Thursday, 28 May 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART III - how's your culture?

Thanks for sticking with us.

When organizing the outline for this series, I asked myself what would make the biggest difference for a coach TODAY?  But more than that - what information do coaches need to aid in any decisions they need to make TODAY?

First - I thought it important that coaches understand the background - why do we lift in the first place?  Without knowing this, it is super-difficult to make any educated decisions. 

Secondly, we need insight into the organization of loading parameters. By categorizing an almost limitless number of variables, we can better organize the objectives for our training sessions. 

The logical next step was to write a section on how to structure the organization of loading - i.e. planing and periodization.  But does knowing how to structure a training program help a coach TODAY?  

I would argue that it does not.

The physical organization of your sessions are extremely important - no doubt. 

But I feel what can make a bigger difference TODAY for most coaches is knowing how to best provide an optimal training environment - one which maximizes the athletes’ ability to learn, to grow, and to improve. 

I don’t do this as well - or as often - as I should, but a structured introduction to each training session - whether on the track or in the weight room - is highly important.  Conversely, debriefing each session - both with individuals, and within the group - helps to revisit the main teaching points, and reminds athletes of what their take-homes are.  We too often take for granted that the athletes understand the objectives of each day.  It is a missed opportunity every time we assume this. 

There is no one I know who does a better job of this than Strength Coach Brett Bartholomew.  I have really enjoyed getting to know Brett over the last couple of years.  He brings the qualities  of a young coach - the passion, the enthusiasm, the thirst for knowledge  - but he also has many  of the traits of more experienced coaches - understanding, empathy, and context, for example.

And since he does such a good job of this, I asked him to share his thoughts in this section of the series.  Matt and I will continue next week with a discussion on periodization, practical application, and exercise selection, so please come back then!

Creating the Culture
by Brett Bartholomew

Within our minds, thoughts are processed and exchanged far more rapidly than any muscle could ever hope to fire. The words we hear, sensations we feel, and emotions that we experience influence these thoughts during every moment of the day. In the realm of performance, where the head goes, the body follows - as it is perception that precedes targeted action. Understand that it is the world within us that influences the world around us - this is how cultures are created. The work that takes place within the training environment of the weight-room is a manifestation of this notion. Every session and every set determine an outcome, and the environment that we create is critical to influencing the potency of every action.

Intent is every bit as important as one’s movement quality. When under load, it is not enough to move well. One must move boldly and with a 'violent grace' if we want to maximize kinetic linking and utilize our body as the conduit for explosive force for which it is meant for. Focused intent allows us to maximize our level of engagement to a task, and through this, it multiplies meaning. Helping an athlete understand how driving out of the bottom of the squat with technique & tenacity, or firing the barbell through the air during an Olympic weightlifting movement as if we are hurling the discus, exploding out of the blocks or taking a hurdle, primes the mental connections that we need in order to help them bridge the gap between the 'track and the rack' - through bringing higher level meaning and focus to the work they are doing. 

From a coach's standpoint- teaching athletes to train with purposeful intent helps to maximize the nervous system’s full potential and enhances its ability to produce, maintain, and replicate coordinative, rhythmic and dynamic muscle action - all of which are critical to sport & higher level motor expression.

Of course none of the above can truly take place if we as coaches are not able to 'talk in color' to the athletes - to paint a picture in their minds as to how these two worlds connect. Beginning the session utilizing a 'start with why' approach can help them better understand your vision and help forge a deeper, more personal understanding as to how the training program that they are about to take part in is going to enhance their performance. By giving them the why, and by providing objectives and expectations in regards to the session, they begin to see the picture with renewed focus & envision their actions as a key determinant to the overall end-goal.

Similarly, it is key to re-cap the session at its end. By doing so, you are 'closing the loop' through helping the athletes to continue to identify with and understand what just took place. This simple action continues to foster a deeper understanding, which is critical to the learning process, and continues to drive enhanced intent through making it personal. This re-cap (or 'breakdown') does not need to be verbose and is actually less effective if the coach makes it so. Remember - athletes need to feel informed - not spoken to. Answer questions, recap what was accomplished, and set up the next piece for the following day’s session.

The process described above is what I like to call the 'onset to encore' approach of coaching. From beginning to end, the focus is on making the power of  intent, understanding and action clear - and etching it into the athletes' psyche, so they see the world as we do, and vice versa. This approach is a key element in the most fundamental aspect regarding the art of coaching: to simplify something down to its core & communicating to others in a way so that they care about and feel empowered through their understanding

Always remember that athletes are people first - they have many of the same thoughts, concerns and worries as the rest of us. When we coaches can understand the athletes' unique internal environment, we can better construct everything around it that is needed to bring the best out of them day in and day out, and THAT is how championship cultures are created!

Brett is currently a ‘Performance Specialist’ (man I hate that title!) at EXOS (formerly Athletes Performance) in Phoenix, AZ. He directs the NFL program for all EXOS facilities and works with a wide range of athletes - from baseball, to Special Forces & Boxing/MMA.  He is an accomplished writer and speaker, and if you get the chance to hear him speak, I highly encourage you to not pass it up.  There is no doubt in my mind that Brett will be a major influence on us all in the coming years. 

Brett is on Twitter.  Give him a wee follow!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART II

Thank you for coming back for section II.  This will be much lighter on the science - as well as a little shorter.  We felt it was imperative that readers had a good understanding of the basics of the science before continuing on to more practical sections.  

Keep in mind that what follows is a very basic overview of how we organize the specifics of our loading parameters.  It goes into very little detail, but will hopefully give the coach a starting point when designing his or her own program.   Like all things, the devil is in the details - so how all of this is organized is another story altogether.  Feel free to comment, and ask questions below the post.  


Matt did an awesome job of explaining why we lift in the first section of this post.  If you didn’t read it, I encourage you to go back and do so before continuing on.  Understanding the why is  a necessity - whether you are the one writing the strength program or not.  Even if you have a dedicated strength coach who writes the program for your athletes, it is imperative that you have the ability to speak intelligently with him or her about the programming. 

It is important to understand that strength does not necessarily equal maximal strength.  While maximal strength is the maximal amount of force a muscle can generate, strength is simply the ability to generate sufficient  force to overcome inertia or a load.  Depending upon the amount of load, velocity of movement can be very high or very low, and anywhere in between (as discussed by Matt as the force-velocity curve first described by AV Hill in 1938).  Force is at its highest when there is virtually no velocity - while velocity is at its theoretical highest point when there is little to no force.  It is Hill’s FV curve that has formed the basis of organizing training loads and loading parameters for over half a century.  By dividing the FV curve into ‘sections’ - or differing abilities - coaches, scientists, and methodologists can effectively reduce an endless amount of decisions into manageable ‘groupings’.

To begin, I will first discuss where we first encountered the organization of loads, and how this influenced our programming.


As Matt described, there are many justifications for strength training - including improved tendon stiffness, more specific length-tension relationships, and potential hormonal adaptations.  However, the big three - at least in my simple brain - remain:

  1. Get bigger: as discussed by Matt as an increase in PCSA
  2. Get stronger: improving intra-muscular coordination 
  3. Get faster: a combination of inter- and intramuscular coordination

This is clearly a gross oversimplification, but this type of categorization has formed the basis for loading parameter organization for decades.  Beginning with former USSR Olympic Weightlifting Head Coach Alexander Prilepin, and continuing over the years with work from other coaches, scientists, and methodologists, the simplification of loading is an important piece of the planning puzzle.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was Alexander Prilepin who first attempted to organize loads into groupings.  By retrospectively analyzing intensity (as a percentage of maximum lift) and volume of exercises of members of the Russian National Junior Team, he first confirmed the effectiveness of loading with near limit weights.  Further analysis lead Prilepin to identify the optimal volume of loading at lighter intensities, and it is the results of this study that formed the basis of the training philosophy of the Soviet Teams for the following decade, and was organized into the now famous Prilepin’s Table:

Table 1: Prilepin’s Table


I’m not sure if it was in Zatsiorsky’s* Science & Practice of Strength Training text that I first encountered the synthesis of strength loading parameters (what he calls ‘methods’), but I’m sure that this was the text that most influenced coaches in North America at the time (perhaps most notably Louis Simmons, who’s work has greatly influenced the S&C world on this side of the Atlantic). 

  • interesting fact: Zatsiorsky was a post-doc at the University of Calgary, where both myself and Matt went to school (and where Matt is currently finishing his PhD.  Matt’s supervisor, Walter Herzog,  knew Professor Zatsiorsky well ... true story!

Zatsiorsky identified three ‘methods to achieve maximal muscular tension’:

  1. Lifting a maximal load (maximal effort method)
  2. Lifting a non-maximal load to failure (repeated effort method)
  3. Lifting a non-maximal load with the highest attainable speed (dynamic effort method)
(he actually identified a fourth - the sub-maximal effort method - which is essentially the same as the repeated effort - but not lifting to failure)

He goes on to define the purpose of each method as:

  1. Maximal Effort (ME): improve neuromuscular coordination
  2. Repeated effort (RE): stimulate muscle hypertrophy
  3. Dynamic effort (DE): improve the rate of force development and explosive strength

The above was appropriated by Simmons and Westside Barbell, and has influenced countless S&C programs across the continent ever since.  

*A quick aside on influence:

It is OK (in fact, it is encouraged) to be influenced by sports other than that which you are programming for - but in my opinion, S&C programming in general has relied far too often on the flavor of the month.  

This began with the fascination with bodybuilding methods - strength coaches were overly enamored first with Nautilus-type machinery beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the 1990s with the influential Weider publications and others like Muscle Media 2000.  

Then along came  Paul Chek, and the ‘functional strength’ revolution.

Soon, the pendulum swung back in the other direction, and it was all about getting strong, and with the huge success of Westside Barbell, many sport athletes were now encouraged to lift like powerlifters.  

With the popularity of Strongman events on TV, athletes were soon seen carrying odd shaped implements, pushing cars around parking lots, and swinging sledge-hammers.  

Simultaneously, there was a big push from ‘therapy-based' coaches and the physiotherapy world to a movement that relied primarily on what has been termed ‘corrective exercise’.

Most recently - and somewhat ironically -  Crossfit has somehow influenced the S&C world, with athletes performing Olympic-lifting circuits, jumping up to high boxes, and finishing many sessions with ‘energy system development’.

And all the while, the one consistent influence that has never gone away is Olympic weight-lifting - and even this has had an overly influential impact on programming.  In the section on exercise selection (to come), I will offer my thoughts on the use of Olympic lifts for training other sport athletes. 

It is important to understand that good coaches maintain a core set of principles - and are far less swayed by the comings and goings of the various trends that permeate the industry. 

“An interesting point is relating the comings and goings of different strength training methods to scientific revolutions.  Thomas Kuhn outlined some basic requirements for the evolution of scientific theory.  One of the main tenants is that another theory is able to make better predictions, or explains everything a previous theory was able to explain - plus a bit more.  Why did Nautilus fail? It was a very technically driven cam-based system that was designed to develop the ‘strength-curve’.  Why wasn’t it able to overcome the paradigm of Weightlifting?  Similar to a scientific revolution, a new training paradigm really has to prove its worth with the best athletes, over the long-term.  Examples don’t make arguments.  So, as with all trends, the burden of proof remains at the front and centre for coaches and athletes” - Matt.  

Back to loading parameters - 

There are a lot of ways to do this,
And thus a lot of confusion.  
A lot of routine math,
And a lot of assumptions.  

Using Zatsiorsky as a jumping off point (stealing) - and influenced by Prilepin, Verkhoshansky*, Siff*, Simmons, and others, we added additional loading parameters (load, ROM, rep range, recovery, tempo) to the above to built an outline from which to work.

*BTW - although Matt and I were both greatly influenced by these pioneers, it is Verkhoshanksy’s contention that Siff misrepresented much of Verkhoshansky’s work - and in fact plagiarized much of Supertraining - taking both credit and money that belonged to Verkhoshansky.  In personal communication, Professor Verkhoshansky was very critical of Dr Siff, and never forgave him - even after Siff’s death.  This communication helped to put a lot of things in perspective for Matt and myself!

Matt built a wonderfully comprehensive chart that goes into a  fair amount of detail in regards to many of the important loading parameters:

Table 2: Jordan's Table

Breaking it down further - and to make it more digestible for both my simple brain, and our athlete populations, I formed something slightly less extensive:

Table 3: McMillan Table

I have given each ‘method’ a zonal number (method - as defined by Zatsiorsky - is potentially confusing and too generic in my opinion).  Zone 1 is dynamic effort - synonymous with explosive strength, or dynamic strength (speed-strength for purists).  Zone 2 is repeated effort - what is often understood as hypertrophy training, or work-capacity building, while zone 3 is maximal effort.  


Exercises should be performed at relatively light loads.  Dynamic effort is contingent upon the velocity of the mass, which is highly dependent on displacement (V = d/t).  Therefore, it is prudent that zone 1 exercises have a large range of motion (ROM), allowing the time for greater velocity. Depending upon the time of year, and the experience of the athlete you are working with, reps, sets, and recovery time can be manipulated within the ranges listed (more on this when we discuss organization of training).  As a general rule of thumb, we find that recovery time is relatively short when training in zone 1.  Anecdotally, elite level weightlifters training in this zone often require less than 60 seconds to recover from set to set - at least when the reps per set are held at 2 or less. 


Exercises in this zone are moderately loaded.  Rep ranges can vary tremendously depending upon the goal, and can even be as low as 2s and 3s when employed within a clustering scheme.  Typical rep range for this zone would be 8-12, but as a general rule of thumb, the  more experienced and higher the level of the athlete, the lower zone 2 reps will be.  Recovery time can be as short as 30 seconds, as we are primarily seeking for metabolic adaptations in zone 2. 


The primary objective of zone 3 is to improve maximal force production.  Newton’s second law of motion tells us that the force applied on an object is the product of its mass and acceleration (F=ma).  External forces are encountered in all sorts of human movement (e.g. a very hard landing during a vertical jump).  However, it is not simply the external forces at play when we talk about training maximal strength.  We have to consider the neuromuscular system, the duration and amount of intramuscular tension, and the muscle FV relationship.  As such, the development of maximal muscle strength  is more influenced by the ‘mass’ part of the equation than ‘acceleration’ - necessitating higher loads (in excess of 85% of 1RM).  Also, as Matt discussed, we must consider the force-length relationship (i.e. we use smaller range of motions for athletes who operate over smaller range of motions in their sport).  As a general rule of thumb, the more experienced the athlete, the higher the intensity we will prescribe in zone 3.  A young athlete will achieve maximum strength improvements and adaptations from 5x5@85%, while an experienced lifter will require something significantly heavier, and more intense.  Similarly, because the less experienced lifter’s inability to tax this system relative to the more experienced lifter, we will prescribe less recovery time.  Two minutes is often plenty of recovery for a younger athlete - while up to 5 minutes will be necessary for the more experienced. 


As you can see, I do not use a traditional numbered eccentric-isometric-concentric tempo scheme (unless I specifically want to focus on one piece of the movement).  Instead, I will prescribe a ‘controlled’ or ‘explosive’ tempo.  I may have a time of each contraction in my mind when coaching, but I would rather the athletes not have to count while they are lifting.  "Control" or "explode" is much better internalized for the athlete, and will allow for more intention throughout the movement. 

Note that tempo for zone 1 and 3 both states "explosive".  As Sale & Behm first noticed in 1993, it is the intended - rather than actual - movement velocity that determines training response.  Sale & Behm’s research put to rest once and for all the myth that heavy weight training made athletes slow. 

How you load each zone will depend greatly on the sport you are coaching, the training level of your athlete, the experience they have in the weight-room, and your specific  level of expertise.  It goes without saying that we would load an 18 year old freshman female sprinter far differently than we would a world-class 28 year old male.  The principles however remain the same.  And principle should dictate your programming.

Too often coaches begin at the end - they write their end-product program without a clear understanding of their training philosophy, their periodization scheme, or even an outline of their plan.   There is a set hierarchical understanding that is necessary for effective programming (more on this later in this series).  


By dividing the sessions into zones, we are effectively outlining an objective for each training session.  It is a jump-off point for the daily introduction to the training session.  It is imperative that the athlete knows exactly why they are lifting that day.  Are they in the weight room to get bigger?  Faster?  Stronger?  How will they go about doing this?  What are the specific objectives of each lift?  

This session introduction is the coaches’ opportunity to connect our why to the athletes’.

We know our why - but connecting to the athlete’s why is perhaps the most important part of being a coach. 

In the next section, we will discuss this often overlooked piece of the puzzle: how to create the optimal training environment, and how to squeeze the very best out of every training session.

Friday, 22 May 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART I

I’ve been meaning to write this post for about a decade or so
No - I’m not a procrastinator at all

When I was young, things were easy.

The young strength coach in the early 90s had a few journals they could read in the library (remember those?), a few good books, and - if they were lucky - some good conversations with experts in the field.  

… and that's about it.

The internet was not around yet, DVDs were not available, and S&C Conferences were few and far between.  I say it was pretty easy because of this sparseness of information.  Most of us had access to the same material - and coming up with a training philosophy was not the potential mess of mass confusion that it is now.  

Besides the almost infinite information at our fingertips, today’s coaches have the added (often contradicting) influences of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, Crossfit, etc.  Where does a young coach start?  And especially - where do coaches who do not necessarily have a background in strength & conditioning start? 

I don’t envy these coaches.  It’s great that we have so much information at our fingertips - but without context, and background knowledge, if is nigh on impossible to know where to begin.  

I don’t profess to be all-knowing in this, but as a sprints coach with an S&C background, I feel I am in as strong a position to offer my thoughts as most.  And hopefully provide some context, and some basic information that will help coaches with their program design.  

We offer this Coaching Program at the World Athletics Center - where coaches from all over the world come and spend a week with us.  About half of the visitors are track coaches, but we get a pretty large number of S&C coaches as well (also a few therapists and sport coaches).  We have held almost 20 of these Programs now, and the same few questions as they relate to strength training seem to come up almost every time:

  1. What are the best exercises?
  2. How heavy should the athletes lift?
  3. How strong is strong enough?
  4. How do you organize the weight-lifting into the overall program?

So with this extended post, I will do my best to answer these questions, as well as a few more that came to me though a post I placed on Twitter and Facebook:

  • How do we address weaknesses? (Amir Williamson)
  • Time on track versus time in gym? (Aftershock Fitness)
  • Interplay between volume & intensity (Rich Schimenek, who feels there are too many “more is better - always hard” coaches out there)
  • pre-season strength training vs in-season strength training - Hafsa Kamara
  • Views on eccentric training, triphasic, & French contrast - Adam Scott
  • Physios’ understanding of ‘stiffness’ - Chris Brandner
  • In-season Periodization schemes - ‘Purveyor of Exertion’
  • Progressions of strength training though a season - Mario Gomez
  • Regenerative themes and weight room warm-ups - Jeff Boele
  • Special & Specific Exercises - Stuart Mitchell
  • The most important lifts all high school sprinters should do, and the best days to do them - Norwalk High School
  • Why we need to do specific exercises, and how the exercise works - Jake Awe
  • a) Many track coaches at the development level avoid lifting or limit it to very low levels. What is the potential cost of other abilities, tissue qualities/demand on the CNS/transferability/time constraints? b) What is the "cost of doing business”? - Morgan Alexander
  • Microcycle Structure - as it pertains to technical and speed and lifting sessions - Mike Steen
  • a) balance between maximum strength & other strength qualities across the F-V curve; b) squat depth;  c) Unilateral vs. Bilateral lifts and their anticipated transference - Chris Bishop
  • How much lifting is needed? How does this change throughout their career? Ways to find out how much is needed per individual - Jordan Foley
  • WAC holistic approach to strength training - Jean Carlos Arroyo
  • Balance between instructing highly technical movements with an overall goal of attaining increased power output and postural integrity in acceleration - Aaron Seminski (*potential awesome discussion)
  • a) Specificity of lifts and how much is too much (if possible); b) when to switch from general to specific - Spencer Moe
  • The difference between something that is difficult and something that is complex. A lot of what we're trying to accomplish is difficult for sure, but all too often coaches shroud it in a veil of complexity that only they can decode - Mike LeBlanc (*not sure I'm smart enough for this one!)
  • Thoughts on how certain muscles & muscle groups should be trained. Different muscle contraction profiles? - Jason Ross
  • a) Pre-comp tapering strategies; b) eccentric and contrast methods; c) de-loading schemes - Jack Chin
  • a) Pre/peri/post strength training therapy; b) volume, sequencing; c) how/when/why of loading parameters - Jeremy Wotherspoon
  • Identification of the type of athlete you are working with, and how best to improve them - Andrew Kock
  • Individuality of athletes and training responses - Malcolm Wallace
  • a) The role of eccentric work; b) posterior chain vs anterior chain; c) speed-strength vs max strength - Carson Patterson

Some awesome questions and comments ... thanks to all who chimed in.  This is going to be a long post!   I will do my best to write a 2000 word synopsis once it is all finished - so if you would rather wait for the Cliff Notes version, stop reading now, and check back in a month or so.  In the meantime, I will roll this out in a series of 4 or 5 posts.  

If you're still here, I’d like to start where we always should.  


Why do we lift?
Or - why do we have our athletes lift?  

Until we answer this question - until we have a very clear justification of what is possibly a taken for granted assumption, we are hamstrung before we even get started.  How can we write an effective strength program, if we don’t truly understand why we are doing it in the first place?

Rather than me butchering this rather sciency section, I have asked someone much more qualified than I to write it for me.  Matt Jordan has written a couple of guest posts for me in the past.  Currently completing his PhD in Calgary, Canada, Matt is undoubtedly one of the top strength coaches in the world.  With an in-depth understanding of sport science, as well as almost two decades of practical experience, Matt has a unique ability to combine the two, and communicate it in such a way that makes sense to dummies like me.  

I hope you enjoy the following - what we feel is necessary background information.  Digest this -  then do some additional reading around the areas that are more interesting - or more confusing - to you, and please come back in a few days for section two, which will offer more information on loading parameters.  


Since the times of the Ancient Greeks, maximal muscle strength has been recognized as an important element for athletic performance.  However, in recent years, with the advent of the internet and the tendency for new training paradigms to emerge simply for the sake of the newness factor, it seems that in certain circles an assault on maximal muscle strength and its related muscle properties has emerged - ranging from benign questions such as “how much strength is enough” right up to the suggestion that developing maximal muscle strength is really a thing of the past for an athlete. However, the development of maximal muscle strength is often espoused within certain camps as a key - if not the key - to unlocking athletic potential.  

So, where does this leave the coach who wants to employ strength training to improve athletic performance?

The challenge for great coaches is not to classify a training element using a binary “yes/no” or “good/bad” system, but instead to understand when and how things fit together into a cohesive training philosophy.  


In order to evaluate the relevance of any physical fitness parameter for athletic performance it is valuable to begin with a physiological and biomechanical basis for how improving a specific ability might transfer to a seemingly unrelated skill or sport performance environment. 

The first fundamental observation regarding maximal muscle strength is that unlike many of the mechanical muscle properties related to explosive muscle force production, maximal muscle strength is highly trainable in nearly every type of athlete.  Even more so than the capacity to develop muscle hypertrophy, one could argue that nearly everyone possesses the capacity to gain maximal muscle strength.  With its high training potential, maximal muscle strength should not be overlooked and instead should be at the very least optimized for the sport and athlete in question.

Maximal muscle strength is often defined as the maximum force producing capability of a muscle - or muscle groups - in a single maximal voluntary contraction of either a concentric, eccentric or isometric muscle action.  

jump testing at the CSI-Calgary (photo credit Dave Holland)

The important element here is not how long force can be sustained or how quickly it can be developed, but instead how much force can be generated.  To assess maximal muscle strength, the gold standard laboratory measurement often reported in the scientific literature is the maximal voluntary isometric contraction.  Here the athlete is strapped into a dynamometer and asked to push or pull against an immovable object while force is recorded from a force sensor.  

The criticism of this approach is that most sport movements are not isometric, and require the application of muscle force to overcome an external load (i.e. concentric muscle action), or yield against an external load (i.e. eccentric muscle action).  Alongside consideration for specificity and greater simplicity for assessment, maximal muscle strength is easily assessed in the weight room using repetition maximum (RM) testing that requires the athlete to perform a series of efforts or sets with increasing load until the maximum amount of external load lifted with correct technique for a given number of repetitions is determined.  Maximal muscle strength can be estimated virtually every time an athlete enters into the weight room for a training session.  Of course, some limitations of this approach exist - including the possibility for technical variations, which can dramatically affect the outcome measure (load lifted) in the absence of a real change in general maximal muscle strength. For example, suppose two athletes are assessed using a maximal voluntary contraction of isometric leg extension using an instrumented leg press.  Midway through the training phase, Athlete A makes a significant change in his squat stance, which permits him to make a jump from 100kg to 120kg  in the external load.  Athlete B continues with his existing technique and makes a 10kg improvement.  It is conceivable that the 20% improvement in external load for the squat could occur alongside a smaller gain in the technically independent measure of maximal strength obtained from the isometric leg extension.  The purpose of this example is not to discount one method over the other, but more to introduce the coach to the element of task specificity and the importance of evaluating changes in weight room performance of maximal muscle strength alongside other potential confounding factors.


As discussed above, maximal muscle strength is dependent on the type of muscle action.  The unique behaviour of skeletal muscle during different types of muscle actions has existed for more than 80 years.  In fact, in the late 1930’s, seminal experiments performed by the great exercise physiologist A.V. Hill demonstrated the production of extra heat for a shortening muscle  as the velocity of shortening increased.  This experiment changed our understanding of muscle physiology and yielded the characteristic hyperbolic muscle force-velocity relationship (Figure 1).  

However, further anomalous observations were made when muscles lengthened against an external load (i.e. performed an eccentric muscle action).  Andrew Huxley noted these observations in his 1957 paper that provided a mathematical basis for the sliding filament theory, which we now know as the crossbridge theory.  Huxley remarked that while the behaviour of muscle could be relatively accurately explained using his mathematical equations for isometric and concentric muscle actions, the equations could not predict muscle behaviour during eccentric actions.


In practical terms, maximal eccentric strength is predicted to be as much as 40% greater than maximal isometric strength.  It also uses less energy, despite the fact it produces greater force.  It seems there might be another passive element that contributes to muscle force in an eccentric muscle action.  However, we are interested in the human force-velocity relationship, and comparing the force-velocity relationship obtained from a human to a single muscle as in the experiments of A.V. Hill is not possible.  The first observation of the force-velocity relationship of the human is that the often hyperbolic concentric portion of the force-velocity relationship is much more linear and the maximal shortening velocity need to be extrapolated as most strength testing equipment is incapable of assessing the maximal velocity of shortening for dynamic single joint human movements.  Additionally, the 40% difference between maximal isometric strength and maximal eccentric strength is not found.  In fact, this difference is much smaller.


The discrepancy between the maximal eccentric strength of a muscle and a human performing an eccentric movement is attributable to neural factors, which are absolutely critical for the expression of maximal muscle strength.  The first category of neural factors effecting the expression of maximal muscle strength is called intramuscular coordination, and includes the rate at which a motor unit fires and the number of motor units that are recruited.  Motor unit firing rate or rate coding is important for the early rise of muscle force during explosive movements and is important for increasing muscle force above 85% of maximal muscle force. Put another way, the orderly recruitment of motor units increases as the external load increases - up until approximately 85% of maximum strength (i.e. more motor units are recruited).  After this point, the motor units begin to fire with increasing frequency as muscle force continues to rise.  Intramuscular coordination is highly trainable through maximal strength training methods and this is one of the very critical adaptations of interest for athletes.  Additionally, maximal muscle strength can be inhibited by the afferent feedback originating from muscle proprioceptors such as Golgi tendon organs.  This too is highly trainable and, with respect to improving maximal muscle strength, can be effectively diminished using heavy strength training. Training against heavy loads enables a greater signal to reach the working muscle both through greater efferent drive (i.e. stronger neural signal coming from the central nervous system) and reduced inhibition from afferent sources. 


As the name indicates, intermuscular coordination refers to the coordination between muscles, and can be seen as the optimal recruitment of agonist, antagonist and synergist muscles in a complex movement.  Of course the precise behaviour of the different muscles and muscle groups in dynamic movements is difficult to ascertain, but for the coach, the observation that increasing the activation of the core and trunk muscles to stiffen the spine during heavy lifting often improves the expression of maximal strength, provides a nice example of intermuscular coordination.  


Intramuscular coordination and intermuscular coordination are important neural or tuning factors effecting the expression of muscle force - but as with a car, a highly tuned four cylinder engine can’t compete against a less tuned six or eight cylinder engine.  

This analogy comes from an article written by Warren Young from Australia and in this case, the size of the engine is comparable to the size of a muscle.  In scientific terms, muscle size, or the physiological cross sectional area (PCSA) is directly proportional to the force producing capability.  The bigger the muscle, the greater the muscle force.  Of course, there is important interplay between improving muscle PCSA and neural coordination as it pertains to the long-term development of maximal muscle strength.  

Often, the design of strength training programs has focused on various organizational or periodization structures of training methods designed to uniquely affect either the development of muscle PCSA (hypertrophy) or neural factors.  One of the first suggestions that maximal muscle strength adaptation can be maximized by addressing both muscle hypertrophy and neural factors was made by Dietmar Schmidtbleicher in the 1980’s based on a study that evaluated changes in strength, size and neural drive to three different training programs.  His conclusion: training methods that improve muscle hypertrophy and neural factors (i.e. maximal strength training) should be employed in an alternating manner for long-term gains in muscle performance.  

Many papers since then have elucidated the different approaches for improving muscle hypertrophy and neural factors through strength training.


In addition to muscle PCSA, neural factors, and the force-velocity relationship, muscle length is a key player in the expression of maximal muscle strength.  This observation was most notably characterized in an experiment in 1966 performed by Gordon and colleagues that demonstrated the unique effects of changing muscle length on muscle force, which yielded the characteristic force-length or length-tension relationship with its ascending limb, plateau region and descending limb (Figure 2).  In the realm of strength training for athletic performance, the effects of training on the force-length relationship have often been overshadowed by a somewhat myopic focus on the force-velocity and/or power-velocity relationship.  Why exactly the importance of the force-length relationship has been minimized is unclear - as it is a trainable and influential factor of muscle performance.  In fact, in the mid 1990s, Walter Herzog from the University of Calgary, demonstrated that elite cyclists and runners operated on completely different regions of the rectus femoris force-length relationship, and indicated the highly specific trainability of the force-length relationship.  Force-length relationship shifts are also seen in other contexts such as after eccentric training.  

In practical terms, coaches are aware of the importance of the force-length relationship when athletes with force deficits at specific joint angles or sticking points are encountered.  These sticking points arise in sport performance as well - especially in sports like speed skating or alpine ski racing in which specific, and sub-optimal, knee joint angles are inherent to the sport skill.  For these athletes, developing range of motion specific strength is essential. There are many pragmatic approaches to influencing the force-length relationship such as performing isometric training at specific joint angles or performing accentuated lifting with the use of bands, chains or other barbell attachments.  

However, assessing the force-length relationship in the context of developing maximal muscle strength seems to be less prioritized both in practice and in the scientific literature compared to the emphasis on the force-velocity relationship.  


Until now, the focus of this first section has been on the muscular and neural factors influencing maximal muscle strength in the context of establishing a physiological basis for why a coach might want to employ maximal strength training to improve athletic performance.  Of course, the effects of maximal strength training on enhancing neural drive is of great benefit to an athlete both in sports requiring maximal muscle strength and explosive muscle strength.  This latter point is of great interest - as many sports require the expression of explosive muscle force or explosive strength.  An important side effect of improving maximal muscle strength through heavy strength training is a marked increase in explosive muscle strength - especially in less developed athletes.  A recent meta-analysis by Seitz et al. (2015) in Sports Medicine provides an excellent review of the transfer of maximal strength improvements in the back squat to sprint running performance.  The results are unequivocal.  Clearly, making an athlete stronger is often a gateway to making an athlete faster.  Additionally, the ability to perform high rates of muscle work or mechanical muscle power is critical for many sports, and as with the concomitant improvement in explosive strength observed following heavy strength training, the expression of maximal mechanical muscle power and the ability to sustain mechanical power are positively influenced by maximal strength training.  

The benefits of maximal strength training can be extended to other tissues - including the skeletal and connective tissue.  Heavy strength training imposes important loads on tendons and other connective tissue.  Similar to muscle, heavy strength training increases the cross sectional area of tendons and the mechanical load helps to align the collagen fibres that are critical for bearing load.  These adaptations increase tendon stiffness, which leads to better force transfer between joints in multi-joint movement.  

Additionally, by increasing cross sectional area, the strain capacity of tendons is increased, which has important considerations for injury prevention - especially in sports such as long distance running where repetitive and cyclical movements often lead to tendon injury.  Interestingly, slow heavy strength training is as effective as surgery for dealing with chronic tendonitis.  

For the endurance athlete, the improvement in tendon stiffness is a potential mechanism underlying the transfer of improved maximal muscle strength to improved endurance performance as summarized by Per Aagaard in his 2010 article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.  

Improving maximal muscle strength is also associated with enhanced economy of movement - which is a key factor for endurance performance.  Contrary to intuition that often leads coaches to erroneously conclude that high repetition schemes should be employed with endurance athletes, it is in fact the heavy strength training schemes that have the greatest positive impact on endurance performance.  


With all the scientific and practical evidence in support of using heavy strength training to improve athletic performance, it might seem as though we have identified a panacea for physical preparation.  However, there are other considerations.  

First, while short-term training studies demonstrate improvement in explosive strength following heavy strength training especially in less trained subjects, the long-term (i.e. several years) effects of chronic heavy strength training on sport performance and sport skill are less understood.  In the medium-term (i.e. several weeks to months), chronic heavy strength training results in a muscle fibre type shift from the fast Type IIx fibre to the more oxidative Type IIa fibre. The primary difference between fibre types is the maximal shortening velocity, and it is possible that while on the one the hand, benefits for explosive sport movements are obtained from heavy strength training, the overall slowing of the contractile properties of a muscle could potentially blunt performance particularly when very high movement velocities are required.  This suggestion is not scientifically supported and is highly speculative.  However, in order to present a balanced viewpoint on the how-why-when should maximal strength training be incorporated into the training program of an athlete, this remains an important consideration.

It is also clear that while many sports skills require maximal strength, there are lots of examples of sporting movements that are dominated by other mechanical muscle properties.  

Anecdotally, great coaches often refer to athletes in speed-power and technical sports who uniquely solve motor tasks like sprinting using other strategies that rely far less on maximal strength.  Of course, it is tempting to suggest that in these situations, improving maximal strength would only benefit the athlete and not harm performance - but this has never been shown scientifically. Furthermore, through personal conversation with many high level coaches, it is clear that enough examples examples exist of athletes who avoided heavy strength training, yet managed to attain incredibly high levels of explosive athletic performance to warrant careful consideration of when, and with who, heavy strength training methods are employed.


In order to navigate this complicated process of answering the how-why-when questions, coaches are advised to perform a careful analysis of the sport in question to identify key performance indicators (KPIs).  Using these indicators, it is then possible to objectively determine the success or failure of a particular strength training intervention.  

As maximal muscle strength determined through either RM testing or using isometric dynamometry is often unrelated to many sport skills, coaches should possess the ability to assess other mechanical muscle properties.  As discussed above, two properties that are often of interest are explosive strength and maximal mechanical muscle power.  

Explosive strength is defined as the rapid rise in force during an explosively performed movement.  This can be evaluated by calculating the rate of force development (RFD) in dynamic or isometric movements, although only assessment under isometric conditions is sufficiently reliable to be employed for testing purposes.  

Assessing explosive strength through isometric dynamometry fell out of vogue through the mid-1990s, but it remains an important dimension of mechanical muscle performance for three specific reasons:  

  • As mentioned above, isometric dynamometry has much better reliability when evaluating explosive strength using RFD
  • Per Aagaard, a modern day pioneer in revitalising the relevance of isometric dynamometry, has related the contractile impulse or the area under the force-time curve obtained during an isometric contraction to the limb velocity that would have been attained should the limb have been permitted to move freely
  • Finally, by calculating the time frame for force application in sport, the contractile impulse can be evaluated over the same time intervals permitting a high degree of specificity to the sport skill all the while using a standardized and repeatable testing method

To make this a bit more salient, suppose a coach was evaluating explosive strength in two sprinters.  He is interested in a standardized assessment to evaluate explosive mechanical muscle performance as it would pertain to accelerating and sprinting.  He chooses to compare isometric dynamometry against an evaluation of explosive muscle performance using the vertical jump.  He determines the ground contact time at maximum running velocity to be approximately 90ms and 150-200ms for the acceleration phase.  However, he misses an important aspect of how the two athletes perform the vertical jump.  Athlete A is a slow jumper and he requires 300ms to perform the countermovement jump.  To reach maximal jump output, he descends to deeper knee angles that fall outside the joint angles of sprinting to generate maximum vertical propulsion.  As such, he consistently outperforms Athlete B in terms of jump output, as Athlete B is a much faster jumper and generates a slightly smaller vertical impulse in a shorter but more sport-specific timeframe.  Using the vertical jump output as the outcome measure, it seems Athlete A is as good - or better - than Athlete B.  But the main issue here is that Athlete A will never have 300 ms to perform his sport skill.  At a maximum, the acceleration phase of sprinting involves a ground contact time of 150-200ms.  Using isometric dynamometry, the coach then sets a specific joint angle related to the positions of sprinting.  He then instructs the athletes to perform rapid and explosive isometric contractions to evaluate the contractile impulse over 90ms time-frames.  Again, because the contractile impulse would relate to the limb velocity that would occur had the limb been permitted to move and as the time-frame for force application are evaluated over a duration that is specific to the sport skill, the performance gaps for Athlete A and Athlete B would be better identified through isometric dynamometry.

At this point, you might be thinking that evaluating the jump output alongside the jump strategy could be very telling.  Maybe consideration for the slow jumping strategy of Athlete A would reveal further insight into explosive mechanical muscle performance.  If this is your line of thinking, you are correct.  The vertical jump and its variants (i.e. drop jump, countermovement jump, squat jump, and single-leg jumps) are excellent movements for evaluating explosive mechanical muscle performance in athlete populations.  However, jump performance should be considered alongside jump strategy.  In order to gain insight not only into jump performance but also jump strategy, it is important to have instruments that can measure how the athlete attains a specific jump output.  A limitation with contact mats, optical sensors, and vertical jump ergometers like the Vertec is that only jump output can be evaluated.  Instruments such as the force plate provide greater insight into how a jump is performed through analysis of the vertical force time curve.  With this approach, the coach can identify fast jumpers, slow jumpers, and vertical impulse attained during specific jump phases such as the eccentric deceleration phase and concentric phase.  Additionally, jump performance can further be evaluated by looking at the take-off velocity, or total work performed.  Jump strategy can also be more sophisticatedly evaluated by plotting force-displacement and force-velocity graphs to look at the positional and velocity changes of the body centre mass throughout the jumping movement.

Clearly, the evaluation of explosive muscle performance must be undertaken alongside evaluation of maximal muscle strength - especially for sport skills relying on explosive strength. By identifying KPIs and relevant mechanical muscle properties, the coach is now able to employ creativity in program design and develop new approaches for developing mechanical muscle function as it relates to improving sport skills and athletic performance. Based on personal communication with many high level sport and strength coaches, the approach to strength training program design must expand to include several different types of strength training methods in addition to heavy strength training.  There are in fact many ways to positively affect explosive mechanical muscle performance, and the drawbacks/benefits of each method form the basis of answering the how-when-why questions related to incorporating strength training into a cohesive training program.  


The starting point for any coach wanting to employ maximal strength training methods with athletes is to first have good understanding of the physiology and biomechanics of the expression of muscle force.  These first principles will provide the best basis for answering the questions how and when should different strength training methods be used to improve athletic performance.  By no means was this an exhaustive list of the potential benefits of the various strength training methods provided.  Instead, a few key points were highlighted to shift the focus from what we believe works for improving sport performance to what the science supports.  The benefits of strength training go much beyond this, and include many other factors related to injury prevention and creating athletes with sufficient structural tolerance to support the large training volumes of the modern day athlete.  Do not forget as well that for hundreds - and possibly thousands of years - strength training has been an important element of physical training programs for athletes.  Moving beyond tradition - through experience and on to the science - strength training is critical for the athlete. 

The transfer from the weight room to sport performance goes far beyond developing an exercise that mimics a sporting movement - and includes the many unique neural and functional adaptations to strength training that are of great interest for the elite athlete.


Matt Jordan is a strength coach, the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Canadian Sport Institute-Calgary and the Director of Sport Science and Sport Medicine for Alpine Canada. He also provides private strength coaching and sport science consultation to elite athletes through his business. 

He is currently completing his Doctorate in Medical Science at the University of Calgary focusing on ACL Injury/Re-Injury Prevention in Elite Alpine Ski Racers. He has published his results in peer-reviewed journals and presented at international conferences. As an educator, Matt provides internship opportunities for developing strength coaches and has lectured for the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University. Matt continues to write for lay journals and regularly travels across North America and Europe to lecture on strength and power training for elite athletes.

Over his career, Matt has been a strength coach to more than 20 World and Olympic medalists, and has worked with elite athletes in many sports including speed skating, cross country skiing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, hockey, football, volleyball and mixed martial arts. Matt has also helped many developing athletes and members of the general public with their health, fitness and performance goals.

Matt is on Twitter: @JordanStrength

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