Strength and conditioning, or S&C, is an essential component of a well-rounded training regimen for sport. S&C is primarily used for the maintenance of orthopaedic (muscle, joint, and bone) health and injury prevention. Secondarily, it is used for improvements in physical fitness.
For such a basic task such as injury prevention and improved fitness, S&C programs oftentimes overpromise and under-deliver. This is sometimes the fault of overly eager trainers. The field is full of passionate trainers (myself included) who are enamoured with the process of improving physical performance, and in this way it is easy for us to look at S&C as a panacea that can skyrocket an athlete to Olympic-level performance. However it is important for trainers to “stay in their lane”; personal trainers and S&C coaches are experts at greatly increasing physical traits related to S&C – strength and conditioning. The more specialized aspects of sport performance such as technique are better left to sport-specific coaches. The overly eager trainer may spend too much time working on components of fitness that deliver marginal gains, and too little time on components that deliver massive change.
There are 12 components of physical fitness that can be further broken down into “health-related” and “performance-related” components, and it is important for both trainers and athletes to understand which components of fitness can be influenced the most in an S&C program. The components of physical fitness that are barely modifiable in the weight room are, again, better left to the sport-specific coaches.
The health-related components of physical fitness are low-hanging fruit for athletes looking to better their game. These are the aspects of fitness that any decent trainer worth their salt should be improving in their clients, regardless of whether they are a world-class athlete or a sedentary office worker. On top of improved health, working on these aspects of fitness can dramatically increase sports performance:
Mobility – the ability of a joint, or joints, to move through a full range of motion. If the number one goal of S&C is injury prevention, then this in my opinion, should be top of the priority list.
Cardiorespiratory endurance – work capacity related to the heart and lungs. This can also be described as an athletes’ “aerobic base”. Good cardiorespiratory endurance is essential for health, performance, and recovery, no matter the sport (linebackers and power lifters, did I stutter?).
Muscular endurance – the work, and buffering capacity, of muscles. Almost all sports require some degree of muscular endurance.
Strength – the ability to exert force. Having adequate strength is imperative for health and performance. Furthermore, strength is closely linked to performance-related components of fitness such as speed and power.
Body composition – the percentage of lean versus adipose (fat) tissue. High levels of muscle mass and bone density, and low levels of body fat are important for health and exercise economy.
The performance-related components of physical fitness are traits that a knowledgeable S&C coach might spend time developing in some athletes, depending on the sport they are engaged in. There are some traits such as power or speed that can be tweaked with good training. Other traits such as reaction time or coordination show negligible improvements with training and are better left to sport-specific coaches to work on.
Agility – the ability to change direction quickly. This can be improved via footwork and change of direction drills. While it is important to reinforce good mechanics when changing direction, sport-specific agility should primarily be up to the sport-specific coach to develop (duh). A good trainer or S&C coach might work on other factors related to agility such as joint resiliency or eccentric strength.
Balance – the ability to keep the center of mass under control. While many trainers enjoy incorporating Bosu balls and other unstable training surfaces in their athletes’ training, it is clear in the motor learning research that these tools do not translate to improved sport-specific balance.
Coordination – the ability to use the body smoothly and efficiently. While trainers should always be improving athletes’ efficiency of generalized movement, sport-specific coordination is out of their scope of practice.
Speed – the ability to move quickly. Speed of muscular contraction and relaxation is trainable in the weight room, although changes in speed may not be as great compared to changes in muscular endurance or strength.
Power – the ability to exert force over a short period of time. In other words, the combination of strength and speed. This is also trainable in the weight room.
Reaction time – the time between stimulus and response. While reaction time drills might be used to prime the nervous system of an athlete, they should not be seen as something that can directly improve sports performance. Reaction time is highly specific, and (not to beat this dead horse) sport-specific reaction time should be improved with the sport-specific coach.
Kinesthetic awareness – the ability to be aware of the position of joints across time and space. Going back to the primary goal of S&C, injury prevention, it is important to train safe movement mechanics into athletes. As an example, good joint position during jump landing is imperative for injury prevention. But while gross aspects of kinesthetic awareness such as jumping and landing mechanics can be trained, finer and more complex concepts such as a gymnast’s aerial awareness while doing a flip are (sigh) again, up to the sport-specific coach to improve.
To summarize, S&C is important for all athletes if they want to perform at their best. However, of all the components of physical fitness that can be improved, it is important that personal trainers and S&C coaches focus on improving the aspects of physical fitness that result in the biggest performance gains. Most training should be centred on improving the health-related components of physical fitness, and some training of performance-related components such as power and agility may be appropriate, depending on the athlete. The components of fitness most closely linked to sport-specific performance are better left alone. While all 12 components of physical fitness can be improved by a personal trainer or S&C coach, it is imperative that trainers do not overpromise on their ability to improve athletic performance. At the end of the day, the primary goal of strength and conditioning ought to be injury prevention. Secondarily, improvements in physical performance should be sought after.
As always, if you’d like to know more about, and start taking responsibility for your own health, fitness, and wellness, please reach out to Crux Fitness Richmond for any of your personal training needs.
Pat Koo – Personal Trainer at Crux Fitness Richmond