Strength is a great way to bulletproof against injuries in sport. Get your athletes stronger and you help them develop resiliency and robustness. This make intuitive sense (stronger= less likely to break), and research indeed seems to back this up. But is there more to this equation than just “get them strong”? I am definitely in the camp of keeping training systems simple, and always a bit suspicious about the motives behind making things sound complicated. But as the saying goes; Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
The early-2000’s brought in the functional training era of Strength and Conditioning, where athlete’s followed a physical therapy model and spent all their time getting ‘functional’ and forgot to get strong. A training program with 20 different exercises, unstable surfaces, cable machines, and focusing really really hard on getting the TA and multifidus firing. Then in the late-2000’s the pendulum swung towards the opposite extreme; lifting heavy weights and getting strong. Training programs had little variety, and focused on the Power lifts and a few sets of plank. This is what most of my physical preparation for hurling looked like when I was in college, along with some Olympic lifts. I focused on the numbers and on how much weight I could shift off the ground, off my chest, pull up, or squat with on my back. I definitely got stronger, but the harder I trained in the gym the more I broke down on the field. The extra strength and size may have been somewhat useful but my balance and coordination was poor, and I wasn’t very explosive.
Thus, we need to redefine what ‘strength’ means for athletes and we need a clear understanding of how to accumulate this strength. Does gym-strong make you strong at your sport? In what movement patterns are you strong? How strong is your body’s connective tissue?
I like Vern Gambetta’s definition of strength training: ‘Coordination training with appropriate resistance to handle bodyweight, project an implement, resist gravity and optimize ground reaction forces.’ There is a focus here on range of motion, multiple planes, multiple joints, proprioceptively demanding movements. Coordination training. This helps us build a more complete picture of what strength really is for athletes.
Gymnastics-style strength training is gaining in popularity in recent years, and this move towards complex bodyweight progressions can only be a good thing for athlete durability. Now we are talking about relative strength, not just how much weight you can lift, as well as connective tissue strength, proprioception and kinesthetic awareness. However, this type of strength training requires mindful effort, patience, and long-term thinking. It won’t suit those who bring their ego’s into the gym and are not willing to suck at something for a while.
There is a definite move towards quality of movement over quantity, and the best coaches prioritize developing physical literacy before other biomotor qualities. Gray Cook’s guiding principle for the Functional Movement System ‘First move well..then move often’ alludes to this. Kelvin Giles states that ‘the first goal is to become a better all-round mover. The all-round mover can then become an athlete’. Ido Portal put it less subtly when he said ‘many specialists are lacking as human beings. There is a lot of focus on one layer and as movers they suck. Most sports are like that.’ The Functional Range Conditioning system emphasises the need for basic articular strength and mobility before exposing the joints to movements that they are otherwise unprepared for. We overhead press when our shoulders don’t have prerequisite mobility do so. We front squat when our ankles don’t have the prerequisite mobility to do so, and we do handstands without the prerequisite wrist mobility.
So the message is clear, before you get ‘strong’ in the traditional sense, you need to earn the right by having fully functioning and mobile joints. This was definitely my downfall over the years and is still the biggest killer of long-term progress for most athletes. You won’t get a pump from this work, it may not be as exciting as doing deadlifts or power cleans, but to borrow a hashtag from Dr. Spina, you need to do it: #EveryDamnDay. Mobility work, controlled articular rotations. Check your movement patterns for some feedback. Can you sit in the bottom of a squat comfortably? Could you sit there and read a wee book? Mobility is actively controlled ranges of motion: Flexibility + Strength. And most of us don’t have enough of this.
So what is the best way to physically prepare for team sports such as hurling and football? An S&C coach from the ‘get them strong’ camp might look a training program of mine today and roll their eyes up at the heavens. Crawling, rolling, walking rotations, and multiplanar bodyweight movements that supplement the squats and deadlifts. We need to look beyond the barbell and remove the dogma of what strength looks like. Are we strong if we can back squat more weight than the next person, or our we strong if our tissue has structural integrity and the robustness to handle high directional forces on the field of play? Every ankle sprain or cruciate ligament injury is the result of an inability to efficiently absorb the load placed on the tissue.
A well planned annual training program might spend 6 to 8 weeks on general preparation, before moving on to more sport specific preparation. There is certainly a conflict here for the conscientious athletic development coach, as nearly every high-level athlete I have encountered could do with a good 6 months of general preparation and remodeling before tackling the rigors of elite sport. Nobody said high-level sport would be a healthy pursuit for the human body but we can put strategies in place to mitigate the damage.
Of course, we don’t expect professional footballers with busy seasons to become gymnasts on the side. However, we can help these specialists suck less as human beings. Spend time on building healthy and strong joints, move efficiently, and look beyond the easy gratification of weight lifting alone.
Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.