Strength Training vs Injury Prevention: What’s the Priority (and When)?

With so many terms and programs in the sport world, how do you know what’s best for you or your player?

Many players opt to train outside of their current club with the goal of enhancing performance. This includes individual sessions, group sessions, strength & conditioning, speed & agility, etc.

Aside from sport-specific training, strength training is likely the most popular external training program among athletes. Whether it’s programmed by a professional or independent, most athletes engage in strength training at some point in their career.

In fact, athletes are safe to engage in strength training from very young ages.

Related: Should Youth Soccer Players Lift Weights?

A “new” form of training, injury prevention training, is quickly rising in popularity among coaches, colleges, and professional sport.

We say “new” because it’s rarely been so structured outside of professional sport.

Clinicians, like physical therapists, have started advocating for preventative medicine and movement literacy at all levels of sport. This includes medical/exercise science staff in universities and professional clubs.

Example: Notre Dame has taken a strong stance on movement literacy for incoming freshman athletes.

Now, players are expected to have a good level of body awareness prior to college, almost as a prerequisite. Not only does it protect the player as a person, it also protects the player as a financial investment.

So what’s the relationship between strength training and injury prevention?


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What is Injury Prevention?

Strength training and injury prevention are very similar, and in some cases the same. There are key characteristics that set injury prevention programs apart.

Injury prevention focuses on sport-specific mobility, strength, landing mechanics, and agility. It goes in-depth with movement mechanics from its foundations, which are often body-weight movements. Then, challenges the movement against resistance, time-under-tension, and different conditions that will decrease potential for injury.

All injury prevention programs incorporate on the following aside from strength training:

  • Movement analyses with checkpoints
  • Balance & proprioceptive training
  • Landing mechanics in multiple conditions
  • Application of movement to sport-specific demands with repetition
  • Reactive movement mechanics
  • Split-attention training or multitasking
  • Cognitive exercises
  • Recovery methods
  • Advice on training with seasonality
  • Body awareness and application to sport
  • Education on independent exercise performance, form recognition, and progression/regression
  • Referral to sport psychologists or nutritionists

Some programs focus on sport-specific movements for an entire team, and some programs are individualized to a player’s specific needs and deficits.

Most players can (and should) implement injury prevention on their own at home, during training, and before competition. It doesn’t always need oversight, and most players should be proactive in performing injury prevention as appropriate.

What’s the Difference?

All injury prevention incorporates strength & conditioning principles, but not all strength & conditioning focuses on sport-specific injury prevention.

Here are a few points to think about that bridge strength training with injury prevention.

  • I can lift heavy and produce a lot of power… but does that mean I’m moving well?
  • Do I understand why I do my specific exercise regimen and how it translates to my sport?
  • How are my strength and power exercises integrated into play?
  • Am I enforcing the same good form on the field as I am in the weight room?
  • How is my self-care and recovery changing before, during, and after season?
  • Are my joints moving well enough to perform in the weight room and on the field without compensating elsewhere?
  • Do I understand good vs poor movement habits?
  • Can I recognize when I’m compensating during movement and know how to fix it independently?
  • How does my training change as I develop through my childhood and teen years?

Related: Recovery & Cross-Training

It’s important to communicate your specific goals to a coach so that they incorporate sport-specific training. The best injury prevention methods teach independence and comprehension.

If your goal is longevity in soccer, asking a coach to help you “get stronger” and “build muscle to get bigger” should not be the primary focus.

Instead, those should be the positive consequences of good movement habits followed by progressive loading specific to your needs.

Specifically request injury prevention for your sport. Strength gains always follow.

But don’t just take our word for it.

Who Says Injury Prevention is Important?

Here’s a fantastic written example of an elite program’s priorities when recruiting an athlete. We literally cannot say it any better than this.

Notre Dame’s sports performance division has clear expectations of their athletes:

They must move well. Period.

Here are two direct quotes from their published article in 2015:

“When freshmen arrive on our campus, it isn’t about how strong they are or how fast they run. It’s about how well they move,” says Matt Howley, Notre Dame director of sports science. “A student-athlete who has been coached and developed using sound principles and who moves well gives our performance staff the best opportunity to progress that athlete at a faster rate than one who has poor movement patterns.”

Paul Winsper, director of athlete performance at Under Armour, said, “Proper movement and recovery are intrinsically related to injury prevention and improved performance. Introducing the teenage athlete to these key factors is essential for reaching their maximum potential.”

Based on mounting evidence, we would argue that players should start even younger.

Take note that strength and muscle size is helpful, but not a prerequisite.

If you’re not moving well, your strength and size is useless to your performance. Good movement is necessary to develop a strong player, and colleges are starting to look for that more and more.

What Should a Soccer Player Prioritize?

You can’t build solid strength on a rocky foundation.

Young players should start with movement foundations and progress into strength training as he/she builds good habits. They can start this process young, which can even compliment their childhood development.

Older players should check in with their movement constantly, especially teens, since their body is constantly changing. If there are compensations and weaknesses, there is no shame in regressing exercises to fix the problem and rebuild the foundation.

All players should be incorporating injury prevention which includes strength training and its transference to sport.

Without it, you’re left prone to injury compared to the players who prioritize it more.

Collegiate and professional programs look at movement patterns (like Notre Dame above), so this is yet another way to get a leg up on your competition as you continue to look for opportunities.

Ask Integrative Soccer about our in-person and online injury prevention programs. Our injury prevention coaches (physical therapists) can teach you the tools to improve your movement, your performance, and your potential.

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