As athletes become more competitive, the way in which they train for their sport becomes increasingly important. Many times, the difference between a great and an exceptional athlete depends on their training regimen. Many well meaning athletes and coaches look to popular health magazines and body building books for information on strength training, but very few of these resources have good information on sport specific training. Most emphasize the body building philosophy of isolating muscle groups. While body builders have impeccable physiques, many of them also have chronic injuries, and few would function well on a basketball or tennis court. The body building philosophy of strength training not only produces a greater risk of injury both on and off the field, but has a negative impact on key athletic components including speed, power, balance, and agility. Remember that strength is not the number one goal of a sport specific training program. Functional strength, the kind of strength utilized on the playing field, is what is important. A solid strength and conditioning program is one that closely mimics the movements and energy systems of the sport.
Multi-joint Versus Single-joint Movements
Think about how most athletes move in their sport. Running, cutting, throwing, tackling, kicking, and jumping are all key athletic components which require the movement of several joints at one time. Multi-joint movements like squats and snatches are preferable to single joint movements because they train more muscle groups including the core muscles of the abdomen, back, and hips. Multi-joint movements are also more challenging and require a higher degree of neuromuscular involvement producing a more coordinated and functionally stronger athlete.
Functional strength requires muscles to work together efficiently. This efficiency is compromised when muscles are trained independently rather than allowing the body to work together as one unit. Repeatedly isolating one muscle group at a time detrains an athlete to recruit multiple muscle groups with maximum efficiency. Furthermore, certain single joint exercises are just plain unsafe. For instance the leg extension, an exercise commonly used to develop the quadriceps, applies a shear force on the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) of the knee. This means the ACL has forces pushing on opposite sides weakening and possibly tearing the ligament. A better alternative would be a step up or a squat which activates the hamstrings as well as the quadriceps neutralizing the tendency of the quadriceps to pull the lower leg forward.
Simulating Sport Specific Movements
An important rule to follow when developing a sport specific program is to train movements not muscles. A typical body building program will separate muscle groups into what is called a split routine. For example, a four day split may look something like this. Day 1: Legs, Day 2: Chest & Shoulders, Day 3: Back, Day 4: Biceps & Triceps. This type of program is not practical for an athlete. The lower and upper bodies work together in nearly all aspects of sport so in the weight room they should be trained to work together as well.
The video below demonstrates a walking lunge. Notice the movements in this exercise closely simulate a sprinting motion. The walking lunge simply slows down the movement and adds resistance by using dumbbells. The major muscle groups trained during a walking lunge include the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, buttocks, core, and calves. However understanding this is not important. Simply understand that the walking lunge simulates a sprinting motion and therefor strengthens the muscles used to sprint.
Hamstring Curl on a Stability Ball
Bodybuilders typically target the hamstrings using a hamstring curl machine. The hamstring curl – seated or lying on a machine – targets the hamstrings by requiring you to flex your knees to bring your heels toward your glutes. Movements like running and jumping do require some knee flexion, but they mostly require hip extension – pushing your hips forward. The hamstring curl on a stability ball is a safer and more functional exercise because it requires both knee flexion and hip extension. It’s also a great core exercise because it require balance and fully engages your glutes, abs, and low back muscles throughout the entire movement.
Injury Prevention Versus Performance Enhancement
Many talented athletes are forced to end their careers early due to injuries that could have been prevented. A good sport specific program should focus first and foremost on injury prevention. Performance enhancement comes second. Don’t rush into a program before taking the time to learn the basics.