Seven reasons not to weight train
IS WEIGHT TRAINING REALLY WORTH IT? ASKS JOHN SHEPHERD
AT THIS time of the year many athletes will be working with their coaches on planning their winter training.
Talk may be of getting stronger and crucially more powerful whatever your event – and weight training will inevitably feature strongly. However, is weight training really that important when it comes to directly improving athletic event performance?
In last week’s AW, Martin Bingisser questioned the length of time that athletes take off at the end of the season. He gave examples of athletes of the calibre of Tom Walsh and Ashton Easton taking two plus months off and also suggested that a short break may be more beneficial for others.
I was talking to an athlete recently and they asked me how much time my athletes were taking off, when I said that one or two may only have a week off they were very surprised. “I’m taking a month or more off,” was their reply.
Why am I mentioning this in an article about weights?
Well, we need to challenge assumptions – because “you always did something in a specific way” does not always mean that you should continue to do so.
Weight training has been a staple feature of virtually all athletes’ training but do you, as an athlete or a coach, really know why you are doing it? Have you really planned a programme that will enhance your performance or that of the athletes you coach? Or are you just lifting weights because you always have?
So, let’s question some assumptions.
1: Strength gained in the weights room will make you faster
Speed is crucial for all athletics events. The fastest marathon runner, everything else being equal, will get to the finish more quickly. However, the relationship of, say, the squat to any running event is marginal. The weights exercise is performed from two feet and in a stationary position. The time it takes to complete is very slow compared to the speed of a running stride – around half a second versus milliseconds of ground contact.
Like any weights exercise, the squat involves an initial acceleration of the weight and then a slowing to bring it to a stop at the top of the squat. However, the running stride is an acceleration all the way through from footstrike to toe-off (although getting more technical there is a braking of momentum, absorption and reaction to force on footstrike, but this happens so quickly – of which more later).
So, the transferability of the exercise to improving running speed, for example, looks tenuous – and many would argue that it is.
2: Bigger muscles generate more force – “I need to get bigger”
This is the “beach muscles syndrome” and often applies to male athletes who think about looking good on the beach and not looking really good on the run-up, for example, as a long jumper in terms of their reactivity off the board.
Yes, everything else being equal, a larger muscle can generate more force compared to a smaller one as a result of its greater cross-sectional area, however, a larger muscle is also extra weight to carry around.
Jumpers (and runners of all distances) need to be mindful of their power-to-weight ratio. So, a weights programme that leads to greater hypertrophy can
lead to the athlete gaining extra weight that mitigates against performance.
3: More muscle means greater sprinting speed and therefore better technique
This is a case of two plus two not making four. Greater muscle mass can actually affect sprinting dynamics. The obvious example is the muscle-bound athlete who is “working against” themselves when sprinting.
They look like they are going to explode as they try to power down the track and it looks such an effort.
By placing too much emphasis on their weight training without too much thought as to how it’s going to transfer into their sprinting, the athlete emerges out of the fluorescent light of the weights room into the sunlight of the track, with a diesel engine and not one akin to a F1 car. The athlete feels sluggish, weight laden and unable to express the type of power needed to sprint well.
4: I have to “push harder” in the weights room
This point is referencing muscular actions. Most of the movements performed in the weights room involve a concentric muscular action. This happens, for example, when bench pressing and squatting (“key” weights exercises for athletes).
When the weight is moved, various muscles shorten to provide this “push”. This is known as a concentric muscular action. Unless you really think about it, and act upon it, most of your weight training will be concentric. However, much of athletic performance is not concentric. Potentially the only discipline where a very specific concentric muscular action is highly prevalent is in the shot and the linear version of the technique at that. The key muscular action – or rather actions – for the other athletic events is the stretch-reflex plyometric one. This is where a muscle lengthening, eccentric action, is then followed up by a rapid-fire concentric shortening one.
It’s like pulling a spring out to its maximum length and then letting it recoil – immense amounts of energy will be released in the split second the spring recoils. So, in the weights room you’ll develop concentric strength predominately that may offer little real benefit to event performance unless you think creatively.
5: Going the wrong way
This point follows on from the previous one and references the oft-neglected muscular action that can be developed through weight training – the eccentric one. If you focus on the lowering part of the squat movement – the muscles of the ankles, knees and hips are stretching under load to control the downward path of the weight. Much more importance is being placed on this eccentric muscular action nowadays than in the past (or really, it’s reaching more into the mainstream).
Eccentric strength training inside and outside of the gym may be a vital ingredient in improving athletics performance. It targets fast twitch muscle fibres predominately and can boost plyometric and concentric power output (look out for a future AW article on eccentric training).
6: Two legs are better than one
Paraphrasing another saying, in this case the two is not better than one. This was touched upon in point one; in that most weight training exercises are performed from two legs/two arms and not one, unlike all athletics events. In the javelin you run faster and faster from one leg to the other and then throw the javelin with one arm (with great speed).
Most of the commonly used weight training exercises by athletes are performed with both legs and both arms; squats, deadlifts, and variants of the Olympic lifts, for example. Many strength and conditioning coaches can neglect this vital fact with their concern on producing a “stronger” athlete (not a “specifically better” athlete).
Performing step-ups, split squats, even single leg cleans and kettlebell exercises, have potentially more relevance to athletics events, what with their unilateral nature and the balance, greater whole body integration, proprioception and kinaesthetic elements.
So, if weight training for athletics purposes, it may well be more beneficial to at least train single leg and arms actions. There is a popular saying in coaching at the moment to
“train movement not muscles” and in this instance you can see how it applies.
If you are going into the weights room and lifting heavy two plus times a week then you are adding another burden to your central nervous system. This energy could be better served being targeted at your sprinting and jumping and plyometric training. Elements that have more direct relevance to athletics events.
The way you plan your training here is a very relevant aside. You can, for example, train speed and weights on the same day, yet many athletes and coaches separate these elements on different days. Not doing the latter would enable you to have a rest day/recovery day or a less intense training session the next day, for example, better balancing the neural and physical loading and adaptation processes.
In future AW Performance articles we will look more closely at weight training (and other conditioning means) in terms of how they actually improve event performance.
As an athlete/coach you should always try to think why you are doing something in terms of improving performance. On closer inspection you may see that what you are doing may not actually be of much real use, and that it needs refinement and better, considered application.
Eccentric train: the controlled lowering of weights can bevery effective
Single leg exercises can be more specific