Improving power production in athletes

There is a longstanding debate in the coaching community regarding the best ways to create power amongst athletes. Some coaches prefer weightlifting movements like the snatch and clean and jerk, whereas, others will only use absolute strength movements like back squat concurrently with plyometrics. Some believe that expressing massive amounts of power with movements like the clean don’t actually improve an athlete’s ability to produce more power. What if I told you, both of these arguments could be right or possibly wrong? In this article, we will discuss the differences between expressing power vs actually improving one’s ability to produce power. To begin with, I will explain what power actually is, which will be followed by improving power production in athletes.  

By Travis Mash

Improving power production in athletes (image displaying gymaware RS)

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What is ‘power’?

‘Power’ is discussed in every strength and conditioning circle in the world. When people think of power, they think explosive athletic actions like tackling, homeruns, or massive jumps. Every athlete wants to increase their power, and every strength coach wants that for them. Despite its relevance and importance, most people have the wrong understanding of power.

Power is a look at work divided by time (work/time) or (force x distance divided by time). More simply put, power is force x velocity, since velocity is actually distance divided by time. Ok, enough with the math.

Expressing Power vs improving power gymaware cloud exercise comparison report

What is ‘strength’?

The funny thing is that strength is another way of saying power because strength is defined as:

Strength is an athlete’s ability to produce force at a defined rate.”

This is where all the qualities of strength come into play. If you have read the book, Supertraining by Mel Siff and Yuri Verkhoshansky, then you know that they attempted to discuss the qualities of strength in a defined way with speed strength being a bit general. For example:

  • Speed Strength: refers to movements in which the velocity of the movement plays the primary role in overcoming lighter loads. (ex. DB Jumps or possible power snatch)
  • Strength Speed: refers to exercises or movements in which effort is maximally produced to overcome heavier loads. (ex. A clean or heavier trap bar jumps)
Supertraining by Siff and Verkhoshansky - Expressing power vs improving power.
Image from Supertraining by Siff and Verkhoshansky

When Siff and Verkhoshansky spoke about sporting movements, they used terms like max velocity, starting strength, acceleration strength, and absolute strength in terms of special strength qualities. These special qualities are defined as:

  • Max velocity: the maximum velocity an athlete can contract a given group of muscles while performing a particular movement
  • Starting strength: is defined as creating the maximum amount of force at the immediate moment of tension, or more plainly stated as an athlete’s ability to produce enough force to overcome inertia.
  • Acceleration strength: is the athlete’s ability to reach maximum force production for the given load over the given distance of the movement or the rate of peak force development
  • Absolute strength: the athlete’s maximum force capability
Supertraining by Siff and Verkhoshansky image 2
Image from Supertraining by Siff and Verkhoshansky

When coaches refer to an athlete’s ability to produce power, they’re actually referring to what Siff and Verkhoshansky defined as explosive strength. However, instead of a general term like power, explosive strength is specific to a few factors:

  • The distance of an athletic movement 
  • The load to be overcome in that movement

Remember, absolute strength of an athlete is their ability to produce maximum force, where time isn’t a factor like in a maximum deadlift. When an athlete is performing a vertical leap, throwing a shot put, or tackling a ball carrier, each of those athletic events are performed at drastically different distances overcoming drastically different loads. Therefore the athlete’s ability to produce a maximum force is extremely different in each event. All of this brings me to my next concept that must be addressed if a coach is to prescribe power training in an effective manner, strength deficit.

Strength deficit

Comparison of force production in two athletes

As stated earlier, when an athlete performs an athletic movement like the vertical leap, shot put, or tackle, the load being overcome and the distance to perform the movement must be considered in regards to producing max force. The greater the load, the closer the athlete will be able to express their maximum force capabilities. However, when it comes to lighter loads, it’s the rate of force development that becomes important. In the vertical leap, the athlete has until lift off to produce the greatest amount of force possible to send them flying through the air. 

When comparing athletes or deciding on how to improve athletic performance, it’s important to analyze the deficit between their explosive force production in comparison to their absolute force production. That deficit is defined as their strength deficit in that given movement. I discussed the way that we determine this deficit in my article ‘Practical uses for the dynamic strength index

Power training to fit the individual

This brings us to the heart of this article. Verkhoshansky defined strength deficit as:

The deficit between an athlete’s ability to produce force in a particular exercise or movement versus the force required for elite performance. 

Like I stated earlier, there are two main variables that will directly affect an athlete’s ability to produce force in a particular athletic movement: range of motion and load. A small range of motion with a small load will allow for very little time in producing force requiring a high importance on rate of force production. A larger range of motion with higher loads will mean the athlete has more time to produce force near their absolute capabilities. Now that we have shown that not all power training is created equal, let’s define the different approaches to power training based on the individual differences. 

Power training for athletes with smaller strength deficits (strong but slow)

If an athlete has a major strength deficit performing an athletic movement, especially in comparison to their peers (same position, gender, sport, and age), they should focus on more explosive movements like weightlifting derivatives and plyometrics. In this case, it would make sense to perform movements that might express maximum values of power along with higher velocity movements. 

In prescribing a program, the coach would also want to consider three other elements:

  • Elasticity and Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC)
  • Starting Strength
  • Acceleration

For movements that require force production originating from a stretched position in reference to the muscles at play, elasticity and neuromuscular components play an important role. Elasticity created by connective tissue and elements found within the sarcomere along with the neuromuscular components created by the SSC add passive forces that drastically aid the next two elements.

Starting strength is the athlete’s ability to create enough force to overcome inertia either from a static or dynamic state. For static strength, you can envision the starting blocks of a 100 meter sprint, and for a dynamic state, it’s the overcoming of the eccentric contraction at the bottom of a squat which some refer to as the amortization phase. 

Acceleration strength refers to the athlete’s ability to reach maximum force once the contraction is moving. Siff and Verkhoshansky explain the benefits of using the different Olympic lifts multiple times in the book, SuperTraining, for improving an athlete’s ability to improve acceleration strength, or what is more properly termed rate of force production. 

You can take a closer look at all of these qualities of strength in my article, Rate of Force Development. If you want to further define an athlete’s strength deficit into components of elasticity and SSC, I recommend taking a look at GymAware’s article regarding the Reactive Strength Index

Power training for athletes with larger strength deficits

What about the athlete that is expressing close to their maximum force potential when performing a vertical leap, but still less than their high achieving peers? At that point, it might be more prudent to focus on hypertrophy work to build bigger muscle fibers within the muscle groups performing the action followed by strength training to add some much needed absolute strength. I talk about hypertrophy and strength building in my article, Muscle Hypertrophy: Theory to Application

In this case, it’s not as important to express maximum power during training. I am not saying that this athlete shouldn’t perform any high power expressing movements like trap bar jumps or cleans. It’s just that the priority becomes hypertrophy and strength. The same goes for the athletes with a high strength deficit. They can still perform strength training, but the focus is speed and power expression.

Testing and monitoring

Predictive 1RM report - Improving power production in athletes
Predictive 1RM report from GymAware cloud

A coach could probably eyeball an athlete in the weight room and determine if they need speed and power or strength and hypertrophy. The problem is monitoring the improvement and the day to day effort. For example, if the athlete needs power and speed, I need to ensure that maximum intent is being expressed on each repetition. I also need to monitor any excessive fatigue as that can be detrimental to improvement. 

If the athlete needs hypertrophy, I will need to monitor velocity loss to ensure the hypertrophy is maximized at a rate that is still quality. Of course, regardless if the athlete is working on strength or power, compensatory acceleration is important. Once again, it doesn’t come down to an absolute way of training. It simply needs, which makes velocity based training so effective for athletes. 

Conclusion

We all want our athletes to be powerful and explosive. Expressing peak power during training is a great way to create powerful athletes, but sometimes there might be a better way. As always, it depends on the sport being played and the individual athlete. GymAware RS and FLEX units give coaches a distinct advantage in regards to coaches of the past. Now coaches can test athletes and monitor to ensure positive trends. Now we know how to best improve power for the individual.

As always, email me at Travis@GymAware.com with any questions.

References

  1. Sarabia JM, Moya-Ramón M, Hernández-Davó JL, Fernandez-Fernandez J, Sabido R. The effects of training with loads that maximise power output and individualised repetitions vs. traditional power training. PLoS One. 2017 Oct 20;12(10):e0186601. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186601. PMID: 29053725; PMCID: PMC5650159.
  2. Cormie P, McCaulley GO, Triplett NT, McBride JM. Optimal loading for maximal power output during lower-body resistance exercises. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Feb;39(2):340-9. 10.1249/01.mss.0000246993.71599.bf
  3. Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining (6th ed. – Expanded ed). Verkhoshansky ; Distributed by Ultimate Athlete Concepts.

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

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Coach Travis Mash

Travis Mash

Being a World Champion in powerlifting, Travis competed at a world-class level in Olympic weightlifting and has coached professional Olympic weightlifters alongside Don McCauley and Glenn Pendlay at Team MDUSA. Now Travis coaches the most successful weightlifting team in the USA.