Tag Archives: Strength training

Stalled progress!!!!

There are times in our training when no matter how much effort we put in, progress seems to stall. Our natural inclination is to do more work. This is rarely the solution. We know that the body adapts well to stress stimuli. We use progressive overload programs to take advantage of this to make us stronger and fitter. If we use one training program for too long the abilities it focuses on will improve significantly up to a point. Over time weak links can appear as some abilities greatly exceed others. It may simply be caused by a lack of practice or perhaps a more physiological based reason.

There is an expression that says the best training program is the one you are not doing. We naturally tend to focus on the skills we have an aptitude for. We become addicted to progress and we generally progress best at things we have a natural disposition for, largely  because we enjoy doing them. The things we avoid or neglect do have a tendency to catch up to us and often hold us back.

For example an athlete may be training specifically for strength. They have a low rep high load program to do so. Initially there is great neural response and they become stronger without significant increases in muscle mass. Progress then stalls. They may try to force weight onto the bar during his lifts but does not successfully achieve the reps. They become frustrated because they are seeing no progress. The problem is not with the rep scheme. The problem lies in that they may have achieved maximum strength for their current muscle mass. Contractile strength is largely determined by the cross sectional mass of a given muscle. At this point they should look to increase mass and raise the level of force that they can produce. After addressing this they could return to a strength program and once again see steady progress.

In the case of endurance athletes it is not uncommon for them to perform large volume at low intensity early in a season to build stamina. When they go to race they may find that while they do possess good stamina, they lack high end pace for faster races and at the finish. Some assume this is a lack of fitness when it is in fact a lack of both power and sprint capacity. Spending some time focused on shorter sprints will allow them to have a higher ceiling of power that they can utilize during more intense stages of a race.

While these scenarios seem obvious on paper they are rarely easily identified by an athlete. When there is an emotional attachment to the training and performance it is easy to become distracted from the obvious. Coaches and athletes all have certain styles they favour and rarely venture too far from what they are used to. Often stagnation occurs due to lack of variety in their training.

The best way to overcome this is to have an appropriate testing procedure. Athletes and coaches must be analytical and honest with where they are and where they need to be. Things are often quite clear and the solution quite simple when regular testing is implemented. What is difficult is having the confidence to leave their comfort zone of training to address the problem. Endurance athletes in particular can be extremely hesitant to utilize strength training despite the benefits, which have been detailed in a previous article https://hamiltonsport.com/2015/03/16/weight-training-and-endurance-athletes/. A good athlete and coach need to have the confidence to address an issue even if it does not fit with their current training methodology. It is simply a waste of effort to continue when there is no progress being made. Identify what is missing and improving it will often jump start progress all round. So if you think your progress is stalled stop and think what your program is missing.

Blueprint for big legs!

My old coaches used to say “The legs feed the wolf! There are few sports where having big, strong legs does not carry over into performance. Many people struggle to build leg size and strength while others have no issues at all. This post will discuss some factors which can influence growth of the leg musculature and how one can use this knowledge to their advantage.

Muscle is not all the same; there are several types and subgroups with different characteristics. Mostly when dealing with skeletal muscle we define the fibers as either Type 1 (Oxidative or Slow twitch) or Type 2 (Glycolytic or Fast twitch). Every muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Each bundle is from all of the same fiber type and innervated by a single nerve. The bundle and nerve assembly is known as a Motor Unit (MU).

Type 1 fibers tend to be smaller in size and produce less force. They also have excellent blood supply and mitochondrial density which makes them very efficient at oxidative metabolism. This means they don’t fatigue easily. Type 2 fibers are larger in size and more powerful. Unlike Type one they are not so efficient at oxidation and rely heavily on glycolysis, intramuscular ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores for energy. They are much more fatiguable than Type 1 fibers.

The recruitment of the muscle fibers is in order of size, from small to large. The rate and quantity of recruitment will depend on the activity. Slow, low force movements may only require a small recruitment of some type 1 fibers, whereas a heavy lift or sprint will additionally recruit a large portion of type 2 fibers.

When we are born we are genetically predisposed to having a larger distribution of one fiber type over another. With training we can influence a switch over, from one fiber type to another. The fibers will be persuaded to take on new characteristics rather than switch totally. In our earlier years of training and sport we have a large influence on the muscle fibers as they develop. In addition, our genetic makeup will naturally direct us into sports we are suited to physiologically as we are more likely to have success.

When we look at body parts and muscles, the fiber distribution can be influenced by the function. For example forearm muscles contain higher amounts of type one fibers, as grip endurance is required for relatively constant movement of hands and fingers. Legs are similar because we spend relatively large durations of time on our legs, walking and standing etc. For this reason legs will always have a relatively large amount of type 1 fibers.

Micro trauma to the fibers is the catalyst for growth. When we recover, micro tears in the fibers are repaired and the fibers become larger and stronger. Tension and metabolic stress are the two things that will cause stress and trauma. Time under tension (TUT) has long been regarded as a key factor in muscle growth. The more time a fiber is placed under tension the more damage created. In addition metabolic stress can also be quite effective at creating trauma. All we have to do is look at a track cyclist or sprinters legs to demonstrate this.

Putting this knowledge into practice is pretty simple. In order to successfully create hypertrophy in the musculature we must stimulate and cause trauma to both sets of fibers. The challenge with type 1 fibers is that they are harder to fatigue. They need higher volume to do this, and so a higher rep strategy should be employed. The challenge with the type 2 fibers is activation. Heavier and more explosive lifts are needed to activate and fatigue them. Lower reps with heavier weight, combined with some power and sprint training will be needed to promote growth of these fibers.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high reps sets to produce bodybuildings most famous legs.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high rep sets to produce bodybuilding’s most famous legs.

This not only applies to athletes but also to bodybuilders. The secret to growth is to cover all your bases and keep things simple and consistent. Using a combination of high and low rep training will provide a good overall stimulation making sure you are covering everything. When used as a part of a simple progressive training plan and combined with adequate recovery any athlete will build bigger stronger legs. The key point is to target the fibers effectively so they respond. If you rely on one technique exclusively it is unlikely that you will have long term success.

As with most training, athletes must try and learn their weakness and how to fix them. They can then target the issues with a balanced program to give them a well rounded base. The more familiar they are with the physiological factors involved the more effective a training program can be!

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Training day or night!

This post comes in response to a question we had from one of our readers. He asked “Why can I lift more when I train in the evening, as opposed to early morning training?” First of all, everyone is a little different in terms of what works for them and what they prefer. There is not always a wrong or right when it comes to training. Often the answer lies between what works and what allows you to be consistent. However, there may be some physiological reasons which could answer why someone may perform better later in the day than in the morning. Circadian rhythms which are often overlooked when it comes to health and performance science but they are very real. These are natural rhythms of life which we constantly are subject to. The seasons and solar cycle are two such examples which have a direct impact on our lifestyle and health. Our body has a natural flow of hormones and neurotransmitters which are directly influenced by our environment. When we sleep our body goes into standby mode allowing us to rest and recover. When we awake there is a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare us to go about our daily business.

This all starts with the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located within the hypothalmus a very active part of the brain, which is essentially the control centre for our endocrine system. The SCN is stimulated by sunlight through our eyes and triggers our start up switch on a daily basis. Other hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone follow similar patterns stimulated and regulated by a number of other factors. The timing and magnitude of these chemical patterns will vary slightly from one individual to another. These rhythms can therefore dictate when we are primed for certain actions. One of these rhythms is our body temperature. We tend on a consistent basis to have a daily peak in the afternoon. This is provided we do not influence it through exercise etc. Increased body temperature optimises muscle contractile function and a range of other things that can improve our strength performance.

In addition to these natural rhythms we have lifestyle influences. We know that there are nutritional differences from morning to evening. When we wake, we are in a fasted state and usually the complete opposite in the evening. The ingestion of certain food types can dramatically alter mood state and energy levels. We also have decreased flexibility as a result of lying relatively stationary for a long period. Sleep inertia is also an influence. This is that sleepy, clumsy mood you feel when you awake in the morning and it takes time to recover from. These are all factors which not only impact performance but also mood and motivational state. These exclusive of other factors, can be significant.

Some people are relatively unaffected by these things, while others may feel them dramatically. We are creatures of habit and sometimes we simply become used to doing things in a certain way. When we break routine our mood can reflect it. Regardless of these factors an individual may feel more prepared to train in the morning and see no real difference to training in the evening. It all comes down to the individual. In terms of management of an athletes performance we should consider this issue and take it into consideration for planning. Training should ideally be scheduled at approximately the same time of day as competition. Over time the athlete will learn to manage themselves in such a way that they can perform optimally come competition time.

I hope I managed to answer the question sufficiently!

Science of strength!

In this post I will discuss the physiological components that make up physical strength. In general the strength of a muscle is determined by its cross sectional mass. When we assess the improvement of strength in a muscular contraction, we see a significant increase in force output in a short space of time with no change in mass. This shows us that there is also a neural component that plays a significant role in strength. In order for a muscle fiber to hit a peak contraction it must be stimulated fully. A beginner to strength training will be unable to reach his true max because he will be neurally untrained. This means he is not capable of using all his muscle fibers or even capable of using the select few to their full potential.

When we want to move, we send a chemo-electrical signal from brain to the muscle which results in a contraction. The more signals we send the more forceful the contraction. In order to achieve maximum contraction we must have a constant and rapid train of impulses coming from our brain. The route the impulse takes down the nerves must be capable of sustaining and transmitting these signals. Early in our training it is these nerves which improve at delivering stimulus, that results in strength improvements.

There are several factors which can prevent us achieving maximum contractile forces. We have safety mechanisms which prevent us reaching our limits in order to prevent damage to our muscle tissue. These mechanisms are largely involuntary and are not simply a case of pushing harder. When we train the thresholds for these “safety switches” raise, allowing us to lift more. This is partly because our muscles become more conditioned and less susceptible to damage but also because our overriding mechanisms improve. We can prove this theory by using a simple maximum voluntary contraction test on a muscle. An athlete produces their strongest contraction and when it peaks we add extra stimulus externally with an electric impulse. The peak will increase significantly higher than voluntary stimulus could achieve, proving there is more force possible.

So how do we increase strength? There a couple of areas which can be improved. First we need to train the movement. Becoming more accustomed to the movement helps us learn the pattern of muscle activation required to perform the action effectively. Second we must improve stimulation and muscle activation. The obvious method is working closer to our maxes which in theory requires a “close to max muscle contraction”. Become accustomed to producing maximum force will improve the mechanisms involved over time. This can be taxing on both the central nervous system (CNS) and the muscle structure itself. It will require structural recovery which takes time. Speed training is an excellent variation as it allows us to improve the rate of impulses coming from the brain. More ballistic type exercises such as jumping are a good way to improve rate of neural transmission. Adding bands or chains to sub-maximal weights for particular lifts can also be another variation to include. The increased resistance over the range of the movement requires an accelerated contraction.

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

These types of training are excellent ways to improve the neural component of strength without needing any structural recovery. They are demanding on the CNS and as always adequate recovery is necessary. The next area to work on is increasing muscle mass. This involves hypertrophy of the muscle fibers which occurs over a much longer period of time.

Becoming strong is important to all athletes but understanding what makes them strong can be just as important. The body adapts quickly and so a multidirectional approach can help progress in terms of consistency. Often athletes employ the maximal lifting approach exclusively and plateau quickly. Combining different methods over a periodised training plan can make sure that an athlete continues to improve in the long term and achieve full potential.

Post Activation Potentiation

Also referred to as a PAP response, Post Activation Potentiation has been a tool in an athletes training arsenal for decades. The basic theory is that if you lift a heavy weight you can perform a more explosive contraction soon after. So for example you might do a heavy double on back squat. Immediately after you may do box jumps or something similar and exceed expected performance. The underlying mechanism explaining this is actually quite simple. When you perform a heavy lift or contraction you must activate larger motor units to produce a more forceful contraction. These larger motor units are often referred to as type 2 muscle fibers. These fibers are generally larger and have greater capacity to produce force than smaller fibers. When activated they become slightly more sensitive to further activation for a short period of time after. When you go to perform the next contraction it will be relatively easier to produce force as these motor units are “excited”. Due to changes in sensitivity, the rate of contraction may also be significantly improved. This allows for a better power production overall.

Not a bad example to use. Photo by Hookgrip at www.hookgrip.com

Not a bad example to show. Big lift allows for a big jump!  Photo: Hookgrip at www.hookgrip.com

Not only can this PAP response be useful for improving power, it can also help improve strength endurance. I use the term endurance loosely there. It may allow you to perform more reps at sub-maximal loads without directly influencing fatiguing factors. For example, max repetition bench press is a common test used by many contact sport teams used during team physical testing. One or two singles close to max effort prior to the test can in fact improve the result. This is provided that the athlete does not go overboard and induce fatigue prior to the test. Often the athletes state that the weight initially feels lighter in comparison to a standard work up, warm up protocol. The PAP response can also be used in a hypertrophy program where back off or drop sets are being utilised. This is quite simply due to larger motor units being pre-activated, making a more effective use of available motor units, resulting in an improved performance. Larger volume in terms of weight lifted per session translates well into these types of programs.

While this is not a new concept or theory, the underlying mechanism is often overlooked and therefore under utilised. It is quite an effective tool and one which I have seen positive results from. Having an understanding of this concept allows a coach to be a little more creative in finding ways to help an athlete reach their potential.

Make it quick!

An issue I have encountered with younger athletes is the issue of bar speed during lifts. Typically younger athletes that I’ve worked with have come from school sports. In some cases these school teams have an organised lifting program attached. Most of these programs centre primarily around the weight lifted. This causes a slight problem as from the very onset of training these athletes create a mindset where weight on the bar is all that matters. As long as the weight increases when moving the bar from A to B, they are progressing.

I have a fair amount of “Dynamic” or “Power” work in the programs I set. I think it’s obvious that athletes benefit from speed work as well as strength work. The issue arises during these sessions. I’ll use the power clean as an example. Many of the athletes I work with believed that as long as they get the bar from floor to the front rack position it is a successful clean. Luckily they understand for the most part that this should be a smooth and fluid motion and rarely do I find them in compromising positions. However, bar speed was often compromised. As long as the bar is heavier they believe that they are improving. At times these lifts become a slow heave to move the weight, accompanied by a massive spread of the feet to get into the catch position. I believe this acquired technique is the product of simply trying to shift weight.

I spend a lot of time detraining this mentality. At times the purpose of certain exercises in our program is to build power and speed. They should therefore be done as fast as possible even if that means decreasing the load. I leave the strength work to the core lifts like Squats and deadlifts etc. When we do power work I want their mentality to be focused on speed and explosiveness and a precise and swift movement. When we incorporated banded bench press into the program I think the athletes realised that a lift which they typically considered a “How much do you lift” exercise, could be utilised very differently.

After a few months we now squat and bench press at near maximal loads weekly, as well as incorporate their more dynamic variations successfully. I was happy to be able to change their way of thinking when it comes to bar speed and purpose of the lift. It’s great to now hear feedback on how lifting more quickly and more explosively has helped some very strong players become quicker on the pitch.