Are there Diminishing Returns to Training for More Strength?

They say that if strength was everything a bull could catch a rabbit.  So as strength coaches we have to determine where on the bull/ rabbit continuum our athlete and sport reside. 

We call ourselves strength and conditioning coaches.  The name itself has a strength focus.  However, is there a point where more time and focus on strength training has diminishing returns? 

Force x Distance/Time (velocity) =Power.  This is the physics equation for power.  The force velocity curve is something we as strength coaches are well aware of in training athletes.  This curve shows that as force increases velocity decreases and vice versa.  There is a sweet spot on the curve where optimum power is produced.  I design programs to produce a response that supports the improvement of the athlete’s ability to produce power in a movement that is specific to the sport.  In other words I want to target overloads in that sweet spot of power in a particular movement and for a particular amount of time.   

There are some obvious examples of where more strength would not improve performance.  For example, adding Popeye like forearms to a cyclist would not add, or actually may take away from, performance in climbing a big mountain on a bicycle.  This would also apply to leg strength if too much body weight is added. 

Where the athlete resides on the continuum of the force velocity requirements of the sport is what determines the type of program design that needs to be developed for the sport.  For example if you look at a marathon runner.  Their sport requires hours of sustaining the highest average percentage of their maximum power longer. This is also true of most events taking place longer than 20 seconds in time.    The physique of the athlete reflect the needs of the sport’s power requirements.  I know this sounds obvious, but there are subtleties in the training that will dictate success for the different types of power required.   If you start with the physiques of 100 meter sprinters and then go to ultra-endurance runners you can see the continuum.  As the duration of time increases in the event the need for higher absolute power outputs diminishes and the need for sustainable power increases.   This also applies position specific in most team sports. 

So as a strength coach you have to ask yourself what wins in your sport from a strength and conditioning standpoint.  My goal as a strength coach is to improve the execution of movement specific to a sport for as many times as the athlete needs this movement to win in that particular sport.  I have to make sure if the athlete wants to change direction he is able to do it at the speed necessary to outplay his opponent and win.  I know this sounds simple, but the next part is what takes a lot of thinking. 

There are a lot of reasons to be focused on strength.  Look at the physics in the equation above.  You have to be able to produce force.  Strength is your ability to generate a force.  If force diminishes too far then power drops off dramatically.  Now there can be other things impacting force production besides just the muscles ability to create force, but assuming your athlete is not suffering from some immobility etc. then we have to look at how to generate more force in order to improve strength. 

So when we get to the level of mature athletic movement what wins most often? 

Let’s use running as the metaphor for this example.      

100 meter winner:  Winner is the athlete that can produce the most absolute power to weight for a very short amount of time.  Your best 100 meter sprinters are typically your best vertical jumpers, not your best squatters.  Vertical jumps are a measurement of absolute power to weight.   However, vertical jump can be improved by squats. 

200 meter winner:  200 meter winner is not always your best 100 meter runner.  It is the runner that can hold on average the highest percentage of their 100 meter dash speed the longest.

1500 meter:  Winner is definitely not the best 100 meter runner, but once again the runner that can on average hold the highest percentage of their 100 meter speed the longest. 

As we continue increasing the distance we get further away from higher absolute power needs of a 100 meter sprint and what wins is how much of that absolute power can an athlete on the average produce and sustain, and in some cases you may reduce the athlete’s ability to win. 

With this in mind there has to be a tipping point where you will get diminishing returns on spending more time on strength training. 

The focus has to shift to power and then as we work our way down the continuum to sustaining the highest percentage of absolute power the longest.  Are you spending time in the areas where winning is built? 

Ask yourself how are you creating training that addresses these issues?  Is adding more weight on a deadlift going to make your athlete better in their sport?

Look at the continuum and ask yourself if you are designing programs that address the needs that win events which is many cases is the ability to sustain high power outputs longer.    Not just strength and absolute power where many programs have their primary focus. 

Jacques DeVore, CSCS

Truth in Fitness