Maintaining Athleticism In Advanced Power Training

The concept of “relaxed aggression” was relayed to me by a mentor and friend, Franz Snideman. After a high school and college career sprinting the 100m and long jump, I jumped into personal training with a watchful eye on my passions of strength and power development.

In 2015, I took part in Franz Snideman’s first Primal Speed certification. This sprint and power-oriented training was based on the work of coaches like Charlie Francis and power-training pioneers like Paul Chek. Franz brilliantly tied these methodologies together into a comprehensive, sprint-based program.

We would meet weekly on our local high school track to practice the curriculum. Our practices consisted of sprint drills, track sprints, and medicine ball throws. Sessions were low volume and very high-intensity: a hallmark of exceptional power training. As soon as we lost an ounce of form, sessions were done. We never trained poor patterns.

200m Intervals

What always stood out to me was that we never ran at 100%. Instead, our 30m, 40m, 60m, 100m sprints were always done at a percentage of our maximum. Ironically, we would top out at 98%. Now if you think about it, 98% is a mere 2% off of 100% speed.

But there was a reason: just like a novice boxer throwing a punch, if they tense their muscles with the intent of producing maximum power, they will sacrifice fluidity and speed. Ultimately, this leads telegraphing (body language showing a punch is coming), a subsequent weak punch, and a greater exposure to counterattacks.

Maximal strength training sports, like powerlifting, require maximal tension. Power sports with moderate to relative load and maximal utilization of power and speed require a nuance in tension: they must not over tense their muscles as to not sacrifice speed.

If we look at Olympic Weightlifting, we see a dramatic difference from powerlifting. Although the loads in powerlifting might be substantially more, the weightlifter is performing their repetition with maximal speed as required to get under the bar in the third pull.

If the weightlifter is too tense, or technique is flawed, they will likely “command” the bar, disrupting its path, and lose the rep. Similarly, if the sprinter pushes his body into too much tension, he will disrupt his acceleration and maximal speed.

So what should we focus on? As always, it depends on one’s goals and sporting goals. For the purposes of this article, let me share my perspective as an athlete and strength coach.

I use kettlebells for a majority of my strength and power training. In between training days, I will trail run or hike for cardiovascular and mental health.

My goals are to be jacked (yes stay muscular and have low body fat), maintain my strength as I age (a product of proper program design, nutrition, and lifestyle), and occasionally, I will test my mettle on a summit peak (training for mountains like Mt Whitney, Mt Langley, etc).

An issue I have in my world of hardstyle kettlebells is the “cult of strength.” Everything is oriented on strength. Compliments revolve around being “strong.” Although 70% of me agrees that one’s life is much better with adequate strength, 30% of me believes that we approach a point of “enough strength.”

Using myself as an example, I have achieved a triple bodyweight deadlift (500lbs at 167lbs bodyweight), a 350lb bench press, a 405lb back squat, a 44kg kettlebell military press, a 275lb clean and jerk, a 23′ long jump, a 11’6″ broad jump, a 4.3″ 40 yard dash, a standing back tuck, a 125lb pull-up, 10 consecutive muscle ups, all at a weight ~ 167lbs.

I am strong enough. There! I said it!

So do I need to continue pushing numbers on lifts? I don’t think so. After all, there is no glory in creaky joints, premature aging, and chronic muscle soreness.

With a more experienced head on my shoulders, I have made the goal to be fluid, athletic, and exceptional technique in my lifts and sporting endeavors. I would rather move 70% of my maximum load with speed rather than always striving for a higher load. When we move lighter loads faster, we maximize power.

With this in mind, I think power is best trained safely: I would rather work on low-volume sprints rather than train maximal strength/power in deadlifts (fucked up back anyone?).

When it comes to hardstyle kettlebell training, I think a worthy goal for any athlete is to improve their athleticism as a primary factor. Although I love StrongFirst and teach their curriculum, I believe “Power”First to be a better goal.

Power implies adequate strength, higher speed, and improved athleticism. Of course, these are just my two cents and my training only varies slightly from standard hardstyle.

With exercises like double kettlebell snatches, I prefer a hybrid of hardstyle and girevoy sport (that third pull tho!) I also love drilling push presses over strict military presses. Why? Full body power…

John Parker Trail Sprinting - San Diego, CA
John Parker Trail Sprinting – San Diego, CA Photograph by Sean Naugle

Just to be clear: we need a combination of grinds and ballistics in training and in life. My point is that I think we max out on how strong we need to be and instead need to figure out what is enough for our body. When we train ballistics (swings, snatches, push presses, cleans, jerks) properly, we can apply the technique of relaxed aggression.

In the beginning, a kettlebell athlete might need to focus on power breathing with a lot of tension requirements. As they progress in their training, strength, and power, that same tense power breathing will be a hindrance to their performance.

Why waste energy when relaxed aggression methodically saves it in the first place? Relaxed aggression is our birthright as athletic creatures. Use it when you need it. Don’t wear yourself out.

In closing, I believe relaxed aggression is a better goal than simply applying tension. However, one needs to spend their time learning how to tense their body and honing the power of their central nervous system. This might take a training age of 5 years plus. For the advanced power athlete, think of the ability to use your speed and energy systems.

John Parker