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how to build functional strength

Bridging the Gap Between Strength in the Weight Room and Power on the Playing Field

by Alec Enkiri | 1/17/20

Introduction

It's pretty widely regarded at this point that lifting weights and getting stronger is highly beneficial for athletic performance enhancement when implemented properly. The myth of the inevitably "muscle bound" athlete who can't move correctly has been pretty well dispelled in recent years as there has been a clear cut distinction drawn between bodybuilding style training and generalized strength training, with many of the ideologies of the former now considered a no no for athletes who are looking to enhance movement capacity. However, even though the question of efficacy has been resolved, there is often still great confusion amongst athletes and trainees about how to implement this strength training properly in order to reap the greatest possible performance enhancing benefits on the playing field.

Two Kinds of Coaches

Part of this confusion stems from the coaches themselves. There are coaches on one end of the spectrum who are so entrenched in the idea of classic strength training as the end all be all that they essentially disregard the notion of carryover, assuming that all strength built will yield a proportionate or at least semi-proportionate increase in performance outside of the weight room. This view is myopic. Coaches like this will likely produce many big and strong athletes who, unless they are extremely gifted genetically, are not very athletic and will thus get outperformed, rendering their size and strength relatively useless. These guys have part of the puzzle figured out but are still missing a few of the pieces.

On the other end of the spectrum are the gimmicky, "functional performance" style coaches. These are the guys who have no background in strength training, cannot properly coach barbell lifts, and altogether seem to lack an understanding of how increasing strength to a significant and measurable degree can potentially lead to large increases in performance. Thus, they choose to focus primarily on gimmicky speed drills - think speed ladders, a lot of low level plyometric hopping style movements, and more unilateral "stabilization" work than any single person should have to stomach. As a general rule, they also seem to be fans of making people tired with no real rhyme or reason as to why. I'm not sure what these coaches do but they certainly don't make anyone strong, they don't make anyone resilient, and they don't make anyone fast who wasn't already going to be fast anyway.

Getting From "Strength" to "Speed"

Now, if we take a look at the strength-speed continuum we can see all of the physical qualities that must be trained and built in order to work our way from "strength" over to "speed," i.e. convert the ability to produce high levels of force independent of velocity concerns into the ability to produce high levels of force concurrent with high levels of velocity, and thus enhance raw athleticism.

Maximal strength is a function of force production with little influence from velocity. Maximal speed is a function of velocity with little influence from force production. Power is a perfect marriage between force and velocity.

Please note, I say "raw" here because no amount or type of training is going to turn Steve Urkel into Michael Jordan. There is a large genetic component to athleticism and you can't alter your lineage. It is also highly influenced by the activities you chose to partake in during your formative years, which is time spent that you can't get back now. So there are many factors at play here that are beyond our control. However, with proper training we can take the horsepower that supplies these athletic movements and greatly amplify it - allowing you to run a little bit faster, jump a little bit higher, and cut a little bit quicker - thereby potentially turning a decent athlete into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into an exceptional one. Anyway, end tangent. Strength, which is the most highly trainable physical attribute on the continuum, is on the right. Speed, which is the least trainable physical attribute on the continuum, is on the left. And then there is everything else tapering off at varying degrees in between.

The problem with both of the aforementioned ideologies is that they focus on only one end of the spectrum while ignoring what lies on the other side as well as everything in between. As with most things in life, however, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. As I've stated, it is very much possible to enhance athleticism through strength training. In my opinion, if you are looking to truly maximize athletic performance, strength training is, in fact, a requirement. But "strength" does not actually directly enhance athleticism, instead, it supports its enhancement. It provides the well for you to draw athletic capacity from. However, power and speed-strength are the attributes that directly improve movement capacity. These are the strength qualities that enhance your ability to accelerate, cut hard, run fast, jump high, move swiftly, punch, kick, throw, etc. etc. etc. These are the strength qualities that are the direct foundation of athleticism & movement capacity and maximal strength is the well that these qualities are drawn from. The problem is that these attributes exist far and away from each other on the spectrum and training one likely does not directly affect the other.

The Force-Velocity Curve

To really help visualize this concept I find it helpful to understand the force-velocity curve (Figure A). The force-velocity curve is a simple graph with velocity of movement depicted on the X axis and force depicted on the Y axis. Along the curve exists all the different physical qualities that make up the strength-speed continuum, and it shows us that each physical quality requires its own unique blend of both force production and velocity attainment in order for that characteristic to be displayed most optimally. Note that in time each physical quality must be developed in order to maximally improve performance, create the most well-rounded athlete, and maximize long term development without undergoing long periods of stagnation.

On one end you have maximal strength, which is mostly a function of force with little influence from velocity. On the other end you have maximal speed, which is highly influenced by velocity with little influence from maximal force production. And in between you have all the other physical qualities which are different blends of these two characteristics (strength-speed, power, speed-strength, etc.). Note, for example, that the act of sprinting still requires substantial resistance to be overcome and as such is actually a display of power & speed-strength rather than pure speed, and therefore it lies somewhere in the middle section of the curve between these two qualities, though somewhat skewed towards the speed-strength side of things due to the utilization of elastic energy that is present at high speed of movement.

Figure A

The bilateral vertical jump, which allows for longer ground contact times than sprinting and therefore more conscious force production, is basically a function of power and as such also falls somewhere in the middle section of the curve between these two qualities, albeit with a greater reliance on power (more force production, less elastic energy) and less reliance on speed-strength as compared to sprinting. Accelerating into a sprint, which is less dependent on elastic energy than sprinting as it requires overcoming the inertia of one's own body weight, also allows for slightly longer ground contact times and, similar to the bilateral vertical jump, is consequently also basically a function of power.

This means that possessing a blend of both maximal strength and speed is required for maximizing overall athletic performance. It is known that with training the force-velocity curve can straighten out (Figure B), and so focusing solely on speed and power exercises can be a quick way to initially improve power & speed for a very short period of time. However, the force-velocity curve cannot become convex, therefore, by focusing only on these sorts of exercises power development will very soon become capped and in order to make further progress you must focus on developing all the physical qualities that exist along the force-velocity curve, including maximal force output, thereby shifting the entire curve to the right (Figure C). By focusing on developing the entire force-velocity curve power development can, in theory, be improved indefinitely.

Figure B

An example of someone who spends all of their time focusing on speed & power exercises while ignoring maximal force production. They've made some gains, but power & speed are now capped and cannot improve without first improving the ability to produce maximal force.

Figure C

An example of someone who has taken the time to focus on all the attributes of the strength-speed continuum and has therefore experienced an even shifting of the force-velocity curve. This athlete is going to experience much greater gains in the long term and could theoretically improve in this fashion indefinitely.

We start by focusing on maximal strength because it is the most readily trainable physical attribute on the curve (also perhaps the most enduring), the one that we can improve upon to the greatest degree in the long term, and it is the adaptation that all the other adaptations are ultimately hinged on, opening up the door for the development of the other qualities. If power & speed are the bucket, then maximal strength is the well. If the well is small then you can only fill up a tiny bucket. Conversely, the bigger the well the bigger of a bucket you can you can put into it and the more you can draw out from it (more strength = more potential for power & speed). But you can't possess large levels of speed without first having large levels of speed-strength; you can't possess large levels of speed-strength without first having large levels of power; you can't possess large levels of power without first having large levels of strength-speed; and you can't possess large levels of strength-speed without a large base of strength to draw it from. Thus, in order to reap the greatest improvements in long term athletic development and performance enhancement you must work your way across the strength-speed continuum, building the bridge from strength to speed, and this requires working on multiple different strength qualities over the course of your training career.

Now before someone jumps down my throat and says something like:

Usain Bolt was the fastest man in history and he wasn't strong at all!

...are you sure he wasn't strong? Sure, maybe he didn't look strong, but that doesn't mean that his legs and hips weren't capable of producing incredible amounts of force with just a little bit of practice. If he were put on a proper strength training program in his prime he would have almost undoubtedly achieved rapid strength development that would cement him firmly into the elite category very quickly because, in an individual like that, the strength is already there - it's just hiding under the surface. Not to mention, power & speed performance are all relative to the individual. Nervous system efficiency, limb lengths and body proportions, tendon length and insertion points, etc. are all going to play a role in how much tangible performance return a specific individual will get per amount of power they are capable of producing. It is possible that you can be more powerful than someone but they can run faster or jump higher than you simply because of the way their body is built.

A Quick Example: Usain Bolt vs. John

Genetics also determine the power ceiling, that is, how much power you can produce relative to your own maximal strength levels. We know that power = force x velocity. So let's say, for example (please remember this entire scenario is going to be very hypothetical), that in order to run the 100m dash in 9.58 seconds Usain Bolt had to be able to generate 80 units of "power," and in order to generate this much power he had to be capable of producing 100 units of "force." That is a power to strength ratio of 80%, and remember, this power ceiling is genetically determined.

Now let's say that John has just started training to enhance his athleticism. On day one he is capable of producing 80 units of force and 40 units of power. Not only is John not strong enough to have a prayer of a chance of generating the same amount of power as Bolt, but his genetically determined power to strength ratio is also only 50%, which pales in comparison to Bolt's 80%. Realizing he is too weak to be competitive, John embarks on his fitness journey by training his legs and hips brutally hard with a proper strength training program, and after one year he increases his maximal force production capabilities to the point where he is capable of producing 160 units of force - double what he started with and way more than Bolt! However, since he spent his entire first year of training focusing only on slow, limit strength exercises his rate of force production capacity only increased slightly, disproportionate to his highly increased maximal strength, and he is now capable of producing 50 units of power. So even though he is capable of producing slightly more power now in an absolute sense, his power to strength ratio actually dropped way down, from 50% to about 30%. He will be a much more formidable athlete now than when he started, but at this point his weaknesses have shifted and if he wishes to keep improving he must also shift the focus of his training.

Dude was born with the magic. Even his damn name says so.

At this point John realizes that with his newfound strength levels he will now be able to get much more out of velocity based training exercises. So as he moves into year two of his fitness journey he decides to implement a variety of different speed & power exercises to cover different point along the strength-speed continuum and force-velocity curve. Over the next year he focuses his training on doing plenty of weighted jumps and resisted sprints across a variety of different resistances; he begins to practice and progressively load the power clean, high pull, and swing; and he incorporates some moderate intensity plyometrics and unresisted sprinting as well, all the while being sure to do just enough work to maintain the strength he gained in his legs and hips last year.

By the end of training year two John is still capable of producing 160 units of force, but now he is capable of producing 80 units of power! His power to strength ratio is now back up to his genetic ceiling of 50% and he can produce just as much power as Usain Bolt now! At this point the only way for John to become more powerful is for him to once again become stronger. All that said, he still won't be able to run the 100m dash in 9.58 seconds because he isn't built the same as Usain Bolt, but the point of this illustration is that power production is relative to the individual. People who are less genetically gifted will have to become stronger to be able to generate the exact same amount of power as people who are more genetically gifted. Life ain't fair, but at least it gives you a chance to be competitive.

Building the Bridge

So now the question becomes how do we go about executing this process in an optimal fashion? The answer to that question is it depends. It depends on what your natural predispositions are - what physical qualities you are naturally gifted in and which ones you are lacking in - but it also depends largely on what stage of your training career that you are in. Most young athletes are going to be relatively weak and will benefit greatly from spending the majority of their time first building up their base of strength with classic exercises, learning how to lift weights properly, adding some muscle onto their frames, and spending the rest of their time mastering their sporting mechanics and just doing athletic things to learn how to use their bodies better. The increased force production capabilities coupled with all the running, jumping, accelerating, and decelerating at practices is going to inevitably lead to increased performance, and the extra muscle is going to protect them from injury and make them larger, more formidable athletes. Down the road they can focus on power exercises, but at this stage doing so would not be nearly as productive as building maximal strength.

On the other hand, more experienced athletes are likely going to have spent their fair share of time in the weight room and are already going to be a good bit stronger and have more muscle on their frame. Some of these athletes may still benefit from focusing solely on maximal strength for a period of time, but others will have likely reached a point where they are seeing diminishing returns here. In this case, these athlete should focus the majority of their efforts on exercises that target the middle of the force-velocity curve as well as the fringes on either side of it. Doing so cyclically would be a logical way to go about it, e.g. spend one block of training focusing on strength-speed (for example, power cleans or high pulls), then segue into pure power from there (for example, lightly loaded weighted jumps and resisted sprints), and then move into speed-strength work from there in the form of unloaded jumping, sprinting, and hopping exercises, and then start the process over. If you are a competitive team sport athlete this final phase takes care of itself with all of the running and jumping that takes place during sporting practice. Meanwhile, you would perform just enough maximal strength work to maintain the strength you have built, which is not too much at all. Strength is a very enduring quality, and when you have been training heavy for many years it dos not take much work to maintain around 90% or so of your best efforts.

Lastly, if you are just an average Joe who wants to become as badass of an athlete and overall performer as you can be, then, similar to most young athletes, the best course of action will be for you to first spend some dedicated time building up your strength base with basic exercises like squats, deadlifts, a little bit of unilateral work for the legs/hips, rows, chin-ups, bench presses, overhead presses, etc. In addition to this, play some pick-up games of whatever sport you like in your free time, or chase after your kids, or do some sprints and shuttle runs at the park on the weekends, whatever you have to do - just get stronger and try to keep your body moving across different planes while you do so that you don't lose mobility, motor skill, and coordination from disuse.

After 1-2 years of spending the majority of your energy focusing on building strength and muscle, then you can shift gears into the realms of strength-speed, power, and speed-strength as described in the previous example for more experienced athletes. The point is that you are building a bridge from strength to speed. Once you've built it you will want to walk back to the other side every now and then to add some reinforcements throughout, but the major groundwork will have already been laid and traversing back and forth at that point will be a much faster process.

As a very general rule of thumb, some basic strength standards to shoot for would be a 1x body weight overhead press, 1.5x BW bench press, 2x BW squat, and 2.5x BW deadlift. At this point power & velocity based exercises will likely become much more productive for you.

40yd Dash PR and a Practical Protocol

Before this drags on for too much longer, as a practical example to take away from all this let me describe a protocol that I used on myself to hit my personal best time in the 40 yard dash last year. Early last year I had just discovered the zombie style, i.e. no hands, front squat and I was crushing it. After a few months I managed to work my way up to an all time best single with 405lbs, so we know I had plenty of leg strength.

405lbs Zombie Front Squat @ 160

At this point I decided to switch gears into a little bit of short sprint based training and test a theory I had developed. You often hear it touted that heavy resisted sprints are a bad idea for sprint training because the additional loading has the potential to destroy sprint mechanics - the biggest issue I've heard argued is that it will cause you to chop your stride - and that very well may be the case when it comes to top speed running. Therefore, typical recommendations for resisted sprinting are to not exceed something like 15% of body weight on the sled (or to not use loads which cause a time drop off of more than 10-15% at any given distance), which in my case would be a paltry 25lbs.

However, I'm not a sprinter and the 40yd dash is less of a test of sprinting prowess and more of a test of acceleration capacity. In light of that, I wanted to see if I could hit a personal best time in the 40 by training nothing but super short resisted sprints against varying loads (all of which would be heavier than typically recommended and some of which would be much heavier than recommended), in order to specifically train the hell out of my capacity to accelerate while enhancing all of the valid strength qualities across the strength-speed continuum, thus shifting my entire force-velocity curve over to the right. The resisted sprints were not to exceed 15yds. I used 3 different resistances based on the ease of standard 45lbs plates - 180lbs, 135lbs, and 90lbs - and I timed every single working rep using the Jawku Speed Timing System.

  • I started with the heaviest resistance, 180lbs, which I likened to the realm of a strength-speed training effect. For several weeks I trained the resisted sprint 2-3x per week, performing 5-10 reps of 15yds every session - more reps on good days and less reps on bad days. After a few weeks of this I was able to shave about a half second off my time - 3.93 seconds during my initial test down to a best time of 3.47 seconds (-0.46).
  • At this point I dropped the resistance down to 135lbs, now blending strength-speed into power, and I repeated the process again for a few more weeks. Once again I experienced the same result, this time shaving 0.4 seconds off my time over the several weeks working with this resistance - 3.30 during my initial test down to a best time of 2.90 seconds (0.40).
  • At this point I dropped the resistance down to 90lbs, now blending power into speed-strength. I repeated the process one final time and was able to shave about 0.3 seconds off my time - 2.83 seconds during my initial test down to a best time of 2.55 seconds (-0.28).

During these several months of practicing resisted sprints I also threw in a few unloaded 10yd dashes at the end of most of my sessions to work on my start and help maintain proper running mechanics, but this was the only unloaded running that I did during this time period. Shortly after hitting my last resisted sprint PR with 90lbs I went out to the track to test my 40yd dash and this was the result:

4.33 Second Jawku Timed 40yd Dash

Prior to this session my best ever recorded 40 was a hand timed 4.44 seconds from way back in 2013, so to break into the 4.3's at the age of 31 and while using an automated timing system felt like a pretty solid result to me. My sprinting mechanics were maintained in spite of the heavy resistances used (in fact, my stride length at near top speed actually increased rather than decreased), my raw power greatly increased, and my acceleration capacity improved DRAMATICALLY. I was able to turn maximal strength, into strength-speed, into power, into speed-strength, and finally convert some of that into pure speed, and I did it all while following one simple principle: build the bridge!

Conclusion

So there you go. A practical, real world example of how to actually implement these theories. If you find that you are spinning your wheels with your training - either building a lot of strength that isn't seeming to carry over into real world, functional performance or you're simply doing a whole lot of "speed" drills but aren't actually building any speed, perhaps it's time to rethink your sports performance training. Take a step back, examine the bigger picture, and use these science based principles to your advantage. I'll see you at the finish line!

References:

If you're looking for more practical information to help you in your quest for becoming as powerful and functionally strong as possible, check out this video on the biggest mistake people make when training for power.

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