By: Gary Vesper
Competitive sports demand multiple facets of athleticism that need to simultaneously work together to produce optimal performance. Athletes need to be able to run, jump, change direction, accept and initiate contact all while staying conditioned and injury free. The bedrock of all of this is having athletes who are strong so they are best able to compete at a high level long-term.
However, all strength training is not created equal. So how do we make sure what we are doing in the weight room will actually carry over into in-game performance?
While we are trying to get athletes stronger, it is not about being the first guy or girl to back squat 500 pounds. Being able to squat 500 pounds is impressive but the body is a complex moving machine that requires strength in multiple capacities.
In order to create in-game transfer your strength program must be strategically imbalanced, enhance weaknesses, and be performed with optimal technique.
This is a term I use when describing to athletes that there are certain things we need to do a little bit more of because of the value and necessity to counterattack previous habits.
For instance, athletes love to bench press and perform double leg lifts that focus on knee dominant patterns. Human beings also tend to sit a lot with a rounded posture. When you take both of these facts into program design it would make sense to make sure that we do more upper back strength training and single leg and hip dominant exercises to counterattack natural tendencies.
So for every set of bench pressing athletes need two sets of horizontal rowing and for every squat athletes need to deadlift, hip thrust, or RDL. They also need to have plenty of single leg training that goes along with their double leg training.
Applying strategic imbalance to a program also ensures that athletes are getting exercises that they need and not just what they want. An example for a lacrosse player is that they run and change direction in multiple directions and at a moments notice. Therefore, they would greatly benefit from performing lateral split squats that challenges range of motion and lateral strength from a single leg position. Becoming strong and mobile in this particular exercise will also greatly enhance the preventative measures for any ACL injuries that are so prevalent in female lacrosse. While these exercises may not be as “sexy” as the back squat or deadlift, they will go a long way in helping the lacrosse player stay healthy.
Athletes, as well as human beings, like to do things that they are good at. For this reason they utilize exercises that they are comfortable with and ones that they feel good doing. This doesn’t always mean that they are strategically implementing exercises that can give them the greatest ROI. As a Performance Specialist, it is my job then to make sure athletes get a robust set of exercises that strategically makes each player better
With that idea in mind, exercise selection must enhance structural and muscular weaknesses. For instance, if an athlete can back squat 400 pounds but does not have the motor control or the mobility to do a lateral lunge or single leg squat with great depth than they are not fully optimizing their abilities and movement potential.
We see this all of the time at Driven where once athletes are exposed to exercises that they are not comfortable with they struggle to even get into the right positions and ranges of motion. To truly benefit the athlete it is important to take them out of their box of exercises and place them in an environment that they are going to struggle and have to re-learn how to move their body.
Exercises such as lateral lunges, single leg Romanian deadlifts, single leg squats on a box, chin-ups, push-ups with pauses, alternating dumbbell bench presses, hip thrusts, landmine presses, and carry variations are all exercises that will create a new learning experience for the athlete to thrive in. It will also enhance weaknesses because they are filling in their strength gaps by using exercises that they have never experienced before.
If you want to “bulletproof” an athlete from injury, make sure that their exercise selection is diverse enough to challenge them through various movements yet specific enough to still get them very strong.
This point cannot be overlooked. If we want to get the most out of strength training than we must be doing exercises correctly, all of the time, with 100% accuracy of technique.
A simple example is when we have had athletes come in who tell us that they know how to do a dumbbell row. We ask them to show us what they mean and they perform the exercise with a rounded back, “hiking” their elbow through the range of motion, using a short range of motion, not letting the scapulae move on the rib cage, and overall just doing a really poor job with the exercise.
Let’s say that this athlete never came in to train with us and kept performing that dumbbell row the same exact way throughout his high school and college career. Do you think his upper back will have truly benefited from the exercise? Probably not. Instead, the athlete will most likely get a little stronger over time but the muscular teamwork needed to benefit from such a great exercise was never capitalized. If you multiple this through numerous exercises it is no wonder why the athlete is only marginally getting better from his workouts.
Another great exercise that we feel doesn’t get utilized properly is the deadlift. When we get athletes who demonstrate the deadlift by performing a squat we know they have so much room to still develop. A deadlift is a posterior chain exercise that requires a weight shift back into the hips that “load up” your glutes and hamstrings. If we perform a deadlift by just squatting to get the bar we are essentially doing another day of heavy squatting, leaving the benefits of the deadlift behind. With this exercise it has been such a joy watching our female athletes learn how to properly perform the deadlift and then get really good at it! We have had girls from all sports deadlift over 200 pounds with tremendous execution, force, and power. It is empowering to see and be a part of!
Lastly, the training room is a controlled environment and injuries should be very few and very far between. If athletes continue to progress and increase weight with the wrong technique they are only setting themselves up for tweaks that will slow or stall progress all together.
Learn how to do exercises safely and effectively and understand WHY you are doing them and I guarantee that you will feel the difference for the transfer to the game.
With what we know about the body we know that “lift more weight” isn’t always the answer to improving performance. While we love getting athletes strong, there is more too performance transfer than absolute strength. If you apply these three points it will make such a difference in how you view the weight room and the results you get from your time and effort.
All the Best,
Gary Vesper, XPS, FMS, Pn1, CSAC
Founder & Head Coach