If you have been watching the Olympic games and marvelled at some of the athletes on show in sports such as sprint cycling and track sprinters in athletics, it certainly looks as though weight training must play a significant role in the training of these athletes based on the muscle mass that is in evidence.
One thing that is not apparent though, is that these types of individuals will rarely follow the same program as the average gym rat, since virtually all sports require a high degree of power which means their training will usually involve heavy loads or else moderate loads executed at a high speed. The study we are going to look at today (1) from a team based in Spain, investigated how strength training affected the ability of athletes to exert explosive force, as well as the impact of heavy strength work on endurance and hormone levels.
Objective: To determine the effect of a six week strength training block on fitness and serum hormone status on a group of adolescent handball players aged 14-16 years.
Methods: 19 players were split into two groups. 9 of the 19 players participated in a six week program of strength training which they performed alongside their handball training (ST). The remaining 10 players performed handball training only (HT). A control group of 4 players did not perform any training at all.
Results: The group performing both types of training increased their maximal dynamic leg strength by 12% and their upper body strength by 23%. The other groups did not gain or lose strength at all. The handball training group increased their vertical jump from 29.5cm to 31.4cm while the strength training and control group experienced no change. A significant increase in throwing velocity was observed in the strength group only but with no changes in other groups. In an endurance test the handball training group experienced a significant decrease in blood lactate concentrations, not see in the other two groups. Finally, the control group experienced a significant rise in the testosterone to cortisol ratio while the handball training group experienced a non-significant rise and the strength group did not experienced any change.
Conclusion: The researchers concluded that adding heavy resistance training to handball training increased maximal strength and throwing velocity, but compromised gains in explosive force production and endurance seen in the handball training group. Additionally, they observed that the addition of strength training to handball training could have caused the adverse effect on the testosterone to cortisol ratio seen in this group.
Our Comments It is easy to look at images of jacked athletes and assume that hardcore weight training is the secret of the success of many athletes. What this study shows is that while weight training can have positive effects on maximal strength, it can potentially inhibit gains in the type of explosive strength that is the hallmark of great athletes. When we consider those athletes considered the best of all time, we see that speed, and the ability to generate power quickly is a much more important requirement than sheer size and strength. The fact that the handball training players increased their performance on the vertical jump, a test of explosive strength, while the weight training subjects didn’t, could be considered as proof that weight training should be avoided by athletes for whom the primary requirement of their sport is to perform actions of an explosive nature. This is going too far in my view.
A much better approach would be to consider maximal strength as being the foundation for displaying high levels of explosive strength. If we think of maximal strength in this way then a good plan for an athlete would be to work on maximal strength levels in the off season but then switch emphasis in the pre-season and in-season training to a program based on explosive strength. For instance, move from a heavy program of squats to utilising mainly Olympic lift variations and plyometric training. For those who participate in endurance based activities it appears that weight training can offset the positive adaptations seen in the handball only group.
This should not necessarily be a surprise since weight training and endurance adaptations occur via different pathways that are contradictory to each other. This means that while a novice trainee can enhance both at the same time, as somebody grows increasingly strong they will find endurance work negatively impacts the benefits of weight training. One of the often repeated claims made by proponents of weight training is that weight training can increase testosterone levels.
While this may be true when looking at short term effects there is also other research showing that it can potentially have a negative effect. In all likelihood, based on long term research, the human body will eventually accommodate to virtually any training schedule provided sufficient rest and nutrients are provided. Therefore, while the study here looks like a case where those performing the most activity experienced the worst testosterone to cortisol ratio, it doesn’t necessarily follow that by performing no training at all, that we would then end up with the best long term outcome especially when we consider that fitness is one of the key modulators of hormonal health.
Take Home Message
While bodybuilders may want to apply different types of training to their routine, and athletes will likewise often need to perform weight training, during the most critical time of the season it is important to focus our time on the activities that most resemble the qualities which result in success in our chosen sport.
1. Gorostiaga, E. M, (1999) Effects of heavy resistance training on maximal and explosive force production, endurance and serum hormones in adolescent handball players. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 80, 485-493 Author: Reggie Johal
Reggie Johal is a former Great Britain American Football player with a background in strength and fitness coaching with articles published in many leading online and print magazines including Muscle and Fitness. Reggie is the founder of Predator Nutrition.