Sport-specific training

We used to think that weight training would slow you down for other activities. We heard of mythical athletes who got “muscle-bound” after training and wound up with the agility of Jabba the Hutt. We know now that weight training is an excellent companion to just about any sport. It can help you be stronger, faster, leaner, more powerful, and even help you prevent and recover from injuries.

But how do you go about designing a weight training program for your chosen activity? Clearly a skier is going to have different needs than a rock climber. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to weight training. Here are some suggestions.

where to start

1. First, think about how you want your weight training to relate to your activity. Are you planning to use it for rehab, for offseason training, for training inseason, etc.? Consider the overall workload, intensity, volume, and exercise choice. If you are training for rehab, you’ll want to emphasize somewhat lower intensities, and probably particular problem areas (such as an injured knee). If you are training in the offseason, you will likely be able to handle much more overall volume than if you are training inseason. Perhaps four days a week of weight training would be appropriate in the offseason, while inseason it might be better to reduce weight training days to two. You’ll also likely want to reduce the duration and volume of your weight training if your other activities are demanding.

2. Second, what qualities of fitness are important in your chosen sport? Is it an endurance sport or a sport that requires short bursts of effort? Do you need explosiveness? Flexibility? Quickness? Cardiovascular endurance? Train for the general qualities that you need. Do, however, bear in mind that strength and force development (see sidebar) are important in most sports, in some way.

3. Third, think carefully about all the tasks you perform, and all the abilities required in your chosen activity. Is there running, jumping, lateral (side-to-side) movement, crouching down, torso rotation, punching/kicking, throwing, etc.? Train for the movements you will perform, as well as for the stability you will require to do it. Break down all your sport’s movements into parts if possible, to see where you could most effectively direct your attention. And don’t neglect parts that aren’t directly related. For example, running requires leg strength but also torso strength in order to prevent excessive rotation of the upper body as the body’s weight shifts.

4. Train general abilities with weight training, and specific technique using your chosen sport. So, use weight training to develop strength, endurance, power, etc., all of which are general qualities needed in different sports. Don’t use it to develop refined skills that closely match the movement you perform in the sport. So, if you play baseball, don’t weight train by throwing a heavier ball. If you play hockey, don’t weight train by using a heavier puck/stick. Because skill development depends on proper motor learning, training using different parameters (such as a heavier ball) can result in messing up your groove when trying to perform the real thing.

5. There is no single protocol that is right for everything, but here are some general guidelines, and ideas for their implementation in sidebars. Of course there is lots of crossover between these things. You’ll find instructions on the exercises elsewhere on the site, such as in the dork to diva section.

But first, some gym geekery.

rate of force development

To move an object, you have to generate enough force to displace the object. For example, to do a bench press, you have to push hard enough upwards so that you can move the bar against the force pushing the bar downwards (gravity). Rate of force development, or RFD for short, is a term used to refer to how quickly you can do this. The more quickly you can produce this force, the more explosive your movement is likely to be.

However, RFD doesn’t necessarily refer to how quickly you actually move the bar, but how well you can develop, coordinate and continue to produce the upwards force needed for the lift. Organizing your motor units is like herding. First, you’re herding cats. You feel weaker and uncoordinated on complex lifts. As you get better at sorting out the motor units and making them march in the same direction, you get stronger and faster. Eventually (you hope) you’re herding lemmings or sardines.

If you try to move the bar quickly, the same neurological effect will occur regardless of whether the bar moves fast or slow in reality. (It’s a metaphor for life: fake it till you make it.)

RFD can be a factor in determining performance in a given sport.To put this in practical terms, if you do a sport or activity that requires brief, maximal output of an action, such as hitting, kicking, or jumping, then training to improve your RFD might be worth your while. The faster you can get all those motor units acting at once, the stronger that kick, jump or punch will be.

A good way to train explosiveness is to use somewhat lighter weights, and attempt to powerfully accelerate a stationary weight (you can also train this with no weights, using things like squat jumps). An example of this, if we take our bench press, is to use a pause bench press. Powerlifters use pause benches to improve their explosive ability for the bench press. They use a light weight, and many shorter sets, such as 5 sets of 3 reps. They bring the bar down under control, pause it on the chest for a few seconds, then fire it upwards, trying to accelerate the bar as rapidly as possible.

Source: Mel Siff, Supertraining, 2000


Training for endurance usually means training with relatively lower intensities and higher rep ranges (no more than around 60% of maximum weight), although another option is to do more short sets with briefer rest intervals between sets.

Don’t assume that because you’re an endurance athlete that it’s better to train using slower movements. In many cyclic sports (sports where you repeat an action over and over), there is a definite advantage to be gained from putting a little extra oomph into every stride or stroke (uh huh huh, I said stroke).

Let’s say you’re a cyclist. Improving the ability of your legs to generate force quickly and powerfully would enable you to complete each pedalling circle with greater power. That means you’d go faster and be able to climb hills better. That translates to improved time, as well as an easier performance of the movement.

So, although you might think at first that training using rapid movements is not compatible with endurance training, a closer look shows us that in fact, an endurance sport can be made up of a lot of little kicks, jumps, etc., all of which could benefit from being more powerful. What does benefit from slower movement and sustained muscular contraction are things that depend on you getting into place and staying there. So, to take our cyclist example, while it’s useful to build extra power in the legs, the lower back and forearms must hold a particular position for a long period of time. Explosive leg training could be combined with torso stability exercises such as long duration yoga planks, and lower back exercises such as back hyperextensions, again done with lower weight and higher reps. Again, think carefully about what the movements in your sport actually involve.

endurance training ideas

Ideally these would be incorporated with longer sets or periods of performance, and shorter rest intervals. You can also use shorter sets combined with the short rest intervals, especially if you are just starting out. For example, jumping rope could be done for 30 seconds to several minutes, with anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds’ rest between “sets”. Pushups could be done in sets of 10 with 30 second rest intervals, or in longer sets (as many as desired). Many of these are fun to do with partners, with each person alternating rest and work sets. As soon as one person finishes their set, it’s time for you to begin again.

  • jumping rope
  • pushups and pushup variations
  • medicine ball throws
  • squat jumps
  • Hindu squats
  • farmer’s walks
  • fat guy hangs
  • bridging exercises
  • combination or hybrid exercises using lighter weight, such as a front squat to shoulder press (that’s one rep), or stiff-legged deadlift to bent-over row (again, that’s one rep)
  • sandbag carry (go for distance/time rather than weight)


Training for strength can be done in nearly infinite ways. It’s best done using compound movements (squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, pullups, Olympic lifts and their assistance lifts, etc.). Strength trainers tend to train in a particular range of intensity (for more on intensity, see the section on periodization), which is usually somewhere between 70% and 90% of their maximum. This is a very general guideline, however, since many strength trainers incorporate both lower and higher intensities into their workout. In any case, strength training is most commonly done with some kind of progressive increase in the amount of weight lifted, as opposed to something like trying to increase the number of repetitions performed with the same weight.

There are different types of strength. Strength-endurance might involve something like ability to hold a position with as much force as possible, for an extended amount of time. An example of this would be a grappling sport which depends on holding a partner in position for several seconds, or figure skating which uses overhead lifts and holds.

Speed-strength is used in either movements which require a fast execution of a relatively low intensity action (such as throwing a baseball or jumping with just bodyweight), or movements in which it is crucial to rapidly achieve a large muscular output to move a heavier resistance. (Supertraining 2000) Speed strength is quite complex, but in general terms it is important to focus on rapid acceleration of the load, rather than moving the load slowly. As I’ve mentioned, even if the load doesn’t actually move quickly (cause honey, sometimes that bar is just gonna take its sweet time to go against gravity), the attempt to move it rapidly is what matters.

strength training ideas

You’ll find strength training ideas pretty much all through this site, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Strength training can include a cyclic endurance component, included either at the beginning of a strength training cycle, or on one of the workout days. So, for example, a strength cycle might do a few weeks of endurance-type training, followed by a few weeks of higher intensities and lower volumes.

One useful way to strength train is to set goals based on a particular maximum. Often a one-rep maximum is used (that is the amount of weight you can do for one rep), but three-rep maxes, five-rep maxes, etc. can also be used. The goal of your strength training is to increase this max, even though you don’t train at maximal levels constantly. You just keep checking back periodically to see how that max is doing. For more on this, see the page on periodization.

Strength trainers go to failure only infrequently, often work submaximally (in other words, they perform less work than they’re capable of in any given workout), and are more likely to prefer completing a prescribed number of reps/sets in good form. They also tend to take longer rest intervals between sets, up to 5 minutes for difficult lifts. They may also use shorter, more frequent sets such as 5 sets of 3, even if they can do many more than 3 reps per set.

explosive strength ideas

In general, lighter weights are used in conjunction with short sets. The focus is on executing the movement as rapidly as possible, and/or accelerating the weight with maximum speed. Short, low-rep sets are used because fatigue sets in quickly, and technique degrades rapidly. Thus, a lifter might use something like 10 sets of 2 reps rather than 2 sets of 10 reps.

  • Olympic lifts and their assistance lifts
  • various forms of “pause lifts” (such as pause benches and pause squats) which attempt to accelerate a stationary object
  • sprints
  • “rebound” types of exercises such as squat jumps where lifter squats down, jumps up explosively, then drops back down (under control) back into full squat before exploding up again; unlike a pause lift there is no pause at the bottom, rather the lifter tries to “rebound” from eccentric to concentric as quickly as she is able

Training for explosive strength and power is usually done using compound exercises, and rapid execution of movements. Ideally the lifter tries to control the eccentric (negative) portion of the rep, then execute the concentric (positive) portion of the rep as quickly and powerfully as possible. If you think this sounds suspiciously similar to what I said about speed-strength, you’re right. Things get pretty fuzzy along the strength continuum. The main thing about explosive strength is that if you want to move fast and develop power fast, then you train fast. If you want a quick rebound, it’s not going to help you to use movement tempos that are slow and plodding.

rehabilitation of sports injuries

Training for rehab often builds on specialized guidance of a rehab professional such as a physical therapist. It tends to begin with isolation movements, done slowly, and use a lower intensity. Usually the aim is movement control and possible motor “relearning”, and increasing the pain-free range of motion. Eventually it may move to more compound movements. I personally prefer to use compound movements wherever I can, but it’s not always possible.

In general terms, each sport creates areas of muscular strength and areas of weakness, tightness, and inhibition. Again, think about the kinds of movements involved your sport, and realize that you may also have to train the opposite in order to stay balanced and injury-free.

For instance, if your sport involves a lot of hip flexion — bringing the knees up (e.g. wrestling, sprinting) — then the hip flexors can become tight and overstrong relative to hip extensors such as glutes and hamstrings. It’s in your interest, then, to include both hip flexor stretches and hip extensor strengthening.

I don’t have any specific suggestions for rehab training because each exercise prescription is so individual, and really depends on the needs of each trainee and the extent of her injury/injuries. I have pages on patellofemoral syndrome and lower back injury rehab, and I hope to put up something eventually about shoulder rehab, all of which I’ve learned about through painful experience and my own klutziness (as well as some book lernin’). If any of you would like to see material on other types of injury rehab, let me know and I’ll try to have some new kind of accident. Hand injuries are probably best avoided, though, unless you want to wait three years for me to type out the page with that little stick stuck to my head.

putting it into practice

Here are two examples of sport-specific workouts. They aren’t meant as gospel, just as an example of how you might go about figuring out how to develop a weights workout for your chosen sport. Again, for pictures or explanations of the exercises, go to my form page for links or the Dork to Diva page.

example 1: cheerleader

The first one I did for my youngest sister when she was a cheerleader in high school. Cheerleaders do a lot of squatting, jumping, and overhead pressing. They need strong torso musculature, strong legs, flexible hips, and lots of stability. They also need to be able to hold a weight overhead (often using only one hand) for an extended period of several seconds. This workout was designed to be part of her in-season training schedule, so it’s a two-day per week workout. She trained three or four other days per week. The workout was begun with five minutes of light cardio as a warmup, and completed with whatever flexibility work or additional cardio she wanted to do.

day 1 heavy

full depth squat 3 sets x 8-10 reps
standing one-hand shoulder press (with a barbell if possible) 3 x 6-8
pullups (if possible; otherwise assisted pullups, negative pullups, or standing lat pulldowns) 3 sets
stiff-legged deadlift 2 x 15
calf raise 2 x 15
ab exercise of choice 2 x 8-10

day 2 light

overhead squat 3 x 6
push press (use about 75% of the weight used for a regular standing military press)
5 x 3
dumbbell row 2 x 10
close-grip pushups 2 x 10
back hyperextensions 2 x 12

example 2: runner

This second workout is for a recreational middle distance runner. She didn’t need any particular training for either extended endurance or sprinting. She just wanted to have more strength and overall stamina.

Runners need leg strength, obviously, but also torso stability to keep upper body erect and control torso rotation. Because she was running 3-4 days per week, I designed the workout to be done 2 days per week.

You’ll notice that while there might be similarities with the cheerleader workout, many of the exercises were included for different reasons. For example, the overhead squat was included in the runner’s workout for hip flexibility and torso strength, while it was included in the cheerleader’s workout primarily for overhead strength, torso strength, and balance in managing an overhead load. So, it’s important to notice that there are no set rules about which exercises to include or exclude. There are lots of fun, interesting, and useful variations on most of the major exercises.

Walking lunges and sumo squats were done as “active stretches” and warmup to loosen hips, which often get quite tight in runners.

day 1 heavy

walking lunge (unweighted) 1 set x 10 steps each side
squat 3 x 12
pullups or pulldowns 3 x 12, or as many as possible
pushups 3 sets of as many as possible
ballistic calf raises 2 x 15
lower back exercise of choice 3 x 12

day 2 light

sumo stance squat (unweighted) 1 x 15
front squat to shoulder press combo 3 x 5 with light weight
stiff-legged deadlift to bent-over row combo 3 x 6 with light weight
ab exercise of choice 3 x 10-12
toe raises 2 x 15

sites to get you started

Here are a few sites that have strength training ideas for various sports.

NSCA’s Performance Training journal covers a different sport every issue.

Peak Performance Online – covers a wide range of sports from badminton to volleyball.

BodyResults – aimed at outdoor sports such as climbing, hiking, and skiing

Ross Boxing – resistance and conditioning for boxers