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Through extensive research in strength training and conditioning programs, the name Vern Gambetta continually surfaces as being a foremost expert on functional strength training.

Vern Gambetta is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has also worked as a consultant for the Cincinnati Reds and the University of Texas Longhorns. Currently, Mr.Gambetta offers a number of consulting services and speaking seminars on athletic development through his website:
Gambetta Sports Training Systems. Visit Vern's blog: Functional Path Training for more information on strength training.

Develop a Strength Program That Fits Your Needs!

The following tips for developing a personal strength program are from Mr. Gambetta's article "Power to Play". The article appears in the Feb. 2004 issue of Coaching Management.

The Principles

To get off on the right foot with your program, you need to understand and embrace certain sound principles of strength training. They can be summed up in the following six points:
  • Develop sport-specific strength. The most important principle, this should be the goal of any strength training program. The goal is not to increase the athlete's ability to lift heavier weights, but to develop strength that the athlete can use in his sport.

  • Strength training is a spectrum of activities. Under my umbrella of strength training, I include body-weight exercise, core training, plyometric training, free-weight training, machine training, Olympic lifting, and power lifting.

  • Train movements, not muscles. The central nervous system (CNS) is the movement command station. It calls for programmed patterns of movement that can be modified in countless ways to react appropriately to outside forces. Each activity is refined and adjusted by feedback from the body.

    For this reason, it's critical that we think of movement not as an isolated event, but as a complex event that involves multiple factors working together. Movement does not occur in an anatomical position, and choosing exercises that isolate specific muscles does not appropriately address multi-dimensional strength development. Movement occurs in reaction to gravity, ground reaction forces, and momentum, and must be trained as such.

  • Train core strength before extremity strength. A strong, stable core consisting of the hip, abdomen, and low back is the cornerstone of a good strength-training program. Without a strong, stable core, loading the extremities will be very risky and limited by the lack of core strength. The core transfers force from the lower extremities to the upper extremities and vice versa.

  • Train body weight before external resistance. This entails being able to overcome gravity in traditional body-weight exercises like the push-up, pull-up, and body-weight squat before adding weights. Such work will help strengthen the tendons and ligaments as well as the muscles in preparation for external loading. It will also ensure good joint stability.

  • Train strength before strength endurance. Traditionally, strength-training programs have started with circuit training in order to build a foundation of strength endurance. But, in order to build strength endurance, it is first necessary to build strength. Only when a base of strength is established can you add an endurance component.

Design Rules

Now that you understand the important principles and have answered the pertinent questions about your athletes, you can start designing a program. Here are some guidelines:
  • Time of year. The greatest emphasis on strength training should be during the off-season and the preseason. But it is important to also develop a manageable program that can be continued throughout the season.

  • Progression. Progress from body-weight exercises to external resistance exercises both within the workout and through the training year. Within each workout, perform balance/stability work and core work first. Start with simple, easy-to-perform exercises, then progress to complex movements. The key to progression is mastery. If you allow the athlete to proceed further before the exercises have been mastered, there is a higher risk of injury.

  • Frequency. There are basically two alternatives, both of which work quite well. The first option is to train the entire body on alternate days three days a week. The second option uses a split routine; for example, you might train the legs and total body on Monday and Thursday and train the upper body on Tuesday and Friday.

  • Number of exercises. It is best to limit the number of exercises. I have found that too many exercises dilute the training effect. Find a few essential "need to do" exercises so athletes can focus on the workout and not on learning new exercises.

  • Duration. Generally, it is best to keep the entire strength-training session in the range of 60 to 90 minutes. The closer to one hour, the better the results.

  • Evaluating results. The traditional evaluation of a strength-training program has been the ability to lift more during weight-training exercises or perform more repetitions on body-weight exercises. In an absolute sense, that is still valid, but I think we need to go further and carefully observe the carryover to the actual sport movement. While this is much more subjective, it is the ultimate goal of any strength-training program. Closely observe whether the athlete's ability to start and stop has improved, whether he is hitting with more power, and whether there has been a reduction in injuries.

Selecting Exercises

You have a variety of exercises at your disposal, but it is important to consider the qualities of the exercises. Here are some tips:
  • Make them multi-joint. Use as many joints as possible to produce-and reduce-force.
  • Avoid isolation exercises. Skip exercises that put unusual stress on one joint. They cause confusion because the muscle is asked to do something different in strength training than it must do in movement. Thus, exercises like leg extensions, leg curls, concentration curls, and pec deck flys have no place in a functional strength-training program.
  • Control speed. Incorporate speed of movement that is safe and that the athlete can control.
  • Work proprioceptive demand. The proprioceptors assist the system in generating movement in a form appropriate to the demands placed upon the system. Thus, it's important to challenge the joint and muscle receptors to provide feedback regarding joint and limb position and then reposition accordingly. This ensures that the strength will transfer to performance.
  • Minimize machines. Considering the above criteria, machine training should play a minor role in strength-training programs. There is a mistaken notion that it is best to begin a strength-training program by using machines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because machines provide so much stabilization, they give a false sense of security and stability that does not transfer to a free, gravitationally enriched environment. Various rowing and pulley machines are acceptable, but even those should be only a small part of the program.

As you can see, the variables are endless. The key to program design is to take a proactive approach by paying attention to all the factors, both big and small. Know the goals, understand the principles, and pay attention to the individual athlete and sport. Then, choose your timing and exercises consciously and carefully.

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