I was skimming the T Nation forums the other day when I stumbled on this question:
"Hey guys, I play a lot of basketball and I'm wondering what strength exercises I should do to improve my dribbling ability: triceps pushdowns or extensions?"
Well, you can probably guess what happened next. The poor bastard was derided for the question and his general lack of knowledge, and ultimately told to take his ball and go dribble somewhere else.
I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the guy. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a very insightful question, but at least he was trying.
According to his logic, dribbling is basically straightening the arm, and since a triceps extension is straightening the arm, well, you could see where he was going – although he was clearly missing a big part of the equation.
This guy needed a way of "classifying" movements, and I suspect you might need a way, too. The benefit of this isn't merely semantics; once you can correctly classify a movement, you can then apply the proper training methodology to improve it.
I've divided a list of activities that many of us perform regularly into four basic types of movements. Granted, when you try generalize specific activities into broad categories there will inevitably be some overlap, but you'll see that the majority of movements fit nicely into one of the four categories – especially those activities that we often actively strive to improve.
Once the types of movements are identified, we'll discuss the best methodologies to improve them.
The Four Movements
1. Low Speed, Light Resistance In this category, the participant is generating a low level of external force, which means the limb moves relatively slowly and that a low amount of force is being used to move a light resistance (or no resistance).
The prior example of a person dribbling a basketball is a low speed, light resistance activity. Other abilities include drawing, painting, typing, billiards, darts, shuffleboard, dribbling a soccer ball, shooting a basketball, juggling, putting a golf ball, and curling (not the cool kind involving the biceps, the other kind that Canadians play when they can't get enough guys together to play hockey) also fall under this category.
2. High Speed, Light Resistance In this category, the participant is generating a high level of external force, meaning the limb and the object both move rapidly. However, the object being moved is relatively light.
This type of activity is common to many different sports, though rarely seen in the gym. Examples of this would be pitching a baseball, swinging a baseball bat, punching something, kicking something, swinging any sort of racquet, and driving a golf ball off a tee. I'd also include sprinting in this category, particularly after the initial acceleration takes place. Sprinting involves moving your entire body – which is much heavier than some of the other resistances given – but once moving, the level of resistance provided by the body is relatively low, at least in comparison to a heavy squat or dragging a heavy sled.
3. Low Speed, Heavy Resistance In this category, the participant is exerting effort against a heavy external resistance (heavy meaning difficult for that individual). Because the object being moved is heavy, the object's speed is relatively slow.
This type of activity is most common in the gym. Examples of this would be lifting heavy weights, pushing a car, playing tug-of-war, wrestling someone (once you're engaged against them), an offensive lineman attempting to drive their opponent off the line of scrimmage, arm wrestling, dragging a weighted sled, pushing the Prowler, picking up a heavy object, and resisting a heavy object's movement (negatives).
4. High Speed, Heavy Resistance In this category, the participant is exerting effort against a heavy external resistance, however the participant is generating enough force so that the object still moves rapidly.
The best example of this type of activity is Olympic weight lifting. Other examples would be slamming an opponent on the ground, running into and tackling someone, and putting the shot. I'm also going to include jumping and most real plyometric exercises in this category (although doing a chest press with a 4-pound medicine ball doesn't count).
How to Improve these Activities
1. Low Speed, Light Resistance
The primary component that determines proficiency in these movements is simply one's skill level at that activity.
I love lifting weights as much as the next meathead and resistance training does many things, but it rarely improves high-skill activities all by itself. I'm not a better painter or billiards player because I lift weights; however, that's not to say that exercise has zero benefit to these activities.
First, you must practice, practice, and practice those activities if you wish to get better at them. If you do that AND include a basic exercise regimen, you may find that your ability in these activities is improved, although slightly (likely due to improved muscular control and increased endurance).
For example, if you play a billiards tournament but find you can't focus or get tired by the fourth game, it's possible that exercise may improve that ability. The more out of shape you are, the more likely exercise could have a slight positive effect.
To be clear, an exercise program alone will not develop sufficient skill for one to become proficient at low speed, light resistance activities. You don't need to be strong or fit to draw, dribble a basketball, play billiards, or throw darts at a high level; instead, you need to devote significant time to practicing those activities. Our basketball player example simply needed to spend more time practicing dribbling and not worry about training his triceps.
2. High Speed, Light Resistance
The primary physical component that determines proficiency in these activities is speed (technically speed-strength), however, that speed must be combined with a very high level of skill as well.
Exercise will help this category of movements more than the previous category. Speed is powered by muscle, so muscles that are well trained are more likely to generate a higher rate of speed.
However, don't make the mistake of interpreting "well trained" as just being strong. Remember, the principle ofspecificity holds true, so just striving to increase one's 1RM isn't going to cut it. In Supertraining, Mel Siff presents a fairly straightforward plan for improving speed, suggesting that an athlete training properly can increase his or her speed by up to 150%.
First, the athlete should get into shape. If the athlete is a novice weight trainer, almost any form of basic training will be appropriate and should yield results. I've improved many a client's golf drive by 20 yards or more by simply having them exercise with weights, without doing any sort of "golf specific" fitness activity. The good news is that almost any program will do, the bad news is that after about three months or so those gains will likely peter out.
Here, we turn to Siff's advice; he suggests that to improve maximal speed against light loads, one should use the following guidelines:
• Five out of six sessions, use 20% of the 1RM. Use a maximal effort and lift the weight as fast as possible, resting 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.
• One out of six sessions, use 40% of the 1RM. Focus on accelerating the weight at the beginning of the movement, resting 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.
• On both of these methods, alternate exercises to minimize fatigue and achieve the best results.
Unfortunately, Siff doesn't give specific set and rep suggestions, but he does suggest that the training mimic the demands of the activity as best as possible. This would mean if you're training for a knockout punch or to hit a homerun, you'd use few consecutive reps (1-3), but most likely would perform many sets.
If you were training to put together a flurry of punches or to sprint faster, then you'd use higher reps (roughly 5-15) and fewer total sets.
If your activity requires high speed while fatigued, then training when fatigued can be useful, otherwise generally train speed-strength when relatively fresh.
Of course, you're trying to train the muscles involved in the activity of choice, but please don't try to precisely mimic the sporting activity you're attempting to improve. This will likely alter the neural pattern and may well decrease performance in that activity, even if your performance in the gym increases.
In other words, don't be that guy who hooks his golf club up to a 40-pound kettlebell and then swings it with everything he's got, all while standing on a Bosu ball. Not only will you look dumb, it's actually making you a worse golfer.
A Quick Jab of Common Sense
I should point out something about strength and the power of unloaded movements, so let's use punching as a specific example.
As a powerlifter, as much as it pains me to say, there's generallyno correlation between maximal strength as represented by one's 1RM in the gym and unloaded power generation (punching power).
No correlation doesn't mean a negative correlation (which would mean a high bench press indicates poor punching strength), it just means there's no correlation; you can't predict punching strength based on bench press strength. A 400 pound bench presser might have awesome punching power, but that person could also have poor punching power – there simply isn't a connection between the two.
While that might be a slightly bitter pill for the weight training community to swallow, it should line up with what we see in real life. The strongest punches are delivered by boxers, MMA fighters, and classic martial arts practitioners – people who punch for a living – not bodybuilders, powerlifters, or guys that boast about using every bow on their wife's Bowflex machine.
3. Low Speed, Heavy Resistance
In these activities strength is king, and they're the most improved by resistance training. Of course, there's much debate as to what exactly is the "best" type of resistance program to increase this ability, but everybody agrees it involves resistance training.
Be it a Westside program, Sheiko, Smolov, Starting Strength, HIT, a classic bodybuilding split, 5/3/1, you name it; the main goals of these programs are to increase strength that can be expressed by moving heavy objects. Powerlifting and most strongman events are tests of this ability.
The textbook answer to improve strength is to train with a heavy weight (60% of the 1RM or better, often using 85%+), use low reps (1-6 reps), take relatively long breaks in between sets (2-5 minutes to allow reasonable recovery), and to perform a reasonable volume of work (2-6 work sets per exercise).
A simple search of TNation's archives will yield a wealth of training information on this subject, just remember that in this type of movement it's all about getting strong and then applying that strength with good technique.
4. High Speed, Heavy Resistance
The primary physical component here is power. To express power, the activity must be performed rapidly – you can't demonstrate power slowly.
Strength is a key part of power, particularly when using heavier loads. If you're weak, you can only lift so much. If you can't deadlift 315 lbs., you obviously can't clean 315 lbs., and in general larger muscles are able to generate higher levels of force.
But it's not all about muscle and pure strength. Strength can be expressed slowly. Watch a powerlifter perform a true 1RM on the bench press and you'll likely see the bar slowly creep up. Chances are you could stop the movement of the bar with just one hand if you wanted to really piss a lifter off.
Now watch a heavy clean or jerk. The bar moves fast. With high-speed exercises, you must teach your body to explode into the resistance; in technical terms you're trying to recruit all of your motor units at once to work for you (explosive strength). The difference in strength and power is often a matter of milliseconds, but those milliseconds are important.
With most power exercises, the lifter has .2 seconds or less to generate power, whereas strength exercises can last up to a second or more. If most of a lifter's strength comes at the latter end of that curve, say .8 seconds and beyond, then a significant amount of their strength will be left untapped in power-related activities. The lifter won't have .8 seconds to express their strength against a clean or against the ground when jumping, so that extra strength will not be of much use in those examples.
As with strength training, there is considerable debate as to how to best train to improve power. Most experts believe that the lifter should lift rapidly on the majority of exercises. Technique is very important in high speed, high resistance exercises and a large emphasis should be placed on learning and maintaining proper technique.
Generally, if you want to improve your power we should turn to the most powerful athletes, namely Olympic lifters, and see how they train. The textbook answer is to use a moderately heavy weight (70-90% 1RM, taking a little bit off to improve speed), low reps (1-5 reps per set, often just 1-3), a reasonable number of sets per exercise (3-5 work sets per exercise, sometimes up to 10 sets), and incorporate a reasonable amount of rest time in between sets to facilitate recovery (2-5 minutes).
For the most part, compound exercises that incorporate as many muscles/joints as possible should be used, and these exercises should be able to be performed rapidly. Examples include the snatch, clean, jerk, push press, high pulls, and power shrugs, with reasonable assistance work including the squat, front squat, overhead squat, deadlift, and standing press. High speed, high resistance activities require a combination of power, skill, speed, strength, and often flexibility to execute well.
Wrap It Up
I make no claim that this article is groundbreaking or even terribly original, but regardless, this information is imperative to making gains in your chosen activity – not to mention, it could save you or those you work with tremendous time and effort in the gym.
Exercise is hard, and who wants to toil away for months or even years building abilities that have negligible carryover to the activity we're trying to improve?
Arm yourself with this knowledge and hit the gym with confidence that the results will show themselves in your chosen activity. Or, you could just climb aboard a Bosu ball and start swinging that golf club attached to a kettlebell. It's up to you.
Siff, Mel and Verkhoshansky, Yuri. Supertraining. 4th Edition. Denver: Supertraining International, 1999.
Baechle, Thomas and Earle, Roger. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.