Strength Before Power

In order to make it past the novice level in your training journey, you must have some basic knowledge of the science of exercise. Without this knowledge you cannot effectively program, this will keep you stuck at a plateau or worse, injured. One important phase of training that is commonly misunderstood and rushed is power. I see too many people forgoing a strength base and jumping right into power exercises.  Strength is the force produced in a certain amount of time, power is how fast you move that force (force x distance) / time. You must first be able to move that force with proficient ease before worrying about speed. 

                Strength makes all things possible. Without it, all other attributes, such as power, strength endurance, flexibility and agility will all be limited.  A great analogy of the strength relationship to all other attributes is from Strength and Conditioning expert, Eric Cressey. In his book, 'The Ultimate Off-season Training Manual', Eric states that maximal strength is the glass and everything else is the liquid inside that glass.  The bigger the glass, the more attributes you can fit inside that glass.

                Lets say, we have athlete A (8 oz glass, 4 oz fluid) and athlete B (4oz, glass, 4 oz. fluid). Athlete A has a bigger glass, which enables him/her for more potential for improvement. Athlete A has the strength base to improve on his attributes, while still improving his glass. Athlete A can't work at every attribute at the same time, but year round programming will ensure them optimal performance when they need it the most. Athlete B has to work on his maximal strength. Without it, they cannot get better. If you add fluid to a full glass, it overflows, or better yet, it's like trying to shoot a canon out of a canoe.

 How big is your glass?

How big is your glass?

                I'll give you two examples at opposite ends of the spectrum (powerlifting and flexibility). One is a powerlifter. There have been many deadlifters who have reported great enchantments in power output solely do to an increase in deadlift strength.  Eric Cressey, in one year, went from a deadlift of 518 to 617 - still at his same body-weight. Without training anything but maximal strength in that year, Eric vertical jump went from 26 inches to 30 inches. What happened? Eric's glass got bigger. If Eric wanted to jump even higher, he could just dedicate a training period focused on his rate of force development. His strength (glass) would allow him to reap the benefits of his speed training. Just remember the importance of strength to weight ratio. If you gain twenty pounds of body-weight and your sprint speed is still the same, you’ve gotten faster. 

                 Another example is someone who only does yoga. I enjoy yoga, and most of my movement preparation derives from yoga movements. The problem is when we are long and weak; we lose the ability to express our length under load.  I have observed students who were very flexible, but when given a load (kettlebell) , and asked to perform a goblet squat, they collapse like a ton of bricks.  The nervous system sensed that they weren't strong enough to give them length under load and be safe. We should be long and strong, and not use joint laxity to be flexible, but use our strength. Cleaning up weaknesses (strength) is the key to increasing mobility. The lack of strength didn't allow other attributes (flexibility) to carry over to performance.

                How should we go about increasing our glass? Greasing the groove and perfecting technique is the way to go about increasing your maximal strength. Neural control affects the maximal force output of a muscle by determining which and how many motor units are involved in a muscle contraction and the rate at which the motor units are fired . More motor units fire faster. That is why we see the greatest increase in strength between 70 to 90% 1 rm. At lifts above 92%, we start to see a breakdown of neural control. So just don'treach by trying  to lift heavier (max out) to increase power, follow a proven program and be honest with yourself. Consistency always wins and save your big lifts for competition or mock competitions (if you don’t compete).   

When do we start to incorporate power exercises?


The Deadlift, plank and shoulder stability (click for free video on these exercises)

To jump safely, you need to deadlift your body-weight for 5 reps. Students need to develop a strength base before we include power exercises into the workout. Three times the force of your body-weight is used to jump-off the ground. While eight times the force is what occurs when you decelerate from the jump.  Without being strong first, you will not have the strength base to perform power exercises effectively. If you cannot master and control the basic movements with a smooth tempo, you definitely cannot with speed. You will rely on your structure and ligaments to decelerate the force instead of your muscles.  Think of your fitness goals as a game of Chess. A smart player would setup his/her moves before making bolder moves, limiting the risk. It’s a plan with a purpose. In fitness you would do the same by building a strong foundation of movement before you make more complex moves.

What Exercises?

Power is about forceful hip extension. The core transmits the power from the hips through to the upper-body and out to the world. I would prefer the kettle-bell swing here (I always prefer to swing). The swing though, is such a technical exercise that it requires a certified instructor to teach. The rate of force produced and the speed of this hip-centric movement makes the swing the king of power exercises. The ability to rapidly contract the right muscles and then just as quickly release that energy is the exact skill perfected by the master martial artist and athlete. This also leaves great room for error. If you don’t have an instructor to teach you properly how to swing, you can use jump squats (click for jump squat progressions).  I have also had great success incorporating moderate weight swings between barbell clean sets. Students often don’t trust their hips and often drop into deceleration before their hips extends. 

Hang Clean – the hang clean has become a popular exercise. It's a great power exercise to start with because there is less margin for error, while still emphasizing powerful hip extension. I first teach the double kettlebell clean before the barbell clean. This teaches the student how to finish the lift with their hips and absorb the load. In this time we are mastering the front squat. You should never barbell clean a weight that you cannot front squat for at least 6 reps. Just as in jumping, you have to take into account decelerating the weight andthe speed of the load (it will be higher than just weight on the bar).  Below is a video of me front squatting 275lbs for an easy 4. I front squat heavy before a heavy clean phase. This enhances my glass for smooth cleans.  My max front squat is easily 315lbs, and my average intensity for the clean phase is around 225 (some higher, some lower). If it’s any higher, my form will be compromised and my bar speed will suffer. It’s heavy enough that I can’t muscle it, and light enough that I don’t lose my speed. The clean is about speed right.

Notice the flexibility under load