Are stronger athletes better athletes? A new paradigm in strength training for sport.

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Stronger athletes are faster, more powerful athletes.  For lack of better words, this rather intuitive assumption supports the importance of strength – muscular strength, absolute strength, relative strength, this is nothing more than a question of semantics since different words simply define the ability to lift heavier weights – in the development of general athleticism. What used to be common sense, however, is nowadays evidence-based practice: stronger athletes are not necessarily better athletes.

To what extent sheer brute strength does improve performance in sport is questionable, as the whole theory of transfer of training still struggles to take off. Heavy strength training is, with no reasonable doubt, important in developing elite level athletes. Nevertheless, traditional strength training exercises rarely develop strength (absolute strength or explosive strength) in such a way that can positively improve performance. Years of training and testing elite level athletes have pinpointed how misleading the correlation between muscular strength and performance in sport could be. When strength is considered for its physiological meaning, what used to be considered as a linear correlation between the ability to lift heavier weights and performance in sport turns into a more scattered, quadratic equation that flattens when strength match 1.5-2 times an athlete’s body weight (respectively, female and male athletes).

Heavy strength training does contribute in the development of general athleticism, and it does so by improving the structural aspects of a complex phenomenon known as muscular strength: heavy resistance training increases  tendon and ligament stiffness, muscle thickness, it facilitates motor units recruitment by inhibiting protective mechanism triggered by subcortical reflexes and overall, it improves inter and intramuscular coordination. These adaptations, although necessary in the development of stronger, more powerful athletes, are not enough to improve performance in sport.

Athletes spend too much time training with heavy weights” explains Dr. Anatoliy Bondrachuck, a pioneer in the modern war of special strength training for sport.  Research and evidence-based practice have, indeed, confirmed this claim. General strength training exercises – exercises that aim to develop an ever-increasing level of strength using basic motor patterns to develop a solid foundation of general athleticism – find a place in improving general physical preparedness. However, training within a relatively narrow range of intensity (75-85%1RM) using special strength training exercises – exercises that aim to develop explosive strength using fundamental skills to bridge the gap between general and sport-specific training   – have a much better impact on the way athletes perform on the file of play.

Different special strength training exercises sit along a pretty narrow continuum that goes from strength-oriented exercises – exercises with a relatively longer ground contact time and, therefore, much greater force production – to speed-oriented exercises – exercises with a relatively shorter ground contact time and, therefore, much smaller force production –  including a waterfall of different movements. Snatch, clean and jerk but also depth jumps, squat jumps and other forms of single effort high-impact plyometric training (see: shock method) improve inter and intramuscular coordination, facilitating motor unit recruitment and synchronization. Olympic-style weightlifting derivatives, weighted pulls, drop jumps and other forms of multi-effort high-impact plyometric training, on the other hand, improve both protective and facilitating reflexes involved the stretch-shortening cycle. Because of their unique characteristics, special strength training exercises bridge the gap between general and sport specific training, so that pound per pound stronger atheltes can become faster, more powerful athletes.

Antonio Squillante
Antonio Squillante is the Director of Sports Performance and Training at Velocity Sports Performance, Los Angeles, California. He graduated summa cum laude from the University San Raffaele – Rome, Italy – with a Doctorate Degree in Exercise Science. Antonio has an unlimited interest in the field of sports biomechanics and long-term athletic development conducting academic research and presenting at national and international events as a member the International Society of Sports Biomechanics (ISBS) and the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA). He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS*D) and a member of the NSCA Advisory Board for the State of Pennsylvania and California. He is currently the Weightlifting Head Coach at California State University of Northridge (CSUN).
Antonio Squillante
Antonio Squillante
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