B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 26

Gym (not so) Dandy

An athlete’s guide to surviving the weight room.

by Mike Mejia, CSCS

In recent years, athletes have started taking their fitness much more seriously- especially young athletes. Following the lead of both collegiate and professional players by realizing the impact that improving things like strength, endurance, and mobility can have on their performance, male and female players alike are hitting the gym in record numbers. And while I think it’s great to see teens taking a more active role in their athletic development, some of the things I regularly notice them doing are at the very least, cause for concern.

Whether it’s bodybuilding inspired workout programs that promote muscular imbalance, or gravitating towards machine based exercises that offer little in the way of helping to improve functional performance, many young athletes are unknowingly wasting their time and in the process, actually increasing their risk of injury!

In order to avoid this scenario, I thought it might be helpful to outline the following list of “rules” designed to help young athletes navigate their way through the weight room. By following these five simple tenets of athletic training, before long you should notice that you’re having much more enjoyable and productive workouts. Oh yeah, and don’t be too surprised if you also get a lot stronger, faster and more resistant to injury in the process.

1. Move it or lose it: It’s a pretty simple premise: before you start loading an exercise with hundreds of pounds, be sure that you possess the ability to move through a full range of motion first. Yet, I still constantly see athletes who lack the hip and ankle mobility to do a proper body weight squat, immediately load heavy barbells onto their backs! Either that, or they’re bench pressing more weight than a small automobile, despite the fact that they can barely lift heir arms up over their heads!

Throwing excessive loading onto joints that are already at least somewhat restricted simply doesn’t make sense. Even if you don’t experience any problems right away, sooner or later, it will catch up to you. And when it does, the results can be disastrous. So do yourself a favor and start working on improving mobility now with exercises like the squat to stand, and the wall slide. Each will do wonders for your ability to handle the types of loads you’ll eventually need to make major improvements in things like strength, speed and power.

2. Stop worshipping your “mirror muscles”: Sure ripped abs and bulging biceps may turn heads on the beach, but focusing on the muscles that you can’t see in the mirror is what’s going to get people’s attention on the field. Instead of doing endless sets for your pecs, quads, biceps and abs, start making it a habit to prioritize the postural muscles of your upper and lower back, as well as the powerful hip extensors. By doing more exercises like deadlifts, stability ball leg curls, inverted rows and external rotations, you’ll not only be working to create more balance around key joints like your shoulders and hips; helping to reduce your risk of injury, but you’ll also be targeting some of the most important muscles (the glutes and hamstrings) when it comes to speed and power development.

3. Rage against the machine: When you’re out on the field sprinting to get past an opponent, or fighting to win a face-off, your body doesn’t move along some predetermined path, so why would you train that way? The fact is, resistance training machines, for the most part, offer a poor conditioning option for athletes. The few exceptions being things like Free Motion cable devices and Keiser pneumatic machines that allow for movement in a three dimensional plane- which is the way our bodies move in real life.

Sure, some machines make it easy to isolate specific muscle groups, which can help in situations when you’re rehabbing from an injury, or addressing muscles imbalances. Aside from those instances though, most machines are at best a waste of time and at worst, actually contributing to your chances of getting hurt!

The Smith machine, the plate loaded leg press and the pec deck are the leaders of the pack in the latter category. Not at all a “safer” alternative to free weights, as they’re often touted as being, these overly popular machines can place some serious strain on your joints. My advice: take a pass and stick to exercises like squats, lunges, step-ups and various multi-joint, upper body pushing and pulling movements (i.e. horizontal presses, rows, vertical presses and pull-up variations) instead.  

4. Pump up the volume?: By volume, here I’m referring to the total volume of work being done as measured by reps and sets. In my experience, there’s just way too much volume in the typical weight room approach- especially when said volume does little more than contribute to overtraining and imbalance.

Believe it or not, you don’t need 3-4 sets of bench presses, followed by 3-4 sets of incline dumbbell presses, followed by 3-4 sets of dips and then a few sets of flys thrown in for good measure. That might be a fine chest workout if you’re training to be Mr. Olympia, but for an athlete it’s absolutely pointless!

When it comes to training volume, think less, not more. Strive for total body workouts that train movements- not just muscles. Think exercises like cleans, squats, various types of presses, core stabilization and rotary drills etc. As a general rule of thumb, depending on the goals of the particular type of training cycle that you’re in (hypertrophy, strength, power etc.), your total workout volume really shouldn’t exceed more than about 18-24 total sets. If you train like a bodybuilder as detailed above, that equates to maybe two body parts per workout- if you’re lucky!

5. Use a variety of tools: Even when they do manage to steer away from machines, the majority of athletes I see training in gyms tend to be way too focused on free weights. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge advocate of free weight training and definitely rely on it as the cornerstone of most of the programs that I design. It’s just that we’re living in an age where there are so many other viable training options available, it seems a shame not to take advantage of some of them. Whether it’s stability balls to help develop core strength, BOSU’s, wobble boards and other types of balance devices, body weight suspension trainers, or resistance bands, today’s athletes have a seemingly endless array of tools that can help to sort of “fill in the cracks” where a typical free weight program falls short. They also offer a nice change of pace, by keeping workouts from getting stale.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the proper usage of some of these devices, be on the lookout for my upcoming article series, where I’ll be highlighting a different training aid in each installment. Until then, keep these rules in mind the next time you set foot in the gym and see how much different, and more productive your workouts become.

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