All of those tasks are of extreme importance but today I want to focus on improving power output, and specifically the prerequisites for entering a high intensity program. Poll 100 different strength coaches and you will likely find a variety of preferred methods for improving power. Regardless of your choice (sprints, jumps, throws, lifts) there are certain standards athletes must be held to and certain rules that must be enforced.
First and foremost we need to establish a goal. We want to improve rate of force production in order to help football players hit harder and sprint faster, allow basketball players to get from the top of the key to the paint or from the ground up to the ball caroming off the rim. Fill in the blank with whatever sport you like. Everyone wants more power in order to have success in the sports most crucial moments, but in order to have longevity in any sport the movements used to improve power must be safe and the major joints must be kept in optimal position. No collapsing knees, no rounded backs etc.
I have seen many coaches and athletes lose sight of the true goal in order to pursue the immediate gratification of a heavier bar or higher box etc. Even if form is safe and risk is low if the speed of movement is not maintained the goal has been lost and the exercise de-valued.
I see this a lot particularly with box jumps. Kids are constantly trying to one up one another on the box jump when I have my back turned. It's a gift and a curse that we have the soft boxes than can be missed without tearing all of the skin off your legs in the process. I value the safety, but it leads to kids choosing box heights they have no business attempting and me constantly having to preach about the value in choosing a box that you can land on in athletic position. Additionally, there is a real value in building courage and overcoming the fear of shredding your shins on a box that's a little bit taller than you were able to jump last time.
The second key prerequisite is establishing a foundation of strength. Athletes without proper strength (particularly in the hips and trunk) will find their knees collapsing upon pre-load and landing phases of jumps. This leads to an increased risk of injury during competition. Below is a now famous photo of Robert Griffin III taking off for his broad jump test at the NFL combine. His knees buckled under the force of the jump and ominously predicted how the rest of his career would go.
3 years, 13 starts missed due to injury. This could have been predicted and maybe prevented.
The training does not need to be complex. Establish the basic patterns of squatting, lunging and hinging in the lower body and progressively add load over time. I strongly believe that heavy strength training can contribute to increased speed and power, even if the bar speed isn't necessarily high. However, I think the most important benefit of strength training is not the direct improvement in force output but how strong bodies naturally fall into better alignment during high velocity movements. Fast, explosive players with little maximal strength are at a high risk of injury and don't have the foundation to support their outputs on the field.
This one is tough because the training feels easy and sometimes boring but you have to teach deceleration first - In field work an athlete must be able to land, stop, change direction and restart again all with proper technique before doing any of those things at full speed. Teaching proper sprint and change of direction mechanics does not have to take long and can prevent unnecessary wear and tear on the joints. In almost any program I write the early off-season has no maximal sprint work but does include track style warmups, stride outs, and lots of change of speed drills. This builds work capacity and teaches athletes the proper mechanics prior to introducing full speed. Athletes that do not have the strength to maintain optimal alignment can be given substitution exercises based on their limitations. When dealing with the weight room the same rules apply. Athletes must be able to receive force and load appropriate structures in order to receive the most benefit with the least risk.
Examples include athletes that are unable to maintain external rotation at the hips being given extra mobility work and less change of direction to preserve the integrity of the joint until the ability to achieve normal ROM is restored. The energy system can be trained in a more linear fashion until change of direction is deemed safe.
One often overlooked factor is conditioning level. An athlete who fatigues easily may look great on the first drill (or first set in the weight room) but when introducing a high volume or a short recovery component the technique breaks down and risk skyrockets. When the goal of a session is maximizing power, recovery should be full and movement uncompromised. Early in the off-season I will have some teams do 2-3 bouts per week of aerobic exercise in order to build some general fitness and recovery capacity prior to initiating high volume power training. If the goal is improving the ability to work at high intensity under very short rest (appropriate for a sport like basketball), you should choose exercises that present the athlete with low risk. This will vary depending on the athlete and the goals of their sport.
Having a healthy heart is good for athletes. Shocking, I know
So to recap here is what I look for prior to initiating a high intensity power development program:
- What is the goal? How much strength vs. maximal speed is needed and how can the program design help achieve that?
- Does the athlete have adequate strength to withstand the rigors of the power program?
- Teach the athlete to decelerate first
- Ensure adequate general fitness and choose appropriate rest intervals to get the desired outcomes.
These principles should be applied regardless of the sport, or even if you don't play a sport at all and just want to introduce something fun and new into your training. Power training can provide a boost to any program, just make sure it is done safely.