Strength training: physical, technical and psychological preparation

The strength preparation phase of training

 The need for strength in sports is now generally accepted. I have witnessed mediocre teams and individuals in field sports and other events improve quite dramatically by adopting a structured strength programme. Whether at elite or recreational level, a strength training programme should be planned and implemented according to sound principles to optimise the athlete’s performance capabilities.

This series aims to give you an insight into the type of work that can be included in a progressive strength programme and inform you on how to plan such a programme. We start with the strength preparation phase

By Phil Gardiner

The strength preparation phase

The strength preparation phase is extremely important. It is during this period that the framework of physical, technical and psychological preparation is developed prior to the competition phase. Inadequate training performed during this period will create problems during the competitive phase which will be very difficult, if not impossible to rectify. During this phase, a relatively high volume of training is required in order to prepare the body for the higher intensity training* (see note below) and competitions that follow, where the ability to recover quickly is important. It is also essential, as it can provide the basis for injury prevention. This is because strong, flexible muscles can withstand the rigours of competitive sport much better than the non-strength trained.

* Higher intensity training refers to sport-specific training, speed training and plyometrics (jumping-type   exercises) and heavy (over 85% of 1 rep maximum) weight training.

How long should the strength preparation phase be?

For sports with clearly defined, relatively short competition phases:

Single competition phase (for example track and field athletes and swimmers preparing for one major event in the training year) – 32 weeks plus.

Double competition phase (for example track and field athletes or gymnasts, preparing for two peaks, perhaps in the winter and summer seasons) – 13 weeks plus.

Triple competition phase (for example sprinters going for three peaks, indoor season, mid- and late-summer outdoor seasons) – 8 weeks plus.

For sports with multiple competitions

Coaches in charge of football and rugby teams, for example, tend to adopt a single periodised plan. There is a drawback – unlike with track and field or rowing the competitive seasons are usually several months longer (with matches on a weekly basis), meaning that preparation time is at a premium. For tennis, because of indoor facilities, there are competitive opportunities throughout the year.

For these sports, fitting in a strength preparation phase can be difficult. Coach and athlete may have to fit in short preparatory phases before less important tournaments and select their competition schedule accordingly.

In sports such as triathlon and marathon running, long periods of recovery and preparation are necessary to allow the athlete ample time to prepare and recover from their efforts. These athletes are more likely to benefit from a double or triple competition year. This would allow enough time to develop the required strength (and other qualities) in the ‘gaps’ between competitions.

Strength endurance training is crucial

Irrespective of whether your sport is endurance or predominately speed based, the foundation period must contain strength endurance training at a relatively low intensity, but with a fairly high training volume (in terms of reps and sets). This will provide the muscles with the endurance necessary to withstand and recover from the more intensive work that will be demanded of them in the training and competition phases that follow.

In terms of strength, intensity is measured by the 1RM that the athlete is capable of lifting at that time of year – as opposed to their lifetime best lift. I advocate this being about
65-75% 1RM during this phase.

* Note: more experienced athletes should spend less time on lower intensity strength training than novice athletes before moving on to higher intensity workloads –
for example, 6 weeks as opposed to 8 weeks (for a triple competition year).

The best strength preparation phase exercises

It is important to use multi-joint free weight exercises, such as the squat or dead
lift, as opposed to isolated (single-joint) exercises, such as arm curls or leg extensions.

Multi-joint free weight exercises have a systemic effect that reaches beyond the muscle fibres recruited in their execution. This means that they activate the neuromuscular system which, in turn, improves coordination. In simple terms, they improve the body’s ability to move fast, change direction and carry out skills used in sports.

Certain fixed-weight machines can serve a useful sports strength preparatory role. For example, the low pulley row, or leg press but multi-joint free weight exercises usually have a better transfer to athleticism.

What to account for when designing a preparatory strength phase

1)    Tempo and load
Movements should be controlled and should be made through the full available range of motion.

2)    Do not exercise to failure, only to fatigue
The aim is to gradually progress condition and avoid excess muscle soreness (and, in worse-case scenarios, injury).

3)    Do not attempt unrealistic loads
Begin with 2 or 3 workouts per week using 6-8 exercises over 2 or 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions with 2-3 minutes’ rest between sets. The loads should be between 65% and 75% of 1RM and performed in circuit format – of which more later.

4)    It is not necessary to endure prolonged workouts in the gym to achieve progress
30-45 minutes will normally suffice.

5)    It is not necessary to lift weights more than 3 times per week to achieve success
Lifting more frequently will not allow the body sufficient recovery and adaptation time.
It takes 48 hours to recover from strength training.

6)    When training for sports, such as football and tennis, you should take into consideration the time and effort being put into your sport-specific training and allow for recovery time
You need to follow a balanced, inclusive and comprehensive training programme.

Circuit and stage circuit training methods

Circuit format: exercises are performed consecutively with minimal rest between each. Two to three minutes’ recovery are then taken at the end of the circuit. All major muscle groups should be worked. It is the best format to use when working at lower intensities.

Stage format: I believe this method is best for achieving strength gains, when the loads lifted increase in intensity beyond the 75% limit of the strength preparation phase. It’s a more advanced system and should only be used by the appropriately experienced athlete. The athlete completes, for example, 3 sets of each exercise before moving on to the next exercise.


Body weight exercises and strength preparation

It is always good to commence the strength preparation phase with bodyweight exercises before progressing to weight training workouts. These are usually performed in circuit format, although the intensity can be increased by using the stage method. Try it and you’ll feel how much tougher it is to do 4 sets of 20 press-ups with a short recovery between each set before moving on to the (different) next exercise.


Sample strength preparation phase workouts

The following workouts will provide a solid strength endurance base for numerous sports. Note: as the loads (intensity) increase the number of exercises and repetitions decrease. If necessary the sets can be reduced to 1 or 2 when intensity is increased before building back up to 3 as the body adapts.

I have included exercises for the glutes and the lower back – for example, dead
lifts and the bent-over row. These exercises play a vital part in the prevention of injuries to the legs and lower back and improve the body’s ability to sprint, jump, kick, etc.
Vary the abdominal exercises to ensure all ‘ab’ regions and muscles are targeted.

Strength preparation workouts

Strength preparation phase workout 1

Circuit style – suitable for most sports and for those new to circuit training

Exercise Sets Reps % of 1RM Recovery between exercises
Squats 3 12 65 1min
Bench press 3 12 65 1min
Dead lift 3 12 65 1min
Calf raise 3 12 65 1min
Abdominal exercise 3 20 1min
Lat pull down 3 12 65 1min
Hyperextensions 3 20 1min

Strength preparation workout 2

Stage format – suitable for intermediate to advanced trainers

Exercise Sets Reps % of 1RM Recovery time between exercises
Squats 3 10 70 2.5mins
Bench press 3 10 70 2.5mins
Leg curl 3 10 70 2.5mins
Seated row 3 15 70 2.5mins
Abdominals 3 20 2.5mins
Calf raises 3 15 70 2.5mins
Lateral dumbbell raise 3 10 70 2.5mins

In the next part of the series I describe more weight training exercises and systems and how they can be used to develop specific strength qualities that will further improve your sports performance.

Phil Gardiner

Phil is based in the North East of England. He is a qualified athletics coach (level 4 speed). He also holds an international coaching certificate and has over 26 years’ coaching experience. As a writer, Phil has had strength and conditioning articles published in the UK, Australia, and eastern Europe. He has also worked with rugby and football teams and players.

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