When They Go Low, We Go High: Power Training
Ask a coach or athlete what power training they do and they might say something like:
“I focus on:
Whole body power.
Pattern specific power.
The Blue Power Ranger.”
But what do they mean?
What’s the difference between functional power and sport-specific power?
Well, reading on certainly won’t provide the answer, because I don’t know, and nor it would appear does anyone…
Terms like functional, dynamic and sport-specific power are thrown around without a universal understanding of exactly what they mean (welcome to the fitness industry)…
But, let’s not get caught up on semantics, let’s focus on what unites these similarly ambiguous terms: power.
Let’s Agree on Power
What everyone will agree upon is that being powerful is very useful for sports. Whether we call our power training functional, sport-specific or highly combustible isn’t overly important, what we’re talking about is training to become more powerful for our chosen athletic pursuit…
When it comes to training for athletic pursuits, I like two things:
Keeping it simple
Understanding what I’m doing and why I’m doing it
So, this article will do two things:
Provide a simple overview of power training
Help you understand why you might partake in some power training and what type you might choose to do.
Once you’ve got the basics you can decide whether to call your power training functional, sport-specific or dynamically detonative.
First Up, What is Power?
Power, in an athletic context, is a combination of strength and speed. A powerful athlete is one who is strong enough to produce a lot of force and speedy enough to express it very quickly.
Occasionally it can help to speak equationally…
Power = Work / Time
…and this is commonly simplified to:
Power = Force x Velocity
(Velocity is speed with a directional component… just think of it as how speedily you’re moving)
So, if we want to train our power production capabilities, we need to perform exercises that involve force and speed…
“Cool. I’ll just take the heaviest weight I can possibly lift and lift it as fast as I can… POWER!”
Sort of, but no.
Take a gander at this graph, known as the force-velocity curve, which, although not the be-all-end-all, provides a quick understanding of how force and velocity interact…
“When they go low, we go high”
Michelle Obama’s succinct summary of the force-velocity curve is spot on.
In her famous quote, Michelle perfectly encapsulated the key points of the force-velocity curve and I applaud her for the work she has done in making the principles of power training ok to talk about. With open discussion we can all become more powerful.
The key points of Michelle’s power training presentation were:
The more force required for a movement, the slower it will be. (When the force goes high, the speed goes low.)
The quicker a movement is, the less forceful it will be (when the speed goes high, the force goes low)
Somewhere between maximum force and maximum speed is POWER BOOM! The perfect trade off between strength and speed. (When they go middle… we also go middle)
In training terms we can think about:
When lifting the heaviest weight you possibly can, the weight moves slowly; there is a lot of force being produced, but not much velocity. So, high force and low speed… this is strength training, not power training.
When sprinting as fast as possible, you’re producing and applying forces at high speeds… this is speed training, not power training.
(Yes, when sprinting you’re producing and applying large forces, and yes, suggesting sprinting involves low forces, lower forces or even relatively low forces is a bit simplistic … but, for simplicity’s sake, that’s what we’re powering on with for now… I shouldn’t have said anything.)
The Perfect Power Point
Somewhere between the two examples above, and somewhere in the middle of the force-velocity curve, lies a tremendous opportunity for alliteration: the perfect power point.
This perfect power point is where we have strength and we have speed, and thus: WE HAVE THE POWER!
Squat jumps and power cleans are practical examples of exercises where strength and speed meet halfway, right at the borderline. (Nod and wink to you if you recognise this line from a 2009 chart topper.)
Stay in the Power Zone
Some activities, such as a clean and jerk, will sit a little more to the left of the power sweet spot. This is because clean and jerks require a little more strength than they do speed; this is commonly referred to as strength-speed.
Other activities, such as throwing a medicine ball, will find themselves positioned a little more to the right of the perfect power point as they rely more on speed than they do strength. This is commonly referred to as speed-strength.
Both strength-speed and speed-strength fall under the ‘power umbrella’, they just emphasise one of the two components of power (force and velocity) a little more than the other.
We Can Use This to Our Advantage
The force-velocity curve isn’t just a fun graph to look at. Considering the teachings of the force-velocity curve is useful when designing training programs and choosing the type of power training that is best for you or your athletes…
Different Types Power Training
Power training comes in many shapes and forms and I like to loosely categorised power training as being:
Bodyweight power training
Light-load or light-object power training
Heavy load power training
Bodyweight Power Training
Bodyweight exercises are a good starting point for power training and usually involve different forms of jumps, hops and bounds.
Bodyweight plyometric exercises are the go-to for many athletes, with exercises such as as box jumps, counter-movement jumps, broad jumps and multiple hurdle jumps/hops all very popular for improving lower body power.
Light-load Power Training
Exercises such as medicine ball throws that require the use of light weights or objects can be used for developing lower-body, upper-body and rotational power.
Side note: The development of upper body and rotational power is often thought of as secondary in importance to lower-body power development. But, in my opinion, upper-body and rotational power is an important part of well rounded athleticism, and for some sports, such as baseball and martial arts, is very important.
Light-load power training is usually quite fun, easy to set-up and involves minimal learning time. This is why exercises such as medicine ball launches are often used instead of…
Heavy-load Power Training
Heavy load power exercises such as the Olympic lifts, and their variations, are outstanding power builders. However, the Olympic lifts and their variations are much more demanding in terms of technique than light-load and bodyweight power training.
Learning to Olympic lift safely and effectively takes time. Some athletes will have the time and the desire to learn, others won’t. When lifting, regardless of how light or heavy the weight is being lifted, it’s important that technique is prioritised and that any increases in load are preceded by good technique.
Examples of non-Olympic lifting heavy-load power exercises are barbell squat jumps and trap bar deadlift jumps.
Which Type of Power Training Should I be Doing?
(Is the easy answer.)
Training all three categories and all points on the force-velocity curve will develop well rounded athleticism, which is usually my aim when training athletes.
Thus, there is probably good reason for you to perform a combination of bodyweight, light-object and heavy-load power training. It’s always a good sign when an athlete is capable in all three categories and the across the whole force-velocity curve; athletes who are strong, powerful and fast tend to perform quite well.
Powerful Movement Patterns
Perhaps of greater importance than specific exercises, or even categories of power training, are the patterns that an athlete is powerful in…
The more I coach, train and learn, the more firmly I believe the role of strength and conditioning for sports performance is to improve general athletic qualities in fundamental movement patterns, as opposed to mimicking (or attempting to mimic) the exact movements that we see in the specific sport being trained for.
Thus, the aim with most of the athletes I train is to make them powerful in three patterns:
Triple extension (extension of the hips, knees and ankles)
What About Specificity?
If we refer to one of the key principles of training: specific adaptations to imposed demands, we can deduce that certain types of power training and movement patterns might be more appropriate for certain athletes and activities.
For example, a baseball pitcher might benefit more from rotational power training than an Olympic weightlifter. Just as a volleyball player will probably benefit more from lower-body plyometrics than a Kubb competitor would…
…You’re not familiar with Kubb!?
If you want to focus a little more on one pattern because it’s specific to your sport then by all means go for it. It may well be the best thing for you as an athlete, and yes, we can absolutely still be pals…
But, for most athletes, being powerful in the triple extension, sprinting and rotational patterns will provide plenty of sports performance enhancement. This ‘well rounded’ approach will also help avoid potential pattern overloads, particularly if your sport involves a lot of one specific type of pattern.
Becoming More Powerful: Shifting the Curve
Ultimately, if our training shifts the force velocity-curve upwards and to the right, we have done a good job. This shift will mean you’re stronger, faster and more powerful, which will make you a better athlete for your sport.
How does one shift the curve? Well, that is the million dollar question isn’t it…
Strength, strength-speed, power, speed-strength and speed training… in other words, train to be a well rounded athlete.
Won’t that just make me a jack of all trades and master of none?
Yes, kind of.
But, unless performance in your sport is predominantly dependent on one physical quality (such as powerlifting or sprinting) then being a well rounded athlete is going to be a good thing.
Team sports and technique based sports involve multiple physical qualities, of which power is one. Training across the force-velocity curve and seeking to enhance all physical qualities is therefore, in my opinion, a smart way to train for these types of sports.
Power training goes by several names, they all mean produce as much force as possible as quickly as possible.
Use several forms of power training to develop my favourite phrase: well rounded athleticism.
Team sport athletes: focus on triple extension, sprinting and rotational patterns.
Don’t feel the need to perform heavy and technically demanding exercises — keep power training simple and use the type of training that produces the best result for you.
The Blue Power Ranger was the most powerful Power Ranger and my personal favourite. If any child psychologists are reading this I’d be interested to know what this says about me.