Athletes have different strength and conditioning needs across the course of their athletic careers. This is important for the strength and conditioning coach to realize because one program will not fit all. It’s also important to realize when reading research that is geared towards a very specific population and attempting to extrapolate the results to other populations.
Beginners respond to everything. Beginners also need everything. There isn’t a training history, there isn’t an injury history – the slate is clean. This both limits and provides lots of opportunities all at the same time.
In general, beginners really need to focus on the following:
- What Bompa calls anatomic adaptations. Getting the joints, bones, and muscles in shape. Developing hypertrophy that can eventually be transferred to the athlete’s sport.
- Technique on fundamental exercises. It is entirely appropriate to spend 2-4 years developing technique on the bench press, squat, deadlift, power clean, power snatch, push jerk, and a handful of assistance exercises. With a proper program a beginner will respond to these exercises for a long time, so there isn’t a need to do anything fancy.
- At the level of the beginner, it would almost be best to focus on these as injury-prevention exercises. In other words, a handful of basic plyometrics exercises teaches landing technique which could reduce ankle and ACL injuries.
- There’s some evidence that plyometrics effectiveness is linked to strength levels, in other words, failing to have sufficient strength means the exercises aren’t as effective as they could be.
- With the above in mind, the beginner should really be focusing on basic vertical and horizontal jumps involving both legs. Again, there’s no benefit to being fancy here.
- A beginner needs to focus on technique: how to run, how to start, how to stop, etc. The beginner really could do this for 2-4 years and make great gains. This ensures efficiency, speed of movement, and prevents injuries.
In general, beginners should avoid the following:
- Advanced speed training tools: Until an athlete hits the wall in terms of speed development, the resisted/assisted tools are not going to help very much. For a beginner, using these will reinforce technique problems, may create bad habits that lead to slower speeds, and may cause injuries.
- Position-specificity: We don’t know how a 14-18 year old is going to develop, we don’t know what position he/she will play, and without a strength and conditioning foundation specific training is not going to provide the athlete with a competitive edge. At this level the program should stay general.
- Advanced periodization models: For beginners, there is no need to get fancy with the periodization. The program needs to be progressive, structured, and safe. If this is followed then the beginner will make gains.
Collegiate athletes (or national caliber depending upon the sport) have different needs than the true beginner and the strength and conditioning program should reflect that. This is also the most-studied group in the literature, largely because the majority of researchers work at universities.
A collegiate or national caliber-level athlete has a number of unique needs that makes them different from a high school level athlete:
- The athlete is going to have a training history: While this is true, it’s also true that there is going to be a lot of variability in terms of the quality of that training history and what the athlete actually knows.
- The athlete is going to have an injury history: This is going to need to be accounted for in the strength and conditioning program.
- The athlete is going to develop a lot physically during the four years of college: This provides an opportunity for the strength and conditioning program.
- At this level it is appropriate to distinguish between positions: However, as the athlete develops he or she may change positions and this needs to be kept in mind. It means that, with team sports, there should be a core general program with some differences based upon the positions.
In general, collegiate athletes need to focus on the following:
- Strength training: While the athlete has a training history, we cannot assume anything. Viewing training progressively, the initial focus needs to be on technique and anatomic adaptation. Classic periodization (hypertrophy followed by strength followed by power) is ideal for this level of athlete. Over the years, the athlete’s strength training exercises should become more advanced in terms of a greater variety of exercises and a greater variety of training approaches (for example, complex training, contrast training, bands, chains, that sort of thing) because the athlete will stop reponding to the more general training as the years progress.
- Plyometrics: Like with the strength training, we cannot make assumptions here. Initially low-level plyometrics might be incorporated into the athlete’s warm-up to teach certain concepts (i.e. landing). As the training year progresses these may become more advanced or morph into their own training session. As the athlete progresses over the years and builds his/her strength and technique base, it is appropriate to begin incorporating greater volume and more exercises.
- Speed/agility training: The initial focus needs to be on technique. As the athlete progresses through the training year, volume and complexity pick up as the athlete has a chance to adapt to the workload and solidifies his/her technical base. As the athlete progresses through the years of training, a balance needs to be struck between employing more advanced exercises and keeping the training applicable to the sport. For example, there just aren’t a lot of sports where the athlete gets to run in a straight line for 60 meters or run through a pre-programmed cone drill, so thought needs to be given to this with regards to speed and agility training.
- Position-specificity: We don’t know how the athlete is ultimately going to develop over college, but we can already rule out certain positions based upon body type. For example, the 160 pound kicker isn’t going to be an offensive lineman at the end of his college career. This allows for there to be some position-specificity in the programming. This is especially important in terms of metabolic conditioning, speed, and agility training.
The elite/professional athlete has very different needs than any other class of athlete and the strength and conditioning program needs to reflect that. The following are considerations for the elite/professional athlete:
- The athlete has a training history: The elite athlete has a history with training, knows how to perform a variety of exercises, knows how he/she responds to different training approaches, and has an opinion about the effectiveness of those approaches. All of this needs to be factored in with their training.
- The athlete an injury history: This has to be understood and accounted for in any conditioning program.
- This is the only sport the athlete participates in: An elite/professional athlete is playing one sport full time, this both simplifies and complicates things. It simplifies things because we’re not as worried about multi-lateral development at this stage, it complicates because the training needs to be very sport-specific and this can be a challenge if a coach isn’t familiar with the sport.
- The athlete’s position is set: At this level the position that the athlete plays is pretty much set, changes to this are noticeable exceptions. This means that any strength and conditioning program needs to address the sport, the athlete, and the athlete’s position.
- General training won’t produce results: An elite athlete is close to their genetic potential in terms of functional strength and hypertrophy. There also isn’t much time during the year for non-specific training. As a result, any training is going to have to be focused on improving the athlete’s performance in his/her sport.
- The athlete is in-season almost year round: Professional soccer players compete from July until mid-May. Professional baseball lasts 180 days, but also includes winter and spring ball. Professional football lasts from August until at least December (January/February if the athlete is in the playoffs), then there are OTA’s during the spring and summer. In other words, the true off-season is very short for the elite/professional athlete. Competition, travel, and the lack of an off-season all have to be factored in to the athlete’s training.
- The athlete is hanging on against time: Time only moves one way and physical abilities will deteriorate over time, especially those related to speed and power. All elite athletes, unless they retire beforehand, will see this happen. With that in mind, training is geared to trying to allow the athlete to hang on as long as possible without becoming injured.
We don’t often think of masters athletes, but with the aging of the population in the west, fitness professionals need to keep this potential market in mind. There are a number of differences that need to be kept in mind with masters athletes:
- They don’t have the same ability to recover: This means that a great deal of care must be taken when introducing new exercises, increasing the intensity of a session, or increasing volume. If this is done for one component, it needs to be balanced out in other components.
- Even if they stay fit, time only moves one way: Performance will decline with time, even if the athlete continues to train. Cross-sectional studies of weightlifters and sprinters shows that there are several points where performance drops sharply as athletes age, this is regardless of whether or not the athlete continued training.
- If they haven’t remained fit, they can regain a lot of ground: Individuals who have not remained fit will lose muscle size especially to their type II muscle fibers. This will help contribute to lower strength levels, lower power levels, shorter strides, slower reaction times, etc. A lot of this can be reversed after only a few months of training.
- Masters athletes are recreational athletes: Although they may not see it that way, at least today there is no place to go professionally with master’s sports. They have careers, families, lives outside of this and the scale of their conditioning is not going to be anywhere near that of the collegiate or elite athlete.
With the above in mind, masters athletes should focus on the following:
- Strength training: If the athlete is untrained, then any approach to strength training will improve performance, just like with a beginner. The big thing is to take a very slow, gradual approach. Many studies looking at elderly and strength training have the subjects initially train at 50-80% of their 10-RM. If the athlete is trained, then it is appropriate to perform full-body strength training and use exercises such as squats, cleans, presses, etc.
- Plyometrics: Remember that there needs to be a strength basis for plyometrics training to be effective. If that foundation isn’t there, then this training will be a waste of the athlete’s time. If it is there, then beginning with low-level plyometrics that teach landing and taking off are appropriate.
- Speed/agility training: If the athlete is untrained, then the focus should be on teaching techniques and increasing stride length – just like with beginners. If the athlete is trained, then the focus is going to be on sprints, and combination agility drills (start, stop, start again). Too much speed/agility work is going to impair the athlete’s ability to recover.
photo credit: MrUllmi
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