by Wil Fleming, IYCA Director of Sport Performance
If the qualities of our athletes are like buckets—ones that can be filled to the brim or only half full—the strength bucket is often the most important bucket. If the strength bucket grows larger, all other buckets can grow larger, as well. To think of it another way, if an athlete works on max strength and takes their back squat from 250 lbs. to 400 lbs., the max rep set at 200 lbs. is likely to see an improvement as well.
In this way, the strength bucket can improve the work capacity bucket as well. This relationship holds true for virtually all athletes, as strength relates to speed, power, and several other factors. Strength is almost always the king of the qualities when it comes to improving as an athlete.
Given that strength is important, it is critical to be aware of some of the most common mistakes that coaches can make when trying to get their athletes stronger.
Programming Workouts of the Day
To get athletes to peak strength, a coach must compose a long-term program for the athlete to follow. This long-term program should be rigid enough that we can see where we are heading and follow a logical path to get there, but maintain enough flexibility to allow athletes to recover when necessary, miss a day because they are sick, etc.
Where many coaches struggle is putting together a plan that can be followed for months at a time. The reasons for this struggle can be many, but it must happen. Athletes need a progressive program that follows the basic tenets of strength.
Volume inverse to intensity: That is, as the volume of a program is high, intensity should be low. Similarly, as intensity increases, volume should decrease. This is a foundation to building maximal strength.
Progressive overload: Across sessions, weeks and months, the loading of the athlete must increase. Initially this can be done on a session-to-session basis, but as athletes advance, this process might occur from a month-to-month basis.
Allow for supercompensation: A program intended to increase strength must allow for the process of supercompensation to occur. This means that there must be planned periods of rest or “deload/unload” weeks
Too many coaches get wrapped up in the flexibility of a workout and lean towards creating programs that are in essence a workout of the day. In this format, the coach is unable to create a long-term plan that meets the need of an athlete seeking greater strength.
Prioritize the Bench Press
Even today, one of the most common questions that gets asked when anyone says that they “lift weights” is still “how much ya bench?” While most reading this would know that this movement should fall low on your priority list, many athletes still see the bench press as an indicator of their overall success (and the 225 bench press test still is a staple at the NFL combine).
It is easy to get wrapped up in delivering the training that your athlete and their parents want, and if the bench press is important to them, that often means including it on a weekly and monthly basis.
What we are quick to forget is that strength—especially in growing athletes—is a systemic quality. It is not localized to individual muscles or movements. Strength is strength overall, and I will give you a quick anecdotal story to illustrate that.
Every year on my birthday, I hit the bench press. It is literally the only time each year that I do it. In 2013, I hit the bench press and did 275 lbs. for 1 repetition for my bench press PR of the year, from that point forward I did not bench one other time.
I did push ups and I did single arm bench press with dumbbells, but other than that I did no horizontal pressing. From 2013 to 2014, my squat went up 40 kg, my push press went up 15 kg, and when I went to bench press on my birthday in 2014, my bench press was 335 lbs.
Strength is a systemic quality not one that is particular to any single movement or muscle group.
Focusing on ANY One Exercise Too Much
Focusing on any particular movement is a problem in any program for athletes. While it may seem reasonable that even an important movement like the squat should be focused upon to gain the maximal results for your athletes, doing so comes at the detriment of all else in the program.
We can be certain that strength is a systemic quality. Even squatting strength can carry over into other movements. Athletes are athletes because they move and display strength across a broad spectrum of movements.
A popular method of improving one’s squat is to employ the “Russian Squat Program.” Basically, this and similar programs have the end user squatting several times per week with varying rep schemes, and intensities. If you have a team full of weak athletes, this might be an enticing way to see all their squat numbers rise. I can guarantee that this program will get their squat numbers to rise, but these athletes will suffer in their overall performance along the way, too.
Even when focused on strength, athletes must be good movers. They must be fast, strong, powerful and agile. A focus on a single movement or exercise—be it squats, bench, or even power cleans—will be a detriment to their progress as complete athletes.
Strength is massively important to the improvement of your athletes. Much of the time you work with them can be devoted to helping your athletes get stronger, but don’t make these common mistakes that can really stall the progress of your athletes!