The concept of hard work is the cornerstone of athletic culture. There are all kinds of motivational quotes such as “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, “no pain no gain,” or “pain is weakness leaving the body.” The grind and the suffering towards achieving your goals are heavily romanticized in our society. And that’s a good thing. Hard work is definitely the key to achieving any goal. But, we also know that working smarter can be more important than working harder.
Bruce Lee said it best, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Both strategies involve the same amount of effort with 10,000 kicks. An athlete who practices 10,000 things becomes a master of nothing. However, for one who has worked on perfecting one kick with 10,000 repetitions, that’s lethal.
There’s always the stigma that more is better, and more gives us better results: more repetitions, more volume, more practice, more results. Unfortunately, that mindset has led to poor programming choices that leave athletes more prone to injury and with no results to show for the extra effort. Athletes, coaches, and even strength and conditioning coaches often fall under this mistake. For example, three sets of 10 have become the standard for repetition volume for exercise. With the high volume, shorter rest breaks naturally occur. There’s no great reason to justify 3×10 for athletic performance from an exercise science perspective. For most folks, 3×10 feels like enough volume to produce their desired results. No reason; it just feels right. However, 3×10 in one exercise is best suited for hypertrophy or building muscle. Building bigger muscles is great and can be helpful for an athlete, but most of the time, it shouldn’t be the primary goal. Building muscle is typically early into the offseason goal. What really develops better athletes is strength and power.
Strength refers to just that: how strong you are. Big muscles do not necessarily translate to bigger strength. Performing three sets of 10 of everything can be good for getting bigger muscles, but it isn’t suitable for building strength. Low repetition, max or near max efforts do build strength. And to perform near max lifts, the reps have to be low, and the rest breaks need to be long and frequent. Famed strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline often says that strength is a skill. It is hard to develop skill under fatigue. You should feel refreshed and energized if you want to optimize skill development.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) states that strength training should be 1-6 reps, with 85% or greater loads of their one-rep max. Going beyond six reps develops either hypertrophy or endurance.
Power development is the other crucial aspect of developing a great athlete in the weight room. Power is the ability to exert a force over the shortest period of time. A max bench press is an excellent example of strength, but not power. A one-rep maximum lift usually moves very slow. Performing an 80% max bench press as fast as possible is an excellent example of power. How quickly you can displace an object in a short amount of time is essential to athletic development. Jump height, running velocity, throwing velocity, agility, acceleration, and deceleration are all great demonstrations of power. A 300lb lineman can demonstrate great strength but has relatively less running power than a faster safety.
To develop power, research at the NSCA shows that 1-5 reps of 75-90% of one-rep maxes are ideal for power development. That is nowhere near the typical prescriptions of 3 sets of 10 for most muscle groups.
Strength and power are the skills that create great athletes via the weight room. Bodybuilding and long, slow cardio protocols do not produce great athletes, though they are used a lot by well-meaning coaches and athletes.
“Rest long enough for you to forget about the last set.” -Dan John.
I highlighted reps and percentages to best build strength and power. Another thing that strength and power have in common is they require lots of rest. Strength cannot be properly demonstrated when the athlete is tired. Power certainly cannot be demonstrated when the athlete is tired. Training with fatigue means training with less power and less strength. We can’t have that. The only solution to this is more frequent and longer rest breaks.
If you train slowly and weakly, you’ll move slowly and weakly. If a pitcher wants to add velocity to his fastball, jogging six mph for an hour won’t help that. Becoming a faster sprinter, developing his vertical jump, and increasing bar speed in an 80% max deadlift will definitely contribute to increased velocity. Hard training but long rest breaks are very necessary for that.
Let the Athletes Decide
A study from Brazil showed that athletes performed better when they chose the amount of time used for rest breaks. The athletes consistently jumped higher when they rested until they felt ready, compared to the shorter amount of prescribed rest time in another trial.
This doesn’t mean that coaches need to back off and let athletes goof around until they feel like performing another set. Time in the weight room is usually limited, which needs to be respected. However, the solution shouldn’t be shorter rest breaks and more exercises. The opposite is true. Each sport and each athlete is different, with different skill developments required at different times, so strategies may need to vary. Coaches still need to coach, but it would be beneficial to allow athletes to take their time between lifts to get the most out of their training.
Typical workout programs for young athletes need to focus more on developing strength and power, which means fewer exercises and longer rest breaks. This is the best and most efficient way to build elite athletes via the weight room. It goes against the grain, but less is more when developing strong, powerful athletes.