Strength and Conditioning for Sports – Separating Fact from Fiction

Previously I’ve talked about how Functional Training is a Myth, that performing multiple sets of resistance exercise is probably a waste of time, that free-weight exercises such as squats and olympic lifts have little cross-over to sports, and that stretching has little benefit for the majority ofathletes.

I know, I’m such a killjoy!

Most professional athletes and sports teams do strength and conditioning training.

The vast majority training free weight exercises such as squats, deadlifts and olympic lifts for multiple sets, and many employing a whole host of other “functional movements” such as stability ball training, unilateral work, cable machines, med balls, resistance bands and so forth.

But If all this is a waste of time, why are they doing it?

S&C? You don’t know squat!AlexVan / Pixabay

In general, performances in almost all sports have been steadily increasing over the years – can these improvements not be attributed, at least in part, to all this supplemental strength and conditioning training?

If an athlete or team were to stop all their S&C training, would it not be professional suicide?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

I should start out with my usual disclaimer, that this is of course all just a hypothesis, there is no definitive right or wrong answer as to how best condition athletes for their sport. These are my own personal conclusions based on the available evidence (which is lacking). There are many very intelligent, educated, experienced coaches and sports scientists on both side of the debate, each with well-reasoned arguments. I urge you to look first hand at the research, and draw your own conclusions!

First, some thoughts on why “functional training” is so popular:

  1. It works!

Whenever I get into a debate about functional training/free weight training and performance, its proponents always point out numerous studies showing increases in athletic performance such as sprinting, jumping, throwing etc.

Without a doubt, doing this kind of training is better than doing nothing. I am not questioning this, what I am questioning is whether it is the safest and most effective method.

  • The competition is doing it

Last years champions were doing snatches on bosu balls, so we’d better do them too, it might have been this that gave them the edge!

Possibly it was, but possibly it was also the new coach, the new training drills, the new diet, the new players.

  • The ACSM recommends it

I covered this already in Sets, Reps and Training to Failure, so I won’t go over it again here, but suffice it to say the ACSM recommends training with free weights and using multiple sets, supposedly based on science.

  • It’s fancy

If you’re a strength coach, and you get your athlete to do a dynamic unilateral cross core deceleration on an unstable surface, it looks and sounds like you have put a lot effort into the program, and it sounds plausible that the athlete is developing their strength, stability, balance, power etc, all attributes necessary for their sport. Asking them to do a set of slow leg presses on a weight machine just doesn’t seem fancy enough!

  • Athletes and Coaches believe in all sorts of bull*&^%

There are plenty of athletes and coaches that believe in all manner of bunk, from Homeopathy, Magnetic Bracelets, Cupping, Dubious Supplements, to Lucky Socks etc. Who’s to say there’s any more logical rationale behind their training modalities?

Example: Stretching in Sport

From the list of “Fitness Myths” I linked to in the first paragraph, the one which is (very) slowly but (hopefully) surely, becoming universally accepted, is that Static Stretching to Warm Up is a Waste of Time.

Up until around a decade or so ago, everyone knew that you had to stretch before a training session. To not do so was pure madness.

Fortunately, someone, somewhere, thought to question this, and lo and behold, when it was actually studied, it was found that stretching could actually reduce performance and increase injury risk.

This research is by no means new. One of the studies I cited in the above article is from 1999, and there are no doubt others which predate it. Unfortunately, it appears to take a very long time for scientific research to filter through to general practice.

When I did my first training certification in 2003, they were still teaching static stretching to warm up as part of the course material, and as far as I’m aware, they still are! Fortunately, as I wasn’t content to simply swallow all the information taught to us on the course, I did my own research and quickly found the vast majority was incorrect and outdated.

Most fitness professionals I trained or worked with, however, simply learned what was taught on the course, accepted it as gospel truth, and never once considered doing their own research/questioning what they were taught.

13 years down the line, and this information is only just starting to overcome the conventional wisdom. Many many professional athletes and sport teams have now ditched static stretching from their warm ups, in favour of dynamic mobility drills, but there is still a long way to go. At a rough guestimate I’d say that more than 50% of the gen pop still do static stretching as part of their warm up.

The take home lesson, therefore, is that just because “everyone knows” a training method works, Olympic Champions do it, or Certified Coaches or even Certifying Bodies recommend it, doesn’t mean that it actually does!

Learning to Compromise

Though I question many of the methods being widely used to condition athletes, I do think that some form of supplemental strength and conditioning training will benefit most, if not all athletes, be they professionals or weekend warriors.

Indeed, as mentioned previously, the “functional” training methods widely applied by many coaches and athletes certainly do work, at least to an extent, and can definitely give an edge over opponents who do no S&C training.

The important question, however, is not if a training method works at all, but whether it is the most effective training method.

For example, say Training Method A improves performance by 25%. That’s great. But if training method B improves performance by 40%, it starts to look less interesting.

Or perhaps Training Methods C and D both produce improvements of 30%, but C takes twice as much time in the gym, and has a higher rate of injury.

Theoretically, the ultimate form of training, would be that which produces the best results, in the least time, with the fewest injuries. This would (or should) be the holy grail of Strength and Conditioning for Sports.

Whether or not this actually even exists, for all or any sports, is another question.

It is quite possible, that one training method may produce better results, but at a greater cost – either in terms of time, money, or injury risk.

Safest and/or/is Most Effective?

In my previous article Why CrossFit is like Learning Latin, I argued that unlike sports themselves, which invariably carry some kind of inherent risk, exercise and training modalities should be above all else safe, as injuries hamper both performance and health.

This is the argument made by Fisher et al in their paper Primum non nocere: A commentary on avoidable injuries and safe resistance training techniques1

Other coaches, however, argue that some risk in the weight room is worth it, providing it gives the athlete that extra edge over their competition. Also, that data on the relative safety of different training methods is missing, and that while there are risks associated with dynamic free weight training, they are most likely fairly small.

Fair points on both sides. Again, there are no wrong or right answers.

First, one must decide on one’s objectives. Is the name of the game to win at all costs? (See this tangent post for why I’d hope that’s not the case!).

Let’s say this is the case, we can (kind of) forget about Safe and Effective, and just concentrate on Effective.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can actually forget about safety, as if a training program leaves an athlete injured, and therefore unable to compete/with poorer performance than before, it is not effective.

I recall reading about an Olympic skier who fell from a bosu ball doing squats and broke her leg the week before competition, thus taking herself out of the running. Oops. Whatever gains the bosu ball squats might have given her, they were swiftly erased in one fail swoop!

This is of course, an extreme example.

Perhaps a slightly risky exercise put into the programming well ahead of competition may be the right strategy – providing everything goes to plan, the athlete will have the edge. If there is an accident, they will have time to recover, and hopefully be back to full fitness in time to compete.

So, with these concepts in mind, let’s look at some different popular “Sport Specific/Functional Training” ideas, which I think should definitely be consigned to the dustbin.

Unstable Surface Training: A Training Paradigm built on a Shaky Platform…

Resistance training whilst balanced on top of a gym or bosu ball is something you now see in every gym, and appears to be standing the test of time, having been popular for at least 10 years now.

If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it makes any exercise more challenging than it would be otherwise – even a bicep curl becomes a full body workout and a test of balance, coordination and skill (is probably something they’d say in the sales pitch).

Yes, unstable surface training (UST) is challenging, yes, it tests your balance and coordination and “activates your core”, but the question is, does it actually help improve your athletic performance?

Eric Cressey et al put this to the test in 2007, comparing the effects of 2 different training programs of equal volume , but one of which performed one of the exercises on an unstable surface, on jumping and sprinting performance.2

After just 10 weeks, the group which undertook the UST performed significantly poorer on the tests of jumping and sprinting ability than the group which did all their training on stable surfaces.

So if you play a sport on a stable surface (i.e. the ground), and speed and power are an important aspect, best to ditch the bosu ball.

But what if your sport does involve balancing on an unstable surface? – surfing, ice skating, skiing, slacklining, mud runs, making human pyramids…? Could using such equipment be useful for these individuals?

Unfortunately for fans of UST, the answer is a big fat NO yet again.

This is due to “The Task-Specificity of Balance Training” (Think SAID principle which I harp on about all the time) – Giboin et al put this to the test just last year.3

They tested individuals on various skills of balance, then split them into groups and had each group train just one of the skills. Each group improved considerably at the balance skill they had been training, but made absolutely no improvements in the other skills, even skills which at face value appear to be very similar.

So the summary for unstable surface training:

  1. It can hinder your development of strength, power and speed
  2. It doesn’t improve your balance or agility in other tasks or your sport
  3. It has a fairly high chance of causing injury

They do however make for some entertaining YouTube Fail videos:

Olympic Lifting: Jerks and Snatches won’t Help you Win

Olympic Lifting requires huge amounts of strength, power, mobility and skill.

This doesn’t mean, however, that it should be used as a tool to develop these attributes in athletes of other disciplines.

On the contrary, Olympic Lifting is time-consuming, potentially dangerous, and the attributes gained have very little cross-over to other sports.

I’ve talked about this at length before here and here, so I won’t go over it again now. Suffice it to say, leave the Olympic Lifting to the Olympic Lifters!

You don’t know Squat!

The barbell back squat has for many years been regarded as the king of all weight room exercises.

It’s a brutally tough exercise, recruits huge amounts of muscle, and has no doubt contributed to the gains of many great athletes.

But is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

Back Squat
Work those spinal erectors baby! skeeze / Pixabay

A growing number of respected strength coaches have begun to question both the safety and efficacy of the barbell back squat, two of the most vocal having been Bill DeSimone (author of Congruent Exercise, a highly recommended read) and “Functional Strength Coach” Mike Boyle.

I reference these two in particular, as in general terms, they come from opposing sides in the S&C world – DeSimone from the HIT, resistance machine/bodyweight/non-complex exercise team, Boyle from the “Functional Training” camp, yet one thing they do agree on, is that the barbell back squat is not a good choice of resistance exercise for most trainees, and I must say that I’m inclined to agree with them.

Typically, the back squat is framed as a leg exercise – do any kind of search on the internet regarding squats, and you’ll find them being advocated to build muscle and/or strength in the hamstrings, quads and glutes.

Well, OK, that’s some pretty convincing evidence I’m inclined to agree

In reality, however, the weak link in the barbell back squat is the spine. In the vast majority of individuals, failure will be reached in the exercise when the back buckles under the weight, not the legs.

In terms of efficacy of training the legs, there are much better ways to do this – namely a leg press machine, loading the squat at the hip via a belt, or using a single leg variation. Any of these options would remove the weak link of the loaded spine, simultaneously making the exercise both safer, and more effective.

Rear Foot Elevated Squat
The Rear Foot Elevated (aka Bulgarian) Split Squat – By removing 50% of the power of the legs, the core is no longer the weakest link (Img thanks to

Free Weights or Bust?

There are many “functional strength coaches” out there, who claim that if athletes want to develop “real world strength and power” that they have to train with free weights. Resistance machines, they claim, just build fake muscle which won’t help you in your sport.

These claims are however complete nonsense!

If any form of resistance training is superior to the others when it comes to the physical prep of athletes, I’d argue it is resistance machines.

Any advantage of one form over another however, is likely very small, if not negligible. Free weights can be a very effective tool providing they are used safely and sensibly (I.e. not for O-Lifts or Squats!), and you don’t drop them on your toes or your head. They just have no advantage over bodyweight training or machines.

Ladder and Cone Drills for “Agility”

Is your trainer making you jump through hoops? Or at least pitter patter through ladders and zig zag through cones?

Can you now move your feet so fast they appear like a blur, Billy Whizz style?

Though it’s nice to have fast feet, the Sport Science Collective do a nice job of critiquing the over reliance on “agility” circuits in this video here.

The important thing to note, is that no one is saying that these kind of drills can’t be a useful part of an athlete’s development, on the contrary, they can no doubt help form a great base of strength, speed and power. What they don’t train, however, is “Agility” – that is the ability to react quickly and effectively to an external stimuli. These types of drills would be better termed “Change of Direction” or COD training.

Young and Farrow look into this issue in-depth in their paper The Importance of a Sport-Specific Stimulus for Training Agility4

They identified 3 broad categories of training spanning from traditional COD drills with cones and markers, through to COD in response to a random stimuli (think a coach shouting/a light switching on/any type of unprompted signal), through to actual sport specific drills – i.e. evading the unpredictable maneuvers of the coach or training partners.

Note: This study looked specifically at “Evasion Sports” – Think football, rugby, hockey etc. Based on other studies, they recommend to develop agility in experienced athletes, “Small Sided Games” are probably the most effective method. Playing a scaled down version of the game, 3-5 athletes in a smaller field, requires each athlete to have to make a lot more reactive movements5

In the table below, they highlight the pros and cons of each category for different trainees:

Characteristics of COD and Agility training methods and their application to programming
Characteristics of COD and Agility training methods and their application to prgramming

This all makes perfect sense when you think about it.

A novice athlete who doesn’t have the strength or mobility to quickly change direction to evade an unexpected tackle, is likely to become injured if they jump straight in with SSGs.

Better to start with unpressured COD circuits. As their strength and coordination improves, build in some reaction drills using signals. Here the trainee has to react quickly, but there are no negative consequences if they don’t react quickly enough – or at all!

Ultimately, the athletes however, want to progress to the SSGs as the vast majority, if not entirety of their agility training – falling back to the earlier categories only if they are coming back from a layoff or don’t have a training partner etc.

NB – Check out this article for more detail on Agility Training for Evasion Sports – I came across it when I was trying to find the studies on SSGs again, and it’s a great one!

Evasion sports only comprise a small % of all sports out there, however, so can we apply these rules to other sports that require agility? I think probably yes.

Combat Sports for example – A beginner needs to start by learning the attacks and defensive movements in isolation. Next they perform predefined drills – they know what attack is coming and when, no sweat. Next step is to know what attack is coming, but not when, a little bit trickier.

Most combat sport coaches follow this approach, but then it goes wrong from here! They either stop here altogether (think many traditional schools of karate/kung fu etc) so trainees never develop reaction skills, or jump straight into full sparing, and all technique goes out of the window!

A better approach is to bridge the gap with restricted sparing – i.e. limiting the potential attacking moves to 2-4 strikes, having 1 opponent attack only the other defend, etc.

Throwing/Catching/Racket etc Sports – A tennis player needs to learn how to hit a backhand, a goalie to be able to leap from one side of the net to the opposite top corner. These movements need to be learned, practiced, and drilled until they are second nature. Next step is adding in some variability – a serve to the back hand, but it could be high or low, a shot to the left, but could be top corner or bottom. You get the idea.

Whatever your sport may be, if it involves reacting to an unpredictable external stimuli, be it another player or the environment, think about how to reverse engineer this, in order to make your training more specific and effective.

Mimicking Sporting Movements with Resistance

Resisted sprints, weighted gloves, bats and balls, swimming through treacle (surely someone’s tried it!), all sound like a good idea on paper. They are going to specifically target the muscles needed for the sport, thus making the athlete stronger, faster, more powerful, no?

Unfortunately, it appears it’s not that simple, and such approaches may well be at best ineffective, at worst counterproductive.

In another research review, this time on the Transfer of Strength and Power to Sports Performance, Young W found weighted sled sprints and weighted jumps can have very modest improvements on performance, but only with small loads, around 5-10% of body weight maximum. Heavier loads slow down and alter the movement pattern too much for the gains to transfer.6

Band Resisted Sprint
Not sure if this is actually an exercise, or just a new way to get girls in the gym?

Of course that’s not to say that these resisted movements couldn’t potentially have other benefits – sled pulls and pushes, and squat jumps performed safely, may perhaps help injury proof the body for normal sprints and jumps, and can be great forms of metabolic conditioning.

In the same review, Young also found that plyometric training, in particular that which included single leg work and lateral movements, could have significant improvements on sprint and COD performance.

One should note of course that plyometrics are a relatively high risk form of training, and should only be performed by well conditioned, experienced athletes.

Based on this review, plus other studies I’ve seen in the past (but can’t seem to find right now!), I think that it’s probably worth considering a small amount of resisted sprints/jumps and lower body plyometrics, if max sprinting and or jumping and or COD is part of your sport, or doing some training with heavier balls/bats/gloves etc for throwers, hitters and strikers.

The additional resistance should be low though, probably only around 5-10%, to avoid altering or slowing the movement excessively.

Building an Aerobic Base

Though originally a feature in endurance athlete training, the idea that athletes from all manner of disciplines need to “build their aerobic base” i.e. improve their VO2 max, by logging many miles of slow, steady state cardio (think jogging or exercise bike) has become pervasive.

For most athletes, however, spending their precious time pounding the pavement or sweating it out on the stationary bike, is likely a big waste of time.

Run Rocky, Run!
Well it worked for Rocky! Maybe, or maybe it was chasing the chicken – definitely a novel way to produce a random stimulus for agility development, though perhaps not so specific to boxing…

High Intensity Interval Training is a much better option – Not only does it help develop VO2 max, but it also improves anaerobic performance and takes far less time. Time that can either be devoted more skill training and/or increase R&R time.

That’s not to say there is never a place for lower intensity activities – In the off-season, or while recovering from injury, doing some jogging, cycling or swimming could be a good way to maintain VO2 max and keep off body fat, while enabling the body to recover from the repetitive patterns of the sport. It just shouldn’t form part of the in season/day in day out training.

So What’s and Athlete to Do?

OK, so I’ve spent a lot of time criticising most of what is probably considered the norm in the world of Strength and Conditioning for Sports – What is it that I actually think athletes should do?

Full Body Mobility Warm Up

Regardless of your sport, you need to stay mobile. Even if your particular discipline doesn’t require it, if you want to stay healthy and pain-free, a decent level of mobility is important, and often hard to maintain with our modern desk/car/sofa based lives.

Think full ROM circles, swings, twists etc, multi-directional lunge complexes, animal movement patterns, marching and skipping drills etc.

I’m going to do some videos soon with specific drills, so watch this space!

This type of warm up should be done before any kind of strength training session, skill practice session, before a game or competition, and even on rest days as a kind of active recovery.

Not many good dynamic mobility warm up images on pixbay so here’s a cat instead bluepolarn / Pixabay

Full Body HIT Strength Training Routine

The intension is to build muscle throughout the entire body in order to increase resilience to injury, and to increase potential for strength and power, but in the shortest time possible, with the lowest risk.

This can be done by using a selection of compound movements:

  • Upper Body Push
  • Upper Body Pull
  • Unilateral Hip and Knee Extension (i.e squat, lunge or deadlift)
  • Hip Flexion

Movements should be performed slowly and under control without pauses, with a resistance that results in momentary muscular failure within 45-90s. The aim is to reach failure. Though it can be interesting and motivational to record reps/resistance etc, remember improving performance in the exercise is not the goal.

Training can be performed with machines, body weight or free weights, whatever is most convenient.

I recommend unilateral training for the legs, as although it takes twice as long, it requires much less resistance, making loading easier and safer, and there is also some evidence that it increases the gains in the stabilizing muscles, and can have cross over to improved COD speed.

1-2 sets of each maximum. If performing 2 sets, do them circuit style – Upper Body Push, Lower Body, Upper Body Pull, Hip Flexion – This gives the muscles time to recover in-between sets, while also getting a bit of Peripheral Heart Action going for free.

As for frequency, 1-2 times per week is optimal, depending upon your other commitments/stressors.

Remember, training is like sun tanning – don’t get burned!

Leg Press Machine
The equipment, number of reps, resistance or set duration don’t really matter – as long as you push to failure Unsplash / Pixabay

Isometric Core Training Routine

Really, this is all part of the HIT strength training, but I’ve separated it out to highlight that it should come afterwards (a pre-fatigued core could result in reduced ability to perform the other exercises), and to be able to elaborate a little more.

When I say “Isometric” I am referring to the muscles of the abdominal wall – movement of the arms and legs can certainly be part of the exercise.

The core muscles primary function is to stabilize the torso, and transfer power from the feet to the hands (and occasionally the reverse).

Movements like planks, side planks, anti-rotational holds, farmer’s walks – think about challenging the core from all angles – it needs to be able to resist flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation.

As with the other muscle groups, an intensity which induces MMF within 45-90s should do the trick.

High Intensity Interval Training

A full body, metabolically demanding movement, performed at all out intensity for an interval of anywhere between 10-60s, followed by a rest period of 10s-5 mins, repeated anywhere from 1-10 times.

That’s an awful lot of variables!

Sprints, burpees, prowler push, rowing machine, box jumps, aerodyn, wall ball throws – the possibilities are endless.

Bear in mind though, if you are truly going to push to the limit, form is going to get sloppy. For this reason, don’t chose a movement from your sport as you don’t want to ingrain bad habits, and don’t pick anything dangerous. (If there’s one thing worse than Olympic Lifts trained for Power, it’s Olympic Lifts trained for HIIT!).

Tabata has become the classic – 20s work, 10s rest, repeated 8 times (4 mins total), but there’s not really any evidence that one protocol is superior to any other.

It could make sense to build these timings around what are found in your sport.

I.e. if you find yourself stood around for minutes at a time, followed by brief all out bursts, make your intervals the same.

Generally, however, make work slightly longer, and the rest slightly shorter, so that the demands are over and above that of your sport.

Other Bits and Bobs

Mobility + HIT + HIIT I recommend for one and all. Regardless of your sport, even if you don’t do a sport, keeping your body mobile, strong and well conditioned is going to pay dividends, whatever you decide to do with it.

Some sports have more specific demands than others though, so you might want to consider doing that little bit extra to get that edge.

COD and Agility Work

I’ve already covered this at length above, but I mention it again here, just to consider whereabouts to put it in your training program.

Hopefully, if you’re training as part of a team, some kind of these drills should be part of your practice.

Prowler Pushes and Sled Drags

I think these are great bang for the buck exercises. They can develop speed, power, resilience, core strength and metabolic conditioning. Do it right, and you could probably do the HIT, Core, and HIIT all just with these bits of kit.

Prowler Push
Long socks must be worn when pushing the prowler. All other items of clothing optional.

Get a Grip

There’s nothing worse than a weak handshake! But seriously, grip strength is a key factor in many sports.

Using fat grip bars or towels while strength training, or dragging sleds by your hands rather than a belt can be a good way to work it in without spending more time.

Direct grip work with grip strength trainers, farmer’s walks and bar hangs can all help too. Though don’t forget grip strength (like all types of strength) is very specific.

Stretching the Limits

For most sports, the dynamic mobility drills are going to give you all the active range of motion you need. If you’re a martial artist, gymnast, dancer or just particularly tight in some or all of your joints, some static stretching is probably going to benefit you. Check out my guide here!

So there you go. I think that just about covers it.

As always, I’d love to know what you think, and if you’ve got any questions or suggestions, so please feel free to comment below.

1. Primum non nocere: A commentary on avoidable injuries and safe resistance training techniques James Fisher, James Steele, Matthew Brzycki, Bill DeSimone


3. Task-specificity of balance training Giboin LS, Gruber M, Kramer A

4. The Importance of a Sport-Specific Stimulus for Training Agility Young W, Farrow D

5. Effects of small-sided game and change-of-directiontraining on reactive agility and change-of-directionspeed Young W, Rogers N

6. Transfer of Strength and Power to Sports Performance Young, W

3 thoughts on “Strength and Conditioning for Sports – Separating Fact from Fiction”

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