The Three Most Important Parts of Strength Training

The Three Most Important Parts of Strength Training

Ready to level-up your athletes’ performance? Consider all three of these key strength training components when building your athletes’ strength programs.

Weight training isn’t a supplement to our sport, but rather a requirement. Endurance training puts a lot of stress on our bodies. We must prepare the body to handle the demands of the sport and strength training is a great way to do so. Research states, if you can put more force down to the ground in a short period of time, you will run faster. How to do this, however, is the million-dollar question.

It’s important to have a specific strength plan to help you perform better, improve your running economy and make your body more resilient against injury. When it comes to strength training for athletes, we can break it up into three components:

  1. Stability Training
  2. Strength Training
  3. Power Training

Not only must the athlete be stable, but they must also be strong and powerful. If you’re not training these three critical components, your performance potential is untapped. 

Stability Training

We must have the skills to maintain core control, posture, and to be able to generate hip strength under a load whether it be swimming, biking, or most demanding, running. Teaching the body quality movement techniques will translate into quality training and racing. Ultimately, the goal of stability training is teaching the body to move smarter. Remember, it takes more energy to move if our form falls apart mid-race. The goal here is for the athlete to demonstrate correct, precise movement skills with the proper balance and stability prior to advancing into strength training.

With stability training, take the time to build a solid foundation with your athlete—optimizing core and sequencing movements. Our sport is a combination of using the core, hips and upper body simultaneously, so training this is a must. With a dynamic core program, you’ll teach your athlete how to control movement proactively. 

Another factor that goes hand-in-hand with the core is posture. The way our posture responds to stress is critical to performance. If late in a race your athlete gets tired and begins to slump forward, this postural dysfunction will cause changes to run kinematics reducing the economy and increasing the risk of injury. 

The third thing you want to look at with stability training is what is going on at the hips. Can the athlete achieve full hip extension while running? Are they activating their glutes or running in a quad-dominant pattern? These are all form corrections that can be made with this phase of training.

Choose exercises that reinforce posture, core and hip control. Challenge the athlete to see if they can maintain postural endurance while fatigued. Stabilize the spine while moving the hips and vice versa. Keep the exercises dynamic, just like our sport. 

Stability exercises can be performed early in the season when the overall stress is low. With these exercises, we can perform them as high repetition, low load activities. You can perform these 15-20 minutes, 1-3 days/week. If you have never done stability training before, this may be an area of focus for up to three months. Once you have mastered precise movement, continue with these exercises throughout the season at least once weekly. After building a solid foundation of movement control and stability exercises, it’s time to progress to strength training. 

In short, any dynamic core work, postural exercises, hip control, and foot control exercises. Some of these may include:

Swiss Ball Pike

Swiss Ball Hamstring Curl

Sling Trainer (TRX) Reach Out

Sling Trainer Single Leg Squat

Sling Trainer Row

Marching Bridges

Single-Leg Twists with a Band

Strength Training

Now that the individual can maintain postural endurance, demonstrate correct movement patterns and stabilize movement, it’s time to advance into strength training. With this, we want our athletes to be lifting heavy weights with low repetitions. Contrary, most athletes go to the gym and perform low-weight/high-repetition exercises. To increase true strength, we need to recruit more muscle mass. This is why lifting heavy is much more beneficial, and supported in the research, than low-weight/high-repetition weight training.

When focusing on improving strength, it’s especially important to prescribe the appropriate amount of sets and repetitions. With the objective to improve strength, have the athlete perform three-to-four sets of five-to-eight repetitions. The exercise should be taxing by the end of each set. The speed at which you move is less important when compared to powerlifting or plyometrics. The goal is to move the weight in a controlled motion.

Squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, push press, kettlebell swings, and pull-ups are all great examples of strength exercises. Take a special interest with your athletes to the hip hinge motion. With this hip hinge, taking deadlifts for example, the muscles of the hips and knees are engaged. This front-to-back motion can fix imbalances around the hips and knees while building a stronger, more durable athlete. You can always do variations of exercises, for example, a single leg deadlift with a dumbbell. Do remember, however, the best way to move heavy weight is with both feet on the ground while moving a load. 

To build strength, prescribe heavy lifting two-to-three times weekly. As the athlete increases sport-specific focus in their training, they can maintain those strength gains by lifting one-to-two times per week.

Power Training

Back to the million-dollar question we discussed earlier: “How can we put more force down to the ground in a short period of time to move faster?” Let’s take running for example. Running is a time-dependent sport. If you aren’t performing time-dependent activities in the weight room, you are missing an important piece of the running puzzle.

So let’s talk about power training. Power workouts help to promote skill development that stands alone—in contrast, running does not. Running is an extremely constrained movement that performing alone does not expand the athlete’s force production or skill set needed to improve running. Stair workouts, Olympic lifts, box jumps, and jumping rope fall into the category of plyometrics or neuromuscular training. These kinds of exercises have demonstrated excellent results which include decreased injury rates, improvements in speed and agility, improved vertical jump, and improved ground contact times; all of which are elements that benefit runners.

There are some general guidelines for safety and effectiveness to follow with plyometrics. With any sort of hopping or jumping drill, taking box jumps for example, don’t start with the height of the object greater than mid-shin height. Develop good clearance and soft landing at this height before progressing. A common mistake is athletes trying to jump higher and higher and higher. However, focus on being efficient when loading the body. Instead of progressing by adding height, adjust the ground contact time. Do this by focusing on a soft landing. Try this progression over the next few weeks: 

  • Jump up on a box softly and step down. 
  • Jump up softly and then jump down and quickly back up 
  • Start on top of the box, jump down, and quickly up and over 5 shorter barriers
    • Barriers can be cones, dumbbells, speed hurdles

These kinds of sessions work to develop skill, technique and force. They need to be performed with good, explosive form. If at any point you begin to feel your form falter, call it a day.

Plyometrics are great as they don’t have to be done frequently or for a long duration. You can incorporate plyometrics as 30-45 reps, two-to-three times per week. Not only are plyometrics an essential addition to any gym program, but this time-dependent training category answers the question above; teaching the body how to put force down to the ground in a short amount of time.

Progress Through the Season:

The athlete needs to be stable before they can be strong, and then they can become powerful. Focus on stability control and core strength first. These sessions are light in nature and can be done two-to-three times per week. When the volume of training is low, focus on quality movement and building a foundation. The athlete can continue with these short, quality sessions once weekly throughout the season while adding in strength training and plyometrics.

To gain strength, have the athlete perform their weight training session two-to-three times per week to build and one-to-two times weekly to maintain. Plyometrics can be incorporated with your strength training routine throughout the season. If tapering for an event, the intensity may remain high but minimize volume, i.e. one set of five-to-eight reps, or 30% of normal plyometric work. 

Hopefully, you are more confident in how to progress your athlete’s stability and strength training programs throughout the year. An athlete who is serious about quality movement, results and longevity in the sport will find a way to invest time in the weight room. It’s the coach’s job to make sure it’s time worth investing.

Caitlin Glenn Sapp

Dr. Caitlin Glenn Sapp is the founder of Crew Racing and Rehab, a performance coaching and physical therapy company. She holds her Doctorate of Physical Therapy as well as a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science. She also holds certifications as a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and American College of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer. Dr. Sapp is a seven-time Ironman finisher, which includes the Ironman World Championships, and is a multiple-time USA Triathlon All-American. She takes great interest in educating the industry, from athletes to coaches, on how to stay injury-free while performing at a high level. For more, visit Crewracing.org or email Caitlin at caitlin@crewracing.org.