Whether you are a ter, weightlifter, or other power athlete, teaching your body how to express its strength at the right moment is paramount to your athletic success.
That is why improving your body’s rate of force development is so important. Maximal strength development has a place in the training cycle, but if you do not hone your capabilities of developing force at the appropriate times the maximal gains in strength will not be properly employed for your athletic endeavor be it , weightlifting, sprinting, etc…
For the purposes of this article, we will examine the rate of force development through the lens of weightlifting i.e. the snatch, clean, and jerk, but the principles outlined can be applied to any sport where power development is crucial to performance.
To improve the rate at which you can produce force, employ the following framework:
Position –> Activation –> Repetition
Any athletic endeavor is all about angles. Joint angles, that is. When an athlete puts his or her body into optimal positions, performances improve.
Chart taken from A.S. Medvedyev A System of Multi-Year Training in Weightlifting.
In the figure above, these are the optimal “average” joint angles in both the clean and snatch. (*Note different arm, leg, and torso lengths have a profound effect upon optimal positioning. These numbers are simply averages.) Notice, in the third figurine above the lower leg is vertical. It is at this angle that the athlete can generate the largest amount of force. (Zatsiorsky, Kraemer. Science and Practice of Strength Training, p 39)
One of the simplest things you can do as a weightlifter to find the appropriate position to get the most force into the barbell is to practice lift offs with either a snatch or a clean grip. This allows you to practice the first pull of your lifts without without the added layers of complexity which you would encounter should you do the full lift. Be sure to perform this movement slowly and deliberately. The bar speed is not as important. In fact, if you move the barbell from the floor too quickly you will most likely be out of optimal position and not be able to generate as much force into the bar at the right moment.
*Key points to remember:
- Slower and more deliberate pull off the floor.
- Tight upper and lower back. The back angle remains the same from the floor to above the knee.
Once you have started to get a feel for finding your hamstrings and setting yourself up in a good position, it’s time to learn when and how to turn on the most amount of force. The second pull (from the knee to the hip i.e. the “finish”) is where the rubber meets the road. Once the bar passes the knee, the load must be accelerated quickly, with the most speed happening at the mid thigh.
While this may seem like a simple task to do, there are three steps that must be done in the following sequence and at the right moment to put the most force possible into the bar.
1. Flex your lats. The big wing like muscles (latissimus dorsi) that run from your upper back down to your lumbar spine are essential for not only keeping your lower back engaged and protected, but also guiding the bar to the correct point of contact on your hips/thighs (depending on if you are cleaning or snatching.) As the bar travels up the thigh during the second pull, the lats should be constantly engaged. However, right at the moment the bar is about to meet the power position, flex your lats and swoop the bar close to your body. This will prep for step two.
2. Punch your feet through the floor. This is simply a pointer toward fully extending the knees and the hips forcefully. When the bar is in the power position, it is time to GO! While full extension must happen quickly, bear in mind that this is no substitute for punching as HARD as you can. Many beginning lifters make the mistake of shorting their second pulls, thinking that they need to get under the bar fast. Rush the second pull and you cheat yourself out of a lot of power you could have used to make the bar float weightlessly for a longer time, allowing you a better chance of getting under the bar.
3. Shrug. Hard. In my experience, cueing the shrug of the shoulders to an athlete is one way to solve the problem of a short second pull. Try and shrug a weighted bar too early before the hips and knees have fully extended. Weird, right? A good old fashioned hard shrug of the shoulders is a good way to cue full extension.
A great way to learn this sequence of activation and to tone down the complexity of a lift from the floor is to lift from blocks. Blocks are valuable training tools. For starters, they place less strain on the body as the distance the bar has to travel is shorter and therefore the time under tension is less. Second, blocks reduce the complexity of lift. Going from the floor involves lots of moving parts. Hitting lifts from the blocks allows you to focus on a portion of the lift. In this case, the portion most important towards the rate of force development.
It’s a pretty simple truth: The more opportunities you have to practice a skill the better you become. If you are at a point in your training cycle where you are looking to improve your rate of force development over your maximal strength, intensity (i.e. amount of weight lifted) is less important than positions and timing. I recommend loads of no more than 80% of your 1 RM Clean and Snatch during this stage in your training and trying to stick with blocks for long stretches in your training cycles (3-4 weeks or until you get comfortable with sequencing). Stacking bars with heavy loads (90% or greater of 1 RM) and looking to hit personal records is not the goal. By working with loads around 80% you really focus on the timing and positioning that is required to eventually help you lift HEAVIER. So check your ego at the front desk, be patient, and focus on dialing in your positioning and activation. You’ll thank me once the PRs start melting the barbell!