Simply put, power is the capability to apply force quickly. Technically, power is force divided by time. It is the capacity which lets you jump higher, sprint faster, or punch harder. It is often also referred to as rate of force development, or RFD.
There are two parts of the equation which we can improve: the amount of force produced, and the speed at which we produce it. We briefly covered the first part in What is Strength? Essentially, because of how power is defined, we can increase our power output by simply increasing the force produced.
For a very long time there was a perception amongst coaches in almost all sports that strength training would produce slow, muscle-bound athletes. It was generally believed that getting stronger would slow athletes down. This is completely inaccurate. Try watching the weightlifters at the Olympics, and you’ll see the most powerful athletes on the planet; and all of them are exceptionally strong. At the USA’s Olympic Training Centre they tested the vertical leap – the most common test for power – of all their athletes, and they found that the weightlifters had the highest average.
So if strong athletes could out-jump the basketball players, then obviously strength training didn’t make them slow.
So does that mean that the strongest athletes will automatically be the fastest? No, of course not. Strength is half the equation, but it’s not the whole answer. To be able to jump high, you need to be able to produce force quickly. To be powerful, you need to be able to display your strength dynamically.
Most athletes in power sports will already be spending the majority of their training time doing their sport’s movements. A javelin thrower has already spent a considerable amount of time throwing a javelin, and a sprinter obviously spends a lot of time sprinting. After time, gains begin dropping off. That’s where a smart strength program can help a lot.
Now, we’ve learned that strength training will help, but it’s not the whole answer. We need to get our muscles firing faster. Getting stronger increases the potential force in RFD, but there are ways to increase the rate in which that force is produced.
There are many options for this. Changing the traditional barbell lifts to allow the lifter to move the bar faster is one way. According to Soviet scientists, peak power is achieved at roughly 30% of a max lift. So if Lifter A can deadlift 200kg for one rep, he might do several reps at 60kg, but trying to get the bar up as fast as possible. Or he might put heavy rubber bands over the bar so that as he pulls it up the resistance increases. In this way he can continue to accelerate the bar during the whole movement. The two Olympic – the clean and jerk, and the snatch – can also be used to develop tremendous power, though they are highly technical, which is a drawback.
Medball drills are also useful in developing power, especially for the upperbody. Because the athlete is letting go of the ball, she doesn’t need to worrying about slowing down at the end of the movement, the way she would have to at the end of a bench press. These drills can be as simple as doing a footy pass into a wall and catching the rebound, or throwing a medball as far as possible, like a shotput. They can even be combined with plyo drills to train upper and lower body power simultaneously, which neatly brings me to plyos.
Plyometric drills could be defined as an explosive movement that allows your muscles to produce a maximal amount of force in the shortest possible time. These are mostly lower body drills, though they do certainly exist for the upper body. A typical lower body plyo drill might be the depth jump. The athlete stands on a box roughly 12-24” high, then steps off it and lands on both feet. The moment his feet touch the ground he exploded upwards, jumping as high as he can. Other drills include jumping onto a high box, and jumping forwards over hurdles – these can also be known as bounding. The goal of plyometric training is to decrease the firing time of your muscles. This is essentially a software upgrade. You’re not getting bigger muscles out of them, your nervous system is simply learning to fire them quicker.
Yuri Verkhoshansky is the father of modern plyometric training. He was writing about this type of training – and implementing them with Soviet track and field athletes – in the 1960’s; decades before anybody from the US had heard of them. His jumpers had enormous success with a combination of heavy barbell squats and plyo’s. His books are still found on the shelf of any competent Strength & Conditioning Coach.
Athletes from almost every sport can benefit from power training. Football players of all codes, track and field athletes, anybody in a combat sport, sprint cyclists and cricket player should all be looking to increase their power.