Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Using the slow lifts to improve the fast lifts

One of the characteristics of many workouts is the inclusion of the so-called “fast lifts” e.g. the clean, the snatch and the jerk. These exercises require high degrees of skill, power, and flexibility and, when we consider the possible consequences of a missed lift, courage!

Improvement in these fast lifts is often frustratingly slow and moving up in weight may take months of repeated efforts until we feel ready to up the ante and attempt the next level.

So – what if I were to tell you there was a method you could utilize in your training that would give you an almost instantaneous increase in the fast lifts allowing you to make maybe weeks worth of improvements today? I imagine you’d be skeptical at best and probably think I was mad and worst!

This method has long been utilized by elite eastern block athletes as a “plateau buster” – a way of promoting progression in athletes who are experiencing stagnation in their training.

Don’t worry though; it doesn’t require any self administration of anabolic steroids, weird supplements, odd training equipment or anything else that may cause you and your loved ones to question your sanity.

Much of strength training is neurological in nature – we all have muscles and we all have a nervous system but it is the interaction of these two systems that provides us with the ability to demonstrate strength. If the two systems are working out of sync, we will only be able to demonstrate modest feats of strength and power at best. However, if we can synchronize these two systems we can enjoy the fruits of their synergy and demonstrate much greater degrees of strength and power then usual.

Obviously local muscular hypertrophy (size) plays a part in maximal force generation but it is possible for a small muscled person to out perform a large muscled person if the smaller person has had sufficient neurological training. (Think bodybuilders versus weight lifters as a good example.)

Don’t believe me? Consider the fairly common phenomenon of “old lady lifts car off toddler to save life”. I’m sure most of you reading this will have seen headlines like this in the media. What happened to this frail old lady to allow her to demonstrate such a dramatic level of strength? Demonic possession? Popeye’s spinach? Nope – merely an over riding of her normal neurological system caused by fear and adrenalin.

Whilst it is unlikely we are going to be able to replicate the car lifting feat of our octogenarian, we are going to be able to use similar strategies to “fire up” our nervous system to allow us to tap into hidden strengths.

So, before I explain how this method works we first need to explore the neuromuscular system to understand how and why we can use it to our advantage.

Muscles are made up of many muscle fibers which are organized in bundles. We have bundles of bundles of yet more bundles all wrapped up in a final outer layer called a fascia. These fibers are grouped into motor units – a group of fibers which work together in pools.

The amount of strength we can generate is dictated by the number of motor units we recruit for any given task i.e. if I were going to lift a water bottle which weighed 500 grams, I would recruit only a small number of motor units, where as if I wanted to lift a weight of around 50 kilos, I would recruit many more motor units for the task.

This is the basis of the “all or nothing law” which states that muscle fibers either work to 100% of their contractile ability or not at all – it is only the number of fibers recruited which varies form task to task.

Most of us will have experienced the all or nothing law going a bit wrong…and it is this “going a bit wrong” that we want to utilize in our yet to be mentioned training method.

Picture this – you are moving house, and you are filling boxes to load into the removal van…boxes of heavy books, pots, pans, some bedding and all that sort of thing.

You are down to the last box and you know it’s going to be a heavy one – full of books. So, you psyche your self up and approach the box. With a neutral spine and tensed abdominals, you stand over it, squat down and take a firm grip on it and heave it up…and it goes soaring into the air almost hitting you in the face and smashing into the ceiling!

Someone swapped your heavy box of books for a box of pillows and your neuromuscular system was fooled into recruiting too many motor units for the job. Now, if only we could do this at will…

It just so happens – we can, and that is the basis of this method of training.

Its technical name is neuromuscular synaptic facilitation, which we will re-name complex training.

Complex training is a method where we will attempt to trick the body into recruiting more motor units than are needed which will allow us to demonstrate greater power than is normally possible.

Fast lifts generally utilize relatively lighter loads when compared to the slow lifts – this makes sense because a light load will move fast and have greater velocity than a load of great magnitude. Power is basically strength performed at speed so it is essential the load for the fast lifts permits maximal acceleration. Strength on the other hand is maximal force production without any concern for velocity. In complex training we are going to use both loading parameters with a view to maximizing force production at speed i.e. power.

So – the empty box scenario in the gym…

Decide on the fast lift you want to train – let’s say for this example the power clean. Think of a slow lift which utilizes similar movement patterns to the fast lift you want to improve – in this case the bent legged deadlift.

Load up the bar with close to your 1RM (repetition max) for the deadlift and perform a good solid rep – obviously having warmed up appropriately before hand. This should be a safe attempt – in other words there should be no doubt you will make the rep, but it should still be fairly challenging…

While resting for 2-3 minutes, set up the weight required for your power clean. On completion of the allotted rest period perform the power clean. Don’t be surprised if you nearly launch it over your head as it feels so light! You may even manage multiple reps with a weight that would normally “own you.”

So – what the hell happened? Your neuromuscular system was expecting a massive heavy load because of the “feeder” set done a few moments ago, however, you reduced the load and the nervous system over compensated and allowed you to recruit more motor units in synchronization than normal and the result for you? A new PB!

There are a number of other good combinations that can be used in complex training – here are a few to get you started...

Bench press & Plyometric press ups
Front squat & Squat jumps
Deadlifts & Cleans/snatches
Standing press & Jerk

Chin/pull up & medicine ball slams

Remember the slow lift is performed for one good rep at close to 1RM, then rest 2-3 minutes before doing the fast lift.

The fast lift could be performed as a 1RM attempt or multiple reps as training dictates.

As a general guideline, only perform around 3 sets of a similar pairing otherwise fatigue will set in and be detrimental to the performance of maximal power.

In conclusion, complex training gives us a useful tool for making progress in the fast lifts BUT because of the high degree of loading used in the preceding slow lift, should only be used by those who are advanced enough to withstand the rigors of this type of training.

Patrick Dale

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