Several factors contribute to extreme sports performance. Although we cannot reshape our genetics, we can improve our absolute and relative strength with muscular strength training.
Muscular strength is the ability to apply force against an external resistance or object. When considering the nature of our individual extreme sports, we very often have to apply considerable forces against gravity to manoeuvre our body mass (e.g. surfing, parkour, climbing) or an implement or projectile (e.g. kayaking, skiing, white water rafting).
Although the majority of extreme sports involve, to a greater extent, manoeuvring our body mass rather than an implement or projectile, strength can be considered a major limiting factor of extreme sports performance in general.
The Importance of Strength For Improvements in Extreme Sports Performance
The purpose of this article is to discuss the research relating to the influence of muscular strength on extreme sports performance and to present the benefits of improved muscular strength for extreme sports athletes.
So, how exactly does increased muscular strength improve extreme sports performance?
Rate of Force Development
The high rate of force development (RFD) and the subsequent high levels of external mechanical power we produce are two of the most important elements of performance in any sport. RFD can be seen as the rate of increase in force over the change in time or, simply put, ‘explosive power’.
This explosive power that we are required to produce in our sport is a primary factor for success. The reason for this is that extreme sports often require us to perform rapid movements such as jumping, sprinting, or the fast manipulation of our body mass in other contexts where we have limited time in which to produce force. This timescale is normally between 50-250ms.
A large number of studies, including this one, show that improving muscular strength via resistance training improves the RFD in the subject, and that stronger people produce greater RFD than weaker people.
External Mechanical Power
External mechanical power is the second determining factor of extreme sports performance that we’re going to talk about in this article. It can be seen as the sum of the power produced by each joint.
Increasing our muscular strength increases our ability to produce power at each joint, and studies such as this show that external mechanical power is increased with the completion of a strength training program. When we strength-train, we produce greater forces over a given time frame, causing greater acceleration and greater velocity. An increase in force and velocity results in an increase in power.
When we consider that muscular strength is the ability to apply force onto an external object or resistance, we can recognise the importance increasing our muscular strength to improve external mechanical power.
The Impact of Strength on Sporting Skills
Some of the most common movements in extreme sports are things like jumping, sprinting and change of direction, so our competence in these movements is a determining factor in our overall performance.
As we have already discussed, muscular strength can significantly impact force-time characteristics that link to performance, so enhancing these may transfer to our competence in performing the following general sports skills related to extreme sports training and competition.
Vertical and horizontal jumping are often performed in extreme sports and are usually smaller sequences that make up a larger skill in a given sport.
The force-time characteristics of an athlete are altered by strength training. In other words, getting stronger can improve peak performance variables in jumping such as force and velocity. In support of this, a review by Timothy Suchomel and colleagues collectively displays the results of 91 studies that indicate a 78% moderate or greater relationship between jumping performance and strength.
Our ability to rapidly accelerate and achieve high sprinting speeds is an important factor in several extreme sports performance.
Faster runners generally have shorter ground contact time, greater stride lengths, and greater force application. They have the ability produce greater vertical forces in the first half of their stance phase and, since we know that maximal strength is positively correlated to RFD, it is plausible that strength levels improve sprinting performance.
In support of this, Timothy Suchomel and colleagues’ review shows that sprint times and higher sprinting speed have a moderate (85%) or greater (66%) relationship with levels of strength.
Change of Direction
In addition to being important for attaining high sprint speeds and spring times, RFD also an important for performing well in change of direction (COD) efforts.
The ‘plant’ phase in which the athlete plants his/her foot to facilitate the change in directional forces takes place in a time of 0.23-0.77 seconds which is a longer ground contact time than that of the acceleration phase of sprinting (0.17–0.2 seconds) and the maximal velocity phase of sprinting (0.09–0.11 seconds). As a result, we would expect to see a clear relationship between maximal strength and COD, but it is important to remember that COD involves not only being strong enough to change our momentum, but also the ability to coordinate our movements that are dictated by the situation.
Research shows that eccentric, concentric, dynamic, and isometric strength all support measures of high performance in COD. This is also evident once again in Timothy Suchomel and colleagues’ review where it is noted that COD performances share a moderate (78%) or greater (60%) relationship with strength.
The Impact of Strength on Specific Skills and Performance
While the transfer of strength to performance parameters is important, we must also consider the impact that strength training has on the specific skills we perform in our sport.
Research shows that muscular strength is one of the main determining performance factors in sports that require strength and power and endurance. In fact, Timothy Suchomel and colleagues’ review shows that stronger athletes outperform weaker athletes in both strength/power-related sports and in endurance-related sports. It showed that 101 out of the 107 (94%) studies included in their review illustrating a moderate or greater relationship with strength and 89 of the studies (83%) illustrating a large or greater relationship with strength.
Here are a few extra studies in support of this;
- Stronger cyclists had a faster 25-metre cycling time trial when compared to weaker cyclists
- Stronger handball players had a greater throwing velocity when compared to weaker handball players
- Stronger sprinters has a faster 100m sprint time when compared to weaker sprinters
The evidence presented supports the notion that stronger athletes perform better in sporting skills than weaker athletes.
Impact of Strength on Injury Rate
Aside from winning our competitions and performing to the best of our ability, we also need to reduce the occurrence of injury.
Using a range of strength training methods decreases our chances of becoming injured via increased strength of ligaments, tendons, joint cartilage, tendon-to-bone and ligament-to-bone junctions, and connective tissue sheaths within the muscles themselves.
Here’s an overview of some of the literature relating to the reduction of injuries via strength training;
- Collegiate soccer players saw a decrease in injury rate following the implementation of a strength training program
- Isometric mid-thigh pull strength has been associated with lower injury rates in female volleyball players (cited here)
- Sports-related injuries are reduced to less than one third and overuse injuries are reduced to almost half due to strength training protocols, as investigated by this meta-analysis of studies
In summary, the evidence suggests that strength training reduces the likelihood of becoming injured and that stronger athletes get injured less than weaker athletes.
In conclusion, we recommend that extreme sports athletes of all kinds should aim to become as strong as possible within the context of their sport while being mindful of subsequent increases in body weight that may be associated with strength training. As a guide, being able to back squat at least twice your body weight may improve performance to a greater extent than those who cannot.
Finally, there is no replacement for strength training within an extreme sports participant’s program since muscular strength acts as a base for numerous performance-related attributes that improve both general and specific skills while reducing injury risk in their sport.
If you want to read more about extreme sports performance in relation to nutrition, you can read other scientific synthesis about protein recommendations, when to eat carbs and the question if energy drinks enhance performance.