When you hear power training, you probably picture athletes leaping high into the air, explosively throwing medicine balls, or catching barbells over their heads doing Olympic lifts. Being powerful is essential for success in sport, so it makes sense that most athletic training programs prioritize power development.
But the benefits of power training go far beyond athletic performance. Adding even small amounts of power training to your program can help you get stronger, add muscle, and even help you age well and maintain functional independence later in life.
Outside of the world of competitive sport, most people don’t make power part of their program and miss out on the benefits. Safety concerns and lack of awareness of the benefits of power training are barriers for most people who might otherwise work to develop power in their training routine.
Here’s how to safely and effectively build power training into your program, regardless of your goal.
What is Muscular Power?
Power is the product of strength and speed. In other words, it’s expressing strength quickly. Any casual fan of sport will understand how power is essential for athletic success. Hitting a home run, rising up for a slam dunk, or delivering a hard-hitting tackle are all examples of power.
Great athletes usually have genetic gifts that make them more powerful than the average person, but this does not mean that power cannot be developed through training. To understand how to build power into a training program, we need to understand how the body produces powerful movement.
Expressing strength or power is not just about having big muscles. It’s much more about our neuromuscular system. Muscles are organized into something called motor units, which are groupings of muscles that are controlled by the same nerve endings. Our bodies move by way of motor units, not individual muscles.
Smaller motor units help perform fine motor tasks like handwriting, and large motor units perform large movements like squatting or jumping. Motor units are also categorized by threshold, not just size. Lower threshold motor units handle lower intensity tasks like walking, with higher threshold motor units being responsible for more intense tasks like weightlifting or jumping. The body will only use a higher threshold motor unit if it needs to. Through training, we can develop the ability to get our largest and most powerful motor units working more quickly. This allows us to be our strongest faster, or in other words, more powerful.
Recruiting large motor units quickly is one way that the body can be trained to be more powerful. Another way is training the body to recruit motor units more efficiently. An athletic movement like a throw or a jump involves many different motor units. The exact sequence and timing in which those motor units make muscles contract impacts the rate and amount of force produced in that movement. This too can be developed through training.
How exactly do we train these qualities?
The specificity principle provides some insight. The specificity principle states that the best way to develop a physical quality or skill is to do that exact task. The best way to become a great bench presser is to bench press, and the best way to become powerful or explosive is to train explosively. As with any training goal, there are considerations for how exactly to make power training part of a well-designed program.
Before we examine the practical considerations for power training, it’s worth asking why a recreational lifter, or any person not involved in competitive sport, should care about increasing their power output.
Why Should I Care About Power Training?
Although it’s the foundation of most performance focused training programs, power training is under-utilized outside of athletics. Small amounts of carefully chosen power exercises make a great addition to almost any training program, regardless of the program’s primary focus. Lifters looking to get bigger and stronger can benefit from power training, as can middle aged or senior adults looking to age well and enjoy a healthy and active retirement. Let’s look at the scientific basis for each.
Power Training to Increase Strength and Size
A lifter primarily interested in lifting bigger weights or putting on mass might overlook power training as a method to help achieve their goals. Including power training in a traditional strength training routine can lead to better results, providing a myriad of benefits with a minimal time investment.
One of the ways that power training can make a traditional strength training session more effective is through a mechanism called potentiation.
Potentiation refers to an increase in the strength of nerve impulses along pathways that have been used previously. In practical terms, this means that doing a few medicine ball throws before your bench press, or a few box jumps before your squats can help ensure you perform your best in your main strength lifts of the day.
Beyond potentiation, there is strong evidence that power training can develop strength in and of itself (1).
Moving explosively preferentially develops something called the rate of force development, or the ability to produce force quickly. This movement skill has implications for heavy lifting. If a lifter is performing a near maximum squat, they will need their highest threshold motor units to help them complete the lift. The sooner those motor units are recruited, the faster the lifter will be able to ascend from the bottom of their squat, increasing their chances for success in the lift.
There is also some evidence, although it is not as strong, that power training can drive muscle growth. Most of the evidence showing that power training increases hypertrophy is either on untrained subjects (2) or older adults (3). Including some power training in a hypertrophy focused program may provide benefit by way of potentiating effects, and regardless of the goal of the program, developing force quickly is an important physical attribute that merits at least some consideration in all programs.
A fair counterpoint is that many lifters make progress without including power training in their programs. However, just because something works doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.
Consider the following. Programs need to be modified over the long term in order to ensure ongoing progress and minimizing the risk of overuse injuries. Including some power exercises, at least at some points throughout each training year, can help drive ongoing progress while providing the body with some needed variety. The second point is that the ability to move with power has important implications for healthy aging. I understand that if you’re 25 years old that aging well might not be high on your list of training goals now, but it will be one day, and it is much easier to introduce powerful movement into your training program at a younger age and to keep it in there than it is to learn how to jump when you’re in your 70s. Let’s look at the role of muscular power in healthy aging.
Power Training for Healthy Aging
A characteristic of aging is a gradual decline in physical capacity that is influenced by many physiological processes. One such process is called sarcopenia, or age-related muscle wasting. At a certain threshold, older adults lose the ability to function independently because they can’t perform tasks of daily living such as climbing stairs or getting in and out of the bathtub. Although these issues are commonly thought of as an issue with loss of strength, the loss of power plays a larger role. (4)
In normal aging, power deteriorates more rapidly than strength (4). Power has emerged as a more important variable than strength for being predictive of functional impairments later in life, and power training has been shown to positively impact quality of life more than traditional strength training (5)
At a certain point, strength and power capabilities deteriorate beyond the point at which a person can function independently, and additional care or an assisted living facility is the best decision for that person’s safety. Most of the seniors I train are interested in staying out of the nursing home as long as possible. For these reasons, I work to include some power training in their programs whenever possible.
Unfortunately, very few exercise programs for older populations include any power training at all. Safety concerns about the high-impact nature of most power exercises are valid, but these can be mitigated by following good training practices. The best strategy for making power training safe for people in their later years is to include it in their programs at earlier stages of adulthood, but even if it is first introduced when someone is a senior, there are still ways to safely include it in a program.
A thorough warm-up, paying careful attention to technique, and choosing lower impact, less skill intensive options all go a long way to making power training safe for older adults.
There are instances when arthritic changes, mobility constraints or more advanced stages of frailty make some exercises inappropriate choices for some clients, even when all of the above strategies are used. In these instances, simply doing a strength exercise like a goblet squat with some speed in the concentric phase can provide a power component.
Here are some guiding principles for safely building power training into a training program that are applicable to both older adults and recreationally trained younger lifters.
A thorough warm-up is a must in any well-designed training program, and there are special considerations when preparing to train power in your workout. The standard objectives of increasing blood flow, movement patterning and muscle activation all apply, and nervous system mobilization, or potentiation as described above, is also essential. Lower intensity track and field type drills like marching, dribbling and skipping are a great way to bridge the gap from your typical warm-up exercises to more high intensity jumps.
Power training is best done early in the training session due to how fatiguing it can be, and also to allow lifters to take advantage of its potentiating benefits in their other lifts.
Emphasize Movement Quality
Quality over quantity is a great guiding principle for any training program, but it’s particularly true for power training. High quality movement keeps injury risk low and increases transferability of your power training outside the weight room.
Too often, power exercises are treated as conditioning drills with people doing high numbers of repetitions with sloppy technique in a misguided attempt to burn calories. Power training is not conditioning, and doing it effectively requires giving each rep your full attention and focus, which isn’t possible when you’re fatigued.
Consider a box jump.
Box jumps are a great exercise, but they are often done incorrectly. The purpose of the box is twofold: to give the lifter a visual target for their jump, and also to eliminate the high impact of landing on the ground. The best way to do a box jump is to gather yourself before each jump and take your time stepping off the box in between reps. Sloppily jumping off the box back onto the ground between each rep defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Low Volume, Maximal Intent
One of the great things about power training is that a little bit goes a long way. A few sets of five jumps or throws can be plenty, particularly if done with intent. Training with intent refers to doing a movement with focus and purpose. Taking a second to get set and really trying your best to jump as high as possible does much more to develop power than jumping mindlessly over and over again.
Doing an explosive movement with intent is fatiguing, and fatigue compromises movement quality. For these reasons, lower volume approaches to power training work best. 40 jumps or more per training session has been shown to yield significant performance results (1). This may sound like a lot, but three sets of five of just three different exercises puts you at 45 total reps. For someone completely new to power training, two sets of three of one or two exercises may be an appropriate place to start. A little bit really does go a long way.
Example Power Training Exercises
When building the power component of a workout, all else equal, I want to have an exercise done on two legs, a single leg exercise, and to include lateral and rotational movement as well. Here is an example of the exercises I might choose to provide the power component of a training program for a non-sport athlete.
This involves standing tall with hands on hips, and then explosively initiating a jump by going down into a quarter squat (the countermovement) and then jumping up as high as you can and absorbing the landing. Take your time in between reps; three seconds works well. Most lifters won’t have access to technology to measure their jump height in real time, but you would want to terminate the set once jump height drops off significantly. Most of the time this will be between 3-5 reps.
Lateral Hop and Stick
Human movement exists in three planes and it’s important to develop strength and power in all three. This is an exercise in moving side to side, critical for athletic performance but also a relevant physical skill for anyone with a body. Here you jump as far as you can to the side while also being able to stick the landing. If you lose your balance on consecutive reps, you are jumping too far.
There is more to power training than jump training. Medicine ball throws are a great way to develop the skill of the upper body finishing a powerful movement initiated by the lower body, and also for developing upper body power. There are hundreds of options for med ball throws.
The standing rotational med ball throw is one of my favourites.
Standing Rotational Med Ball Throw
Think about putting the weight of the ball into your outside leg, and really drive that leg into the ground to initiate the movement. Throw the ball as hard as you can and try to break the wall. You can catch the ball or not, depending on your set up. Take your time between throws.
3 sets of 5 (per side or per leg in the case of the throw and the lateral hop) of each of the above exercises would be a great amount of power training that could provide real benefits with not much time commitment.
These options lifted above are geared more towards younger healthy populations, but older adults can do similar, less intense variations quite safely as long as they are coached properly. I have done box jumps with many different adults in their 70s, we just use a 6-inch box, and we may only do 2-3 jumps per set. This small amount of relatively low impact power training goes a long way towards preserving the function of higher threshold motor units, and in my experience, is a fun and different challenge for an active senior.
The main takeaway is that the ability to produce power is an important physical attribute that we should all be motivated to maintain to help us function optimally throughout our lifespan. Relatively small amounts of power training can provide significant benefit and help lifters of all kinds reach their performance potential with minimal time investment.
Andrew Barr is an Exercise Physiologist and Strength and Conditioning Coach based in Ottawa Ontario. He is the owner of Barr Health and Fitness and helps athletes and adults of all ages achieve their performance potential through simple and effective strength training programs.