How Strong Do Athletes Need to Be?

The common solution to any athlete’s athletic problems is to simply say, “get stronger.” But how strong do athletes actually need to be? Is there a point in which the return on strength training becomes not even worth training for? Or does simply adding weight to the bar result in continued physical prowess?

Early on it’s easy to fall in to thinking that continually adding weight to the bar will enhance athletic performance. I myself fell in to this habit years ago, believing it would make me a better athlete, which it certainly did at one stage, but once an I had progressed from the novice training age simply adding weight to the bar and getting stronger did NOT improve the physical abilities needed to perform maximally in competition.

Why is that so? Well, strength is the underpinning factor for all physical traits associated with athletic performance. If you get stronger in the initial phases of training, you WILL improve speed, power, change of direction speed, jump height/length, and reduce the risk of injury. Once we reach a stage in training where strength no longer serves us like it used to in the pursuit of athletic excellence, we need to turn our attention to training the specific quality that needs improvement.

What is Strength?

Strength is the ability of your nervous system to produce force, and that ability is going to vary from athlete to athlete for various reasons. However, when we say ‘strength,’ everyone simply thinks “how much weight can I lift for 1 repetition?” – BUT there are multiple ways to display strength, and these include:

  • General Strength
    This refers to the strength of the whole muscular system. This is the most important ‘base’ layer and serves as the foundation to optimising future performance.
  • Specific Strength
    Relates to the motor patterns of muscle groups that are essential to the sporting activity.
  • Maximal Strength
    The ability to produce maximal force in one muscle contraction.
  • Speed Strength
    The ability to produce force at high velocity. This is important for most team sports.
  • Strength-Endurance
    The ability to repeat efforts of strength over extended periods of time.
  • Static/Isometric Strength
    A muscle contraction that holds a specific position, this could include pausing at a certain position within a squat.
  • Absolute Strength
    This refers to the amount of force that can be generated regardless of body mass.
  • Relative Strength
    This is the ratio between an athlete’s maximal strength and his/her body mass.
  • Reactive Strength
    The ability of the neuromuscular system to tolerate a high stretch load, and change movement from a rapid eccentric to a rapid concentric muscle action.

Your Sport Will Determine Your Strength Requirements

It would be easy from me to say “squat this much and all your athletic problems will disappear.”

But that is overly simplified, not accurate, and doesn’t take in to account the ACTUAL needs of the athlete. Every sport relies on a varying contribution from each energy system and biomotor ability to fulfil the requirements needed to successfully compete in said sport.

A great way to visualise this is in the figure below:

Biomotor 1
Figure Credit: Bompa TO and Haff GG. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 2009.

As you can see, sport a, b, and c all have different requirements for each of the given biomotor abilities (strength, speed, and endurance). And whilst in this example these sports are on the extreme of relying heavily on one biomotor ability, there are many sports that rely heavily on two, and perhaps all three, of these abilities.

Here are some further examples below:

Biomotor Abilities
Figure Credit: Bompa TO and Haff GG. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 2009.

As we can see, various sports have various needs, and it’s possible to go even deeper on this scale and look not only at given sports, but positions within those sports. For example, the positional differences within rugby union require different levels of overall strength, speed, and endurance. Think about the requirements for a prop at the front of the scrum as opposed to the winger bursting down the outside to score a try.

Why Is Strength Important?

Strength is so important for so many reasons. A stronger athlete, in comparison to weaker athlete, will:

  • Accelerate faster
  • Jump higher
  • Jump further
  • Change direction quicker
  • Hit harder
  • Take harder hits
  • Improve endurance
  • Resist injury in compromised positions
  • Have greater rate of force development (RFD)
  • Produce more power

The last two listed are important for pretty much every sport, and are what drive positive changes in the other physical traits further up the list.

RFD is the key player behind speed strength, and is directly related to the ability to accelerate objects including your own body mass.
Power has quite a similar definition to RFD in the fact that it’s associated with movements that require high levels of force generation over a short period of time. However, power is the product of force multiplied by velocity, so you can still have a movement that is high force and low velocity that generates substantial levels of power. Meaning power can be seen as quite a broad term when compared to RFD. Yet, there is no doubting each of these qualities must be optimised to produce the most elite of performances.

How Strong Should You Get?

As we discussed above, your sport, and position within that sport, will determine your strength requirements. Though generally speaking, to optimise the power and rate of force development qualities, we need to be aiming to get our lower body lifts (i.e. squat and deadlift) up to around 2 times body weight for men, and 1.6 times body weight for women. For upper body movements (i.e bench press and row) men should be aiming for at least 1.4 times bodyweight, while women should look to hit 0.75 to one times bodyweight.
These numbers form the foundation for optimal power and speed development, however, what is often not discussed is the proposed ‘strength reserve.’ Theoretically, the strength reserve exists at squat strength of greater than 2 times bodyweight, with the proposed advantages being greater ability to protect against injury and declining performance over the course of a competitive season, where the ability to maintain strength may be compromised throughout stages. If the aim is to continue to gain strength beyond the strength reserve phase, the performance benefits may not be as substantial, and this is due to the ‘diminishing returns’ phenomenon, meaning that purely gaining strength will not further enhance RFD and power output. Therefore, the strength reserve may act as more of a protective mechanism rather than a performance enhancement mechanism.

Figure 1
Figure Credit: Suchomel et al. Sports Med. 46:1419-1449, 2016.

Conclusion

Adequate levels of strength are necessary for all athletes because it underpins almost every single athletic quality required to perform optimally.
Strength can be displayed in a multitude of ways and is not limited to a one-repetition maximum effort, and it’s important to take in to account which form of strength is required by the athlete, and how much of it they need. This is especially important because simply training to gain more strength when it will not serve any greater purpose is simply a waste of time. However, strength is important for a variety of reasons, and stronger athletes will, most of the time, outperform their weaker counterparts due to greater power and rate of force development capabilities.
Finally, to answer the question of this article, there is no clear-cut answer. But a good indication is to aim to get lower body lifts to around 2 times body weight for men, and 1.6 times body weight for women. For main upper body exercises, men should be aiming for at least 1.4 times bodyweight, while women should look to hit 0.75 to one times bodyweight.

References

Bompa TO, Haff GG. Periodization: Theory and methodology of training. Human Kinetics Publishers; 2009 Jul 2.

Kawamori N, Haff GG. The optimal training load for the development of muscular power. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2004 Aug 1;18(3):675-84.

Stone MH, Moir G, Glaister M, Sanders R. How much strength is necessary?. Physical Therapy in Sport. 2002 May 31;3(2):88-96.

Suchomel TJ, Nimphius S, Stone MH. The importance of muscular strength in athletic performance. Sports medicine. 2016 Oct 1;46(10):1419-49.

 

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