Sports Reality
PERFORMANCE TRAINING AT ITS BEST Free Sports Performance Consultation

by Jeff Appel

Imagine if there were no barriers to strength attainment: we'd all be power cleaning 500, squatting 1000, and benching 600 in no time. But all fantasies aside, strength barriers are very real and extremely frustrating. A barrier can be defined as "any condition that makes it difficult to make progress or to achieve an objective."

Because we've all experienced barriers on most if not all of the lifts we've performed, it would be helpful to have a good grasp of what causes barriers in the first place. But to begin, here's an important question to ask yourself: When you fail or stall on a given lift, what exactly is the constraint?

As we see it, these constraints to strength development can exist in three primary categories: structural, functional, and psychological.

1. Structural Barriers: These include muscle mass (cross-sectional area), anthropometric relationships, bone, muscle, tendon and ligament biomechanical factors (stiffness, elasticity, sticking points, and strength).

Simply put, we're all stronger in certain lifts/angles and weaker in others. This is why a particular athlete can have a great deadlift but a horrible bench press by comparison. It's important to realize that structural barriers are intimately related to functional (neural) barriers. Through a wide array of proprioceptors (i.e. mechanoreceptors in ligaments, muscle spindles in muscle, and Golgi Tendon Organs in tendons), deficits in structure can alert the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) of potential threats or danger during any lift or sporting maneuver. With the exception of life-threatening instances, the response from your nervous system is usually some sort of reflex inhibition. In essence, your body puts the breaks on and shuts down your strength.

2. Functional Barriers: These are barriers dictated by your nervous system. They mostly involve inhibitory processes that decrease neural drive or activation of your muscle machinery – primarily to protect yourself from injury. Some of these barriers are actually hard-wired into our nervous system in the form of reflexes that have developed over thousands of years of surviving and evolving on this planet. As many experts have said in the past, our bodies are more concerned with survival than with building a perfect athletic machine. Therefore, understanding how our bodies' function can give us insight into circumventing the protective and defensive responses that we'd occasionally like to diminish.

3. Psychological Barriers: Limitations in this category are potentially the most difficult to overcome. It's been said that whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve. While this adage is not literally true, proper mindset is nevertheless crucially important for strength improvements. When the weights get heavy enough in a given lift, it can get a little freaky under that bar. Any method that can improve your confidence in performing the lift can help with breaking these mental/emotional barriers.

A lesson from track and field sprinters, one of the most frustrating phenomenon that occurs in sprinters is the development of a speed barrier. This basically means that the athlete adapts to the specific characteristics of the speed drill or event and locks in those parameters as the norm. Eventually, the speed barrier sets in and the athlete can no longer improve upon his or her times. In order to break this speed barrier, the athlete must slightly disrupt the stored characteristics of the barrier (i.e. space, time, and frequency characteristics).

Methods by which an athlete can exceed his or her current maximum speed include being pulled at a faster rate than normal which is referred to as over speed, running down a slight grade (approximately 3-5 °) or running with very light assistance to decrease the current best time by 0.2 or 0.3 seconds. Assisted techniques that provide greater forces than this will disrupt the spatial and temporal characteristics of the sprint, potentially teaching the athlete to "break" while on the ground.

Not only will this fail to break the speed barrier but it will actually slow the athlete down. Fortunately, improving strength (as a motor quality) is not as difficult as improving speed, but the message is still the same: too much training at the current maximum creates a pathway that eventually becomes a barrier to further improvement.

Remember, we're trying to avoid the same stimulus and stagnation in those neural pathways. Just as speed barriers are best improved by supramaximal or submaximal techniques, so are strength barriers.

Since most trainees have multiple barriers from each of the three categories listed above, it makes sense to find a training process that systematically over time, raises the thresholds of those barriers so that new PR's can consistently be made.

Only the rare genetic anomaly that seemingly has little to no structural, functional, or psychological barriers can make continued progress on a hard and heavy all the time workout program that would over train and burn out any other mortal.



In order for training to be effective, however, these higher bar speeds must be attempted against relatively heavy resistances. The problem with below sub maximal weight (40-60%) is the athlete decelerates the bar so it doesn't fly out of their hands or excessively distract their joints.

This type of training is sub-optimal and actually teaches your body to slow down, which results in less tension on the working muscle fibers. This is why Louie Simmons of the infamous Westside Barbell Club uses accommodating resistance (i.e. chains and bands) techniques when performing their dynamic effort work. The bands and the chains add more resistance to the end-range of motion, allowing for maximal acceleration to occur over a greater portion of the lift.



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