Athleticism and Strength Training: Can the Two Mix?

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Q: First off thanks for all the great content you share through your blog and for the amusing writing style you have, it´s always nice to be able to laugh and smile a bit while you learn a thing or two.

I just have a question regarding athleticism and strength training. I know you guys have some pretty strong guys and girls in your facility and I know you guys use a lot of big heavy compound lifts. But how do you guys secure that the athletes still have a great movement capacity while they perform on the field and not end up as “meat heads” with no movement capacity and lack of athleticism?

Do you have some specific part of the strength training with more focus regarding this or is there any specific exercises that works better? Like 1-leg exercises or plyometric training or anything else?

I´m a soccer player myself and a newly educated strength coach and I’ve been asked to have some “on-pitch-strength training” where the coaches as one of the goals asked for better athleticism in the players. I know we´re not gonna be able to do “heavy” stuff since we mostly will be working with our own bodies but do you recommend anything to think about when programming this for keeping athleticism high?

I should start everything off by saying thank you for the kind words.  I know there are times where I don’t take myself too seriously with my writing style (poop), but I do try to consistently provide quality content in an entertaining fashion so it’s nice to know I’m hitting the mark all the over in Sweden!

To answer your question I think we first need to clarify what the main goal or objective of a strength and conditioning program is.  As far as athleticism and movement capacity goes, nothing (nada, zilch, zero) we do in the weight room is going to emulate or match what actually takes places on the court, field, or Quidditch pitch.

10 points to me for a Harry Potter reference!

Which is why doing stuff like this is borderline asinine:

To get better at pitching, you need to pitch.  To get better at kicking a soccer ball, you need to kick a soccer ball.  To get better at skating, you need to skate. To get better at supflexing, you need to become an honorary member of the British Bulldogs.

This isn’t to say that everything we do in the weight room is moot and doesn’t have any carryover towards on-the-field performance. That’s just looney talk. Instead, all I’m trying to convey is that the main goals of a well-designed strength and conditioning program is to address weaknesses, imbalances, improve force production, reduce wear and tear on the body, and to help prevent injuries (among other things).

That said, it’s important that we get our athletes strong – as I always say:  you can’t have qualities like power, agility (being able to absorb force and change direction quickly), endurance, strength endurance, and what have you without first having a base of strength to “pull” them from in the first place – but we’re also cognizant that we don’t want to turn them into slow lunks with the movement capacity of the Tin Man.

Which is why I feel we do a bang up job of addressing this on a few fronts:

1.  Every session starts with addressing tissue quality.  Everyone from our Major League guys all the way down to high-school makes sweet, sweet love to their foam roller prior to each training session.

2.  From there, while we do have a “canned” dynamic warm-up that we post up on a dry erase board which changes every 1-2 weeks, it’s also not uncommon we write individualized warm-ups for certain athletes or clients who may need a bit more TLC.

This is an excellent way to prioritize and address specific areas that people may need to improve on whether it’s more glute activation, addressing t-spine mobility, or in the context of many of our baseball guys, hammering a bit more upper trap work to improve scapular upward rotation.

3. Next comes movement training or med ball work.  The way things are designed during the summer months, our guys typically lift weights four times per week in addition to having two “movement” days, for a total of six training days per week.

However, sometimes we need to congest things into four days depending on summer ball schedules.  Taking that into consideration a training week may look something like this:

Monday:  Movement Training/Sprint Work, Lower Body

Tuesday:  Med Ball Work, Upper Body

Thursday: Movement Training/Sprint Work, Lower Body

Saturday: Med Ball Work, Upper Body

The movement training is nothing extensive, but we’ll typically include one linear based drill like a 30-yd build up and one lateral based drill like a heiden

We CRUSH med ball training.  With our baseball guys there is an obvious sense of “specificity” that attaches itself and bodes well as far as carry over onto the field.  But even with our general population clientele, we find there’s a ton of efficacy for their use as they’re a great way to train power and explosiveness, not to mention the metabolic carryover they bring to the table.

Between the warm-up, movement training or med ball work, a good 30 minutes or so have passed in the training session and now it’s time to lift heavy stuff.

4.  Again, to reiterate, the point of strength training isn’t necessarily to emulate movements in the respective sport(s) that one is participating in.  Rather it’s really to address weaknesses, help improve force production (make someone’s glass bigger), and to reduce wear and tear on the body.

The whole “meathead” comment is a bit of a misnomer.  I mean sure, we have all our athletes squat, deadlift, row, bench press (not our baseball guys), push the Prowler, perform heavy single leg work, or any number of things you can conjure up.

The key is that we coach our athletes well on the execution of said lifts, and we always place a premium on a (safe) ROM for each athlete.

You won’t see a lot of 1/4 squats or 3-board presses performed under our watch.

Not every athlete is meant to squat ass-to-grass, nor is every athlete meant to perform a conventional deadlift on day one – and any coach who takes that mentality is a douche – but you can bet that we’re always going to coach our athletes to perform their lifts with a safe ROM with the goal of improving over time.

Taking injury and deficits out of the equation, we’ve had countless athletes put on significant muscle mass during the off-season and still be able to maintain ALL their flexibility and movement quality.

5.  And on a final note, especially as it relates to youth athletes, one of the best things we can advocate for them is to play a wide variety of sports throughout the year.  Specializing too early can lead to a plethora of overuse injuries, as well as “burn” them out and make then hate life.

Pushing a young athlete – and one that’s developmentally behind the curve at that – to play a sport year round is one of the worst things that can be done.

We’re always encouraging our athletes to play different sports throughout the year, and it’s not until they reach 16 or so that we begin to entertain the notion of specializing.

So to make a long-winded answer short: yes, I believe it is possible to maintain (and even improve) athleticism and movement quality in the weight room.  You just have to put a little thought into it and understand that it’s a lot of things working in concert to get the job done.

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  • Steven Trolio

    Nice explanation Tony. This was a helpful post for me.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Steven – glad it helped.

      I realize it’s nothing revolutionary, but I always wonder why people prefer to make things harder than it has to be (?).

  • Matt Koch

    Good post made infinitely better by a Davey Boy Smith reference.

    • TonyGentilcore

      hahaha. I idolized those guys when I was kid!

  • Scott | MassNERDerer

    Great article.

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