The Springboks in mid-training ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
The Springboks in mid-training ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
Image: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images

Strength is one of your greatest allies and the pursuit of it could be a secret weapon in your training regimen.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable,” said Socrates, apparently, 2,300 years ago.

While he was not speaking about the squat, pull-up and overhead press, he was making an important point, but it appears much of that message has been lost through the millennia.

To many people, strength comes with baggage — a sort of one-dimensional caricature of a muscle-bound oaf that can’t string together more words than “get me some protein”. This is a great pity, because strength in its purest form is the furthest thing from being restrictive. On the contrary it opens a whole new world of performance.

Joshua Capazorio is the head coach and co-owner of exercise and sports conditioning facility Performance Purist. A competitive athlete himself, he is also strength and conditioning coach to some of SA’s leading athletes in sports such as cycling, Iron Man, boxing, Olympic weightlifting and more. Having coached Olympians, world champions and elite athletes, Capazorio says strength is an asset.

“Once you have obtained strength, you unlock many doors in your life. The stronger you are, the easier life gets. Strength is never a weakness.”

Strength is the amount of force your muscle fibres can produce. The nervous system also plays an important role in strength. Becoming proficient in a movement or practising a spectrum of movements will increase neural efficiency — your ability to recruit muscle fibres.

“Once you have obtained strength, you unlock many doors in your life. The stronger you are, the easier life gets.
Joshua Capazorio

In a previous interview with Business Day, sports conditioning coach Neil Murphy said that while aerobic fitness is fundamental to the athlete, his or her ability to generate power using the two anaerobic energy systems is one of the pillars of athleticism. To generate power, said Murphy, there has to be a strength base.

A myth that prevents people from training to attain strength is the belief it will slow them down. Functional strength does not have to equate to unnaturally large muscles: think about weight categories in Olympic weightlifting or small gymnasts that are able to perform the most incredible feats on rings or bars.

“Muscle doesn’t slow you down because muscle is the driver behind generating force, power and speed — muscle is the reason you can do anything athletic. To assume it will slow you down is to assume an engine in a car is what slows the car down, not the brakes,” says Capazorio.

“Women must also train for strength, just like men. Women need strength for the exact same reason that men need it. When women do strength training, just like men, it improves their hormonal environment, it increases their muscle tone, improves posture and it provides an advantage for sport,” says Capazorio.

Making the case for both men and women, Capazorio says: “Lean muscle is your friend — the more muscle you have the more fat you can burn, the more muscle you have, the more healthy your hormonal environment, the more muscle you have, the better your skin.”

“Building lean muscle,” says Capazorio. “will make you faster, jump higher, even run further. You need to aim to grow muscle — I say that not because everyone should go and be a bodybuilder, that’s not what we are talking about.”

The transfer of strength for speed or power athletes, or sports that rely on those attributes, as well as traits such as explosiveness, is obvious. Think rugby, swimming, sprinting, field athletes and boxing.

However, strength training also benefits athletes, both elite and casual, in seemingly less obvious sports.

Why should an endurance athlete consider getting stronger? Capazorio says it will make them a stronger athlete, “and simply put, a stronger athlete runs or rides faster times”.

“Think about cadence turnover on a bicycle, your wattage, or your midfoot strike on a run — the stronger you are, the less effort it takes to generate the same force you previously produced, which means, when you get stronger you naturally become more efficient. Improving strength also improves efficiency when you scale it down,” says Capazorio.

Nate Helming, a San Francisco-based running coach and co-founder of The Run Experience, himself a distance runner, promotes functional strength training for casual runners, professional triathletes, Olympic-level cyclists and national-level ultra-runners.

The stronger you are, the less effort it takes to generate the same force you previously produced, which means, when you get stronger you naturally become more efficient.
Joshua Capazorio

He says on a training video that strength training improves force production and power output for faster running, increases running economy through better form and movement efficiency, and strengthens joints and muscles which all lead to a better and more enjoyable, and successful, running experience.

However, an article called “Strength Training for Distance Running: A scientific Perspective”, that was published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, says that research of the US Olympic marathon trials qualifiers found that half of the athletes did no strength training at all, while the other half averaged one to one and a half sessions a week, implying that the US elite marathoners who were surveyed did not have the time or didn’t believe it would improve their performance.

It would be fair to assume that someone running at elite level is in a far better physical shape, including mobility and strength, than someone who runs casually or even competitively. The elite runners work with qualified coaches over many years.

Compare that to someone who has a day job, sits in front of a computer eight hours a day wrecking their posture and runs as a hobby while eating as they please. Olympic athlete vs average Joe with a few pounds in the belly bank.

The Strength and Conditioning Journal article does, however, say that increasing the muscular strength of runners will “increase their muscular power, which is the product of force [strength] and speed. Athletic performance is ultimately limited by the amount of force and power that can be produced and sustained”.

But how do you use this strength? The article says: “In addition to the skeletal muscles’ aerobic and anaerobic metabolic capacities, force and power are influenced by neuromuscular co-ordination, skeletal muscle mechanics and energetics, and efficiency of converting metabolic power into mechanical power”.

In reading about active health, and pursuing a fit lifestyle, people who are not elite athletes would do well to break through the online “listicle” clutter and make more meaningful decisions.

Strength and conditioning will never replace practising the actual skills of the sport. Ultimately, the decision on how you train to support your sport is yours to make. No two bodies are the same and people come from vastly different backgrounds, lives and genetic predisposition to athleticism.

However, by debunking the myth that strength is the sole preserve of powerlifting or rugby, the casual or part-time athlete may finally have an important piece of the puzzle to put together their best performances yet and avoid unnecessary injuries.

If you have been neglecting strength and would like to introduce some strength training into your weekly training, Capazorio has provided a sample introductory programme to be performed three times a week.

Exercises are to be done with a challenging weight, but not heavy enough to upset proper form. If you are new to strength training, be sure to see a qualified coach to teach you how to do the exercises with proper form.

Session A.

  1. Goblet squat: 5 sets 4 reps (1 min rest between sets)
  2. Strict press: 5 sets 5 reps (1 min rest between sets)
  3. Chin up holds: 5 sets 2-3 reps or 5 sets 5-8 sec hold 
  4. Plank walkouts: 4 sets 8-10 walk outs 

Session B.

  1. Dead lift (stopping weight on floor): six sets, three reps (2 min rest between sets)
  2. Kettlebell front rack reverse lunge: four sets, five per leg (1 min rest between sets)
  3. Narrow grip bench press: four sets, eight reps (1 min rest between sets)
  4. Double kettlebell row: four sets, 12 reps (1 min rest between sets)

Session C. 

 

  1. Back squat: five sets, five reps (2 min rest between sets)
  2. Double kettlebell press and overhead walk: five sets, 10 press 15m walk (1 min rest)
  3. Single leg glute bridge: three sets, 15 seconds hold per side (short rest between sets)
  4. Side plank: four sets, 20 seconds hold per side (short rest between sets)