Whether to win marathons or to make it to the state football championships, all athletes need some form of training. Lately, increased focus has been placed on the specific importance of weight, or strength, training for the overall conditioning of a casual or professional athlete. The terms “weight training” and “strength training” are technically different, but often the two terms are often used interchangeably. Typically, weight training implies the use of materials such as barbells, dumbbells, and specialized machines, whereas strength training also employs isometric or callisthenic exercises like push-ups and sit-ups. An athletic conditioning regime will generally incorporate aspects of both weight and strength training and therefore the terms can be easily used interchangeably. Much physiological research has focused on the efficacy of weight training on the performance and physical conditioning of athletes. Weight training programs can be tailor-made for an individual depending on his or her goals, and the sports he or she plays. Today, most coaches and athletic trainers will advise some type of strength training for their clients. Strength and weight training, when applied properly, go a long way toward improving the well-being, specific strength, endurance, power, and performance of any athlete and therefore should be an integral part of most comprehensive athletic training programs, with few exceptions.
The types of weight or strength training used will vary depending on the goals of the individual. A center guard for a football team will want a much more rigorous regime, with a goal of more muscle bulk, than a marathon runner will. Marathon runners should be more concerned with endurance than strength to begin with, but improving muscular strength in the legs and thighs can immensely improve performance. Therefore, even when muscle bulk is not desirable, strength training can be an integral part of any training program.
The degree to which football coaches and trainers employ personalized strength and weight training regimens varies depending on the background and preferences of the trainer and that of his or her clients. Now more than ever, strength training is commonplace and widespread, used for individuals who are interested in improving their health, their physique and form, and their athletic power. Thus, the format of a weight training program will vary greatly. A sixty-five-year-old woman who wants to prevent osteoporosis will undergo different training than a twenty-year-old male basketball player. Regardless of how prevalent strength or weight training programs are in the athletic training industry, and regardless of who seeks out the regimes, weight training will inevitably assist athletes in gaining strength, endurance, and overall improvements in conditioning, which will lead to enhanced performance.
Muscle strength, which is the overall goal of any strength training regime, refers to the ability of the muscle to lift a given weight over a given distance without regard to the time the movement takes. Overall strength is a reflection of muscle strength and can refer to specific muscle groups. In other words, the more weight you can lift when performing a bench press, the stronger you are. On the other hand, bench presses have no bearing on quadriceps strength.
Ironically, a muscle can actually lose power if weight training emphasizes strength over endurance. As a rule, when lifting really heavy weights to increase strength in a specific muscle group, the speed of contraction will be very slow due to the heaviness of the weight. The speed of contraction will of course, lessen over time as a positive result of the training. Training with lighter weights will increase strength and muscle development to a lesser degree than training with heavy weights. Weight training using light weights will not result in huge gains in strength or in visible bulk. On the other hand, lighter weight training increases athletic power and endurance, vital components of most sports and of overall health. For persons interested in recreational fitness, and for elite athletes too, trading off some strength and bulk in exchange for power amounts to smart strategy.
Athletic coaches are always searching for an edge that will put their teams in an advantageous competitive position; many coaches whose area of expertise is football regard strength training and weight lifting as excellent sources of development for honing the skills and abilities of their athletic teams (Bauer, 1996). Though strength training is only one of several ways to increase an athlete’s proficiency, speed, endurance, and ability to execute plays against an opponent, it has become in recent years a major source of sports team development. In some cases, strength training is the most important source of sports team and individual performance development because of the widespread application of strength training exercises.
The Core of Strength Training
Mike Barwis, Director of Strength and Conditioning at West Virginia University. stated in an interview that strengthening the core region of the body has the most significant impact on athletic development and performance. The core (abdominals and low back) is the link between the upper and lower extremities of the body. All actions in athletics require a power transfer and effective stabilization from the core to create movement. They not only allow the transfer of power between the upper and lower body, but also control the body’s balance, stability, and center of gravity. In turn, it has a significant impact on speed, explosion, strength, power, agility, balance, and injury prevention.
Furthermore, Barwis reported that the body is forced to adapt to regularly changing stimuli and environments in multiple planes and at varying intensities during athletics. The ever-changing pressures of the environment force the core to adapt and overcome stressors at a high rate of speed. In order to simulate this environment we must train the core muscles by utilizing instable apparati in multiple planes. The instability of the apparatus promotes sporadic irregular firing of the core in a stabilizing action. These activations occur while stimulating a specified contraction to accomplish a given movement. A core-focused strength training program directly correlates to actions that take place in the core region during actual athletic performance.
The abdominals are postural muscles that require high repetitions and frequent training in order to develop effectively. According to Barwis and many other fitness experts, exercises for this region should be conducted on instable apparatus and approximately 3-4 times per week. Although the abdominals can sustain greater repetitions and frequency of training, they must also have adequate recovery. Twenty-four hours of recovery between training periods is ample time for full restoration of abdominal function. Six to eight sets of approximately 25-50 repetitions of varying exercises is sufficient for core development.
Barwis emphasized that we must always remember that training the abdominals without placing an equal emphasis on the back muscle groups will promote muscular imbalance. At WVU, core training is conducted on all lifting days, typically between three to four days per week. The core strength training program varies depending upon the lifting cycle it is coordinated with and the specific theme of training at the time. Approximately three hundred different core balance and functional movements are part of the trainer’s repertoire, included in the regimes of casual as well as elite athletes. For the elite athlete or the weekend warrior the core region has the greatest impact on athletic performance. One of the reasons why the practice of pilates has become so popular recently is become of that program’s emphasis on core muscle group strength training. Pilates is a prime example of how strength training can be used for a multitude of different goals and situations. From an individual only interested in reducing flab to the professional athlete, core strength training may be the most significant element in any conditioning regimen.
The Ideal Relationship Between Strength, Endurance and Speed
A key component to success in many sports is the ability to repeatedly attain maximum speed and sustain it for an optimal length of time. This is especially vital in sports that have a large playing surface such as football or soccer. Picture the ball carrier in a football game slowing down within ten or fifteen yards of scoring a touchdown, after a magnificent 70 or 80-yard break-away run. After dodging his way and sprinting through the entire team, the ball carrier begins to fatigue allowing a better-conditioned defending player to catch up to the ball carrier and make the tackle to save the touchdown. Such heart-breaking performances can be prevented through optimal strength training, which can be tailored to increase endurance and speed on the field as well as sheer muscular strength under gym conditions.
To achieve maximum speed and endurance, training is essential. Just as a trumpet player will never be able to pull of a Miles Davis riff without practice, so too can even the most genetically-gifted athlete be able to perform his or her best on the field. The key to speed and endurance, as with anything else, is repetition, repetition, repetition. Enduring repeated bouts of speed endurance training like a running regime is a simple yet effective path toward improved performance. Combining speed and endurance training with strength training is ideal especially for sports like football.
Football is a sport of power, strength, speed, endurance and finesse. Of all the most popular team sports, the need for weight training in football is probably the most obvious, based on the demands of the sport and the visibly bulky condition of many of the athletes. Conditioning programs and exercises for football must be sport-specific (Football strategies, 2000). At whatever level a football player competes, the athlete who adds weight training and strength training to their regiment almost always demonstrates greater aptitude for the game.
The weight rooms of high schools, colleges, and professional arenas are filled with football players year-round because of the efficacy of strength training. Coaches and trainers recommend that players use both an off-season strength/weight training program and a separate in-season program, with the former structured to be the hardest and most intense to allow the athlete to gain solid weight and strength (Football strategies, 2000). Mannie (1997) asserts that the physical development of football players is a multifaceted endeavor involving several key factors. Inherited attributes are essential, as there is no substitute for genetically innate potential. However, a year-round training regiment that includes weight and/or strength training will determine the degree to which a “naturally talented” player increases his speed, strength, conditioning, and position-specific skills. For example, Mannie (1997) recommends high-tension strength movements that progressively activate the “fast-twitch” muscle fibers as the athlete approaches the point of momentary muscle fatigue. The rationale behind this approach is that the more difficult the repetitions in a set of lifts or presses become, the more force must be generated to complete the last, very intense repetitions.
Variables in Football Training Programs
In an anaerobic strength or weight training program, the variables that must be monitored for quality control include frequency, sets, repetitions, distance, intensity, relief interval, and duration (Mannie, 1997). Mannie (1997), as well as Bauer (1996) and Schoenfeld (1994) contend that football players participating in strength training should have their programs designed by skilled trainers who continually monitor performance and progress. Strength and weight training for specific body parts, including arms, legs, and trunk, must be included in an effective and comprehensive program rather than leave out any key body part (Schoenfeld, 1994). Neglecting a body part could lead to severe injury due to under-reliance on certain muscle groups. A prime example is the importance of strengthening abdominal muscles in preventing back problems or in strengthening quadriceps muscles to prevent the overextension of hamstrings. Once again, involving the core muscle groups on each and every strength training day can help prevent imbalance and injury. Some experts suggest that development training in football should include strength training, resisted training, overspeed (assisted) training, pylometric exercises, form running, and interval training (Ebben & Blackard, 1998). More simply put, football players should incorporate strength training into their overall regime regardless of how often they play, at what level they play, what position they play, their gender, or how old they are.
Strength training not only builds vital muscle mass; it can also be invaluable in lengthening the athlete’s running stride, a major component of the game of football for many positions. Ebben and Blackard (1998) reported that all of the National Football League (NFL) strength and conditioning coaches report the use of strength and speed training, employing strength and power development exercises such as Olympic-style lifts, squats, step-ups, leg presses, and lunges. The dead lift is used also for speed enhancement, stride lengthening, and increased muscle mass.
Bouche (1996) recommends that trainers should use a High Intensity Training (HIT) program in weight rooms. Such a program not only minimizes the time spent in training, but also maximizes the use of technologically-advanced equipment such as Nautilus and Hammer machines, along with free weights. The HIT program when properly implemented reduces the time spent by players to as few as fifty minutes through the application of forced repetitions and negative repetitions.
Moreover, says Bouche (1996), the HIT method is safe because it focuses on the full range of motions and on multiple repetitions, as opposed to multiple sets of fewer repetitions. For example, an athlete using the HIT approach will do 20 to 25 reps, then decrease the weight by 10 to 20% and continue for another 10 to 20 reps. The weightlifter may need help with forced reps for the final few repetitions, but to ensure maximum increases, lifters are required to completely fatigue the muscles.
Variety is the Key
Bouche (1996) described a typical HIT program as employing bench, squat (Oxbo bar), incline press, and dead lift regiments on one day of the week, say Monday. On Wednesday, the athlete would participate in decline presses, hang cleans, lunges and push press exercises. Then on Friday, the athlete would employ the bench, squat (Oxbo bar), and push press. The reps and percentage of weight used will be changed from week to offer variable resistance and more closely mimic real-world athletic situations. To avoid the dreaded plateau, experts recommend a change to multiple sets with high reps at different times of the year. With most sports, environmental and team conditions vary considerably from day-to-day and practice to practice, as do the athlete’s diet and his or her psychological situation. Such variable conditions differ from the predictable conditions of the gym, so variability in strength training can be a key component in an elite athlete’s regime.
Bouche (1996) cautions that each athlete must be treated differently, based on his strength and physical condition. This comment is echoed by Bauer (1996), who believes that individualized strength training and weight training programs must be developed for every football player. Regardless of preliminary strength or condition, each player can benefit from an overall full body conditioning program that includes strength training (Football strategies, 2000). Strength training programs help prepare the muscles to endure the short burst of output, and the one hundred-percent intensity required to play the game.
Safety, Recovery and Rest
Weight and strength training can and should be safe, and when performed under proper guidance and self-awareness, need not result in any type of injury. However, weight training can lead to injuries if not properly programmed and supervised. Reeves, Laskowski, and Smith (1998) noted that over the past twenty years, weight training injuries have accounted for an estimated 43,400 emergency department visits out of a total of 5.6 million visits for all sports. Many of these accidents were and are preventable. Improper use of machines, operating machines when tired, fatigued, or under the influence of mind-altering substances, unsupervised lifting, or general carelessness can all cause accidents and injuries. Clearly, weight and strength training methods have the potential to harm as well as improve an athlete’s overall condition. Reeves, et al. (1998) support strength gains and training programs, but recommend careful oversight to avoid poor technique and further recommend that younger players should not participate in this kind of training because of skeletal immaturity. Recovery periods are essential for weight training, and speed recovery periods also help the athlete be better able to pace his or her energy output.
Coaches and trainers are increasingly turning to strength and weight training programs to condition their players. It is likely that all coaches at all levels, regardless of the size and scope of their programs and/or facilities, will indicate a positive attitude toward the benefits of HIT, core training, and other strength/weight training programs. Finally, it is highly likely that coaches and personal trainers will emphasize the necessity of creating individualized, carefully supervised programs for their clients, programs that will undoubtedly include strength training as an essential element.
Barwis, Mike, Director of Strength and Conditioning, West Virginia University, Personal Interview, 15, June, 2005.
Bauer, G. (1996). B.F.S. isn’t (a) H.I.T. Coach and Athletic Director, 65(8), 70-73.
Bouche, J. (1996). Making a H.I.T. In your weight room. Coach and Athletic Director,
Ebben, W.P., & Blackard, D.O. (1998). Speed developmental strategies of NFL strength & conditioning coaches. Coach and Athletic Director, 68(1), 30-34.
Football Strategies. (2001). Be Fit Net Alliance Football Conditioning. Available at www.befitnet.com/fotball.htm.
Mannie, K. (1997). Five major facts on player development. Coach and Athletic Director, 66(6), 6-12.
Mosby’s Medical, Nursing & Allied Health Dictionary (1998). Mosby Year Book, Inc., Edition 5.
Reeves, R.K., Laskowski, E.R., & Smith, J. (1998). Weight training injuries: Part 1: Diagnosing and managing acute conditions. The Physician and Sports Medicine, 26(2). Available at www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1998/02feb/laskow.htm.
Schoenfeld, B. (1994). Steel wheels. Men’s Health, 9(9), 100-102.
‘What is Pilates?” Pilates Method Alliance. 2003. Online at < http://www.pilatesmethodalliance.org/whatis.html>.
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