Bridge the Gap Between Strength and Power

Every guy wants to be strong. There’s no better way to get strong than to lift heavy loads for a few sets of a few reps a few times per week. You can’t go wrong with 3×3 (3 sets of 3 reps) every 3-4 days to build strength. Research is clear that building maximal strength will improve your speed and explosiveness – at first, anyway.

However, there comes a time when simply lifting heavy won’t get the job done. This is especially true if you’re an athlete who needs high levels of explosive strength.

After you have a few years of heavy lifting under your belt it’s important to improve your explosive strength with fast lifts. Maximal strength training builds your force capacity, but that newfound strength won’t necessarily make you punch or kick harder, or sprint faster. You must bridge the gap between the force your muscles can produce and your ability generate high levels of force very quickly.

Let’s say you’re a trainer who’s working with a MMA fighter, and let’s say you use a standing one-arm cable chest press to boost his punching power. If you increase his strength in that exercise from, say, 90 pounds to 160 pounds it’s easy to think that he’ll be able to punch harder.

In the outstanding text, Strength and Power in Sport (2nd Edition), Zatsiorsky states that “it takes usually in excess of 0.3-0.4 sec to generate maximum force.” However, many fast movements such as a punch or kick usually occur in approximately 0.1 sec.

So how do you train your muscles to develop force more quickly? By enhancing rate of force development (RFD). The benefits of improving RFD are vast, however, here are three of the primary benefits:

1. Earlier recruitment of high-threshold motor units: By recruiting your largest motor units earlier, you’ll be able to reach your peak levels of force more quickly.

2. Enhanced maximal discharge rate of motor units: A muscle boosts its force by recruiting more motor units. Once those motor units have been recruited the nervous system sends a signal to the motor units to fire faster (this is known as rate coding). A motor unit can increase its force 10-fold when it reaches its maximum firing rate.

3. Increased incidence of “doublets” during contractions: A doublet is defined as a motor unit firing twice in a very short interval (5-20 ms). Doublets allow a muscle to reach peak levels of force faster.

To enhance RFD you must train with relatively light loads and apply maximum acceleration to each lift. With heavy loads, the actual velocity of movement is slow. However, to boost RFD the actual velocity must be fast so the load must be light. Loads that vary between 20-60% of your 1RM typically work well. Movements with light loads and high velocities are known in research as ballistic exercises.

Now, where trainers often screw up with ballistic exercises is with time under tension. To keep acceleration high and fatigue in check you should stop each set once the lifting speed slows down noticeably. Merging your sets into slow grind reps won’t boost RFD as effectively as keeping the reps fast. As a gross generalization, sets of ballistic exercises should terminate within 10 seconds. After 10 seconds your speed will slow down because the largest motor units that will start dropping out.

Put another way, if your speed doesn’t slow down within 10 seconds you didn’t recruit the high-threshold motor units to begin with. It’s imperative to tap into your largest motor units because they produce the most power. How? The largest motor units contain the largest bundle of your strongest muscle fibers. If you leave these motor units untapped your RFD will suffer.

There’s one limitation, however, with applying maximum acceleration to a standard exercise such as a squat or bench press. As you approach lockout the nervous system will decelerate the lift to protect your joints. Research (Elliot et al 1989) demonstrates that 52% of the total duration of a bench press with 80% of 1RM is deceleration. This is bad news since deceleration forces motor units to drop out. Therefore, enhancing RFD requires exercise modifications.

The key is to perform exercises that continue past lockout in order to short-circuit deceleration.

Two of my favorite exercises to boost RFD are jump squats with 25% of 1RM across the upper back and clap push-ups. Here’s a simple workout to enhance RFD.

1a Jump squat with 25% of 1RM for 3 reps
Rest 30 seconds
1b Clap push-up for 3 reps
Rest 30 seconds, repeat 1a/1b pairing seven more times (8 rounds total)

Perform this short workout twice per week at the beginning of your regular workouts and you’ll bridge the gap between strength and power.

Stay Focused,
CW                                                                                   

12 thoughts on “Bridge the Gap Between Strength and Power

  1. Chad,

    wouldn’t it also be reasonable to use hang high pulls (clean and snatch grip) for sets of three to six?

    Thanks again for an interesting piece of writing.

    Ted

    CW: You bet, O-lifts such as high pulls are effective for boosting RFD, however there’s more deceleration than in exercises where you release the load or continue past lockout. But there are many exercises that fit the bill and high pulls work.

  2. Hey Chad,
    I’m not strong enough to do full clap pushups, can I do them off of a bench?

    CW: Yes, you can even do them off a wall.

  3. This is some seriously good stuff that no one is talking about. Train slow, be slow.

    I would also include straight up sprinting at 100% velocity, the potentiation a day or two after that workout will make you feel much faster.

  4. Interesting read.
    What would your thoughts be regarding explosive/ballistic “lifting” with resistance bands as there should be no potential issue with injury there?

    CW: Resistance bands are ok, but there’s still more deceleration than throwing an object.

  5. What RM or % is used in this 3×3 recommendation about building strength and would you cycle it somehow for someone with an already decent strength level (1.5xbw bench, 1.5xbw chin-up) ?
    Simply trying to lift more weight each time seems to lead nowhere at this point. Would be glad to hear your basic recommendations about this. Thanks!

    CW: Alternate between the heaviest weight you can lift for 3×3 in one workout, followed by 3×3 with the heaviest weight you can lift fast (probably 65-75% of 1RM).

    If adding weight is getting you nowhere, it’s time to change exercises.

  6. Chad, nice article.
    You refer to a research (Elliot et al 1989) that demonstrates that 52% of the total duration of a bench press with 80% of 1RM is deceleration.
    What was the original article please? Full citation would be wonderful.

    CW: Elliot B, Wilson D, Kerr G. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1989; 21: 450-62.

  7. Great info, my only contention is the 25% of 1RM recommendation for the jump squats – this doesn’t take bodyweight into account. IMO Mike Boyle’s formula is a better fit. The exercise is great, I’m just wary of excessive loading on explosive exercises – they slow down and fail to become explosive, and they can be taxing on the joints for heavier trainees.

    CW: You’re right, for an overly fat person that’s too much load. My recommendations are for relatively fit people who aren’t overly fat. An obese person should not do any type of jump squat.

    The key is speed. Use whichever load allows for the greatest movement velocity.

  8. off subject-would you consider putting some of your books on kindle in the future?

    CW: HIAH is on Kindle. I’m looking into the other books.

  9. Youre right. One thing most people dont realize is that when you’re doing cardio you are only burning calories while you are actually doing cardio. A HUGE overlooked part of losing weight is actual heavy weight lifting. In short, the more muscle your body has the more energy it needs to support it. If you remain at a maintenance calorie level or even deficit while increasing your bodies needs for calories by weight lifting you will see the weight fall off even faster…

  10. Hi chad,
    Firstly I would like to apologise for the long post. I have a query relating to overtraining and CNS recovery which is an area in which you are an expert.
    I came across the below and wondered if you believe this can be effective training method to improve maximal strength?

    “Maybe this will clear up some of the misconceptions people have about what actually happens when you lift weights.

    Most people think the only part of the body to adapt to lifting are the muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. In fact, the brain also adapts to whatever stress you put on the body. It physically changes its structure and ability to deal with chemicals which directly relate to your physical activity. If you are a runner, you’ll get better at making and using chemicals which deal with running.

    One thing that pissed me off is that people believe the CNS fatigues in some way. Bulls**t. People are still taught that the nervous system runs off of electrical impulses like a power cable. It doesn’t. The nerve impulses (synapses) run off of chemicals (neurotransmitters). If these chemicals are not present, there is no signal between brain and muscle. The reason you can measure electrical impulses in the nervous system is because the electrical impulse is a BYPRODUCT of this chemical reaction. Its called an electrochemical reaction.

    A large part of how strong we are is the ability to create and deal with a higher concentration of these neurotransmitters. The nerves develop more receptor sites to connect with them, and the glands learn to make more of the neurotransmitters themselves. Only then do you get a stronger impulse.

    When you start placing demands on the brain to lift maximum weights every day, it says “oh crap I need to learn how to make and use these chemicals or he’s going to kill us. So it goes through an adaptive period where it shuts down some functions and tries to upgrade. These are the “dark times”.

    The main chemical in muscle contraction is SEROTONIN. It actually regulates how HARD the muscle contracts, which is why only the heaviest weights seem to effect our mood, the reason why people shy away from maximal lifting and cower from the imaginary symptoms of overtraining.

    Serotonin just happens to be the main feel good hormone in the body. It directly effects your mood and mental outlook, your happiness and willingness to train. Your sleep, appetite, and also effects the cardiovascular system (your heart rate increases when you are supposedly overtrained – this is why). The serotonin cycle in the brain gets screwed up when drug addicts go into withdrawal (most recreational drugs artificially influence the serotonin pathways, which is why they are so much fun). There are other neurotransmitters which get effected by this (acetylcholine for example), but serotonin is the big one.

    So, when the body receives a demand to lift heavy things on a daily basis, the brain shuts down the serotonin receptors to upgrade them. The brain structure changes take a few days to a few weeks. Changes in individual nerves happen quickly, a few days at most. This is why the dark times occur. Its the adaptive period thats needed for the brain and body to get to the next higher level. Natures little joke is obviously making us feel like crap when we are actually improving.

    The body is trying to get us to stop the stress so it isn’t forced to remodel the whole place, but thats exactly what you want. Thats why its so important to keep pounding away through it all. You want the greatest adaptation to take place.

    Guys who are afraid of this response are guys who are lifting because they like the way it makes them feel. If you do lighter workouts, this serotonin is raised, but there is no signal to adapt. You feel high. Basically lifting weights becomes like a drug. People feel better doing light useless workouts, just like they feel better taking a hit of crack. I think this is why no one wants to try lifting the Bulgarian way. They are addicts.

    You asked me about cortisol. There are no good and bad hormones. There are only hormones specific to your physical activity. Do you know why cortisol is released in weight lifting? Cortisol controls the blood pressure and concentration of blood sugar.

    With short bursts of intense lifting (singles and doubles), blood sugar is not the primary fuel. Blood sugar only becomes an issue when you are doing higher reps. Cortisol is released mainly as a way to cope with these high reps, a way to shuttle more fuel (blood sugar) into the muscle tissue by using higher blood pressure. This is one reason bodybuilders have their posing trunks in a bunch over it. Cortisol is dealt with just like serotonin. The body tries to adapt to using it, and all the bodybuilders run and scream. If they stuck with it they’d go through a response much like the Dark times, and they’d be able to handle more high rep sets afterwards.

    In this case, cortisol is specific to the activity bodybuilders, not power or olympic lifters. Keep your reps low and you never have to worry about it. (It has nothing to do with total volume, only reps in the set.)

    Thats funny what you mentioned about the Bulgarians having huge adrenals. It makes sense. They adapt by getting larger and stronger just like anything else. Thats also a great argument against limiting genetics. Someone else would look at normal sized adrenals and say they would obviously be overloaded by stress. The Bulgarians entire organism changed in response to their lifting. Form follows function. Awesome stuff.

    The adrenals don’t only release cortisol, they release adrenaline as well. Adrenaline acts as one of the triggers to this adaptive period. You should go read the lecture by Ivan Abajiev here :

    – weightliftingexchange.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=74&Itemi d=75

    He explains this whole adaptive period and how it effects more than just the musculature.

    Serotonin does indeed play a role in muscular contraction. Again, it is just as I said, it determines how hard the contraction is. Acetylcholine fires the muscle, Serotonin determines how hard it fires. Here are some research papers that confirm this.

    – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC492609/?page=1
    – jpet.aspetjournals.org/content/267/2/1002.abstract
    – jap.physiology.org/cgi/content/abstract/77/1/277

    CW: Of course serotonin plays a role in muscle contraction. So do hundreds of other physiological processes. As long as you’re eating high-quality foods such as fruits, veggies, nuts, eggs, cottage cheese, fish, etc. your serotonin should be fine. Fish oil supplements help too. Train the way I recommend (short, fast sets) and eat a healthy diet with the foods I mentioned and your serotonin won’t be a problem.

  11. Hey good points here, but i belive most individuals dont need rfd work, since they do not have any force they can use. Also most people play sports that develop their rfd from an early age and need to focus on strength work. Great articles here and i love the site. I dont agree with avishek with the train slow be slow theory heres an article from olympic 400 meter coach.
    Thanks and please keep updating

    CW: Yes, I agree that people need to be strong first. That was the topic of my latest T-nation article “Why You Need More Strength.” However, this system is for people who do have enough strength, it’s not for beginners.

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