Piston, Spring, or Steam Engine?

“Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.”

Henry Miller

photo: cloneofsnake

"Piston" and "Spring" represented here...photo cred: cloneofsnake

Just a little food for thought here; something to keep in mind when planing your future workouts.  Is a squat just a squat, a jump just a jump?  Well, yes…and no.  Let’s consider for just a moment, three different aspects of the same, basic “front squat” movement; first up, the pure strength end of the spectrum (i.e., the “steam engine”):

Next up, a photo sequenced example of the speed-strength (piston) version of this movement:

photo cred: CrossFit
Photo cred: CrossFit

And finally, yours truly with a demonstration of the RFD (rate of force development, spring) side of the spectrum:

Three aspects of the same movement, with lots of overlapping, gray zones, in between.  But once again, we come back full circle to the notion of power development — and, more specifically, the power-to-body weight ratio.  Each aspect of the movement profile must be optimized in order to enhance this ratio.  And there must be a proper synergy, as well; too much “steam engine” for example, at the expense of  “spring”, and the trainee’s overall power output has just been compromised.  Know your goals and know your needs relative to power output.  Train accordingly.

Vern Gambetta recently alluded to the same notion in this blog post for Elite Track, and I couldn’t agree with him more.  Effective training is not solely about pushing massive loads slowly — ultimately, it boils down to training the body to produce maximum power over a defined time period (or, more specifically, within a defined energy system), consistent with your goals.  Is raw strength a component in power development and athletic achievement?  You bet it is.  But, it’s only a single component of the overall power equation.  And so I’ve got to side with Vern on this one — I find it hard to believe that (quarter squatting, at best?) this load is lending much enhancement to this kid’s instantaneous power output.  He’s a hammer thrower, not a strongman competitor.  I’ll be a little more forgiving than Vern though, as you can’t decipher an entire training program from a single picture.  I’ll will hold this up as a metaphor, though, for what seems to be a bias (in males, anyway) toward the raw strength end of the training spectrum.  Moving big loads in the gym does turn heads, and it’s certainly an ego trip to feel the bar across your shoulders undulating due to a heavy load, and your driving of that load up through another rep.  But is grinding out slow, heavy reps helping you achieve your goal?  Would you be better served spending time developing speed, speed-strength or strength-speed aspects of the same basic movement?  I would have to say that in my experience it’s the speed of movement that is the limiting factor in a trainee’s power output in a particular movement pattern.  Not always, of course, but usually.

Oh, and one quick thing I’d like to point out from the box jump photo sequence (by the way, thanks, CrossFit, for the shot) — look at the jumper’s toe-off angle in the third frame.  See the slight forward trajectory?  That forward trajectory signals a greater degree of quad engagement in that movement than what would be the case if this guy were to be engaged in a true vertical jump, or in a (properly performed) clean or snatch (or one of their variations).   In the vertical or “jump back” version of this basic movement, the posterior chain is engaged to a greater degree.  The box jump and vertical jump, therefore, are not the same beast.  Close, perhaps — think, zebra is to horse as box jump is to vert — but not quite.  The posterior chain is the most explosive and powerful — or potentially most powerful (if not yet properly developed) — engine your body possesses.  To fully develop the posterior chain — and then to learn to fully engage that chain — is to push your jumping ability ever higher.  Squat variations are no doubt a great foundation for an explosive vert; but the pulls and Oly lift variations (think explosive triple extension) will truly put the umph in your “ups”.

In health,