Strength as a skill

Strength as a skill….It’s often talked about and more often written about..But I wonder if the athletes of today actually understand what it means. I’ll do my best to break down how I view strength, why it's a skill, and it’s importance in the yearly development and preparation of an athlete.

In my mind it’s fairly straightforward but as is often joked about – Common sense is not all that common. So looking back at the skill of building strength, what does that mean to an athlete? To a weekend warrior? To your average gym goer? I think it all means that same thing. How does one acquire any skill…by practice of course. In order to practice building strength, you have to…wait for ….work on strength, i.e. lift heavy weights of rep ranges that stem from 5 down to 1.  Why do I bring this up? Why even write about it all?

I have the fortunate niche of working with beach volleyball athletes….Now, beach volleyball, while being an insanely fast and dynamic sport that requires the ultimate expression of multiple energy systems does not necessarily have what I would call the strength and conditioning “culture.” There are other sports, Football, for one, that clearly thrive on the opposite end of that spectrum…maybe even bordering on too “into it.” However, Volleyball (sand), is still acquiring that appreciation for the art and science of a progressive approach to year round strength and conditioning programming.

Like many of the myths that perpetuate the strength and conditioning world (such as “weights” make you bulky…talking to you creatures of the female persuasion) they run rampant in the beach community as well.

The conversation usually goes like this: (With someone of a low training age)

Athlete: I want to work on my vertical this year….what do I need to do?

Me: Get stronger!

Athlete: Yeah but (it always starts like this), I don't want to get bulky,  put on weight, I’m not trying to put on mass

Me: You won’t!

Athlete: Yeah, but my friend did Air Alert* (or some other internet downloadable one size fits all workout) and he/she put nine inches on their vertical in 2 months…

Me: (HUGE sigh, as i figure out a diplomatic way to tell the person standing in front of me that there’s no way that happened and unless the person in question is not human, that a properly designed, progressive strength training program is the best way to increase a person’s vertical** Especially a young athlete. )....Ok, here are my thoughts…..

As a coach, this is where you have to start breaking down some walls and cracking through some long held misguided beliefs. It’s actually a great opportunity to do some educating as well as to provide those invaluable “lightbulb moments.”  Today’s athlete (both young and old) want proof. They want explanations. More than ever, they want to know why. It’s not enough to have years of experience in the field, today’s athlete is inundated with a lot of noise, which forces us as coaches to be very concise and direct with our strength and conditioning philosophy and game plan as it relates to their training.

When I’m explaining why it’s so important to achieve a relative strength level I have always found it very useful to use analogies. One of my favorites, and probably the first one I ever heard was the “cup” analogy. If you consider strength as a cup, the more strength you have, the bigger your cup. The bigger your cup (once again, meaning the stronger you are) the more qualities you can fit inside of that cup. This is material in the sense that many young (and older) athletes get enamored with the fancy the volleyball world, as I eluded to earlier, all they want to do is jump (in my mind, I’m like “seriously, that’s LITERALLY all you do when you're playing, why would I continue to beat that dead horse..) My point is, as an athlete if you’re worried about VBT, cluster sets, RPE or some complex set you saw on the internet but you can’t squat or clean your bodyweight...or worse yet can’t do 20 perfect pushups then one of two things is likely to happen

  1. you get hurt

  2. you never realize all the potential of those “other” qualities

The following graph is known as the force velocity curve.  


On the left axis is Force. When high amounts of force are applied to an object, such as a heavy barbell, that barbell moves in the opposite direction of the force (i.e. a squat). The higher the force required to change the direction of the object (bar) the higher the weight of the bar (and vice versa). So on the left (max strength) you’ll see higher force movements such as maximal deadlifts, back squats, front squats, etc.  As the velocities rise you move to categories such as strength speed, think Olympic lifts. Faster and farther down the curve you reach “Power.”  There are housed movements/exercises such as weighted jumps and medicine ball throws. Even further down you find very high velocity movements such as sprinting.

As an athlete you absolutely need to touch on both sides of the FV curve. It’s essential for complete athletic development. If you’d like an example - have you ever seen the big muscular guy that has no “pop” (explosion, what have you) or conversely the silloway athlete that can’t stand up to the rigors of a long season or can’t deal with the in game contact...Both have the same problem..they trained too much on one side of the spectrum (or not at all).

Strength’s “other” purpose

For the coaches reading this, how many times have you heard athletes say, “I don’t lift heavy because I don’t want to get hurt. I only do high reps…” It’s the most tragic oxymoron in all of sports...Your ability to remain durable is dependent on your ability to be resilient. Resilience stems from strength! It’s quite simple.  

Athletes reading this, consider strength training not only your path to heightened physical abilities but also your way to build your own personal body armor. That armor protects you against the wear and tear of your season, against impact from your opponents and helps you retain all the athletic qualities that allow you to succeed in your sport over a long season.

It was once told to me that strength and the building there of is the best corrective exercise any of us can undertake. I’ve never been more healthy than when I was my strongest (and most powerful)...I’ll asterisk that with relative strength...I do feel there is a point of diminishing returns, especially in court sports (good thing I threw that in I could feel the internet storm troopers mounting their attack). It would seem all I’m talking about is lifting weights like a meathead... Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In my opinion progress can be measured in a multitude of ways from actually moving more weight on a bar, to being more efficient with a particular movement to being able to recover quicker from a stressor.

Bottom line, if you want to be durable, move well, accentuate all your athletic potential, you need to be on a structured, variable, and progressive strength and conditioning program (note I didn’t say workout), ideally overseen by a qualified coach.

Hope you’ve all had a great offseason and good luck in this upcoming inseason.

(**I’m talking about a person of a low training age...aka someone who can barely clean, squat, deadlift (trap bar included) their body weight for 3-5 reps...Too aggressive? Ok how bout do 20 perfect pushups…)