Lift Well, Play Hard

Whether you're a jockey, synchronized swimmer, or badminton player, virtually every athlete can benefit from increased strength. We'll help you design strength-training routines aimed at helping your performance in a variety of sports, from golf to football. What may surprise you are the similarities in how we train athletes for such diverse sports. Obviously, the demands of these sports are very different, and the muscles that need to be trained vary from sport to sport, but surprisingly the techniques used in the weight room will not.

Specificity of training, the concept that exercises should be based on the physiological demands encountered during the performance of a sport, is one of the most misunderstood items in exercise science. Some strength coaches advocate using sports-specific exercises in the weight room that mimic the movement used in your sport. The theory seems sound: By copying such movements, you will help develop strength in that particular movement. While that seems like a logical line of reasoning, many experts think that it may in fact be counterproductive.

Specificity of training is a well-accepted physiological theory that suggests that adaptations made during training depend on the type of training used. For instance, if you want to become a faster runner, the most appropriate way to accomplish this is by running, not by walking in the park and not by riding a bike.

Can You Be More Specific?

Specificity is much like pregnancy – it either is or it isn't. For example, specific training for a basketball player could be practicing his jump shot, not shooting a weighted medicine ball. In fact, by attempting to mimic a precise sports movement such as swinging a baseball bat or golf club, you can undo countless hours of skill training. You see, the neuromuscular pathways that allow your brain to tell your muscles exactly what to do – and how to do it – take countless hours of practice. In turn, the use of added resistance (for example, the medicine ball) when copying such movements can disturb that motor memory.

Princeton University's Matt Brzycki, author of A Practical Approach to Strength Training, (McGraw Hill) is one of the most outspoken strength critics of copying sports movements in the weight room. Says Mr. Brzycki, "Strength training should not be done in a manner that mimics or apes a particular movement pattern. A stronger muscle can produce more force; if you can produce more force, you'll require less effort and be able to perform the skill more quickly, more accurately, and more efficiently. But again, that is provided that you've practiced enough in a correct manner so that you'll be more skillful in applying that force."

Just as we don't advocate different training techniques in the weight room for men and women or the young and the old, there's no reason to train athletes from different sports using different techniques. Good weight room form for a cyclist is good weight room form for a tennis player. What should, and will, vary is the selection of exercises because the muscles that are used will differ from sport to sport. That's where we'll customize the programs. For example, a kayaker will do more upper body work than a runner, but the upper body work that they perform they'll do exactly the same.

A few years ago, Jonathan attended a seminar held by John Philbin, an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the NFL Washington Redskins. What surprised many in attendance was that while the Redskins vary their exercises from position to position (no sense in worrying about the throwing arm of the free safety), the form used is exactly the same for any and all of the athletes. Typically, a lithe cornerback can bench press far less than a burly linebacker, but the exercise is executed exactly the same way.

While improved performance is an obvious reason for an athlete – weekend warrior or professional – to hit the weight room, it may not be the most important one. In fact, injury prevention is probably the biggest benefit from a solid off-season training regimen. After all, it doesn't matter how talented you are if you're on the sidelines nursing an injury. Barry Chait, former assistant strength and conditioning coach with the NFL New York Jets, stresses that, "Though we obviously try everything possible to make the players bigger, faster, and stronger, our primary goal is to ensure they make it through the game in one piece. That means never taking any chances in the weight room, and it means working on less glamorous muscles like those in the neck."

Years ago, many athletes used to resist weight lifting for fear of becoming muscle-bound. (One can only imagine how many more homers Mickey Mantle would have hit had he touched a weight during his career. Even if he didn't hit any more dingers, he would have hit them much farther, and he may have avoided the debilitating leg injuries that curtailed his career.) Now that the muscle-bound myth has gone the way of the eight-track tape, many athletes still shy away from the weight room fearing that they'll lose valuable training time that would be better spent practicing their sport.

Certainly we agree that all the strength in the world can't make up for the lack of a sport-specific skill; however, there's no reason to choose between the two. By now, we hope we've convinced you that a sensible lifting program doesn't need to take more than 30 to 45 minutes per gym visit.

Because very few athletes compete year-round – Steffi Graf, where have you gone? – there's no reason to have the same program in-season as you do out of season.

Here's how it works. In the off-season your primary goal is to get as strong as possible. During the season, however, you should aim to maintain your strength. If you try to keep up the same schedule while you compete as you did in the off-season, you're begging for overtraining injuries. Of course, if you lay off your lifting completely, you'll quickly undo all the good you've done. Aim for two or three lifting sessions per week in the off-season and once a week for maintenance in-season. Try to keep your in-season workout on a different day than a hard sports workout, and at least a few days away from a race.


Excerpted from he Complete Idiot's Guide to Weight Training © 2003 by Deidre Johnson-Cane and Jonathan Cane. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide website or call 1-800-253-6476.


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