top of page

Fundamentals of Strength & Conditioning

Strength and Conditioning (S and C) is the physical and physiological development of athletes for elite sport performance. The role of the S and C coach is to bridge the gap between the theory of training and applied training, helping athletes to become faster, stronger and more flexible and to build their muscular power so they perform better and remain injury free (English institute of sport).

The term strength and conditioning is widely used as a misnomer and rehabilitation overlaps the role of a strength coach in a high performance team. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to understand the role of a strength coach and the training principles in order to design a high performance program.

Introduction and Brief Overview of principles of training:

Foundational ideologies encompass all of strength and conditioning. However, before understanding the training fundamentals, it is important to comprehend the following terms:






Volume – Load

The following is a brief explanation of the terms mentioned above:

Training – Training is the process of preparing an athlete physically, technically, tactically, psychologically, and theoretically rapidly for the highest levels of performance. Training involves more than simple growth and maturation and, of course, the highest levels of performance will be relative to the current status and genetic gifts of the athlete.

Volume – Volume is the amount of work performed. Sets and repetitions of an exercise combine to make volume. If you are a runner, volume is the distance you covered. If you are strength training, volume is the product of sets x repetitions of an exercise.

Intensity – Intensity is the difficulty of the work. Intensity is the amount of weight or resistance used in a particular exercise. If you are a runner, intensity is running speed. If you are strength training, intensity is the resistance or weight lifted.

Volume-Load – Volume-load is the combination of volume and intensity. Volume-load is usually calculated as sets x repetitions x weight, or resistance used.

Frequency – Frequency is simply the number of training sessions expressed per day, per week, per month, and so forth.

Now that we have understood the basic terminologies, let us understand the fundamentals of training that will augment the ability of a strength and conditioning coach to develop a high performance training program. They are as follows:

1. Principle of Individuality

Every individual is unique and will respond differently to the same training stimulus. Some of these differences can be influenced by many characteristics; biological age, training age, gender, body size and shape, past injuries and many more.

For example, a college athlete makes a copy of his exact training program and gives it to his little brother who is a freshman in high school. The younger brother does not miss a workout, and at the end of the program, he is disappointed in the results. Though many variables could play a role in the results, the primary factor is most likely the large range in biological and training age.

2. Principle of Specificity

Training adaptations for an individual will occur specifically to the muscle groups trained, the intensity of the exercise, the metabolic demands of the exercise, and/or specific movements and activities. In an attempt to perfect a specific skill or activity, you must perform that skill or activity with proper body mechanics to have correct technique.

For example, a 100-m sprinter is not going to train for an event by running three miles at a low intensity for an extended period. The sprinter will train by sprinting short distances at very high intensities.

3. Principle of Overload

In order for an individual to achieve a certain training adaptation, the body must be stressed by working against a stimulus or load that is greater than that to which it is familiarized. Overload, ensures improvement by challenging changes in resistance, terrain, movement complexity, and many others.

For example, if an athlete is trying to increase force production to jump higher, the athlete must train to increase overall strength and power. When training with the hang clean at three sets of five repetitions, the athlete should load the bar with a weight that will allow them to use great technique at a desired velocity. If the bar is loaded with a weight that prevents them from reaching their desired velocity, then the specific training adaptation will not be obtained.

4. Principle of Progression

In order to achieve the desired training adaptations for a certain activity or skill consistently, the training stimulus must gradually and constantly increase. This implies that there is an optimal level and time frame for the overload to occur. If overload increases too quickly, poor technique, improper muscle firing patterns, and injury may result. If overload progresses too slowly, improvements will be minimal or non-existent. Rest and recovery must also be included in the progression, as training hard all the time could result in chronic fatigue, a decrease in performance and eventually injury.

For example, at the beginning of the training program, an athlete may be able to perform three sets of ten repetitions at 135 lb. At first, this may be a tough task for the athlete to achieve, but as the athlete consistently trains, the task will become easier and the load must be increased. The next week the load increases to 145 lb. until all ten reps can be completed with correct technique. The athlete must progressively overload the muscles to increase performance.

5. Principle of Diminishing Returns

Performance gains are related to the level of training (training age) of each individual. Athletes that have never participated in a training program before can see huge initial performance gains in their program. On the other hand, athletes that have been lifting for several years will see smaller gains over longer periods of time. As an athlete nears their genetic potential, the gains in performance will be much harder to obtain. The key is to continue to show progress in the areas in which they have weaknesses.

For example, when an athlete first starts a training program as a freshman in college the athlete’s vertical jump may improve from 22 in. to 30 in. in the first year. As the athlete continues to train through the next three years, their vertical jump performance may increase from 30 in. to 38. Achieving the eight-inch improvement in the final three years is much more significant and difficult than the eight inches in the first year.

6. Principle of Reversibility

When a training stimulus is taken away from an athlete for an extended period of time, they will not be able to maintain a certain level of performance. Over time, the gains that were achieved will return to the original level.

For example, when an athlete takes the summer off from training they can expect to become detrained. The decrease in performance is directly related to the inactivity of the muscles that have been atrophied from non-use.

Using these basic principles, a strength coach possibly will develop a more plausible approach towards an athlete’s performance enhancement via training. In addition, it is also important that the strength coach/athletic trainer should have a common understanding of energy systems of the human body. This will fortify the coach’s ability to amend the training regimen that caters to athlete’s needs.

Energy systems in sport

Basically, there are three energy systems in the body. They are:

· The Phosphagen system

· The Glycolytic system

· The Oxidative system

The following is a diagrammatic representation of them:

As you may note, the above diagram depicts the time spent and the energy systems that work in their prime as the time advances. This allows the coach to understand the ability of each energy system and its optimal usage under the best possible time. In order to allow these energy systems to revive, it important to understand the work to rest ratios and the amount of time spend by each energy system during its prime usage. This can be easily explained by the following:

Now that there is some basic understanding of the principles of training, let us understand the method of designing a high performance training program.

Program Design and Periodization

Training theory uses models of training application that have evolved over 60 years. A model is a simplification or simulation of a real-world complex process. One should know that a model is never exactly like the real-world situation, but attempts to simulate the most important aspects that need attention while ignoring those factors that are considered unimportant. The term used to describe the special planning that occurs with athletic training is “periodization.” Periodization is composed of two major concepts that occur simultaneously. Training is divided into “periods,” and these periods are cyclic in that various aspects of training are repeated and form a system.

Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID Principle)

The SAID principle is a fundamental principle in the field of strength training and conditioning. The SAID principle states that an athlete’s body will adapt to exactly what is demanded of it—no more and no less. This principle says that you must give the athlete’s body an unambiguous message of what you want it to become by providing training stressors that mimic all, or parts, of the target physical capacities or skills. The SAID principle constrains strength training and conditioning coaches in their program designs to achieve specific adaptations based on the demands put on the system. Annual Plan Training theory goes to considerable lengths to describe the time dimension in designing training tasks. An annual plan is the calendar-based approach used to place the various demands of training within a calendar year. Usually, the annual plan begins immediately following the last competition of the previous season, and ends after the last competition of the succeeding season.

Macro cycle

The terms “macrocycle” and “annual plan” have occasionally been used synonymously. The macrocycle, for our purposes, is the linking of the general physical preparation phase, the specific preparation phase, the pre-competitive phase, the competitive phase, and the peak phase. As such, often it is convenient to link together all of the work leading to a single championship contest. If there is more than one major competition per year, then the year may need more than one macrocycle, typically one for each major season. For example, spring ball and fall ball in football, and the indoor and outdoor seasons of track and field will need to be considered two macrocycles per annual plan (or year).

Meso cycle

A meso cycle is an intermediate duration of time planning that usually lasts from weeks to a few months. The meso cycle is perhaps the first functional unit for training planning where specific training goals may be assigned and achieved during a particular meso cycle. For example, a pre-competitive meso cycle for basketball might be a period of a month or so where the dominant form of training is scrimmaging. Or, a meso cycle may be assigned to a shot putter in the early season to use strength training and conditioning to enhance his/her maximal strength.

Micro cycle

A microcycle is a smaller time division that lasts from one to a few weeks. The microcycle is the smallest unit of planning in which we can expect to see the beginnings of relatively stable adaptations. Typically, it takes about a week of consistent training demands for the body to be pushed or forced to adapt, and thus change its chemistry, biomechanics, and/or skills to adapt to the training demands.

Training Lesson

A training lesson is a single bout of training where the athlete begins a session with a warm-up, practices some aspect of the sport or strength training and conditioning, and then ends the session with a cool-down. A single training lesson is relatively powerless in influencing the adaptation of an athlete. Only by the accumulation of about a week’s (or micro cycles) worth of training stimuli is the athlete forced to adapt to the new training demands. Program In the strength training and conditioning world, a program is the actual exercises, sets, repetitions, resistances, inter-set rest periods, inter-lesson rest periods, and so forth. An example program is provided at the end of this chapter.

Basis of Program Design Decisions

You will find nearly all program design literature to be triphasic (3 phases), or have three periods/stages. For example, nearly all program designs are based on a simple yet profound idea proffered by Hans Selye called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

The GAS consists of three phases: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. The athlete begins with a level of being called “homeostasis”. The alarm phase occurs when the athlete is presented with a large enough stressor to evoke fatigue. Stress is defined as anything that causes an organism, or in this case an athlete, to react. The alarm stage is distinguished by markers of fatigue, reduced performance abilities, and decreased physical capacities. The resistance phase occurs when the body temporarily adapts to the applied stressor and is able to cope physically with the demands. The resistance phase indicates that the athlete has achieved a level of adaptation that is actually greater or better than his/her previous homeostatic level. Finally, if the stressor is too great to continue to resist, the stimulation increases, or the athlete is not allowed to rest, then the body slips into the exhaustion phase. During the exhaustion phase, symptoms of the alarm phase return but the magnitude is greater and the fatigue much more profound.

Warm-Up and Stretching

A warm-up is designed to prepare an athlete for training or competition, and can improve subsequent performance and lessen the risk of injuries. A warm-up should be incorporated in every program design. A warm-up period is important before any athletic performance or physical activity, the goal being to prepare the athlete mentally and physically for exercise or competition. A well-designed warm-up should increase muscle temperature, circulation, and provide an opportunity for skill rehearsal. Moreover, one of the aspects of a warm-up is simply to “stir” cellular content so the sarcoplasm becomes liquefied. These warm-up effects can have the following positive impacts on performance:

• Faster muscle contraction and relaxation of both agonist and antagonist muscles.

• Improvements in the rate of force development and reaction time.

• Improvements in muscle strength and power.

• Lowered viscous resistance in muscles.

• Improved oxygen delivery due to the Bohr Effect, whereby higher temperatures facilitate

• Oxygen release from hemoglobin and myoglobin.

• Increased blood flow to active muscles.

• Enhanced metabolic reaction.

While the influence of a warm-up on injury prevention is unclear, the evidence suggests a positive effect, or no effect at all, on injury. The relationship between stretching and injury prevention is unsubstantiated at best.

Components of a Warm-Up

A total warm-up program includes the following two components:

A general warm-up period may consist of 5 – 10 min of slow activity, such as jogging or skipping. Alternatively, low-intensity sport-specific actions, such as dribbling a soccer ball, can be productive during this time. This provides a very sport-specific general warm-up that aids in skill development and raises body temperature. The aim of this period is to increase heart rate, blood flow, deep muscle temperature, respiration rate, perspiration, and decrease viscosity of joint fluids. A specific warm-up period incorporates movements similar to the movements of the athlete’s sport. It involves 8 – 12 min of dynamic stretching that focuses on movements that work through the range of motion required for the sport, such as the walking knee lift. Sport-specific movements of increasing intensity, such as sprint drills, bounding activities, or jumping, follow the dynamic stretching. The more power necessary for the sport or activity, the more important the warm-up becomes. Including high-intensity dynamic exercises can facilitate subsequent performance. This phase should also include rehearsal of the skills to be performed. A warm-up should progress gradually and provide sufficient intensity to increase muscle and core temperatures without causing fatigue or reducing energy stores. It is likely that there are optimal levels of warm-ups related to the specific sport, the athlete, and the environment, so no one warm-up routine is best for every athlete, or sport.

Stretching During Warm-Up

There are four main types of stretching: static, ballistic, dynamic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Static stretching has long been used in a warm-up, with the aim of enhancing performance. However, recent reviews of the literature surrounding the role of static stretching question this practice. There is little, if any, evidence that stretching pre- or post-participation prevents injury or subsequent muscle soreness. Although static stretching before activity may increase performance in sports that require an increased range of motion, such as gymnastics, stretching activities may or may not influence subsequent strength, power, running speed, reaction time, and strength endurance performance, and often depends on what intermittent activity was used between the stretching and the strength activity. In these cases it is important that the strength training and conditioning professional performs a benefit–risk analysis when choosing whether or not to include static stretching in a warm-up.

Dynamic stretching, which is functionally based and sues sport specific movements to prepare for activity, does not seem to elicit the performance reduction effects of static and PNF stretching, but has been shown to improve subsequent running performance. Given these findings, the use of static, PNF, and ballistic stretching in a warm-up needs to be questioned. Based on current evidence, dynamic stretching is the preferred option for stretching during a warm-up. The degree of stretching required in a warm-up depends on the type of sport. Sports that require increased flexibility, such as gymnastics or diving, require a greater degree of stretching. Additionally, those sports with high demands for a stretch shortening cycle of high-intensity, as in sprinting and American football, are likely to require more stretching than those with low or medium stretch-shortening cycle activity, as in jogging or cycling. Strength training and conditioning professionals should look at the specific range of motion and stretch-shortening cycle requirements of the sport or activity and use this information to design an appropriate warm-up routine.

To summarize, it is important to consider all the mechanisms and external factors while designing a program to develop a long term athlete. It is also paramount for the strength coaches to understand the process of recovery and overtraining in order to implement the training routine effectively while seeking optimal performance in a young and elite athlete alike.

This is just an extract from our Prehab 121 manual on Strength and Conditioning Level 1. To have a better understanding with practical experience join our Strength and Conditioning Level 1, 2 & 3 course.

For more details please visit our course page on or write to us at


Baechle, T.R., and Roger, W.E. (2008). Essentials of strength and conditioning, 3rd edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Ratamess, N., Alvar, B. A., Evetoch, T.K., Housh, T.J., Kibler, W.B., Kraemer, W.J. et al. (2009). Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 687-708.

Bompa, TO, and Haff, GG. Periodization. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2009.

Kraemer, WJ, and Dziados, J. Medical aspects and administrative concerns in strength training, in: Strength training for sport. Oxford, England: Blackwell Science Ltd.; 163-172, 2002.

Brown, L. (Ed). (2007). Strength training / National Strength and Conditioning Association. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Sands, W.A., Wurth, J.J., Hewitt, J.K. (2012). The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Basics of Strength and Conditioning Manual. Colorado Springs, CO: National Strength and Conditioning Association.


bottom of page