The exact moment I saw the impact strength training had on sport performance

It was a wintery night in Ottawa in 2004 and I was playing indoor ultimate in the bubble at Lansdowne. Other than my moment of epiphany, this was a perfectly ordinary night of ultimate. In fact it was so ordinary that I don’t recall anything about the night other than that one play made me go “Whoa!” The funny thing is that the play that made me realize how much of an affect training had on my game” was actually a screw up on my part. I was cutting for a disc (also known as a Frisbee by non-ultimate players and veteran ultimate players) that was thrown to me. The disc was thrown a bit high, so I jumped for it, but instead of catching it, the disc hit my arm just below the wrist. After a moment of disbelief at not having caught it – I don’t usually drop – I grinned as I realized what had happened. That was the only time in my ultimate career that I was happy about missing the disc.

I missed the disc because I jumped too high. I jumped. Too. High. :)

Thankfully an athletic body can adapt to a new normal relatively quickly, and I was soon able to adjust my timing to match my new vertical, and no more discs were missed.

I had always known intellectually that strength and power training was a good idea for sports performance before that moment, but after that play, I really knew it. And since that moment, I have known that as long as I continued to have any athletic ambition, that I would continue strength and power training.

At the time, my training involved primarily squats, Romanian deadlifts, rows, and hang cleans. Since then, the details of my training have changed, but fundamentally it is still built around some type of squat, some type of deadlift, some type of rowing (pulling), and some type of power exercise (including hang cleans).

The modern version of my training (and my clients’s training) has a few more layers:

  • In 2004, I did a simple dynamic warm-up that was based on a Mark Verstegen (owner of Exos). Today my training is similar but includes a few specific exercises to address issues with my movement (versus a generic warm-up).
  • I used to train partial range bilateral squats primarily, but I also used to get hip pain for a couple of days after. The concept for partial range to train for sport was that one doesn’t typically get into a full squat depth in sport, so why do it in the gym. When my trainer at the time explained that, it made sense to me, but since then I have changed my perspective on that and believe that parallel squats makes more sense.[1] I also switched to single leg squat variations for myself because of the hip pain I used to get. Switching out bilateral squats for split squats, lunges, single leg squats, step ups, and skater squats yielded significantly less hip pain for me. I remain a fan of bilateral squats for many people but now believe they are not ideal for everyone.
  • I continue to do Romanian deadlifts for periods, but more often I do single leg Romanian deadlifts, or conventional deadlifts instead. I think each of these three can provide the posterior chain development we want for sport performance.
  • I continue to train Olympic lifts (hang cleans or snatches) for power, but now also use kettlebell swings for this purpose as well. I continue to get feedback from clients telling me that they can jump higher on the field than before. I hate to have to narrow it down to one exercise as there are many elements of sports performance, but if I had to do only one thing to develop vertical jump in someone, I would probably choose cleans. For another perspective on that, take a look at the video below that shows a track and field athlete, a free runner, and an Olympic weightlifter in a vertical jump competition. The video is in Russian, but you don’t need to know what they are saying to enjoy and learn.
  • I have added more upper body work to my training. I still do some variety of rowing, as do all of my clients, as this is a great way to build a strong back, but I also balance this out with some upper body pressing, like push-ups and cable presses. There is research that suggests some upper body strengthening has an impact on vertical jump and speed, but it does not seem to be a strong relationship. Some is still something, though, and most of the upper body exercises I use tend to have a core training element that makes it worthwhile.
  • The sport performance training that I do and that my clients do includes some specific core training, including something like planks for the front, glute bridges for the backside, and Pallof presses or similar for the side. Most sport performance involves both the upper and lower body, which means that most performance will be enhanced by being better able to transfer energy between the upper and lower body. When an athlete is on the field, the ice, the snow, the court, or the links, this is the core’s job. The core is also important in keeping the back healthy. Those are both compelling reasons for me to include core training.
  • Most sports also require a level of cardio-respiratory fitness (aka cardio). There are many theories on how best to develop this: once it was all about the jogging; then it became all about intervals; and now it seems to have settled somewhere in between. I tend more toward intervals for sports performance, but most of the strength training we do is done in circuits, which I believe yields some jogging-like cardio-respiratory effect, which suggests our training respects the current “somewhere in between” research on cardio.

I’m not the only person who has felt this change in their performance since adding sport-specific training to their world. One of my favourite conversations was with a golfer client, and it went something like this:
Client: “You ruined my golf game.”
Me: “Really, how?”
Client, smiling: “I am hitting so much further now that I don’t know what club to use.”
Me, also smiling: “I’m not going to apologize for that.”

If you are an athlete who does not work out (regularly and effectively), think about how cool it would be if you could jump a little higher and run a little faster? If you’re a masters aged athlete, the cool factor of this prospect is infinitely higher. Next year you can be a year older and you can be faster. You can be a year older and have more vertical. Ya, I figured that would make you think.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc, CSCS, and her team train athletes of all types at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.

Note:
[1] I believe in full (parallel) squats now because I think that even though it is not part of every play, we do end up in positions of more than partial squat positions on the field and being strong enough to deal with them seems smart. I also believe that the level of core stability required in a lower squat is desirable to train, and lastly, I think that only training the top half of the squat can lead to relatively overdeveloped hip flexors, which I think can contribute to inefficient hip movement.

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