Let’s discuss the importance of using progressions in strength training—that is, why starting with the basics and progressively challenging the body will help athletes get the most out of their strength training.
1. Back to Basics
Whenever athletes begin strength training—whether in the beginning of a new season or simply in a new phase of training—they must systematically progress through a series of exercises that appropriately build up strength. Starting with the most fundamental patterns of movement, athletes must master the basics before they can advance to loaded exercises and more complex movements. A large component of strength training is having proper technique. This prevents injury and ensures the correct muscle groups are recruited. Beginners in strength training should execute bodyweight-only movements first. Once they can demonstrate technical prowess, they can move forward. For example, a bodyweight squat should be mastered prior to a squat with dumbbells, which should precede the more complex front and back squats that require a barbell.
2. Preparatory Phase
Eventually, many athletes will progress to more complex whole body exercises and/or power lifting. A general preparatory phase prior to this should improve not only technique, but also general strength and stability. An emphasis on developing core stability, balance, and proprioception (i.e. awareness of one’s body in space) will improve all patterns of movement. Progressing steadily from bodyweight to loaded exercises, and continuing to increase weight while maintaining good form, will build strength as muscle groups respond and adapt to the stimulus of lifting. This preparatory phase may be particularly extensive for sprint athletes who may delve into more power exercises than other athletes. For all athletes, this phase is critical to injury prevention.
3. Challenging Your Body
Progressions are necessary to continue building strength throughout a program. The human body responds to stress, or a stimulus such as strength training, by adapting to the stressor until it no longer challenges the system. At first, a particular exercise may be difficult. When muscles are signaled to resist a force, they respond by creating more muscle tissue and improving the force of each contraction. Once this occurs, the same exercise is no longer challenging enough. Athletes must find the balance between adding weight to challenge themselves and maintaining flawless technique. Another way to stimulate muscle hypertrophy is to attempt more complex movements. For example, a progression to power lifting may begin with front squats and deadlifts before moving toward pull shrugs and power clean pulls that require coordination. Movements that integrate various muscle groups should be rehearsed without weight first, and then only with little weight, before athletes jump into heavier sets.
Strength training is most effective when athletes progress steadily from fundamental movements to more challenging exercises. It is important to remember that each athlete has a different baseline level of strength. Use progressions to improve your strength, athleticism, and overall performance.
Click here to check out Nathan Adrian's favorite swim-specific strength and conditioning exercises!