Seven rea­sons not to weight train


Athletics Weekly - - Contents -

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.

7: Fa­tigue

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

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