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Tag Archives: strength

There’s been a debate for a number of years, largely driven by marketing and hype, about training volume. There is a “less is better” school of thought, i.e. do one set to failure and that’s all you need to make massive gains from training. Over the years, a number of studies have shown that this is a fine approach for the untrained (i.e. absolute beginners), but may not be appropriate for highly trained athletes.

In the December issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology, Marshall et al look at the impact of training volume on lower body strength and performance measures. The authors designed a really interesting 12 week training study. During this study, all subjects had the same two-week initial period (to wash out the effects of any previous training), then the six week study period (detailed below), then four weeks of “peaking” where all subjects did the same training program basically focusing on power training.

During the six week study period, all subjects did a split so that 2x per week the subjects trained chest/shoulders/arms and 2x per week the subjects trained back and back squats. The authors divided their subjects into three groups; one did one set on the squat, one did four sets on the squat, one did eight sets on the squat. Every group did the same training protocol on all the other exercises.

Testing was performed after the two week washout period, three weeks into the study period, after the study period, and after the peaking period. Testing consisted of 1-RM on the back squat, isokinetic strength testing, and isometric strength testing (all of the knee extensors).

During the course of the study, the authors found a number of interesting things:
• Total training volume (setsxrepsxweight) was very different between the three groups, with the four set group having a training volume more than 200% greater than the one set group and the eight set group having a training volume more than 460% greater than the one set group.
• Between the baseline testing after the washout period and the end of the six week intervention, the 1 set group improved their back squat strength by 10%. The four set group improved by 14%. The 8 set group improved by 19%.
• The authors also noted the existence of high, medium, and low responders. The high responders increased their squat strength by almost 30%, the medium by almost 15%, the low by about 3%.
• According to the authors, 11/13 low responders were in the one and four-set groups.

Over a six week training intervention, performing eight sets of squats produced superior gains to one set. Although, six weeks of one-set training increased squat strength by 10%. Having said that, there are some qualifications that need to be kept in mind. First, at baseline testing all the groups were squatting around 185-190% of bodyweight. So there is some training experience but these are not “strong” lifters. This suggests that almost any training program will still produce gains for these subjects. Second, the low/medium/high responder information is very interesting and I’m grateful that the authors looked at this. It also significantly complicates the results. If there were fewer low responders in the one- and four-set groups, those groups might have experienced better gains in the squat and the differences between the groups might not be as stark.

What causes someone to be a high, medium, or low responder?  This actually isn’t the first study I’ve seen suggesting this exists.    Petrella et al (2008) looked at how people respond to 16 weeks of strength training and found that those that increased their population of satellite cells the most during training had the most significant hypertrophy gains.  Satellite cells exist in between the inner and outer membranes of the muscle fibers and are thought to provide the material for muscle hypertrophy.  However, some of us have many and some of us don’t – in other words this seems to bea  genetic limitation to training.

This was a really interesting study, but it shows a need for us to start looking at training gains in terms of whether people are responders to training.

Marshall, P.W.M., McEwen, M., and Robbins, D.W. (2011). Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111: 3007-3016.


Petrella, J.K., Kim, J-S., Mayhew, D.L., Cross, J.M., and Bamman, M.M.  (2008).  Potent myofiber hypertrophy during resistance training in humans is associated with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition: a cluster analysis.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 104: 1736-1742.



De Villarreal et al have a really interesting study in the December issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looking at the impact of different exercise protocols on the vertical jump. The authors studied college physical education students using one of five protocols: heavy full-squats, power half squats (i.e. to parallel), weighted counter-movement jumps (CMJ), plyometrics, and a combination of all. Subjects were tested on their vertical jump height and their performance on CMJs with 17kg, 27kg, and 37kg of added resistance.

All training took place 3 times per week for seven weeks:
• Heavy squat group: Gradually increased the resistance over seven weeks while decreasing the volume.
• Power half squat group: Gradually increased the resistance over seven weeks while decreasing the volume. The initial resistance was selected as the resistance that maximized power output, after the first week the resistance was increased each week and leveled out at weeks six and seven.
• Weighted CMJ group: Resistance was selected based upon what maximized power output. Initially the group exercised with 30% less than the amount that maximizes power output, over seven weeks this was increased.
• Plyometric group: sets of five rebound jumps.
• Combined group: Basically combined all the above workouts.

In terms of results:
• All groups increased the heights of their vertical jumps, the heights of their loaded CMJ height at each resistance, and the rate of force development during the loaded CMJs. There were no statistically significant differences between any of the groups.
• There were statistically significant increases in power output during loaded CMJs for the combined group and the weighted CMJ group only. However, all groups increased their power outputs by 3-13% at each resistance after seven weeks of training. So while this may not be statistically significant, it is an increase.

The results are interesting because essentially all the training programs worked. To me the most interesting result in the vertical jump height, the weighted CMJ testing condition isn’t really something that’s going to be duplicated on the field. The authors don’t give us the vertical jump values, only a graph so it is difficult to tease out the improvements in vertical jump. This suggests that heavy squats, squats done explosively, weighted vertical jumps, and plyos all improve vertical jump. The results are also interesting because the group with the greatest volume (the combined group) made the same gains as the other groups.

Now, there are some limitations. First, the subjects were college students. It’s very possible that strength trained athletes would have had different results. Second, the study may not have been long enough to tease out differences between the training programs. Third, all the squats and weighted CMJs are being done in a Smith machine which may impact both adaptations and transferability of the results. Finally, by using weights greater than that which maximized power output (the power squat group) or by using weights less than that which maximized power output (weighted CMJ group) both of these groups may not have made the gains that they could have as a result of the training.

De Villarreal, E.S.S., Izquierdo, M., and Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J. (2011). Enhancing jump performance after combined vs. maximal power, heavy-resistance, and plyometric training alone. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3274-3281.

Kettlebells exploded on the scene a number of years ago and have attained almost cult-like status. They are promoted as a tool to increase strength, hypertrophy, power, core stability, metabolic conditioning, and even cardio-vascular conditioning. Despite the claims, almost no research has been done on this exercise mode. Harrison et al, in the December issue of Strength and Conditioning Journal, have an article that reviews the state of the literature and provides recommendations for the implementation of kettlebells into a strength and conditioning program.

As kettlebells have mass, and as this mass can be increased (i.e. you can always exercise with a heavier kettlebell), they are effective at increasing strength and hypertrophy. It also stands to reason that performing explosive exercises with them will result in an increase in power.

In terms of cardio-vascular and fat-loss benefits, the authors don’t report terribly strong research. For example, there is a study that demonstrated that performing the two-handed swing for twelve minutes increases heart rate, but it is not as stressful as running. They report that research looking at the metabolic cost of using kettlebells is unclear and guilty of comparing apples to oranges (i.e. this means you cannot really draw a conclusion on the effectiveness of kettlebells one way or the other).

At the very least, the authors feel that kettlebells can aid with muscular strength/hypertrophy/power and certainly add some variety and fun to a strength and conditioning program.

With regards to implementation, I feel that the authors make an excellent point when they state that: “Training protocols for kettlebells do not necessarily need to be different from the traditional resistance training protocols…” At the end of the day, if the goal is to increase strength (no matter what training tool is used) then one needs to lift heavy weights, for few repetitions, with full recovery. If the goal is to train power, one needs to focus on being explosive, which means limiting fatigue and allowing full recovery. If the goal is endurance or metabolic conditioning, then the workout will look very different.

I personally have some opinions about technique and kettlebell exercises, especially when we start talking about the Olympic lifts and kettlebells. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of swinging the weights for these lifts, which most places advocate. I still feel that the triple extension motion is very important (if the idea is to train for transferable power). I also think that swinging the weight overhead on the snatch is just asking for trouble.

Harrison, J.S., Schoenfeld, B., and Schoenfeld, M.L. (2011). Application of kettlebells in exercise program design. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33(6), 86-89.

There have been a number of studies over the years looking at how long it takes to achieve hypertrophy as a result of strength training. This is important because it’s one of those things that motivates a lot of people to train. There has been a lot of conflicting information with regards to this, everything from 20 days to eight weeks before anything statistically significant occurs (note that this is different than being able to see it in the mirror).

DeFreitas et al, in the November issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology, studied this. In their literature review, they noted that many studies that look at hypertrophy suffer from three flaws. First, many studies only measure at the beginning and the end of the study. This makes it difficult to determine the time course of hypertrophy, it only gives you snapshots at the beginning and the end. Second, some studies rely only on anthropometery, in other words using a tape measure around the muscle. Third, many studies just don’t train the subjects hard enough to produce hypertrophy.

The authors of this study looked at 25 untrained men. The subjects trained for eight weeks, using the leg press, leg extension, and bench press. They performed three sets to failure (around 8-12 reps per set), with two minutes rest between sets. Before the study, every fifth day during the study, and at the end of the study the subjects were tested on isometric leg extension strength and the cross-sectional area of the right thigh was measured using quantitative computed tomography (which is considered by the authors to be equivalent to an MRI measurement).

At the end of the study, muscle cross-sectional area had increased by almost 10% and isometric strength had increased by almost 24%.

The time course of these adaptations are very interesting:
• Muscle cross-sectional area had the biggest increases at the end of weeks one, three, five, and six. The gains leveled off in weeks seven and eight.
• Strength had the biggest increases at weeks three, four, seven, and eight.

The fact that muscle hypertrophy gains are leveling off by week seven and eight suggest the importance of variety to continue making gains from exercise. The time course of the strength gains suggests that are increasing their hypertrophy and then translating that to increased strength. It’s not showing a large neural component that results in early strength gains.

DeFreitas, J.M., Beck, T.W., Stock, M.S., Dillon, M.A., and Kasishke II, P.R. (2011). An examination of the time course of training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111: 2785-2790.

Sprinting is thought to be made up of several qualities; acceleration (the ability to increase velocity), maximum velocity (the fastest an athlete can run), and speed endurance (the ability to maintain velocity). Not all of these qualities are thought to be equally important for every athlete. Outside of sprinters, most athletes don’t have to worry about speed endurance. For most sports, acceleration and maximum velocity will be the most important qualities.

For a 100 meter sprinter, maximum velocity isn’t reached until 60-80 meters. If this holds true for other types of athletes, it suggests that most athletes are in an acceleration situation when sprinting in sports. There is a lot of mixed research on acceleration in the sense that some research shows that maximum strength is important for acceleration, some shows that it is not. Lockie et al in the October issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated the variables that differentiate field sport athletes with better acceleration from those with slower acceleration.

The athletes were evaluated on 4×10 meter sprints, 3 trials each of five alternate bounds for distance, counter-movement jump, 40cm drop jump, leg stiffness was evaluated, 5 meter sprints over a force platform, and a 3-RM back squat (in a Smith machine) was used to evaluate strength.

The results are interesting:
• The faster group had a higher velocity from 0-5 meters and 0-10 meters.
• Stride length was similar between the faster and slower groups.
• Stride frequency had some differences, though they were not statistically significant. From 0-5 meters, the stride frequency for the faster group was almost 10% faster than the slow group. From 0-10 meters it was almost 7.5% faster than the slower group.
• Both groups exerted a similar amount of force against the ground, but the faster group had a much shorter ground contact time than the slower group.
• There were differences between the faster and slower groups in terms of the strength and power tests. The table below shows how much higher (or lower) in terms of percentage the faster group was when compared to the slower:

5 Bound Test


Counter-Movement Jump


Drop Jump Height


3-RM Squat


3-RM Squat/Body Weight


This study suggests that those field sport athletes who have higher velocities during acceleration may be achieving this due to a number of factors. First, they have a greater stride frequency (i.e. they are moving their limbs more quickly). Second, they are spending less time on the ground. Third, they have greater strength and power. All of these are qualities that are trainable.

This is an interesting study for a number of reasons. First, it uses field sport athletes. Unfortunately, we are not given any information on what level of athlete or what sport, which would be useful. But it is significant because it is likely that studies on elite sprinters probably won’t transfer to a soccer player. Second, it suggests that strength, power, and moving the limbs more quickly is important for acceleration. This is significant because the old school of thought says that we get faster by moving our limbs more quickly (i.e. technique, A drills, etc.). The other school of thought says that we get faster by exerting more force against the ground. This study suggests that both schools of through are correct.

Lockie, R.G., Murphy, A.J., Knight, T.J., and De Jonge, X.A.K.J. (2011). Factors that differentiate acceleration ability in field sport athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(10), 2704-2714.

Luge is a sport contested in the winter Olympics where the athlete, after an explosive start, navigates a sled through an icy track. The start is critical to performance because it is the only time than an athlete can accelerate the sled. Typically luge athletes are trained with variations of the Olympic lifts (to develop power) and many upper body exercises to help with the start.

Crossland et al in the October issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research sought to look at the relationship between upper body performance measures and anthropometrics and the luge start. This study is extremely interesting for two reasons. First, there isn’t a lot of published research on the luge. Second, the subjects were members of the senior and junior U.S. national teams including several Olympians.

The normal height, weight, age information was recorded for the subjects. Their upper body anthropometric measurements (finger-tip span, biacromial width, hand length, acromio-radial distance, acromio-olecranon distance, sitting cervical height), their start time was measured, and the following upper-body strength measures were taken: bench press 1-RM, prone row 1-RM, weighted pull-up 1-RM, and number of pull-ups in 15 seconds.

In the senior group, all the upper-body strength testing measures were significantly correlated with start time (the correlation ranged from 0.69 for 15-second pull up test to .82 for prone row 1-RM). In terms of anthropometric measures; finger-tip span, biacromial width, acromio-olecranon distance, and height were all significantly correlated with start time (correlations ranged from 0.58 to 0.62).

In the junior group, only bench press and prone row 1-RM had statistically significant correlations with start time (0.76 each). In terms of anthropometrics, only the acromio-olecranon distance was significantly correlated with start time (0.74).

According to the authors, the differences between the senior and junior group reflect that fact that the luge start technique is very complicated and takes years to master. Once athletes master the technique, then outside factors play a larger role in performance. This is why more variables are impacting performance for the seniors than the juniors.

This study is a really good start in terms of factors that influence performance. It also reveals that certain anthropometric variables might predispose someone to be more successful at the luge start, which could help to determine athlete selection and recruitment though a lot more research is needed on this.

Crossland, B.W., Hartman, J.E., Kilgore, J.L., Hartman, M.J., and Kaus, J.M. (2011). Upper-body anthropometric and strength measures and their relationship to start time in elite luge athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(10): 2639-2644.

Requena et al had a study published in the August Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looking at the relationship between back squat strength, ballistic squat performance, vertical jump, and sprint speed.

The authors studied 21 “semiprofessiona;” sprinters (100 and 200 meter sprinters), though we are not given information about their performance on the 100 meter or 200 meter races.

It needs to be pointed out that the squat tests were unusual. Both traditional and ballistic squats were evaluated on a Smith machine. They were also tested having the subjects squat down to 100 degrees of knee flexion, hold it for two seconds, then perform the concentric phase of the lift.

Subjects were also tested on their vertical jump and 80 meters of sprints (with 10 meter splits recorded). These results were then correlated with the 1-RM on the traditional squat as well as maximal peak and average power on both squat tests.

The results are interesting:
• The vertical jump correlated with power values of the ballistic squat but not the 1-RM traditional back squat.
• Power outputs from the ballistic squat were more highly correlated with vertical jump performance than the traditional squat.
• The sprint times correlated with the 1-RM on the traditional squat as well as the power values for both kinds of squats.
• There was a trend for the ballistic squat power outputs to be more strongly correlated with sprint times than traditional squats.

The study is interesting from several standpoints. First, it is using a homogenous group of sprinters. This is both an advantage and a concern. An advantage because the results are very relevant to this population, a concern because the application of the results may be restricted to this population. Second, the relationship (or lack thereof) between vertical jump performance and 1-RM is counter-intuitive. This is something that warrants further study. Third, the trend for ballistic squat performance and vertical jump/sprint performance is interesting and warrants further study. Is this something that would apply more to one group of athletes or one level of ability rather than others?

Requena, B., Garcia, I., Requena, F., de Villarreal, E.S-S., and Cronin, J.B. (2011). Relationship between traditional and ballistic squat exercise with vertical jumping and maximal sprinting. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(8), 2193-2204.

Moir et al had a study published in the June issue of Strength and Conditioning Journal essentially looking at post activation potentiation (PAP) and female volleyball players. The idea behind PAP is that a maximal force activity (like a really heavy squat) can produce a short-term increase in power. There are a lot of theories for why this could occur, everything from cueing the nervous system to making the muscle fibers more sensitive to calcium. In practice, this might involve performing a back squat at 90% of 1-RM for 2-3 reps followed by a set of counter-movement jumps (back in the day these approaches were called complexes).

PAP is one of those things that sounds really good. The challenge is that the research is extremely mixed as to its effectiveness. It appears that this is more effective with stronger athletes than with untrained subjects. It also appears that this is very task-specific, being present on certain types of explosive activities but not on others.

Moir et al investigated eleven division II female volleyball players. The athletes performed three familiarization counter-movement jumps in a session, were tested on their 1-RM on the back squat in another session, then in subsequent sessions performed each of the following protocols (all separated by several days):
• High Load (HL): Back Squat 2×50%, 1×70%, 3×90% followed by 2 minutes rest, then 10 counter-movement jumps (1 jump every 2 minutes).
• High Volume (HV): Back Squat 12×37% followed by the same jumping protocol as in the HL condition.

• On average, the subjects’ 1-RM on the squat was 143% of bodyweight.
• The HL protocol increased their knee flexion angles during the CMJ’s by 16%, in the HV protocol the athletes increased their knee flexion angles during the CMJ’s by 22%.
• When looking at the group means, the HL protocol did not increase jump height, the HV protocol actually reduced their jump height by 4%. Now, in the text the authors note that in the HL protocol 45% of the subjects actually increased their jump height with 18% having a decline in performance.
• The HL group increased their vertical stiffness by 16%, the HV group increased their vertical stiffness by 4%.

This study has mixed results with interesting implications. First, the protocol had no effect on jump height. However, the HL protocol significantly improved vertical stiffness. It is very likely that there was no improvement in jump height because the counter-movement jump is not one that requires a great deal of stiffness from the lower extremities. Had the researchers used a drop jump instead, the HL protocol may have had a positive effect on jump height.

This brings an important point about PAP and its research. It’s very likely that PAP, if it exists, has a positive effect on very specific types of performance – namely those involving a need for leg stiffness. This would include the jumps in track and field events, landings, agility, and sprinting (though research on this is mixed at best). It probably doesn’t improve performance in tasks that don’t require that leg stiffness (for example, a jump shot in basketball which would be similar to a counter-movement jump).

There are no magic bullets in terms of exercise. In other words there is no special drill, exercise, or training protocol that will magically improve someone’s performance. So PAP and other approaches to training need to be kept in perspective.

Having said that, even if it doesn’t enhance explosiveness PAP (or complexes as I learned them) would be extremely beneficial to an athlete who is in-season. This is due to the fact that when combining the training modes (heavy strength training plus explosive training), one is able to get more work done in a shorter period of time – which is really important when practice, competition, and travel have to be taken into account.

Moir, G.L., Mergy, D., Witmer, C.A., and Davis, S.E. (2011). The acute effects of manipulating volume and load of back squats on countermovement vertical jump performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(6), 1486-1491.

Bellar et al had a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showing that band training is superior to increasing bench press strength than free weight tension alone. On the one hand, this is a valuable study because there is still a paucity of published research on band training. On the other hand, this study serves as a good object lessons as it has a number of shortcomings.

The study looked at eleven untrained college students (males) and put them on a 13-week training program for the bench press. The program was organized as follows:
Baseline 1-RM test
3 weeks of familiarization training
1-RM test
3 weeks of either band training (5x5x70% 1-RM + 15% in bands) or standard training (5x5x85%)
1-RM test
3 weeks of either band or standard training (whichever was not performed before)
1-RM test

The idea was to use the first 3 week phase to wash out the learning effect and to have each subject train on both protocols randomly.

The authors report that band training resulted in almost 10 kg of improvement in the bench press, standard training in over 7.5 kg. The band improvement was statistically different than the standard improvement.

There are a number of things that we don’t know from this study:
• Baseline strength levels: Due to the way the training is organized, we’re never given the week one bench press test. We’re only shown that band and standard training result in “x” improvement, but not the improvement over the entire 13 weeks.
• Strength levels at each 1-RM test

As I mentioned above, on the one hand its good to get more research on the effectiveness of band training. On the other, there are some shortcomings and cautions:
• Band training is probably going to be most effective with national-caliber and elite athletes, those who have exhausted the effectiveness of standard training.
• The training has extremely limited variety (i.e. 5x5x85% or 5x5x70+15%), this can limit the effectiveness of both protocols.
• Reporting that in the middle of a 13-week program, either band or standard training results in a given improvement seeks to disassociate parts of the training from the whole of the training process, which cannot be done. While one may use statistical tests to look at the effect of three weeks of training out of 13, in reality those three weeks are part of the 13 and heavily influenced by what came before and what comes after.
• I’m going to argue that there is still a major learning effect over the first 13 weeks and it’s difficult to argue that is not occurring.

When looking at the effectiveness of band training in the future, a few things would really make this a more powerful study (in case anyone is looking for a dissertation topic):
• Use national-caliber, experienced powerlifters.
• Longer study which is periodized, maybe 6-12 months.
• Include a number of assistance exercises.
• Have a band only group and a standard training only group, with volume, intensity, and load equivalent between the groups.

Bellar, D.M., Muller, M.D., Barkley, J.E., Kim, C-H., Ida, K., Ryan, E.J., Bliss, M.V., and Glickman, E.L. (2011). “The effects of combined elastic- and free-weight tension vs. free-weight tension on 1-RM strength in the bench press.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(2), 459-463.

Dr. Lawrence Judge et al published a study in the Winter 2011 issue of Track Coach looking at predictors of success with the hammer throw. This is a significant contribution to the literature for a number of reasons.

First, the hammer throw is a pretty esoteric event in the U.S. High schools do not contest the hammer throw, so most athletes pick it up in college. As I’ll talk about later, this influences success with the event.

Second, the article comes up with some aspects of training that help to direct the thrower’s training.

The authors mailed a survey out to 212 NCAA track and field programs across the U.S. and got an almost 35% return rate. Based upon the result, they developed a model that (in statistics terms) explained almost 65% of the variance in hammer performance. According to the authors, the following were important predictors of performance: number of throws per year, back squat 1-RM, hammer technique, years throwing the hammer, and NCAA Division (which was included in the model, but by itself was not statistically significant).

Most of these results are pretty self-explanatory. The more experience with the event, the better one is going to be at it – especially something as technical as the hammer. The number of throws per year is actually meant to make up for the lack of experience that most collegiate throwers have with the hammer.

The results note the importance of strength, but there is a qualifier here. Often strength can be used to overcome technique/experience deficiencies. According to the authors, almost have the respondents had suffered weightlifting-related injuries in an attempt to accomplish this. The authors found it interesting that back squat strength was a predictor of success, but the Olympic-style lifts were not.

After pointing this interesting result out, the authors tried to spend a lot of time explaining why the Olympic lifts and power training are important for the conditioning of throwers, but the results certainly raise the question of strength plus specific technique/conditioning would be more beneficial to the hammer throwing then a more generalized approach to strength training.

Judge, L.W., Bellar, D., McAtee, G., and Judge, M. (2011). “Predictors of personal best performance in the hammer throw for U.S. collegiate throwers.” Track Coach, 194, 6196-6203.