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8 Must-have Skills For Sports Strength & Conditioning

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 11 December 2015
Hits: 18579

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. However, if you want to achieve your true potential as an athlete and become great, then you need to design and implement a  "specific to you" and your sport conditioning program. This requires more than strength and in some cases you may not need to be that strong! In this article I will explain the 8 key abilities you need to consider and help you understand what sports conditioning really means.  

Your Sports Conditioning Program Must Be Specific To You And Your Sport

Where many sporting athletes get into trouble with a training program to complement their sports is by following a program that was designed for someone else. It could be a program for a different sport but because it looks good they think it will work for them. Strength is very important for sporting athletes, but it is not the only thing and in some cases it can be detrimental to sporting performance. Body-building exercises will quickly ruin any sporting athlete for the purpose of these exercises and methods is not to improve function, it is to look good in a mirror. Unfortunately, this is what you often see with many people addicted to bench presses and bicep curls.

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 your power, jumping ability, and explosive skills. So this is what everyone does and risk hurting their body in the process. 

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.

Firstly, 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 I 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 and 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.

You will find more detail about exercise selection in the article - How to choose the right exercises for a sports specific workout

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. We refer to Sports Specific Strength as Linked strength for it requires the entire body to coordinate athletic actions against resistance. It is also known as functional strength or functional training in many gyms and industries.

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 a lot of research proving that training the brain and nervous system effects strength production and likewise speed faster than any other method.

Put simply, a functionally coordinated body will better handle whole body skills in high power actions.

Strength cannot overcome poor movement. If you move poorly it does not matter how strong your muscles are your body will have to compensate and create an alternative way to move that is less efficient, weaker, and more unstable. A classic example of this is seen with ACL injuries in sports. When you consider that 70% of all ACL injuries are classified as non-contact situations where the person landed from a jump or tried to chase or evade a player only to fall to the ground in agony. If strength was all you needed to prevent this injury then you would never see incredibly strong sporting athletes who can easily squat 150kg blow their knees out. Yet, you see this all the time occur in some of the fittest and strongest athletes all over the world. The strength of their quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes were not able to prevent the dreaded ACL tear if they move with poor quality.

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!

To gain a better understanding of Functional Training methods make sure you download a free copy of our the report below.

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 derived from in body-building world will corrupt movement systems within the body decreasing joint stability, 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!

If you are trying to build maximal strength you will not need machines to do this. However, you do need incredible skills and a solid foundation to train like this. You will find great detail about this kind of training in the article everything you need to know about maximal strength training techniques.

2: Power:

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 favourite 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 power training and see several exercise examples read these two articles

Lastly, 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!

3: Speed:

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.

There is no need for a football player to sprint for much more than 40m at any one time in their sport before they stop completely or walk. For basketball it is even less. The intensity of a 40m sprint that is constantly stopping and starting versus a steady state run of 3km where you can pace yourself is completely different.

In the US over the last 10-15 years many sporting camps devote a lot of attention to the 40m distance. The focus is on the ability to accelerate quickly and hit top end speed as fast as possible multiple times, as opposed to holding a steady state run over 5 minutes to measure fitness. The belief is if your 40m is dramatically improved, then it is likely your 5m, 15m, and 25m times will too.

Running a series of 40m sprints, with “walk back recovery,” which is what most people will do, may not produce the best results. Instead, carefully managed rest times that allow enough recovery depending on the objective of the training session should be used.

For example, if the objective is to improve acceleration and top end speed, a longer rest time should be provided which will not compromise the athlete’s ability to run at their top speed for each sprint in the training session.

If the objective is to subject the athlete to a lactate threshold and therefor improving strength endurance, shorter rest times should be used. A combination of these workouts should be used as opposed to doing the same session each time. Also it may be best to include some over-speed training with resistance bands and uphill sessions to improve acceleration as part of this process. Hill running can be very useful for improving the initial acceleration as it is designed to increase ground contact time and reduce stride length.

Check out this article for several workout ideas for speed training - How to design a workout that increases speed and acceleration for sports

4: Agility:

Agility is defined as - The ability to perform a series of explosive power movements in rapid succession in opposing directions as seen in soccer, tennis, and 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.

"Effective stopping demands a high level of eccentric strength demands. It is the proportionate bending of the ankle/knee/hip. Basic strength is a pre-requisite for force production and reduction."

Many of the exercises will demand the body to handle forces in an eccentric mode up to 12 times body-weight and be able to change direction and overcome those forces. This all must be done in tenths of a second. It is developed through exercises that develop unilateral and reciprocal leg strength.

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.

Below are some great videos to watch with ideas of how to do this.

 

I highly suggest to read more about agility training in the two articles below.

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 below 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 Djokovic 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!

In the book “Knee Injuries in Athletes” by Sports Injury Bulletin the researchers found: “squat exercises performed on unstable surfaces with high levels of instability can enhance the activity of the VMO”.

From this perspective, it would make perfect sense that this type of functional and balance training would be a necessary part of any training or rehabilitation program, and be appropriate for all types of people, regardless of program goals.

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 use exercises standing on Swissballs and doing circus acts? No, absolutely not. What it does mean is you need to have some type of balance training within your program. 

 

Great articles to read with additional information and tons of exercise ideas are shown below.

6: Flexibility & Mobility:

Again another method of training that is often ignored and abused.

One of the biggest mistakes people make with exercise is neglecting to correct areas of the body lacking mobility. Aggressive physical training cannot change fundamental mobility and stability problems at an effective rate without also introducing a degree of compensation and increased risk of injury. It is impossible to develop strength to your full potential if poor mobility of joints is present. Many people skip mobility and flexibility work for it is boring, and this ignorance always comes back to bite them later on.

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. For example, reaching wide for an out of court forehand in tennis. This is quite a complex topic to explain and again is one that is often misunderstood. 

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! However, you must not follow a template and design a specific to you stretching program to either improve range of motion or maintain optimal flexibility within muscles and joints.

Read this article to see how to complete your own assessment - How to identify areas of mobility restriction

7: Endurance:

Out of all the abilities needed in sports endurance is the easiest to obtain. You do not need as much skill and precision as you need with power or agility training. You simply need a lot of time and some mental toughness. Unfortunately, this type of training is also easily abused as people seek to improve their cardiovascular fitness which unravels all of the previous abilities we have just discussed. 

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.

Of all the amateur and elite athletes in sports I have worked with for over the last 15 years the most common problem they wanted help with was to improve their explosive speed and power. Very rarely did they have a problem with endurance and overall fitness and most were already incredibly fit. The thing they lacked was the elusive speed and ability to move faster. When I examined their training it was obvious where their problem lied for it focused far too much on endurance. We had to educate them on the basics of quality over quantity, timing, longer rest intervals between sets to be able to have any chance of reaching their goal.

Physiologically the two processes of building strength, power, and speed versus endurance are completely opposed to each other and training both methods at the same time cancels out their effectiveness. This is the equivalent of trying to be a 100m sprinter and a marathon runner at the same time! All good strength coaches and elite athletes are aware of this principle and know that to improve performance these two opposing methods are best trained on their own which is known as periodization. Unfortunately, sporting codes that run for several months of the year do not allow for this perfect recipe to be adopted.

Only a smart way of implementing your training can overcome this problem. I will not go into too much detail about this as it is a complex topic to explain so I suggest to read the article how to build strength and endurance at the same time or watch the video below.

 

 

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. Sitting on a leg press or leg extension machine 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 required in sports and your workouts should comprise working all of these slings. Watch the video below on the left to see ideas of how to do this.

Unilateral exercises require high degree of coordination and should also take up a massive part of your strength workouts. 

How many sports can you think of where the athletes spend most of the time jumping and landing on two legs at the same time? Hardly any if at any all. Even running involves one leg on the ground at a time while the other leg swings through in the air. I cannot think of any sport other than rowing where two legs push at the same time constantly. Again this is not to say the bilateral exercises are not needed or a waste of time, this is just to make the point that if you only train with two feet and two arm exercises but compete in an entirely different fashion you may not be reaching your potential as an athlete.

Single leg strength is essential for the development of speed, balance and injury prevention for almost ALL the lower limb injuries seen in sports occur in a single leg stance or single leg landing. Of all the sporting injuries to gain a lot of attention in recent times is the dreaded ACL tear which is known as a season ending injury. The mechanism behind this injury is faulty single leg change of direction and single leg landing techniques. Strength from bilateral movement has little to no influence in preventing these injuries.

Read this article to see more about this - Why unilateral exercises provide the greatest strength gains

 

Any sports program that tries to encourage an upgrade to your brain will always reap huge rewards on the sporting field.

 

Do You Want A Stack Of Sports Workouts?

Do you need more help or want more ideas of how to put all of this information to good use? Well make sure you get a copy of our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets shown below. This PDF report has 101 workouts from strength training, to speed and power workouts, core workouts, and more importantly chapters with Sports Specific workouts for Tennis, Football, Basketball, Soccer, Golf, and even Running and Cycling! Click here to see a sneak preview video of what is inside.

The ACL Injury Prevention program also provides you with over 100 sports specific exercises and an entire chapter for agility training and a 6 step program to follow.

 

Conclusion

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. 

Make sure you spend the time to watch the videos and check out all the articles I provided links for as they will give you more information and exercise examples for what you are looking for.

And if you would like to know more about our program fill in the form below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to organize a time to schedule a Free Movement and Postural assessment.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist