loris bertolacci

Sport, Health and Fitness

How strong is strong enough in sports?

I had been training a young tennis player from when he was 16. He was just a suburban player and had no history of resistance training, not a great athlete but quite a skilled sportsman. When I tested him for speed and power throughout a 2 year period his scores were benchmarked average. After 2 years of conditioning I was able to get him to the stage of squatting 100kg parallel for 6 reps comfortably and  deadlifting a few reps on 100. In this period he quickly improved his ranking in Australia to become quite a good player at National Level. I was standing next to Nicholas after a squat set and simply said. “ Mate let’s slow down adding kgs on squats  for a while and let’s make sure you work on tennis more and also speed.” Liam Annet (current S&C at Melbourne City) was standing next to me and asked how did I come to that conclusion. Apart from speed tests and jumps I wasn’t measuring him with GYMAWARE or any other tools.

With my tennis player it was simple. He was 18 and ranked 200 in Australia. 2 years before hardly had a point. Getting stronger (BW squats to 100kg reps) had made an enormous difference to his game. But it was time to use that conditioning and improve his tennis instead of trying to squat 170kgs and sneak to 190. Lots of people can play out there.  And with all sports it becomes the law of diminishing returns. Massive improvement at first with strength then just gets harder to transfer to sport. So my decision was based on his level of tennis and also on his ability to move and fitness. Athletes love the sanctity of the gym because it makes them feel all powerful and confident, but what happens in the sport is what matters. He was a bit confused but pretty quickly understood my advice.




I remember Anatoly Bondarchuk (famous coach!)  in early 90’s came to Australia. I asked him what the best test for throwing a 7.25kg hammer thrower was. (I was a hammer thrower!). Anyway he said the best test was throwing a 7.25kg hammer. HA! OMG I was so annoyed because even then I was doing all these fancy tests but only throwing 60 meters!

I started hammer throwing at 18 and simply had the worst technique. I loved the gym and also competed in weightlifting. By time I was 21 I was power cleaning 147, full squatting easy reps on 200+ and throwing just 59 metres. I had developed bad habits by pulling the hammer and with a rapid increase in strength in my opinion just made matters worse. And when I trained in Europe at 23 (1978)  I did learn a lot about plyometrics and fine tuning exercises such as overhead shot but still came back to Australia and hit the gym. BY 26 I power cleaned 160kgs and only threw 63 metres. I did  get better when I came out of retirement in late 30’s by just getting to an OK strength level ( 145 clean)  and making sure technique was better. And Bondarchuks words always annoyed me. I met Yuri Sedykh also in 1991 and he had thrown 86 metres, but strength levels were not much more than mine.




Obviously we see Social media videos with athletes like Greg Rutherford and Christian Taylor doing step ups with 200kgs and hang cleans with 150kgs. At the pointy end sometimes it becomes the only avenue left for improvement. IE Get more power! So for triple jump a good base of strength with quality training can get you to high 16m for example but then just gets back to power to get a few more cm. The decision to push hard in the gym is simply that, a decision that is reflected in performance. If you are sure a 20% increase in your hang clean will directly impact your performance go for it.




And if you are not genetically gifted sometimes an athlete has to roll the dice and go hard early in the strength area. For example if you are a 23 year old sprinter who runs 11.5 (male!) and have done heaps of running, odds are you won’t break 10 seconds so maybe going for broke in the gym is warranted to get that 10.99.

Now how do you decide what you need to lift in the gym after you have a base of strength? Well the starting point is analysing your sports performance then assessing what you need to improve in skills and conditioning. For me I think once I power cleaned 125kgs and squatted reps on 150kgs looking back would have been good to hold that level of conditioning and push to say 60+ metres by throwing better and being more athletic. Then once that was stabilized maybe push a clean to 140kgs and work my way to 65 metres. But I simply pulled myself into oblivion on the platform! Wasted a lot of time. And hammer throwers who took steroids and had crap technique and threw far don’t count. The number of times I have been to conferences and seen videos of this thrower who had amazing strength and power annoys me. As an ex thrower it annoys me seeing academics putting this stuff in front of people. We all know you have to be strong!

I  am a firm believer in testing all the jumps (vertical and horizontal) and having a speed/power profile and for intermittent sports a test of high level aerobic capacity. Having information allows a coach to examine the sports performance and make more informed decisions on what to concentrate on. It is always a decision based on “will this improve my performance”. And every year from beginner to older athlete emphasis is different.

So this article is not about whether to lift or not. Getting stronger is critical and also for injury prevention. But the law of diminishing returns needs to be respected. And is what you are doing improving your sport?

It is a tough one because  lots of athletes feel omnipotent when they smash iron in the gym! When you pump iron sometimes you feel invincible but reality nearly always hits when the guy next to you with 25% less bench press knocks you over in a game. How many lifters, bodybuilders and cross fitters go home thinking they can stop a nuclear bomb with their hand, but then get on the sports field and cannot perform?




And I also disagree with the anti-weights brigade Measure your theories with performance folks. In 2017 we have evolved to the point where an individual approach is required for athletes and the tools are there. Not whether to lift or not. So have I answered the question of how strong is strong enough? No. Ha. Just start training and analyse what you need to improve your sports performance and dose accordingly.

November 25, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment