The triphasic training method was created out of a revelation I had in the fall of 2003. At the time, I had two track and field athletes—throwers—who had me perplexed. One of them (let’s call him Ben) was a potential world-class thrower. He could throw the shot over 65 feet. The other, Tommy, was an average thrower who had trouble breaking 55 feet. Oddly enough, they were about equally strong in the weight room. Nothing explained why Ben was so good and Tommy struggled.
To find some answers, I decided to test their Bench Press using a force plate. The graph below (Figure 1) shows the results recorded by the force plate. The x-axis (horizontal axis) depicts time in hundredths of a second. The y-axis (vertical axis) represents power in watts. In essence, the graph is showing how much force each athlete absorbed and displaced in a given amount of time.
Ben’s rep is shown by the dark blue line, Tommy’s by the red line. The actual repetitions are taking place during the V-shaped segment of the lines in the middle of the graph. The descending line of the V is the eccentric (downward) phase of the Bench Press. The bottom point of the V is the isometric or static phase, and the line ascending from the bottom on up is the concentric (pressing) phase.
Figure 1: Ben vs. Tommy
As soon as I saw the graphical printout, I realized what separated Ben and Tommy. Although the two athletes could produce the same amount of maximal force in the Bench Press (each had a 415-pound 1RM), Ben could absorb more force eccentrically at a higher velocity. The graph (Figure 1) shows that Ben was able to load up his muscles with more energy to use concentrically, enabling him to accelerate the bar faster than Tommy and produce more power. In throwing, this means Ben could store more energy in his muscles during the stretch of his windup, thus applying more force to the shot before it left his hand than Tommy could. When Ben’s shot left his hand, it was powered by a jet engine. When Tommy’s shot left his hand, it was powered by a propeller.
You have just learned the key to improving sport performance in every athlete. It isn’t about who is the strongest, although many athletes and coaches incorrectly believe this to be the case. The key to improved sport performance is producing more force in less time. This results when an athlete can absorb more force eccentrically, which allows him to apply higher levels of concentric force in less time. In other words, the athlete who has the narrowest “V” wins every time. It’s all about the V, baby!
Many traditional training methods teach athletes how to expel energy; little time and effort are spent teaching them to absorb it. That is the entire point of the triphasic method—learning how to eccentrically and isometrically absorb energy before applying it in explosive dynamic movements. Athletes aren’t powerlifters. They must be strong, but only to the extent that it can benefit them in their sport. Every dynamic human movement has a limited amount of time in which the mover can produce as much force as possible. Ben was a world-class thrower because he could generate more explosive strength (defined as maximal force in minimal time) in the time it took to throw a shot.
Most training methods focus on the development of explosive strength by emphasizing the concentric phase of dynamic movement. My epiphany in 2003 was that we were approaching the development of force from the wrong angle. The key to improved force production, and thus sport performance, doesn’t lie in the concentric phase. To develop explosive strength, you must train the eccentric and isometric phases of dynamic movements at a level equal to that of the concentric phase.
Look at the original printout again in Figure 1. Imagine the graph as depicting the same athlete at different times during his or her development. The lines are the same athlete, but one shows the results of an athlete developed using triphasic training and the other in the early stages of development. Your new goal as a strength and conditioning coach or athlete is to narrow that V as much as possible.
In future articles of this four-part series, I will expand upon triphasic training. For more great training tips, check out Triphasic Training: A systematic approach to elite speed and explosive strength performance.