Practical Strength Applications for Athletes

Athletes in any sport require development of various physical attributes to have success in competition.  Strength development is necessary in athletic preparation, yet is commonly not addressed in a manner necessary to provide optimal results for the athlete.  There are aspects of strength development that need to be considered based upon the demands of the sport and the experience of the athlete.  While strength development for athletes is important, the level of strength and priority of it will be based on the resistance that gets encountered in the sport (Baker, 2014).

Many individuals will take the previous statement and limit exposure to strength training with external resistance claiming it is unnecessary for athletes.  These same individuals will cite individuals who compete at certain levels while only undertaking certain strength modalities (i.e. bodyweight only, kettlebells, etc) and claim that is all they need to make them strong.  Limiting the strength prescription to this can possibly neglect base strength development, particularly for more novice athletes (anyone not competing at an elite level- professional or Olympic).   This post will focus on some basic considerations when looking to design a strength program for an athlete who does not compete in powerlifting or Olympic lifting.

1.  Develop strength in basic movements first

The benefits of incorporating the power lifts (bench press, squats, and deadlifts) will be discussed; however, it is important to understand basic movements prior to doing more advanced exercises.  While bodyweight exercises can accomplish this, they should not be seen as the only way to address this issue.  Resistance bands, dumbbells, kettlebells can be utilized early in developing appropriate movement patterns and base levels of strength.  Many individuals will require a certain amount of work be completed in certain bodyweight exercises prior to utilizing external resistance.  This can possible cause certain movements and muscle groups to be neglected.  Take pulling as an example; chin-ups and pull-ups are typically more difficult for younger and less experienced individuals who undertake a strength program (as opposed to push-ups).  While there are certainly progression with chin-ups and pull-ups, strength in the pulling muscles may also be developed via pulling motions with external resistance (i.e. dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns, etc).  Witholding those exercises until vertical bodyweight pulling can be completed at a certain level (i.e. everyone must perform 20 chin-ups before utilizing external resistance), overall strength in these muscle groups may get delayed.

2.  The benefits of barbell exercises (power lifts)

Francis (2014) discusses that strength work will always be a means and not an “end.”  Athletes don’t need to have numbers of elite powerlifters in the power lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift), however there is a great benefit to utilizing these exercises for physical development.  Beyond what are considered the obvious adaptations to exercise, the recruitment of motors units with exercises such as these had a great benefit to an athlete.  Any of these lifts performed at greater than 80% intensity are considered a high intensity stimulus (Francis, 2014).  This type of motor unit recruitment can assist with power development by affecting force-velocity relationships in sport activity.  This requires responsible loading of strength activities, coupled with utilizing complimentary training activities, which includes jumping activities (explosive strength) and high quality speed work.  Max strength as a quality should be developed to an level to the point where it does not interfere with other athletic qualities

3.  Injury prevention.

Neuromuscular coordination and soft tissue resiliency can be addressed through proper strength training.  Athletes should be addressing regions of the body that are susceptible to injury based on their sport.  Gender can certainly influence the impact of certain injuries and should be something to take into consideration when designing the program.  Early in training, high-repetition exercises can be utilized to allow for soft tissue adaptation (Scott & Saylor, 2010).

Strength training in athletic preparation is sometimes poorly planned, or in some instances, not utilized at all.  The prevailing attitude of some sports is that strength training is either unnecessary or should be kept to a minimum to prevent a decline in performance.  Much of this thought is due to not having an understanding of how strength training fits into the preparation of certain types of athletes.  While training for maximum strength in the weight room is not the goal of many team and individual sports, neglecting achieving an optimal level of strength will limit one’s development in other areas of sports performance.

Recommended Readings

Baker, D. (2014).  Using Strength Platforms for Explosive Performance.  In Joyce, D., & Lewindon D.  (Eds.)  High-Performance Training for Sports.  Champaign, IL:  Human Kinetics.  Kindle Edition

Francis, C. (2014).  Training for Power and Strength in Speed.  Kindle Edition.

Scoot, S., & Saylor, J.  (2010).  Conditioning for Combat Sports.  Santa Fe, NM:  Turtle Press.  Kindle Edition.

Preparation Considerations- Combat Sports

Combat sports represent a wide-ranging set of activities where success is dependent upon general preparation and skill development specific to the demands of energy system development, strength and power development, and skill development of a given discipline. One needs to consider these variables when designing the training regimen based upon what a given discipline calls for. These demands can vary greatly within a discipline, for example, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), or can be more focused in disciplines such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Kickboxing. The purpose of this post will be to examine the general structure of training for combat sport disciplines, while simultaneously discussing some of the misdirected efforts which hinder the preparation process.

Energy System Considerations

Probably one of the most common misdirected efforts in the training of most combat athletes involves the overuse of lactic energy system development (Smith, nd). For many combat disciplines, this results in repeated efforts of low quality, which in the end does not support what should be the end result of the preparation efforts. Smith (2013) stated that, “Fights consist of the generation of high quality outputs repeatedly.” Lactic-based energy system training does not provide the high quality output needed for many of the skills involved in training combat athletes, particularly those involved in striking or short contact disciplines.

It is well-known that many combat/martial art facilities implore lactic-based efforts due to the fact that they make people feel they are “training hard”.  They increase the intensity and volume of their “cardio” in an effort to enhance their conditioning levels, at the expense of the outputs required for activities such as striking.  This is done through the inappropriate application of equipment such as battle ropes (which can be used in the general preparation of fighters, but are usually applied wrong) and through misdirected activities such as rapid punching activities (punching with low power for greater than 20 seconds making the arms feel heavy or have a “pump”).

Another misuse of training time for combat sports involves the use of long-duration runs or “road work” to enhance conditioning.  While this is a time honored tradition in the development of fighters, it does not provide an optimal medium for the development of the oxidative system as needed for combat sports. Various other modes of training exist that can address the oxidative requirement for fighting at a much higher output and much lesser structural cost that long distance running.

Lack of Explosive Power Development

This area of training usually goes hand in hand with what was described above.  Due to the emphasis on the “cardio” or “conditioning” done by many participating in combat sports, there is a lack of emphasis on the force-velocity characteristics of movement during various skills in fighting.  Skill elements in fighting (in particular, striking skills) require explosive power development, which can only be enhanced by high quality efforts.  This requires appropriate application of work:rest ratios that allow for appropriate recovery between work bouts (See: Development of the Alactic System).  Jumps, medicine ball throws, and short sprints with full effort and appropriate rest durations will assist in developing necessary traits for fighting.

Organizing training weeks:  The High/Low System

The late Charlie Francis, a former track and field coach from Canada, designed training around a high/low construct based on individual training modes influence on the central nervous system (CNS).  The use of this system involves alternating training days of high and low CNS stress in order to allow for appropriate recover and long-term athletic development.  While having a low day may not suit well with the athletes or their coaches, in the end the cumulative effects of this form of training will result in the most optimal results, due to the fact that the athletes are able to sustain maximal outputs on their high days without residual fatigue from previous training sessions.  I would recommend readings on this structure of training from the works of Charlie Francis (Francis, 2012).

While much of what is done during the preparation of fighters is done with the intent of working hard to achieve success, much can be done in this area to create a optimal environment for training to truly match the required demands of a fight.  Athletes of lower preparation should not concern themselves with what is done by high-level fighters, and should build an appropriate base of training and work towards appropriate energy system development and outputs based on force-velocity demands of the discipline they participate in.  High/low sequencing should be considered, along with examining drills and exercises to make sure they are allowing athletes to develop the necessary traits for their competition.


Smith, J.  (2014).  MMA Preparatory Considerations

Francis, C.  (2012).  The Charlie Francis Training System.  Kindle Edition.