Strength and power
Many fitness tests are substantially, if not explicitly, tests of strength. Sometimes it’s a 1RM, but more commonly, a strength test is sandwiched between two other tasks, against a running clock. The running clock means we’re testing power: the rate at which energy is generated. In Physics, power is force * velocity.
Force and velocity cannot be maximized simultaneously. A 1RM deadlift demands great force, but proceeds at low velocity. A PVC-pipe snatch is done with great velocity, but very little force is produced. Power is improved by:
- Increasing Strength
- Increasing the Rate of Force Development
- Enhancing the Contribution of the Stretch-Shortening Complex
Therefore, an effective "strength program" is really a strength and power program, and most strength programs leave a lot of gains on the table. The rest of this page explains how we attack strength and power.
Performing a physical task activates motor units: a nerve cell and the muscle fibers connected to it. The smallest motor units are activated first, and if more force is required, larger units turn on. For still more force / strength, the rate of nerve impulse transmission increases.
Most strength programs fail to regularly activate the biggest motor units. Those crazy “volume” programs, EMOM complexes, and other popular programs simply lack the intensity to maximize your strength gains. Instead, they produce a “corridor effect”: the medium sized motor units are exhausted, while the biggest and strongest and hardly stressed at all, as shown here:
These programs also train unproductive movement patterns. A squat at ~90+% requires force production through the full range of motion, whereas lighter reps are usually accomplished with high force production at the bottom and decreasing force throughout the ascent. This “diminishing force” motor pattern should be avoided for strength development. High intensity lifts, when properly programmed and balanced, are the key ingredient in strength development.
Rate of force development
Maximum force production takes around 0.4 seconds; it’s fast but not instantaneous. The rate at which an athlete produces force is also called explosive strength or instantaneous power. Increasing the rate of force development is critical to improving your Olympic lifts, enabling you to produce force when the bar is optimally positioned and transfer this power to the bar.
Increasing the rate of force development can be done without increases in body mass, making you more powerful without slowing down other aspects of your fitness. RFD exercises are a perfect complement to high intensity strength work. Our coaching staff has worked with pro football players, where rate of force development decides the outcome of every play, so we’re experienced in developing this often overlooked parameter.
THE STRETCH SHORTENING CYCLE
When force is applied, muscles and tendons stretch to capture energy, like a rubber band. Stretched tissue snaps back, transferring energy to the bones and joints. This is the stretch-shortening cycle. It’s the reason we can easily maintain walking and running speed. The bounce at the bottom of a clean is the SSC, and it’s a lot easier than a dead stop front squat.
The stretch shortening cycle increases force and power while reducing energy demands. The SSC shows up in wall balls, box jumps, and all over our sport. It's like a secret weapon of increased power output, and yet most strength programs ignore it.
The SSC is governed by two reflexes. When a muscle is stretched, the first reflex increases muscle activation, and energy capture. The second reflex prevents injury from the application of excessive force. When muscle tension gets too high, this second reflex deactivates the muscle to protect it. The actual intensity of motor unit activation is the result of both reflexes plus voluntary muscle action. With training, muscles tolerate higher stretching forces. The inhibitory reflex will be diminished and more energy can be captured.
How Strength Builder Works
Strength Builder is a 12-week individualized program. It’s not a generic program of sets, reps and percentages. We start with a test week to get a clear picture of your current strength levels and the relationships among them.
The heart of the program is intensity. The big motor units must be activated and activated often. We divide the program into 12 one-week mini-cycles to balance intensity, volume and recovery while delivering a powerful stimulus every training day. Classic strength builders are programmed alongside the Olympic lifts to target and eliminate weakness. Here is an excerpt from an actual Strength Builder program:
In addition to high intensity barbell work, Strength Builder includes speed and power drills like various jumps and hops, dead-stop / bottom up barbell exercises and acceleration exercises like short sprints. Most training sessions conclude with accessory work to strengthen the hips, back and core, maximizing force transmission.
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