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Training Considerations for Improving Muscular Strength: Q&A with Dr. Tim Suchomel

Muscular strength and power are critical for athletic performance, and most, if not all, coaches recognize the importance of resistance training in the overall program.  However, this also leaves the question – what is the best way to train my athletes? This certainly opens a big can of worms that can take several directions including what are the best methods. For example, should you use machines or free weights? Do you need to use Olympic lifts for power development? Are kettlebells a good option? Indeed, several methods can be used to improve muscular strength and power, and many coaches are always looking for proven methods to incorporate into their programs.

Recently, Dr. Tim Suchomel and colleagues published an excellent two-part literature review on the importance of muscular strength development in athletic performance in the journal Sports MedicinePart I focused on the influence that muscular strength has on various factors associated with athletic performance along with the benefits of improving strength.

In brief, muscular strength influences:

  • Rate of force development
  • Power
  • Jumping ability
  • Sprinting speed
  • Change of direction
  • Sport-specific skills
  • Decreases likelihood of injury

Again, many coaches acknowledge the benefits of strength training; however, the methods used to improve strength vary considerably from one program to another.  Part II included a review of the most commonly implemented resistance training methods and a rating of them based on the research evidence for their potential to benefit muscle size (hypertrophy), strength and power. The table below provides an overview.

Body weight+++ +
Machines+ ++ ++ +
Weightlifting derivatives+ + ++ + ++ + + + +
Plyometrics++ ++ + + +
Eccentric training+ + + + ++ + + + ++ + + +
Potentiation complexes?+ + ++ + + + +
Unilateral exercise+ + ++ ++ + +
Bilateral exercise+ + + ++ + + ++ + +
Variable resistance+ + + + ++ + + ++ + + +
Kettlebell+ ++ ++ + +
Ballistic training+ ++ + ++ + + +

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The authors recommend that bilateral training (lifting with both limbs versus unilateral or single limb movements such as a lunge), eccentric and accentuated eccentric training, and variable resistance appear to offer some advantages in producing the greatest comprehensive strength adaptations.

Q&A with the author – Dr. Tim Suchomel

Q1: In the paper, you identify variable resistance training (VRT) as a superior method for developing comprehensive muscular fitness.  What are the main reasons that you ranked this method so highly?

The rationale behind this is the ability to optimally train weak points in the lift.  For example, traditionally loading a back squat requires athletes to perform the movement through the entire range of motion with the same load.  A potential issue with this is that athletes squat to a position in which they have a mechanical disadvantage based on the muscle’s length.  If the muscles under tension (e.g. quadriceps, glutes, etc.) are too long, they may not be able to produce the amount of force necessary to get out of that position as easily.  This creates “sticking points” within the movement.  Variable resistance training in contrast trains the mechanical disadvantages by reducing the weight where the athlete is the weakest and increasing the weight where they would theoretically be the strongest.  Using a back squat example, the athlete would feel a decrease in weight as they lower down (weight removed by chains bunching up on the floor or bands becoming slack), but then feel an increase in weight on the ascent (more chain off of the floor or bands being stretched.  By training the mechanical disadvantages, we may be able to optimally load the individual.  This in turn may then transfer to our gains in hypertrophy, strength, and power.   

Q2: What is your personal experience with VRT?

I have not had much experience with VRT personally; however, I expect to increase this in the future.  More and more research is coming out in support of VRT; however, we are still answering very acute questions.  More training studies need to be completed to determine the training effects of VRT in comparison to other highly touted methods.

Q3: How would you incorporate VRT into a training program? More specifically, what would you suggest as an optimal protocol (frequency, intensity (%1RM and % band tension), duration of training cycle) for variable resistance training?

This is a difficult question to answer because many of the protocols discussed in the literature are different.  Like many training methods, there may not be one “optimal” training protocol because many other factors, such as training status, familiarity, competency, training period of the year, and the goals of the training phase must be taken into consideration.  That being said, I cannot give a clear black and white answer on this now.  More research needs to be completed first.

Q4: You identify superior methods which some may see as advanced, so what advice would you give a coach who is developing a program for younger or athletes with less experience in the weight room?

Simply put, the focus should be to get stronger.  Too many coaches try to implement advanced training methods (e.g. VRT, Accentuated Eccentric Training, etc.) or place too much emphasis on power-type training methods too early with their athletes.  While these methods may be seen as sexy, there is plenty of literature out there that supports the idea that getting stronger first is going to allow athletes to improve their performance and reduce injury risk, but also allow them to benefit more from advanced training methods and power-type training methods later.  My advice would be to keep things simple by getting the athletes stronger using core lifts (e.g. squatting, pressing, pulling) until they are ready for a unique training stimulus.  I am not saying do not implement other methods in training; however, the primary emphasis for younger and less trained athletes should be to get stronger first.

About Tim Suchomel

Dr. Suchomel is a rising star among researchers focused on the science and application of resistance training.  He completed his PhD in Sport Physiology and performance under the legendary Dr. Mike Stone at East Tennessee State University and started working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Movement Sciences at Carroll University in the Fall of 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTSuchomel  And stay tuned for more great research with practical applications from Dr. Suchomel!

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