Power, not strength, is the #1 training goal for explosive-sport athletes

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Strength is important to sport performance, but only in that it serves to improve force production within sport-specific timeframes. Training is only effective when it results in an increased force expression within said timeframes; when pushing 1RM higher ceases to do so, training should change gears.

Power is the measurement that combines force and time; it is the rate of producing force. Two versions of the formula for power are (force x velocity) and (work / time). Many conceptualize power as how fast one can move a given weight. Squatting 200lbs over one second is more powerful than squatting 200lbs over three seconds.

While (max) strength and power are related, they are not the same. Strength is simply the measure of how much weight one can move / how much force one can produce, irrespective of how long it takes to do so.

Time clearly is a factor in sport, however. In all sports (that I can think of) there are specific windows of time in which movements must be completed. A few examples are:

  • the time between the snap of the ball and contact for American football lineman
  • the time between a tennis player deciding to swing the racket and the racket striking the ball
  • the time between a baseball leaving the pitcher’s hand and crossing home plate

The list goes on.

Because sport events happen within specific timeframes, training should seek to maximize force production within these sport-specific timeframes.

Thus, maximizing power within sport-specific timeframes should be the #1 goal of strength and conditioning, NOT simply maximizing strength by way of increasing 1RM.

I recognize a bit of irony as I type within the previous sentence. Maybe the field should be called power and conditioning, or a different name altogether, like athletic readiness training. I digress.

Understanding that force must be produced in a timely manner puts rate of force development front and center.

Lifting heavy weights to increase 1RM does increase rate of force development and, thus, power production potential. After all, we would expect a 500lb squatter to move 250lbs faster than a 275lb squatter.

But the question we must keep in mind is the force production potential within the athlete’s sport-specific timeframe. In the case of the American football lineman, there is roughly 0.45s between the snap of the ball and collision with the opposing lineman.

Does improving squat 1RM from 500 to 525lbs improve force production in the first 0.45s of movement initiation? If the answer is “no,” then another training goal is more appropriate, like improving vertical jump height, plyometric power, etc.

Another example is sprint speed. Strength is correlated with sprint performance in youth athletes (read: novice sprinters), but in elite athletes strength does not correlate with sprint performance.

In other words, there is a minimum amount of necessary strength to do the job, and more doesn’t help.

Max strength should be viewed as a prerequisite for power production and not as the holy grail of training. It is like the base of the pyramid. The wider the base, the higher the peak (in this case, power) can be.

But if you spend all your time building the base and never focus on raising the peak, you’ve missed the point.

In the case of the lineman, however, we also must not take such a myopic view to miss parts of the bigger picture. For instance, once contact does occur and movement speed decreases, I imagine max squat strength does play a role in performance from there. Even still, the ability to summon such strength quickly is paramount, and everyone whose every played on the line (like I have) knows if the initial pop puts you on your heels, there’s almost no recovering from that, no matter how high your max squat is.

Thus, my contention is power production in sport-specific timeframes and movements should be the #1 goal of training, as this has the most transference to sports performance. Weight room work should seek to maximize power in movements that have similar times of force application and joint positions as actual sporting movements—these are your off-season training KPIs.

Training to improve these KPIs might involve movements that fall outside of these specific parameters, like improving max strength (slower speed movements) or improving explosive strength on the other side of the spectrum (faster speed movements), but the end goal should be to improve the KPI lifts that match sport-specific time of force application and joint positions.

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