April is power month. I’ll be posting a series of articles and workouts on power training, which is one of my favorite things to do. Unfortunately, since I’ve spent that last 15 or so years doing endurance sports, I haven’t been able to work on it as much as I’d like. This month that changes and I’ve got a new, somewhat theoretical, protocol to test. Based on questions I’ve been getting, we’d better start with the basics.
Power is muscular efficiency.
Before delving into science, of which we won’t (I promise) go too deep on, let’s define power in a way that’s understandable. The point of power training is to make your muscles efficient; essentially trying to wring every possible bit of strength out of them. If you’ve ever seen a skinny guy beat a bigger guy at arm wrestling, you’ve seen muscular efficiency, or power, at work.
Muscle size only defines capacity for strength. The larger a muscle is, the more potential it has for strength. The training you do for size is not the same as what you do for strength, which is where the powerlifter and bodybuilder’s training diverge. Once a bodybuilder is large enough to pose, they have very little motivation to make those muscles strong (efficient). A powerlifter, who competes in divisions separated by body weight, must train in order to get all the strength possible out of a muscle’s given size. It’s a totally different style of training.
The downside of power training.
The goal of power training is 100% muscular efficiency. You might ask yourself, who wouldn’t want that? When you learn, however, that 101% means injury, it might give you pause. Power training can be dangerous. In fact, most power training cycles in my life have ended in injury because it’s very hard, once you see improvements, not to push as hard as you can towards 100%. This is why bodybuilders tend not to delve too much into power. You may think they are strong, and due to sheer size they are, but not nearly as strong as a powerlifter of a similar size would be, unless they double up on sports.
The upside of power training.
The last scenario is fairly common. Why, you might ask, would a bodybuilder risk injury by training for power? Because it’s fun. Power training is insanely fun. Just ask anyone addicted to it. Being strong allows you to do feats of strength. And feats of strength are rad.
Power is essential in many sports. Football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, etc, are all power-based sports. While there are often other elements of fitness needed, the win or lose aspects of each (hit, catch, jump…) are power based. Rock climbing, too, is power-based until you get into mountaineering, and since I’m training for climbing and not doing any racing, I get to train power. All by itself. Yes!
Power training also triggers a performance-oriented hormonal response from the body and, as you probably know (at least if you read my blog often), that is the key to metabolic (and, thus, body composition) change. This is why you see some elements of power training now incorporated into layperson programs. Some power training is essential for any efficient training program, even endurance athletes, but it’s always a risk versus reward scenario where power is ultimately tempered. For example, every Beachbody program has some elements of power training built into it. The harder the program, the higher percentage of powerful movement is used. But none of those programs train power exclusively, even in a single workout. It’s too dangerous. But, like most aspects of training, power is most effectively trained alone.
Power is trained by a mechanism called “recruitment of high threshold muscle cell motor units”. Power can be defined as “absolutely strength” and training it directly is referred to as “recruitment training”.
Per something in your body called The Kreb’s Cycle (remember high school biology?), max recruitment all happens within 1.26 or so seconds. After this time your body runs out of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and is forced to use something called creatine phosphate to continually contract your muscle. The CP (creatine phosphate or phosphocreatine) system, while still anaerobic (running without oxygen) can handle slight diminished loads from the first ATP contraction. All this means that pure max recruitment training all happens in about a second. Translation: the goal of a perfect max recruitment set is one perfect repetition.
Since you have to warm-up thorough in order to try for a perfect rep using max force load (or negative or dynamic), max recruitment training still uses a lot of multi rep sets, but they are always designed around achieve the perfect rep without getting injured (a tricky proposition). You should never get pumped, because that means your training has moved beyond even the CP system and into the glycolytic system.
Most people think being pumped is the key to training. While it is the key to power-endurance (glycolytic) training and hypertrophy (muscle growth), it’s the opposite for power because it deminishes your ability to recruit as, in a protective response, a broken down system won’t fire the highest threshold motor units. Actually, there is a mechanism called post-activation potentiation that does this, if strategized correctly, which we’ll get into in a separate post. In general, however, the most-effective power training is done in workouts when you don’t get pumped.
Since most training requires getting pumped, and max recruitment is most effective when you’re not pumped, power is most efficiently trained during a block of training where getting pumped never occurs. This is because training at 100% is very stressful on the body. It therefore takes a long time, often many days, to recovery from recruitment sessions, and getting pumped interferes with this.
A power block of training means that you’ll be training at ultra high intensity and probably very low volume. Since most people can’t handle this (both mentally and physically), and most people don’t need max recruitment, specific blocks of training targeting power are rare for non-sports specific applications. There are, however, some reasons that you might want to consider a block of pure power training, which I’ll cover in subsequent posts.