April 22, 2010 • Strength & Conditioning

Powerline: Serious strength requires serious training

PowerlineStrength and power are two inextricably linked indices that are pursued incessantly by coaches and athletes on a year-round basis. These two physiological siblings are necessities in athletic development, skill improvement, body composition enhancements and injury deterrence.

The process of developing strength and power does not need to be overly complicated in structure, but it can and should be very difficult in terms of physical execution.

In other words, it is hard work.

Expressing power (i.e., “explosiveness” in popular nomenclature) in the athletic setting is quantified by the amount work performed in a specific time frame. The textbook formula of power equals work divided by time indicates that decreasing the time it takes to perform a given task can enhance power.

Power also has been defined as force multiplied by velocity, which means that power can be enhanced by increasing the force output. In scientific research on the topic, power output via strength training with various resistance implements and exercises is often measured with a force plate. Even in this setting, it must be understood that the Principle of Specificity needs to be applied prior to making any foregone conclusions on the transfer of this demonstration of power to other activities.

Quite simply, any suggestions on the significance of the findings and their relationship to unrelated skills must be tempered with an understanding of the biomechanical and modality differences of each, and how these differences will affect the learning and encoding of the desired skill.

Muscle modeling

There has been some very fascinating research done during the past 10 years by molecular biologists on the key regulator of protein synthesis — and the concurrent hypertrophy and strength (and power) increases — known as the “mammalian target of rapamycin,” or mTOR, for short. Mike Gittleson, the former and highly successful strength and conditioning coach for the University of Michigan, and one of the true innovators in our field, recently brought some of this research to my attention.

Dr. Keith Baar, a former student of Gittleson’s, is now one of the leading researchers in the world on this subject. Dr. Baar and his colleagues (Baar, K., Esser, K., 1999 and Hamilton, D.L., Baar, 2008) indicate through their work that the activity of mTOR is directly related to the intensity (i.e., “effort”) of the training session.

According to Dr. Baar, the load placed on muscle tissue is essential to the activation of mTOR. What this means for the practitioner or trainee is that the heavier the weight — relative to an individual’s present capabilities — the greater the activation of mTOR. Also, mTOR is exponentially activated as the absolute amount of power produced by the muscle is increased.

When presenting some program recommendations for optimal mTOR activation, Dr. Baar includes some well-intentioned caveats. For instance, one way to heighten absolute power production is through what he terms fast lengthening (eccentric) or “high jerk” contractions, in certain scientific literature, you see this protocol termed “explosive” or “short-rep duration.”

A potential problem with this type of resistance training, as Dr. Baar states, is that tendon health can be compromised. Recovery time also becomes an issue, as tendons adapt more slowly than muscle due to a host of histological reasons.

Dr. Baar offers the alternative protocol of utilizing slower lengthening contractions. He states that this approach has been shown to improve both tendon health and recovery from injury. Those facts alone stamp this approach with a high degree of validity, and certainly one well worth examining…let’s take a closer look.

Maximizing mTOR

Since taking over the “Powerline” column in 2000 from Dan Riley — a good friend, mentor and one of the most highly respected strength coaches of all-time — I have written several articles on the benefits of high-tension training. Simply put, it is an approach that calls for creating and maintaining tension within the working musculature for the duration of the set. Far from being a new concept, it is a methodology that has been embraced by some and scorned by others.

However, a close examination of the myriad training approaches employed by strength practitioners from varying backgrounds reveals an inclusion of some basic high-tension principles at specific junctures in the training calendar. This includes programs along the entire spectrum of Olympic-style lifting, power lifting, free-weight emphasis, machine emphasis and all combinations herein.

And, the high-tension approach offers variety and a break from the monotony of year-round training.

With some, the higher-intensity protocols are built-in training adjuncts and are inserted to serve a purpose within a periodization blueprint. Usually, elements of high-tension training are found in the hypertrophy phase of certain linear strength-training cycles.

No matter the name, the sessions are underpinned with all-out efforts within the boundaries of safety and common sense. The sets are taken to the point of momentary muscular fatigue (MMF) on exercises where it is possible to do so without compromising technique or the ability to finish the set safely.

The following is a compilation of Dr. Baar’s recommendations along with some personal coaching points and administrative hints on implementing them:

➧ Target Protocol. This approach calls for a fixed number of maximum repetitions (e.g., 10) to be performed, with small increments added when the target is exceeded. (Coaching Point: Finding this requires some trial and error, so patience is a key in the process.)

➧ Range Protocol. This system has both an upper and lower limit of reps (e.g., 6-8). If the athlete is at the lower end of the range, the weight remains constant. The goal is to attain the higher end of the range, which indicates that a weight increment is in order for the next workout. The reps then fall to the lower-range limit, but not below it. (Coaching Point: As you progress with this style of double progression, you might want the athletes to strive to maintain the higher end of the range for a couple of weeks before adding weight.)

➧ Set Duration. The basic recommendation is to keep set duration to no more than 60 seconds. The vast majority of sets performed in most training protocols do not come close to this amount of time. The assumption here is that the time under load (TUL) for each rep is six seconds. (Coaching Point: To stay within that rep duration parameter, we recommend a one- to two-second concentric (raising) phase, followed by a smooth transition into a three- to four-second eccentric (lowering) phase.)

➧ Constant Tension. There are no breaks once the set begins. The target musculature must continue to work as hard as possible until the point of MMF.

➧ Forced Reps. Once MMF is reached, a spotter assists with the positive phase while the lifter performs an evenly controlled negative rep in 3-4 seconds. (Coaching Point: Two or three of these forced reps suffice and they need not be performed on every set of every workout.)

➧ Push/Pull Sequencing. Dr. Baar recommends alternating “pushing-and-pressing” movements (i.e., those that are directed away from the center of the body during the positive phase) with “pulling” movements (i.e., those that are directed toward the center of the body during the positive phase). This methodology allows for more complete recovery and resynthesis of the energy compounds ATP and PCr in antagonist (opposing) muscle structures between exercises, hence decreasing metabolic stress and allowing better activation of mTOR.

Final rep

Total sets within the workout can vary but this type of training does not require a great deal of volume. When designing a lifting script utilizing this approach, try to stay within 10 to 12 total sets. This could be a total-body, upper-only or lower-only arrangement based upon all of the other factors one must take into consideration (e.g., additional training requirements, practice schedule, specific or special needs, etc.).

Recovery time between sets ranges from two to three minutes, depending upon the athlete’s training tolerance. Recovery time decreases as the athlete adapts to the intensity and tempo of the protocol.

Even if you do not train in this fashion on a regular basis, you might be well served to insert a high-tension workout on an occasional basis — especially for your so-called “hard gainers” who have an arduous time gaining muscle weight and overall strength.

All it requires is an open mind, some solid coaching, mental toughness and a great deal of physical effort.

Baar, K., Esser, K., Phosphorylation of p70 (S6k) Correlates with Increased Skeletal Mass Following Resistance Exercise, Am. J. Physiology, 276: C120-C127, 1999.
Hamilton, D.L., Baar, K., Muscle Growth: No IGF’s, Ands, or Buts, Journal of Physiology, 586 (1), 5-6, 2008.

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