Lifting for Sports – When Good Enough is Good Enough

The only role for an S&C coach with regards to their players is to make them better athletes and players. While the definition of ‘better’ might vary by athlete and sport, generally it means to give them the ability to be more successful. Making an overly weak athlete stronger or a slow athlete faster might not end up with them having a more impactful career, but it certainly raises their ceiling of success. When programming or coaching, being able to justify every decision with “will this make them better at their sport?” is a useful idea. However, not only should the S&C coach be mindful of that principle, they must also keep in mind the concept of efficiency and diminishing returns.


Suppose you’re coaching a group of quarterbacks for a collegiate football team. The position group lifts three times a week, for two hours a session. Their strength/power information and position on the depth chart is below.


Quarterback Power Cl. 1RM Back Squat 1RM Depth Chart Size
A 275 405 starter 6’4”/225
B 315 465 backup 6’2/235
C 205 315 bench 6’6”/190


Player B is the strongest, then A, then C. However, A is the starter. Player A and B are approximately the same size. What jumps out though, is that Player C is significantly weaker and lighter than the other two players. Therefore, it stands to reason that more of Player C’s time should be spent on improving their physical metrics. Generally speaking, adding 15% to Player C’s power clean and squat maxes will not only be easier than doing the same for A and B, but it will also make a bigger difference in their overall physical ability.


For all intents and purposes, Player B is “strong enough” – they can and should continue to train for increased strength and power, but not to the point that the focus on strength becomes a detriment to training other sport specific processes. We know that the more advanced a lifter is, the more time and effort it takes to make progress, and adding that 15% of strength to Player B might take an extra 40 hours compared to the same percentage for Player C.


As a strength coach, it might be exciting to see a player squat 500, but it is more *important* that the player be able to spend those extra 40 hours it would take expressly trying to increase their squat and devote it to film study, passing drills, footwork, or other sport specific drills with more transfer to onfield success. For example, the below chart shows an approximation of the division of time and energy (out of a total of ten) that each QB should focus on.


Quarterback Time on Strength Time on Skill
A 3 7
B 1 9
C 5 5


Ego lifting is a very real thing, and so is ego coaching. Your athletes aren’t weightlifters or powerlifters (unless they are – in which case, you shouldn’t be reading this) and they need to maximize their on-field success, not just demonstrate how good you are at getting them strong.


However, this does not always apply across all sports and positions. If you had a group of three fullbacks, a decidedly less skill based position than QB, the ratios of time spent on skill vs. strength would be altered, and it would probably be a good idea to get them all squatting and cleaning as much as humanly possible.


Not only does the idea of allocating time and effort resources apply to strength, it also applies to technique. I am not advocating for poor, dangerous, or lazy technique, but I am advocating that there is a significant time and effort hurdle to getting your athletes to clean like Pyrros Dimas instead of just a garden variety decent clean. Lets look at the below two pictures for comparison. This is a squat + pause-squat complex at around 65%, and the images are at the bottom positions of the squat.
Player_L Player_R

The athlete on the left (L) in the black shirt is squatting 110kg at ~75kg bodyweight and the athlete on the right (R) in the white shirt is squatting 90kg at ~80g bodyweight. Player L is slightly above parallel and Player R is slightly below parallel. If I was training weightlifters, crossfitters, or powerlifters, this would be an issue for Player L. There is no question in my mind that a deeper, fuller range of motion would be more optimal (LINK), but in this case, Player L was a major contributor on field, already one of the strongest players on the team, and a senior. While we worked on some hip and ankle ROM exercises, I elected to mostly allow him to continue squatting as is, with the goal of 5 minutes before every lift devoted to increasing his depth.


It is important to note that this athlete never had any sort of lower body injury that would make me suspicious that his inability to break parallel was causative or indicative of injury risk. However, if Player L came to me in the first week of their career as a freshman squatting slightly high with light weight, I would make it a point of emphasis to teach them to get lower – understanding that this would give them a long term technique fix, allowing for greater improvement and a higher strength ceiling. I would do this even at a detriment to their immediate strength gains, knowing they had 3.5 more years to build upon their strength. This work would be substantively longer in duration than the 5 minutes a day I prescribed to Player L.


In summary – make sure that you understand that your only goal as a S&C Coach is to make the athlete better at their sport, even if that means dialing back how much you push the athlete to get stronger or to improve their technique. Usually, there comes a point where good enough is good enough, and any additional time needed to improve the athlete’s lifting abilities would be better suited to improving their sport specific skills.

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