Hacking your Strength Reserves
In today’s blog, I thought I would discuss a topic that could lead to quick improvements in strength. Let’s call it a “strength hack.” It’s a hack because you already own this strength, but you just haven’t unleashed it in training. To get this boost in strength, we will be using a few techniques that will allow you to tap into your unused strength reserves. Humans are capable of unimaginable strength in times of crisis. This strength reserve is saved for times of great need. The difference between the strength one can demonstrate in an emergency situation vs. in a gym represents a force deficit. Extreme intensity, on say, a 1 RM of pressing or deadlifting is extremely taxing on the nervous system. Your intuitively intelligent and self-preserving nervous system will inherently limit your ability to tap in to these reserves during a non-threatening situation like weightlifting. Let’s learn to hack your reserves with these three steps:
STEP 1. DEVELOP A GOOD POWER PLUG-
In order to have a great foot grip you first need foot and toe mobility. Imagine trying to palm a basketball with a stiff hand. Not going to work! You need a nice fluid hand that can conform to the ball. The same holds true for gripping with the foot. Due to limited time spent barefoot and the majority of our walking being done on flat ground, many of us have developed stiff toes and feet. If you suffer from stiff feet or an immobile big toe, get busy working on yourmobility before moving on to strengthening the foot.
Once you have a nice mobile foot, it is time to add strength to the intrinsic musculature of your foot. I believe it is safe to assume that developing strong feet is not high on your priority list. Most of us are aware of the benefits that developing grip strength can have on our upper body presses and pulls, but we ignore the foot grip. Without a solid connection to the ground your nervous system will not allow for maximum force generation. Dr. Andreo Spina has put together a great video demonstrating intrinsic foot strengthening.
STEP 2. GET PLUGGED IN-
Ok, after you have developed strong and mobile feet, it’s time to learn to connect them to the ground. Picture your feet as giant power plugs that must be plugged in to an outlet. Don’t, however, picture a normal power outlet. Picture an old rusty outlet that just does not want to cooperate. You have to force it, wiggle it, and torque it until you finally get it plugged in. So you want to stomp your foot and grind it in to the ground and torque it until is firmly “rooted.” Then take your other foot and do the same. This strong connection to the ground tells your nervous system, “Hey, I am nice and stable so you can trust me with a little more of my strength reserves than normal.”
One drill I like to help train rooting utilizes a kettlebell swing. Have a partner wrap a band around your waist and stand behind you as you perform a Russian KB swing. As you are swinging your partner will provide random perturbations attempting to pull you off balance. This will reactively train you to create a firm connection with the ground.
Many of you have probably seen powerlifters use this trick with deadlifting or squatting. You will also see many of them do this with lifts like the bench press. They will slam their hand in to the bar, torque it around, and grip it with a death claw. This tells the brain that you have a strong, stable connection to the weight and, in turn, the brain allows for an increased neural drive to the muscle. The net result is a strength boost.
For more on this topic I recommend the article, “Okinawan Strength” by Professor Stu McGill.
STEP 3. DISTRIBUTE THE POWER-
Now that you have strong, mobile feet and have firmly rooted them to the ground it’s time to distribute the power. What I mean by distributing the power is a principle known as the “Law of Irradiation.” This is a phenomenon that has been discussed in length by StrongFirst founder Pavel Tsatsouline. Basically the law states that by contracting adjacent musculature, you can amplify the neural drive to the target muscle and therefore increase the measured force output. Learning to create full body tension can greatly increase your stability and force output.
One way I like to prime the system is by doing maximum contraction front planks, where you contract every muscle in your body as hard as you can for a few seconds. This will give you a good feeling of full body tension. Try to carry that feeling over into your maximum effort lifts like the 1RM deadlift or squat. Over time, you will find that you get better at creating this full body tension and your strength will soar.
So to quickly recap, the steps to hacking your strength are:
1. Create a good power plug- A good power plug is a mobile and strong foot. Think of palming a basketball.
2. Get plugged in- Learn to grip the ground and become rooted. This increased stability will give your nervous system the green light to bring the heat.
3. Distribute the power- Learn to harness the Law of Irradiation by creating full body tension to amplify your force output.
Interested in more on this topic? Here a few great resources to get you started.
FOOT STRENGTH AND MOBILITY
ROOTING AND LAW OF IRRADIATION