February 19, 2015 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Establishing power points in offseason programs

With many athletic programs in the midst of their offseason programs, this is a prime opportunity to discuss one of the critical components of physical training: power development.

Coaches across the country are working diligently with their athletes in lifting and running programs, all of which are designed to address this area, and we would like to offer our perspectives.

Let’s cut right to the chase and discuss the some of the key variables for accruing explosive power. 

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In all physical activities, muscular force is applied through a dictated range of motion. As we all know, success in a number athletic events is based upon speed, and it is therefore important to understand the relationship between muscular force and speed of movement.

At any absolute force exerted by the muscle, the velocity or speed of movement is greater in muscles that contain a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers when compared to muscles that possess predominately slow-twitch muscle fibers. This fiber distribution is genetically determined and not altered by any training modality or application.

Basically, through any type of progressive strength training procedure, both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers grow larger, become stronger and develop higher force-producing capabilities. Fast-twitch fibers, because of their overall composition and biochemical differences, garner all of the above at a higher level than slow-twitch fibers.

Peak power generated is greater in muscle that contains a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers than that with a high percentage of slow-twitch fibers.

Clearly, for sports requiring power or explosiveness, the predominately fast-twitch athlete has a decided edge. When work ethic, dedication, technique and mental/physical toughness are added to the equation, you should have a dominant athlete.

Two critical factors that contribute to strength and power development are muscle hypertrophy (i.e., growth) and adaptations in the nervous system. Increases in the amount of actin and myosin (the tension-generating units of muscle tissue) are major constituents in force production and power improvement. Properly performed strength training initiates the proliferation of actin and myosin and also magnifies the strength and stability of tendons and ligaments, and the other cellular variants of connective tissues.

From a neural standpoint, our muscles are constantly receiving “excitatory” and “inhibitory” messages. The excitatory messages force our muscles into action, while the inhibitory messages restrain and, in some cases, protect us.

For example, if we are not physically prepared to lift a heavy object, the nervous system sends a message to the involved musculature to relax in order to prevent injury. As an individual progresses in a strength training program, the inhibitory messages are gradually reduced. This is largely a result of the increased strength level and skill acquisition in handling the given loads and mastering the exercise techniques.

The reduction of the inhibitory messages allows the trainee to recruit a larger than normal amount of muscle mass at a given time, and produce greater force with a concomitant enhancement of power.

All of the above subsequently produce an improved economy of muscle fiber recruitment and firing, which result in greater power output. This improved economy, known as “synchronization,” is a major player in smooth, efficient power production.

With some of these power mechanisms described, let’s take a look at how we can construct them in the practical setting.     

Game plan for power

We are very meticulous in designing our strength training scripts, and I will say up front that we believe in variety in terms of equipment, total work sets, rep schemes and repetition speed.

That being said, here are our four rudimentary guidelines.

1. Perform perfect reps. For most of our movements, we dictate a concentric (raising) phase speed that is explosive in intent but is naturally controlled by the selected weight load relative to the strength potential of the athlete. When the exercise permits, a deliberately controlled eccentric (lowering) phase follows. While a designated cadence is not always in effect, a good rule of thumb is a one- to two-second concentric phase and a three- to four-second eccentric phase.

In the early stage of the set, the concentric phase may be quicker in execution due to the fact that fatigue is not yet a factor. As the metabolic cost of the set takes its toll, the athlete must intentionally muster-up more mental and physical intensity to move the implement in the fashion described earlier.

On certain modalities and with specific movements that permit, we instruct a one-second pause at the mid-range position to place emphasis on that point of full contraction, and to better insure a smooth transition to the negative phase. This protocol can be adapted for a wide-range of exercises and equipment, with machines offering one of the better choices.

Obviously, the techniques of Olympic-style lifting and similar movements and analogues are not suited for this specific prescription, nor are they designed for that purpose. However, even if your program is centered on the Olympic-style movements, occasional doses of the aforementioned approach pays dividends in adjunct strength and power improvements.

I recommend that you avoid handcuffing yourself and your athletes to a set ideology or antiquated prejudice when it comes to equipment choices. Rather than dwell on the inherent drawbacks evident in every piece of equipment, try to focus on and accentuate the positives each possesses. This mental outlook permits you to experience the best of everything while keeping the workouts fresh and challenging for your athletes.

With all due respect given to the current landscape of training methodologies, one area of common ground is clearly evident: the need for multi-joint movements.

These are lifts that engage muscle compartments crossing more than one joint. A wealth of choices exists for both the upper and lower body segments, with the core region included. How they are executed and what modalities are incorporated in their execution will always be a matter of personal preference.

This is not to say that single-joint movements should be totally eliminated, as they most certainly have their place in targeting weak links and as adjuncts in special needs situations, as described in Tips from the Trenches.

In either case, progressive effort must be a mainstay. The next point illustrates how this is accomplished.

2. Use the heaviest weight safely possible on most sets. Make no mistake, strength training is hard work, as it should be. It is much more involved that just picking-up weights and putting them down. The neuromuscular system is very efficient at conserving energy and keeping metabolic costs to a minimum, so it must be stressed appropriately to garner meaningful results. Muscles respond to the demands placed upon them, and these demands need to be fairly intense at times.

In past columns, I have described some of the myriad rep ranges we incorporate and Time Under Load (TUL) protocols (e.g., 30, 45 or 60 seconds of continuous reps). All of them are productive in their own right, and including all of them helps us in our progression model as well as keeping us true to our belief in variety.

Our major constant is that we instruct our athletes to work the mandated protocol with the heaviest weight safely possible. For the most part, our guiding principle regarding intensity (a term that equates with effort in our nomenclature) is as follows: If you could have safely performed another quality rep, you should have done it.

The obvious caveats to this would be movements such as the barbell squat and possibly the free weight bench/incline press, where the nature of the movements would compromise safety in all-out attempts, especially with high-weight, low-rep sets.

This approach requires knowledgeable, dedicated, on-task and hands-on coaching skills; it is not recommended in weight room environments where the person in charge is a weight room “supervisor” who has limited coaching experience and is less than fully engaged in the strength training discipline.

3. Train in a comprehensive fashion. Every working skeletal muscle has the capability of contributing to power production. All of the major muscle compartments (i.e., neck, hips/legs/low back, torso, core and arms) should be addressed during the course of the training week. This is not to say that every area needs to be stimulated during each workout, but by the end of the week all of these areas should have been engaged with some meaningful strength training.

4. Have a progressive overload plan. Accurate record keeping in strength training is more than important — it is its lifeblood. Over time, a plan for increasing sets, reps, resistance and TUL must be implemented for gradual, progressive enhancements in strength/power to be realized.

Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 

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