Every year around Christmas ‘the World’s Strongest Man’ graces our television sets, as we collectively marvel at the sheer muscle and agility of the phenomenal athletes involved. At six-foot nine and weighing over 400 pounds, the title currently belongs to Iceland’s Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson.
Of course, you don’t need to be a bodybuilder to know the importance of strength in sport, and you certainly don’t need to weigh 400 pounds to enjoy its benefits!
No matter what sport you play, strength is one of the key physical components of fitness. It provides the foundation on which to improve explosive power and strengthen muscles. It is certainly a prerequisite in contact sports like; boxing, rugby league, Gaelic football and American football.
Not to be viewed in isolation, strength is just one of several factors required for peak performance.
In this chapter, we look at developing strength in more detail.
What is strength?
Strength can be considered as the maximum force that can be applied using controlled movements. Muscular strength is defined by Livestrong as; “the ability of a muscle or muscle group to exert maximal force against resistance.”
Regardless of what sport you partake in; rugby, tennis, running or another type, strength is important for success. The good news is that strength can be honed with resistance training which we’ll look at in more detail later on.
Why is strength important?
There are many benefits to possessing strength in sport that it has become an integral part of any athletes training schedule in recent years.
Aside from the physical advantage it provides, athletes with strength tend to have fewer backaches and may be less prone to injury if they have developed muscle strength. In cases where injury is present, developed musculo-tendon units will be more resilient to stress, impacting the severity of the injury. In simple terms, stronger muscles tend to heal quicker.
Often overlooked, strength can also help with one’s overall flexibility and mobility. This is a great advantage to have, often the result of resistance training.
Strength is associated with a lean weight, this is beneficial for power and speed. It is also associated with power – the result of muscle force and movement speed. When Andy Murray hits a ball in tennis, or Ronaldo runs up for a penalty in sport, it is their sheer strength of their honed muscles that helps to fine tune their performance.
Finally, in terms of wellbeing it’s important to remember the benefits that physical exercise such as strength training can bring; increased self-esteem, improved cognitive abilities and decreased levels of stress and anxiety.
Testing your strength
In partnership with your sports coach, there are various gyms, clinics and units dedicated to sports professionals where you can put your strength and fitness to the test. Do keep in mind however that strength is dependent on a many number of personal factors, including weight and height.
One such way to measure strength is based on the amount of weights lifted in a single rep. This is known as a one-rep max (1RM).
Since the ubiquitous Bench Press tends to focus more on upper body strength, it may be performed in association with other exercises and tests. For instance, squats, deadlifts and leg assessments can measure lower body strength.
How to build strength in sport?
Strength can be lost as it can also be built. Therefore, the best way to sustain fitness is to have a workout plan that involves at least 20 minutes of exercise three times a week. Intensity can be increased over time, specific to your frame and abilities.
Strength training, also known as resistance training is best discussed with your sports coach, as there may be certain workouts better suited to your discipline.
However, there are a few general sports that can help for strength training, such as:
- Weight lifting: probably the most efficient of all, lifting weights will help build and tone muscle, as well as increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat.
- Wrestling; a great way to improve endurance and power, giving your whole-body a thorough workout.
- Boxing: there’s many cardio and strengthening skills involves in boxing training. However, it particularly focuses on upper body strength, such as developing pectoralis and deltoid muscle groups.
- Rowing: an effective way to increase your oxygen intake and build core strength. It can also target the lower body muscle groups such as glut and hamstring.
Training for improvement
To increase strength, it’s time to hit the gym. Strength training requires progressive and consistent workouts with repetition. Working with your sports coach, you can build up your endurance proportionally over time.
In training for strength start with between 2 to 5 sets of 1 to 5 repetitions, ensuring your lifting intensity is at least 85 per cent of 1RM. Allow for longer rest periods of sets for recovery, at least three of four minutes, this will help improve strength for the next round.
Consistency here is also important, ensuring that resistance training forms part of your regular workout. As strongman Björnsson commented: “I train with heavyweights five times a week. I’m in the gym so often…”, but this does not mean he’s trying with his heaviest weight every day!
Regardless of your sport or discipline, strength training is one of the most effective ways to enhance overall performance.
Developing strength will help maximise performance, as well as provide you with a foundation for explosive power. By increasing muscle mass, you are also decreasing the risk of injury, or at least its severity.
Not to be viewed in isolation, resistance training is just one of the important ways to build endurance and strength over time.