Given the skills on display at the ongoing football World Cup in Qatar, you might think all these professional players ever do is practice football skills every waking minute. But football skills and tactics training is just half the story. No professional athlete’s day is complete without a session of strength training. No matter the sport, the professional athletes, playing at the highest level or in the lowest league, every player has to spend time in the gym working on their muscles and strength.
FC Goa and India midfielder Glan Martins spend a lot of time in the gym during the pre-season. “My muscles have to be ready first. Only after that does the football part of the training kick in. Even during the season, most of us spend 45 minutes in the gym doing strength training as per the plan given by our strength and conditioning coach before going to the training ground for our football training,” says Martins.
Both fitness coaches and medical professionals would tell you that strength training is the first step to ensuring success in a sports career. “Strength training should be an essential part of any athlete’s workout because it strengthens joints and muscles of the body, which in the long term reduces your injury risk. In addition, strength training targets areas of fitness which normally athletes often don’t pay attention to, such as flexibility, balance, mobility and strength,” says Dr Subhash Jangid of Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.
Strength training develops the basic capacities of humans, says Joel Dones, FC Goa’s strength and conditioning coach. “All our movements require strength. Strength is the most basic thing, and it’s the centre of all conditioning in sports. The stronger the player is, the quicker they can move their muscles and are more ready to get better quality movements. Strength is required in all the situations, movements and actions a player will find themselves in during a game. There is also a different kind of strength in football [where the ball is contested]… there is a fight… so they require strength for the fight. Strength is also applicability in placement, to kick the ball, to pass the ball, to change directions, to jump… so strength is the basic in football,” Dones says.
Strength training is not just limited to footballers; cricketers, tennis players, runners, F1 drivers, gymnasts, you name it, they do it, says AK Abhinav, strength and conditioning coach of the Tripura cricket team and founder of Bengaluru’s Namma X-Fit. Cricketer Virat Kohli’s fitness routine has been the talk of the town, for instance, while Olympic silver medallist badminton player PV Sindhu spends as many hours in the gym as she spends on the court “The stronger and more prepared a muscle is, it is available to perform more actions, do the actions quicker, it has more power and more strength to move in different ways. So, strength training is very important for movement demands of athletes playing at any level of the game,” adds Dones, who got his strength and conditioning certification from Barcelona football club.
A 2017 paper published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal contended that the role of the strength and conditioning coach can extend beyond observing exercise techniques and prescribing training to develop a robust and resilient athlete. That role is in injury prevention. Strength training doesn’t only help players and athletes improve performance in those chosen sports, but it also plays a huge role in injury prevention, say both Dones and Jangid. “Strength training helps the players prevent injuries while in action,” says Dones. There is plenty of scientific evidence to back up Dones’ statement. A paper published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in January 2021 found that “training strategies involving multiple components (e.g., a combination of strength, balance, plyometrics) that include strength exercises are effective at reducing noncontact injuries in female soccer players.” The authors of the paper found that the Nordic hamstring exercise, in particular, is a viable option for reducing hamstring injuries in soccer players.
There is also evidence that strength training can reduce injury risk by 68% among early specialisers in sports, physically inactive youth, and young girls found the authors of a 2017 paper published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Resistance training, in addition to free play and other structured physical activity training, can serve as a protective means against injury to offset the impact of early sport specialisation in today’s youth.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness