Categories of Weight Training: Part 13

Before getting started with today’s mess, I want to point everyone to a Skype Interview I did with my buddy Derek Hansen; he’s a fantastic performance/sprint coach who worked closely with Charlie Francis and we talked about a bunch of different topics ranging from obesity to supplements to the emergence of high-tech in sports monitoring.  I was a touch delirious from sleep deprivation so I’m even more incoherent and babbly than usual.  And with that out of the way, back to what is becoming the next neverending series.

As is so often the case with me, this series is rapidly going off the rails because I don’t do outlines and write off the cuff.  And sadly I’ve managed to still not to get to the point today; covering everything I want to cover would make it too long so it’s running one more part.  Then a triple whammy book review post I’ve been itching to put up.

In the last part of this I went through a bunch of attempts to explain the physics of power production, gave the inevitable car analogy, drew a Pacman for no real reason, and sort of tried to show why most traditional weight training movements aren’t actually ideal for power training.

The basic issue has to do with the fact that most traditional weight training movements start and end at a zero velocity, preventing the weight/implement from being accelerated (and thus allowing the individual to generate maximal power) through the entire range of motion.   I used as an example a car being accelerated til it hits a ramp and flies into the air, attempting to show that in movements where the bar/implement can be thrown or released (then flying ballistically through the air), the deceleration phase can be avoided/eliminated.

So today I want to look at some of the ways that traditional weight training movements can be used for power training, either due to their inherent nature or through some form of modification to allow maximum acceleration throughout the range of motion.

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The Olympic Lifts: Inherently Ballistic/Explosive/High-Power

I mentioned in a previous part of this series that the Olympic lifts have been found to generate/require some of the highest power outputs in all of sport (in fact, far higher than the incorrectly named powerlifting which due to it’s slow speed and small range of motion actually has fairly low power outputs).    Some of that has to do with the lighter weights/higher speed component of the OL’s (putting them closer to the optimal power range on that curve in the first place) and some of it has to do with the fairly large distance the weight is moved (especially the snatch which moves from floor to arms length in a fraction of a second).  But a big part of it is the fundamental nature of the lifts.

As I detailed in a previous series, the Olympic lifts essentially consist of a movement whereby the athlete essentially throws the bar into the air at the end of the pulling phase; in fact if they just took their hands off the bar it would fly upwards until gravity slowed it and it fell to the floor (this is the definition of a ballistic movement).  Quite in fact, the height that the bar reaches due to the final explosion/throw is really the determining factor or whether the lift can be made or not (it the bar doesn’t go high enough, the lift is impossible to complete).

Basically the lift itself is predicated on generating maximal bar height and due to the physics involved, that’s predicated on maximal acceleration of the bar (note to nitpickers: I realize that at lower levels of technical mastery sometimes full power is not applied since it throws the lifter out of position but this is ultimately irrelevant to my point which is that the Ol’s are inherently suited to acceleration).

Mind you, the other part of why the lift can be performed this way (without the lifter killing themselves or hyperextending) is due to the squat under; the lifter reverses their motion, pulling themselves under the bar so the issues of joint hyperextension as would occur in traditional movements are avoided.

Ultimately, the dynamics of the lift allows an Olympic lifter to accelerate through the entire movement and is a big part of why the Olympic lifts are frequently advocated for power training (especially in the strength-speed range of 70-80% of 1RM; the lifts can get a little bizarre technically if the weights are too light because you can manhandle the weights with awful technique).

Mechanically, triple extension (hip, knee, ankle extension as mostly occurs during the finish of the pull) is part of most sporting movements and a high emphasis has been (probably rightly) placed on that aspect of the Ol’s for improving power output for athletes.

Mind you some have taken this a bit too far, one older book claimed that “The Olympic lifts are specific to every sport, including golf” which sort of defies the definition of specific (the book was written in the 80’s so I’ll let it slide). But the point is still there: most sports rely on acceleration, explosion and some element of triple extension for performance and the OL’s certainly allow those to be trained against load in an accelerative/power producing way.

Mind you, a common criticism is that the highly technical nature of the Olympic lifts can often make them inappropriate for power training for non Olympic lifters, simply because it takes too long to get competent enough to use decent loads (and most athletes have more important things to do with their training time than spend lots of time becoming competent in a highly technical exercise that is, at most, general physical preparation for them).  Certainly there is some validity to this argument.

This is actually one reason that power cleans or snatches (where the bar is caught in, at most, a half-squat) are frequently taught/advocated for athletic purposes.  Not only are the weights lower, putting the movement even more towards the power range on the force-velocity curve but eliminating the squat under (requiring a rapid reversal to a deep squat position) avoids some of the major technical complexity.  Not having to jump into a full/deep squat also eliminates the need for huge amounts of mobility that many athletes lack and don’t really need.

I’d note that the power versions of the movements are only less technical by comparison to the full squat versions of the lifts; there is still a high technical component (and lots of awful videos on Youtube showing how badly most do it) compared to other methods which allow similar force/acceleration/power dynamics but which can be learned and performed more easily.

I don’t really want to address the debate in much more detail than that, folks have been arguing this for decades and I have little to add beyond this thought (this of course assumes you know how to perform/teach the movements yourself which is often not the case): if you have the time/long-term development (i.e. years to work with an athlete) teaching the Ol’s as part of their weight room experience (assuming YOU have the technical ability to teach them, and factually most coaches teach abominations of the lifts) is probably worth the investment.  In that situation, you have years for the athlete to learn technique.

In contrast, if you only have a short time period with an athlete, often that means 4-8 weeks to whip them into shape, there’s simply not time to get the lifter competent enough in the lifts to use loads that will be useful; the time spent teaching something as technical as the OL’s is better spent using less technical methods accomplish the same thing and which you can overload after about 10 minutes of learning the movement pattern.

Another issue, often forgotten is coaches of teams sports/big groups versus individual sports; trying to teach 40 guys a complex lift at once can be a nightmare, even if some get it many won’t (Dan John wrote about this in one of his books, why he teaches group classes the way he does, avoiding movements with a high Idiot Factor; that is movements where an idiot will find some fascinating way to hurt themselves and where simpler movements are often more appropriate).

Teaching a simpler but equally effective movement often makes more sense in that situation (though if you have enough years with the athlete, you may still get away with it).  Coaches of individual sports or who train smaller groups have more ability to teach complex movements since they can give more individual attention.

Moving on, next I want to look at some ways that folks have (or at least have tried) to make less technical/more traditional weight training movements amenable to the type of power training and acceleration and velocity dynamics that I described in the previous part of this series.

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Modifying Traditional Weight Training Movements

Moving away from the Ol’s, let’s look at more traditional weight training movements; as I stated previously, they all generally start and stop at a zero velocity which has certain implications for their velocity and acceleration curves.  Any initial acceleration has to be countered by a later deceleration later in the movements, which limits the ability to generate maximal power.

At most you might generate an initial high impulse (effectively a short high power moment) at the start of a movement and I’m only including that for the physics nerds and won’t explain further.  But ultimately that high initial acceleration has to be counteracted by a deceleration later in the movement for traditional movements done traditionally.  However, this needn’t be the case automatically and even traditional movements can and/or have been modified in ways to allow for more effective acceleration and power training.  Here are a few.

I already talked a little bit about bands and chains, one effect of which is to increase resistance as you move towards the end of the motion.  Since the increased resistance has the effect of slowing the bar to some degree, certainly this tends to allow a longer acceleration (it also tends to overload the part of the movement that powerlifting gear helps the least in) but it’s also changing the entire force dynamics of the movement in a way that isn’t how most sports work.

That is, in most sports, the weight of what’s being moved (whether the athlete’s body through space, the other athlete that is being manipulated, the implement being thrown or the combination weight of athlete/implement) isn’t changing.  But the effect of bands and chains is to change the resistance that has to be moved throughout the range of movement; in that sense it doesn’t really mimic the dynamics of a situation where the goal is to maximally accelerate/apply force to an object of fixed weight.

Water sports like rowing/kayaking/canoeing and swimming might be exceptions because of the weird quasi-isokinetic way that water applies resistance to increasing velocity of movement.  Without trying to explain what all of that really means (I’ll screw up the physics anyhow) just accept that, essentially the harder you pull against water, the harder it pushes back so this is a situation where the force requirements are changing throughout the stroke/pull to some degree (with the force requirements going up in proportion to the force/acceleration you’re applying).

Certainly bands and chains makes a lot of sense for some aspects of powerlifting (if nothing else it provides the accommodating resistance that cam based machines attempted to generate but allows non-machine movements to be trained), especially in terms of overloading the portion of the movement that is least helped by gear but it’s probably debatable whether or not it’s an ideal way to train power for most other sports.

More importantly, bands and chains certainly aren’t the only way to (potentially) modify traditional weight training movements to make them more workable for power training and I want to look at a few of those.

Certainly in premise you could do a barbell bench press where you accelerated the bar and threw it into the air at the end of the movement.  But now you have the issue of a weighted bar falling towards you chest/neck/face.  That you either have to catch or find some way to keep from crushing you.   Perhaps you can see the potential issues with this.

Safety catches don’t really work; anything high enough to prevent you getting crushed will limit full range of motion.  You could probably create some type of pneumatic device, where the catches sprung up after the throw, caught the bar and then lowered to get back into position.  Or there might be some way to rig ropes or a pulley to stop the bar but that brings up other issues practical issues.

You’d have to find a way to have the rope/cable be long enough to start with a full range of motion and then wind/tighten itself up to catch the bar before it hits you.  Then it would have to lower the bar back to you to set up for the next rep.  Maybe you could hire one of the wire teams from Chinese martial arts cinema but that gets pricey to have at every workout.

Mind you, I’ve seen the occasional video of this being done with the bar being thrown, released and caught as it falls back without any safety measures in place but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for most from a safety standpoint.  With any weight heavy enough to be in the proper loading range for power training, you’re probably looking at a weight that is likely to crush your sternum or windpipe if you miss the catch.

So say you’re looking at 30-70% as the power range; a 300 pound bencher has between 90 and 210 pounds on the bar.  Miss that catch with a bar being accelerated towards you by gravity and you’re gonna have a bad time.  Hell, drop a 45 pound plate on your foot from arms length and it can do serious damage to your foot; now imagine a 100-200 pound bar falling at your neck or chest.

Jump squats can be done as well, where the lifter jumps into the air with a loaded bar on his back (somewhere I have seen a video of an Olympic lifter jumping up onto two boxes with a weighted bar on his back but I can’t find it right now).  Certainly this lets you accelerate all the way through (as do all jumps) but now you have the landing issue: a heavy athlete with a heavy bar on his back landing after a jump imposes high impact forces.

If your line is off even a little bit (i.e. you throw your chest back too much up as you extend), the bar can often get thrown off your back which raises it’s own set of issues (weighted jumps, which I’ll talk about later, are typically done with a weighted vest of some sort to avoid this problem).  If you don’t actively pull the bar down to keep it on your back, it could potentially get separation and when you land it’s coming crashing down on you.  Then again, some people swear that squats train the lats and certainly the lats would be involved in this action.

To perform jump squats with any decent load, you need very robust joints, you need to know how to land properly (a skill in it’s own right that many lack) and it’s something that has to be worked up to very gradually to avoid nuking your joints.  You might note that Klokov is using maybe 60kg/135 lbs on the bar in the video above; you can find video of him back squatting 250kg so that’s about 40% of his max or maybe a bit lower, towards the lower end of the power range.

In that he may back squat even more than that, the percentage might even be lower and I’m willing to bet he’s spent year building up to that level.  Elite strength athletes are often built more sturdily than everyone else which is part of why they can survive training that would kill mere mortals.

As another example, because it is very specific to their sport, track cyclists will do explosive leg presses, physically throwing the weight sled and then catching it on the way back down.  The Australian track team has a special sled with extra long rails to accommodate this.  In this video Anna Meares, a top Aussie trackie does alternating leg press throws, throwing with one leg, catching with the other and repeating for reps.

Note how after the catch and turnaround there is a visible explosive “snap” as she finishes the press and throws the foot plate; that’s what maximum acceleration for maximum power production looks like.  Of course, again you have an impact issue to deal with here as the sled comes down.  And lord help you if you miss: I’ve heard of leg presses with a center catch to keep the sled from crushing you at the bottom but I’ve never seen one in 20+ years of being in gyms.  If the foot plate slides off your foot, you’re gonna have a bad time.

As a final example, and this goes to my comment about setting pins or a block to hit with the bar to stop it (example 2 from my wonderfully drawn picture from last time), rowers have long done a movement called a bench row (which has recently become known as the Seal row among bodybuilders for some reason), laying face down on a bench and pulling a weighted bar towards themselves explosively; they can accelerate through the entire movement since the bench itself will physically stop the bar without the athlete braining themselves (I suppose you could do this with a cable row and use your meaty pecs/ribcage as the stop as well).

Rower Bench Row

But by and large, most of these modifications come with their own sets of issues.  They either raise a danger issue (having a bar or weight land on you), have a high impact component and/or require equipment that is not often available.     So they can be done but I’m not sure they can or should be done by most.

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Going High-Tech

There have been other attempts to “fix” traditional weight training movements (beyond bands and chains) so that they can be used for power but they tend to require technology most will never see.    Australia seems to be driving most of this for some reason; an early attempt was a special Smith machine that would let athletes do bench press throws or jump squats and then physically slow the bar so it didn’t crush the lifter.  Here’s a picture of it.

Power Smith Machine

 

Basically it had a built in mechanical “catch” that would stop the bar at the top and then lower it under control for the next repetition.  But it also limited movements to fixed track Smith machine types of movements which was not ideal nor characteristic of most sports.

In more recent years a newer version of this has been developed that allows more natural movements to be performed but there is still a mechanism in place to keep the bar from crushing the athlete (I believe it’s a rope/cable/pulley attached to the bar which winds itself up after the bar is thrown and prevents the bar from crashing back onto the athlete but I can’t think of the name to Google it up.)

I’d note,  and I’ll come back to this that often the high tech equipment involved here also has methods to measure power outputs during the repetitions and give the athlete feedback (i.e. beeping if the athlete produces enough power with a given repetition); this is an issue I’ll actually come back to when I wrap-up, how to actually track performance of power training and the difficulties involved.

But ultimately this is all kind of irrelevant to most people since the equipment necessary is expensive and almost never actually seen in any but the most high-tech/advanced training facilities.  I’ve never actually seen either of the racks I talked about in this section outside of pictures in books and on the Web.  I’m talking about them only for completeness.

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Going Low-Tech

And for this reason, it’s arguable that most of the practical power training methods revolve around methods that allow the athlete to perform the types of acceleration and velocity dynamics without having to do massively modified weight training exercises or use equipment that almost nobody has access to.

And what all of these methods have in common is that they allow the athlete to accelerate maximally and then launch the implement ballistically into the air, avoiding all of the issues I discussed last time.  The implement here can be an external weight or, as often as not, it’s simply the athlete’s bodyweight.  In some cases, the athlete performs a movement with added weight.  A lot of it depends on where on the force-velocity curve they want to work (and I’ll re-present that curve with examples of where specific types of training fall at the end).

Which is basically just a complicated way of saying that most power training is done using medicine balls (which can be released/thrown), kettlebells (which can almost always be accelerated in a way similar to the OL’s without the athlete killing themselves), myriad types of jumps (in this case the “implement” being launched is the athlete’s body) and plyometric training (which can be weighted to work a slightly different part of the force-velocity curve) and a fair few upper body plyometric types of exercises (i.e. explosive pushups).

It’s worth mentioning that, inasmuch as most sports are lower body dominant.  Even the sports that use a lot of upper body tend to derive most power from the lower body and hips with the upper body acting to “finish” the movement.  Certainly a lot of sports “look” to the untrained eye to be mostly upper body but invariably it’s a situation where the lower body generates force which translates through the core and the upper body just finishes the terminal motion.

In fact, as I sit here, with the exception of paralympic events (where, as often as not, the legs don’t work), I am unable to think of a single sport that relies solely on the upper body for performance (certainly some weight room exercises are predominantly upper body but I’m talking about actual competitive sports here).

The bench press is probably the closest to a pure upper body sport activity, certainly as it’s done by most but most good benchers use some amount of leg drive so even there the legs are contributing.Power in the OL’s, throws, all running, throwing, even rowing, they all start from the legs even if some have an upper body component (I suppose poling in cross country skiing is pure upper body).

For that reason you tend see a ton more lower body exercises than you do upper body types of movements (a lot of things can be done with a medicine ball that can be isolated to the upper body). And yes, that’s where I’m cutting it.  Again.  This is too long and I’ve basically spent two articles explaining why most power training is done with medicine balls, kettlebells (primarily swings) and jumps.  I guess I get points for thoroughness.  Next time, I’m wrapping up come hell or high water and I”ll finally talk about the actual means to apply all of this stuff.

Read Categories of Weight Training: Part 14

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