By Bob Alejo with Bryan Mann, Mike Young, Tim Suchomel, and Paul Comfort
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 I: The Next Step in Development After Reaching a Base of Strength
Part I of this roundtable addresses the first question, asking: “After a base of strength is obtained—where strength can still be acquired, but the emphasis on acquisition ends—what is the next step in development?” You may agree or disagree, but I am of the notion that the length of time (training cycle) spent focusing on strength is based on one thing… STRENGTH!
There should be a utilization of individual and team training data indicating when there are diminishing strength returns that will redirect the training design into a more sport-applicable quality. Some coaches preset the date and time of the emphasis reset regardless of strength levels. Others use generalized standards for guidance, and support the change in training direction with individual metrics and maximums (vertical jumps, pulling and squatting totals, med ball throws).
Face the facts, people: Strength (relative and absolute) underpins all performance, and without it there will be no optimal results in training or competition. It needs to be a focus. However, fixating on strength solely or for too long will result in many things and most of them aren’t good, including increased injury risk.Strength underpins all performance; there are no optimal training or competition results without it. Click To Tweet
The members of Power Lift’s Sport Science Educational Board—Paul Comfort, Bryan Mann, Tim Suchomel, and Mike Young—are all PhDs and all considered experts in strength and power development. They took my questions and provided some great content on these two issues. Here are their answers to the first question.
(If you have any questions, please direct them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q: After a base of strength is obtained—where strength can still be acquired, but the emphasis on acquisition ends—what is the next step in development (power, strength endurance, hypertrophy, etc.)?
Bryan Mann: There really isn’t an answer to this that’s 100% correct for all people; context is everything. I think that with the general movements, we of course need to work on power through strength-speed after the athlete is strong enough. But it doesn’t stop there.
From our data on 15 years of football athletes, we know that when they got to a double bodyweight squat and we didn’t switch to strength-speed, they plateaued. Implementing strength-speed helped them continue to gain power. After a while though, they still plateaued. I don’t know if we would have altered the movements to include bands and increased the velocity of the movements if the athletes had continued to show improvements in speed or power or not.Strength coaches tend to be myopic and focus too much on our main lifts. –Bryan Mann Click To Tweet
I do think, however, that we tend to be myopic as strength coaches and focus in on our main lifts. I know that I was definitely one of those people who did. We also need to realize that if we change exercises, we can stimulate adaptations and further power gains. Sometimes just a change from a back squat to a front squat, a step-up, or a lunge will elicit further adaptation.
Additionally, we need to change the force vectors we are dealing with to increase speed and power. While it is easy to throw a barbell or dumbbell on someone and have them lunge, you can use things like Keisers, cables, and bands to load them horizontally—and in the early phases of sprinting, when accelerating, the force vector is horizontal if you examine the research of JB Morin. It is true that at top end speed, the force vector is vertical, though.
Mike Young: I have no doubt that a high level of strength in basic, fundamental movements like squatting, pulling, and pressing is the foundation for more advanced training means and methods. Without a foundation of strength, the adaptations from power or speed-strength focused training will have a low ceiling. That said, once an athlete has developed strength adequately, I start to make a shift toward a greater emphasis on rate of force development (RFD) and eccentric loading.Once an athlete develops adequate strength, I shift toward an emphasis on RFD and eccentric loading. Click To Tweet
With regard to RFD-focused loading, I often drop the prescribed load from 85+% to 50-75% of 1RM so the athlete can better express power and focus on RFD. The degree that I reduce the percent of 1RM is based on the exercise, the individual’s force-velocity profile, and where we are in the training cycle. With naturally explosive exercises like weightlifting movements and their derivatives, I typically prescribe a load of 70-75% of 1RM when RFD and power development are the focus of training. With exercises that are typically performed at higher loads more slowly (like squatting and pressing), I tend to reduce percent to an even greater extent when the focus is RFD and power development. In fact, I’ll drop as low as 50% on these types of exercises.
In all scenarios, I keep the set, rep, and rest schemes quite comparable to what I’d use if focusing on absolute strength. I do this to ensure the desired training stimulus. I don’t want the athlete performing poorly executed, low-velocity reps under a high state of fatigue just because the load on the bar is light.
To counter this, I keep the reps per set low and the number of sets relatively high with sufficient rest. This ensures that each rep can be performed with maximal intent and minimal fatigue, which is really critical for power development. This is a proven method to improve not only power output, but adaptations that transfer to more athletic capacities like sprinting speed and jumping.
To assist with this objective, I often incorporate velocity-based metrics to drive intent. At lower loads, it’s possible for an athlete to just go through the motions, but this wouldn’t produce the stimulus we’re looking for. So, I use real-time feedback from velocity-based metrics to drive intent, hold the athlete accountable, and ensure they don’t just go through the motions.
Tim Suchomel: Like most situations in strength and conditioning, the following training emphasis will depend on a given athlete’s characteristics (e.g., training age, relative strength, body composition, etc.), as well as the needs of their sport/event and the time of year within their training year. For example, weight class based sports and endurance sports (e.g., distance running, cycling, etc.) may not benefit from greater volumes of training that are meant to increase muscle mass.
Simply put, greater volumes of muscle mass may change an individual’s weight class or, in an endurance sport, force an individual to carry more mass during their event. In contrast, strength-power based sports such as American football, rugby, and baseball may benefit more from high volume training that increases muscle mass due to its potential to benefit both maximal strength and power characteristics.
Classic work from Minetti13, Zamparo et al.29, and Stone et al.22has suggested that previous resistance training phases have the potential to lay the foundation for and enhance or “potentiate” subsequent training phases. Additional literature discusses the benefits of progressing from a strength-endurance phase to maximal/absolute strength phases and eventually to strength-speed and speed-strength phases7,8. Through this progression, athletes increase their potential to benefit various performance characteristics.
As discussed in recent literature20,23,25, as well as the previous literature above, a variety of morphological (e.g., muscle cross-sectional area, architectural [pennation angle], and tendinous [musculotendinous stiffness]) and neuromuscular (e.g., motor unit recruitment, firing frequency, synchronization, and neuromuscular inhibition) characteristics may all benefit muscular strength and power. However, it should be noted that the above physiological characteristics may be altered differently based on the programming tactics that are implemented within various training phases.
Paul Comfort: In general, resistance training should progress through a series of phases (strength-endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and power) in order to achieve appropriate development of the force-generating capacities required by the individual athlete. The extent to which these phases should be emphasized depends on the individual athlete (e.g., training age, training status including relative strength levels, point in the season).
For example, in weight-categorized and endurance sports, much less emphasis should be placed on the strength-endurance and hypertrophy phases, as the high volumes associated with such training result in increases in muscle mass, whereas sports such as [American] football and rugby (league or union) will emphasize hypertrophy training to a greater extent, specifically to increase an athlete’s mass to increase momentum of the athlete.
The sequence of such phases of training should be planned in an appropriate manner so that the previous phase enhances, or potentiates, the subsequent phase—referred to as phase potentiation7,8. As muscular strength is underpinned by a series of morphological (e.g., muscle cross-sectional area, muscle architecture, tendinous properties) and neurological factors (e.g., motor unit recruitment and synchronization, rate coding and neuromuscular inhibition)26that exhibit differential adaptive responses to the different phases of training, it is essential that these phases are appropriately planned to optimize strength development.
For example, the strength endurance phase (three sets, 10-20 repetitions, ≤65% 1RM) should increase the work capacity of the muscles, while providing opportunity for the coach to enhance and refine the exercise technique of the athlete, ensuring that the athlete is prepared for the high training volumes during the hypertrophy phase. The hypertrophy phase (three to four sets, 8-12 repetitions, 65-75% 1RM) should result in an increase in the cross-sectional area of the muscles, which increases the potential for the muscles to generate high force during the strength phase, providing a strong foundation for the development of strength.
Strength training (three to six sets, one to six repetitions, 80-95% 1RM) can be further subdivided into STRENGTH-speed (emphasizing strength/barbell load) and SPEED-strength (emphasizing movement velocity and rapid force production). As such the STRENGTH-speed phase utilizes higher loads emphasizing force development, with the increases in force production aiding acceleration (force = mass x acceleration) during the SPEED-strength phase, where maximal acceleration is required to permit the speed emphasis, while both the barbell load and the exercise should be selected to permit rapid acceleration through the range of motion.
Bryan Mann: I also think that we need to be willing to look more at the special exercises. Alternative exercises are getting a bit of replay now, thanks to the work of Frans Bosch, but we need to examine the purpose of the exercise and what the athlete needs. I think a great place to start for special exercises is with three pioneers in the industry: Dr. Michael Yessis, Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, and Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky. These three have put a lot of work into determining what makes for a good special exercise, figuring out what elicits the best response for their respective sports.
Tim Suchomel: The primary goals of a strength-endurance phase (e.g., three sets of 8-12 repetitions) are to develop force production capacity and possibly increase muscle hypertrophy (cross-sectional area) and produce favorable pennation angle changes. This, in turn, provides athletes with a greater potential to improve maximal strength characteristics.
The primary goals of maximal strength (e.g., three sets of four to six repetitions) and absolute strength (e.g., three sets of one to three repetitions) training blocks are to increase maximal force production and start to develop high force rate of force development characteristics. This increases an athlete’s potential to improve rate of force development and power characteristics, both of which have been suggested as two of the most important characteristics that contribute to sport performance1,14,21.
Athletes may then further develop and possibly “peak” rate of force development and power characteristics, depending on the competition phase, during strength-speed (moving heavy loads fast) and speed-strength (moving lighter loads fast) training phases. By sequencing training in this manner, athletes may be able to emphasize both force and velocity characteristics within their training programs, which literature indicates is an effective method to developing and progressively enhancing maximal strength, rate of force development, and power characteristics9,10,24.
Literature has also indicated that there may be no substitute for greater levels of muscular strength21,26. Thus, it should be noted that the training emphasis, and the methods used within training, may vary based on an athlete’s relative strength levels. Research has shown that individuals who back squat at least 2x their body mass produced greater vertical jump power2,21, sprinted faster and jumped higher28, and potentiated earlier16,27and to a greater extent15,16,27compared to weaker individuals. Additional studies indicated that stronger individuals benefit more from power-based training3,4,11.Developing power after strength is a beneficial and logical progression for most athletes. Click To Tweet
Therefore, taking the above into account, it is suggested that developing power after strength would be beneficial and a logical progression. However, the needs of the athlete based on their sport/event, as well as their training emphasis, should be determined using a long-term athlete monitoring protocol that includes measurements of their force-velocity characteristics and maximal relative strength.
Mike Young: We sometimes even use velocity decrement within a set to ensure the athletes aren’t performing poorly executed reps under a high state of fatigue. With this method, we perform reps to a velocity decrement rather than a pre-prescribed rep count. We even use velocity-based metrics at loads more associated with absolute strength development (85-95% of 1RM) and focus on moving a given load as fast as possible. This is a subtle shift that allows us to focus more on bar speed than bar load. For example, once a sufficient strength level is developed, we shift from a goal of lifting heavier and heavier loads to a goal of lifting heavy loads fast.
With regard to eccentric loading, I view high-velocity, high-load eccentrics as my end goal, and work backwards from there to design a progressive plan that leads up to that point safely and effectively. Humans are capable of producing at least 15% more force eccentrically than concentrically. And unlike concentric force generation, we are most efficient producing eccentric forces when the loading causes high-velocity yielding.
These points establish my end goal of being able to train the athlete safely and effectively using loads in excess of 115% of concentric maximums. Figure 1 shows my progression for developing eccentric strength that transfers to sport.
In addition to a shift toward RFD and eccentric-focused training, I also tend to incorporate more partial range of motion and/or unilateral exercises as the annual cycle and athlete’s career progress. I do need to point out that these shifts in emphasis do not represent a wholesale change in my programming. They are more of an evolution than a revolution.
While I believe these shifts are very critical in the long-term development of an athlete, once strength levels are established to an adequate level, one of my goals is to ensure they are at least maintained throughout the athlete’s career. So even in the most extreme cases of this shift, we still do heavily loaded, basic bilateral movements on a weekly basis all year long.
Paul Comfort: For athletes with limited strength training experience, a greater percentage of their training will likely focus on technique development through strength endurance, hypertrophy, and some general strength (three to four sets, four to six repetitions, 80-85% 1RM) development, to provide a solid foundation for future development. However, for athletes without a sufficient “strength base” but some resistance training experience, a greater percentage of their training may revolve around hypertrophy and strength training, emphasizing STRENGTH-speed more than SPEED-strength. In contrast, for strong athletes (1RM back squat ≥2 x body weight) with a solid “strength base” (high relative strength, very good exercise technique, and resistance training experience), a greater percentage of time should be spent focusing on SPEED-strength4-6,9,26.
It is important to ensure an adequate volume (~3 sets or ~3 repetitions) and intensity (≥80% 1RM) of strength training (e.g., a squat variation), during phases of training that emphasize SPEED-strength and power, as a decrease in force production may result in a reduced ability to accelerate a given mass. In addition, during all phases of training, some time should be spent on activities that emphasize higher velocity movements, to maintain coordination of such tasks and to aid in the appropriate recruitment and relaxation of co-contractors.
There is no substitute for an appropriate foundation of strength—and once it is achieved, it must be maintained or progressively enhanced5,6,25. However, once the athlete has a good base level of strength, greater emphasis should be placed upon their ability to express the force appropriately during SPEED-strength and power-focused training5,6,26. During such periods of training, it is essential to ensure that the full spectrum of the force-velocity profile of the athlete is developed, but with an emphasis on whichever aspect of the force-velocity curve demonstrates the greatest area of deficit5,6,9,24. As such, the force-velocity characteristics of the athlete should be monitored at the end of each phase of training to identify the key areas for development in the subsequent phase of training.
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