Why Athletes Should Lift Like Powerlifters

STACK Expert Travis Hansen argues against the principle of training for specificity.

Note: This is an excerpt from Travis Hansen's Speed Encyclopedia.

Strength training is simply enhancing the body's ability to develop more force in movement. For most athletes, this style of training is also the missing link for getting faster. Very rarely do I witness athletes lifting hard and heavy like they should, especially enough to increase speed.

No one, and I mean no one, embodies this approach better than a powerlifter. Yes, you read that right.

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To clarify, powerlifters gear their programs and approach around improving three core lifts: Bench Press, Deadlift and Squat. That's it. Other exercises are involved of course, but everything they do is centered on performance in those three exercises.

I'm pretty certain that many readers are rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and quite possibly shouting obscenities, since heavy weightlifting is automatically associated with injury and extreme fear from the general public.

Fair enough.

I used to perceive powerlifting the same way until I realized my own ignorance and learned more about the unprecedented value it provides to an athlete. We should credit this culture for their philosophy.

Put simply, an athlete not training heavy is weaker, slower, unhealthier, and less capable and athletic in competition. Period.

There are generally two primary reasons why coaches, athletes, trainers and parents dismiss this type of training, regardless of their sport. The first is injury risk. That is a fair assumption since many people do get injured at some point in the training process. I've been there.

However, if your program design and technique are where they should be, this should not be a problem. The risk of injury can be dramatically reduced.

Many studies have measured the rate of injuries associated with weight training compared with the rate in other sports. For example, a study published in the November/December 2001 issue of The Journal of American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons cited research showing that in children ages 5 to 14 years, the number of injuries from bicycling was almost 400 percent greater than the number of injuries from weightlifting. There's more.

In a review paper on resistance training for prepubescent and adolescent athletes published in 2002 in Strength and Conditioning Coach, author Mark Shillington reported in a screening of sports-related injuries in school-aged children that resistance training was the likely cause of only 0.7 percent of injuries, compared with 19 percent for football and 15 percent for baseball.

The truth is that weight training and competitive lifting sports are among the safest activities an athlete can participate in.

The next concern that coaches and others have with powerlifting or lifting heavy weights is "specificity." They feel that squatting and deadlifting have no bearing whatsoever on whether an athlete can run faster or perform sport‐specific movements better.

But wait. Everyone believes in stretching, and that is not specific to the act of sprinting, right? Again, I understand this perspective and that many fear heavy weightlifting—or they are simply ignorant—but the fact of the matter is that movements do not have to always be exactly the same to translate and benefit one another.

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Powerlifting and speed training are no exception. Let me pose this question before I get into the science. Why does nearly every legitimate Division I football program integrate heavy weightlifting into its off‐season programs, and why are these guys consistently the fastest people in sport outside of sprinters—who also use heavy weightlifting?

Of course, it gets them stronger, but if you were to ask unbiased, informed and objective athletes and coaches, I am sure they would tell you that it helps make them much faster as well.

A large majority of speed development systems completely disregard heavy weightlifting, and it's at the expense of each and every athlete entering that program who is looking to get faster. It also re-embeds the long-held notion that speed cannot be taught, learned, or improved that much, when it definitely can.

To help refute this commonly held misperception, we need to introduce and consider three unique functions of muscles in the human body to better appreciate what "non‐specific" training exercises can bring to the table.

  1. Muscle can move in multiple directions.
  2. Muscles move through large ranges of motion.
  3. Muscles move through a variety of joint angles.

This is extremely important information in refuting always being "training specific" in the context of developing speed, and even other areas of training. I will provide specific evidence, but contrary to popular belief, the fact is that the muscles we use when deadlifting or squatting are the same ones we call upon when we run sprints of all distances.

To reinforce this notion, below is a series of EMG reports for what would typically be known as "different" movements. Please note that all muscles in the body are active in these movements, but I'm only going to share the results of the lower body, since it is the main driver in sprinting.

Back Squat

Research in 2002 found that "as squat depth got deeper, the gluteus maximus becomes more active during the concentric contraction phase of the lift. Muscular contribution shifts from the biceps femoris, vastus medialis and lateralis to the gluteus maximus. This suggests that the gluteus maximus is the prime mover during the concentric phase of the Squat, and the other muscles play a secondary role." What this study found is that the hips, and especially the glutes, are more active than the quads in a Back Squat movement performed correctly.

Conventional Deadlift

A 2002 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found the majority of muscle activity was in the quadriceps and gluteus maximus when greater knee flexion angles were present, whereas the hamstrings were dominant with less knee flexion during the Deadlift.

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Vertical Jump

A study conducted in 2011 analyzed the activity of various muscles in the Squat, Deadlift and Vertical Jump. The results indicated that the hips, and primarily the glutes, were the prime movers in the Vertical Jump. I could not find specifics as to how dominant they were, but other authorities have cited the glutes and the hamstrings as contributing up to 60 percent in the vertical jump pattern.

Sprinting

A study in 1995 used EMG testing to see the various skeletal muscle activity levels at the knee and hip during sprinting. Researchers concluded that the muscles mainly responsible for forward propulsion in full speed sprinting are the hamstrings, the gluteus maximus and the adductor longus. The hamstrings were singled out as the most important contributors to producing the highest level of speed.

So now you can clearly see how powerful your hips are in movement, and the strong relationship between many movements of the lower body. With all of this in mind, increasing strength potential in these muscles through now arguably labeled non‐specific exercises like Deadlifts and Squats can allow you to effectively drive more force into the ground and run faster since these muscle groups will be much stronger.

The third similarity that powerlifting and sprinting share is the structural likeness that each type of athlete generally possesses, specifically when it comes to fast-twitch muscle fibers.

My last argument has to do with the value of "vertical force" in squatting, deadlifting and sprinting. You saw earlier the importance of  vertical force production for speed. Squatting and deadlifting produce horizontal force, just not as much. It sounds ridiculous, because when we sprint, we seem to be moving almost purely in the horizontal direction, and our moving mass is definitely traveling in this direction. But there is still some vertical-based force assisting us.

Hence, a Squat or Deadlift, which can only be achieved through powerlifting, are the two exercises that allow us to develop the most of a certain type of directional force necessary to run faster.

A 2012 study in The International Journal of Sports Medicine identified the three fastest men in the world. Usain Bolt exhibited far more vertical force than either of his top two competitors: Osafa Powell and Tyson Gay.

Speed has traditionally been viewed as a skill your parents either gave you or didn't, and that is all there is to it. Pretty simple, but far too simple. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that most athletes are born and then made through hard work over time.

Don't start to believe that strength is the sole factor in accomplishing blazing speed. It's simply one of the primary factors, along with power and speed training and other secondary training methods that help get the job done.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: FOOTBALL | WEIGHTLIFTING | SPEED TRAINING | COACH | LIFTS | SPRINTER | VERTICAL JUMP | POWERLIFTING | SPRINTING