Strength By Design

Getting your strength-training program off on the right foot means designing each component with care.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at

Training & Conditioning, 10.8, November 2000,

For some strength coaches, it’s the best part of the job. For others, it’s the worst. But, for all strength coaches, it’s critical to their athletes’ success. I’m referring to program design—the time spent away from our athletes and at our desks plotting and strategizing the everyday workouts.
Even if you’ve been a strength coach for many years, this can be one of the most challenging parts of your job. There are so many factors to consider, including the sport, the athletes, and your resources.

In addition, much of the information available on the topic is littered with a confusing barrage of fads, myths, misconceptions, half truths, and lies. In this article, I hope to cut through some of this confusion by providing practical pointers that will lead you step-by-step through the development of a strength-training program—whether it’s for a new athlete, for a new sport, or to redesign an ineffective program.

To get off on the right foot with your program, you need to understand and embrace those principles of strength training that are sound. They can be summed up in the following six points:

Develop Sport-Specific Strength. This is the most important principle, and is also usually the goal of any strength-training program. Except for competitive weight-lifters, the goal is NOT to increase the athlete’s ability to lift heavier weights. The goal is to develop strength that the athlete can use in his or her sport.

Strength training is a spectrum of activities. This includes more than lifting weights. 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 command station that controls and directs all movement. The CNS calls for preprogrammed patterns of movement that can be modified in countless ways to react appropriately to gravity, ground-reaction forces, and momentum. Each activity is subjected to further refinements and adjustments by feedback from the body’s proprioceptors. This process ensures optimal neuromuscular control and efficiency of function.

For this reason, it’s critical that we think of movement not as an isolated event that occurs in one plane of motion, but as a complex event that involves synergists, stabilizers, neutralizers, and antagonists all working together. Movement does not occur in the anatomical position, and choosing exercises that isolate specific muscles does not appropriately address dynamic, multi-dimensional strength development. Movement occurs in reaction to gravity, ground reaction forces, and momentum, and must be trained as such.

Train core before extremity strength. A strong, stable core consisting of the the hip, abdomen, and low back is the cornerstone of a 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 works as a transmitter, transfering force from the lower to the upper extremity and vice versa.

Train body weight before external resistance. This entails being able to overcome gravitational loading in traditional body-weight exercises like the push-up, pull-up, and body-weight squat before adding weights. This type of work will help to 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 endure strength, it is first necessary to build strength. Only when a base of strength has been established can you work to add an endurance component.

Using these principles as a guide, the next step in designing a program requires asking lots of questions of yourself, your coaches, and your athletes. The first group of questions includes the following: What do you hope to achieve with a strength-training program? What are the team’s goals? What are the individual’s goals? How can strength training help realize these goals?

The answers to these questions should be based on three factors: the sport, the athlete, and the environment.

The Sport. A tennis player should have a different program than a football player. In fact, a quarterback should have a different program than a lineman. To figure out how to make the strength-training program match the sport and position, consider these next questions:
• What are the strength requirements of the sport and position?
• What muscle groups are used?
• What are the movement requirements?
• What is the direction of the application of force?
• What is the range of movement?
• What kind of resistance does the athlete have to overcome?
• Is added muscle mass needed for armor and protection?
• What are the common injuries?

The Athlete. In looking at the individual athlete, carefully consider growth and development factors as well as previous injuries and gender. Questions here include the following:
• Has the athlete gone through puberty? While there is no doubt that the pre-pubescent athlete can weight train (research and practical experience have shown no ill effects from weight training), I tend to modify programs for younger athletes. My rule is to avoid any heavy loading of the spine until after puberty. Thus, I limit the amount of overhead work that a young athlete does, and I put the emphasis on body-weight exercises. This will serve as excellent preparation to safely move forward on the strength continuum after puberty.
• Is the athlete an early or late developer? Biological and chronological age are often quite different, so it’s important to take into account an athlete’s maturity as well as his or her age. Cognitive and emotional development should also be considered, as they are quite important to the athlete’s ability to accept coaching and learn exercises and routines.
• What is the athlete’s medical history? Along with addressing any past injuries, carefully evaluate any significant postural defects. Problems with posture, including gait mechanics, must be addressed before moving any further into a training program.
• What are the athlete’s unique, individual qualities? Does he or she need to develop in an area that is slowing him or her down? If the athlete cannot do an exercise, find a simpler, more remedial exercise to substitute.
• If the athlete is female, does she lack a strength base? Because our culture encourages boys to participate in more physical activities, they often enter their first strength-training program with a base. Many girls, however, start sport programs with bodies that have experienced very little strength training. In addition, the female athlete typically has a smaller percentage of total body mass as muscle.

Therefore, strength training may be more important for the female athlete than the male. In fact, I feel strongly that the female athlete should begin strength training earlier than boys and continue strength training throughout the training year and her career. It has been my observation (albeit neither supported nor refuted by research) that the female athlete who begins a sound, well-rounded strength-training program before puberty tends to more easily maintain that strength base after puberty. Also, because the female matures earlier than the male, it is easier to begin strength training earlier.

The Environment. From a coaching and teaching perspective, it is important to take into consideration outside factors that will affect the strength-training program. Answering these questions will get you on the right track:
• Can you teach the exercises and supervise them properly to ensure safety as well as proper training? If your staffing does not allow you to implement an ideal program, then don’t try to. It’s better to scale the program back to meet the resources available than to risk injury.
• Is lack of time a factor? If so, consider the “weight room without walls” concept, where strength training is integrated within the location and time frame of the actual practice session. This is accomplished using the natural environment, body-weight exercises, medicine balls, and stretch cords. It may seem like a compromise, but this can be very effective in sports that do not require external resistance, such as soccer, tennis, and swimming.
• What facilities and equipment are available? Do not make facilities or equipment a limiting factor in beginning a program. A few quality exercises done consistently will yield terrific results. This is especially true when beginning a program.

Now that you understand the important principles and have answered the pertinent questions about the athletes, you can start designing a program. Here are some guidelines:

Testing strength. As I’ve mentioned in many past articles, it’s critical to test your athletes before beginning a program. When designing programs for new athletes, it is probably best to utilize projected maximums, since the 1RM can be unsafe for the inexperienced.

Time of year. Obviously, 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. Also, within each workout, perform balance/stability work and core work first. Start with simple, easy-to-perform exercises, then progress to more complex movements. The key to progression is mastery. If you allow the athlete to proceed further into the program 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 depending on the objective. 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 carefully choose and limit the number of exercises. I have found that too many exercises will dilute the training effect. Determine the essential “need to do” exercises so athletes focus on the workout and not on learning new exercises.

Sets/Reps. For body-weight exercises, a range of 10 to 20 reps is necessary to force adaptation. For weight training, the traditional paradigm of sets and reps is still very valid: Use higher reps for hypertrophy development and lower reps with multiple sets for neural development.

Mode of Resistance: Depending on the objective and the phase of the program, the following resistance modes can all be used: body weight, stretch cord, medicine ball, power ball, dumbbells, and barbell. Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the specific objectives of the training program.

Duration: Generally, it is best to keep the entire strength-training session in the time range of one hour to 90 minutes. The closer to one hour, the more optimal 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 beyond that 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 if the athlete’s ability to start and stop has improved or if there has been a reduction in injuries.

The type of exercises you use is limited only by your imagination. However, 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.

Close the chain. To use gravity and ground-reaction forces, choose closed-chain exercises. Whenever possible, exercises should be performed in the standing position.

Use tri-plane motion. Movement occurs in all three planes, sagittal, frontal, and transverse. The key to performance is movement in the transverse plane; therefore, it is important to include rotational movement whenever possible.

Understand amplitude. Work over the greatest range of motion that is possible to control.

Control speed. Incorporate speed of movement that is safe and 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 only be a small part of the program.

Avoid isolation exercises. Skip all exercises that put unusual stress on one joint. They cause neural confusion because the muscle is asked to do something different in strength training than it must do in movement. Consequently, exercises like leg extensions, leg curls, concentration curls, and pec deck flys have no place in a functional strength-training program.
As you can see, the variables are endless. The key 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.

An Exercise Menu
Appropriate exercises can be selected from six

1. Balance & Stability
Single-leg squat: perform in three positions—straight, side, and rotation—and hold each position five counts.
Balance shift: Shift right, left, forward right, forward left, back right, and back left.

2. Core Exercises
Medicine-ball basic rotations: tight rotation, wide rotation, over the top, figure eight, chop to ankle (stride position), and woodchop with a twist.
Medicine-ball rotations and twists: standing full twist, standing half twist, half chop, and solo med-ball sit-up (both right and left).
Medicine-ball wall-throw series: overhead throw, soccer throw, chest pass, standing side to side (cross in front), standing face to the wall (throw right and left, down the side), and standing back to the wall (alternate throwing right and left).
Medicine-ball total-body throws: overback throw, forward through the legs, squat and throw.

3. Lower Body
Squat & touch
Single-leg squat: three positions: front, side, and rotation.
Body-weight exercises: squat, lunge, and step-up.
Jump squat
Leg circuit: squat, lunge, and step-up.

4. Upper Body
Pulls & pushes: front pulldown, dumbbell row, incline pull-up, incline chin-up, push-up progression, rotational bench press, dumbbell bench, rhomboid, combo I (curl & press), combo II (upper cut), and arm step-up.
Stretch-cord/mini-band menu: sidestep, walk forward and back, carioca, monster walk, dynamic protraction/retraction, dynamic scarecrow, back stroke, backhand.

5. Total Body
Dumbbell high pull
Dumbbell snatch
Squat to press
Lunge & press

6. Plyometric Exercises (Jumping)
Jump rope routine
Tuck jumps
Multidirectional jumps
Ice skater
Side to side
Zig zag bound

Getting Them Started
This is an introductory program for newer athletes. The theme is to emphasize body weight for two weeks, then, starting with the third week, increase sets with each workout as the athletes progress.

Total Body & Legs Emphasis
Mini-band routine
Medicine-ball basic rotations
Balance routine
Single-leg squat: 2 sets x 5 on each leg
Dumbbell high pull: teach on Mon
Dumbbell snatch: teach on Thurs
Body-weight squat: 2 x 10
Body-weight lunge: 10 on each leg
Body-weight step-up: 10 on each leg
Jump squat: 10
Core work: medicine-ball rotations
& twists
Upper-Body Emphasis
Mini-band routine
Medicine-ball basic rotations
Balance routine
Push-up progression: regular, incline,
stagger, butt up, oblique, rotation
Incline pull-up: 3 x 8
Pulldowns (front): 3 x 8
Arm step-up: 2 x 20
Punching: 2 x 30 (15 right & 15 left)
Stretch-cord routine
Medicine-ball wall throws