Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Do you need more Strength?

This seems like a stupid question. Many who likely visit this site have an interest in Strength and Conditioning and building strength in some capacity may likely be a primary goal. Stick with me....

I assisted at an AKC certification in Toronto nearly 2 weeks ago. On Sunday of the certification, I was asked to give a talk. I was asked the following question: "Should I do some sort of gripper or grip strength work for my snatches?" This was a great question because there are a lot of misconceptions on assistance exercises and how much strength you need for Kettlebell Sport. So, needless to say I went on a productive tangent.

Clearly in a sport like Powerlifting, maximal strength is the goal. I would imagine that maximal strength would be the primary factor in a Strongman competition. In a sport like Weightlifting (Olympic Lifting), strength is a major component. Obviously, if you cannot deadlift 300lbs or Front Squat 300lbs, you aren't going to be able to do a clean with 300lbs. However, there are other attributes in Weightlifting that are very important; Timing, Speed and Flexibility (I'm sure there are others, but I don't know shit about Weightlifting). So, if you can Front Squat over 320lbs and deadlift over 350lbs, but can't clean 300lbs WTF is your problem :) ?

For the sake of this discussion, we'll talk about Kettlebell Sport because it is really the only thing I like to discuss.

Kettlebell Sport is very new in the USA. The folks who have done well in this country tend to have a decent (and in some cases elite) strength background.

It seems intuitive to us that the stronger we get, the better we will get at the KB Sport lifts. If I strengthen my grip, I will last longer on my snatches. If I strengthen my press, my Jerks will get better. My favorite one is "I need to build more leg strength with squats". This all assumes that strength is the limiting attribute. In my observations, this usually isn't the case.

Now, is there anything inherently wrong with any of those things, Squats, Grip exercises, presses? Hell No.

The issue is misapplication of those principles. The focus on strength (Maximal Strength) may keep folks from actually bettering their technique and progressing. We know that you need strength to build strength endurance. However, if you are relatively strong, the tendency may be to rely solely on that strength instead of building the other important attributes of the lifts; Speed, Flexibility, Timing and Tension/Relaxation mastery ect.(NOTE: I'm not even talking about pacing in a set, just the actual attributes of the lifts).

I would propose that if you are really strong, that you may have a harder time developing the other attributes out of the blocks even if you are otherwise very athletic. Your strength will serve you well initially and may even give you a false sense that your technique is adequate. If you're really strong, you will look good relative to your peers with equal experience. Once you make the decision to jump out of the small pond (Local Meets) and across the ocean (International), you'll discover that strength isn't enough.

How do I know this? I know from my own experience. In 2005, I was getting better at snatches..slowly. However, I couldn't Jerk my way out of a paper bag. I couldn't do more than 40 reps with 2-16kg bells and couldn't go longer than 4 minutes. Yet, I could press a pair of 24kg bells for probably 8-10 reps, and press a single 32kg bell for reps. Why couldn't I do more Jerks? Well, I didn't have the flexibility for the rack and I didn't have the speed/timing for getting under the bells for starters(there were many other issues). I simply wasn't that athletic. After 30 reps, my shoulders were toast. My initial reaction was to build more strength. More strength would have maybe added a few reps, but it wasn't going to push my reps into a respectable range, i.e. double them.

As stated in other posts; In 2007, I abandoned all low rep strength training and focused on building my skills and other attributes with the primary KB Lifts. Where am I today? Well, last week I did 66 reps in 5 minutes with 2-16kg bells; This was not a max effort, i.e. I could have kept going albeit at a slower pace. I haven't trained double jerks in 4 or 5 months. The last time I did a 10 minute set, I believe I did close to 90 reps. I have a feeling that 100 reps in 10 min is doable now. I can also go a while with a pair of 20s. On a good day, I can still press the 32kg for a single. I don't quite have the pressing strength I had back when I did more pressing, yet I can do 2 times the amount of Jerks (and I weigh 35lbs less than I did in 2005).

During my Sunday Speech, I drew a parallel to grappling. When I started grappling (BJJ/Sambo) in 1999, I was pretty damn strong (300lb+ Backsquat/200lb Bench Press). I would rely on my strength when rolling and slowly realized that it wasn't about that. Sure, before I knew the techniques, strength would allow me to keep from getting tapped as quickly if I were rolling around with another novice. However, it didn't mean much when going against someone experienced. And as long as I relied on my strength, it kept me from developing the other attributes. When I learned to relax, became more flexible, and improved my technique (by learning to properly utilize my strength and flexibility), my performance drastically improved.

The argument will always be that more strength will not hurt you in your sport. I would propose that folks learn to properly utilize their existing strength by learning when and how to apply it in concert with all of the other attributes. What good are super strong legs for a 10 minute set if you haven't developed the speed and timing to get under the bells on a Jerk? Your legs won't be what fails you. It will be your shoulders and your arms.

What good is a great grip if you don't have the timing and quickness on the snatch for a crisp (stop on a dime) lockout? A good lockout ensures the bell lands in the right spot. If you are pacing yourself, this position is critical to utilize the skeletal system. That is the way we support the weight of the bell overhead; grip will get taxed overhead-not just on the downswing. This position is also critical for longevity since it builds shoulder stability.

Why do I say all of this? Because there are only 24 hours in a day. Most of us have jobs and limited time to train. If your goal is to improve your numbers in these lifts, then you may be spinning your wheels if you try to inject pure strength training into your regimen in hopes that it will be a silver bullet. For one thing, your CNS can only handle so much. If you are still trying to build the other attributes, that construction may be hampered by supplemental training (that may be unnecessary).

So, am I saying to not do it? No. What I'm saying is that you need to understand the role of it in the sport. You need to know if it is really what you need or if you are choosing to do it because it is what you like to do or because you are good at doing it and it makes you feel better about yourself :) Ultimately, if it keeps you from addressing your weaknesses, then I would say it shouldn't be in your regimen if your primary goal is to improve your numbers.

Now, if you've got very good technique and possess all the aforementioned attributes and you want to focus on maximal strength, knock yourself out as long as it doesn't set you back. Who knows, then it may be the thing that you need or at least a good mental break. However, most of us are not yet in that position. We are plenty strong. We are just slow or inflexible or both :)


optraining said...

How true. I'm a prime example of plenty of strength for the sport, but only okay numbers. Flexibility and relaxing are my best opponents.

Catherine Imes said...

I have a feeling your strength would rival and surpass in most cases any elite HW KB lifter. It still brings a smile to my face when I think about everyone in Hamburg trying to pick up that inch dumbbell!

Get those other two things in the bag (I know it ain't that easy), and you'll be right up there.


Paul said...

Very insightful post Cate.
In GS I don't think you need more than 30% more absolute strength than the minimum required to excel at the task at hand. Andrey K's story about lightweight 100 rep jerk guys who can't press 2x32s once...
CNS limits definitely put the brake on the ability to be great at everything. Specificity does rule after all!

Dan Cenidoza said...

Nice post Catherine. I have always appreciated your insights.

Anonymous said...

At 66 yrs. of age with designs on going into a competition sometime, I view your analysis as very savy and a great reminder that we mustn't delude ourselves into seeking far afield solutions when the answer is right under our nose when we take that brutally honest downward glance. You're a real trooper Cate. GOD Bless You.

Catherine Imes said...

Thanks and thanks for the additonal points!


Boris said...

Great stuff Catherine. Helps keep me on track!

Catherine Imes said...

Hey Thanks Boris.

See you in a few weeks (in Michigan!)


Phillip said...

Good post. I switched to GS Snatches for good last month and was still trying to do some heavy pressing. You are right - it is tough on the CNS.

BTW - thanks for showing me GS ropes last year.

Catherine Imes said...


Thanks. And thanks for stopping by Phillip.