Since the dawn of time, sports have always rewarded the strongest, most explosive feats of human performance. It takes a level of preparation, conditioning, and finesse to perform in sport and coaches have been trying to find the best ways to cultivate these performances in athletes for decades. Because of the attributes that it takes to become a dominant athlete, coaches have made the weight room a primary pillar for success in their respective programs. Whether it is football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, track, etc. there is a common theme rooted in sports culture that the more work you do and more weight you lift, the better you’ll become. While this is true to an extent, there are extremes of training that push athletes to their absolute limits day in and day out under the belief that this will create champions. Again, this is true to an extent but let’s talk about this myth of more work equating to more success and how we can change the way we think about the “work more” mentality to better serve our athletes.
Here is where the definition of “more” can become a problem, especially when it is thought of as a means to becoming better rather than the result of becoming better.
This list can go on and on, but these are common themes that plague many programs around the country at all levels. Coaches are convinced that if they can achieve the above elements of “more” that they have created superior athletes and that they are destined for success because they have done “more” work. “Back when I was in high school this is what we did, and we were state champions”. “The stronger we are, the easier it’ll be to dominate our opponent”. “If you’re not puking, you’re not working hard enough”. Coaches walk away from practice with their heads held high every day knowing that they accomplished the above. It boosts their ego because they truly believe they created the best workout of all time and created champions that day.
I truly respect the fact that you have committed yourself to the athlete and are providing what you believe to be the best thing for them. Even if you are designing these workouts without truly understanding what is happening, you aren’t doing it because you want them in pain (huge benefit of the doubt being given here), you’re doing it because you truly believe these elements are necessary to take a step forward as a program. This builds team chemistry, brotherhood, comradery, and trust in each other. When I used to die alongside my teammates in practice, whether in high school or college, we bonded over the work and that showed when it came time to perform. You see a teammate down, you pick them up. You encourage one another. It is a great environment to foster a team and I commend you on at least building that in your search for success. You have some of the biggest weight room numbers your school has ever seen and that is often times enough evidence to keep doing what you are doing. Your kids have offers and that is another sign of success. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? What if I told you that you can decrease your rate of injury, decrease burnout/quitting, increase explosion, increase those weight room numbers even more, increase your productivity, get more kids offered, and become an overall better team ALL WHILE DOING LESS. You can accomplish more with less. I’ll repeat that. YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH MORE WITH LESS. Let me show you.
Flipping the words “less” with “more” above is where the definition of “more” can become a result of your training rather than a means to your training.
As you can see, when it comes to designing a training program you can in fact accomplish more while doing less. In the cases above, less IS more. Now there are many examples we can all come up with to say that more is more. A prime example would be the argument that lifting more weight allows you to produce more force, and I’d say that you are absolutely right. However, we need to understand that not all force is generated equally. What I mean by that is that the ability to recruit muscle to produce force is different from athlete to athlete and that even though they may be producing the same absolute force, it is not necessarily a good indicator of athletic performance. We also need to ask ourselves if we are training Olympic lifters or are we training ball players, sprinters, throwers, etc.? At what point is lifting more weight going to make you better at performing your sport-specific skills? What is it about squatting 500 lbs that makes you a better athlete? How about benching 300 lbs at a painfully slow rate? What if I drop the total weight and focus on bar speed? Is it possible to lift a lot of weight and lift it fast? These are good thought provoking questions that should get you thinking about training adaptations, choices of exercises, and how they may or may not relate to the sport in question.
So let’s address an age old debate about which is more important in building superior athletes: absolute strength or power?
Disclaimer: I am clearly biased and if you choose to ignore what I say because of that, I encourage you to find more objective literature on the topic.
Another disclaimer: we are about to start talking physics, numbers, and some different concepts used to measure performance in the weight room. I know numbers are boring, but they actually paint a pretty cool picture of an athlete’s capabilities and how we can optimize training to bring out the best in each individual. BEAR WITH ME, HERE WE GO.
So what is absolute strength?
Absolute strength is the maximum amount of weight you can displace without regards to the body weight of the individual or time that it takes to perform the movement. If we have Athlete A weighing 180 lbs and Athlete B weighing 300 lbs and they have the same maxes, they have the same absolute strength. Their body weight does not matter here, as it only takes into account the weight lifted. If we were to speak in regards to relative strength, this would take into account the body weight difference and decide who has the best strength to body weight ratio. Being 180 lbs and lifting 300 lbs means that Athlete A is generating 1.67 lbs of force per lb of body weight, whereas the 300 lb athlete lifting 300 lbs is generating 1.00 lbs of force per lb of body weight. This means that the smaller athlete is relatively stronger despite lifting the exact same amount of weight. So we’ve got an athlete who can lift 167% of his body weight vs an athlete who can lift 100% of his body weight. Which athlete will be more athletic? Which will be more explosive? Which is more impressive? Which of these indicates an increased aptitude for performance? Let’s find out…
What is power?
Power is the amount of work performed over time. Referring back to the examples above, we can calculate power for each athlete. Maybe it took Athlete A 2.0 seconds to perform the movement, but it took Athlete B 0.8 seconds to perform the movement. Athlete A displaced 300 lbs over 2s, meaning he is only generating about 150lbs of force per second (about 83% of his own body weight). On the other side, Athlete B completed the 300 lb lift in 0.8s, meaning he is generating about 375 lbs of force per second (125% of his own body weight). So despite Athlete A being relatively stronger than Athlete B, Athlete B is significantly more powerful than Athlete A. Because power takes into account how quickly an athlete can generate force, it is often a key aspect of performances in sports testing such as: 40 yd dash, vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle run, ball toss, etc. A powerful athlete can create massive amounts of force in a fraction of a second and this force quickly travels through the body and allows the athlete to jump higher/further, sprint faster, and accelerate/decelerate quickly, along with many other feats of human performance.
Why does this matter?
When we are talking about numbers in the weight room and how they relate to athleticism and performance, it is actually a pretty big deal. Even though the 300 lb athlete is “only” lifting his own body weight, he is displacing the weight so quickly that his peak power is much higher than the athlete lifting almost twice his own body weight. Because athletic movements tend to be FAST and EXPLOSIVE, we can see that a relative strength measure does not directly translate to athleticism or aptitude for performance. Athlete A clearly lifts more relative to his body weight, but it is so slow that it is essentially meaningless to enhancing his athletic abilities. In other words, programs that emphasize weight and volume instead of speed and recovery are reinforcing SLOW, SLUGGISH movement patterns. At 180 lbs, Athlete A can lift the house, but it takes him all day to generate the force needed to lift that house and be a superior athlete. On the other side, even though the 300 lb Athlete B doesn’t have the relative strength that the 180 lb Athlete A has, he is objectively more explosive and more athletic than the equally strong Athlete A because he is able to produce greater ratios of power relative to his own body weight. This will allow him to create displacement quickly when his sport calls upon it and can likely be measured by superior numbers in the performance measures I mentioned earlier.
Due to the confusing numbers and concepts listed above, there is a summary table included in the file I uploaded above that is much easier to follow. I want you to think about which of these athletes has the higher aptitude for performance and why. I then want you to think about the way you can use this knowledge to better serve your athletes. The numbers don’t lie.
If we are in the business of developing athletes, we need to be thinking about several concepts as they relate to the weight room, plyometrics, jumping ability, etc. If I am choosing to develop a group of young guys and I see they are all extremely strong but executing tasks slowly, I need to make an adjustment to emphasize speed more than simply just doing work for the sake of doing it. The more I can cater to the fast twitch fibers, the more that I’ll be able to make improvements in power development and consequent explosion/athleticism. Every time that it takes an athlete forever to generate the adequate force to perform a single rep, they are reinforcing slow fiber recruitment that will actually be detrimental (in my opinion and experience) to athletic performance. The longer your workout takes, the more you shift away from the ability to train the immediate and short term energy systems that feed explosive fast twitch fibers and begin to train the much slower muscle fibers along with the aerobic energy system that feeds them. You can imagine that undergoing years of this type of training will make somebody more aerobically inclined and durable but at the expense of athletic prowess. We achieve “tough” athletes who can play hard the whole game but get beat on a deep ball, a fast break, etc. On the flip side, when we lift or train with an emphasis on speed we are training those more favorable athletic traits we talked about that allow athletes to achieve higher levels of performance and an increased ability to do their job to help the team win.
We are what we repeatedly do. If we train slow, we play slow. If we train fast, we play fast. It’s such a simple concept that we find ways overthink and overdo it every day. This is not to say that we can’t load the bar up and hit some heavier reps. It is not to say that athletes won’t get tired and that workouts won’t be hard. That is not the emphasis here at all, rather, the point here is that being insanely strong should not be the goal, but rather, being POWERFUL is the goal. By achieving power, we can further develop functional strength. If we solely emphasize strength at the expense of bar speed, we are getting away from developing meaningful power. If we can all agree that power is more important to performance than strength, than we should also be able to agree that bar speed and overall speed training matters more than the amount of weight lifted or baseless exercises used to get someone tired. So while you are loading up the bar, be conscious of how fast (or slow) it is moving. When progressing through practice, pay attention to the body language and explosive performance of each athlete during each rep. The moment that the bar or the athlete stops moving fast, we are creating a recipe for slowness and taking away from a training program designed to improve performance. Make your athletes swallow their pride (as you swallow your own) and create a culture where the number on the plate isn’t the goal, but rather the number on the watch.
MORE ISN’T BETTER, BETTER IS BETTER
“Coach, why would you have my son lifting 225 lbs, I’ve seen him do 300 lbs before. You’re program is taking away from my son’s performance.”
“Coach, we both know I can squat 450, why are you only letting me lift 275?”
“Coach, we’ve had our athletes doing this for years and we’ve won championships under this structure. Why are we changing something that is tried and true?”
These are all questions you may receive as you attempt to implement these strategies, as you fight the training mentalities of previous years and try to use contemporary science to provide your athletes (hopefully) the best training you know how to give. There’s a chance that it’s too difficult to monitor bar speed, whether from a limited equipment standpoint, not having the eye for it, or whatever it may be. But I would argue that you can tell when an athlete looks sluggish vs when they look like an animal on the field and in the weight room. Give it a try and see what you think. I haven’t had any complaints yet from any of the coaches I’ve worked with and honestly, they’ve actually seen all of their maxes go up across the board since implementing this training approach. This includes squat, dead lift, hang cleans, vertical, 40 yd dash, shuttle, as well as performance on the field. The fastest athletes and teams are typically among some of the best teams in the state and in the country. Speed is means of their success, make it a part of your own.
I’m always open to a good, productive discussion and challenges for my viewpoints. I enjoy hearing coaches, parents, and athletes’ reactions to my articles as it helps me learn more about the whys, hows, and barriers to implementing various training approaches. Feel free to comment here, email me, or message me on Twitter with your thoughts and feedback. Additionally, if you found this useful please like, share, retweet, forward, or whatever other means you have to help me spread this message. If you enjoyed this and would like to hear more on topics mentioned here or other topics related to my life, experiences, performance, etc. please give me some suggestions and I’ll take them into consideration when writing my next piece. This helps me stay on top of my game and expands my outreach to the athletic community.
Thanks for reading,
Twitter: @BrendanThompsn / @BTExceleration
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