Strength training: focusing power on the movements and speed used in specific sports situations

Using power in specific sport situations

It is important to select the most appropriate methods for your chosen sport, for the development and refinement of power, and to allow enough time for the training to take effect. This training phase should last 8-12 weeks – depending on competition needs.

Remember that this type of training is the ‘icing on the cake’ and that it should follow the basic preparation and strength development phases – if maximum sports performance is to accrue.
The components that need to be improved in this phase include the following:

Starting strength – the ability to exert maximal forces instantly, required by a sprinter or field sport athlete, for example.

Explosive strength – the rate at which the player develops force – a requirement of all athletes.

Reactive strength – the combination of eccentric and concentric strength can be measured in the time it takes to reverse direction from an eccentric (braking) contraction to a concentric (accelerating) contraction.

For example, rebound jumps in basketball or volleyball, or foot contacts when sprinting (this is less than 0.9 of a second at elite level). This combination of eccentric – concentric contractions is known as the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) and is the prime element of plyometric training.


What exercises are used?

The exercises used are more dynamic and specific.  If the athlete only trained for maximum strength (using heavy weights) then he/she would only be capable of expressing large amounts of force and would not be able to do this quickly (they would not improve their speed of force production).

Being bulky and strong is no guarantee of sporting success (unless you happen to be a sumo wrestler!)


Developing different types of specific sports strength

Starting strength

As in the strength development phase, it is important to use multi-joint dynamic weightlifting exercises that employ triple extension of the joints (ankle, knee, hip). Relevant exercises would include: cleans, snatches, jump squats and lunges. This triple extension is key to numerous sports activities, such as running and jumping.

If the athlete has not learned the (difficult) technique of the Olympic lifts, the next best option is to use the squat and dead-lift exercises, as they are also multi-joint exercises and involve triple extension.

Plyometric exercises – these are highly specific sports power developing exercises. As noted, they develop the stretch/shortening cycle and the explosive power capabilities of muscles. Suitable exercises to improve starting power include: hopping, bounding and depth jumps.

Explosive strength:

As well as weight training, explosive strength can be developed via ballistic exercises, such as medicine ball throws and plyometrics, such as 3 bounds (exaggerated running strides) performed after an 8-10 stride run-up.

Reactive strength:

Reactive strength is trained by using fast explosive jumps, with repeated contacts. For

example two-footed jumps over small hurdles, or fast repeated throws against a wall with minimal pause (ground contact).


Plyometric training tips:

It is important that contact with the ground is made, either with the balls of the feet (for vertical jumps) or flat-footed (for horizontal jumps).

Contact with the ground should be light and quick. Time spent with the feet in contact with the ground is time wasted when a player is sprinting or jumping.


How to plan the ‘getting strength to where you need it phase’:

An effective way to schedule power training is to include ballistic and/or plyometric exercises within the same training sessions as weight training. This is variously called, ‘power combination, complex or contrast training’. These work outs have been identified as being particularly useful at targeting and enhancing the power output of fast-twitch muscle fibre (this fibre type contracts 30-70 times a second and is crucial for speed and power). The weight used should be in excess of 70% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM).

This training method, although effective, is also highly intensive, and requires a reduction in the number of exercises performed, and the volume of repetitions per session. This will maintain quality and reduce injury potential, or over-training.

I tend to advocate performing a set of lifts, followed by a set of ballistic/dynamic drills or jumps – this is the ‘contrast’ methodology (the complex one would involve all the sets of one of the pairing of exercises being performed before the other ie all leg presses before the tuck jumps. I recommend a maximum of two sessions of this type of training per week.

It is extremely important to allow adequate rest between sets of lifts and drills, usually 3-5 minutes. Why so much time? The central nervous system (CNS) and energy systems, responsible for generating fast, powerful, movements, fatigue relatively quickly and require sufficient time to recover. Without this amount of recovery time, quality of movement cannot be repeated. 

The key to improving explosive power is quality of movement. ‘Less is more’ is a very important proviso for coach and athlete to follow.


The use of speed training in the development of power

For the highly conditioned athlete, performing sprints over short distances is a great way to develop power at this time in the training year – in one session. Its inclusion is highly demanding and should only be used by athletes with at least a couple of years of background of strength conditioning training.

The format for such a session would be:

1)    weights

2)    plyometrics

3)    acceleration sprints.

I would recommend no more than a 300m total volume of acceleration work (specifically of 15-30m sprints) in such a session (10 x 30m sprints, for example).

This ‘triple-whammy session’ is a short-term method for improving power and speed, but it should not become a main feature of the overall training programme. Over-using it will fatigue the athlete, risk injury and lead to diminishing sports performance.

I therefore recommend a three-week period of this type of training – performed twice per week. At the end of the three weeks, I would organise a-week-to-10-day recovery period. A further three-week cycle, followed by another short recovery period, can then be used, if necessary.


Examples of ‘Getting strength to where you need it sessions’

These work outs are based on power combination methods, and combine pairings of weight training and power drill (plyometric) exercises. These pairings work the same muscle groups, suggested reps, and sets and recoveries are provided. These work outs are tough and should only be tackled by the well conditioned.

Note: 1RM refers to one repetition maximum – the maximum amount of weight you could lift once on a particular exercise.

1)    Basic level power combination session

Rest: minimal between lifts and power drills – if the athlete has some conditioning background.

Lifts 80% 1RM - 5 reps Power drills - 5 reps Circuits 2-3 Recoveries between Recoveries after each circuit - 5 min
Leg press Tuck jumps   4 min  
Bench press Clap (plyo) push-ups   4 min  
Squats Standing long jump   4 min  


2)    Medium-level power combination session

Rest: minimal between paired exercises.

Lifts all 80% 1RM - 5 reps Power drills - 5 reps Circuits 2-3 Recoveries between sets Recoveries after each circuit - 5 min
Power cleans Tuck jumps   4 min  
Bench press Medicine ball chest pass against wall   4 min  
Squats Depth jumps   4 min  


3)    Advanced power combination session

Perform sprints after completion of the circuits – see below.

Lifts all 85% 1RM - 4 reps Power drills Circuits 2 Recoveries between sets Recoveries after each circuit - 5 min
Power cleans Hurdle jumps   5 min  
Bench press Medicine ball drop and push*   5 min  
Split snatch Split jumps   5 min  

* This exercise requires the medicine ball to be dropped from another athlete standing over the performer – who is lying on their back. They catch the ball over their chest and immediately throw it back to their partner who catches it. This exercise develops the plyometric response in the chest and arm muscles.


Allow 10-15 min recovery after the last circuit before performing sprints.
Example of sprint session:

2 x 4 x 20m from standing start with two minutes’ rest between each sprint and 10 minutes’ rest between sets.

An option – if the facilities are available – is to perform a set of weight lifts, followed by a power drill set, and then, with minimal recovery, a short sprint. This is only possible if a suitable running surface is situated immediately next to the lifting facility.


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