The training of speed in a sports performance environment has been greatly overshadowed by strength training. Think of the common name attached to the profession: The majority of trainers in weight training facilities carry the title of Strength and Conditioning coach. Not Speed and Conditioning coach or Power and Conditioning coach. We are starting to see a movement toward using the title Performance Coach, which best encompasses the job description of these specialized trainers. Since their job is all about enhancing the performance of an athlete on the field, court, or course, this is one step among many that acknowledges there is a lot more to enhancing the performance of an athlete beyond just strength training.
I am NOT proposing that strength training is any less important an element of performance training now than it has been before. What I am proposing is that strength, combined with other performance elements, is a far more secure foundation to build a training regimen upon, than just it by itself. That’s because strength is an elementary quality. It can’t be broken down any further into a simpler form. Meaning, strength needs to be combined with other elements of training, or its use is extremely limited.
Being strong as a high-performance athlete isn’t enough. Contrast that to when you mix speed with strength: That combination of putting strength into motion makes it relevant for athletic performance. By itself, strength cannot be foundational, but is instead part of the elements whose sum makes up the foundation.
One way to better illustrate strength being more of an elementary quality than a foundational one is by looking at water. It is hard to argue that any substance is more foundational to life than water. Every place that there is life, there is water1. Looking at the makeup of water, it requires the simultaneous mixture of two essential elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Both of these, by themselves, cannot sustain life2.
The same analogy applies to the realm of sports performance training. If a coach fails to simultaneously mix all the elements of performance training—such as strength, speed, and efficient movement patterns, to name a few—then optimal performance isn’t attainable. For example, if an athlete moves inefficiently while lifting heavy, the likelihood of injury drastically increases. If an athlete is hurt, he/she can’t perform. Two elements that have been extremely challenging to mix simultaneously are speed and strength.
Targeting Peak Power
If you walk into the majority of performance training facilities, you’re going to find training tools comprised of barbells, weight plates, dumbbells, med balls, single station machines, functional trainers, and other similar contraptions. Barbells, dumbbells, machine weights etc. are excellent for training strength. Med ball throws and functional training machines are perfect for training speed3.
These tools do an excellent job of emphasizing strength or speed, but are unable to produce simultaneously high levels of speed and strength that translate into peak power output. Peak power is what all performance coaches ideally want their athletes to train and enhance. If an athlete can improve their peak power output, their performance on the field, court, or course will also most likely improve. Although these tools are extremely effective and will always have a place in performance training, they will never train peak power output.
In addition to the mainstream training tools, strength training has been the go-to metric for defining the effectiveness of a training program. It’s far simpler and more convincing to validate the effectiveness of a training routine using the 1 rep max and strength gains as metrics of success. It’s also a lot more fun, not only for the athletes, but for the coaches, to see big jumps in 1 rep maxes.
When I played, there was always something special in the air on “max days.” You felt fresh, and carried a lot of pent-up energy. The anticipation brought the uneasy butterfly feeling because you knew you would be getting under and attempting to lift loads that were the size of small cars. On every max attempt, everyone in the room would freeze and focus on the person going for their best lift. You wanted to pull through for your teammates. You fought for your max lift, throwing out all types of technique or proper form, because you would be damned to let your teammates and coaches down.
After racking the weight, you would be in a daze with lightheadedness from the lack of oxygen through your brain. As the haze cleared, you would hear the roar of your 100 or so teammates that sounded like the roar of a 70,000-seat stadium. Adrenaline flowed through the body. It was a high.
Those “max days” are some of the most fun and most unifying days for a team. The type of training tools, along with the concrete metrics that come from emphasizing strength, have led to a culture tilted heavily towards strength training. This creates an imbalance in optimal performance training.
Why Train High Levels of Speed and Strength in One Continuous Movement?
When executing simple, competitive movements, the ability to generate high levels of strength and speed instantaneously, in any given moment, relates to the athlete’s movement proficiency. This means the more speed and strength that is simultaneously generated in a given moment, the more it will lead to running and accelerating faster, increasing explosiveness, jumping higher, and changing direction quicker.
Performance trainers shouldn’t feel like they are failing their athletes because of their inability to train speed coupled with strength. This isn’t a function of a lack of knowledge or laziness, for the most part. This is a function of what has been known and what has worked up until this point. But things continue to evolve. The question then is, what kind of capabilities would a training tool have to have to optimally train speed and strength in one continuous movement that would produce top-notch power generation?
First, it would have to be a tool that allows the user to throw or let go of the bar at the top of the lift. No matter how fast a lifter moves the bar, if they hold onto it, they work more deceleration than acceleration. The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Basic Guidelines for the Resistance Training of Athletes state that “performing speed repetitions as fast as possible with light weight (e.g., 30-45% of 1RM) in exercises in which the bar is held on to … must be decelerated at the end of the joint’s range of motion (e.g., bench press) to protect the joint.”4 That is because the bar is purposely being decelerated to finish the range of motion. Studies based on 1RM bench presses show that the bar decelerates for the final 24% of the range of motion. At 81% of 1RM, the bar decelerates for the final 52% of the range of motion5.
Second, after throwing or letting go of the bar, the training tool has to be able to catch the weight for the lifter6. In a study of 20 male athletes, 10 trained doing jump squats with a brake (no catch) and 10 did jump squats without a brake (catch). They were then tested following a strength cycle to assess which group improved the most in terms of peak power output. The group that did jump squats without catching the load improved their power output more than the group that had to catch the bar, proving that “no catch” equals more power gains.
Also, there is an injury prevention benefit in being able to avoid catching a falling, loaded barbell. Those athletes who didn’t have to catch the bar experienced far fewer ground impact forces that led to injury than the group that had to catch the weight. There is a dual benefit of not having to catch the falling weight7. Not only does it lead to higher power development, but it also helps reduce wear and tear on the body.
Lastly, this training tool needs to have the ability to load the right amount of weight. Even if you let the bar go at the top of the lift without having to catch the bar, if there is too much or not enough of a load, peak power output will be unattainable. The ideal load for power training was discovered in a study of bench throws where “55% of 1RM was most effective in generating maximum power output.”8
In review, a training tool that gives the lifter the ability to throw or let go of a loaded bar without having to catch it will most effectively combine speed and strength training in a weight training environment. Many performance coaches looking to incorporate speed into their training, but don’t have a training tool like this, use a method known as the “elastic equivalent.” Basically, after doing a bench or a squat, the athlete performs a plyometric-based movement that is equal to a bench (chest pass with a med ball) or a squat (jumping on a plyo box). The objective is to achieve, with two separate movements, the simultaneous training of speed and strength. The challenge is creating the bridge to where the muscles have to adapt to the stimuli of both speed and strength in one given moment. Since those are two separate movements, done at different times, the simultaneous mix of speed and strength just isn’t there.
Implementing Propulsive Training
When introduced to a new training method, the first challenge is implementing it as an enhancement to an already-effective training program, instead of it cannibalizing what has been proven to work over time. It’s all about making a tweak for improvement, not simply making a tweak without any gain. What is seamless about this type of training is that it uses already popular and simple movements like squats and bench presses, along with their variations. The only difference is letting go or throwing the barbell at the top of the lift.
The one training tool that possesses all the necessary components to pull off propulsive training is the XPT. I developed this training tool while trying to figure out how to best train power, and at the same time diminish wear and tear on the body. I was inspired to create the XPT’s design after doing snatch throws while I was with the Green Bay Packers under their excellent performance coach, Marc Lovat. Much of what I know about the performance space has come from his teachings, but also from his challenge to us, as players, to do the research ourselves on optimal performance training. Rather than having us do stuff just to do it, Marc encouraged us to study the whys. It’s far more impactful when you train to know exactly what you want to achieve, rather than just blindly doing what a trainer asks.
When we did the snatch throws, I could feel an engagement of the muscles—especially in the glutes—and a pop unlike any other form of lifting I had done. Unfortunately, we only did that one day. With it raining barbells and having them bounce in all directions, it was a good move by Marc to weigh the risk versus the reward, and end that practice. However, that movement of throwing a loaded bar stuck with me. From then on, it was always in the back of my mind: How to throw a loaded barbell, but not have to catch it… nor have it fall and randomly smash someone. I could sense there was a great benefit to it. Clearly, after much research, I understood why I felt the way I did while doing those snatch throws.
About five years ago, I put the design together for a barbell attached to a self-spotting or braking system that is controlled with brake handles. The self-spotting mechanism works like a clutch. You grip the brake handles and hold onto them to release the bar and perform the desired lift. As soon as you let go of those handles, the self-spotting mechanism engages and the bar comes to a complete and abrupt stop (see Figure 1), allowing the lifter to throw a loaded barbell without having to catch it. This opens up many new possibilities for performance training.
Figure 1. The XPT features a barbell attached to a self-spotting system controlled with brake handles. The user grips the brake handles and holds onto them to release the bar and perform the desired lift. As soon as the user lets go of those handles, the self-spotting mechanism engages and the bar comes to a complete and abrupt stop, allowing the lifter to throw a loaded barbell without having to catch it.