Specificity of Force Production

Written by: Kevin Cann

I am currently doing a series for my Patreon channel about the general principles of training.  Specificity is of course a general principle that all coaches need to apply.  You can’t play tennis and expect to have a bigger total.

I think that many coaches and lifters actually miss the mark on specificity in their training.  Seems like the majority views specificity of the movement as the primary driver, and others seem to argue that a squat, bench, and deadlift, on the same day is specific to competition.

I think the argument for these is logical, but it is extremely incomplete.   A set of 10 competition squats is not specific to the sport of powerlifting.  It may be somewhat effective due to training technical efficiency within the lifts, but the progress from this style of training will be very limited.

Doing volume of all 3 lifts in one day is also not specific to the sport of powerlifting.  The competition is 9 singles.  The energy system utilization here is very different.  The recovery cost of a training session like that is very high.  Another thing to consider is the athlete’s ability to focus.  A training session that long will most definitely see a drop in mental focus, this decreases the quality of the repetitions and the session.

Powerlifting is a pretty simple sport.  I believe technique is extremely important.  You can’t out lift physics.  At the end of the day, this sport is about how much force that you can produce into the barbell to lift the most weight possible.

In a competition lift, you have about 3-5 seconds to complete the movement.  Anything longer and you will miss the repetition.  Now, I know many are thinking that they have seen people grind out 10 second lifts.  This is true, but in the least leveraged positions, the lifter is very limited. 

We can lift more eccentrically than we can concentrically.  This means that the eccentric portion of the lift is submaximal.  Then we get to a point around parallel or slightly above that puts us in a decreased leveraged position.  This position, we have 3-5 seconds at most to apply maximal force.  As we rise out of this position, we get more leverage, and the need for maximal force application decreases.

Speed is also a factor here.  At some point the athlete is too slow to get the weight past the sticking point.  The heavier the weights, the slower the lifter will move.  This is a force production issue. 

We need to develop the ability to apply maximal force, as well as the ability to apply that maximal force in a short duration of time.  This is known as rate of force development.  We hear all of the time that there are fast and slow lifters.  If you are a slow lifter, get faster, and vice versa.

Force production exists on a spectrum as well.  We have explosive strength, which is high velocity movements.  We have speed strength, which is intermediate velocity, and we have strength speed, slow velocity.  The weight is what constrains the speed.

All of these strength skills fuel the others.  We can’t just train at slow velocities and get better.  We need enough within each group.  The lifters need to apply maximal force to each repetition in training as well.  The lift should never slow down because of the athlete’s effort.

I did some explosive bench work yesterday.  I found a weight that it required me to take 3 seconds to complete 3 reps.  This happened to be 133lbs, or about 40% of my 1RM.  This is right in the sweet spot of most of the literature on power training.

I applied as much force as possible into each repetition.  Almost letting it fall onto my chest and exploding up immediately with no delay.  I am incredibly sore from this today.  If I had just benched casually, that would not have made me sore at all and I would not have gotten anything out of it.  Instead, my force production was very high, especially at the bottom of the bench press with this weight, and I got a lot out of training.  This is developing my rate of force production, how quickly that I can generate force.

This will not increase my absolute strength by itself.  I cannot just use 133lbs on a bench press and bench into the mid 300s.  It just does not work that way.  There is something very specific about technique and the loads being used, as well as it requires strength speed to move it.

This is why we need to train multiple aspects of the sport within a given week.  This is known as conjugate.  Louie Simmons did not make up conjugate training, max effort, or dynamic effort work.  He just took those principles and applied it to his programs.

My goal with the bench press is to increase the loads over time.  Once I can complete all 9 sets at 40% in under 3 seconds, I will add weight.  This will show that my explosive strength is increasing.  Louie always says that, “Strength is measured in time, not weight.” This is beginning to make more sense to me.

What is interesting about Westside’s dynamic effort day, is that some of them would add weight for the last few sets.  They would maintain speed while working up to something moderate to heavy.  This would probably put them in the speed strength category for a couple of sets.  Explosive strength early and finishing with speed strength.  The strength speed would then be trained on the max effort day.

With squats and deadlifts, they train their max effort day, and they also have their dynamic effort day.  The good mornings are usually done for 3-5 reps.  These would be the strength speed work, as well as some of the other accessories.  

Some coaches and lifters will avoid doing singles in place of 2-3 or more heavy reps.  This is not strength speed work.  If you can do the lift for more than one rep, it does not require maximal force.  This is technically submaximal work.  This also falls somewhere between speed strength and strength speed on the spectrum of force production.  It will have some benefits of course, but it is not the most ideal.

All of the strength skills make each other better and need to be addressed within a training program.  If I am only explosive up to 40%, I will be limited in how quickly I can recruit maximal force in a competition.  If I increase that to 50% of my current best, I will be able to apply this to my max effort work.  The stronger I get in singles, the greater my explosiveness will be.  Speed strength works builds up the capacity to handle those bigger weights and the energy systems for a competition.

Volumes and intensities need to be selected based of training adaptations that a lifter is looking for.  It is important to understand why we are making these choices as it allows us to make the best decisions possible when writing a program.

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