higher power output exercises (high resistance and high velocity for 2-10 sets of 1-4 reps on an explosive and controlled tempo). You also want to maintain your base core strength, balance and stability work, aerobic base training and muscle building (as needed).

At this time, thought should be applied to the sport specific movements and balance work needed to enhance competition performance.

Pre-competition phase(s): In this phase all exercises should be as sport specific as possible. Look at body position, joint angles, range of motion, angular velocity/acceleration in the joints and look to recreate that in the gym as best you can.

If you can’t recreate sufficient sport specificity in the gym, move your strength work outside to your sport environment. For example cyclists can do split squats in the gym OR short sprints designed to fit a set number of pedal strokes, certain cadence and resistance. The same focus of the strength should be mimicked in the sport specific environment.

i.e. to increase muscular strength (peak force); 6 sets of 4 in gym on tempo (seconds to complete the eccentric, isometric, concentric and isometric phases of the lift). This is an 8 second lift (add up the tempo numbers) or 32 seconds of hard work.

A cycling equivalent would be single leg (split) squats or a seated position leg press. In the field you could use an indoor trainer / rollers or go outdoors for uphill cycling efforts in a bigger gear and lower cadence . Depending on the sport specific training needs, the duration could be 4-6 pedal strokes (single leg), 8-12 pedal strokes (two legs) or 15-20 seconds (remove the isometric component as is doesn’t apply to cycling.

In swimming, you can simulate the swim movement on a swim bench (i.e. Vasa trainer) or using a simple flat bench and either a cable pull machine or surgical tubing. In the pool or open water you can use tethered swimming under high resistance for 4-8 strokes or high resistance/low cadence efforts of 4-8 strokes or 15 seconds with drag shorts.

In paddling sports, an indoor trainer (i.e. Dansprit, WEBA or Vasa kayak ergometers) seated cable pull core rotations in the gym or tethered paddling under high resistance for 4-12 strokes or high resistance/low cadence efforts of 4-12 strokes or 15-20 seconds with a resistor (i.e. simple bungee around the hull, tennis balls on a string, etc.). Keep in mind too much resistor work can overload joints and the smaller stability oriented muscle groups (i.e. rotator cuff) very quickly.

NOTE: too large a resistor in any sport may significantly alter the biomechanics and place the athlete at risk of injuries. Similarly, too much high resistance work can result in the same risks! It is not uncommon to see athletes and coaches adopt high resistance work in aerobic training only to have it result in a high risk of injuries and loss of the faster cadence/stroke rate required for high power production.

Similarly, peak movement speeds can be developed through assisted movements;

  • downhill sprints in cycling and running
  • using fins in swimming (not paddles as they slow down stroke rate while increasing body speed)
  • surfing and wash riding in paddle sports

Competition phase(s): By this time all muscular conditioning should by exclusively oriented towards sport performance and nothing but specific. All single joint lifts should be discontinued (unless recommended by a physio for a specific injury). Ideally, all muscular conditioning should now be done in a sport specific environment at movement speeds and resistances that simulate the range of power outputs required of the athletes.

Transition phase: In the off season, no muscular conditioning is best. For athletes who like the routine of going to the gym, schedule a 30-45 minute stretching and flexibility routine.

CAUTION: higher resistance training often feels very gratifying and athletes will feel very strong and powerful after such a workout. It is not uncommon to see 20+ minutes of very high resistance training at very low cadences and movement speeds. This will not only encourage low speed movements (cadences) but may minimize the athlete’s ability to perform at higher movement speeds (cadences) as well, which may result in a significantly lower peak power (speed) in sprints and other situations where a high movement velocity is required.

A well designed and administered muscular conditioning program will prepare the athlete for the full range of competition challenges; high resistance x fast movement speed, high resistance x low movement speed, low resistance x fast movement speed, low resistance x low movement speed,…

A good muscular conditioning program must make the transition from the gym to the field of play as the season progresses to ensure peak performance. This transition is more important in elite high performance athletes than for novices. But equally beneficial to each.

As a coach or athlete, figuring out the challenge of how to do this transition to maintain sport specificity is very difficult, but extremely worthwhile!



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