Strength training: developing your core strength

A 2 month base strength plan

At a glance

One of the most fundamental rules of base strength training is that, before focusing on sport-specific strength, you need to build up general strength capabilities. James Marshall explains how to achieve this goal with a two-month training plan…

With the advent of internet video workouts, it’s very easy for junior or novice athletes to look at top athletes doing workouts and try to emulate them. If world champion ‘X’ is shown doing single- leg hops over 30 metres, then you can guarantee that the following week, physio couches all over the country will be laden with people who have tried (unsuccessfully) to emulate this routine! Unfortunately, copying drills ad hoc, without looking at how they might fit into an overall training plan, is all too common.

Why is strength necessary?

In some sports, strength work is still seen as a hindrance to the real work of endless sub-maximal monotonous drills and training runs. In other sports, such as judo or boxing or athletic field events, strength is recognised as an asset, but is not always trained systematically. In sports such as rugby, strength may be confused with size, with bigger players not necessarily being more powerful or stronger than their smaller counterparts.

Strength is the basis for speed, power, agility, and of course the ability to generate force. The timing and synchronisation of the muscle contractions are what gives the muscle specific strength; so in order to reproduce sport-specific strength, you have to replicate similar types of movements during your strength training.

Fatigue is directly related to technical and tactical work in all sports; if you become fatigued then your tactical judgement is affected, and your technical ability is less reliable. Better-conditioned athletes can maintain higher intensities for longer with less fatigue, which improves technical performance. Being stronger means both that you will be able to beat an equivalent opponent who is less strong, and that you will use proportionately less energy. In judo, for example, if you weigh 80kg and can deadlift 160kg, and your similar opponent can only deadlift 80kg, then when you lift them up to throw them down, you are using just 50% of your maximum effort while they would use 100%. You can do a lot more 50% efforts in a match than you can do 100% efforts, so by being stronger it allows you to do more work overall.

Strength is also an important factor in injury prevention. For example, one of the reasons that females are four to seven times more likely than males to suffer anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury is a lack of lower-limb strength (1-4). But whatever your gender, in order to sustain the injury prevention benefits of strength training, you need to strength train throughout the year rather than just relying on a six-week pre-season blast(5).

What is base strength training?

Before training using sport-specific movements, you need to gain an overall strength base, which can take years of training (6-10). If the movement pattern of this base strength training is sufficiently broad and the types of exercises used are varied, you can continue to develop your sporting skills while still having enough stimuli in your strength training to produce adaptation – ie strength gains.

This base strength training does not necessarily require significantly more load or volume. Instead, by using dynamically challenging exercises that require hand-eye and body-limb coordination, you will develop better movements, which will aid your sport performance. Even if you’re an experienced athlete with many years of training in different forms of exercise, it’s still worthwhile doing some non-specific work as a form of variety in the off-season, for two reasons:

1. At the end of the season, your body will probably be tired, stiff, sore and not in peak condition. It may not be able to withstand the loads involved in sport-specific training – eg speed or power work – straight away. Non-specific work, however, can enable you to train for balance by addressing areas of weakness/imbalance before you move on to sport-specific training;

2. The importance of mental freshness cannot be underestimated. One of the key causes of over-training is repetitive, monotonous training (11). Off-season base training allows you to perform different exercises and activities, maybe in different and more stimulating environments than you have become used to.

Planning your training

For the purposes of this article I am assuming a two-month period of base training. This is an arbitrary figure, but you can extend or contract the basic principle, depending on the length of your off-season. The first thing to do is assess how many weeks you have available to train, how much time each week, what facilities you have, and which areas of strength need working on. Regarding the last point, this could include a review of any injuries you have suffered and would like to help prevent next season or where you felt weaker as the season went on. Once you have this information, you should split your training into two phases:

1. The transition phase – A fun, refreshing, non-specific period of training that includes localised strength development, injury prevention, joint strengthening exercises, flexibility training and endurance training.

2. The foundation phase – The hard core of fitness training, which works on localised muscle groups, using a variety of equipment and where progression and overload are initiated.

Within this two-month period, the first two weeks would comprise the transition phase and the last six weeks the foundation phase. If you have a shorter overall period, you should still use a two-week transition phase and reduce the foundation phase accordingly. Some ideas for training follow, but these are generic ideas and you should adapt your training to your individual needs and circumstances. Remember, there is no one magic exercise that is better than another; it’s the timing, application and quality of the movement that counts.

Transition phase schedule (weeks 1-2)

This comprises three sessions a week of localised strength work, 30 minutes a session. Also, three flexibility sessions per week and two sessions of fun activities not related to your sport and not quantified in terms of times or distances – such as tennis, squash, swimming, volleyball, horse riding, etc.

Suggested warm-up: Either: 10 minutes of rock climbing – try to transverse across an indoor climbing wall; or try climbing a rope 10 times; or commando crawl, hands-and-knees crawl and bear crawl across a 10-metre area for 10 minutes.

Session: Try two to three sets of 10-12 repetitions of five of the following exercises in each session. You should change these each time you train, so that you don’t do the same thing two sessions in a row:

  • Shoulder shrugs – Hang from a bar (keep your arms straight). Try to move your head up to the bar by pulling your shoulder blades down your back;
  • Perpendicular press-ups – Do a press-up, but take one arm off the floor and point it to the ceiling, then come down and repeat on the other side;
  • Ankle bounces – Keep your knees straight and use your ankles to jump a little way off the floor;
  • Multi-directional lunge – Start with feet shoulder-width apart. Step forward with one leg and bend both front and back knees to 90 degrees, then return to start position. Now step in a different direction, to the side, or backwards and combinations of back and to the side. Try six reps each leg;
  • Plank – Prone, supine (see figure 1), and side- hold for 30 seconds in each position. If this is easily done on the elbows, then make it more difficult by doing it with extended limbs, or having only one foot on the floor.

Figure 1

Foundation phase (weeks 3-8)

Here again we will focus on training three times a week for strength. Weeks 3-4 will consist of three ‘localised strength’ workouts. Weeks 5 and 6 consist of two localised strength and one ‘overall strength’ workouts. Weeks 7 and 8 consist of one localised strength workout, one overall strength workout and one ‘strength-power’ session (see table 1).
All the three sessions above (localised sessions 1 and 2, and overall strength) can be performed in a circuit fashion, progressing from one exercise to the next. Allow a one-minute recovery between the exercises.

Table 1

Core strength – is it overrated?

Although strength work begins from the core, this doesn’t mean that core work should become the main focus of training. One study on running and core stability training showed that despite an improved ‘core strength’ there was no improvement in running economy, running posture or VO2max in the subjects (12).

A more recent study on Division 1 American Football players showed that core stability was only moderately related to strength and performance(13). Here the authors compared core stability with 1RM (maximum weight that could be lifted for one rep) bench press, power clean and back squat, as well as countermovement jump, 10-yard shuttle runs and 20- and 40-yard sprints. The problem with this study was that the core stability tests were a measure of muscular endurance, but the performance tests all lasted less than 10 seconds. Also, this could be a chicken and egg situation – in order to back squat or power clean a large weight you must have a strong core, so was it the loading of these exercises that gave athletes a strong core, or a strong core that helped them lift the weight?

The bottom line is that most initial research has come from a clinical setting where patients with low back pain have been shown to have weak core muscles. Having a strong core should help prevent low back pain and then also allow you to withstand more strenuous activities that will then help you to be better at your sport. But having a strong core in itself has not been shown to help sports performance directly.

Localised strength workouts

Session 2

Strength-Power sessions

Overall strength workouts

Summary

Planning your training will allow you to develop base strength that will provide a platform for more specific work to follow. This two-month sojourn away from normal training is necessary both physically and mentally. The exercises given here are just examples, and don’t have to be followed religiously; the principles of variety and complexity of movements are what counts.

References

1. American Journal of Sports Medicine 23, 694-701 (1995)
2. Am J Sports Med 22, 364-371 (1994)
3. Am J Sports Med 10 297-299 (1982)
4. Clinical Sports Medicine 287-302 (2000)
5. British J Sports Med 41,627-638 (2007)
6. Jesse, J, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia. Athletic Press: Pasadena, California (1986)
7.  Foran, W, High Performance Sports Conditioning. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics (2001)
8. Javorek, I, Javorek ‘Complex’ Conditioning.
Self-published (2004)
9. Bompa, T, Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics (1999)
10. Kurz, T. Science of Sports Training. Sation Publishing, USA (2004)
11. Kellmann, M. Enhancing Recovery. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics (2002)
12. JSCR 18(3):522-528 (2004)
13. JSCR 22 (6), 1750-1754 (2008)

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