Updated: Oct 17, 2019
How often do you or your athletes fail in your lifts?
Does the bar inch it’s way to the top of a lift or accelerate?
Do your lifts show an efficient transfer of energy through the 3 phases of muscle action?
Do you celebrate movement patterns that just get the bar up?
Do your lifts look as perfect as they feel?
Do your goals reflect an increase in load or optimal power production?
All of these questions are relatively simple to answer, and if you are committed to a long term approach to performance development you should be asking these questions of yourself and/or your athletes on a daily basis.
WHAT IS STRENGTH AND WHY DO WE WANT IT?
Strength is defined as the ability to withstand or exert great force, stress, pressure, or the ability to move a load against a resistance. A human’s own strength is ultimately what allows you to walk or stand up, lift your child or your beer (see beer lifting athletes below). The earth’s gravitational force applied on us every second of every day (9.8 m/s) requires that we maintain a baseline level of strength high enough to overcome these forces and move about as we wish. These external forces or stressors are applied to our bodies and specifically our musculo-skeletal system all of the time, there is absolutely no escaping it.
Quite simply defined:
Force = Mass x Acceleration
Thus higher forces are created when a particular mass is moved at a higher rate of speed, or acceleration. So the stronger a human being becomes from moving increasingly heavier loads the greater the forces they can create. Move more weight over time and you will get stronger. Don’t forget that neuromuscular efficiency also plays a huge role in creating maximal force, and should not be overlooked in your training programs. If the brain can tell the muscles how to contract faster you will be making better use of what you currently have and creating more force in the process. Fast and efficient movements coupled with an experienced coaches eye can dramatically increase an athletes neuromuscular efficiency.
When looking at the training of athletes we must keep in mind that in very few sports will you find athletes moving at low velocities and being successful in their sport. Speed…As we’ve talked about before speed is a big deal, as any athlete who is both strong and fast and can transfer force efficiently will most likely be a stud athlete in some respect. If you are both strong and fast you are powerful, and this is the holy grail for athlete development.
Power = Force x Velocity
The sport of powerlifting always comes up as an argument in conversations such as this one, as powerlifters are successful when they can move the heaviest loads possible through a particular range of motion without speed being a factor in their success. Just move the weight right? What many athletes and coaches don’t realize is that there’s more to developing strength than just lifting heavier weights, and to be honest the title Powerlifter is a bit misleading in this sense because they are not being tested on the velocity of the bar but instead on the load of the bar being lifted. It should be called weightlifting as this is a better description of the sport. Powerlifting is a much better representation of the Olympic lifts, but ironically this sport is called weightlifting. Switched at birth maybe? Regardless of the name powerlifters should still be very interested in the speed of the bar, also known as the Rate of Force Development. If you can move the weight faster you are producing more force, if you produce more force you are putting a greater demand on the nervous system and thus preparing the body to lift even more weight, create even more force and you guessed it, GET STRONGER! So for any powerlifters out there wanting to win you should be equally concerned with the speed of the bar and training for true power as you are with your 3 lift total. You can’t be really good at one without also getting better at the other…
SO WHY ARE YOU STILL MOVING THE BAR SLOW?
A decade ago in my early years as a strength coach I can remember reading Louie Simmons Westside dynamic effort programs and realizing then how important speed was to athletes concerned with getting stronger. For men, studies utilizing force plate readouts show us that your power peaks somewhere between 50-75% of your 1RM, this range is dependent upon the exercise being performed. This is not new knowledge, studies were being performed in the 1920s on this subject albeit with far less advanced testing equipment than we have at our fingertips now.
More bar speed = more power, More power = MORE EFFICIENT ATHLETE
So why are we still moving the bar slow???!!! Good question…DON’T DO IT!!! With my more experienced athletes, or those with a training age of approximately 2 years and up, I allow some freedom with adding weight to the bar, however I always tell them “you are only as good as your last rep!” For example, if we are squatting and I have prescribed 4 sets of 4 reps then the 4th rep of every set better be moving just as fast as the first rep. If the bar moves slower and slower with each rep you are not producing maximal force and your power output will get lower with each rep. Is this your goal? To get less powerful? If your 3rd and 4th reps of each of those 4 sets are moving considerably slower than the first 2 due to fatigue and muscular failure then you are wasting reps. By the end of the 4th set you have wasted 8 reps or 2 complete sets! They are wasted because you were not creating maximal force, and if you are not training for maximal force then you better adjust your sets and reps to reflect endurance goals because that’s what your program will morph into. This is a common flaw in many strength and conditioning programs and one that is so easily fixed. A simple subjective approach for coaches is to pay close attention to an athletes RPE throughout the workout. Ask athletes to rate their level of RPE at the beginning of the workout and then at regular intervals throughout. If you know your athletes well enough a number of 1-10 isn’t needed, just a simple “how ya feeling?” will work if you are keen on observing body language and facial expressions. If they are tired they are too fatigued to create the force you want you need take action immediately so as to preserve the effectiveness of the workout. Even the best program cannot account for the unpredictable stressors of life. The best coaches and athletes know when they are not at their best and make the adjustment quickly.
In my own use of the Push Band system I have found that I tend to lose focus a bit when reps are over 3. I have found this to be the same with some of my athletes as well. For example if you have coached the athlete to be explosive on every rep they tend to move the bar quickly on the first and maybe the second but then there is a bit of a rest on the next rep or two before ending on a very powerful final rep. As coaches we need to find ways to inspire athletes every rep so that there is complete focus through the entire set. Here is a squat session that I performed where this lack of focus was evident.
As you can see there is 5 sets of 5 reps performed with approximately my BW on the bar, set one was at 135# and only tracked 4 reps. I knew I was tracking every rep, but yet I still lost focus during reps 2 and 3 on almost every set. The drop in peak power was not huge as you can see by the analytics provided, however it was not fatigue it was simply a lack of focus. I honestly would have never realized this had I not been tracking my reps.
I believe that the allure of the number is far more sexy than the speed of the bar or the perfection of the lift, and most times the athlete isn’t ready for the loads they are lifting. Who cares what your buddy posted on their social media page, you need to be focused on your program and making yourself incrementally better each day, week, month and year. Don’t chase the weight! Chase perfect movements, speed, and skill development and you will be rewarded. Reps should not take seconds to climb from the bottom to the top, they should take less than one second! By chasing the weight on the bar we are causing athletes to never reach their performance potentials and most likely setting them up for an injurious situation. When looking at skill development I always use the analogy of building roads. For every perfect rep performed we are creating new motor pathways, or skills, through the process of myelination. After we build our road we must pave it, but we must be sure we are paving roads that we are proud of and will lead us to the promise land. Build a bad road and then pave it with continued poor reps and that is now your system default for that movement pattern.
Here’s some approximate numbers regarding the time it takes to reach maximal force development in a few explosive athletic movements:
Sprinting = .08 - .12 sec
Jumping = .17 - .18 sec
Shot Put = .15 - .18 sec
Weightlifting = .5 - .6 sec
Powerlifting = .8 – 4.0 sec
In looking at the numbers from these different dynamic movements and sports it’s fair to say that successful athletes move explosively and we need to train them in this manner. If you are a powerlifter looking at that 4.0 sec number up there remember that maximal lifts are not your everyday MO. You will get stronger moving the bar faster in your training, we already beat this horse.
So what can you do to create more force now and stop failing in your lifts?
Option 1: Put less weight on the bar! You aren’t strong enough for that load yet so be responsible and accountable to your goals and take some weight off so you can move the bar faster. Use your current training maxes for your 1RM numbers and train at percentages that allow you to move the bar faster. Using projections of 1RM’s of years past, or of numbers you are hoping to hit doesn’t work. You will be amazed at how your numbers increase without loading to failure each week. Honestly if you are lifting to failure each time you lift or even weekly or monthly you are keeping yourself from ever achieving a true 1RM. Your nervous system takes considerable time to recover from workouts even when you don’t reach muscular failure, keep failing and expect to reach a plateau very quickly.
Option 2: Perform fewer reps. For example, instead of 4x4 do 8x2. This will lead to more quality and no wasted reps. Be sure to pay attention to rest intervals when making these changes.
Option 3: Add bands or chains to a lower % of your 1RM and increase your RFD in the process. Bands and chains mimic the force velocity curve and allow you to create maximal force through the entire concentric portion of the movement without slowing down at the top. We subconsciously slow down at the top of each movement without these implements added to the bar because we don’t want the bar to jump away from us. An object in motion stays in motion. Nobody wants the bar to jump off their shoulders at the top of squat because it’s uncomfortable, however it is important to our success to create maximal force through the movement. My analogy for athletes is to envision jumping but being told to slow down your hips just before your feet leave the ground…Or telling your glutes to shut off just before reaching full hip extension while sprinting…No way! So why do it with the bar?
Option 4: Rest between reps. Nothing wrong with performing reps on the minute, or on the :45. Or even taking 15 seconds between reps within a set. This way we can guarantee that every rep will have optimal force production and thus lead to the most powerful training effect. If you are training for muscular endurance this probably isn’t for you, but if creating ass loads of force is a top priority this technique will do the trick.
Option 5: Olympic Lifts: The clean & jerk, and snatch movements produce stupid amounts of force and power! Check out studies by Garhammer and crew for science on this going back to the 70s. Yeah it’s hard to weightlift slowly, but many stray away from these movements because of the technique requirements needed to be proficient. This may be true but you need not do more than the first and second pulls of the movements to reap the rewards of more power. Power outputs well over 3000 watts and over 4000 watts in heavier lifters are the norm during the second phase of the pull during these movements. Studies on power production in the Olympic movements (specifically the pulling phases of the movements) shows that power production drops immediately after the second pull is finished. So forget catching the bar, just load and explode baby! This is also a great option for athletes such as baseball and basketball players concerned with keeping the wrists and forearms from too much abuse in and out of the season.
Option 6: Measure Bar Speed: There are some really affordable and easy to use VBT (velocity based training) systems available these days that take the guess work out of all of this for you. You can utilize an app on your phone that allows you to monitor your power output every rep. You will not be the same lifter every time you go into the gym, so don’t chase the weight, listen to the numbers and adjust your loads accordingly. Some days I am more dehydrated than others, my body weight might be down, or a lack of sleep has caused my cortisol levels to rise. A game or competition on the weekend has left you a bit beat up, or final exams approaching has you stressed out. Or maybe you are battling a cold but still trying to get your workouts in. Regardless of the cause the reality is that your body is consistently inconsistent, and regardless of how minor your issue might be this will absolutely effect your performance in the gym. So unless you accommodate for these changes in your PBT (percentage based training) you will be chasing weights that are not realistic for any given day other than your perfect day. These VBT systems will allow you to make changes after the first set or even rep, which means you don’t have to sabotage your training. We use PUSH Band at XIP and I have had great results with this system. It gives instant feedback on each rep and also gives athletes and coaches the ability to track progress over time. A great feature of the PUSH Band is the estimated 1RM feature. This allows athletes and coaches to get a very accurate 1RM prediction without actually lifting maximal loads. The more you use the unit the more accurate it gets as they actually learn the lifter. I highly recommend one of these units to those interested in taking their performance to the next level.
Option 7: Hire a Coach! Yeah one of us geeky Exercise science gym rats who absolutely live for program design and athlete development. Sorry, but the chick writing your WOD on the board while sucking down a coolata in a pair reeboks doesn’t fit the bill. Chances are that Goach (not a typo), has a 2 day certification and can’t even name 3 flexors of the hip…Find someone with a degree in the field, certifications from a governing body, and years of experience, (ask for testimonials and call those people). Be sure they have worked with athletes like you and have helped them be successful, you want a vetted coach who knows their shit, and by vetted I would look for 5 years or more of in the field experience. It takes time to truly hone your skills as a coach, be sure to find one who has it figured out. I would also highly recommend a coach who was also an athlete and can draw on their own experience in both training and competition when writing your program. No offense to you crossfitters, it’s not your fault your coach went to college to be a painter and 10 years later decided to “train athletes”. The best CF athletes are searching for these types of vetted coaches as well, their knowledge of the human body and their fitness intuition is invaluable! And yes there are CF facilities that have them too. If you can’t find one near you look for a reputable online coach who will provide you with some virtual coaching. Not ideal but better than you wasting your time and never seeing the numbers change, or worse yet getting those nagging injuries that never seem to heal. Once you find a keeper pay your new coach real money to write you a program that you are now accountable to. This payment is vital to your success, trust me on this one. Even if your brother is your coach and writes your program you pay him what he’s worth. When you do this your level of commitment goes through the roof.
DON’T FORGET THE DECEL!
I will not go too far in depth on the topic of deceleration as it will best be described in another article, however it should be known that the athlete who can absorb more force will in turn be able to create more force. It’s not all about the concentric portion of the movement, you must also be able to efficiently absorb kinetic energy eccentrically through the yielding phase of the movement so that you can then redirect it in a powerful explosive manner during the concentric or overcoming phase of the movement. If you can’t slow it down you sure as hell aren’t going to speed it back up. The athlete that can efficiently decelerate the bar or their own body and isometrically retain all that kinetic energy will produce more force in the concentric portion of the movement. In a separate article I will go in depth on this topic and how easy it is to incorporate “phase focus” into your training programs for awesome results.
FAILED LIFTS ARE LIKE THE LAST GIRL/GUY AT THE BAR
We all know we shouldn’t attempt to bring her/him home but yet we still do it, because we can’t resist the temptation of that stat! Then you wake up and look at what you’ve done, yikes. Didn’t exactly get you any closer to your goals now did it! So here you are visiting Swole Town USA and crushing a really good squat session and you feel great, you moved the bar fast every rep and produced a shit load of force and power in the process, job well done! Instead of calling it a day and finishing on a positive you decide to throw a bunch of weight on the bar and attempt a new PR even though it’s not on the agenda for today. I’ve seen it so many times, and I would be FOS if I tried to tell you I hadn’t been there myself. Instead of building through success and ending on a high we throw on more weight, move the bar slow and finish with a less than best lift, or worse you get buried and have to dump it. There it is, that last rep opportunity and you blew it. This is a hard habit to kick, but you have to trust me that you will get better if you can “train through success” and leave before you do something you’re going to regret…There’s a reason that guy or girl is the last one at the bar, so take a deep breath and walk away, when you wake up feeling like a BAWSE instead of scratching your crotch you will thank me.