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Categories of Weight Training: Part 11

Ok, continuing from Categories of Weight Training: Part 10, I want to continue to talk about power training methods.  I should probably mention that a big part of the adaptations from power training methods have to do with the nervous system (of course the muscles are always involved), primarily in “teaching” it to generate force quickly through various mechanisms that I won’t bore you with. It will probably also turn out that there are long term adaptations in the muscle (to connective tissue, or titin or whatever) that also occur but for now, it’s easiest to just think of it as a primary neural effect.

So last time I looked at some basic definitions of Rate of Force Development (RFD), talked about what power means and where it is maximally expressed (somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of high force/slow speed and low force/high speed).

Intensity Revisited

I finished by touching on the first loading parameter for power training, intensity, discussing that studies had found a range of roughly 30-70% of maximum for being the place where maximal power is produced/required. It’s worth noting that the premise is that the intensity that allows you to generate the highest power output is what will improve your power output to the greatest degree.  Certainly this isn’t completely true and there is always overlap between one category of training but the general premise still holds.

I should go ahead and mention that endless studies, looked at in the aggregate, lead to the conclusion that what percentage of load generates the highest power tends to depend on the training status of the individual (more trained can usually use higher loads), the exercise chose (compound exercises can handle higher loading than isolation) and lower body movements can usually be trained at a higher percentage than upper body.

But even that really isn’t sufficient for what I want to talk about.  As you’ll soon see modern training theory actually divides power training into several different categories depending on where they fall in that range, what primary adaptation they generate, and what training methods are optimal for developing them.

I’ll note that the scope of what I want to talk about is such that I’ve been having problems all week trying to figure out the best way to  present the information I want to present.  And it finally dawned on me this morning, while walking my doges, that trying to discuss this topic in the same way I discussed the other categories of weight training (in terms of volume, exercise selection, etc.) just wasn’t going to work and would end up being even more gibberish that what I usually put out.  So I’m taking another tack.

First I want to revisit the power curve and something called the force-velocity curve along with outlining, in a very general way, the different types of training that fall under the heading of “power training” methods (i.e. that fall somewhere in that rough range from 30-70% although I’ll touch on intensities outside of that).  I’ll use that to talk a little bit about sports specific application of all of this because now I just want this article out of my life and I want the weekend to get this series back under control.

The Force-Velocity Curve

.In the previous piece of this series, I presented a power curve showing that maximal power output occurs somewhere in the middle range of intensities (between high force/slow speed movements and high speed/low force movements), commenting generally that an intensity of 30-70% of maximum force output (which you can consider to be 1 repetition maximum strength for all practical purposes).

Of course, that’s a fairly wide range of intensities and, as with hypertrophy training (ranging from 60-80/85% of max), it seems reasonable to assume that differential adaptations might occur at different places on that curve (and by extension that different training methods might be optimal).

Now in the early days of sports, really when the Russians started to come into power, the idea that was analogous to what I’m talking about here was something called speed-strength.  That is in contrast to pure grindy/slow strength (which is what athletes in the US were still fixated on as I discussed in the overwritten Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting series), the Soviets were clearly doing something different.

That something was focusing more on speed of movement, although still  with high loads.  Hence the combination of moving high loads but with a higher speed component became known as speed-strength training (this also included plyometric training, possibly one of the most mis-used/abused forms of training ever).

But over the years it became clear that that wasn’t a sufficient delineation to cover the different adaptations that occur and training methods would get more and more detailed.And to understand that it’s best to revisit my original power curve but look at something that was kind of “hidden” in the original which is the Force-Velocity curve.

This is a curve showing the relationship between force output and velocity of movement with the general idea being that there is an inverse relationship between the two in terms of muscular function.   At higher contraction velocities, less force is produced; at slow contraction velocities, more force can be produced.

I’ve added a few other things to this curve, mainly to avoid padding out the article by repeating it endlessly with small additions each time.  At the top I’ve indicated the rough percentages (again, of maximum force output which you can consider synonymous with 1RM) where the different types of training fall.  I’ve also shown where the different types of training (speed, speed-strength, power, strength-speed, strength) fall on that curve along with general loading ranges.  More details appear below the graph.

Force Velocity Power Curve

So in the bottom right you have your typical maximal strength training; high force but low velocity (at the very extreme of this would be isometric training which is technically zero velocity and hits the X axis) at that roughly 85%+ of maximum force that I detailed previously.

As you move to the left and up you get to what is called strength-speed training; this is training that still requires high forces but has a higher speed component.  The primary focus is strength but with a higher speed element.  This falls right at the top of the power range (70%) and can even go a little bit higher (80%) depending on if the emphasis is speed or strength.   You will also see this referred to as high-load power.

Next up is pure power training methods, falling about where power production peaks between 30-70%; think of it as the halfway point between strength and speed.  Next up is speeed-strength; the emphasis is on speed of movement but with a higher force component as well, falling at the lower end of the power range, about 30% or even a little bit less.  You’ll see this referred to as low-load power sometimes.  Finally is pure speed training which is lowest in force and highest in velocity of movement.  The focus is just on speed of movement and may require forces of 20% of maximum or lower.

Now I’m not going to talk about the different methods to train each of these right now since I need to make a bunch of other comments first.  This is just the background for all of that.

Sports Specific Applications

.In Part 10 of this series, I mentioned that most of what I’m talking about right now is the most applicable to athlete training with relatively less relevance to physique athletes or the general public (even if a loss of muscular power is a problem for older folks there is still the safety issue of applying power training methods to that population).  And now is as good a time as any to make some specific commentary about that.

Because clearly sports differ in their overall requirements for maximal strength, power, speed of movement, endurance, etc.  Without going into a full needs analysis for sports, I do think it’s worth making some comments about how certain types of sports may or may not benefit from the different methods listed above.

Strength or Speed Dominant Sports

In general, sports with a higher force component (typically involving heavier implements or bigger individuals projecting themselves through space) tend to not only require more maximal strength but also tend to emphasize training nearer the strength-speed end of the force-velocity curve; speed-strength and pure speed just aren’t as relevant since movements speeds aren’t that high.    A shot putter might be one example: the shot is relatively heavy and the thrower is projecting himself across the ring (and putters are usually big boys) and translating that momentum into the throwing the shot.

In contrast, events which are more speed biased (often involving lighter implements or smaller athletes) tend to require less maximum strength (you don’t see the same high strength levels sought or achieved) and strength-speed and you see relatively more speed-strength training.  Javelin or even discus would be a good example, events where the implement is fairly light and speed of movement is more dominant than strength. Javelin throwers are typically smaller and there is the added factor of the sprint leading up to the throw so they need raw speed as well.


Of course many sports have multiple requirements which may span the full length of the force-velocity curve.  Consider something like the 100m sprint where the start requires the athlete to overcome inertia out of the blocks (requiring high initial forces at relatively slower movement speeds), transitioning through the acceleration/drive phase (requiring high power outputs) to all out speed (top sprinters get in the range of 4.7 foot strikes per second, with a few getting above 5 per second and that’s means that each individual foot strike is only occurring for a tiny amount of time).

Track cycling is another example where the high gearing requires huge maximum strength to get the bike moving (240-260kg/550+ pound squats are not uncommon for track cyclists), huge power outputs to accelerate and then insane top speeds (cadences of 150+ RPM or roughly 2.5 revolutions per second).    The nature of the sport causes it to range across all parts of the force-velocity curve.

In those types of sports, athlete typically work across the entire force velocity curve to one degree or another and coaches often select training focus depending on an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.  So, in elite track cycling, you might see a mixture of pure speed, low-load power, high-load power and maximal strength methods used in varying combinations (or at different times of the year, or to fix a weakness for a given athlete).

Mixed Sports

Mixed sports (mostly team sports but also things like MMA, boxing or even strongman) which require a mix of strength, power and endurance tend to be highly variable depending on the sport, the position the athlete is playing, the individual athlete, and their strengths and weaknesses.   How that training is sequenced (sequentially, concurrently) depends on the coach, their philosophy, and is well beyond the scope of this article.

So an American football lineman is not only big himself but is trying to push around a large individual (meaning the “implement” he is working, the opposing lineman with is quite heavy) which means that his strength/power requirements are far more to the right side of the curve.  More maximum strength, more high-load power is going to be necessary because of his own size, the size of the other linemen and the type of movement he’s doing.

In contrast, a receiver or running back is effectively a sprinter in pads who has to cut, moving predominantly his own body.  The pads of course change things but his requirements are going to be towards the left side of the curve with more speed, etc. being relevant.

For a sport like baseball, where the implements are either the athlete (running speed is paramount) or a light ball or bat, the requirements for maximum strength or strength-speed won’t be nearly as important as speed and speed-strength (maybe power).  Mostly it’s about keeping the athlete in one piece over the insane competition schedule.

For completeness, I should mention soccer/European football where the only training requirement appears to be the ability to fall over like a stuck pig if someone so much as breathes heavily in your direction.  And that’s mainly an issue of learning to be a dramatic actor than anything you can do in the gym.  Ok, a touch more seriously, the ball is light (hence not huge strength requirements) as are the athletes and most of the training will be more along the left side of the speed/speed-strength continuum.  Most of the training is just injury prevention.

Rugby actually is sort of in the middle of all of this mess.  It’s got higher strength requirements than soccer, basketball or baseball (due to the nature of the scrum and the general physicality of the sport) but lower than American football since the athletes are a bit smaller (due to having to run constantly).  It’s still going to be more on the strength-speed/strength end of things but running speed is still important and the speed-strength and power methods may still be relevant.I think you get the idea (mixed sports always have the most variable training requirements).

Endurance Sports

When you get to endurance sports, much of this becomes fairly irrelevant although there are exceptions.  Rowers need a large amount of strength for the start of the event (high forces against quasi-isokinetic resistance from the water) and most tend to be fairly strong (rowing also has weight classes and heavyweight rowers are big boys although much of that is balanced by the boat sliding across the water and gravity not being an issue).   Of course, rowing races also last only 6 minutes and are on the very short end of endurance events (rowers still do a ton of base aerobic work).

Runners have been shown to benefit from certain types of power training but it’s also a sport relying on elastic recoil to generate force so this makes some sense.   Cycling is more questionable as even high power outputs (outside of track sprinting) don’t require much muscular force.  Studies sometimes find a benefit but few elite cyclists lift (of course they ride in the mountains which may have a similar sports specific effect).  Swimming is even more confusing and different types of strength and power training methods seem to come in and out of vogue there so I won’t comment.

And that’s actually where I’ll wrap this today.  I had the worst time writing this piece and it’s as good as it’s going to get.  Next time I’ll bore you with a bunch of physics so that I can finally cover the actual methods of training the different types of power: speed-strength, power and strength-speed.


Read Categories of Weight Training: Part 12

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