Unlike the generic strength training routines found in fitness magazines, sport-specific strength conditioning involves a few more design variables and takes a little more planning.
This guide outlines the seven steps to designing effective resistance training programs for sport.
Step 1 – Evaluation And Assessment
The first step, and perhaps the most important, is to evaluate the characteristics of the sport and to assess the athlete’s physical profile.
Evaluating The Sport
Ultimately, a resistance training program should mirror the movement patterns of the sport as closely as is feasible.
While early stages of the program may focus on developing a general strength base, as the competitive season approaches, conditioning exercises should become more specifically tailored to the sport.
The same applies to the physiological demands of the sport – a cross country runner for example, requires high levels of muscular endurance. A volleyball player would benefit from explosive power and a football lineman from exceptional muscle mass. A hockey player would benefit from basic strength, explosive power and strength endurance.
Assessing The Athlete
A conditioning plan is only as successful as the individual’s ability to commit to it. For most, training time is limited so the key is to prioritize. Although in an ideal scenario a soccer player would benefit from addressing explosive power and strength endurance needs, their lack of physical size and strength may be their greatest hindrance. A program to bulk the player up may have the greatest impact on their performance.
The only way to ascertain the most appropriate program design is through a battery of fitness tests. Again, selection of appropriate tests comes from an evaluation of the sport.
As a rule of thumb one repetition maximum testing for the upper and lower body is appropriate for most sports. The standing vertical jump is an obvious power test for a basketball player. The 60-second sit-up or push-up test would be suitable for many of the endurance sports.
Consider finally, the phases of the sport season. Generally, early pre-season or off-season training is reserved for maximum strength and hypertrophy. For athletes new to resistance training an extended period of time may be required for functional or anatomical training – preparing the body for a more strenuous lifting program.
Step 2 – Exercise Selection
Once a movement analysis of the sport has been considered and the strength objective for the program set (i.e. hypertrophy, maximum strength, power, strength endurance or a combination of several), the most appropriate exercises can be selected.
Core exercises (those that incorporate one or more large muscle groups) should form the basis of a maximal strength or hypertrophy resistance training program. Examples include back squats, bench presses, dead lifts and should presses. Core exercises suitable for power development include power cleans, push jerks and snatches.
When explosive power and strength endurance are more a priority (perhaps for a late pre-season strength program) more assistance exercises can be incorporated into the routine.
Assistance exercises recruit smaller muscle groups and are usually single joint exercises. They can be useful for maintaining a balance between agonists and antagonist muscle groups – especially if the sport places an uneven demand on the body. They can also closely match some of the movements in sport…
Kicking – leg extensions, hip abduction/adduction
Jumping – power cleans, calf presses, jump squats
Rowing – seated rows, hip sled, single arm rows
Swimming (front crawl) – lat pull downs, lateral raises, overhead pulls
Sprinting – lunges, step-ups, calf raises
Throwing – overhead pullovers, triceps extensions, internal/external shoulder rotations
Even though mirroring sport specific movements is an important design variable, it should not be to the neglect of other major muscle groups.
A resistance training program should aim to develop balance throughout the body even if the sport has an upper or lower body emphasis. This is an important step in injury prevention.
Here is an example of the exercises selected for a soccer player. After completing a series of tests, they were assessed to be lacking in power and speed, although their basic strength and strength endurance was good:
Step 3 – Frequency
Many athletes choose to lift weights in three workouts a week. This often works well allowing sufficient recovery time and fits nicely into the 7-day week. More advanced lifters may benefit from a four, five or even six day a week program.
Beginners are recommended to start with two, total body sessions a week.
Guidelines from the National Strength and Conditioning Association suggest that there should be at least one rest day but not more than three between working each muscle group. At a minimum, a resistance training session that works the entire body could be completed Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Saturday.
Alternatively, it may be more suitable to use the split routine design – training different muscle groups on different days.
It’s also important to take the phases of season into consideration…
Off Season – 4-6 sessions per week
Pre Season – 3-4 sessions per week
In Season – 1-2 sessions per week
Transition – 0-3 sessions per week
Of course frequency design cannot be complete without taking other elements of training (such as speed and endurance sessions) into account. A resistance training program for a hockey player for example, might be coupled with plyometric training. In this scenario, only two resistance training sessions per week is feasible.