Strength Training for Athletics – What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt Your Training

Strength training for athletics has transformed from a taboo practice 50 plus years ago to the norm today. It is so pervasive even pre to early teenage athletics include it in their regimens.

The evolution of strength training methodology for performance enhancement has been haphazard at best. The methods of Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, and powerlifting are all used and claimed by their various proponents to be the best, but there is no general consensus, and if you went to 10 different strength coaches you would get 10 different ways to train an athlete in the same sport.

I’m not going to use this article to argue for a particular methodology, rather, I am going to provide you with what comes as close to being scientific law as possible when discussing human physiology and exercise, and how to apply that information. Specificity of adaptation, or the S.A.I.D principle as it applies to physical training is the most misunderstood and or misapplied principle in exercise. The key thing to understand here is that the adaptation of both the skeletal muscular and nervous systems to training is extremely specific.


One need look no further than the virtual plethora of defined forms of strength to see how varying stressors elicit unique changes in the skeletal muscular and nervous systems. Below is a brief, non-comprehensive list with basic descriptions:

Starting strength – maximum force production capacity in the first 30 milliseconds

Explosive strength – the ability to develop maximum force quickly

Reactive strength – the ability to quickly move from an eccentric to concentric contraction

Speed strength – the ability to move light loads quickly

Strength speed – the ability to move moderate loads quickly

Static strength – increased muscular tension with no change in length – the ability to hold a given load in a static position

Maximal strength – the maximal volitional force an athlete can generate in a given movement


By definition, and at face value, starting strength and explosive strength seem to be nearly identical, but each adaptation is so unique they have virtually no relationship to each other. In other words, you can improve one and not the other.

Another, perhaps more relatable example of training specificity comes from the science of motor learning. Motor learning studies have shown that activities, and the skill they require, which seem very similar when observed have virtually no carryover from one movement to the next. For example, a proficient tennis player will not be proficient as a badminton player without sufficient practice (and vice versa). Both sports are racket based, but they are completely different from your nervous system’s perspective and thus the skill (which is a function of neural acclimation to a movement pattern) acquired for one sport does not transfer to the other.

The lesson to be learned is that strength training should not be used with the idea it will directly enhance performance. For anyone beyond a rote beginner to strength training, increasing their squat will not directly translate to increasing their ability to jump. Far too many strength coaches are under the mistaken belief that simply increasing maximal strength will make an athlete better, or similarly, that because Olympic lifting is considered to be “explosive” it will make their athletes more explosive. It simply isn’t true, and the specificity principle proves that. Olympic lifting involves the use of heavy loads. There is no correlation between how fast you can move a load which is 70-80% of your 1RM (one repetition max) and how fast you can explode off the line in football, or how high you can jump to get a rebound. Both of those activities rely on explosive strength which can only be significantly developed with very light loads.


Don’t be confused, I am not saying that strength training has no use for athletics. What I am saying is that it is most often misapplied. A proper training program will address the specific needs of the athlete (and therefore sport). For example, an offensive lineman will want a combination of sheer mass and explosive strength as well as some degree of maximal strength for when locked up with another bull of a human being. Hypertrophy specific training should be used to develop the sheer mass, sport specific movements, or lightly loaded exercises which are very similar in movement pattern to sport specific activities for explosive strength, and powerlifting exercises for maximal strength.

The smart strength coach, or the self-directed athlete seeking to optimize performance should familiarize themselves with the myriad forms of strength and how they are developed, and then use that information to design a program which will develop the qualities needed in order to optimize performance.

Follow our newsletter for the next installment which will confuse the heck out of you by telling you how increasing your maximal strength CAN aid sports performance 😉 .

by Chris Mason

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