By: Barbell Logic Team

Balancing your sport/hobby/exercise with strength training can still be a tricky business. How you do so will vary a little bit from sport to sport, but there are a few basic principles that you can follow to help you get the most out of your strength training as a benefit to other sports and activities.

Training to Have it All: Organizing and Prioritizing Your Strength Training

One of the best reasons to train for strength is to be more physical outside of the gym. Though the development of strength is the most useful way to train your body for general health and fitness, strength training is not always what people will choose to do for passion, fun, or adventure. Among our coaching staff, there are martial artists, rowers, weightlifters, strongman competitors, gymnasts, horse riders, obstacle course runners, climbers, swimmers, and rugby players. And, we coach many of the same.

We addressed strength and sports in a few different ways previously:

Getting Started in Sports

“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 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 a 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 and Martial Arts

“Improving your physical potential while also improving your sport is not only possible, it isn’t really that complicated. This is true for even the most skill-dependent, time-consuming sports and those that demand their own intense physical practice. With smart programming, you can get stronger and improve your martial arts skills at the same time. And you should, because deep down you know you can get closer to your potential. You just have to do the work. Simple, not easy.”

In-Season vs. Off-Season Strength Training for Sports

“Managing competitive athletes is a collaborative and often contentious effort. Competitive athletes are subject to a competition calendar and regular practice for their sport. And they must preserve their ability to perform on Game Day. This takes more careful management of the standard training variables. They must focus on the general principles that drive strength progress and adapt their training for the realities of competition.”

Getting Started in Strongman Competitions

“There are many types of Strongman and Strongwoman events. You don’t need to be seven feet tall and 400 lb. to get started. Local level competitions have weight classes, men’s/women’s divisions, even Novice and Masters level classes. Shoot, at the National level there’s a disabled division where folks who are missing limbs or have disabilities have a chance to compete. Strongman is for everyone!”

Balancing your sport/hobby/exercise with strength training can still be a tricky business. How you do so will vary a little bit from sport to sport, but there are a few basic principles that you can follow to help you get the most out of your strength training as a benefit to other sports and activities.

Two-Issues: Prioritization and Organization

Prioritization

There are two problems that you must address. The first is prioritization of your trained physical attributes. Keep in mind that training, as we use the term, is an intentional process that induces planned biological adaptations that, when achieved, move one closer to a specific goal. Training builds your general physical ability to execute tasks. Where the task is force production (aka “strength”), it is general. Training can also be very specific. Distance runners train to improve the efficiency of their energy usage for long periods of low-power, high-endurance capacity muscle contractions. The physical adaptations to do this are different from the sprinter who requires high amounts of strength and power but low aerobic capacity. When you are training for the specific energy and muscular demands of a sport, your training is highly specific. As a general rule, you should organize your training from general to specific, building your physical potential in the broadest, most widely applicable ways first.

The prioritization of physical adaptations is why we usually recommend finishing your Novice Linear Progression before you take up a new sport. This will help you build more strength and make you more capable when you do start your new sport; strength benefits all other physical attributes. So, for a former couch potato, a plan that prioritizes strength is a smart one. It will make you better at everything else in the least amount of time with the least amount of complexity. If you think of different kinds of adaptations occurring on a numerical scale, a zero-to-one improvement in strength is the most useful physical adaptation that you can pursue.

But, many people start strength training as an off-shoot of their sport, they want to get better at their sport and are not keen to take time off from it for strength training. Similarly, as you get farther away from your ability to make progress as a novice, strength comes with an opportunity cost. It takes longer to achieve a similar increase in strength, progress slows down but the amount of work you put in doesn’t change very much, it actually increases. If your main physical outlet is strength training, this is great. Continued strength increases are still going to give you the best bang for your buck. If you are playing a sport or wanting to try a new activity, however, the opportunity cost of keeping your training general and focusing exclusively on strength will become too high.

Eventually, you will need to diversify your training and include more specific training elements. A lot of this happens through the practice of your sport. The specific energy demands and muscular contractions that make up the sport are part of playing and practicing it. Take running, for example. Strength benefits endurance sports, like running, immensely well, but the two pursuits are so different in terms of adaptation that the opportunity cost of strength training will quickly reach the level where the endurance athlete needs to split her focus between strength training and endurance training.

Doing so is going to affect your ability to get stronger, but that is the trade-off of your sport. In the Barbell Prescription, Dr. Sullivan and Andy Baker talk about the concept of Interference Effects when training for different activities. They explain that “strength training and [Long Slow Distance] training use different energy systems and demand performance from different populations of muscle fibers[,]” and that “concurrent strength and LSD training probably flips a metabolic toggle, the so-called AMPK-Akt switch, in a way that favors aerobic endurance adaptations.” (See, “The Barbell Prescription” pp. 35-36.)

For prioritization, figure out where your sport lies on the spectrum from high-intensity, fast energy systems to low-intensity, aerobic-dominated activities. The farther you are toward the low-intensity, the more you should protect and prioritize general strength and other attributes first. Protect your novice linear progression and try not to let your sport interfere with you building a solid base of strength. As you need to practice your sport more frequently, keep in mind that your strength gains are in a war of attrition. You should not stop training. Instead, the stress-recovery-adaptation process becomes crucial for you to maintain your gains in muscular strength.

Organization

The second problem is that of organization, making sure you set yourself up for the most effective training with your daily or weekly training and practice schedules.

When you are simultaneously training for strength and playing or practicing a sport, you need to organize your schedule to allow you to do both.

In general, sports that are primarily reliant on your slower energy systems (often called the oxidative or aerobic energy system) should come second in your training organization. If you are lifting and practicing the sport on the same day, that means you lift first. For your weekly schedule, this means that you should lift when you are fresher in the week when your level of fatigue is at its lowest.

Your energy availability determines your intensity during aerobic or endurance events. If you are tired when you show up to practice, your performance will fall to the level of your present ability. But, in most long-distance or endurance-dependant sports efficiency is key to your performance. Whether this is the ability to execute a complicated skill while fatigued or efficiency of movement to conserve energy, being tired while doing the sport is often part of the training.

In contrast, strength training and fatigue have an inverse relationship. The intensity is determined by the weight on the bar; fatigued or not, you have a job to do. You don’t have to be fresh going into every training session—you won’t be, in fact. But when you can go into training with fresh legs and full muscle cells, you should. The specific adaptation here is the ability to produce force, and that ability has an inverse relationship with fatigue.

Changes to your strength training program will include either a change in the frequency of your training or in the weekly changes to volume and intensity. Extra physical work taxes your ability to recover from training, attenuating it to the point that changes to your training stress become more frequent and varied than someone who is primarily focused on strength. This may call for either a decrease in the amount of strength training frequency or at least a modulating of training intensities throughout the week to accommodate this reduced recovery ability.

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