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Bigger Performance Requires Bigger Brakes

September 13, 2007 01:12 PM

A few years ago, as I was spiraling into my mid-life crisis, I decided I would add some aftermarket performance equipment to the little two-seater sports car I had recently purchased. I added a cold air intake, a header and a high performance exhaust system which gave me a significant horsepower boost, more speed and quicker acceleration. Fortunately before I went any further with my modifications, a friend clued me in to an important rule of automobile performance: increased speed and acceleration requires an equivalent increase in stopping power. In other words, bigger performance requires bigger brakes. Being able to go 130 mph is great fun but even more fun (and only a little less exciting) is being able to successfully slow down, stop and live to tell about it!

The ability to safely and effectively decelerate also applies to athletic strength and performance although there are, obviously, some important differences. While it is clearly ill advised to enhance your car's performance without taking into consideration the impact these modifications will have on stopping power, you could do just that (as I started to do) without any protests from the car itself. Stupid is as stupid does and the car doesn't care. The human body, on the other hand, just won't allow you to be so stupid. There are built in neuromuscular feedback loops which don't just prevent you from accelerating faster than you can safely decelerate, they will also shut down the operation if you try to lift something heavier than you are ready for. If you have never played with the Iron Mind Rolling Thunder dead-lift handle, I can tell you it is a peculiar sensation indeed when despite your best efforts, your legs won't drive hard enough to break the weight off the floor because your nervous system (not your conscious mind) has decided that your grip is going to fail.

In Power to the People! Pavel discusses Sherrington's Law of Reciprocal Inhibition, which states that for every neural activation of a muscle there is a corresponding inhibition of the opposing muscle. Simply put, when you flex your quads the hamstrings will relax to let the quads do their thing. Janda sit-ups work by exploiting this law…by flexing the hip extensors the hip flexors will relax and drop out of the sit-up movement, throwing the work onto the abs. Pavel goes on to point out that by using Successive Induction, or the conscious flexing of the antagonist muscle group (the one that would otherwise be relaxed due to reciprocal inhibition) two things can be accomplished:
  1. Performance will be enhanced in the "target" or agonist muscle….so in the case of the quads they will have "permission" from the hamstrings to fire faster and more powerfully because the neurological feedback loop senses the hams are capable of applying the brakes and preventing the quads from spinning out of control.

  2. Both the agonists (quads) and antagonists (hams) will enjoy a training effect via Successive Induction and performance will continue to improve as both muscle groups strengthen.
There is something else very intriguing that happens. By strengthening the antagonist (via Successive Induction or by actual progressive resistance) the agonist is not only free to express greater force, it actually becomes stronger via the co-contraction as well. So, in principle at least, if you train the brakes, the motor and the transmission will get stronger too.

Research by Christine Cunningham (Training Speed — Are You Training the Right Muscles? Athletic Management, 2001) supports the above observation. Her research indicates that by simply making the antagonist stronger, you can realize increases in strength and speed in the agonist. Performance is always determined and limited by the weakest muscle group which is, quite often, the antagonist group. She writes,"When the agonist is stronger than the antagonist, the neuromuscular system limits movement to speeds which the antagonist can safely brake - even if the agonist could make the arm move faster." In other words, if you want to throw a harder fast ball strengthen the muscles that decelerate the throwing motion. Beef up the brakes.

Research also suggests that the muscles that do the braking must be trained using loads and speeds that approximate in reverse the motion that one wishes to improve. Intuitively, at least, one could surmise PTP-style Successive Induction might have limitations, especially with faster and more dynamic motions or motions that require a strong antagonist stretch-reflex reaction. However, good examples of Successive Induction used in a dynamic movement would be keeping the shoulder in the socket, bracing the abs for a punch, keeping the back straight and pinching a coin between the glutes when performing kettlebell swings. The kettlebell swing when performed hard style utilizes acceleration and deceleration in such a way that the distinctions of agonist and antagonist get flip-flopped with each completed repetition. (More about the kettlebell below.)

Another way to think about Successive Induction is as a hybrid form of "Feed Forward Tension". For example, contracting the lat while pressing can be done with or without a weight to press. Pavel points out in PTP that Feed Forward Tension by itself will not load the joints, tendons and ligaments sufficiently for the athlete to cope effectively with actual loads. For real strength and for conditioning ligaments, tendons and joints, real weight must be used at least some of the time. Furthermore, the neurological feedback loops mentioned above can distinguish between "virtual" loads and real loads, and if the real load exceeds safety calibrations, the feedback loop shuts down the operation. Once again, the S.A.I.D. (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) principle applies: if your performance improvement requires bigger brakes, then you will have to build those brakes by using real weight at least some of the time.

Bud Charniga's excellent article Key Muscles for Weightlifting, available to read on his website www.dynamic-eleiko.com, has an excellent discussion on the role the brakes play in performance. Bud cites several articles by leading Eastern and Western sports scientists (including C. Cunningham above) that discuss the importance of strengthening the antagonist muscles. For weightlifting specifically, increased hamstring strength plays a major role in increased athletic performance. Even though the quads are the dominant muscle group in the lift-off and explosion phases of the Olympic lifts, research shows that squatting by itself to improve quadriceps performance eventually makes the athlete slower. However, strengthening the hamstrings not only improves the automatic, stretch-reflex portion of the lifts (specifically the hamstring induced "hip snap" to the bar in the transition phase) stronger hams actually increase the speed strength expression of the quads. Bud cites a study by Frolov from the 1981 Weightlifting Yearbook which points out athletes with stronger hamstrings relative to quad strength performed better in the vertical jump and superior vertical jumps correlated with higher performances in the barbell snatch.

Strengthening the brakes, as I'm sure you agree has some very interesting implications for how to think about structuring a training program. In Kettlebell Training for Baseball, my friend and colleague Jason C. Brown, RKC TL along with Dan Huff have arrived at a truly effective approach. While marketed specifically to baseball, their program really does have broader sporting applications for learning how to improve performance by training deceleration in all planes of athletic motion. Jason has been a real innovator in applying kettlebells to sports performance and his creativity and mentoring have convinced me (not that I really needed any additional arm twisting being an RKC myself!) that one of the best , most versatile tools for strengthening the brakes (and the engine and the transmission) is the Russian Kettlebell. As I pointed out above, the hard style kettlebell swing alone addresses acceleration and deceleration simultaneously in both the eccentric and concentric phases of the lift. It really doesn't get much more efficient or effective than that.

There's another implication of this research I find interesting. Elite athletes and their strength coaches have known for some time that there are diminishing returns to piling on more and more iron to improve sporting results. At some point, the amount of time it takes to recruit all the new strength built from that additional iron exceeds the time it takes to perform the athletic activity. The usual response at this high level is to maintain the levels of strength and continue to refine the sporting skill. However it seems reasonable to suggest that additional strength training of the antagonists might break the log jam. The results of deceleration training seem to suggest that not only is there a neurological component to expressing greater agonist strength, the agonist also displays a faster RFD (Rate of Force Development) as a result of strengthening the antagonist. Practically speaking If you want to jump higher, instead of trying to squat more and more weight, it might be time to get busy doing kb swings, snatches and heavy one leg RDLs. If you want to put the shot further, putting additional attention on pulling movements may have an unexpected pay off. Anecdotally, after adding heavy one leg RDLs to the end of my workouts, my squat training weight has improved a relatively easy 10kg in just three weeks.

It is interesting that no one has arrived at an optimal ratio of strength between agonist and antagonist. There are numbers out there to be sure, but they are somewhat arbitrary, they aren't set in stone and in the final analysis may not be optimal. I take a cue from Brett Jones on this matter: get it all as strong as you can and let your body and your sporting skill sort it out. When I design programs I like to accomplish as much as possible with as little as possible. So, I recommend when you start incorporating training for the brakes, don't get overly complicated. Avoid creating an exercise in reverse sports specific movements. As Steve Maxwell has pointed out, a properly performed kettlebell swing can replace 99% of the sophisticated sports performance programs out there. I would add to Steve's observation that the kettlebell swing will address about 99% of what most athletes actually need in regards to sports performance training which is a strong core and a strong posterior chain. In other words, the brakes


Randy Hauer, RKC TL is also a USAW Club Coach, Sports Performance Coach and athlete. As a GS athlete he has achieved three CMS rankings in the 24kg Long Cycle Clean and Jerk; one in the +90kg division one in the 90kg division and one in the 80Kg division. His athletic goal next year is to qualify for the World Masters Weightlifting Championships in the 85kg class, 50-54 age group.

Randy is currently in the process of setting up his own strength training company which will provide programs utilizing Kettlebells and the Olympic Lifts. He can be contacted at rchauer@yahoo.com

 

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