Getting Stronger and Faster (While cutting weight)

A primer on speed, power, and improving performance without the added bulk

There are few blanket statements that can be made in sport- what is considered an asset in one particular athletic event can be a tremendous hindrance in others.  Bulk makes a football lineman better at his job and improves leverages in a heavyweight powerlifter, but is nothing but a hindrance for an endurance cyclist. A high level of physical intensity may benefit a rugby player, but for a competitive shooter it is the ability to calm one’s nerves that is critical. The list is nearly endless- for nearly every performance or physical parameter, there is a sport that rewards one extreme end of the spectrum and punishes the other.

Having said this, one blanket statement can be made for the MAJORITY of readers here- improving your power to weight ratio can only benefit you in any chosen athletic endeavor.  This is also true for those who have goals that may include passing physical fitness tests for employment (such as those in the military or police/fire services), or even those simply wishing to trim down for summer without compromising sports performance.  If your objective is to learn the basics on improving your strength, power to weight ratio, speed, and quickness, then read on.

What IS power?  What IS speed?

Strength is the one universal parameter mentioned above that the majority of readers are familiar with.  In this article, we will primarily be discussing maximal strength when the word is used: In other words, the ability to generate maximum force against a maximum load.  Power and speed, however, are more ambiguous terms (athletically speaking- the true definitions are very specific).

An Olympic lifter may view speed and power as related to lifting a maximum weight at maximum velocity in a total effort measuring mere seconds or fractions of a second, while a 400 meter runner may view speed and power as the ability to engage in optimal power generation over much longer durations.  A baseball pitcher who needs arm speed to throw a 5 ounce baseball will train VERY differently than a shot putter throwing a 16 pound shot, yet both would consider “power and speed” to be their primary performance parameters.

This is why there are several definitions which must be established now that will be used for the duration of the article.  Please note these are in keeping with the traditional definitions of the terms, if somewhat simplified:

Strength-speed:  The body’s ability to move a maximum or near-maximum load quickly.  An example would be an Olympic lifter performing a snatch. This is also the kind of strength used by track cyclists, though not by track sprinters (more on this later).  This is closely related to maximum strength, though the two can diverge somewhat depending on training style.

Speed-strength: The ability to move a submaximal weight with high velocity. Throwing a shot, throwing a baseball, performing a vertical jump, the initial acceleration phase of a sprint- these all fall within this category.  There is much less relation between speed-strength and maximum strength, and improved performance in one will not necessarily result in any improvement in the other (in some cases, certain kinds of training can improve one at the expense of the other).

Local Muscular Endurance (anaerobic): The ability of a given muscle group to continuously generate peak (or optimum) force over a brief period of time. For a shot putter, this is not an important parameter.  For a sprinter, this is absolutely critical.

Reactive ability: A muscle’s potential for explosive or powerful effort after stretching. Consider a long jumper’s takeoff leg, a powerlifter at the bottom of a bench press, or even a boxer withdrawing a jab and following with a cross. In all these cases, the ability to generate force immediately after a stretch is crucial.

Why are these different definitions important?  One could argue that they do a wonderful job in creating a bunch of buzz words that make this article seem very cutting edge and sexy. In reality, however, all these components are improved in dramatically different ways, and understanding what it is you are trying to improve with any given program is the difference between making progress and wasting a whole bunch of time.  This article will focus on the first three items, with a follow up devoted to the last.

Getting down to it: Why caloric restriction and cutting weight are relevant, and how to do this:

The final introductory piece- the weight cutting element is relevant because fewer calories equals less recovery.  It also means that the most obvious way to add strength (i.e. add more muscle) is not applicable.  There are nearly zero circumstances where an individual cutting weight can add significant amounts of skeletal muscle- certainly not without significant pharmaceutical assistance.  This means that the focus here will be improving performance of EXISTING muscle- focusing your workouts on improving your body’s ability to utilize the structure it has.

As far as weight loss, if speed, power, strength, or performance is the goal, the athlete should NEVER haphazardly introduce cardiovascular activity or “high intensity” complexes with a goal of weight loss.  When in a caloric restriction, it becomes MORE important (not less) that the individual NOT engage in needlessly catabolic non-specific activity that is not improving performance.  Weight loss should be achieved via diet modification, period full stop.  Although there are ways to improve cardiovascular conditioning in conjunction with strength (https://www.completehumanperformance.com/so-you-want-to-run.html , https://www.completehumanperformance.com/so-you-want-to-run-part-2.html ), this should in general not be done when attempting to shed weight.

Regarding diet modifications, I do not advocate low carbohydrate diets for the athlete- the most logical diet to follow is simply across the board small reductions.  Chronically low carbohydrate intake may begin to diminish exercise performance, which in turn limits the quality (and therefore the benefits) of training.

High protein diets may be the rage in some circles, but quite frankly the majority of athletes take in more than enough.  1 gram per pound of bodyweight (or 2.2 grams per kilogram) is MORE than sufficient, even when dieting.  To put this in perspective, patients hospitalized with significant burn injuries (who are shedding body proteins at an incredibly rapid rate, close to ten times the rate of a healthy yet protein starved individual), are typically put on diets rarely exceeding 3 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.  It is HIGHLY unlikely that a healthy athlete, regardless of level of activity, is exceeding this rate of protein loss.  Supplementation with glutamine and branched chain amino acids may be helpful, particularly during exercise, but are not necessary.  Yes, there is the fact that these burn victims are given massive quantities of food (which then theoretically exerts an overall anti-catabolic effect), yet the challenge even with this hypercaloric diet is simply preventing weight LOSS.  Which all is to say- no matter how hard core you think your training may be, it will never tax your system to the limit the way these poor souls’ systems are.  So stop shoveling the protein.

Regarding meal timing- it is encouraged that the individual, when possible, shift meals to better coincide with chosen athletic activity, taking in the majority of carbohydrates pre-, peri- and post-workout (to optimize performance), with protein spread across the day evenly (as repair and regrowth is a constant activity).

Therefore, to sum up- if the goal is improving ANY measure of performance during weight loss, this is best achieved via a 10-15% of reduction in calories across the board with no additional cardiovascular or non-specific activity.  Period, full stop.

Concurrent periodization for speed and power development: 

Though there are many programs out there that separate the development of different performance parameters into different mesocycles (medium length training cycles) throughout the year, that is not the scope of this discussion- rather, the emphasis here will be on adjusting your current training routine to improve strength, speed and power simultaneously, without dropping the specific training activities you would otherwise be doing. At this point I ask you not to dwell on the fact that “concurrent periodization” is a complete oxymoron. If you are the sort of individual who is turned off by silly terms and inconsistencies in definitions, then you’d likely have given up on fitness writing long ago.

Part 1: Improving maximum strength and strength-speed:

This is the portion that will appeal the most to the maximum strength set- those individuals looking to move big weights or dramatically improve explosive power against high loads (Run blocking, for example, or being on the less populated side of the ruck in a rugby game).

All muscles contract using the same basic principles- ion transport powers the attachment, configuration change, and detachment of protein cross bridges in a given muscle fiber, which causes contractile proteins to slide across each other and, well, contract.  Multiple muscle fibers contract at once (the motor unit), producing a net contractile force. All of the motor units that comprise a muscle eventually contract if the demand is high enough.  However, the RATE of contraction, as well as the number of motor units contracted at once, are significant here.  Please note- there are multiple kinds of muscle fibers, including type I (typically called slow twitch), type IIa, IIb, IIx (fast twitch), and various proposed permutations of these. As this discussion is on strength and power, type II are what is generally being referred to. Back on topic:

Assuming a single motor unit contracts then fatigues (and relaxes), the power curve over time may look like this:

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Figure 1: Single Motor Unit Contraction

 

Note, the X axis is time in milliseconds, the Y axis is the force exerted (in an arbitrary scale).

In a muscle, there are multiple motor units, which under maximum load will all be called upon to contract (There are several systems that govern order of recruitment, but they are beyond the scope of this article).  Suffice it to say that in an untrained individual, these multiple motor units will contract over a given period of time, with a peak level indicating the maximum force that can be generated.  This may appear as follows:

 

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Figure 2: Untrained Multiple Motor Unit Contraction

 

Note the power peak around 68 of our arbitrary unit.  This is the absolute MAXIMUM FORCE that this muscle can exert, any load that requires a momentary power input higher than this will simply not move.  Note the width of the total chart area- from 10 to 60 milliseconds, and 150 to 210, less than half of the maximum force is being exerted.  This is over 50% of the total contraction time, and if the goal is to move a single load, this is essentially wasted effort- in fact, certain motor units are already fatiguing while others are just beginning to engage, and at no point is this half effort exerting significant force upon the load.
Now, say the same individual were to specifically train to optimize motor unit recruitment, through the types of training to be mentioned shortly.  With the same number of motor units, engaged more quickly, the graph now appears as such:

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Figure 3: Trained Multiple Motor Unit Contraction

 

With NO change in motor unit number or individual power output, the force peak is now well over 100.  The total duration of contraction has been reduced by 50 milliseconds, but now a load that was previous immovable can be easily overcome.

Picture two teams playing tug of war- one team haphazard, the other well synchronized.  One team has people pulling whenever they want, some pulling their hardest and exhausting themselves before others have even picked up the rope.  Now the other team stands by, and at the signal, pulls simultaneously with all their effort.  Which team wins, and which team ends up face down in the mud?

So how does one go about improving rate of motor unit recruitment?  Simply put- we fall back to the SAID principle- Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. In other words, if you want to train your muscles to contract quickly and against maximum load, this is what you need to do in the gym.

Incorporating strength-speed work into training:

Strength-speed work is rather specific- high repetition low weight, high weight slow speed, and so forth do little to improve rate of power production.  To improve the ability to generate maximum force, the athlete does need to engage in both maximum effort lifting (to improve absolute power peak and motor unit synchronization) and dynamic effort lifting (to improve motor unit synchronization and speed of contraction), the former of which includes maximal or near maximal stimulus, the latter of which includes lower weight (~50-60% of maximum) moved at maximum velocity.

When deciding on a routine, the individual athlete should look carefully at the particular movement or movements that they are looking to improve- for a football lineman, the back squat, front squat, and incline press are most directly related to blocking power.  For a track cyclist, the lunge or back squat is most related.

Generally speaking, within a given athlete’s routine, both maximum effort and dynamic effort training can be performed within the same session (maximum effort first, as to maximize benefit it requires the freshest muscles), or on separate sessions during a given week or training microcycle.  Loading protocols are relatively irrelevant, but for maximum effort the training effect REQUIRES weights over 90% of true maximum.  If lower weights are moved, motor unit synchronization is less important, and the objective is missed.

For dynamic effort, the athlete must be careful not to use too much weight (or too little)- weights that are too light (20-30% of max) do not provide enough mechanical load to require ALL motor units be recruited, and weights that are too heavy (60+%) cannot be moved with enough velocity to train rapid contraction.  Sets should also be kept relatively short- 2-4 repetitions are ideal, as velocity tends to decrease as the set goes on.  Multiple sets can be used here, until performance begins to decline.

Note that progress with this sort of training is NOT contingent on hypertrophy- the body can and will continue to improve rate of motor unit recruitment (though this does approach a limit eventually), and lift heavier and heavier weights with no increase in muscle size.  In fact, smaller motor units recruiting more efficiently can technically exert more force than larger motor units recruiting slowly and inefficiently, so an athlete can get smaller AND stronger.

Practically speaking, this would mean the following sample routine for improving a squat:

Maximum effort training

Primary exercise (back squat)
Warm up:
20% of max x 10
50% of max x 6
70% of max x 2
80% of max x 1

Work set:
90% of max x 1
95% of max x 1
100-101% of max x 1

Secondary exercise (Good mornings)
70% of max x 4 (warm up)
95% of max x 2
100% of max x 1

Dynamic effort
Primary exercise (back squat)
Warm up:
20% of max x 10
30% of max x 8
50% of max x 6

Work set:
55% of max x 3 for 8 sets.

Note- objective is maximum velocity- quick eccentric, explosive concentric

There would of course be significant accessory work, depending on the athlete’s goals- a powerlifter may then perform significantly more barbell based posterior chain work, a track cyclist would move to Olympic squats or depth jumps, while a bodybuilder or recreational athlete may move to individual isolations.

Many may note that this is precisely the sort of general training advocated by Westside Barbell- this is logical, as moving a maximal load (and maximizing power to weight) are the goals of powerlifting.  Therefore, this may be the most familiar training template to many readers.  Also worth noting is that a discipline typically thought of as more of a “speed” discipline- that is track cycling, is included here.  This is because track cycling, at the risk of angering a few track cyclists, is not a sport of technique.  There is tremendous strategy involved, of that there is no doubt, but repeated analysis of the pedal strokes involved show that the best performance simply comes from exerting maximum force against a given load at the best possible speed.  As the gearing on track bikes is fixed, for the majority of the acceleration the actual force required to crank the pedal a full revolution is phenomenally high- by breaking down instant wattage it can be calculated that the momentary force applied to the pedals can often be in the order of 1300-1400 Newtons PER LEG, or over 180KG of force.  This is equivalent to a repeated 300 pound single leg squat! (Though granted, this is over a limited range of motion.)

One only needs look at the legs of some of these individuals to understand.

 

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Image 1: Robert Forstemann, German Olympic Track Cyclist

 

Is this immediately relevant?  Yes and no- it is always worth considering, when looking at your chosen discipline, just what kind of strength is needed.  The answer is not always obvious.

Improving speed-strength and maximum velocity:

The vertical jump, the baseball throw, the forward punch or side kick, the sprint start, all of these are activities in which the body is exerting a sudden, rapid maximum contraction against loads that may be challenging, but are well below the maximum threshold.

As mentioned previously, this ability to exert maximum force against a relatively light load is not necessarily related to maximum strength- A running back or rugby flanker may be explosive and powerful, but a wide receiver with a much lower maximum squat may be capable of a much higher vertical leap.  A professional powerlifter capable of bench pressing over 800 pounds may not come close to an Olympic javelin thrower’s explosive arm strength.  No matter how much the former sets of athletes improve their maximum strength, their performance in these latter activities may not improve much.

The first reason, of course, is practice- these are all technical movements that require varying degrees of practice to master, even the simple act of jumping as high as possible from a crouch.  A second factor could be a difference in body mass- the aforementioned running backs may simply be too massive to propel their bodies to the same height as the wide receiver.  This is precisely why power output needs to be optimized at a given body size for maximum performance.  The third and most important reason, however, is that these speed-strength athletes have developed the ability to recruit proportionately MORE motor units against lighter loads, and recruit them more quickly.  Do note, however, that the total number of motor units recruited is not necessarily as important as the RATE of motor unit recruitment- a smaller motor pool contracting very quickly can impart greater acceleration to a light load than a larger muscle pool contracting more slowly.

So how do you train this?  Again, specificity of movement and loading- even loads of 50% of maximum power output may be too great- loads closer to the target movement’s may be more appropriate (20-30% of maximum squat for a vertical jump, 15-20% of maximum bench for a shot put, etc.)  Range of motion is also critically important- though a vertical jump does not necessarily start from a deep squat, training a movement over a range of motion greater than needed trains the muscles to already be at maximum contraction at the start of the target movement- going back to the charts above, if the “0” msec point is always at the start of a jump (or punch, or throw), then the body will NEVER be trained to exert maximum force at that given (starting) joint angle.  If the target movement starts around the 30-40 msec point (i.e. the body is moving THROUGH that starting point at the time of significant contraction), the body is already training to contract forcefully at that given point in the movement.

 

Also worth noting- though improving maximum strength alone will not necessarily improve speed strength, a greater force peak IN CONJUNCTION with speed strength training will result in improved performance.  Therefore I recommend that these speed athletes also incorporate maximum effort work, though this does not always have to be in the form of a major power lift or Olympic lift.  For example- improving one’s bench press will do little to improve one’s baseball throw, in general.  For these sorts of extremely low load high velocity movements, where smaller muscle groups are the prime movers (such as the rotators and deltoids), maximum effort work should be more directed towards the core, with the athlete concentrating on high resistance abdominal rotations and back/shoulder movements to build up the structures that support the arm.  

 

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Image  2:  Pyrros Dimas and Shane Hamman demonstrate that training for maximum strength certainly aids in building speed-strength and explosiveness

 

For improving the vertical jump, a program may therefore look like this:

(Note that there are those who would consider a vertical jump a strength-speed exercise.  However, the relative load of one’s own bodyweight compared to maximum load that can be handled during a squat is extremely low in most cases, so for the average fit individual a vertical jump is more a measure of speed and explosiveness, not strength.)

Maximum effort movement- full back squat

Primary exercise (back squat)

Warm up:
20% of max x 10
50% of max x 6
70% of max x 2
80% of max x 1

Work set:
90% of max x 1
95% of max x 1
100-101% of max x 1

Secondary exercise- Standing calf raise:
95% of back squat x 4
95% of back squat x 4 (paused)
100% of back squat x 4 (paused)

Though the pause diminishes the reactive strength component (discussed later), it forces the body to utilize muscle power, not stored elastic energy, to accelerate.

Speed-strength movements:

Full range of motion jump squats (Smith machine or free weight):

Bar x 10
20% of back squat x 6
20% of back squat x 4 x 10 (10 sets, 4 repetitions each, performed explosively.)

Secondary movement:
Power cleans/power snatches:
25% of max x 6
35% of max x 3 x 4 (4 sets of 3 repetitions)

Note the higher percentage for power cleans/snatches- as these movements are by nature explosive, as well as highly technical, there is a certain amount of “buffer” built in between tested max and theoretical max- in other words, the typical athlete may only be able to perform 80-85% of one’s true “max” on a regular basis due to technique issues (as compared to 95+% of a more simple movement).  Therefore, 35% of this practical maximum is, in actuality, closer to the 20-25% of one’s actual maximum.

Improving local muscular endurance:

Maximum immediate power output may be all well and good for certain athletes, but for those out there looking to maximize power over time, a different approach is needed.  Certainly running a fast 100 meters, accelerating a bike up a hill, or even running a quick out route requires more than just immediate strength- it requires the ability to generate repeated submaximal force without degradation in performance.

One thing to bear in mind- there is a SIGNIFICANT form and skill component to this sort of performance- explosive power and speed may give an athlete the potential to run quickly, but it does not guarantee top performance.  The majority of individuals looking to sprint faster, run a better mile, perform better on the bike, or be a bigger factor on the rugby pitch are best served practicing their sport under the guidance of a competent coach.

This is not to say there are not things that can be done to optimize potential, however.  Improving local muscular endurance is tremendously important for any athlete requiring sustained or repeated high performance and explosive power, and it requires specific training.

First and foremost, local muscular endurance is just that- localized. Spending one’s time in the pool swimming will do little to improve a runner’s speed- at best this sort of cross training can help maintain basic aerobic capacity. The specific adaptations these individuals are looking for need to be developed by performing lifts and drills targeting the same energy systems as the sport specific demand.  For example, a sprinter should be focusing on repeated effort, explosive, free weight leg exercises, as well as drills that repeatedly call upon the body to quickly replenish ATP/CP (Adenosine Triphosphate and Creatine Phosphate- the primary energy currency and short term energy storage molecules respectively) with minimal recovery.  Training should also focus on improving lactic acid clearance and maintaining steady pacing to avoid premature exhaustion.

Resistance exercises and sports specific drills should also go hand in hand- there is no reason why a sprinter should not run then squat (in that order- always perform the higher skill task first), or a rower should not hit the erg then the weights.

Finally, note that, as with all these strength parameters, maximum force production is still important, therefore maximum effort work is STILL performed.

An example routine for an individual looking for improved 200 meter sprint performance (to be done IN CONJUNCTION with standard 200 meter workouts, which could include 100 meter repeats, off-distance repeats, pacing drills, etc):

Alactic drills and lifting (one given day): 

Sprint drills- alactic (CTP/CP) intervals:
4 (8 x 30) meter sprints- 20 seconds between sprints, 1:30 between sets.
6 x 50 meter sprints- 50 meter walk between sprints.

Gym lifts:
Jump squats: 20% of back squat max x 12- 3 sets with 30 seconds rest
Olympic back squats: 35% of max x 15- 4 sets with 0:45 rest.
Glute-ham raises: 4 sets of 15-18 repetitions, 3 sets with 0:30 rest

Power development day:
Back squat:
Warm up:
20% of max x 10
50% of max x 6
70% of max x 2
80% of max x 1

Work set:
90% of max x 1
95% of max x 1
100-101% of max x 1

Accessory lift- standing lunge:
5 sets of 6 per leg, weight selected to achieve failure on rep 7.

Hill sprints or parachute drag sprints:
12 x 25-30 meter intervals, 1:00 rest between.

LT training day- combination training (best done with a treadmill):
5 minute treadmill warmup, easy jog.
Set performed 3 times, 1:00 rest between:

Front squat- 50% of max x 15 (fast and explosive)
1:00 run at 800 meter pace
Set performed 3 times, 0:45 rest between:

Lunge hops- 20
0:45 run at 400 meter pace
Set performed 3 times, 0:45 rest between:

Back squat- 25% of max x 15 (extremely rapid)
0:45 run at 400 meter pace
5 minute cooldown

In Conclusion

Note these sample routines are not absolute- they should simply illustrate a few methods of training given energy pathways.  As with all these routines, adjustments can and should be made, but hopefully this has given you, the reader, some ideas on how to begin designing or tweaking your existing routine to improve your strength and power.

Part 2 will address reactive strength- as this is an extremely complex form of training, it deserves special mention. There is a lot more to it than simply doing box jumps or throwing in other plyometrics haphazardly into your routine- doing so without proper structure is a wonderful way to injure yourself.

As always, we would love to hear from you.  If you have any questions or comments after reading this article, and would like some input on designing or tweaking your own routine, please don’t hesitate to contact us via our contact page, or send me an email directly atalex.viada@completehumanperformance.com

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