The Importance of Developing Special Strengths

Written By: Kevin Cann

Coaches and lifters will argue these days that you just need to train the main movements to get stronger at the main movements.  There are some serious flaws with this thinking.  For one, straight weight acts a particular way.

Peak contraction occurs where the leverages are weakest.  As leverages improve, deceleration occurs.  This is known as the peak contraction principle.  You can try to move straight weight with intent, but this deceleration is still going to occur.  

The argument then becomes, “Well straight weight will always act like that anyways, so it shouldn’t pose a problem.”  No one moves slow under heavy weights.  You must move heavy weights fast.  The load itself will slow the movement, but your physiology is moving as fast as it can.

Force and time have a relationship with each other.  Every movement has a start and a finish.  In the lifts, the movement begins and ends with zero velocity.  In between the start and finish, the athlete applies force to the barbell over a given amount of time.  As the working effect of the movement increases, the same lifter will apply greater force to the same weight and execute the movement in less time.  You can also only strain for so long before you fail.  As Louie says, “Strength is measured in time.”

The goal of training is to improve this working effect of the movement.  We can do this in a few ways.  First is building absolute strength.  Absolute strength is the king of all strength.  As our absolute strength increases, so will our ability to be more explosive.  The max effort method builds our absolute strength by increasing our intra and inter muscular coordination.  Basically, it is training the body to coordinate all the muscles to work together more efficiently to produce the most force.  This is a learned skill.  To get better at it, you need to practice, and at the end of the day this is specific to powerlifting.  

There will come a point, where just training for absolute strength is not enough.  The reason is that same force/time curve that I mentioned previously.  Training with heavy weights constantly will make you slower.  At some point you will run out of time.  The way that we prevent getting slower is to train to be faster. 

Another way to improve the working effect of the movement is to increase the rate of force development.  Our rate of force production is basically how quickly we can produce force.  By training at appropriate intensities, we can develop the special strength skill of coordinating motor units more efficiently.  We will recruit the larger motor units faster and more efficiently.

This is where overspeed eccentrics come in.  Bands and chains overload the eccentric piece of the lift.  This gives information to the nervous system that it needs a contraction to overcome a larger load.  The nervous system doesn’t know the weight is deloading in the bottom.  This produces a stronger concentric contraction.  This is how we train the motor units to increase the rate of force of development.

Bands are a bit different as they increase the velocity of the barbell towards earth causing an overspeed eccentric.  The kinetic energy is higher with increasing velocity in comparison to increasing mass.  This overspeed piece will train the tendons to store and release a stronger elastic rebound.  The higher the ability to utilize stored elastic energy, the lower the mechanical energy that is used.  This makes the lift more efficient but will also make training easier to recover from because we are conserving mechanical energy.  This leads to less wear and tear over time and less “miles” placed upon the body.  Straight weight uses a lot of mechanical energy, especially for those that have minimal athletic experience and lower abilities to store and utilize elastic energy.

This is likely one reason why many of the top lifters that utilize competition lift heavy programs have very strong athletic backgrounds.  They have developed the ability to store and utilize elastic energy, so the high volumes do not exceed their recovery abilities because they conserve mechanical energy well.  The competition lifts still seem to put a lot of miles on these lifters as careers tend to be much shorter.  Most see progress in a 3-to-5-year period, followed by stagnation or injury.  There may be a few exceptions out there, but not sure you want to be following what the exceptions do.

The rapid increase in force will also produce momentum.  The momentum is the area at the top of the curve where the force produced surpasses the weight of the barbell.  The combination of training special strengths will allow for a greater area under the peak of the curve.  This change in momentum is known as impulse of the force.  To not get too long with this article, just understand that the greater the impulse the greater the working effect of the movement.  It is how you lift more weight.

Westside utilizes 50% to 60% bar weight with the addition of 25% to 33% accommodating resistance to train the rate of force development.  We need to remember that these were already strong and elite lifters in most cases so these weights may need to be adjusted a bit to match the developmental period that the current lifter is in.  We base everything off of max efforts so that our intensity zones can be a bit more accurate.  

We do not ditch the competition lifts entirely.  They make up about 20% of our total volume.  We use them as an assessment tool and also, beginner to intermediate lifters need to stabilize general skills before we can remove the lifts for long periods of time.  Unfortunately many programs seem to swing this pendulum far to the other side where 80% or more of the total volume is in the competition lifts themselves.  This will produce faster results, but at what cost to long term health?  These types of programs are where we get early career peaks.  It is why we argue against early specialization.  The earlier we specialize the earlier that career peak occurs.  Powerlifting is a lifelong sport.

I believe these programs are popular because it does not take much understanding of the training process to mass produce them to a large pool of lifters.  The coaches with strong lifters utilizing these programs just casted a big enough net to catch the right person at the right time.  There really isn’t much to it beyond that.  So be careful following the crowd.

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