Weight Training to Improve Sports: The Sport Specific Approach to Strength Training Programs

Weight Training to Improve Sports

The Sport Specific Approach to Strength Training Programs


Sport-specific weight training and/or strength training programs are fundamental to an athlete’s development and success. As I’ve explained in my previous couple of blogs, it has been shown that high levels of strength are a prerequisite to superior speed, power, strength endurance and overall sporting performance. For this reason it is unfortunate that most strength training programs fall well short of what an athlete requires, because if you     get this aspect of your training program RIGHT, your performance WILL IMPROVE!

Bodybuilding and Olympic weight training programs still dominate many athletes’ training regimes. Although these types of training have their place, strength training FOR SPORTS, must be specific and must consist of a more refined approach than simply lifting heavy weights!

In this blog I will outline the concept and benefits of a periodised strength training plan for sport specific development. This is the most EFFECTIVE approach to strength training for sport. This type of programming will help to prevent over training and will give the athlete the best chance of peaking physically at the right time.

1. Exercise Selection

In order to make your weight training specific it should mirror the demands of the sport as closely as possible. This applies not only to way the body’s energy systems and neuromuscular system is taxed (through manipulation of intensity and rest intervals etc) but also to the movement patterns of each exercise.

Bodybuilders isolate a muscle group and work it to exhaustion. Athletes should train movements rather than muscles. A simple example is the vertical jump. The muscles involved in this action (calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals etc.) could be trained separately with exercise choices such as toe raises, leg extensions, leg curls, kickbacks and so on (this is what a body builder would do). A more appropriate exercise however is a barbell squat, which closely matches the movement pattern of the vertical jump. To further develop this movement, jump squats are even more specific to jumping and it’s not surprising that they increase vertical jump performance to the greatest extent. Do you understand what I mean? The aim is to mimic your performance movements in the gym! If you understand the idea of it, then it will become really easy to apply to your daily training routine.

Athletes must divide their time and energy amongst various types of training as discussed in my previous blog and find the time to recover! By choosing only the most appropriate resistance exercises volume can be kept to a minimum saving energy for other types of training.

2. The Periodization of Strength

Training periodisation is used to promote long term training improvements and avoid over training – it is the most effective approach to planning strength training programs for sport.

The overall training program can be split into set periods and usually consist of the:

  • Preparation Period (Pre-season)
  • Competition Period (In-season)
  • Transition Period (Off / closed-season)

By co-ordinating the different elements of a strength training program with the phases of a typical season, the athlete can reach a peak for the start of the competitive season and therefore the most important parts of year.

The development of sport-specific strength is also split into sections/periods. It makes sense to develop certain types of strength before others. Here are the phases, in order, of an overall strength training program and how they should coincide with phases of a typical season:

Phase 1 – Basic Strength
Training for many sports can have an unbalancing effect on the body’s musculoskeletal system. One side of the body may become stronger than the other, the bigger muscle groups may be overly strong compared to smaller muscle groups that are often neglected. These imbalances WILL effect performance and ultimately lead to chronic and acute injury.

A period of basic strength training should occur at the start of the preparation period (early pre-season). For less experienced athletes it may be necessary to start during the transition period (closed season).

Phase 2 – Maximum Strength / Hypertrophy
The majority of athletes benefit from a period of maximal strength training.

The length of this phase will vary depending on the sport – strength and/or power athletes will spend more time in this phase compared to endurance athletes for example. If a period of hypertrophy training is required (i.e. football or rugby players) it usually occurs before maximal weight training.

Hypertrophy and maximal strength training programs usually occur midway through the preparation phase.

Phase 3 – Conversion
Until this point weight training has been generic, and it is NOW when this needs to change! For strength training to be effective, the general base of strength must converted into sport-specific power or muscular endurance (or both). This occurs late in the preparation phase and may continue into the start of the competitive season.

Phase 4 – Maintenance
When weight training stops the benefits gained previously WILL quickly diminish. To avoid this a certain level of conditioning is required to maintain the gains made in the preparation phase. Don’t allow all that hard work to fizzle away!

The volume required to maintain strength is less than that required to build it.

The maintenance phase occurs throughout the competitive season.

Phase 5 – Active Recovery
Following a strenuous season, a break from structured training and the stress of competition is crucial for physical and mental recovery. This can be a complete break from all types of strength training programs for several weeks or little bits of completely different types of training (more for pleasure than for gains!). Any longer than 3-4 weeks however, and fitness, particularly strength and power, diminishes rapidly. The active recovery phase occurs in the transition period.

If anything was left unclear, or this blog has triggered off a thinking process that has left you with questions, feel free to contact me directly!

Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs that will teach you how to optimise your sports performance!!

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