By Bob Alejo with Bryan Mann, Mike Young, and Tim Suchomel
Two of the bigger questions in strength and conditioning are:
- When should I switch the emphasis from strength to other qualities?
- Can somebody ever be too strong?
You can never go wrong when you get the best scientists together and search for answers, which is exactly what I did on these two topics.
Part II: How Strong Is Strong Enough?
In the words of the iconic Jim Schmitz, “You can never be too strong!” (as a T-shirt from his beloved Sports Palace had emblazoned on the front.) I couldn’t agree more! But that is really not the issue.
Being too strong and emphasizing strength for too long are the issues: two different and unassociated things often debated as the same thing. As I mentioned in Part I, focusing on strength for too long can ultimately be a detriment. Yet, with the right analysis of the training data, it is easy to determine when an athlete is strong enough.
For me, “strong enough” only occurs when the slope of strength gains begins to flatten out, while concomitantly, performance data stays essentially unchanged. There is little reason to reduce the focus on strength when there is still significant room for gains, regardless of absolute strength and knowing what we know about strength’s contribution to power; especially in younger athletes. For sure, once there is little improvement in power data, whatever the program design is, it must change.There’s little reason to reduce the focus on strength when there’s still significant room for gains. Click To Tweet
In this second part of the Power Lift Strength and Power Development Roundtable, Bryan Mann, Tim Suchomel, and Mike Young—all PhDs sitting on Power Lift’s Sports Science Educational Board—tackle the question: “How strong is strong enough?”
(If you have any questions, please direct them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q: “How strong is strong enough?” That’s a question that’s recently been posed across a number of platforms and in numerous discussions. What information tells you that an athlete has reached a high enough strength level and can begin to switch the emphasis to a different quality?
Mike Young: This is a bit of a loaded question. The most simple and direct answer is that you can never be too strong. Research studies led by Suchomel, Stone, Newton, Garhammer, and many others have all pointed to this being the case.Being able to produce more force is likely never going to be a drawback. –Mike Young Click To Tweet
There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that improving strength will increase power output and rate of force production. The fact of the matter is that being able to produce more force is likely never going to be a drawback. The real-world answer is slightly more nuanced, though. In the real world, sport performance is multi-factorial and strength is just one component of performance.
Bryan Mann: While it is true that simply getting stronger will raise the ocean—causing all ships to rise—that’s only true for a while. There are a few methods that I use and have used to determine what an athlete needs to train. Before I had force plates, I would take their vertical jump and convert it over to peak power using the Sayers equation (use whatever equation you want) and dividing it by their squat plus their bodyweight.
I had scores that I used, but those varied based on squat or lift type, depth, handle height, type of bar, were knee wraps used, etc. Then, with the vertical jump, if it was camera-based flight time, mat-based flight time, Vertec, chalk on the wall, etc. I standardized the scores to see who needed what, by group (skill positions require a different type of horse than line and mid), and used the standardized score to tell me what someone needed.
Seeing what was truly good or bad, and changing it requires a lot of data. So, take everything with a grain of salt. I used raw scores to see where the improvements were.
Tim Suchomel: The force requirements (i.e., strength) —qualities that are necessary within each sport/event—vary based on an athlete’s need to move their body mass only (e.g., gymnastics, track and field jumpers/sprinters), their body mass and an opponent’s body mass (e.g., American football, rugby, and wrestling), or their body mass and an implement (e.g., weightlifting, field hockey, and baseball). Moreover, size and body composition, as well as movement requirements, vary based on different sport positions and events.
Thus, the strength needs of one sport may not be effectively compared to another. That being said, limited literature has discussed specific strength levels that are classified to be “strong enough.”
Bryan Mann: Now that I have found cheap single axis force plates, we can start to examine more things. I look at a dynamic strength index as a rough guide of where athletes need to be. Jeremy Sheppard—a brilliant coach and researcher—turned me on to this, and he researched this a great deal in Australia and now Canada.I look at a dynamic strength index as a rough guide of where athletes need to be. –Bryan Mann Click To Tweet
Right now, I use an isometric mid-thigh pull and a countermovement jump with hands on hips. While there is a lot that can be gained from the isometric mid-thigh pull, it takes some time and there is a learning curve. I’ve found that peak force seems to be pretty solid; it’s the stuff earlier on in the first 500ms that takes some time to understand and learn for the athlete.
Back to the point—with the isometric mid-thigh pull, I want them to be able to pull five times their bodyweight in newtons. If they can’t get anywhere near that, they just need to get stronger. After that, I use the peak force in the concentric portion of the countermovement jump and the peak force in the isometric mid-thigh pull and divide them out (CMJ/IMTP). If the number is greater than .8, they need to keep getting stronger. If it’s .6-.8, then they’ll need a more concurrent style of programming, and if it’s below .6, they need a greater ballistic emphasis.
Tim Suchomel: Pioneering athlete monitoring work by sports scientists such as Mike McGuigan and Tim Gabbett has shown comparisons between current athletes/teams and previously successful athletes/teams that played the same position/competed in similar context. For example, McGuigan highlights the use of z-scores and radar plots to compare either a team average (previous or current) or successful player’s characteristics with a current team/player’s characteristics10. In this instance, it would be possible to compare the strength characteristics of a highly successful player and those of a current player. Furthermore, it may highlight what characteristics may need to be developed in order to reach similar strength levels, or if other characteristics need to be focused on.
From a team standpoint, the average performance characteristics of a championship team may be compared to those of the current team and thus, weaknesses can be assessed. Due to the lack of information regarding specific strength levels, it is important for researchers and sport scientists to provide normative data based on skill level.It’s logical to develop athletes to be as strong as possible in the context of their sport/event. Click To Tweet
While some literature suggests that the ability to squat 2x body mass allows for greater jump performance2,19,26, sprint speed16,26, and potentiation ability13,14,25, it is currently unknown if this relative strength standard achieves a superior performance over weaker relative strength standards within different sports. However, given the importance of muscular strength, its influence on a variety of characteristics, and correlational data that suggests that stronger athletes perform better within their sport24, it would seem logical to develop athletes so that they are as strong as possible within the context of their sport/event.
Mike Young: To truly maximize performance, athletes need to address technical, tactical, mental, and physical aspects of their sport. Strength development is just one aspect of one of these four areas (physical). So even in just the physical aspect, athletes need to spend time and energy developing qualities like endurance, speed, and so forth.
Add to this that an athlete’s time and recovery resources are finite, and you quickly see that the blind pursuit of strength without regards to other aspects of performance might be a lesson in futility. So, while it’s never a bad thing to be stronger, the reality is that pursuing strength at the cost of other areas—when strength has already reached an adequate level—will yield a point of diminishing returns. Ultimately, it could be detrimental to sport performance if it takes away from the athlete developing other more limiting qualities.A blind pursuit of strength with no regard to other performance aspects may be a lesson in futility. Click To Tweet
The trick is finding out what qualities are the biggest limiters to performance, and placing these at the top of the developmental hierarchy. Early in an athlete’s career, strength development is often one of the lowest-hanging fruits of performance training and will produce tremendous gains in performance and reductions in injury likelihood. In my experience, you’ll see a great return on investment in the pursuit of strength qualities all the way up to about a 2x bodyweight parallel squat (or comparable numbers in other lifts). Beyond that, a shift should be taken to a greater focus on power development, and eventually accentuated eccentric loading while still maintaining or improving strength values.
At the end of the day, coaching is an art and science. There isn’t a hard number for any particular lift that will be a line in the sand for every athlete indicating they need to move on to other means and methods. I’m sticking with strength until I see that the return on investment begins to diminish, and then I’m adding wrinkles and shifting the emphasis of training to ensure that the athlete continues to improve.
Bryan Mann: Now, earlier I said right now I’m using IMTP—I may always stick with it, I may move on for some sports. In my current role, I am not in charge of the programming of any team; I just help them see what the effects of training are, and let them make their own decisions.
I have noticed that the teams that don’t do Olympic lifts struggle with understanding how to put forth maximal effort in that position. I am looking into doing whatever they do for their main exercise (trap bar deadlift, back squat, front squat) as a means of getting their peak force, but trying to recreate the joint angles as best I can. This will most likely change the DSI numbers, but I don’t know. This is just an area that I’m walking into now.
At the end of the day, though, we do what we do not because we are working with powerlifters or Olympic lifters (unless someone who is reading this does work with those sports only), but rather with team sport athletes. The bottom line for me is this: Are they performing better in their sport? If yes, keep doing what you’re doing until the answer is no, and then change it. If they’re not getting better in their sport, change it now.
For some sports, it is easy to see—working with throwers, sprinters, jumpers, etc., it’s a tape measure or a stopwatch. For teams like football, soccer, basketball, baseball, etc., you have to rely on the athlete feedback and what the coach sees and says. When your coach says, “gosh, they’re just a better player now” or “they look so much ____” (insert faster, fitter, stronger, more powerful), you’re on the right track.
There are some KPIs for different sports, and those could be examined as well. For instance, volleyball has been linked to vertical jump height—if that’s improving, the athlete is most likely improving in turn. For our athletes, different positions had different KPIs in the sport of football; some were best predicted by improvements in the L drill, some pro agility, some 10 times, and for some (hold your breath as you say I’m being blasphemous) the 40 was very predictive of playing ability.
Tim Suchomel: As mentioned above, the ability to squat 2x body mass appears to be a reoccurring strength standard within the scientific literature that has a positive influence on performance. While specific numbers shouldn’t necessarily be “chased” when developing an athlete, it should be noted that individuals with greater strength levels appear to benefit more from specific types of training.Individuals with greater strength levels appear to benefit more from specific types of training. Click To Tweet
For example, previous literature has indicated that stronger individuals benefit more from power-based training methods (e.g. weightlifting, plyometric training, and jump training) compared to weaker individuals3,4,9. Additional literature shows that stronger individuals also produce greater potentiation characteristics compared to weaker individuals13-15,25. Therefore, it appears that the relative strength levels of individuals should be monitored to indicate what type of training should be implemented or emphasized.
There are many different methods that can be used to monitor an athlete’s performance; however, combined assessment methods (i.e., assessment methods that either use multiple variables from a single test or single variables from multiple tests) appear to be beneficial in providing sport scientists and practitioners with information that may influence training decisions/emphases. For example, the dynamic strength deficit (DSD) provides a ratio between ballistic force production and maximal isometric force production. Using the force production information from a jumping test (e.g., countermovement jump or squat jump) and a maximal isometric strength test (e.g., isometric mid-thigh pull or isometric squat), you may be able to determine whether a strength or power emphasis is needed in training.
Sheppard et al. suggested that a DSD of ≤ 0.60 indicates that ballistic training is necessary, as only 60% of an athlete’s maximal isometric force is being used during a jump, while a DSD of ≥ 0.80 indicates that a focus on maximal strength within training is necessary, as the athlete is producing at least 80% of their maximal isometric force capacity during a jump17. While this method may provide information regarding what athletes should focus on in training, it is important to consider the jump height and relative strength levels of the individual as they relate to the DSD ratio.
For example, if Athlete A has a DSD of 0.50, a squat jump height of 50 cm, and relative squat strength of 1.80 kg/kg, their recommended training focus may be ballistic training. However, if Athlete B has a DSD of 0.60, a squat jump height of 30 cm, and relative squat strength of 1.20 kg/kg, their recommended training focus should still be maximal strength, despite what the DSD ratio says.
In summary, it is difficult to determine if an individual or team is “strong enough” unless sport scientists and practitioners use a long-term athlete monitoring approach. Based on the existing literature, athletes should be as strong as possible within the context of their sport. Stronger athletes appear to benefit from more advanced methods of training such as weightlifting, plyometric training, and jump training. Finally, while monitoring data may be used to indicate what training methods to emphasize, it is important to examine multiple testing results to provide a bigger picture of what the athlete needs to focus on in training instead of chasing a specific number or ratio.
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