Friday, October 24, 2014

Get stronger, get better!

I am in Abano Terme, Italy, enjoying the information being shared at the International Congress of Strength Training.

Dr. Robert Newton, an internationally known expert on strength and power training from Australia, gave a interesting presentation. He discussed strength and power in sport, and the importance of getting athletes strong.

He told us how he predicted that Australia would have a poor performance in the 2012 Olympics in London 5 months before the games, which did not make him popular in Australia. Unfortunately he was correct. He saw a trend in Australian elite sport of less emphasis on strength and power and felt that this would have dire consequences.

We test the Austrian ski team at the University of Innsbruck with a repeated loaded jump test. Women perform counter movement jumps with a barbell equivalent to 20% of body weight. So a 60 kg woman will jump with a 12 kg bar. A couple of years ago I noticed that the women were producing more power during this test. I talked to the conditioning coach and he told me that they were doing little or no strength endurance work in the gym and concentrating on maximal strength and power work. I had been preaching this for a while, and was glad to hear that the skiers were training more for strength and power. Their strength endurance training was almost exclusively done with ski training on snow.

In the past they had done much strength endurance work in the weight room. I have a philosophical problem with power athletes (skiing is in my mind a power sport) doing strength endurance work with weights when their maximal strength levels are not optimal.

Strength endurance is an important quality which ski racers need, this cannot be disputed. The shortest alpine ski event is slalom, with races sometimes just over a minute for women. The longest women's race is approximately 2 minutes, usually the downhill in Cortina. So anaerobic fitness and the ability to maintain power over 1 to 2 minutes is critical.

But if an athlete is weak, training for strength endurance is counterproductive. Get strong, then train to extend this strength, or improve your work capacity. If you are weak and train to extend your poor strength over a longer period of time, you are simply extending a poor performance. Get stronger first, then train to maintain this strength over the period you need for your sport. Seems pretty logical to me.

In the case of power athletes who have little or no need for strength endurance and want to express force in a short period of time, maximal strength should also be emphasized. Some sport movements are so fast or so powerful that they cannot be simulated in a weight room. Charlie Francis, the coach of Ben Johnson ( and many other very fast athletes) believed that the power produced in the hip joint by a world class sprinter on the track could not be duplicated in the weight room. The joint angular velocities were simply too high. With Ben he used heavy squats (600 lbs for 6 reps) to become more powerful on the track. Ben also benched over 400 lbs at a body weight of 175 lbs.

If a power athlete is weak and is performing power work in the gym, they may be wasting time. Get strong first, then get powerful.

Mark Rippetoe wrote an interesting article in t-nation about the state of strength and conditioning coaching and how more emphasis needs to be put on maximal strength.

He explained the relationship between maximal strength and power.

P = F x v.  P is power, F is force and v is velocity.

He basically said that if I can improve my ability to produce force, I will be more powerful.

Maximal strength is THE basic strength quality for all other expressions of strength, including power and strength endurance. Get strong and get better.

I am obviously simplifying things here, but I write more about the philosophy of training, and leave the "how" to others who do a great job of presenting and describing programs on a number of platforms on the net.

I could discuss the use of plyometrics in the program, and when to integrate power and/or strength endurance into the strength program, but I believe that many athletes (yes, elite athletes) could improve performance simply by getting stronger.

I am NOT taking the stand of some STRENGTH and conditioning coaches who concentrate solely on strength. There are many ways to make an athlete better - improving speed, flexibility, agility, etc., without weights. And the coach has to ensure that the strength program is having no negative effects on more important aspects of the athlete's performance.

There are examples of very powerful athletes who did little or no weight training. Carl Lewis is perhaps the most prominent example, and Obadele Thompson (9.87 100m, 19.97 200m) was described by Dan Pfaff as having "an iron allergy".

There are always exceptions. But in general if you can get an athlete stronger without interfering with their technical and tactical training, you will improve performance. So lose your iron allergy and get better by getting stronger.

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