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New Tech in The World of Strength and Conditioning (Part 2)

In the first part of this piece we talked about the importance of monitoring athletes’ stress response and sleep quality. Now we turn to the workouts themselves and how Notre Dame is utilizing new tech to maximize results.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The first part of this article can be found here.

Knowledge is Power

Notre Dame in now using a product called EliteForm to measure the power generated by each rep of a movement.

At Notre Dame, touchscreen tablets latched to a line of weight racks measure progress—both in the technological sense and the conditioning sense. EliteForm was established in 2012 and it arrived in South Bend in early ’14. The essence of performance has not changed over nearly three decades, in Longo’s estimation: It is about force production into the ground—what your legs and core put in determines what propels you forward or upward. EliteForm, by calculating bar speed and weight and translating that into watts produced, allows Longo and his staff to get their most accurate measurement of the player’s force.

Power is a pretty simple concept. Basically, it’s the measure of the distance a given mass is moved over a period of time. To illustrate, let’s use the basic squat as an example. Distance is how far the weight is moved so in our example, it is the vertical length between the level of the bar when the lifter stands erect and the level of the bar when he is in his deepest squat. The mass is simply the weight of the loaded bar (gravity plays a role here but we won’t talk about that right now). Finally, the time is the amount of time it takes to complete one repetition.

Power

Now you might be saying, "Young, who cares about all this power nonsense? After all, if I load up 315lbs on the bar and my buddy is loading up 300lbs and we’re both doing the same number of sets and reps, aren’t I clearly coming out on top?" Well not exactly. Let’s say you take 1.5 seconds to complete your rep at 315lbs while your buddy did his in 1s. That would mean you generated 42 Watts of power on your lift while he generated 135 Watts! For those of you checking my math, understand that I converted both weights in pounds to kilograms, used 1meter squared as a distance and cubed the time since those are terms of the derived equation.

You’re probably saying now, perhaps a bit more emphatically, "Young, that’s some fancy maths right there, but how does that translate to football?" Well, simply put, in football power is everything. It doesn’t matter how much you can load up in the gym, that’s just a measure of force, not power. What matters is how much weight you can move over a distance and how quickly. Think of an offensive lineman. He needs to be able bring all his force to bear at the snap. He doesn’t have time to labor up to his maximum load or else the defensive lineman will have pushed him back deep into the pocket. If the offensive lineman can generate more power in the confined space in which he's working, then he can move that load (the defensive lineman) some distance downfield.

Power is important on the field, but it’s also important in the gym. Since football players come in all shapes and sizes, it’s necessary to scale each lift to each individual. For example, nobody in their right mind would expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to put up the same numbers on the squat rack. We don’t fault Will for that, but we do need a way to quantify his performance and ensure that he is maximizing his smaller frame’s output. We do that by calculating the power he generates when moving an appropriate-sized load, just like we did in the example above. This allows the training staff to understand his progress in terms that translate to the football field.

Building the Power Plant

There are lots of methods and programs out there for developing power. At the core of the more reputable ones are foundational exercises referred to as the Olympic lifts. These lifts include the squat, the bench press, the overhead press, the deadlift, cleans, and countless variations on each of these. In my mind there are two primary reasons why these lifts are so effective at building power, along with size and overall strength.

First, they all promote the use of heavier loads. The heavier the load, the greater the mass moved; the greater the mass moved, the larger the numerator will be in our power equation, therefore more power. Generally, these exercises are done for low reps with high weight, but that can vary, particularly if the athlete is training for endurance. All of these movements can be performed with more weight because they utilize multiple muscle groups to stabilize the weight and take it through a full range of motion. As such, they are referred to as compound exercises. This idea brings us to our second point.

Football, like all sports, is a total-body endeavor. No single muscle is ever used in isolation. Since the players are demanding that all of their muscle groups need to work together in-game, in makes sense that they would train them together in the gym. By doing compound lifts, the athlete develops balance between the various muscle groups so that they can work together seamlessly. This has a major impact on power. In this case, imagine trying to throw a ball from your knees versus throwing while on your feet. On your knees, you cannot stabilize to your liking, neither can you engage your legs, and thus you can’t generate the same power in your throw.

Now apply that to any other movement. For example, when you work your chest on a machine, the machine stabilizes the weight for you, allowing you to isolate your pectorals and work them really hard. When you are bench pressing, on the other hand, you need to engage your abs, shoulders, and back just to stabilize the weight before you can start working your chest. It’s this later exercise that promotes power in real-world scenarios because when you need to bring force to bear, you don’t have the benefit of a machine stabilizing your body. If you’ve been benching, then you will have the strong stabilizers to concentrate and direct your force with significant power. If you have been just doing machines, it would be like throwing from you knees. This is why football players focus on these compound lifts, because they allow them to generate maximal force at the point of impact and sustain it in a controlled manner throughout an entire motion. 

Conclusion

I apologize for the length of this post, but I think it was important to lay out some of nitty-gritty of how we think about strength and what methods we use to achieve those goals. As I said in the first article, I’m glad ND has taken a more cerebral approach to the weight-lifting game and I hope the results will be noticeable on the filed this fall. Again, I’ll try to answer any questions that come up in the comments, so feel free to fire away!