Having gone over some more physics, looking at the Olympic lifts, and then looking at ways to potentially modify traditional weight training movements for power training, I finished Categories of Weight Training: Part 13 by explaining that, more often than not, power training is done with methods that allow the implement to be released or thrown into the air as this avoids the issues inherent in most traditional weight room movements.
This usually means exercise where the athlete’s body is being “thrown” into the air (i.e. jumping type exercises) or an implement such as a medicine ball is used. Of course, the Olympic lifts are commonly used for higher load power training but even that assumes the athlete has sufficient competency to do them with loads that generate a training effect.
Before looking at some specific loading parameters and methods in a couple of different sports (every sport has it’s own traditional exercises to train different parts of the force-velocity curve), I need to talk about a few more practical issues and finishing will take two more parts. No joke.
The Importance of Quality
I mention in a previous part of this series that optimal power training is predicated on actually generating maximal (or near-maximal power) as this is likely part of the actual training stimulus. Because of that we actually have two different issues that come up with power training in terms of practical application.
The first is how to actually measure power output. That is, if the goal is to find the load (or loads) to generate maximal power (or perhaps to generate a specific power output), we have to have a way to actually measure power output. And this is not a trivial task because of the physics and math involved.
Related to that is the fact that, if only maximal, or near-maximal power outputs improve an athlete’s power output, we need not only a way of measuring power output but of knowing when it’s fallen below the point where the athlete is generating a training effect.
This isn’t an issue like hypertrophy training where fatigue is actually part of the training stimulus and working to or near that point may help with growth. Even with maximal weight strength training, fatigue and grinding may be somewhat valuable as part of the actual training stimulus. Of course, even metabolic weight training is predicated on specifically generating fatigue; going to that point is what stimulates adaptation.
But in the case of power training, none of those things hold; rather, this is a case where optimal power training of any sort (and this even includes things like sprint training which technically fall outside of the power range but are still important in terms of performance) should only be performed so long as an athlete is generating maximal or near maximal power (or speed in the case of sprint work) and achieving maximum or near maximum quality in their training.
By extension, once power outputs/bar speed/etc. have fallen below a certain point it’s time to end the set or even the workout; the speed or power output being generated is no longer high enough to improve anything and will only add to fatigue. That is, you can’t sacrifice quality for quantity when it comes to power training which means having some way to track the quality of the workout as you go.
Even if the goal is to train power endurance (basically the ability to generate high powers in the face of fatigue), it’s still important to be able to track when the athlete’s power output has fallen below a certain point (if for no other reason than to avoid fatigue when/if technique breaks down). Or conversely, to know when a training effect has been generated and the athlete is improving (i.e. an athlete can output 500 watts for 5 reps now before falling off but is able to output 500 watts for 8 reps later on).
And that brings us to the big technical hurdle in all of this.
We Need a Meter for Power…A Power Meter
And that hurdle is how to accurately measure and track any of this so that training can be monitored or adjusted either within a workout or on a workout to workout/training block basis. To understand why this is important, let’s take a divergence to cycling. Now, anybody familiar with cycling is probably aware that the largest technological change in the sport in recent years is the development of power meters that give immediate measurement of how much power is being generated (I would highly recommend any cyclists read this read DCRainmaker’s incredible guide to power meters).
Methods differ from hubs in the wheel to crank sets to special pedals (and a few others that indirectly measure power); most use some sort of strain gauge a lot of physics to actually measure power output while the cyclist is riding with computers giving instant feedback on current power output and a whole bunch of other metrics that aren’t relevant here. This is what I see when I do my training for example.
This not only lets the athletes know their current power output but allows them to do things like set a given workout at a specific power output (usually set relative to some metric such as Functional Threshold Power which I discussed somewhat here). Of course it makes tracking progress in training possible: you can determine if your power outputs over any time range (from 5 seconds to 3 hours or whatever) is going up (or down), showing where you are or aren’t progressing and what part of your training needs to be changed based on your strength, weaknesses, the demands of your racing, etc.
Additionally, having this type of instantaneous feedback gives the athlete a target to aim for which is motivational in it’s own right. Sometimes pushing yourself in training is tough but watching the number change right in front of you can make you dig a little deeper to keep it from falling. Coach told me to hit 500 watts for 30 seconds and BY GOD I’m going to do it. And then you do. And then he punishes you by making you have to hit a higher number next time.
Finally, having the ability to measure power outputs gives the coach/athlete a way to know when to terminate the workout because they can’t hit their targets. So if the goal is to put out 500 watts for 30 second repeats with a 3 minute rest, you know it’s time to stop the workout when the athlete can only achieve 450 watts or whatever cutoff point is being used. If that means they get 10 repeats, great. If they are cooked at 5, that’s fine too.
This approach is taken to not only assure that the athlete is achieving the goal power outputs but also doesn’t do a bunch of junk intervals that are too low in power output to improve fitness (but will add to fatigue). It also helps to individually dial in training load, with the athlete doing the right amount of work without doing too little or too much (in premise anyhow). It’s a little more accurate than telling everyone to do the same 10 sets of 30″ on 3′ or whatever and hoping it fits them all.
And this would tend to represent the idea for any technology or method to measure power output in the weight room or with the other methods I’ll describe in the last part of this series. It should give you immediate feedback to set workloads, monitor the workout itself, give the athlete a motivational carrot to chase and let you know if you’re progressing.
Which Brings Us to a Problem
And that’s where we run into problems as most power training methods (and here I’ll focus on weight room movements) don’t have that technology developed as of yet. It’s simply an under-developed area of training tech at this point. But let’s look at some of what is out there.
I mentioned explicitly that Australia has developed one or two different racks (one based around a smith machine, one not) that not only allows an athlete to perform traditional weight room exercises in a power fashion but also measures instantaneous power output.
The first benefit of this is letting the coach or athlete determine their individual optimal power training load in whatever movement they are doing. Simply by adjusting the load on the bar and looking at the actual power outputs. Because while 30-70% may be the “power range”, as I mentioned earlier it can actually vary depending on the exercise, the athlete, etc. Being able to measure actual power outputs lets you dial in an optimal load.
These devices also give the athlete feedback on each rep; after peak power output is measured, I believe a ringing sound is made if the athlete makes the goal power output. Like the powermeter example, this gives the athlete a carrot to chase, trying to make the machine go ding so they give it their all every repetition. It also lets them know when they’ve fallen off their goal and should stop the set (inability to make the dinging go off). But nobody reading this is likely to have or to ever see one of these machines unless you’re in Australia, train at the AIS or are insanely wealthy.
So what else is out there? Louie Simmons has written of the Tendo unit, a device which attaches a wire to the end of the barbell and allows for instantaneous power outputs to be measured. I’d mention that Louie pointed out that using the Tendo made him realize how large the range for maximal power output could be for his athletes; with some in the 60-70% range and others having to use 30-40% to hit maximal power outputs. Certainly a useful device to have but at $1600, it’s not something the average lifter or gym is going to be able to afford or will even see unless they train at an insanely well equipped facility.
A similar new device is the Gym Aware, another Australian device that does the same thing; at nearly $2400 American, this is also out of the range of most people. And neither device is usable by more than one person at a time. For folks working with teams, unless everyone is doing the same exercise (the machines have to attach to the bar in use) and switching off, it’s simple not a workable solution at this point.
And that’s all that I’m aware of at this point (please feel free to point out other solutions in the comments that I may not know about; this area is changing daily and I can’t keep up with it all) although it won’t surprise me if someone works out a cheaper solution that allows power to be measured without costing an arm and a leg. But for right now, actual measurement of true power outputs are simply outside the realm of most trainees.
Practical Tracking of Power Training Methods
So where does that leave us? Traditionally coaches have used a combination of intuition and their eyes to judge if things like bar speed, movement speed, etc. are falling or not. While this doesn’t give any real indication of what the power outputs are (or which load might optimize power output since the small differences in bar speed at the loads involved won’t be visible to the eye), you can at least have some idea of when the set should be terminated (when bar/movement speed noticeably slows).
As a practical example, my own speed skating coach typically had us do power work in the weight room as follows (this was after at least one cycle of heavy weights only): he’d have us drop our work weights by 20% (he typically never went lower than 8 reps which is about 80% of max so drop that by 20% and you’re at 60% which is right at the top of the optimal power range) and then do explosive reps; he’d stop us when movement speed was noticeably slower to his trained eye. Optimal? Maybe not but it’s all we had to work with.
In that vein, I will make a comment aimed at uncoached athletes trying to implement this. And this is very difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it (the first time you do you will know exactly what I’m talking about). There is often a feeling that occurs during a set of any power training method when you know that you’re cooked and it’s time to stop. You’re doing your jumps or your throws or your power cleans or whatever and the reps just feel BOOM!, BOOM!, BOOM!, ugh.
You hit that rep where you just feel that all of your pop, explosion, power is gone. That’s when the set ends. If the first rep of the next set feels like that, you’re cooked and it’s time to move to something else. It’s no different than when you’re benching or squatting and the reps go flying up rep after rep and then the hammer comes down from one rep to the next (different movements seem to be more or less sensitive to this). The difference being that it can sometimes be beneficial to go past this point for hypertrophy or strength training but is absolutely NOT for power training.
The same issue, a lack of easy technology to measure true power outputs, holds for most of the other power methods I’m going to describe: there often isn’t any way to truly quantify actual power outputs although that doesn’t make them entirely untrackable in a practical sense.
Sprint/speed work can simply be timed and everyone from track and field coaches to swim coaches to track cycling coaches have used nothing more than timing (either by hand or with timing gates of some sort) to see if the athlete is hitting their goal times, falling off excessively, making progress or losing ground, etc.
This works best for events that are done under highly controlled conditions. Track cycling is usually like that, especially with indoor tracks; so is speed skating (indoor oval) and swimming (pools are fairly consistent in terms of conditions). Track and field can be impacted by winds and road cycling is massively impacted by road conditions and wind (which is why powermeters are so valuable, 400w is 400w even if your speed is massively impacted by the hill you’re climbing or the gale force wind you’re riding into).
Clearly speed or using a timing method is not true power output but gives similar feedback to what I discussed above you can track progress over time (is the athlete getting faster or slower), you can tell if the athlete is too tired to train effectively (can’t get within 90-95% of their best or whatever) and tell when it’s time to end the workout (Charlie Francis described how he’d use his intuition and experience to do the same, noting when an athlete’s footfalls were slowing down slightly; and that meant time to move to another training component).
For medicine ball work, the distance the ball is thrown could be used as one metric to determine when a set or workout shouldn’t be continued (i.e. the athlete is unable to hit a mark set earlier in the workout or at a previous workout). There are some problematic assumptions built in here (i.e. angle of throw is consistent) but it’s at least a rough measure.
Many of the jumping drills that are used lend themselves to similar measurements. Jumps for height can usually be measured in one fashion or another. Vertical jumps have often used a mark on the wall or something above the athlete’s head that they have to try to touch. First you find out the athlete’s current jump height for the day and that’s where the target is set. The goal is to hit the target on each rep and the set is over when they can’t; that jumping drill is done when they can’t hit the target on the first rep.
Jumps up onto a box are one way to know exactly when an athlete isn’t generating sufficient power: when they eat it into the box or wreck their shins, the set is over. I’d generally recommend stopping the set prior to that point (you can tell when the athlete is going from easily clearing the height to barely making it) mind you.
Jumps for distance can also be measured for distance (we used to jump on a running track so I’d always start at the 100m start line and knew exactly how far I went for a given set of reps). So if you cover 100m in your first series of 10 bounds, you can decide when it’s time to stop doing sets (when you only make 90m for example) and you can track progress (when you cover 110m in a set).
Some coaches even use this as a rough measure of the athlete’s readiness to train in the first place. So if they have set some previous mark (i.e. covering 9m in set of 3 frog jumps, or hitting some height for a vertical jump) and they can’t get close after a proper warmup, they do something else that day because they are too tired to train at a level sufficient to improve. Yet another benefit to finding some way to objectively measure this stuff (even if you aren’t measuring actual power output).
Back in the day Olympic lifters used to do pulls to a stick with the goal being to physically hit a stick with the end of the bar. This gave them instant feedback on whether or not they were achieving the bar height that they wanted during the movement. I read somewhere of someone who tied a bell to a length of string and it would only ring if the bar hit a sufficient height (set by the string’s length of course); this lets you know immediately (with a cute little dingle sound) if you’re achieving the goal height (and presumably power output). But it only works for the OL’s.
Warming Up for Power Training
In an attempt to cover every topic unrelated to the actual power training methods (which I’ll detail in the final piece of this) today, I want to talk about warm-ups. Now, in general I imagine most know that there is an inverse relationship between workout intensity and the amount of warmup needed. Want to go jog at 60% of maximum heart rate and you can go right out the door and start running. Want to do singles at 90% of your max and you may need 10-20 minutes of warmups to be ready.
At first glance, the relatively low load intensity of power training (20% for speed, 30-70% for power training) would suggest that less warm-up is needed, especially for the lower loading methods, but this actually isn’t true. Because even at the lower loading levels, the effort is all-out and that requires a more thorough warmup to avoid hurting yourself (think of every time you try to throw a ball all out without a warm-up and nearly throw your shoulder out for example).
Sprinters of all calibers may warm-up for 30-45 minutes prior to full bore speed work for example. They start with a little easy jogging, move into some static or dynamic stretching, some get a quick massage. Then it’s into drills (A and B walks, skips and runs) for various distances before moving into short accelerations across short distances. They may do a few short repeats of increasing speed over 30-40m and then finally be ready for all out speed work. Track cyclists do a similar extensive warmup before full speed work with some easy cycling, gear changing, a few short windups/accels and then finally their all-out speed work with long rest intervals.
Snarkily I’ll mention that you might keep this in mind the next time you do your 20′ HIIT sessions and think it’s “What sprinters do.” A sprinter hasn’t even finished their warm-up in 20 minutes and the actual sprint workout may be 2 hours of mostly standing around doing nothing in between short bouts of 3-8 seconds going all-out.
Now, and I’ll talk about sequencing next time, it’s fairly rare for athletes to do power training of any sort in isolation. It tends to come after other work (technical or speed work) or before other work (usually heavier weight training). So there is often already a warm-up phase involved. If you’ve already done sprints, you’re probably good and warmed up for jumping or whatever. If you’ve already doing jumping, you may not need much to be ready for power cleans.
Even there, a specific warmup of the movement involving sub-maximal but progressive loads is a very good idea; sometimes lighter power movements can be used as a warm-up for the more intense stuff with exercises moving from easier to harder. This can be the movement being done at a lower intensity (i.e. a 50m sprint at 75% maximal speed, a 50m sprint at 85% maximal speed, a 50m sprint at 95% of max) or even a lower intensity drill (i.e. a lower intensity jumping drill as a warm-up for something more intense).
Ok, one more topic.
Sets, Reps, Rest Periods
As the final topic I want to cover before (finally) getting to the different types of power training in the final part of this series, I want to talk a little bit about sets, reps and progression in power training. Because while each different type of power training on the curve often has it’s own standard loading patterns, you honestly find that they are more similar than not.
The body can really only generate maximal power for about 6-8 seconds (which is how long you can rely predominantly on the ATP/CP energy pathway; and yes creatine does enhance this duration a little bit). Anything much longer than that is getting into anaerobic glycolysis and power outputs fall. So in a practical sense you tend to find most power methods set, by distance, time, or repetition count to last about that long.
I’d note that there is a similar capacity called power endurance which has to do with maintaining power for more extended periods, and you might see sets in the 15-30 second range with slightly sub-maximal loads (most sports that have a large power endurance component tend to be on the shorter end of things) which is smack in the middle of anaerobic glycolysis.
Set duration impacts on rest periods which tend to be relatively long (especially in terms of the ratio of rest:work). An all-out set of 6-8 seconds might get a 3 minute or greater rest interval. It takes longer than that for full ATP resynthesis and there is also a neural and psychological component (getting your head into the game to produce maximally). At the extremes, some sports for some types of training may use rests of 10-30 minutes for truly maximal work. In contrast, power drills that aren’t quite as intensive may only require a minute or two between reps.
Sets can vary of course but, for the most part, tend to be towards the lower end of the volume range (except for the most amazing of athletes). Frequently multiple exercises within a given category are being done (i.e. multiple different medicine ball throws or jumping drills) and that means fewer sets of any given exercise. There is also the quality issue I talked about previously; the goal of power training is maximal power outputs and that simply can’t be sustained for long time periods. If you can do 10 sets of a power exercise, you’re either not giving it your all during the sets or you’re a member of the X-men.
Most athletes are usually doing power training as part of an overall workout (I’ll save sequencing for the final section of the final part), either being done after skills or speed work or before heavier strength work or what have you. Clearly you can’t spend all day doing power training if you’ve done other stuff in training or have other stuff yet to do.
Of course, the athlete’s training status, fatigue level all play a role here. Higher levels athletes can usually do more high quality training than lower and most coaches will adjust the volume based on that (along with adjusting it during the workout based on what they see or measure). Even there, generally you just don’t see massive volumes of this type of training being done, if for no other reason than it’s usually being done on top of other training (skill training, maximum strength work, work capacity, endurance, etc. depending on the sport).
Mind you each specific type of loading can have a slightly different twist on the above theme in terms of sets, reps, rest but that’s something to be saved for actual discussion of the methods themselves. And that IS where this will pick up next time, I’m done with all of this background nonsense and will jump straight into the actual power training methods. And finish. No, I mean it.
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 10
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 11
- Steady State vs. Tempo Training and Fat Loss – Q&A
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 12
- Methods of Endurance Training: 2011 Season Part 11