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Why It Is So Important To Include Power Training In Your Workout

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 05 March 2019
Hits: 208

Power training is a very unique training method that is often misunderstood, neglected and even abused in many strength programs. In simple terms power is the ability to exert maximum muscular contraction instantly in an explosive burst of movement. Most sporting and athletic activities require a fair degree of explosive power, whether it is needed to move explosively to hit a golf ball or tennis ball, jump, sprint, break away from an opponent, react to an opponents offensive tactic or handle an open-field hit, the need to produce power is an essential component. But it is not limited to sports with many daily activities also requiring this ability. We need power and speed to complete simple tasks like getting out of a chair, walking up stairs, or crossing a road quickly. When you understand that we lose this ability very quickly if nothing is done to prevent it, you begin to see just how important power training is to ALL of us. This article we explain how to not only preserve it, but improve your power no matter what age you are.

Why We ALL Need To Use Power Training

Recently I went to complete my usual 5km run around Albert Park Lake when I noticed there was a sprint meet at the athletics track. I went in to watch for a while and was in awe of watching some of the top sprinters in action. It is only when you are up close you realize just how fast they are running! The same thing can be said with watching elite basketball players effortlessly jump what seems impossible heights to throw down some crazy slam-dunk!

What makes both of these amazing feats possible?

It is not strength, it comes down to efficient movement and POWER. Wherever you look in the world of top-class sport, power is a key part of elite performance. There is a big difference between strength and power and these are both great examples of where athletes move much better than us, not just because they are stronger, but because they are faster! And as we discussed briefly in the intro this is not limited to sports as our ability to produce power becomes more important as we age or if we get injured. This results in losing our ability to move efficiently and along with it depleting the small amount of precious fast twitch fibers we have. We lose these at an alarmingly fast rate if the correct training is not implemented.

What Exactly Is Power?

I used to think that if you got stronger this automatically would make you faster. It makes sense right, more muscle means you can do more things. Well if that was true we would see over-sized body-builders winning the 100m sprint final instead of the more lean athletic types like Usain Bolt.

In simple terms, power is the ability to generate force quickly; it is defined mathematically as force x velocity.

If you look at the force-velocity curve above, you will see that high levels of power will occur in the mid-range of either force or velocity. When you look at the high force end of the curve the velocity of movement is at its slowest. Now think about when you lift very heavy weights, how is this done? Slowly right? This is because it takes time – more than 400msec – to develop maximal force within the muscle. It simply cannot be switched on like a light bulb.

This is important to understand for it means that power training requires lighter loads than maximal strength in order to move explosively.

Most athletic movements do not involve slow contractions at near maximum force, but require more mid-to-high velocity. For example, the contact time of the foot during sprinting is about 100msec – not long enough to produce half of maximum force. This does not mean strength training is not needed for power is derived from strength. The difference is in the length of time it takes to complete the movement.

People who are inexperienced with strength training, any increase in maximum strength will tend to increase force across the whole range of the force-velocity curve. This means that increases in maximum strength will also lead to increases in power and the ability to generate more force at fast speeds. However for the experienced person there is a limit they will reach with strength training on its own and only through explosively fast movements will any significant improvement be made to their ability to generate power.

How To Create Power Movements

Power initiation relies heavily on deceleration skills, both in terms of muscular strength and body mechanics. This means you must know how to move correctly in order to load up the right muscles into the perfect position to accelerate. Once again MOVEMENT IS EVERYTHING!

Watch the video of an assessment we use in our sports program to do this.

Power initiation is dependent on the legs with a reliance on triple flexion to put the body into a power position. Initiation begins with the legs, triggers at the hips, transfers through the core and ‘shoots through’ the arms to the fingertips. The ultimate goal is to shift the force-velocity curve so that greater force requirements (i.e. heavier load) are not met with decreases in velocity.

With all jumping activities you will find the squat and hip hinge movement from the deadlift is the preload movement you need. The squat shares the exact timing of a jump which is why squat form is a great predictor of jumping ability and also landing ability.

To see more about squats and deadlift techniques read the articles below. The squat article features several power examples towards the end of our top 7 so make sure you check that article out.

To help you out putting this together there is a FREE report you can download below that details all of the exercises used to develop efficient movement patterns. Click here to get your copy.

Core Rotational Power

If squats are the key to jumping and acceleration then rotational power is the key to throwing. With throwing activities like Baseball, Golf, and Tennis you will find the foundational movement pattern will be more of a lunge or lateral movement with rotation.  This provides the body with the ability to provide explosive power from the legs into the core and out the arms via a weight transfer. The most popular sports conditioning strength training exercises, like the squat, power cleans and box jumps, are performed in a linear fashion and do not reflect the way power is generated for rotational sports.

Using wood-chop exercises with the cable machine and other various rotational strength training exercises are great for building the movement pattern and skill but they DO NOT increase power. Why? The timing is out and timing is everything for moving with explosive power. Developing the ‘wind-up-and-rotate’ velocity for these sports through weight training is impossible especially if the weight is too heavy.

This is why it is important to use exercises such as medicine ball throws that are loaded but not too heavy. Speed of the movement is more important than the load.

A great video that explains this in detail is below.

Many of the core exercises used are actually causing more harm than good and completely ruining the timing for how your abdominal muscles are used.

For example, consider the need for abdominal tension during a throwing action or a golf swing. When you start breaking down what is involved in this action you’ll see just how complex the “core” really is. As you throw the ball, everything that prevents you from twisting or turning can be considered a core muscle. The lower leg needs to be braced and strong to prevent the foot rolling in, which will cause the knee to cave in upstream. Likewise the hips need to be strong to prevent the exact same thing. The muscles that surround the spine – from the small stabilizers right up to the powerful back muscles such as the lats - all act to stiffen and stabilize the spine during such actions. There is definitely abdominal involvement but it is not powerful enough to move by itself, as it requires the legs to provide the bulk of the workload. Therefor the core can then be thought of as all the muscles below your head.

For more information on rotational power read the articles below

In ALL cases it is the legs that provide the power. These muscles are the engine room and are everything to you if your goal is to move fast. This is why you must spend time learning these key movements to be able to position well, become stronger, and then ultimately learn incredible timing to deliver the power you are looking for.

There is so many great exercises to use here and you will find

Plyometric Exercises & Power Development

I must admit I personally love these exercises, they are just so much fun and always very challenging.

Plyometric exercises is like stretching out a coiled spring to its fullest extent and then letting it go. This provides immense levels of energy to be released in a split second as the spring recoils. Plyometric exercises develop this recoil or, more technically, the stretch/reflex capacity in a muscle. With regular exposure to this training stimulus, your muscle fibers should be able to store more elastic energy and transfer more quickly and powerfully from the eccentric to the concentric phase.

You will notice that these are often completed as body-weight exercises for if any load was applied it would slow the movement down too much and make it about maximal strength. The timing is more important in executing this perfectly.

See video below of an example of a plyometric drill we relate to a basketball move.

These obviously make up a big part of our sports program for they have a dramatic affect on change of direction and jumping ability. You can see many other examples we may use in this article - Strength Training For Sports Is All About Learning To Brake

However, these exercises also make up a big part of an injury prevention program, in particular with ACL injuries. For it is in these exact movements that the mechanism for these injuries is created. Therefor anyone undertaking a knee rehabilitation program will be put through these exercises. Learning how to execute cutting movements correctly is essential for sports and these are great to include as drills for power training. There is 3 key things to keep in mind with all cutting drills.

  1. First, you need to learn how to control what is known as “shoulder sway”. This is important in maintaining balance during explosive change of direction and if you witness an ACL tear you will often see the person demonstrating shoulder sway right at the point the knee goes. When you plant your foot quickly to change direction but do not control the upper body by recruiting good stiffness through the core, the shoulders will move you sideways to the direction you are moving. As a result, you will have too much of your body weight heading in one direction and it to change back the other way will not only be slower but risky as you will need to twist over your knee to get back! There is many reasons why this may happen but knowing to avoid this mistake will already make you more efficient.
  2. Secondly, you must learn to stay low by keeping your hips behind you. This is a common mistake we see at all levels and you fail to stay low during a cutting move, your ability to effectively brake the movement is compromised. If the body is not loaded well, it certainly cannot explode concentrically as well. The athlete must learn to reposition the feet from a low athletic stance so that proper loading occurs.
  3. Lastly, the previous 2 mistakes often occur as a result of improper plant foot angle. Stutter steps or poor balance often stem from this error. The plant foot angle is intended to provide an optimal base for eccentric control of deceleration and concentric force production during the subsequent acceleration or push-off movement. If the foot plant is correct, the deceleration and the push-off movement become smoothly linked. Can you see now why we place such a huge focus on foot and ankle stability in level 1!

Below is two videos of basic cutting drills to use.

Okay we have discussed the relevance of this with sports, but how do you implement power training with older adults or even just the general population who wants to lose a bit of weight and get fit

Power Training For The Average Joe

First, let’s take a look at why we slow with age. One significant factor is a decline in muscle mass and muscle fiber (sarcopenia). We will all experience a 10% decline in muscle mass between the ages of 25 and 50 and a further 45% shrinkage by the time we reach our 80's – if we do nothing about it.

To use another example to illustrate how much decline this is. The biceps muscle of a newborn baby has around 500,000 fibers while that of an 80-year-old has a mere 300,000. We also produce less growth hormone, which leads to reduced levels of protein synthesis and, again, muscle atrophy. The fact that power declines so fast has a lot to do with our fast twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers, also known as ‘white’ or ‘type II’ fibers, contract 2- 3 times faster than their slow-twitch counterparts, producing 30-70 twitches per second, compared with 10-30 for slow-twitch. Activating fast-twitch motor units is the key to improved strength, speed and power. Unlike slow-twitch motor units, which are responsible for most of our day-to-day muscular activity, fast-twitch units are quite lazy and tend to slumber until called to action.



While typing this article, the slow-twitch motor units of my fingers and wrists were getting a good workout.  It was only when I got sick of typing and went out the backyard to have a mental break and finished off building a retaining wall of railway sleepers, that my larger fast-twitch motor units contributed anything for the day!

This is the main reason we see many professional athletes retire in their late 30's and very rarely do you see anyone compete at the same level in their 40's. And if they have more fast twitch fibers and also show signs of decline then the losses us mere mortals will be much greater.

The message here is "USE IT OR LOSE IT". This also warns you about HOW you train. For if you are always training slowly, you will become slower. I never meet people who have trouble with slow movements, but I meet people everyday who have trouble moving fast! You must use the gym to educate your brain about better strategies of how to do this before you lose too much and it is gone forever.

Shortly I will give you some great exercise ideas to do this, but firstly I want to share with you the potential danger of ignoring this information.

Power Training For Preventing Falls

From the age 65 to age 89, our ability to produce power with our legs declines 3.5% per year. This is much faster than our rate of decline with strength, which is 1-2% per year. That is 2-3 times faster! This is a huge contributing factor with falls with older adults. There is literally tons of research in this area that proves that muscle power is of more importance than strength for preventing falls. Leg power relates specifically to getting out of a chair, walking fast and walking up stairs.

A study by Skelton, Kennedyt and Rutherford (2002) found that women who fall have 24% less explosive power in their weaker limb than women who did not fall. They also noted that in older women who lived independently, poor lower limb explosive power combined with power differences between limbs may be a better predictor of future falls than the traditional measurements of strength. (reference; Bending The Aging Curve).

Another study by Aniansson, Ljungberg, Rundgren, and Wetterqvist used muscle biopsy techniques with patients who suffered a hip fracture to examine the composition of muscle fibers. They found that these people had significant losses in the faster, more powerful Type 2 muscle fibers that are required to adjust the body explosively as a result of a trip or slip.

Another important finding was those who had a higher fast twitch make up made faster recovery rates if they did sustain a fall.

Great exercises for older adults to use may be;

  • Walking as fast as you can for 100m
  • Getting out of a chair fast
  • Walking up stairs 2 steps at a time
  • Throwing a light medicine ball as far as you can

Below is a great video of an 80 year old client of ours completing some speed and power drills to show you just what is possible.

Great Exercises To Use For Developing Explosive Power

There is many exercises you can use here. Many people think of power cleans and box jumps but there is many other ways to improve your power that are a lot simpler and safe. A quick word on Olympic lifting, I find these exercises are so difficult to teach and come with a very high risk of injury that they are not really a great choice for many people in the gym. This is a sport in it's own right and many people forget that. If your form is good enough and you know how to do them that is fine, but if you are not 100% I would not worry with these and find other safer ways to develop power.

See our video for more on this - Is Olympic Lifting Really That Good For Sports?

Medicine balls are one of the best ways to improve power and this equipment is an integral part of any power athlete for this very reason. These are very simple and anyone from 10 years of age to 80 years of age can do them. Below are 2 versions of great power exercises using medicine balls and a great article with many other exercises you will find here - Why Medicine Ball Training Is So Great.

But what about the legs? For as we have discussed earlier these muscles are the engine room behind explosive power and are of most importance to use with falls prevention. One of the simplest exercises to do this is the step up. Below is a video with great tip on how to do this for an added challenge. Alongside this is the box jump.

One of my favorite ways to incorporate power training that transfers into the upper body is using the barbell to do variations of the squat press exercise. Once again these can be done with people of all ages and it is amazing how tiring they can be. The triple extension set up in the squat and exploding up is similar to the timing of jumping without actually jumping. The video below shows 3 versions you could use.

There really is so many exercises you could use, from battling ropes, to sledgehammer slams and sled pulls the list is endless. The key is to be as fast as you can and use a load that has a challenge but does not so much that it slows you down. In our article 4 Exercises To Make You Explosively Fast & Strong we share some great tips on exercises like sled pulls, box jumps and sledgehammer slams. Below are videos of sledgehammer slams and sled pulls you can use.

You will find tons of more ideas and workouts in our Little Black Book Of Training Secrets. Click here to see more or on the image below to get your copy.

Summary

Wow, there was quite a lot of information we covered this time. But I hope this makes you see that it is vital we use some type of training to improve our ability to move fast. As I said earlier I have never met a person who had trouble moving slowly. But I have met countless numbers of people who could not move fast, even when they really needed to. Once the ability to move fast is gone it is very difficult to get back, so it is best to never lose too much of it while you have the chance. Power training is not just for sporting athletes but for all of us, so we must take the time to learn and appreciate all the skills and information needed to preserve this precious ability.

It feels great when you can move fast.

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