Training in the Gym for Sporting Performance.

As the summer approaches a lot of us want to look the part strutting around in the shorts or bikini, and so embark on a no carb diet, join the latest 6 week or 12 week body transformation, or head to the gym with friends and hit the dumbbells for sets of 10 or 12 to bulge the arms and torso.  That’s all well and good if your goal is to pout and flex in a mirror (lets face it you don’t get to show off in Ireland) but if your goal is to improve sporting performance this type of training is not going to cut it.

So what do you need to do?

If you have never done weight training before then it is extremely important to seek out a good S&C coach who can ensure you are performing the correct exercises and more importantly performing them correctly and safely. Before getting down to serious lifting I would also advise doing a bit of circuit training or even knocking out a few of the beach weight exercises (correctly of course) for a few weeks so that when it comes to lifting heavy for sporting  performance it’s not too much of a shock to the system. All elite athletes do this anatomical adaption phase as part of their pre-season training so don’t think you are hero and jump straight into heavy lifting. Do a few weeks prep first.

Train for maximal strength not the beach or the mirror.

Rugby, Soccer, GAA, boxing etc require a combination of power, speed and muscular endurance.  Both muscular power and endurance depend directly on maximal strength (Paavolainen, Häkkinen, Hamalainen, Nummela, & Rusko, 1999; Stone et al., 2003, 2006).  Max strength must be elevated before power-generating capacity can be increased, because power is the product of both maximal force and speed (Bompa & Haff, 2009).  Therefore training for maximal strength becomes the foundation upon which you will develop power and speed as you approach the coming season.

So what is training for Maximal strength?


We need to switch the focus from muscular development to neural development (in other words fewer obsessions with bulking up and more emphasis on making your central nervous system more efficient). One of the greatest limiters to strength and rate of force development is inhibitions in the central nervous system. Maximum strength training dampens these inhibitions leading to greater firing frequency, synchronisation and recruitment of motor neurons. This type of training will also help to increase the number of fast twitch muscle fibres in your muscles.

To train for maximal strength, take note of the following:

  • Use the big multi joint complex movements, involving the main prime mover muscle groups that you use in your sport. Exercise such as presses, rows, deadlifts etc .
  • The speed of contraction must remain high to quickly recruit those fast twitch muscle fibres. The movement its self might be slow because of the weight but your intention should be to shift the weight as fast as possible.
  • The load becomes much more challenging. Increase the weight that you lift to 85%+ 1RM and above.
  • Reduce greatly the number of lifts in each set to allow you to lift heavier.
  • There should be fewer exercises to allow recovery. Do possibly only 2 or 3 of your chosen strength exercises in any given session. The rest of the session can be filled with some auxiliary exercises or core and mobility work.
  • The rest period becomes longer between sets and the gym sessions move to full body strength sessions as opposed to being split into different muscle groups.
  • Don’t train to failure in your sets, finish with that feeling that you still have one more in the tank (not 2 or 3 more just 1)

Unlike hypertrophy, training to failure in the development of maximal strength is not the optimal method for loading during strength training (Izquierdo et al., 2006; Izquierdo-Gabarren et al., 2010). So here your repetitions should be greatly reduced to allow you to put close to maximum effort into each lift without failure. As the load increases the number of repetitions should be reduced, allowing a full recovery. The number of sets and repetitions in this phase is guided by Bompa & Carrera (2005) who suggest the development of maximum strength is best accomplished by 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 repetitions.

Numerous studies have shown that the ideal load for gains in maximal strength is 80% of 1RM or greater (Bompa & Carrera, 2005; Bompa & Haff, 2009; Fry, 2004). The idea here is to lift with far greater intensity to engage as many motor units as possible. I would suggest increasing the load from week to week from 80-90% for 3-4 weeks and then stick in a de-load week (lift only 65-70%) to allow a good recovery before entering the next mesocycle of your strength work.


The rest lengths in training for maximal strength should be increased dramatically to allow sufficient time to recover.  Again the larger the load, the more time is needed to recover before performing the next set. Multiple studies Abdessemed et al. (1999) and Sahlin & Ren (1989) to name but a couple, show that force and power generating capacity has been shown to be almost completely restored with 2 to 5 minutes of recovery between sets of heavy lifting. That doesn’t mean that you have to sit around updating your facebook status between lifts, some core or mobility exercises can be performed between sets or if you are the posing type now could be a good time to throw in your less intense work like biceps curls etc.


Convert your increasing Strength to Power

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Having built a good strength base over a number of weeks it is important to continue strength training to avoid de-training and keep increasing the maximum force you can exert (Bompa & Carrera, 2005). However all the strength in the world will do you no good if that strength advantage cannot be utilised to break or make a tackle, to have the speed and agility to sprint around or catch an opponent or to leap higher than your opponent. You need to harness the strength you have built and improve your rate of force development allowing you to perform athletically better in the sporting arena.

The key to increasing power is improving the Rate of Force development by stimulating greater muscle synchronisation, motor unit recruitment and firing frequency. This is best achieved in a gym by employing movements that use a lighter load (up to 30% 1RM) but are done explosively at maximum speed such a ballistic or plyometric exercises (Aagaard, 2003; Wilson, Newton, Murphy, & Humphries, 1993).

To tap into this phonemonem introduce some ballistic exercises to the routine to maximise power output. These include exercises such as med ball throws, hurdle or box jumps, landmine squat, snatches, cleans, sledge hammer swings, ballistic prowler push and all sorts of other fun.

To get the full benefit of  postactivation potentiation from these ballistic exercises they should be performed in the same unit or complex  as the maximal compound  lifts. From their study Adams et al. (1987) found that optimal training benefits are acquired by combining heavy load training with explosive movements. For example a boxer performing a bench press followed minutes later by some med ball throws or a rugby player performing a squat and moments later knocking out a few hurdle jumps.


The most important factor when executing the power exercises is that they are done as a fast as possible, therefore fatigue is not a luxury you can afford (Bompa & Carrera, 2005). This is why it is important to take a rest of 4-6 minutes after maximal strength work before performing the power exercise. These power/ballistic exercises are not done in immediate succession. You can take a few seconds rest between each repetition to facilitate recovery.  Because the primary goal is speed of execution, when you no longer feel capable of executing the exercise as fast as possible, then stop, even if all repetitions have not been completed.

These combined max strength and power sessions can be very taxing on the neural and muscular system. So make sure you leave sufficient rest between sessions and/or before a game, 48 hours should be sufficient.

The power exercises chosen here must be sports specific and match the movements demanded by your sport (Zatsiorsky, V and Kraemer, 2006). In other words, the strength and power exercises must induce muscle synchronisation if not exactly then very similar to the movements carried out in your particular sport.

The exercises chosen here will mimic the stretch shortening of the muscles in any given sporting action. The squats, deadlift, box Jumps, the clean and the power snatch; all mimic the movements of sprinting, pushing in a scrum or jumping for a ball. The movements needed to punch, to grab hold in a tackle or to hand off a player are trained through the bench press, pull up, shoulder press, the row, ballistic prowler push, vertical throw, and power snatch.

To recap the best way to train for sports is through maximal strength training then once the base strength has been established, introduce some ballistic work to convert that gained strength to power. It’s important to remember don’t replace the strength work with ballistics but add it to your strength routine.

Best of luck with your training and remember while the rest are busy blowing kisses in the mirror you’ll be outplaying them where it matters.

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Abdessemed, D., Duche, P., Hautier, C., Poumarat, G., & Bedu, M. (1999). Effect of recovery duration on muscular power and blood lactate during the bench press exercise. Int J Sports Med, 20, 368–373.

Adams, T. M., Worlay, D., & Throgmartin, D. (1987). The effects of selected plyometric and weight training on muscular leg power. Track and Field Quarterly Review, 87, 45–47.

Bompa, T. O., & Carrera, M. C. (2005). Periodization Training for Sports (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.

Bompa, T. O., & Haff, G. (2009). Periodization: theory and methodology of training (5th Editio). Human Kinetics.

Fry, A. C. (2004). The role of resistance exercise intensity on muscle fibre adaptations. Sports Med, 34, 663–678.

Izquierdo, M., Ibanez, J., Gonzalezbadillo, J.J. Häkkinen, K., Ratamess, N. A., Kraemer, W. J., French, D. N., … Gorostiaga, E. M. (2006). Differential effects of strength training leading to failure versus not to failure on hormonal responses, strength, and muscle power gains. J Appl Physiol, 100, 1647–1656.

Izquierdo-Gabarren, M., González de Txabarri Expósito, R., García-Pallarés, J., Sánchez-Medina, L., Sáez Sáez de Villarreal, E., & Izquierdo, M. (2010). Concurrent Endurance and Strength Training Not to Failure Optimises Performance Gains. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42, 1191–1199.

Paavolainen, L., Häkkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A., & Rusko, H. (1999). Explosive strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J ApplPhysiol, 86, 1527–1533.

Sahlin, K., & Ren, J. M. (1989). Relationship of contraction capacity to metabolic changes during recovery from a fatiguing contraction. J Appl Physiol, 67, 648–654.

Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., McCoy, L., Coglianese, R., Lehmkuhl, L., & Schilling, B. (2003). Power and maximum strength relationships during performance of dynamic and static weighted jumps. J Strength Cond Res, 17, 140–147.

Stone, M. H., Sands, W. A., Pierce, K. C., Newton, R. U., Haff, G. G., & Carlock, J. (2006). Maximum strength and strength training: a relationship to endurance? Strength Cond J, 28, 44–53.

Wilson, G., Newton, R., Murphy, A., & Humphries, B. (1993). The optimal load for the development of dynamic athletic performance. Medicine Science Sports and Exercise, 25, 1279–1286.

Zatsiorsky, V and Kraemer, W. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training; (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.


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