The Secret to Injury Prevention: Slow Strength Training

The purpose of exercise is pretty simple; yet it is misunderstood by almost everybody who performs it: Exercise is designed to efficiently load and fatigue the muscles congruent to joint function beyond what they are accustomed to in order to stimulate improvements in muscular strength in the form of an adaptive response. The key word is stimulate.

By Jay Vincent

Nearly every athletics program across the country, from grade school to professional sports, has in place some kind of strength and conditioning program. A stronger, faster, and more explosive athlete will perform better on game day, right? Yes, to some extent, but that’s only part of the equation when it comes to strength and conditioning (S&C). The part that most coaches and parents ignore – but should be laser focused on – is the benefit of strength and conditioning in relation to injury prevention.

When our muscles become stronger, the other tissues that support them (bones, joints, ligaments) become stronger as well. Evolutionarily, it wouldn’t make much sense to have a stronger muscle attached to a weak bone by means of a weak tendon. When you stimulate a muscle to grow stronger by loading it, a stimulus is generated which strengthens the tendons and ligaments as well since they are also loaded in the process.

Most coaches wouldn’t even consider strength and conditioning a form of injury prevention: most likely because they are doing it WRONG. The implementation of explosive, Olympic style lifts into S&C programs have literally done the opposite of what it was intended to do. Not only do the training methods used by many poorly trained coaches injure an absurd number of athletes during training; such methods also drastically increase the chance of injury on the field or court by leaving the young athlete worn out and unrecovered with damaged joints and connective tissue.

Strength and conditioning should be performed during the off season with many rest days incorporated.

So how do we fix this? Simple. SLOW IT DOWN.

The purpose of exercise is pretty simple; yet it is misunderstood by almost everybody who performs it: Exercise is designed to efficiently load and fatigue the muscles congruent to joint function beyond what they are accustomed to in order to stimulate improvements in muscular strength in the form of an adaptive response. The key word is stimulate. The deep muscle fatigue is a stress to the body. If the stress is significant enough, the body responds by allocating its resources to adapt to the stress, thereby increasing muscular strength which will allow the body to better handle the stress in the future. As muscular strength increases, all of the other body systems that support the muscle (cardiovascular, metabolism, bones, connective tissue, etc.) will improve as well.

How do we efficiently load the muscle? By creating continuous tension within the muscle. This is best accomplished by moving slowly. Performing an exercise slowly reduces the effects of momentum. For those who want to build muscle, momentum is the enemy: momentum actually reduces the amount of tension by helping the muscle to carry the weight through space (it makes no difference if the weight is your own body mass, a dumbbell, or an exercise machine). The body uses momentum in day-to-day activities to reduce muscle fatigue in order to conserve energy.  Great for survival, not so great if you want to improve your body’s physical capacity.

Not only does momentum make an exercise less effective, it makes it more dangerous. Moving resistance with excessive force is extremely dangerous on joints and connective tissue. It’s basic physics: force = mass × acceleration. By reducing the amount of acceleration by moving slowly, we reduce the amount of force and effectively protect the joints. Slower continuous loading of the muscle has also been shown to be more effective in strengthening connective tissues than fast explosive loading of the muscle commonly advocated by coaches.

Most S&C programs will have their athletes performing “explosive” movements. Unfortunately, this represents a misunderstanding of basic exercise physiology. Many coaches share an erroneous belief that “training fast makes you fast.” This is false and easily debunked when you understand physiology. The muscle fibers which allow the body to move “explosively” are fast-twitch muscle fibers. The body recruits these fibers when it needs to move very quickly or lift something heavy. You can improve the strength of these fast-twitch fibers by moving slowly and carrying an exercise to momentary muscular failure – defined by Ruther et al as the point in an exercise where the individual is unable to move the resistance in good form.

If an athlete wants to improve his or her strength and reduce the likelihood of injury with strength training, the formula is very simple. Address all of the major muscle groups in the body with basic, multi-joint movements such as chest press, squat, and pull down, and carry the exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure (MMF) . If an exercise is carried to MMF, only ONE set is sufficient.

The next key component is recovery. The young athlete needs FAR more rest days than typically allotted. When the athlete is resting, that is when the body is making the necessary repairs and adaptations from both the stress of training and competition. The athlete should not be trying to improve strength and conditioning during the season. In some cases, tacking that on to several games a week will do much more harm than good and usually increases the likelihood of injury.

Strength and conditioning should be performed during the off season with many rest days incorporated. If done properly, training should not be done daily and could not be done daily without resulting in over training. Just 1-3 strength training workouts per week is more than enough for an athlete of any level.

Combine the aforementioned principles with adequate sleep and nutrition and injuries among young athletes should become a rarity rather than a common occurrence.

Jay Vincent is the owner and founder of Biofit and a NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

Suggested Reading

  1. Baar K. Minimizing injury and maximizing return to play: lessons from engineered ligaments. Sports Med. 2017;47(Suppl 1):S5-S11.
  2. Ostrowski KJ, Wilson GJ, Weatherby R, et al. The effect of weight training volume
    on hormonal output and muscular size and function. J Strength Cond Res. 1997;11(3):148-54.
  3. Paxton JZ, Hagerty P, Andrick JJ, Baar K. Optimizing an intermittent stretch paradigm using ERK1/2 phosphorylation results in increased collagen synthesis in engineered ligaments. Tissue Eng. Part A. 2012;18(3-4):277-284.
  4. Ruther CL, Golden CL, Harris RT, et al. Hypertrophy, resistance training, and the nature of skeletal muscle activation. J Strength Cond Res. 1995;9(3):155-9.
  5. Starkey DB, Pollock ML, Ishida Y, et al. Effect of resistance training volume on strength and muscle thickness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996;28(10):1311-20.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *