One of the misconceptions in the sports world is that to become great, all you need to do is devote endless hours of playing your chosen sport. While it is true you need to put in lots of practice and dedication to learning the skills needed to excel at your sport, just playing the sport and not working on the finer principles of movement will not make you great! All of the greatest athletes from every sport, even golf (Tiger Woods) attribute their conditioning as a key part of their success. If you just want an average level of performance, and be good at completing a few limited skills, then just playing your sport will achieve that, but your true potential will never be reached. If however you want to achieve your potential as an athlete and become great, then you need to design and implement a "specific to you" and your sport conditioning program. This article we will explore what sports conditioning really means and how you can design a plan for any sport based on some basic rules.
Your Sports Conditioning Program Must Be Specific To You And Your Sport
This is also where many get into trouble by following a program that was designed for a different sport, or using traditional strength training exercises, (which by the way are body building exercises that ruin athletes) to gain strength thinking that stronger automatically means better. In Australia the reliance on strength as the only variable to be trained in the belief that bigger is better is well and truly overused. In the AFL Football, which is what many in Melbourne regard as the pinnacle of elite athletes, you see the over reliance on strength training "to get big," and the abuse of cardio vascular exercise in pre-season training at it's best! The overuse of Olympic lifting with sports coaches is another part that really does not relate to many sports, but there is so much information saying that this is the best exercise to develop power, jumping ability and explosive skills. So this is what everyone does.
To get the most out of your body, it needs a program that focuses on your weaknesses and continually challenges you across many different abilities, movements and skills. First you have to find out what these weaknesses are. And the only way to do that is by completing a thorough test and assessment process. Watch the video below where I go into great detail about how we at No Regrets Personal Training do this and a second video about better alternatives to Olympic Lifting.
Secondly you have to determine what skills are required most for your sport. This is where you will find that strength rarely is the most important factor, which is why I question it's relevance in terms of importance in a training program. The emphasis should be on learning a new movement or skill challenge, developing the skill with precision to a point where it becomes automatic, and then progressing the challenge again to a level you never had before by adopting training techniques and advanced methods. This is how elite athletes take their games to new heights. It is also why they achieve amazing aesthetic looks, as the body is forced to make several changes to adapt to the constant stimulus it is subjected to, even though how they look has little to do with their training goal. Great athletes understand the rules of success with regards to training, nutrition & recovery, and know what many successful sports coaches and exercise scientists have known for years. That Sports Specific Training comprises of complex integrated movement patterns and 8 key elements that need to be ranked in order of importance for your chosen sport.
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The following is a list of each of the 8 elements and an example of how we use them:
1: Strength Training For Sport:
This is defined as "The extent to which muscles can exert force by contracting against resistance". (For example - tackling in AFL football, or holding your position to take a mark). I have deliberately placed strength first as this is the area abused the most. We refer to Sports Specific Strength as Linked strength for it requires the entire body to coordinate athletic actions against resistance. Sport Strength exercises and drills are based on training movement, not muscles, with the goal of firing the muscles in the correct sequence and developing strength and body control within athletic movement. Multi-joint lifts, cross body actions, contralateral movements and complex exercises are all used to maximize the demands and efficiency of how the body moves efficiently for sports. Correct training of movement patterns produce coordinated full body actions and allow the sportsperson the ability to transfer greater power through the body.
In order to initiate power the body must be able to stabilize the appropriate joints in order to produce the leverage necessary to generate explosive, coordinated muscular movement. The power that can be applied to the movement is dependent on the strength of the muscles, the coordination of the neuromuscular system, and the speed at which the movement can be executed. “strength x speed = power “. There is stacks of research proving, and also from our own case studies, that training the brain and nervous system to improve coordination effects strength production and likewise speed faster than any other method.
Put simply, a neurally coordinated body will better handle whole body skills in high power actions. The objective of a strength program is to progress the development of the entire body together, not by training isolated pieces and hoping that they are able to work together when on the sporting field. Sports Strength combines multi-joint exercises standing up, with more emphasis on braking strength, explosive power, quick jumping, along with explosive rotation power into one training style of complex exercises!
The 2 videos below I provide a split screen comparison of our sports specific exercise with the movement needed for the sport. The first one is for basketball and the second one is for AFL Football.
Whatever You Do, Please Do Not Use Strength Training Machines!
I hope you are beginning to see why Body building exercises serve no purpose for an athlete, as they have little neural requirement, do not have a purpose of improving movement skills to move efficiently or fast. Yet if you look at most people's strength program it includes exercises from the body building world. Exercises like the Leg Press, Leg Extension, Bench Press, bicep curls and all popular exercises in body building, corrupt movement systems within the body, teach you not to stabilize before you move, decrease muscular power and inevitably make you slower and inefficient.
Read our article on Squat versus the Leg Press to see why the squat is superior to the leg press in so many ways. Spend more of your time developing Single Leg Squats and Lunges for this is where you will spend more of your time playing sport and where you need to find your power from! And also where most injuries are created! ACL injuries which are a career ending injury for many sports people can be prevented using strength programs that focus on single leg squats and lunges in all directions and using various tempos. Read our article "Preventing ACL Injuries" to see how exactly to do this.
The interesting thing with linked strength exercises is what we use for athletes to improve their ability for sport, we also use for everyone else, including older adults because these exercises are based on how you MOVE! Just the complexity and speed of the movements is different based on ability and age, but the goal is the same. Move better = play better = live better!
Power is the ability to exert maximum muscular contraction instantly in an explosive burst of movements (golf swing, jumping or sprint starting). In order to produce power, the athlete must be able to efficiently stabilize the body, handle fast deceleration forces, and explosively coordinate and activate the appropriate muscles to produce the desired explosive movement. Most athletic activities require some combination of speed, quickness and strength with varying amounts of endurance. All require elements of explosive power. Whether it is needed to move explosively to hit a golf ball, jump, sprint, tackle an opponent, react to an unpredictable tactic, the need to produce power is an essential. Traditional training techniques using slow, controlled tempos; decrease your power ability. If you do not train power, you will not develop power, or conversely to quote the old coaching adage, “train slow, be slow”.
Now I mentioned earlier that Olympic lifting is used a lot to develop power and is possibly the favorite of many sports conditioning coaches. I like Olympic lifts myself, but I do not feel they are as important to a sports player and are definitely overused by many sports coaches and trainers that do not understand sports specific exercises. I can hardly ever think of a sport other than weight lifting where I am jumping off two feet and trying to lift an enormous weight over my head! A good article on this here "truth about Olympic lifting". I play high level basketball and almost the entire game I am jumping from single leg, never from two! And most of that is done sideways, not in a straight line! This is where the use of plyometrics to increase power are much more relevant and the carryover to the sport is significantly greater than doing cleans and snatches. Plus the risk of injury is much less.
Plyometric movements involve a rapid eccentric stretch of the muscle followed by an immediate concentric contraction to facilitate and develop a forceful, explosive movement over a short period of time. Plyometric training stimulates various changes in the neuromuscular system enhancing the ability of the muscle to respond more quickly and powerfully to rapid changes in muscle length as well as enhancing the elastic strength of the muscles. This allows the muscles to reap maximum benefit from the stretch response and contract more powerfully therefore allowing for faster and more powerful changes of direction. Equipment like Battling Ropes, Sledgehammers and medicine balls are other ways to develop explosive power using more sports orientated movement. To see more about these read our article "Four Exercises To Make You Explosively Fast & Strong"
Again I make the note that training power is not limited to just sports, but power has been proven to be absolutely critical for preventing falls with older adults. The loss of power in seniors is attributed to loss of ability to walk up stairs, mow a lawn, play golf, basically all activities that have a rapid explosive movement.The "use it or lose it" theory is never so true here!
Similar to power but different in that it requires maximum contraction for a longer period of time, somewhere between 5-15 seconds. (For example running 20m to the ball in football). Understand that Power and Speed cannot fully reach their potential without perfect movement skills and strength being developed first! This is why many athletes fail to reach the standards they set or are constantly injured by ignoring these 2 facts. Speed as with power declines faster than strength, meaning if it is not trained correctly you will experience rapid declines in performance. Research shows that we will all experience a 10% decline in muscle mass (sarcopenia) between the ages of 25 and 50 and a further 45% decline by the time we are in our 80's – if we do nothing about it. Strength training can reverse this or at least halt the decline. Unfortunately, for speed the news is not so good! Fast-twitch muscle fibre, that most precious of commodities for speed and power, displays a much more marked decline than slow-twitch fibre as we age. Fast twitch fibre can decline by as much as 30% between the ages of 20 and 80. The best way to prevent this is by including speed training in your program and including training with intensity around 75% of one rep maximum to offset fast twitch fibre loss.
Agility is defined as - The ability to perform a series of explosive power movements in rapid succession in opposing directions (tennis& basketball). There are many sports coaches and people involved in sporting clubs that feel it is unnecessary to do any significant agility work outside the practice of the actual sport. The thought process is that it is a waste of time and better just to play the game more! But as we have already shown you so far there are many things that playing the game alone cannot do. Firstly agility training I believe is very misunderstood. Just placing a stack of cones, hurdles and speed ladders and performing heaps of drills may look impressive, but what is the real benefit? The player may get good at the drill, but if the the drills do not transfer to the specifics of their game it is a wasted effort. Personally I believe agility is almost more important than speed for many athletes, in particular if it incorporates reactive training! Why? Well when you look at most team sports that involve one-on-one contests and battles, you will find the the quickest, most explosive athletes seem to have more time than their opponents and often win these one on one contests most of the time. But rarely are these same people fast in a straight out sprinting race! What makes them fast is their ability to react that bit faster and change direction instantly! Think of tennis where players need that instant, react and explode pattern to return serve. You cannot premeditate the return or you risk being caught of position. To have better reactions you must train them! Becoming quicker than your opponent can be achieved most effectively through the development of explosive movement within the first three steps. Traditional speed training using track sprint training does a very poor job at improving these skills and abilities. Running in a straight line also has little benefit for multi-directional sports such as football, basketball, netball, soccer. If your sport requires you to use quick stop-and-starts, lateral movement, backwards movement and transitions, as well as turns, pivots and rotational power then you need agility training.
Here is 2 more videos, one for hockey and the other from tennis, to highlight this point.
5: Balance & Stability:
The most ignored component other than stretching would be stability training, yet it is so important. Make sure you watch the video above for a full explanation of this. The ability to control the body's position, either stationary (eg a handstand) or while moving (eg kicking a football on the run). Far too often this training is misunderstood and ignored as many sporting coaches and athletes programs focus too heavily on strength. Understand this:
"You Cannot Develop Strength Without Obtaining Stability First!"
This is a very dangerous skill to neglect as it is in this phase of conditioning program that injuries are usually prevented and where they athlete begins to have that extra bit of time to develop their skills. Always remember an unbalanced body is weak and prone to mistakes. Think of Novak Dokovic at the moment who has an incredible year of tennis. He seems to have more time than other players to play his shot, it is like he gets to the ball faster than everyone else. Any tennis player will tell you how crucial it is to be very still with your head when playing your shot as it can mean the difference between hitting the line or missing the line.
And the emphasis on AFL coaches for their football players to keep their feet in a contest can mean the difference between playing this week or being dropped back to the reserves! An athletes’ perfect position to apply optimal power is their perfect position of balance. Athletes who need to be strong and agile on their feet can improve competition strength through balance-resistance training where they train up weak links in the body, which ensures that each joint is stable, and enables the individual to develop explosive strength in a standing position—which can directly transfer to a competitive or recreational training environment. Balance is critical to any sport where athletes are loading or biasing one leg the majority of time, especially when changing direction, weighting an inside or outside edge (hockey, motocross, mountain biking, road cycling) or striking an object (hockey, baseball, tennis, field hockey). When an athlete is well-trained in the skills of balance and deceleration, both contribute to first step quickness and weight shifts by providing perfect transitional mechanics between stop-and-start or set-up-and-move sequences to produce high quality performance, and more importantly prevent injury!
Planks, side planks and crunches are not stability training either. True stability is achieved from a reflex timing and often needs to be developed in a standing position. Planks are one of the worst exercises for a sports person by the way so stop doing them now if they make up a big part of your training. Does this mean we need to being standing on swissballs and doing circus acts? No. But it does mean you need to have some type of balance training within your program. Below is some examples of balance training for sports.
6: Flexibility & Mobility:
Again another part often ignored and abused. And by the way flexibility and mobility are not the same! Mobility is is freedom of movement. It is not limited to a single joint but a combination of joints and is more movement based as opposed to holding one particular muscle with increased length for a period of time. Flexibility is the ability to achieve an extended range of motion without being restricted by tight muscles or connective tissue. (reaching wide for an out of court forehand eg Novak Djokovic). This is quite a complex topic to explain and again is one that is often misunderstood. I highly suggest you read our more detailed article on this topic here "Mobility & Flexibility Which Comes First" as it will give you all the what, when, how and why to stretch or mobilize.
We all know a lack of mobility or range of motion increases the chance of muscle strains and sprains. Use of dynamic stretching, PNF stretching and Static stretching are all key components of a good conditioning program. Improving flexibility and use of stretching also plays a key role in improving posture and the strength of lazy weak muscles! Read our article on how to improve posture to see more about this. But the key takeaway point from this principle is you MUST have a specific to you stretching program to either improve range of motion or maintain optimal flexibility within muscles and joints.
7: Cardiovascular Endurance:
This is where you use training to improve the heart's ability to deliver blood to working muscles and their ability to use it (eg running long distances). Those who are fitter have higher VO2max values and can exercise more intensely than those who are not as well conditioned. Numerous studies show that you can increase your VO2max by working out at an intensity that raises your heart rate to between 65 and 85% through the use of interval training. Interval training is essential part of any elite athlete, yet rarely used by the general population who prefer to adopt a"go slow "program. I would say that cardio training is possibly the most overused part of any conditioning program and to be honest you can save yourself a lot of time by being smarter with how you train. There are so many variations of interval training you can use, but the key to the success of this is understanding the relevance to your sport. For example in AFL Football players repeatedly sprint 20m-40m to a contest before the ball is kicked or moved on and then the player stands still or jogs slowly. This is repeated successively hundreds of times throughout the game. So it would make no sense to get an AFL football player to undertake 3km time trials. The energy system, muscle coordination and pretty much everything about 3km is so much different to 20m! One thing that many people do not understand is that players will have an instinctive holding of the breath when sprinting during a 20m contest in order to create intra-abdominal pressure in the anticipation of a collision. This is entirely different type of breathing you would use in a structured interval training session of 200m, 400m etc where you will prepare to last longer by pacing yourself and controlling your breathing. Simulating the exact situation encountered in the game is what prepares players for the necessary skills that may mean the difference between getting the ball or not!
8: Neuromuscular Co-ordination:
The ability to integrate the above listed components so that effective movements are achieved. This can only be enhanced by using complex sports specific movements that challenge the brain to integrate many movements and abilities all in a split second! I have left the most important part of any Sports Conditioning Program to last! Without doubt most team sports require high levels of coordination and skill. Even solo sports like surfing, golf and tennis require high levels of coordination. I cannot say this enough but by constantly subjecting the brain to challenges it forces the body to make changes within the software programs that run movement patterns. It is these movement patterns that can change you quicker than any other form of training. So by sitting on a leg press that requires zero brain attention or stimulation you are more or less "dumbing down your system", or regressing your software program!
Exercises requiring single arm, single leg movements on opposite sides of the body require left brain and right brain activity and use of all the slings within the body. These slings are the key for creating optimal movement and power.
Any sports program that tries to encourage an upgrade to your brain will always reap huge rewards on the sporting field.
Putting It All Together
As I said in the beginning this is a big topic to cover and you can see there are so many variables to consider and so many things to test. And to make it even more complicated you also need to consider that various exercises and methods will need to be used depending on what phase of training you are in. The type of training you use in Pre-season is completely different to what you would do during the season or in the off season. A great sports program takes this into account and helps to focus on what needs the most attention at various stages of your training. Each sport is different so you cannot follow a one size fits all program. Again it has to be specific to you and your sport. Otherwise you risk under performing or developing injury.
Here is a simple video below explaining this concept. Again all of this is covered in our Little Black Book PDF Report you can pick up for just $17!
I hope this gives you a good understanding of what to do if you want to train for sports and be the best athlete you can be. Strength and Cardio fitness are just one of many elements needed for sports, and to be honest are not as important as agility, balance, coordination and power! By incorporating a complete program you give yourself every chance of reaching your potential as an athlete and preventing injury at the same time. All of these skills and abilities can be trained by ALL ages, just the degree of difficulty will be different. This is just a sample of what makes up our NEW SPORTS SPECIFIC training program and has enabled us to teach and train sporting athletes from many sports, the principles of exactly how to prevent injury and improve performance to be the best possible player.
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