Coach Caleb’s Corner
Dynamite vs. Gunpowder
Sometimes in training, we hit a wall… or it might feel like the wall hits us. Splat! A plateau in competitive lifting can be a very frustrating obstacle to have to overcome. Even in casual strength practice, struggling to achieve a new PR after lots of dedicated training can cause a drop in motivation and make a program that was once fun become boring and dull. Sooner or later it happens to all of us gym-goers; we hit that wall. Faced with such a barrier, an athlete has many options. Change directions? Try to climb over? Give up entirely? Certainly not that last one, I hope!
Before my journey with StrongFirst began, I didn’t really know how multifaceted the art and science of getting stronger could be. In a way, it’s quite simple; you’re either strong enough to lift a weight or you’re not. But when you consider that there are many different stances, setups, and styles for performing the same lifts, and that wildly disparate programming approaches can achieve the same results for different athletes, the act of getting strong enough to lift something becomes an exciting journey with lots of twists and turns! However, a simple approach to a training problem is still usually the best first response. As such, a question you might consider when a lift isn’t going as well as you’d like, is this: Do I need a little more gunpowder or do I need to use some dynamite? What on earth could this mean? To quickly illustrate the differences in lifting using gunpowder or dynamite, let’s consider one of the most fundamental feats of strength, the Deadlift.
The Dynamite Approach Some powerlifters get very fired up before a lift. They try to rev-up their nervous and endocrine systems to release some chemicals that might help make the lift more explosive. Stomping feet, smelling salts and other methods are used in the hopes of generating some extra power to jumpstart the barbell’s progress off the floor. These lifters use a degree of explosive speed to break the heavy weight off the platform and hope the momentum generated will help them smash through the hardest part of the lift before the energy is gone. This technique uses a lot of what we call “dynamite.” It calls for a high degree of excitation to stimulate an explosive athletic movement. There is usually a big bang, but the energy is used up very quickly, and if the lift doesn’t get boosted high enough to breach “the sticking spot” then it comes crashing back down to the ground. The Gunpowder Plot Other lifters approach the platform looking more like they’re about to perform a delicate surgery than a power lift. These lifters favor the slow, steady application of force through techniques like irradiation; cramping most of their muscles hard to benefit from the spilling over of energy from one group to the next. The barbell “squeezes” off the platform on an attempt like this and grinds its way slowly to the lockout; often with a few bumps or even pauses along the way. This is what we call using “gunpowder.” Picture gunpowder poured out in a trail along the ground, in this case, not packed into a barrel or a shell. The steady, “sizzling” effect is what we’re talking about here. This technique is more the tortoise than the hare, but it has the strength to finish provided that it doesn’t burn out before the lift is done.
One of the reasons our beloved StrongFirst kettlebell training is so effective is that it demands the application of both skills. Dynamite is used for the explosive, quick, ballistic lifts like swings, cleans and snatches, while gunpowder is used on the slow grinds like squats, presses and get-ups. Given the lift and the athlete in question, we might just need a little more of one or the other qualities to get past a training plateau and achieve a new PR. Fortunately, we don’t have to learn an entirely new skill, we just need to focus more on the application of a skill we already train! If a deadlift or a press is getting stuck coming out of the gate, for example, we can try to train more of our explosive contraction skills to get it moving. If the lift just won’t quite lockout, then we can focus more on the grinding, “time under tension,” modalities in our training to achieve a solid finish. Ultimately, the application of both skills in the correct proportion is going to get the job done, it’s just a question of finding out which one needs a boost and working on it. Simple! So if you hit a wall in your training, don’t worry too much about having to climb over it. Try either blowing it up with a little dynamite or boring a hole through it with gunpowder! StrongFirst methods have you covered in either case, packing your arsenal with all the incendiary materials required to achieve your new PRs.