I think athletes’ generally believe weight training is performed to increase the strength of the muscles. What I have come to believe is that primarily it should be considered as training for the central nervous system.
Anyone who has seen footage of 69kg Galaban Boevski clean and jerking over 190kg or casually squatting 250kg without any obvious muscle mass could be left in any doubt of the power of the nervous system. Knowledgeable athletes might appreciate that strength increases were possible without an increase in body mass but I doubt they realised to what extent!
So how does the nervous system increase strength? It primarily does so by increasing central drive. Or in lay mans terms increases the number of impulses per unit time that are transmitted to the muscles. This causes recruitment of the largest motor units and therefore results in higher force outputs. Other adaptations include:
• Decreased Golgi tendon inhibition
• Decreased antagonist inhibition
• Increased inter muscular coordination
• Increased intra muscular coordination
In recent years I have advocated no more than three reps per set on any core exercise. Certainly this is what the UK’s best sprint group (including Jeanette Kwakye, Dwain Grant, James Ellington, Leon Baptiste, Daniel Plummer and Mark Findlay) are doing on my recommendation. As the athlete becomes more experienced I would tend to limit reps to doubles and primarily employ singles. ‘Only singles’ I hear you cry! Yes, but remember singles don’t necessarily mean maximum poundages. I generally recommend between 85 and 90% concentrating on the quality of movement.
You should have the confidence to leave an exercise even though you feel you haven’t stressed yourself. I have seen athletes increase their maximum by more than 10% in a month whilst performing only one single above 90% per session! For limit strength movements like squats I generally advocate three single repetitions above 85% whilst for lifts with a speed component (i.e. cleans) I might perform up to 6 singles.
This type of training primarily induces myofibrillar (or functional) hypertrophy and limits sarcoplasmic (or non functional) hypertrophy. This ensures an optimal benefit to power to weight ratio, but unfortunately might not be the best for pulling the ladies! Additionally, this type of training causes the greatest increase in testosterone and for the clean athlete this is obviously advantageous to improve recovery.
I see a lot of sprinters at Crystal Palace and as well as having rough assed lifting form they always seem to be injured. Could it be that these athletes’ work capacity is insufficient to tolerate three weight sessions per week and this is increasing predisposition to injury? When one considers the high demand of sprinting, plyos and high intensity medicine ball work, is it such a surprise that they don’t improve? And what do they do if they don’t get results? Increase the work! A change of approach is definitely required.
I believe that the following program is optimal for all non elite (non full time) athletes:
So to summarise forget about your muscles and start training your nervous system.