In physical performance, there are certain factors within our control and others that are not. Environmental factors like the weather, lighting (visibility), temperature, ground and equipment conditions, etc. are not always under our control. Similarly, genetic factors like height or arm/leg length are determined before we are born. In training for performance coaches/trainers and athletes/trainees must focus on what is within our control, so we can better deal with what is not. That is how we can apply our own will in determining outcomes.
Take Control of What You Can
In order to take control in any specific situation (and life in general) we must first assess the situation objectively, identify the success factors we can control, then improve those to the highest level as quickly and efficiently as possible. The single greatest factor in athletic success is strength. Luckily for all of us, strength is trainable, and hence improvable. The first step for improvement lies in understanding what strength is and what it is not.
What Strength Is
It is essential to remember: all strength is initiated by neuromuscular stimulation. Strength is a neuromuscular phenomenon, and the Neuromuscular System (NS) is highly trainable. The purpose of getting stronger for sport is to develop the ability produce more external force, which is the foundation of success in all Ball, Combat, Strength (Weightlifting, Powerlifting), Track and Field sports, and just about anything else you do. Being physically stronger simply makes you better at everything.
Control of the neuromuscular system initiates in the motor cortex of the brain, so neurological strength improvement leads to not only physical but also mental improvements.
What Force Is
For practical purposes mass can be defined as the weight (KG or pounds) of the object. Acceleration is the rate at which the velocity (distance / time) of the object changes. Force is the product of the two.
Improving our strength allows us to apply more acceleration to a mass, or to move more mass with a given acceleration; thus making us more forceful. Mass can be a ball, bat, stick, barbell, glove (Boxing), opponent (MMA, Wresting), body weight (track and field, gymnastics), a shot, javelin, discus, etc. Obviously, to dominate you need to be forceful, but that is not the end of the strength story.
When we move our body or any external object the force developed is applied across a certain distance. The force multiplied by the distance tells us the work that was done.
Our capacity to do work refers to the physiological ability we know of as Endurance. Every sport requires at certain work capacity for success.
In many sports the central determinant is the amount of Power an athlete can display in the key movements. Power is the work done divided by the time it took to do it. For instance, the power of a punch determines whether your opponent gets knocked out or not in Boxing/MMA.
The bottom line here is that Strength is primarily an internal electrical phenomenon which allows the body to produce external Force, do work, and display power.
What strength is Not
Strength is not primarily a function of muscle size, but it is the function of the appropriate muscles powerfully contracted by effective nervous stimulation as stated above. Increasing the size of the cross-sectional area of muscle becomes a factor in producing greater strength only after the nervous system (NS) has been trained to a high level. Only after we have maximized the mechanical force capability of our body in its current state will an increase in muscle size will yeild a gain in strength.
If the NS has not been trained appropriately, then increasing muscle size will not increase strength. Increasing mass without a corresponding neural improvement will decrease relative strength and make the athlete slower; since he has more mass to move but his NS hasn’t been trained efficiently move it or use it. This excess mass will work as a drag.
The bottom line here is that you need to be able to optimally use the muscle mass you already have before adding more to the structure of the system. Look at it this way, would you try to drive a Ducatti at top speed before you could ride a bicycle?
Training Adaptation will always follow this pattern: neural improvement→structural improvement→ neural improvement→structural improvement… so it is best to structure your training program in a way that optimizes this natural process.
The Nervous System: Our Body’s Operating System
To better understand how the nervous system works, it helps to look at our body like a complex production factory. Our physical body is the mechanism; the physical and mechanical parts (muscles, bones, tendons, and joints) are what we use to interact with the external world. Our brain and the NS is our operating system; it controls the machine. The motor cortex is the part which specifically controls skeletal muscle.
The entire system is like an automated factory; with the brain as the main computer which stores and controls all the task information (directions and blueprints), the spinal cord acts as the Wifi router to send out and receive information for the brain, with the neural networks branching from it act like a Wi-Fi signal relaying the information to and from all the machines (the physical body) as they complete the physical tasks. Through the Wi-Fi (neural networks) all the machines (muscles) give instantaneous feedback to the computer (brain) and to each other about the status of the project (movement), so the project is corrected in real-time.
In the case of athletes, the project is a sport task: throwing, hitting, punching, sprinting, diving, squatting, deadlifting, pressing etc. If in an automated factory the Wi-Fi signal is weak, the factory will not perform well. It will not produce. Our body is the same if we have not trained the NS appropriately. The brain and the neural networks simply can’t make use of muscle efficiently to produce much force. This is why some athletes can’t throw or hit hard.
The basis of all physical movement is intra- and inter-muscular coordination. Developing an optimal neural firing pattern for a given task is what is required for a successful performance. Barbell training is most efficient at training the neurological system to produce high levels of force, work, and raw power. Once the raw ability to produce these quantities in high levels is attained, it can be effectively transmutated into sport specific fitness with specific sport training and practice. Understanding this foundational principle is mandatory for effective strength/performance program design.