Categories of Weight Training: Part 12

Having ground through the misery Categories of Weight Training: Part 11, I’m going to forge ahead and get further into the different “types” of power training methods that I outlined in the Force-Velocity curve that I presented last time.  I won’t reproduce the graphic but it presented pure speed training, speed-strength training, power training, strengths-speed training and maximal strength training on the continuum from highest speed/lowest force to highest force/slowest speed.

But before getting into the actual methods and means of training those different ranges, I first need to talk a little bit more about power and the physics of what happens in the weight room a bit; this will lead into the Inevitable Car Analogy.   Hang on for what I’m sure will be a compelling and exciting ride..

Power Training Methods: The Importance of Power Output

When it comes to different types of training, it’s usually assumed that the best way to increase a given capacity is to apply a maximal (or at least optimal) stress.  So in the case of maximal strength (where the primary adaptation is in force output), the focus is on the generation of high muscular forces (typically through moving heavy weights).

In the case of endurance type training (where the primary adaptation is an ability to resist fatigue), the focus is on generating some amount of fatigue generally through a focus on duration of the activity (mind you there are different types of endurance and each one has an optimal volume/intensity relationship).  Hypertrophy is a slightly different mix with tension, fatigue, metabolite accumulation and damage all playing interaction roles.

So as you’d expect this means that the primary stimulus for increasing power output is by working in such a way that high power outputs are generated/required by the movements.  I mentioned a few different ways that power might be increased ranging from decreasing the time taken to perform a movement, increasing the weight being moved (the assumption being that going heavier doesn’t make the movement slower) and, although usually impractical, increasing the distance over which the force is generated.

Now, due to the difficulty of changing the distance over which movements are performed (i.e. your legs or arms can only move through a fixed range of motion), usually the focus when we talk about the physics of this is based around changes in the mass of what’s being moved and the time taken to move that mass (again, generally speaking, heavier weights don’t move as quickly and quicker movements require lighter loads and the relationship of change determines the actual power output).

And without going through all of the physics (which I’m not sure I can derive the equations for), what this means is that high power outputs mean reaching high velocities of movement, if only relatively speaking.  And since the idea is to reach those high velocities quickly (since you have limited time/distance over which to move), that means a high rate acceleration.

If this isn’t making sense (because my brain is fried at this point), think about two identical weight cars (with different engines) accelerating over the same 100 meter track (or over 5 seconds).  With distance or time of movement fixed, the car with the higher acceleration (because it has a higher horsepower engine) will reach a higher ending velocity.  More power will have been both required (by the engine) and generated (by physics) by the higher horsepower car.

Ok, so that’s sort of the end-goal for power training, reaching a maximal velocity (via the highest possible acceleration) at the end of the movement such that maximum power output is both required/generated.

Which is really just a very long lead up for me to explain why most traditional weight training movements actually suck for power training (for the readers: this is the part of this series that has given me the most problems, figuring out what order to put all of this in such that it made some semblance of coherent sense.  I’m still not sure I succeeded.).

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Why Most Weight Training Movements Suck for Power Training

It dawned me as I started talking about power training methods, within the context of an article series called Categories of Weight Training that I had an immense problem which is this: most power training methods are actually NOT done with traditional weight training exercises.  Quite in fact, as I’m going to try to explain, most traditional weight room movements actually suck for power training.

One exception, and the style of training that has usually been held up for performing power training is Olympic lifting and there’s a reason for that that I’ll come back to.  But fundamentally, the way that the Ol’s are performed makes them distinctly different than the majority of traditional weight room movements (i.e. squat, bench, deadlift type of stuff).

And to understand that I have to try to explain the physics of weight training along with delving deeper into the whole issue with velocity and acceleration.  Yes, we’re going back to 8th grade physics now: the main thing to keep in mind is that velocity describes the speed of movement (i.e. you’re moving at 10mph) and acceleration is the change in speed that speed (you are accelerating by 1 mile per second per second).   Mind you, there can also be a negative acceleration (or deceleration) and that’s important here so keep it in mind.

So say you’re sitting in your car at a dead stop.  It will take some acceleration to get from zero to 30 miles per hour.  But once you’re at 30 mph, if you maintain that speed, your acceleration is actually zero (because speed isn’t changing).    If you then want to slow back down to zero, you apply a negative acceleration (you decelerate).

Now keep in mind what I said above, to generate the most power over any fixed distance of movement means, ideally, accelerating as hard as possible for as long as possible such that the highest terminal velocity is reached at the end of the movement.  So an ideal power training movement starts at some velocity (generally zero) and has you reach the highest velocity possible at the end of the movement.

And this is where we run into problems with traditional weight room exercises, the majority of which have to start AND stop with zero velocity or bad things tend to happen.  So think about a bench press for example: you’re on your back with the bar on your chest. The bar is at zero velocity (even if you bounce it off your ribcage, there is a moment of zero velocity as the direction changes); you start to press the bar with some force, generating some acceleration and achieving some velocity.

But unless you want to hyperextend your arms and blow out your elbows, the bar has to stop at a zero velocity as well.   And this holds for almost all traditional weight training movements (the OL’s being an exception that I’ll come back to): the starting and ending velocity have to be zero and this affects the potential velocity and acceleration curve.

Because to stop at a velocity of zero means that, at some point in most movements, you have to allow the bar to decelerate.  It’s simply a physics impossibility with most movements to accelerate through the entire movement.  Which means that you can’t physically generate maximum power.

In fact studies show that  with weights even as low as 81% of maximum, over half of the bench press is spent decelerating the bar.  And the problem gets worse as the weights get lighter; since the initial acceleration can be higher, the deceleration phase has to be larger and longer as well.  Of course, this is all occurring as the mechanics of the movement are changing with the lockout typically being easier than the midpoint.  So the effect is even more pronounced.

Ok, I’m still not sure this is making sense so I’m falling back on something that has been part of the strength training world for years.

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The Inevitable Car Analogy

To try to explain what I’m failing to explain, I want you to look at the following graphic (why yes, I did draw it myself) which shows different conditions involving a car, a stretch of road, a brick wall, a ramp and, inexplicably, Pacman.   In the first three, I’ve shown a car sitting on a piece of road with a brick wall at the end.  In the fourth, there is a jump ramp at the end.  In the third, there is a parachute (looking oddly like Pac Man and yes that is a Super Pac Man powerpill on the track) attached to the car.  And I’ve shown effectively 4 different situations that can occur.  On the far right is my attempt to show what happens with velocity and acceleration in each condition.  Ok, first the graphic with details below.

The Inevitable Car Analogy

The first example is a situation where the car starts to accelerate (note how A goes up as does V) but to avoid running into the wall (the end velocity is zero) has to start decelerating about halfway through.  you can see how acceleration starts to decrease, crossing zero, until a negative acceleration (deceleration) occurs so that the car stops at zero right before the wall.  This represents the majority of traditional weight training movements where starting and ending velocity are both zero and any acceleration at the beginning must be compensated for by a deceleration later on (with larger initial accelerations requiring larger decellerations).

NOTE: I have a strong feeling that the way I’ve presented the acceleration curve in example one is wrong but physics is way too far back for me to be sure (I imagine some physics nerd will correct it in the comments and that’s fine).  The main thing to understand from this example is this: any movement that starts and stops from a zero velocity (i.e. most traditional weight room movements) has to have both an acceleration and deceleration phase; you physically cannot accelerate throughout the entire movement.  That’s the primary take-home point.

The second example is one where the driver doesn’t give a damn and just accelerates straight through, crashing into the wall.  You can see that both acceleration and velocity increase until the end when both drop rather abruptly to zero.  This is what would happen if you tried to accelerate a traditional weight room movement without slowing; but instead of hitting a wall to stop the movement you’re hitting lockout, likely hyperextending your joints in the process.

You could presumably set up in a power rack or something with pins set at the top position and jam the bar into the pins.  But it’s a pretty abrupt stop, great way to blow up your joints although it would make tons of awesome noise.  Anyone who has done martial arts knows that punching into a Makiwara or punching bag sort of accomplishes this: it allows you to punch through the target without pulling your punch but the bag/target acts as a brake so you don’t destroy your joints.

The third example is the Pacman/Parachute.  Imagine a situation where something is attached to the car which act to increase the resistance that you’re applying force against as you get further into the movement or that otherwise actively decelerates you (like an actual parachute) without you having to change the acceleration you’re applying.  If you could set up a situation where this device brought you to a zero velocity  before hitting lock out, you could presumably accelerate the entire way through.

In practice this won’t ever happen (which I didn’t really show well in the acceleration curve), there will always be some deceleration at the end but the curve will be flattened compared to example one.  This is at least part of what chains and bands are meant to accomplish (it’s not the only thing of course): by increasing the force requirements later in the movement (where mechanics tend to give you an advantage anyhow) you can accelerate through more of the movement.  But you still can’t accelerate from start to finish, there will be some end-range deceleration in practice so it’s still not ideal for power production.

And that brings us to example 4, our sweet jump.  In this situation, because the car can be launched (ballistically) into the air, the driver is able to accelerate the entire time, reaching the highest velocity and generating the highest power outputs.    But the physics of the situation, launching the car avoids the need to decelerate actively (example 1), a drastic physical deceleration (example 2) or having to attach something to the car to slow it down (example 3).

You can accelerate, accelerate, accelerate until you go zooming off the ramp.  Now, in the car example, clearly there is a landing issue but don’t focus on that so much; this is just an attempt to explain the physics of this and which situation allows maximal velocity, acceleration and hence power output to be achieved.

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Finally, The Point

Because in an ideal situation, power training would be done with movements that either allow the implement to be accelerated throughout the movement which tends to not be true of most traditional weight training movements (without some modification).   And stunningly, since this is about the right length, I’m going to stop here, having said nothing beyond a bunch of boring physics to set up for the final part of the series.  In it I’ll discuss some ways people have attempted (beyond bands and chains) to make traditional weight room movements better for power training and talk about more typical methods of training the different types of power along with loading, sequencing,  etc.

Read Categories of Weight Training Part 13

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