Uniform vs. Unified: How to Approach S&C for Your Entire Athletic Department


Whether you’re a Division 1 college or small high school, providing quality strength and conditioning to your athletes is an enormous challenge. Athletic departments are constantly juggling budgets, resources, and priorities in an effort to help their student-athletes succeed both in the classroom and on the field/court/pitch. Unfortunately, for many departments, it’s often cheaper and easier to take a uniform approach to S&C—either giving all athletes the same one-size-fits-all training program, or prioritizing training for just one sport.

But a uniform approach to strength and conditioning simply isn’t the best way to help athletes perform better and stay healthy. As we’ve seen sport participation change over the last few decades, with more and more athletes (and especially female athletes) participating in diverse sports, we’ve got to ask ourselves how we can adapt our strategy to look beyond one or two major sports and instead address the needs of every athlete in the entire department. 

S&C can’t be uniform for an entire department, because training must look different for different sports. After all, you wouldn’t train a tennis athlete—or a cross country runner—like a football player. But that doesn’t mean your approach shouldn’t be unified throughout your department, giving all athletes the same access to quality training that is appropriate for their performance goals.

The safest and most effective way to prepare for a sport is to train appropriately and specifically for that sport. Here are 3 reasons why you should take a unified, and not uniform, approach to strength and conditioning for your athletic department.

1. Different Performance Goals

The athletic performance traits that must be prioritized in one sport's strength and conditioning are different from those in other sports. At Volt, as an example, we prioritize muscle mass (hypertrophy), maximal strength, and explosiveness as the primary performance goals for football. But softball players need to develop rotational power, and distance track runners need muscular endurance, and all these qualities are developed through different training protocols. All athletes benefit from building a foundation of general strength and work capacity, which is why you’ll see squats on the program for almost every sport. But when it comes to sport-specific strength and movement qualities, what works for one sport may not work for other sports.

This becomes especially clear when you look at the bioenergetic requirements from sport to sport. Just look at the duration and speed of play in a rugby sevens match compared to an 800m track race, or a baseball game compared to a 90-min soccer match, and you’ll see the unique energy system requirements that make an athlete successful in each sport or event. This is why Volt not only identifies the three primary performance goals for each sport on a strength training level, but also constructs sport-specific conditioning programs that develop the proper energy systems utilized in every sport. 

2. Different Movement Patterns

Each sport has its own primary movement patterns. The primary movements you’ll see in a football game are sprinting, cutting, jumping, blocking, pushing, and tackling. In a properly designed football strength and conditioning program, exercises in the weight room are specifically chosen to first develop the general strength capabilities to tolerate those positions, and then the specific strength and power adaptations needed to execute those actions explosively.

But the movements in freestyle swimming, for example, could not be more different.

Good strength and conditioning must be targeted on the specific motor actions required in each sport. And again, while athletes across all sports benefit from developing a base of general physical strength and capability, a properly designed program will train sport-specific movement patterns. Volt programs, for example, examine the main movement patterns in each sport—like hip extension/flexion for track sprinters and scapular elevation/depression in swimming—to create training that emphasizes sport-specific strength qualities in those positions.

3. Different Injuries

Besides the idea of access for athletes across sports (and genders), this, for me, is the single biggest reason any type of uniform, sport-agnostic workout plan—doesn’t cut it for athletes in other sports. A strength and conditioning professional always considers vulnerable or frequently injured muscles and joints when designed sport-specific training (and, if possible, looks at the individual strengths and weaknesses of each athlete on the team). While football carries a lot of inherent injury risk to many different areas—hamstring, ACL, ankle, etc.—these are not necessarily the same areas at risk in other sports.

Golfers may need extra hip and low-back strengthening to avoid injuries. Tennis players need more elbow and wrist work. Failing to address joints and muscles that may be at risk of overuse (like the rotator cuff for baseball pitchers) or at risk of acute non-contact injuries (like the hamstrings for soccer players) is a failure to prepare athletes optimally for their sport. At Volt, we incorporate targeted injury mitigation exercises in every sport program—from extra glute med strengthening for female soccer players, to isometric anti-rotation holds for baseball and softball players. This specificity in injury mitigation is something that a static 12-week training program simply cannot offer, and it can make or break the success (and health) of a team.

The Takeaway

@@Your approach to strength and conditioning shouldn't be uniform for every sport in your department—but it does need to be unified@@. The unique performance traits, motor patterns, and injury risks involved in different sports requires a sport-specific approach, but one that can also create a cohesive training methodology throughout your entire department. Coaches should work together to build a training culture not just on their team, but throughout the whole organization. And athletic directors must lead from the top, prioritizing resources to make sure we’re creating healthier athletes who can perform at a high level and appreciate the importance of strength and conditioning well beyond their playing careers.

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Christye Estes, CSCS, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is an NSCA-certified strength coach and a Sport Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye