Is Max Strength As Important As We Think?

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Strength is a quality that is often times either praised as the solution to everything or it is seen as something coaches devote too much time to when they could be focusing on other, more important, aspects of performance. We all see arguments for and against maximal strength ranging from “training slow will make you slow” to “it isn’t necessary or appropriate for [insert sport] athletes to lift heavy”. I believe some of these objections to be true if strength is the only quality we’re trying to improve at that moment in time at the neglect of others.

Strength isn’t everything unless you’re competing in a strength-based sport, i.e. strongman, powerlifting, weightlifting, etc. Even then, other biomotor qualities come into play when training for these sports. What we really need to do is consider how strength can be complimentary to other qualities and skills that may be more important in non-strength based sports.

When referencing maximal strength we’re referring to the peak force a muscle can produce in a single effort. If we look at F=ma, we can train for max strength two ways, really. One would be the traditional method of heavy loading (mass) at a relatively lower speed (acceleration), the other would be moving a relatively lighter weight faster. Both of these methods can be very useful, but in the context of this article, I’ll mainly be referencing the traditional method of heavily loaded exercises (mainly 1RM squats).

The debate on strength and speed is nothing new and has been debated on EliteTrack before. The main point being conveyed as you read on is that you don’t need to take sides.

On one side of this argument we’ll look at Al Vermeil’s speed correlation chart (Fig. 1). He is aiming to show how strong or weak of an influence certain exercise mediums have on sprints. This chart, while a fine representation of correlations, I believe he is preaching to the far right side of the spectrum crowd that believes max strength is the secret to everything. I believe the aim of this was to be slightly skewed off to the left side of the spectrum to bring those max strength people back to the center of the spectrum.

Al Vermeil Speed Chart

Fig. 1: Credit – Al Vermeil (w/ contributions from Carl Valle & Derek Hansen et al.)

As Vermeil illustrates in this chart, sprinting is the most specific activity to sprinting – we can’t deny this. But, to think that sprinting is the only way to get better at sprinting is short changing yourself. With this idea in mind let’s explore some other options that have an impact on speed.

There is a strong relationship between maximal strength and short sprints [1, 3, 6]. This chart from Wisloff et al. shows a moderate correlation between maximal squat strength and 30m sprint times (r=.71) but, also shows an insanely strong correlation to 10m sprint times (r=.94). The strongest positive correlation there can be is r=1. A value of 1 means if one value increases, the other increases in a perfect linear relationship.

Correlation: Strength vs. Speed

Fig. 2: Wisloff et al. (2004)

Because there is a near perfect correlation to 10m sprint and max strength [6], we really can’t neglect strength in this context. Of course, the further we move from 10m we see the near perfect correlation start to deteriorate. This tells us that strength is very beneficial during acceleration, but becomes less meaningful or important as distance increases. As the sprint distance increases qualities will shift to more reactive and elastic strength (i.e. not max strength). On top of this, as an added bonus, we see a moderate correlation between maximal leg strength and change of direction and vertical jump as well.

In a study from McBride et al. (Fig 3.) they tested Division 1 football player’s max squat as well as their 5 yard, 10 yard, and 40 yard dash. The research showed that as an individual’s relative squat increased, their sprint times decreased [4]. This is just another piece to puzzle in that not only do we see absolute strength as a large determinate, we also see relative strength come into play as well.

5-40rd 1RM

Fig. 3: McBride et al. (2009)

With this information, we can start to be a little more confident about a few things related to strength and speed. This shows us that when leg strength improves, 10m sprint speeds increase in almost a 1 to 1 fashion. The main point being – if you get stronger, you get faster. There is an argument for max strength even out to 30m. Of course, this is a relatively weaker correlation when compared to the 10m sprint, but still strong enough to put some of your eggs back into the strength basket. To take this one step further, if maximal leg strength has a positive impact on short sprint times, we can assume athletes can now accelerate for a longer period of time. If we achieve a longer acceleration, top speed will be reached later. Assuming mechanics stay constant, this can indirectly allow athletes to delay deceleration.

Before I get chased with pitch forks and torches, lets not jump on this research and interpret this as max strength is the secret to speed. Strength is something that should be viewed as complimentary to the specific event or sport. In some cases max strength can have a large impact on performance as there are moderate to strong correlations with sprints (10-30m), vertical jump, and change of direction. If the demands of the sport call for any or all of these three we can say that strength is relatively important. But in many sports, strength is not the only biomotor quality we need to be present so strength in isolation will only take you so far.

To bring it back to the Vermeil chart, the exercise categories he uses are very general in nature and this chart doesn’t account for the many variations within the exercise that one can use. There is more than one Olympic lift, there is more than one type of plyometric, etc. Because of this, I would shift much of this chart to the right 1-3 spaces depending on which medium is being considered in the conversation and how much we elaborate.

For example, not every Olympic lift is created equal. I believe Olympic Lifts could be shifted to the right a couple of spaces with a positive correlation still occurring at 40-50m depending on which variation we use. If the power clean is the only Olympic lift in the conversation then this current chart may hold true. If we look a little bit more in depth and think about the variations of Olympic lifts we can use we may be able to push the correlations out a little bit further – with the far left of the chart (0-5m) being clean and snatch pulls, then shifting to power cleans and power snatches, then hang cleans and hang snatches with a fast countermovement. Providing that variations are being considered we could push the Olympic lift correlations out slightly.

Olympic lifts - speed

If we also take the abundance of research on heavy squatting and short sprints [1, 3, 5], we could even bump out “high” correlations a little further as well. Current research may dictate the following:

Heavy Squatting - Sprint

We could argue that chasing weightroom numbers beyond a 2.0x bodyweight squat, 1.5x bodyweight power clean, etc. is not necessary, but the research above makes it pretty clear that even up to 2.5x relative max squat is shown to improve short sprint performances [4]. I do believe there is such a thing as “strong enough” in non-strength based sports, but once you get there it shouldn’t become a ghost. Strength doesn’t need to be a focal point throughout the year but it should be present and if your strength continues to increase as an indirect outcome of training, I would count that as a win and let it happen as it may.

Really, when we boil this debate down, it revolves around taking everything into consideration and nothing out of context. If we take any single biomotor quality and train it in isolation or even neglect it, it can become disastrous in the long term.

So we come back to the original question – is max strength really important? Yes. Especially if you’re a field or court sport athlete. If we consider what it can do in the context of short sprints [1, 3, 4, 6], vertical jump [6], and change of direction [2, 5, 6] it can be a very valuable quality. It does, however, matter how we pursue max strength. Max strength pursued at all costs with no regard to developing other biomotor qualities can be detrimental because the correlation only lies within the short sprints. Beyond 30m other biomotor qualities with higher correlations play an increasingly greater role. Strength may have to be on the back burner at certain times in the year, but it should be ever-present in some capacity.

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References:

  1. Cronin, J., Ogden, T., Lawton, T., Brughelli, M. (2007). Does increasing maximal strength improve sprint running performance? Strength & Conditioning Journal. 29(3). 86-95.
  2. Keiner, M., Sander, A., Wirth, K., Schmidtbleicher, D. (2014). Long-term strength training effects on change-of-direction sprint performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28(1). 223-231.
  3. Maćkała, K., Fostiak, M., Kowalski, K.. Selected determinants of acceleration in the 100m sprint. (2015). Journal of Human Kinetics. 45, 135-148.
  4. McBride, J., Blow, D., Kirby, T., Haines, T. Dayne, A., & Triplett, T. (2009). Relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten, and forty yard sprint times. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 23(6). 1633-1636
  5. Watts, W. (2015). A breif review on the role of maximal strength in change of direction speed. J Aust Strength & Conditioning. 23(2): 100-108.
  6. Wisloff, U., Castagna, C., Helgerud, J., Jones, R., & Hoff, J. (2004). Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players. Br J Sports Med. 38. 285-288.
John Grace

John Grace

Sport Performance Coach at Athletic Lab
John is a Sport Performance Coach at Athletic Lab. He earned his Master's degree from Ohio University in Coaching & Sport Science. John holds his CSCS, USAW-L1, and USATF-L1. He is the former Assistant Fitness Coach of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
John Grace

@john_r_grace

Head Fitness Coach of the Orlando Pride. I tweet about all things sport science, coaching, training, and athlete development.
@drjamiewhitmer @pntrack Of course it does, I couldn't provide all context in the post. For me, in season 100-250m… https://t.co/ZQNQbgqptV - 1 week ago
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