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Lifting Weights and Training for Your Sport at The Same Time

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Being strong and explosive are important traits to have in sport, especially in combat sports, which is the audience this blog post will be targeting. While some may argue that there are techniques or styles that don't require you to be strong, it's certainly not a good reason to neglect strength training. It's been very well established that the top 5-10 athletes in various combat sports have superior strength compared to their lower placing counterparts. So if you plan on becoming great, you need to become strong.


Weak Punch Dude vs Strong Punch Dude

A few days ago I asked everyone on my Instagram what it was that deterred them from lifting weights while training for their sport. Here were some common answers:

  • Recovery from muscle soreness (most common)

  • Risk of overtraining

  • Risk of injury in sports training from fatigue accrued by lifting (physical, physiological and systemic/neural fatigue factors)

In this article I'll define a few key training principles and describe how they can all be manipulated to allow you to become stronger and more powerful while training for your sport.


Let's first define some critical variables. Understanding these variables will be the key to managing your recovery while progressing in strength and sport.


Muscle Soreness (DOMS)


Exercise, especially when you're new to it or coming back from a big break, usually results in some degree of exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). That feeling of not being able to walk for a few days after smashing legs? Yep, that's some serious EIMD.


Now, the degree of EIMD depends on many factors including the type, intensity and volume of exercise performed.


Symptoms of EIMD include decreased force production, muscle stiffness and swelling, heightened physiological stress and lactate production. And the dreaded DOMS! Which stands for delayed-onset muscle soreness orrrrr just muscle soreness. That's more than enough to scare people off from lifting weights, hell it scares the shit out of me when I know I have a hard wrestling session within the next 8-16 hours.

Volume


Volume is simply the number of sets you do on an exercise or for a muscle group. This is important because if you do too many sets, the likelihood and severity of muscle soreness will generally increase and so will overall fatigue. So as a general rule of thumb, you want to steer clear from splits that have too much volume in a single session per exercise/body part. For example, chest, back, legs, shoulders & arms.... push, pull, legs.... And upper/lower splits. You can still do them, just at a different time or phase of your training like in an off-season where you're not doing as much hard and frequent sports training (more on this later).


To mitigate muscle soreness when starting a new program or coming back from a big break you can increase the number of sets every week (start from 1-2 in week 1, 2-3 in week 2 and 3-4 in week 3). You could also do 3-4 sets straight off the bat and just lift lighter weights instead, increasing the weight for each set over a 3 week period (I prefer this). This gradual approach is good if you're training for a sport at the same time, otherwise there's no need to be so progressive.


Frequency


Weekly frequency refers to the number of training sessions done in a week. Generally speaking, when you're doing lots of intense and frequent sports training, your frequency for strength training should drop. Similarly, if you're doing lots of strength training, the intensity and most likely the frequency of your sports training should drop.


For example, if your coach says that you need to get stronger, for the next 3 months you might do 4-5 days of moderate-heavy strength work and maybe 3-4 days of very light, sports technical and tactical drilling, focusing on perfecting technique. Then when the time comes, switch that around to 4-5 days of moderate to intense tech/tact training & sparring and 1-2 days of strength/power work. In this example, you can see we're never totally stopping either, we're just manipulating the intensity and frequency to emphasize the development of different athletic qualities.


Strength Gain and Rep Ranges


Let's get one thing straight before going any further, YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIFT HEAVY TO GET STRONG. You can gain strength in any rep range, only the rate of strength gain is influenced by the rep range. This is an especially important fact for people who are new to strength training because working in higher rep ranges (8+) will be enough to gain adequate amounts of strength as well as perfect technique due to repetition.


Strength/Hypertrophy & Rep Range Continuum

Just like Bruce Lee once said "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." Whether it's sport or lifting, the process of learning does not change! Repetition is key! Check out the stages of learning below and see if you can relate to each stage.


Stages of Learning

Proximity to Failure


In order to get strong you need to create a stimulus powerful enough to force your body to respond. The magnitude of this stimulus is determined by how close you get to failure on an exercise within a given rep range. if I lift a weight that is too light within a given rep range (i.e. far from failure) then that stimulus is NOT going to be enough to make my body bigger or stronger. On the flip side, if I lift a weight that's heavy enough to make me fail within a given rep range (i.e.. close to or to failure) then that stimulus is going to be powerful enough to force my body to respond and become bigger and stronger. Let's look at a practical example.


Let's say I'm working in a 3-5 rep range on the deadlift. I have two choices:

  1. Load the bar up with a weight that allows me to do 3 reps to failure (the most reps that can be done while maintaining good, not perfect, technique).

  2. Load the bar up with a weight that allows me to lift for 6 reps BUT stop at 3 or 4 reps, leaving 2-3 reps left in the tank.

Option 1 is likely going to result in more fatigue and muscle soreness than Option 2, especially if I'm going to do more than one set. Option 2 will feel like less work but it will create the stimulus I need to develop the strength I'm after with less risk of fatigue and muscle soreness. Now if I don't have much control or input into the intensity or volume of my sport sessions, you best believe I'm going for Option 2 every damn day of the week.



Exercise Selection and Execution


Exercise Selection/Technique:


Different exercises load different muscles and joints. Let's take the squat and lower back for example, a front squat loads the lower back less than a high bar squat and a low bar squat loads the back more than a high bar squat. So if your back is constantly being loaded in sports training, doing the front squat is going to be the best choice, other than building a stronger back. Something to consider when picking exercises.


Instability


Adding instability to an exercise results in less stress on joints and muscles. These unstable exercises result in very little DOMS compared to their stable variations (think kneeling kettlebell bottoms up vs seated dumbbell overhead press). Adding a variety of these in your program will help manage DOMS while developing strong stabilizers around joints and a strong core. No need for fancy balance boards, aqua bags or bosu balls, free weights offer enough instability to get the job done. You could use those funny tools if you get bored, but just know that they are no better than traditional free weight training for developing stability and strength. In fact, if there's too much instability in an exercise, you won't get strong at all.


Credit to Eric Pullman for discussing this with me. Do yourself a favor and follow him on Instagram (Instagram: @pullmanperformance).

Strength & Instability Continuum

Contraction Type:


Eccentric contractions result in more muscle soreness than concentric contractions. This is an important consideration particularly when planning conditioning sessions. Designing conditioning sessions with concentric only equipment like assault bikes, rowers and ski ergs will minimize muscle soreness. Concentric only training (eg. dropping the bar at the top of a deadlift instead of controlling it on the way down) can also be useful for managing DOMS.


Now let's put it all together into a plan:


Periodization/Planning


Periodization to me is doing the right training at the right intensity, frequency and volume at the right time. Picking the right method of periodizing/planning your supplementary strength training will depend on the intensity, volume and frequency of your sports training. I'll go through and define some of these plans and who they're best suited for.


1. Sessional Undulating Periodization/Planning


What is it?

This is where the intensity changes throughout the workout and various qualities are trained simultaneously. So if I'm doing 6 exercises:

  • 1-2 of my exercises will use heavy loads to target strength

  • 2 will use light loads to target power (low intensity plyometrics and med ball slams)

  • 2 will use moderate loads to target stability and mobility

OR it could be like this:

  • 45 minutes of sports training

  • 1 exercise for strength

  • 1 exercise for power

This is a suboptimal way of developing strength, but would be suited to someone who is time poor and has no other option. Something is always better than nothing.


Who's it for?


This is great for people who have a sporadic training schedule and have no control over the intensity and volume of their sports training. You'd probably do only 1-2, maybe 3 sessions per week and focus on basic compound exercises to build up your general strength along with some accessories that target mobility, stability and specific strength. You'd want to keep around 3 reps left in the tank on the heavy compounds (remember proximity to failure earlier on?) and you'd rotate them every 1-3 months and the accessory exercises every 4-6 weeks. If you want to be extra careful on the compound lifts you may want to consider only doing 1 set. From my own personal experience as well as what the evidence suggests, 1 set can be all that is needed to get strong, so why do more if you don't need to? Try it out.


2. Daily Undulating Periodization/Planning


What is it?


This is where we split the intensity across multiple days throughout the week, so one day we might be training with moderate-heavy loads to develop strength and muscle, getting close to failure on each exercise and on another day we might do the same or different exercises but with lighter weight to target speed and explosiveness.


Who's it For?


This is great for people who know what the intensity of their sport training will be like for the week. So for example, you might be doing light technical training PM-Tuesday so will do a heavy strength session AM or PM-Monday or AM-Tuesday, leaving around 8-12 hours between sessions. And if you've got hard sparring PM-Saturday, you might do the light power session AM or PM-Friday or AM-Saturday, leaving around 8-12 hours between sessions.


3. Weekly Undulating Periodization/Planning


What is it?


This is where we split the intensity across weeks, so one week we might be training with moderate-heavy loads to develop strength and muscle, getting close to failure on each exercise and the following week we might do the same or different exercises but with lighter weights to target speed and explosiveness.


Who's it For?


You might run this for a few weeks when you're having a short break from sports training. For example, you might do 2 weeks of hypertrophy/endurance @ 3-4 days a week, 2 weeks of strength @ 3-4 days a week and 1 week of power @ 3-4 days a week. Then once your break is over you'll switch to sessional or daily @ 1-3 days a week.


4. Monthly Undulating Periodization/Planning


What is it?


This is where we split training into monthly blocks. so I might dedicate an entire month or two to gaining muscle, the next might be strength, and then a month or so before an important competition I might focus on power.


Who's it for?


I touched on this earlier under frequency so I'm just going to copy and paste exactly what I wrote there and add a little more.


Your coach tells you that you're too weak and need to get stronger, for the next 3 months you might do 4-5 days of moderate-heavy strength work and maybe 2-4 days of very light, sports technical and tactical drilling, focusing on perfecting technique. Then when the time comes, you might switch that around to 4-5 days of moderate to intense tech/tact training & sparring and 1-2 days of strength/power work with a sessional or daily structure.



Thanks for reading.


This is my first ever blog entry so I would appreciate any feedback, good or bad.


Please send feedback to my email address mailbox@bodyengineering.info.


And if you would like to book a consult (face-face or zoom), you can book here: bodyengineering.info/bookasession.


Follow me on Instagram if you're not already following @walidhouli.


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