The first thing most athletes are told is to avoid heavy weight lifting and that sports training should consist of training that targets strength, speed, stamina, flexibility and balance. Functional or explosive training is what most sports programs will offer you. In fact, this has only been popularized recently, after the whole aerobics boom of the 70’s.
Let’s get the strength training out of the way before I go into sports specific training. The physical activities you enjoy are the by-product of a well-conditioned musculature. If you’re strong, you have an easier time performing sports.
The bigger muscles get, the stronger you become. Plain and simple. Exerting power for something sport specific has a little more involvement than that, however. Body structure is important here. For example; the length of your legs determines how power will be distributed for jumping and the length of your arms help with power distribution for swimming. This is even apparent in weight lifting. The longer someone’s arms are, the longer their muscles will be contracting on a bench press. Those with shorter arms have a shorter distance to travel, so they’ll be able to do more reps of a heavier weight.
The muscles only do one thing, they get bigger and stronger. Balance, speed and stamina are all specific skills to a particular activity. It’s very important to separate skill training and physical conditioning when training for sports. Skills are neurological adaptation (muscle memory) while strength training is physiological adaption.
The separation of cardio and strength training is also a big problem. The participation of the heart and lungs is entirely dependent on muscular activity. The function of the cardiovascular system is to support the muscular system, not the other way around. The increases in muscular strength (from a proper strength-training program) will correlate to improvements in cardiovascular function. Muscular strength is the single most trainable factor in endurance performance. It is the muscles that actually perform work. When strength increases, the relative intensity of any given task decreases.
One thing to note is that skills are extremely specific. For example, if you learn how to skateboard, it won’t translate into surfing. If you are good at spinning a basketball on your finger, it doesn’t mean you can spin a plate on your finger. This continues through out many more skills. It’s impractical to train with explosive exercises because of the assumption that they’ll translate into your sport. Training explosively AT your sport would.
Take a race car driver and give him a different car. Even if they KNOW how to race and drive, he still has to adapt to that specific car. He may end up over compensate by slowing down more on turns until they become more comfortable with the car and even the track. This is the same with other sports.
I’ll use boxing as an example because it’s the sport I participate in. Some people like to punch with dumbbells to increase their punching speed. This simply doesn’t work. It may feel like it, but the body is extremely specific. Your body will adapt using the weight at hand. If you practice punching with the weight every time you shadow box, your body will adapt and therefore your accuracy, speed and strength will be dependent on the dumbbell. When it comes time to punch without it, your body will unconsciously overcompensate, exhausting you more or leaving you more open to injury.
Jogging is another big part of boxing. Unfortunately, jogging or roadwork is not only useless, but very dangerous and has long term physical consequences. Regardless of how well someone’s “cardio” is, they will always run out of breath when they get into the ring for the first time. No matter how much they run or jog or climb mountains. The adaptation of prolonged performance comes from repetition. Your heart and lungs don’t get stronger, your body relaxes. You begin to subconsciously pace yourself better as well.
Most new fighters get into the ring and are nervous, tense, hold their breath, move around too much, clinch their fists the entire time, over commit to punches, and don’t know how to pace themselves. All this attributes to running out of gas early. There is no exercise to make this adaptation any easier. The only way to adapt is to practice over and over until your body becomes comfortable with that activity. Meaning get in there and practice your sport over and over.
I’m fortunate enough to have a coach that understands the importance of sparring. In the previous boxing gym I was in, the coach just did meaningless drills with me for months. When I finally had my first fight, I was like a fish out of water. I would go 12 rounds on the bag, full intensity like a champ, but I was uncomfortable and clueless once the bell rung. I gassed out after the first round. I ended up winning the fight out of sheer stupidness, but I learned my lesson and began to study all the scientific literature on skill performance and physical conditioning.
The only thing you can really do physically is to train your muscles. If you recruit more muscle fiber, you’ll have more elasticity in your muscles (flexibility), more durability and endurance. Big, strong people don’t get hurt easily. The best way to perform resistance training is to do a single slow set of each major muscle group to failure. The slow part is important because you want to eliminate momentum on the way up and avoid the weight dropping on the way down.
Moving faster isn’t going to recruit “fast twitch muscle fiber” and make you faster as an athlete. Fast and slow twitch refer to the “fatiguability” of muscle fibers, not the speed with which they contract. Regardless of the movement speed, if a set of an exercise is taken to momentary muscular failure where no further concentric (lifting) work is possible all of the available fibers – slow to fast – are recruited.
If you want to perform well at a specific sport, you need to practice that sport exactly as it’s performed. The strengthening and conditioning part should be done separately. Doing both together will only give you half-assed results of either.
ll at a specific sport, you need to practice that sport exactly as it’s performed. The strengthening and conditioning part should be done separately. Doing both together will only give you half-assed results of either.
I’ll leave you off with a quote from Richard Schmidt, Ph.D, author of Motor Learning and Performance:
A common misconception is that fundamental abilities can be trained through various drills or other activities. The thinking is that, with some stronger ability, the athlete will see gains in performance for tasks with this underlying ability.
For example, athletes are often given various “quickening” exercises, with the hope that these exercises would train some fundamental ability to be quick, allowing quicker response in their particular sports.
Coaches often use various balancing drills to increase general balancing ability, eye movement exercises to improve vision, and many others. Such attempts to train fundamental abilities may sound fine, but usually they simply do not work. Time, and often money, would be better spent practicing the eventual goal skills.
There are two correct ways to think of these principles. First, there is no general ability to be quick, to balance, or to use vision. Rather, quickness, balance, and vision are each based on many diverse abilities, so there is no single quickness or balance ability, for example, that can be trained.
Second, even if there were such general abilities, these are, by definition, genetic and not subject to modification through practice. Therefore, attempts to modify an ability with a nonspecific drill are ineffective. A learner may acquire additional skill at the drill which is, after all, a skill itself, but this learning does not transfer to the main skill of interest.