Monday, June 23, 2008

Hard Work Revisited: Strength and Power Points - By Ken Mannie

Ken Mannie is the Head Strength/Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University

There were so many positive responses and follow-up questions to the article Hard Work: Tough Strength training Strategies, I thought it would be a good idea to expound on the rationale for this concept and offer further perspectives.

For the sake of a quick recap, it is my opinion that even in the current maelstrom of fitness industry methodologies, there will always be that corner of sanity known as hard work. It is a corner that we like to visit frequently and consider to be a mainstay in our training paradigm.

This segment is not about specific exercises, sets, reps, volume, or any other traditional training topics. This time out I will simply discuss the intrinsic, extrinsic, mental, and physical benefits of hard work. And while the meaning of hard work tends to get lost in translation, our definition is branded with a tough mind-set and an aggressive physical approach.

Basically, this is about occasionally deviating from the aforementioned rigid, albeit necessary, training playbook to grind-out a truly demanding workout. It’s about being more concerned about the effort put forth within a set, and moving on to the next set with the same mental approach, than just about any other aspect of the workout. The theme of the training session is displayed by its aggressive nature and the fact that – in the case of strength training -- each work set is taken to fatigue (i.e., the inability to perform another rep with proper form), or just short of that point in cases where safety might be compromised.

Or, if the workout is in a setting where a challenging activity is being executed to develop mental toughness as much as any physical components (e.g., the pictured tire flip) it is done with intensity, passion, and purpose – in addition to proper technique.

Simply put, this is gut-wrenching work that tests the body, mind, and soul. It is the type of work that is designed by and for people who love to train for sake of the training itself.

Why? Because they are cut from the cloth of hard work!

Note: Remember that this discussion has absolutely nothing to do with making a wholesale change in your current system. Most of what we do readily adapts to this format, as we train very closely to this manner on a consistent basis. Therefore, the transition to an “all-out” effort on every set/activity is relatively seamless for us. In your case, maybe it will require more of an orientation period to get the point across.

And don’t be concerned with unsubstantiated comments such as, “That’s bodybuilding stuff, and it’s not conducive to power development.” Actually, this is “building the body stuff,” and it has everything to do with power development from every cellular, neural, and histological standpoint. Therefore, this is not so much a training philosophy as it is a researched, proven, highly efficient, and relatively safe approach to training. And, in the end, it is about constructing strong, powerful, durable, and mentally tough athletes. The take-home point here is that even if you normally perform workouts that are the polar opposite of what is being described here because you believe in what you’re doing and have had great success with it, then by all means stay with the status quo. If you’re more open to intermittent change-ups, then this might be an option. And here are some reasons why.

Improving Raw Material

A key component of strength training is the positive effect it has on body composition and adaptations in the nervous system. Enhancing muscle size (again, “building the body”) exponentially heightens strength and power, thus enabling greater efficiency in the execution of athletic skills. Of course, the rate and level of these skill improvements will ultimately depend upon the quality of the teaching and learning processes.

The groundwork for these improvements in the body’s raw material are initiated through the increases in actin and myosin (the tension generating units of muscle tissue), which are major constituents in force and power production. Strength training initiates the proliferation of actin and myosin, while concurrently magnifying the stability of tendons, ligaments, and other cellular variants of connective tissue.

Running parallel with these histological upgrades are the neural adaptations that, especially in the early phase of resistance training, are key components in both the strength and lifting skill improvements. This aggregate of neuromuscular implications is vast, but the elements of “excitory” and “inhibitory” messages are the ones deserving mention here. Excitory messages, as the word implies, force our muscles into action. Inhibitory messages act to hold us back and, in some cases, serve to protect us.

Example: If we are not physically capable or prepared to lift a heavy object, a neural message is sent to the involved musculature to relax, thus prohibiting the continuation of the action and risking injury.

As the athlete becomes stronger and more neurologically efficient, these inhibitory messages are gradually abated. The results include a higher proficiency in recruiting muscle fibers and eventually mastering the specific lifting skill. The latter point is critical, as the immediate improvements that are noted in the early phase of the training program – especially with novice trainees – is due in large part to lifting skill improvements.

Gradual stimulation of the musculature with progressively more difficult workloads reduces the inhibitory impulses picked-up by the sensory receptors that monitor changes in muscle length. The result: An improved economy of muscle fiber firing and greater power output. This is known as motor unit “synchronization,” and it is a major player in the strength and power game plan. Motor unit synchronization enhances the rate of force development, i.e., the speed with which a lifting movement or athletic skill is performed.

Slow Twitch, Fast Twitch, and Power Output

Our muscle tissue is comprised of a spectrum of fibers that have varying endurance and force generating characteristics.
There is ongoing discussion, research, and speculation on the extent of this spectrum and in defining a compartmentalized classification of fiber types.

For this discussion, we will simply refer to them as slow twitch (ST) or fast twitch (FT) fibers.

Muscle fibers are recruited (i.e., called upon from a cadre of neural pathways to perform a task) according to what is known as the “size principle of motor unit recruitment.” The activation is initiated with the ST fibers, which are smaller, and incrementally advanced to the FT fibers, which are larger.

Initially, if the force requirements are low, the ST fibers are more than capable of handling the load, regardless of the speed of movement (i.e., “explosive,” or more controlled).

As the force requirements are heightened to a level where the ST fibers can no longer sustain the effort, the FT fibers are activated to continue the task.

FT fibers generate more force and can do so in a shorter period of time than ST fibers. However, keep in mind that the key precept in FT activation is the force requirement, not necessarily the speed of movement.

In terms of strength training movements, it may be your preference to lift relatively light to moderate loads in a fast manner due to your background or as predicated by the chosen exercises. Even so, you would be well-served, in my opinion, to insert workouts now and then that require moderate to heavy loads performed with the “intent” to move fast on the raising (positive) phase, and purposely controlled on the lowering (negative) phase.

The fact that the load is “moderate to heavy” will usually inhibit a rapid external rep. However, because there is an inverse relationship between movement speed and muscle force production (known as the force/velocity curve), it’s a good bet that the targeted musculature will generate a high grade of force.

Additionally, if possible and within the parameters of safety, execute the set to the point of fatigue for fiber recruitment purposes. Obviously, there are movements and equipment modes where this method would be contraindicated, but those are fairly evident and can be identified with good judgment.

Final Rep

The donnybrook over training issues including movements vs. muscles, free weights vs. machines, fast vs. controlled speeds, ad nauseam, has no end in sight. That’s a good thing, however, as the differences in opinion stimulate discussion and encourage further research. Hard work, on the other hand, has few detractors and infinite benefactors!


Coaches, kick-start your metabolism! OK, all of you coaches 30 and over, let’s skip the stages of denial and anger regarding your plummeting metabolism and go immediately to being pro-active in doing something about it. The fact is that after age 30, our body’s metabolism slows down by about 2% per decade, due in large part to a loss of muscle mass. Unfortunately, it is possible to lose as much as 50% of our muscle mass between ages 20-90, with an exceptionally high rate of loss from ages 50-70. This dilemma leads to fewer calories burned and more stored body fat. For women in menopause, the metabolism is slowed even further. While there is no one sure-fire answer to reverse this process, there is a battle plan that, if followed with consistency and perseverance, can be a great help:

Note: Since individual differences are certainly prime considerations in any health prescription, consultation with your primary care physician is a must in order to eliminate the possibility of any underlying problem.

• Eat breakfast every day – This will ignite your metabolism and rev it up for burning calories. When you skip meals – especially breakfast – your body has a tendency to store more calories as fat. Also, there is a tendency to overeat at other meals when you skip the ones that should have preceded them.

• Eat frequently (“graze”) – As crazy as it may sound, eating small amounts of food every 2-3 hours helps to keep you metabolic fire lit. Therefore, you will burn calories at a fairly constant rate throughout the day. Just an asterisk, here: Remember the term “small amounts” of food when proceeding with this suggestion.

• Eat “lean” protein – Lean protein sources (e.g., skinless poultry, fish, non-fat dairy products, beans, certain nuts, and the leaner, less-marbled beef cuts) can boost metabolism when eaten in moderation. The recommendation here is to consume no more than about 1/3 of your daily calories from these sources.

• Exercise frequently – Most recommendations here are in the 30-60 minute range of moderate to vigorous physical activity (primarily of an aerobic nature) on most days of the week.

• Strength train at least 2-3 days per week – Remember that one of the primary reasons for a lower metabolism is muscle loss. Resistance training can counter this loss and is especially important as we age. Heavy weights and competitive style lifts are not necessary, just a good total body plan that addresses all of the major muscle groups.

• Get adequate sleep – Being too tired to exercise and binging on snack foods as a “pick-me-up” are two pitfalls of inadequate sleep. More research must be done in this area, but some experts are concerned that a lack of sleep may affect appetite-regulating hormones. The bottom line: Stay as well-rested as possible.

Ken Mannie

Physical Culture
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