The Six Basic Rules of Strength Training for Sports

Follow these basic rules to prevent injury and help you build superior strength. If you're serious about increasing your strength read this first.

Strength Training Any strength training program should apply six basic laws of training to ensure adaptation and keep people who embark on training free from Injury. Especially the young and inexperienced trainers who decide to train without proper instruction from qualified training instructors or specific sports coaches. The six rules apply to all athletes regardless of the physiological movements of the sport.

The principles of training promote a steady and specific increase in strength and other abilities by specifically adapting the routine to the needs of the sport and, most importantly, to the physical capacity of the individual athlete. The rules and principles work hand in hand in the quest to develop superior programs of strength.

These principles, together with the application of periodisation of strength and the integration of strength training with the energy system training, are essential to any successful training program.

Rule 1: Develop Joint Flexibility.

 Most strength training exercises use the full range of motion of major joints, especially the knees, ankles, and hips. Good joint flexibility prevents strain and pain around the knees, elbows, and other joints. Ankle flexibility should be a major concern to us all. Good flexibility also prevents stress injuries. The way to develop joint flexibility is to ensure that adequate stretching exercises are performed on training days are the partner assisted stretching, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) are the best methods for improving flexibility and relaxing the muscles after a strenuous training routine.

Rule 2: Development of Ligament and Tendon Strength.

 Strength of the muscle improves faster than tendon and ligament strength. Overlooking the overall strengthening of the ligaments is the main cause of injury. Most injuries are not in the muscle but in the ligaments. Tendons and ligaments grow stronger through anatomical adaptation to training. Without proper adaptation, vigorous strength training can injure the ligaments and tendons. By training the tendons and ligaments it causes them to enlarge in diameter, and increasing their ability to withstand tension and tearing.

Made up of the fibrous protein collagen, ligaments play the important role of attaching articulating bones to each other across a joint. The strength of a ligament directly depends on it cross-sectional area. Excessive force directed at a joint may rupture the ligaments. During regular exercise or activity ligaments are easily elongated to allow movement in the joint to move naturally. When a high load is applied in training the stiffness of the ligaments increase in order to restrict excessive motion of the joint, however if the load is too great the ligaments may not be able to withstand the stress and an injury may occur. The best way to avoid injury is to properly condition the body to handle the stress on the ligaments. Conditioning the ligaments with a cycle of loading and unloading as done in an adaptation phase of training adapts the structures of the ligaments to handle the stress and provide adequate time for regeneration. Progressively increasing the load used in training improves the visco-dynamic movements and allows them to better accommodate high tensile loads such as dynamic movements, plyometrics and maximum strength training.

The primary function of a tendon is to connect muscles to a bone. Tendons also transmit force from muscle to the bones so that movement can occur. Tendons also store elastic energy, which is so important in any ballistic movements such as plyometrics. The stronger the tendon is the greater is its capacity to store elastic energy. Athletes in track and field events have very powerful tendons. Without these strong tendons they wouldn’t be able to apply such great force against the bones to overcome the force of gravity. Tendons and ligaments are trainable. Their material and structural properties change as a result of training, increasing their thickness, strength and stiffness by up to 20%. Ligaments and tendons after an injury are healable, although they won’t recover to their pre-injury capability.

Exercise especially the type performed during the anatomical adaptation phase can be considered an important injury prevention method. The abilities of tendons and ligaments to secure the anatomical integrity of joints (ligaments), and to transmit force (tendons), can decline if their strengthening is disrupted. Equally important to note, especially for steroid users, is that abusing steroids results in increasing the muscle force at the expense of the ligaments and tendons material properties. Increasing force without correspondingly strengthening ligaments and tendons results in the ligament injuries we see today in so many sports.

Rule 3: Develop Core Strength.

 The arms and legs are only as strong as the trunk. A poorly developed trunk is a week support for hard-working limbs. Strength training programs should first strengthen the core muscle before focusing on the arms and legs.

Core muscles act as shock absorbers during jumps, rebounds, or plyometrics exercises; stabilise the body; and represent a link, or transmitter, between the legs and arms. Weak core muscles fail in these essential roles, limiting the trainer’s ability to perform. Most of these muscles seem to be dominated by slow twitch muscle fibres because of their supporting role to the arms and legs. They contract constantly, but not necessarily dynamically, to create a solid base of support for the actions of other muscle groups of the body.

Many people complain of low back problems yet do little to correct them. The best protection against low back problems is well developed back and abdominal muscles.

The abdominal and back muscles surround the core area of the body with a tight and powerful support structure of muscle bundles running in different directions. Many athletes have weak abdominal muscles in relation to their backs. And because of this general and specific abdominal muscle training is recommended. The rectus abdominis runs vertically and pulls the trunk forward when the legs are fixed, as in sit-ups, to maintain good posture. If the abdominal muscles are poorly developed, the hips tilt forward and lordosis, or swayback, develops at the lumbar area of the spine.

The internal and external obliques help the rectus abdominis bend the trunk forward and perform all twisting, lateral bending, and trunk-rotating motions. The anterior and lateral abdominal muscles perform delicate, precise trunk movements. These large muscles run vertically, diagonally, and horizontally.

Isolating the abdominal muscles requires an exercise that bends the spine but not the hips. Exercises that flex the hips are performed by the iliopsoas (powerful hip flexor) and to a less extent by the abdominal muscles. Sit ups are the most popular abdominal exercise. The best sit-up position is lying on the back with the calves resting on a chair or bench. This position isolates the abdominal muscles because the hips are already bent.

The back muscles, including the deep back muscles of the vertebral column, are responsible for many movements such as back extension and extending and rotating the trunk. The trunk acts as the transmitter and supporter of most arm and leg actions. The vertebral column also plays and essential role as a shock absorber during landing and take-off type actions.

Excessive, uneven stress on the spine or sudden movement in an unfavourable position may lead to back problems. For athletes, back problems may be due to wear and tear caused by improper positioning or forward tilting of the body. Disc pressure varies according to body position relative to external stress. Stress on the spine increases during lifting in standing or seated positions or when the upper body swings, such as in upright rowing or elbow flexion. Sitting produces greater disc pressure than standing; the less stress occurs when the body is prone (such as during bench presses). In many exercises that use the back muscles, abdominal muscles contract isometrically, stabilising the body.

The iliopsoas is an essential flexor, responsible for swinging the legs forward during running and jumping. Exercises such as leg and knee lifts against resistance are keys to training this important muscle.

Rule 4: Develop the Stabilisers.

 Prime movers work more efficiently with strong stabiliser, or fixator, muscles. Stabilisers contract, primarily isometrically, to immobilise a limb so that another part of the body can act. For example, the shoulders are immobilised during elbow flexion, and the abdominal muscles serve as stabilisers when the arms throw a ball. In rowing, when the trunk muscles act as stabilisers the trunk transmits leg power to the arms, which then drive the blade through the water. A weak stabiliser inhibits the contraction capacity of the prime movers. Improperly developed stabilisers may hamper the activity of major muscles.

For example when under chronic stress, the stabilisers spasm, restraining the prime movers and lessening athletic effectiveness. At the shoulders, supra and infraspinatus muscles rotate the arm, the simplest, most effective exercise to strengthen these two muscles is to rotate the arm with a partner tightly holding the fist. The resistance provided by the partner stimulates the two muscles stabilising the shoulder. At the hips, the piriformis muscle performs outward rotation. To strengthen this muscle, the athlete should stand with knees locked. While the partner provides resistance by holding one foot in place with both hands, the athlete performs inward and outward leg rotations. At the knees, the popliteus muscle rotates the calf. A simple exercise is for the athlete to sit on a table with the knees flexed. A partner provides resistance by holding the foot as the athlete performs inward and outward rotations of the calf.

Stabilisers also contract isometrically, immobilizing one part of the limb and allowing the other to move. Stabilisers can also monitor the state of the long bones, interactions in joints and sense potential injury resulting from improper technique, inappropriate strength, or spasms produced by poor stress management. If one of these three conditions occurs, the stabilisers restrain the activity of the prime movers, avoiding strain and injuries. Preparing the stabilisers for movement is important, and specifically training the movements of the sport with ideal sport-specific speed and power or endurance is vital to the performance and physical state of the athlete.

Rule 5: Train Movements, Not Individual Muscles.

 Although this rule does not apply in body building but is vitally important in all other sports that require strength training.

The purpose of strength training in sports is to simulate sport skills, to involve in action the muscles specifically used in the skills of a given sport. Athletic skills are multijoint movements occurring in a certain order, called a kinetic chain (movement chain). For instance, a take-off to catch a ball has the following kinetic chain: hip extensions, then knee extensions, and finally ankle extensions, in which the feet apply force against the ground to lift the body. The body’s use of multiple muscles to perform sport movements enhances the functional capabilities of the muscles involved because “each muscle has different force-length, force-velocity, and torque-velocity characteristics” (Enoka 2002) According to the principle of specificity, body position and limb angles should resemble those needed for specific skills to be performed. When athletes train a movement the muscles are integrated and strengthened to perform the action with more power. Therefore, athletes should not resort to weight training alone, but should broaden their training routines.

Bodybuilding has promoted the concept of working muscles in isolation, a concept which has served the sport well for generations. Isolation exercises do not apply to sports, however. Multijoint exercises in sport training have been used since track and field athletes used them since the 1930’s. Most athletes still follow this tradition. Multijoint exercises are the key to strength training efficiency.

Rule 6: Don’t Focus on what is New, But on what is Necessary.

You are now thinking what is this about? Well bear with me. The past few years the sport and fitness market has been invaded by many products that claim to improve athletic performance greatly. An understanding of biomechanics and exercise physiology, however, reveals that many of the products intended to improve strength, speed, and power actually inhibit them. I often get invited to seminars for promoting new ideas in training for different sports. In many instances the speaker shows new exercises and promises miraculous improvement. Not very often, however do these speakers address the issues of anatomical and neuromuscular adaptation, which are central to performance improvement and should be the foundation for all sport-specific programs.

Certainly, a good selection of exercises is very important; however, an exercise is essential only if it targets the prime movers or the main muscle groups used in performing an athletic skill. Whether the athlete uses a simple bench or stability ball to perform bench presses is immaterial. The essential goal is to perform the exercise with a continuous acceleration through the range of motion.

At the beginning of a bench press, fast twitch muscle fibers are recruited to defeat inertia and the heavy load of the barbell. As the athlete continues to press the barbell upward, he/she should to attempt to generate the highest acceleration possible. Under these conditions the discharge rate of the same fast twitch muscle fibres in increased. Maximum acceleration, therefore, must be achieved toward the end of the action to coincide with the instant of releasing a ball or other athletic implement during sports. If a high level of strength adaptation is required in the leg muscles, then athletes should squat, squat, and squat some more. The idea is to develop the greatest levels of strength and adaptation possible, in other words, to do what is necessary. Adding variety by implementing different exercises is fine as long as they target the same muscle group in the most specific way.

References: Tudor o. Bompa, PhD, Michael C. Carrera. Periodisation training for sports 2005.

This article was written by fitness expert Doug Lawrenson. Doug is our resident Diet guru and has helped countless people reach their goals through correct diet and nutrition. If you would like to speak to Doug you can catch him on our Muscle Building Forum.