Improving Power Training Away From the Gym
In the first part of this series, we looked at what power training is and how to maximize force production in the gym as well as how getting stronger certainly has its merits, since it directly transfers to power output. See How to Build Strength to dive a little deeper into strength training.
But how else can we increase power? What happens when you step away from the barbell and are then forced to balance on one leg at high speeds and move quickly to evade oncoming opposition?
Sport is complicated, unpredictable and involves movement through multiple planes. In order to really take your game to the next level, you have to think outside of the barbell.
For field and court athletes, running is a prerequisite. Some people love to run. I, for one, do not. That’s why I play team sports where there’s a ball involved—it gives me something else to focus on and I don’t feel like I’m pointlessly exhausting my legs. However, I can’t deny the importance of running, since most of the game is spent on our feet, moving quickly from one leg to another.
I once had a coach preach over and over again that “running is a skill” as he had us during intervals during what was sold as a skills practice. I hate to say it, but turns out he was right.
It’s pretty insane that we manage to hold our bodies upright while standing still, much less propel ourselves through space at top speed. Running with resistance allows you to practice the biomechanics of running and become incredibly efficient at moving in the exact ways you’ll be moving on the court.
As any ball player knows, it takes tons of practice to refine your jump shot, throw a perfect spiral, kick down the center, serve an ace, etc. Why not spend the same amount of time practicing how to run? After all, you spend most of the game doing it.
Here’s what I suggest:
- Get a good speed coach or video yourself running as much as possible. It’ll allow you to make small tweaks so you don’t have to work so hard to run faster. Seriously, tiny adjustments in your running form, just like finding that perfect form in the gym, can improve your output dramatically.
- Add resistance. I prefer the sled because you can do it solo and it doesn’t depend on the wind. But it does depend on, well, having a sled. You could also use a partner, resistance bands, or a parachute.
When having to act against a force, it makes your brain think, “Hey, I should probably contract the muscles enough to counteract this force.” There are a few equations for determining optimal pulling load, depending on your goal velocity or whether you’re in the drive or top end speed phase of sprinting.
To keep it simple, shoot for about 15% of your body weight—less if you’re doing maximal velocity for shorter distances and more with a longer distance and lower percentage of max.
Jumping and explosive movement. Sound familiar? That’s why you want to do plyos. Practice the way you play. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, selective recruitment of fast-twitch motor units can allow you to sort of bypass lower threshold (slow) motor units and instead activate the ones critical to power and speed. High firing rates are critical for increasing the rate of force development. If you can activate more nervous system switches to “on” at a faster rate, you’re going to see better results. Plus, these little guys also train the reflexes, which is critical for going from zero to 60 in a few seconds.
Plyos are great, but they can be much more intense than meets the eye if you’re not familiar with them. You’re asking your body (bones, muscles, joints… all of those important things) to absorb a ton of energy very quickly, often reproducing that same force within a split second. It’s a bit of a shock to the system, so it’s key to work your way up in intensity.
Here are a few guidelines for introducing plyos:
- Try not to exceed around five reps or so per set. And take a few minutes between sets. Otherwise, fatigue sets in and you’re training a different energy system. This is pretty cool for metabolic conditioning, but not necessarily for power development.
- Start at sub-maximal intensity and work your way up—literally. Operating at 75% to start clicks your muscles and nerves in at the right groove/form and serves as a warm up for maximal explosive power.
- It also helps if you begin by jumping in place, and then move on to dynamic jumps, single leg jumps, and depth jumps. An example might look like this:
- 2×3 tuck jumps @ 75%
- 2×3 vertical squat jumps for height
- 3×1 squat jump for height plus 1 broad jump
- 3×1 depth jump to broad jump
- 2×3 each borsov jump
- 3×3 single leg bounds
Medicine balls are great because,
- a) they’re actual balls, which is usually what we use in sports, and
- b) you can safely throw them in all directions, unlike a barbell or weight plate.
We often just think of med balls as an implement for sit ups or wall balls, which is unfortunate because they can be very useful in bigger ways. Unlike the gradual, continued resistance of a sled, med balls give you a reactive force initially and then you’re free.
With the medicine ball, the added weight is just enough to activate multiple motor units but not too much to slow down acceleration. Medicine ball training allows for “skillful, multijoint movements that transmit forces through the kinetic chain,” which is a key component for athletics, according to the NSCA.
Training this way makes your body adapt to moving around 1020 extra pounds in multiple planes, switching quickly from extension to flexion to rotation. Transitioning from eccentric loads to concentric force (slowing down and then taking off again) is a critical component to any athlete’s toolbox.
The best medicine ball drills, therefore, involve redirecting the weight through movement and exploding out of it.
Try these three drills for developing the ability to change direction on a dime:
MB squat jump to throw and chase
- Hold a medicine ball chest height as you jump as high as possible in the air.
- Immediately upon landing, transfer your weight forward, drive from your hips, and launch the ball as far as you can forward.
- As soon as you release the ball, chase after it, trying to beat it before it hits the ground.
Lateral catch to throw
- Stand one foot in front of the other in an athletic position.
- Have a partner throw a medicine ball to the side of the trail leg (so if your left foot is forward, right foot back; the ball would go to your right).
- Catch the ball softly at midtorso and immediately shift the weight back through the ball and launch it back to your partner.
- Repeat on the other side.
Scoop overhead throw to turn and sprint
- On a field or court, face a sideline at 90 degrees from where you’re going to sprint.
- Take the ball underhand between your knees and throw as high as you can overhead (like a granny shot in basketball). Be sure to dip through the hips and drive the power through the floor, into your legs and finish fully extended with the arms overhead.
- Immediately step off of the back leg, turn and accelerate into space, trying to make it ten meters before the ball hits the ground.
- Repeat on the other side.
Specificity demands that we train through movements that mimic our sport. For field and court athletes, those always include running, jumping, changing direction and multiplanar stability.
There’s no substitute for the actual game, but since there are so many moving parts, it helps to break down these elements and train them individually. Train through running with sleds, jumping with plyos, and multiplanar power with med balls. Then, when you take the field, your body recreates these movements, producing a great force as if it has extra resistance to move. Except this time, it’s just you moving… and the defender you’re leaving in the dust.
Access to a gym? Get power training tips from a pro athlete.