By Steve Haggerty and Alex Roberts
If there is one thing an athlete is looking to improve, it’s to become more powerful. Having the necessary size for their sport is good. Strength is needed for the demands of their position and sport as well, but power is the game changer. It’s nice to be the bigger and stronger athlete in a football game, but who can produce their strength quicker? If both linemen can push 500 pounds, the person who can utilize that strength the quickest will win the battle at the line of scrimmage. In baseball and softball, it’s nice to be strong, but how fast can they swing the bat? Lots of force produced too slowly does no good.
Sports all have time constraints—the tennis ball is approaching quickly and the player does not have much time to get set up and produce a big swing. The volleyball gets set in the air and the hitter needs to get off the ground quickly and swing their arm as hard as possible to hit the ball and score. Again, strength and size are prerequisites to even get on the court or field, but power is what separates athletes from the competition.
So…how do we get our athletes more explosive and powerful?
What is Power?
First, we need to understand what power is. Power is defined by Human Kinetics as “a great force production over a short period of time, such as in fast leg kicks and explosive jumping.” In most research, rate of force development is studied instead of power.
Power is often tested with vertical and broad jumps, while rate of force development is measured with isokinetic dynamometers and EMG equipment1. In physics, power is work divided by time (p=w/t) or force multiplied by velocity (p=f*v)—us coaches often think of force as strength and velocity as speed.
In strength and conditioning, power is often found in the middle of the force velocity curve—a combination of both qualities.
For performance coaches, power is best assessed by measuring standing vertical and standing broad jumps and bar speed or medicine ball throwing speed. Getting an athlete to jump higher and farther while they maintain the same bodyweight means they became more powerful. The same can be said for an athlete that put on 10 pounds during the off-season but still jumps the same distance as before. More weight at the same distance means increased power output.Getting an athlete to jump higher and farther while they maintain the same bodyweight means they became more powerful, says @Steve20Haggerty. Click To Tweet
Using something like a Tendo Unit, GymAware, or any other technology that measures bar speed can be a great tool to assess the speed of barbell movements to determine power output. These devices typically indicate how fast a barbell was moving in meters per second (m/s). Any speed between 0.75 and 1 m/s is working directly on power development. Bar speeds faster than that are developing more velocity, and slower bar speeds build more strength. Even utilizing the more affordable velocity-based training method of timing a set can be a useful way to track power improvements (more on this later). If your athlete can bench press 100 pounds at 0.8 m/s and 8 weeks later this athlete can bench press either 120 pounds at 0.8 m/s or 100 pounds at 0.9 m/s, they became more powerful.
How Do Athletes Get More Powerful?
As with any desired adaptation, you must place the athlete’s body under a stress that signals to the body that it must change. Power, by definition, is moving explosively or moving a load as quickly as possible; this explosive movement puts stress on the athlete and, over time, pushes the athlete to improve their power levels. How?
Along with the neurological adaptations that we discussed in our previous article on strength adaptations, the main process for improving power output is improving the firing rate of the muscle fibers. The central nervous system improves the ability to rapidly activate muscle fibers. When it comes to sprinting, jumping, and changing direction on the field and court, the average ground contact time in field sports is 200 milliseconds. That means they do not have a long time to generate force, so their brains need to be very efficient in sending activation messages to their muscles.
Power Adaptations for Beginner Athletes
An athlete is more explosive and powerful if they can move the same weight at a faster speed or if they can move a heavier weight at the same speed. Understanding that power is the combination of strength and speed can easily guide what we need to do with our beginner level athletes. Getting an athlete to produce more force and utilize that force quickly is the goal. They need to get stronger and move faster. Beginner athletes are most often at the middle school and high school levels. The two focuses for these athletes should be:
- Get stronger—power is dependent on force, and you can’t move something quickly if you can’t move it at all. The bar speed of a weight that is too heavy to even lift is 0 m/s—no power output. Since power is dependent on force output, getting stronger is the lowest hanging fruit. If your athlete stays the same bodyweight but can produce more force by using heavier weights, then they are more explosive.
Getting stronger is the easiest way to get more powerful as a beginner, but it does not last forever. At a certain point, being able to produce more force does not improve their ability to produce more force at faster rates. Dr. Matt Rhea found that, in football athletes, one-rep maxes for back squats weighing over 1.7 times the athlete’s bodyweight have very little influence on sprinting speed, and even being able to squat 1.7 times bodyweight only accounts for 24% of the variance. Strength sets the base for power development especially in a beginner athlete—don’t worry, there are more advanced methods to come.
- Explosive movements. For a beginner athlete, this is not the time for WestSide Barbell’s dynamic effort method with speed bench using chains and bands. Not yet. Getting younger, newer athletes to understand how to move objects quickly, including their bodyweight, is important. Utilizing medicine balls and jumps/plyometrics is a great place to begin.
No need for advanced methods with these tools just yet: a variety of hops, jumps, bounds, and skips is not only working the central nervous system’s ability to produce force quickly, but also improving the elastic qualities of the tendons to be able to transfer force efficiently. Yes, the brain tells the muscles to contract, but the muscles of course pull on the tendons which pull on the bones and make the body move. Not only do we want our athletes to be able to activate their muscles quickly, but for that force to be transferred effectively through their tendons. Plyometrics help with both. This is their opportunity to learn how to move their bodies—and other implements like light medicine balls—effectively.
Power Adaptations for Intermediate Athletes
As a coach, once you feel comfortable with an athlete’s relative strength levels, it’s time to start to up the intensity as far as bar speed—utilizing methods such as Olympic lifts and weighted jumps, dynamic effort lifting, lower reps, and bringing in competition. Methods such as these helped two of our college basketball players hit 40-inch vertical jumps this summer.
- Olympic lifts or weighted jumps. This is a step up from medicine ball throws. The goal is still to move a weighted implement as fast as possible with proper technique. Before you get on social media and make your case for which is better—Olympic lifts or weighted jumps—first remember that no one cares. These are tools to use: pick whichever you like best or use both. Olympic lifts and weighted jumps typically have bar speeds of 1.2 to 1.8 m/s, depending on the movement (from the floor, hang, blocks, and snatch versus clean). Hard to find another way to move loads of this weight at those types of speeds.
- Dynamic effort lifting. Similar to using Olympic lifts and weighted jumps, dynamic effort lifting is a great method to move heavier weights explosively. This is an intermediate tool because the athlete first needs good technique and a good foundation of strength for this to be effective. With all of the tools in this intermediate category, the goal is really intent: teaching the athlete the intent to move something as fast and explosively as possible.
The main difference between dynamic effort squatting and doing a power clean is of course that they are different exercises, but squats (and bench presses and deadlifts) are easier movements to implement accommodating resistance. This is important because, when creating a movement (let’s think of a triceps pushdown), the brain has to activate the agonist muscles (triceps) and inhibit the antagonist muscles (biceps). One side of the joint needs to contract, while the other needs to relax to allow the movement to occur. This is still true when moving explosively, but the antagonist muscles get activated towards the end of the movement to keep the joint safe. When doing a triceps pushdown as powerfully as possible, if the biceps do not act as a brake towards the end of the movement, the elbow could hyperextend (or even worse). This is the body’s natural way to keep the joint safe, but it slows down the movement and inhibits the force of the agonist muscle—this is especially true with traditional lifting movements. In exercises where the implement being moved can be released (medicine ball or weighted baseball), this occurs to a much lesser extent.
Utilizing accommodating resistance leads to the weight of the bar getting heavier towards the end range of motion, allowing the agonist muscles to contract closer to the full range of motion before the brain begins to inhibit it and activate the antagonist. So, not only does accommodating resistance force the athlete to push more forcefully throughout the movement, but this tool also allows this to happen from a neurological standpoint.
Video 1. An athlete utilizing accommodating resistance on speed squats.
- Improving power output is about quality repetitions. Just going through the motions of doing trap bar jumps and banded bench presses will not improve explosiveness. Again, it is about intent and getting maximum effort from your athletes. Autoregulation is the method of allowing bar speed to determine the number of sets or repetitions. As a coach, you can prescribe six sets of three repetitions of speed squats at 1 m/s—using technology that actually tracks bar speed would be necessary here.
Athletes all have their good days and days where the weight just feels heavy. Autoregulation is about tracking the bar speed to determine if they should add weight, drop weight, continue to do more sets, or do fewer sets. While I was an intern, Coach Joe Connolly at Arizona State told me to “strike while the iron is hot.” If an athlete is having a good day and the bar speed reflects that, add weight or sets. On the other hand, if their central nervous system is a bit down and the weight is not moving how it should, then it could be a good time to cut the lift and move on to accessories. If the bar speed is not there, they are no longer training the desired adaptation.
- Competition and goals. We should understand the importance of moving as explosively as possible for the improvement of power output. The intermediate athlete is learning all about this. To maintain or even enhance that intent using resources or creativity to create competitions and goals is extremely useful. Since we have written a good amount about using bar speed in this article, just using a bar speed tracking device will create competition on its own—athletes will want to beat their speeds and beat the speeds of those around them, which will lead to greater power adaptations.
Even without the resources to obtain a bar speed tracking device, the the poor man’s velocity-based training can work as well: time the athlete’s set. Have an athlete get ready to do two squat repetitions as fast as they can: start the timer as soon as you see them initiate the first repetition and stop the timer as soon as they complete the second repetition. No, it’s not as accurate as GymAware, but it is still a useful way to get your athletes to compete against the clock. When working with groups all beginning their set at the same time, you can prescribe an amount of time to complete a set and have them try to get as many repetitions as possible in that set. This is an easy way to get athletes to compete against their own previous times as well as their teammates. This can be done for med ball throws by using a radar gun for speed, using a tape measure from throwing distance, or objects overhead for throwing height. Your creativity as a coach allows for endless variations.
Video 2. An athlete using the walkway above as a goal to throw the medicine ball over. Look at the genuine excitement.
Power Adaptations for Advanced Athletes
While preparing football players for the NFL combine or their respective pro days, one of our main goals is power output. Running faster, jumping higher, and jumping farther are all about being explosive and producing force as quickly as possible. To increase power outputs in football players for the combine, and even in professional MMA fighters leading up to a bout, we have used methods like fast overcoming isometrics, contrast training, overspeed eccentrics, drops, oscillating isometrics, and advanced plyometric training.
- Fast overcoming isometric. We discussed this method for improving strength, but this can also be a useful tool for improving power if used in a slightly different manner. Again, an overcoming isometric is pushing or pulling a bar into an unmovable object. This is an amazing way to maximize motor unit recruitment for strength. Using this same technique, but for 2- to 3-second isometrics where the initiation of the exercise is done as fast as possible, is better for training power. Being able to produce a lot of force relative to the athlete’s bodyweight is needed, but typically this is not the limiting factor after the beginner stages.
Advanced athletes typically need to maximize how much force they can produce rapidly. Ground contact time in the 40-yard dash is about 0.1 second and the amount of time an athlete produces force during the vertical and broad jump is around 0.6 second—meaning they do not allow much time to express force. It needs to be done as quickly as possible. This method improves the speed at which the athlete produces force—rate of force development. One caveat is that this needs to be executed safely. If doing a fast-overcoming isometric by pulling a trap bar into pins, make sure the trap bar is already against the pins before maximally pulling. Same for any exercise using this method. If the trap bar is on the ground and the pins are six inches above it, and the athlete rips the 45-pound trap bar from the floor and slams it into unmovable pins, you could be looking at a serious back injury.
- Contrast training. I have heard this method referred to as contrast, French contrast, Canadian ascending/descending, or even simply as a superset. In this method, we want our athletes to perform an exercise that is heavy and forces high motor unit recruitment and then go to an exercise that forces high speed of recruitment.
For this application, it is best to use two similar exercises. Since we are working with elite athletes in this method, we would want to use exercises that are relatively specific to their sport. Power is specific to speed, plane, and coordination, especially with this level of athlete. An example of this method would be a heavy squat for two to three repetitions and then going into band assisted vertical jumps. The recommended rest time between one exercise and the next actually varies quite a bit in the research—some suggest going directly into the next movement and others recommending five minutes of rest.
- Overspeed eccentrics. We have looked at different variations of utilizing eccentrics for specific adaptations in previous articles—targeting improvements in power production, overspeed eccentrics are great for advanced athletes because they force the athlete to absorb and redirect the load faster. This is a method of applying more speed or load in the eccentric phase to create more stored elastic energy and challenge the body’s ability to stop and redirect the force. Overspeed eccentrics is a method of making the eccentric portion of a movement faster than normal, or faster than the concentric portion can be. Examples of this could be as simple as doing a dynamic effort squat and squatting down as fast as possible, having the athlete almost pull themself down into a squat. Another way would be letting go of a weight and catching and reversing its momentum rapidly—I have personally done this with RDL variations (that comes with risk to the spine) by holding the weight at the top position and quickly letting go of the bar, catching, and reversing it back up.
Video 3. Overspeed eccentric RDL.
Another example of overspeed eccentrics we like to use is tossing a medicine ball with a partner. One athlete starts by laying on a bench, the ground, or a foam roller and the standing partner holds a medicine ball several feet above their chest. When the standing partner drops the ball, the working athlete will have to catch and reverse the ball as rapidly as possible.
The last way we have utilized this method is by using more weight on the eccentric than on the concentric. This can be done with weight releasers, although I have never used these (and when I have seen them used, it is typically not done in a rapid eccentric movement). We’ve applied this method by using bands on the eccentric end of a depth jump, releasing the bands at ground contact, and immediately performing a vertical jump. Overspeed eccentrics are used to improve stored elastic energy, particularly of the tendons, and increase speed of the amortization phase of the stretch shortening cycle (the split-second isometric between an eccentric and concentric action).
Video 4. An athlete using bands to pull him into the jump and releasing the bands well before takeoff (the bands are pulling him down eccentrically more than gravity alone).
- Oscillating isometrics. Oscillating isometrics are not truly isometric, but small, rapid pulses done over a small and specific range of motion. These rapid pulsating movements look to increase the firing rate of the muscles as they quickly contract and relax. Both the fast contraction as well as the fast relaxation of muscles is needed to maximize power expression in dynamic movements in sport such as sprinting, jumping, and throwing. This can be done with low loads (10-25% one-rep max), bodyweight, and even band assistance.
- Advanced plyometric techniques. The beginner section of this article looked at explosive movements like medicine ball throws and jumping, bounding, hopping, etc. Common jumps, bounds, and hops are low-level plyometrics, which are one of the best tools a coach can use for improving power in a developing athlete. With advanced athletes, we can up the intensity. Plyometrics like depth jumps, intense bounds, hurdle hops, depth push-ups, and band-assisted push-ups or vertical jumps are some of our favorites. By definition, plyometrics look to improve the amortization phase of a movement. Advanced plyometrics do the same, but in a more intense fashion. At a certain point, there is only so much force that is needed to jump into the air. The goal of these is to do it while spending less time on the ground. Again, its power—applying force quickly.
We have utilized all of these training methods with a variety of different athletes over the years. Power is simple—force and velocity or strength and speed. With the beginner athlete, do not complicate things—get them stronger and moving quickly. As the athlete’s training level improves over the years, you must continue to utilize different and more complex methods to allow the athlete to keep adapting.
Athletes will find out about the more advanced methods on TikTok and Instagram, leading them to beg you to do these exercises. Keeping the ace up your sleeve and waiting to apply the more advanced methods for when they need it will ensure the longevity of your athlete’s development.
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1. Aagaard P, Simonsen EB, Andersen JL, Magnusson P, Dyhre-Poulsen P. 2002. “Increased rate of force development and neural drive of human skeletal muscle following resistance training.” J Appl Physiol. 93(4):1318-26. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00283.2002. PMID: 12235031.
2. Output Sports. Undated. Guide to Velocity Based Training.