Before finishing up this series (and today is long), I want to point out that a couple of people mentioned some current tech/apps that claim to measure power output. Longtime Internets buddy Jon Kolz mentioned BarSense an Android app claiming to measure a variety of things in the gym while Sam Dao mentioned PushStrength which is an armband promising the same. If anybody has experience, please leave a comment.
And, at long last, having spent altogether too many parts of this nonsense boring people senseless with background information, physics they didn’t care about (and I got marginally wrong as often as not, check the comments on Part 12 for some corrections folks were nice enough to make) finally culminating in a discussion of things like warming up, sets, reps, rest intervals and tracking last time it is finally time to talk about practical application of various power methods.
Now you’ll recall from what seems ages ago I presented the force-velocity curve and placed different types of training means (speed, speed-strength, power, strength-speed, strength) on it ranging the continuum from high speed/low force to low speed/high-force. Now it’s time to revisit that concept and finally look at things in a practical sense.
Revisiting the Force-Velocity Curve and Practical Application
So with all of that finally out of the way, let me revisit the force-velocity curve from last time with another added set of categories: these are the actual training methods used in the training of track and field sprinters in terms of where they fall onto the curve. And note that I didn’t try to put every specific training method at an exact place in terms of percentages of what have you. This is one big-ass continuum with things moving from one category into the next: the distinctions are primarily for convenience and ease of discussion.
Also realize/understand that every sport has it’s own, slightly different version of this curve, usually representing elements specific to the sport. More often it represents sports having found which movements are best given the specific needs of that sport in terms of movement patterns, etc. There tends to be more commonalities and differences but each sport does usually show slight differences (along with differences of emphasis of the different categories as I talked about before).
Note, the final category may be confusing, it means powerlifting or heavy lifting. For each of the categories of training, I’m going to describe in brief what typical loading parameters might be for each of the methods in terms of fairly typical sets, reps and rest periods, along with comments about tracking progress (where applicable). I’ll wrap-up with a few general comments about programming, strength levels and progression. And this will be long.
Ok, let’s get this out front, I’m not a sprint coach. I’m passingly familiar with the methodology but that’s it so take this information with those qualifications (I ran this past my sprint coach buddy Derek Hansen to make sure it wasn’t too wrong).
For track and field sprinters, pure sprinting is done over very short distances (30-80m) and durations (3-8 seconds or utilizing the pure ATP/CP energetic system) with the focus being on maximal speed (even 95% speed isn’t the same as 100% and most modern training approaches has true speed training being done at maximum possible speed). Note that for an elite sprinter in the realm of a 10 second 100m, 30-80 meters is coverable in about 3-8 seconds (this will depend on if they do a standing or rolling start which affects their entry speed).
Contrary to how most seem to think sprinters train (see my snarky comment from last time), rests between individual repetitions tend to be fairly long with work:rest ratios of 30-50:1. So for 6 seconds work you might rest 300 seconds or 5 minutes (even 30:1 is 180 seconds or three minutes rest). So 6 seconds all out; stand around for 5 minutes (or more). Some coaches use even longer rests than that, 5-6 minutes for 30m block starts and 10 minutes at 60m. So it’s 6 seconds of maximum work and then 10 minutes of rest.
For 3 seconds work, you’re looking at 90-150 seconds rest (so nearly 2.5 minutes). When reps get outside of pure speed and into speed endurance rests between sets can get up to 10-20 minutes. So run 200m all out (20 seconds or so) and then rest for 20 minutes. Most pure sprinters seem to spend most of their workout standing around and if you actually watch them train and workouts may range 2+ hours with warmups and the total amount of actual work done is a few minutes tops when it’s all added up.
Because the emphasis is on absolute quality, the volumes or speed training are generally very low as well. You can do quality or quantity, you can’t do both. In his Charlie Francis Training System, Francis lists 6-8 reps for 30m sprints, 5-6 for 50m sprints going as low as 3-4 reps for 80m sprints with a full sprint workout (and remember that these were elites who were using anabolics) being 2X50m strides (a warm-up) to 4-8X30m fast followed by 2-4X60m with full rest. Modern sprint approaches are very similar.
So an elite sprinter is doing maybe 6-12 full speed repetitions in a given workout. That are 6-8 seconds in length tops. Maybe 96 seconds of total all out work. Which may take upwards of 2 hours to complete when you count warm-ups, drills, rest intervals, etc. Again, keep that in mind when you’re “training like a sprinter” and doing 20 minutes of intervals.
And this really holds true for all sports that do pure sprint work with work bouts lasting 6-8 seconds tops (even at 8 seconds you’re getting into speed endurance). Rowers might do 6-8 seconds (tops) at maximum stroke ratings, effort and speed to develop top speed, swimmers are doing maybe 12.5-25 meters (taking about that same 6-8 seconds) all out.
Track cyclists at the elite level often take the above work to rest intervals to extremes because they have to get up to speed first before they launch all-out and that means they are working for longer. At one point the Australian track cycling team was doing roughly 4 total repeats (of 6 second apiece after being towed up to speed by a motorcycle) with a 30 minute rest between efforts on their speed days. So 2 hours not including warmups to do roughly 24 seconds of total work.
Mind you, that’s at the elite level and lower level trackies don’t go quite to that extreme since they don’t have the capacity to quite as all out. Rather they might get 3-4 hard efforts in a 20 minute “block of training” before taking a 20 minute break before the next block. It’s still very low density training and in a typical 2 hour workout, you spend most of it doing nothing beyond noodling around in a tiny gear waiting until you’re ready to go give it your all for a few seconds. The same would hold true for other sprinters, more volume may be done to offset the inability to really produce at 100% and get in the practice. Volumes are still low with long rest.
In any case, the focus of sprint training is pure speed (acceleration is a different characteristic) and the goal is of course maximal speed (within technical limits). Tracking is therefore generally done with timing of some sort (on the track you can use speed although the stopwatch is good too) and I talked about how this is used to track individual workouts along with progress in the last part.
If an athlete can’t hit target times at the start of the workout, they are too tired to train at a level to get faster. If they start to fall off from their goal speeds, they are no longer running quickly enough to get faster. The nature of speed training is that 4 quality repetitions at full speed are more or less better than just about any number of lower quality repetitions, at least if the goal is improving top speed (for speed endurance you do more repeats but submaximally).
Depending on the sport, true sprint may work may be done anywhere from 1-3 times per week. Track and field athletes tend to have the lowest frequency of pure speed training due to the pounding that it puts on the body (unless they are very robust, have very good physio or are on drugs they tend to break if they do a lot of sprint training).
Swimming is probably the sport where an athlete could do the most true speed work due to the low impact/low efficiency of the activity. Athletes bodies don’t take a physical pounding from speed work and humans suck so hard at swimming that it’s difficult to dig too deep. Elite track cyclists can be right up there and may have 3-4 full speed days depending on the time of year. But in track cycling the only risk during speed training is crashing and getting big old splinters in your butt (mind you, the high gears used in speed training can tear up knees if you’re not adapted).
It’s worth mentioning that speed is very difficult to train and progress there is grindingly slow. You can’t expect progress in any reasonable time frame except for total beginners and athletes may grind away for a year to get a tiny improvement. In recent years, most sports with a very high top speed component find athletes training speed nearly year round for this reason. You see a few weeks break-in after the off-season and then it’s full speed all the time.
Top speed simply has massive neural, muscular and technical/coordinative effects which take forever to improve and which are lost almost immediately if you stop training them. You train it year round, make inconsequential gains, and lose those gains if you stop training for even a short period.
Resisted Sprints (Speed)
Pretty much everything I wrote above about sprints holds for resisted sprints in terms of sets, reps, rest periods and tracking progress (sets are probably a tiny bit lower since the load is a tiny bit higher). Clearly the application of resistance moves them slightly higher on the force-velocity curve but the resistance is never that high for the most part. Dragging sleds are one way to resist running sprints (the Jamaicans apparently do a lot of this), and there are other devices to physically slow the sprinter (usually physical devices that attach to the athlete), you can also sprint uphill although this changes the mechanics of the movement.
Other athletes do similar things, swimmers may wear an extra suit or even use a small parachute or something to give themselves a bigger resistance profile in the water but the sprint drills are still performed identically (all out over short distances/durations). I imagine rowers do the same thing with by attaching something to the boat to increase water resistance.
Cyclists often go uphill or do sprint work where they get up to speed behind something else and then deliberately move out of the draft while trying to maintain speed against the now drastically increased wind resistance. Even riding with your jersey unzipped or with a non-aero shirt increases wind resistance (the primary source of resistance cycling) significantly. They can also use a bigger gear than normal which changes the force requirements a bit but I’m not getting into that here.
As a general concept high resistances aren’t used since they tend to drastically impact the mechanics of the athlete (running uphill is different than running on the flat for example) as even fairly small loads can alter running mechanics. The athlete may push in a slightly different direction, or change their torso posture, stride length and frequency can change and move too far away from proper sprint mechanics.
This is especially true for sprinting but can certainly hold true for other sports as well. A swimmer’s stroke length or frequency may change or they may change the direction they are pulling if the resistance is too high, I imagine rowing technique could change (rowers please chime in); in speed skating, even small parachutes or towing another skater tends to make skaters push back instead of sideways and there’s little to no transfer to actual skating.
The classic rule of thumb has been to use a resistance that is sufficient to slow the athlete by maybe 10% maximum or so (some also recommend no more than 10% of the athlete’s weight as resistance); anything more is felt to negatively impact technique. So an athlete running 3 seconds over 30 meters wouldn’t use a resistance that slowed them to more than 3.3 seconds and this clearly requires very accurate timing. At 10% of weight, an 80kg athlete (176 pounds) is using 8kg.
From what I can tell, resisted type sprint workouts aren’t done nearly as frequently as pure sprint training simply for the reason that it can change mechanics and disallows the maximum speed mechanics that are so crucial to develop neurally. It seems to be an occasional thing at most.
Athletes can also do contrast workouts, doing several reps against resistance and then doing them without the resistance as this often has an effect that potentiates the unresisted work (similar to how lifting a heavy suitcase always makes you throw the light one into the air when you try to pick it up). Typically you finish with at least one unresisted repetition to make sure that that is the rep that the nervous system “remembers”.
Plyos/Jumps (Speed-Strength/Low-Load Power)
Moving up the force-velocity curve we come to the category of plyometrics and jumps and enter the speed-strength/low-load power category of training. Strictly speaking these are different things (plyometrics originally referred only to depth jumps but the name was co-opted to include all jumps, Mel Siff details this exhaustively in Supertraining) but I’m grouping them together. Plyometric training has long been described as the “Bridge between strength and speed” and where it falls on the force-velocity curve sort of shows why that’s the case.
Jumping of course uses the athlete’s bodyweight as resistance and the general goal is to propel the body either directly up or up and forward (which is why it’s different than sprinting where pure forward motion is the goal). Jumping generally relies on the Stretch Shorten Cycle (SSC) which I just do not have space to get into in this already too long series.
In short accept that force is generated by both muscular output as well as what are called elastic components in the body this includes connective tissues and tendons (you will hear some coaches talk of developing “elastic strength” and this is what they are talking about). When you lose those elastic tissues, they store energy; if you rebound quickly enough you get an energy return. It’s not “free” but it produces force that doesn’t require your muscles to work harder.
It’s fair to say that most sporting movements rely to some degree on the SSC (the deadlift and OL’s which stop from the floor are notable exceptions although some lifters do a dynamic start to try and harness the SSC by loading the tissues with a quick dip before pulling). As I wrote about in another context, kangaroos actually harness the elastic recoil of their Achilles tendon to jump with essentially no muscular action which lets them do it forever. Guys bouncing the stack on a calf raise machine are doing the same thing which is why their calves don’t grow; they are using mostly elastic recoil to move the weight and their muscles aren’t much actual work.
Over time, jumping/plyometric drills, in addition to any effect they have on neural and muscular factors probably have an effect on those elastic tissues. At least one top high jumper has been found, for example, to have an achilles tendon that has strengthened/tightened over years of training and this probably helps him get over the bar (this might explain long-term changes in things like running efficiency over years of training, long after VO2 and lactate threshold have stopped improving, changes in elastic tissues still let the runner go faster for the same effort). Adaptations in other tissues like titin and the various connecting elements in muscle may also adapt in the very long term.
Because of this, one of the goals of most jump training is to harness the SSC and most jumps go from a rapid eccentric to what is called the amortization phase (stopping the eccentric and hitting an isometric muscle action) before reversing rapidly into a concentric action. It’s that rapid switch that is a big key to the movement and their effectiveness.
For that reason, a general goal with jumps/plyos is to rapidly change from landing to jumping and athletes are cued to imagine that the ground is on fire and to try to spend as little time there as possible although there are drills that have a longer push phase. But for the most part, short ground contact times and a rapid switching from eccentric to concentric is the goal.
Mind you this category probably spans the greatest diversity of movements ranging from simple preparatory movements (ankle hops, side to side ankle hops which are good for warmups and preparing joints) to depth jumps (stepping off a box anywhere up to 1m, landing and attempting to jump as high as possible) with everything in between. You can do bounds for height, bounds for distance and speed bounding.
There are one leg drills, two leg drills and combination drills. There are frog jumps, tuck jumps, speed skating has it’s own set of awful drills all done in the skating position (with a rounded low back) and usually off of one leg and, as often as not, onto the other. Elite Australian track cyclists are often capable of multiple 1-leg jumps up onto a 1m (3.3 foot box) which is simply insane.
I’d note again that there are upper body movements that sort of belong into this category but they aren’t nearly as numerous for a number of reasons. Explosive pushups are probably one everyone can imagine but you can do similar things with some pulling movements. By and large, most of the exercises are lower body since most sports are lower body dominant.
There are dozens of books on the topic describing endless drills and I couldn’t begin to detail everything here. Every sport has it’s own sets of movements and preferences and much of it is finding which drills are similar to the sport in question, what train what you want to train, the athlete’s development, etc, etc.
A good coach will stop an athlete when it’s clear they have had enough, or just program lower volumes (especially as jumps are usually done in addition to a lot of other stuff). For example, My coach would always start us with one set of low reps (5-8 reps) on an exercise at the beginning of the year and we might do 3-4 exercises that first workout. Over weeks, he’d gradually add reps (up to maybe 12-15 to work more power endurance), sets (maybe 2 total) and add in harder exercises. But that was over like a 20 week general preparation phase. This is never a fast process.
Sets and reps tend to vary massively on jumping for this reason. Simple preparatory jumps like ankle bounces might be done for sets of 20 with no more than a 1 minute rest because they are so low intensity and mostly for warmup and to get the athlete thinking in terms of not staying on the ground long (I found that they warmed up my ankles in the cold oval before harder jumps). Higher intensity jumps, up onto a high box might be done for sets of 5 (elite athletes might be get 12 but here again you have a situation where failing to make the jump means the set is over) with a 3′ or more rest period to ensure the highest quality.
Bounding can be done for reps (i.e. 8-12 reps per leg or 16-24 reps total) or for distance (50-100m) and I mentioned that tracking can be done by looking at the distance covered for a lot of these types of jumps. If you’re getting far out of the ATP/CP phase (about 6-8 seconds), the sets may be too long although some of the longer bounding exceeds this. If you’re getting into a lot of acidosis, your sets are way too long.
When in doubt with plyometrics, do less rather than more especially given the injury potential. Too many injuries have and continue to occur with them as overzealous athletes (or their coaches) try to do a ton of volume, far past where they can maintain technical quality and they end up blowing a knee or ankle. This is very true for one legged drills, either jumping or landing; if you’re tired and your knee or ankle break in during these types of jumps, catastrophic injury can occur.
I’d note that I think the idea of a continuous plyometric class or workout is just an utter bastardization of the concept. You can’t do quality training when you’re tired and running people around for 60 minutes of “plyometrics” is just so stupid as to defy understanding. Mind you they typically pick lower intensity nonsense drills but the concept itself is stupid (as is making plyometrics part of a WOD/high-fatigue cycle and trying to do repeat high box jumps at the end of a fatiguing cycle of exercises). The point of jumps is maximum quality and that means not doing them when you’re tired.
I should also mention that the surface upon which you do these types of drills matter. A lot of athletes found out the hard way (with broken ankles and blown knees) that even a typical hardwood basketball floor is too unyielding to do the exercises. Of course you can go outside onto softer ground but all it takes is one hole in the ground or something that throws off your jumps to really ruin your day. The ideal is probably a rubber gym flooring or wrestling mat, something that gives a little bit of give but isn’t so soft that you can’t get a good fast rebound.
So far as tracking or progress, usually that comes with slight increases in loading (see weighted jumps down below), you can very gradually increase jump height (i.e. the object the athlete has to jump on or over) but this is one of those very slow processes and you can’t expect to improve very quickly. Sets and reps can be added very gradually so long as quality is maintained and the biggest progression is probably simply from lower intensity to higher intensity drills (get one of the endless books off of Amazon).
Medicine Ball Throws (Power)
It might seem odd that medicine balls are higher on the force-velocity curve than jumping (since bodyweight is clearly higher than a medicine ball weight) but a great many medicine ball drills actually involve moving the body with the athlete propelling themselves/bodyweight to some degree and then finishing by throwing the medicine ball (forward, up, behind them, etc) so the load is often marginally higher. It’s probably more accurate to say that medicine ball drills span a range from lighter than jumping drills to heavier, just depending on the exercise. Remember that this is all a continuum.
For an average sized athlete, you might be looking at a 2-5kg (4-11 pound) medicine ball so realize that this isn’t a huge increase in resistance from jumps (maybe 5% of bodyweight); bigger boys can use bigger medicine balls of course. It’s simply that the force required to impart maximal acceleration on the ball is higher than just bodyweight.
Once again, medicine ball throws tend to defy a lot of description as there are so many drills out there with every sport having their own favorites and there being about a bazillion exercises to pick from. Certainly not are all done explosively (i.e. rotational movements for torso training are generally done for endurance) but the throws usually involve the athlete doing something like squatting down before exploding up to throw the ball up and behind them for height/distance.
An extension pattern might have the athlete doing what amounts to a KB swing with the ball between their legs before extending up and back and throwing the ball straight up or behind them (some modern designs have handles to facilitate this). A flexion pattern might have the athlete bend slightly backwards before exploding forwards and throwing the ball. Or squatting down and jumping forwards as they throw the ball.
Rotational patterns can be throws to the side involving full body rotation or just the torso. Abs can be trained in flexion by holding a ball overhead and exploding down and spiking it into the ground. Or thrown down at an angle for obliques, or throw back and at an angle like a woodchop. Or….I think you get the idea. If you can come up with a pattern that lets you release the medicine ball at the end of it, you’ve got a medball throw.
There are some upper body specific med ball exercises, usually set up to eliminate the lower body contribution. Usually done kneeling or what have you, these focus just on the upper body, usually for sports which have more of an upper body component (and or to ensure that the athlete gets a good “finish” with the upper body).
So, a shotputter might do two arm or one-arm throws (with a lighter ball) for this reason; a javelin/discus thrower might do the same focusing on the weird shoulder extension/rebound that they use to finish the throw. Newer medicine “balls” that have a handle faciliate this in more recent years.
Reps for medicine ball throws are typically in a fairly standard 8-10 range or so with total sets depending on the athlete, how many movements they are doing, and they ability to maintain high quality of training. Three to four sets of any single exercise is probably more than plenty and even less might be done if a lot of different movements are being performed. An athlete who wants to work 10 different movement patterns might only do 1-2 sets of each one.
Most medicine balls throws give a short break between repetitions (as the ball is retrieved, and throwing against a wall or rebounder is often done to avoid having to chase the ball down) so the fatigue profile is a little bit different than say a set of jumps or bounds where the reps are done right after another.
Many medicine ball exercises work better as a partner drill. So you throw the ball towards/at them. They pick it up and throw it back. It gives you a concrete target and saves you having to fetch the ball over and over again. This also allows for some tracking of quality: if you’re doing a drill and you and your partner are some fixed distance apart and you suddenly can’t make the throw distance, it’s time to stop the set. If you use the same distance at each workout, you can get an idea of when you’re improving (you start throwing past them) or regressing (you can’t make the throws at all)
Tracking beyond that can be difficult and you sort of have to use that qualitative feeling where you go from just manhandling the implement to “Oh crap, I’m cooked” from one rep to another or one set to another.
Progression on medicine ball work is rarely accomplished through increases in implement weight as even small changes really change the nature of the exercise since it’s such a large percentage of the ball weight (i.e. a 1kg increase on a 4kg ball is a 25% increase which is huge). Like with jumps it would be more common to gradually add sets and reps or just use higher intensity movements as athletes were showing that they could handle the lower loading/easier exercises. Like with jumps, this is a slow tedious process.
Weighted Jumps (Power)
Similar to resisted sprints, I don’t have much to add under weighted jumps that I didn’t discuss under jumping above. Like resisted sprinting, these are just jumps done with some amount of added weight, still usually that 10% of bodyweight guideline. So it’s heavier than jumping but not by much.
I showed the video of Klokov doing weighted squat jumps with about 40% of max and that is one way to do things. A more typical way would be to use a weighted vest since that avoids a lot of the issues inherent to jumping with a bar on your back (impact forces are still higher); most weighted vests also allow the weights to be added gradually so you can start with 2-3% of bodyweight and add weight gradually to give your joints time to adapt.
Beyond that, everything I said about jumps still applies; reps tend to depend on the specific exercise, sets depend on a lot of factors and tracking is done through distance, height achieved, etc. (you have to be careful that so much weight isn’t added that jump height or distance is enormously impacted, or you’re spending too long on the ground as this defeats the purpose of the exercise).
These have to be approached very carefully and volumes need to be even lower, more constrained than with jumps. Even small additions of weight change impact dynamics and movement mechanics and any benefit from weighted jumps is lost if you blow out your knee. The same comments regarding tracking and jumping surface apply doubly here due to the increased impact forces from the added weight.
Kettlebell Swings (Power)
Once again I am no kettlebell guru and don’t claim to be. As a friend pointed out to me, most KB movements (at least as used in KB sport) are not really ballistic or explosive. However, KB swings especially if they are done hard style (with a vigorous snap of the hips) can be.
Since the bell will float up at arm’s length after the explosive phase, the movement can be done explosively and accelerated and KB swings are probably one of the easier power type movements to learn (though it’s amazing how many people bungle something as simple as a swing, usually by overemphasizing the arms and not getting the hips or legs involved at all).
Perhaps the biggest issue with the swing is that, as the weights get heavier, the bell swinging back down picks up such momentum that the athlete has trouble keeping control of it. But that’s really a technical issue. Sets and reps are as previously discussed, you might go multiple sets of 5-8 reps with set times of 6-8 seconds focusing on maximal acceleration and a hard snap at the end of the movement (such as what’s seen here) and long enough rests (2-3 minutes minimum) to maintain a high quality of movement.
Again, I’m not the go-to guy for KB stuff so I’m not going to write anything more than that to avoid making myself look any more clueless about it than I already am. I have not tended to use them much and when I did with trainees it was more as a warm-up or to make them really focus on accelerating into an extension pattern along with other movements. But they are certainly one very easy movement to teach for an athlete to get a power training effect in a relatively non-technical way.
Modified Traditional Weight Training Movements (Power)
Before everything went completely off the rails with this series, I was originally talking about weight training categories and, before descending into all of these subcategories of power, talked about the optimal “power” zone being between 30-70% of maximum (again, roughly enough 1RM). Now ignoring all the stuff I posted about traditional weight training movements not being ideal for power training, I showed some ways that they can be used and it would be absurd for me not to discuss them here in the same way I’ve discussed the other methods.
In terms of loading, clearly anywhere from 30-70% load is the power zone (and I mentioned that there can be big variance in this depending on the athlete, the movement, etc). If you want the super easy way to determine power training load, just do this: take about 20-30% off of whatever you’re currently lifting.
Assuming you’re lifting in a fairly traditionally repetition range (figure 5-8 repetition range or 80-85% of 1RM), if you drop that by 20-30%, that will put you at the high end of the strength-speed/power range (about 50-65%). I mentioned before that my coach simply had us drop our 8 rep weights by 20% which put us about 60% or so since he never went below 8 reps with us.
Practically, that means that if you’re currently benching 100kg (225 lbs) for 5 reps and want to do power training with the bench press, you should drop it 20-30% or 20-30kg (45-66 lbs). So use 70-80kg (154-176 lbs). Clearly if you normally train heavier (like 90% and up) you need to drop more than that.
Years ago with a female powerlifter, we had her doing a light/speed day on bench press. Since she was doing a lot of singles near max on the heavy day, we dropped her 25-30% on speed day or whatever weight that was without doing goofy things with plates (it was probably like 105-115 since she ended up singling 185). Just a quick way of doing the math.
Keep in mind that as the weights get lighter on traditional movements, the issue with big accelerations and decelerations becomes even more profound; I’m just not sure that benching at 30% of 1RM (unless you use bands or chains so that you end up at a higher loading percentage near the top) is going to do what you want it to do unless you’re willing to risk losing your teeth by releasing the bar. You may get a huge pop off the chest but then you’re going to be slowing the bar down for most of the time after that. You may actually have to actively pull back against it if it gets moving too fast and that’s the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish with power training.
What I’m saying is that typically I’d probably stay nearer the strength-speed end of things (60-70% of max) for loading if you’re going to use weight training movements for power. Since explosive weight training is generally to improve heavy strength training anyhow, keeping things on the strength-speed end of things make more sense anyhow.
So far as reps, typically 3-5 (with 8 as an absolute maximum) would be appropriate. If you’re doing about 1 second a rep, which is fast, that’s a set length of 3-8 seconds. Simmons has typically applied Prilepin’s table (which I discussed previously) and recommended 8 sets of 3 on the bench and waves of 8-12X2 in the squat or deadlift.
For bench press, Simmons’ logic seems to be that the typical rep in a meet is about 3 seconds long so he tries to keep the set that duration. While I’m not sure if I buy that at face value, clearly his approach keeps the sets high quality; ~3 seconds of maximal effort before a rest is taken. With my female powrlifter, I defaulted to a straight 3 sets of 5 on her light bench day (followed by shoulder and tricep work) and so long as you’re in that range of loading (maybe 15-25 total reps), you’re probably ok. Some of it depends on the rest of the workout and how much time you have to devote to it.
For rests, my tendency is towards longer rest periods; for reasons I’ve never been clear on Simmons recommends rests of 45-60 seconds, I think it’s a work capacity idea or something. Mainly keep in mind the goal here: maximal power output on every rep. If you can do it on short rest, that’s fine. If not, rest as long as you need between sets to keep the quality up.
As a real-world non-powerlifting example, going back to the elite Australian track cyclists, their former coach has written about using single leg leg-press throws and has written the following “Total contraction time for a set (not counting hang time in the air) is around 6-8s max – phosphate energy system all the way. Minimum of 2 min rest, but that is never in danger. Only the phosphate energy system can deliver energy fast enough for maximal work and you’ve got about 8s max.” Practically this ends up being about 4-6 repetitions tops when you figure the length of the throw and ignore hang-time.
Olympic Lifting (Strength-Speed)
A couple of series parts back, I talked about how the Olympic lifts are inherently explosive and ballistic and for that reason, along with the focus on triple extension, have often been promoted for their effects on athletic power performance. Typically the use of the OL’s for athletes (as opposed to Olympic lifters) has focused on somewhat lighter loads, in the 70-85% max range or so (so really from the top of the power zone to the strength-speed zone).
Certainly it’s possible to do the OL’s lighter (i.e. at 60%) but often the mechanics can get strange since you can start to manhandle the weights in weird form. That’s really more of a technical issue but we’re often dealing with athletes whose technique is not perfect in the first place; putting them in a position where they can power reverse curl the bar doesn’t make sense.
As I also mentioned previously, many coaches prefer to use the power clean or power snatch (where the bar is caught in a half squat) which decreases the technical and mobility requirements of the full lifts and are a little bit easier to learn. It also tends to force slightly lighter weights which helps focus on power. As well, since you can’t reverse under the bar for the catch to as great a degree, the bar has to be lifted through a greater distance and pulled higher (potentially increasing power output).
Traditionally higher repetition sets have been used as well, with 3’s and 5’s predominating. Remember that, for all non-Olympic lifter athletes, the Olympic lifts, like all weight training are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. So the loading is never as extensive or intensive.
Trying to drive up their maximum single in the Ol’s is not the goal for athletes using them to improve power output. So 3-6 sets of 3 at 80-85% or multiple 2-5 sets of 5 at 60-75%, with a 2-3 minute rest would be a more common loading pattern. Snatch tends to be more popular with speed dominant sports with clean a little more popular with strength dominant sports. Prilepin’s table is probably as good a guide as any although athletes, who typically are doing other lifts during their weight workouts, are going to be at the lower end of the range for total repetitions performed.
Maximal Strength Training
I already talked about this earlier in the series but this is the opposite end-extreme from pure speed training. And I see no need to repeat the loading parameters from that part of the series here.
It would take an impossibly long time to discuss in full how all of the above can possibly fit into a training schedule but I’m be remiss to at least talk a little about overall programming within the context of training. I already talked about how the relative emphasis of the above methods (whether one or more is used) depends a lot on the dynamics of the sport in question.
Some sports are more at the strength end of things and you tend to see a fairly small amount of speed and speed-strength work; the focus is predominantly on strength and strength-speed with some power and maybe a touch of speed work. Some are at the other extreme and the emphasis is switched with more time spent in the speed and speed-strength categories and less on strength-speed and maximum strength. And some sports (usually sprinting type events) have some requirement for all the different types of training due to the changing nature of the event over time (i.e. start from a dead stop, acceleration phase, maximal speed phase, speed endurance phase).
I won’t say much more about it beyond that; instead I want to focus how you might implement the different types of training within a given workout, assuming you’re doing more than one at a time. And, as a general statement, the key to realize is that the different types of power training should be trained in roughly the order I presented them from the speed end of the continuum to the strength end of the continuum.
And while I didn’t talk about skills/technical training at all, just realize that no amount of strength, power, speed or conditioning will ever make up for an athlete being bad at their sport. Skills/technical work almost always (there are rare exceptions I’m not getting into) should come before any of this. Training should ideally be sequenced in such a way that the most important factors are trained first.
There is also the less issue that fatigue from other training elements tends to have differential impacts on the different types of training I spent too long discussing. Speed training requires the athlete to be completely fresh, otherwise they can’t achieve the top speeds necessary to have a chance to stimulate further improvements. In the worst case fatigue may affect their technique negatively which can cause poor motor patterning at the least and injury at the worst.
Of course, maximum speed work can tire out an athlete for power or strength work although it tends to only happen when the athlete finds a new gear. By and large you can do maximum speed work and then go lift heavy weights a lot more easily than the converse. Even if the speed work is hurting the strength work, that’s usually a worthwhile compromise when speed is a more important capacity.
Certainly whatever you train second or third in a workout will tend to be impacted by some fatigue but ultimately speed training tends to hurt maximal strength training less than the reverse. Everything else is somewhere in the middle. As a general rule, if you’re training more than one of the types of training in the same workout, work them in the order I presented them (with two more categories added). So in the following order.
- Skills/technical work
- Maximum Strength
So a sprinter doing a speed workout would do a general warm-up into technical drills (A and B walks, skips and runs). Then speed work. If resisted speed work were being done, it’d be most likely to be trained separately or perhaps done in a contrast fashion like I said above (1-2 reps resisted, 1-2 reps unresisted). After that, jumping (bounding, etc.) would be done. So speed then power.
If they were lifting, that would come next with the Olympic lifts (if they were being done) being done first before squats, RDL, bench press or whatever. So the full sequence is warmup, skills, speed, power, strength-speed, strength. Any endurance or work capacity training being done would be after strength work or in a different session, either late in the day or typically on a different day.
Quick tangent: the same sequencing ideas actually hold for all of the categories of weight training, you generally want to work in an order where quality training is done first and high fatigue training is done last. So even an Olympic lifter might do: Olympic lifts, heavy strength work (squats, pulls), hypertrophy work. Any metabolic or work capacity work would be done after that. Chinese Olympic lifters for example will typically do warmups, any technical drills, heavy Olympic lifts, assistance movements (pulls, etc.), squats and then finish with hypertrophy work. So the sequence is still maintained.
Mind you there can be exceptions. Sometimes a small volume of heavy work (I’m talking like 2-3 sets of triples with a 5RM weight) can potentiate the nervous system and make power or even speed work more effective. But it tends to be reserved for higher level athletes (less well trained athletes get too much fatigue from the heavy work) and the key is to not blow yourself out with the heavy work. Some Olympic lifters will squat first in a workout for this reason but, once again, they typically don’t destroy themselves on the squats. It’s sort of a high-level warmup that often makes the Olympic lifts go better.
By the same token, many find that a small volume of non-exhaustive explosive work is often a fantastic warmup for maximal strength work. The high-power, high neural-drive nature of explosive work gets muscles and nervous system firing maximally and doing a couple of sets of explosive work (KB swings, medicine ball throws) prior to heavy training can be something worth experimenting with. Again just avoid exhausting yourself with the explosive work or the increased fatigue will hurt the maximal strength work.
There is also an approach called Complex Training where sets of heavy weight training are alternated with power work, usually with a rest of anywhere from 3-5 minutes. So squat a triple, rest 3 minutes, do a set of jumps, rest 3 minutes, squat a triple, rest 3 minutes, do a set of jumps. The idea is that you use the heavy strength training to get the nervous system clicking so that the jumps are done more explosively. This is a form of Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP) and can be useful for high-level athletes. For lower level athletes the heavy work tends to cause too much fatigue and there’s no real benefit.
You’ll occasionally also see approaches where speed work is made secondary to strength work in the gym. Again with the elite Australian track cyclists, for part of the year they don’t care about speed on the track as they are pushing up maximum strength in the weight room. But track cycling is also a sport where you don’t blow out your knees if your technique is off. A track and field sprinter would be at too high of a risk of injury doing much weight room work before maximum speed work (the stories of Ben Johnson squatting a heavy triple before his World Record run are outright lies). I’m not talking about this here to suggest it, by the way. Just being complete in the way only I can be.
Mind you, it would you it would be a very rare situation indeed where any athlete would do every method I described above in the first place. There is a finite limit to how much time and energy any athlete can devote into any one workout and there is a limit to how many capacities can be trained with anything approximating quality in any given workout. Generally you might see two or three in a given workout and either different workouts dedicated to different components or changes throughout the year depending on the cycle, the sport, the athlete, etc. I know that’s very vague but this is already too long and attempting to cover every possible situation is just impossible.
Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of power training is progressing and while I talked about it a little bit when I described each of the different types of training above, I want to make some final comments. How to progress or if you should progress at all. First let’s talk about power style weight training. Recall that the power zone is 30-70% of maximum and let’s assume that an athlete is using 60% of their maximum for their power sets. Presumably if their maximum weight (really their 1RM) goes up by 10 pounds they should add 6 pounds to the bar for power training. The same applies if you’re using a rule of thumb like “Take 20% off of your best 8 rep weight” to determine power weights.
Except that it doesn’t ever seem to quite work out this way as power outputs don’t always seem to change exactly with increases in maximal strength. This goes back to the need for an easy way to measure power output but it just doesn’t exist and I don’t have a solution. As well, unless they are fairly newbie to heavy strength training, most athletes aren’t making rapid improvements in maximal strength and as a consequence changes in loading on power training tends to change very slowly.
For other methods, progression tends to be even slower or non-existent. Given the low load of a medicine ball in the first place (3-4kg or 5-10 pounds or so), it’s exceedingly rare to increase the resistance. Even that small change is a huge percentage of the implement and tends to impact on power output. The same holds for jumps, except for the weighted jumps I’ll talk about, you really don’t add resistance in teh same way you do for strength or hypertrophy training.
Usually progression comes in the form of simply generating or trying to generate more power and/or adding the occasional set and rep as the athlete is better able to sustain maximal output. It’s very nebulous and vague and it seems that, as often as not, most coaches just sort of set those workloads and the athlete just does them over and over again with little to no focus on adding weight or loading.
The focus of sports is invariably on improving the actual sport and overloading that; everything else really is secondary/general physical preparation and putting energy into moving your med ball throws from a 4 to 5kg ball is missing the point of what makes a better athlete unless you compete in the Internationally Contested Medicine Ball Throw League.
Ok, one last topic.
Base Strength Levels
I should probably address the topic of simply building basic strength levels as it relates to all of this. Very early in this series I mentioned that, for lower level athletes, simply getting stronger (along with playing their sport) is usually sufficient to make them more explosive. It’s just a function of increased strength making any lighter load more submaximal so that it can be moved faster.
I’d also be remiss in not re-mentioning studies finding that it is the intent to move quickly that may be more relevant for improving power than movement speed per se. So even with heavy weights, you should attempt to move the bar rapidly (assuming technique is sufficient).
I still suspect that, even with that, a combination of heavy work (with the intent of moving quickly) and actual specific high-speed movements will yield better results. If nothing else, actually moving at high speeds conditions tissues and teaches the body what to do at high speeds in a way that even explosive (but ultimately slow moving) weight training won’t do.
But that raises the question of when any of the above power methods should be brought into the training of an athlete.
Now I don’t claim to know much about training kids or anything of that sort. But even with mature athletes, who often have even less time to get into shape, I see no reason not to start with any of the above methods in at least some form or fashion from the get go (assuming there is time to do the training). It doesn’t have to be at full volume or intensity and, as I noted, most movements have lower level exercises that can be used during warmups or to get the athlete used to it.
As Mel Siff pointed out years ago, little kids jump and bound and run all the time when they play and there seems to be no fundamental reason not to do some of that in their training (where most go wrong is going nuts with volume and intensity and making what was play into work with youth athletes). Little kids are really pliable too; they don’t break like older folks when they fall down.
But even with older athletes in a performance sport, I see no fundamental reasons not to introduce these types of methods (as needed for the specific sort) to at least some degree fairly early on. So even if the focus is simply on building base strength for a relatively “new” (but older athlete) using med ball throws, or KB swings, or lower level jumps at some point in the training.
If nothing else this starts to get the athlete’s tissues used to the exercises along with letting them learn the movements. Even if the focus over the first year or two of training is still on basic strength, this will ultimately prepare them more for higher level jumps, throws, etc. when the time is right. As contrasted to bringing them in as a new movement two years later when you think they are strong enough which simply forces them to have to learn, adapt their connective tissues to the movements then).
Again, it might not be a primary part of their training or take up a lot of time. But you can do a general warmup to a set or two of explosive med ball throws, to some low level jumps finishing with KB swings as a fantastic warmup for weight-room work. Keep the volume low and the quality high and the trainee is getting exposure to the exercises in a way that lets them learn, adapt and probably improve their weight room work as well.
Finally, I should mention that there is an old “Rule of thumb” floating around that you need a double bodyweight squat before doing plyometrics. This is an old idea and comes from the time when Plyometrics were synonymous with depth jumps (perhaps the highest intensity plyometric drill that can be done). But somehow it got generally applied to all jumping drills which is incorrect, especially in an era where most athletes don’t have double bodyweight squats anymore.
Certainly lower level jumps can and probably should be done without worrying about any base strength level being in place. Ankle hops, vertical jumps, frog jumps and such. Certainly watch out for signs of impending issues, ankle problems, shin splints, it’s always important to teach good jumping and landing mechanics and err on the side of less rather than more. But I see no fundamental reason why the lower/lighter versions of the different power types of training can’t be done without requiring some strength base that may, realistically, take an athlete 2-3 years to reach.
And that, believe it or not, is that.
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 14
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 10
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 11
- Rest Interval Between Sets – Research Review
- Steady State vs. Tempo Training and Fat Loss – Q&A