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How to Use Low Intensity Plyometrics to Facilitate Maximal Strength Gains

Since the times of Ancient Greece, athletes have explored ways to get stronger, jump higher, and run faster. Each generation of new athletes have attempted to push the barrier and break previous records. It was with this quest in mind that Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky stumbled upon and created “shock” training. In the Western world, this is known as the plyometric method. So what exactly is a plyometric? A plyometric exercise is one that utilizes the stretch-shortening cycle or myostatic stretch reflex.

The myostatic stretch reflex occurs when elastic energy is stored within the tendons and muscles following a rapid stretch, such as during an eccentric contraction. If a concentric contraction directly follows, as happens during a plyometric exercise, then the stored energy is released and it contributes to total force production.

If you're having trouble visualizing this, think of it like stretching and launching a rubber band very quickly.  The lengthening/stretching of the rubber band represents the eccentric portion, while the shortening/launching of the rubber band represents the concentric contraction.

While the topic of plyometrics is broad to say the least, this article will specifically cover how late intermediate and advanced lifters can use low intensity plyometric exercises during their warm-up, or within their training, to elicit maximal strength gains utilizing post-activation potentiation (PAP).

Maximal Strength & Power: A Partnership?

Strength is defined as the ability to produce force. You are able to display strength both isometrically and dynamically. When it comes to maximal strength, or limit strength, it is usually quantified as the greatest amount of force that a muscle or muscle group can exert in one maximal effort.

Power, on the other hand, is a combination of force and velocity:

P= Force x Velocity

In particular, power represents the exertion of force on an object and the object’s velocity in the direction which the force is exerted. As a result, alterations in force theoretically should create changes in power production.

photo credit:  http://www.elitefts.com
photo credit: http://www.elitefts.com

Is that the case?

Yes! According to the literature, maximal strength is an important quality that affects power output and peak power production.

As noted by Schimidtbleicher, increased maximal strength allows for greater peak power production since it gives a person the ability to more easily accelerate submaximal loads. Moreover, people with higher levels of maximal strength tend to have a greater percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers or type IIa/IIb fibers. As we know, type IIa/IIb muscles fibers most contribute to high power outputs.[1] These assertions are also supported by the research provided by Moss et al and Stone et al, which looked at the relationship of maximal strength and power.[2]

Side note: Don't take this to mean that just boosting maximal strength will automatically increase power. That's a quality you have to train. However, boosting maximal strength gives you the chance to be more powerful because you're now working with a larger strength base.

Nevertheless, since the human body is complex it doesn’t end up being nearly that simple. Enter the central nervous system (CNS).

The Role of the Central Nervous System

Before moving on, lets have a quick recap.

1.  Strength is the ability to produce force. Force = mass x acceleration.

2.  Power is measured by taking the product of force and an object’s velocity in the direction that the force is exerted.  Power = force x velocity

3.  Higher levels of maximal strength tend to lead to higher levels of power according to the scientific literature.

Why isn’t it that simple?

When it comes to force generation one of the key component is the CNS. The CNS allows for coordinated muscular movements and force generation through innervation via motor units.

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Motor units consist of a motor neuron and the skeletal muscle fibers innervated by the motor neuron’s axonal terminals.

As opposed to getting into muscle physiology, however, you just need to know that all motor units aren't created equal, and that you have two main types:

  1. Low threshold motor units

These are smaller motor units that innervate type I muscle fibers, which generate low amounts of force, but are highly resistant to fatigue.   These are the muscle fibers and motor units that allow us to do low intensity activities like writing this article, taking a walk, or getting a glass of water.

  1. High threshold motor units

These are larger motor units that innervate type IIa/IIb muscle fibers, which generate large amounts of force, but fatigue more easily, especially the IIb muscle fibers. These muscle fibers and motor units allow us to engage in explosive and powerful activities like lifting a maximal squat or performing a heavy clean & jerk.

So, in order to produce force quickly, one must be able to effectively utilize their high-threshold motor units. This is where plyometric exercises are useful. As noted by Bompa, the CNS controls muscle force by changing the activity of the muscle’s motor units; if a greater force generation is required, a greater number of motors units are recruited. This is known as Henneman’s size principle. Motor units are recruited from smallest to largest based on the force requirement needed.

photo credit:  Science and Practice of Strength Training
photo credit: Science and Practice of Strength Training

One of the benefits of plyometric training is the increased activation of the fast-twitch motor units. [3] Plyometric drills allow for an individual to improve their efficiency of utilizing their high-threshold motor units.

This is important since both max force production needed to move maximal weight and peak power production needed to move a weight explosively both rely on the high threshold motor units to innervate fast twitch muscle fibers.

Since we know that both peak power and max force production are directly correlated to high threshold motor unit recruitment, we can then utilize plyometric drills directly before a heavy resistance set to take advantage of the phenomenon known as PAP.

Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP)

If you are unfamiliar with the term PAP, it refers to a phenomenon by which acute muscle force output is enhanced transiently (between 5 to 30 minutes) as a result of contractile history of the muscle fibers and nervous system stimulation.[4] This is typically accomplished by completing a set of a heavy resistance exercises prior to an explosive exercise that uses the same movement pattern.

Why does this phenomenon occur?

The truth is that the exact cause is unknown, but there are two proposed theories.

1.  The first theory involves the Hoffmann Reflex (H-Reflex). The H-Reflex is an excitation of a spinal reflex elicited by specialized nerves that conduct impulses to muscle. The theory is that PAP comes from an enhancement of the H-Reflex, which increases the efficiency and rate of nerve impulses to the muscle.[5]

2.  The second theory involves phosphorylation (addition of a phosphate for production of ATP). The idea is that a max contraction makes actin and myosin more responsive to the calcium ions released, thus triggering events that lead to enhanced force production.[6]

Traditionally, PAP has been used to promote increases in power production rather than maximal force production. In other words, heavy sets of squats have been used to produce more power during box jumps or sprinting.

Yet, we know that both peak power production and maximal strength are directly correlated to high threshold motor unit recruitment. So what prevents us from switching the order? Well, nothing at all.

In fact, I've seen athletes blow through plateaus time and time again by performing a low intensity plyometric exercise prior to a maximal strength exercise.

So now that you understand the science and rationale behind my methods, it is time to get to the programming.

Sample Programming

Prior to moving on, a word of caution:  these techniques are for individuals that have a substantial strength base and training age. If you have not been training for several years, then focus on getting stronger before using advanced techniques.

When it comes to integrating low intensity plyometric exercises to benefit from the PAP phenomenon, I like to do it in two ways:

The first includes the plyometrics during the warm-up phase, which works great for people that are quite powerful and explosive, but tend to fatigue quite easily. The second uses contrast training, which works well for people that have great work capacity, but are not as powerful and explosive.

Low Intensity Plyometric During Your Warm-Up

The general purpose of a warm-up is to increase core temperature, activate dormant muscles, prepare the body for movement, and stimulate the CNS. The latter can be done using low intensity plyometric exercises after you've finished your breathing drills, soft tissue work, and dynamic mobility drills.

The low intensity plyometric exercises should be the last drill that you perform during the warm-up phase prior to performing your first main compound movement of the day (i.e. a bench press, deadlift, or squat variation).  This is because PAP lasts anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes in length.[7]

Generally speaking, the plyometric exercises during the warm-up for lower body days are one-leg and two-leg bounding, power skips, lateral skips, and repeated jumps. During upper body days, I will use plyo push-ups and some medicine ball ballistic exercises since true plyometric exercises are limited when it comes to the upper body.

Sample Lower Body Warm-Up

Squat Variation Max Strength Day

A) Lateral High Knee Skips or High Knee Skips – 2 X 20 ground contacts (10 right and 10 left)

Rest 30 – 45 seconds, then perform B

B) Hurdle or Dumbbell Jumps – 2 X 6

Rest 2 minutes and go back to A. After last set completed, then start to pyramid up to your working set for your main squat variation for the day.

C) Squat Variation (Main Movement)

Deadlift Variation Max Strength Day

A) Lateral Bounding or Forward Bounding – 2 X 14 ground contacts (7 right and 7 left)

Rest 30 – 45 seconds, then perform B

B) Repeated Jumps (back and forth) – 2 X 6

Rest 2 minutes and go back to A. After last set completed, then start to pyramid up to your working set for your main squat variation for the day. 

C) Deadlift Variation (Main Movement)

Sample Upper Body Days

Bench Variation Max Strength Day

A) Medicine Ball Overhead Slam or Rotational Medicine Ball Slam – 2 X 8 (per side for rotational slam)

Rest 30 – 45 seconds, then perform B

B) Plyo Push-up – 2 X 6

Rest 2 minutes and go back to A. After last set completed, then start to pyramid up to your working set for your main bench variation for the day.

C) Bench Variation (Main Movement)

Contrast Training

The contrast sets should only be used for the main movement of the day and not during warm-up sets for the main movement. You only pair the plyometric movement with your working sets.

Bench Press Variation Day

1a. Choose 1: (3-5 sets X 4–6 reps)

Explosive Pushup

Medicine Ball Chest Pass to Floor

Supine Medicine Ball Chest Throw

Rest Period: 75 to 90 seconds before primary lift set

1b. Bench Press Variation for Max Strength

Squat Variation Day

1a. Choose 1: (3-5 sets X 16-20 ground contacts)

Lateral Bounding

Forward Bounding

High Knee Skips3-5 X 16-20 ground contacts

Rest Period: 75 to 90 seconds before primary lift set

1b. Squat Variation for Max Strength

Deadlift Variation Day

1a. Choose 1: (3-5 sets X 4-6 reps)

Repeated Jumps

Hurdle Jumps

1 Leg Lateral Hop (per side for reps)

Rest Period: 75 to 90 seconds before primary lift set

1b. Deadlift Variation

Closing Thoughts

By utilizing these methods, you will not only find yourself busting through your current plateau, but you may find that your bar speed increases during your submaximal effort days or dynamic days.

Just remember to properly use the rest periods between your plyometric exercise and heavy sets because if not fatigue will negate the effects of PAP.

Now go out there and time to hit some new PRs at the gym!

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IMG_6087_small

About the Author

James Darley is the founder of Historic Performance, and specializes in making busy office professionals strong, jacked, and athletic.   He has formerly interned at LIU-Brooklyn and Benfield Sports Performance, and has worked with a variety of individuals ranging from financial executives to Division I athletes. Outside of fitness, James enjoys reading history books, fishing, and hiking.  Check out his Twitter and Facebook to get daily goodies!

Resources

[1] SCHIMIDTBLEICHER, D (1992). Training for power events. In: Strength and Power in Sports. P.V. Komi, ed. London: Blackwell Scientific Publications, pp. 381–395.

[2] MOSS, B.M. P.E. REFNES, A. ABILGAARD, K. NICOLAYSEN, AND J. JENSEN (1997). Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, loadpower and load-velocity relationships. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 75: 193–199.

STONE, M.H., H.S. O’BRYANT, L. MCCOY, R. COGLIANESE, M. LEHMKUHL, AND B. SCHILLING (2003). Power and maximum strength relationships during performance of dynamic and static weighted jumps. J. Strength Cond. Res. 17:140–147.

[3] BOMPA, TUDOR AND CARRERA, MICHAEL (2005). Periodization Training for Sports, 2nd edition, 199.

[4] ROBBINS, D.W (2005). Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res., 19(2): 453-458.

[5] HODGSON, M., DOCHERTY, D., & ROBBINS, D. (2005). Post-activation potentiation underlying physiology and implications for motor performance. Sports Medicine, 25 (7), 385-395.

[6] HAMADA, T., SALE, D.G., MACDOUGALL, J.D., & TARNOPOLSKY, M.A. (2000a). Postactivation potentiation, muscle fiber type, and twitch contraction time in human knee extensor muscles. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88, 2131-2137.

[7] CHIU, L.Z., FRY, A.C., WEISS, L.W., SCHILLING, B.K., BROWN, L.E., & SMITH, S.L. (2003). Postactivation potentiation response in athletic and recreationally trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(4), 671-677.

Adaptation and Varying Your Training for Success

Photo Credit:  Rogue Fitness

Are you a creature of habit?

I know I am.

I like routines and tend to stick to them.  It helps me stay productive and keeps me on track.

Occasionally I’ll mix it up, but most of my days look pretty similar.

I’m willing to bet you’re in the same boat.

You probably get up around the same time, eat similar things, and go through a daily schedule that varies by fractions instead of wholes.

As nice as routines are for day to day living, they can be disastrous for your training.

I’m not talking about warming up and all that jazz.  I’m talking about the lift itself.

If you show up to the gym and do the same lift over and over and over again you will not make progress over the long haul.  Sure…in those first couple of weeks you might see some gains, but that’ll eventually come to a screeching halt as you hit the dreaded wall of no progress.

Similar to the Dikimbe Mutombo commercial, but instead of rejecting rolled up paper he’s rejecting your desire to (fill in goal of choice).

This is usually when I hear from people–when progress stops being had.  It just so happens the quantity of the “help I’m stuck” emails has been rather high recently, and in looking over all of their “routines” one thing stands out immediately:  the lack of variety.

Adaptation

Adaptation rules all.

But seriously…it does.

It dictates who you are now and who you will become in the future.  The nice part is you can control for adaptation if you understand it.

Thus, adaptation can be defined as the adjustment of an organism to its environment.  The environment provides the stimulus and then our bodies will adapt.

Training is no different.  We provide a stimulus, whether it be running, squatting, or doing push ups, and then our bodies adapt.

Not all stimuli, however, are created equal.  Some will produce a positive adaptation, some will produce no adaption, and some will produce a negative adaptation (for our purposes negative adaptation simply means decrease in performance).

The three types of adaptation can be classified as follows:

Stimulating- magnitude of the training load exceeds the previous level causing a positive adaptation.

Retaining- magnitude of the training load equals the previous level causing no adaptation

Detraining- magnitude of the training load falls below previous levels causing a decrease in performance.

You can picture a graph with physical fitness on the y axis and training load on the x axis.  The stimulating load will arch up, the retaining load will stay flat, and the detraining load will arch down.

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IMG_0438

Law of Accommodation and Law of Diminishing Returns

Two other important concepts to understand are the law of accommodation and the law of diminishing returns.

In a nutshell, the law of accommodation states that the response of a biological object (human in our case) to a constant stimulus diminishes over time.  This makes logical sense.  As your body sees the same stimulus over and over again it will eventually adapt and the stimulus no longer has an effect.

We can use music as an example.  The first time you hear a new song it may be awesome.  Play it on repeat for a few days and you eventually will no longer like the song.

The law of diminishing returns gets after the same idea:  over time the magnitude of adaptation that occurs from a given stimulus diminishes.  For example, a beginner lifter can see gains from simply squatting the bar because he or she has never performed the movement, while an elite powerlifter can lift a near maximal load and see hardly any adaptation because of the increased exposure to the stimulus.

These two ideas may seem simple, but they’re powerful.  You always have to keep them in mind and respect they are there.

Also, these two laws bring to light the importance or need to continually challenge the system–a concept known as progressive overload.  As the system adapts you have to continually provide it with a greater stimulus, or else you’ll flatline and eventually die off.

Another way to get after progressive overload is via variance–finding ways to change your routine to continuously generate a stimulus greater than what your body is used to.

How To Vary

When it comes to varying your routine you really have two options:

Change the load

Changing the load comes down to manipulating volume and  intensity.

For sake of this conversation, volume will be the total number of lifts performed.  Here’s an example:

You do 5 sets of 4 reps in the bench press.  Your volume that day is:

5 x 4 = 20 reps 

Intensity, on the other hand, deals with the average weight of the barbell, and can be calculated by dividing the total weight lifted by the number reps.  The greater the weight the greater the intensity.  Here’s an example:

Say you do 4 sets of squats for 5 reps a set, with each set looking like this:

Set 1:  100 lbs

Set 2:  100 lbs

Set 3:  120 lbs

Set 4:  120 lbs

To calculate total weight lifted you’ll do the following:

(100 x 5) + (100 x 5) + (120 x 5) + (120 x 5) = 2200 lbs

To find intensity you’ll divide 2200 by the total number of lifts:

2200/20 = 110

There you go.  The average weight lifted that training session was 110 lbs.

With that in mind, I want you to think about how you can vary a training session.

Go ahead and take a minute and write something down.

Alright, good.

So to vary a training session you’d have to either increase sets, increase reps or increase the load (general rule of thumb is to decrease volume as intensity goes up.  just so you don’t make that mistake).  Let’s see what that looks like the next time you squat:

You come back in to squat and decide you’re going to do 4 sets of 2 reps.  Your sets look like this:

1.  150

2.  160

3.  175

4.  175

Now let’s find intensity:

(150 x 2) + (160 x 2) + (175 x 2) + (175 x 2) = 1314

1314/8 = 164

Notice what happened.

Your volume decreased from 20 reps to 8 reps, but your intensity increased from 110 to 164.

Now I wish we could go into more depth on this front, but there’s just not enough time to do so because what we’re beginning to tread on is periodization–the art of planning training to control for volume and intensity in the most effective manner.

That convo will have to wait for another day, so just remember to change up volume or intensity and you should be good for now.

Change the movement

Another way to mix things up is to change the movement.  The opportunities here are limitless, so don’t be afraid to get creative.

Here are a few examples:

Change the movement completely

This is as simple as it sounds.  Pick an entirely new movement.  You’ve been doing squats…try deadlifts.  You’ve been running…try pulling a sled.  The list can go on and on.

Add chains or bands

Putting chains or bands on the bar can completely change the movement by way of accommodating resistance.  Although it may not seem much different to you, I can promise you’re body and central nervous system think it’s different.

Change your stance

Another easy way to mix things up.  Instead of doing something standing up drop into a half kneeling or tall kneeling stance.  Try squatting with a wide stance.  Try squatting with a narrower stance.  Try deadlifting while standing on a small platform to increase the range of motion.  Just use your imagination and have some fun with it.

Vary the tempo

A lifts tempo is often overlooked.  You can change how long the eccentric, concentric and sticking point of the lift lasts.  For example, while doing a single arm dumbbell row take 1 second on the concentric portion, 1 second on the sticking point and 3 seconds on the eccentric portion.  I think you’ll enjoy the different stimulus.

Change the type of bar you use

Unfortunately, a lot people do not have access to a wide variety of bars.  I’d be willing to go even further and say most people don’t know different bar types exist.  Either way, they can be an extremely powerful tool in your toolbox.  Here are a few to get you started: trap bar, swiss bar, cambered bar, and safety squat bar.

(If you’re in the market for bars I’d recommend checking out Rogue’s selection.  They have some of the best stuff around.  Just click this link and it’ll take you straight to the page:  Rogue Weightlifting Bars)

Closing Thoughts

This has been a very brief overview of how to vary up your routine, but I hope you’ve gotten something out of it.

Adding variety to your training routine should be fun.  Get creative, experiment, and see what works best for you.

As I mentioned earlier, variety will depend on your training experience.

If you’re a beginner, you won’t need to vary your routine as much as an experienced lifter because you haven’t spent much time around the stimulus.  And please god take advantage of that.  Don’t get all trigger happy and start changing things up every two weeks.  Ride out the good wave while you can.  Continue performing a lift as long as you’re seeing progress.  Once progress drops off then change things up.

For intermediate and more advanced lifters, a generalized rule of thumb is to change things up every 3 to 4 weeks.  Start there and see how things go.  As you lift you’ll get a better feel for how your body adapts and how long you can spend on any one thing.

8 Lessons Learned From Training With People Stronger Than Me

I’m pumped to have my buddy Tim Geromini on today for a guest post.  I think he chose an awesome topic and knocked it out of the park.  Enjoy: Working at a top tier strength and conditioning facility has a lot of perks, one of them being that I get to train with people much stronger than I am.

Every day before our athletes and clients make their way into the gym our staff comes in early to get a lift in (what kind of coaches would we be if we didn’t train?) It’s no secret to anybody in the room that I am the weakest of the group (although I think everybody is jealous that I can grow an epic beard and they can’t).

Epic-Beard-is-Epic
Epic-Beard-is-Epic

Some would look at this as an intimidating situation, after all it’s not uncommon for me to look over and see a co-worker pulling a 500 pound deadlift like it was a piece of paper off the floor. Meanwhile I am just getting back to deadlifting and do cartwheels when I can pull 275X5 and not have my spine shoot out from behind me and splatter all over the wall.

The way I see it, this is an opportunity to learn from them. You better believe I am taking full advantage of it; I have gained 20 pounds back in four months.

Go into most commercial gyms and you’ll always find those guys by the squat racks and benches who are pushing considerable amounts of weight. I saw it daily when I worked at a commercial gym. The only problem was that nobody went over and talked to them except me.

Intimidation is part of it; nobody wants to sit on the bench next to them and struggle to move a bar with 50 pounds on it. I fully understand. But why not try to learn from them? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked these guys about when they started lifting and they respond by saying how it was from somebody stronger who helped them. See where I’m going here?

With that in mind I put together a list of my observations from training with people stronger than I am. These are in no particular order:

Focus

Training isn’t just something to get through for an hour so they can say “got my exercise in for the day, now I can go eat that bag of chips I’ve been starring at all weekend”! For them training is about getting stronger, better than yesterday. Each lift has a focus and determination like their life depends on it. In between sets you’ll see them pumping themselves up for the next one.

They write it down

Walk into our facility and you will see a workout sheet in everybody’s hand. How do you know if you are moving more weight this week if you didn’t write down last week’s? Want to get stronger? Challenge yourself and move up 10 pounds from last week (assuming form and technique is spot on).

They all do the big 3 lifts

You know the ones I am talking about: squat, bench press, deadlift. Assuming you have no injury restrictions, these are a must if you want to gain strength and move better.

They EAT!

You won’t find a strong individual who eats once a day and feasts on salad greens. You have to eat a lot. I’ve been guilty in the past of the typical comment “dude I already eat a lot”. My response when I hear that now from some clients is this “well that may be true, you may eat a lot. But don’t confuse eating a lot with eating enough”. If the weight on the bar is not moving up and the weight on the scale is not moving up, then you are not eating enough. Period.

They are positive

Imagine getting under the bar for a bench press and your only thought is hoping it doesn’t fall on your chest. Not them, when they get under the bar the only thought is domination. That bar is most certainly going back up and with some force.

They don’t do endless cardio

No comments needed here.

They educate themselves

You are on the right track if you visit this site often. Find ways to educate yourself on lifting, nutrition, and recovery. There are endless amounts of resources online or through books from elite trainers. Find a method that works for you and experiment.

They are consistent

Dedicated lifters don’t miss lifts. If it’s Monday (known as National Bench Press Day in many places) you better bet they are showing up. You won’t find them hitting the snooze button for an extra 10 minutes of sleep. They are up and after it.

There you have it, my observations from training with people stronger than I am. Next time you go to the gym and see somebody stronger than you, ask questions and observe (just make sure you aren’t stalking them and copying everything they do). If the goal is to get stronger then follow those who are already there. Make sure you return the favor to somebody else down the road.

About the Author

Tim Geromini is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Fortunate enough to work with athletes from high school all the way to the professional ranks, every day is a chance to become a better coach.  Currently, Tim is an intern at Cressey Performance.