3 Musts to Build Strong Athlete’s In-Season
Physically prepare your athletes to be resilient and durable
- What are the keys to building lower-body durability?
- Can deceleration training improve athletic performance?
- How can we preserve lower body force production?
- Future Research
- Take-Home Messages
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- About the Author
Strong and durable athletes are more likely to remain healthy and available to participate during in-season play within their respective sport. As strength and conditioning coaches, it is up to us to utilize current literature and evidence-based practices to physically prepare our athletes in the weight room to become resilient enough to withstand the rigours and demands of athletics. In doing so, our athletes will have a much greater chance of reducing the likelihood of injury while remaining available for participation in their sport.
Current evidence acts as a pivotal element in the overall methods for training and programming. In order to put our athletes in the best possible position to succeed, we can use research as a guide to focus on 3 musts in our approach toward building strong athletes during in-season play. Key areas of focus for injury reduction and maximizing performance will be through the inclusion of lower body durability exercises and deceleration training exercises, in addition to incorporating methods of preserving force production.
What are the keys to lower-body durability?
A comprehensive training program targets full-body strengthening and maintenance during in-season sport participation. However, in order to layer in lower body durability, it becomes imperative to directly load and target these 4 key areas: the hamstring region, groin region, knee region, and calf region. In addition to directly loading these key areas, the surrounding support structures in the body (i.e., tendons, ligaments, bones, etc.) will benefit by becoming stronger as well. All in all, the direct strengthening of these 4 key areas, which often fall prey to in-season injuries and setbacks from wear and tear, will create a stronger and more durable lower body to endure a full season of sport participation.
The hamstring region is a key contributor in all sports involving repetitive acceleration and deceleration. Consider the hamstring region as the conductor of speeding up and slowing down, which ultimately places this area under a great deal of mechanical loading stress. Promoting durability begins with the inclusion of the Nordic Hamstring Curl (NHC), otherwise known as the Nordic Hamstring Exercise (NHE). Current evidence suggests a reduction in the overall injury risk ratio of 0.49 in favour of programs including the NHE, which may increase fascicle length, leading to morphological changes that may protect the hamstring muscle from injury (12). The utilization of an eccentric focus within the NHC allows the athlete to spend increased time under tension, which elicits greater increases in overall strength. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 6-8 repetitions on 1-2 days per week.
It is not uncommon for athletes to find themselves succumbing to various hamstring injuries and setbacks during sprinting actions in sport. A key component of this common mechanism for injury is due to the front leg being outstretched ahead of your body while the hamstring region is in an elongated position during sprinting. It is here within this elongated position that, if not adequately strong and durable, the hamstring region can become prone to injury. The Glider, otherwise known as L-3, is an exercise found within the L-Protocol of the Askling Hamstring Protocol that loads the hamstrings during maximal dynamic lengthening, which is an attempt to mirror situations in athletics that commonly lead to injury (3). The L-protocol has been used to successfully support hamstring strength and durability in athletic performance with an emphasis on the eccentric loading of the hamstring region. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 6-8 repetitions per side on 1-2 days per week.
Mimicking sprinting-like actions in the weight room, when loaded appropriately, can be a useful approach toward safeguarding the hamstring region for protection against injury in athletics. Furthermore, in doing so, there is a greater likelihood for the athlete to improve strength and durability in positions commonly frequented during participation in sports. An intelligent strategy for directly targeting the hamstring region in an overall strength and conditioning program can be through the Single-Leg Hamstring Bridge (SLHB) exercise. A much more challenging variation than the common bridge exercise, this single-leg hamstring bridge exercise calls for approximately 20° of knee flexion, which places a greater loading emphasis on the hamstring region (5). The isometric position of the working leg in the SLHB can factor in as a way to prescribe hamstring strengthening to improve overall lower body durability (4). Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per side on 1-2 days per week.
The groin region, a neighbouring area to the hamstring region, is commonly placed under mechanical loading stress within a multitude of sports. Consider what is widely referred to as an athletic stance with an athlete slightly crouched down and hunched a bit forward with both knees and hips at a slight bend and both hands out toward each side. Furthermore, consider what it looks and feels like when an athlete pushes off to change direction from this athletic stance or even performs a defensive slide in sports. Ultimately, what you will find is that the groin region is heavily involved in all of these actions, which makes it a key area to strengthen in training. The Copenhagen Adduction (CA) exercise can be a useful training strategy to begin building lower body durability in the groin region to keep athletes strong during in-season play. Current evidence on the CA exercise has been conducted with male footballers where one study demonstrated reduced groin problems by up to 41% (9). Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions per side on 1-2 days per week.
Lower body durability for athletes during in-season sport participation is key for long-term success. Although strengthening the hamstring region and groin region are both a must, we can also see how the knee region becomes equally important as well due to the anatomical location and similar mechanical loading in athletics. Current evidence suggests that the Reverse Nordic Hamstring Exercise (RNHE), better known as the Reverse Nordic Curl in strength and conditioning circles, has been shown to produce a significant increase in the muscle fascicle length, muscle thickness, pennation angle, and cross-sectional area in the quadriceps muscles (2). This joint-friendly exercise places a strong emphasis on the controlled eccentric component for muscular and tendon strength adaptations in the knees via increased time under tension. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 6-8 repetitions on 1-2 days per week.
It’s important to consider that the feet are the first things that touch the ground during sprinting, running, jumping, and landing, which all represent important aspects of sports and physical activities. Understanding this will lend credence into viewing how this impacts the associated structures in the calf region, such as the gastrocnemius muscle, soleus muscle, and Achilles tendon, in addition to how forces are transmitted up the chain in the lower body toward the knee region, groin region, and hamstring region. A recent study found that the triceps surae, made up of both the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle, respond robustly to regimented exercise (11). Targeting the gastrocnemius muscle becomes accessible within standing positions of direct loading with an emphasis on a controlled tempo and external loading in the entire range of motion. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions on 1-2 days per week.
Anatomically, the soleus muscle resides below and deep to the gastrocnemius muscle. A simple and effective way to target the soleus muscle directly in a strength and conditioning program will be when the knees are bent to a certain degree. You can do so partially by standing with both knees slightly bent, or you can do so fully in a seated position since the soleus is a single-joint muscle and only crosses the ankle joint. The gastrocnemius, on the other hand, is relatively slack when the knees are bent since this muscle crosses both the ankle joint and knee joint. An externally loaded isometric standing position with the knees bent slightly can be a useful approach toward improving lower body strength and durability in the soleus muscle. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 20-30 seconds per side on 1-2 days per week.
Can deceleration training improve athletic performance?
Deceleration training focuses on the primary elements that allow an athlete to slow down in a controlled manner, absorb contact via various forces and velocities, efficiently change directions, and land in an organized fashion. These physical skills and qualities may aid your athletes in the process of remaining strong and durable during in-season sport participation. Strength and conditioning coaches can potentially begin to take preventative measures for injury reduction and athletic performance enhancement by including exercises and protocols that focus on deceleration and landing skills within an in-season training program.
A recent study on male and female youth athletes suggested that the inclusion of a program centred around jumping and landing exercises could improve jump-landing technique, which would help to reduce the risk of lower-body injuries (10). Another study concluded that a training program including jumping and landing exercises with male and female basketball players can be effective in preventing lower extremity injuries (1). In-season sport participation leans heavily on an athlete’s ability to remain strong and durable. Most importantly, those that can remain strong and physically capable will be available to participate versus being sidelined due to a potential lower-body injury. This further highlights the importance of including deceleration training within in-season programs to reduce injury risk and improve athletic performance.
The three planes of motion within human movement refer to the sagittal plane (forward and reverse movements), the frontal plane (side-to-side and lateral movements), and the transverse plane (rotation and twisting movements). Consideration of all 3 planes of motion when prescribing deceleration training exercises could be beneficial for your athletes to be well-equipped for the demands of in-season sport participation. Ultimately, this could align with the thought process of leaving no stone unturned within the training program to physically prepare your athletes for resiliency.
An avenue to utilize as a strength and conditioning coach once the athlete is prepared to advance from these exercises could be through the process of adding some form of progressive overload. Ultimately, this would allow the athlete to continue to make progress toward remaining strong and durable during in-season athletics. A simple way to utilize this training strategy could be by having the athlete hold a light medicine ball (i.e., 4-8 pounds) during deceleration training activities. This slight addition in weight would increase the overall difficulty of the exercise, thus eliciting greater adaptations in force absorption and landing mechanics in the realm of athletic performance. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions per side on 1-2 days per week.
Lastly, we can implement increased velocity as another advancement in the deceleration training process to keep your athletes strong and durable. Having the athlete swing both arms down quickly from an overhead position could be a useful strategy to increase velocity within a given deceleration exercise. However, you could alternatively increase the height from which the athlete drops from as well. This creates a situation where the athlete has to travel a slightly further distance with their body prior to landing on the ground, which emphasizes an increase in velocity. A depth drop exercise may be a useful training strategy in this regard. Suggested in-season utilization: 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions per side on 1-2 days per week.
How can we preserve lower body force production?
Force production refers to the ability of an athlete to express qualities of strength and power. It becomes imperative for an athlete, regardless of sport, to be able to preserve and maintain their level of force production as it relates to athletic performance. A simple example of force production in the lower body can be seen through the act of jumping. In the weight room, we can train this quality through the squat jump exercise. On the playing court, this can be seen when an athlete is jumping up in the sport of basketball to gather a rebound.
Strength and conditioning coaches can ensure the preservation of force production during in-season sport participation by incorporating exercises and protocols in the weight room that allow the athlete to express explosive strength. Rate of force development (RFD) is a measure of explosive strength, which ultimately comes down to how fast an athlete can develop force. Improving an athlete’s RFD can potentially increase their overall explosiveness and athletic performance.
Overcoming isometric exercises may benefit your athletes along the lines of being able to preserve lower body force production during in-season play. An important component of overcoming isometrics is understanding that the athlete will be exerting maximal effort and force in order to attempt to move an immovable object. During these short bouts of maximal effort and force, the athlete’s body will be recruiting as many motor units and muscle fibres as possible in an attempt to move the immovable object. Overall, this can be one of many useful training strategies for the preservation of force production and the improvement of RFD.
Current evidence suggests that the isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP) can be useful in overcoming isometric exercise to both preserve and improve an athlete’s force-producing capabilities. One recent study reported substantial improvements in muscular hypertrophy and maximal force production through the utilization of high‐intensity (≥70 %), maximal intent contractions such as those performed in overcoming isometric exercises (Oranchuk 2018). Since the IMTP requires maximal effort and intent as the athlete pulls up on the barbell, ensure only 3-5 total attempts of short bouts of 3-5 seconds with adequate rest periods during an in-season training session. Doing so will allow the athlete to perform quality repetitions while managing the overall workload and volume.
After reviewing the current body of evidence, there is enough valid and reliable research to suggest the inclusion of the following exercises and protocols within an in-season strength and conditioning program:
- Nordic Hamstring Curl (NHC) exercise [Nordic Hamstring Exercise (NHE)]
- The Glider exercise
- Single-Leg Hamstring Bridge (SLHB) exercise
- Copenhagen Adduction (CA) exercise
- Reverse Nordic Hamstring Exercise (RNHE)
- Direct loading and strengthening of the triceps surae muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus)
- Jumping exercises focusing on deceleration and landing skills
- Overcoming isometric exercises such as the Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull (IMTP)
Thus, accurate conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the aforementioned exercises and protocols can be made to build and maintain strong athletes during in-season participation.
From a lower body durability standpoint, current evidence has discussed the utilization of the Razor Hamstring Curl (RHC) exercise to strengthen the hamstring muscles and the Spanish squat exercise to strengthen the quadriceps muscles, patella tendon, and quadriceps tendon. The promotion of direct hamstring strengthening in a functional position such as in the RHC helps to accentuate other land-based training methods such as jump landing training (7). One study in the literature suggested the Spanish squat exercise to be an effective programming strategy for promoting knee strength and durability (6). However, the current evidence is not conclusive enough yet to confidently suggest the inclusion of the RHC and the Spanish squat exercise; therefore, these topics should be investigated further in order to advance our current understanding.
- The following exercises may support lower body durability and strengthening of the hamstring region: the Nordic Hamstring Curl (NHC) exercise [Nordic Hamstring Exercise (NHE)], The Glider exercise, and the Single-Leg Hamstring Bridge (SLHB) exercise.
- The following exercise may support lower body durability and strengthening of the groin region: Copenhagen Adduction (CA) exercise.
- The following exercise may support lower body durability and strengthening of the knee region: Reverse Nordic Hamstring Exercise (RNHE).
- Loading the gastrocnemius muscle and soleus muscle directly may support lower body durability in the calf region.
- Jumping exercises focusing on deceleration and landing skills may support lower body strength and durability, in addition to reducing the risk of lower-body injury.
- The following overcoming isometric exercise may support the preservation and maintenance of lower body force production: Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull (IMTP).
- Aerts, I, Cumps, E, Verhagen, E, Mathieu, N, Van Schuerbeeck, S, and Meeusen, R. A 3-month jump-landing training program: A feasibility study using the RE-AIM framework. J Athl Train 48(3): 296- 305, 2013 [Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3655742/]
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