There are multiple factors involved in improving athletic performance – no matter what your skill level is.
The body of research available today unequivocally demonstrates the benefits of resistance training in improving a wide variety of athletic qualities – from power to endurance, and everything in between. To quote directly from the research of Dr Young, strength training has the “potential to enhance the force-generating capabilities of muscle, increase total body mass, reduce the risk of sports injuries, and improve core stability”.
There is a reason why every sport is fighting to recruit top strength coaches, and why you see sports that previously had very little involvement in strength training starting to adopt regular on- and offseason resistance training regimes to squeeze every ounce of performance out of their athletes.
Some of the side benefits such as sleep and mood enhancement are certainly one reason why – and you can read more about this in our related article on resistance training and longevity (after all, a healthy athlete will always perform best)– but research has shown direct effects of strength training on vital performance indicators on the field.
Some of the benefits are more obvious – greater lean body mass is clearly helpful for those involved in contact sports, and the improved bone mass and joint integrity that comes with resistance training will obviously reduce risk of injury. Lower body fat in general improves your power-to-weight ratio, and weight training is the most effective tool in body composition.
But did you know that each sport has certain movements – sometimes called ‘predictor lifts’ – that have a direct translation to on-field performance?
For those of you involved in team sports, straight line speed over short distances as well as agility and acceleration are top of the list. There have been multiple studies looking at how strength in the gym affects these qualities.
One study followed elite-level junior soccer players over a two-year period, and compared them to a control group who did not participate in resistance training. The strength-training groups consistently outperformed their peers in the under 15s, 17s and 19s – and the under 19s group actually even outperformed a professional adult team in their short-distance sprints! There was a direct effect of increasing maximal squat strength on their ability to change direction, accelerate over short distances, and reach higher top speeds.
There is also a frequently cited study on elite-level professional players done in 2004 that showed a strong correlation between maximal back squat strength and straight line speed, as well as vertical jump height. It’s been previously established that power is highly dependent on maximal strength.
A similar study followed amateur and elite rugby league players, measuring their times over 5, 10 and 20 metres. As their max back squat increased, their sprint times over all distances improved. The researchers concluded that based on this and previous research, “It is likely that the increased force production, noted via the increased squat performance, contributed to the improved sprint performances. To increase short sprint performance, athletes should, therefore, consider increasing maximal strength via the back squat.”
Resistance training also improves coordination. There are multiple neurological factors involved in strength training, and if done correctly, you can improve your nervous system’s ability to recruit, coordinate and synchronize complex movements to improve accuracy of movement and allow the maximum expression of force. You can then take these improvements into your sports training to practice your skills. This type of training can be expected to enhance intermuscular coordination and ensure that muscles are “tuned” to any newly acquired force-generating capacity.
The cognitive benefits of weight training should also not be ignored. Decision-making in the heat of competition is vital to success, and performing resistance training has been demonstrated to enhance cognitive skills and improve cognitive performance under conditions of fatigue. Additionally, improved mood and reduced pain perception as a result of resistance training are massive contributors to the ongoing commitment required to perform at your best week in, week out.
This can partly be attributed to the modulation of markers for inflammation in the body – although part of the adaptive process of training, excessive inflammation impedes recovery and can drastically reduce performance. Weight training has been shown to lower these inflammatory cytokines, allowing better fatigue management and improved recovery.
In short, taking up a well-designed resistance training regime is vital to your athletic success, no matter what level you’re at – and the reasons extend well beyond just ‘bulking up’!
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