Using the slow lifts to improve the fast lifts
Patrick Dale explains the benefits of complex training.
One of the characteristics of many workouts is the inclusion of the so-called "fast lifts", e.g. the clean, the snatch and the jerk. These exercises require high degrees of skill, power, and flexibility and when we consider the possible consequences of a missed lift, courage! Improvement in these fast lifts is often frustratingly slow and moving up in weight may take months of repeated efforts until we feel ready to up the load and attempt the next level. There is a method you can utilize in your training that will give you an almost immediate increase in the fast lifts allowing you to make a week's worth of improvements today. Elite Eastern bloc athletes have long utilized this method as a "plateau buster" - a way of promoting progression in athletes who are experiencing stagnation in their training.
Much of strength training is neurological. We all have muscles and a nervous system. If the two systems are working uncoordinated, we will only be able to demonstrate modest feats of strength and power at best. However, if we can synchronize these two systems, we can enjoy the fruits of their synergy and show much greater degrees of strength than usual.
Local muscular hypertrophy (size) plays a part in maximal force generation. Still, a small muscled person can outperform a large muscled person if the smaller person has had sufficient neurological training (consider bodybuilders versus weightlifters as a good example.) Before I explain how this method works, we first need to explore the neuromuscular system to understand how and why we can use it to our advantage.
Muscles are made up of many muscle fibres, which are organized in bundles. We have heaps of bundles of yet more bundles all wrapped up in a final outer layer called a fascia. These fibres are grouped into motor units - a group of fibres, which work together in pools. The amount of strength we can generate is dictated by the number of motor units we recruit for any given task. If I were going to lift a water bottle that weighed 500 grams, I would recruit only a small number of motor units, whereas if I wanted to lift a weight of around 50 kgs. I would recruit many more motor units for the task.
This is the basis of the "all or nothing law" which states that muscle fibres either work to 100% of their contractile ability or not at all - it is only the number of fibres recruited which varies from task to task.
Most of us will have experienced the all or nothing law going a bit wrong and it is "going a bit wrong" that we want to utilize in our yet to be mentioned training method. Picture this - you are moving to a new house, and you are filling boxes to load into the removal van boxes of heavy books, pots, pans, some bedding and all that sort of thing. You are down to the last box, and you know it is going to be a heavy one - full of books. Therefore, you psyche yourself up and approach the box. With a neutral spine and tensed abdominals, you stand over it, squat down, take a firm grip on it, heave it up, and you find it flies up. Someone swapped your heavy box of books for a box of pillows, and your neuromuscular system was fooled into recruiting too many motor units for the job. Now, if only we could do this at will
It just so happens we can, and that is the basis of this method of training. Its technical name is neuromuscular synaptic facilitation, which we will re-name complex training. Complex training is a method where we will attempt to trick the body into recruiting more motor units that are needed, which will allow us to demonstrate greater power than is normally possible. Fast lifts utilize lighter loads when compared to slow lifts - this makes sense because a light load will move fast and have a greater velocity than a load of great magnitude. Power is strength performed at speed, so it is essential the load for the fast lifts permits maximal acceleration. Strength, on the other hand, is maximal force production without any concern for velocity. In complex training, we are going to use both loading parameters to maximize force production at speed, i.e. power.
In the gym
Decide on the fast lift you want to train - let us say for this example the power clean. Think of a slow lift, which utilizes similar movement patterns to the fast lift, and you want to improve - in this case, the bent-legged deadlift.
Load up the bar close to your 1RM (repetition max) for the deadlift and perform a good solid repetition - having warmed up appropriately beforehand. This should be a safe attempt - in other words, there should be no doubt you will make the lift, but it should still be fairly challenging.
While resting for 2 to 3 minutes, set up the weight required for your power clean. On completion of the allotted rest period, perform the power clean. Do not be surprised if you nearly launch it over your head, as it feels so light! You may even manage multiple reps with a weight that would normally be your 1RM. So - what happened? Your neuromuscular system was expecting a massive heavy load because of the "feeder" set done a few moments ago. However, you reduced the load and the nervous system overcompensated and allowed you to recruit more motor units in synchronization than normal and the result for you - a new personal best. Many combinations can be used in complex training - here are a few to get you started.
Remember the slow lift is performed for one good rep at close to 1RM, then rest 2-3 minutes before doing the fast lift. The fast lift could be performed as a 1RM attempt or multiple reps as training dictates. Is a general guideline, only perform around three sets of a similar pairing; otherwise fatigue will set in and be detrimental to the performance of maximal power. In conclusion, complex training gives us a useful tool for making progress in the fast lifts. Still, because of the high degree of loading used in the preceding slow lift, it should only be used by those who are advanced enough to withstand the rigours of this type of training.
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About the Author
Patrick Dale has 15 years of fitness industry experience. He has a wide and varied sporting history, having participated at a high level in athletics, rugby, rock climbing, trampolining, triathlon, weightlifting and bodybuilding.