How effective is weight training for athletes?

It is often seen as a vital tool but does pumping iron really help create faster, more powerful and enduring athletes?

Nearly all athletes use weight training as part of their routines. However, the science behind how to get the most from it for direct athletic improvement is neither consistent, nor even fully understood. 

So many variables influence how successful a weight training programme will be. For a start, not all athletes will respond to weight training in the same way. Some may bulk up considerably in response to specific protocols, while others won’t. 

Firstly, it should be noted that an increase in lean mass, although potentially allowing for the expression of more power, can also result in more weight to be carried on the athlete’s body. An increase in muscle mass can slow all distance run times if the athlete’s power-to-weight ratio is negatively affected.

Secondly, weight training protocols for improving athletic performance are incredibly varied, although there is an emerging consensus as to what the desired outcome should be.

Thirdly, athletes do not weight train in isolation. Their training comprises of multiple other elements. Some of these may compliment weight training’s physiological consequences (such as plyometrics), while others may not (such as endurance training).

For sprinters and jumpers, it could be the plyometrics they are doing which is improving performance rather than the weight training. For the thrower it could be the medicine ball or implement throwing and not the weight training. 

Fourthly, not all muscles are as important as others when it comes to improving athletic event performance. The glutes and the hips may be the key muscles needed for improved sprint speed, for example, so these may not be being specifically targeted.

Research indicates that, compared to non-athletes, sprinters and jumpers’ hip and glute muscles are larger, too, so the weights programme needs to reflect this. Different events require different specific muscles to be optimised for optimised performance.

To lift or not to lift

I have studied and researched weight training, as well other conditioning means, as a coach for decades. I want to find out what will really improve performance. 

Like many coaches I now don’t see it as being as central to directly improving athletic performance as it has been seen previously by many. 

When you lift weights you are constrained in many ways. You cannot move the weight as fast as you move yourself when running, jumping and throwing. It takes tenths of a second to squat, yet the sprinter’s foot will be in contact with the track surface for milliseconds.

Nor can you (usually) safely release the weight at the end of its travel. When you high jump, you don’t stop producing power until you leave the ground. When you squat or bench you need to stop the movement as you usually can’t release the bar. Thus, the force production curve is different.

Most weights exercises are performed using both arms and legs and are very linear, while all athletics events require unilateral movement and often across various planes.

Additionally, the common muscular action used is the concentric (muscular shortening) one. Virtually all muscular actions in athletics require stretch-shortening ones. When running at any speed, the muscle, tendons and ligaments will first have to stretch and store energy before shortening to return energy.

This quick-fire stretch-reflex is key to plyometrics, hence plyometric training may be superior to weight training as a conditioning means.

Additionally, research indicates that eccentric muscular actions may – everything else being equal – be more important than concentric ones. 

A weight training programme, therefore, should include eccentric exercises. These involve lowering a weight under control. 

Isometric movements may also be as important. This is when muscles work against each other or an immovable resistance is used to produce no movement but considerable muscular tension. 

How much strength is enough?

There is a growing understanding that there is a limit to the amount of weight training strength required. Any gains after this may be of little direct use to improving performance. For example, 200kg is seen to be sufficient for elite male javelin throwers. The rationale for this may not be exclusively related to distance thrown rather than potential injury protection.

Muscle fibre adaptation

You’ll know that there are fast and slow-twitch muscle fibres. These are needed across the different athletic disciplines in different quantities. The marathon runner obviously will need more slow, oxidative, red muscle fibres in comparison to the 100m sprinter who wants a proliferation of anaerobic white, fast fibres. 

Research indicates that, even when heavy weights are lifted as fast but as safely as possible, the resultant long-term fibre shift is going to be toward the slower of the fast-twitch varieties (so Type 2a fibres). Yet, sprinters ideally need more Type 2b fibres – the out and out power producers. 

The distance runner will have a conundrum, too. This is known as the “interference effect”. Human physiology finds it difficult to train for two different physiological outcomes at the same time, without compromise.

So, trying to gain weights room strength while building endurance at the same time could likely result in compromised gains.

How can weight training help athletes?

I’ve painted a little bit of a negative scenario when it comes to weight training, however there are still multiple reasons for doing it.

Weight training is relatively unique in how it strengthens soft tissue. It can make muscles, but in particular ligaments and tendons, resilient to injury (particularly if eccentric movements are used). This is a key value I see with weights and other resistance training means and, when combined with plyometrics, you can increase power output through potentiation (see AW, Sept 2022). 

Research and anecdotal experience indicates that heavy load weight, low rep training, with full recoveries can improve the athlete’s ability to recruit greater amounts of fast-twitch muscle fibre and more specifically the motor units which control them. This can result in a transferable legacy in that the athlete becomes more able to recruit these for their actual athletics discipline. Basically, they will develop access to greater horsepower.

READ MORE: Put a spring in your step with plyometrics

It’s because of this that one of the key protocols for using weight training to try to directly improve athletic performance is via this maximum strength method of lifting – that’s to say using weights in excess of 80 per cent of one repetition maximum. This is something that only training mature athletes should do. Younger athletes will get more benefits from using lighter weights and other resistance exercises to build greater injury resilience. 

» This article first appeared in the October issue of AW. Subscribe here

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