Why Strength is Important for Athletes

Strength for Athletes, because a Weak Athlete is a Poor Athlete

Committed athletes – I’m talking high school and collegiate – do plenty to improve themselves in their respective sport. They always show up for practice. They play in the off-season leagues to stay sharp. They treat themselves with the best equipment within their budget. They eat like a horse-and-a-half.

But many of them don’t strength train. When I see or hear about a young, talented athlete who doesn’t strength train, I die a little on the inside.

What these young-guns don’t realize is that by not strength training, they’re missing the final piece of the puzzle. Skimping out on increased strength limits your athletic potential and may very well stop your athletic career before it starts. Here’s why.

Reason #1 – Strength Training Increases Athletic Ability

A majority of sports involve demonstrations of power. By this, I mean that sports usually require a lot of jumping, throwing, sprinting, etc. Basically, it’s anything involving fast movement. Football, volleyball, soccer (or futbol), golf, sprinting, and throwing events all require power.

So, do you want to become more powerful? I’ve got the perfect solution for you… Start lifting weights.

Time and time again, strength training has been observed to increase power across the board. Researchers have seen improvements in vertical jump, throwing velocity, running velocity, as well as other expressions of power,  in various studies. The connection exists. It’s that clear. Feel free to skim through the 10 different studies I cited at the bottom of the page.

strength for athletes - dwain chambers

Looking ripped as ever.

Here’s a hypothetical explanation as to why increased strength leads to increased power. If someone is too weak to pick-up a heavy cinder block, it’d be impossible to even throw that same cinder block. Increasing strength would allow that same person to then be able to pick it up and actually throw it. Increasing strength even further would allow that person to throw it even farther.

The lighter something “feels”, the easier it is to throw. To make objects feel lighter, you must get stronger. This not only applies to external objects, but to your own bodyweight as well.

While “speed schools” have been fairly popular in recent years, the so-called “speed training” and “scientific methods”  employed by these facilities may not be so useful in increasing power after all. An athlete seeking to become more powerful and explosive simply needs to get stronger using a barbell and some weight.

If endurance is the name of the game – which it is for many sports – strength training helps athletes out in this pursuit as well. Quite a number of studies have shown how increasing strength improves running economy, lactate threshold, muscular endurance, and aerobic endurance. Look below for the six different studies I referenced to support this.

Compare a lean person to an obese person. If both people were to walk 5 miles, the obese person would finish with a slower time and be more tired at the end of it compared to the lean person. Why? Well, the obese person may be just as strong as the lean person, but he’s got to carry extra weight around, making the walk much more difficult. If the obese person was no longer obese OR was strong enough to compensate for the extra weight, he/she would walk just as quickly and easily as the lean person.

The stronger you are, the lighter your body (or external objects) “feel” to you, just as I’ve stated before. The lighter something feels, the easier it is to move it for an increased number of repetitions. And that’s exactly what endurance requires.

Reason #2 – Strength Training Reduces the Risk for Sports-Related Injuries

If we all had bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles as strong as steel, we’d hardly ever worry about getting injured. But our bodies aren’t made of steel, and we DO worry about injuries. For athletes, much more is at stake and their bodies need to remain injury-free if a serious athletic career is desired.

For some reason, the oft-repeated myth (preached by parents and team coaches) is that you don’t want to spend too much time in the weightroom, or else you’ll get hurt. What the reasoning is – I have no idea. Maybe athletes and coaches think that lifting weights is high risk – which is only true when a bunch of young kids get together and lift weights without proper coaching. Or maybe they think that “being too strong” will get them hurt – which makes no f***ing sense.

strength for athletes

Here’s Baylor’s strength & conditioning coach, Kaz Kazadi. Baylor’s football team finished first in their conference in 2013. This guy know’s what’s up.

Anyway, fact of the matter is that strength training reduces the likelihood of injury for athletes due to three reasons.

First is that strength training makes the tissues of the musculoskeletal system stronger.

Bones, tendons, and cartilage adapt to strength training by becoming more resilient and stronger (Sievänen H, et. al) (Viouri I, et. al) (Mikesky AE, et. al) (Reeves ND, et. al) (Urlando, Hawkins). Muscles adapt as well (obviously), and are less prone to injury when strengthened. For example, soccer players who strengthened their hamstrings in the preseason experienced less hamstrings-related injuries than those who didn’t strength train (Askling C, et. al).

Logically, any kind of weight-bearing or movement would make the body more resilient to injury. One could argue that participation in a sport is all an athlete needs to keep their body injury-proof, because that is an example of weight-bearing and movement. To counter, just think about the nature of participating in a sport versus strength training. While the former revolves around competition, the latter revolves around self-improvement. The former pushes an athlete to make it through the tail-end of a season while nursing a sprained ankle, while the latter calls for the exact opposite.

No athlete in their right mind would punish their bodies with strength training. But athletes DO punish their bodies with their sport during the season. This is because of the competitive nature of sports. Everyone wants to be a winner, and this desire will cause people to ignore pain and injury.

Additionally, strength training is quantifiable, whereas athletic participation is not. Someone can track the number of sets and reps performed at particular weights over the course of an entire lifting career. Try doing that for effort spent playing soccer. How many steps were taken? At what intensity was the person running? How violently did the person decelerate after running? Now do that for more than one practice or game. Good luck.

The accountability seen with strength training keeps things predictable. Predictable events are less prone to accidents. Hence, why strength training is a better tool for making the body resilient to injury.

Second is that strength training can and will prevent muscular imbalances that can lead to injury.

Examples of where common muscular imbalances can occur are the knee and the shoulder. Basically, the muscles in the back (hamstrings and traps/external rotator cuff) become weak relative to the muscles in the front (quads and pec/internal rotator cuff). Researchers have recognized these muscular imbalances in the shoulder and knee to be associated with injuries in swimmers and soccer players, respectively (Croisier, et. al) (Bak, Magnusson).

When athletes put hours and hours into their sport, they over-develop certain muscle groups while others lag behind. The only remedy would be strength training – specifically, going on a strength program that pays extra attention to these potential weaknesses. If there is a weakness, you need to strengthen it. Period.

Third is that strength training forces the athlete to become more self-aware and develops proprioception.

Because there is no desire to become injured in the off-season, athletes must approach heavy lifting with caution. One huge aspect of not destroying your body with strength training is to use perfect form. Most beginners-to-the-barbell will find it difficult to achieve perfect form, because they have yet to understand how to position/move their bodies in certain ways.

When you force someone to learn how to move their body in an unfamiliar way, they become more intuitive with their physical presence. Spatial awareness increases and balance improves. This should carry over onto the field or the court for athletes, and it benefits them because their movement is more “grounded” and “stable”. Basketball players will use the hips and knees to decelerate the landing of a jump after a lay-up after learning how to use them in the squat, for example.

No one wants to be that awkward, double-left-footed athlete who always sprains his ankle.

Reason #3 – Strength Training Provides a Much Needed Break for Athletes

Some athletes play for only one season per year. Others will play year-round.

In my opinion, an off-season is vital for an athlete. First reason is because an athlete should have a portion of the year to get stronger (because of the previous reasons stated – it is clear by now that strength for athletes is necessary).  Second reason is because the time off from one’s sport provides for a necessary break.

As mentioned before, athletes are more likely to push themselves physically during their season than in a weightroom during the off-season. These kids are banged-up and exhausted at the end of their seasons and simply need some time to recover.  Because we established that strength training is very much safe and quantifiable, athletes can continue to improve themselves while actually not practicing their sport often.

strength for athletes

Imagine if Michael actually never liked basketball. There’d be no Michael.

The mental break is welcome, too. A lot of kids are “done” with playing as the season approaches to an end. Some time away from their sport would allow them to reignite their interest as the following season comes along. Even for kids who want to play year-round, some time off to increase their strength would only make them want to play even more. Do you think Michael Jordan or Mike Tyson would have been successful athletes if they didn’t have a burning desire in their hearts for their respective sports? Not a chance in hell…

Conclusion – The Pursuit of Strength May Be the Best Way to Improve an Athlete’s Career

Strength training enhances an athlete’s potential like no other. It improves athletic qualities, namely power and endurance. It prevents injury by strengthening the body’s structures, preventing muscular imbalances, and improving balance and body-awareness. Finally, it gives the athlete a chance to get some time off, so that the body can recover and the mind desires the sport again.

Without question, athletes need to strength train.

WE NEED MORE KAZ KAZADI.

References:

(Strength and Power Studies)

Bobbert MF, Van Sooest AJ. Effect of muscle strengthening on vertical jump height: a simulation study. Vrije Universiteit. 1994. Web.

Stone MH, et. al. Power and Maximum Strength Relationships During Performance of Dynamic and Static Weighted Jumps. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 17.1 (2003). NSCA. Web.

Izquierdo M, et. al. Effects of strength training on muscle power and serum hormones in middle-aged and older men. Journal of Applied Physiology. 90.4 (2001): 1497-1507. Web.

Hakkinen K, et. al. Neuromuscular and hormonal adaptations in athletes to strength training in two years.

Wisløff U, et. al. Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 38 (2004): 285-288. Web.

Moss BM, et. al. Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, load-power and load-velocity relationships. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 75.3 (1997): 193-199. SpringerLink. Web.

Kraemer WJ, et. al. Effect of resistance training on women’s strength/power and occupational performances. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 33.6 (2001): 1011-1025. PubMed. Web.

Adams K, et. al. The Effect of Six Weeks of Squat, Plyometric and Squat-Plyometric Training on Power Production. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 6.1 (1992). NSCA. Web.

Newton RU, et. al. Developing Explosive Muscular Power: Implications for a Mixed Methods Training Strategy. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 16.5 (1994). 20-31. Web.

Hoff J, Almåsbakk B. The Effects of Maximum Strength Training on Throwing Velocity and Muscle Strength in Female Team-Handball Players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 9.4 (1995). NSCA. Web.

(Strength and Endurance Studies)

Paavolainen L, et. al. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power.

Hickson RC, et. al. Strength training effects on aerobic power and short-term endurance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Marcinik EJ, et. al. Effects of strength training on lactate threshold and endurance performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Beattie K, et. al. The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Medicine. 44.6 (2014): 845-865. PubMed. Web.

Yomamoto LM, et. al. The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: a systematic review. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 22.6 (2008): 2036-2044. PubMed. Web.

Hoff J, et. al. Maximal strength training improves aerobic endurance performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 12.5 (2002): 288–295. Wiley Online Library. Web.

 

(Strength and Injury Prevention Studies)

Sievänen H, et. al. Bone mineral density and muscle strength of lower extremities after long-term strength training, subsequent knee ligament injury and rehabilitation: A unique 2-year follow-up of a 26-year-old female student. Bone. 15.1 (1994): 85-90. Web.

Viouri I, et. al. Effects of unilateral strength training and detraining on bone mineral density and content in young women: A study of mechanical loading and deloading on human bones. Arthritis Care & Research. 55.5 (2006): 690-699. Web.

Reeves ND, et. al. Effect of strength training on human patella tendon mechanical properties of older individuals. Journal of Physiology. 55.1 (1994): 59-67. Web.

Mikesky AE, et. al. Effects of strength training on the incidence and progression of knee osteoarthritis. Arthritis and Rheumatism. 548 (2003): 971-981. Web.

Urlando, Hawkins. Achilles tendon adaptation during strength training in young adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 39.7 (2007): 1147-1152. Web.

Askling, Carl, Jon Karlsson, and Alf Thorstensson. “Hamstring injury occurrence in elite soccer players after preseason strength training with eccentric overload.Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 13.4 (2003): 244-250.

Croisier, Jean-Louis, et al. “Strength Imbalances and Prevention of Hamstring Injury in Professional Soccer Players A Prospective Study.The American journal of sports medicine 36.8 (2008): 1469-1475.

Bak, Klaus, and S. Peter Magnusson. “Shoulder strength and range of motion in symptomatic and pain-free elite swimmers.The American journal of sports medicine 25.4 (1997): 454-459.

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