When Are Athletes 'Strong Enough'?

Once we reach certain strength standards, athleticism is better enhanced by shifting some of our focus to other qualities.

How strong do you need to be?

If you're an athlete who's been seriously training for any length of time, this is a question that might've come across your mind. After all, your sport isn't powerlifting or olympic weightlifting, it's something like baseball, soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, hockey, softball, etc.

Your Bench Press or Power Clean doesn't directly put points on the board for your team. So just how strong do you need to be to maximize your sports performance? And at what point does additional max strength become a game of diminishing returns?

Depending on your sport, and even your position within that sport, "how strong is strong enough?" will vary a bit. But without the extremes (an Olympic-level power lifter or a national-level ultra marathoner, for example), I can provide some basic strength standards most athletes can strive for.

These figures will be for the average male and female athlete. If they can achieve these figures, they should be more than prepared from a strength and conditioning standpoint to step into a sport and perform well (the skill components are a different story, of course). The exercises selected are those which most of us can perform most safely, even accounting for common injuries. For example, you will notice I've used the Front Squat and Dumbbell Bench Press rather than the Back Squat and Barbell Bench Press. In my opinion, these exercises are more accessible to more people.

Also, because I'm not a huge fan of one-rep max numbers for the majority of athletes, I am going to give you numbers which correlate to repetition maximums (3 reps, 6 reps, etc.) as well as total rep numbers.

General Strength Standards

Front Squat

  • Male: 1.5x bodyweight for 3 reps
  • Female: 1x bodyweight for 3 reps

Deadlift

  • Male: 2.25x bodyweight for 3 reps
  • Female: 1.5x bodyweight for 3 reps

Dumbbell Bench Press

  • Male: 1x bodyweight for 6 reps (weight total of both dumbbells)
  • Female: 0.7x bodyweight for 6 reps

Push-Up

  • Male: 50 reps unbroken
  • Female: 20 reps unbroken

Chin-Up

  • Male: 20 reps unbroken
  • Female: 8 reps unbroken

In my experience, when an athlete can achieve these numbers, they have a strength base that is strong enough to perform at a very high level in both life and sport.

This isn't to say they should call it quits and walk away from the weight room forever—definitely not. I simply believe that once these numbers are achieved, the athlete can often benefit from taking some focus off of building pure strength and using that time/energy on other qualities.

I'm not saying getting stronger than these numbers won't help you with your goals or performance (in fact, I think more strength is almost always better), but you only have so many training hours in a day.

What I am saying is that once you reach these numbers, if you continue to focus on pure strength and keep the other qualities (which we will get to in a second) on the back burner, you may be limiting your overall progress. Also, once you have achieved these numbers, if you are consistently trying to push them higher, you may run into some overuse issues.

So if you've achieved these numbers, what are some other things you might benefit from focusing on?

Power Production

Power is the product of strength x speed (velocity).

So how much weight are you moving, and how fast are you moving it?

During sport, the weight being moved is typically your body weight. And the athlete who can move his/her body weight with greater speed is the athlete who can sprint faster, cut quicker and jump higher…pretty darn important when it comes to taking the W.

So enhancing power, and your ability to produce it, is pretty awesome!

At this point, we have already established that you have achieved a significant level of strength (as you have hit the numbers previously mentioned). So if strength is taken care of, it is time to work a bit more on speed.

Some of the best ways to do so are to focus more on bodyweight movements such as jumping and sprinting, or throwing objects such as a medicine ball or dynamax ball. From there, you could add in high velocity resistance movements such as Kettle Bell Swings, Push Jerks, Cleans, Snatches, etc.

The other way to work on enhancing speed is to simply reduce the resistance utilized on exercises like the Front Squat, Deadlift, DB Bench Press, Push-Up, etc. and focus on moving the weight faster. This is typically the least risky way to improve power, as you should have already mastered these movements. Now, all you need to do is lower the resistance and move the weight faster.

For example, let's say you typically Deadlift 225 pounds for 6 reps on a strength block. For your power block, you would reduce the resistance, let's say to 135-185 pounds, and hit 3-6 reps with the goal of moving the weight off the ground as quickly as possible while maintaining good form.

This method can be used on almost any movement, and I would suggest hitting a few exercises in this fashion before finishing a training session with some maintenance strength work. Just because we are working on speed doesn't mean we want to neglect strength all together.

Work Capacity/Endurance

Typically, when we are chasing bigger strength numbers, we are giving ourselves plenty of rest between sets. This is necessary to maximize strength gains.

When those strength numbers are rock solid, increasing your work capacity/endurance by limiting rest is a great way to enhance overall performance.

To attack this, set up your training in blocks that are tri-sets or greater. This would mean completing 3 exercises or more in a row with limited rest before taking a break and repeating the cycle.

By doing this, you are elevating the heart rate and keeping it elevated for an extended period of time. This addresses your conditioning system to a greater extent while also training your strength system. This will enhance your ability to get more work done in a given period of time.

If you're really strong but it takes you forever to recover from an intense effort before you can again replicate that effort, you will not be much good in most athletic realms. Or if you can only produce an intense effort for a short period of time before you fizzle out, well again, this isn't very good for athletics.

Unilateral Strength and Stability

When we talk about our strength numbers, people will rarely mention their single-leg or single-arm strength. And this is unfortunate!

Most of our athletic movements will take place on a single leg, or using a single arm. Running, cutting or bounding will be produced and absorbed by predominantly one leg. In most cases, throwing, punching or utilizing a stiff arm will be done with one arm.

So wouldn't it be a good idea to get stronger with movements that are mostly executed by one leg or arm, especially once you are plenty strong enough with both legs or arms?

So once you hit those strength standards, instead of focusing on bringing up your max Front Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press or Weighted Chin-Up, focus more on increasing your strength with Split Squats, Lunges, Single-Arm Dumbbell Presses and Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows. There are more single-limb movements than these, but these are a great start.

When you get stronger with unilateral movements, you will also enhance your stability in those patterns, which again, are where most of athletics takes place.

Try making the first movement in your program a single-leg or single-arm dominant movement to prioritize your unilateral strength and stability. Then you can follow those up with bilateral (both legs or arms) movements to finish off the session.

Hypertrophy

Although moving heavier and heavier weight will inevitably increase muscular size (as long as calories are in surplus), there are other variables that enhance muscle growth.

These include time under tension and metabolic damage.

Time under tension, or the amount of time the muscles are contracting, is increased with more repetitions. When we are working pure strength, we are typically working reps in the 1-5 range. This does not produce a very large time under tension.

When you complete reps in the 8-12+ range, you are increasing time under tension to a greater degree, which can enhance muscular growth.

Also, when we complete even higher repetition sets (15-20+ reps), we do not allow the system to clear out metabolic by products in the muscles. These create metabolic damage, which has also been shown to enhance muscular growth.

The takeaway here is that working outside of the pure strength rep range can help you enhance your muscular growth to a greater degree. Not only will this help us achieve the look that most of us are in search of, but it will add more layers of armor to our body, as well as increase our future strength potential.

Are You Strong Enough?

If you can hit the numbers outlined above, I would argue that you are strong enough to start focusing on some other qualities besides pure strength.

Again, don't get me wrong...I do believe that strength is the foundation for all athletic tasks. And because of that, most of us should focus on gaining strength.

But once we reach certain strength standards (as those described), it's my experience that athleticism is better enhanced by then shifting some of our focus to other qualities (such as those discussed).

This doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to work on strength, or ever again have the focus on gaining as much strength as possible. All this means is that for a phase, or a few phases, dedicate more of your focus to other qualities, and you will experience greater overall progress, as well as mitigate your risk of injury.

So prioritize getting strong enough and reaching the numbers above, and then you will have a greater return on your training investment when you shift the focus to other athletic/fitness qualities.

Photo Credit: Niyaz_Tavkaev/iStock

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Topics: SQUAT | BENCH PRESS | DEADLIFT | BUILD MUSCLE | DUMBBELL EXERCISES | SPEED AND STRENGTH