Strength training programme for all sports

Warming up for strength training

The need for strength in sports is now generally accepted. I have witnessed mediocre teams and individuals in field sports and other events improve quite dramatically by adopting a structured strength programme. Whether at elite or recreational level, a strength training programme should be planned and implemented according to sound principles to optimise the athlete’s performance capabilities.
Phil Gardiner

The strength preparation phase

When training, the strength preparation phase is extremely important. It is during this period that the framework of physical, technical and psychological preparation is developed prior to the competition phase. Inadequate training performed during this period will create problems during the competitive phase, which will be very difficult, if not impossible, to rectify. During this phase a relatively high volume of training is required in order to prepare the body for the higher intensity training (*) and competitions that follow, where the ability to recover quickly is important. It is also essential as it can provide the basis for injury prevention. This is because strong, flexible muscles can withstand the rigours of competitive sport much better than the non-strength trained.

* Higher intensity training refers to sport specific training, speed training and plyometrics (jumping- type exercises) and heavy (over 85% of one rep maximum) weight training

How long should the strength preparation phase be?

For sports with clearly defined, relatively short competition phases:

  • Single competition phase (for example, track and field athletes and swimmers preparing for one major event in the training year) – 32 weeks plus
  • Double competition phase (for example, track and field athletes or gymnasts preparing for two peaks, perhaps in the winter and summer seasons) – 13 weeks plus
  • Triple competition phase (for example, sprinters going for three peaks: indoor season, and mid and late summer outdoor seasons) – eight weeks plus

For sports with multiple competitions

Coaches in charge of football and rugby teams, for example, tend to adopt a single periodized plan. There is a drawback; unlike with track and field or rowing the competitive seasons are usually several months longer (with matches on a weekly basis), meaning that preparation time is at a premium. For tennis, because of indoor facilities, there are competitive opportunities throughout the year.

For these sports, fitting in a strength preparation phase can be difficult. In fact, coach and athlete may have to fit in short preparatory phases before less-important tournaments and select their competition schedule accordingly.

In sports such as triathlon and marathon running, long periods of recovery and preparation are necessary to allow the athlete ample time to prepare and recover from their efforts. These athletes are more likely to benefit from a double or triple competition year. This would allow enough time to develop the required strength (and other qualities) in the ‘gaps’ between competitions.

Weightlifting

Strength endurance training is crucial

Irrespective of whether your sport is endurance or predominately speed based the foundation period must contain strength endurance training at a relatively low intensity, but with a fairly high training volume (in terms of reps and sets). This will provide the muscles with the endurance necessary to withstand and recover from the more intensive work that will be demanded of them in the training and competition phases that follow.

In terms of strength intensity is measured by the 1RM that the athlete is capable of lifting at that time of year - as opposed to their lifetime best lift. I advocate this being around 65-75% 1RM during this phase.

Note: more experienced athletes should spend less time on lower-intensity strength training than novice athletes before moving onto higher- intensity workloads – for example, during a triple-competition year, doing lower-intensity strength training for six weeks as opposed to eight weeks.

Best exercises for the strength preparation phase

It is important to use multi-joint free weight exercises, such as the squat or dead-lift, as opposed to isolated (single joint) exercises, such as arm curls or leg extensions.

Multi-joint free weight exercises have a systemic effect that reaches beyond the muscle fibres recruited in their execution. This means that they activate the neuromuscular system, which in turn improves coordination. In simple terms they improve the body’s ability to move fast, change direction and carry out skills used in sports.

Certain fixed weight machines can serve a sports strength preparatory role, for example, the low pulley row, or leg press, but multi-joint free weight exercises usually have a better transfer to athleticism.

What to account for when designing a preparatory strength phase

1. Tempo and load

Movements should be controlled and should be made through the full available range of motion.

2. Do not exercise to failure, only to fatigue

The aim is to gradually progress condition and avoid excess muscle soreness (and in worse case scenarios injury).

3. Do not attempt unrealistic loads

Begin with two or three workouts per week using six to eight exercises over two or three sets of 8-12 repetitions with two to three minutes’ rest between sets. The loads should be between 65% and 75% of 1RM and performed in circuit format – of which, more later. 

4. It is not necessary to endure prolonged workouts in the gym to achieve progress

In fact, 30-45 minutes will normally suffice.

5. It is not necessary to lift weights more often than three times per week to achieve success

Lifting more frequently will not allow the body sufficient recovery and adaptation time. It takes
48 hours to recover from strength training.

6. When training for sports, such as football and tennis, you should take into consideration the time and effort being put into your sport-specific training and allow for recovery time
You need to follow a balanced, inclusive training programme.

Circuit and stage circuit training methods

Circuit format: these exercises are performed consecutively with minimal rest between each. Two to three minutes’ recovery are then taken at the end of the circuit. All major muscle groups should be worked. Circuit is the best format to use when working at lower intensities.

Stage format: I believe this method is best for achieving strength gains, when the loads lifted increase in intensity beyond the 75% limit of the strength preparation phase. It’s a more advanced system and should only be used by the appropriately experienced athlete. The athlete completes, for example, three sets of each exercise before moving onto the next exercise.

Bodyweight exercises and strength preparation

It is always good to commence the strength preparation phase with bodyweight exercises before progressing to weight training workouts. These are usually performed in circuit format, although the intensity can be increased by using the stage method. Try it and you’ll feel how much tougher it is to do four sets of 20 press-ups with a short recovery between each set before moving on to the (different) next exercise.

Sample strength preparation phase workouts

The workouts listed in the table will provide a solid strength endurance base for numerous sports. Note: As you increase the loads (intensity), you should decrease the number of exercises and repetitions. If necessary, the sets can be reduced to one or two when intensity is increased, before building back up to three sets as the body adapts.

I have included exercises for the glutes and the lower back – for example, dead-lifts and the bent row. These exercises play a vital part in the prevention of injuries to the legs and lower back and improve the body’s ability to sprint, jump, kick and so on.

Vary the abdominal exercises to ensure that all ‘ab’ regions and muscles are targeted

Table 1 and 2

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