Strength training: doing it in phases

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Quite often, people hear a term like "Phases of Training" and think it's something for established athletes or marathon-runners. But the phases described below should be applied across the whole continuum of non-physically active people to the very elite in their respective sport and everyone in the middle.


Phases one and two particularly are as integral to the start of someone’s physical activity program as they are to an elite heading into his off-season. Poor flexibility, muscle imbalances and poor body awareness or kinesthetic sense can all be ticking time bombs to an otherwise great training plan.


Flexibility can be a issue for the trained and un-trained alike. Too much sitting at a desk for example will create poor shoulder stability like that found in swimmers due to over dominance of certain muscle groups. Sitting all day at a desk creates imbalance between your hip flexors and glutes which lead to injury in your Learn to Run program.


When taking on an exercise routine for the first time you must ensure you have “rebuilt” your foundation. In doing this correctly you can assure yourself an opportunity to continue this change for the rest of your new active life. When getting started, beware of classes that are just about the "burn." Rapid repetitive movements on a poor foundation will quickly create small overuse injuries that could build into something big enough to derail your big goal.


Prior to starting any class or program, locate a professional in your area who will assess your level and provide a routine that focusses on Phases 1 and 2 before jumping into more extreme or intense exercise programs. You may have to wait a little longer to feel the burn but the burn will last much longer — in a good way.


Phase One: Re-Establish Symmetry, Flexibility and Core


The program must begin at a very basic level in order to properly develop the body for the most effective and safe training in the later more specific phases of training.


The initial focus in this phase of training is to gently undo the physical breakdown endured over your last training or racing season. Endurance sports tend to take on actions that are very repetitive in nature and usually target specific areas creating an environment for asymmetrical development within the body. As a result, athletes are very likely to develop overuse or chronic injuries.


Shoulder problems occur in swimming due to the over development of the anterior muscle groups. Muscles imbalances in the lower limbs are common between the hip flexors and hip extensors with large volumes of running and cycling. These imbalances force the body to compensate in ways it was not designed to and over time injuries will begin to occur.


The first goal then is to create lengthening of the overused or inflexible side of the body. The opposite side of the body which has become chronically weakened can then work through its correct range of motion and strengthening exercises can be effectively utilized.


Movements or exercises must be practiced with the goal of mastering the movement patterns first. This is vital before moving onto later phases of training in order to optimize joint stability and move most efficiently.


The other important component to Phase One of Strength Training is the development of your core stability. At the most basic level, the goal is to activate our core in an "isometric" manner. Learning to activate muscles within the core such as the transverse abdominus can be difficult, but needs to be developed at a sub-conscious level before moving onto your integrated training.


Phase Two: Integration — Developing Balance and Stability


The second phase of training moves from flexibility and isolated core strengthening exercises, to exercises that incorporate the dependency of flexibility and core initiation in order to carry out more dynamic forms of exercises. The goal is to be able to initiate the core strength in order to carry out movements within their full range of motion and with the required amount of balance and control. Inability to anchor yourself prior to the initiation of a larger explosive movement such as pushing off while running, will limit the amount of force you are able to create.


In this phase of training the focus is not on the weight lifted but on maintaining activation of the core unit while successfully carrying out the exercise. Increasing loads develops the muscle faster than the connective tissues leading to increase chance of injury to the tendons.


Phase Three: General Strength


Strength Training usually occurs by using loads that create a maximal effort at 3-6 repetitions. In order to use loads of this intensity, the lifting techniques must be performed perfectly or injury will occur. For this reason, athletes in their first to second year of weight training will use loads appropriate for 10 or even 12 repetitions. It’s important in this phase of training that muscles are continually stimulated by monitoring and increasing loads lifted.


During this phase, exercises are free standing, multi-joint lifts that utilize less of the balance and stability equipment so the target muscles group are stressed to optimal levels.


Phase Four: The Specific Strength/Power Phase


This phase will bring specificity to your training. The general strength work in Phase Three will now be transformed into movements that are sport-specific. Exercises are often done without barbell or dumbbell weights but have loads added by running with a weight vest for, example. Exercises develop from slow, controlled specific movement patterns to completing the same patterns but in an explosive manner.


Most fitness enthusiasts do not need to move beyond Phase Two. Only those looking to increase their level in a specific sport need to incorporate Phase Four. Before beginning Phases Three or Four, ensure that you have a high level of competence in the exercise movements before attempting to lift heavier weights or move weight more explosively.


Always lift with care and a purpose.