Quality Strength for Human Athletic Performance: A Guide to Speed Strength
by Charles Staley BS, MSS
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Although most athletic skills and events depend upon a variety of
physical qualities, speed strength (also called power) certainly rates among
the most important. Whenever you need to accelerate yourself (as in running,
cycling, swimming, skating, or skiing), an external object (such as a ball,
a barbell, a javelin, or another person), or both (such as pushing a bobsled
or driving through an opposing lineman in football), your ability to
generate force with speed will be a primary determinant of your success.
As the duration of the event or skill becomes reduced, the need for speed
strength (I'll abbreviate it as "SS" from this point on) increases. However,
even triathletes rely heavily upon explosive strength as they sprint to the
finish line. It's not a matter of whether or not you need to develop SS, but
to what degree you need to prioritize it in your training.
SS is also a vital quality during emergency situations, such as when it
becomes necessary to quickly dodge a car when walking across the street, or
duck to avoid being hit by a stray ball. In fact, SS is the bodyís preferred
method of force generationó the last time you had to lift a heavy object
from the floor to a high shelf, did you accelerate the load to make the task
easier, or did you make a concerted effort to lift the object with a
For bodybuilders, SS training methods are immensely valuable for their
ability to improve intramuscular coordination (the ability to recruit high
threshold motor units), which has significant payoffs during later training
phases utilizing lower intensity loads. In other words, a two week training
phase emphasizing accelerative training techniques will potentiate the
ability to lift greater loads during a subsequent phase utilizing more
"traditional" bodybuilding lifting technique (i.e., constant tension,
avoiding joint lock-outs, etc).
Strength: the Multi-faceted Motor Quality
Of course, SS is simply one expression of force output, and strength as a
bio-motor ability has many expressions. The following list briefly describes
the types of strength available to athletes:
Absolute Strength (maximal strength)
Absolute strength is defined as the amount of musculoskeletal force you
can generate for one all-out effort, irrespective of time or bodyweight.
This form of strength can be demonstrated or tested in the weight room
during the performance of a maximal, single repetition lift. While only
powerlifters need to maximize and demonstrate this type of strength in
competition, all athletes need to develop absolute strength as a foundation
for other bio-motor abilities such as SS, strength endurance, agility, and
others.1 For this reason, absolute strength is brought to high
levels in the preparatory period, and then "converted" to more
event-specific forms of strength later in the macrocycle. Absolute strength
can be displayed through three types of muscular actions:
1) Concentric Strength: the ability to overcome a resistance through
muscular contraction, i.e., the muscle shortens as it develops tension.
2) Eccentric Strength: displayed when a muscle lengthens as it yields to
a resistance. Eccentric strength is normally 30-50% greater than concentric
strength, meaning that you can lower significantly more weight in good
control than you can actually lift. This may be the result of increased
intra-muscular friction (a concept not yet validated by science) during the
eccentric portion of a lift. In eccentric muscular encounters with external
resistances, there are two possible scenarios which can occur:2
a) The resistance encountered is less than oneís maximal isometric
strength. In weight training applications, this applies to any load less
b) The resistance encountered is more than oneís maximal isometric
strength. In weight training applications, this applies to any load more
than 1RM (commonly called "eccentric training").
3) Static Strength: muscular contraction which does not cause external
movement of the resistance, either because the athlete has chosen to produce
exactly enough force to prevent the resistance from lowering, but not enough
to lift it; or because the external resistance is immovable. Static strength
is also observed during the momentary pause between the eccentric and
concentric portions of a movement.
Absolute Strength Forms the Basis for Speed Strength
Despite the current preoccupation with plyometrics, specialized shoes,
and the like, improving absolute strength remains the most efficient way to
In fact, Romanian strength & periodization specialist Tudor Bompa
suggests that "No visible increments of power are possible without clear
gains in maximal (absolute) strength."4
To appreciate the importance of absolute strength on SS, imagine a rocket
weighing 1000 pounds, with an engine capable of 1200 pounds of thrust.
This rocket has only 200 pounds of reserve force to propel itself. The
same rocket, when equipped with an engine rated at 3000 pounds of thrust,
will have 2000 pounds of reserve thrust that can be used for propulsion.
Now back to the gym: a 200 pound man capable of squatting 250 pounds for
a single rep will have a mere 50 pounds of reserve strength available to
propel his body upward during a vertical jump. Contrast this with a 200
pound elite-class powerlifter capable of squatting 600 pounds. Now weíve got
400 pounds of strength reserve available, and all things being equal, will
have a vastly superior vertical jump compared to the novice squatter.
Whereas absolute strength refers to strength irrespective of bodyweight,
relative strength is a term used to denote an athlete's strength per unit of
bodyweight (his or her "pound for pound strength"). It can be used as a
modifier for other categories of strength, such as speed strength or
strength endurance. So, if two athletes of different bodyweights can power
clean (a display of SS) 275 pounds, they have equal speed strength for that
lift, but the lighter athlete has greater relative speed strength.
Athletes who compete in weight-class events depend heavily on relative
strength, as do athletes who must overcome their bodyweight to accomplish a
motor task (i.e., long jump, sprinting, etc.). Further, sports which have
aesthetic requirements (figure skating, gymnastics, etc.) demand the
development of strength without a commensurate gain in bodyweight.
As a side note, in the World of sport, lighter athletes have better
relative strength than heavier athletes, whereas the heavier athletes get
the nod for absolute strength. In Olympic weightlifting for example,
elite-level athletes in light weight classes have lifted triple-bodyweight
from the floor to an overhead position. World-class competitors in the
superheavyweight division are unable to lift even double-bodyweight;
however, the absolute poundages they lift are far greater than that of their
Since strength training targets the neuro-muscular system, strength can
be developed through two very different meansó by applying stress either to
the muscular or to the neural aspect of the system. The former method is
usually accomplished through the application of "bodybuilding" methods
(repetitions between 6-12 to exhaustion, using continuous tension
techniques), and results in strength gains through an increase in muscle
cross-section. The latter method employs higher intensity training
(repetitions between 1 and 5 using accelerative technique and full
recoveries between sets), and increases in strength are the result of the
body's improved ability to recruit more of its existing motor unit pool.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, athletes who depend upon relative
strength or SS should not completely avoid bodybuilding methods, which, when
used judiciously, can be used to facilitate recovery between periods of
intensive nervous system training. And, as you might expect, I strongly
recommend that bodybuilders keep an open mind with regards to SS methods as
Now to the topic du jour: SS is defined as work divided by time, where
work is defined as force x distance. Therefore, SS is defined as force x
distance, divided by time. SS is characterized by three distinct components:
- Starting strength: Defined as the ability to recruit as many motor
units (MUís) as possible instantaneously at the start of a movement.4
Common examples include the lunge in fencing, coming off the line in
football, and the start in short sprints.
- Explosive strength: This quality refers to acceleration or rate of
force development. In other words, once youíve recruited a maximal number
of MUís, how long can you keep them recruited? In his seminars, Dr Fred
Hatfield, co-founder of the
International Sports Sciences Association and the first man to
officially squat 1000 pounds, compares starting strength to the flash bulb
of a camera, and explosive strength as a flash that stays on and becomes
brighter and brighter the longer it stays on.
With regards to above distinctions, different sporting skills and events
can be classified as either starting or explosive strength events, depending
on the relative proportion of speed and strength required. The javelin event
in track and field would be classified as a starting strength event because
the implement is very light, which permits the athlete to impart a great
degree of speed during the throw. Conversely, the shot is relatively heavy,
which means that less speed can be achieved. This makes the shot put an
explosive strength event. Thus, it logically follows that starting strength
athletes emphasize relatively lighter weightloads in strength training than
do explosive strength athletes.
- Stretch Shortening Cycle (Reactive Strength): Although traditionally
classified as a component of SS, reactive strength is more accurately
thought of as an independent motor quality.5 It involves the
storage of potential kinetic energy during the eccentric portion of a
movement, which is then converted to actual kinetic energy during the
subsequent concentric phaseó much like stretching and releasing an elastic
During many skills (jumping rope, for example), the working muscles
attempt to maintain static contraction, with force output being provided by
the storing and release of elastic energy through the tendons. Since static
muscular activity requires less energy than dynamic muscular activity,
reactive strength is an extremely energy-efficient way of movingó you can do
more work with less calories. This is why novice exercisers can always be
seen doing exercises in the easiest possible manner, using quick, choppy
movements, whether itís on the bench press or the stair climber. Reactive
strength is also the method of choice when someone who is tired and/or weak
gets up out of a chair: instead of simply standing up, they will actually
lean back first, and then quickly reverse this action, springing out of the
chair. If you ask someone to rise out of a chair using pure concentric
movement, it looks very unusual. To appreciate the effect of reactive
strength on force production, perform a vertical jump in a normal manner,
where you first crouch, and then rapidly switch and jump upwards as
explosively as possible. Next, crouch, but pause for five seconds (this
pause will dissipate most if not all of the stored potential kinetic
energy), and then jump upward. You'll find that the jump where the crouch
(or eccentric phase) was IMMEDIATELY followed by the jump results in a more
successful attempt. The key to preserving as much potential kinetic energy
as possible is to switch from eccentric to concentric as rapidly as
How Muscles Produce Force
1) MU recruitment (intramuscular coordination): All muscle fibers are one
component of what physiologists call "motor units." A MU is defined as a
motor neuron (or nerve cell) and all the muscle fibers it innervates or
"recruits." Without going into excruciating detail, there are several
essential bits of information that athletes and coaches should understand
about the functioning of MUís:
- All the fibers of a MU tend to have the same characteristics.5
When all the fibers are type II, the motor unit is said to be a high
threshold or "fast" MU. If the fibers are Type I, it is a low threshold or
"slow" MU. See Table 1 for an in-depth
description of fiber types.
- The all or none principle: When an action potential is sent from the
cell body to the muscle fibers, one of two events will occur. If the
action potential is strong enough, all the fibers of that motor unit will
contract maximally. If the action potential is not strong enough, nothing
will happen. In a nutshell, muscle fibers either contract all the way, or
not at all. When the body needs to apply more force, it simply recruits
more MUís. Generally, untrained people have limited ability to recruit
high threshold MUís because they are unfamiliar with high-tension efforts.
- The size principle: MUís are recruited in order of sizeó small to
large. This explains why we can use the muscle to pick up something light
(a pencil) or heavy (a dumbbell). As resistance increases, the body
recruits more MUís.
2) Intermuscular coordination:
the ability of different muscles to cooperate during the performance of a
motor task. Muscles can function in several different ways depending on the
task at hand. The most fundamental roles that muscles assume are listed
- Prime Mover: The primary muscle responsible for a movement around a
joint at any given point in time. For example, during the bench press
exercise, the pectoralis major is the biggest and strongest muscle
involved, and as such it provides the most force during most of the
- Synergist: A synergist is a muscle which dynamically assists the prime
mover. Going back to the bench press example, the front deltoid muscle and
triceps would be considered synergists in this exercise.
- Stabilizer: Stabilizers are muscles which anchor or stabilize one part
of the body (through static activity), allowing another part to move. In
other words, they assist the prime mover and synergists through static or
"isometric" muscular contraction. The stabilizer role of muscles can be
trained with exercises conducted in an unstable environment, which might
involve dumbbells, Swiss balls, wobble boards, or other devices designed
for this purpose.
For clarification, be aware that prime movers, synergists, and
stabilizers are not different types of musclesó they are ways in which
muscles perform. A single muscle might be a prime mover in one situation,
and a stabilizer in another situation.
- Agonist/antagonist relationship: (Not to be confused with the roles
described above). For every muscle in the body, there is another muscle
capable of resisting its force. If this were not the case, controlled
human movement would not be possible. When you throw a punch for example,
your tricep is one of the primary agonists (you can distinguish between
these two terms by remembering that "the agonist is the one inagony"), as
it is the muscle which extends the elbow. The primary antagonist during
punching is the biceps, which acts eccentrically to control the extension
force created by the triceps so that you donít hyper-extend your elbow at
the end of the movement.
3) Rate Coding: The nervous system can vary the strength of muscular
contraction not only by varying the number of MUís recruited, but also by
varying the firing rate of each MU, called rate coding. The tension that a
MU develops in response to a single action potential from the nervous system
is called a "twitch." As the stimulus from the nervous system becomes
stronger and stronger, the twitches per millisecond become more and more
frequent until they begin to overlap, causing greater amounts of tension to
be generated by the muscle fiber. The mechanism behind rate coding is very
similar to the way in which increased vibrational frequency of a sound
increases itís pitch.
As an example, a muscle comprised of 100 MUís would have 100 graded
increments available to it. In addition, each MU can vary itís force output
over about a 10-fold range by varying its firing rate (e.g., from 10 to 50
impulses per second). For any set of conditions, the force of contraction is
maximal when all MUís have been recruited and all are firing at the optimal
rate for force production.
The size of a given muscle may in part determines the relative role of
rate coding to total muscular force development.6
In small muscles, most MUís are recruited at a level of force less than
50% of maximal force capacity. Forces requiring greater tensions are
generated primarily through rate coding. In large proximal muscles (such as
the pectoralis and lats), the recruitment of additional MUs appears to be
the main mechanism for increasing force development up to 80% of absolute
strength and even higher. In the force range between 80% and 100% of
absolute strength, force is increased almost exclusively by intensification
of the MU firing rate.
Training Methods for Speed Strength
Since SS is comprised of speed and strength, it becomes important to
consider what can be done to improve these two qualities independently,
since an improvement in either aspect will improve the whole.
"Traditional" Strength Training
Since speed is primarily a genetically-inherited characteristic of the
nervous system, it responds poorly to training, as compared to strength,
which is perhaps the easiest motor quality to improve. For this reason, and
because safer methods should be considered before more risky ones, the
starting point for all athletes who wish to promote SS is traditional
strength training. (I use the term "traditional" to refer to common weight
room exercises performed in a traditional bodybuilding manner using a
variety of intensities).
Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT)
CAT training is a distinct form of accelerative lifting coined by Dr.
Fred Hatfield. It refers to compensatorily speeding up your movement in such
a way that improved leverages are compensated for. For example, when
ascending out of a deep squat position, mechanical leverage begins to
improve once you pass the "sticking point." This improving leverage reduces
the tension on the working muscles, and in turn, the training stimulus is
compromised. Deliberately accelerating through this movement path serves to
increase muscular tensions. CAT technique takes time to master, because the
acceleration must continue past the sticking point, yet end before the
antagonist muscles are triggered into decelerating the movement in an effort
to prevent joint hyperextension or loss of control. This "braking" action
would be detrimental to normal coordination patterns involved with common
athletic skills such as hitting, throwing, jumping, and kicking.
William Kraemer, perhaps this countryís most respected and prolific
strength researcher, uses the term "ballistic training" to describe
movements that are "accelerative, of high velocity, and with projection into
free space."7 Ballistic training involves plyometrics, modified
Olympic lifting, jumping, throwing, and striking movements (such as punching
or kicking a heavy bag).
Kraemer argues that, in traditional barbell training, a significant
portion of the movement path (specifically, the end of the concentric phase)
is spent decelerating the baró a protective measure assumed by the
antagonists to maintain joint integrity (in upper body movements such as
bench pressing), or to prevent the athlete from leaving the ground in
exercises such as the squat. If Kraemerís contention is correct, one would
choose to gradually reduce the volume of traditional barbell drills as the
training cycle progresses, in favor of ballistic exercises which lack this
deceleration phase, making them easier to learn and much more
coordination-specific for most athletes.
The modified Olympic lifts
The sport of Olympic weightlifting (sometimes called "weightlifting")
contests two separate lifts: the snatch, where the barbell is grasped with a
wide grip, and explosively pulled to an overhead position in a single
movement; and the clean and jerk, where the barbell is grasped with a
narrower grip, "cleaned" to the shoulders, and finally "jerked" to an
Competitive lifters reach very deep squat positions as they struggle to
get under ponderous weights prior to achieving the overhead position. But
when slightly lighter weights are used, the lifter can manage to get under
the weight without going below parallel, meaning that the top of the thighs
never goes past the point of being parallel to the floor. When a lifter can
accomplish this, the lift is called a power clean (or power snatch). The
term "power" indicates that the load was not maximal, since the lifter
didn't have to squat to rock bottom to get under it. Thus, a power clean has
less of a force component and more of a speed component than a competitive
Arthur Dreshler, MSS, author of The
Weightlifting Encyclopedia, eloquently describes the benefits of Olympic
lifting and its derivatives for athletes:8
1) Olympic lifts teach an athlete how to explode (to activate a maximum
number of motor units rapidly and simultaneously).
2) Olympic lifts teach the ability to apply force with his or her muscle
groups in the proper sequence (i.e., from the center of the body to the
extremities). This is a valuable technical lesson for any athlete who needs
to impart force to another person or object.
3) Olympic lifts teach how to accelerate objects (including other people)
under varying degrees of resistance.
4) Olympic lifts teach how to effectively receive forces from another
5) The actual movements performed while executing the Olympic lifts are
among the most common and fundamental in sport.
6) The Olympic lifts are commonly used to measure an athlete's force
If you are unfamiliar with the Olympic lifts and their derivatives. I
strongly suggest that you find either an
ISSA-Certified Specialist in Sports
Conditioning, or a USA Weightlifting
Certified Coach in your area who can assist you with these exercises.
These lifts, though not beyond the capabilities of most athletes, are more
complex than the majority of strength training exercises.
Although "plyos" are overused by many athletes in their quest for the
"magic pill" solution to their training problems, plyometric drills
performed with bodyweight, weighted jackets, light resistances such as
medicine balls, logs, sand sacks and gymnastic equipment can be a valuable
component of a SS development program.
Plyometric training programs must be designed with sufficient recovery
periods to ensure that fatigue does not take the "elasticity" out of the
athleteís movements, since it is this repeated elastic neuromuscular control
of impact which provides the training effect.
Testing Your Speed Strength: The Max Jones Quadrathlon.9
Few athletes are aware of this unique and very useful testing implement
created by the English track & field coach of the same name. The MJQ can be
used to regularly monitor your level of speed strength, and can also used as
a fun competition several times a year. This test is very easy to administer
(youíll need to do this at your local high school or college track) and
involves only a tape measure and a stop-watch. One note of caution, however:
The four test drills, although relatively simple, will take a toll on your
body (particularly your hip flexors) if you have never done them before, or
if itís been years since youíve done them. If you fall into this category, I
strongly suggest you practice these drills for before going at them "full
bore." Start with very low volume (just a few repetitions of each drill) and
progress gradually over a series of 4-6 sessions.
The test drills are as follows:
Three Jumps: Feet together, hop three times and land in a long jump pit.
Measure from your starting position to the closest disturbance of the sand
where you landed.
Standing Long Jump: Standing at the edge of a long jump pit, with toes
slightly over the edge of the board, perform a standing long jump into the
pit. Measure from the lip of the board to the closest disturbance of the
sand where you landed.
Thirty Meter Sprint: Using starting blocks (you may also have a partner
place his or her foot behind your lead foot to simulate a block), start on
the command of a timer at the finish line. The timer starts the watch when
your back foot makes contact with the ground on the first step, and stops it
when you break the finish line.
16lb Overhead Shot: Standing on top of a shot put stopboard (your back to
the pit), dip down (much like the preparatory crouch for a vertical jump),
swing the shot between the legs, and then extend and throw the shot overhead
backwards. It is not necessary to remain on the stopboard. Measure from the
lip of the stopboard to the first point of impact.
Please see Table 2 for the quadrathlon scoring
tables. Simply convert your scores into the numerical scores provided, and
total for your MJQ rating.
A Periodized Training Program for SS Development: The Rule of Thirds
Since fatigue is specific to the motor quality being trained, when
microcycles with different objectives and varying demands follow each other,
it promotes enhanced recovery, allows for maintenance of maximal strength
and body composition during periods devoted to SS (and vice versa), and
protects against "overuse" types of injury. The "rule of thirds" is a
planning concept which partitions each mesocycle into thirdsó the first two
thirds are spent training the targeted motor ability; the final third is
spent training a complementary motor ability to provide recovery and balance
to the program.
In this program, maximal strength is the targeted motor ability for the
first six weeks, while SS is the focus of the final six weeks.
Note: Before initiating this training program, complete the MJQ and
record your score. At the completion of the program, re-take the quadrathlon
to assess the effects of the training.
Citius, Altius, Fortius!
A Periodized Training Cycle for SS Development
1) Hatfield, F.C. (Ed.)(1998). Fitness: The Complete Guide.
Santa Barbara, CA: International Sports Sciences Association.
2) Dick, F.W. (1997). Sports Training Principles. London:
3, 5) Komi, P.V., (Ed.) (1992) Strength and Power in
Sport. London: Blackwell Scientific Publications
4) Bompa, T. O. (1993).
Periodization of Strength. Toronto: Veritas Publishing, Inc.
5) Hatfield, F.C. (1989).
Power: A Scientific Approach. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
6) Zatsiorsky, V.M. (1995). Science and Practice of
Strength Training. Champaign: Human Kinetics Publishers.
7) Kraemer, W.J., & Newton, R.U. Muscle Power. Muscular
Development, March, 1995
8) Drechsler, A. (1998). The
Weightlifting Encyclopedia. Flushing, NY: A is A Communications.
9) Dunn, G.D., & McGill, K. (1994). The Throws Manual
(2nd. Ed.), Mountain View, CA: Tafnews Press