DPT-405- Exercise Prescription: Muscular Strength & Power

Muscular strength is commonly defined as the ability of muscles to generate maximal force and is often expressed in terms of 1RM or one repetition maximum. It should be noted that muscles are able to demonstrate maximal force production in a variety of different situations. These include concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions, as well as any variety of movement speed velocities for the isotonic actions (Knuttgen and Komi, 1992).

Development of muscular strength can be of benefit for a wide range of athletic endeavours as well as many every day situations. Competitive powerlifting (1RM squat, deadlift and bench press) is perhaps the ultimate expression of pure strength in a competitive context. Lifting heavy objects from the floor and placing them on a high shelf may be an example of an everyday situation where a reasonable degree of functional strength is required. 

Power however, is also a key component of neuromuscular conditioning. Power is determined by the rate at which the body can generate force. 

Power can be defined as:

Power = (Force x Distance)

Time

Power can be considered as the amount of work done divided by the time taken to do it. More simply, power is the ‘rate of doing work.’ 

Consider the following example. If a client was asked to perform the squat exercise for 1 repetition, but they had to perform the concentric (lifting) phase as quickly as possible. The client lifts 100kg concentrically in 1 second. Following a period of appropriate training it is decided to re-test the client to evaluate their progress. During the re-test the client performs the exercise with the same load, but this time the concentric phase of the lift is performed in 0.5 seconds. Assuming that the technique was consistent (meaning the distance that the load travelled was the same), and given that the load was identical, the decrease in time taken to complete the lift indicates that the client has made improvements in power. Moving the same load over a consistent distance in half the time requires the individual to double the effort in terms of power output. 

Uses of Power in Everyday Life

Mention power in the gymnasium environment and people will naturally think of elite athletes participating in sports and events such as sprinting, jumping and Olympic weightlifting (clean and jerk, snatch). Because of the perception that power is for elite athletes only, many individuals never even consider power training. These widely held beliefs about power and power training are unfortunate as they cause many individuals to miss out on a valuable and enjoyable area of resistance training.

All individuals should be able to build towards the inclusion of power phases in their long term training plan. It is important to note that power training for the general public is very different from the workouts of elite power athletes. Elite athletes are able to tolerate much higher training volumes, intensities and frequencies, as well as having a much more task specific focus to their training. Power training for the average client should prepare the individual to perform daily tasks with ease, as well as providing them with something different to try when they head to the gym for their daily workouts. 

Although most individuals will never be required to perform a long jump, throw a javelin or complete a competitive clean and jerk, everybody will perform tasks on a daily basis that require some degree of power. For an individual to run up a flight of stairs they are required to propel their body mass forward and up against gravity. For the individual to accelerate their mass and become ‘airborne’ for a fraction of a second between steps, force must be produced at a significant rate within the muscles. This rapid force development demonstrates the application of power to an every day task. 

Tasks that require the individual to move relatively heavy loads (e.g. bodyweight or an external object) require the individual to express power. It does not make sense to attempt to lift heavy loads slowly, as this extends the time that the musculoskeletal system is exposed to the load, increasing the likelihood of fatigue. Imagine an individual lifting a heavy bag of sand or cement from the floor to their shoulders. It is likely that they will employ a rapid initial contraction of their knee and hip extensors in order to accelerate the bag from the floor. Once moving the individual can then benefit from any momentum imparted onto the bag from the initial powerful contraction. This approach is much more effective than slowly and robotically dead lifting the load, then bicep-curling it into position. Again, this is an example of power being employed in a non-sporting, non-training scenario.   

Strength and Power for All

It is evident then that the majority of our clients may benefit from periodically being exposed to strength and power exercises in their training. These exercise modalities are not solely the preserve of the elite sports man or woman but make up two of the components of fitness required for optimal health, fitness and function.

Strength and Power: Contraindications

Whilst strength and power training is suitable for the majority of the population, some special care groups should not perform this kind of work. Clients suffering from the following conditions should be excluded from strength and power work:

  • hypertensives (implications of the use of valsalva manoeuvre)
  • osteoarthritis/rheumatoid arthritis 
  • pregnancy
  • severe osteoporosis
  • obesity 

Factors Affecting the Development of Strength and Power

There are several independent factors that influence the ability of an individual to develop force production and thus express strength. Certain factors are inherent and not modifiable. These include genetics as well as biomechanical considerations, such as lever length and muscle insertion points. The following depicts some key influential factors that can be modified by the individual wishing to develop strength:

  • neural factors
  • muscular factors
  • fatigue status
  • nutritional status
  1. Neural factors  

Motor unit recruitment: 

During a physical task, motor units will be sequentially recruited from weakest to strongest as the force requirement of the task increases (McArdle et al, 2001)

The highest force motor units (fast twitch, type IIb) are only recruited significantly during high intensity muscular contraction.

 Motor unit recruitment during different intensity muscular contractions (adapted from McArdle et al, 2001)

Research suggests that untrained individuals may only be able to recruit approximately 60% of their available motor units during a maximal voluntary contraction. In comparison, highly trained strength athletes have demonstrated the ability to synchronously activate 85% or more of all motor units during a maximal contraction (Hartmann and Tunnemann, 1995). As motor units are sequentially recruited from weakest to strongest as the force requirement of the task increases, untrained individuals are often unable to utilise their most powerful type IIb motor units as they have rarely been called upon to fire.

Motor unit synchronisation:

  • motor units should fire in a synchronous manner in order to produce smooth, accurate movements (Zatsiorsky,1995) 
  • in highly experienced power and strength athletes there is evidence to suggest that motor units are activated in a more synchronised fashion during maximal voluntary contractions
  • synchronised summation of force from the majority of available motor units results in increased force production

It is also worth remembering that strength increases as the client develops a more efficient motor pattern for the desired movement (intermuscular co-ordination).

Increased frequency of nervous stimulation (rate coding):As well as recruiting additional motor units, the body can increase force production by increasing the frequency of stimulatory impulses to the active muscle fibres. By increasing the rate of nervous impulses to each motor unit the nervous system can initiate additional contractions before the tension generated from the initial contraction has dissipated. In this way, the second contraction is added to the tension of the first, resulting in greater strength (Hartmann and Tunnemann, 1995).   

Once an individual reaches a more advanced training age, their ability to recruit available motor units is maximised. Any further gains in strength are predominantly the result of increased contractile protein levels within the muscle (hypertrophy). This concept justifies the inclusion of hypertrophy phases in the long-term training schedules of individuals training for strength.

Repetition speed:

The speed at which repetitions are performed is an important variable in force development. In many athletic endeavours the ability to produce force rapidly is of paramount importance. Zatsiorsky (1995) suggests that the effects of a strength based exercise are highly dependent on the movement velocity at which that exercise is performed. Therefore, training with high velocity movements increases high velocity strength relatively more than low velocity strength, and vice versa (Sale, 1992). This has implications for athletic force development. If a client is training to improve strength for a specific sport, the trainer should analyse the movement speeds required for that sport and programme accordingly. For very rapid force production, an understanding of power training is required. Power training will be addressed later in this section.

Also key to the development of force production is the intent of speed of movement. If the load is such that the body cannot move it at a high velocity but the individual attempts to maximally accelerate the bar, then the body will recruit the high force developing type IIb motor units to overcome the load. A general progression over time would be to move from slow to fast repetition speeds.

2. Muscular factors

Muscle fibre type:

It is well documented that fast twitch muscle fibres are able to generate more force than slow twitch fibres (McArdle et al, 2001). It can therefore, be stated that the fibre type composition of an individual is a significant factor in their ability to generate force. The relative proportions of slow and fast twitch fibres that an individual possesses are dictated by genetics. Robergs et al (1997) suggest that drastic changes in fibre type proportions are unobtainable through voluntary muscular contractions (training). As such it would seem that fibre type proportions, along with factors such as lever length and insertion points, contribute significantly to strength but are largely unmodifiable through exercise. 

Hypertrophy:

While it may not be possible to significantly alter the fibre composition of an individual through exercise, it is universally accepted that individual fibres can increase in size as a result of appropriate resistance training (McArdle et al, 2001). An increase in the contractile protein content of muscle is known as hypertrophy. An increase in the cross-sectional area of muscle is associated with increased strength. This is as a result of increased actin / myosin cross-bridging interaction.

Different types of muscle fibre will respond differently to different exercise stimuli. For example, slow twitch muscle fibres will hypertrophy in response to aerobic endurance stimuli, while the fast twitch fibres will remain largely unchanged as they are not stimulated during this type of activity (Robergs et al, 1997). The hypertrophy response is greater in response to intense resistance exercise than it is for aerobic and endurance-based activities.  

Musculoskeletal factors – leverage:

As with all components of fitness each individual has certain genetic advantages and disadvantages that dictate their strength potential. A key determinant of the expression of absolute strength is leverage (McArdle et al, 2001). If two individuals have identical musculature (fibre type, motor unit recruitment, force production capabilities), but one has more favourable levers, then this individual will demonstrate greater levels of maximal strength (expressed as total resistance lifted – 1RM). Due to the inherent variation in leverage exhibited by individuals, it is suggested that comparisons of strength levels between individuals can be de-motivational for certain clients. A better option for the trainer would be to monitor the progress of a client over time i.e. compare current strength levels to previous performances.

3. Nutrition and fatigue

The effects of structural and functional factors on strength have already been discussed. The ability of an individual to successfully recruit motor units and apply force through their own individual leverage mechanics will dictate their strength potential at any given time. Additionally, the more transient factors of current nutritional status and fatigue have to be considered on a session by session basis. 

Current nutritional status has such a far-reaching impact on all of the systems of the body that it would be difficult to overstate its importance. Appropriate nutrition provides energy, enables growth and repair of tissues and optimises mood / mental function. Disrupting any of these factors may limit the ability of an individual to train and express strength. As a result of its wide reaching influence on the body, it is imperative that trainers consider nutrition to be equally as important as exercise when it comes to developing the strength levels of their clients. 

If training is too intense, too long, too frequent, or performed over time with inadequate nutrition, the individual will start to accumulate fatigue. In the short term, fatigue will prevent optimal physical performance. In the long term, fatigue can lead to overtraining and all of the detrimental consequences that go along with it. Appropriately applying overload to the client while planning adequate recovery periods between workouts will allow the trainer to minimise the risk of short term and accumulative fatigue.       

Training for Strength

Following the principle of exercise specificity, in order for a client to get stronger they need to lift progressively heavier loads over time.

Intensity, reps and sets:

The type of training required to develop muscular strength is characterised by maximal or near maximal training intensities. An understanding of the term intensity is important here, as it will ensure that trainers develop programmes that are appropriate for their clients’ requirements. 

Staley (1997) suggests that exercise scientists and general resistance trainers often assign different meanings to the term intensity. Intensity is generally defined as the difficulty of the work performed, and is expressed as a percentage of 1RM (one-repetition maximum). Thus, if an individual has a 1RM squat of 120kg, a set performed with 100kg would be considered more intense than a set performed with 80kg regardless of factors such as reps performed and mental effort applied. Most regular resistance trainers consider intensity to be related to the amount of effort applied to a task. Therefore, a set performed with 80kg might be considered more intense than a set performed with 100kg, providing greater effort was applied (e.g. more reps, closer to muscular failure). For the purposes of this chapter, intensity will be expressed as a percentage of 1RM so that, the closer to the 1RM, the more intense the exercise.

The guideline for strength training intensity is to perform high intensity sets, performed at 85% or more of 1RM. It is important to remember that this is a general guideline only. It should be noted that there are a number of acute variables that can be manipulated in order to provide the body with a progressive, novel stimulus over time, while continuing to adhere to the general recommendations for strength training.

CharacteristicStrength
IntensityHigh
Load as % of 1RM>85%
Reps1-5
Recovery between sets3-5 minutes
Sets per exercise2-6
Frequency per muscle group1-2 x per week

Adapted from Baechle and Earle (2000)

Exercise selection:

Exercise selection will significantly influence the results experienced by clients participating in strength and power training programmes. The majority of the exercises chosen should be compound, multi-joint exercises. This type of exercise utilises multiple large muscle groups and requires the recruitment of a high number of fast twitch motor units when performed at high intensities. The exercises that will have the greatest strength developing effects are those that stress the largest muscle groups i.e. the musculature of the upper legs, gluteals and back. Each session should focus on one to three key lifts. Many powerlifting workouts consist of one key lift (squat, deadlift or bench press) followed by a small amount of work on assistance exercises.

Isolation or single-joint exercises are of less value to the client training for strength. This is because most feats of strength require a high degree of intermuscular co-ordination, with the load being distributed across a number of muscles and joints. Isolating muscles (and joints) may not automatically lead to increased force production when those muscles are asked to integrate with other areas of the body during a dynamic movement task. When training to develop muscular strength it is more appropriate to overload the movement pattern as opposed to individually fatiguing the individual muscles involved in that movement. Zatsiorsky (1995) suggests that isolation exercises should only be used as a supplement to the main training programme when focusing on strength.

REVISION TASK:

ON A NOTE PAD, Select 5 free weight exercises that stress the musculature of the upper legs, gluteals and back, and are appropriate for near maximal intensities:

EXERCISEMUSCLES USED

Programming for strength:

When planning to train for strength over a period of time, the trainer can take the general repetition guideline (1-5 reps per set) and split it into two further subsections. The trainer can plan a basic strength phase consisting of sets of 4-5 repetitions, followed by a more intensive maximal strength phase of 1-3 repetitions per set.

The basic strength phase provides the client with an introduction to the strength training intensity and volume, without requiring the maximal intensity effort involved in 1RM attempts. In this way, trainers are able to utilise the principles of periodisation by logically applying increments in intensity to the strength training sessions of their clients.  

It is highly recommended that the client has spent time progressively moving through the stages of resistance training prior to attempting a basic strength phase. 

Training with endurance and hypertrophy exercise intensities prior to performing strength work should ensure that the client is able to safely tolerate the load and intensity required to obtain the benefits of the strength phase of training. Remember that a brief ‘strength for all’ training phase can be utilised if necessary to bridge the gap between hypertrophy and strength work.

CharacteristicBasic StrengthMaximal StrengthStrength for All
IntensityHighHighHigh
Load (%1RM)>85% 1RM>93% 1RM>85%
Reps4-51-34-5
Recovery2-5 mins2-5 mins1-2 mins (whole body circuit format)
Sets per exercise2-62-61-2

Recommendations for basic and maximal strength programme design (rep max % from Baechle and Earle 2000).

REVISION TASK

Design 2 basic strength workouts that would be suitable for a client with an extensive resistance training background. The client wants 2 workouts that can be alternated as part of a 3 times per week training phase focusing on the acquisition of basic strength.

Your workout should cover the whole body and incorporate exercises, sets, reps and recovery periods that are conducive to the development of basic strength.

Exercises – Workout ASets & RepsRecovery
Exercises – Workout BSets & RepsRecovery

Progressing to maximal strength:

Not all clients will need to progress to a maximal strength phase in their training. This type of training requires maximal/near maximal loading and carries a high risk of musculoskeletal injury. 

Maximal strength training is only suitable for clients involved in sporting activities where either maximal loads are handled (e.g. weight lifting) or where high degrees of strength are expressed (e.g. rugby).

For the majority of the general training population, maximal training presents too high a risk of sustaining serious injury.

Before placing a client on a maximal strength programme, the trainer must ask them selves if the potential benefit of this type of training exceeds the potential risk. If the risk outweighs the benefit, then maximal strength training is probably an unnecessary phase of training for the client in question and strength for all or basic strength parameters will yield sufficient results at a much lower risk. 

Progressing into Power

Power, as discussed previously, is strength expressed at speed. The main difference between the executions of strength versus power movements is the intent to move quickly. 

The key difference between strength and power training is the speed of movement, or the intent of the speed of movement used to perform the exercises. Power training requires the client to attempt to move the weight or load as quickly as possible. If the load is great then the actual movement speed may not be particularly impressive, however the neuromuscular system will adapt positively to the intended movement speed and increase muscular power.

If the load is relatively low the individual will be able to accelerate through the range of movement easily and the movement speed will be significant (see force/velocity curve). Subsequently, the body will adapt and movement velocity will increase. On the other hand, training with maximum loads will increase maximum force output without necessarily increasing velocity (especially if a large degree of strength has already been gained). Ideally, for power training the participant should be able to release the load (throw it), or leave contact with the ground, as in jumping, hopping and bounding drills. This practice allows the participant to accelerate throughout the entire movement, thus maximising power.   Muscular power reaches a maximum at approximately one third of the maximal velocity and one half of the maximal force (see picture below).  This means that maximal dynamic muscular power is displayed when the external resistance requires approximately 55% of the muscular force, which the muscles are capable of producing. 

Holding on to the load may not bring about optimal gains in power. The vast majority of free weight exercises do not allow the individual to release the weight. This inevitably encourages the neuromuscular system to learn to decelerate the load towards the end of the range of movement. This may limit power transfer into the movement. Traditional free weight exercises definitely have a place in the build up to power training as they promote enhanced force development, however dedicated power exercises will push client’s power fitness on to new levels of performance.

Wilson et al (1993) conducted a study to examine the effects of various training protocols on power performance. The measurements used to assess the effectiveness of the training programmes were the squat jump (SJ) and the countermovement jump (CMJ). The SJ requires the participant to descend into a squat, isometrically hold this position for a brief period and then explode vertically upward. The vertical height of this jump is then measured. The CMJ is a similar test protocol with one distinct difference. The CMJ requires the participant to leap vertically upwards following a rapid countermovement (a rapidly performed decent into a ¼ to ½ squat position). 

The CMJ incorporates the stretch-shortening cycle whereas the SJ does not. The stretch-shortening cycle (or myotatic stretch reflex) is initiated when muscle spindles are stimulated by the rapid eccentric loading characteristic of the countermovement element of the test. The countermovement rapidly lengthens the musculature of the hips, thighs and calves, causing the spindles associated with these muscles to fire. The activated spindles initiate a protective reflex contraction within the lengthened muscles. This reflexive action results in powerful muscular contractions. Baker (1996) suggests that assessing SJ and CMJ performance improvements is beneficial as it is a useful way of distinguishing between the contractile and stretch-shortening cycle contributions to jumping performance.    

% improvements in jump performance following different exercise interventions
Training protocolSquat JumpCountermovement Jump
Squats6.85.1
Squat Jumps15.217.6
Plyometrics7.217.6

Adapted from Wilson et al, (1993). 

Once an individual has developed adequate levels of strength, further traditional strength training has been shown to be limited in terms of improving power performance in activities such as vertical jumping (Baker, 1996). The results listed in the previous table suggest that traditional resistance training such as squats will improve vertical jump performance, but not to the same extent as more specific training such as jump squats or plyometrics.

Note that the jump squats protocol caused good performance improvements in both the SJ and the CMJ, whereas the plyometric training had a significant effect on the CMJ but less of an effect on the SJ. It has been suggested that plyometric training enhances the stretch-shortening cycle without having a dramatic effect on contractile force development (Baker, 1996). This would explain the difference between performance enhancements for SJ and CMJ when using a plyometrics only exercise protocol.  

The squat jump protocol appears to be the most successful of the three exercise protocols conducted by Wilson et al (1993). This may be a result of jump squats enhancing force development as with traditional squats, but also allowing the athlete to accelerate through the entire movement and actually leave the ground. The adaptations induced from this type of training would be more specific to both the SJ and the CMJ.

Power programme design – basic power training principles:

The following principles should be applied to all power type exercises to ensure that maximal benefit can be derived from this type of training. Apply the following principles to all power training modalities:

  • employ a specific graduated warm up with includes exercise rehearsals
  • power movements should only be performed using perfect technique
  • movements should be performed with intent of speed (EXPLODE!)
  • deceleration of training implemented at end range of movement is to be avoided
  • sets typically last under 10 seconds and should certainly last no longer than 15 seconds with no drop off in performance 
  • recovery should be full or close to full (3 minutes +)
  • quality of exercise execution should be emphasized over quantity of volume performed
Designing power workouts – exercise selection:

When constructing workouts to enhance muscular power the trainer should select exercises that are specific to the objective. This means that the trainer should select exercises that allow significant acceleration of the load. Ideally, exercises should be included that allow the client to leave the floor or release (throw) an external load. Examples of such exercises would include:

  • jumping
  • hopping
  • bounding 
  • depth jumps
  • medicine ball throwing

When selecting these exercises the trainer should seek to a) replicate any movement patterns required for sporting objectives, and b) encourage a variety of planes of movement to promote balanced physical development. Refer to the power exercise section in the manual for ideas. 

More traditional free weight based exercises can be utilised to enhance muscular power. Ideally these exercises should be performed explosively and require the client to impart momentum to the bar. This momentum should then be accommodated by the inclusion of a ‘catch’ or receiving phase at the end of each lift. A list of exercises to enhance power can be found in the power section of the manual. Some examples of such lifts would be:

  • power cleans
  • push press
  • Power snatch (one or two handed)

Plyometric training:

Plyometric training or jump training has been used by many individuals to increase their explosive power. Plyometric training enhances power by encouraging the body to make efficient use of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) and the energy stored within the elastic components of muscle and connective tissue. Plyometric training consists of stimulating muscles through a sudden eccentric stretch prior to any voluntary concentric effort (Siff, 2003). 

The rapid eccentric load stimulates muscle spindles to initiate the protective stretch-shorten cycle reflex. This reflex maximises force production during the voluntary concentric phase providing the point of transition is brief (note that the point of transition is the time taken between decelerating the eccentric phase and initiating the concentric phase). Siff (2003) contends that if the transition phase is any greater than 0.15 seconds the exercise ceases to become plyometric. Using jumping as an example, in order to minimise the transition phase the client should be encouraged to spend minimal time in contact with the floor. Imagining the floor to be red hot and unbearable to touch may be a useful teaching point for this type of plyometric activity.

Due to the nature of plyometric exercises it is suggested that the load used should remain relatively low. Siff (2003) suggests the use of bodyweight or light medicine balls over heavy weights for plyometrics, because increased loads would slow the movements down negating the potential benefits of the exercise. Some examples of plyometric exercises can be found in the power section of the training manual. 

Guidelines for plyometrics:

  • A solid strength base is necessary before starting a plyometric training programme.
  • Clients must be able to squat 1.5-2 times body weight before attempting depth jumps
  • It is the quality and not the quantity of exercise that is important
  • Perform each repetition explosively and maximally
  • The number of sets and repetitions depends on the type, intensity and complexity i.e  greater intensity and complexity the fewer sets performed
  • Perform plyometric exercises on a soft surface – grass, sprung floor or a running track are ideal
  • Two plyometric sessions a week is sufficient. Three maximum for advanced individuals/atheletes
  • Recovery periods between sets should conform to work to rest ratios of 1:5 to 1:10 (Chu, 1998), meaning that a 10 second set should warrant between 50 and 100 seconds of recovery. However, 3-5 minutes recoveries may be necessary 
  • Maintain a locked ankle (dorsiflexed) when landing, rather than landing on the heel or toes (refer to the ankle bounce exercise). Weight should be balanced towards the front half of the foot
CharacteristicPlyometrics
IntensityHigh-very high
Foot contactsBeginner 50-100*Intermediate 100-150*Advanced 120-200*
Reps1-10-15**
Recovery between setsRecovery between workouts1:5 to 1:1072-96 hours
Sets per exercise2-6
Frequency1-3 x per week

*   landing on both feet equals two foot contacts

** dependent on intensity – when attempting higher intensity plyometrics perform fewer reps and sets (see intensity scale below)

Personal trainers should exercise caution when prescribing plyometric training programmes. It is prudent to start with low intensity exercises gradually progressing to high intensity exercises once the desired sets and repetitions have been completed. The following intensity scale is a useful guide in helping the personal trainer design plyometric training programmes.

Complex training:

Complex training is a specific type of workout that allows the trainer to include traditional weight training exercises and plyometrics within the same session. Complex training occurs when traditional weight training exercises and plyometrics are alternated within the same session (Chu, 1998). 

Ebben and Watts (1998) suggest that the most powerful adaptive mechanism of complex training is neuromuscular in nature, rather than hormonal or metabolic. The performance of intense resistance exercise prior to plyometrics raises the ability of the body to excite the motor neurons by up to 50% (Chu, 1996). In this way, the body is fooled into thinking that there is more heavy work to come and it responds accordingly (Fees, 1997 cited in Ebben & Watts, 1998). During complex training the plyometrics are performed with a relatively light load while the body is primed for high force production. This combination generates a high velocity of movement, therefore, enhancing power production (Ebben and Watts, 1998).  

Adams et al (1992, cited in Chu 1998) compared the effects of complex training with both traditional resistance training (squats) and plyometrics. Over a 6-week training period the complex training group experienced an increase in vertical jump performance that was approximately 3 times greater than either the squat group or the plyometric group. Chu (1998) reports that the neuromuscular adaptations to the complex training protocol were experienced early within the training cycle (within the first 4 weeks). This suggests that complex training phases should be relatively brief in order to maximise results and avoid the risk of overtraining.

In keeping with the guidelines suggested by the basic progression pyramid, Chu (1998), suggests that a complex training phase should not be attempted unless the client has previously completed a basic strength or hypertrophy training phase.

Complex training guidelines:

Putting together a complex training workout requires a slightly different approach to traditional resistance training because the trainer has the plyometric element to contend with. This section will cover exercise selection, set and rep ranges, loads, recovery periods and progressions.

Exercise selection:

The trainer should select a traditional weight training exercise (compound exercises are recommended) and combine it with a plyometric exercise that challenges similar muscle groups and movement patterns. Some examples are listed in the table below.

Complex Training – Example Pairings
Resistance exercisePlyometric exercise
Back squatDepth jump
Bench pressClap press up
LungesBounding
Lateral pulldownOverhead medicine ball throw
Calf raiseRebound jumps in place

Complex training examples

Set and repetition ranges for complex training:

When planning complex training programmes the way in which the weight training and plyometric exercises are combined will depend on the level of the individual client (Chu, 1996). As discussed previously, all clients should have an appropriate level of fitness before attempting even the most basic complex training routine. Chu (1996) identifies various levels of complex training that can be completed over the course of several training phases (this approach follows the principles of periodisation). Chu’s phases are geared towards developing peak power for athletic competition. Details of these phases are listed in the table below. 

Guidelines for complex training over different training phases
Training phaseResistanceSets x repsResistance load (%1RM)Plyometric Sets x reps
Preparation phase*2-4 x 10-1560-70%2-3 x 10-12
Pre-competition 13 x 6-1070-85%3 x 10-15
Pre-competition 2 4 x 4-670-85%4 x 5-10
Competition phase3-5 x 1-380-100%3-5 x 5-6

Adapted from Chu (1996)

*Chu suggests that the resistance exercises and plyometric exercises are not paired in superset fashion during the preparation phase.

The suggested set / rep ranges and loads are guidelines only. The trainer should always assess the individual ability of each client to handle the load and amend the guidelines accordingly.

Recovery periods:

As mentioned previously, the exercises in complex training are arranged in resistance exercise and plyometric exercise pairs. The exercises are then performed in sequence as follows:

  • resistance exercise 1
  • desired rest period within a pair
  • plyometric exercise 1
  • desired rest period between pairs
  • repeat group 1 exercises for desired number of sets
  • perform the same sequence for exercise pair 2 if appropriate
Rest intervals for complex training
Client fitness levelRest within a pairRest between pairs
Beginner / intermediate30-90 seconds1-3 minutes
Intermediate / advanced1-3 minutes3-5 minutes

Adapted from Chu (1996)

With respect to complex training volume, Chu (1998) suggests that combining two major compound lifts with plyometric training in between should yield maximum results. Attempting to complete significantly more work than this would potentially lead to fatigue and lower the quality of the exercises. This approach would lead to reduced performance improvements, overly lengthy workouts and potential overtraining. 

Resisted movements – sleds and hills:Locomotive movement patterns e.g. running can be trained by applying external resistance in the form of a braking harness or weighted sled. These exercises are particularly useful in the development of sprinting power, lateral movements e.g. side stepping or backward running. 

If a weighted sled is not available, resistance can be applied by a training partner.

Additionally, short steep hills can be used to overload the posterior chain used in sprinting. It again should be stressed that overloading a sporting skill – in this case sprinting – will change gait mechanics and power increases may be negated by changed biomechanics; in particular shortened stride length.

Sequencing the workouts – exercise order:

When constructing a workout that includes power exercises the trainer has various options. Baechle et al (2000) suggest that the following sequence should be adhered to: 

  1. power exercises (Plyometrics) in order of skill/complexity
  2. non-power compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, bench press)
  3. assistance / isolation exercises
  4. core exercises 

Additional to these guidelines the basic programme design rules should apply. These are:

  • promote muscular balance
  • train large muscles first
  • perform complex and high skill exercises first
  • train synergists and fixators last

An example of a power training programme to target the posterior chain for a long jumper:

  • back toss (power)
  • squat jumps (power – simpler movement)
  • front squats (strength)
  • lateral lunges
  • leg curls (isolation/assistance)
  • calf raises (isolation/assistance)
  • standing cable Russian Twists (core)

The guidelines suggested by Baechle et al (2000) listed above reaffirm the basic programme design rules. Power exercises tend to involve extensive muscle groups, especially the musculature of the hips, thighs and back and should, therefore, be performed first. Many power exercises also require the highest level of skill and co-ordination to complete. Again, this indicates that these exercises should be performed first in the workout. Clients that become fatigued prior to performing technical power exercises such as the power clean are prone to using poor technique and are more likely to become injured (Baechle et al, 2000). 

Not all clients will have significant sporting or performance related goals and therefore, do not require dedicated power sessions. If this is the case, some power exercises may be introduced to more general resistance training sessions in order to provide the client with a new and interesting exercise stimulus. As always, the trainer should assess the client’s level of physical preparedness in order to ascertain their ability to complete power exercises. The trainer should always select a volume and intensity of power exercise appropriate to their client’s fitness level.

Power for sports: 

Power plays a vital role in most sports. It is therefore, essential that a trainer has the ability to analyse a particular activity and assess its power requirements, basic movement patterns and prescribe appropriate exercises for that activity.

It is possible to analyse a sport to assess its training requirements without having a specific knowledge of the sport in question. Just because YOU don’t play lacrosse doesn’t mean you can’t provide a suitable training programme for someone who does!

Spending a short time observing the activity should yield all the necessary information necessary to produce an effective power programme.

When observing an activity, the trainer should look for the following information:

  • direction of movement (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, mixed)
  • dominant joint actions and muscle groups
  • magnitude of load
  • duration of effort 
  • number of repeated efforts (pure power or power – endurance) 

Once this information is collected, it should be possible to design an appropriate programme for any activity viewed.

It should be noted that it is inadvisable to attempt to train sports specific skills in the gymnasium environment. Applying external load to sports specific skills will change the biomechanics of the activity being trained which may lead to faulty technique being adopted which may have a negative effect on performance e.g. using resistance bands whilst replicating a golf swing may result in a more powerful stroke but the change in technique and shot mechanics may result in an altered ball trajectory and actually harm performance rather than enhance it.

If it is deemed necessary to train a sports skill with an external load, guidelines (Chu, 1998) suggests that no more than an additional 10% should be added to the resistance offered normally e.g. if a tennis racquet weighs 300 grams, a total load of no more than 330 grams should be used in sports specific skills. 

REVISION TASK:

Create a table like the one below and show your support tutor.

Analyse the demands of the following list of sports and list the dominant characteristics necessary to design a power programme. Think in terms of:

  • direction of movement (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, mixed)
  • dominant joint actions and muscle groups
  • magnitude of load
  • duration of effort
  • number of repeated efforts
    • rugby
    • tennis
    • volleyball
    • track athletics (sprinting/running)
    • field athletics (jumping/throwing)
    • martial arts (e.g. boxing)
    • swimming
ActivityDirectionJoint/MuscleLoadingDurationNo.Efforts
Rugby
Tennis
Volleyball
Track
Field
Martial Arts
Swimming

References

Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (2000). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human Kinetics

Hartmann, J. & Tunnemann, H. (1995). Fitness and strength training for all sports: theory, methods and programs. Sports Book Publisher. Toronto.

Knutten, H. & Komi, P. (1992). Strength and power in sport. Blackwell Science

McArdle, W. Katch, F. & Katch, V. (2001). Exercise physiology: Energy, nutrition and physical performance. Wiliams and Wilkins

Robergs, R. & Roberts, S. (1997). Exercise physiology: Exercise, performance and clinical applications. Mosby

Sale, D. (1992). Neural adaptation to strength training (ch) in Komi, P. (Ed) Strength and power in sport. Blackwell Science

Staley, C. (1997). The final rep: re-evaluating the practice of training to failure www.myodynamics.com/articles/failure.html

Zatsiorsky, V. (1995). Science and practice of strength training. Human kinetics.

Baechle, T. Earle, R. & Wathen, D. (2000). Resistance training Ch. In Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Baechle, T. & Earle, R. (Eds). Human Kinetics.

Baker, D. (1996). Improving vertical jump performance through general, special and specific strength training: a brief review. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 10(2).

Chu, D. (1996). Explosive power and strength: complex training for maximal results. Human Kinetics.

Chu, D. (1998). Jumping into plyometrics. 2nd Ed. Human Kinetics.

Ebben, W. & Watts, P. (1998). A review of combined weight training and plyometric training modes: complex training. Strength and conditioning. Oct 1998

Fees, M. in Ebben, W. & Watts, P. (1998). A review of combined weight training and plyometric training modes: complex training. Strength and conditioning. Oct 1998

Kreighbaum, E. & Barthels, K. (1996). Biomechanics. A qualitative approach to studying human movement. 4th Ed. Allyn and Bacon

Newham, D. & Ainscough-Potts, A. (2003). Musculoskeletal basis for human movement. Ch. In Human movement: an introductory text. 4th Ed. Trew, M. & Everett, T. Eds. Churchill Livingstone

Siff, M. (2003). Supertraining. Supertraining Institute, Denver.

Wilson, G. Newton, R. Murphy, A. & Humphries, B. (1993). The optimal training load for the development of dynamic performance. Med. Sci.

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