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Strength Training for Athletes: Translating Strength to Sport

Written By Jayme Pantekoek | Published Nov 13th 2021


The goal of strength and speed training for athletes is to get better at their sport—that’s the bottom line.

For this reason, any strength training or strength athletes build need to apply and translate to their sport.

There are many strategies that parents and coaches take to get to that goal of strength transfer to sport. And as it relates to modern training, not all strategies are created equal.

A strategy that made kids great athletes 20 years ago would not be a good strategy in today’s world. Back then, simply being bigger and stronger (looking better than your counterparts) worked well when strength training was not as popular as it is now.

A Shift in Strength Training Focus

Strength coaches are now looking through a different lens as to how to get the most success out of an athlete. There has been a shift towards focusing on the success in the arena or on the field and not just in the weight room. Athletes still chase higher numbers for squats, deadlifts, and bench press, and maybe strength coaches still have their own egos to manage (“I’ve got 10 guys squatting over 400lbs”), but now weight room success needs to directly translate to an athlete’s play.

Look at it this way. Is going from a 135lb squat to a 315lb squat going to have a big impact on an athlete’s success? Absolutely, yes. A jump like that will have a huge impact. But, as that same athlete chases a 500lb back squat, they’re spending the majority of their time and energy training for this and risking injury in the process. Instead, they could be directing more of that focus onto something more applicable to their sport. The payoff of a 500lb back squat is not the same payoff as functional training. Chasing absolute strength in this way should be left for cross-fitters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, and Olympic lifters.

The new coaches are employing a different strategy in strength training and focusing more on the athlete in the arena not chasing egos in the weight room.

Absolute Strength vs. Positional Strength

Let’s look at two terms—absolute strength and positional strength:

Absolute Strength

Absolute strength is when you put yourself into the strongest position possible. This would be to either lift a maximal amount of weight or move with the maximal amount of force.

You get to absolute strength by training in a position that is very close to a standing position. There is minimal variation in the movement:

  • The joints are stacked on top of each other.

  • The Head is in a straight line over the shoulders.

  • Shoulders are in line with hips.

  • Hips and knees are straight over the heels.

This positioning gives you the biggest mechanical advantage—usually, directly vertical. Crossfitters, powerlifters, and bodybuilders are working technique in this vertical plane for almost every lift, allowing them to compete in these lifts for max weight.

Absolute Strength for Sports?

Does training for absolute strength help in athletic development? At the beginning stages of gaining strength, yes it does.

It helps solidify movements, the proper sequence of muscle firing patterns (the order in which specific muscle groups engage during movement), and coordination in movement.

Positional Strength

Positional strength is training for and strengthening the actual pattern that you would use in a sport.

Training like this does not give you a mechanical advantage with heavy weights. But, instead, it strengthens the key angles used in sports that may have become neglected through training absolute strength.

The position of the movements here is not where the joints are stacked on top of each as we discussed with absolute strength. The position here is where the athlete is overcoming gravity at an angle where you are not your strongest… yet.

One example of this is the accelerating angle of an athlete trying to go from a dead stop to maximal speed in the shortest time possible. To gain the momentum needed, the athlete’s body leans forward, the knee drives over the toe and the heel elevates. And this happens all before the athlete even begins to push against the ground.

The athlete that gets into this position the best is the one who has the accelerating advantage. So, the key to accelerating at this very fast rate is the combination of the position and the ability to create high amounts of force from that position.

How to Train for Positional Strength

The strategy of today’s strength coaches is to focus on:

  1. Position—Finding ways to train the athlete in these sport-specific positions and giving their bodies enough “time” in these positions so their bodies can make adaptations.

  2. Incorporating Force—Employing an outside stimulus in these positions that is more than their body weight. This could be a medicine ball, band, kettlebell. If you have the right equipment, a weighted squat that allows the athlete to use their hands to stabilize themselves would also be beneficial. The use of hands to stabilize allows them to get into the right angle or sport position.

Loading these positions does a few unique things for the athlete’s development.

  • Weighted exercises slow the movement down so there is more time spent at the chosen sports angle.

  • Because it is “slowed down,” the nervous system has more time to remember that pattern and adapt—this is called myelination and leads to quicker learning of the pattern.

  • Tendons are being used for a longer period of time, and not just at an extremely rapid pace. This creates a stronger and healthier tendon at the attachment of muscle, attachment of the bone, and the belly of the tendon.

  • The athlete becomes more comfortable with strength at that new angle, so they can potentially get into an even deeper angle that will let them accelerate for longer, at greater top-end speed, or both.

  • Training these angles also reduces the chances of injury to the athlete. If those angles are left untrained and you cannot produce force, stability, or control in those angles while playing sports, the chances of the athlete getting hurt is exponentially increased.


Wrapping Up

The most effective and efficient way to get strength and speed training to transfer from the weight room and into an athlete’s sport is to spend most of the time training as an athlete in that sport.

Ultimately, this means focusing on the angles your athlete is going to be exposed to in the arena, on the field, on the court, etc. You’re doing a disservice to yourself as an athlete if you’re constantly training on your heels chasing huge weight room numbers.

If you’d like to build positional and functional training into the training for your sport, consider signing up for one of our programs. And if you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!

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