Feb 16, 2022

Power Points

by Ken Mannie
"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." –Vince Lombardi

Expressions of power – or what is often called "explosiveness" – are the very essence of athletic competition and they are crucial for optimal performance. Considerable controversy exists regarding the most efficient and safest way to build the body's "power engine" in the weight room.

One faction says to lift lighter weights with high speed. An opposing view suggests using heavier weights, but with a smoother, controlled movement speed. The corollary to this discord is confusion – especially among high school coaches who are attempting to formulate strength/power-training programs. Our purpose here is to take a close, objective look at power and offer some suggestions for its development.

The Science of Power

Power is a measure of the amount of work that can be performed in a specific amount of time. The textbook formula is as follows: Power = Work/Time, which means that power can be enhanced by decreasing the time it takes to perform a given task. Power can also be defined as Force X Velocity, which means that power can be enhanced by increasing the force output. Simply put, as your muscles become stronger, they are capable of generating more and higher force. Once you are able to generate more force over the same given distance, you have improved your ability to express power.

It has been established that power involves three components: (1) muscle force, (2) the distance of force application, and (3) the time of force application. Therefore, power can be enhanced by: (1) increasing the muscle force, (2) increasing the distance of force application, or (3) decreasing the time of force application. These are basic, irrefutable laws of physics.

But what about developing power for athletics in the weight room? Is there a "best" way to go about it? Let's take a closer look.

Developing Power vs. Expressing Power

Note: Also read Does the Power Clean Express Power or Develop Power?

A review of the scientific literature reveals a split in the recommended methods to develop power via strength- training. Some studies suggest fast movement speeds, while others indicate that controlled movement speeds are equally effective. Two interesting studies indicate that all of the varying methods have merit.

Tohji et al. (1991) found that subjects who used a combination of moderate speed and isometric (i.e., no movement) muscle contractions enhanced their maximal muscle power production significantly greater than a group that used both moderate and maximal speeds of movement.

Behm and Sale (1993) showed that subjects who trained one limb at 300 degrees per second and the opposite limb isometrically showed similar increases in high-speed power in both limbs.

In effect, there is evidence that power is produced at slow, intermediate, and fast speeds. It can also be produced in an isometric fashion – where there is no movement at all. What, then, is the optimal speed for power development in the weight room setting? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer.

Just about all of the published research on the appropriate movement speed for power development used isokinetic dynamometers. These are low mass devices consisting of a movement arm and either an electronic or hydraulic resistance mechanism. Since the velocity is controlled (i.e., a specific speed is set), momentum is not a significant factor in assessment. Momentum, however, is a significant factor when training with the tools (e.g., barbells, dumbbells, plate loading / selectorized machines, etc.) available to most coaches. Obviously, a certain degree of momentum is necessary to get the load moving. We are referring to unnecessary momentum.

When working with a relatively light weight, a willful effort (external force) to overcome inertia with high speed will lessen the muscle tension through the movement path. Shouldn't the downward pull of gravity on the implement result in a constant application of muscle tension? Not necessarily – and here's why:

If you are able to move the implement with any appreciable degree of speed, the ensuing momentum (Momentum = Mass X Velocity) will at some point enable it to move independently, albeit briefly. This can be easily demonstrated (though we do not recommend you try it) by pressing a relatively light object overhead with a high rate of speed. Then, at or near the top of the movement, release it.

Will it travel a short distance under its own power before falling to the ground? Sure it will. What if the implement was relatively heavy? In that case, the speed of movement would be greatly reduced.

Again, basic physics laws are in effect here: A light weight can be lifted fast, a heavy weight can be lifted slowly, but a heavy weight cannot be lifted fast. Of course, the terms "light" and "heavy" are relative to an individual's existing strength level. The point we are making is that there is a clear distinction between developing power and expressing it.

Expressions of power in the athletic setting (e.g., hitting a baseball, jumping, sprinting, blocking, tackling, throwing the discus, etc.) are the result of strength/power increases from the weight room coupled with the neuromuscular and cognitive components of skill development through quality practice. For developing power, we recommend the use of heavy weights for the given rep ranges (e.g., 6-8, 8-10, 12-15, etc.). During the initial reps, the trainee is instructed to control the rep speed in order to develop and maintain muscle tension. Otherwise, there will be a reduction in muscle fiber recruitment. As the set progresses and becomes increasingly difficult, the trainee must exert more force with a conscious attempt to move the load with "speed." However, due to proper weight selection and the effects of fatigue, it will be impossible to move the load with high speed.

What we have just described allows us to progressively overload the muscle structures while concomitantly developing power with safety and efficiency. The appropriate expression of this power must now be practiced with regard to the athletic skill(s) in question.

Neural Adaptations

Our neuromuscular system is constantly sending and receiving messages in the form of nerve impulses. Along with muscle hypertrophy (increased muscle size), there are neural aspects that make significant contributions to enhanced strength and power. Regular, progressive stimulation of the musculature with strength-training movements reduces neural inhibitory impulses. Inhibitory impulses are those that are picked- up by our proprioceptors (sensory receptors that monitor changes in muscle length), which serve as protective mechanisms. Subsequently, there will be an improved economy of motor unit (muscle fiber) firing and greater power output. This is known as motor unit "synchronization," and it is a major player in the strength and power game plan. This improvement in increased motor unit firing enhances the rate of force development – which is the speed at which a skill can be performed.

Basic neuromuscular physiology indicates that maximal fast twitch (Type II) fiber recruitment is achieved with maximal intensity, regardless of the movement speed. "Intensity" in strength-training is defined as the percent of your momentary ability to execute a given exercise – that is, the amount of effort you are able to put forth. The "size principle" of motor unit recruitment – which is one of the most supported principles in neurophysiology – states that muscle fibers are activated from smaller to larger (Type I to Type II) relative to the force requirements, not the speed requirements. The force/velocity curve indicates that there is an inverse relationship between movement speed and muscle force production. In other words, slower muscle contractions generate more force.

Remember that the "intent" to move the weight rapidly may still be evident – but the appropriate weight selection will inhibit the external speed. Therefore, in terms of muscle fiber recruitment, lifting heavier loads with a controlled movement speed is more cost-efficient than lifting lighter loads with high speed. It is known as high-tension, or high-intensity strength training. This is representative of the type of training we have advocated in past articles. While it is not the only way to build the body's "power engine," we feel that it is at least as effective as any other approach, and safer than most.

Final Rep

Any type of progressive strength-training, regardless of movement speed, will elicit gains in muscle hypertrophy with concurrent enhancements in strength and power.

Basically, we have chosen to implement smoother, more controlled lifting speeds (approximately 1-2 seconds for raising the weight, and 3-4 seconds for lowering the weight) for the following reasons:

1) Controlled movement speed reduces momentum, allowing the target musculature to perform the work.

2) Controlled movement speed minimizes abrupt acceleration and deceleration forces, thus reducing the probability of muscle and connective tissue trauma.

3) Controlled movement speed creates and maintains more muscle tension.

4) Controlled movement speed produces more force output.

For anyone preferring to implement strength-training exercises that are more ballistic in nature (e.g., Olympic- style lifting and its variations), we recommend that you seek the tutelage and advice from qualified individuals and/or organizations who have expertise in that area.

References:

1) Behm, D.G., Sale, D., Intended Rather than Actual Movement Velocity Determines Velocity-Specific Training Response, Journal of Applied Physiology, 74(1): 359-368, 1993.

2) Carpinelli, R., Speed of Movement for Building Optimal Strength, HIT Newsletter, 1996.

3) Kelso, T., The Basics of Muscle Contraction: Implications for Strength Training, In Maximize Your Training ( Brzycki, M., ed.), Ch. 3, 35-80, Masters Press, Lincolnwood, IL, 1999.

4) Tohji, H., et al., Effects of Combined Training Programs on Force-Velocity Relation and Power Output in Human Muscle, Thirteenth International Congress on Biomechanics, (Marshall et al., eds.), University of Western Australia, Perth, 311-312,1991.

5) Wakeham, T., Improving Speed, Power, and Explosiveness, In Maximize Your Training, (Brzycki,M., ed.) Ch. 20, 257- 270, Masters Press, Lincolnwood, IL, 1999.

Feb 14, 2022

The Athleticism Fairy

"Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide. -Marcus Tullius Cicero

Today I read a question of someone wanting to know...

"In you guys opinions is Front squat the best exercise for speed & Athletic performance"

Piss poor grammar aside, let's get at it.

Maybe since it was February 14th and the day the fictional character cupid goes around shooting the arrow of love into people, the asker of the question perhaps believes there is an athleticism fairy.

There is no such thing as the athleticism fairy and she therefore can't give you athleticism via an exercise. If there was such an exercise, people would just do that exercise and play in the NBA, the MLB, NHL, NFL or any league or sports organization. All you have to do is want it bad enough and put in the time, right?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but someone has to, and the sooner the better so you can get a grasp on reality and take control of the things you actually have control over.

For a long time (decades) there have been factions that think certain lifts make you athletic. It's a chicken egg scenario. Which came first? Let's say you are very good a a movement in the weight room and also a very good athlete. Did you suck at athletics until you reached a certain proficiency in the movement you excel in. Chances are the first time you tried the movement in the weight room, you were stronger than most at it.

Now you are a stand out on the field. Someone watches your work out and sees you doing that movement in the weight room that you naturally excel at. They see that and immediately think your performance on the field is from that lift. They let others know the magic exercise you do that makes you a super star. Now every one that wants to be a super star does the exercise too. Of course all others become super stars too. Oh wait... that isn't what happened.

Athletes are born, not made. The hard work they do simply polishes to a high level the inherent physical abilities they have potential for. Repeat that until you believe it, because it's true. You will not stand out at college or any higher level without being born with genetic gifts that allow you to excel in that activity.

Most are not blessed genetically. How do we know? If it was all about hard work and "want to", an NFL team would only have to pay 100k per year for a top flight quarterback as so many want to be top flight quarter backs and work really hard to be top flight quarter backs.

The reality is that top level quarterbacks make millions ever year because there are so few. With a population near 9 billion on the planet, a salary in the millions, certainly the job is attractive enough to have a few folks wanting to be a quarterback and working at it really really hard, right? Yet the annual salary remains in the millions. Salaries are driven by supply and demand. Demand is so high and supply is so low that the salaries stay where they are.

So to become more athletic which lifts do you recommend?

Your reading comprehension is low if you are asking that question at this point.

The only correct answer is to strengthen the muscles used by the activity you want to excel at and then use that new strength when you practice the activity. You will improve your athleticism ONLY to the point that a lack of strength was stopping your potential.

Lets use an example. You play football as an offensive lineman and the average starting lineman can squat 600lbs. Your squat is 400. Chances are you will be a better lineman if you can get your squat to 600lbs because your strength relative to other starting lineman is low.

Now lets assume all lineman squat 600 lbs. Are all of them starters? Of course not. Why are people that are equally strong all not starters? Because of skill and inherent athletic ability. Skill can be improved. You do drills, learn to block better, read your opponents and so on.

Now let's further assume all lineman squat 600lbs AND have equal skill. All must be starters then, right? Again, NO. Now we arrive at athleticism. But what is that? Three of the big factors of athleticism are power, quickness and coordination.

But Ima get hella strong and squat 800, then I will be a starter

Additional strength only goes so far. I have read that many second stringers in the NFL are in fact stronger than the starters in many of the key movements envisioned as "athlete makers" Things like squats, cleans, sled push/pull, hip thrust, you name it. At some point additional strength doesn't mean much because, it's one factor in the equation and not the most important. People cling to strength as the answer because that is one of the few factors they have control over.

Strength is a factor of power, but speed is as well. How fast your nervous system can send a signal to a muscle to contract and how rapidly that muscle responds and contracts is NOT trainable. It's genetically predetermined. I hope you chose good parents because that is the only way to improve that quality. Speed and coordination are largely the same.

No matter how much you want to believe in "functional" exercises and the athleticism fairy, you are going to come up empty.

Don't take my word for it though. Keep seeking the magic exercise and magic workout and pounding your head against the wall. Go ahead and wonder why you can squat 700lbs on the second string, but the starter only squats 550. However, he has a 34 inch vertical jump, but yours is 26.

He has adequate strength and the necessary power. You have excess strength and inadequate power. So he is on the field making big money and you are not. But you are stronger, you have that. You can always tell others you are stronger than the starter. And if you are really stupid you will keep looking for the secret exercise to increase your athleticism.

Feb 3, 2022

An Abbreviated Strength and Muscle Workout

"If the enemy opens the door you must race in." –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

This one is for those souls that program hop and switch to the next big thing when they don't put an inch on their arms per workout. In bodybuilding and strength training, slow and steady wins the race. A workout like what I'm going to give is not flashy in terms of what some propose today. You won't find swiss balls, side planks, face pulls, or any of the other "modern" and "woke" training methodologies.

Why leave all those movements out? Because they are not necessary. Not necessary to gain size, strength, etc. They can be supplemental, occasional exercises to do, but should not be a part of the regular workout. Actually, throw the swiss ball away completely. If you keep it you are likely to get sucked into some silly "balance" strength training.

Imagine if someone were to do the following routine for 3 years without changing:

Monday

  • Squat 1x6 & 1x12
  • Bench 1x6 & 1x12
  • Chin 2x6
  • Curl 1x8 1x12
  • Lateral Raise 1x15 & 1x12

Thursday

  • Deadlift 1x8
  • Dumbbell Press 2x6
  • Row 1x8 1x10
  • Dip 1x8 1x12
  • Calves 1x20 & 1x15
  • (Or similar exercises suited to them.)

Imagine if they added only 0.5kg a week to everything, except presses, curls, calves and lateral raises, to which they should add only 0.25kg a week.

If you want you can get yourself some micro plates to do these small weight additions. They are available online. They are convenient, but over priced for what they are. You can make some simple ones using paracord or rope tied to light objects you can hang on either end of the bar. You could even used a small sandbag and add a bit of sand each workout.


Disclaimer

***No Liability is assumed for any information written on the StrongerAthlete.com website. No medical advice is given on exercise. This advice should be obtained from a licensed health-care practitioner. Before anyone begins any exercise program, always consult your doctor. The articles are written by coaches that are giving advice on a safe, productive, and efficient method of strength training.***