What does it take to become a better, all-around athlete? There are five main "pillars" to develop as an athlete: strength, power, speed, agility, and endurance. Each sport or athlete may require differing amounts but most sports require all of these pillars. The foundation of these pillars starts with muscular strength. Strength helps lay a solid foundation to gain more muscle, mobility, and stability. From there, the other pillars will develop properly with a solid foundation of form and mechanics. These pillars can all co-exist and can help develop the next. We will cover that more below.
Pillar #1: Strength
There are three main types of ways to train strength: isometric, eccentric, and concentric. Isometric movement is best described as a muscle contracting and being held under tension without any movement happening. An example would be a plank or wall sit. This is important to train the muscles to understand proper technique and form, to help build general strength, and can be easier at the beginning of a program on the muscles and joints to aid in injury prevention. Eccentric movement is best described as a muscle working as it lengthens. For example, while doing a bicep curl, after curling the weight upward you would slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position. As the weight slowly descends, the muscle is lengthening. Eccentric exercises are important to athletes for injury prevention, to slow down and learn proper form, and to work muscles through an entire range of motion which will aid athletes in better force production and overall strength. Concentric movement is best defined as a muscle working as it shortens. An example would be during a squat. As the athlete stands back up from the squat, they are working the muscle as it shortens. This is usually the main part of any exercise and one of the major focuses of building muscle size and strength.
Pillar #2: Power
Power is generating as much force as quickly as possible. It can also be defined as Power= Force x Distance / Time. Strength and power go hand in hand but just because you are strong doesn't necessarily mean you are powerful. For athletes, almost every sport requires power. If you can lift a lot of weight slowly, that is beneficial but as an athlete you also need to move weight more explosively. In order to lift for power, it is important to find a weight that pushes you but you can move with more speed. Some examples would be power squats, box jumps, ball slams or throws, or sprinting activities. In order to train power, you want to focus on the quality of the reps and not necessarily on how many reps you are doing or how much weight you can lift. Try to do 3-5 sets of 4-8 repetitions to train power. The goal is to not lift to failure but to focus on the quality of each movement and exercise.
Pillar #3: Speed
Speed can be defined as the rate at which someone or something is able to move or operate. Speed can be a complicated component of athletic training. First off, without strength and power training, speed will not be all it can be. By building a solid foundation of muscular strength and power, you will be able to see bigger strides in speed training. There are three main phases of speed: Acceleration phase, maximum velocity (which includes the drive and recovery phases), and the maintenance phase. Within all of this, sprint mechanics are important to learn. Stride length and stride frequency play a critical role in sprinting. There is a "happy medium" in becoming faster. In the acceleration phase, stride frequency is faster as athletes try to accelerate to their maximum velocity as fast as possible. As athletes progress out of the acceleration phase into the maximal velocity phase, stride length increases. This is where athletes reach their top speed and can vary in duration depending on the sport or sprinting distance. During the maintenance phase, the athlete tries to decelerate as little as possible and maintain maximal velocity as long as possible. This again depends on each sport.
Some quick tips to aid you in speed training:
1. Dorsiflexion (toes pulled up towards your knee) is highly important as it keeps the ankle "loaded" and allows you to be "springy."
2. Run on the balls of your feet not flat footed.
3. Do not be bent over at your waist. Keep your hips "connected."
4. To improve the drive phase of maximal velocity, you need to improve the "pop" or drive into the ground to propel you forward.
5. To improve the recovery phase of maximal velocity, you need to work on bringing your heel up towards your butt as quick as possible with your ankle at dorsiflexion. This happens when the foot comes off the ground and is recovering to get your foot back on the ground as quickly as possible.
6. For the maintenance phase, it is important to also work on some muscular endurance to maintain your maximal velocity for as long as possible. Speed looks different in every sport. Many sports require deceleration into changing directions as well, which we will cover soon.
7. It is important to maintain top speed without lengthening your stride more as that could force you to lose form and speed.
8. Keep upper body, head and neck muscles relaxed.
9. Swing arms from the shoulders, not the elbows.
10. At max speed, athletes should be upright and have a "level" head.
Pillar #4: Agility and Change of Direction
The ability to move quickly or change directions as quickly as possible because of a reaction to an outside stimulus (person or object). Agility requires acceleration, deceleration, and a quick change of direction. In order to be more agile, you need to be able to do all three of those as quickly as possible. Since there is almost always a reaction to an outside stimulus (person or object), athletes need to improve game-like decision making and coordination. There are two main ways to train agility and both play a role in becoming more agile. Keep in mind that strength, power, and speed training can help build your agility as well! The first type is change of direction training. This type of training requires change of direction drills but they are pre-planned and not reactive to an outside source. This could involve various cone or ladder drills. These are important for athletes to learn better acceleration, deceleration, body positioning, timing, foot speed, and coordination. They do eliminate the reactive component and should not be the only type of agility training athletes do. Agility training has all of the same components but involves a reactive component to an outside stimulus. This type of training is important because athletes need to be better prepared to react to a ball or person just like they would in a game, practice, or competition.
Pillar #5: Endurance
Endurance can be described as the bodies capacity to move oxygen and energy to the body and muscles during exercise. This type of training helps athletes better their overall stamina and ability to continue in games or practices for longer durations. Endurance training should look different in each sport. For example, football conditioning will look different than basketball conditioning. Both require starting and stopping but vary on amount of rest time or distance traveled. There is also a major difference of endurance training to run long distances and playing other sports such as football, volleyball, baseball/softball, or basketball. Endurance training should be a part of any athletes program but doesn't need to be the central aspect. Be careful to not always turn power, strength, agility, and/or speed exercises into endurance activities. These can be used for endurance exercising but you will slow the progression of the other pillars if you are always doing it. We like to add more endurance or stamina training at the beginning of our programs to build a solid base of fitness, form, and mechanics. As programs progress, we include "finisher" types of workouts at the end of our sessions to maintain or continue building endurance. You can increase endurance with all different types of activities that include circuits, intervals, strength training, and running. Remember to try to train your endurance based off the sport you are looking at improving your stamina in. You do not need to be going on long runs to train yourself for sprinting in track. You may actually slow yourself down!