Team Sport Athletes are required to showcase a compounding list of physical attributes in order to compete at the highest level. Even amateur and semi-professional Team Sport athletes are required to sustain endurance, repeat sprint efforts, rapid changes of direction and impact forces. It’s multidimensional which means your strength and conditioning needs to be multidimensional also. From our experience of working with thousands of team sport athletes, the most problematic cause of injury to players is a lack of strength through the hips, knees and ankles. These joints are incapable of tolerating such high-level forces and over time they break down. In this article, we will discuss TWO very common thought processes with regards to strength training which can play detriment to an athlete's injury history and overall athletic performance.
Young athletes are notorious for training their upper body and neglecting their lower body. Their argument is, “I sprint and run on my legs, I am too sore to train legs in the gym”.
Whilst we are empathetic to athletes who are struggling with sore legs, there is a point where we need to discuss eating habits, recovery processes and general exercise routines to improve recovery time and allow for strength training. Currently, with this mentality, we create teenagers that play sport with heavy upper bodies that look great in a singlet but have an underdeveloped lower body that is disproportionate in size and strength.
Athletes who can not find time to strength train their lower body will break down over time. Strength training provides a controlled stimulus for athletes to break down muscle fibres and re-grow bigger, stronger and become more durable. Our muscles adapt this way because they need to. Through complex chemical reactions post-exercise when our bodies experience stress on muscle tissue, the body's response is to adapt to ensure we don’t break down during a particular exercise again. Stronger muscles are able to absorb more force created from sprinting, running, twisting, jumping and competing. Not only does this decrease your risk of acute or chronic lower body injuries but it can improve efficiency and power output. Strength training is a double-edged sword for performance. It allows athletes to decrease their injury risk and improves power production. That's a win-win for us.
Strong athletes can also advance to complex plyometric variations in the gym with a decreased risk of injury compared to athletes without strength training history. Power = Strength x Acceleration so there comes a point where an athlete is “strong enough” and speed/ acceleration work is required to continue improving. A strong athlete will perform these movements easier with less joint loading.
To wrap this up, if you are only training arms, you are placing more downward pressure by adding more weight to your already overloaded lower body. Strength training will improve power output and decrease injury risk. Athletes need to find time to strength train their lower body or they will be left behind from the athletes that do. If recovery is a problem, athletes need to look at other factors that may be causing this. Food, alcohol, recovery, sleep, load management and exercise timing may all be contributing to name a few.
2. Athletes who train like a bodybuilder are missing crucial parts in their strength routine which can lead to injury. When asked what their strength routine is the reply is usually something like this “On Mondays, I train chest and Tri’s, Tuesdays Quads and calves, Thursday is Back & Bi’s and Friday is Hamstrings and glutes”.
Now at the start of any strength training journey, it is fair to suggest that almost any strength training program would be better than none at all (within reason). Training like a bodybuilder usually consists of machine workouts and isolated muscle groups with the ultimate goal of muscle hypertrophy or growth. Machine workouts can be a safe way to experience strength training and yes they will induce muscle hypertrophy. For some teens, this may have some merit to it especially when strength training alone.
There is a big fundamental problem though with bodybuilder styled training for sports athletes. Machine styled training requires almost zero stabilisation from our joints and it does not produce the neural connections that functional movement creates. Machines do not teach teens how to move with correct form, how to adjust their body in specific positions and they make it difficult for a coach to see movement pattern dysfunctions. During a team sport game, there is never a movement that requires zero stabilisation. Every step requires a connection between the foot, ankles, calves, knees, hips, lats and shoulders. For team sport athletes, where ever we can induce a multi-connection strength adaptation we know the athlete can only benefit. Functional strength exercise has proven results for increasing muscle hypertrophy, so athletes don’t have to train like a bodybuilder to put on muscle!
On top of the functionality detriments of bodybuilder styled strength training, the isolative nature of the sessions is extremely fatiguing for specific muscle groups. Spending an hour on Hamstrings and Glutes alone could be enough load to disable you from running for a number of days. The aim of isolative strength training is to tear muscle fibres to then re-grow bigger. The amount of exercise-induced trauma caused by isolative training and even worse, to failure, is far higher in comparison to functional specific training. If your leg sessions are debilitating your performance for a number of days, your leg sessions need to be changed! As a team sport athlete, the ability to run, kick and jump is extremely important and your strength training should only complement this.
Here are our 5 tips for preventing injuries through strength and conditioning for AFL players.
Increase your lower body Resistance load during the pre-season
During the pre-seaon aim to train legs 2x per week with both comprising of posterior and anterior movements.
Start sessions with neurally fatiguing compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and bulgarians and finish your sessions with light accessories
Hit all muscle groups with some type of functional muscle isolation throughout the week
Fill in your main lifts rest time with a pilates styled activation or movement pattern exercises which are low fatigue inducing.
These 5 tips are generalised but play a big part in the RSS method for training team sport athletes. Ditch the machines and start functionally training legs to decrease your injury risk and increase your power output!
High Performance Manager
Resistance Sports Science