Image Of A Fit Woman In A Gym Squatting With A Kettlebell To Strengthen Tendons And Ligaments

How to Strengthen Tendons and Ligaments With Strength Training

BY William Ritter

Runners and cyclists should pay close attention to tendon strengthening to increase power and minimize injury.

Strength training is usually associated with building muscle, but as an endurance athlete, you also need to build connective tissue strength. Your tendons and ligaments, in particular, are responsible for putting force through your muscles. This movement of force creates an elastic recoil effect known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) that helps you to run, jump, and make a variety of other movements. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of connective tissue, how to strengthen tendons and ligaments, and how that can help improve your athletic performance.  

Why Tendon Health Matters

Tendons connect bone to muscle. They allow us to move our muscles, absorb impact, and transfer force. Ligaments connect bone to bone, keeping our joints stable and in place. 

Tendons and ligaments provide an elastic recoil response that allows us to run, jump, and lift heavy things quickly. As we age, tendon elasticity decreases. Connective tissue injuries mostly occur for endurance athletes due to our lifestyle of linear frontal movements that come from continuous repetitions (like running and cycling). Sitting for hours at a desk further weakens tendons and ligaments. So how do you increase tendon elasticity?

Can You Strengthen Tendons?

The short answer is yes. But, when compared to changes in muscle tissue, which can take just days to improve, the tendon’s structural tissue can take weeks or months to adapt. One study showed that it took two months before tendon stiffness improved, and this also included changes in collagen structure and synthesis. This is why tendon and ligament injuries take longer to heal — there is limited blood supply going to these connective tissues. Thus, it also takes more time for a tendon to adapt to training stress compared to muscles.  

Tendon (and ligament) strength and tendon (and ligament) stiffness are essentially interchangeable terms that refer to how strong the tendon or ligament is. By working on strength and elasticity, strength training can keep these connective tissues “snappy”. Over time, this could result in lower ground contact time and faster cadences for the bike and run, allowing you to increase your efficiency in these sports. 

How to Strengthen Tendons and Ligaments With Connective Tissue Exercises

So how do we build strength in our connective tissues? There are many ways to strengthen tendons, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on doing so through strength training. This includes eccentric training, plyometrics, and isometric forces. 

infographic depicting three ways to strengthen tendons and ligaments through eccentric training, plyometric training, and isometric training

1. Eccentric Training

Eccentric training includes resistance training exercises that are typically done with lighter weights, allowing muscles and tendons to lengthen. Take heel raises, for example. When you lower your heels back down after the raise in a slow and deliberate manner, that is an eccentric movement. 

Multiple studies have been done on eccentric training and tendon stiffness. These studies found that tendon stiffness does not change, or improves minimally, with body weight alone. Instead, weighted protocols on a single leg resulted in better improvement in tendon stiffness.

A few examples of eccentric training exercises that can help strengthen tendons and ligaments include:

  • Eccentric heel raises 
  • Single-leg squats 
  • Single-leg deadlifts 

2. Plyometrics

Explosive movements like plyometrics — such as squat jumps, single leg hops, depth jumps, box jumps, and quick feet step-ups — may help build tendon strength and make your legs feel a little more snappy, as long as you don’t overdo it. 

Plyometrics use the tendon’s recoil response to execute explosive movements. Take, for example, a single-leg jump. The Achilles tendon lengthens and then releases energy as it recoils or shortens. Over time, this action becomes more efficient. 

Plyometrics should be phased in and applied gradually to one’s strength training program. A 14-week study of plyometric training determined that, over time, there was less energy dissipating as heat and more energy being applied to the recoil of the tendon, allowing for an increase in the rate of our movements.

Here are some examples of plyometric leg exercises that can reduce your risk of injury.

3. Isometric Training 

Isometric contractions occur when the muscle is held in a constant or static position. Examples of isometric exercises include wall sits, calf holds, planks, or any position that you can maintain and hold for an extended time. 

One study concluded that isometric training can provide short-term pain-relief benefits in the middle of the competitive season. Isometric training may also be beneficial at the beginning of a strength training program or rehab for improving stabilization. This would be very important before doing heavy resistance training as you need to know how to put your joints in a stable position. However, structurally heavy resistance training and eccentric exercises have been shown to be more effective in building tendon stiffness.  

Endurance athletes should spend time year-round integrating strength training into their training program. This will help maintain or even increase the strength of your connective tissues, steadily improve your power output, and reduce injury risk without having to increase volume or intensity. 

References

(2018, July 26). What are ligaments? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525790/

Finni, T. et al. (2012, October 18). Viewpoint: On the hysteresis in the human Achilles tendon. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23085961/ 

Fouré, A. et al. (2010, June 24). Plyometric training effects on Achilles tendon stiffness and dissipative properties. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20576842/ 

Kubo, K. et al. (2011, November 22). Time course of changes in the human Achilles tendon properties and metabolism during training and detraining in vivo. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22105708/ 

Lim, H.Y. & Wong, S.H. (2018, July 4). Effects of isometric, eccentric, or heavy slow resistance exercises on pain and function in individuals with patellar tendinopathy: A systematic review. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29972281/ 

Quinlan, J.I. et al. (2019, August 20). Tendon Adaptations to Eccentric Exercise and the Implications for Older Adults. Retrieved from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7739434/

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About William Ritter

William Ritter, from Tyler, Texas, enjoys working with athletes that are looking to improve their performance in triathlon or running. Ritter’s coaching is detailed and based on the individual athlete, blending the art and science of coaching. He is the Head Coach at Fly Tri Racing and holds many certifications, including TrainingPeaks Level 2 and Power Certified Coach, Ironman U, Tri Sutto Coaching Certified, USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, USA Track and Field Level 2 Endurance Certified Coach and USATF Cross Country Specialist. To learn more about Ritter and personal coaching, visit Fly Tri Racing or send an email to flytriracing@gmail.com.

 

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