Individualised Strength Training
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
I recently watched an online lecture during which the strength training methods of three elite level 100m sprinters were described.
For one sprinter (who trap bar deadlifted 280kg for 10 reps) “you couldn’t put enough weight on the bar, he would just squat it”, another could barely squat his bodyweight and the third was somewhere in the middle.
The ultimate goal for all three sprinters was (obviously) to sprint 100m as fast as possible. All three utilised different strength training methods, all three displayed very different levels of weight room strength but all three had very similar 100m times.
So it would seem that, despite the differences in their weight room numbers, all three of the athletes were training optimally and were strong enough to excel at their performance task (100m sprinting).
This led me to think about how different strength training methods achieve similar results and whether or not the pursuit of strength targets when training for athletic performance is a smart approach…
“Strength is the base upon which all other physical qualities are built.”
This is an often cited phrase in strength and conditioning and there is a lot to be said for it. After all, speed and power are expressions of strength, so if we don’t have strength then we can’t express it in these forms.
However, when you step on to the field on game day it doesn’t matter what your 1RM for the squat and bench press is, what matters is how well you can play your sport.
So, although maximum strength is clearly an important aspect of athletic performance, the feats of strength you’re capable of in the weight room only have value if they transfer to sporting performance. If you can’t transfer your raw strength to speed, power and sporting techniques then your new 1RM isn’t worth much.
It’s important to understand the significance that physical qualities have on sports performance and to appreciate that these physical qualities can and should be developed outside of the technical sports practice. However, it’s also important to have an understanding of how much of a particular physical quality is required and to realise when optimal levels have been achieved.
For example, many strength and conditioning coaches will aim to develop mobility in their athletes but won’t persist with mobilisations, stretches and soft tissue work until their field hockey players are as mobile as elite gymnasts.
Why not? Because the coaches understand how much mobility is required for performance in field hockey and realise when no further performance gain will occur as a result of more mobility. Thus, they don’t chase after extra mobility.
Whereas chasing after mobility is generally not a problem in strength and conditioning facilities, chasing strength numbers and targets can often be an overriding thought process. Whether it be pressure from coaches or the athletes themselves, a desire to hit numbers on lifts can take an athlete away from performance improvement.
Yes, max strength is important and there is a certain level of strength that needs to be attained for athletes to maximise their potential. However, I believe there will also come a point when a few more kilograms on a barbell doesn’t equate to more performance on the field. Furthermore, there is potential for max strength training to become such a focus that it eats into the time and effectiveness of other training or, worse, match day performance. Thus, it makes sense to think about striving for ‘optimal’ strength.
How Do We Know When an Athlete Reaches ‘Optimal Strength’?
‘Optimal strength’ is somewhat ambiguous and thus it makes sense to think about somehow objectively quantifying when an athlete is ‘optimally strong’ for their sport. And this, I suppose, is where strength in relation to one’s bodyweight comes in. Aiming to have athletes lift 1.5x or 2x bodyweight in certain lifts are common targets in strength and conditioning programs.
However, as demonstrated by the three sprinters mentioned previously, some athletes will eat up strength training with no problems and others will find it much more taxing. Pushing a group of athletes towards generic strength targets and having them all do the same lifts might make it easy to compare and contrast, but it might not be the best way of improving performance for many of the athletes.
This doesn’t mean strength shouldn’t be pursued or that strength levels shouldn’t be monitored. Without some form of goal and objective measurement it’s difficult to plan and assess an athlete’s physical progress, and it’s obviously important to know if an athlete’s strength levels are increasing, staying the same or decreasing.
What it does mean is that perhaps, as strength coaches, we shouldn’t get caught up on relentlessly pursuing generic strength targets, and should instead use our knowledge, experience and intuition to set targets that are more specifically suited to the individual athlete.
After all, training a lifter towards a new 1RM in the squat, deadlift and bench press is a different process to training a basketballer to become stronger and faster on the court. And the goal, when training athletes, is enhanced performance in their sport, not lifting statistics.
An athlete who struggles with power clean technique isn’t going to fare too well when forced to work towards a 1.25x bodyweight power clean. A better exercise and measure for this athlete might be a trap bar shrug or the height achieved/force during a vertical jump.
Simple changes to a program based on the individual could be the difference between an athlete making significant progress and not progressing at all. By matching the method and measure to the individual, an athlete will be more able to attain physical adaptations and reach their potential safely and effectively. Insisting athletes use movements that they might not be comfortable with (potentially with loads they’re not capable of lifting) in the pursuit of generic strength targets seems short sighted and illogical.
Subjective and Objective
It would therefore seem reasonable to suggest that subjective assessment of the best approach for an athlete combined with some form of individualised objective measurement is a smart approach to take. This individualised approach is surely better than pushing each and every athlete towards attaining a generic strength target that doesn’t account for who they are, their physical make-up, how they move and their weight room capabilities.
A strength and conditioning coach should use their knowledge, experience and intuition to determine: how best to physically develop and monitor an athlete’s strength, when an athlete is at optimal levels of strength for their sport and where to go from there — this is what many might refer to as good coaching!
Maximum strength is an important component of athleticism.
Different athletes will require different levels of maximum strength.
Optimal and transferable strength should drive the decisions of strength and conditioning coaches.
There are many different ways to make an athlete ‘strong enough’ for their performance task.
Coaches should individualise the strength and conditioning process as much as possible and use both subjective and objective feedback in the pursuit of athletic performance.