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Resistance Training - Part 2: Considerations in Maximizing Sport Performance

Steven Plisk - Yale University, Connecticut, USA

Introduction

Basic exercises are exactly that - basic. In general, they are very straightforward and there is little need to substitute other movements in their place or supplement them with different types of assistance exercises intended to target the muscles differently. This is not a concrete rule, however, and some prudent alternatives are offered below. Long-term variety is often best achieved by adjusting the workload for a limited number of movements rather than attempting to include every possible exercise. Commonly used exercises include squats, pulling movements and presses.


Considering the concept of "basic exercise", strength training exercises can be classified into three categories:
Primary or "structural" ...multi-joint, weight bearing (e.g., weightlifting movements, squat, deadlift).
Secondary or "supplemental" ...multi-joint, non-weight bearing (e.g., upper-body pressing or pulling exercises).
Tertiary or "isolation" ...single-joint, non-weight bearing.
Primary exercises are movements, which by definition tend to yield the most profound results; whereas those further down the continuum have lesser effects, and are usually technically simpler. The examples cited above for each category are certainly not comprehensive, and it is not difficult to create hybrid movements. For example, weightlifting movements in which explosive impulse and power are the fundamental objectives represent a special case of primary exercises that are semi-ballistic in nature.

The lunge and step-up each meet the criteria for a primary exercise; whereas machines such as a hip sled or leg press arguably do not, despite the fact that they may involve similar muscle mass and exertion. In fact, the latter may be viable options during extremely intensive workloads and/or the athlete's trunk cannot safely support the weight required to train the legs in movements such as the squat or deadlift (as discussed below).

The chin-up/pull-up, dip, push-up and related exercises can be considered multi-joint weight-bearing movements, which would place them in the primary category according to this scheme. However, they often receive less emphasis than the traditional upper-body exercises mentioned above. Furthermore, they usually do not involve the same muscle mass or resistance used in other primary movements, making it difficult to justify placing them in the same group. All things considered, however, they may deserve greater consideration than "standard" upper-body movements.

There are other examples as well, but the point is that this classification scheme is not an attempt to label certain movements as being good or bad. It is simply a place to start making rational decisions about selecting and prioritizing them. As is the case with all aspects of a program, principles should be used as a guide rather than preferences. Perhaps most importantly, this means that training effect has precedence over strength demonstration. The objective is to choose the most effective movements and execute them in the most beneficial way.

Weightlifting Variations
While sound movement mechanics are imperative, it may not be necessary in all cases to perform the classical lifts as they are done in competition. For example, the weightlifting movements can often be adapted or modified for the sake of simplicity. In any case, the following safety guidelines should be observed:

Use bumper plates; and (at least) an 8' x 8' platform which is clear of loose plates, obstacles and people. Do not have anyone attempt to spot you.
Technique - especially posture and explosiveness - has priority over weight at all times. Get into the "power position", and use your hips and legs to get action on the bar.
Be prepared to miss a rep. If you lose control of the bar or can't complete a rep for any reason, quickly get out from underneath and let it drop (do not try to save it on the way down):

Use the barbell's downward momentum to move out of the way. Keep your grip and push yourself away from the bar as it falls.
Stay between the plates. This does not mean that you should remain under a falling barbell, but rather move backward or forward (not sideways) to escape.
Clean/Snatch In terms of training effect, it makes very little difference if the athlete starts from the floor or hang position; or whether he/she catches the bar. In fact, one of the simplest ways to teach these exercises to a novice athlete is to perform a high pull from the hang position (variations can include ranges from just above the knee to the upper thigh), where the bar does not descend below knee level at the start of the movement, and is not caught at its completion. Once this movement has been mastered, it can then be appropriate to progress into a pull from the floor and finally the power clean. A similar progression can be used in teaching the snatch. In either case, the success of each rep can be gauged on the athlete's ability to get into the "power position" and use the hips and legs to promote action on the bar, jumping and pulling explosively enough to separate his/her feet from the platform.

Jerk Once again, in terms of training effect it makes very little difference if the athlete performs a split when catching the bar overhead. Once the basic mechanics of this lift are mastered, however, the split can improve an experienced athlete's ability to manage the bar by achieving a lower receiving position than is otherwise possible (unless he/she has the mobility to drop into a full overhead squat). A simple progression for teaching this exercise is to begin with the push press and move to the push jerk before progressing on to the jerk. In either case, the success of each rep can be gauged on the athlete's ability to dip (6 - 8", or 10% of body height) and drive through the "power position"; and use the hips and legs to get action on the bar, jumping and pushing explosively enough to separate his/her feet from the platform.

Powerlifting Variations
Deadlift /Squat This discussion will address some adjunct considerations for safely and effectively performing the conventional squat and deadlift. These guidelines apply generally to both movements due to their gross similarities.

Optimal range of motion in the squat or deadlift is that in which the trunk does not round or lean excessively forward, or the athlete does not feel unusual pain (to be distinguished from the discomfort of exertion). Many athletes can safely achieve the classic parallel depth position with heavy weights, but some cannot. For those who do not compete in the sports of powerlifting or weightlifting, several points should be considered when pursuing an optimal training effect.

Flexibility is an element of any functional movement including squats and deadlifts. Active and/or passive mobility are intrinsic to every skill or technique, no matter how simple or complex; and should thus be developed to optimal levels for two reasons. First: strength is applied through a movement path (range of motion); and an athlete's neuromuscular system generates peak power - and Second: operates most efficiently - when explosively stretch-loaded and recoiled.
Achievable depth often depends on the resistance being used. Even athletes who have difficulty achieving parallel with heavy and limit weights often can (and generally should, unless otherwise contraindicated) do so during submaximal/warm-up reps. Thus, the inability to achieve a predetermined depth with heavy weight does not necessarily mean that it cannot be done at all.
Contrived methods of keeping the hips in line with the center of gravity, moving the knees in front of it, or otherwise altering the normal execution of these movements (e.g., by elevating the heels) are counterproductive and potentially injurious. A stable base and balanced position are generally best achieved by positioning the hips, which are the stronger and more stable structure, behind the athlete's center of gravity in order to receive most of the torque (as described below); and driving through a "full foot" which is flat on the floor, with weight evenly distributed between the heel and forefoot.
Most importantly, the names of these (or any) movements are not as important as what they are intended to do. Form should be dictated by function. Multi-joint exercises provide an opportunity to overload the major structures of the body by putting the "power zone" (i.e. hips) in an optimal position to transmit the largest force. It follows that torque at the hips is maximized by moving them as far behind the center of gravity as possible, while flexing as far as the athlete's leverage and body position allow. Squatting or deadlifting depth can therefore be considered secondary to position. The key to a beneficial training effect is to move the hips back while sitting to an optimal depth, not necessarily to aim for any predetermined thigh angle. Depending on the athlete's body proportions, maximal torque may occur at or below an angle of ~90 at the hip and/or knee, with the midline of the thigh well above the parallel position. In the case of the squat, it is also interesting to note the effect of bar placement: The powerlifter's "low-bar" position usually allows the hips to move further backward than does the weightlifter's "high-bar" position, although this varies with individual body proportions and mechanics.
In summary, the effort required to overcome a given resistance obviously increases with depth. Beyond a certain point, however, this is the result of a loss in leverage rather than a gain in torque, in turn bringing stress-strain relationships into question. This is not meant to imply that parallel depth should be abandoned; or that the "half squat" should be universally adopted. The latter can be effective for those whose mechanics and/or flexibility do not permit them to safely get their thighs parallel according to the criteria presented above. The salient point is that a standardized depth, which originated decades ago as a means of judging powerlifting competitions may not be appropriate in all situations; and that "full range of motion" should be critically evaluated for each situation, rather than simplistically accepted as a ubiquitous rule.

Alternatives With the obvious exception of the competitive lifter, there comes a point in an advanced athlete's development when it may no longer be judicious for the trunk to support the heaviest weights that the hips and legs are capable of moving. This is not intended to dissuade athletes from performing heavy structural movements. Indeed, one of the most effective ways to strengthen a healthy trunk is to load it in a fixed position while the lower body does the work, transferring force through the segments of the body. Likewise, lack of torso strength is an underlying cause of many so-called back problems. However, it is important to realize that the human spine is a tower, which was originally designed as a bridge. One should therefore consider its limitations, and corresponding training options, when approaching advanced levels of strength.

One recommendation is to view the primary exercises as a family of ground-based movements, which are interchangeable to some extent. It is a simple matter of whether the weight is supported across the shoulders or suspended from them. If an athlete is better able to handle heavy squat weights by substituting the conventional deadlift in its place, it may be appropriate to do so because the two movements are more similar than they are different. Furthermore, if the athlete has difficulty maintaining good posture when deadlifting from a static bottom position, it may be appropriate to set the bar up on blocks or racks and descend into each rep from an upright position. In this way, the best features of each movement can be combined to achieve an optimal training effect.

Many athletes reach a point where they simply cannot maintain a flat back when venturing into very heavy squats or deadlifts. The trunk must then be unloaded and/or supported in order to train the hips and legs to their limit. One option is to progressively introduce other structural movements which do not load the trunk as heavily, such as the lunge or step-up. Another is to include assistive hip/trunk strengthening movements such as the glute-ham raise, stiff-legged deadlift, or trunk/reverse extension into the program in order to work the major structures in different combinations while unloading the torso. An additional option is to use barbell exercises for submaximal weights, and perform the heaviest sets on hip sled, leg press or other apparatus, which supports the torso. When pursuing a specific objective, the pros and cons of various alternatives should be considered.

Balance
Imbalances are a leading cause of non-athleticism, injury and/or chronic orthopedic problems, and thus a sound program must include movements for every major muscle group. It is very possible to make big gains in strength and see little or no functional transfer if certain movements are neglected, allowing antagonistic muscle-group deficits to develop.

The concept of using power and control to achieve overload largely takes care of itself - at least during lower-body workouts - when the program consists of athletic free-weight movements. A useful rule of thumb is to include a "pulling" or flexion exercise for every "pushing" or extension one such that each movement plane is worked equally in both directions. In the case of lower-body training, primary movements can be balanced out to a large extent with exercises such as the glute-ham raise, abdominal/trunk flexion and various isolation exercises. However, this becomes more challenging in the case of upper-body training because of the mobility of the shoulder girdle and resulting need to offset traditional pressing exercises; hence the value of high/low cable stacks and various free-body exercises.

Training Methods
A hierarchy of training methods for specialized strength development is illustrated in Table 1. As can be seen, this classification scheme is largely a matter of practicality and there is some overlap. The key to applying these methods lies in their skillful combination rather than exclusive or disproportionate use of any one of them.






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