Starting Sports: General vs Specific Strength
By: Barbell Logic Team
Trying new sports can be an extension of this mental revolution. But the thought of trying something new as an extension or even interruption to your strength training, raises one big, important question: When should you start? A new activity will affect your training. It takes time away from strength training and requires a more careful consideration of your recovery resources. This will be different for different sports but, as a general rule, a new sport may require a change in your lifting schedule (depending on how much time it takes) and may require more careful management of the stress and recovery factors of training. But rather than making the choice between training for strength or playing a sport, you should realize that both go together and that the additional complexity is more reason to think long-term, plan your training, and use your time wisely.
Strength training cultivates mental revolutions, realizations that stem from the changes you experience under the bar that change your self-perception. Sometimes this is a profound change, changing the way you see yourself or the way you ascribe value to your efforts. Sometimes the change is smaller, as in realizing you can do things you couldn’t do before. Many people just want to get strong, but in that process, learning or trying new things should be an automatic side-effect of being more useful and more capable. One of the mental revolutions that happens as a result of training is seeing yourself as an adaptable organism, realizing that if you put in enough deliberate hard work, you can do a lot more than you once thought possible. Seeing yourself as adaptable gives you fewer physical limitations.
Trying new sports can be an extension of this mental revolution. But the thought of trying something new as an extension or even interruption to your strength training, raises one big, important question: When should you start? Maybe you just started strength training and want to maximize its benefits, or maybe you want to minimize the effect that a new sport will have on your progress. The answer may depend on how long you have been training and what sport you are taking up, but strength training and sports go hand-in-hand.
Strength and Sports
Almost everything you do is an expression of your ability to produce force and move your skeletal system. Sports are simply a contrived way that we interact with our environment. They combine basic human movements, sport-specific conditioning, muscular endurance, and explosiveness with body control and learned skills. Add rules and competition and voilà you have a sport. (Read more about competition here.)
With sports and strength training, you can distinguish between skills that need to be practiced and physical attributes that need to be trained. Practice is the development of the skills that make up the sport. Some sports have predictable, repeating movement patterns, like powerlifting. Other sports are environments of constant change. Field sports, for example, have so many variables that you cannot practice just one or two movements, you have to play the sport to develop the skills necessary to do it well.
Training is the process of developing physical attributes. There is a lot of overlap between skills and physical attributes in sports. For example, the ability to hit a tennis ball requires skill in the swing and a developed perception to make contact. However, it also requires power, speed, and accuracy; it requires balance and explosive movement, but also practiced body position, timing, and the controlled aggression that funnels all the physical aspects of the swing into a concentrated effort. The overlapping physical aspects that are sport-specific show a need to train for the sport as well as practice the skills of that sport.
You can further divide training (the physical aspect) into sport-specific training and the training of your general physical capacity. Sport-specific training concerns the muscular endurance or the energy system demands of the sport. It also includes the body control that goes into the skills of the sport. Every sport requires training for specific physical demands that are different from the general training you do in the gym. These sport-specific physical attributes are best trained in practice—on the field or court; in the ring or dojo; and in the pool, on the road, mountain, or running around the track. Doing the drills, exercises, and practices that go into learning skills and the narrow expressions of physical activities of the sport are the best places to develop the specific physical capacity to participate in the sport.
Train Your Physical Potential
General physical capacity means the body that you show up with on Game Day—your physical potential. Your ability to acquire the skills and adapt to the physical requirements of a sport are capped at the level of your physical potential. Every sport-specific expression is a percentage of your maximum ability. Put in practical terms, if you have a 300-pound deadlift you will never clean 300-pounds, the addition of the skill and explosiveness required to perform the sport-movement means that a clean is always less than a deadlift. Or, stated yet another way, if your absolute maximum physical potential is a 300-pound deadlift, you will never deadlift 315 pounds in competition, that would be impossible. Perfect execution of the sport or perfect adaptation to the sport can only bring you closer to some (usually unknown) maximal ability.
So, you still need to train under the bar for sports for the same reason that we train under the bar for everything else. It makes us generally better at everything, raising your potential. Realizing that potential comes from sports practice.
When Should You Start?
This is a question of how strength and sports complement each other and the desire to manage the benefit that strength training carries over to a new sport. First, imagine that you are a rank novice in terms of possible physical attributes: You are an understrength, deconditioned newbie who also happens to be a motor moron. If this was a video game, every one of your attributes is at zero. What zero-to-one improvement would make the biggest difference in your ability to perform your sport?
Since we are considering how sports fit in with your general training, let’s consider only those attributes you would train for generally in the gym: Strength, conditioning, and kinesthetic perception. Perception is something developed by doing things and has little direct carryover to the other attributes. While useful, it is not the most useful zero-to-one improvement. Getting better at squatting does provide some additional body control in other circumstances: Your balance gets better and the muscles that control the micro-adjustments that keep you from falling over get stronger, but squatting doesn’t translate easily to high-skill sports movements.
Conditioning provides the fuel for all muscular contraction, you have to fuel your muscles for them to move, right? The problem with conditioning is that just making your cells better at producing energy does not also improve other physical attributes. Moreover, conditioning improvements are efficiency improvements—how you create and use energy—not structural improvements. This means that they are acquired quickly and they dissipate quickly. They are capped at a much lower level than strength or other structural improvements, which can continually improve for a very long time.
In comparison, strength and the process that makes you stronger improve every other physical attribute, including energy usage.
If you want to be methodical, you should prioritize strength over other general physical adaptations and definitely over sport-specific training. But you actually want to play your sport. You can’t just lift, show up on gameday, and dominate. At what point should you sacrifice time spent strength training for playing and practicing your sport?
There is a period of time in everyone’s training career in which they are “playing catch up” to their own physical potential for strength. This correlates with the period of time for which the Novice Linear Progression is useful for training. The Novice Program takes advantage of any untapped strength gains you may be harboring that are most easily acquired through the least amount of complexity and the highest level of frequency. These are the cheap gains. The Novice Program provides a tool for determining when you are at a level of strength that can be most easily improved. The end of the Novice Program is a time when you add complexity and more direction into your training. As such, it provides a convenient baseline for strength training, making the end of the Novice Linear Progression an excellent time to consider adding complexity to your training by starting a new sport.
If you can pick a time to start new sports, it should be after you are no longer a true novice lifter. You will have developed enough general strength to help your sport, and this will provide the least amount of interruption to the all-important activity of getting stronger. That said, if you have a coach, they know you best, and can help you make this decision. Also, many athletes can’t wait until they’ve finished their Novice Program to start practicing and playing their sport. In this case, a more closely-managed Novice Progression is necessary with the expectation that you will need to include longer-term planning and training around your sport as part of your programming.
A new activity will affect your training. It takes time away from strength training and requires a more careful consideration of your recovery resources. This will be different for different sports but, as a general rule, a new sport may require a change in your lifting schedule (depending on how much time it takes) and may require more careful management of the stress and recovery factors of training. But rather than making the choice between training for strength or playing a sport, you should realize that both go together and that the additional complexity is more reason to think long-term, plan your training, and use your time wisely. Sports are one of the best ways to take your strength outside the gym.
Let us know what questions you have about strength training for specific sports!