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December 12, 2014 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Gaining size and speed

We recently hosted our annual strength and conditioning clinic here at Michigan State, and the topic I addressed was that of efficient methods for increasing muscular size and strength.

Without fail, it’s the most asked question crossing my desk on a daily basis, primarily from high school football coaches. And, of course, everyone wants to accomplish that goal with a concomitant increase in speed and quickness.

Let’s examine several take-home points in this search and discuss the realities of what can and cannot be done in this process.

A ’quick’ overview

Quickness and speed rely on a host of cognitive, sensory, neuromuscular and morphological factors. Genetic predisposition plays a major role in the rate and level of the accrued development and, unfortunately, that variable is out of our control. This is especially true of neuromuscular efficiency — or the speed and accuracy with which neural information is sent and received along the brain/muscle pathway, which is not as alterable through training as other constituents.

Basically, you either have the right neural “hook-ups” or you do not. We cannot “rewire” this genetically predetermined network that serves as the information highway for both simple and complex movements.

However, there are specific variables subject to positive changes through training. For instance, strength and power are vital for improvements in speed and quickness, and are enhanced with sound, progressive strength training.

All else being equal, a stronger muscle is capable of higher force production, which enables a faster rate of contraction. This accelerated rate of muscle contraction results in quicker, more “explosive” movements and skill execution on the field/court.

Of course, as discussed in previous installments of Powerline, athletes must learn to skillfully direct this new-found quickness with quality practice. It’s only through repetitive, detailed practice that the central nervous system (CNS) stores information on the correct and specific movement patterns in the form of memory impressions. Known as engrams, these memory impressions are paramount in the quick, efficient execution of motor skills.

Think of engrams as snapshots, or memory DVDs, of learned movements. Quality coaching and practice result in indelible engrams that are immediately called upon when a specific movement is initiated and when responses to myriad cues (e.g., a linebacker reading his keys on the snap) are required.

Obviously, it’s crucial the engram laid down is specific to the skill set to be recalled. This is why you want to think twice before demonstrating, teaching and practicing skills, as the skill engrams that are manufactured directly reflect the executed skills when they’re dialed-up.

Overall conditioning and body composition (lean-weight-to-body-fat ratio) also play a key role, as a finely tuned engine responds to visual, auditory and pressure cues with more proficiency.

The primary energy system (anaerobic or aerobic) for the sport in question should be targeted and a systematic approach for progressively overloading it put into motion. The majority of sports requiring high-speed movements and quick, precise responses to various sensory stimuli are anaerobic (ATP-PC and/or ATP-PC-Lactic Acid) in nature.

Simply put, these are fast, explosive, high-intensity activities with relatively short respites between work intervals.

Growth factors

More often than not, a discussion on muscle growth begins with the top-10 list of nutritional supplements for younger athletes. Some of these supplements may provide a healthy, legitimate calorie boost; others raise serious questions about efficacy and safety.

This is an important subject that must be addressed with great care and education, especially in the face of the burgeoning performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) epidemic over the course of the last few decades. Anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), designer steroids and steroid precursors are terms that have inundated both the scientific literature and popular press with good reason in recent years.

The proliferation of these substances has propagated much needed policy revisions in the professional leagues — most recently in MLB — even though accusations of abuse and positive drug tests continue to raise eyebrows. The clean, hard-working athletes at all levels and in all sports who are ambassadors for their sports and positive role-models for our young people are perplexed by this chemical conundrum. Unfortunately, it’s a fight that has no end in sight.

Bigger & stronger

Here’s a thought or two on getting big and strong by doing the right things with hard, smart training and healthy eating habits conducive to physical growth.

—• Periodically engage in high-tension strength training: Regardless of your base approach to training, one of the indisputable tenets of size increases in muscle tissue indicates tension must be created and maintained in the targeted area for the duration of the set.

This protocol calls for all-out sets (i.e., ones taken to the point of momentary muscular fatigue), or near all-out sets, for either assigned rep ranges (e.g., six to eight, eight to 10, 10 to 12), or designated time under load (TUL), which usually are in the 30- to 60-second time frame. Either approach is very metabolically demanding and provides a high level of stimulation to muscle tissue.

From an age standpoint, athletes in their freshman year of high school should be physically ready to partake in this type of training — provided they have an adequate background. Wait until the athlete is properly oriented in your current program and has been training with some degree of consistency and proficiency for several months.

Obviously, on certain movements such as the barbell squat, barbell/dumbbell bench press and incline press, and a short list of others, caution is the operative standard. Taking these movements to the point of complete muscular fatigue is neither recommended nor sensible.

With practice, excellent coaching, impeccable body posture/technique, precise documentation and a generous allotment of common sense, a workable weight can be married to a rep assignment that elicits a great muscular effort within safe boundaries. Several free weight and most machine exercises are performed in this manner.

The beauty of the high-tension approach is it does not need to be performed on every training day. Once-a-week bouts, and even bi-weekly, extract noticeable gains.

Avoid long periods without eating: It’s vitally important to have a snack or small meal every three to four hours during the day. If athletes do not maintain a positive energy balance (i.e., taking in more calories than they are expending), it’s nearly impossible to achieve solid muscular growth.

Remember the “Power Hour” rules: Athletes must plan ahead so they are properly hydrated and fueled for an ensuing workout or practice. Approximately 45 to 60 minutes before engaging in these demanding activities, have athletes consume a small snack of 250 to 350 calories that contains both protein and carbohydrate.

Examples of the variety of foods to consume include: Reputable nutrition shakes or “energy” bars; cereal with low-fat/fat-free milk and fruit; peanut butter and jelly or turkey sandwiches; trail mix; yogurt; and plenty of water or electrolyte drinks. After a workout or practice, at least 500 calories consisting of 15 to 25 grams of protein and at least 65 to 75 grams of carbohydrate should be consumed within one hour.

Staying true to the “Power Hour” rules keeps your body’s metabolism in an anabolic state. The alternative is a catabolic (i.e., denigrated) state, where muscle is broken down and used for energy because proper nutritional habits are not in place.

Final rep

High school coaches certainly are going to pay attention to detail regarding the training requirements and standards their athletes must adhere to on a daily basis, but they have little control over the nutritional components.

Here’s a suggestion: Get the information on proper athletic nutrition to the parents (or guardians at home who do the cooking) of your athletes. They have a vested interest in this endeavor and you can bet next month’s paycheck they want to see their sons and daughters excel on the field and live a healthy lifestyle.


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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