Basic Limiters: Strength

In my last article on early season limiters I suggested three potentially performance-limiting factors which are often ignored by the performance oriented athlete but are absolutely integral to building the type of training that will lead to the highest potential level of performance later in the season. In summary these are:

  • Strength
  • Aerobic Base
  • Mobility

I presented a case for adding a fourth limiter of movement economy (or basic speed) in an article on my personal blog.

All sports (and functional activities) lie somewhere within that triangle. Even for those sports that may be heading for a corner, there are still elements of all qualities present. Or, put another way, an elite ironman triathlete, while not as strong as an Olympic lifter, is still stronger than somebody who is deconditioned (close to zero strength). A power athlete, like a 100m sprinter, while nowhere near as aerobically fit as our ironman triathlete, is still more aerobically fit than “Norm Couchpotato” (Endurance at zero). And, finally, while an ultra-runner may get crushed over a 100m sprint by Usain Bolt, I still very much like his chances against the average American (Speed at zero). The larger point being that wherever your sport may lie within the triangle, the first step is simply getting on the board — in other words, becoming an athlete.

If there is one biomotor ability that sets athletes (from all sports) apart from non-athletes it is basic strength. The fact of the matter is that almost all sports, are the domain of the mesomorph. The chart to the right from Stone and Kerksey (2000) bears this out.

Elite athletes from distance runners to basketball players to weightlifters all lie within one quadrant of the somatotype continuum — mesomorphy. Or, put more simply, as I said in the last piece, muscle moves stuff. If you want to move stuff either fast or far (as most athletes do) you’d better have more muscle than the average bear!

How much is enough?
Beekley et al. (2006) did a really neat study that looked at aerobic capacity (VO2) per kilogram of muscle mass in a bunch of athletes from endurance athletes (marathon runners, XC skiers and rowers) to power athletes (shot putters, American football players, sumo wresters, etc.). In the elite endurance athletes they found consistent maximal aerobic values of about 180ml/kg of appendicular muscle mass.

So, if you’re looking to close in on Lance Armstrong’s VO2max of 6L/min, a good (and perhaps necessary) starting point would be having 33kg of appendicular muscle which you can maximally aerobically train. If you’re targeting Steve Redgrave’s roughly 7L/min you’d better have about 40 kg of appendicular mass to work with!

These numbers don’t compare to the 50+kg SMM of the American football players and shot putters mentioned in the study above but they are far greater than the 20.6kg number they found for the typical untrained subject. This puts the need for strength, or more specifically, training with a sufficient force component to induce hypertrophy into perspective.

Practical recommendations
Heavy endurance training (the type necessary for specific ironman training) will tend to be catabolic in nature — more muscle will be used as fuel than grown. For this reason, it is important that at the start of each season, the athlete checks in on body composition (ideally via a DEXA scan) with a view to sufficient muscle mass for their target performance level and actively tries to build a little reserve for the season ahead. Building this reserve entails:

  1. Not being afraid of a little weight gain in the early season, that is, eating sufficiently.
  2. Putting a high priority on training with a resistance component (traditional light to moderate gym training off short rest, big gear work on the bike, hills on the run/hikes, etc.)

Another way to look at it….

Any athlete of average size (75kg) with 30kg of mass (even an endurance trained one) should have no problem squatting 90kg/200lb (1.2x bodyweight) for 12 as a bare minimum. The early season is the time to hit that benchmark.

In my next piece on basic limiters, I will take a look at what it means to build an aerobic base and why it is important to all sports and athletes. Until then…

Train smart

Categories: Strength

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Alan Couzens

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