Programming For Power | Part I. Force Velocity Curve
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
After numerous requests for information on programming for power, we finally bowed to unbearable public pressure and put together a digestible guide to getting stronger and faster.
GB's Big Nick Gleeson showing how he trains for dealing with stupid questions
This is an article series we’ve been badgered about producing for quite some time. So, yeah, sorry it’s late. Hopefully there are some useful takeaways, but more importantly, we hope to further validate a lot of what many of you likely already know! This seems to be a common thing in modern day ‘performance training’, because of the rise in social media advertisement of coaches trying to ‘break the mould’ in a saturated field (and the subsequent rise in bespoke training jargon), there are a lot of decent coaches out there experiencing unnecessary self-doubt about concepts they’re already pretty aware of. But that’s a musing for another time.
Really interestingly, questions on the subject of ‘Programming For Power’ came from people scattered across the spectrum of training experience. Some from those who are complete beginners and don’t know where to start, some from individuals with a working knowledge of power training concepts but want a bobsleigh steer on things and others who are pretty advanced individuals who probably know what they’re doing better than us but enjoy other perspectives.
So in this article series, we’ll do our best to provide an easy-to-digest roadmap to programming for power which will hopefully cover bases and leave people with a fairly logical approach to their own or their athlete’s training. Hopefully you already know a lot of it and it helps to just hear another voice clarifying your experience and education thus far, but if there are lessons learnt and unknown blind-spots covered then fingers crossed it is absorbed well and delivered in as non-wanky a style as possible. Let’s go…
Force Velocity Curve/Graph | What The Hell Is It And Why Should I Care?
For part I, let’s take a brief look at this science-y looking graph thing. Now, we know we just stated we would be as un-wanky as possible but this is an essential template to help you loosely classify yourself or your athlete and make sense of your programming.
The curve is simply a depiction of the inverse relationship between force (strength) and velocity (speed). In its simplest terms: the higher the force, the lower the velocity and therefore the lower the force, the higher the velocity. For example, in a barbell back squat, think about how fast you could stand up with a 40kg barbell on your shoulders, then how fast you could stand up with a 200kg barbell on your shoulders. Unless you’re a deli-ham-legged track cyclist, it’s likely going to be a lot slower. This is important to know because power is the combination of strength x speed. To find the optimal way to programme yourself or your athlete, it takes a bit of trial and error working through the different training zones along the curve. There are 5 training zones to guide things. See Fig 1. and the numbered descriptions beneath.
Fig 1. Our rather sexy and simple ForceVelocity Graph
Maximal Strength. Top of the curve. Think 1RM Barbell Back Squat (lots of force, comparatively low velocity)
Strength Speed. A step down from max strength typically between 80-90% of 1RM thus, a lean to the strength side of explosivity. Think Olympic lifts (powercleans, snatch etc) at the above intensities.
Peak Power. This zone intends to hit the highest force with the highest velocity possible (will differ for the individual but typically somewhere between 30-80% of 1RM. Think barbell jump squats, hang cleans, bench throws etc
Speed Strength. Leaning to the speed side of explosivity at 30-60% of 1RM. Think weighted vest box jumps, light jump squats, light push press etc.
Maximal Speed. Bottom of the curve typically requires < 30% of 1RM (you can go greater than 100% of your max velocity by doing overspeed work such as sprinting with a bungee, jumps with power bands etc). But the idea is this is as fast as you can go so the best bet is unloaded or supramaximal (overspeed) work for the strongest effects. Think unresisted and assisted sprints/powerband jumps or fast plyometrics like bounding and hopping.
These zones, like many things in performance training, are here as a guide. As we will repeat, individual characteristics will inform where someone lies along this continuum but a working knowledge of it is really useful to guide programming.
Power Is Velocity X Force (Strength x Speed)
So if we’re using the curve to guide our training, when training for power, we want to bias our training to the right side of it. That is, if we get ourselves or our athletes shifting more load at faster speeds, we will thus have a more powerful athlete. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work. In the graph, the arrow to the right is essentially shifting all the same loads as the arrow on the left, just faster and hence more powerfully.
Imagine you've got a 40kg barbell on your back (squat is easiest for explanation), and you're hooked up to a device that measures the speed the bar moves when you stand up out of the squat. On your first repetition which you complete at a reasonable tempo, the device shows the bar moved at 0.5m/s. On your second repetition you stand up as fast as you can and the device now says the bar moved at 1.0m/s. You can see that the load has stayed the same (40kg) but the velocity at which the bar moved is faster hence the second rep was more powerful. Plotted on the graph, rep 1 was the black line, rep 2 is the grey line.
How Can You Use It To Inform Training?
If you had a rugby player who is mega at the maximal strength end (250kg 1RM squatter) but has a slow 20m sprint time, then it stands to reason that some time in the speed-strength (4) or maximal velocity (5) area could be beneficial to making this individual more POWERFUL. The idea would be that taking that particular athlete (strength-biased) into a speed phase would yield better overall POWER numbers because you’d like to think (subject to adequate programming among myriad other variables) that the rightward shift on the curve of their athletic training would enhance their RFD.
Yes, or Rate Of Force Development, is simply the speed at which an athlete can generate force. It's a fairly reliable measure of explosive strength and has been shown to be linked to high-class athletic performance.
We're presuming you get the idea but let’s try another one: you have an extremely fast athlete who is comparatively lacking in strength. Using the force curve to enhance this individual's power would demand what initial considerations? That’s right, an initial bias to longer periods in maximal strength (1) or strength-speed (2) zones could potentially raise the overall power level of a speed-biased athlete. As long as you don't stay too long in a strength or hypertrophy zone and ruin their speed capabilities with more muscle bulk than their CNS can innervate. Balance, kids.
Now, obviously this throws up many other considerations. The author of this article has witnessed several transfer athletes trying to mix up their place on the force velocity curve to get better at the new task in front of them. The easiest example being sprinters turning bobsledders. Many sprinters (exceptionally fast under zero load because you don’t run with weights, obv) have come into a sport that lends to their skillset - but now pushing something heavy isn't a training tool, it is a timed and key performance outcome.
A speed-biased athlete in this case would need to adapt their focus left a little to get better at applying their massive velocity under load. Some adapt well, some not so much. Many go too far the other way, get obscenely big and strong and lose touch with what made them good in the first place - their speed. By all means grow the big frame but make sure you can still shift the big frame. We've touched on it already in this series, but if an enormous amount of muscle is thrown onto a frame which in turn doesn't have an elastic system through the feet and ankles sufficient enough to power it - well you should get where we're coming from by now. Ultimately bigger doesn't necessarily mean stronger and stronger doesn't necessarily mean faster.
But Wait A Minute!
Plot twist. Now, some clever clogs in the audience might be thinking, 'ok this seems to make sense, buuuut you're saying according to that graph that maximal-velocity based stuff like sprinting has a low force value - that can't be accurate?'
And you'd be right. Unilateral forces going through the foot and ankle in max velocity sprinting can be somewhere upwards of 5x an individual's bodyweight - in each foot. So when we're talking about training guides in the context of a super sexy graph - how can we make it more... accurate? Well, one option is simply to change the Y axis from Force (N) to Load (KG). These two things are not one and the same. Regardé le figure deux:
Figure deux. Arguably more accurate depiction of what we're talking about. Placating coaching pedants or credibly trying to account for minor mechanical misunderstandings? You decide.
This way we're showing that a load increase yields a slower velocity and therefore can help provide a slightly more accurate picture of the principles we're trying to explain.
However, looking at things this way doesn't change the general takeaways we want you to have from this article and that is:
to maximise power performance training in a weightroom context, you should look to programme a variety of loads at a variety of velocities that make sense in a logical progressive plan congruent with your desired outcomes
But, yeah the graph is shinier and much like Prof Steve Peter's illustrative depiction of the limbic system as a chimp* - this graph just provides a useful visual representation of the road ahead which you can review when writing programmes. Monkey see monkey do. (See what we did there?)
Sum It Up
The point is this stuff should guide your training and not be an all-encompassing approach because individual characteristics will always need to be weighed up, among other things, which we will cover in part II of this series. Balance is key but it will also take a little bit of trial and error to see what works best for the body being trained. Use the principles of the curve to inform your approaches but don't get too bogged down in it.
Philosophies will differ somewhat. But, for TBM, as long as you're moving through phases of heavy load whilst staying in touch with speed work and logically tapering volume the closer you get to competition (whilst keeping in touch with the strengths/weaknesses of the individual and keeping in mind the demands of their sport), you can't go too far wrong.
Left side of curve strong. Right side fast. Bits in middle help improve power. Use brain.
Next up in this series, how Individual Characteristics are an important part of the puzzle.
*The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters