Monday, May 6, 2019

The Keys to Unlocking Explosive Power

It wasn’t too long ago that athletes, parents, and coaches believed strength training made you slow and inflexible. To avoid these supposed undesirable effects, athletes steered clear of weights like the plague.

Over the years, we’ve come to debunk these myths. We now recognize the myriad benefits of strength training for sports performance, from injury prevention to increased positional endurance and improved speed and power -- the subject of this post.

Most of us have a general idea of what power is. We know it when we see it. But it’s not entirely intuitive how strength affects power.

To appreciate the relationship between strength and power, we must first understand that strength is equivalent to the ability to produce force, and speed is the expression of strength quickly (i.e. at high movement velocity).

It turns out that power is the combination of these two factors. Mathematically speaking, power equals force times velocity.

Strength coaches have identified four types of power, which are depicted on the “force-velocity continuum” below. 

Along this continuum, maximal strength and maximal speed lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their hybrids -- strength-speed and speed-strength -- fall in between. Power training can be performed at every level of the curve (see examples in parentheses in the figure above).

In the weight room, we typically focus on the higher force end of the continuum: the maximal strength and strength-speed levels. For many athletes, though, traditional powerlifting and Olympic lifting programs aren’t optimal for eliciting explosive power adaptations.

The keys to unlocking explosive power for most athletes lie in two scientific principles: rate of force development (ROFD) and post-activation potentiation (PAP).

Rate of Force Development

ROFD is a neuromuscular property that refers to how quickly you can generate a force. By increasing ROFD, you improve your ability to express your strength faster. This translates to a faster first step, harder cuts, a quicker shot release, etc.

Training for increased ROFD is pretty simple. For any exercise, all you have to do is intend to lift the weight as quickly and explosively as possible, regardless of how heavy it is.

From a physiological standpoint, this intention to move the weight fast recruits more motor units and muscle fibers. This allows you to develop higher levels of force sooner, by calling more and bigger neuromuscular units into action.

For heavier loads, which will necessarily move more slowly, the actual speed of movement is less important than the intention to move it quickly. 

Post-Activation Potentiation

The other secret to explosive power training is PAP. PAP is a way of “priming” the nervous system to produce high levels of force. To take advantage of PAP, perform a superset of two similar movement patterns. The first exercise will use a heavy load; the second will be unloaded.

For example, you could pair deadlifts with broad jumps, chin-ups with medicine ball slams, or sled pushes with sprints. This method of pairing exercises is often referred to as contrast training.

The keys to PAP are two-fold. First, you want to select movements that are very similar. For instance, you might consider pairing a deadlift and a vertical jump since they’re both lower body movements. However, in this case the broad jump is actually the better choice for the unloaded movement because the forward lean of the torso better mimics the mechanics of the deadlift.

Second, it’s important to keep the volume of the resisted exercise low (usually under 6 reps). The goal with this first exercise is to activate the muscles in preparation for the second exercise, but not fatigue them. If done correctly, performance on the unloaded exercise will actually increase (i.e. a longer broad jump, a more explosive medicine ball slam) compared to if it were performed in isolation.

Precursors to Power

Bear in mind that the above two techniques are for intermediate to advance trainees. Before progressing to these methods, it’s crucial that athletes have mastered all of their basic movements patterns (squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, etc). Athletes must always move well before moving more, faster, and under greater loads.

Interested in learning more about power development and where it fits into the big picture training-wise?

I recently co-authored Speed Training for Hockey: 12 Weeks to Game-Changing Speed along with NHL Performance Coach Kevin Neeld.

Speed Training for Hockey is both a book and series of age-specific off-season training programs for hockey players. It’s specifically designed to help hockey players reach their genetic speed potential -- no matter their age or current skill level.

Speed Training for Hockey includes

  • Comprehensive training programs for U-14, U-18, and 18 & over players totaling 36 weeks of programming, all designed with the specific purpose of increasing speed
  • An extensive exercise video database demonstrating proper technique for every exercise and drill included in the program
  • A systematic 20-item performance testing battery, which enables you to identify individual strengths and weaknesses and track training progress over time
  • A user-friendly text that describes all of the factors that influence speed development, so you can understand exactly why the methods work

Every aspect of the training programs -- from the dynamic warm-up, to the speed and power drills, strength training, conditioning, and cool-down -- is tailored not only to maximize on-ice performance, but also maximize durability and minimize risk of injury. The training programs even specify systematic weekly progressions to improve speed every single session.

Speed Training for Hockey will go on sale to the general public on Monday, May 13.

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