“Citius, Altius, Fortius” - "Faster, Higher, Stronger"
"Citius, Altius, Fortius” - "Faster, Higher, Stronger"
‘Strength,’ ‘power’ and ‘speed’ are three terms which most fighters and trainers believe they understand yet it is incredibly common for a misunderstanding of these concepts to result in fundamental defects in training and programme design. Moreover, without a complete grasp of them it is incredibly easy for a fighter or trainer’s entire conditioning philosophy to be drastically flawed.
Before defining each of these terms, it is necessary to develop an understanding of some key concepts.
Time to develop force
In order for a person to develop their maximum force (i.e. an expression of maximum strength) takes time; most people require around 0.3-0.4secs. When we consider many sporting movements take far less time than this it should become evident that one’s opportunities to develop and utilise huge forces is actually quite limited. Picture two scenarios; in scenario a) you are standing in front of a wall and pushing against it as hard as you can, in scenario b) Usain Bolt is sprinting past you and as he passes by you attempt to push him in the back as hard as you can. In which scenario are you able to develop the most force? In the first scenario the wall isn’t going anywhere and hence you have infinite time to develop force, in the second Usain’s moving at such a rate away from you that you get practically no time to develop any force. The same applies to finger flicking. If you perform a Subbuteo style finger flick, i.e. without utilising the opposing thumb (see pic 1), the force generated is low as you have very little time to develop force (~0.1s). If however the opposing thumb is used (see pic 2), the individual has as much time as they need to develop maximum force and then they can quickly remove the thumb in a ‘quick release’ fashion, unleashing a powerful flick taking advantage of the maximum force previously developed and stored. This leads us to the next key concept.
Our ability to develop force is dependent upon the resistance to movement of the object we are attempting to move
In the Usain Bolt example above, clearly Usain’s resistance to being moved is very low as he’s actually trying to move himself in that direction as quickly as possible. Hence we have very little time to generate force and thus the magnitude of force developed is low as discussed. Often in sport, though, we are attempting to move an inanimate object such as a barbell, a shot put, a javelin etc. In the fighting world we may be attempting to move an arm and gloved fist whilst punching, a leg whilst kicking or someone’s entire body perhaps whilst throwing a suplex in amateur wrestling or MMA. When discussing the application of force to objects it becomes clear that the direction of force application has huge implication to that object’s resistance to being moved. If we attempt to move it horizontally its resistance to movement is provided by something called its ‘inertia.’ If, however, we try and move it vertically, we are attempting to overcome gravitational force plus its inertia. Either way, the object’s mass in kilograms is the key determinant of resistance to being moved. Imagine throwing a punch versus putting a shot; essentially the two movements are very similar but clearly they feel very different. A 7.26kg shot putt has far greater mass than the gloved fist and as such we can apply far more pure force to the shot putt, the trade off, however, is that we are able to move the shot more slowly than we can throw the gloved fist. Russian strength expert Vladimir Zatsiorski suggests that when throwing a javelin or putting a shot you have roughly 0.15-0.18secs to develop maximum force; it is probably fair to assume a similar or even lower number for throwing a punch. Think about it this way, until sufficient force is developed to move the object, the muscular contraction is isometric (static). With a heavier object, more force must be developed before it will move and hence this takes far more time, bringing you closer to 0.3-0.4secs.
The Force-Velocity curve
The shot putt vs. punch and the Usain Bolt examples highlight, then, that the greater the speed of movement the less time we have to develop force and thus our strength at higher velocities (speeds) is lower. As is highlighted further down, strength is usually defined in terms of maximums but clearly strength can only truly be defined in relation to the speed at which it is applied. Thus an individual’s ability to develop force will be specific to the speed at which it is being applied. Incidentally, as we will discover, strength at speed is what we also term ‘power.’
So for every individual we can draw a curve which graphs their ability to develop force at various speeds. A powerlifter, who trains purely to lift maximum weights with no regard for speed of movement, has great ability to generate huge forces at incredibly slow speeds but would be very limited in their ability to bring about quick, explosive movement. A javelin thrower, on the other hand, trains just to apply as much force as possible, and as quickly as possible, to a relatively light object (a javelin weighs either 0.6 or 0.8kg). We discussed earlier that it takes time to generate maximum force and an object which is hard to move, i.e. an object of greater mass, gives us more time to apply force, so a javelin thrower’s sole goal must be to train to enhance their ability to bring on force as quickly as possible. If they can reduce the time it takes them to bring on a particular force by even a fraction of a fraction of a second, they will be able to throw the javelin further. By definition, these two example show that these abilities are trainable and as such we can clearly alter our own personal force/velocity curves with training.
Clearly throwing a punch is far more akin to throwing a javelin than to lifting 450kg. So it begs the question why do so many fighters train far more like powerlifters or bodybuilders? Train slow, be slow. The futility of this approach is further explained by the next key concept.
Explosive strength deficit
Clearly, then, if in 0.3-0.4s someone is able to develop their maximum potential force, but in a particular sporting movement they have far less time than this to develop it, i.e. in throwing a punch, clearly a deficit exists here. The graphs below illustrates this.
The difference or deficit between the maximum force we could develop and the force we are able to develop during the explosive movement, e.g. a punch, is what we term the ‘explosive strength deficit’ (ESD). As the resistance/weight of the object decreases and time available to apply/develop force becomes shorter, the difference between the force we are able to generate in the movement and the maximum force we could develop with unlimited time, the ESD, becomes greater. Clearly, the ESD is a measure of what percentage of their total strength potential a fighter is using when explosively throwing a punch. Evidently the percentage will be quite low and ESD large for all of the reasons previously discussed. This begs the question, if the fighter, when throwing a punch or kick, can never even get anywhere near to the maximum force they could develop under optimal conditions why do so many fighters spend so much of their time lifting heavy weights slowly? This is a training method far more akin to that of a powerlifter, i.e. an athlete whose sole objective is to lift a maximum weight and whose explosive strength deficit is practically zero. We have also already seen the impact of this style of training on the force-velocity curve. The importance of ESD can be seen in the sport of weightlifting. A number of the greatest powerlifters of all time have tried their hand at weightlifting. Regardless of being some of the strongest men that ever lived, they were not the most powerful and did not make the best weightlifters. The ESD in the sport rendered their huge maximum strength moot.
The impact of momentum
Whilst not vital to this discussion, an understanding of momentum throws up some interesting discussion topics. Momentum can be calculated as MASS x VELOCITY and thus if we have a cricket ball moving at 40m/s with a mass of 0.15kg, it has momentum of 40 x 0.15 = 6(kg*m)/s. In essence, it is the momentum of a punch or kick that does damage. Here’s an interesting thought regarding momentum. Imagine we have two athletes, one performs a jump squat with a relatively light weight, e.g. 20% of their maximum squat weight, say 40kg, whilst the other physically squats their maximum of 200kg. We know that in the first example the athlete would leave the floor, i.e. they have developed a significant amount of momentum because, although the mass was only moderate, the speed they were able to generate was incredibly high. In the second example, they are forced to move slowly and thus, although mass is large, velocity is almost zero and momentum is therefore also almost zero.
Imagine both of these moving bars hitting you underneath the jaw. Regardless of the force being applied to the bar in the maximum squat it would do very little, if any, damage because the velocity, and thus momentum, is very low. This surely shows the importance speed of delivery, and power and momentum in combat sports, and its superiority over pure strength.
When throwing a punch, the initial force applied by the body to the gloved fist is to give it momentum. It is during this, very short, stationary period, that the most force can be applied. Once the gloved fist is in motion and has speed, and therefore momentum, the ability of the muscles to apply further force (think the relationship between force and velocity diminishes. As such, throughout this time, muscular effort is simply to top up this velocity and momentum and send that gloved fist, loaded with momentum, crashing devastatingly into the opponent’s skull. One last thinking point; what is the role of the boxing glove and is it safer than a small MMA glove or bare fist? Answer, the boxing glove is designed to protect the hand of the puncher. The greater mass/weight of the boxing glove actually increases the momentum and thus the ability of the glove to cause trauma to the brain. A bare fist or light glove may lead to breaking of the skin but is far less likely to cause brain trauma.
With all of this borne in mind we can now end this discussion by defining the terms mentioned in the first paragraph:
There exist many different definitions of strength and indeed many different types but for the purposes of our discussion here, we can define strength as:
The ability to generate absolute maximum external force. In practice our level of pure strength is the weight we are able to lift once only.
Powerlifters have the highest level of pure strength of any athlete.
Hence we can talk about our strength as an ability to develop maximum force. Yet, taking into account everything discussed above, speaking as a scientist strength can only truly be defined in relation to the speed at which it is being applied. Someone can be ‘strong’ at a low speed, e.g. a powerlifter, but ‘weak’ at a high speed. The shot putter or javelin thrower is strong at high speed.
The most effective way to develop pure strength is to lift very heavy weights for few repetitions, perhaps 1-5 only. One must, as noted, question the relevance of too much of this type of training to a striking combat athlete. To a wrestler/grappler who often applies force basically statically for relatively long periods, it is clearly more relevant. Why? Because they have time to develop maximum force in their sport.
Speed or velocity is simply the rate of movement, i.e. how quickly an object would get from A to B at the rate it is moving at any given instant. We have discussed to importance of speed to momentum and thus punching and kicking power, as well as the negative potential impact of pure strength upon speed (remember the shift of the force-velocity curve with powerlifting style training). Every combat athlete and coach is surely aware of the importance of limb speed in striking arts. People often ask, “will weight training make me slow?” The answer, “slow weight training will make you slow, fast or explosive resistance training will make you fast and explosive.”
Power is the product of force applied and the speed at which is being applied. It can be calculated using the equation:
Power = Force x Velocity
High levels of power allow an athlete to develop a huge amount of force, very quickly. We can say that their rate of force development is high. More force brought on in a quicker time means greater velocity and thus greater momentum for the gloved fist or kicking foot and resulting greater damage to your opponent.
As long as an object is being moved, clearly it involves development of power. Some velocity will always result in some power. Thus even in a slow squat, power is generated, just nowhere near as much as in the very forceful and very fast Olympic weightlifting manoeuvres. At the same time, greater power output is seen in the shot putt and this should emphasise the huge impact of speed/velocity on power. What it should also emphasise is that to lump all ‘power’ in together is crazy. Thus the Russians speak in terms of ‘strength-speed’ (e.g. power developed by a weightlifter attempting a maximum clean and jerk) and ‘speed-strength’ (e.g. a shot putt, javelin throw or punch). ‘Strength-speed’ or ‘speed-strength’ can therefore be developed using training methods similar to the examples given. Traditionally athletes spent more time on developing ‘strength-speed’ away from competition and more time developing ‘speed-strength’ as the competition approached.
The above discussion is actually very basic, one only has to pick up a copy of SUPERTRAINING by Mel Siff to grasp just how complex ‘strength’ actually is. What it should do, though, is make you sit-up and realise that development of sport specific strength and power is about far more than just lifting heavy weights like a bodybuilder or powerlifter. You should now understand the futility and potentially damaging impact of this style of training upon a striking combat athlete as well as also grasping the potential benefits of explosive lifting and ballistic training.