Weight training is crucial for sports performance. If you’re a rugby player, footballer or martial artist you’ll want to get the maximum returns from it, returns that will enhance your sports performance.

But what types of exercises should you be doing, what weight training systems should be using and what weight should you be lifting and why is your central nervous system so important?

You can develop different types of strength in the weights rooms. These strength types are largely determined by the weight you lift and the reps you use. There are three basic strength types – ‘maximum strength’, ‘power strength’ and ‘strength endurance’ and all have relevance for sports conditioning and performance.

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The strength types are listed below together with sports for which they are particularly applicable. As you’ll see there are numerous cross-overs between sports and their needs for the strength types – some will require two or even all three, for example.

Maximum strength

Maximum strength is also referred to as ‘gross strength’. It refers to the maximum amount of weight that an athlete (in the widest sense of the term) can lift normally once on any given lift i.e. their one repetition maximum (1RM).

Typical sports applicability: rugby, athletics’ throwing and jumping, sprinting, football.

Typical sessions:

Simple Set: 4 x 4 @ 85% 1RM

Pyramid: 6 x 80%, 2 x 3 x 90%, 2 x 2 @ 95% 1RM

Power strength

Ok, all forms of weigh training develop power, but this term is used in the context of this article to describe weight training that deliberately sets out to improve the speed of contraction of a muscle/muscle group by utilising fast movements and medium to heavy weights (60-80% 1RM). We’re talking about loads that would result in a slow down of performance after 6-8 reps

Typical sports applicability:

football, rugby, hockey, athletics’ throwing and jumping, racket sports, swimming, martial arts.

Typical sessions:

Simple Sets: 4 x 8 @ 70% 1RM

Strength endurance

Strength endurance training in the weights room is designed to develop the capacity of an athlete’s muscles to perform multiple reps.

These workouts develop ‘fatigue resistance’. They use high reps and moderately light weights (around 30-60% of 1RM) and multiple sets (4 plus), with minimal recovery.

Typical sessions:

Simple Sets: 6 x 30 @ 30% 1RM
Simple Sets: 10 x 1min @ 40% 1RM

Typical sports applicability:

endurance running, martial arts, racket sports, swimming (can also be used by virtually all sports to build general condition at the beginning of the training year).

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Why is the CNS important for sports performance?

Research indicates that playing a sport for a long time influences the way the CNS ‘controls’ the way your muscles function for your sport.

Here’s a specific example from Finland – although focusing on jumping, rather than weight training, it will show you why the CNS is a crucial consideration if you want to be the best at your sport as you possibly can be: High and long jumpers, swimmers, footballers and poor and good vertical jumpers participated in the study.

The idea of the research was to find out how the athletes’ CNS influenced the way they activated their muscles. A vertical jump test was used. Not surprisingly the track and field jumpers performed the most powerful vertical jumps and the swimmers the poorest.

Focusing on the CNS it was discovered that it influenced the way the athletes recruited their muscles. The swimmers were unable to create the stretch/reflex* action in their leg muscles as powerfully as the jumper’s – this muscular response is crucial for good jumping. The footballers’ jumping, although better than the swimmers, displayed a more contrived, more staccato (bit by bit), muscular firing rhythm.

This was unlike the jumpers whose muscles fired dynamically, rapidly and sequentially to produce the greatest jumping power. The researchers attributed these differences to the specifics of the individuals’ sports and crucially years of relevant training and its effects on the CNS.

Specifically they stated, “The results suggest that prolonged training in a specific sport will cause the central nervous system to programme muscle coordination according to the demands of that sport.” Adding, “That (the) learned skill-reflex of the CNS seems to interfere hierarchically in the performance programme of another task.”

In slightly plainer English the white-coated boffins were saying that if you maximise the CNS system contribution to your sports performance then you will become a better sports performer. The CNS becomes ‘used’ to firing the muscles and crucially reacting to the forces involved in very specific ways and this is crucial for your training inside and outside of the weights room.

Maximising your sports power through weight training

Fast twitch muscle fibre

Elite sportsmen and sportswomen generate incredible amounts of power in a fraction of a second. Usain Bolt’s feet will only be in contact with the track for 0.089 of a second when he’s flat out and that’s at an incredible 27mph! So his muscles have to fire incredibly quickly and utilise all their fast twitch, speed and power, producing muscle fibres to propel him down the track.

Fast twitch muscle fibre is vitally important to sportsmen and sportswomen involved in sports such as, rugby, netball, the martial arts, gymnastics and of course sprinting – and it can even be argued endurance performance, although it is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about this.

Fast twitch muscle fibres are bundled together with the nerves that switch them on in motor units. These motor units are recruited (activated) according to the ‘size principle’. Basically this means that they are only used, as they need to be. Think about this scenario: you’re in the weights room and you know that the weight you are going to lift is ‘light’ (around 40% of your 1RM).

So, you know that you can easily lift and rep it, so that’s what you do with little effort. In terms of completing a set of reps at this weight, you won’t actually be using that much of your fast twitch muscle. However, stack the bar so that it’s near to your 1RM, let’s say 90% of it, and lifting the weight will become an entirely different proposition.

You’ll start thinking about the lift – you may even get a little nervous and begin to psyche yourself up. You’re doing the right things if this happens, as to get all your fast twitch muscle motor units to help lift the weight, they need to be stimulated by large amounts of neural (mental) energy.

It’s this flow of energy that lights the fuse to produce explosive muscle contractions. This is why you shouldn’t (or in reality can’t) go through the motions when maximum strength and power weight training (nor for example, sprinting, or trying to throw a medicine ball as far as you can).

The central nervous system

Sports conditioning experts are increasingly pointing to the CNS as a key influence on sports performance. The CNS is a complicated part of our bodies and there is considerable debate as to how much of it functions unconsciously and consciously.

The CNS is taxed (as well as your muscular energy systems and muscles) when we workout – the more intense the workout the greater the demand on it. We only have limited amounts of CNS energy.

Think back to yourself again: you’re in the weights room and you’re in the zone, your fast twitch motor units are all fired up and you have just lifted a near p.b squat. What do you feel after the elation of completing the lift? You’ll inevitably feel tired and you will probably not feel like lifting heavy again.

This is natural and is the consequence of your CNS telling you, ‘Hey, we’ve just used a lot of my energy up there to get that weight up and now I need a break’. You need to listen to your CNS when weight training (and indeed when training in general) so as to not unduly fatigue it and potentially compromise sports (and fitness) performance.

Let’s go back to Usain. To run fast you have to run fast and to this must be added, lift fast and strong. All of us who have trained heavy in the weights room know that there are different ways to get the weight ‘up’.

We can ‘strong arm’ it and take what seems an eternity to push out the rep or reps, or we can be so in the zone that we explode the bar up in a flash. It’s the latter way that will have the greatest relevance to improving sports performance.

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Why?

1) you’ll be in the zone and nearly all, if not all your fast twitch motor units will have been utilised to power up the lift.

2) because of this you’ll have generated more power. Power is the product of ‘speed x resistance’.

Performing a lift more quickly against the same resistance produces more power than a slower rep at the same weight. And it’s these considerations that are key to ensuring that your weight training is going to have the greatest cross-over into your sports performance. Usain’s foot explodes from the track surface, because all his fast twitch muscle fibres are generating that power.

A weight training regime that develops the ability to utilise all your fast twitch motor units will have an enhanced ability to transfer directly into improving sports performance. As noted the CNS is incredibly complex. If a sportsman or sportswoman trains it submaximally they can potentially create a submaximal transference into their sports performance.

A slow lift will not train the CNS to supply lightening quick energy that will overcome great resistances. With the right regular training the CNS can be trained to do this. Basically it will develop the potential to move the athlete’s body more quickly, dynamically and strongly. Fatigue must not be allowed to compromise this both inside and outside of the weights room and across the training programme.

If speed of lifting slows, in particular when maximum strength and power weight training, then the set should be stopped and more rest provided, or the session or that particular exercise even stopped.

There’s nothing wrong with dividing a set of 6 reps into ‘twos or threes’. In doing so, the ‘6 reps’ will be completed at much faster speeds with a higher CNS input with a resultant greater potential transferability into improved sports performance (particularly in terms of fast twitch motor unit recruitment). The wrong weight training for sport approach.

Rugby players, often boast about what they can bench press, clean or squat. And athletes being athletes will often compare themselves against their peers and decide that because ‘such and such’ can lift ‘such’ an amount that they must train to be able to do the same.

However, this approach is potentially flawed as:

1) the pursuit of greater weight training strength will only be of use if it actually improves sports’ performance.

2) Direct comparisons between the strength capabilities of athletes from different sports are only relevant if comparative ‘norms’ are based on scientific research that justifies the need to ‘have’ those strength levels.

3) If the athlete’s ‘power to weight ratio’ is not unduly effected i.e. if an athlete gains weight through muscle gain, but does not improve their power to weight ratio (i.e. they were able to lift more kg’s above their body weight at their previous lighter weight) then they will invariably be no better an athlete. In short strength for the ‘sake of strength’ is a potential blind alley.

We also need to add a further blind alley that many male athletes in particular often go down – building muscle to look good and not to improve sports performance. Big biceps and chest muscles may look great on the beach or for fitness modelling (see page 72) however, unless this muscle is functionally useful for the particular sport being played then there is little real benefit to be derived from pumping it up.

Big biceps are of little real use to the footballer, cricketer, track and field jumper and even the sprinter (although to look at some of these ‘man-mountains’ you might not think so). The biceps are hardly active in sprinting – sufficient strength is only needed in these muscles to hold the forearms in the required position when sprinting.

Ok, bigger muscles can exert more force than smaller ones, due to their larger crosssectional area. However, athletes with the biggest muscles may not be the best at their sports, nor – and this is crucial as noted – may they possess the best power to weight ratios. As a case in point a body builder will not be as strong nor as dynamic as an Olympic lifter despite the former’s inflated muscles.

As indicated in it is very important to factor in the CNS’s role in your weight (and other) training to maximise its contribution to enhance sports and fitness performance. This is key and if muscles increase in size in consequence so be it.

Don’t start with the ‘I want to get bigger’ premise if you are an athlete looking to maximise your sports performance using weight training, instead carefully consider the body you need for your sport, select the right weight training systems and strength types and train accordingly, paying attention to the role of the CNS.

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