No matter what your sport or fitness activity is, strength training is a critical part of the equation for overall health and peak athletic performance.
From ultra-runners to tennis players, and cyclists to golfers, strength training supports essential movement of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints that allow us to pursue the activities we love for a lifetime.
We tracked down two experienced exercise and physiology professionals who work with athletes every day to help us better understand the concepts of strength training for everything from simple life functions to intense athletic training: Elite Cycling Coach Jeff Lockwood of LifeSport Inc., and his wife Jacqui Lockwood, who holds a Doctorate Degree in Manual Sports Orthopedics, a Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy and is an accomplished professional cyclist and former world record holder. Here’s what they had to say.
Why is Functional Strength Training So Important?
Jeff: “Let’s start with terminology. Functional strength is the needed strength to function on a daily basis for normal human activity. It is an overused word that originated from physical therapy. Athletes tend to train well above the functional level. They need strength training to develop the capacity to stay healthy and perform at an optimal level for their sport.
Strength training comes in two packages: sports specific and general. In cycling, an example of sport-specific training is riding the bike up steep hills of 10% to 20% grades. It could also be sprint training on the bike by doing accelerations of 15 to 20 mph increases in fewer than 15 seconds.
Performance gains come by doing the specific-sport training at greater frequencies, intensities or durations. General strength training provides the platform for which an athlete can stay healthy and practice more.
How Does Strength Training Support Performance Gains?
Jacqui: At the root of strength training, is the development of tensile strength of tendons and ligaments as well as the connective tissue of the muscle fibers. Weight training should not be thought of as sport-specific. It’s body-specific.
You’re training to increase overall resiliency and the body’s ability to tolerate any load. A runner has a great ability to tolerate load in the Achilles and quads, for example, but they don’t have much tolerance for load in the IT band or upper body.
That’s why strength training is so important. If you’re a runner and you fall, you’re likely to injure your shoulder because of upper-body weakness. We’re training areas of the body that aren’t primary for your normal athletic activity, but provide your body overall strength and balance.
An example of sport-specific training for runners would be to run in grass or to trail run, it will improve you’re running on the pavement. Grass and gravel are negative surfaces; they absorb energy, and when you run on those surfaces, you have to work harder to achieve each step.
How Do I Know if My Strength Training Program Makes Sense for My Sport?
Jacqui: Regardless of sport, symmetry needs to be the basis of any strength program. Symmetry is the evenness of the body top to bottom (transverse), left to right (sagittal) and front to back (coronal).
If you think about a tennis player, they hold the racquet in the same hand the whole time. They will have certain muscle groups that are really strong or really tight.
Think of your body like a tree. If it has a huge canopy and a poor root system, when the wind comes along, it will blow it away. That’s why we need to work on symmetry and form in the gym, to adjust for the imbalances that our sport may lead to.
Does Form Have to Be Perfect?
Jeff: Unfortunately, a lot of people are not getting taught proper form. It’s always more, more, more, push harder, and there’s no control of the movement. You have to develop solid, correct form before you can function without becoming injured, especially as we age. The saddest outcome would be attempting strength training with poor form, and getting injured.
I’m a Triathlete and Want to Improve my Swimming, Cycling and Running. Where Do I Begin?
Jacqui: With the understanding for the need for symmetry, triathletes need to work all the major muscle groups in all the cardinal planes.
There are two aspects for any program that needs to be included: 1) triple extension movements, which extend the hip, torso and shoulders; and, 2) tri-planar movements where the lift works in all three planes of motion. These are usually lifts that are single-sided, that cross the body, or rotate through the lift phase, as illustrated here.
When is the Best Time of Year to Focus on Strength Training?
Jeff: For competitive athletes, off-season is the best time to introduce a strength-training program. If no weight training has been done for at least three months, it means starting from the beginning. Depending on your sport, each session can vary between 30-90 minutes at the amateur level.
All strength-training programs should go through five phases. This is considered a periodization approach to training, where the percentage of max weight changes, as well as sets and reps, through each phase. It’s not the same workout year-round, but you want to continue to stimulate those muscles year-round.
- Anatomical adaptation (2-3 weeks)
- Strength building (4 weeks)
- Power/speed building (3-4 weeks)
- Endurance building (4-6 weeks)
- Maintenance phase (in peak season)
What’s the Best Place to Start?
Jeff: There is some misinformation, but there is also a great deal of misapplication of strength training. There any number of types or brands of strength training, including Navy Seals, CrossFit, Grid League, power lifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, Strongman and fitness. These are at the extreme level and generally impractical for most everyone. In terms of risk/benefit ratio, the risk is high and the benefit is low.
It doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, there are fundamental movements that are required of all sports. And that’s why when you talk about sport-specific strength training, you must still incorporate those fundamental lifts into your program.
What Are the Best Resources?
Jeff: It has been the long-standing model of American culture that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and therein lies the problem. The older we get, we have a much smaller window of tolerance to our bodies being mistreated. You’re going to pay a little more for someone who is educated and has a degree, but it is well worth it. The Internet is good for researching people. But if a website has more testimonials than diplomas and certifications, be very careful. It is not so much about what they know but that they take the time to know you.
The best resource for plugging into weight training is to find a professional trainer with a college degree in a sports science field and who has also become a 1) CSCS (Certified Strength and Condition Specialist), 2) ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) Heath Fitness Instructor, and/or 3) ATC-LAT, Athletic Trainer Certified and Licensed Athletic Trainer in the state in which they work.
Remember this TIP: Technique is Power. At the end of the day lifting comes down to proper technique. You need someone who can watch you move and guide you to move better before moving more.
Trainers should ultimately liberate you to function on your own. You should not be tied to them for the rest of your life. Instead of giving you the fish every day to survive, I want to teach you how to fish. That’s what a true coach should do for you.”