A Fresh Look At Strength

by Frederick C. Hatfield , Ph.D.

Much is written about strength. But, save for all too few research documents, little of it goes beyond musings about how to acquire more than the norm. While this utilitarian approach to understanding strength is laudable, too few athletes, bodybuilders and coaches have ever taken the time to pull the concept of strength apart to a thoroughly finite level in order to discern its essence.
I submit that it is there that you will gain understanding of strength far beyond your current level. I submit that once having done so you will be able to take your level of strength far beyond its current level. And I further submit that its simplicity will startle you. Let’s have a look.

WHAT STRENGTH LOOKS LIKE

Breathe in and out. Your heart beats. Rear back and throw. Squat down and stand back up. Your foot hits the ground and your knee bends in preparation for the next push-off in running or walking. This is movement, and we define it by the amount of force produced. Producing force requires strength. When you put movement — any movement — on a piece of paper, it’ll look something like this:

 

This, fellow iron freaks, is what life is all about on earth. We do nothing else with our musculoskeletal selves. We can DO nothing else. It’s called the strength curve, and it is virtually ubiquitous. So it seems reasonable that we should know it at a thoroughly finite level.

  1. This is the beginning of your movement. Rear back to throw, foot hits the ground and your knee bends, or squat down to jump. All involve “eccentric” strength.
  2. You make the transition from backward to forward, from down to up. “Static” strength is required. This is called the “amortization phase” of a movement.
  3. Force is applied in hitting, throwing, jumping or the push-off in each running step. This is called “concentric” strength.
  4. It takes a fraction of a second usually to exert any given amount of force in any given movement. In sports, the only exception is powerlifting, where a movement may take a full second or longer to complete. This is your Tmax (maximum time).
  5. This is the maximum amount of force you impart in your movement (Fmax).
  6. This line represents your limit strength — your 1- rep max. You never quite equal your “limit” or “absolute” strength levels in sports movements (except powerlifting) because the movements are over with so quickly.

Let’s pull this strength curve apart bit by bit. You’re gonna be amazed at what you learn from this little exercise. For me, doing so proved to be the ultimate KEY to getting strong enough to break world records. It allowed me to systematically focus on each of the finite variables involved in producing force.

FACTOR ONE: The Angle of “Q”

Draw a straight line tangent to the upward curve (concentric strength). Measure the angle. This is called the “Q” angle, and it is the definition of starting strength. The steeper the line the greater the number of muscle fibers you’ve simultaneously recruited in the movement.

 

 

ANGLE Q (ILLUSTRATION #2)

FACTOR TWO: The Angle of “A”

Now draw several tangent lines along the length of the upward curve. Measure the angle of each tangent, and compare each angle to the preceding one. There are three possibilities:

  1. Each subsequent angle gets smaller
  2. Each subsequent angle stays the same
  3. Each subsequent angle gets bigger

Clearly, in the example below, each subsequent angle becomes more and more acute.

If the angle of each successive tangent becomes greater and greater, you’re going faster and faster in your application of greater and greater force. If each angle stays the same, this means that your speed is increasing linearly as you apply greater and greater force. If the angles diminish from one angle to the next, your rate of speed is diminishing as you approach your maximum force output.

In sport, the only acceptable technique is to attempt to make each subsequent angle bigger. I call this technique “compensatory acceleration. This sort of positive acceleration while increasing force output is functionally impossible to attain in the final third of the movement while lifting weights in a traditional fashion. This is because you must slow the weight down in anticipation of lockout. But you nonetheless try in the interest of 1) improving the quality of your overload stress, and 2) increasing the time under maximum tension (TTI — Time/Tension Index). Notice I said MAXIMUM tension.

Moving the weight slowly means you’re not MAXIMIZING the tension developed by your muscles, and therefore the quality of overload it receives is commensurably lessened.

FACTOR THREE: Force

What’s the maximum amount of force output you produced during any given movement. This is called Fmax. I think it’s fairly obvious that in most sports endeavors you’d like your force output to be as high as possible. Of course, this doesn’t hold true when you’re trying to do a delicate movement like a jump shot or a putt.

FACTOR FOUR: Time

Measure how long it takes from the beginning of upwards (concentric) movement to exert maximum force (Fmax). This is called Tmax, and usually it’s appropriate to make Tmax as short as possible. Again, jump shots and shot putting withstanding.

FACTOR FIVE: The Relationship Between Time and Force

Now, remember back to high school science class when your teacher told you that p = fd / t (Power is equal to force times distance per unit of time).

In similar fashion, Fmax divided by Tmax is the definition of explosive strength. If starting strength (the “Q” angle) is your ability to turn on as many motor units a possible instantaneously, then explosive strength is your ability to LEAVE then turned on! The two are NOT the same! And the training required to maximize each is not the same either. Collectively they’re referred to as “speed-strength.”

FACTOR SIX: The Relationship Between Limit Strength and Fmax

In any sports movement, Tmax is so short that it’s not possible to get all of your motor units turned on. Not even close! Only powerlifting tests one’s limit strength. NO other sport does because of the time constraint.

Former Soviet scientists worshiped the relationship between limit strength and Fmax. And for good cause. They believed that NOTHING should EVER be done to cause an increase in the distance between Fmax and limit strength. They believed that the DEFINITION of a great athlete was one whose Fmax came close to his/her limit strength. They believed that, in all the world of sport, SPEED is king!

LIMIT STRENGTH AND F-MAX RELATIONSHIP (ILLUSTRATION #5)

This is a phenomenal concept, folks! Understand that simply working limit strength is NOT the way for an athlete to become great! In fact it’d slow you down if carried to the extreme. The coaches of yesteryear were right when they wouldn’t allow their players to lift for fear that doing so would foul up their “touch” (skill), make ’em muscle-bound or slow them down. They were right. The reason is that continually hammering limit strength — your 1-RM (which was pretty much all that the early ironheads knew how to do) — will eventually result in muscle being synthesized beyond the point where one’s strength-to-weight ratio is greatest. Added strength, when carried to this extreme, almost invariably means added weight, slower movement speed, inability to achieve positive acceleration or a steep “Q” angle, let alone greater explosive strength.

So, this being the case, we must give consideration to the concept of “functional strength,” or the amount of limit strength necessary to maximize Fmax without causing an increase in the difference between Fmax and limit strength. Simply put, one’s strength-to-weight ratio is very similar to one’s functional strength requirements, and it is generally different from sport-to-sport because the demands of each sport are different.

Before you jump all over me for making such a brash statement, let me modify it a bit and acknowledge that in sports such as archery, bowling, curling and other similar activities, the concept of strength-to-weight ratio has far less relevance than it does for (say) shot putters or high jumpers. Or bodybuilders, for that matter, whose chief competition objective is to get massive muscle irrespective of movement efficiency.

FACTOR SEVEN: The Amortization Phase

Picture this: A pitcher throwing a 100 mph fast ball by rearing back with his arm, holding the position until all of his inner forces are summoned, and with great Herculean effort hurls the ball. Will it go 100 mph? Not a chance! The total body movement that’s involved in pitching that fast requires heavy reliance on stretch reflex and tissue viscoelasticity in one’s shoulder muscles adding to the speed of the push off the rubber and the violent twisting of the body all sequentially performed such that the force imparted to the ball comes from a “summation of forces.”

AMORTIZATION (ILLUSTRATION #6)

So, it is critical in most sports that you work hard to 1) make it possible to maximize the sum of all forces involved in producing maximum force output, while 2) keeping yourself uninjured! The very thought of turning the amortization into a checkmark-sharp direction change is enough to make one cringe! It is the culprit that’s responsible for many a sports career being ended. It’s called (shudder) “ballistic” stress!
Doesn’t scare me! Not me! I sometimes feel like sneering in the faces of the folk who warn against producing ballistic stresses in training. All LIFE is ballistic! Sport is VERY ballistic, and if you’re to sum the forces successfully without getting injured, you’d better learn how to TRAIN ballistically! It’ll prepare you to sum the forces and it’ll prepare you to accept them as well! There are many safe and productive techniques to accomplish this, not the least of which are plyometric training of various sorts.

THE SEVEN FACTORS

There you have it folks. The seven ways of improving your strength. THERE ARE NO OTHER WAYS! There are no other ways of augmenting the strength curve. This is all there IS to the strength curve. As I told you in the beginning of this article, THERE IS NOTHING ELSE POSSIBLE. If you do things right, your strength curve will go from this

This is the DEFINITION of a great athlete. It is the SIGNATURE of a great athlete. And this is the point toward which anyone aspiring to athletic greatness MUST train. On the other hand, I acknowledge that a highly conditioned non-athlete can indeed do likewise. But not to the extent of an elite athlete, and certainly not while operating under the metabolic circumstances inherent in elite-level sport, whether it’s ATP/CP, glycolytic or oxidatively driven.

A word of Further Explanation:

There are many other components to being an elite athlete, such as passion, skill, strategy, genetics, etc. Nonetheless, one can become an elite athlete WITHOUT burning passion, WITHOUT super-high skill levels, and WITHOUT genetics one may regard as a “gift from God.” While the many other components must be present to varying degrees, the one ubiquitous characteristic of an elite athlete in a marathon run or a shot put — and all the sports in between — is that person’s ability to quickly generate great force while operating within the metabolic environment inherent in his/her sport context. Of course, one’s limit strength must be within the parameters allowing for such force development during the conduct of a sports movement too. So, for endurance athletes (Type I fiber), they must STILL must generate a high Fmax footfall- per-footfall in their endurance event in order to win. Even though you cannot sprint a marathon, you must still try to come as close to a sprint as humanly possible (that’s Fmax footfall-per-footfall).

Let me put it into a simple formula for you. It’s easy. When you walk into a gym, have a PLAN well established long beforehand, but keep it flexible (stuff happens). This PLAN is called your WORKOUT CYCLE. Since you must build a foundation of functional strength in all your muscles before you try to make them work ballistically, or before you punish them against the anaerobic threshold, it should be a PERIODIZED program. One which PRIORITIZES your training objectives from the ones of immediate concern to the ones that’ll win you championships — and everything in between. Overall, you’ll discern that you must progress from high volume/lower intensity toward low volume/higher intensity to make it all work. You’ll find that you will progress from general movements for greater limit strength toward more refined, specific movements for sports excellence. You’ll note too that the seven laws of training are automatically factored into your training periodicity.

  • The Law of Individual Differences: We all have different abilities, bodies and weaknesses, and we all respond differently (to a degree) to any given system of training. These differences should be taken into consideration when designing your training program.
  • The Overcompensation Principle: Mother Nature overcompensates for training stress by giving you bigger and stronger muscles.
  • The Overload Principle: To make Mother Nature overcompensate, you must stress your muscles beyond what they’re already used to.
  • The SAID Principle: The acronym for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.” Each organ and organelle responds to a different form of stress.
  • The Use/Disuse Principle: “Use it or lose it” means that your muscles hypertrophy with use and atrophy with disuse.
  • The GAS Principle: The acronym for General Adaptation Syndrome, this law states that there must be a period of low intensity training or complete rest following periods of high intensity training.
  • The Specificity Principle: You’ll get stronger at squats by doing squats as opposed to leg presses, and you’ll get greater endurance for the marathon by running long distances than you will by (say) cycling long distances.

(See “Systems of Training article on my home page for an elaboration of these principles.) And you will note that there’s nothing new under the sun.. this is all old hat and it was explained years ago, in myriad ways, in most of what’s been written about training.

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