Thick-Bar Training for Strength
Q: I’m in a rut in my strength development. I need to get my power clean scores up. I will be tested by my college, and I need to up my numbers. Any new tricks?
A: One of my strength-coaching colleagues told me that in the early ’70s, during a press conference prior to a Russia-vs.-U.S. wrestling competition, someone mentioned that the American wrestler in the 165-pound-bodyweight class could bench-press 365 pounds—quite a remarkable accomplishment at the time, especially for a nonpowerlifter. Athletes weren’t using the elaborate equipment they have today, which can add hundreds of pounds to a raw performance. The Russian counterpart responded by producing two pairs of pliers and proceeded to squeeze them so hard that they snapped. After the match the defeated U.S. wrestler commented that when the Russian grabbed his arms, he felt as if they were locked in a vise and that he immediately began to lose sensation in his arms and hands. Again, the U.S. wrestler was certainly much stronger than the Russian from a weightlifting standpoint, but the Russian had achieved a remarkable degree of functional strength for his sport.
In every facility that I’m asked to help design, I insist that the owners purchase calibrated, thick-handled barbells and dumbbells. It’s important not to sacrifice quality for price. I say that because I know that several companies now offer thick barbells, but to keep the price down, those bars usually don’t rotate. Essentially, all you’re getting is a large metal pipe. Without the rotation, you can put considerable stress on your elbows and wrists. That discourages many athletes from using the bars. For the best thick bars that rotate and even hold Olympic plates, I recommend checking out Grace Fitness (www.GraceFitness.com).
One problem many strength coaches have is with inferring practical information from sciences such as motor learning. Not surprisingly, the themes of many seminars in strength training deal with “bridging the gap” between science and biophysical application.
Post-tetanic potentiation, or PTP, is a motor-learning concept that Roger M. Enoka defines in his remarkable textbook Neuromechanical Basis of Kinesiology. He writes: “The magnitude of the twitch force is extremely variable and depends on the activation history of the muscle. A twitch elicited in a resting muscle does not represent the maximal twitch. Rather, twitch force is maximal following a brief tetanus [a condition of prolonged or repeatedly induced muscle contraction]; this effect is known as post-tetanic potentiation of twitch force.” What that means is that a more powerful muscular contraction can be achieved if the contraction is preceded by a strong muscular contraction.
Now let me show you how to apply PTP to Olympic lifting. For a female lifter it’s not necessary to use the thick-handled barbells to get the effect. Two types of barbells are used in weightlifting competition. The one for men is slightly larger in diameter than the women’s—28 vs. 25 millimeters. A woman’s hands are generally smaller than a man’s, and a larger-diameter barbell would be more difficult for women to grip, reducing the amount of weight they could lift due to poor mechanical leverage. When gripping the barbell, lifters often use a hook grip, which consists of wrapping the fingers over the thumb. With a larger barbell there’s less surface area on the thumb to supply leverage for the fingers. On the other hand, lifting the thicker bar activates more motor units.
It should also be noted that weightlifters can often lift more weight using straps—usually material that wraps around the wrists and the barbell—suggesting that the strength of the grip can be a limiting factor in performance of the sport.
Since the grip is so important, it would be a good strategy to finish off a workout with a few sets of thick-handled upright rows or by using protocols I’ve described in other articles on the subject. I’d like to introduce another method, however, that adheres more closely to the principle of specificity of training.