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The Pros and Cons of Powerlifting for Athletic Development

By Derek Woodske | In Sports Training | on August 14, 2014

This is a continuation of Derek’s series on the benefits and drawbacks of relying on individual training methodologies for improving sports performance.  You can find part I here.

During the last decade powerlifting has grown significantly more influential in college athletics and professional sports, as young coaches have moved up the ladder. Meanwhile, other incredibly smart and influential coaches took their platforms online, creating entire communities for the strength elite.

For a number of years it was “Westside-this-and-conjugate-that” in every NCAA football facility across the nation, and for the most part, strength improved and injuries decreased relative to older approaches. The idea of intent and measurable speed of the bar became more important than relative percentage of the athletes’ 1RM for the improvement of sport.  Athletes and coaches became more and more aware of the importance of posture in the movements, learning how to activate things like the glutes, and using their upper backs to aid in lifting heavy loads in the flat bench press.

In fact, some of the numbers that were coming out of the NCAA were just short of staggering when you think how young these lifters were and the fact that they had a sparse amount of time in a training week to train heavy.  Yet they were performing exceptionally well in the weight room week-in-and-week-out with a significant amount of consistency.

So what is it that makes powerlifting methodologies so useful for sports?

Well, for starters, the system is based around the squat, bench press, and deadlift: three basic movement patterns that carry over to the systemic development of the whole body.

When implementing the movements, you can maintain a consistent stress to the athletes nervous system over the course of the season due to similarity of the patterns, while still allowing for variation so the patterns don’t become too stagnant.

To use the bench press as an example, you can rotate in boards, bands, chains, specialty bars.  This allows the coach to program one movement for an entire year without having to radically change the outline and flow of a training template. If you have ever been responsible for training a hundred guys per day, this consistency is a huge benefit. The athletes become very robotic and systematic with their workouts, phase A flows into phase B and so on. Once they understand the movements they can coach one another and a single coach has the ability to manage large numbers of athletes.

Additional benefits to the system involve the coach’s ability to implement variation of accommodated resistance, meaning they can easily adapt the load through the addition of chains and bands, altering the strength curve of a movement. It is arguable that additional load via chains and bands can be used for the flexors of the body just as well as the extensors, but experience shows that it is the primary extensors of the body (outside of chin-ups and pull-ups) that make you a better athlete in the most general evaluation. Extensors of the body either propel you or protect you during most movement patterns.

Accommodating resistance also allows for what I would refer to as the “function rehabilitation” of a gross motor movement.

For example, as a strength coach and a therapist I am a big believer that you can utilize large movement patterns and accommodating resistance to work around a compromised joint angle due to injury.  Once an athlete has been cleared from the doctors and physical therapist for complete activity, it is often a long and steep hill to climb before strength is reestablished. For most, it leaves a gaping hole in the coaches’ ability to cater to the individual.

When an athlete is coming back from a significant knee injury like and ACL or Patella Ligament rupture, they will often be extremely week in full flexion of the knee, even if they are the most dedicated hip-break squatter.

Naturally as the body moves in to stance phase or full extension and the orthopedic structures of the body stack themselves towards vertical alignment, the body becomes much stronger. However, during the initial phases of squatting, we often cannot take advantage of that strength curve fully because the bottom is so weak that we hardly have any resistance to challenge the top. So in the classic powerlifting movements, we are able to predictably and controllably add chain weight to the bar so that the athlete will  have to work harder as his or her body moves into extension. In doing so two things we can achieve two things: an improvement in neuro-reconnection to the injured muscle group, reestablishing drive from the brain to body, and an up-regulation of motor unit activation, forcing the muscle system to adapt to stress faster. So in a real word example like the squat, the load on the bar weight is light when the joint is flexed and compromised, and heavier when the joint angle moves towards zero or extension.  This can help train the athlete while accounting for the knee injury.

One final advantage for the use of the classic three powerlifting movements comes back to the ability to create incredible compliance in the structures of the body and teach the muscles to take significant load through eccentric, isometric and concentric phases of movement allowing the mobile structures of the body like joints to withstand greater  negative forces without collapsing or breaking down. However, this is also a perfect place to transition us into the cons of a powerlifting-based system.

When we start to look at what can be adjusted or improved, it is most often the strength of a system that also leads to its weaknesses – weaknesses that start to hinder the athletes in the most important situation: on the field.

Regardless of the arguments involving the rate of acceleration of the bar during a deadlift or squat using sub-60% bar load and accommodation, the movements miss a key ingredient when it comes to sport specificity.  They are often preformed in a fixed foot (I hope!) position and travel through a linear path of movement from point A to B, which in return causes the athlete to develop in  specific patterns that don’t directly translate to the field.

Now, I can already hear the cries from people claiming that a coach had an athlete that started doing deadlifts and dropped from 11 seconds to 10.50 seconds in the 100 meters, and yes, that is absolutely possible. It happens most often in developing athletes due to the increase of strength and power of the posterior chain. I would never state that the movements do not increase the potential for performance. The problem is in the application of the movements in terms of single-dimension programing where everything becomes linear vertical and horizontal through application of force.

It is these patterns that start to create issues when the athlete needs to be more multi-dimensional in their efforts.  For example, the box squat is an excellent exercise to develop the iso-overcoming variable from eccentric to concentric movement, or what we often term ‘starting strength.’ However, coaches that live on the box will start to see a number limitations develop, including shortened hip flexors, limited mobility in the adductor complex, and a loss of mobility in the external rotators of the hips. Take this potentiation of dysfunction in the anterior plane, and combine it with a hyper tonus posterior power source, and then bring that combo onto the field, and you increase your risk of more serious problems developing over time.

An additional shortcoming is that players and coaches can start worrying too much about numbers in the weight room, forgetting that they only matter if they can be transferred to the field. For example, when we look at competitive-stance hip-break squats for the sake of power development, they work in dramatic fashion to improve hip extension. However, when used exclusively and combined with box squat variations working to “sit back” and drive up through extension we see an interesting phenomenon where the athlete is working to shorten the length of physical work. They are focusing on increasing bar load and weight room performance, but by doing so, a greater amount of time is spent in deceleration of contractions than in acceleration. The work phase through concentric is minimal. The entire movement is attacked with the intent of moving a lot of weight very quickly, but over a very short distance.  This is ideal for the sport of powerlifting, but in athletics we need to create the opposite; we need a system that can accelerate for the longest time possible.

After a base level of compliant movements has been achieved, sport is about ripping holes in the universe: complete unbridled effort that tears at the very fabric of the human ability. Powerlifting movements give us the “horse power” to do that, but it is the power of a straight line rail dragster.  Sports require powerful force production in more planes than pure powerlifting training prepares you for.

The final aspect of powerlifting training that can be both a blessing and a curse:  the high CNS reliance necessary to move maximal weights or submaximal weights and maximal speeds.

This can be a double edge sword when we think back to what was written previously related to the typical athlete’s ability to tolerate 2-3 CNS stresses simultaneously. What a lot of coaches do not understand well enough is that the CNS and its relation to movement. It is working to regulate a lot of systems simultaneously. When we look at neurologically efficient athletes that excel in power development, they often take a more significant beating during lighter speed work due to the rate of execution they can achieve, but then have to deal with the mechanical trauma from the heavy loads and the additional neral fatigue that comes with getting the mind in the right psychological state for an 85%+ lift. So for more advanced athletes, it is not just the stress of loading when training this way.  It is also hard to come back multiple times in a week with the combined integrated sport work that also draws heavily on the CNS. So coaches end up losing something in the weight room or on the field, and unfortunately due to ego and fear of maintaining performance markers on both sides of the coin, you can not always predict where the system is going to leave you.

Derek Woodske is considered to be one of the premier lecturers on the topics of strength and conditioning and sports performance currently working today. In the past four years, Derek has spoken in more than a dozen countries, has been translated into multiple languages, and influenced thousands of coaches and personal trainers around the world.

Derek began his journey and passion into the world of human performance through his own athletic success as an NCAA All-
American and National Champion in the sport track and field. Derek was able to transfer that success beyond college where he represented his home country of Canada on two separate occasions as a member of the Canadian National Team. During his tenure as a member of team Canada he broke two Canadian National Records and won multiple National Championships.
Derek retired from the sport track and field to pursue his passion, having worked in both the NFL and NCAA as a professional coach, reaching the pinnacle of the industry that he has so much energy and enthusiasm for.

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