Strength and Conditioning is huge right now and it’s something that athletes of all levels should be doing. However something that doesn’t sit well with me in the way S&C is pushed is that it seems to be focused entirely around lifting weights. The big question that’s constantly being asked is how can we best use a barbell to improve performance, rather than how do we best improve performance. Despite what most would have you believe the barbell isn’t actually needed for a good strength and conditioning program. I can only think of 3 sports, 4 at a push where barbells are used. Olympic Lifting, Powerlifting, Crossfit, and to an extent Strongman competition and that’s about it. Yet S&C coaches everywhere obsess about how to best use a barbell rather than how best to train the athlete.

Before we go any further I’d like to nudge you towards the idea that strength is task specific. Strength is not something that can be found within a muscles but rather in the bodies ability to complete the task at hand. There is a world of difference between looking strong and being strong. Please don’t get me wrong, having healthy muscle tissue can be a very good thing but the ability to express power through that muscle at the exact right time and in precisely the right direction is where the magic is really at. I get so many struggling clients through my door telling me they need help strengthening their glutes or core and have been prescribed general muscle building exercises to help only to find themselves weeks and months into the program and that they haven’t made the slightest difference.
(Check out the Instagram video for a recent example)
If strengthening and hypertrophying individual muscles actually worked then bodybuilders would be the ultimate athletes. The strength that a sprinter needs is different to the strength a powerlifter needs and is different again to what a golfer needs. Before you can begin to think about designing any kind of strengthen program you need a movement or series of movements you need to be strong in. This is one thing that winds Garfield (my inner chimp) up, being promised an individualised S&C program “tailored” directly to your needs and then you’re given the same thing as everyone else, barbell work and getting strong at the big lifts.

Lets take running as a common example as lots of people run and they are often told they need to get stronger. When designing a S&C program for a runner, the movements and patterns I am looking to strengthen and train will look a lot like running. I will narrow in on the aspects that enhance running technique and load the body in an appropriate way that will match what a runner needs when out on the pavements, trails or track. I personally would avoid squatting or lunging for runners as the movement of hip flexion in the loading phase (when the foot hits the ground) is considered poor technique by every good running coach I’ve ever spoken to. If the hip collapses in then that’s generally considered bad technique, so why would I train a motion that encourages this? Instead I look to hopping drills as they are much more appropriate and effective. Then to layer on the conditioning aspect I try to match the energy system demands of what the runner will experience in their own discipline. Obviously a sprinter will train with a different intensity to a marathon runner but the movements are pretty similar. Right foot, left foot until the finish line.

The concept applies equally across all disciplines, whether you’re a golfer, or footballer, or an olympic lifter? If you have a specific goal then general strengthening goes out the window or it becomes random exercises. Just a quick note here I have no problems with golfers lifting weights or footballers doing a little olympic lifting because we are all humans and capable of doing a variety of different things and I do think there are benefits from being competent at a variety of stuff. But believing that practicing Olympic Lifting to improve the power in a golf swing is the same as believing that an Olympic Lifter should hit the driving range to work on the technical aspects of their lifts. It is good to move in a variety of ways but I just wish strength coaches would stop trying to justify their training method by claiming it makes you better at something that it probably doesn’t.

I had a sprinter come in to see me with a few persistent injuries and pain on her right leg she mentioned that a physio told her that she needed to strengthen her right glute if she wanted to fix the problem. Through the course of the 1st session we ended up at this exercise where it turns out she was easily capable of it. How could weakness possibly be an issue when you can perform this exercise. We need a better explanation for pain than weak muscles, that isn’t an answer that makes sense.