When I first started playing Ultimate in college, previous experience playing sports had taught me that without hitting the weight room, I would likely get injured. I lift weights for ultimate because without it, my body is not strong enough to take the pressure of the game at a high level. In high school, I had a string of injuries—shin splints, stress fractures, tendinitis—that kept me on the sideline. Once I began a structured lifting program, those injuries became much less common, and I also believe that strength training has been critical in keeping me from having a serious injury (like tearing my ACL—a significant risk for women).
Beginning strength training is tough for various reasons, especially for female athletes. It is still uncommon to see women in the weight room actually using free weights—the squat rack, the bench press, the dumbells—and not on the machines, which often limit your motion and are too controlled of an environment to truly develop the muscles and reactions you need to play sports at a high level. So, how do you start? Below are some tips for starting a serious lifting regimen.
1. Train For Ultimate Year Round. If you come back from Nationals and sit around for three months, getting back in shape will be difficult and unpleasant, and you will likely get injured. By all means, take a couple of weeks off and heal those injuries, but make sure that you are continuing to do things that you enjoy—swimming, basketball, squash, yoga—whatever you feel like, at least a few times a week. Stay active. You need to be in shape to get in shape, and you especially need to be in shape to start a lifting program.
2. Buy A Book. There are two books that I have used extensively for weight training—The New Rules of Lifting by Lou Shuler & Alwyn Cosgrove and Athletic Strength for Women by David Oliver & Dana Healy. Both of these books focus on lifting for injury prevention and developing power and speed. They also offer periodized programs for the off-season, pre-season, and in-season—lifting programs should look different at all of these stages. There are many other books available. Go to your local bookstore and look through a few before you choose one. Stay away from the I-want-to-look-great-in-a-swimsuit type books.
3. Take A Lesson. Form is very important to lifting, and injury can occur quickly if you are inexperienced or take it too fast. If you are not lifting correctly, you also will not reap the maximum benefits. Taking a few lessons with a personal trainer, though expensive, can also be a great idea. Think about taking a lesson with a friend or teammate. Many gyms also offer classes for beginners that you can take with or in addition to a gym membership. Lifting with others keeps you motivated and gives you an automatic spotter—a must if you want to progress to harder lifts.
4. Have A Plan. Take into account how much time you have to lift—building a 1.5 hour program if you only have 30 minutes will only frustrate you and make it more likely you will give up on lifting. If you find a personal trainer or take a class, this will be done for you at first. If you are venturing on your own, map out a program. Get a baseline of where you are at at the start of your program, and set goals. Keep a log of how much weight you lift. That is one great thing about weight training—you see results, visibly and on paper, from week to week.
5. Train Hard And Take Breaks. Too many people do not lift hard enough. You should be just as tired after lifting as you are after a track workout. To see results, you need to push yourself each session. The corollary to this is to take a break from lifting every 3-6 weeks, depending on your program to combat burnout and fatigue.
The program outline I have found that works best for me is to start lifting about four to five months before the start of the season (June, in New England, so I start lifting in February or March). I lift three times a week, and mix it with cardio two to three times a week. Starting with basic lifts at high reps (i.e. 12-15 reps per set) helps me focus and build strength—I usually choose three core lifts and then build my program around those lifts, varying the other exercises to keep it interesting. The core lifts I choose are exercises such as squats, bench press, lunges, and dead lifts—lifts that mimic athletic movements. I slowly decrease reps and increase weight over the course of the first eight to twelve weeks. Gradually, as pre-season gets closer, I do more power lifting—hang cleans, push presses, high pulls—that will help me develop speed and quickness in addition to strength, again decreasing reps and increasing weight. Once the club season really starts, I lift once a week to maintain the work I've put into the last few months—choosing a combination of core and power lifts.
If you do not have access to a full gym or free weights, resistance bands and plyos can be very effective and accomplish similar things. Lifting can help you develop strength and power, imperative to being able to jump higher, throw further, and cut more explosively. And, your body will be better prepared to endure the rigor of the season, even at the highest levels.
Rana Suh is a member of Boston’s Brute Squad and is the former training leader of a team well known for being in impressive physical shape.