Avoid Injuries Through Strength Training

In this article, we will discuss the benefits of strength training for athletic performance and how to incorporate it into your weekly training regimen. There are numerous professional opinions on whether or not strength training should be an instrumental part of an athlete’s training program. Overall body strength will help prevent the effects of cumulative fatigue and allow for proper efficiency for swimming, cycling and running. Also, full body strength is a complement to the other elements of a complete performance training program: endurance, flexibility, nutrition and mental preparedness.

Let’s take a look at three direct benefits of strength training from a physiological stand point and how it relates to athletic performance. First, strength training will increase the amount of force your muscles can exert on a particular object. As an athlete, moving your body weight through multiple disciplines plus offsetting external resistance factors like wind and hills to the working muscle, force (the by product of strength training) is the key component for finishing a race as strong as you started. [Note: this is especially true for females.]

Second, strength training will permit your muscles to reach a maximum output of force in a shorter period of time.  Weight training will increase and facilitate the balance of strength in all working muscles and the resulting motor units (which include motor nerves and muscle fibers). One nerve impulse can charge hundreds of fibers at once; a rapid series of multiple fiber twitches can generate maximum force quickly and for a long period of time. Weight training will “teach” your nervous system to recruit a wide variety of fibers. As one group of fibers fatigue, another group will be prepared to relieve the fatigued group. Without getting to complex, think about nerves as messengers from the brain which control every physical response. If motor nerves don’t “tell” the muscle fibers to twitch, your muscles won’t contract. The entire concept behind physical training is to teach your nervous system, with repeating particular muscular movements, to get the correct message to the working muscles. With a diversified strength program, you will initiate a message to include the number of fibers to be recruited, type of fibers used (fast twitch A or slow twitch B) and frequency of contractions. Remember, a diversified training program will recruit all of the fibers and the types of fibers needed for the required physical demands. This is the purpose behind sports specificity and related workouts – the more specific the more productive.

Finally, the duration of time your muscles can sustain the level of force before exhaustion is extended. The overload principle is based on the concept of subjecting the muscles to slightly more load levels than it has incurred in the past. With incremental load levels, the muscles will increase the fiber solicitation and corresponding recruitment. With proper rest, the muscles will grow stronger by developing new muscle tissue as an adaptation to the load levels. With increased muscle mass, the muscles are able to exert higher levels of force and for extended periods of time before exhaustion. To capture a better idea of this concept, imagine you have muscles that fall under the category of primary and secondary muscles. The primary muscle groups are the obvious muscles that are responsible for assisting movement. The secondary muscle groups are also referred to as “assisters” for primary movement. However, once the primary muscle groups fatigue, the secondary muscles are required to step up to finish the task at hand. Strength training makes this task familiar to the secondary muscle groups at both the muscular and neuromuscular levels.

Three indirect benefits of strength training include stronger tendons and ligaments, greater bone density and enhanced joint range of motion. Concerning tendons and ligaments, weight training will increase the size and overall strength of both which will increase the stability of the joints that they surround. Bone density will increase as a by product of tensile force being placed on the bones. Without this tensile force, the bones will actually become brittle and susceptible to breaking. An increased range of motion at the joint is due to the increased strength and size of the tendons and ligaments. This increased strength will enhance the ease of mobility within the joint due to tendon and ligament strength and resulting efficiency. When you look at all three of these components collectively, they address the concern of every athlete – muscular strength, endurance and flexibility. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the muscles and a self protecting mechanism called the Golgi Apparatus are to keep the bones from being taken outside the normal range of motion. If your have a strong muscular system (accompanied with good flexibility), you have established a foundation for optimum fitness because your body has the proper mechanisms to protect itself.

Now that we have justified the reason for incorporating strength training into your performance program, let’s take a look at how to incorporate strength training into your weekly training regimen.

The first variable to look at is where you are at in your race season. If it is early in the season, your focus is to prepare your body for the upcoming demands of your pre-competitive season (low priority racing). During this time frame, you are also looking to enhance your aerobic function to keep the stress from becoming too stressful, the amount of weight is kept to a moderate level and three workout sessions a week. During the competitive racing season, the strength component of your program needs to be reduced to two sessions during the week to allow for ample rest for high intensity training and competition. For this article, we will assume that you are well into your competitive cycle and looking to peak at one or two key events during the summer.

It is important to take the time and evaluate the weaknesses of your current fitness through regular field testing. As athletes, we tend to work on the elements that we like to do and usually are very good at. However, to complete yourself as an athlete, you have to identify your weaknesses and address these variables specifically. With our athletes, we have pre-determined field testing dates to evaluate if the training programs we are implementing on a weekly basis are addressing the identified weaknesses of the athlete. So if your field testing results show that you are not lacking in the strength department, your approach in the gym will be different to an athlete who lacks overall physical strength.


The subject of strength assessment has had a lot of varying opinions on what is the correct format to assess strength as it relates to racing. We incorporate two elements into the assessment equation: sport specific and gym specific load levels. Please keep in mind that the implementations of testing protocols are established based on the individual athlete and his or her backgrounds, along with age and racing capabilities. The following outline is merely an example of what can be used for assessment purposes within the gym.

Gym Testing Assessment

Take each of your gym exercises and take the average weight amount that you have been using over the last two weeks. Complete as many repetitions that you can complete with good form (no swinging – no momentum) until you can not complete any more repetitions. Using a load level calculator (there are many of these calculators on the internet), you can determine what your max strength level is for each muscle group. The idea behind this test is to determine what load levels and repetitions you should be using during your time in the gym. Remember, our goal with strength training is to optimize your time in the gym to enhance your overall body strength as it relates to swimming, cycling and running.

Together with your sport specific assessments and gym assessment numbers, you have the foundation to create your own individualized strength program. If you have questions about your testing results, please feel free to email the testing data to us at Contact@CoachRobb.com and we will provide you with some training protocols to enhance your strength program.

How Do I Determine What Muscles Are Weak?

To keep things in perspective, we are analyzing the athlete’s body in three planes: front and back top and bottom left and right side. The more in balance we can keep the strength levels in the related muscle groups found within each of these two planes, the higher the overall strength levels. For example, we would like to see similar strength levels in the quadriceps (front of leg) and the hamstrings (back of leg) to avoid unnecessary strains around the knee. We would like to have the chest muscles as strong as the back muscles to avoid any strains to the shoulder capsule. Though there are typically some strength discrepancies amongst muscle groups (front and back of the body for example), we are constantly striving to develop functional integration of all muscle groups to avoid unnecessary injuries.

What Muscle Groups Do I Need to Work On in the Gym?

The answer to this question is all muscle groups! If you can identify one muscle that is not used during a race, then you have found a muscle that you don’t have to train during your strength workouts. From head to toe, we are looking to enhance your overall body strength. As a rule of thumb, the muscle groups that you identify as weak based on your load level calculations, need to be put under more load levels and lower repetitions than the established strong muscles (which would need moderate load levels and higher repetitions). Remember, once we get your weaknesses to match your strengths, then your overall program has risen to the next level of capability and performance potential.

What Exercises Do I Need to Complete in the Gym?

There are three key weak links in an athlete’s overall strength program: 1. Lack of core body strength 2. Lack of balance between prime movers and antagonist muscle (i.e. biceps and triceps in the arms and the quadriceps and hamstrings in the legs) 3. Lack of flexibility in all muscle groups

While in the gym, we prefer to use stretch cords and individual dumbbells for all strength work for one main reason – the solicitation and development of the stabilizer muscles around each joint versus the machine doing this work for you. Please consult a qualified personal trainer at your gym to help you determine which exercises you will be doing to develop strength and show you the proper form with all of your lifting exercises. Keep in mind that it is better to have quality lifting exercises than to have quantity. Also, don’t be afraid to change up the program every four weeks to avoid getting bored and allow the muscles to get stale with your program.

A Balanced Athlete is a Stronger Athlete

When it comes to creating a more complete athlete, the foundation needs to stem from balance. The concept of core body strength and functional integration is recently discussed in every form of media and across all spectrums of athletics. However, what is not addressed in these discussions is how an athlete’s lack of symmetry in all three planes – frontal (front to back), sagittal (left and right) and transverse (top and bottom) is actually an inefficient and injury prone athlete.

How Muscular Imbalances Occur and the Problems It Creates

As an athlete, sport specific training requires certain ranges of motion (involving more than one muscle group and associated joint) that are completed to improve the skills necessary for optimum performance. By recognizing that each movement within the muscles involves a concentric action (the muscle shortens and acceleration of the body part) and an eccentric action (the muscle lengthens to decelerate the body part), and that movement requires traveling through more than one plane (mentioned above), you immediately see how important it is to focus on true functional integration.

To perform actions specific to sport, the primary moving muscles tend to become over developed at the expense of the antagonist muscles limiting the range of motion that can be performed by the necessary muscle groups. Muscular imbalances can create the following symptoms: Decreased power output: the primary mover does not allow the antagonist muscle to complement the range of motion. If the quads are overly tight, the hamstrings will not become fully engaged which limits the total power output of the upper leg. Decreased endurance: if the primary mover is overly tight, the antagonist muscle can not bring the muscle back to its proper position which increases resistance and ultimately creates fatigue within the muscle. Decreased economy: if there is limited range of motion within a muscle, the body will compensate to perform the movement in a non-biomechanically efficient manner Increased risk of injury: a tight muscle is similar to a rubber band that has been pulled tightly, the tension in the middle becomes high and is susceptible to tearing if asked to extend beyond it’s capable range of motion (verses it’s optimum range of motion).

Proprioceptive Balance –  the Foundation to Muscular Integration

As athletes, we understand that the core is the foundation for all of our movements – nearly every movement originates (directly or indirectly) from your core. As you move specific to your sport, your core strives to maintain balance and provides a foundation for the other muscles to interact with for correct biomechanics and ultimately optimum strength and endurance. To ensure that you are forcing your sport specific muscle groups to engage in a more functional way (i.e. through all three planes), you have to incorporate a Proprioceptive Strength Program into your cross training exercise program.

Let’s illustrate what Proprioceptive Balance actually “feels” like. Simply stand on one leg and close your eyes with your head facing forward. As your core strives to maintain balance (i.e. not fall over), you will feel the functional integration of the muscles starting at the foot and coming all the way up into your gluts, core and lower back. This is Proprioceptive Balance in a nut shell. Your body makes these subtle adjustments every time you cross train or participate in your sport. However, you are moving so fast, you don’t “feel” the balance taking place. [Side note: now try the exercise again, but this time tighten up your abdominal muscles so that you feel like you are piercing your spine with your belly button and notice how much more stability you have!]

Tools to Create Proprioceptive Balance and True Muscle Integration

There are a few productive tools that we use with all of our athletes: Indo-Board™ with free weights – click here for a video example Bosu Ball™ with free weights Folded towel with free weights Single leg with free weights

Workouts to Teach Proprioceptive Balance 

To help force the body to work in all three planes, enhance the athlete’s proprioceptive balance and integrate more muscles we have our athletes complete all strength exercises on the Indo-Board™ without letting either side of the board touch the ground. Let’s look at the shoulder press on the Indo-Board™ with a squat. By having the athlete complete a traditional shoulder press while on the board forces the core to create balance in two planes: front/back as well as left/right. The gluts (back of body) are engaged with quads (front of the body) to avoid falling forwards or backwards. The shoulders – particularly the middle deltoids are working to lift the weight, while the anterior and posterior deltoids (the front and back of the shoulder joint) are working to keep the weight from falling forwards or backwards. After you complete the shoulder press, you then perform a squat while standing on the Indo-Board™ and you force your quads (front) and your hamstring (back) to integrate together to avoid falling off of the board (in all directions). By involving so many muscles to complete a shoulder press and squat will develop true muscular integration.

Push – Pull Sprint Interval Set

We also have our athletes incorporate a workout we call Push-Pull-Sprint Intervals. For this workout, you will need access to a Concept 2 Rower™ (most gyms now have one or two units available to their members).

The athlete begins the workout by completing as many push ups on the Indo-Board™ as possible in 30 seconds (with the goal being not to let either side touch the ground) Immediately move to pull ups and complete as many repetitions possible in 30 seconds Immediately move to the Concept 2 Rower™ and complete a 500 meter sprint (capture your elapsed time). Rest five minutes and repeat five times. The overal of this set is to have the smallest deviation in your numbers from Set #1 – Set #5.

If you would like a sport specific proprioceptive training plan & instructional video series, please email me directly at robb@coachrobb.com.