Strength and Conditioning Basics for Enhanced Performance and Injury Prevention

While each athlete has his or her own individual training needs, there are some key areas where all athletes can make improvements to achieve their athletic potential. Identified below are three key areas where significant gains can be made. Like any type of training, however, these areas must be developed on a consistent basis, over an extended period of time before a difference can not only be made but also seen in competition. Summarized below are some strategies that you can incorporate into your training to assist you in enhancing your performance while striving to remain injury-free.

Flexibility and Stretching

Flexibility is a key determinant of all movement in athletics. Increased flexibility allows you to move your joints through extended ranges of motion. The greater your range of motion, the more power you can generate for different athletic movements such as sprinting, jumping and throwing. Additionally, if you are not flexible, you increase your chances of injuring your muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Stretching on a daily basis is a must for all elite level athletes. Stretching should be treated as a separate training activity to be done outside of your regular training and practice sessions. Regular stretching increases your flexibility and allows your connective tissue (muscles and tendons) to recover and regenerate in between training sessions. When you stretch on a regular basis, you gain valuable awareness of the condition of your body. You are able to detect tightness, soreness, pain and imbalances, and direct your stretching program to alleviate these problems. Key points to remember when implementing a stretching program include:

  • Stretch at least one time per day, working on each muscle group at least three times each.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 60 seconds.
  • The intensity of the stretch should be a "1" or "2" on a scale of 1 to 10 (i.e. very light tension).
  • When you stretch a muscle group, make sure that you are well balanced, and not straining to hold your stretching position.

Core Strength

In all sports that involve strength, power and/or speed, your core or mid-section, where your centre of gravity is located plays an important part in transferring force through your body to your limbs. If your core is not strong when sprinting, jumping, throwing, lifting or initiating contact against another player or object, you will be less effective in your sport than an athlete that does have a strong core - all other things being equal. Provided below are some key points on how to enhance your core strength and improve your efficiency of movement in your sport:

Consistently work your abdominal muscles through sit-ups, crunches and leg raises, for example.

Develop your back extensor muscles through back extension exercises such as squatting and "good mornings".

Always be aware of your posture when practicing your technique for your sport. Keep your back straight, your head up, your chest out and your shoulders back, creating a stable, power position for your body. If you have a rounded back and a "soft posture", you will be less able to transfer powerful movements from your core to your limbs.

Periodically use a training device such as a Swiss Ball or balance board to destabilize yourself, and challenge your body to stay balanced, strong and activated.

When weight training, try to do more "closed chain" exercise, such as a back squat, where you are standing and the weight transfers from the ground, to your feet, to your hips and into your upper body.

Squatting Tips

  • Place feet shoulder width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  • Ensure that your back is flat, chest is out and shoulders spread for the entire motion.
  • Keep your head up, focusing your vision straight ahead at all times.
  • Make sure that your weight is balanced on your heels, not your toes, as you descend.
  • Descend to a height at which your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • As you begin the upwards motion of the squat, maintain upright posture.

'Good Morning' Tips

  • Place feet shoulder width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  • Use a very light barbell or even a broomstick across the back of your shoulders for resistance.
  • Ensure that your back is flat, chest is out and shoulders spread for the entire motion. - Keep your knees slight bent to minimize stress on your tendons and ligaments.
  • Descend slowly to a point where your torso is parallel to the ground.
  • Begin a slow upward motion, maintaining a flat back so that tension is felt in the hamstrings, glutes and back extensors.

Basic Movement Skills and Strength Development

In order to be effective at performing complex skills such as sprinting, jumping and throwing, you must be able to first master simple movement skills. There are many different movements and exercises you can do to enhance your athletic ability. However, when performing these simple movements, there are a number of requirements you must be aware of in order to maximize their effectiveness, including:

Proper Posture - You must have proper posture in order to move fast, powerfully and efficiently. Proper posture is characterized by keeping your head up, your back straight, your chest out and your shoulders back. This applies to almost all movements.

Full Range of Motion - Exercises must be completed through the full range of motion. As mentioned earlier, a shortened range of motion for a joint will result in less power and force than a full range of motion for the same joint. Therefore, you must train your body to move through full ranges of motion, so that it becomes an unconscious response whenever you perform in your sport.

Maintain Balance and Control - When going through your exercises, you should maintain proper balance and control. If you are constantly teetering and struggling to stay balanced, either reduce your training volume or load, or reduce the complexity of the exercise.

Stay Relaxed - When training, even at a maximal level, try to maintain a sense of relaxation. Tensing up your body will only limit your range of motion, affect your posture, confound your balance and control, waste energy and result in poor performance. You can still maintain a high level of intensity during competition and stay relaxed.

Key movements that you can work on to enhance your strength and movement skills include free squats, standing and rolling lunges, push-ups and pull-ups. Most of these exercises can be done without weights, and still provide a significant training effect. They also help to maintain a high level of fitness when weights are not available to you.

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