Inexpensive (almost free) techniques to improve your strength and power.
We often fall prey to the idea that it is necessary that a gadget be expensive for it to help us improve our strength and/or power. If something is expensive, we tend to assume that it must be worth the money.
Unfortunately, many expensive gadgets tend to be little more than lipstick on a pig. They will contribute little or nothing to your performance that could not be obtained at a tiny fraction of the price. You can get the same (or better) results from drastically lower cost solutions.
I say this as a lead in to discussing how you can make some serious progress on building your strength using a device most of you already have in your closet. I refer to the humble broom handle.
Dont own a broom? For the high-tech techniques Ill discuss below you can also substitute: 1) a mop handle; 2) a rake handle; 3) PVC pipe. If you want the gold-plated solution, buy a inch wooden dowel.
The techniques Ill discuss below are the type of things you can regularly incorporate into your training for decades. They will help you build strength throughout your career.
If these tricks are that good then why doesnt everyone use them?
As will be no surprise to most of you, IMHO the vast majority of people training in a gym have only the vaguest idea of what they are doing and how it relates to making any progress. They perform exercises by rote and assume that somehow the results they desire will appear.
If you have any experience trying to build strength, you are aware of the following:
- Maximum strength involves training the brain to activate as many muscle groups as possible.
- Useful strength is expressed during compound movements. (eg. athletic movements).
- Training for strength requires mental focus and precise execution of the movement.
- Building strength requires progressive overload training.
All of us practice versions of progressive overload work. This is most of the work we do in any workout session.
However, we often ignore specifically training the brain to put out maximum force in a coordinated manner. We try to do our heavy reps with the best technique we can, but rarely spend time refining the small details of our lifts.
Over time we become satisfied with lifts that are 90% perfect. We forget that there is still more we could do.
This is where reviving an ancient (1950s) practice may come to our aid. Performing perfect repetitions slowly with no weight on the bar.
The fundamental idea (developed in Soviet Sports Science) is that you must be able to perform a perfect movement without any weight if you are going to do a perfect movement with weight on the bar.
Incorporating this approach of perfecting technique using broomsticks and dowels, Soviet weightlifters dominated Olympic sports for decades. Before PEDs arrived on the scene, the skill level of Soviet bloc lifters gave them a significant edge.
These days most lifters will tend to try to use momentum to get through heavy lifts. The assumption seems to be that somehow it is possible to do an excellent lift only when you have weight on the bar.
Elite coaches always pay close attention to building perfect technique. Since most of us do not have regular access to elite coaches, using unweighted broom handles can be a huge asset in making our technique as good as possible.
Even if you have access to an elite coach, the unweighted bar can be a way to deal with a particularly bothersome flaw in your own lifting technique. Each of us is a biomechanically different and we can use unweighted moves to solve our own unique problems.
Example 1: The Squat
Place your unweighted bar on your shoulders for a regular power squat. Descend very slowly into the deep position. Keep all your muscles tensed at maximum level throughout. At each point in the lift do an assessment of:
- Any muscles that are not activated
- Your body position, back angle, and foot positions
- Any place in the lift where you struggle with flexibility.
- Any place where you move incorrectly: example come out of the bottom by first raising your hips.
Work through a minimum of five reps that you do at a slow tempo. See if you make the same technique errors on each lift. If so, begin consciously working on changing your technique. If you cannot correct your lifting flaws without weight on the bar, you will not be able to do it when dealing with any load.
Remember, you are training your brain to both do the movement (squat) perfectly and put out full power. You should aim to activate every muscle in your body on the unweighted reps the same as if you were doing a personal max. If you have relaxed muscle groups with no weight, you will have the same muscle groups relaxed (or minimally involved) when you squat with heavy weight.
Begin doing your unweighted reps at a slow tempo. Gradually build up to a faster tempo until you are moving at the same pace you would with a heavy load. This again trains your brain to put out full power and do so with excellent technique.
Example 2: Power Clean
One of the best lifts to build explosive power is the power clean. However, the technique used is often atrocious. Unweighted training is perfect to help develop the coordinated power and speed you need to do an excellent power clean.
Power cleans are done explosively at high speed. The key in doing unweighted training is to ensure that your technique is perfect before beginning to train at normal speed with light weights.
Begin by doing very slow reps. Check the positioning of your body, feet, elbows, trunk, etc. You may discover that you have some very bad habits. They can be corrected using the broom handle before you start using weight.
Gradually pick up the speed of your lift. When you can do it at full speed with perfect technique without weight, it is time to begin using light weights and continue the process of perfect execution building a correct neuromuscular program in your brain.
How to use in your regular workout
Making changes in long established neuromuscular patterns takes time and a lot of repetition. We all know that continuing practice of correct moves is necessary to prevent reverting to bad habits when the lifts get heavy.
My recommendation is that you do this practice as part of your warmup for each of your key lifts. Do this over many months and gradually you will have perfect technique with both the weighted and unweighted versions of each lift.
Remember that if you continue to practice incorrect (sub-optimal) movement patterns, you will perfect your mistakes. Your mantra should be perfect practice makes perfect.
Improving your technique and muscle activation has a potential to add pounds to each of your lifts. Just how much improvement will depend on individual differences. Suffice to say, this approach is a relatively easy way to put some more pounds on your total.