The nervous system of athletes in speed and power sports can be enhanced by various means such as coordination exercises, structural work, and traditional power lifting methods. Hype from professional seminar gurus are bastardizing science in order to sell "new" information. All of this evolution of strength and power training is nothing more then side show theatrics to sell "underground" manuals and bland 20-minute training videos.
The truth is that gravity, exercise and humans have not changed much in the last half century, so new ideas will be suspect and unlikely to produce better performances. The real secret is that there are no secrets, and the best way to improve maximal strength and power is to use logic and reason for progressing athletes.
Coaches will have training styles, or consistent views and choices of available options, making them unique. Investing into expanding your choices will make decisions objective without any bias or need to follow other's systems. Unfortunately having a "special method" or "newly invented technique" will give you a gimmick or special attention and serve as excellent marketing.
As a track and swimming coach I have the clock to judge what I have done with an athlete and I can say investing into what works is a wise decision.
The first and most important step in improving maximal performance is to get a basic understanding of all the different possible chronic adaptations to the nervous system from training. After you know what is possible physiologically, you can decide what training methods, volumes, and phases you can use to improve strength and power.
So many times athletes and coaches limit their training because they use only a few methods or exercises instead of knowing and using conceptual means. Exercises and rep ranges are the end result of a few methods, and should only be tools.
Intra And Inter-Muscular Coordination
Isolation, integration or both? Free weights and external loads are the primary and most effective options for training. Using exercises that exploit many joints and muscles in the body are intelligent because they teach smart recruitment patterns which exploit the body's evolved skeletal mechanisms.
While free weight exercises are nothing new, better understanding of why they work have made prescriptions more precise by narrowing down the reasons why they work.
Doing any type of training that utilizes movement patterns will improve in the following two important adaptations.
Improved Relaxation Of Antagonists
- Allows for the prime movers to produce force without opposing contraction and resistance from muscles or muscle groups by teaching them to relax. It's like taking the parking brake off when driving since only experienced drivers will feel the difference.
Improved Recruitment Order Of The Neuromuscular System
- Teaches the nervous system to find the optimal order of muscle activation in relation to timing and joint angles. A maximized pattern is when the nervous system constructs a path that fires the right muscle group with minimal power loss. Stabilizers and neutralizers will fire with the right force at the right time.
Sometimes patterns will lack a proper "gear" (strength ratio) when "shifting" (when the joint extends) and can be improved with some isolation work, or better yet, emphasis work.
If a pattern is lacking during a specific time or angle, emphasis work improves the pattern by increasing the education or strength of that muscle group. A common example of this is doing more posterior chain work for the glutes/hamstrings with more or different exercises (increase the strength via emphasis) or less training (allowing recovery via rest).
Only experienced coaches should try to alter compensations and many will work themselves out over time if one does restorative techniques (stretching, massage) and follows a good program.
Maximum or limit strength can be improved directly by using heavy loads with low rep ranges of 1-3 repetitions. While simple in nature, the adaptations to this type of training are enormous. Although this method is effective, it poses a risk to chronic or acute injuries if coaches are lazy and spend their time surfing the net instead of watching athletes train.
A solid foundation in structural training is suggested to prepare the connective tissues and bone to the rigors of heavy weight training. Contractile strength should be only used when athletes have reached a point when less intense training fails to improve strength (beginners or young athletes).
Sub-maximal work allows for an opportunity to work technique since you will be using lighter loads and higher rep ranges.
The ability to transfer energy by the muscle's structural elements through stretch-shortening work can be improved through various ballistic and plyometric activities.
Fortunately most of the work to improve this can be done via the actual sport such as running, jumping and throwing. Most work here should be either light loads or general exercises with slower velocities and reasonable volumes. The contraction velocity will not shift the firing rate to a lower speed when doing slower movements because the intent of movement and volume of sport skill will keep the force/time curve moving to a higher and faster level.
Dynamic work can help elite athletes produce force with rhythm and learn to relax antagonists at high speeds. Medicine ball work, plyometrics and band work with sub-maximal loads are effective means.
Rate Of Force Development (RFD)
Explosive work through Olympic lifts or similar types of training can improve the contraction speeds when doing initiation movements like accelerating from zero. Jump squats, Olympic lifts, some dynamic work, and even power tosses with various loads work here.
RFD can be or often is improved indirectly through the sport of other weight training methods. Remember that the following adaptations will "spill over" or overlap others since training is not compartmentalized. If one sprints in games and lifts heavy loads only, that may be enough to fulfill all of their needs, however basic.
Nervous System Imprinting And Rate Coding
Speed and power athletes can benefit from sprint training enormously if they train smart and leave the distance running for cross country runners and Forrest Gump. Many athletes improve speed at the collegiate level from strength training, only because their running programs are borderline overtraining.
While I understand that some sport specific endurance is needed, why can't you do a few short sprints at the beginning of practice and perform the endurance work after? If a team or individual decides to invest in training then they will get the best stock on the market. The expenses of the "sprint stock" are minimal in terms of equipment and time, and the results are huge.
Here is why and how sprint work could be integrated into common sports.
- Hill work is a dangerous term to be throwing out in the performance world. Hills somehow translate into monster-sized endurance campaigns instead of ways to improve acceleration mechanics/training.
Doing very short sprints (10-20m) with a grade that is safe and sane (generally, nothing over 20% works that well) you can shorten the extension of the femur to unload the hamstrings. This provides a safe way to train speed for athletes that are prone to hamstring pulls. Add in the exercise to teach the athlete to fire their arms and to drive (this drill teaches mechanics).
- Sled dragging has great benefits for
- and many athletes, but only use light loads of 10-15% of bodyweight. Time is a better indicator of appropriate loads but few people can use a stopwatch with such small values. The reason resistance works is that the stride of an athlete tends to get cleaned up by teaching a straight posture.
I suggest not using parachutes unless you are indoors, also they tend to pull athletes up and vertical instead of down and driving. Many athletes feel the need to remake the Call of the Wild movie, like when Buck drags a sled for Charlton Heston by muscling out a heavy load over yards and yards. Save such training for the strong men and/or linemen in football that are working on sport specific training.
Fly Or Zone Work
- Athletes can make great progress in learning to safely do speed work by working on flying runs of 10-30 meters. Using the Bud Winters cue of 9/10ths effort and 100% speed helps with teaching relaxation and faster speed. Athletes should not try to "shift into hyperdrive" during the run ups but try to allow their legs to step over and not try to push harder or "paw" (pull).
Just letting athletes relax their shoulders and relax through the zone works great. Rest periods are minutes here, so athletes can do intra-set work such as light core training, easy mobility work, and passive rest activities such as hydration and social time.
Sprinting is rather safe to the joints since it is natural and one doesn't have to worry about box heights and ground contact numbers in fear of overstressing the knee and foot complex. Less is more and athletes like the chance to showcase their speed, especially when fresh.
You can do speed after weights but I have had luck with doing speed first and going to the weight room later; athletes are warmed-up and can train with high loads afterward with no problems.
Utilizing The Adaptations
The first step into adjusting an athlete's training program is to evaluate the current sport specific training (practice and games) and the current performance enhancement training (strength training, power training, supplemental work). After the training has been translated into volumes and intensities you can then prescribe changes to the program to enhance performance. Most times training lacks a balance of working all the different strength qualities.
Adjusting the modes of strength for athletes will create positive adaptations to speed and power athletes if the prescription balances out the volumes and intensities to fit the entire program. Generally most methods will work, but getting too far away from increasing weight numbers will lead to stagnation if coaches forget that strength training is to improve strength.
Many great sport coaches are able to add in coordination work, balance, rhythm and some indirect variables while improving strength and power of athletes. The key is not to make an indirect quality a priority, but to blend that attribute without giving up the basic need to improve strength.
The art of strength coaching is to do as much hidden training as possible. See how much you can overlap by sneaking in warm-ups and inter-set mini workouts to use time and energy more effectively.
Athletes will come with various talent levels, training histories, schedules and sport demands. Prescribing weight training to improve performance should be simple. How strong can they get while maintaining technique?
While everyone seems to focus on Romanian Pulse Beta Systems and German Reflective Wave Programs as a path to enlightenment, the simple approach works better but of course is less marketable. Training strength and coaching technique requires patience. Small yet consistent improvements are safe and stable. Huge strength gains that are achieved quickly sometimes are lost just as fast, so spending time on the basic movements will yield the greatest dividends.