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The Fear of Strength

By Brett Klika

You’ve seen me say it before, “The first step to getting faster is getting stronger”. The relationship between strength and speed is commonly misunderstood. Either athletes are afraid to get stronger in the weight room because they think it makes them slow, or they spend all of their time in the weight room thinking it will make them fast. Neither idea is in line with what actually makes an athlete faster. In the first part of this article, I will address how getting stronger can help make you faster. Later in the article, I will talk about how the wrong program actually can make you slower and hurt your performance.

When you run, you bound from one foot to the other. This is called your stride. If you want to improve speed, you have to improve both your stride frequency and stride length. Stride frequency is how many strides you can do in a given amount of time, stride length is how far you bound from one foot hitting the ground to the other. Stride frequency is improved largely by tricking the brain to send out messages to the hips and legs to cycle faster. This can be done by over-speed training and hundreds of hours of proper technique work. Stride length is largely effected by how much force is put into the ground when your foot hits. This is improved by hundreds of hours of proper technique work, and improving your body’s ability to create force. Increasing force comes from getting stronger. Getting stronger comes from a well-designed, progressive resistance training program.

The role of getting stronger in the weight room is to convince your body and brain that is capable of putting out more force than it is used to. The easiest way to visualize this is to think about walking a mile with a 30 pound vest on. The next day, walk the mile without the vest on. Day 2 will seem a lot easier. This is due to the body and brain adapting to the 30 pound vest, and when it’s gone, these adaptations stick around for a little bit. Even though you are only moving your bodyweight, your body is geared to move something 30 pounds heavier. Your muscles put out a greater degree of force, so your body moves faster, and it feels lighter. This is the same adaptation that getting stronger in the weight room causes during speed training. If you can squat 250 pounds, and you only weigh 150 pounds, your legs are capable of moving much more than your bodyweight. When they are only moving your bodyweight, your body seems lighter, so it moves faster. This has the same effect on men and women. Within certain parameters, and in conjunction with a proper running program, consistantly improving your strength in the weight room can help you consistently improve your speed on the field.

Strength training must always be accompanied by running technique work as well as speed drills specific to the needs of the sport the individual is trying to get faster for. Weight training is a valuable component of a training program, but the needs of the sport in regards to sport skill, conditioning, tactical work, etc., need to be addressed as a high priority as well. An athlete can get slower if they spend all of their time focusing on their weight room lifts, ignoring all the other components of the sport. A weight training program should be designed to compliment tactical sport work, not trump it. The overall goal of a program should be to improve an athlete’s on-field performance as well as decrease injury.

A common mistake many coaches make when designing strength programs for athletes is forgetting that strength training should not be a separate entity from the rest of the program. It should be integrated. The point of the weight room is to get better for your sport, not get better for the weight room. Increases in the weight room should observe measureable increases in speed, jumping ability, and other athletic demands. If they don’t, the weight training program isn’t athletically effective and should be modified. Coaches and athletes make the mistake of creating nearly a separate sport with the weight room. For example, putting a primary focus on the amount of weight lifted is the sport of power lifting. There are special techniques, equipment, and training programs involved with this sport. Putting a primary focus on muscle size and aesthetic is the sport of bodybuilding. Like power lifting, there are special techniques, equipment, and training programs for the sport of bodybuilding. While there are some valuable aspects of each that can benefit athlete, accuracy and magnitude of sport skill execution is the criteria that athletes are judged by. Having strength and size can help improve these criteria, but cannot single handedly do the job. The amount of time and energy you spend in the weight room should reflect this.

Two things that are definitely finite variables for athletes are time and energy. You have a limited amount of both. If you are going to become a better athlete, there are an array of skills you must improve. If you spend all of your time on one skill or aspect of your program, the others will suffer. Consider this in regards to the weight room. In training, as with human nature, you generally gravitate to what you are good at, if left to your own devices. Large male athletes with above average natural strength will love the weight room. Their muscle fiber type often favors the high-force, short duration work that is done in the weight room. Even though it’s strenuous work, their bodies are designed for it, so it feels right. Consider, however, what tends to be true about larger male athletes’ and speed, agility, quickness and conditioning. Due to their heavier bone frame, larger overall body mass, and muscle fiber type that is not very resistant to fatigue, training these variables of athleticism is not as enjoyable to them. It is downright unpleasant, so it is generally avoided when possible. These athletes will spend nearly 100% of their off-season training time in the weight room. Their strength improves, they continue to increase their body mass, but they don’t do anything to put the new strength and mass into athletic use. Remember, your body only learns and improves new skills by practicing those specific skills. If you are lifting weights because you want to get faster, that’s great, but you have to practice getting faster as well! A good athletic development program should spend a majority of time and energy improving player’s weaknesses, not merely glorifying their strengths. 

Considering all of the above, here are my suggestions for the role of strength training in an athletic development program:

40-60 minutes in the weight room
Regardless of your athletic ability, or time of year in your training cycle, you shouldn’t be in the weight room longer than 40-60 minutes. Remember, a primary role of the weight room for athletes is to shock the brain and body into being able to create and control more force. Your ability to create these significant forces dwindles as training time drags on. Additionally, your body starts to break down past what it can build up. With my professional athletes, I generally spend about 30-35 minutes on pure strength work. If they are working out at the right intensity, with the proper amount of rest, any more work would be sluggish and well below what they are capable of doing. Younger athletes (15-18yrs) generally need more time (40-50 minutes), due to the fact there is more teaching and general “practice”. Additionally, young athletes usually are incapable of generating significant forces, so their neural system doesn’t fatigue as significantly.

Ditch the weight belt, straps, gloves, wraps, or anything else you wouldn’t have on the field.
A lot of athletes walk around the weight room looking like they are wearing a suit of armor. All of this equipment helps them lift more weight, but not necessarily by virtue of usable strength. I don’t want my athletes using straps because I want their grip to strengthen. I don’t want them using lifting belts because I want to strengthen their core muscles. If someone’s back hurts, I don’t put a belt on them to mask the pain, I figure out why their back hurts and employ resources to fix it. After all, they won’t be able to wear a lifting belt on the field!!! If you can’t lift something by virtue of your actual, real-world, usable strength, I don’t see how it can help you athletically. You are in essence lifting well more than your body can naturally handle. This is a recipe for injury.

The weight room is not your sport; it is a supplement to your sport
Many strength coaches are focused on creating high numbers for a handful of lifts. This is often based on convention and novelty, not actual athletic results. If you find that a significant amount of time and energy in your program is geared towards doing drills that improve certain lifts, not athletic skills, you need to change y our focus. For example, it is not a good use of weight room time to do 4 drills that improve your maximal output on bench press, unless the bench press is your sport. Better time would be spent doing a heavy pressing motion and then employing other lifts that help stabilize and improve mobility of the shoulder joint. Don’t get me wrong, I want my athletes lifting as heavy as possible with the time and energy that is available for the weight room. I realize, however, that the program I design has to address many other factors than merely how much weight is moved during a certain lift. I want to reinforce athletic posture, so I’m not willing to compromise form to get numbers. I have to create a strong, mobile, balanced, biomechanical system from feet to fingertips, so I can’t spend excessive time on one lift. These considerations will slightly comprise the maximal amount of weight that can be moved for certain lifts, but will ultimately create a higher performing, well rounded, injury free athlete.

Modify your program through the course of the year.
You can’t be everything all the time. You need to be able to shift mental and physical focus of your training program to favor certain gains. If you train as hard as you can for strength everyday, all year, and at the same time train as hard as you can for speed everyday, all year, you will hit a physical and mental burnout point. This usually manifests with injury, losing interest in the sport, or a decrease in performance. Mark out certain points in the training year where you are going to spend a large amount of time and energy on developing a certain component of athleticism such as strength, body size, speed, or sport skill. During this time, make sure that other components are addressed, but at a smaller frequency. For example, lifting weights 4 times per week, doing speed work twice per week for a few months post-season, then as the season nears, shift the time and energy focus to speed and sport skill work. This gives you the mental and physical focus to commit to specific skill improvement.

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting, or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]  

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