They say that strong people are harder to kill. I’d add that they’re also less likely to get injured, in any capacity. Strength is the foundation of a body fit for anything. Be that running, team sports, obstacle races, or just daily life.
There’s a right way to do strength training in this context. The 220lb bodybuilder might well be as solid as a rock – but he’s not particularly athletic or mobile. Fortunately, you can be strong; without being huge and un-athletic.
In this post I’ll lay out the key do’s and don’ts for getting not strong and bullet-proof; but also faster, more agile and flexible.
Free weight training for stability
Free weights are going to challenge the bodies stabilizing muscles where machines will not. Machines will make the primary mover stronger, but not the supporting muscles. This actually increases the injury risk in many cases – assuming separate work is not done to strengthen the supporting muscles that are not active during the machine exercise.
For example, a machine chest press will make the pecs bigger and stronger, but will not help the function and strength of the rotator cuff muscles around the shoulder that create stability and allow for free and safe movement around the shoulder.
On the other hand, a dumbbell chest press will challenge the stability muscles as well as the prime mover (pecs), lead to more balanced development and safer, stronger shoulders.
Full range of motion movements
Using a full range of motion is actually more effective for strength and muscle growth anyway. Leave the ego at home and do your exercise through the full range of motion. However, here it is relevant because injury tends to happen at extreme end ranges of motion.
People get hurt because they are in a weak position with little leverage, and their muscles are not strong enough in that position to sustain the force applied to them. Something has to give.
As an example, if you watch a gymnast you would expect them to rip their shoulders out of the socket regularly – most people sure would. But gymnasts have incredible strength and joint integrity in extreme ranges of motion and they are able to take a high degree of force, in positions most people could not.
Loaded or weighted stretching is somewhat an extension of the previous point. It is building strength in an extreme range of motion, where a joint or muscle is under a large stretch. With loaded stretching you are also increasing the range of motion. You’re creating a buffer where your body is comfortable going beyond what is the general range of motion requirements for a joint.
This means you always have some spare room to play with This is the importance of mobility (active flexibility). As an example, if you can perform weighted splits, you are never going to get in a position where you land from a jump and overextend your hips, because you have so much additional range of motion you can access. The risk of injury drops significantly.
Loaded stretching not only increases range of motion, but will be increasing strength in the important extreme end range too.
Blend low, medium and high rep ranges
To achieve a fully balanced and strong body you need to use a mixture of rep ranges. Pure strength is built in low rep ranges, and it can be tempting to think doing lots of strength works is the best way to get strong.
Unfortunately, it’s not that black and white. To achieve maximum strength, you will also need to increase the size of muscles, which is generally mid-range reps (6-12). To support all of this, you also need to build strength in the tendons and connective tissue, which is best done with higher reps.
Powerlifters want to be as strong as possible, to lift a maximal weight once. The bulk of their training on the main movements – squats, deadlifts and bench press – will be done at low rep ranges. However, assistance work will all be done in mid and high rep ranges. This is to build joint integrity and ensure the skeletal structure is capable of supporting the large weights they are lifting in the strength building exercises. 50+ rep sets are not uncommon when looking to build supporting musculature.
Bringing this back to you, assuming you’re not a powerlifter but you do want to be strong, you should focus on a mixture of rep ranges. Start with lower rep strength work and then do assistance exercises with higher reps, focusing less on moving the weight, and more on creating tension in the muscles.
Use unilateral bodyweight movements to correct imbalances
Left-right imbalances are a common source of faulty movement patterns that cause injury. The best cure for this is unilateral (single side) exercises. This will immediately show up any difference side to side, and also stop the stronger side from taking over and doing the bulk of the work, which may happen on bilateral exercises.
Using squats as an example, if one leg is stronger than the other, it will do more of the work on a squat and maintain the imbalance. If you do a pistol squat (single leg squat), each leg has to do the work on its own. You will see straight away if you find it easier on one side than the other.
The other benefit of this is that it challenges the stabilizing muscles much more than doing a squat on both legs. In a team sport, for example, you are rarely stood on both feet. You’re usually running, with one leg in contact with the floor at any given time. That means training on one leg is better going to prepare you for the sport you’re going to be doing. Decreasing the likelihood of injury.
Even if you’re not a ‘gym person’ and just enjoy your sport, the benefits of doing some strength training in injury prevention and performance enhancement are vast and I would encourage you to fit a couple of sessions in to your routine.