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Today I'm going to explain to you one of the biggest controversies in contemporary strength and conditioning theory and give you my take on it. There's a practical take home message, too, and if you only care about that, scroll down... way down...
To explain the controversy I'm going to compare the training effects of two similar but different exercises, the deadlift and the power clean. Why? Because both work the glutes, my favorite muscle.
To do the deadlift you approach a loaded bar that's resting on the floor. Walk up to the bar, squat down, reach down and grab the bar in both hands. Then stand up, lifting the bar as you do. At the end of the movement you are standing upright with the bar in both hands, your arms straight down, the bar about even with the tops of your thighs.
The deadlift is typically a slow, steady type of movement. A heavy deadlift can take up to 10 seconds to complete. The glutes are the primary mover, but the quads, hamstrings, spinal erectors, lats, biceps, and grip are all also heavily involved. To get good at the deadlift you have to get good at generating a high peak force in your glutes - you don't have to get there quickly, but you have to wind up pulling really hard and for a sustained period of time. So your glutes get stronger - add tissue (muscle protein) - and your nervous system gets better at recruiting the glutes and contracting them in coordination with all those other muscle groups I mentioned, all for a fairly sustained period of time. I don't think many strength coaches would disagree with anything I put here, but if you do please post to comments.
The power clean starts in a similar fashion. You approach a bar resting on the floor, squat down, and grab it. You start to lift it, looking for a few inches like somebody deadlifting. But once the bar gets to about mid-shin height you have to explosively accelerate the bar - really snapping the hips into full extension, as if you were jumping off the ground - and give it enough momentum that it basically flies up to chest height. You hold on, but your arms aren't really pulling up once that "jump" happens. At chest height you catch the bar, with your elbows under the bar and the bar resting at your collarbones.
Obviously, nobody can power clean with the same weight they can deadlift. You use a lighter weight but lift it much faster - a power clean, whether successful or not, doesn't take a full second. Like the deadlift the primary mover is the glutes, with assistance from all the same other muscles. Unlike the deadlift you aren't generating a high, sustained force - you're very quickly generating a very large force. That's the big difference - in the deadlift you ramp up to a very large, sustained force, in the power clean you very quickly go from nothing to a very short, intense burst of force.
I think it's clear that the neurological adaptations induced by the two exercises are different. Grinding out a slow, max force movement is different that very quickly exerting a burst of force. In both cases mostly similar muscles are trained through a mostly similar range of motion, however.
Now we get to the controversy. Everyone would agree that the best way to improve your deadlift is to deadlift and the best way to improve your power clean is to practice power cleans. But what if you want to improve, say, your punching power? Suppose you're already practicing your punch. Punching power comes in part from extending the hip - would adding deadlifts to your routine be equally useful in improving your punch as would adding in the power clean? Remember, in a punch you're doing a rapid snap of the hip, not a slow, grinding extension. So on the face of it the power clean certainly seems more similar.
One camp, the HIT (High Intensity Training) crowd notable among them (Body by Science, superslow training, those guys), would say that the deadlift is the better choice. Being slower and less technical the deadlift is safer (a steady high force is safer than a sudden burst of very high force). Since both work the glutes you'd get muscular development from either exercise. The HIT advocates would then point to a bunch of studies that show that neurological adaptions are specific to a movement - that is, learning to fire your glutes fast doing a power clean wouldn't translate at all to firing them fast doing a punch. So since either exercise develops the muscles, and neither one will help with the neurological ability to use that muscle while punching, you're better off doing the safer exercise in the weight room and count on punching practice in the dojo to push the neurological adaptations you're looking for (the ability to very rapidly contract the glutes).
The other camp, the Sports Specific Training camp or the Functional Training group, might say that the research the HIT Jedi's pointed to wasn't well done or clear enough. They'd say that even though the power clean isn't exactly the same movement as a punch, training in a movement pattern - like forcefully and very quickly extending the hip - will definitely have carryover to any other movement that incorporates that pattern. So doing power cleans makes you better at forcefully and quickly extending the hip whenever you need to do it - they'll make you a better jumper, give you a quicker first step, and make you better at punching.
The SST group would say that the most important part of punching better is to practice punching (the HIT crowd would agree). They'd also say that if you want to support that practice you can do other movements - like the power clean - that make you better at doing parts of the punch as long as they're done in the right range of motion and the right speed (explosive, not grinding). They'd tell you to also do anti-rotational core work - to help you learn to keep your core stiff during the rotation of punching. They might also point to some research studies - honestly I have no idea, nor do I care, because most studies done in this field are so poor that they give us no good information.
You should know me well enough by now to suspect that I have a position on this issue. And you're right, I do. I used to be in the HIT camp on this, but I've changed. Why? The kettlebell swing.
Like the power clean, the kettlebell swing includes a very fast, forceful contraction of the glutes, a lot like what the glutes do when you punch (Pavel Tsatsouline has famously said that the swing is as close as you can get to throwing a punch in the weight room). When I started doing swings - when I started really focusing on my glutes, on the hip snap into full extension that you need to drive the kettlebell up - my punch almost instantly improved. I could feel my hip driving the punch much more clearly than I had before.
Was that just because I'd strengthened the glute muscle? Maybe. But I doubt it. I had a very strong subjective experience of an enhanced mental connection to the glute - I could feel it work more easily and control it more easily. I could also fire it more easily. I am convinced that there was significant neurological carryover between the swing and the punch. Despite the research that says I'm wrong.
There are other arguments involved. The HIT advocate can't be right that neurological adaptations are perfectly specific - that there is no carryover between one movement and another. Take an experienced martial artist - one who has been punching and striking for years - and teach them a strike with a part of the hand they've never used in their art - knifehand, koken, palm, whatever. How long will it take them to master it? As long as a beginner doing it for the first time? I doubt it. The master's nervous system already has most of the biomechanics down - movement at the hip and torso is probably almost the same as what they've been doing - and the change from one movement to another won't negate that mastery.
A HIT advocate would have you do slow, deliberate, safer movements in the gym to develop your muscles, then be explosive only when practicing your specific skill. A Functional Training advocate would have you do explosive movements in the gym so you get better at moving explosively.
Take home message:
If you're in very poor shape you probably are better off doing slow, deliberate movements. But once you get 12 or 24 weeks or a year of strength training under your belt you should focus on movements that make you move the way you want to move while fighting - explosive, with a very rapid development of force. Don't overdo them, as there is an injury risk when you train with speed, but your karate will improve from sports specific training.
If you have no performance goals (aren't a martial artist) and are just working out for health, sticking to high tension (high weight) but more methodical movements (deadlifting vs. powerlifting) might be better for you. You'll be able to more safely train, which is good, while keeping your fast twitch muscle fibers going, which you need so you'll be able to get out of your chair when you're 80. And getting out of our chairs at 80 (and doing other physical stuff at 80, 90, and 100+) is pretty much the ultimate goal.