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Superstiffness and Rate of Force Decline: A Theory | Boddicker Performance

Filed under: plyometrics, Program Design, Running

Superstiffness and Rate of Force Decline: A Theory

by on Sep 14th, 2010

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In sport, the best athletes are able instantaneously switch between extremely high torques and stiffness production and absolute relaxation.  Going from high rates of force development to equally expeditious rate of force decline, over time this allows for greater economy of movement and more efficient, powerful displays of sport skill.  McGill calls this ability “superstiffness” and asserts that it can be trained.

Superstiffness is created via co-contraction of antagonists and agonists and must happen at very specific times and shut off immediately after for optimal efficiency.  This stiffness must, for example, be created at the instant of contact in a golf shot or the moments leading up to and just after ground contact of a sprinter’s foot fall.  The athlete must do this very quickly and then go to “silent.”  Sprint researcher, Peter Weyand’s latest assessment seems to suggest that, at minimum, the speed at which an athlete is able to apply force to the ground may be the biggest challenge to sprint performances (Weyand, 2010).

Acquiring the ability to relax quickly following fore production may have great value in the distance runner attempting to maximize his performances.  The goal in distance running may very well be to keep an athlete as oxidative as possible as far into the race as is sensible, and making the most of running economy is one way to do this.  Research on plyometrics and other ancillary training modes frequently demonstrate improved running economy an little to no changes in metabolic variables.  What I have not seen, however, is the explanation for these changes beyond improved neuro-musculoskeleatal adaptations that lead to better stiffness and elasticity.  Why does any of this matter?  As runners frequently spend most of their time moving through low amplitudes without significant times to allow for the spontaneous rate of force decline, perhaps this excessive tone makes them ischemic early and pushes them toward the glycolytic end of the metabolism earlier, whereas those with a more springy, powerful stride have a bit more time to relax between efforts.  Perhaps this may play a role.

The capacity to influence this quality of rate of force decline is an interesting one and one that I will discuss more fully as the days progress where I will share some ideas I have to influence the rate of force decline.  Paavolainen (2002) of relative fame in distance running had an unpublished, but presented study that demonstrated reactive type exercises and concentric strength training resulted in no improvements in MVIC, but “the average force-time curve changed in the absolute scale so that the times to reach lower force levels shortened (p < 0.01) and early forces (in 0–100 ms) increased (p < 0.01)” so I do believe that we can certainly influence rate of force decline and manipulate running economy though, in part, this route.


Carson Boddicker

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