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A guide to strength speed and power training from childhood to adulthood and beyond
Strength Speed and Power Definitions
All components of fitness and physical performance have their unique differences. Each one interacts with the others in specific ways, either synergistically or antagonistically. Generally speaking, whether something is synergistic or antagonistic to another component of fitness is dependent on the energy system employed. For example, power is the combination of force and the rate at which that force is generated, leading to rapid, explosive muscular contractions. This occurs in the ATP-creatine phosphate energy system, which is anaerobic and alactic in nature.
Aerobic endurance is the polar opposite, in that the force and speed of muscular contraction is generally low to moderate, but sustained over a long period of time. This occurs in the aerobic energy system primarily. Trying to develop the two alongside each other is somewhat counter-productive, with one partially cancelling out the other. So if power is the goal, endurance should be kept to a minimum and vice versa. In some instances where a person requires both of these competing components of fitness, there needs to be trade-off, with each of these things moderately well-developed but neither of them reaching their full potential. That’s an example of an antagonistic relationship between two different components of fitness.
An example of a synergistic relationship would be the development of strength and power. Strength is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to generate force. More force means more strength. In order for power to be developed, a person must first possess strength. For a muscle to produce a great deal of force at a rapid rate one must first be able to produce a high level of force on its own. So by developing strength an athlete will build a useful foundation for the development of power. These two components of fitness compliment each other and work synergistically.
Strength is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to produce force. A higher level of force equates to a higher level of strength. This can be seen in isolation, within which many studies on muscular strength are conducted. This is limited in that it only explores the force generated by one muscle on its own. However we know that in order to produce movement it requires the employment of more than one muscle. So strength in a practical environment is explored within movements. These movements are calculated as how much strength a person has within a specific plane and movement pattern. Typical movement patterns measured are squatting, lifting from the floor such as in a deadlift, horizontal pushing such as a bench press, vertical pushing such as a military press, horizontal pulling such as with a rowing movement, vertical pulling such as with a pull-up or weighted pull-up and other movements in different planes such as rotational strength or an isometric contraction.
Speed is the rate at which something or someone moves. It’s a simple definition and one that is easy to grasp for most people. Or is it? Speed and power can often be confused as being the same thing. But speed on its own is not dependent on force. Speed is simply the ability of the body or part of the body to move rapidly. Speed is independent of force. Speed can be seen as how fast the legs move from one stride to the next during a sprint, how fast someone can move their arm from beside their cheek to an extended position ready for impact such as with a boxing punch or how fast a person can move their body from a prone position to a standing position ready to run or jump. Speed can be measured by the things stated above, utilising full, practical movements within a given context, or it can be measured in isolation, such as looking only at the rate at which the punch is initiated and reaches its target or the rate at which a leg travels from the time it leaves the ground at the end of a sprinting stride to the time it makes contact with the ground prepared for the next stride.
Power can most easily be understood as the combination of the two above, being speed and strength. Power can be defined as the amount of energy produced in a given amount of time. The more energy produced or expended in the least amount of time the greater the output of power. In theory this could apply to everything, and it does, regardless of time. For instance, it can apply to endurance, measured as the amount of power, measured in watts, produced throughout the endurance effort. Cyclists often measure their output this way. But in terms of physical performance, we are interested in power that is generated rapidly. The maximum amount of energy produced in the shortest amount of time. That’s the highest expression of power. This equates to a high level of force produced rapidly and explosively. This is what we are referring to here, maximal or near-maximal power. Examples include the power generated during a sprinting stride when the foot hits the ground, the expression of rapid force generated into an explosive strength movement such as an Olympic lift or fast squat or during a max effort jump.
Age Related Considerations for Strength Speed and Power
Age plays a large role in a person’s ability to develop and express strength speed and power. Here we will take a brief look at how age impacts physical performance in the realm of strength speed and power.
Children 0-15 years – A study by Avery D. Faigenbaum, EdD et al. in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics tested children aged 5-11 years with two strength training protocols and a control group. The result of this study showed a significantly greater increase in strength in the group performing higher repetition with a lower load than those training at a higher intensity using greater loads and lower repetitions. There are likely many reasons for this, however one of the primary reasons could be that a higher training volume leads to a greater breakdown and rebuilding of muscle tissue than that of the lower volume and higher intensity. Suggesting that strength development in children is the result of an increase in muscle size more so than an increase neuromuscular efficiency. In other words, kids respond better to strength training that allows them to perform 12-15 repetitions per set for three sets per muscle group or movement pattern.
Regarding speed and power in children, before full maturation into adulthood, performance is largely a result of physical coordination. This applies to coordination in movement and coordination in the firing of motor units, creating muscle contractions. To a large extent children’s performance is increased through a) the development of strength, using the protocol mentioned above, and b) the teaching and repetitive practice of high speed, high force movement, leading to greater muscular control and better performance of movement patterns.
Adults 16-35 years – Looking at elite athletes throughout the history of high-levels of sports, there is clear evidence that adults between the ages of 16 and 35 are in their prime in terms of expression of strength. People during these years of their life make up the vast majority of high-performing athletes in sports requiring higher than average strength. We know that the more a person trains and the closer they get to their maximum potential, the slower their results. This is obvious and is referred to as the law of diminishing returns. In a beginner there is a lot of improvement to be made in strength, speed and power, therefore a faster climb from baseline to a given level of aptitude. Because adults in this age bracket are in their physical prime, all types of strength speed and power training will lead to appreciable levels of improvement. In the beginner improvement is made in the following sequence: learning and correction of biomechanics/technique; structural changes such as an increase in muscle mass, bone density and connective tissue health; and nervous system changes, mainly in a) the number of motor units recruited during a given muscular contraction, and b) the rate at which those motor units are recruited and fired.
For athletes in this age bracket developing strength speed and power is a process of first teaching correct technique; then focusing on structural changes such as developing muscular hypertrophy through strength training in a moderate volume, moderate intensity range (8 – 12 reps per set); and finally focusing on neuromuscular efficiency through maximum strength development at high intensity and moderate volume (1 – 5 reps per set), rapid muscle contraction and force development through power training (plyometrics and explosive lifts), and through speed drills with the focus being on rate of movement such as over-speed training for the improvement of stride rate in sprinting.
Older adults 36 years and over – In older adults the decline of strength speed and power is a sliding scale depending on activity level, genetics, injuries, illness and lifestyle factors. But the one pattern that is evident in all of the research is that strength, speed and power and as a result overall physical function declines with each passing year. The late 30s are a slow process of negligible decline, which then speeds up slightly in the 40s and gets faster every decade, with adults declining physically at a greater rate from 70 and beyond. This is obviously not entirely preventable as we know we are all going to age, but through training we know that we can slow the rate of decline quite considerably through training. Having said that, there are certain considerations we need to take into account with people over the age of 35. These considerations differ from one person to the next. We need to take into consideration age, previous injuries, current injuries, current level of physical ability or lack thereof, individual mobility, bone density, muscle mass and anything else associated with advancing age.
A study in The Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 2003, by Kim V. Hruda, Audrey L. Hicks, Neil Mccartney, revealed that strength and power can be significantly increased in older adults through training. The study looked at people that were particularly frail, so it’s on the extreme end of the scale. They tested lower body strength and power as well as a timed walk, an 8 metre up and go test and isometric chair hold over 30 seconds. They conclude that a progressive power and resistance programme, even in the 10th decade, can improve strength speed and power.
So what sort of training should be performed by those of you over the age of 35? This is where things are more varied than in the previous two age brackets. Why more varied? Because there are more variables to consider. For those under the age of 50 that are already reasonably fit, strong and mobile training can be prescribed that is much the same as for those in their prime. Strength speed and power will decline and with it a person’s ability to make performance improvements. As a professional in the field of fitness and sports coaching, my personal recommendation is that older adults train at the upper safe limit for their own physical ability. Where injuries and lack of mobility are present, training needs to be modified in volume, intensity and movement patterns. But where there are no contraindications, over 35 year olds can be treated like any other adult athlete.
How to Develop Strength Speed and Power
Age related considerations aside, the following is a general guide for athletes, individuals and coaches for best practice recommendations for the development of strength speed and power. This guide looks at general, foundational strength speed and power and is not specific to a given sport or outcome.
To conclude this guide I will include three separate strength speed and power programmes for each age bracket.
Strength is, in simple terms, the ability to generate force. As a result, this is how you must think when you train for strength. Lifting weights, the greater the weight, the greater the level of force produced. Using resistance bands or other types of strength training, the greater the resistance one has to overcome the greater the application and subsequent development of strength.
Looking at strength from beginner right through to advanced levels, there are multiple phases a person must go through, in the following order:
1. Learning of correct technique and biomechanics: In all instances, strength gains are especially rapid in the initial phases of learning how to perform specific movements. A person that doesn’t know how to squat properly will need to begin with a light weight or even no weight and learn to correctly squat. As ability increases so does the amount of weight lifted. After all, strength is a skill, the greater your level of skill the greater potential strength. Learn/teach how to do the big basics first; deadlift, squat, pulling movements and pushing movements, along with anything that is uniquely specific to a person’s goal.
2. Muscular hypertrophy and other structural changes: In kids this is the primary determinant of strength gain. Muscles increase in size, and with that a person’s strength. This is present in people of all ages. A larger muscle has a greater potential for strength. In the initial stages of strength development a person needs to increase muscle size, at least a little bit. The level of hypertrophy needed is dependent on the individual goal. Hypertrophy is best developed through moderate intensity, higher volume. Typically a volume of between 5-10 sets per movement and 8-12 reps per set is considered optimal for the greatest number of people. Less for beginners and kids, more for advanced adults. NOTE: intensity is not a measure of difficulty, it is a measure of the percentage of how much a person can lift or move for one single repetition. Moderate intensity just means that a person is lifting between 50 – 70% of what they can lift only once. 70% intensity lifted 12 times is moderate intensity but a high level of effort/difficulty.
3. Neuromuscular efficiency: Hypertrophy increases a muscle’s potential for strength and increases outright strength to a certain degree. However in many people continuously increasing muscle size is not practical or desirable once a given size has been reached. At this point strength is best maximized through teaching the nervous system to recruit a greater percentage of one’s available muscle fibres. This is achieved through strength training in the high intensity range for between 1 – 5 reps, and low volume of between 3 – 5 sets per movement per session. Rest periods are typically quite long and can range from two minutes all the way to 10 minutes or more of rest between sets. This type of maximal strength development MUST be performed fresh and should not leave a person feeling fatigued.
Speed is the rate at which the body or part of the body moves. It’s a simple concept. Speed is independent of force, and is therefore more a determinant of what is happening during the part of a given action where force application is minimal. For example, during a sprinting stride, force is at its peak when the foot strikes the ground and drives the person forward. Force is minimal when that foot has left the ground, with speed being a measure of the time it takes for that leg to swing forward to begin the next stride. In a punch, speed is the measure of the time it takes for the punch to leave its starting point and reach the point of impact.
Speed is something that is very specific to a given goal. Speed is specific to a limb or certain type of movement, making it a skill associated with whatever one is training for, as opposed to being a foundational skill. For this reason there are no general guidelines, skills or drills that can be applied to all movements at the foundation level. So here we will look at two components that make up the expression and development of speed.
Reaction Time – Reaction time is the time from when a stimulus reaches the brain and for the brain to respond to the stimuli. The movement is not relevant, it could be as simple as clicking a button with your finger, or the initiation of a punch or that very first application of pressure into the starting blocks initiating the start of a sprint.
Reaction time is largely determined genetically. We all have an in-built reaction time that is set to a specific default. However this is partially trainable. Reaction time is best developed through repetition and a conscious effort to respond to a stimulus at a greater rate. There are many online reaction time tests, such as the bullet catch that require only the click of a button once a gun on the screen is fired. In practice, a person can repetitively respond to a starter’s gun at unpredictable times over and over again. Or for martial artists, have an opponent throw unpredictable attacks at a rapid pace, for which you need to respond rapidly. This same principle can be applied to anything. The common theme being repetition and consciously reacting faster.
Movement from A to B – This is the movement of the body or part of the body from one position to another. As discussed, movement of the leg from the end of one sprinting stride to the beginning of the next, or moving the body from a prone position to a standing position.
For sprinting, speed is rarely practiced in isolation. Speed can exclusively be trained through methods like over-speed training, with a common method of that being downhill sprinting or sprinting on a high-speed treadmill with part of one’s bodyweight supported. Speed for sprinting is also combined with other training methods or within a certain context, such as during maximum speed sprinting drills, with conscious effort placed on leg turnover speed.
For general body speed you can use reaction and fast-movement drills repetitively. For instance, start in a prone position then spring up into a standing position as fast as possible. Other drills might include side-step drills where you move sideways rapidly to two markers spaced 3m apart; or practice throwing a faster kick or punch repetitively with conscious effort being placed on the speed at which the limb moves.
Strength speed and power are three synergistic components of fitness. Each one compliments the others. In many cases one is needed in order to develop another. Where strength is a foundational ability on its own, power is an end-product. Power cannot be developed in isolation, there are certain preceding skills and abilities required before power can be developed to maximum potential.
Building power is a progressive process. There are no shortcuts, meaning that you can’t skip stages and expect to still reach your full potential. The following is a basic progression outlining how to develop explosive power.
1. Strength: Before one can even hope to develop explosive power, strength is a necessary foundation that MUST be developed. In order for a muscle to generate a large amount of force over a short time it must first be able to produce the force at any speed. Follow the above strength guidelines or skip to the last section of this guide for a basic programme that will guide you towards building a strength foundation.
2. Biomechanics: Biomechanics is a fancy way of saying technique or movement. Every movement you perform is governed by certain biomechanics. There is an efficient and effective way to sprint for example, which is superior to other, less refined techniques of sprinting. The efficient and effective way is the biomechanics part. Power is best developed through first learning how to correctly perform a given movement or set of movements. If jumping ability is being trained then correct jumping technique should be learned. In order to express a high level of power you can’t afford to be hindered by inefficient technique or by uncoordinated movement. Correct biomechanics allows a person to put all of his or her energy into the generation of power, as opposed to thinking about and concentrating on now screwing up the movement. If you want to sprint powerfully then learn how to sprint properly first. If you want to powerfully throw a discus then first learn to properly throw the discus.
3. Starting power: There is power that exerted multiple times, involving a rebound effect, such as reaching top speed during a sprint or rebounding into a second jump, and there is starting power, which is power exerted from a static position, such as a jump performed from standing or pushing out of the starting blocks into the first steps of a sprint race. Starting power is the raw ability of the muscles to go from a completely static, rested position, to maximum force at the fastest rate possible. Starting power is developed through power drills that are not plyometric in nature and don’t involve the stretch reflex in any way. Examples include sprint starts, standing long jump, shot put or medicine ball throw without a wind-up or barbell movements where there is a pause before performing a fast, explosive concentric contraction (like a bench press with a pause at the bottom followed by explosively pushing the weight to the top).
4. Rebounding power/plyometric ability: A plyometric movement is one that involves the absorption of a high level of force then rapidly contracting concentrically against that force. This action utilises the stretch reflex. When the stretch reflex is activated it allows a muscle to apply greater force and to do so more explosively. This type of power is very specific and useful to most sports. Examples include depth jumps, bounding drills and sprinting. By training the stretch-shortening cycle to occur more rapidly a person will develop the ability to transition from one movement to the next explosively. This type of training should be performed at low volume, high intensity, low training frequency (generally an average of three sessions per week for plyometrics) and with extensive rest between sets. Power training should only be performed when you are fresh and not fatigued. By the same token, power training should not chase fatigue. After power sessions you should feel fresh, not slaughtered.
Strength Speed and Power Programmes
This is a general guide, rather than specifically catering to certain sports or goals. For this reason I am using various examples and keeping it general. This guide is about foundational strength speed and power development as well as providing some overall guidance on developing these qualities. A good athlete or coach can take this information and apply it within their own unique context.
The following are three basic, general programmes for the development of strength speed and power. These are to be used as a guide only and do not contain complete and comprehensive programming. Each programme is age-related.
Please notes that these programmes do not include specific training for given sports. These programmes apply only to the strength and conditioning component of an athlete’s training.
Children aged 0-15 years
Training frequency: 2-3 days per week.
Session breakdown: Full body, combined strength speed and power training.
Training duration: 40-60 minutes approximately.
Deadlift for 10-10 reps
Squat for 10-10 reps
Pull-ups or assisted pull-ups for between 8 and 12 reps per set for 2 sets
Push-ups, one set as many reps as possible
Side-step drill for 2 rounds of 6
High knee sprints on the spot for 2 x 15 seconds. Emphasis on moving the legs as fast as possible
Any other speed drill specific to the specific sport
Two-leg bounding for 2 x 3 jumps
25m max pace sprints x 4
These three components can be performed as one session or they can be separated into strength speed and power sessions individually.
The above session guide is simple yet effective. If a youth athlete performs this same programme progressively he or she will see significant gains in strength speed and power as well as muscle growth and a reduced likelihood of injury during regular sporting competition.
Adults 16-35 years
Training frequency: 4-6 days per week.
Session breakdown: Stand-alone strength sessions, speed and power combined into the same sessions.
Training duration: 40-60 minutes approximately.
The strength programme will be broken down into three separate sessions. We will assume the athlete is a rugby 7s player undertaking a pre-season strength speed and power programme.
As the reps decrease the weight increases.
Deadlift for 10-8-3 reps
Snatch grip barbell row for 10-8-3 reps
Snatch high pull for 5-5-5 reps
Rest 2 minutes between sets.
Front squat for 10-8-3 reps
Bench press for 7-7-7 reps
Standing military press for 7-7-7 reps
Rest 2 minutes between sets.
Barbell complex consisting of…
Bent over row x 3, power clean x 3, front squat x 5 and push press x 1.
Go through each exercise for the prescribed reps without releasing the bar. Do 5 sets.
Rest 2 minutes between sets.
For extra strength work it is recommended to throw in some body weight exercises such as pull-ups, muscle-ups, ring dips, single arm push-ups, pistol squats etc. Include these as you see fit.
Speed and Power Component (to be performed within the same sessions)
For the purposes of this programme we will include just two speed and power sessions.
Depth jumps for 15 total jumps from a 60 - 75cm platform depending on the athlete’s level of conditioning.
High knee sprinting on the spot. 5 intervals of 15 seconds. Rest 60 seconds between each.
Sprint starts 5-10m x 12. Rest 20 seconds between each.
70m sprints, gradual acceleration. Start slow and build up pace until you hit max pace in the last 15m. Do 5 sprints.
Two-leg bounding for 5 sets of 3 reps. This can be done with or without hurdles. Emphasis on quick ground contact and knee tuck.
High-knee power skips for 5 x 20m.
Agility ladder. One foot in one section at a time, emphasis on fast feet. Do a total of 5.
50m sprints x 4. Emphasis on extending the stride to a long stride with high knee drive.
This is obviously a very simplified programme template, however it demonstrates the basics of what is needed to develop strength, speed and power.
Older adults 35 years and over
For this example I will assume the subject is 75 years old, mostly independent, with a few minor mobility problems and moderate muscular atrophy. The goal for this person is to increase mobility and the ability to perform normal daily activities with ease and slow down physical decline.
Training frequency: 3 days per week.
Session breakdown: Each session will be an identical strength speed and power session appropriate to the subject’s goals.
Training duration: 30 minutes approximately.
For this individual we will include just one session that is repeated three days per week. Each week the aim is to increase the load used and to demonstrate a greater range of motion (ROM).
Box or chair squat for 10-10-10 reps. Start with a higher box or chair and go lower each week. Begin with just body weight and then progress to either a barbell, dumbells, kettlebell or weighted bag/vest.
Block pull deadlift for 7-7-7 reps. Begin lifting from a platform just above knee height and go lower each week. Start with either just a bar or even a milk crate with a few bottles of water for weight and increase weight gradually. The ultimate goal being a deadlift from the floor with reasonable weight.
Band face pulls for 10-10-10 reps. Attach one or two resistance bands to a fixed object. Grip bands in each hand with elbows high and pull to face level. Increase band resistance and the distance the subject stands from the band each week to provide a progressively harder challenge.
Push-ups for two sets of max reps. Begin with wall push-ups or from an elevated platform such as a bench, table or chair. Gradually work towards doing full push-ups from the floor.
Rest 30 seconds between sets.
Finish with a 5 minute speed walk. Walk as fast as possible in one direction for 2.5 minutes and then aim to turn around and return in the same amount of time or less. Gradually aim to increase the distance. This can be gradually increased to 15 minutes duration in 2 minute increments. Aim for long walking stride, upright posture, good leg speed, solid arm swing and powerful push-off with the foot on each step.
This concludes the age related considerations in the development of strength speed and power. Use this as an information guide and refer to it in general terms. It is not a specific programme that takes the place of personal, customized coaching. Use it as a set of guidelines and a foundation for which you can develop strength speed and power programmes for yourself and/or clients and athletes that you train.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.