You want it all – speed, power, agility, and of course, bone crushing strength. Look no further if you’ve lost a step and want to get back to being an athlete without losing your hard earned gains in the weight room.
By Ryan Patrick
This piece is written for the guy or gal who wants to recapture athleticism while retaining, or even enhancing, their gains. I cannot consider the heresy of asking you to renounce strength to restore athleticism.
I consider myself an athlete first. And a strength athlete second.
Thus, my dilemma: I love PR’s. I love competition. I love powerlifting. I love strongman. I love stupid feats of strength. I’m a competitor. I love it all.
However, the longer I have a singular focus on strength sports, the more I surrender athleticism. There’s a point where excessive practice of high forces at low velocities will deplete speed and power.
I believe you CAN have it all. You just can’t do it all.
Raising attributes across the board Madden-style means that, at times, some will need to be maintained while others are augmented.
Many of us share a similar origin story: would-be athlete didn’t cut it/plagued by injuries finds redemption in the weight room.
Strength training was either a means to rebuild a broken body or a competitive outlet we desperately sought in “retirement.” Or both.
Maybe you share this split personality. The “athlete” always wants to maintain the ability to feel powerful, explosive, and agile. You want to be able to play pick-up, go harder than ever, and not regret it the next day. This is at odds with the “bro” who wants to crush gym numbers. You know – mo’ weight, mo’ strength.
Below I’m going to share a few thoughts on how I reconcile these competing ideas for the guys and gals who want it all: speed, power, and strength.
To avoid the atrocity of blindly throwing speed and power work at a certified meat monkey, I have four concepts to guide your programming. Let’s rekindle the affinity between athlete and bro.
#1 – Enhance Expansion Strategies
I give credit to Bill Hartman for this terminology. In his paradigm two global movement strategies are available: compression and expansion. They are a function of how you create pressure in your body by moving fluid and air. If you compress you are producing force and when you expand you are absorbing force. These strategies balance movement and output.
Expansion and compression are linked with inhalation and exhalation, respectively. During breathing, the joints respond to pressure changes from inflating and deflating lungs.
One insight into your global compensatory strategy is the infrasternal angle. This is the angle of the ribs formed by the lower cartilaginous ribs that attach at the xiphoid. They represent the position of the rib cage laterally with a wide and narrow being a bucket handle up or down, respectively.
If you want a deep dive, I love this Movement Debrief with Zac Cupples.
Your skeletal structure biases you toward one of these presentations. The flimsy lower ribs are easily movable and represent a primary area of compensation. If someone has a wide ISA, roughly defined as over 100 degrees, it indicates that the axial skeleton is in a position associated with exhalation. In this scenario, the ribs have moved laterally and superiorly (inhalation) as a compensation. The inhalation is a compensation for an exhaled axial skeleton.
A narrow ISA is the opposite: an axial skeleton stuck in inhalation (roughly 90 degrees or less) but compensates with an exhale at the ISA by closing it.
It’s crucial to understand that lifting big weights superimposes a compressive strategy regardless of your architecture. Compression overcomes. It is strength. It is speed. It is power. It is everything. And at the extremes, it’s a potential liability.
Weightlifting produces a strong compressive strategy that makes you—get this—better at lifting weights. Over time this may limit certain ranges of motion. High degrees of freedom under heavy load aren’t useful.
For athletes, this could impede hip rotation that is required for effective loading and unloading of a hip to cut or dump a pelvis so far forward that the shin must cast out when sprinting thereby threatening the hamstrings. Recapturing some expansion capabilities implies the need for increasing joint variability, but it appreciates that orientation of the axial skeleton is the gateway rather than gratuitous volumes of mobility drills.
Yogis aren’t known for strength and athletes aren’t known for being limber. In this context—building a powerful athlete from a meat monkey—you must retain the benefits of compression to drive strength and speed while having enough expansion to absorb force and change direction.
This begs the question: How do I do this?
I advise entering the octagon with much more than breathing exercises. They can be useful, but you will not woo-sah your way to athletic capabilities.
A strong, superficial compressive strategy may require loading to create expansion. If this is confusing, consider the fact that many a meat monkey thinks that 225 on a squat feels better than an empty barbell. External load, to a point, can assist.
There are levels to how much compression can be created as a strategy. Recall that you are managing pressures. By shifting posture and loading (e.g., moving from a back squat to a front squat), you can influence the management of compression and expansion. The body will move through the path of least resistance.
Anecdotally, using training blocks to retain strength while improving movement capabilities has helped me feel and move better. Implementation requires you identify joint ROM, how that manifests when you move, and altering loading strategies to recover some range of motion.
Full range of motion is never the goal. A person with a wide ISA will not become a narrow, or vice versa. Restoring dynamic capabilities of the ISA is one of the goals. This is indicated by the bucket handle action of the lateral ribs during breathing. The lateral ribs should move superiorly and laterally during inhalation, and back during exhalation.
Here are a few principles to get you on the path:
1. Stack it: Align the pelvic and thoracic diaphragm
One of the initial goals is to stack the ribs on top of the pelvis. This aligns the pelvic and the thoracic diaphragm with each other and allows the management of internal pressures. Anterior orientation alters the length tension relationships and restricts ROM. This is a position you want as an option, not necessarily as base. Whether you have a narrow or wide ISA, if you’ve put up big numbers in the weight room often equate to superficial compressive strategies.
Most need to obtain a “squatty” squat. Inability to reach depth indicates a restriction in the relative motion of the pelvis. You can change the task in a number of ways; for example, adding a heel lift or wedge, using front loaded variations, and having intent to squat down rather than back. Here are two variations that I have found to be particularly useful:
Often, as the squat gets deeper, there’s a tendency to revert back to a concentric strategy at the pelvis by moving the hips posteriorly. Recapturing expansion capabilities must do just that – recapture eccentric orientation. Restoring the ability to descend into the hips without compressive strategies may require you to add sensorimotor focused lifts such as the two shown below.
2. Unilateral Work: Don’t Over Commit to the Sagittal Plane
Fight fire with fire. Use compression (load) on one side to influence expansion capabilities on the other. Developing ventral cavity control (i.e., the “stack”) implies sagittal competency. If you do not have sagittal competency, you will cheat the frontal and transverse planes. However, you do not only need to do sagittal based exercises to achieve sagittal competency.
Unilateral work is an underutilized weapon. The loading and intent of the unilateral work must change. These are also sensorimotor based – feel and execution are the indicators of progress, not load.
I’ve seen more progress out of people when they stop trying to be the king or queen or unilateral work. No one cares about your landmine press or rear foot elevated split squat. If you chase numbers, you will compress and not recapture the movement capabilities you desire. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
3. Leverage Training Residuals: You Aren’t Going to Get Weaker.
If speed, power, and strength are the goal, then you must allocate training cycles where max strength is in maintenance (read: retained, not detrained) while other competencies are developed. If top end strength is your ultimate goal, this may not be a worthwhile pursuit. You will never be as strong as you could when you seek to increase athleticism. Multi-modal fitness—building an Apex Athlete—requires you to allocate training and recovery resources to more domains.
Strength is seductive because it’s easy to measure progress. Power and speed, not so much. Newer technologies are allowing us to test speed and power, but big numbers get the most fanfare.
In the early phases, you’ll be working through inefficient or compensated patterns. Develop efficacy and capacity and avoid the Siren call to demonstrate strength with a one-off random max workout. It’s a skill to grind through circa-max weights, and you can train this again down the road as you build the foundation.
When you trust the process, become deliberate with your execution, and acquire lost movement capabilities you have the beginnings of creating a real monster. One capable of demonstrating strength, power, speed, and stamina. I believe when done correctly you can be much stronger, more powerful, and more robust.
This was just the first consideration for shifting from sole focus on size and strength into a training for the holy grail: strength, power, and speed. I could argue this would be an entry point for anyone who wants to withstand the unintended consequences of chasing top end strength.
In the next article, I’ll talk about the remaining 3 points I believe, “set the stage” for maximizing your speed and power while minimizing any loss of gains. Stay tuned!
About the Author
Ryan Patrick is the owner of Peak Fitness & Sports Training (PeakF.A.S.T) in Northern Kentucky. Ryan is married with 8 animals (5 have two legs, 3 have four legs) and, by extension, is a master at getting things done with very little free time. Ryan loves training people for peak performance, whether it’s strength or speed, but in real life he’s just a rad dad who doesn’t know which end of a hammer to hold and probably couldn’t hang 5 minutes with some of his fiercest clients. But he’ll die trying.
He has certs and stuff.
If you want to connect, he spends most of his social media time on IG @coachryanpatrick or you can email directly firstname.lastname@example.org