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4 Things You Need to Know About Improving Sports Performance

During my time in the fields of Chiropractic, Sports Rehabilitation and Sports Performance Training, I have had the unique opportunity to be mentored by some great minds. I know I can say the same thing for my brother and that is why he holds the title as Head Performance Coach at GP. Ryan and I are consistently working to get better in order to better serve our clients and patients. Whether that is through conversation with mentors, attending continuing education seminars, or simply reading. When it comes to rehabilitation or training of an athlete, one question we continually seek to improve our understanding of is, “How much strength is enough?”

One concern the ultimately comes to mind is whether the reward of high-intensity strength training is worth the risk? Certainly extremely high-intensity loads are necessary for the development of the strength athlete, or those who participate in the sports of Olympic weightlifting, strongman, and powerlifting. But when it comes to athletes who are not competitive strength athletes and are simply utilizing strength training as a means to enhance athleticism, how much strength is needed for optimal performance?

How Strength Relates to Sports Performance
Common sense would allow us to derive that if an athlete possesses greater levels of maximal strength and power compared to an opponent (all other factors being equal), the stronger athlete would have a distinct advantage. Suitable levels of maximal strength should include, but are not limited to the following considerations:
  1. Sport of Participation. Requirements of maximal strength levels will differ depending upon the specific sport of participation. The physical requirements of a particular sport will assist to determine the various strength levels that are necessary for the participating athlete. As an example, does the cross-country runner need the same maximal strength requirements as a hockey player?
  2. Position of Sport Participation. For athletes who participate in the same sport, the physical requirements based on their specific position will have an influence on their strength requirements. Consider the defensive lineman and defensive back positions in football. These two positions differ greatly in their physical requirements. Is the required maximal strength level going to be the same for both of these athletes to have optimal sports performance?
  3. Competitive Level of Sports Participation. Participation at specific levels of competition may require advanced levels of maximal strength. Maximal strength requirements may change considerably when evaluating the demands of a high school, collegiate, and professional level athlete. The same can be said of the differences seen in competitive levels of competition. To illustrate this, consider that NCAA athletics are divided into three divisions (levels) of competition (DI, DII, DIII). One could derive that higher strength levels would be required for athletic success at the higher levels competition and differences in maximal strength and power output levels between DI, DII, and DIII athletes have been documented.
  4. Competitive Standards. There are levels of strength that are necessary, not for guaranteed success, but necessary for an athlete to compete. This is common in the strength sports of weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman. But adequate levels of strength are highly important in other sports as well. This is part of the reason various professional leagues (NFL, NHL to name a couple) hold annual combines. Athletes are tested on various physical and strength qualities and are then evaluated against their peers to predict athletic success. There is a physical “standard” that athletes must meet or exceed for consideration as a draft selection.
Strength and Power Development In Sports Performance
From an athletic performance perspective, there are two variables of interest in developing optimal sports performance. These variables include the peak rate of force development (PRFD) or “explosive strength” and power output. The concept of “explosive strength” is directly related to the athlete’s ability to accelerate objects, including one’s body mass.

The body’s ability to generate movement at maximal velocity primarily depends upon power production. In other words, it depends upon maximal strength in association with velocity. Activities that require a display of agility (i.e. change of direction) and acceleration are also dependent upon high power output.

If the influence of power is undeniable for optimal sports performance, then it can be reasoned that maximum strength is the fundamental physical ability that affects power output.  Maximal strength has arguable the greatest effect in sports of participation where success in sport participation is determined by the athlete’s ability to overcome maximal intensities of resistance (i.e. strength athletics). The same can be said for sports requiring a high maximal strength component based on the nature of the sport as well as the position played, such football defensive linemen, track and field throwing events, and the start/acceleration phase of sprinting.

It is equally important to acknowledge the point of diminishing returns in regards to maximal strength and the development of power output. There is a diminishing influence in simply getting an athlete stronger and focus of training must adapt accordingly.  To improve power or speed, focus may need to be placed on more important qualities, such as rate of force development.

Maximal strength is critical as a physical characteristic for improving sports performance. However, maximal strength in association with power output qualities are essential for the achievement of optimal sports performance.

During the application of high-intensity exercise, assessing the “risk vs reward” should be considered, as excessive high-intensity loads may place the athlete at increased risk of injury. Developing an appropriate level of maximal strength necessary for athletes is dependent upon a number of factors. How much is enough? Well that answer is: It depends. This is why the “eye of the coach” is invaluable and possibly the most crucial element in determining adequate strength levels. This is just one unique ability that separates the great coaches from the good ones, the ability to “see” what an athlete needs and identify the physical qualities that require development.

Fry, AC, Kraemer WJ. Physical performance characteristics of American collegiate football players. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research, 5(3):126-138,1991.
Zatsiorsky, VM. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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