“Stop your silly ‘core’ training and just get your athletes strong”. This was a quote accompanied by a photo I came across recently, of a coach watching someone deadlift. This statement gets one thing right, ‘core’ is a vague term which is often developed inefficiently in a gym setting with limited transfer back to the intended sport. However, the quote neglects that ‘strong’ is also a vague term which is often developed inefficiently in a gym setting with limited transfer back to the intended sport. It’s this confused emphasis that concerns me and is digging into.

There’s a cult like field in gym rats that like to push this ‘just get strong’ mindset. Having the luxury to work in the National sporting sphere, it’s very frustrating to watch athletes trying to get to the elite level suffer due to ideologies such as this. Now don’t get me wrong, athletes should absolutely be strong, and there certainly is much time wasted on stability exercises which, while they might look cool, aren’t truly developing them core in a relevant way. Hence the use of inverted commas for ‘core’. Unfortunately, I think more athletes have their potential drained, and become injured, from poor training methods based on misconceptions regarding the other half of that quote, ‘strong’, which should absolutely have inverted commas around it as ‘core’ did. The fact that ‘core’ does and ‘strong’ doesn’t I think gives insight into the authors bias towards heavy compound lifts over stability or bodyweight work using bands for example; essentially valuing increases in weight over other improvements athletes could be making in the gym which are arguably much more relevant. This article is going to be about what it means for an athlete to be ‘strong’, how athletes are being tricked into chasing their ego’s in the gym over more relevant sports performance training, and some more holistic – less dogmatic – approaches you can adopt to best improve performance inside your chosen sport.

An easy critique and example of inefficient ‘core’ training might be reviewing sit-ups. It is an exercise that does target the abdominals, but it does so in such a way that strengthens them through a movement quite irrelevant to most sport situations. The inverted commas used around ‘core’ would be there to point out that many times coaches and athletes are working on their ‘core’ without really knowing what they are trying to achieve. We seem to confuse working hard, or fatiguing a muscle, with a successful training session. This is largely a residual effect from when the only people in a gym were bodybuilders and athletes started off simply training the same way – the gym was a place to build muscles with the assumption that this would implicitly help performance in their sport. This old school mentality completely neglects to consider the type of training, the muscles are being fatigued and what other movement patterns and habits are being taught while the muscle is being fatigued. Thankfully Sports Science has illuminated the need to, and benefit of, training with relevance to your sports and less with the outdated bodybuilder muscle-oriented style. But the old mental associations remain. You see evidence of this when you show someone an exercise and get the question back “what does this work”?

So when many core exercises are analysed through this lens of relevance, many are seen really to just be tough ‘burners’, or cool looking exercises involving a million random bands and stability balls without having much intelligent thought behind what specifically the exercise is trying to achieve, via development and transfer to other activities.

What happens if we take this same lens of relevance and apply it to getting athletes stronger? 

Well firstly we need to know what strength is to see if it’s relevant. ‘Strength’ as a word used in isolation, by no means implies anything to do with physical strength. Consider that someone can be said to be of strong character, or to be emotionally strong, or physically strong. Strength is then perhaps domain specific. Lets assume that this domain is physical. Does getting stronger in one sport transfer perfectly to other sports? Yes and no. Depending on how similar the two are. So then physical strength is relative to the demands placed on the individual inside their domain. This means that the exercises you choose to train and get stronger in, need to have a strong relationship to your end goal; you need to know why you’re bothering to put time and energy into this specific exercise, and what you should be focusing on while completing it. Strength could perhaps be defined as your ability to overcome an external resistance. Whether that resistance be with regards to an emotional event, a barbell on your back or gravity and momentum pulling your body one direction when you decide you want to go another. It is the role of a Physical Performance Coach to consider and understand the demands of the sport, and how to manipulate variables in order to develop those characteristics in a relevant way.

Strength in basketball for example requires the athlete to be able to develop full body tension in a fraction of a second, before shifting to power and speed to accelerate. This involves a lot of coordination in a fraction of a second. Since heavier loading on a barbell on say a squat or any other low coordination compound movement, always results in more weight and load, but less speed, then we have a paradox of relevance with these activities. On the court, force goes up as speed of execution goes up. For example the faster you run or the quicker you head into a turn, the more force produced. Yet in compound gym lifts, we increase the weight on the bar to increase the load which has a negative effect on speed of movement hurting our ability to generate force in a relevant manner.

Frans Bosch – Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach

Not to say we shouldn’t squat and shouldn’t squat heavy at times, but it certainly isn’t the gold standard of sport strength. There are many elite athletes who have never squatted in their life and are among the fastest and most powerful athletes in the world. Considering that the longer you train the heavier you lift and the more work you need to put in to make progress, strength training in compound gym lifts can be very taxing, stealing precious available energy from on-court work which is 100% relevant to their sport. By critiquing ‘core’ training yet failing to use the same labelling for strength training the coach risks showing a tendency towards blindly chasing gym strength and assuming that progress there equals progress on court.

We seem to have progressed out of the trap of training bodybuilder style, only to fall into another where we prioritise how much we can lift or how much we had to strain to finish the exercise. This might be how much our squat has gone up this week or it might be how drenched our shirt is by the end of the session. We again have an incorrect assumption between input and output. Before it was if this muscle burns or grows then it muscle be useful, and now it’s ‘if my squat or deadlift increases then it must be useful’. But useful for what? Your squat PB? Or your sport performance? What are you really intending to improve? We are falling victim to specificity without relevance. It’s much easier to increase someones squat, bench press or deadlift than it is to improve their on court performance – it’s certainly makes for more Facebook promotion opportunities when you can brag about 150% improvements in compound gym lifts, which, by the way, isn’t hard to do if the athlete has spent very little time on them before starting with you! Gym training volume is easy to control, measure and prescribe. Sports are multidimensional and very difficult to measure, there is no blueprint to develop someone to an elite level – it is as much art as it is science. Many fail along the way, even with good training. There is some benefit in measuring specific components of a sport of course, like strength, or speed, or power, but we need to remember that we are almost always measuring and training these using an activity which is different to the goal. It is vitally important to not confuse the means with the end. A good way to look at it is appreciating water running through a babbling brook. You find the running water so enchanting that you decide to take some home with you, so you collect some in a bucket, which of course changes it from running water to still water. You cannot take some out in isolation without losing important characteristics. The challenge becomes resisting the temptation to over invest and waste time and energy in areas that really have limited benefit to the end goal. If a strength coach struggles to see their role as providing much else than strength training then of course they will be hesitant to swallow this ego pill; ideally though they will expand their means of developing athletes to encompass more holistic methods such as training movement patterns and resilience as well as strength. On top of this it’s knowing when an athlete is better off not coming in for more sessions but instead spending more time in their chosen sport.

Athletes are also to blame, partly. Athletes are hardwired to win. The successful ones tend to be anyway. Give them task, any task, and they’ll find a way to make it competitive and to win it. If you’re in elite or semi elite sports that’s why the athletes have made it to the that level. When training in the gym, one of the easiest ways to compare what you’re doing to what someone else is doing is the weight on the bar. Or if trying to gauge performance improvements you will compare what you did today to what you did last time. Subconsciously this leads to an inner motivation to push to increase it above any other goals which might be more relevant transferring outside of the gym, such as body control. Athletes get excited when they get new PB’s and wins. Often wins are weeks apart in their sports, but they can get a PB win almost every workout if they want. Naturally their coach in the gym wants to encourage this excitement, it validates their role and keeps paying clients coming back, and it all contributes to both athlete and coach over emphasising the value of how much weight is on the bar.

This is even more of an issue when you consider the law of diminishing returns. You see, when you first step in the gym, you will struggle to squat the 20kg bar. Your stability is awful and your body doesn’t know how to coordinate the movement – which by the way, is probably evidence that it isn’t completely representative of your sport – yet after just a few training sessions your balance and coordination improves and you’re now squatting significantly more than you started. Have you got stronger? No, you just learnt a new movement. Is this useful, for something like a squat where you have to learn to sit backwards and further engage your glutes providing knee stability with core stiffness? Absolutely. This will have a positive transfer back to your sports training without consuming much time or energy. But, beyond this initial learning effect, which might take you from 60kg to 120kg in a few months, how much more useful is pushing your PB from 120kg to 180kg? Early on in your training you could jump 15% in a single session no problem, but after a couple of years of training making even a 5% improvement take weeks of heavy, gruelling lifting. Lifting which drains your energy and leaves you sore, unable to complete as much or as high an intensity of sport specific training as you might have otherwise. This has a negative net effect on your development as an athlete. Gym numbers might make athletes feel good, make strength coaches look good, but historically do not make you an elite athlete.

One abstract side theory which might explain why some strength coaches tend to over value heavy lifting in their athletes is this.

  1. The coach used to be an athlete themselves.

  2. The coach started strength training which made them strong but slow, or strong but less skilled, or strong and injured.

  3. The coach realised that their athletic potential was being overtaken by other athletes.

  4. The coach decided to stick with what they were best at and moved into strength coaching, without realising what they are now promoting is the reason they are a strength coach and not an athlete.

  5. The cycle continues ad infinitum.

So what can you do if you want to increase overload in your training without simply increasing weight on the bar? You’ll have to check in for part 2 because this short reflection has grown much longer than intended. Hit subscribe and receive notifications of new website updates.

Now this whole article started with a quote grabbed off Facebook. We have to realise that the coach responsible for the quote might have no idea he phrased this so poorly and might not have actually realised what he was implying by this particular phrasing. This could be due to a poor understanding of strength training for athletes, or simply poor grammar skills. And it doesn’t really matter. We can be thankful they did because either way it has led to this line of thinking which has been enlightening for us at Athletic Advantage, and hopefully for you too.