In order to be powerful, you must be strong.
Developing huge levels of muscle force takes a lot of maximal strength, but it’s only after you enhance your ability to quickly reach that peak level of force that you achieve head-turning power.
Power is defined as work divided by time (P=W/T), so in order to become more powerful you must decrease the amount of time it takes you to perform a certain amount of work. Let’s say two guys can achieve the same level of peak force. The guy who can reach that peak force faster is more powerful.
The typical way a strength coach will build a power athlete is with a combination of speed and maximal strength training.
Speed training uses submaximal loads with fast tempos. For example, you’ll put a load on the bar you could lift 10 times but you’ll only perform three super-fast reps.
The goal of speed training isn’t to enhance your peak force, but instead to enhance your ability to reach that peak force in less time. Put another way – speed training won’t increase your maximal strength and this can be problematic for most power athletes.
For the purposes of this discussion, a power athlete is someone whose sport mandates lightning fast movements. Think of a MMA fighter or a running back.
Ironically, the only sport with the word “power” in the description – powerlifting – doesn’t mandate fast movements. Whether it takes you two seconds or eight seconds to lock out the deadlift doesn’t matter; either is acceptable in that sport. Nevertheless, speed work is important in powerlifting. There are two reasons.
First, speed work enhances your ability to reach peak levels of force. The inability to reach max force can cause you to miss the lift. The second reason is because, in most cases, powerlifters aren’t doing anything outside of the gym that challenges their speed. They need to train for speed in their workouts because they’re not getting it anywhere else.
You must be able to tap into your peak force very fast to get bigger and stronger. But this article isn’t an overview of how to train for speed. Eric Cressey already did an excellent job covering that in Training Speed to Get Strong.
Powerlifters aside, most power athletes don’t need additional speed work. They need to develop more maximal strength. That’s the focus of this article.
How to Target Maximal Strength
Maximal strength is your ability to produce the highest level of force possible. Based on motor unit physiology, your ability to maintain maximum continuous force decreases at the 10-second mark. So any set or exercise that lasts longer than 10 seconds of continuous tension isn’t directly training maximal strength.
There are two different ways to increase maximal strength. The first is with those big, compound exercises that you love to do in the gym because you can load plenty of plates on the bar. I’m talking about the deadlift and back squat, among others. You lift heavy, you keep the reps low, and you keep the rest periods long.
The other way to build maximal strength is with high-tension exercises. These exercises don’t require much external load but they’re brutally tough. Heck, in some cases you don’t need any external load before you have to stop.
Two examples include the iron cross on the rings or a body weight glute-ham raise. Most strong athletes can’t complete a single, full range of motion rep of either. So even though there’s no external load, it’s still maximal strength training since you can’t maintain muscle tension for more than 10 seconds.
There’s no new way to build pure strength. You need to lift heavy and use high-tension exercises. Thirty years ago a professional football player would practice to build his game and lift heavy in the gym to build his maximal strength. But then something changed.
The Sport Specific Training Setback
By the 1990’s, sport specific training became the rage. The concept was simple – try to mimic in the weight room what you’re doing in the sport. That way, what you develop in the gym will directly correlate with an increase in sport-specific performance.
Take a 100-meter sprinter, for example, whose replay video shows a high knee kick throughout the race. His strength coach has him perform a bunch of high knee kicks with a resistance band to build strength in that movement pattern because, well, that’s what the sport shows.
Yet, this type of sport specific training didn’t help. What proof do I have? Well, the progressive strength coaches who ended up removing those crazy exercises out of their athlete’s programs saw no loss in sport performance. In many cases, the athletes actually improved their speed and strength once those fatigue-inducing exercises were put on the shelf.
I was reminded of this fact when I recently met up with sprint strength coach savant, Barry Ross, to talk shop. He’s a guy who’s known for having his athletes perform an extremely basic strength-building program; I mean, really basic. His strength program focuses on building the deadlift and not much else.
A deadlift-focused program for sprinters seems about as far from sport-specific as training can be. Yet Ross consistently produces some of the fastest sprinters in the world.
He doesn’t have his sprinters perform a high knee kick against resistance because he figured out that the high kick was merely a rebound effect from the huge amount of force his sprinters were able to pound into the ground from their monstrous deadlifts.
Another example – back in 1997 I was fortunate to spend time around another legend in the world of strength training, Tim Grover. He’s the guy who trained Michael Jordan throughout his career, in addition to many other top NBA players.
One really smart thing Tim did was measure his players’ average heart rate on the basketball court. He wanted to see it decrease over time as they got further into the off-season strength and conditioning program he set up for them.
Tim didn’t have Jordan or Pippen run up and down the court wearing a weighted vest with ankle weights while shooting a 20-pound basketball. He used basic strength exercises to get them stronger. Grover knew that making his basketball players stronger would allow them to perform jump shots with less effort. This kept their heart rate down and, by default, increased their endurance.
I mention Barry Ross and Tim Grover for a reason. Ross’ athletes only need to run in a straight line for a very short amount of time. Grover’s athletes had to run in multiple directions for a long period of time. Yet both focused on a basic maximal strength-building program to improve their athlete’s performance, and both are hugely successful with their methods. They didn’t fall victim to the sport-specific training nonsense.
The problem with the sport specific training craze is that the exercises weren’t nearly as effective as training the sport itself. Those exercises just accumulated fatigue that kept athletes from practicing at their peak on the field or in the ring.
The idea of taking any sprint, punch or kick and adding resistance to it in order to build sport specific endurance is akin to prescribing a 4/0/2 tempo for the step-up. Both approaches set the strength and conditioning industry back 20 years.
The Fatigue Factor
Fatigue is the number one enemy of any athlete. Anyone who’s a fighter, or trains fighters, has a clear understanding of how detrimental fatigue can be.
Look, if you’re a running back, fatigue will decrease your agility so you’re more likely to get tackled. That’s not good. However, for MMA fighters, the inability to maintain their reflexes at the end of a fight could be a career ender.
It’s this respect for my fighter’s safety at the end of a fight that made me put such a large emphasis on speed training and sport-specific endurance development when I first started working with them. In those days, half of our training would be speed with endurance work, while the other half was maximal strength training.
But I wasn’t satisfied with their maximal strength development. I knew the problem – they were doing too much overall training throughout the week to recover. So I started tapering off the amount of speed work I had them do. Of course, their maximal strength went up.
And their endurance and explosive strength also went up!
I determined an increase in endurance by their ability to maintain a lower average heart rate while they were sparring. The explosive strength enhancement was determined by an increase in their broad jump score.
Of course, training for nothing but maximal strength won’t make you an endurance athlete. However, when I cut out the speed/endurance exercises, they were able to put more energy into their kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, and boxing.
In other words, they had the extra energy outside of our strength workouts to literally build sport specific endurance by practicing their sport more frequently and with greater intensity. And remember that having higher levels of maximal strength means you can perform the sport with less effort.
The only type of sport specific training worth doing is the sport itself. I like battling ropes for MMA athletes as much as the next guy, but it’s still inferior to letting them spend that energy on actual striking.
3 Guidelines for Training Power Athletes
1 – Focus on building nothing but maximal strength with high load and high-tension exercises.
If you train a MMA fighter, sprinter, running back, or any other similar athlete you probably don’t need speed work in their training sessions because their sport is the speed work.
Use the deadlift as the ultimate measure of high-load training strength with being able to pull at least a raw double body weight lift with an unmixed grip as the goal. Focus on building the glute-ham raise, iron cross, muscle-up, and handstand push-up from rings for body weight high-tension exercises.
A key with maximal strength training is to rest at least three minutes before repeating an exercise. This doesn’t mean you need to sit around for three minutes, though. Here’s a sample sequence I like for developing the core and posterior chain.
|1A||Pallof press-hold for 10 seconds||60 sec.|
|1B||Deadlift (with heaviest load possible)||2||60 sec.|
|1C||Body weight glute-ham raise||AMAP||60 sec.|
Repeat 1A-1C four more times.
2 – Monitor their endurance with a heart rate monitor while sparring.
Their average heart rate should decrease over time. If it doesn’t decrease, I would encourage them to spend more time practicing their fighting style.
If that doesn’t work, add battling ropes, sled work, sprints or something similar into the program, one at a time. Make sure whatever you add in is improving their sparring endurance.
3 – Monitor their explosive strength
Use one of the simplest ways to measure rate of force development (RFD), the broad jump. Here are the details:
The broad jump is a versatile tool in athletic settings. Not only is it an accurate way to test your potential increase in RFD, but it’s also a good measure of which young athlete might be genetically predisposed to being a great power athlete.
The kid with the longest broad jump is often the one chosen by an Olympic coach who’s looking to build his resume.
In science, all possible variables must be kept consistent through subsequent trials or the data will be skewed. This need for accuracy, of course, is just as important when testing athletes. The biomechanics of the broad jump must be as consistent as possible.
In subsequent trials, if the athlete uses a wider or narrower foot placement, if he’s wearing different shoes, or if he’s jumping from a different surface, you won’t get an accurate measure of his changes in performance.
- Testing Surface: Ideally you’ll jump from a hard surface and land on a slightly softer one. Think of a basketball court floor for takeoff and a hard rubber surface like you see in gyms for landing. A surface that’s too soft, however, isn’t helpful either since it’s difficult for the athlete to land solid. It’s not imperative that you land on a softer surface, but if one is available, use it.
- Footwear: I usually have my athletes perform the broad jump with bare feet. Any shoe with minimal cushioning will work, too. Avoid testing athletes who are wearing shoes with thick, cushioned soles.
- Foot placement: When the athlete is ready to perform a broad jump, measure the distance between the inside of his heels and place two marks on the floor with tape so his heels are the exact same width with each subsequent attempt. Whichever foot placement feels most powerful is what you want to test. That stance width will be slightly different for everyone.
- Attempts, Measuring and Calculations: Perform three broad jumps with three minutes of rest between each attempt. If the athlete loses his balance on the landing, it doesn’t count. Wait three minutes and perform another attempt. Measure from the front of his toes at takeoff to the back of his heel at landing. Measure to the heel that’s closest to the takeoff line if the feet aren’t perfectly even. The longest jump is the one that counts in your data.
- Testing frequency: Test the broad jump every four weeks. Ideally, you’ll test it on the same day at the same time with the same warm-up, if you choose to use a warm-up (as little as 10 jumping jacks one minute before the first jump is usually sufficient). The key is to keep whatever warm-up you’re doing consistent over time.
Now, in a perfect world the athlete would refrain from any heavy weight training for two days before testing the broad jump. If you test the broad jump two days after a heavy deadlift the first week, and retest it one day after a heavy deadlift the fourth week, you’re going to skew your data. Be smart with your timing of the broad jump test and try to keep all variables as consistent as possible.
It would be easy to get into a scholarly discussion over what constitutes an ideal broad jump distance. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that your broad jump is consistently increasing over time. Once it stops increasing, add speed exercises into your training program if you feel that’s what’s lacking.
This article isn’t a slam on speed training. It has its place. If you’re an avid lifter who doesn’t compete in any sport and wants to get bigger and stronger, traditional speed training should be a part of your program.
However, if you’re a power athlete it’s important to remember that your sport probably gives you all the speed training you need, if you practice it enough.
What you’ll most likely get the greatest benefit from is maximal strength training. This is especially true if your goal is to be the next MMA champion!