Friday, October 14, 2011

Cornerstones: Strength and Power

From the book: "The Charlie Francis Training System":

"To what degree do you apply a conversion phase to the strength work?

I would question the value of a traditional conversion phase where you go back down from a higher weight and then try to increase the number of repetitions and the speed at which you are performing the lifts. I would simply leave the repetitions low and the load high year round.

My understanding of the purpose of using lower loads and higher repetitions is that you expect to get a conversion of strength to power by using a higher rate of movement. How that relates to sprinting where the limb speeds are far beyond anything you can produce in the weightroom is beyond my understanding. The actual applicability of traditional conversion work to sprinters then becomes relatively small. This low specificity is clearly evident, when you realize that if you lower the weight to enable a 10% faster lifting movement it still represents only a small fraction of the actual limb velocity of the sprint. What you should be trying to do is maintain strength while maximally challenging the CNS.

To illustrate this point, Ben's foot moves to from 0 to 80 kilometres per hour and back again to 0 during a stride. This equates to approximately 20 metres per second. The average speed during a squat movement is .5 metres per second. You can see that even to double the speed of the squat to 1.0 metre per second has little relevance to the actual limb speeds during sprinting. Furthermore, trying to increase the speed of the squat work heightens the risk of injury.

As an example, when Ben is performing 2 sets of 5 repetitions in either the bench press or squat he is moving a heavy weight as fast as he can. The CNS stimulation/activation is optimal. He is maximally involving his nervous system via maximum recruitment of motor neurons. He is challenging his organism. However the actual lifting speed of a maximal weight is moderate to slow."

There are few strength movements that can be safely loaded to do exactly what Charlie espouses by 'challenging the organism'. The basics of barbell lifting have withstood the test of time because of the consistent and certain results they can produce while minimizing risk of injury (compared to more radical means).

There has been a push to change methods of developing strength and power to what, on the surface, appears
to be safer means, but looking deeper athletes are left resultless and just more fatigued.

The new ways are single-limbed to reduce back stress and use dumbbells for snatching and cleaning... for what I do not know. One only needs to view these with the naked eye to logically deduce that the power output is less than necessary for anything real to happen, and the challenge to the organism's CNS is less than maximally activating motor unit recruitment throughout the entire body.
Stolen from Christian Thibaudeau's absolutely great classic: Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods... which I think he got the numbers/chart from Dr. Mike Stone.
 I've also heard about new, esoteric ideas of "sports specificity" lifts which mimic certain components of specific athletic skills as being the "new" strength training and it being called coordination training under load. This confuses me more and more as to at what point does coordination training become redundant and developing little in the way of horsepower, structural integrity and morphological adaptations?

I may be beating a dead horse talking again about basic barbell training under heavy loads, but where my beliefs stand now and seem to lean more and more each year, is that heavy strength training with a barbell is the biggest factor in making at least some sort of change in physiology.

I am all for single-leg training with different forms of lunging and single-leg squats, but bilateral lifting with maximal weights seems to speak to the nervous system with a much louder voice; and while we might not see tremendous changes in certain other performance measures, I argue to anyone to show me the methods that do make better and faster changes. I thought Mike Robertson did a nice job of explaining things in his article: The Truth About Single-Leg Training.

Strength training obviously improves strength, but more than just strength of muscle, but bone, joint integrity, the ability to tap into higher and higher threshold motor units. What's to say of the neuroendocrine responses to heavy lifting? Is greater increases in circulating testosterone and growth hormone, among other biochemical changes, not conducive to better internal chemistry that promotes healing and performance changes? The more muscle mass invovled, the greater the hormonal response.

I've done my best to look at other possibilities, but following the light (and research, and other bright coaches, and empircal observation), always leads me back to a few certain truths and heavy squats, cleans, snatches, and deadlifts shine the brightest... easy to teach (if not, learn how), the technique has been mastered by great ones that have come before and are currently coaching and practicing, and provide some of the safest means to get closer towards intended goals.

As the history of stength and conditioning began with the farm kids who threw heavy hay bales during their summers taking it to the city kids, and the observations of a few "innovative" coaches who noticed the changes from lifting weights (word is Knute Rockne instructed his players to strength train as early as 1922), lifting weights was the center piece of off-season training. (A former colleague of mine with home roots in Nebraska told me that in the Cornhuskers true glory days, they would bring their weight room via semi-truck to the bowl games). That doesn't seem so much today... at least outside of college football ( "Football Training" ), but maybe it is just me.

Where we should be at is a refinement of the history of what works, and this isn't a call for more meatheaded led screaming and yelling, but a move towards the reality of what makes changes, and what doesn't. It is not about leaving out the vitally important stuff like mobility and flexibility work (while good Olympic lifting and full range strength training can do that too and maybe even better; a plug for my fellow University of North Dakota colleagues!), plyometrics (awfully important), agility, and sprinting (goes without saying).  It doesn't matter the sport as there are usually only a few tweaks here or there between training for one sport and training for another; strength and conditioning is general physical preparation, not specific prep. Jim Wendler put it right: 1. Stretch 2. Lift 3. Sprint.

Or as Jim Steel, head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Pennsylvania put it so well in his article: The Truth. A must read.

"Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general." -Mark Rippetoe.

I've seen it time and again, the athlete who trains consistently year round and develops a high level of general strength and real power output (Olympic lifts and jumping) usually doesn't get hurt by activities that a real athlete should not get hurt from (quality movement is a given and must, but that's not the point of this post)... which is the basis of my tweet on Twitter: "We can look at injured athletes and ask why they got hurt, but it's also important to look at healthy athletes and ask why they have not."

Dr. Mike Stone may not "captivate" the crowd like Steve Jobs was able to, but his presentations and information show the real science behind strength and power. I highly recommend his textbook: Principles and Practice of Resistance Training.


Josh Leeger said...

Great post Aaron! I was equally impressed by Charlie Francis' take on strength training. If I remember correctly he advocated for a 90/60 approach - i.e., workouts with near-maximal weights (90%+ 1RM) favoring "classic" lifts, or pure power (60% 1RM) workouts...skipping over the "hypertrophy" zone altogether.

Seems like a smart thing to me. Especially if you consider that "special strength" should come from practicing your skill/sport...get your endurance workout in there...

Aaron Schwenzfeier said...

I think Charlie really wanted his athletes to stay out of that zone for running speeds for it's potential detriment to sprinting speed; too much intensity that may cause unwanted adaptations but are too low for speed development.

Yes, I think it's often forgotten that there is a physiological component to skill/sport practice... and hopefully it's conducive to the development of a high level athlete in that particular sport (sports specific training).