Building muscle and strength for sports performance

Building muscle and strength is one of the main objectives of a Strength and Conditioning Coach (S&C), however, there is a difference between training for maximal strength/maximal muscle mass and sports performance. Strength athletes are not team sport athletes and vice versa, maximal strength training is for weightlifting and powerlifting, while building maximal muscle mass is for bodybuilding. You need to know where your going to sit as an athlete because there are distinct differences in the training methods. Team sport athletes may use certainly elements of what strength athletes do and vice versa, although both these groups of athletes need to train differently to achieve their respective goals. Strength athletes compete either to have the most amount of muscle mass or to lift the most amount of weight. If you’re a team sport athlete, lifting is not your sport, it can definitely help but you don’t need to be doing a bodybuilding or powerlifting program to improve your on field performance.


What are your sporting goals?

Before you start training you need to sit down and determine what you want to achieve, this should be written down as a goal. It’s also important to define ‘why’ you want to achieve that goal and know how it is going to help your sports performance. It’s not going to be helpful to gain muscle mass or strength for the sake of becoming slower, less explosive and unfit. If your going to put a lot of time and effort into training you want to make sure you are maximising your work for results. Once you’ve got your goal you can decide what is going to be the best training to achieve that goal.


Too big and strong 

Ask yourself – “Do I really need to gain more muscle mass for my sport?” If the asnwer is yes, then ask – “how much do I need to gain?”. Having more lean muscle mass can be very beneficial for combat and contact sports, it can provide protection and help improve your strength (more muscle = more muscle force producing ability = better strength). There is always a point of deminishing returns though, too much extra weight could be damaging both to your performance and injury resilience. To avoid getting too heavy work on only gaining 5% of your body weight in a 12 week period, it may seem slow but it allows you to adapt to the new weight (put on a weight vest and go for a run, and you’ll see what extra weight does to your performance). The other question to ask yourself is – “how strong do I need to be for my sport?”. Deadlifting 300kg is impressive but it won’t help you run, jump, sprint or throw any faster. Unfortunately there’s also a point of deminishing returns when it comes to strength training, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strong. Instead of looking at absolute strength (amount of weight on the bar) look at your relative strength (strength to weight ratio). For example; if athlete ‘A’ can Deadlift 300kg at 180kg body weight (BW) and athlete ‘B’ can Deadlift 200kg at 100kg body weight (BW), athlete ‘B’ is strong relative to their body weight (2 x BW vs 1.6 x BW).


Strengthen what is important

Another thing to consider is what are the primary movements and muscles that are involved in your sport? If you play running-based sport, the posterior chain (lower back, traps, glutes, hamstrings, lats, calves) is going to be heavily relied upon. Therefore, it’s important to build strength and muscle mass in these muscle groups. What want from your strength program is to build  more speed, power and explosiveness in the movements/muscle that you are going to have to do the most during sport. If you’re focusing too much on upper body vanity work, your going to be running the risk of not improve or becoming worse. If you are deteriorating on the field/track/court because you are doing too much vanity work in the gym, then you need to reassess your program. There’s only so much of time you can contribute to training and you want to make the absolute most out of it. So whatever you’re doing in the gym needs to be effective and have good transfer and carry over to your goals and what you want to achieve on the sporting field.


It’s all about timing

Increasing strength and muscle mass can be very demanding on the body so it’s critical as an athlete to correctly time when you want to achieve these goals. The Pre-season and In-season phases require you to dedicate a lot of time and energy to your sports training so building strength and muscle can be very challenging. In reality the Pre-season and In-season phases are the worst times to achieve this goal and training for it will only give you poor results. Therefore, the Off-season is the best time to work on gaining muscle mass and increasing strength, because you don’t have to worrying about being sore and tired for your sports training or competition. A good Off-season program can help set your body up in preparation for the Pre-season and In-season phases, all you have to do is keep some type of strength training up during that time.