Why training strength in-season as well as pre-season is necessary
What you're getting yourself into - 1479 words and a lot of infographics
Estimated Read time - 10-12 Minutes
Having recently had a discussion with a high level soccer athlete that I train the topic of specificity in training came up. He mentioned that one of his coaches who was also a strength and conditioning coach mentioned that while performing compound movements such as the deadlift and squat are good to build a base they have no place in the on-season. His reasoning being that it isn’t specific enough and as a soccer player he should be solely focussing on “single leg stuff” for his leg strength. He also stated “when are you ever in the squat position in soccer?” This mantra has been repeated by a short line of old periodisation scholars and “traditionalist” or “purest” coaches in a given sport. In this article I will break down why not only is this concept inefficient but leads to a greater cost to the athlete by increasing chance of injury while at the same time reducing performance if resistance training is stopped or modified to stop the stress response the body needs to become more robust.
The True Meaning of Specificity
When coaches mention specificity I usually take a moment to clarify what they mean so that we are on the same page regarding how we will both be applying the concept. This is especially true when I talk to field sport coaches as I find a lot of their knowledge regarding training principles is clouded by the field sport itself. As my soccer player mentioned barbell strength training; the most advanced method of strength training there is to get stronger is not specific enough for him as a soccer player because it doesn’t put him in the same positions as when he is playing.
Let’s think about that for a moment and use a sprinter/cyclist/discus thrower doing squats as an example. None of those athletic endeavours utilise the barbell squat position in their sport specifically yet athletes at an advanced level use squats to improve sprint/cycling/throwing power. So why is that? It’s because improvement in power is directly associated with improvements in absolute strength. Here’s an excerpt from an interview from Tudor Bompa himself in 2002, one of the original (and some argue the very first) creator of periodisation.
“The most critical innovations in the approach to strength training came in 1963 when I was asked to train a nationally ranked javelin thrower. Her coach had moved to another city and I was the only person who could train her. I have to mention that at that time, as is the case today in many sports, athletes were training year-round only for power, using some free weights but also a great deal of medicine ball training. Before I started to train this athlete in early 1963, I'd logically concluded that power is a function of maximum strength [he highest force one can display in one attempt or 1RM], as well as speed and quickness of action. While speed has more genetic limitations than strength, I had decided to look for improved power by increasing maximum strength to the highest possible levels.
As I continued to train this thrower, I also continuously monitored and tested both speed and quickness and maximum strength. After a year and a half of training her, I found out that gains in power come 95% from gains in maximum strength, and only 5% from speed. That year represented the year when I created periodization of strength. Using this strength training strategy, my javelin thrower improved by 15 meters within a year and a half. She became the Olympic champion in 1964 and set a new world record as well.” (Full interview can be found here)
Specificity is finding which movements matter most to the athlete in regards to these principles. If squats have the greatest carry over to sprinting performance for a field athlete then you will prioritise squats. Conversely if hamstring strains are prevalent in athletes (“Hamstring strains account for 12-16% of all injuries in athletes with a reinjury rate reported as high as 22-34%.”) and if strengthening the hamstrings reduces injury risk then you should use a movement which strengthens the hamstring to the greatest degree, which would be a combination of the deadlift and a nordic hamstring curl so that the hamstrings are utilised it both hip extension and knee flexion.
A Step By Step Guide to Why You Should be Strong Year Round
I’m not sure when or why something like strength training in sports became a point of contention with purists or where and when it became clouded in the minds of some coaches but it’s very clear that strength plays a vital role in sport and should be a permanent fixture in an athletes regime. To be clear; it is important to periodise training in order to get the most out of athletic performance. Age, competitive season, injury and level of the athlete will dictate when to build strength, when to maintain strength and when to improve neuromuscular power output. I am not saying go heavy all year round; what I am saying is that you must prioritise strength year round in an intelligent manner rather than do “pre-season training” and then stop completely. You will lose the majority of your strength and the same issues will occur all over again (injuries, lack of speed and power).
In this series of infographics (Courtesy of Chris Beardsley) we will examine why strength training is a logical conclusion when training an athlete, regardless of sport, regardless of season.
We have strong evidence to support acceleration (sprinting for example) is contributed highly by the hips (e.g. Gluteus muscles) and deceleration by the knee and ankle.
We have strong evidence to support that variations of squats highly activate and strengthen the knee and hip musculature and have strong evidence to support full hip extension under load utilising the largest hip extensor in the body; the Gluteus Maximus is achieved with hip thrusts and deadlifts.
We also have strong evidence that sharper angles in change of direction while running have higher braking requirements and that joint angle when changing direction is influenced by strength as outlined in the different sex study below.
We have strong evidence to support the fact that the stronger the athlete is the more force they can produce and the faster they can change direction.
We also have strong evidence that shows hamstring injuries are prevented if we use a nordic hamstring curl to strengthen the hamstring and that deadlift and deadlift variations utilise the hamstrings to a great degree too.
It’s important to note that while there are studies that report no significant risk factors associated with being weaker in the hamstrings there is a mountain of studies which support hamstring strength having a very high correlation to hamstring health and injury prevention.
Conclusions We Can Draw
We have covered specificity and research regarding strength translating to greater performance and even touched on injury prevention being strongly associated with injury prevention. As anyone who has every trained knows if you stop training you lose the strength you accumulate and if you take it easy while you are in season then it is highly likely that from the loss of strength you will see a down regulation in performance as well as a higher potential to injure yourself. This doesn’t mean training all year round as if you were in the pre season attempting to break records or having large amounts of volume and intensity in your program. What it does mean is having a plan that allows you to train all year round without impeding performance but rather enhancing performance while preventing the chance of injury. Will squats, deadlifts, barbell lunges, nordic curls and an assortment of other movements help maintain strength, increase power and reduce chance of injury? It would seem, in my opinion, and from the evidence presented a poor choice to not include them in field sports and indeed many other sports.
As a coach I think we have a moral, not just professional obligation to our clientele to read up on current research as well as practically apply the knowledge that we learn to suite the needs of our clients. We are obligated not to parrot teachings but make an effort to understand concepts to apply them in the appropriate situation. Strength is an absolute when it comes to athletic development, performance and indeed quality of life in regular people.
Now go train.
Wisløff U, Castagna C, Helgerud J, et al Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players British Journal of Sports Medicine 2004;38:285-288.
LENGTHENED, P. O. R. U. (2012). IJSPT.
Opar D, Williams M, Timmins R, et al ECCENTRIC HAMSTRING STRENGTH DURING THE NORDIC HAMSTRING EXERCISES IS A RISK FACTOR FOR HAMSTRING STRAIN INJURY IN ELITE AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL: A PROSPECTIVE COHORT STUDY Br J Sports Med 2014;48:647-648.