If you are a performance athlete, it is likely you are supplementing your sport-specific training with some strength and conditioning in an effort to get stronger and increase your overall fitness. I can guess the type of routine you’re in. You hit the gym, do 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps with a minute or two of rest, then switch to the next exercise. You throw in some bicep curls, possibly shoulder press, and some leg extensions - because that’s what people do, right?


What a lot of people don't know is that gyms and weight training as we know it do not benefit the typical athlete. The training mentioned above is hypertrophy-style training, and is designed with one end in mind: to build muscle that looks good. Which is fine if you want to be a body builder. However, this type of training won’t necessarily help improve you in your sport. Here’s why.


It's time to change your concept of training for sport.

It's time to change your concept of sport-specific training.

Breaking Muscle Shop


The First Element: Stimuli

The first step is incorporating appropriate stimuli. The human body only adjusts to the stress it is exposed to, adapting to the movement patterns it is presented with and the amount of force exerted during them.  So if you only train a certain movement at a certain weight, at a certain speed for a certain amount of time, your body will only adapt in a certain way, irrespective of numbers, weights or reps.


For example, if you do slow steady hamstring curls in the gym but your sport requires you to do explosive take downs, then that exercise will not translate well to your sport – though you may end up with nice looking hamstrings.


The Second Element: Strength

You need strength exercises that carry over well into your sport. It’s critical to be able to train your body to coordinate multiple muscle groups simultaneously. With their emphasis on pushing and pulling, compound movements are perfect for this. They mimic how your muscles function in competition, and unless you are targeting specific muscular issue or performing rehabilitation, these movements are preferable for athletes over isolation work.


"We need to incorporate movement patterns that are the same or close to those in your discipline."

The deadlift is a great example: it incorporates the core, upper and lower back, glutes, quads, and hamstrings effectively to help you produce practical strength for your sport. This is favourable over an isolated exercise for the same area such as a leg extension, which provides an environment in which your muscles are trained as separate entities rather than connected parts of a movement machine.


An Opportunity to Get Creative

Outside of movements like the deadlift, we need to incorporate movement patterns that are the same or close to those in your discipline. This is an opportunity to think outside of the box and get creative. You could perform sprints, plyometric jump squats with a weight, or kettle bell swings. Barbells and dumbbells can be used.


Remember - strength training doesn’t need to be done in a gym. Getting outside and tossing around a weighted medicine ball is a great way to build general upper body speed and strength. Make it sport specific. If you are a judo or jiu jitsu athlete like me for example, performing pull ups with a towel is a great option to train your grip strength.


The Third Element: Stability

As well as compound movements, performance athletes must incorporate exercises that challenge balance and engage the core. Sports are not performed in stable environments. Sitting comfortably in a shoulder press machine will develop your shoulders, but won't develop the core strength to keep your upper body stable while trying to launch a volley ball in the air. A leg press won't help you maintain your balance as you propel your body forward on a rocky terrain in cross country running.


A leg press won't help you balance on hilly terrain.

Consider your discipline carefully. What movement patterns do you need to work on?


Better options exist to build a more holistic strength base. A single arm shoulder press or a push up with single arm dumbbell row both force your core to engage and keep your body straight. These are excellent exercises to build on your upper body strength while activating your stabilizers.


A Systemic Approach to Training

The three elements are simple in implementation. In order to get stronger for your sport, we need to replicate its movement patterns as much as possible, and work compound strength movements incorporating your stabilisers to encourage the body to work systemically. This is the best way to train the body to deal with the unstable environments faced in competition. So the next time you hit the gym to get stronger for your sport - think about exactly what the movements are and what muscles are being used. Try to replicate your sports demands with heightened intensity for maximum adaptation. Work at the speed or range that your body needs on the field.


Remember, the body doesn't know reps and weights. All it knows is that it needs to adapt to the stimuli it is presented with, so make your training reflect the demands of your sport. When you present the body with the right stimuli, it will directly translate into your sport and increase your overall performance.


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Photo 1 courtesy of Sophia Drysdale.

Photo 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.