There are two fundamental factors that determine a person’s athletic ability. The first is raw strength. This is simply the maximum amount of tension that can be generated by the muscles. The second factor is the ability to utilize strength in athletic movements. Sports do not involve movements that test raw strength. When you run, jump, cut, shuffle, swing, kick, etc, the action is far too fast for the muscles to generate their peak tension. Explosiveness is the rate at which muscle tension is generated. Explosiveness determines how much of your peak muscle tension you can produce during a fast movement. In addition, there are other factors besides the amount of muscle tension that affect the movement. Flexibility allows proper joint positions and allows joints to move quickly without resistance. Coordination sequences all the muscle contractions required to produce a movement. At a physiological level, the coordination of human movement is overwhelmingly complex. Lastly, springiness allows the human muscle-tendon complex to store and release energy to add power to muscle contractions. All together, explosiveness, flexibility, coordination, and springiness determine how well strength is utilized for athletic movements.

Athletic performance can be viewed as a simple equation. Strength x Strength Utilization = Athleticism. Looking at different movements, the lighter the load being moved and the faster the muscle contraction, the more important strength utilization becomes, and the less important raw strength becomes. In any movement defined by velocity, strength utilization is an important factor. Looking at speed, jumping ability, and quickness, it’s obvious that explosiveness, coordination, flexibility, and springiness have a dramatic impact. Great sprinters and jumpers are certainly possess high levels of those abilities. What is not so obvious is the impact of strength. During running and jumping the load being moved is the entire body. That is easily heavy enough to make strength an important contributor to those movements. That is why getting strong makes athletes better. Not convinced? Consider this. An elite sprinter pushes into the ground with force as high as 5 times body weight during each foot contact at top speed. That’s with one leg. Do we really think that an athlete can achieve that level of force without a high level of strength? Now I know there are still some doubters out there, so consider an even simpler argument. All human movement is driven by muscle contraction. Sprinting and jumping may be fast and explosive, but they are still driven by muscle tension. Listening to the opponents of high-level strength development for athletes, it almost seems like they think there is some magical, super-speed, spring-loaded ability that great athletes possess. Nope. It’s just muscles pulling on tendons pulling on bones. Same thing going on during a heavy squat is going on during a sprint. So we know that muscle fibers are contracting to produce force during athletic movements. If those muscle fibers get stronger, do we really think it’s not going to make an athlete run faster and jump higher? Just think about it. Getting strong makes athletes better. That is a fact.

Allyson Felix

Allyson Felix. Fast. Strong.

There are a couple things that mislead people into thinking that raw strength is not an important contributor to athleticism. First, great athletes often times do not appear to be strong. So many times I have seen the same argument. “There’s these guys at the gym where I play basketball with really skinny legs. They obviously can’t even squat their bodyweight, but they jump out of the gym. Obviously strength isn’t that important for jumping.” This is just false. Size and strength are not the same thing. It is impossible to know how strong people are by looking at them, particularly when it comes to lower body strength. Yes, a lot of good athletes have thin legs. And those same good athletes are very strong. There are countless examples that demonstrate this fact. Allyson Felix is a good one. She is one of the fastest women on the planet. She won gold in the 200-meter race at the 2012 Olympics. As you can see in the picture she is muscular but definitely thin. According to her former coach, Barry Ross, she deadlifted 300 pounds at a body weight of 123 when she was 17 years old. Thin is not weak. Big is not strong. The other thing that misleads people is when great athletes testify that they have not used much strength training. LeBron James is a popular example. In his early years in the NBA he was one of the best leapers and fastest players in the league. By his own testament he did not use strength training in high school and even as a professional player uses things like yoga and dumbell exercises as opposed to squats and deadlifts. First I would like to point out that LeBron is making a mistake as evidenced by the fact that he has already experienced noticeable decline in athleticism at age 28. But more importantly, we need to understand that LeBron is very strong even though he has not used much strength training. How can this be? Again, all movement is driven by muscle tension, so all movement will provoke some level of muscular strength. Sitting down, standing up, and walking around will give you some level of strength. Throw in some stairs to walk up and some jogging, and you get more strength. Start sprinting, jumping, and cutting, you get a higher level still. Those activities will stimulate varying levels of strength in different people. Some people are just gifted, and they can get really strong from just playing sports. LeBron fits into that category. I would bet that 20-year old LeBron could have walked into a weight room and deadlifted 500 pounds with no experience. Another example is Trent Richardson, running back for the Cleveland Browns and formerly at the University of Alabama. He showed up at Alabama as a freshman already possessing freakish strength. He says benching 475 and squatting 600 were easy for him. Did Richardson do some kind of miraculous strength training program in high school? No. He’s just naturally strong. Some people have an easy path to high strength levels. The vast majority of us do not, so strength training is an extremely important tool to use in athletic development.

Is strength the most important component of athletic ability? There isn’t any way to measure the importance of something, but the answer to that question has to be no. The strongest people on the planet are not the best athletes. The best athletes are those who have the best strength utilization abilities and also have high relative strength. That being said, strength training does often end up being the most crucial component of athletic improvement. Consider the strength utilization abilities. Flexibility and coordination are items that should be checked off. Once you have an appropriate level of flexibility for your sport, getting more flexible will do nothing. The same is true of coordination. Once you perform a movement properly, you can’t keep doing it more and more properly. Springiness is the least trainable athletic quality. It is a product of tendon stiffness, which is largely genetic, and eccentric rate of force development. In the long run, explosiveness and strength are really the only two abilities that can keep progressing. And of those two abilities, which one are athletes typically more in need of? If an athlete plays a running and jumping sport, he or she is most likely going to possess a good level of explosiveness. What it really comes down to is that participating in an explosive sport trains the strength utilization abilities. The missing piece to the puzzle is strength training. People who grow up as athletes are typically well-developed in every area but strength, so improving strength is the most important thing left to be done. This explains why there are endless testimonies of people who get stronger and then run faster and jump higher as a result. There are a few in the video below.

At the same time plenty of people have had the experience of gaining strength but not gaining athleticism. There are a number of potential explanations for this. One thing to understand is that the athletic benefits of strength training may not be immediate. Strength training can cause long-term fatigue. This fatigue is not well understood. People generally refer to it as central nervous system fatigue. Are the neurons in the brain and spinal cord worn out? Maybe. Fatigue of the adrenal gland is another possible cause. This would limit the up-regulation of the nervous system, reducing performance. Chronic inflammation of muscles and tendons could also play a role. Regardless of the physiological mechanism, we know this fatigue caused by strength training tends to reduce rate of force development. This means that rest from strength training may be required to allow strength gains to carry over to speed and jumping ability. The benefits of increased strength often take time, particularly in advanced athletes. Another thing to consider is the specific adaptation that produces increased strength. Remember that a muscle cannot generate maximum tension during the short duration of an athletic movement. This is because all the muscle fibers cannot be activated quickly enough. When it comes to strength training, the target for an athlete has to be those muscle fibers that can be activated during athletic movements. Increasing the neural drive or the structural strength of high-end motor units that are not activated during a vertical jump may produce a higher max squat or deadlift, but it will not increase vertical jump height. This is why running and jumping athletes need to take a different approach to strength training than powerlifters. In the long run, the biggest reason why strength may not carry over is a lack of strength utilization abilities. Remember the equation. Strength x Strength Utilization = Athleticism. A low level of either of the two main factors reduces the contribution of the other. If an athlete’s strength gains never carry over to improved athleticism, it is likely caused by a severe lack of flexibility, explosiveness, or coordination. Consider flexibility. Muscular power cannot translate to power pushed into the ground if the joints cannot move at high speed. Fortunately flexibility is a simple fix. Drastic improvements can be made in a short time. Consider explosiveness. If fewer muscle fibers are activated during athletic movements, it is less likely that strength training can target strength in those particular fibers. Explosiveness is also very trainable, but it is a long-term pursuit. Consider coordination. As stated before, when looking at the precision of the neural signals, the sequencing of muscle contractions, the contribution of reflexes, etc, the coordination that produces human movement is overwhelmingly complex. I mean it is just mind-blowing. With that in mind, one cannot just assume an athlete has developed perfect motor patterns for every movement. For example, some people just do not know how to jump. They may follow all the proper cues for jumping (loading the hips, swinging the arms, etc) and may appear as if they are using good technique, but they just don’t get off the ground. This is the sign of a lack of coordination. Unfortunately some people are just not gifted with in this area. If you observe 5 year-olds being active, it is obvious that some are more coordinated than others. Obviously anyone is capable of acquiring skill, but development in this area tends to be dominated by childhood. So those less coordinated kids can certainly become skilled in plenty of movements, but I’m saying they need to do it early. If a naturally not-so-coordinated person reaches adulthood without learning how to jump, developing that skill becomes an extremely difficult task. Lack of coordination is a huge obstacle that prevents strength gains from translating to athletic gains. And sadly it may be the one disadvantage that cannot really be overcome.

Hopefully it is clear that athleticism is a product of several different physiological abilities, all of which must be addressed in training. Attempts to oversimplify training like “all you have to do is squat” or “all you have to do is practice jumping” are just plain wrong. People have been successful with those approaches but only because they were already proficient in a number of areas. This brings us (as is often the case) to the conclusion that athletes need to be evaluated, and training needs to directly target the abilities which need to be improved.