Training can get a little complicated when you’re discussing elite strength and power athletes. Since they’re at the top end of specialization for their sport and working on the cusp of their genetic potential the margin of error is fine and the stimulus needed to make them respond is very high. However, when the subject of developing strength for most athletes, who are far below that elite level, is at hand then it is a different matter. Strength for less-trained athletes is pretty simple. Lift bigger weights, eat more food, grab some ZZZ’s, and they get bigger and stronger. While the basics should be simple, that’s not to say that mistakes can’t (and far too often are) be made.
Here are three of the most common mistakes I see when it comes to developing strength in young to intermediate athletes:
1. Too much focus on repetition and isolation work. Athletes get stronger by moving big weight for relatively few repetitions through athletic movements. Squatting, pressing, pulling, and other big, compound movements utilized for heavyweight should be the basis for all athletic programs.
Bodybuilding culture has dominated Western training for so long that many athletes still feel that they need to focus on isolating and developing individual muscles through high repetition work. This doesn’t make for a great athlete, and honestly, I don’t think it makes for an ideal bodybuilder in most cases, either. This dominant style of training has prompted young athletes to focus on curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions, and other less effective exercises. These kinds of exercises don’t do much to develop strength or promote athletic ability.
2. Way too much overall volume. You see this one with young athletes all of the time. They feel that since some training is good, more is better. There’s also this idea that they need to outwork their opponents (good) and to them, that means spending more and more hours in the gym (bad). Training for strength means utilizing the means necessary, which is heavyweight, in the most efficient manner to stimulate the body to adapt. The key word there is “stimulate”. That’s all you’re trying to do with strength training, not “beat my body into the ground with hours of training and hundreds of repetitions”.
3. Lack of deload periods. Another thing that people tend to do (and often the same people who overdo their volume of training) is not taking the time they need to recover. A well-planned period of reduced training volume and/or intensity is called a “deload”. This basically means that after a period of hard training, you take a little while (a day or two to a week or even two weeks) of greatly reduced training, sometimes no training at all, to recover. This allows your body to heal up from all of the hard training you’ve done, grow like hell from all of the stimulus you’ve given it, and mentally lets you take a break from the grind. Well-timed deloads are a great thing and you should come back fresh, stronger than before, and hungry to get back into competition or training.
Hard-training young athletes don’t always see the wisdom in this type of thing. They feel any break in training is taking a step backward and so continue to charge hard. Eventually, their body just can’t keep up with the constant abuse and either stops improving or an injury occurs. Injuries tend to force a “deload”, but it’s a whole lot longer than the week they could have taken off and they certainly don’t come back improved.
On the flip side, a deload is not an excuse to be lazy. If you haven’t been training hard or you’re making great strides and feel great in your training, you don’t need to deload.
Examine your own training to see if you’re making any of these mistakes. Remember that getting stronger is a goal. In order to achieve that goal, you need to be focused and have a good plan of how to get there.