Last week I had a tweet about diminishing returns and an athlete’s strength. The question comes up, can athletes be too strong? This is a difficult one to answer. It’s difficult to answer because if you answer yes then it serves as a rationalization for every athlete that does not work hard during training. “Hey coach, I’d like to train really hard but I don’t want to become too strong.”
What’s wrong with an athlete becoming too strong? First, there’s a risk of injury. Second, we have to determine if the reward is worth the risk. Third, we have to make sure it’s something that the athlete can use.
Risk of injury
Simply put, the closer that we get to our genetic ceiling the more difficult it is to continue making gains. This is true in every aspect of training and especially strength. It requires more time, more intensity, and more advanced programming/exercises to continue increasing strength once an athlete begins to approach their ceiling. Combined, all of this dramatically increases the athlete’s risk of getting injured from training.
Reward vs. risk
As an athlete approaches their genetic ceiling, it’s important to ask whether adding five more pounds to a lift is going to be worth all the time, effort, and risk involved. Will that extra five pounds really improve the athlete’s performance? I’m going to argue that once an athlete gets to a certain strength level, more of it won’t improve their performance.
Is it useful?
I think that all athletes need a base level of strength. I also think this is relative depending upon the sport, the level of competition, and the positions that the athlete plays. Once the athlete has attained that level of strength, they need to learn how to use that strength. How to exert force against the ground, the techniques for getting past that offensive lineman, the finer point of shot put technique or pitching mechanics, etc.
Now that we’ve explored the case for “too much strength”, it needs to be realized that for most athletes, the “too strong” situation is not going to come up. Why? They don’t focus on that in training, their athletic careers aren’t long enough to worry about getting to that point, and their aren’t enough hours in the day to train strength enough.
Strength isn’t a focus
Many athletic strength and conditioning programs follow a traditional periodization approach. This means a gradual increase in training intensity combined with a gradual decrease in training volume. The result is that there’s about eight weeks before the season where an athlete is training heavy enough to be truly training for maximal strength.
In addition to periodization, as athletes become more advanced and eventually reach elite levels, there is an understandable concern over breaking the multi-million dollar athlete. Not only does this have an impact on the team’s performance, it has an impact on merchandise sales, ticket sales, television ratings, etc. Strength and conditioning coaches that break multi-million dollar athletes don’t remain in the field very long. This leads to training that is not focused around pushing the athlete to his or her limits and is focused around prehab and using the athlete’s strength.
Athletic careers are too short
It takes a long time to really develop maximal strength. Most athletes are done after high school, a few make it to college, even fewer make it beyond that. This means that most athletes aren’t training, consistently, over a long enough period of time for this to come up. Even if athletes do make it to elite levels, for the reasons identified above it’s usually not an issue.
There aren’t enough hours in the day
Powerlifters and Olympic lifters train to become stronger on specific exercises. That’s all they do for two to four hours a day, every day. Other athletes have to lift weights, do sprints, do plyos, do their mobility work, prehab, rehab, practice their sport, study film, travel, compete, etc. In other words, most athletes don’t have two to four hours a day, six days a week, to lift weights. At most, they have three to five hours a week and that’s it. In other words, they don’t have the sheer time that it’s going to take to get to their absolute limits. Imagine what they could do if they did have that time!
So, can athletes become too strong? Absolutely! Are their risks involved? Definitely. Is this something that most athletes need to worry about to avoid training hard, sorry this won’t apply to very many athletes!