Last week, we introduced the concept of the Performance Pyramid – a model for targeting elite athletic performance through a hierarchy of proficiencies and skills. This week we are going to explore how we can apply the Performance Pyramid with strength athletes.
For Olympic lifters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, and other strength athletes, there are several possible pitfalls when it comes to training. If we look at strength training in the context of the Performance Pyramid, some of the most common problems show up at the levels of basic movement proficiency and endurance.
As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, basic movement proficiency involves things like movement coordination and joint mobility. Improving basic movement proficiency is often about correcting the body’s software by changing the compensatory patterns the brain imposes on the body due to bad habits or previous injuries. Sometimes, we also need to address the body’s hardware by loading the joints in absolute ranges of motion or using manual therapy techniques that remodel joint capsule tissue (the connective tissue that holds the joints together).
Strength athletes often have issues with basic movement proficiency when it comes to shoulder extension limitations during bench presses, for example, or ankle dorsiflexion and/ or hip flexion during squats.
Why is basic movement proficiency important here? If an athlete must round their back to make up for a lack of hip flexion, for instance, they increase the risk of injuring their spine.¹ Likewise, if a strength athlete can’t get into a squat position without weight on their back—that is, if they need a weight to “push them into position”—it’s a recipe for injury.
Endurance Training for Strength Athletes
Besides basic movement proficiency, many strength athletes overlook endurance during their training. Olympic lifters and powerlifters tend to assume endurance isn’t important since they usually do only one to three reps at a time and have plenty of time to recover between lifts.
However, aerobic capacity is important for strength athletes, too. This is because in addition to improving general health², it also enhances their ability to recover between sets and workouts.³
By training themselves to recover more quickly between sets, strength athletes can fit in more quality work during each training session. And with a robust energy system to fuel more effective recovery between workouts, they can adapt more quickly and achieve strength gains faster than they would otherwise.
Speed Training for Strength Athletes
Speed is another performance trait that strength athletes, especially powerlifters, often neglect in training. At NeuFit®, we encourage strength athletes to engage in speed training because of its effect on coordination between opposing muscles (intermuscular coordination). Moving fast requires the opposing muscles to relax so they don’t resist movement. Strength athletes can train to improve this type of coordination in two ways:
- Using lighter weights and moving with speed
• Engaging the muscles at every stage of movement during all lifts (If they’re lifting weights, we want strength athletes to actively and intentionally pull the weight down and then push it up—instead of resisting the weight as it goes down.)
If someone is doing a bench press, for example, we instruct them to use their back muscles (e.g., lats, rhomboids) to actively pull the bar down and their front muscles (e.g., pectorals, front delts) to push it up. By using the back muscles as if they’re actively performing a rowing or pulling movement, they create a neurological input of greater stability.
This feeling of greater stability reduces the perception of threat in the brain, which then triggers the brain to allow the greatest possible output in the front muscles as they press the weight back up. Plus, the enhanced coordination minimizes resistance in the back muscles as they press the weight up. (Pressing up the weight is challenging enough; athletes don’t need any added resistance from inappropriate tension in opposing muscles.)
When strength athletes make a point of integrating traits like speed, endurance, and basic movement proficiency into their training routines, they do more than just reduce their risk of injury. By focusing on these traditionally overlooked areas in strength training, they can also gain a considerable edge when it comes to performance.
Now let’s examine how the Performance Pyramid can benefit one group of strength athletes – bodybuilders.
How the Performance Pyramid Can Benefit Bodybuilders
Like other strength athletes, bodybuilders spend most of their training time lifting weights and doing resistance-type exercises. They tend to focus more on building muscle mass, however, than increasing strength.
Despite this difference, there are also significant benefits for bodybuilders who work at every level of the performance pyramid. Why? Like strength athletes, bodybuilders need a foundation of high-quality movement and joint mobility since they load their bodies with so much volume when they’re lifting weights. Otherwise, they increase their risk of injury.
Endurance is another aspect of the performance pyramid that’s important for bodybuilders since they need to be able to recover quickly within workouts to maximize the amount of work they put in during a session. They also need the energy to fuel the significant amount of protein synthesis and muscle growth that take place during recovery between workouts.
Strength and speed are also key aspects of performance for bodybuilders. The stronger they get, the more muscle fibers they recruit—and the more they stimulate their bodies to create new muscle tissue. The better their intermuscular coordination, the longer and harder they can train without getting injured or causing long-term damage.
Brad Rowe’s experience speaks to how NeuFit and the performance pyramid can benefit bodybuilders. As a former NCAA Division I football player, Brad had endured his share of injuries and surgeries. After transitioning from football to professional bodybuilding, his injuries followed him.
Since he had to avoid overloading or re-injuring multiple parts of his body, his training was inconsistent. “I was often injured and in pain almost every day,” he said. “To get through a workout, I usually had to take some kind of anti-inflammatory.”
Brad started working with NeuFit after surgery on a torn bicep tendon. Though the doctors told him it would take sixteen weeks to heal, he recovered in about half that time: “Eight weeks after surgery, I was able to start training my bicep again,” he said. “Fifteen weeks after surgery, I entered a bodybuilding competition and took third place.”
After his recovery, Brad decided to use the Neubie® neuro-electrical stimulation device in all of his training. Over time, the machine helped him drastically cut down on the amount of work he does at the gym. “What used to take me two to three hours now takes me about thirty minutes,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s able to train using lighter weights, focusing more of his attention on muscle activation through the entire range of motion. The result? He continues to build his movement proficiency and maintain his athleticism even as he trains for hypertrophy (muscle growth).
“This way,” Brad said, “I don’t have to sacrifice one aspect of my training while I work on another.” What’s more, he doesn’t take anti-inflammatories or painkillers anymore—and he’s rarely injured.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Brad as part of our Under Current podcast series. Check it out here.
In next week’s blog, we are going to continue our series on elite athletes, as we explore the Performance Pyramid with speed and power athletes.
Let’s charge forward to better outcomes (for our strength athletes) together!