It’s no secret that professional athletes hit the weight room hard. If you search YouTube for your favourite (male) athlete’s name, plus “workout” or “gym,” you can probably find video evidence of them crushing a 225 kg deadlift or pressing huge kettlebells like they’re nothing. But that kind of training is overkill for beer league casuals, right?
Wrong. If you play any kind of sport, at any level, you need to be lifting weights — especially if you only play once or twice a week. Here’s why.
Sports are hard, lifting weights make them easier
Playing any sport means performing multiple challenging movements: Sprinting, lunging, and jumping; frequent, sudden direction changes; throwing; kicking; swinging a bat, club, or racket; reaching for a catch; pushing off a starting block. All of these moves require rapid flexion and extension of multiple joints, plus enough balance and coordination to stay upright. They’re difficult — and the less you practice them, the harder they are on your body.
This is likely why casual athletes get injured so much. If you spend most of your time sitting at a desk, something as “easy” as sprinting down a loose pass in pickup basketball can be stressful enough to increase your risk for, say, pulling a hamstring. The American College of Sports Medicine points out that resistance training strengthens bones and tendons in addition to muscle, and that it seems to reduce injuries of all kinds in people of all ages, including lower back injuries. They recommend strength training for everyone from pro athletes to “the noncompetitive beginner.”
Lifting makes you stronger
You can probably see where this is going. Picking up heavy stuff makes you strong, and when you’re strong, you’re less likely to get injured. When you inevitably do, though — because, let’s face it, it’s going to happen — you’ll bounce back faster.
I’ve been lifting for about two months and can already vouch for this. Last month, I sprained my right ankle for roughly the millionth time playing soccer. It hurt a lot, but to my surprise, I walked the mile back home just fine. The next day my ankle was stiff and slightly swollen, but not painful. Within a week, I had full range of motion back; within three, it was like nothing had happened.
My sprained ankle career goes back almost 20 years and I’ve never had one heal in less than two months, let alone a few weeks. I wish I’d started lifting as an injury-prone teen, but better late than never. (If there are any teen athletes reading this, injury-prone or not: Get thee to a squat rack.)
How to get started lifting weights for sports
It’s pretty simple: Put some fucking weight on the bar. If weighted moves are already part of your gym routine, bump up the weight over time. If not, head over to the squat rack (or sign up for a beginner weightlifting class) and get after it.
Not everyone has access to a bar and plates, though, which is where the humble dumbbell comes in. You can do everything from snatches and cleans to swings and deadlifts with a pair of dumbbells, and because they also offer tons of options for unilateral (one-sided) exercises, they’re ideal for injury rehab. Skip the expensive sets with useless tiny weights — two heavy (at least 11 kg) dumbbells will get you off to a good start. You can order more as you get stronger. (I ordered mine from Dick’s Sporting Goods, and there are still plenty in stock.)
As for specific moves, it’s hard to go wrong with squats and deadlifts. These classics are great for building confidence as well as strength, so if you’re feeling lost, start with those. From there, look up suggested weight training programs for your sport. Everyone from runners to tennis players to soccer players can benefit from lifting, and it’s never too late to start.
Consider the Olympic lifts
Pretty much any strength training program will build strength and protect against injury, but the right program will also make you faster and more powerful. If that’s your goal, meet your new best friends: The snatch, and the clean and jerk.
Athletes who play contact sports (especially girls) are often discouraged from lifting any weights at all, so the Olympic lifts are an alien concept to many of us. What a bummer: Weightlifting (one word) requires exceptional strength, coordination, and balance, and it produces enormous amounts of power — every key ingredient for athletic performance, in two efficient moves.
Whether the snatch and clean and jerk are best for all athletes is a subject of contention. Some coaches argue that time in the weight room is better spent on simple lifts like squats that don’t require as much technique work. But if you do want to train explosive power lifts with barbells, USA Weightlifting makes a strong case here:
Snatches and clean and jerks produce some of the highest power outputs in all of sport. Power, the product of strength and speed, is the key ingredient to helping people run faster and jump higher. Incorporating the Olympic lifts into workouts is the most effective way to build power and speed.
The Olympic lifts require an athlete to exert a force into the ground through a quick and coordinated “triple extension” of the ankle, knee, and hip, mirroring what happens in sprinting and jumping, the core components of most sports. Other than practicing the sport itself, Olympic lifts have the next highest carryover to directly improving sport performance in sports where strength, power, and speed are essential.
The bottom line: Olympic lifts are proven to build strength, power, and speed — and make you feel like a total badass. No matter which sport you play, that’s pretty hard to argue with.
If complex barbell lifts aren’t quite your speed yet, that’s OK. The moves matter less than the weight. Whether you’re doing basic front squats or a competition-calibre clean and jerk, the key is to consistently use weights that feel heavy. As long as you keep challenging yourself, you’ll only get stronger and more powerful.