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When is an athlete “strong enough”?

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As strength coaches we love to train athletes to be stronger, it’s in the job title, and rightly so. Strength is the basis of power and speed development, both essential to athletic performance. Not to mention it can help make an athlete more resilient and less likely to be injured. But how do we know when an athlete is “strong enough”? More importantly how do we know when what we’re doing as coaches has crossed the line from improving an athlete’s performance to interfering with it?

Developing strength is very simply developing an athlete’s ability to produce more force. When an athlete comes into the gym looking to get faster and more powerful one of the things we need to look at is, how strong are they? If we can’t produce force, we can’t produce force fast!

But we have to remember that force production happens in a relative position of internal rotation, compression and exhalation. (Try this…. Stand up, take a breath in and then exhale hard until all the air is out of your body. Now you’re in a position of internal rotation, compression and exhalation…. you probably feel rock solid in this position but now try to rotate your torso side to side!!) This is perfect for when we want to produce massive amounts of force. We want to be ‘braced’ because we don’t want any real movement variability. You absolutely do not want to have any spinal rotation at the bottom of a rep max squat right!!

But what about all that cutting, twisting, turning, rotating etc. we want our athletes to be able to do on the pitch? Being proficient at that means we need to be able to access external rotation, expansion and inhalation, the exact opposite of the positions force production biases us towards. (Now try the opposite… stand up, take a deep breath in tying to expand your torso front to back and then see how easy it is to rotate!)

 So when it comes to improving athletic performance, where’s the tipping point? When have we pushed an athlete so far towards force production that they start to lose the positions that allow them to play their sport?

One thing I’ve always struggled with is figuring out when my guys are strong enough and have definitely been guilty of the whole “more is better” approach in the past. Surely if strong is good, stronger is better!!

But thankfully through the mentoring of Mike Robertson and IFAST university the past year I’ve come to understand how we move at a much deeper level and also the importance of the word “enough”.  

We need an athlete to be strong enough to maximise their speed and power while still maintaining the ability to access enough of the positions and movement patterns required to play their sport.

This whole concept is new to me but the simple framework or checklist I’ve started to use is outlined below. It’s by no means perfect or comprehensive but it’s a starting point that might be useful for other coaches.

Assessment – What are the demands of the athlete’s sport? How is the athlete moving right now, what compensatory patterns are they using? Do they have the movement capacity to play their sport safely? What is their injury history? What is their current strength, speed and power output like?

Movement – If the athlete has compensatory movement patterns that affect their ability to meet the movement demands of their sport this is what I look to address first. This could be as simple as some targeted reset work at the start of the session to allow them to get into better positions. Keeping in mind that some compensations are beneficial for certain sports. We’re not looking for perfect symmetry, just an ability to access the positions we need safely.

Strength Development – Knowing how the athlete is moving we can decide on the best exercise options to get improvements in force output. Again this could be something as simple as swapping a bench press for a half kneeling landmine press or a back squat for a front squat depending on the adaptation we’re looking for and the movement capacity of the individual athlete. It’s not the exercise that’s important it’s the resulting adaptation that matters. No one cares if you barbell or dumbbell bench if you’re faster than them!!

Reassess – The last thing we do is to set some ‘guard rails’ as a monitor of how the athlete is maintaining their mobility and movement as we drive them towards greater force production. As a general rule we can continue to improve strength as we need to once we’re staying within the movement ‘guard rails’ we’ve set. Obviously there will be times where we need to sacrifice some movement for increased force output and vice verse but that’s a discussion for another day!!

If you’ve gotten this far thank you 😂 and have anything to add or would like to discuss (or debate) any of the ideas please feel free to get in touch. I’m always interested in connecting with coaches and exploring new ideas and concepts!

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