Accelerative Training MILO 6(1): 112-120, 1998. Steven Plisk It’s generally understood that a certain threshold of training intensity is needed to effect positive adaptation, but many athletes and coaches still believe that resistance must be sufficient that the weight can’t — or shouldn’t — be moved very fast. I intend to challenge this proposition, and to make a case for the fact that acceleration is the name of the game even when executing basic structural movements (e.g. the squat and deadlift). It’s really just a simple matter of understanding the fundamental nature of force, and of putting this concept into practice regardless of task or workload.
F=m·a Revisited At first glance, “force is the product of mass and acceleration” appears to imply that there is no force without motion (or vice-versa), but that’s not necessarily the case. For example, since gravity is expressed as an acceleration constant [~9.8 m/sec2], a vertical force of ~980 kg·m/sec2 (or Newtons) would be required to hold a 100 kg barbell in place statically. Despite the apparent simplicity of F=m·a, the inability or unwillingness to grasp its functional significance is an underlying cause of the nonsense taking place in many weightrooms. This concept is neither contrived nor trivial, and shouldn’t be tucked away in a physics textbook until needed to support some abstract opinion. In fact, it’s a foundational principle upon which all motion is based (with strength training being no exception). When you consider that any movement is essentially an act of defying gravity — which itself is an accelerative force — the central issue becomes: What is being moved, and how fast? Athletes apply (or defy) gravitational acceleration through a wider range of forces than nonathletes, and their success or failure in executing a particular task is almost always determined by the ability to achieve a critical velocity or power output. Simply stated, the object must be moved through an optimal acceleration path within a certain time period. Powerlifting is an example of an iron game that’s close to the low-speed end of the spectrum, whereas Olympic-style weightlifting is relatively nearer to the high-speed end. Track & Field throwing events are additional examples of high-velocity power sports. Regardless of whether or not one pursues either of these competitively or performs such movements in training, the salient point is the same for each: Maximal force (relative to one’s strength capabilities) is only generated if the object or implement is maximally accelerated. Aside from the obvious fact that heavy weights cannot be lifted as rapidly as light ones — and that some movements are inherently ballistic, where the weight or body is launched, while others are not — this has two other fundamental implications:
In terms of injury prevention, strength development or athletic ability, rate of force production is as important — and trainable — as magnitude. Movement execution time dictates the amount of force, and in turn power output (the rate at which work is done), that can be generated at a particular workload. Many lifters mistakenly believe that rate of force development is only relevant during ballistic movements, but not in basic weight training exercises where the bar isn’t released. As we’ll see, however, brief application of peak force may not be such unfamiliar territory in the weightroom after all. In terms of training effect, it has been shown that the intent to move a weight explosively can be more important than actual velocity achieved in doing so. Full volitional effort — i.e. a deliberate attempt to maximally accelerate the resistance, even if it’s too heavy to move rapidly — yields the greatest neuromuscular activation and subsequent adaptive response.
Lest you think that I claim to have pioneered the idea, compensatory acceleration (a term coined by Dr. Fred Hatfield) has been a way of life in the training of European athletes for decades without being named as such, but with obvious success. Consider the resources addressing this method of training for power and rate of force development (Aján & Baroga, pp. 161-176; Hartmann & Tünnemann, pp. 138-223; Schmidtbleicher [in Komi], pp. 381395). Admittedly it’s not difficult to find “experts” who will endorse any empirical training concept or method, which is precisely why fundamental principles must be used to measure their worth. But any way you slice it, submaximal levels of force production and neuromuscular activation — which, by definition, are what occurs when a given resistance is not accelerated to the limits of one’s ability — simply don’t make sense as a viable or productive means of training. This brings me to my next point.
Activation Modulates Adaptation Rapid movements aren’t the only way to activate — and train — fast-twitch muscle fibers. Likewise, the notion of distinct fiber types is obsolete, since motor units (individual motoneurons and the fibers they innervate) actually exist in a spectrum; and are progressively recruited as power output increases. Given the virtually infinite number of force-velocity combinations possible in any movement, it’s not surprising that the neuromuscular system activates motor units (as well as muscles) in functional task groups. It’s important to understand that force production isn’t just a matter of recruiting motor units, but also of coordinating and synchronizing them. Once again, the operative concept is task specificity. Without going overboard, I would like to make a few interrelated points: The higher centers of the neuromuscular system that govern this process are as plastic as the muscle fibers themselves. This is all fine and good — if utterly esoteric — until one also appreciates that adaptation is a function of activation; and that maximal effort at a given resistance is the means toward achieving it. Furthermore, adaptive tissue remodeling is as much a response to motoneural signals as it is a simple cellular repair process (case in point: graft the nerve of a type I [slow-twitch] motor unit onto a type II [fast-twitch] muscle fiber, or vice-versa, and that fiber’s properties proceed to reverse themselves). Indeed, to quote Siff & Verkhoshansky (p. 4), “the fundamental principle of strength training, then, is that all strength increase is initiated by neuromuscular stimulation.” However, be forewarned if you endeavor to read this book — it’s extremely comprehensive and detailed, and you’ll have to swim hard! Practically speaking, we have so many options in terms of workloads and repetitions that the possibilities seem almost endless. Intensities ranging as widely as 50-100%, with reps from as high as 20 to as low as 1, have been successfully implemented and advocated. Yet despite all these choices, we’re still selling ourselves short if we:
Approach strength training exclusively in terms of weight and reps, while ignoring the accelerative quality of force; Assume that full activation automatically occurs whenever the bar is moving; or Wait for the last rep of a set to trigger the desired training effect.
These are particularly costly mistakes for those who abbreviate work volume to the point where they can’t afford anything less than extreme emphasis on training quality. The solution is to maximize force output and neuromuscular activity on each repetition by accelerating through the
sticking point at full power, regardless of resistance or rep count. Before proceeding to the practical aspects of this concept, however, we need to re-examine how the sticking point figures into it.
The Sticking Point Revisited It’s interesting to consider how this subject ties in with the issue of rate vs. duration of force production. For purposes of discussion, let’s assume that the ascent phase of the squat or deadlift takes about 1-2 seconds to execute (fatigue and/or 1RM attempts notwithstanding). The sticking point is that region in the range of motion where leverage and resistance interact to create the greatest difficulty in moving or controlling the bar. In this case, it’s ~30° above the parallel position. As is the case with most multi-joint exercises, it occupies a small portion of the movement; but may in fact occupy a relatively larger part (perhaps as much as 1/3 – 1/2) of the time required to complete it, especially as resistance increases and/or exhaustion sets in. In any case, maximal effort is not required over the full distance and time through which the bar is moved.
Figure 1. The classic F-V curve: the solid line indicates peak force that can be developed at various muscle action velocities (note concentric < isometric < eccentric Fmax). Power is indicated by the dotted line, where concentric Pmax tends to occur at ~30-50% of both Fmax and Vmax. Source: Åstrand P.O. & Rodahl K. Textbook of Work Physiology (3rd Edition). New York NY: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
This last fact has fueled an ongoing “control vs. momentum” debate. Without getting sidetracked, I simply want to mention that the anti-acceleration school of thought — where velocity supposedly defeats the purpose of lifting weights — is neglecting a key fact: Gravity continues acting on the bar as it picks up vertical speed, and the athlete must continue applying force in order to keep it moving or accelerate it further. While it’s true that force output capability decreases as muscle shortening velocity increases (Figure 1), the notion that momentum takes over and does the work
at high speed is nonsensical. In fact, power production usually peaks somewhere in the 30-50% range of maximum velocity and/or force, depending on the movement. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon heavy weights. It does mean that the range of productive training intensities extends well beyond the slow squeeze zone. Furthermore, this concept doesn’t just apply to competitive athletes. The recreational lifter is also well advised to implement it, especially as he/she reaches advanced strength levels and requires more potent and variable stimuli. Perhaps an analogy from automotive engineering is appropriate here: The design of a sport utility vehicle stands to benefit more from the lessons learned in off-road racing than a race vehicle stands to gain from those learned while driving around town.
Figure 2. The F-T curve: force as a function of time in a total-body extension movement. Execution time may vary from 0.1 sec (e.g. the jumping movement illustrated here) to +1 sec (e.g. a squat/deadlift). Peak force varies accordingly: the shorter the execution time allowance, the lower the force that can be produced relative to one’s absolute strength in that movement (represented by the dotted line); hence the need to develop force rapidly. Accelerative training improves rate of force development, resulting in a steeper curve and greater impulse production (represented by the area underneath the solid line) and power output (i.e. work per unit time). Source: Hatfield F.C. & Kreis E.J. Sports Conditioning: The Complete Guide. Santa Barbara CA: International Sports Sciences Association, 1989.
The relevant idea here is that the peak force generated in the sticking point region (despite its brevity) can be considered the primary reason for doing these movements in the first place. Arguably the lesser forces applied elsewhere in the range of motion (despite their duration) are secondary. Once again, the implication is straightforward: As a general rule, the rate and magnitude of force development at certain point(s) in a movement are fundamentally more important than the total distance or duration through which it’s applied. Collectively, this flies in the face of the socalled “time under tension” theory as well as the purposefully slow training methods and techniques that have arisen from it. However, it has obvious significance in training for activities where explosive forces often must be generated within 0.1 – 0.2 sec, during which the athlete certainly doesn’t move through a full range of motion (although the wind-up or follow-through of such
movements may in fact take him/her into extreme ranges; Figure 2). Note that development of absolute maximum force requires up to 0.6 – 0.8 sec. A final comment regarding the strength training community’s division into slow vs. fast schools of thought is in order. Without getting into the bipartisan politics of this situation, those in the former school seek to match the strength curve of a muscle in order to load it continuously throughout its range of motion; whereas the latter seek to develop various functional qualities of strength. Some coaches and athletes have gravitated toward variable-resistance machinery in pursuit of the first objective, often with the aim of isolating or targeting individual muscles; but this tends not to be the case among free-weight proponents. They have — perhaps unwittingly in some cases — sacrificed the notion of full-range resistance in favor of force transmission and summation through the kinetic chain, usually from the ground up. For those frequently accused of viewing the world through the 2" hole in an olympic plate, a growing body of evidence suggests that this tradeoff is justifiable; and that variable-resistance technology has been marginally effective at matching human strength curves.
Simplicity vs. Sophistication? We all search for simplicity every day, and the weightroom is the last place where we need to make things unnecessarily complicated. Like it or not, however, force isn’t a one-dimensional entity. To treat it as such in one’s training regimen is to potentially compromise the results. Fundamental laws of motion won’t cease and desist no matter how diligently they’re ignored. By the same token, they shouldn’t be viewed as adversaries. To borrow the wisdom of Hyrum Smith (founding President & CEO of Franklin Quest): Natural laws exist whether or not we recognize and understand them; they have consistent, predictable consequences; and they exert their effects independent of our awareness, consent or wishes. The good news is that principles can’t be bottled and sold, which is why the terms for every meaningful expression of strength — namely force, impulse or power — will never be accompanied by ©, ® or ™ (hopefully). Physical laws may not be as attractive as catchy bylines and advertising gimmicks, but we must still get to the bottom line and stay there in order to achieve the best results. In any case, the question remains: “Why concern myself with F=m·a if acceleration (and neuromuscular activation) occurs to some extent every time I move the bar?” This is analogous to the mindset of “why worry about what’s happening under the hood of my car as long as it runs?” The answer, of course, is that a working knowledge of its operating principles is indispensable in putting the machine to optimal use.
Practical Applications First, a few caveats are in order. Have a state medical board-certified physician conduct a complete medical history and physical examination before undertaking intense training. You must have a fully functional and injury-free musculoskeletal system in order to safely and effectively implement these guidelines. Seek out qualified coaching when performing this type of training as well as for guidance on exercise execution. Also, warm up and stretch properly for each workout, using warmup sets as an opportunity to focus on technique and range of motion. Prime your neuromuscular system before going for it at full power. Returning to our squat/deadlift example, the training technique to be inferred here is as follows (note that this can be adapted to other compound movements as well): 1. Sit at a controlled speed into an optimal position; don’t free fall into the descent. 2. Accelerate out of the hole and through the sticking point as powerfully as possible with good form.
3. Throttle down at the top of each rep so the bar doesn’t jump off your shoulders or out of your grip. Beyond simply proposing a nontraditional way to perform basic exercises, this idea also challenges another piece of conventional dogma: namely, that it’s always necessary to perform RMs or reps to failure. At the risk of setting myself up for character assassination, this simply isn’t the case. In fact, training effects are best achieved through skillful manipulation of different methods, not exclusive use of one of them. While this opens up a whole realm of possibilities, it requires a leap of faith for those who associate weight training productivity with struggling to move the bar; or with the easily demonstrable burn and pump. Too many people assume that these are the stimulus for adaptation, when in fact they’re merely signs and symptoms of certain types of work. Should you find yourself among a minority of those in the gym who understand and apply this concept, take a lesson from the competitive sport scene: Everyone is a fitness expert (just ask them and they’ll tell you), but plenty of gifted and impressive-looking athletes achieve some degree of success despite their methods (not because of them). The bottom line is that the F=m·a paradigm will challenge you to think — as well as feel — your way through training. Even after accepting that an accelerative strength training strategy can be effective and safe, two concerns come to mind while entertaining the idea of impelling a barbell with noticeable speed and momentum. One is the problem of decelerating it at the end of the range of motion, and the other is a possible breakdown in technique. In closing, I’ll offer these recommendations:
As the athlete backs off from maximal acceleration toward the top of the ascent, gravity will decelerate the bar’s vertical velocity. Furthermore, we’re talking about lifting at least moderately heavy weights that aren’t easy to move rapidly even when deliberately attempting to do so. In any case, if the bar is still moving upward by virtue of its own momentum upon reaching full extension, consider one of two options: ∙ The athlete is accelerating the weight beyond the sticking point, and should adjust his/her effort during the latter 1/3 – 1/2 of each rep in order to avoid jamming it at the top. ∙ The chosen resistance is so light that the athlete would do better to perform a ballistic movement with equipment designed to be launched explosively (e.g. Olympic barbells and bumper plates, medicine balls, discus/hammer/shot etc). This method shouldn’t be confused with so-called “speed reps” where the athlete attempts to accelerate a light weight through the entire range of motion without releasing it. Such movements have been shown to be futile because more effort is spent decelerating the bar for self-protection than accelerating it for beneficial force or power generation. It’s true that eccentric muscle actions are intrinsic to athletic movements where the muscles are stretchloaded and recoiled via the stretch-shortening cycle phenomenon; and that negative work can play a useful role when prudently applied in training. However, such lengthening muscle actions are best applied as preparatory countermovements (while in a partially flexed position) rather than terminal braking motions (at full extension).
Technique need not be sacrificed for impulse or power, whereas form often does break down to some extent during very heavy lifts. If we were incapable of achieving a reasonable degree of technical precision whenever we accelerated above first or second gear, it would be impossible to execute simple acts of running, jumping, throwing or other functional tasks. Conversely, this shouldn’t be misinterpreted to suggest that barbells and dumbbells are to be yanked on and hurled recklessly around the weightroom. The point is simply that anyone with enough common sense and motor skill to properly perform basic exercises should be able to maintain control when doing them as proposed here. If anything, this will actually
help you stay in the groove through those zero-velocity sticking points where the bar tends to drift off course.
Acknowledgments Thanks to Frederick C. Hatfield (International Sports Sciences Association, Clearwater FL); Raoul F. Reiser II (Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins CO); Dietmar Schmidtbleicher (Institut für Sportwissenschaften, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Germany); and Mel C. Siff (School of Mechanical Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa).
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