Programming For Power. A 4 Part Series | Preface.

This article was originally included with Part II (Individual Characteristics) but made it unbearably long. Plus the information within is important for you to consider when programming for power. It doesn't necessarily mean you need to take it as gospel, it should just afford you some thinking points when creating your plans.

Blaine McConnell (Team USA) is a pretty powerful bloke - 200kg Clean anyone?

A Few Notes On 'Power' To Get Us Started

When we're talking about 'power', first and foremost what do we mean? It's a contextual thing. Are we talking about maximum effort peak power? Maintenance of a mean power output over a specified distance? I.e. Are we wanting to 'empty the tank' for a 5 second explosive effort? Complete a more measured mean output of power like in a rowing race? Or increase speed through the high pull section of a weightlifting Clean?

What types of power in what sporting context are we talking about? We technically exhibit some level of power when we walk, or stretch or basically complete any movement.

So when we're talking about training it, what is the specific output we want and how is our selection of training method, modality and exercise going to impact on that desired output? We could programme a tonne of 'French Contrast' training in the weightroom which yields a positive increase in 'power' such that you can jump higher onto a box pretty easily. And if 'jumping on a progressively higher box' is your training goal then wonderful! Box ticked.

But if you're a 100m sprinter wanting to boost power out of the blocks to yield a faster first 10m (with French Contrast weightroom antics being one selected piece of the puzzle), then is being able to 'jump higher onto that box' truly congruent with that goal? Principally, for a sprinter looking to boost their speed out of the blocks in those early stages the emphasis primarily is going to be on improving the concentric power or RFD (rate of force development) of the hip extensors, knee extensors and ankle plantar-flexors as they are the elements most taxed in those early stages. So, do box jumps have a place for facilitating an increase in that specific output? They're ok perhaps, when specifically tailored, but we can probably do better.

Ok - Explain That

Well, if we’re using the example of a sprinter wanting to improve their first 10m out of the blocks and they’ve asked for a ‘power’ programme to help with this, is it enough for you to programme some box jumps ‘contrasted’ with heavy weights or plyo? As mentioned, your primary focus out of the blocks in those first few steps up to 10m, is a heavily concentric-biased muscle contraction (or concentric RFD) at the hip, knee and ankle. But we need enough stiff-ankle (or high elastic strength potential) qualities in order to turn that concentric power from the hip and knee into effective ‘ground reaction force’ to propel the athlete forward sufficiently.

Massive power potential in the whole system but without the elastic capabilities to turn it into propulsive force through the feet and ankles is a bit like having a rocket launcher without the trigger.

So think about it, if the elastic strength potential in the ankles doesn’t exist (read: comparatively weak), but enormous power from the hip/knee extensors does, then chucking them into a hip/knee dominant ‘French Contrast programme’ could be a huge amount of work for this specific athlete going to waste. If they already possess extraordinary power capabilities from their hips and quads, but lack elastic/stiffness qualities in their ankles, then that ‘power’ is going to dissipate to nothing (or be less effective), than if the training emphasis was on the latter quality. It doesn't mean that the training method is wrong necessarily, it just might mean that your emphasis could be better placed elsewhere. Something to think about.

So in summation - as we delve into below - know your athlete’s strengths and weaknesses, and find the brick at which the Jenga tower might collapse. It doesn’t mean that certain training modalities are wrong, (we absolutely advocate for many of them), we’re just saying that context and knowing the athlete in question is paramount before you choose their training method to yield a best outcome.

You Promised This Would Be Digestible

Appreciate that’s getting a little science-y which we promised to avoid (namely because we lack the qualification 😅) and we’re not presuming that everyone reading this article has access to a professional biomechanist or performance coach. These people can accurately provide testing metrics to work on assessed weaknesses. In this way they can help provide a data-driven steer on what adaptations could be most beneficial and therefore help zone in on the most accurate training intervention to bring about the desired performance change. And breathe. No, in fact we've put this series together with the opposite in mind. For most mere mortals we need to work out our weaknesses for ourselves and put together a plan of action in the best way we can and tweak it as we go. (There are apps you can use for some basic performance profiling too and when they pay us we'll tell you who they are.)

The point we're making is, for non-athletes, think about what exactly is your desired performance outcome to best justify the decisions you make when designing a power programme. Are you just wanting to mix up training because it's fun? Well, skip this bit and go straight to the general considerations in Part II and have at it. But if you take things a little more seriously, or if you're a competitive athlete, then keep these general points in mind:

  1. Assessment of the athlete's needs to identify specific objectives (lets say a <70kg road cyclist who wants to boost their peak power in a 5-10 second all-out-effort but retain lean body mass, they are weak in the weightroom but skilful on the bike)

  2. Identification of the neuromuscular or motor skill adaptations required to achieve the specific objectives (maintenance of desired body mass with concomitant increase in cyclical power output, ability to increase neural drive or innervate nervous system and muscles to 'empty the tank', basic increase in ability to express force)

  3. Understand the type of stress needed on the system to elicit these adaptations (heavy strength sets to stimulate nervous system and body's ability to contract more muscle fibres. Peak power and speed elements to help increase neural drive in a cyclical pattern, an approach to training hamstrings and hip flexors plus adaptation of on-bike efforts. Lots of recovery)

  4. Selection of training methods to achieve point number 4 (could be a period of weightroom assessment to see that their lifting ability is technically optimal, undertake a contrast or complex training method combining traditional strength (barbell squat/trap bar deads, potentially with an eccentric focus) with speed elements (reactive single leg hops, light peak power efforts on the Wattbike/other ergs are available, light split trap bar jumps). Adjustment of long road rides to include more 6-10 second high intensity intervals. Test peak power (along with body mass and selected effort resistance level) at the start of the programme, retest at the end.

In this example we're basically saying, here's a light cyclist who wants to boost their cycling power without getting too heavy. They are weak in the weightroom, have good skills on the bike but enormous room to improve based on lacking strength. At their level it's likely that taking on strength elements (safely) would yield a hypertrophic (muscle growth) element sufficient to generate the requisite force to boost cyclical power without adding too much mass. The on-bike elements account for a reinforcement of the skill of expressing power on the bike; a strength, mass or RFD increase could throw an individual's coordination out of whack. Keeping elements on the bike lets us stay in touch with the skill. Choosing exercises like squats and trap bar deads with split stance gives us a degree of weightroom crossover with the action on the bike (trap bar being a potentially safer option if the cyclist in this example is not a great squatter). Test of peak power on a Wattbike (as this is the testing protocol selected in this example - obviously an SRM or Infocrank type system would be lovely) to be conducted at the beginning and end of the programme to assess start point and progress.

Ultimately, the individual in this example could see improvements for a number of reasons*: new stimulus, increased motivation, exposure to expressing force at speed etc but the plan has been decided based on what the individual wanted to achieve, what they needed to address to achieve it and the best-fitting training methods to bring about the desired result. Cycling coaches may disagree and that's their prerogative; this is just a worked example of the process you could take. Primarily, figure out what you need before you select your training method. It'll give you what you want far faster than arbitrarily having a stab at things. Unless you want to do that for fun, in which case as mentioned, have at it.

*So don't get too bogged down in 'Wow that worked so now I know what works for me' syndrome

The Devil Is In The Detail And The Ball-Ache Is In The Transfer

These are some of the tricky elements you need to consider when you're trying to transfer 'power' training to non-weightroom related events. You just need to be a little more specific with your desired outputs. Obviously for a weightlifter or powerlifter the metrics are a little simpler to work out. If you want to land a 140kg powerclean to land a 140kg powerclean then the training you do in the weightroom absolutely transfers to that (not taking into consideration non-lifting power movements at which point everything above applies). But if you want to land a 140kg powerclean to help you run faster, well that's when it starts getting murky.

But, as is everything in the imperfect world of performance training, it's not gospel but more food for thought.

So, with that stuff ringing in your ears, let's get the Programming For Power Series started with Part I (which is essentially a simple guide to the Force Velocity Curve) and see if we can scratch the surface of the world of power training together.

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