INTERVIEW: Tim Henriques on powerlifting

Tim Henriques

Tim Henriques (@TimMHenriques) was a Collegiate All-American Powerlifter and is the author of the book All About Powerlifting, which has been called The New Bible of Powerlifting.

Chris: Thanks for your time, Tim! Let’s jump straight in to the exciting stuff. Research suggests that one of the factors that drives strength gains is increased co-ordination, probably via the practice effect. To what extent do you think increased co-ordination plays a role in improving powerlifting performance?

Tim Henriques: I hugely agree that co-ordination, what I refer to as neuromuscular coordination (NMC), is crucial to strength. I drive this into my students’ heads all the time: the two most important factors in strength are neuromuscular coordination and muscle size (in that order). The good news is both of these things are changeable. We see this in real life all of the time. The biggest person (muscular wise) is not always the strongest, fastest, most powerful, best athlete, etc.

It is worth noting that there isn’t just one continuum of coordination for all people and you are either coordinated or not. It is activity specific. Michael Jordan was arguably the best basketball player ever and he may have had the best NMC for basketball related skills. He then tried to play baseball. He was good compared to normal people but he was not good compared to really good baseball players. I am reasonably coordinated in the powerlifts but it would be an error to assume because of that I am also reasonably coordinated in ballet, soccer, billiards or a host of other activities. This is where the principle of specificity comes in to play. Having a great motor pattern for one movement does not guarantee great movement for something requiring a different motor pattern.

To answer the second part of the question – I think NMC plays a gigantic role in powerlifting performance (as it does with essentially every sport) and you will have to put in serious training time to get close to your ultimate performance potential.

Chris: Indeed, I think the study of co-ordination is going to be a big area for research to look at in the future. What ways do you think we can structure workouts or training programs to maximize the gains that come from increasing co-ordination (e.g. frequency, volume, warm-ups, etc.)?

Tim Henriques: As referenced above, the two huge factors in strength are NMC and size. When most people workout they set up their training for size even if that isn’t their primary goal. Lifters know the adage – you go the gym, you break down your muscles, you rest, eat, sleep, and build them back up and they grow outside of the gym. That is fine for building size and one will of course build strength in that process. But if you want to maximize NMC then you will set up the workouts differently. Instead of thinking of it as “working out” or even “training” just think of it as “practice”. I am plenty strong enough to be good at shooting free throws in basketball, I don’t need more strength. I need more practice. And to learn this skill should I shoot free throws until my arms fall off on Monday, rest a week, and go back and do it again? Most likely no. It is better to work on perfecting my form, getting in a high volume of work, and stopping before fatigue really sets in as that can mess up the desired form.

For a more practical answer, to work on technique you want to train more frequently (2 or more times a week for most lifts), you want to keep the reps reasonably low (<8 and often in the 1-3 rep range), feel free to include more warm-up sets (maybe 4-6 warm-up sets for the main barbell lift of the day). The volume should start off moderate and then build up over time to become reasonably high. Adding sets is likely better than just adding weight. I am a big believer in what I call confidence building sets for those that need it (super advanced trainers usually don’t but certainly can still use them). Lift somewhere between 85-95% of your 1RM just for a single after your regular work sets. This keeps the body used to heavy weight and hopefully you smash that weight and build confidence for future heavy sets. More advanced lifters can perform doubles or repeats where you go back at the end of the workout and repeat the main lift, of course with much lighter weight. If you are so tired your form sucks don’t do this, but this can be a great way to add volume to a program. I believe that a big reason for Westside’s success was that the dynamic days, intended to improve power, really just were great “practice” days. I personally would think of them more as “technique” days than power days myself.

Chris: Do you recommend pursuing any types of recovery strategy for powerlifters (e.g. ice, compression garments, active recovery, extra light workouts) so that they can train more frequently?

Tim Henriques: I would not consider myself an expert on this topic but I do believe two things are very useful. Firstly, I think powerlifters should maintain a moderate base of aerobic fitness. This doesn’t mean you are dancing up and down with pink dumbbells for an hour, but you should be able to get through a challenging workout without getting that tired. I think walking is the ideal way to build up this base, walk at a brisk speed (3.5-4.5 mph) at an incline for 20-60 minutes a few times a week. Other conditioning tools like the prowler, sled, bodyweight exercises can certainly be included as well.

Secondly, I think that active recovery is usually better than passive recovery. Active recovery is when you do something to promote blood flow – walking once again works very well here so it really has a double impact. I also think it is great for general health so I am a big fan of walking, particularly as one gets older. Passive recovery is just sitting around watching Game of Thrones for hours on end – admittedly more fun but less ideal for recovery in most circumstances in my opinion.


Chris: Muscle mass is a major predictor of strength in any movement. But for natural trainees, there is a clear limit on how much muscle they can add. This leads to a couple of interesting questions. Firstly, should natural powerlifters focus on hypertrophy early in their lifting career?

Tim Henriques: Yes, I think they should although it is individual dependent. I would say one difference I see from the time I was coming up and now is that when I did it most people were influenced by the once a week bodybuilding splits (which is actually what the top powerlifters were doing as well) so there were a lot of pretty big guys but they weren’t as strong as they could be. Now I tend to see a lot of guys reasonably strong (say a 300lbs bench and a mid- 400lbs squat) that don’t really look like they lift – they put a T-shirt on and they look pretty normal. I do think for lifting – particularly powerlifting – to have optimal performance you need to be pretty big for your frame. This added muscle of course improves your ‘engine’, your ability to lift the weight, but it also improves joint stability just by packing the joint with additional tissue and this is very important for strength.

I like to use a very simply guideline when looking at this question on an individual level. Are you noticeably stronger than you look or are you not as strong as you look? If you are a lot stronger than you look it probably means your NMC is pretty good, you are using the tools you have available well, but you would likely benefit by increasing your muscle mass – adding horsepower to your engine. If you are not as strong as you look then you should likely train to learn how to use your muscles better – train to improve your NMC. That is a like a guy driving a corvette but still turning in crappy times at the track. He could go and boost the vette’s horsepower and he might do a tiny bit better, but in reality he should simply learn how to drive better and use what he already has more effectively. If you are big but comparatively weak this might be you.

As a side note, I think an exception to this rule is Olympic Lifting. I think you can get very good at Olympic lifting with adding much muscle mass (and sometimes additional mass is actually counterproductive to those lifts).

Chris: And secondly, should natural powerlifters change how they train once they reach their genetic limit for muscle mass? If so, how should they train once they have maximized their muscular potential?

Tim Henriques: After one has been training for a while, their rate of muscle gain is going to slow noticeably – this is the point of diminishing returns. It sucks but it is what it is. As you become more advanced you do need to modify how you train for the most part, although obviously lots of individual factors come into play. Chad Wesley Smith used what I thought was a good example here so I will simply repeat it instead of reinvent the wheel. He said look at your training like a pyramid. When you are a beginner you are at the base of the pyramid and almost everything you do will cause your strength to improve. As you progress you move up the pyramid and less and less assistance or auxiliary work will be effective for you. When you are really advanced you are likely just going to be spending time performing the main lifts and just a bare minimum assistance stuff that you feel is useful for you.

A few caveats to this statement. First you never really know what your natural genetic limit is so I am always hesitant using that term. I like to say the only way to know what your genetic limits are is to spend your life trying to find them. Second the max muscle you can carry is a dynamic thing based on age, hormones, total bodyweight, percentage bodyfat, etc. For example I usually walk around at about 200lbs give or take a few pounds. I had made it a lifetime goal to bench 400lbs but bench was always a struggle for me and I couldn’t figure out how to do it at that weight. I allowed myself to gain more fat, which in term allowed me to gain more muscle, and my bench went up noticeably. Adding 25lbs of mass (muscle and fat) put an extra 50lbs on my bench (which is 2lbs of strength per pound of bodyweight) and this was at a time when I had been lifting for a long time already and I wasn’t benching 2 x my bodyweight in the first place.

Lastly, even if you have been training for a while you might have a weak point muscle wise. For example I have been training a long time but I always found my triceps hard to hit and they lagged behind the rest of me, size and strength wise. If you have an area like that and you can find a way to add noticeable size to that area then that is probably a good idea. I am working on that as we speak…

Chris: Specificity has been demonstrated for many different aspects of strength, including the velocity of the movement. Despite this, high-velocity, low-load dynamic training has been popularised as an auxiliary method for powerlifting, possibly because it allows greater recruitment of high-threshold motor units at lower loads and may also increase RFD. To what extent do you think high-velocity, low-load training has a role in preparing for powerlifting?

Tim Henriques: This is an interesting question. First, I think we should clarify things a bit. I like to break all movements into 4 broad categories as follows based on speed and resistance used:

Category 1 – low speed, low resistance – this is a purely skill based movement (billiards, putting golf, painting, etc) and strength and power have essentially nothing to do with this ability.

Category 2 – high speed, low resistance – this would be throwing a punch, swinging a bat, a tee shot in golf, or pitching a baseball – this can be improved but this type of ability has little correlation with max strength or category 4 movements.

Category 3 – low speed, high resistance – here strength is king. This is simply lifting weights, powerlifting, tug of war, etc.

Category 4 – high speed, high resistance – this is the true definition of power. This is used in shot put, hammer throw, Olympic weight lifting, etc.

The reason I wanted to run through that is because when one says low load that concept needs to be clarified. Is low-load throwing a baseball or is it benching 70% of your 1RM as fast as possible? It makes a difference. I don’t think category 2 movements (true low load) and training that way would have much of a positive impact on one’s ability to lift weights (fast or slow). Think of the martial arts guy that can throw a decent punch but can’t bench 135 for one.

In contrast, category 4 movements involve high resistance and here is where the traditional dynamic training would fall. You are taking a lighter weight (but still heavy by our category definitions) and moving it as fast as possible. Light here is usually 40-75% of the 1RM.

Again I would ask a lifter to think about what their weakness is? Do they seem to be a slow lifter, the bar is just creeping along. Do they fail in the early phase of the press or the squat? Can they barely get the weight off the floor in deads? If yes then that lifter might be slow and I think the power work is more likely to beneficial for them. If the lifter is already explosive, if they fail more at the end of the ROM than in the beginning, then I think the power work will be less effective.

Even if we find out that generating lots of power with 60% of your 1RM doesn’t automatically mean you can generate lots of power with heavy weight in your hands, I still think this type of training can be useful because it is essentially extra practice. Speed or dynamic or technique training – whatever you want to call it – it tends not to beat the body up too bad and as you become stronger recovery becomes more of an issue. This allows you practice your technique (and it goes without saying that with submax weights technique should be good) so you get that extra volume in we were alluding to earlier. I don’t think true beginners really benefit from this type of training, they should just do more traditional moderate intensity workouts.

Chris: When interviewing other strength experts for your powerlifting book, were there any real surprises for you?

Tim Henriques: I don’t know if there was just one thing that blew me away – but 2 things certainly did stick out. One was that they all referenced at a certain level (unprompted by me) the importance of believing in yourself, believing you can do it. This sounds kind of catchy and cheesy at the same time but I think a lot of lifters put limits on themselves. You have to believe you can do it and believe in yourself. I personally feel that believing yourself can affect your own physiology. In short the body does what the brain tells it to do. Training should be set up to build this confidence, this belief. Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there that will be quick to shoot you down or impose limits on you. F the haters.

The second thing was that they all had to overcome some significant adversity to get to where they were. It wasn’t a quick success thing – they tried lifting, did it for a few years and were suddenly world champions. They pushed and pushed and pushed for a super long time. Jennifer Thompson, arguably the best female bench presser in the world (raw and pound for pound), started off and had a hard time benching 75 for 5. Now she can do 315 at 132, raw and drug free. With weights, unlike something like sprinting for example, you can start off pretty crappy and end up being really good. It just takes a lot of time, patience, hard work, consistency – and maybe some blood, sweat, and chalk.

Chris: The research regarding which type of periodization for improving strength is a bit conflicting. Do you have any strong preferences for how you periodise workouts leading up to a powerlifting meet? If so, what do you think they underlying drivers are for its success?

Tim Henriques: I like to break workouts into 3 very broad categories for a lifter: post-competition training, general strength training, and a peaking phase. Post-competition is just that, what you do after a meet. General strength training is where most lifters spend most of their training lives, and peaking is when you are 2-4 months out from a meet and your goal is to really maximize your potential for that one day.

There are tons of ways to peak, for sure. High frequency programs are popular now and they definitely work in the short term, I am not yet sold on their long term success. Low frequency or old school peaks like Ed Coan or Kirk Karworski used to follow can work too. I have used both with success. The number one thing I will do is I will think about a weight I want to hit in the meet. Let’s say someone has benched 365lbs in a meet and they want to set a PR? What is a good PR? 400lbs might be tempting to aim for but that is likely 2-3 meets away unless you hit on a great training cycle. 380lbs is more logical for a late intermediate or advanced lifter. Then you work backwards. How far away is the meet? Peaks are usually 6-12 weeks long. Then you simply create a program, a path so to speak, to walk yourself from where you are now to where you want to go. Here progressive overload, usually introduced in a weekly fashion, is key. The jumps should be small, logical, and sequential.

My final tip here (although the answer to this question to could easily be 20 pages long) is to start a bit light. Don’t assume your current bench is 365lbs just because you did that at your last meet, you might have peaked to hit that. Start off with something you know you can do, if you have an 8 week peaking plan and you fail somewhere on weeks 1-4 you are in serious trouble. I remember reading that Ed Coan would plan out his workouts and he would never miss a rep in his 12 week training cycle. People would be amazed at that but honestly that is how I would do it as well. I am not saying I have anywhere near the lifting ability of Ed Coan, I am simply saying that lower caliber lifters can indeed benefit from seeing how more advanced lifters plan it out and follow their lead. When I went and finally benched 400lbs I didn’t miss a rep in that training cycle and if memory serves I think I hit over 350 reps with more than 300lbs in that 10 week cycle.

Final final tip (I promise) – save a little something for the meet. That PR attempt should take place on the platform, not in the gym – unless your training is just going so great that you are hitting PR’s as a natural part of the cycle. I am proud to say that my best squat, my best bench, my best deadlift, my best curl – all were done in a competition under those standards. You don’t want to be a competitive lifter but be one of those guys that is talking about what they did in the gym because it is so much better than their best meet performance. When I started my career I was one of those guys as well. But that is like a field goal kicker bragging about knocking down a 65 yard kick in practice. That is nice and all, but nobody cares. Save your best lifts for the platform, where it really counts.

ChrisYou likely trained very hard and smart to achieve your state records in the deadlift and your Federation Championship Belt in the strict curl. There is a lot of training information out there about the deadlift but much less about the curl. What tips can you offer people if they wanted to train for a strict curl event?

Tim Henriques: I have a full chapter in my book devoted to nothing but strict curls! So read the book. But for a few key points, I will try to keep this simple. There is a big correlation between the size and strength of muscles that tend to work in more isolation, so if you want strong arms think about getting them bigger as well. Practice the strict curl – simply curl up against the wall. You will be amazed at how much harder it is. As a quick reference take 20% off of what you curl standing up, even if you perform standing curls strictly. I think curls respond best to once a week intense training, 12-20 sets total for the workout works well. Use an EZ bar, it will save your wrists and it is what is used in competition. Weigh the EZ bar on the scale in the gym so you know what it actually weighs, you might be surprised to find out how much it weighs. Follow rep range progression which means pick a range of reps you want to train in, say it is 6-10. Start with a certain weight, say 100lbs x 6. Add a rep a week and work up to the top of the range, in this case 10, keeping the weight the same. Then increase the weight by 5lbs and start over, back at 6 reps. Adding just 5 lbs makes a big difference in the curl so don’t make big jumps in weight in a competition, you will usually be disappointed. My favorite exercises to build the strict curl are as follows:

  • Strict curl
  • Power curl (standing curl with a slight, controlled swing to go heavier)
  • 1 arm dumbbell strict curl
  • Hammer curl
  • Wrist roller
  • Pull-ups, heavy rows, etc. can help as well

The strict curl is easy to perform, super easy to judge, and it is a lift that almost everyone can relate to because everybody does some form of curls in their workout. It is also fun if you still like the idea of competing and supporting the sport of powerlifting but you have an injury or two that prevents you from doing some of the other lifts.

ChrisThat was fantastic, thanks Tim! We really appreciate you taking so much time over all of these questions.

Tim Henriques is the Director for the National Personal Training Institute of VA/MD/DC, which is a school for people who want to become personal trainers. He was a Collegiate All-American Powerlifter and is the author of two books: All About Powerlifting and NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training

INTERVIEW: Jonathan Mike on eccentric training

Jonathan Mike

Chris Beardsley (@SandCResearch) interviews Jonathan Mike (@jmike125) about his recent article in the SCJ about eccentric training.

Chris: Jon, thanks so much for agreeing to do an interview about your recent eccentric training article in the SCJ (abstract).

Jonathan Mike: Chris, thank you so much for asking me to do an interview. I respect and appreciate the intense work and focus you put into your research reviews, which serves tremendous value and application to both the S&C and scientific communities. My eccentric article received extremely positive reviews from numerous trainers and coaches and I look forward to hearing from them more in the future.

Chris: You mention that all populations might derive some benefit from eccentric training. What do you think are the main drivers of this benefit? Is it the potential for training variety? Superior results to stretch-shortening cycle training? Or something else?

Jonathan Mike: The main drivers of eccentric training serve multiple purposes. In addition to training variety, it serves to promote excellent results to strength and hypertrophy, not only for both the trainee, athlete, S&C Coaches, but extends its applications and benefits for clinical patients involved in physical rehabilitation. Numerous adaptations have been reported in the literature in support of eccentric training and include heightened neural adaptations in response to eccentric training when compared with concentric training (i.e. spinal and cortical mechanisms; larger excitability and greater involvement of brain areas). In addition, the energy cost of eccentric exercise is comparably low, despite the high muscle force being generated. This adaptation alone is very appealing strategy for those wishing to gain additional strength and hypertrophy because of the fact that more volume can be performed without excessive fatigue.


Chris: Are there any specific populations who you think would be particularly recommended to use eccentric training? If so, why?

Jonathan Mike: Actually, all populations, including general population, athletes, and clinical populations can indeed derive benefit. However, there are no benefits that are strictly specific to one population over the other. Rather, the recommend use of eccentrics covers all subsets of populations. For example, because aging results in sarcopenia and age-related muscle loss, incorporating eccentrics is highly recommended as the ability to use higher external loads during the eccentric phase of a movement would enhance maximal strength. Considering eccentrics are known for its ability to improve muscle strength and power, it would also reduce their risk for falls and potential fracture risk (a common trait seen within the elderly populations).

Eccentric training is also associated with the known cross-education effect or the transfer of strength gains unilaterally from 1 limb/side to the other. Evidence just from this past year reported that protocols using cross education have been shown to successfully improve quadriceps strength in the limbs of healthy uninjured participants, although the exact mechanism has not been fully elucidated. With respect strength and conditioning, and power output, eccentric exercise training serves an important and critical role during the stretch-shortening cycle and has been shown to be an effective modality in increasing (explosive) muscle strength, muscle cross-sectional area, leading to increased sarcomere length, (although controversial).

Most of us just discuss the aspect of eccentrics for its application to strength training and conditioning, and the athletic and clinical population. However, it is further documented that eccentric exercise has successfully been explored in cancer survivors, in adults with metabolic disorders such as diabetes type 2, and in neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease in adults and cerebral palsy in children, and in rehabilitation after knee surgery, in particular, replacement surgery for ACL as well as knee arthroplasty. In term of eccentric exercise and its acute and chronic effects on healthy and diseased tendons, some evidence does suggest eccentrics as a first line of treatment for these conditions. Finally, the possibility for utilizing eccentric training and eccentric training modalities for NASA astronauts in space remains to be seen but is likely to transcend due to it’s effectiveness of adding and maintaining strength, and muscle mass, and functional strength, which is critical for space exploration.

Chris: There is some evidence for task-specificity in respect of muscle action. With that in mind, do you think that certain types of athlete will therefore benefit more from eccentric training than others?

Jonathan Mike: To preface this, from my experience, four of the most undervalued and overlooked training methods for athletes are deceleration, isometrics, aerobic development, and eccentrics. With that said, and since we are discussing eccentrics, all types of athletes will benefit from eccentrics. However, those athletes who may participate is high velocity sports, and that utilize change of direction (which are most sports) should be incorporating eccentrics into their program. For example, those recovering from a hamstring strain or ACL tear most certainly want to use eccentrics in their recovery, and for added strength. How does this apply to athletes that may or may not be injured?

With eccentrics, muscle absorbs energy developed by an external load. So, during an eccentric muscle action, the shock absorber-spring-component of the muscle tendon system contributes energy to the forces produced. This is particularly important during a variety of sporting movements such as downhill walking/running, landing mechanics, alpine skiing, countermovement jumps, sprinting, drop jumps, long and high jumping; all which require posterior chain strength, and degrees of deceleration, as many injuries occur during deceleration or change of direction. Therefore, incorporating eccentrics is definitely worth doing to reduce injury risk and injury prevention within sports.

Chris: Eccentric training is often associated with a greater risk of DOMS. Based on this, would you suggest a lower training frequency when incorporating eccentric exercises? Similarly, would that mean eccentric training was better suited to a body-part split than a full-body routine?

Jonathan Mike: It really all depends on how your current training program is set up to begin with, and whether or not you need a lower training frequency when using eccentrics. If you train with minimal eccentric emphasis, then add an eccentric emphasized exercise/or eccentric duration to an exercise, you may experience some DOMS the next day or two. However, it’s highly dependent on the overall volume used. For example, focusing on the eccentric portion during pull-ups for 4 sets of 8, with an eccentric duration of 3-4 seconds is no easy feat, and can be challenging for many, vs. eccentrics on the last set or two. The same concept applies to any other exercise.

There has only been 1 study to date that used a total body workout that each exercise was eccentric emphasized. While performing full-body session with an eccentric emphasis (1-second concentric and 3-second eccentric on all exercises) elevated Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) increased approximately 9% post-workout, and increased REE up to 72 hours post-exercise. However, the REE was likely caused by recovery and repair factors linked with DOMS, and muscle repair process and the energy costs associated with protein synthesis. With that said, I would experiment with both body-part splits and full body workouts. But on the whole, and although eccentrics produce more DOMS, I don’t think you need to lower your training frequency when doing eccentrics, unless your entire workout is heavily eccentric based for all exercises, then the recovery becomes an issue.

Chris: Do you think there are any specific recovery modalities that would help speed recover from eccentric training workouts?

Jonathan Mike: To date, there are no specific recovery modalities that would help speed recovery from eccentric training workouts. However, various recovery modalities have been addressed and are recommended from the literature that a wealth of trainers, coaches and lifters employ. These included protein supplementation, creatine supplementation, contrast showers, massage, foam rolling, quality sleep, Leucine supplementation, cold-water immersion, and some antioxidants. In addition, tracking recovery and the use of software programs has also become more popular including Omega-wave, bioforce, RPE, and heart rate variability. There is also the use of specific recovery questionnaires that can be used to monitor recovery for athletes.

Chris: You note that eccentric training may cause more EIMD in (a) upper body muscles, (b) fusiform muscles, and (c) type II muscle fiber areas. Do you interpret these findings to mean that eccentric training may lead to greater adaptations in these cases or, contrarily, that the higher EIMD risk may outweigh the potential benefits?

Jonathan Mike: From the available science, eccentrics do seem to affect the upper body musculature more than lower body. Fusiform muscles (i.e. biceps) having short fascicles that attach obliquely to a central tendon running the length of the muscle and are more susceptible to damage, along with a fiber type specific response to damage as well. It’s difficult to say if these will or can lead to greater adaptations mainly due to inter-individual variability in skeletal muscle fiber types among lifters, and athletes, differences in sports, training methods, morphological differences, and responses to muscle damage.

With respect to muscle damage, that is just one main contributing factor that helps facilitate muscle hypertrophy, along with time under tension, and metabolic stress. However, there are those who may be high responders to muscle damage, low responders, and no responders, which can impact responses to eccentric activity. It goes back to my previous statement that is all depends on how much volume you do for training, and whether or not eccentrics encompasses a large portion of your training. For the overwhelming majority of athletes and lifters, it does not, at least not purposely.

Chris: Do you really think there is a true reversal of the size principle occurring during eccentric muscle actions? I must confess to being very skeptical.

Jonathan Mike: Considering the increased strength and hypertrophy responses from eccentric training, and the fact you can produce greater force in amounts estimated to be 20–60% greater than force levels generated during concentric activities, I do believe (to an extent) there is a true reversal of the size principle during eccentric muscle actions. Although the overall evidence is fairly limited right now, the currently evidence does suggest this phenomenon. As an example, one of the various training technique used for eccentric training is supra-maximal training (i.e. 115-125% 1RM). During these contraction, type 2 motor units are called into play to contribute to force output, thus the heavier the load during eccentric activity, the likelihood of type II fibers are recruited to enhance force generation. However, although you may not completely recruit ALL type II fibers simultaneously, type II fibers are being recruited more. Of course, genetics, and training do play a role as well.

Chris: Do you have any other practical tips for incorporating eccentric training?

Jonathan Mike: As far as practical tips for incorporating eccentric training., if you are highly trained, then you can do a little more volume for eccentrics. Remember, the energy cost is less compared to concentric work so you can do more volume without accumulative fatigue. Second, if you are new(er) to eccentric activity, start conservative and begin with a single joint exercise, then progress to multi-joint movement like RDL, Glute-ham raise, single leg exercises, etc. You’ll likely find that some exercises elicit more damage or soreness than others so you will have to experiment. Third, some of the eccentric training techniques required additional spotters (i.e. supra-maximal technique) so this may impede training time or athletes training time if multiple spotters are needed. Fourth, for a given exercise that is eccentrically emphasized (i.e. 3-5 second duration for multiple sets, and reps), stick with this for 3-4 weeks or rotate out with a normal cadence and you will find that the transferability is very high. Yes, you are doing more overall “work” for eccentrics, but the payoff is is even bigger when you return to the same exercise but with a normal contraction rhythm.

Chris: Do you also see a role for concentric-only training in any circumstances?

Jonathan Mike: The role of concentric-only training does have benefits. In terms of training, there are numerous applications to where concentric-only is helpful, especially for in-season play where the maintenance of speed and power are critical. These included prowler pushes, and sled drags, medicine balls throws, and various strongman events including farmers walk, and yoke walk, where the eccentric portion is very limited. There are also applications to squats such as concentric-only squat (i.e. Anderson squats), and various upper and lower body movements. These concentric-only training approaches can be used to address weak points in ones training, add variety, and limit damage/soreness.

Chris: Great stuff. I’m a big fan of concentric-only work for the reasons you mention and the Anderson squat in particular. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jon!

Jonathan Mike (@jmike125) is currently completing his PhD in Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) and is a strength coach, writer, and strongman competitor. Find out more about Jon at the Strength Exchange.


INTERVIEW: Marília Coutinho on powerlifting and recovery

Marília Coutinho

Few people are as qualified to talk about strength as Marília Coutinho, PhD. Marília Coutinho is a world-record setting powerlifter, coach and author (connect on Facebook)

Chris: Marília, thanks so much for agreeing to do an interview. What areas of research (e.g. biomechanics, training, recovery, nutrition, etc.) have you found most useful for informing your knowledge of programming for powerlifting? 

Marília Coutinho: Training, no doubt. All the other areas of research are of extreme importance, but for me, both as a coach and as a writer, they were approached in the context of training research. For example: recovery is the big question mark for power and strength sports today. But what matters in recovery is how it affects training variables such as routine planning, periodization or exercise choice and order.

Biomechanics is the basis for programming any sport. However, without a training plan, a coach can’t even decide when to focus on technique (addressing biomechanical issues for that athlete). Biomechanics, thus, comes into programming once we understand when and how to focus on technique, which is informed by training research.

Chris: When programming for powerlifting, what mistakes do you see other people making that even a basic knowledge of exercise science would help prevent?

Marília Coutinho: There are too many to mention but I would say that the whole thing could be wrapped up in planning. Let’s first decide what is “basic knowledge of exercise science” for coaches (and wannabe coaches). How about principles of periodization? The principles are the same – what varies is the time frame (recovery for an intense stimulus in swimming, weightlifting and powerlifting are very different). Some basic knowledge about neuro-endocrine response? That would be good, too: one needs to know there is acute endocrine response and also inflammatory response to any stimulus. Other things that I consider basic are functional components of fitness, that every human being needs: cardio-respiratory conditioning, flexibility, mobility, proprioception, etc.

As regards mistakes: one of my favorites is the widespread notion that powerlifters don’t need cardio-respiratory conditioning. If this is a result of some misreading of concurrent training research (which indicates that high intensity endurance training impairs progress in strength and power sports), I believe we’re ten years into clarifying this item: that research was designed to show how the two forms of training, given equal emphasis and organized in sequence, would interfere with each other. What basic exercise science should inform is that any person (and powerlifters are human beings) needs a certain level of cardio-respiratory conditioning for the maintenance of health parameters. It actually speeds up recovery.

Another mistake manifests itself in the guru fads of pre-formatted training models, which beats any notion of biological individuality.

And I keep seeing people continuing to use high levels of intensity (Chris: i.e. percentage of 1RM) for the same lift, without even rotating exercise or type of stimulus, for much longer periods than a basic notion of super-compensation would recommend, and then be surprised by a catastrophic crash at the meet.

Finally, nutrition is where exercise science is most ignored. We still have many people that believe dieting is for “other sports”; powerlifters get strong by eating as much and as much trash as possible. This trend is improving though, especially with the new wave of lean, raw lifters who optimize for relative strength indicators. However, for some reason, a great number of people, certainly the majority of powerlifting fans, still have a poor understanding of relative strength. They still value the “big guys” with the “big numbers”, which is obviously something that doesn’t make any sense under any technical scrutiny. Maybe that’s where “the bigger, the better” myth comes from. I hope it dies as soon as possible.

Chris: Being realistic, acute trials of biomechanics are going to be the most common studies performed in powerlifters. Given that, what questions do you think researchers should explore that will help powerlifters most (raw and geared)? 

Marília Coutinho: I would like to get hard evidence for the unnerving discussion about head-neck-spine alignment on the squat and deadlift and mechanical advantage. This is getting to a point that it divides sects in the field, like religion. After all, why do all real high performance squatters and deadlifters fail to comply to the alignment hypothesis (it is not really a theory)? I see no hard evidence for this and I am one to believe that the instinctive cervical extension these athletes do may be related to stabilizing the trunk by favoring scapular adduction and depression. Scapular adduction and depression is basic to trunk stability and spinal neutrality throughout the gesture (or the many phases of the lift). That is one question that will be nice to have appropriately answered. I am skeptical about how appropriate it will be handled, though. A “sample” of high performance powerlifters is an applied mathematical challenge in sampling, to begin with.

This is just one of the subset of questions that will remain a methodological challenge for a while. How long, we don’t know: it depends on funding, internal intellectual movements in sports science, etc. Something easier to address and of greater relevance is the relation of anthropometric measures and performance variables, something already being pursued in weightlifting, for example. By relevant, I mean the researcher may be more persuasive in showing the applicability of his research, thus getting the necessary grants.

Chris: In a perfect world, what would researchers explore that would really move the sport of powerlifting forwards?

Marília Coutinho: It would certainly be research into recovery. By that, I mean an understanding of the mechanisms underlying super-compensation and inhibition at static strength intensities above 80% of 1RM. Before all the research into overtraining and overreaching led to a more realistic understanding that the phenomena involved were much more complex and varied, we thought about the strong inhibitory reactions in powerlifters in the context of sympathetic overtraining syndromes. That is a poor tool, in practical terms. Much more than an understanding of catastrophic burnouts in athletes, we need an understanding of the inhibitory (as well as super-compensatory) reaction to stimuli. Without such controlled research, we will continue to have a myriad of wild guesses concerning periodization and training intensity, which is the rule today for powerlifting.

Considering the last works of Fry’s group at the University of Kansas, I believe some of us expected research to move there, but it didn’t. Research into this subject is sparse and lacking strong guiding questions that would focus the scientific community’s attention.

We ended up with a question that most probably is a non-question: is it central or peripheral? The answer from research, 10 years ago, was that the weird phenomena we observed in powerlifting would be peripheral, contradicting the nickname powerlifters themselves coined to one of them: “Central Nervous System” overtraining. So, if our well known and feared CNS-overtraning is peripheral, than what is central?

The work of Purvis, whose subject is actually military training, suggests that the neurological mechanisms underlying whatever it is we relate to overtraining is not very well understood.

Without a proper understanding of inhibition and super-compensation in static strength, which is what powerlifters do, we are left with hints from here and there. We might, for example, follow Fry’s group’s lead and think of it as peripheral and focus our attention on the inflammatory load in each training session. We will periodize our athletes by inflammatory load. We might take another “hint” and focus on bar speed (as an extrapolation of movement speed in general, as suggested by research) as indicator of possible overreaching. Overreaching of what? What is being overreached? We have no idea.

The bottom line is: until we have solid research into the neuro-endocrine mechanisms underlying inhibition (and, to an extreme over-something) and super-compensation, we guess. Some coaches guess more wisely than others, but we all guess.

Chris: I have always been fascinated by how little we seem to know about fatigue, recovery, super-compensation (and therefore the function of periodization), so I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the great interview Marília!

Marília Coutinho, PhD is a powerlifter, coach and published author (website, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn). Marília majored in biology and took her PhD at the University of São Paulo, did her post-doc at Virginia Tech, and was a visiting professor at the University of Florida. She is 4 times powerlifting world champion and a world record holder.


INTERVIEW: John Mullen on swimming

John Mullen Swimming

Chris Beardsley (@SandCResearch) interviews John Mullen of Swimming Science (@swimmingscience) about the research into programming strength and conditioning for swimmers. 

Chris: Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview, John. What areas of research (e.g. biomechanics, training, recovery, nutrition, etc.) have you found most useful for programming strength and conditioning for swimming?

JM: All of these areas of research are extremely helpful for programming strength and conditioning for swimmers! However, unlike most other sports, biomechanics play a very large role in determining swimming performance. Therefore, understanding the unique range of motion (ROM) and strength requirements that drive optimal swimming biomechanics is most beneficial.

For example, it is very useful to know about the adaptive changes, including alterations in ROM, that occur in the shoulder throughout the long swimming season (often 11 months). Knowing what happens in this respect can help you program and protect against swimmer’s shoulder (shoulder impingement), which is a problem that runs rampant in the sport. Currently, it is thought that around 50 – 70% of swimmers will have shoulder pain at some point in their career, which is astonishing.

Another example that is less clear is ankle ROM. Historically, it was believed that greater ankle ROM might be important for swimming success (Mookerjee et al. 1995; McCullough et al. 2009; Beason, 2013). This factor is something that many strength and conditioning coaches have long worked on obtaining (Willems 2014). However, the most recent research indicates that this factor may well be negligible (Willems et al. 2014).

Finally, many coaches believe that the ability to display a large hip internal rotation angle allows the unique ROM that is needed for success in breaststroke. Unfortunately, little research has confirmed this and looked at what can be done to increase hip internal rotation ROM safely and effectively in swimmers.

Chris: When programming strength and conditioning for swimming or even swimming training in general, what mistakes do you see other people making that a better knowledge of exercise science would help prevent?

JM: There is a lack of knowledge in respect of both motor learning and energy systems. I often see energy systems being the main course of training in dryland training sessions, although swimmers already maximize their oxidative training in the pool. If a coach is performing more oxidative training on dryland, then this is increasing the risk of overtraining and impairing performance rather than enhancing performance. In swimming, swimming practice is the most important means for swimming improvement. This means that the strength and conditioning training must complement the swimming training, prevent injuries, and provide a means for improvement that doesn’t involve burning the candle from both ends.

Similarly, a common error during dryland training for swimmers is exacerbating overuse. Some coaches attempt to mimic swimming motions on land using specific machines (that are not really close to the movements in the water anyway) and this causes an increased risk of overuse injury to the shoulders.

Chris: Being realistic, swimmers are never going to get the kind of attention that other more popular sports are going to get. Given that, what questions do you think researchers should explore that will help swimmers most?

JM: Continual research on biomechanics of elite performers (especially during meets) would greatly benefit the sport of swimming. These studies could analyze the hip ROM and lumbopelvic motion utilized during breaststroke, as mentioned earlier. Also, it would be very helpful to understand the spinal ROM and lumbopelvic motion used during butterfly. Finally, it would be really interesting to understand better the biomechanics of shoulder movements in freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly, particularly in respect of the extent to which shoulder internal rotation occurs.

Also, it would be very useful to see longitudinal research into the effects of different resistance training programs for the various swimming specialists (sprinters, distance swimmers, etc.).

Chris: In a perfect world, what would researchers explore that would really move swimming (and S&C for swimming) forwards?

JM: For both swimming and strength and conditioning, as noted above, some longitudinal, randomized controlled trials would be great, as there is still much unknown about the effects (positive and negative) of different swimming program variables and strength and conditioning program variables on swimming performance. So, ideal studies would analyze different swimming programs (high intensity, low volume swimming and high volume, low intensity swimming) and also different strength and conditioning programs. In reality, most of the swimming research is limited in these respects on many levels.

Additionally, as noted above, it would be great to see some detailed biomechanical analyses of different dryland and swim-like resistance training (swimming rack or power tower). In actual fact, there is very little research in this area, so almost anything would be beneficial!

Chris: Thanks for your time, John.

Please make sure to follow John on Twitter or take time to visit his Swimming Science and COR websites!