Sports Training & Conditioning Zone!
Strength Development: It's So Simple II

by Steven Plisk

In the last issue of Perform Better News & Views, I began my discussion of Strength Development.  I continue this discussion in Part II, with a focus on Quality vs. Quantity within strength training methodology.  (See page 4 for an informative table on Strength Training Methods.)

In my opinion, most young athletes need remedial strength training, and significant work volume certainly is in order.  However, I also believe that quality must be emphasized over quantity even when strength-endurance methods are being used (refer to Table 1, page 4).  In many weight rooms, unfortunately, volume-oriented thinking is often overemphasized at the expense of intensity.  The ‘repetition maximum’ and ‘pump and burn’ mentalities tend to misdirect attention from where it belongs—namely, on how to move the weight—toward counting reps and sets instead.  Even operating on the assumption that resistance changes with rep count, this approach is unsound because it places primary emphasis on a secondary (volume) parameter.  There’s a better way.

The simplest way that most athletes can improve their training quality is to “rest pause” between reps as needed to achieve the desired power output.  This is exactly the opposite of what typically happens:  Resistance is instead adjusted to achieve a predetermined rep count.  Once again, this approach is nonsensical.  We could take a lesson from the international scene, where speed-strength is almost always the primary objective.  Each rep is executed with maximal effort in the freshest possible state; and work volume is subdivided into multiple sets of low reps, effectively rest-pausing at every opportunity.  Explosive impulse or power is the bottom-line objective. This is the reason why Eastern European workouts are characterized by:

  • low rep schemes (seldom venturing above 5, and more typically
     2-3 per set)
  • a high number of sets per exercise (typically 5+ in addition to warm-ups)
  • brief, multiple daily workouts, and remarkable overall work volume

Prioritizing Training Methods
As previously mentioned, most athletes’ greatest need is a general increase in power output.  In most cases there is such a range of abilities to shore up—and so much intermediate ground to cover—that training tactics don’t need to be too advanced or specialized.  Now let me qualify this by stating that “structural” training isn’t the only answer.  Think about what’s involved in executing any athletic technique:  Power is applied through a movement path, often repetitively, and must be controlled.  Sound training should therefore address mobility, endurance and motor skill, as well as muscle mass and strength.  The point is that we’re talking about tuning the machinery as well as building it.

A hierarchy of strength training methods is outlined in Table 1, page 4.  As can be seen, this scheme is largely a matter of convenience and there is some overlap.  Rational combination rather than disproportionate or exclusive use of any tactic is the key to applying it.  Common sense and creativity are the only limits to how this can be accomplished.  A rule of thumb is to devote equal attention to maximum strength, speed-strength and strength-endurance training.  In any case, disregard what these methods are called, and instead think in terms of what they do and how to complement or contrast them with each other.  Make use of all available tactics, focus on training effect rather than strength demonstration, and do some strategic planning.  Manipulate your adversary—in this case, the body’s adaptive mechanisms—by systematically “mixing your plays” to exploit their cumulative and interactive effects.

Practical Recommendations
Explosive force application is the basis of strength training for sports.  Functional strength is really expressed in terms of acceleration, execution time or velocity—especially in athletics.  Training tactics which disregard this fact are fundamentally unsound.  Moving through an acceleration path, and applying rapid and/or high-speed force, is the name of the game.

Emphasize big basic movements which have the greatest training effects; and use equipment which challenges the athlete to control, direct and/or stabilize it.  Muscles act in functional task groups, and must be targeted via force transmission through (rather than isolation within) the body’s “kinetic chain”.  Multi-joint free weight movements are superior in this regard.

Distinguish between specificity and simulation.  When selecting training movements, think in terms of “dynamic correspondence”— i.e. their basic mechanics, but not necessarily outward appearance, should be similar to those occurring in competition.  Most important, prioritize exercises according to:

  • effort level (power)
  • rate and time of peak force production (impulse)

Balance the need for specificity vs. variability.  Maintain stability in the program by sticking with a basic exercise menu rather than trying to include every possible variation.  Cycle the workloads on a “periodic” 3-4 week basis in order to summate their training effects and avoid accommodation.

Quality, not quantity, of effort is the bottom line.  While it’s certainly necessary to do enough work to get a training effect, there is a threshold of diminishing returns above which the athlete’s effort is diluted — and recoverability/adaptability are compromised.  Fitness and fatigue are a trade-off beyond a certain point.  Optimal results are achieved by maximizing effort within a prescribed amount of work, not by doing extra work or training on off-days.

Quality of effort and recovery are interdependent.  Workload intensity, frequency and volume are interrelated; and can’t be changed arbitrarily.  They must be adjusted together, which occurs automatically with a sound plan.  The program is only as good as the athletes’ ability to recover from and adapt to it.

Fitness is a means toward an end, not an end in itself:  to develop complementary motor skills and abilities, and couple effort with execution.  Power, flexibility, agility, speed and endurance are the elements of athleticism.  Each is trainable, but they must be trained collectively because they are parts of a larger whole.  None is a separate entity, nor more important than another.  Train athletes, not muscles!

Most important, skillful athletic movements are the basis of sports training, and require the services of a qualified Strength & Conditioning coach.*  If simply counting reps and sets were the answer, anyone could do it.  As is the case in all aspects of coaching or teaching, attention must be directed toward what the student-athlete is doing as well as how they’re doing it—not just how much they do.  Skilled training requires skilled coaching, and without it the program isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

*Contact the author, Steven Scott Plisk or M-F Athletic for the address of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.