Strength is the quintessential quality most sought by athletes and coaches. If you look at any performance enhancement program, you will usually see the development of strength at the forefront of its objectives. Listen in on any conversation between coaches, or jocks, and you’ll here a repeating theme, how much can you lift? Strength is one thing everyone can’t get enough of. The purpose of this article is to discuss the different forms of strength and its different classifications, and finally ask the question – how much strength is enough?
Strength and its development can be broken down into three basic categories; general, special and specific strength. General strength is developed with your standards resistance training modalities (e.g. weight training, body weight exercises, etc.). This training does not try to mimic any specific athletic movements, it mainly concentrates on developing strength in the large muscle groups. Squats, shoulder presses and bench presses are examples of exercises geared to the development of general strength.
Special strength is developed by exercises that more closely resemble the actual athletic mechanics targeted for improvement. Special strength exercises help transfer general strength to the next category of strength, specific strength. Medicine ball throws and plyometrics are examples of special strength exercises.
Finally, specific strength training is necessary to make the final transfer of special strength to the target activity. This training category tries to mimic any athletic moves targeted for improvement, to its exact speed and mechanics. Hitting a blocking sled, swinging a weighted bat and “sport specific mechanics” with resistance bands are examples of specific strength exercises.
The expression of strength can be separated into three basic classifications. First, we have the absolute strength developed during the general strength phase. This is many times expressed by heaviest weight that can be lifted for a specified number of repetitions. A maximum single repetition is referred to as a one-repetition maximum (i.e. 1RM). This method of expression just tells the weight lifted but tells you nothing about the size of the individual who lifted it.
The type of strength developed in the general strength phase can also be expressed in a relative manner. This is called relative strength. That is, the weight lifted divided by the weight of the individual who performed the lift. This method of expression allows one to make judgement of strength per pound of body weight. Thus the saying, “pound per pound, this athlete is stronger”.
Finally, strength can be expressed in real obvious but very subjective ways. Have you ever seen an athlete that does not look very impressive, can’t lift very much weight in the gym, however, shows deceptively strong qualities when playing a sport. These athletes many times can not express their strength in traditional ways. These special athletes posses what we in the conditioning field call “functional strength”. You know who I’m talking about, the players that may not lift weights, but can “out power” any opponent within their athletic arena. Wrestlers, boxers, soccer players, gymnasts are some of the functional monsters of the athletic world. They may not be impressive in a weightlifting environment, but they’ll kill you with their ability to apply ALL of the strength they do posses. This ability to USE strength is the essence of functional strength – strength you can use!
Does this mean that strength training is not important? Of course not, it is very important. Increases in strength, as a result of a properly designed resistance training program, has resulted in improvements in just about every aspect of athletic performance you can imagine. Running speed, vertical jump, throwing speed and are just some of the athletic components which have improved after strength increases due to resistance training.
The problem arises when the expression of absolute strength begins to dominate the training objectives and the performance objectives become a secondary objective. That is, athletes and coaches get into trouble when strength is developed for the sake of strength and not for what it can do for you. This is just like working really hard for money that you can’t spend. This trap of “over-emphasizing” strength is easy to fall into. The increases in strength are easy to measure and notice. Additionally, the athletic world seeks and generously rewards strength development because it has become synonymous with performance. Just look at the football combines. Contracts, bonuses, drafting positions are based on expressions of strength that many times are unrelated to football performance!
As a conditioning coach, I see the development of strength as an investment vs. profit endeavor. The question I always ask myself is, will the time devoted to additional strength development yield me big dividends in return? Or, would I better serve that individual by maintaining respectable strength levels and work on qualities that can significantly improve athletic performance? The answer is simple. If there is enough strength, focus in the athlete’s ability to apply most of the available strength, instead of spending several weeks or months to increase strength by 5% and not be able to apply half of it! The way I see it, 75% explosive application of a 200-lb. bench press equals 150lbs of devastating force. On the other hand, 40% slow application of a 300-lb. bench press is 120 lbs. of “non-damaging” force. Which situation would you prefer for your linemen to be in? I would prefer to play my functional dynamo that appears to be the “weaker” lineman with a 200-lb. bench press. He can apply 75% of his strength and is functionally stronger.
I’ll give you a real life example of a decision I made not too long ago in regards to how much strength is enough. I had a young strong pitcher come to me with about 16 weeks to get ready before a tryout with a minor league club. He was 195-lb. and 6’-2” tall. His squat was about 250-lbs., his bench was around 215-lbs. and he could do about 8 bodyweight pull-ups. His fast ball had been clocked at 92 mph with nothing but arm. After running a couple of functional tests on him, I quickly found he could not balance dynamically on one leg. Now here is an athlete who spends most of his on one leg while powering his arm to speeds of 7000-10,000 degrees per second, yet, he can’t balance dynamically on his plant leg!
I asked myself the following questions. Will he be better served by functionally strengthening his legs and hips so that they can support and better transfer explosive power, or should I dedicated the next 16 weeks to increasing his squat to 300 lbs. and his bench to 275 lbs.? Should I pack 10 lbs. of muscle on him over the next 4 months, or should I work on developing his deceleration capabilities, pitching flexibility and energy transfer mechanics (i.e. his kinetic chain)? Should I focus on the expression of absolute strength so he can look great on paper, or should I concentrate on enhancing his pitching and give him the best shot he can possibly have at making a squad?
We decided this young man was strong and big enough for a pitcher! We took a functional approach to his training; maintained his current levels of strength while improving his balance and power transfer. Our main goal was to close the gap between his absolute strength, which was respectable, and his functional strength, which was almost non-existing. Well, four months later this young man is in the best pitching shape of his life and ready to be seen by the scouts!
The main problem with functional strength is that it is difficult to quantify. Functional strength does not have the standardization in evaluative techniques that general strength has. Therefore, is you want to show how powerful and strong a player is, you show their numbers for the vertical jump, power clean, squat, bench etc. If you gave their distance for a “one-leg, contralateral, counterbalanced, one arm reach test”, or a medial one-leg jump, no coach, agent, or sport team would know what you are talking about. Therefore, the dilemma is – how do you make the athlete look good on paper and at the same time a “better functioning athlete”?
From a personal perspective, I have become a believer of augmenting functional strength, and sometimes at the expense of increasing already high levels of absolute or general strength. I myself have test driven a purely functional strength program for 12 weeks. The differences in my swimming, running, jumping and change of direction capabilities have been remarkable. However, I do not believe that a purely functional program is the answer. Integrating general, special and specific strength development is the best way to improve performance and develop strength you can use!
Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS