Person wearing a yellow jacket running up a flight of stairs

MOVEMENT – Build a Better Workout

Take Back Your Power – The Value of Training for Power

By Jiji Pollock

You can say it in your most evil, maniacal tone or sing along with the rap song by Snap, “I’ve Got the Power!” But do you have power? Are you training for muscular power?

Time to slow down and get up to speed on maintaining your functional and athletic performance.

Use it or lose it: strength vs. power

A person working out in a gym lunging forward while grabbing two parallel bars

Who needs to train for power? Spoiler alert: Everyone! And the older we get, the more we need it. It isn’t about how fast you move, it’s about the intent to move at your fastest pace. Your age or your occupation doesn’t matter, and if you’re an athlete or athlete at heart, you need it.

But there are common misunderstandings about the difference between muscular strength and muscular power. Muscular strength can be maintained until you’re about 60 years old. In strength and conditioning language, muscular strength is defined as the maximal force a muscle can generate. Can you lift a bag of gardening soil from the wheelbarrow onto the ground? That requires strength.

Muscular power combines strength and speed. How fast can you move your body to prevent your toddler from running into the street? In a Spartan Race, muscular power is needed to haul a bucket of rocks up a muddy hill at a fast pace.

Unfortunately, you eventually lose muscular power at twice the rate of muscular strength. As your muscles age, you naturally lose the muscle fibers—called fast-twitch or Type II fibers—that help you move quickly and powerfully. With aging and loss of power comes functional decline, and mostly in lower-body function. The effects of this decline include the inability to walk, struggling to go up and down a flight of stairs, and difficulty getting up quickly from a chair.

The need for speed: acceleration

Child jumps in front of a car at a crosswalk to catch a basketball

All is not lost if you train for power. Studies have shown that your body can adapt and keep fast-twitch muscle fibers when you train for power.

There are two components of power: acceleration and deceleration. Training both components is important so that you can go fast and also slow down when you need to. But it’s important to train for acceleration first because of the way muscles act when you move. They shorten first—which is called “concentric contraction”—and then they lengthen—which is called “eccentric contraction.”

Life requires us to move fast, so why not train for it? When you’re in the middle of the crosswalk and the traffic light’s about to change, you need to hustle to get to the curb. That’s exactly when you don’t want your hamstrings—the muscles on the back of your leg—to fail, and it’s the hamstrings that get injured the most when you try to move fast. And of course, accelerating quickly and powerfully is one of the most important skills an athlete needs, whether you’re sprinting across the court to return a serve or to get the ball into the bucket.

Here are a few ways of training for acceleration. (Make sure you recover fully before the next round of acceleration.)

  • Short-distance, uphill running: Find a good, short hill and run up it about 15 meters as fast as possible. Walk back down to the start.
  • Punch-wall running: Push your hands against a sturdy wall and run in place as quickly as possible while pushing for about 20 to 30 seconds.
  • Skipping: Skip as far as possible in 30 seconds.
  • Running up flights of stairs: Run up a set of stairs without skipping a step. Walk down to your starting point.

Putting on the brakes: deceleration

Action shot of soccer player about to kick the ball

Proper deceleration allows your muscles to lengthen, or eccentrically contract, without getting hurt. In playing basketball or tennis, you have to run and stop to shoot the ball or hit the ball with the racket.

Deceleration is creating space to “stop on a dime,” especially if you need to change direction. Studies have shown that more lower-body injuries, particularly in the knee and ankle, occur during eccentric movements: Your body can’t react properly to the torque of the movement. (Did you see Klay Thompson tear his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals?)

Training for deceleration teaches your body to slow down in running, stopping, jumping and landing correctly: Bending at the hips, knees and ankles while maintaining your center of gravity keeps you from getting injured. Since eccentric forces travel from the ground up, it’s about absorbing the shock.

Here are a few suggestions for training for deceleration. (Make sure you recover fully before going into bouts of deceleration.)

  • Broad jump: Set your feet wide and jump forward as far as possible, landing softly.
  • Single-leg lateral jump: Stand on one leg and jump to the right or left as far as possible, landing softly.
  • Play “Red Light, Green Light,” or make a quick run to a quick stop.
  • Run backward in circles facing the same direction; go clockwise and counterclockwise.

Safety: less is more

Overhead shot of person using foam roller after a workout

In the beginning, limit the amount of training for power because too much, too soon may result in injury. Allow for adequate recovery—at least 48 hours in between each session. Consult your physician if you have neck, back or knee issues.

Take back your power and do yourself some good: Train your body for power and use it, don’t lose it!

Video credit: Zinkevych, Getty Images
Photo credit: eclipse_images, Getty Images; jacoblund, Getty Images; KatarzynaBialasiewicz, Getty Images; Edoardo Busti, Unsplash; Amir & Danielle, Getty Images

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Author

Jiji Pollock

Jiji Pollock has been in the health and fitness industry for over 25 years and is passionate about helping individuals maintain health through movement and sustainable healthy habits. She works as an Exercise Physiologist, Health and Human Performance Advisor with the Institute of Motion. She began her passion for health and fitness as a group fitness instructor and recreational triathlete as an undergraduate student. Pollock is a certified personal trainer (former Master Trainer at 24 Hour Fitness), holds a M.S. Kinesiology degree and is currently a PhD Candidate in Health and Human Performance at the Concordia University of Chicago. She enjoys swimming, biking, and running and enjoys rock climbing with her three sons. Her second passion is cooking and dark chocolate.  

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