QUESTION

…The main thing between me and my dream of playing D1 football is my physical abilities when it comes to speed and agility. I am not slow (4.65 40 hand-time), but am definitely not where I want to be… I have done strength training since eight grade and am strong for my size (back squat of 350 and squat-clean of 242 @ 160 lb.), so I believe I have adequate strength “potential” to make athletic gains in terms of speed. What I am so curious about is your concept of periodization where an athlete stops lifting and does solely explosive work to essentially increase muscle speed (basic way of putting it). I’ve tried this for about a month now, and I definitely have gotten faster with only doing sprinting and plyometrics, but what I am confused about is how no body else does this… Do you know why no one seems to be training like this?

My speed coach, who is a very knowledgeable athletic coach, says I should be strength training always. What do you have to say about that? …Could you please explain why no one that I see has the method of non-lifting? …College football strength coaches have players lifting all year round. Why is that?

Lastly, is it possible to always be lifting and improve strength while training the explosive end of the spectrum as well? What if you only lifted explosively with as much neural drive as possible (no eccentrics or isometrics and with tons of rest)?

ANSWER

Let me answer your last question first.

We need to distinguish between different types of lifting. Let’s say strength training is relatively slow, heavy stuff. Squat, deadlift, lunges, hip hinges, 1-leg squats, etc. Explosive lifting like power clean, jump squats, hex bar jumps, etc we’ll call power. Squat clean is probably right on the line between the two categories.

You should always sprint. Should be low volume during a strength period, but you still sprint. However, that doesn’t mean it will actually change your abilities on that end of the spectrum while you’re doing consistent strength training. A beginner might be able to get stronger and more explosive at the same time, but not someone at your level. Strength training and sprinting is pulling your nervous system and your fiber types in two different directions. The hope is just that the sprinting prevents you from getting too slow during that period.

On the other hand power exercises are not the same kind of stimulus. It’s not like they count for nothing, but they do not slow you down or wear you out like strength training does. So yes, if it’s the right type of lifting (power) then you can lift and get more explosive at the same time. That’s actually what the peaking phase should look like in some situations. Some people cannot afford to abandon lifting altogether, and using explosive lifting to maintain power works well. So in your case, that might mean doing power clean twice per week to go along with your sprinting and plyos. You could use power clean as a measuring stick. As long as it’s not going down, you don’t need to be in a rush to get back to strength training. But if you’re just doing power, you’re not going to get stronger except maybe due to recovery from previous strength work.

The process is (1) get stronger while trying to maintain explosiveness, followed by (2) get explosive while trying to maintain power. But you can’t get stronger and more explosive at the same time at higher levels of athleticism.

As far as why this periodization strategy is not more widespread, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ll throw out some possible explanations in no particular order.

  • In college football, you have to consider that for a lot of positions adding size and preventing injury are probably valued at least as much as speed, if not more. If a linebacker comes in at 210 lbs with a 4.9 40, a strength coach is probably more concerned with adding 30 lbs to that player than with making his 40 faster. Even at speed positions, you have to consider the difference between speed in a 40 vs a 10-yd or a 5-10-5. You can argue that early acceleration and change of direction are more important, and strength is more directly tied to those things than a 40 time. Personally I think if a player’s 40 is faster, he’s a better athlete in general and will also be better at those other things. And I do think speed position players should utilize breaks from strength training at times and do track style speed training.
  • Football also just has a strength culture. Being strong is highly valued. Maybe too highly in some cases. In the track world, you definitely see more willing separation from strength training. Some people still don’t believe in lifting at all. Some acknowledge the gap between strength and speed and try to deal with it by using more specificity. And some do put together a good model that translates strength to speed. Maybe you need to get more info from people in track and field.
  • In strength and conditioning, there obviously are attempts at periodization. It’s not like people are totally unaware of the battle between strength and speed. What I was taught in college is to reduce lifting volume to allow for peak athletic performance. But to make up for the reduced volume, high intensity has to be used to maintain strength. So people have the right concept, but they just don’t take it far enough in my opinion with relatively strong athletes like yourself. Instead of low volume, high intensity, maybe it should be low volume and low intensity (like power), or maybe it should just be no volume. Fortunately I had stumbled upon the value of a break from lifting at a young age and then found Verkhoshansky’s material in college, so I never totally bought into the traditional S&C model.
  • People value research way too much. Research studies typically use a training stimulus for a relatively short period of time and report the immediate results of the averages across a group. There is no assessment of the individual force production characteristics of each subject, and there is no consideration of the time before and after the study. So the end conclusion is just “Training method X works or doesn’t work” or “Method X works better or worse than method Y.” Research doesn’t reach any where near the level of insight that we can get from coaching athletes over time. But it tends to be valued more highly, because it’s “scientific” and the authority in the academic world. Of course Verkhoshansky’s work showed the LTDE of strength training, but that was one guy in Russia several decades ago.
  • People in the field want to be valued. They want to believe that athletes need “training.” They tend to forget that playing the sport is training, and they might have a hard time acknowledging that some times athletes don’t need be doing a whole bunch of exercises outside of their sport. Especially a strength coach. Strength is in the title. Saying that athletes should take a break from lifting is like saying, “I don’t need to be employed for a few months.”
  • A lot of people just get tied to whatever works for them early on in their training career. If someone sees vertical increases from plyos, they tend to permanently believe in plyos and always chase those results they got at one time. A lot of people see dramatic improvements from strength training and get stuck always trying to replicate those early results.
  • People completely lose track of fatigue. When you lift for months on end, you tend to forget what it’s like to really be fresh. What used to be a down day now feels like a normal day. People end up operating at 90% instead of 100% and they don’t realize that if they would just take a break, their performance would go up across the board.
  • It’s very difficult to trust this process. People tend to think that if they stop lifting they will just get weak and lose athleticism. Believing that long term recovery will happen over time requires a bit of a leap of faith.