Debate still rages about fitness training for cricket.
Many former pros still wonder why current player hit the gym. There argument (in many cases a sound one) is that there is little crossover to the pitch.
As we know, it all depends what you do in the gym. Cricketers are not bodybuilders and need to train for the specific demands of the game for both injury prevention and improving performance.
In order to know what these demands are, we need to look at what happens on the pitch. This is an exercise I have done previously for batsmen, now it's the turn of the bowlers.
The physiology of bowling
Imagine standing at the top of your run waiting to bowl the first ball of the first over. As you start your run the muscles in your body respond to the commands of your brain and begin to contract.
As you jump into your action you store up power in your muscles. They stretch and contract in exactly the right sequence for you to propel the ball to the other end at pace. You follow though, applying the brakes as you watch the batsman's response.
Then you walk back to your mark to do it all again the next ball.
What is happening during all this is your body is drawing on energy from various stores. Just like the batsmen, the amount of activity per ball demands a high power output over a short period. Something that puts a strain on the same systems: Mainly the ATP-CP system which is described in the link above.
As your spell gets longer, despite a few minutes rest between overs, you begin to tire.
Yet your reserves of glycogen (the natural fuel of your body) are still not depleted. You are not running a marathon and you are getting lots of rest. Why are you starting to flag?
One theory is that your subconscious brain is taking over earlier than it needs to in order to protect you from overdoing it. This 'Central Governor' explanation states than the body has a natural buffer that makes you feel tired so you can always keep something in reserve for emergencies.
It's that feeling you get when you are putting everything into it, yet your body is not allowing you to bowl at pace any longer. It also explains why some bowlers are able to get a second wind when they take a wicket: There is more in the tank; it just can't be accessed unless your subconscious lets you in.
According to some research, this effect is more pronounced in the type of muscle contractions bowlers do with every delivery know as eccentric.
The better your muscles are at these eccentric contractions, the longer it will take before you start to get fatigued and lose pace.
Training for bowling
If the Central Governor Theory is correct, then the best way to train for bowling is to improve the eccentric strength of your muscles.
The main way to do this is simply by doing a lot of bowling. That's what bowlers talk about when they refer to being match fit: The have bowled enough to overload the eccentric strength of their muscles. This is something that can't be recreated in the gym.
However, gym training can add to this by strengthening the muscles further. If can also strengthen the muscles that are not used as much in bowling to help prevent left to right side imbalances in the body which can cause injury.
Fitness training can also improve your ability to recover from repeated bouts of intense exercise such as a fast bowling spell, keep your body composition favourable (more lean muscle, less useless fat) and improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs.
With all that in mind, what kind of fitness work should bowlers do?
- Net bowling in 6 ball overs with 2-3 minutes rest between overs.
- Interval training of various distances and speeds.
- Medicine ball throws and catches.
- Olympic lifts or their variations in the 3-5 repetition range with 2-3 minutes rest.
- Core stabilising exercises.
- Strength training in the 3-8 repetition range at a fast tempo with up to 2 minutes rest.
- Individualised 'prehabiliation' exercises to iron out left to right side imbalances (once identified).
Greg Chappell recommends combining this kind of fitness work with skills practice to help the body associate fitness with cricket. I have never seen any evidence that this works, but it could be a more convenient way to structure fitness training for bowlers with limited time.
If you want a more comprehensive guide to reducing injury risk and increasing cricket specific fitness, check out county strength coach Rob Ahmun's guide on PitchVision Academy.