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Push, pull, press - Joe O'Connor's guide to functional strength

By John Harrington

In the last 15-20 years, there has been an increased focus on strength training in Gaelic Games.

A lot of this of this has been good, some not so good.

Lifting weights will lead to increased muscle-mass, strength and power but when it comes to Gaelic Games it's vitally important that you're increasing muscle-mass appropriately and proportionally to the rest of the body. The primary purpose is on improving functional strength that you need to play gaelic football and hurling well.

Joe O'Connor describes himself as a fitness coach rather than a strength and conditioning coach, which reflects his holistic approach to training teams and athletes.

He was fitness coach with the Kerry hurling team that won the 2011 Christy Ring Cup as well as the Clare (2013) and Limerick (2018) All-Ireland SHC winning teams. O’Connor also worked with the Waterford Hurlers (2010) and Kerry Footballers (2011) when they secured Munster Championship wins.  

The second in a series of four movement and fitness videos he has produced with the GAA and Sure focuses on strength and can be viewed at the top of this article.

Fitness coach, Joe O'Connor, in association with Sure, has produced four fitness and movement videos he believes can help GAA players who are currently training on their own. 
Fitness coach, Joe O'Connor, in association with Sure, has produced four fitness and movement videos he believes can help GAA players who are currently training on their own. 

Like the other three videos in the series, it is designed to give GAA players the right physical foundation for a return to collective training and playing.

O'Connor believes that strength training should always incorporate key functional movements – a push, a pull, and a press for the upper body. Hip dominant and knee dominant exercises for the lower body and the torso should be trained to brace and rotate

"You've a lot of young lads just going into a gym and they'll do some bench-presses, they'll do a few curls, and they might do some sit-ups," O'Connor told GAA.ie

"Quite often people haven't done enough work on the posterior side of the body, the glutes, hamstrings, and back, with the result that they're just not structural balanced or strong enough to meet the demands of their sport. We call this antagonistic imbalance. One side of the body is too strong compared to the opposing side of the body”

"How many times have you heard clubs looking to put in loads of gym equipment and there's no a player in the squad who can a pull-up. 

"You should to be able to do body-weight exercises such as pull-ups and push ups properly before you worry about lifting big weights.

"People are almost neglecting the basics. We have to roll it back a little bit and focus on the basics."

"A lot of the stuff that goes out on social media, the generic beach body advice, is so far away from what applies to preparing players to play Gaelic Games at the highest level. 

"Any team or athlete that I've worked with down through the years, all we've focused on is doing the basics as good as possible. So, begin by building a solid foundation of good movement, balance, coordination, strength, and power. You just have to do the basics right.

"The second video is about making sure that you have balance throughout your body from a strength perspective and that whatever strength training you're doing is planned appropriately."

The highly regarded Joe O'Connor has worked with a string of inter-county teams.
The highly regarded Joe O'Connor has worked with a string of inter-county teams.

O'Connor believes that if GAA players focus on the basics then, not only will be they have greater functional fitness for their chosen sport, they'll also be much more resistant to injury.

“Simple that works is better than complicated that does not," O'Connor says. 

"I'm convinced that a lot of dislocations and shoulder injuries are as a result of doing too much bench-pressing and not enough pulling exercises. 

"In the strength video I break it down that for upper-body work you have to do a push, pull, and a press. 

"This isn't a criticism of the bench-press, I'm a big fan of it, but if that's all you do then your anterior musculature pulls the shoulder forward. 

"So if you're going down to scoop a football in Gaelic Football and you get the right force at the right angle on the back of your shoulder, then it's quite easy for your shoulder to be compromised because your pectoralis muscles are pulling and dragging on it all the time. 

"The policy I have is that you always do two pulls for one push. So, if you do a bench-press, you are going to do a horizontal pull (e.g. one arm row) and a vertical pull (e.g. pull up/lat pulldown) to counter-act that push exercise."

Plenty of GAA players have been running their local roads and parks in recent weeks to keep their fitness levels up in the hope that there will be a return to collective training and playing this year.

Aerobic fitness is an important part of playing gaelic football and hurling, but O'Connor is encouraging players to complement it with the sort of training that will ensure they are structurally able to cope with the twisting, turning, accelerating, decelerating and physical contact that also go hand in hand with the sports.

"I don't think GAA players should run as much as they do, I think they run too much and don't do enough of the other stuff," says O'Connor.

"You need to be fit enough, but when people start comparing GAA players to runners or tri-athletes, well you're comparing apples and oranges. 

"Your aerobic capacity isn't half as important as some think it is in GAA sports. Now, that doesn't mean we don't do any aerobic capacity work. You obviously have to have the capacity to last 65 or 75 minutes. 

"My point is that the best players perform well across the whole spectrum.

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