Lower body strength and power tends to steal the spotlight when it comes to athletic performance and rightfully so. Sprinting, jumping and rapid change of direction ability are all fundamental qualities that contribute to on-field performance. However, upper body strength and power also plays a key role in performance, particularly in contact sports like rugby and football. For example, strength and power from pressing movements tend to correlate strongly with tackling ability in rugby players. In addition, athletes with stronger upper body strength (e.g., bench press) tend to make it to higher levels than weaker counterparts. This applies to athlete selection for recruiting purposes and can be observed in comparison studies showing that professional players have greater upper body absolute strength compared with semi-pro and amateur players. Though the importance of upper body strength and power is generally understood by coaches, the most effective way to improve it remains unclear.
A new study published ahead of print in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared traditional training with variable resistance training (i.e., additional band resistance) in a team of elite youth rugby players. The rugby team was randomly divided into a traditional group (n=8) and a variable group (n=8) for a 6-week training period during the in-season. The groups performed identical workouts throughout this time period, the only difference was that the variable group used 20% of their resistance during bench pressing from band tension. Both groups performed a power oriented day (e.g., multiple sets of 2 reps at 70-80% of 1RM) and a strength oriented day (e.g., multiple sets of 2-4 reps at 80-92% of 1RM). Before and after the training intervention, all athletes were tested for 1RM in the bench press in addition to average velocity at 35, 45, 65, 75 and 85% of 1RM using a linear positon transducer.
The results showed that the variable group improved absolute and relative bench press strength more than the traditional group (ES = 0.46 vs. 0.20 and 0.41 vs. 0.19, respectively). Both groups similarly improved submaximal mean velocity at lighter loads (i.e., 35-65%). However, the variable group saw substantially larger improvements in mean velocity at heavier loads (i.e., 75-85%) compared with the traditional group (ES = 1.44 vs. 0.38 and 0.86 vs. 0.38, respectively). These results suggest that variable resistance training may serve as a more effective approach to improving upper body strength and power in athletes more than traditional training.
Rivière, M., Louit, L., Strokosch, A., & Seitz, L. B. (2016). Variable resistance training promotes greater strength and power adaptations than traditional resistance training in elite youth rugby league players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. In Press.