Using weights to improve athletic performance is crucial. Weight training helps to develop strength, power, speed, and injury resilience, so why not use it?!
Many times, athletes will rock up to the gym, load up the bar, and simply just lift without thinking about moving that weight as fast as possible. All they do is go through the motions and worry about getting the bar from A to B, and not worry about HOW that bar is moving from A to B.
Intent is the key, having intent to move weight as fast as possible is important to recruit fast twitch muscle fibres – the key muscle fibres for strength and power development (See table 1 for a comparison of muscle fibres).
|Max Power Output||
Table 1: Muscle Fibre Comparison (Adapted from Maughan and Gleeson, 2010).
We have three main types of muscle fibre, type I, type IIa, and type IIx. The type II muscle fibres are responsible for adaptations in strength, power, and speed, so these are the muscle fibres in which we want to adapt with strength training. Therefore, it would make sense that we want to recruit as many of them as possible to get a training effect.
To recruit these muscle fibres, we have what’s called ‘motor units’ – which are effectively the connection between the nervous system and the muscle. Motor units work to recruit multiple muscle fibres at a time, with larger motor units being responsible for the recruitment of type IIx muscle fibres, and the smallest motor units being responsible for the recruitment of type I muscle fibres.
To get an understanding of how the nervous system recruits muscle fibres through the use motor units, we can look at the Henneman size principle. The Henneman size principle states that “muscle fibres, when under load, will be recruited from smallest to largest.”
Figure 1: The Henneman Size Principle, where smallest motor units are recruited first, followed by the larger motor units. Picture Credit: http://www.tvdsb.ca
There are three ways in which we can maximally recruit the type II muscle fibres:
- Train with a maximal weight.
- Train with a submaximal weight, lifted with high speed.
- Train with a submaximal weight, lifted to near or complete failure.
The key point here for athlete performance training is point no. 2. This is where MOST of your time should be spent in training. There is no need to go in to the gym and train with maximal loads every session, and there is certainly no need to train with high volume to failure every workout. Whilst these methods will allow you to recruit the larger, type II muscle fibres in which we want to train, the training effect is very different.
Training maximally for 1-2 repetitions every session will induce high amounts of central nervous system fatigue, which will leave you feeling fried, your performance reduced, and the volume probably not high enough to induce long term strength and power gains. While lifting to near or complete failure is going to cause high levels of muscle damage and fatigue which is going to reduce performance outcomes in strength and power.
Key takeaway: Spend the majority of your time lifting with submaximal weight, with intent to move it quickly, and not to failure! (But don’t try to lift so fast you neglect your technique).
So, next time you head to the gym, just have a think about the load you’re lifting, and how fast you’re trying to move it. It will certainly bring about some noticeable performance improvements.
Example Training Session
X. Depth Jump – 3×3 @ Bodyweight, 60-90 seconds rest
A. Back Squat – 5×3 @ 85% 1RM, 3-5 minutes rest
B. Hip Thrust – 3×6 @ 7-8 RPE, 90-120 seconds rest
C1. Reverse Lunge, Front Rack Position – 2×10/side @ 7-8 RPE, No rest
C2. Half Kneeling Pallof Press – Anti-Rotation – 2×10/side @ 8 RPE, 60-90 seconds rest
Maughan, R and Gleeson, M. The Biochemical Basis of Sports Performance. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.
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