How to get more from your gym session?

January may be nearing an end but that’s no excuse to ditch that New Year’s resolution of sticking at the gym.

Many people hit a plateau in the gym and try as they might, they never seem able to break through or increase a certain lift or weight. That’s where using ‘full acceleration’ exercises can help you reach new personal bests and break through previous barriers.

Traditional gym exercises that are used to build strength, such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, push press, are normally carried-out at a slow movement speed. However, if there is a heavy load on the bar, this slows the movement of the bar resulting in a low power output, which is calculated by multiplying the weight by the speed of the lift.

If the athlete decides to use a lighter weight to move the bar quicker, then this must be accompanied by a large deceleration phase in the latter half of the movement. This deceleration is needed in order to stop the muscles and tendons literally being torn of the bone at the end of the lift. For example, when bench pressing a 100kg, most people would have to move the bar at a slowish controlled speed. If the weight was dropped to 40 kg, the bar can then fly up on the concentric/positive phase, but would have to seriously decelerate at the end range of the lift. Effectively then, you are training the body to decelerate and not accelerate. This is not what most athletes require to fulfil their roles in enhancing power output.

So if heavy weights don’t contribute to power, and lighter weights cause deceleration, what is the solution? The answer is to incorporate special resistance exercises, which include full acceleration and faster movement velocities. These type of exercises need to be added into strength programmes with the objective of increasing power output and acceleration.

Exercises for Developing More Power

At this stage it may be worth noting that an athlete should only seek to enhance power training methods once he/she has a solid 4-5 year training age and a good general strength base. This will entail full acceleration exercises, which rely on high movement velocities to yield high power outputs. Choosing the initial exercises for developing power is simple. In a way it is a throwback to the older more traditional ballistic exercises, such as medicine ball throws and jumps using only bodyweight as resistance.

These simple ballistic exercises are very effective in improving power in moderately experienced athletes. They are easy to learn from a technical point of view, and they lay the foundation for effective learning of the more difficult power exercises that follow.
As the athlete learns how to use his/her body in more explosive powerful manner, and their body adapts to the demands, the introduction of more power oriented exercises such as jump squats and bench throws can be safely introduced. Sports scientists tell us that a resistance of 30-45 % of your 1 rep max is optimum to get the real benefit of these exercises. The guide is that no more than 6 reps should be completed with 90 seconds recovery.

The table below lists types of ‘strength’ exercises and ‘power’ exercises. The simplest way to differentiate between the two is that if the exercise entails acceleration throughout the entire range of movement, it is classified as a power exercise.

Using Power Bands and Chains to Increase Power Output

Most elite power lifters use power bands or chains to provide variable resistance when they lift. The bands or chains are attached to the bar and the resistance increases during the exercise as the chains come off the floor or the bands stretch. A simple example is the bench press, when the barbell is lowered to the chest, the chains are furled on the floor and only provide minimal resistance. As the barbell is lifted, the chains unfurl and steadily increase resistance throughout the range of motion. This is also the case for all other lifts such as deadlifts, squats, power shrugs etc. Using this method means a lighter resistance can be lifted explosively and the additional resistance provided by bands or chains allows the athlete to attempt to accelerate the bar throughout the lift. Remember that acceleration lasts longer into the range of motion and a higher force is generated late in the movement. A research study in Australia showed that band and chain training increase bar velocity in almost any type of exercise.

Bench Press
Push Up
Military Press
Single Arm Jammer

Jump Squat
Bench Throw
Power Push Up
Barbell Throw
Barbell Catch and Throw

In exercises such as squats, bench press and deadlifts, using a 17.5kg chain draped over the bar increases the concentric/positive (pushing the weight) velocity by 10 %  compared to normal protocols. The chains especially increased the eccentric/ negative (lowering the weight) velocity, due to the constant tension exerted on  the bar from the links of the chain. Chain and band training improves the lifting explosiveness by increasing the activity of the stretch-shortening cycle. The chains/ bands increase the velocity of the bar in both the concentric and eccentric phases of the lift, which causes increased stretching in the muscles being worked.

It is a great way to get more bang for your buck, and if you are looking to become more powerful in the gym, then get onto the chain gang.

Written by Mike McGurn

Mike McGurn is an International Strength and Conditioning Coach and has worked in professional sport for over 20 years. He has worked with teams such as the All Blacks, National Fitness Coach to the Ireland Rugby Team, Hull City, Everton, Leeds United, Ospreys Rugby. Mike is also brand ambassador for Under Armour and Bio-Synergy.