Increasing explosive strength and power is vital to any team or individual sport.
First of all, here is the key concept to start with:
If we want to optimize power, we need a solid strength base.
Strength is the ability to overcome external resistance.
Commonly defined in physics as:
(Force) = Mass (m) x Acceleration (a)
Muscular strength is highly correlated with high levels of Rate of Force Development, Power, Vertical Jump, Sprint, change of directions and Pap (Post Activation Potentiation).
That’s why absolute strength is essential for all kinds of athletes
Explosive strength is the ability to exert maximal force in minimal time.
Please note/Note well Topics such as fMax, Explosive Strength, Elastic-Explosive/Explosive-Elastic strength and power are complex topics. I’ll try to simplify them as much as I can and I’m going to use the word power and explosive strength as synonyms.
Explosive Strength vs Absolute Strength
To express maximum power, we have the formula:
Power(P) = Force (F) x Velocity (V)
So, if we want to increase our explosive strength we have to:
1) Increase Strength or
2) Increase Velocity
There are different factors/components that affect strength and power:
- Recruitment of motor units
- Rate Coding
- Muscle Hypertrophy
The relationship between Absolute Strength and Explosive Strength
There is a correlation between absolute strength and explosive strength, your back squat 1rm is highly correlated with the max power that you can obtain.
Absolute strength is one of the most important elements if you want to improve your Explosive Strength.
And that’s why strength training is so important.
Football player with a 2x bodyweight squat can generate way more power compared to their teammates who aren’t nearly as strong.
Improving strength in beginner athletes will likely cause an improvement in explosive strength.
A beginner that has a vertical jump of X inches with a squat 1rm of 100lbs will be able to jump higher, simply by increasing/bringing his back squat to 200lbs.
Focusing on improving strength alone works well for beginner and intermediate athletes, but not so well for advanced athletes.
Let’s imagine an athlete that can squat 440lbs (1RM) at a bodyweight of 170lbs. Even if we improve his squat to 480lbs, his improvements in explosive strength will be close to none.
An advanced athlete should focus on another part of the equation.
His focus should be on Velocity, rather than strength.
If we can improve strength and velocity, we will get an increase in explosive strength that will result in an increase in the athlete’s performance.
“You are powerful!” – “No, I’m strong…”
I train at a commercial gym, and when people see me squat heavy, they usually come up to me telling me that I’m “powerful”.
To which I always reply:
“No, I’m strong!”
When I squat close to my 1RM (85+%) the barbell moves slowly.
I’m expressing a high rate of strength/force at a low rate of speed.
So, the Power (Watts) generated is not that high.
When a basketball player goes for a slam dunk, he is expressing exactly the opposite: a low rate of strength and a high rate of speed.
If we had to measure him, we will likely see higher levels of Power (In terms of Watts).
So, who has more power?
It’s not a coincidence that one of the most popular methods to increase an athlete’s explosive strength is to practice the vertical jump.
Vertical jump and clapping push-ups are exercises that express a high rate of power.
A slow squat, no matter how heavy it is, expresses way less power compared to a vertical jump.
This comes in handy when we talk about the Hill curve.
The curve itself shows an inverse relationship between force and velocity, meaning that an increase in force would cause a decrease in velocity and vice versa.
Like I said before, a one-repetition maximum Back squat would produce high levels of force but would be lifted at a slow velocity.
A vertical jump would produce a high movement velocity, it would also produce low levels of force.
If you want to improve explosive strength/ increase your power you should focus on the velocity aspect of the curve, but only if you are already strong.
Going back to the two examples:
- My goal is to increase explosive strength, but I already have a solid strength base, what should I do? The answer is simple: I should focus on exercises that improve velocity.
- One of my friends is a professional basketball player, he would like to improve his explosive strength, what does he have to do if he wants to achieve his goal? He should focus on absolute strength because he probably has a good level of velocity.
Let me say this one last time: if you are weak your prime focus should be absolute strength.
.If your strength improves, your power will improve as well.
Maximizing strength, up to a certain point, is a prerequisite of power.
Once you reach a good standard of strength – the vast majority of studies suggest at least a 2x bodyweight squat – your focus should shift to explosive strength training.
How to train explosive strength to improve performance
There are several ways to increase explosive strength:
- Weight training at higher velocity (low intensity)
- Variable Resistance training (Bands and chains)
- Ballistic exercises
The stronger you become, the more plyometrics and ballistic exercises are needed to maximize power.
If you are weak, your main goal should always be strength training. (I swear, the last time I repeat it!).
Powerlifting exercises – such as the squat, bench and deadlift – are the best thing you can do if you are a beginner.
Weightlifting for Power
One of the best ways to train power is weightlifting.
I won’t go too deep on weightlifting for two reasons:
- I don’t have enough knowledge/proficiency/expertise on the subject
- Weightlifting is not ideal for 99% of athletes
Weightlifting requires a really high level of technical proficiency, that cross-fitters tend to overlook more often than not.
Yeah, I’m talking to you, 40y old man with a beer belly trying to snatch.
Very few athletes have the physical and economic resources (Good WL coaches aren’t cheap and for a good reason) to practice weightlifting.
It’s already hard enough to teach movements such as the Squat/Bench/Deadlift, let alone the Olympic lifts. Snatch and Clean & Jerk require a lot of time to be learned and performed correctly, time that is better spent doing other exercises.
At this point I know what you’re thinking: If weightlifting is one of the best ways to train power, but it’s really hard to learn, then, tell me, what should I do?
Weight training for power
If your goal is power, stay away from the classic 3×8 or 4×10 that you often see being used in bodybuilding.
The best thing that you can do is training with medium/low intensities (50-65% of 1RM), with maximum explosiveness in the concentric phase of the movement.
This method is often used during “Dynamics Effort” days at Westside Barbell (Also called speed days). During speed days, athletes perform 10/12 sets for 2 reps with Intensities ranging between 50% to 60% of their 1RM.
Not only, but you can also go as low as 20-30% and get great results: you should periodize load and speed as much as the intensity itself.
Which load should be used to increase power?
Studies suggest that different loads should be used to optimize the force-velocity curve.
To optimize the force-velocity curve, you have to use different loads.
Let’s make a couple of examples:
- Rugby players face different situations during a game, absolute strength and power are essential to them. That’s why the most specific thing that they can do is to train with loads above 80% of their 1rm. They need to focus on both aspects of the force-velocity curve.
- Basketball players, on the other hand, don’t have to focus on strength as much as Rugby players. They need to focus more on velocity to improve their vertical jump, change of directions, etc… They will probably face lower resistance (Passing the ball, throwing/shooting) and medium (Using their bodyweight to jump). They don’t need to push other players like in football, so their required level of strength should be lower than a rugby player.
The force-velocity curve for power
The force-velocity curve shows us that, the closer we get to our 1RM, the slower we are going to move the barbell. The peak barbell acceleration decreases as the intensity level increase.
The opposite is also true, when the intensity level decrease, the acceleration increase.
Do you understand now why strength training is so important?
If my back squat 1rm is 400lbs, it means that I’m going to be explosive with 200lbs.
If your 1RM is 200lbs, you are going to move the same weight way slower than me.
In this case, the athlete that will express more power will undoubtedly be me. Simply because you’ll need several seconds to complete the lift, and I won’t: that weight is light for me, I can through it off my shoulders!
The choice of the training load will, therefore, determine the speed of execution of the movement, and consequently, the ability trained.
On the other hand, velocity-based-training could be used, an even more complex subject that I’m going to talk about in another article.
There are different “areas”/zones in the force-velocity curve, usually classified by the percentage of maximal strength an athlete can produce.
- Absolute strength
- Max Speed
Absolute Strength / Maximal strength (90-100% 1RM)
- Maximal force production, slow velocity.
- The lift will be heavy and slow.
- Trained ability will be absolute strength.
Strength Speed (80-90% 1RM)
- Optimal force production in a short timeframe.
- The lift will be heavy but faster than the absolute strength zone.
- Trained ability will be power against high loads.
Peak power (30-80% 1RM)
- Medium-low force production, high velocity
- Trained ability will be an explosive force at medium-low loads
It should represent the maximum value of power that is being expressed by an athlete, but the exact intensity/percentage of load compared to their 1RM varies from athlete to athlete.
Speed Strength (30-80% 1RM)
- Medium-low force production, high velocity
- The lift will be light and easy
- Trained ability will be an explosive force at medium-low loads.
Max Speed (<30% 1RM)
- Really low force production, super high velocity
- The lift will be super-fast and light
- Trained ability will be explosive strength at low loads
Variable Resistance Training
Variable resistance training has a beneficial effect for athletes to develop maximal power.
Made famous by Louie Simmons, variable resistance training is simply adding chains or elastic bands to a traditional barbell workout.
By changing the resistance curve, we’ll be forced to accelerate for the entire duration of the movement, as it happens with ballistic exercises.
This is the reason why bands and chains play a fundamental role in explosive strength training.
The increased difficulty in the upper portion of the lift force the athlete to continue to accelerate, this causes an increase in the power output levels/increase in power.
The use of VRT is one of the simplest and most effective methods to increase power in athletes in the weight room.
Plyometrics training: increase your power
Plyometric exercises emphasize a rapid transition from eccentric to concentric.
Specificity isn’t a priority here. Plyometric exercises don’t have to imitate a specific sport gesture/movement to cause an increase in power, but they have to be somewhat related to the sport.
The most appropriate training frequency is probably between 2 or 3 sessions per week.
Here are some of the best plyometrics exercises for the lower body:
- Jump squat
- Tuck Jump
- Depth Jump
- Box Jump
- Depth Jump to Box Jump
Ballistic exercises for the lower body
What’s a ballistic exercise? To put it simply:
“Exercises in which the athlete tries to accelerate a weight/a load along the entire length of the ROM, and often coincides with the release of weight from the body or body from the ground”.
A perfect example is a jump squat.
They produce significantly higher (watts) for average velocity, avg peak power compared to the traditional method.
Exercises such as the jump squat, bench throw, alternating lunge jump, single leg hop, power clean, bench pull, push jerk, clap push up are all ballistic exercises.
Plyometrics exercises and Olympic lifts can be considered ballistic exercises for the simple fact that they make you accelerate a weight through the entire range of motion.
Ballistic exercises are typically used with loads above your bodyweight, that’s why they are perfect for intermediate and advanced athletes.
For example, the jump with external load/ a Jump Squat with weights is one of the most used ballistic exercises for the lower body.
Exercises such as a squat with chains/bands are excellent for developing power and they can be considered “Ballistic” because there is acceleration along with the entire range of motion.
Some of the best ballistic exercises:
- Back and front squat
- Jump Squat
- Jump squat with weights (10-50% of your body weight as an external load)
- Squat with bands or chains
- Box squat with bands or chains
- Sled pull
- Sled Push
- Multidirectional acceleration against bands
Explosive upper body Exercises
These exercises are the bread and butter in sports that include: throwing, fighting, propulsion.
Medicine balls are extremely popular (and useful) in plyometrics exercises.
Bands and chains can also be extremely useful.
Throwing distance, velocity, and peak upper body power increase when the lower body is involved in the movement.
Loads between 30 and 50% of your 1RM can be used.
Plyometrics exercises and medicine balls are essential to increase upper body power.
Here are some of the best ballistic exercises for the upper body:
- Jump Push-up (beginner)
- Band push-up (Intermediate)
- Bench press
- Bench press w/bands (intermediate)
- Barbell row w/bands (beginner)
- Seal row (Intermediate)
- Chest-Pass (beginner)
- Lateral pass/side pass
- Ball Drop (Advanced)
Should I train force or velocity?
To increase power output, you need to be able to express a high level of strength in a short amount of time.
It can be simplified by saying that the greatest benefits can be gained by training your weaknesses.
A strong athlete can benefit from plyometrics and ballistic exercises with only bodyweight or with low/minimal external resistance.
An athlete who’s already able to accelerate and with high velocity would achieve better results if he concentrates on increasing maximal strength.
As we’ve seen, there are different ways to increase both strength and velocity.
Explosive Strength & Power Concepts
- Increasing power has a positive transfer on athletic performance
- Sports Athletes have to train explosive strength only after building a solid strength base.
- There are different methods to increase power
- Improving power with different intensities/loads is better than focusing on a single training load.
- Weight training, done correctly, leads to an increase of explosive force, it doesn’t “slow down” athletes.
- Using plyometrics and ballistic exercises become more and more important as the athlete gets stronger.
- According to the sport practiced by the athlete, we must choose the best methods to increase athletic performance
- Physical Performance Characteristics of American Collegiate Football players ( Fry Andrew C.; Kraemer, William J., 1991)
- Comparison of upper-body strength and power between professional and college-aged rugby league players. (Baker, 2001)
- How much strength is necessary? (Stone et. al, 2002)
- Adaptations in athletic performance after ballistic power versus strength training. (Cormie et. all, 2010)
- Training Principles for Power (Haff, 2012)
- Kinematics, Kinetics, and Muscle Activation During Explosive Upper Body Movements (Newton, Kraemer, 1996)
- Effects of Plyometric Training on Sports Performance (Booth, 2016)
- Advanced Strength and Conditioning – An evidence-based approach
- Supertraining (Siff, Verkhoshansky)
- Strength and Conditioning for Team Sports (Gamble)
- Special Strength Development for all Sports (Simmons)