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Improving Athletic Powerby Alan Stein, CCS, CSCS Alan is the co-owner of Elite Athlete Training Systems (E.A.T.S.). E.A.T.S. and has locations in Germantown and Damascus, Maryland.
Power is an important ingredient in a wide variety of sports skills. Making a tackle, hitting a homerun, shooting a penalty shot, driving a golf ball, serving an ace, sprinting 100 meters, and dunking a basketball are just some of the rather obvious examples of sports skills that utilize power. Because of this, coaches and athletes are constantly in search of ways to improve athletic power. Surprisingly enough, there is tremendous controversy on the most effective way to do so.
For the most part, there are two current schools of thought. The first school of thought believes that athletic power is best improved by performing strength training movements that "mimic" sports skills. These movements are ballistic in nature (performed at a high velocity) and rely heavily on the involvement of momentum. Some examples include movements such as the power clean (and its closest derivatives), medicine ball training, and various "plyometric" exercises. These movements are performed with the belief that the power exhibited during training will directly transfer and enhance the specific sports skill that they are trying to improve.
The second school of thought believes that the weight room and the playing field (or court, track, etc.) are completely separate entities. They believe that there is no movement performed in the weight room that will directly transfer and improve any specific sports skill (except, of course, for the specific sports skills of Olympic lifting and Power lifting). The members of this school of thought believe that all strength training movements should be performed in a controlled manner (performed at a low velocity) eliminating as much momentum as possible. They believe that power is best improved by strengthening all of the body's musculature and by spending countless hours practicing the specific sports skill they are trying to improve - not by trying to mimic them in the weight room.
We, at E.A.T.S., have no reservations in stating that we are advocates of the latter group. However, the purpose of this article is not to discredit or try to "punch holes" in the training philosophies and beliefs of this first school of thought (despite the fact that in my humble opinion I believe that many of these practices are extremely dangerous and rather unproductive). Instead, I would like to focus on what I truly believe is a safer, more efficient, more productive, and certainly a more practical way to improve athletic power.
In order to find a way to improve athletic power it is essential that we first define power. Power is simply the "rate at which work is performed." Work is defined as the "product of force and distance" (Work = Force X Distance). To put this definition into practical terms I believe power is best illustrated using the following formula:
By examining the preceding formula you can conclude that there are several different ways to improve athletic power:
Increase Force: Increasing the force applied to a specific sport's skill (while keeping distance and time constant) is one way to increase athletic power. In order to increase the application of force one must increase their current strength levels. This is because strength and force are directly related. Strength can be defined as the "ability of skeletal muscle to produce force." Therefore, if you increase your strength, you increase your ability to produce force. An increase in the ability to produce force results in an increase in athletic power. For example, the more force a linebacker can put into the skill of tackling the more powerful the tackle will be. I believe the safest, most efficient, and most productive way to increase strength is through High Intensity Training. There are certainly several different philosophies that fall within the principles and guidelines of High Intensity Training. However, I consider any strength training that is hard, brief, and infrequent, utilizing deliberate and controlled repetitions to fall within this general methodology. In order to effectively develop strength one should subject the musculature of the body to constant tension (for 50-120 seconds) until the point of momentary muscular failure. This should be done in manner that tracts joint and muscle function and not in a manner that mimics a specific sports skill.
Increase Distance: Increasing the distance that force is applied (while keeping force and time constant) is another way to improve athletic power. The most efficient way to increase distance is to increase flexibility. Flexibility can be defined as the "range of motion in a joint or group of joints." An increase in range of motion can result in an increase in distance. An increase in distance results in an increase in athletic power. One example is improving low back, hip, and shoulder flexibility to allow for a greater range of motion in a golf swing. By increasing the distance that the club head can be brought back prior to the swing, you increase your power (only if force and time are kept constant). The same can be said for "cocking" your leg back to kick a soccer ball. Improving flexibility in order to increase the distance that force can be applied can be done through a combination of sensible full range of motion strength training as well as a comprehensive flexibility and stretching program.
Decrease Time: Decreasing the time that force is applied (while keeping force and distance constant) is yet another way to improve athletic power. Decreasing the time to perform a skill is in essence increasing the "speed" at which the skill is performed. Increasing the speed results in an increase in athletic power. The most effective and practical way to increase the speed at which you can perform a specific skill is through countless hours of task specific skill practice. You need to practice the specific skill EXACTLY like it will be used in competition. For example, the more a center practices the specific skill of snapping the football and then executing his particular blocking pattern during "game like" conditions, the more proficient he will become at performing it. Increased proficiency means it takes him less time and effort to perform the specific skill. This will result in an increase in athletic power. I believe that proper skill training is the most overlooked aspect of trying to improve athletic power. Competent coaching, studying videotape, and hours of perfect practice are the best ways to increase skill proficiency.
It should be obvious that any combination of the above (for example: increasing force and decreasing time) will lead to an even more pronounced improvement in athletic power. Let me also note that every athlete's potential to improve each of the components of athletic power is, for the most part, predetermined according to their genetic make up and inherited characteristics. For example, some athletes are more predisposed to obtaining higher levels of strength while others are more neurologically efficient. It is the athletes that are born with all of the right "hook-ups" that have the potential for producing the athletic power seen in a Mark McGuire, Michael Jordan, or Junior Seau. This is not to imply that every athlete cannot make relatively significant gains in strength, flexibility, and skill proficiency, but to point out that not everyone has the genetic potential to become a world-class athlete.
Two other areas that are worthy of mention in regards to their relationship with improving athletic power are excess body fat and overall conditioning. I did not include these two aspects above because I believe that they play a role in more than one component of the power formula. Excess body fat (which in regards to the athlete is "dead weight") may inhibit both flexibility and skill proficiency. Keeping each athlete's body fat percentage at an appropriate level will promote maximum potential in both flexibility and skill proficiency. Also, an athlete's overall conditioning plays a key role. What good is an athlete's strength and skill proficiency if they cannot be maintained throughout the entire competition? Preventing or delaying the onset fatigue is crucial to performance. After all, you should strive to have athletes that are just as strong and skillful in the fourth quarter as they are in the first quarter. Ensuring that each athlete is highly conditioned will help ensure this. In summary, if you want to improve an athlete's power in a safe, efficient, productive and practical way you need to do the following on a consistent basis:
NOTE: This article was first published in Hard Training Newsletter.
Asanovich, Mark. The 1999 Buccaneer's Strength and Conditioning Seminar, (March 1999).
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