Training to improve muscular power (explosive strength)

There is a debate on what type of strength training you should do to improve muscular power. “Powertraining” sounds like the straightforward answer, but is it? Let’s find out!

By Loek Vossen

Does power training improve muscular power (explosive strength)?

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What is muscular power?

Muscular power or explosive strength is a combination of force and speed. It’s the trait you need when you want to be strong and fast. Like during Olympic lifts, basketball jumps or when hitting the ball with your tennis racket.

Contrary to strength alone, explosive strength requires a certain movement speed.

Muscular power is a combination of strength and speed
Muscular power is a combination of force (N) and velocity (m/s)

If you want to know your muscle power in the gym, it’s highly recommended to measure power, force and velocity with a VBT device like GymAware RS. This not only shows your power, but also how it’s composed. 

Was 800 watts power a combination of 800 newton force and 1 m/s velocity? Or 8 newton force and 100 m/s velocity? This information affects the ideal training program to improve power.

You could even take it one step further by looking at how long it takes before peak power occurs. Some sports require you to reach peak power quickly. Learn more about it via our article about the Rate of Force Development (RFD).

How to train for power

Not happy with your current muscular power? Improve it with training!

Powertraining, a training method that focuses on both strength and speed, is the most straightforward way to improve muscular power. But is power training also the most effective way to train for power?

Since muscular power is a combination of force and speed, you could also focus on these two ingredients separately via maximal strength training and speed training.

There seem to be two camps:

1. Improve power with power training (specificity)

Camp 1 advocates the “train what you want to improve” method. They rely on training specificity and use power training (moderate load, moderate speed, maximal power) to increase power.

They use a VBT device to:

GymAware app shows muscular power in real-time
GymAware app giving real-time feedback on mean power in watt per kg body weight.

There are several scientific studies that claim small benefits to this power training approach. Not per se in outcome – classic strength training is often equally effective – but in time spent in the gym. Power training seems to require less sets, reps and load for the same performance improvement.

Learn more about power training via our in-depth article: Power training: tips, benefits and workouts.

2. Improve power with maximal strength and speed training

Camp 2 believes that since power can only be increased by increasing strength or speed (or both), you should focus on these two parameters in training.

Force-Velocity-Power curve in strength training
Changes in maximal force and/or maximal velocity (in the force-velocity curve: linear lines) result in changes in peak power and/or velocity at which peak power occurs (in the power curve: n shaped parabola).

“Power is a very misunderstood concept in the fitness industry, since it is not often appreciated that maximum power cannot be improved without changes in either maximum strength or maximum speed.”

Chris Beardsley – Strength and Conditioning Research (source)

In practice this comes down to a “polarized” or “concurrent” training model in which you combine heavy strength training with high speed training. These athletes and coaches use a VBT device to:

“If transferable increases in maximum power are required, it seems likely that these are best achieved by a combination of heavy strength training and fast movement training, and not by moderate load: power training.”

Chris Beardsley – Strength and Conditioning Research (source)

Which training method improves power best for you

There are two strength tests that can help you decide whether you should focus on speed training, power training or max strength training – to improve muscular power:

  1. Force-velocity test
  2. Dynamic Strength Index test

Force velocity test

The force velocity test creates a force velocity profile that shows force on the y-axis and velocity on the x-axis.

Force velocity curve
The force-velocity curve shows the relationship between force and velocity.

Simply perform an exercise as fast as possible with a range of loads (e.g. 15-90% of 1RM). You can now see the relationship between force and velocity.

Muscular profile showing force-velocity and power-velocity relationship in back squat
Force-velocity relationship (lineair) and Power-velocity relationship (parabolic).

Download the free force velocity spreadsheet to see whether your velocity at a certain %1RM is good or needs improvement. In the article, coach Travis Mash explains that if your velocity is low in low-load exercises, you should do more high speed training. If the velocity is relatively low in high-load exercises, you should focus more on heavy strength training.

Here’s a specific force velocity example and how to train accordingly.

Dynamic Strength Index (DSI)

Another test that helps to decide on how to improve muscular power is the Dynamic Strength Index test. It compares your explosive strength with your maximal strength. After the DSI test you get your DSI score which divides explosive strength by maximal strength.

Dynamic Strength Index explained
The Dynamic Strength Index compares your explosive strength with maximal strength. The score tells you what to focus on training.

The DSI score tells you whether you should do more speed/power work or focus more on maximal strength training.

Dynamic Strength Index (DSI) score
DSI score and training recommendations.

Learn more about the DSI test protocol and how to adapt training based on the DSI score.

Track power training progress

Regardless of whether you do power training or a combination of max strength and speed training to improve power: you can’t improve what you don’t measure.

Velocity Based Training devices unlock access to live power feedback. They also allow you to track progress of the two ingredients that determine power: force and velocity.

GymAware power clean: position, power and lift path (bar path)
Get detailed information of your muscular power (red) using the GymAware RS.

Learn more about the GymAware RS or start by reading our free white paper on How to start training with Velocity Based Training:

Download: How to get started with velocity based training [use case]

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Loek Vossen

Loek Vossen

Human Movement Scientist | Content Marketing and Education