I recently heard Joel Smith on the Gem Sessions podcast say, “Field and court sport athletes use a different strength than powerlifters.” This statement resonated with me and summed up how I’ve felt about sports performance since my first day in the field. This quote could be interpreted differently depending on the individual and twisted to fit somebody’s bias. Maybe that is exactly what I’m doing. Early in my career, however, I remember thinking “How do back squats, deadlifts, and bench presses best prepare athletes for dynamic sports?”
It was difficult for me to find the correlation between watching a basketball player move on the court and a maximally loaded back squat. This initial thought may have been slightly naive, but I don’t think it was too far off base. The “rinse and repeat” nature of this field and saying “because that’s how we’ve always done it” are two dangerous traps to fall in. We need to continue to evolve and find ways to move the needle with our athletes to best serve, improve, and prepare them.
What if there was a potential way to better prepare athletes for the forces they experience in sport, closer to the rate at which they experience them? Could this help improve performance while helping to reduce the likelihood of injury?
A Question of Force Production
At this point in my career, I understand that what we do as sports performance coaches is general in nature. We apply general stressors to influence the specificity that sports demand. This article doesn’t say that back squats, deadlifts, and bench presses aren’t useful or have no place in training. There are plenty of times when they fit well in a program, such as for athletes who are underdeveloped and have a low training age. They should be dosed with a patient progression, never with the goal of as much weight as possible, as soon as possible.If you claim your athletes are best prepared for competition because of their improved one-rep maxes, I think you’ve missed the mark, says @huntereis_sc. Click To Tweet
This is also the case during phases furthest from competition, when it is not necessary to expose athletes to the highest of forces, while having the goals of restoring sound movement patterns and training joints through full ranges of motion. However, I don’t think these movements are the “golden ticket” to preparing athletes. There is much more to it than these three exercises and their variations. If you claim your athletes are best prepared for competition because of their improved one-rep maxes, I think you’ve missed the mark.
I would like to explain the thought process behind this opinion and give my recommendation to help better prepare athletes. While I understand there are numerous physiological underpinnings to what strength is—such as rate coding, enhanced synchronization, and accessing higher threshold motor units—to put it simply, I believe this all boils down to force and the ability to generate it when needed, in the time constraint allowed. If you were to take a poll of 100 people walking down the street, and show them two videos, one of a 385-pound deadlift and the other of a 42-inch depth drop, and then ask, “What exercise produces more force?” my bet would be that most would say the deadlift. In actuality, I can confirm the opposite.
In a self-run experiment I performed by myself on Vald force plates, I compared the forces generated from trap bar deadlifts of increasing intensities with depth drops at various heights. Here is what I found:
- At a body weight of 215 pounds, lifting a 385-pound trap bar with max intent produced 2,968 Newtons of force.
- Those 2,968 Newtons of force are equal to about 3.1 times body weight (when converting my body weight to Newtons and then dividing the Newtons produced in the exercise by body weight in Newtons).
- A 42-inch depth drop produced 4,070 Newtons of force, which is 4.3 times body weight.
- A 66-inch depth drop produced 5,480 Newtons of force, which is 5.8 times body weight.
Video 1. Performing a 66-inch depth drop.
Allow this small experiment to set the stage for a system that creates a more effective way to prepare athletes to excel and stay healthy within their sport. We have lost sight of a very important and simple piece of physics:
Force = Mass x Acceleration
We have been so focused on the “Mass” piece of the Force equation that we often fail to truly apply significant forces to our athletes. The Acceleration piece can be manipulated to apply higher forces at faster rates. This is why, in another “in-house” study, a trap bar drop catch with 155 pounds generated more force (3,328 Newtons) than a 385-pound trap bar deadlift (2,968 Newtons). Drop catches can be a powerful way to manipulate the Force equation to achieve higher force exposures. A drop catch consists of holding a weight/implement at the top of the range of motion, allowing the weight to freefall, and then catching it at the lower portion of the range of motion.Drop catches can be a powerful way to manipulate the force equation to achieve higher force exposures, says @huntereis_sc. Click To Tweet
Video 2. The drop catch allows increased forces at a lower external load because of an increase in acceleration or rate of loading. The rate of loading is an extremely important factor when looking at the speed of sport but also the time frame in which injuries occur.
According to Koga et al. (2010) in a study assessing ACL injuries in handball and basketball players, there were high peak vertical ground reaction forces experienced at an extremely fast rate. It is important to keep in mind, as stated in this study, that there are a lot of kinematic factors that influence an ACL injury; however, we are going to dig into the kinetic influences presented. Those high peak vertical ground reaction forces averaged 3.2 times body weight and occurred 40 milliseconds after initial contact.
Let’s take this information and consider a hypothetical scenario: when looking at a Power 5 college basketball player, the average weight for an individual at this level is about 205 pounds. According to the study referenced above, that individual would experience about 656 pounds of force in 40 milliseconds. I don’t have data to back this claim, but I doubt there are many college basketball players back squatting or deadlifting 650 pounds, and not in 40 milliseconds.
Again, I want to reiterate that there are a lot of specific kinematic factors that contribute to an ACL injury. However, we want to prepare athletes to be as robust as possible, and with this specific topic, I think we can accomplish a lot in the kinetic realm. While I don’t have a study to prove that a depth drop occurs at a faster rate than a heavy back squat or deadlift, I think most of us realize which one has a faster rate of loading.
Also, remember the numbers stated previously, force in relation to body weight? A 42-inch depth drop produced forces at 4.3 times body weight and 66 inches at 5.8 times body weight. So, a faster rate of loading and higher peak ground reaction forces? Depth drops may not occur in 40 milliseconds, or maybe they do, but I think we’re getting closer to the demands necessary to reduce the likelihood of injury.
After discussing this topic and its potential influence on injury reduction, let’s look at increasing performance. The picture above shows where most, if not all, the fancy metrics over which sports performance coaches, researchers , and scientists obsess ultimately derive from. As you can see, the birthplace of these metrics is “Force.”
What does this mean?
The ability to produce force is the underpinning quality of most others, including jump height, RSI—modified, power, and rate of force development. It is often stated and widely accepted that “strength” is the underpinning quality of all other qualities, and because of this vernacular, young coaches immediately believe they must get their athletes back squatting, deadlifting, and/or bench pressing as much as possible. What if we reframed this narrative and said that the ability to produce high force as opposed to strength was the underpinning quality of most others? How would this small change in semantics change our athlete’s preparation?What if we reframed the narrative and said that the ability to produce high force as opposed to strength was the underpinning quality of most others? asks @huntereis_sc. Click To Tweet
You may still choose to squat or deadlift an athlete to improve their force-generating capabilities; however, I believe a switch to other, higher-force potential movements should come sooner rather than later to continue to move the needle within an athlete’s performance. Anybody can take a young, underdeveloped athlete and improve their ability to generate force with a traditional exercise—that is simple and effective, and a low-hanging fruit with most.
For example, a basketball player who can do a dumbbell rear-foot elevated split squat (RFESS) with 100 pounds in each hand is pretty strong. I understand that conclusion is drawn subjectively, but bear with me. That 200-pound (total) RFESS produces roughly 2,020 Newtons of force. You could absolutely continue to progress this athlete until they can complete reps with 110 or 120 pounds, but there will probably be a point of diminishing returns with this tactic in terms of the ability to generate force. What if you transitioned this athlete to a forward dumbbell drop lunge, as seen in the video below? Again, this model doesn’t denounce these methods but offers a progression from them.
Video 3. Forward DB drop lunge.
Without the context provided within this article, you may see this movement performed with, say, 45-pound dumbbells and scoff at the potential of increasing an athlete’s force-generation ability. But what if I told you that this exercise with those 45-pound dumbbells produced just under 2,400 Newtons of force? That same exercise with 60-pound dumbbells? Just under 3,500 Newtons.
But wait! The external load! The dumbbells are so much lighter! Yes, the external load is less, but look under the hood—there is more than meets the eye. Remember, Force = Mass x ACCELERATION.
The last piece of this high-force equation within a training program is overcoming isometrics. Most practitioners in our field are familiar with an isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP) or an isometric belt squat. While these methods are mostly deployed as testing and/or monitoring within a program, I believe they can also be used in training to create a positive adaptation. Before I continue on this topic, I want to make sure I highlight the difference here between two commonly misunderstood isometrics.
A “yielding” isometric—holding a position with external load, whether gravity in a body weight variation or a weight held in a loaded variation—creates different adaptations than an “overcoming” isometric, which I am discussing here. While a yielding isometric obviously has a force component, overcoming isometrics allow athletes to push with maximal effort against an immovable object.
The reason I think this could be a “tip of the spear” type application within this system is the amount of force that the athlete is able to generate. I believe a belt squat overcoming iso to be the highest force-producing exercise an athlete can perform. I’ve seen athletes produce 10,000 Newtons of force within an isometric belt squat—over eight times body weight! Along with extremely high force outputs, the ease of doing a belt squat overcoming isometric within training is ideal. There are almost zero technical aspects to this movement, as the athlete stands with a belt around their waist that is chained to the ground or a rack and pushes as hard as they can into the ground.I believe a belt squat overcoming iso is the highest force-producing exercise an athlete can perform, and it needs limited skill. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me, says @huntereis_sc. Click To Tweet
Compare this to an Olympic movement with high technical proficiency needed, or even one of the powerlifts, which requires potentially less than an Olympic movement but still high levels of skill. Exposure to extremely high forces, with limited technical skill needed? Sounds like a pretty good idea to me!
Video 4. There are almost zero technical aspects to an isometric belt squat.
Do I think you need to overhaul your entire program and only do depth drops, drop catches, and overcoming isometrics? Absolutely not. As I’ve previously stated, there is still very much a need for traditional movements in the weight room, whether they are back squats, deadlifts, RFESS, or lateral lunges. In my opinion, this system can be used on a small scale within an off-season and/or a large scale over an athlete’s career.
Small Scale in the Off-Season
Within an off-season, you can slowly progress force exposure, as opposed to progressing intensities within similar exercises. A common linear progression within an off-season program may be starting at a lower intensity and higher volume and slowly allowing those two variables to flip so you end with high intensities and low volume. I’m proposing, potentially following that same logic, that instead of an overall 10 weeks, this could be weeks 1–5. Weeks 6–10 could then begin to transition from depth drops to drop catches to overcoming isometrics.
I also think these two methods can blend throughout all 10 weeks. Early in the off-season, you could be doing lower depth drops early in a training session before the emphasis of the day shifts to an RFESS. Then this emphasis changes later in the off-season, when you may perform a large quantity of belt squat overcoming isometrics and follow that up with loaded lateral lunges.
Large Scale Across an Athlete’s Career
Maybe early on, with an individual with a low training age, you only employ traditional movements, as this is a low-hanging fruit that allows them to increase their force-generating capacities. Later in the athlete’s career, once they have reached a level of “strong enough” (which is a lot sooner than most coaches believe), you then implement more of these high-force exercises. There is no exact way I believe you have to implement these principles; however, I do believe they are important to think about and employ at some point.
A New Way of Thinking
I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or demonize traditional movements in the weight room. There are plenty of coaches who help cultivate explosive and robust athletes using back squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. But I want to present a new way of thinking that can help to move the field forward and potentially better prepare those athletes to excel in their sport.
Maybe the best way to prepare athletes isn’t loading them with as much weight as possible but understanding how to apply forces that best prepare them to excel and stay healthy in what they love to do. Back squat? Nope, play their sport!
*Views are my own and not a reflection of former or current employers.
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