Dr. Andy Galpin
Dr. Andy Galpin is a Professor of Kinesiology at the Center for Sport Performance at California State University, Fullerton. Andy has a Ph.D. in Human Bioenergetics and is the founder and director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Exercise Laboratory. He’s the co-author of Unplugged with Brian Mackenzie and Phil White. In addition, he co-hosts the Body of Knowledge podcast. Learn more at www.andygalpin.com
A lot of coaches and athletes think they’re training to become “more powerful.” But one look at their programming, and it’s easy to see why the training program they’ve built is missing the mark.
There can be many reasons for this, but it often comes down to making three simple mistakes. The good news is these are easily corrected, and that’s what we’re going to explore in this post.
The first thing we need to do is agree on what we’re talking about when we use the word “power” in an athletic context. Simply put, peak power is force multiplied by velocity (or work divided by time).
In certain circumstances, the goal may be to enhance peak power, or the maximal amount of instantaneous power an athlete can generate. Think 1RM snatch, vertical jump, etc. Other times, say in the case of a football player ensuring he maintains his power in the 4th quarter, it’s important to focus on maintaining the available power output over time (as fatigue sets in).
While improving peak power and the ability to sustain a given power output over time sound identical, the distinction is critical as it explains a massive proportion of power training mistakes.
Developing and maximizing both involves exposing athletes to two different kinds of training stimuli – the first to allow them to improve their generation of peak power, and the second to enable them to sustain several sub-maximal power efforts. We’ll cover both in this article.
Now that we’ve defined power and its two most common sporting variations, let’s dive into the mistakes coaches and athletes often make when trying to develop either or both, and how to fix them:
- Mistake 1. Too Many Reps Per Set
- Mistake 2. Inadequate Rest Between Sets
- Mistake 3. Inadequate Intensity
We’ve just examined how peak power is expressed as force multiplied by velocity. This means that if either one of these factors declines, power output will fall. And if both are reduced, then power output is really going to fall off a cliff.
When a coach asks me to look at their power program, one of the first errors I typically notice is that their athletes are performing too many repetitions per set (i.e., too many repetitions in row without taking a break). Force might be the first thing to go, or it could be velocity. Regardless, once an athlete gets into a higher rep range, they are going to start moving more slowly and generating less force, which will compromise power output. They might also start making some positional compromises (like technique) to maintain either factor, which can lead to injury.
The fix here is pretty simple and obvious: reduce the number of reps per set.
For training peak power, I suggest sticking to between two and six reps. This number is highly variable, depending on the exercise, fitness of the athlete, and several other facts, so just make sure either you as the coach are watching to see when the movement becomes less powerful so you can stop the set, or that your athletes have sufficient self-awareness to do it themselves.
For sessions designed to target sustained power output, you can go higher in reps. Just make sure you understand the difference. Training for “sustained power” will likely NOT improve your peak power. It’s up to the coach to determine what the goal of the workout, day, week, or training phase is – improving peak or sustainable power.
Another very common mistake is to make rest periods between sets too short. Sometimes this is layered on top of mistake #1 to create a double-whammy effect that compromises the quality of the session.
Giving athletes 30, 60, or 90 seconds between sets when you’re aiming to enhance peak power production isn’t going to cut it (caveat: this is a general rule, and depends on the exercise, conditioning level of the athlete, etc.). Not only will it not allow them to recover from the previous set, but it will also negatively impact performance in each subsequent one.
In sports like football, one of the things players sometimes say is, “Yeah, but I need to be able to produce power when I’m tired in the fourth quarter, so I’m going to train that way.” This is not totally false, but football players and athletes in any sport need to develop their ability to both produce peak power and sustain it over time. The former requires being as fresh as possible and so necessitates longer rest periods between sets.
- A good rule of thumb here is a rest-to-work ratio of 15-20 to 1. In most scenarios, this will mean between two and five minutes of rest, which will allow sufficient recovery for a maximum effort in the next set.
- When training sustained power, you can reduce the time between each work period or even break up individual reps with very short bouts of rest. Again, just don’t expect short rest intervals to improve your broad jump or power clean max.
One example that applies to both situations might involve throwing a 20-pound medicine ball.
For a peak power session, you’d have your athlete try to throw the ball to a pre-set distance on their first attempt – say 20 yards. They’d then rest for one to two minutes, and try to go farther on each successive rep (say they max out at 22 yards).
Once they start throwing less than that initial 20-yard goal, they’re done. If trying to sustain power output “in the 4th quarter,” you could have them do the same type of throw but try to get the ball to say 17 yards. They’d either keep doing successive throws until their distance declined beyond a pre-set level (say 14 yards), or you could have them take a 20 to 30 second break between attempts.
These could be separate sessions or combined into a single workout, depending on the rest of that week’s schedule and the outcome you’re aiming for. If you’re going to do both in one session, always go with the peak power work first.
For the longest time, coaches have been defaulting to the 30% rule when programming for power – that peak power output occurs at 30% of an athlete’s one rep max.
This thinking goes back almost a century to the pioneering work A.V. Hill began in the 1920s and, more specifically, the force-velocity curve he created. He was ahead of his time in many ways and really advanced the physiology and training conversation. But people often neglect the fact that the experiments that led to his creation of this curve were done on frogs in a very isolated manner.
Of course we often look to animal-based experiments and extrapolate their results to humans, but in doing so we need to exercise some caution. In this case, such caution was thrown to the wind long ago and strength coaches still apply Hill’s power curve to guide intensity in power programming like it’s Gospel truth.
The trouble is, it isn’t.
Think about if you were trying to choose an object to throw at an attacker to harm them. If you picked a pen, no matter how hard you winged it across the room it wouldn’t hurt very much because it’s too light (It has no mass. No mass means no force. No force means no power). If on the other hand you selected a 400 pound boulder, you’d struggle to even make it reach your adversary because of how heavy it is (no velocity, and no velocity also means no power).
A better choice than either would be a baseball, which is heavy enough to hurt when it connects, but light enough that you can really wind up and throw it powerfully.
If we’re looking for the percentage of a one-rep max at which peak power output occurs (the baseball midpoint between boulder and pen), we’ve got to examine several factors that might skew the numbers one way or the other.
- The first is the fitness of the individual in question. An untrained person might hit peak power at or around 30% of their one rep max in the bench press. But a seasoned powerlifter might not hit that power peak until the load is increased to 50% or 60%. So try to program with the physical state of each athlete in mind.
- We also need to take the type of exercise into account. In movements that require the activation of more and larger muscle groups – such as the Olympic lifts – we typically don’t see peak force output in trained athletes until we get into the 80 to 90 percent range. So if it’s a total body movement, plan on having your athletes work with loads closer to their one rep max when you’re pushing (or, indeed, pulling) for more power.
What About Frequency?
So now we’ve identified three of the most common and impactful mistakes and how to fix them, what’s next?
Frequency. “How many times a week can I train power with my athletes?” is a question I get a lot.
One of the advantages of power training is that it doesn’t incur the same degree of metabolic drain, nervous system fatigue, or muscle damage as hypertrophy sessions or high-intensity anaerobic interval work, so it can be performed more frequently while allowing for adequate adaptation.
This means that if your athletes are trying to increase power in a short amount of time, such as before a competition, they can do power-focused sessions up to four times a week with little likelihood of adverse effects. If you’re concentrating on other outcomes instead, one session a week should be adequate to maintain both peak power and sustaining power output under fatigue.
The sweet spot for many athletes is around two to three sessions per week.