A quick google search of this question will provide us with a range of interpretations of what strength and conditioning (S&C) is, with a multitude of iterations of the same broad concepts. Typically the two main aims of S&C are to reduce injury risk and increase performance. In other words, minimise the downside and maximise the upside of an athlete’s physical potential.
There isn’t a unified definition of what S&C is as a profession, owing to its broad application across many domains. S&C coaches can work in private facilities, with professional athletes, with military personnel, and with the general population. This makes it hard to pin down exactly what an S&C coach is, particularly when there is so much cross-over into the worlds of personal training and sports therapy.
The simplest definition that I have come to align with is this:
“Strength and conditioning is the physical preparation of an individual or team for the demands of their performance”
Why do I agree on this broad definition? Well it provides us with clarity around what S&C actually seeks to achieve. The nuance then comes in what we mean by ‘preparation’ and ‘performance’.
Now that we’ve established a broad definition of what S&C is, let’s define the four key components of this:
Physical - relating to the body
Preparation - the act or process of preparing
Demands - what is required or expected of someone
Performance - the act or process of performing an action
S&C in these simple terms could very easily apply to many scenarios, which is perhaps why there is often a blurring of lines between the various disciplines within the sporting world. Where does personal training end and S&C begin with this definition? In my opinion there is far more similarity between the various areas of health and fitness than there are differences. However, the differences at the edges are extreme, and this is why we see a polarising effect of this discussion.
This is why the most important thing to consider in the application of effective S&C is context…
Context is everything
Performance means different things to different people, which is perhaps why trying to pin down a clear definition of S&C has historically been quite tricky. An Olympian preparing for the next games will define performance very differently to an office worker who enjoys competing in cycling sportives on the weekend. Context therefore is everything, as it allows us to apply our understanding of what we’re seeking to achieve into the scenario with which we are faced with.
Let’s look at a few examples of how S&C might look in a broad range of examples:
Elite sport - an S&C coach works with an individual or group of athletes in a full time role, preparing the athletes to perform at their best in order to maximise performance as the number one outcome. The demands on the athlete are driven primarily by the sporting requirements and individual capabilities.
Military personnel - physical trainers prepare soldiers for combat, which is a totally unique physical demand. There is a broad range of physical requirements depending on the nature of the role of the soldier, but they could very well be expected to sprint whilst carrying heavy loads, and work in scenarios of extreme psychological stress.
Tradesmen - if completing S&C training, they would complete exercises that prepare them for the demands of their working day, which may involve picking up or moving heavy loads over prolonged periods. Exercises might seek to prevent lower back issues, as an example.
CrossFit athletes - the demands of their performance are the event itself, i.e. high intensity training in a number of domains. Preparation for their demands would involve gymnastic, weightlifting, callisthenic and aerobic components.
General population - traditionally the realm of the personal trainer, this is where an understanding of the individual’s daily demands is vital. For someone working a relatively sedentary role, but who enjoys competing in triathlons, there will be a mixture of challenges to bridge the gap between their physical capabilities and the demands of their activity.
Principles, not methods
We can see therefore that S&C training can be applied to many different scenarios, but it is the underlying principles which are important. Rather than being concerned by the latest training method, S&C should be rooted in sound principles which have stood the test of time. These include:
Specific adaptation to imposed demands (SAID)
These principles are the bedrock upon which we can build a high quality S&C programme. If we understand an individual’s needs from the perspective of them and their sport/lifestyle, we can pitch a programme appropriately, informed by assessments. The SAID principle tells us that any stimulus we provide the body with will cause a highly specific adaptation. We must understand the adaptation we want in the body. Finally overload and progression are the principles that underpin long term training progress. Consistency is king here, and we must continue providing an appropriate stimulus over time to push closer to our athletic potential.
Understanding of athlete’s needs + specific programme led by adaptation principles + consistent long term progression = recipe for success
Sitting underneath these principles are three cornerstones to all effective S&C programmes:
First we must assess the capabilities of an athlete to determine where they are in relation to the demands of the sport. Ultimately we are aiming to ‘bridge the gap’ between these two things, bringing an athlete closer to their physical potential. Assessments must seek to answer questions, and these questions are informed by the context in which we are working.
A programme the aims to bridge the gap between capability and demand, and will look different for each athlete if these principles have been followed. The content of the programme should once again be informed by principles, and clearly defined adaptations. Using an example from earlier, this might be an elite sprinter who is aiming to increase their peak force expression of the lower limbs, as this is limiting their performance. The programme might include heavy strength lifts such as a back squat using low reps to generate high mechanical tension (the underpinning principle behind strength development).
Finally, coaching is the key that unlocks this process, drives it forward, and delivers the programme in the way in which it was intended. This could be ensuring high levels of intent when lifting a bar, maximising the load that an elite athlete is lifting each week, or working closely with a youth athlete to develop their movement quality. Great coaching is the key to turn good programmes into truly great ones.
S&C is the physical preparation of an individual or team for the demands of their performance. It should be a process based on core principles which guide the decision making process, taking an individual from their current capabilities closer to the demands of their performance. Everyone’s ‘performance’ will look different, but every principle should remain the same.
If you have enjoyed this article then subscribe to my mailing list where I regularly share posts around strength and conditioning, health and performance!