Written by: Conor Matthews (Exercise Scientist)
The link between physical preparation within the gym environment and a positive impact on sporting performance is now well understood. The foundations of this relationship between training in the gym, and training on the field/court/track (and whatever other surface/ sporting environment) for a long time was misunderstood.
Up until the late 1980s, physical preparation for sport consisted of many hours of playing the sport daily. At this time there was a faulty belief that strength training was considered something that made athletes big, bulky, and slow.
It was not until Michael Jordan, an NBA legend and global sporting icon, started lifting weights in 1990 to become tougher and harder to push around, that the concept of lifting weights to improve sporting performance began to take-off.
Fast forward to today, and every professional sporting team, most semi-professional sporting teams, and even a lot of amateur programs, have a team of qualified strength coaches who work with athletes in the gym.
The goal of gym based athletic programs is to develop (and improve) the physical qualities for the athlete’s sport. These athletic qualities include power, speed, agility, endurance, and stability.
We know that strength training, if done properly, and if properly progressed over time, can lead to greater athletic performance in sport. But why?
Well, there is a whole host of reasons.
Here are the Top 5 reasons why athletes should train in the gym to improve their performance: Let me unpack a few for you.
1. Decreased Risk of Injury
The number 1 goal of every strength coach or Exercise Physiologist of athletes should be to keep them as healthy as possible for their sport.
If you are training in the gym to improve your sporting performance, your training should be aiming to first and foremost prepare you to perform movements in your sport safely- such as landing, cutting, and changing direction.
Having a greater degree of strength, as well as movement skill (that is exactly how it sounds; being skilled at moving properly) will allow athletes to land, cut, and change direction better, reducing risk of non-contact injures and ultimately keeping them healthier for longer.
2. Improved Ability to Create Force
I am going to get into a little bit of science here but stick with me.
When you lift weights, you increase the amount of force your muscles can create. So, let’s take a squat for example- completing 4 sets of 6 squats with a barbell will, over time, improve the amount of force the muscles of the leg (specifically the quads, hamstrings and glutes) can produce.
When you go to do almost anything in sport- run, jump, throw, pass, cut, or anything else, your muscles create force to drive this movement.
By being able to then create more force, you can do all of these things just a little bit better, meaning you can run a little faster, throw a little further, and (often an athlete favourite) jump a little higher.
As you keep getting stronger over the weeks, months and then years of training, you find yourself taking both literal leaps and bounds, as well as figurative leaps and bounds with your overall athleticism.
3. Increased Confidence
Once athletes get a few sessions under their belt in the gym, they tend to feel damn good about themselves when they smash out a new PB, see a little more muscle on those biceps in the mirror, or feel themselves moving and feeling better.
You can ask any sports coach, parent, or schoolteacher- those with confidence perform a lot better than those without it. The physical and mental confidence boost that occurs because of lifting weights will have a positive carryover to all aspects of life, but especially sport.
4. Increased Load Tolerance
This once is seldom talked about but is quite important. Firstly, to define load, in this instance I am referring to the amount of training/competing an athlete does, say in a week.
An athlete who has completed some properly progressed training in the gym over a prolonged period will have a much greater tolerance to load than an untrained athlete, meaning the trained athlete can recover faster, as they are more accustomed to training.
Furthermore, peaks (increases) and troughs (decreases) in load are some of the easiest ways to cause injuries; whether that be an overuse injury from a sharp increase in load that the body can’t handle, or a drop off in load causing some of those cranky joint injuries that were being managed by consistent training volume to flare back up.
Whilst all athletes should aim to have a floor and a ceiling on their training, those athletes with more gym experience will find themselves better prepared if an incidental change in load does occur.
5. Increased Movement Efficiency
Movement efficiency refers to an athlete’s ability to perform movement with the least amount of energy expenditure.
A structured gym-based training program for athletes can ensure your body is moving optimally with respect to correct biomechanics. For example, ensuring your hips are working in synergy with your upper body, or your abdominals in synergy with your shoulders.
Every sport has specific movement patterns, and a structured strength program will ensure your biomechanics are working efficiently and optimally for your chosen sport.
To summarise those 5 points into one sentence- training in the gym makes you less likely to get injured, more likely to perform at a higher level, and boosts your confidence. I
If someone offered you a magic pill to do all those things, 100% of athletes would take it. Well, that “pill” exists, and it is called getting in the gym, doing strength training and getting it done!