Each year, athletes cycle through an important phase of their training: preseason strength and conditioning. It follows the much-needed off-season rest that athletes require in order to be mentally and physically recharged going into another year of competition. Many athletes regard this phase of training as particularly challenging because the process of getting back into shape is taxing to the body. Regardless of the type of sport, most athletes undergo basic strength and conditioning early in the year.In particular, building muscle mass is an important step to create a foundation for later skill-based training, to help to prevent future injury, and to quickly improve overall fitness. Let’s run through how preseason workouts help athletes transition from rest to full blown training, how building muscle early will keep an athlete strong throughout competition season, and what happens physiologically during a strength phase.
Rest, the Preseason and General Prep
Rest during the off-season allows the body to recover from the previous season. Injuries heal faster when the body is not under heavy training, while the athlete gets time away from the pool, field, gym, or court to get fresh perspective on life. This helps to restore motivation, assess what changes to make from the previous year, and set realistic goals moving forward. Preseason workouts focus on strength training as a means to reengage muscles, activating them after rest. This is a period of general preparation when the athlete is not focused on sport-specific skills but rather on whole body conditioning to acquire a base level of fitness to build upon for the year. More specifically, strength training involves exercises that efficiently increase muscle strength and/or hypertrophy (increased size). Whether you play football, volleyball, compete in swimming, or anything in between, the emphasis on both cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength tends to come early in the year.
It seems intuitive why cardiovascular endurance training might get you in shape quickly in preseason, so why focus on strength training early on? Research shows that those who are most physically fit, namely elite athletes, will not lose significant muscle mass or generalized strength during their time off (if less than 4 weeks), but will indeed lose eccentric force, sport-specific power, and recently acquired isokinetic strength (a type of strength produced from resistance training). Within 8 weeks muscle fiber size decreases rapidly for strength and sprint athletes, whereas oxidative fibers decrease for endurance athletes. Before the athlete can delve into speed, technique, and power work for the upcoming season, she needs to regain the strength that her sport demands. Additionally, strengthening muscles surrounding joints can help as a form of injury prevention, or pre-habilitation. With high volume training down the road, athletes can minimize injury if their muscles can support joints at risk—such as the shoulder of a swimmer, the ankle of a basketball player, or the knee of a runner. A review in the Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 while overuse injuries were almost halved.
What occurs during a strength phase?
Traditional strength training involves the use of resistance; exercises with relatively heavy loads (70-100% of 1 repetition maximum) are performed in a series of few repetitions (less than 12) as this has been a highly efficient mechanism for muscle hypertrophy. Different athletes have varying levels of strength prior to a strength phase, and it is important to realize that a certain load for one athlete can trigger hypertrophy whereas that same load may not be sufficient to stimulate muscle growth in another athlete. In another sense: in order for hypertrophy to occur there needs to be a sufficiently challenging load to the muscle tissue. Moreover, a hypertrophied muscle is not in “equilibrium”, and will tend toward a less hypertrophied status if the stimulus to the muscle is reduced or removed. During a strength phase, muscle protein synthesis is the immediate response of muscle fibers to the training stimulus, while a second delayed response is the production of more cells known as myonuclei that can continue the hypertrophy process. It is as if the muscle fiber is gauging whether the stimulus will continue by having two responses, one immediate and one postponed, to the training.
An athlete often meets a plateau in muscle size increase at around 25% expansion in an intensive hypertropic inducing training program. Researchers speculate this plateau may be tied to the second delayed response discussed above. Interestingly, there is a wide spectrum of hypertrophy in athletes. A recent study followed athletes through a 16-week strength program to find that extreme responders to the training registered 50% muscle expansion (cellular hypertrophy) and greater myonuclei production than moderate responders (25%) or non-responders (0%). Thus, when sending athletes through a strength phase, it is important to consider not only their strength training background but also how different each athlete may respond to the current program.
Early phases of training for elite athletes can be grueling and intense, but the payoff in the near term and in the end of the season is reason enough to get into a strength phase in preseason. Reduced chance of injury, stimulated muscle growth and strength, and improved overall fitness are just a few of the rewards for the hard work and certain soreness that follows. Starting off a season strong can only help you as you fine-tune other aspects of your training and work toward more specific goals. Someone once told me preseason is like taking a dose of medicine, good for you and not always appealing. If you tough it out early and build your strength, you’ll be setting yourself up nicely to maximize your performance in season!
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