Back to Basics: Foundational Strength & Training Specificity
When I use the term, foundational strength, I’m referring to what many call general physical preparedness (GPP). I don’t call it this to be different, it just makes more sense in my head. In my own words, foundational strength can be defined as this: the prerequisite physical skill-set required to apply force efficiently through a variety of dynamic and functional movement patterns. The key phrase from that definition, in my opinion, is “apply force efficiently.” The efficient application of force is considered by many as the definition of physical strength. Improved strength makes everything better. Whether you’re an athlete looking to improve performance on the field/court/platform or someone who is just looking to improve their quality of life, continuing to improve foundational strength will help you get there.
We have wandered too far away from building our foundational strength. While sport specific skills are important, strength should be the foundation on which sport specific skills are built (figure 1). As a society, we’re getting it backwards. Too much emphasis is being placed on specialized and technical preparation early on in an athlete’s development, and we’re completely ignoring the general preparatory phase (Bondarchuk, 2007). Too many parents are opting for specialization and too many strength & conditioning coaches are more interested in showing how creative they are, rather than sticking to the tried-and-true, foundational barbell movements that have proven over multiple decades to be the most effective for building strength
Building Foundational Strength
So how do we improve foundational strength? Simple: squat, deadlift, press (bench & overhead), and cleans. Anyone looking to improve performance in any capacity should first build proficiency in these movements (note: snatches and jerks are also effective strength and power developing movements but are not necessary for general athletes who are not looking to compete in Olympic weightlifting). These are the movements that should be the foundation of any athlete’s training in a weight room. No bands, no Bosu balls, no gimmicks. Just a barbell, a rack, and a platform. Start with these movements and you will be building a strong foundation for yourself or your athlete. So why do we use these movements? Because they challenge our bodies in such a way where we build strength and power that can be displayed in an athletic context. A quote from John Welbourn, owner/founder of Power Athlete HQ summarizes this point:
“Why do we lift weights? We use external forces and resistance to challenge posture and position. And why is posture and position important? Because your ability to generate speed, move, tackle, run, change direction, is all predicated on if you can maintain good posture through full ranges of motion.”
Let’s assume you’re working with an athlete and you’ve already spent a sufficient amount of time teaching the technique of the foundational strength movements. Now, you need to determine the developmental level of the athlete. It is important to note that we are not talking about chronological age here. In his book, Practical Programming for Strength Training, Mark Rippetoe outlines three levels of a strength athlete: novice, intermediate, and advanced. Where your athlete falls on this continuum will determine the complexity of their training program and how quickly they make strength adaptations (Figure 2). What determines an athlete’s developmental level is the rate at which they are able to make strength adaptations. Novice athletes (young and or/inexperienced) make strength adaptations very quickly as they are much farther from their strength potential. Advanced athletes are the opposite; their rate of adaptation has slowed down significantly as they have come much closer to their strength potential.
For the novice lifter, he or she will make strength adaptations quickly and often, with a simple program and a minimal amount of volume. At the intermediate level, the rate of adaptation will slow down and the complexity of the program should increase. Lastly, the advanced athlete will see a significant decrease in their rate of adaptation as they come much closer to their strength potential, while the complexity and volume of their program increases (Rippetoe, 2013). Since we are talking about foundational strength, let’s assume we are working with a novice level lifter, and quite frankly, the vast majority of people fall into this category when they come to your gym. A 14-year-old freshmen, who has been “training” with his Dad, is considered to be a novice lifter due to age and most likely not following an appropriate program. As well as a 28-year-old who will tell you all about how much he used to bench press in high school but hasn’t done anything remotely close to a barbell squat in over a decade; he too, is a novice lifter, no matter what he tells you.
For example, a novice will respond very favorably to a simple linear progression, designed and managed by a knowledgeable coach. What this means is the athlete will perform a movement at a weight designated by the coach, and then they will simply add weight every time that movement is performed. This is the purest example of the most basic principle upon which all physical training is predicated; progressive overload (Everett, 2016). There are many ways to “skin this cat” but the principle of progressive overload is at the core of any effective program.
By adhering to the foundational strength movements: squat, deadlift, the presses, and clean, as well as understanding the ability level and rate of adaptation of your athlete, you will be able to effectively build a foundation of strength in the most efficient amount of time. This is a grossly simplified summary of some complicated concepts but it is a good place to start. Further explanation is beyond the scope of this article. Stay tuned in the future.
In many circles, the term training specificity (or sport specific training) has been very misunderstood. Some may look at those foundational movements I’ve listed above and say “Well my daughter plays volleyball, there isn’t anything she does on a volleyball court that looks like that” or something to the effect of “My son plays (insert sport) and he doesn’t need to get bulky from lifting weights, he needs to get faster.” As a high school PE/weights teacher/weightlifting coach, this kind of stuff is vomited into my ears pretty regularly. What we do in the weight room or under a barbell, does not and should not mimic sport specific activities. Over the years I’ve developed this succinct explanation: strength training is not about mimicking athletic movement, but strengthening the mechanisms that propel it. Rippetoe said it much more thoroughly with the following quote:
“Strength is best acquired through the use of the exercises which are best at building strength – basic barbell exercises that use lots of muscle mass over a long range of motion while standing on the ground in a balanced position, thereby allowing the use of heavy weights that develop the ability to generate high amounts of force while balancing the load and controlling the position of both the load and body in space. Trying to mimic sports-specific positions, poses, stances, and movement patterns while under a heavier than normal load cannot and does not allow for the most efficient strength development, because while these positions are where strength is displayed on the field, they are not the best positions for its development.”
To share a personal story, I once saw a high school softball team in the weight room, all standing in a line, holding dumbbells, and swinging the dumbbells as if they were bats. This was all done under the logic that if they swing something that is heavier than a bat, their swings would get stronger. The swinging of a bat is a sports skill, not a strength movement. All this softball coach has done is practice a movement that is meant to be fast and accurate, and make it slow and inaccurate. All while wasting valuable weight room time where they could have been getting stronger and strengthening the mechanisms that propel the swing of a bat.
Athletes and coaches can sometimes get caught up trying to be too creative and cute with their exercise selection. This is mostly done with the best of intentions, but a lot times I feel it’s just for Instagram fodder. As an athlete, training can be split into two categories: strength training and field/skills practice. Strength training is done in the weight room; this is where we get stronger. Field/skills practice is sport specific movements and speed work done on the field, turf, or court, designed to refine and master the required skills in an athlete’s particular sport. So if you’re an athlete, the next time you find yourself doing one-legged squats on a Bosu-ball with a kettlebell strapped around your neck with resistance bands, just ask yourself these two questions: Is this making me stronger? Is this field/skills practice? If the answer to both questions is no, then what the hell are you doing?
The point is that we all need to stop trying to be so fancy and stick to the basics. By adhering to the principle of progressive overload, at a rate that is developmentally appropriate to the athlete, and utilizing the foundational barbell movements, you will ensure much more long term success for you or your athlete. We know what works and what doesn’t, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. That being said, I will leave you with my all-time favorite Mark Rippetoe quote: “History tells us what works in the gym, and everything else walks down the road with a carrot in its ass.”
Coach Matt Cooper
Bondarchuk, A. P., & Yessis, M. (2007). Transfer of training in sports. Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
Everett, G. (2016). Olympic Weightlifting: A complete guide for athletes and coaches (3rd ed.). Catalyst Athletics.
Rippetoe, M., & Baker, A. (2013). Practical programming for strength training. Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Company.