Part One: Force
Part Two: Work
PHYSICS AND LIFTING: POWER
Those of you who don't want to know any science, please skip! For the rest, physics are indeed relevant to weight training, and knowledge of a bit of it may help you, or at least be something interesting to you. Now I will not be going into any bullsheet here. I've seen so much of it . . . people who talk 'science' but don't actually know the real science involved. There are people who do calculations and say you can't argue with the physics or the maths, but then they miscalculate or leave important terms out of their formulae. Will you be able to catch them out, unless you also know a bit of physics? As for me, I did well in physics in school and studied it a bit at university. But for lifting we don't actually need to go beyond high-school physics.
Basically there are three physical concepts involved in lifting: the first is force, the second is work, the third is power. You'll have seen all these words used in informal ways in articles about weight training -- but how about learning their rigorous meanings? In my first article I spoke about force. You have to understand force first, before you can understand work or power. The next addressed work. For this article, I will look at power!
To recap: force is the magnitude of a push or a pull; work is force magnified by distance. Power is scientifically defined as work divided by time. Since speed is distance divided by time, power can also be seen as force multiplied by speed! This is again not too difficult to grasp. Power can thus be seen as intensity of work.
The scientific unit for power is Watt. One Watt equals one Newton, multiplied by one meter, divided by one second. Or, since work is force times distance and is measured in Joule, one Watt equals one Joule per second. We don't actually have to do any maths; we just need to think in terms of work, and the time in which that work is completed, whether we're thinking of reps, of sets, and or workouts as a whole.
In weight training, the highest possible momentary 'per rep" power output occurs in the Olympic lifts. This is so because those lifts involve very heavy weights, a large range through which they are moved, and a rapid speed of execution, so that each lift is done in a short amount of time. The power output is highest during the quickest part of the lifts when the bar is accelerated rapidly. The nature of the lifts necessitates "throwing" the weight upwards, to get it past certain points over which the muscles of the body can effectively lift it, and that requires massive effort from most of the body's muscles during each accelerative portion of the movement. The Olympic lifts indeed involve several times as much power as the so-called powerlifts. To be fair, Olympic lifting should actually be named 'powerlifting' and what we call powerlifting renamed as 'strength lifting' or, speaking as physicists, 'force lifting'.
Making use of power in your own weight training may therefore mean taking up some of the Olympic lifts and their variants. But the technical proficiency needed to perform maximal, well-executed snatches and clean-and-jerks may make them inappropriate to the many people who don't have expert hands-on coaching available. There are, however, simpler 'quick lifts' that are similar to the Olympic lifts in power output -- and that are actually performed in most training regimens geared towards Olympic lifting. These are the power clean, power snatch, and high pull. The power clean simple involves rapidly raising a bar from the floor with a slight dip to catch it at clavicle level, without moving your feet; the power snatch is harder, since the weight has to be caught overhead with arms extended; perhaps ordinary trainees needn't bother with it much. The high pull is fairly easy, simply pulling the bar rapidly from the floor, shrugging to the shoulders, and raising up on the toes; the arms may be slightly bent to raise the bar to the lower rib-cage level, or in some cases almost to clavicle level but with 'catching' it in front of the shoulders, instead keeping the elbows high. It's not that tricky a lift, or dangerous, so it's one you might try out. Here I illustrate both the power clean and the high pull:
These lifts prove themselves very demanding and efficient in terms of making you very tired very quickly. They involve large amounts of muscle used in coordinated efforts where the entire body must work as a unit. They do have a drawback, though. The speed of movement imparts a large amount of momentum to the bar (momentum is another term in physics, meaning mass times velocity), and the mass and speed may jar vulnerable parts of the body if there isn't perfect control during the movement. This may cause injury, such as the lower back, shoulders or knees.
The injury risk can be minimized in a few ways. First, start these lifts with very light weights, and do not push yourself to grind out many reps. Instead, allow your body slowly to get used to their rigours. Take 2 to 3 months before pushing yourself hard, for sets of 3 to 5 reps. Your muscles, tendons and joints will then have some time to 'acclimatize'. Second, be meticulous about the way you perform the exercises. For instance, when power cleaning, don't round the back, don't let the bar drift forward of your body, don't rapidly yank at the bar, try to keep the movement smooth even while doing it fast. Third, don't push these exercises very hard even after the point where your body is well-used to them. When you push to the point of failure on the power clean of high pull, your form may break down, increasing the risk of injury. This is one occasion when it makes more sense to keep a rep or two in reserve. Given these precautions, i honestly don't see how the fast lifts would be very much more dangerous than typical exercises like squats, deadlifts or presses.
A way to incorporate fast lifting into your regimen might be to use it on just a single exercise, for fun . . . and for that my recommendation is doing repetition power cleans and presses. That is, you start by cleaning a bar from the floor, press it, lower it under control back to your shoulders and then to the floor, clean it again, press it again, and continue like that for an entire set. Try reps anywhere from 5 to 20. If you do this for 20 reps with a challenging weight, you're going to feel what it is like to push your body to put out a lot of power within a relatively short period of time. This will produce the kind of 'power intensity" that is an important component of making workouts more efficient.
Fast lifting will expose your body to the highest demands of momentary power output, and even a very small amount of this will take a heavy toll on the body's main muscular structures and its energy-producing systems. Elite Olympic lifters will have to do this, and more typical weight trainees can try it out for fun or a challenge. But it's not actually necessary for building muscular size, strength and general endurance. if you're not an elite lifter, and without the ambition to become one, then just as you don't need to expose yourself to the demands of absolutely maximal power development as Olympic lifters do. Instead, you can settle for simply 'fairly high' power output. It's not actually 'settling' since you can go very far indeed without risking the extremes. The thing is to think about power over a workout as a whole. Power is work divided by time. So . . . over a workout, the more work you do per unit of time, the more power you put out. And if you operate at an overall high power level, you don't need to do much total work at all: you can stimulate great size and strength gains with workouts of 15 to 30 minutes.
How do you manage doing a relatively large amount of work in a small amount of time? By doing two things: first, focusing on big, demanding exercises; second, by minimizing rest periods between sets. The all-out way of doing this might be doing a very short workout, of 5 to 10 exercises, 'back to back'. You set up all your equipment before you start. Your workout might be: bench press, chinup, standing press, row, calf raise, barbell squat, stiff-legged deadlift, ab crunch. Only two of these exercises are 'small' and they're there just to give you a brief break in between what are extremely demanding exercises. You warm up your whole body first with five minutes of cardio, a few light sets covering your main muscular structures, then light stretching, and then you tackle the workout.
Do 6 to 20 reps per movement (having chosen the right weights for this when you set them up), do as many reps as you can -- and you don't at all need to do them fast, instead make sure you do them smoothly and under control -- and immediately after finishing or attempting the final rep of one exercise, move to the next, taking no rest at all. Do that for the eight exercises listed above, and your workout might be done, and YOU will be pretty much well-done as well, after perhaps 15 to 20 minutes total. If you don't believe me, then TRY IT. The feeling in your entire body will indicate to you just how much power and energy you've demanded from it by completing these few really big, challenging exercises in a time as short as you can practically make it.
Even though you've never moved very fast, your body has operated at a very high power output because in each exercise, several muscle groups had all to be working at once, and this was carried over from one exercise to the next; never was your body given an entire break, just the calf raises and crunches having given you a bit of a breather. Practically, this kind of workout is just about the toughest a normal person can manage. Many more maximal-effort sets than this, without resting between them, provided your body even allows you to do that, and you risk putting yourself in hospital.
The above, short, super-intense workout has been proven by Dr. Ken Leistner and many of his trainees to be very effective, even though it sometimes causes adverse effects like vomiting. Personally, I think that is going a bit far, especially as being poor I don't at all appreciate the wasting of food like this! Still . . . I think it would be a good ideal for most trainees to try out this approach from time to time, even if not going to the ultimate max with it. These workouts involve both momentary set intensity, where you push to the point of failure on the final rep you can successfully complete in each exercise, and also 'power intensity' of the workout as a whole, by completing a large amount of work in a short period of time.
Even working out at a lesser intensity than this could be very effective for many or most trainees. Even a rest between sets of a minute or so, would still not be too long, and allow for the performance of a demanding workout over a time span of 30-60 minutes. It depends on what you expect from yourself, and what you are willing to do. But thinking about amount of work done per unit of time will help you ensure efficiency of training. This is especially valuable if your time is limited. You can get a very stimulating workout done very quickly indeed.
Imagine doing just a single set of clean-and-presses, followed by aa single set of chinups a single set of parallel bar dips, and if you have anything left a single set of squats, each all-out and with minimal rest. That could be done inside of 10 minutes and will leave you utterly spent. Do that over time, progressively, and you'll have overall growth.
In the end, these three articles of mine are not for encouraging any specific way of training. Instead I am telling you about principles that come from science from physics, and that are actually not at all hard to grasp and to see how they might apply to your training. You have the elements of force, of work, and of power, and you can use all three to evaluate and improve your workouts and to track your progress. If you get stronger, it means you improve your body's ability to put out force. If you become able of handling greater workloads, it means you're improving your body's ability to put out work. If you become capable of doing more work in less time, it means you're improving your body's ability to put out power. All three will mean your body is changing - adapting, becoming better at doing what you ask of it. For our purposes, this means muscle growth, and gains in strength and muscular endurance.
We can use these three elements to vary our workouts to keep things more interesting. Some stints may see us emphasizing more the element of force: we may go very heavy, but not perform a lot of sets and reps, and rest longer than usual between sets. We may then emphasize work more, by for instance building up to several heavy sets in a particular movement, and/or doing quite high reps in our movements (without going to ridiculous extremes!), but still rest well between sets. Then we might go for a stint of emphasizing power, 'compressing' a workout so more work is done in less time.
In the end, all these elements can be used as variables with which we work while continuously ourselves to improve. We can be really creative in how we combine these variables. Finally, we can see through the 'easy dogmatism' of various exercise fads and movements.
There is not a single kind or measure of 'intensity' or 'volume'. There's rep intensity, set intensity, workout intensity. There's rep 'volume' (in terms of the range of motion), set volume, workout volume.
Volume should not be a swear word: we al need some volume, and it is a factor that stimulates us and elicits adaptation. Intensity also doesn't just apply to a single set, but to a rep also, and to an entire workout.
There isn't an 'ultimate' way of training, since these factors can be combined in many ways, and how you use them will depend on your own, personal body and its potential for improving in each aspect, and to your goals, and to your life circumstances, and what you are willing and/or able to do in each workout. Some people gravitate to heavier, slower, longer workouts, while others will gravitate to shorter, faster, more intense workouts, and all of that is perfectly fine, provided we train within sensible limits, working hard enough to elicit some response from our bodies, not injuring ourselves, and allowing proper recuperation between our workouts. But if we're really set on improving, understanding these factors might give us an idea how.
We might have temporarily maxed out in strength, but if for a while we focused on somewhat improving our stamina, we can build to handling greater workloads, and then when returning to heavy, short sets again, find ourselves moving forward.
Or we might have found ourselves going stale doing lots of sets with long rests in between, at which point we might find ourselves invigorated by a stint of short, fast (little rest between sets) training, improving workout/power-intensity.
There are as many ways of combining these factors into effective workouts as there are trainees AND as there are different training needs, desires and goals at different periods.
I'm NOT advocating chronic routine changing, though! To benefit from any particular regimen we need to keep it up for several months . . . I think we should aim for 6 to 12 months for any specific routine. If it's a good, productive routine for you, then it will yield small but ongoing gains for several months and actually the longer you can draw out the gains, the better. Only change if you've REALLY gone stale.
I do hope at least some of you managed to read all of these articles, and saw that the science is not that hard at all, and in fact quite relevant to what we do in the gym and to what we get from our workouts. I hope it has given you a few ideas for improving your own training in any way, whether that be making it more efficient, or result-producing, or fun!
Enjoy Your Lifting!