Developing Explosive Power in Athletes

Many factors contribute to the development of power and it has been controversial for many years as to wether it is best to train heavy with the intent to move quickly or to train light and actually move quickly. We looked previously at light power training versus heavy power training. This month we look at a literature review which sums up the research to 1994. While a bit on the old side it seems that more recent studies have confirmed the opinion of the Newton and Kraemer (1994) such Glenn and colleagues (2000). The final conclusion seems to be that strength and power development are specific to the speed at which they are trained.

Developing Explosive Power in Athletes

Increasing the power output is a key concern of strength and conditioning coaches as this translates into improved running speed, jump height, throwing capability and many other actions involved in sports performance. Given that the formula for power = force x (distance / Time). Assuming the distance can not be changed or is the dependant variable as it would be in most cases we have two other numbers in the equation to work with: force and time.

It has been observed that in untrained athletes simply making them stronger (increasing the force) would result in greater power (as measured by jump height) this is only one aspect of the equation and in any case how does this relate sports where there is a low force required such as in running. Is it better to develop power by increasing force production or increase contraction speed and to what extent does one affect the other?

This has been an area of debate, which was summed up by Newton and Kraemer (1994) where they examine the literature for the best loading protocols that have been found thus far. We will add to that summary by looking at some of the more recent work to attempt to develop a loading pattern that will work with your athletes.

The key to all explosive activities are the ability to develop as much force as possible in the shortest possible time and the muscle’s ability to continue to produce high levels of force as it shortens (considering the limitations of the length tension relationship).

In factors contributing to explosive muscular power the first, which has been well considered, is the ability to develop a high amount of force. This has been traditionally trained through heavy weight training. The problem is that as weight increases speed decreases. When most coaches consider strength they typically think of 1 repetition maximum strength where a maximal weight is lifted through one complete repetition. A huge amount of research has been conducted on how to develop 1RM strength despite the fact there are few sports that this specific kind of strength is specific to. Primarily power lifting, perhaps some aspects of rugby union scrimmaging. Most sports however require strength at much faster velocities. Newton and Kraemer (1994) point out that the name power lifting is not appropriate name for the sport as there is no requirement to move the weight quickly. Olympic Weightlifting would seem to be a more fitting sport as a power sport where speed is required to successfully complete the lifts.

“From an athletic perspective we should consider strength as the force capability of the muscle for actions ranging from the fastest eccentric to the fastest concentric”

(Newton & Kramer 1994)

In other words the athlete should be aiming to generate the most amount of force possible at the required/maximum speed. Maximal strength does contribute as all movements start at slow velocities or from a stationary position and so strength is required to initiate the movement. However once the initial movement has begun maximal strength becomes of little relevance, instead specific speed strength becomes more important.

There have been a number of studies that have shown that strength training improves jumping ability (Adams et al., 1992; Bauer et al., 1990; Clutch et al., 1983;, Wilson et al., 1993). Hakkinen and Komi (1985a) found a 7% improvement in vertical jump height following 24 weeks of resistance training. This seems a modest improvement when considered next to the study by the same authors where training with a lower weight (and thus higher speed) found a 21% increase in jumping height on average (Hakkinen & Komi 1985b). This demonstrates that the training effect is velocity and force specific.

It is important to consider that training results are not always consistent with this principle due to complicated combination of force development characteristics of the muscle that go to developing explosive power not to mention individual coordination and movement pattern. In the studies using untrained subjects simply improving squat movement patterns will likely improve vertical jump height.

The studies that have been cited above all tend to point to one key direction, which fits within key laws of athletic training. Movement speed as with all training is specific to the type of training stimulus provided to the athlete. The coach must consider which aspects of an athlete’s power are the week point in the chain. Is the issue the initial force development an issue? In which case maximum strength and heavy power training would be important. On the other hand, if the athlete shows slow peak velocity then high velocity training should be the focus


    1. Adams, K., O’Shea, J.P., O’Shea, K.L. & Climstien, M., (1992). The effect of six weeks of squat, plyometric and squat-plyometric training on power production. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research, 6: 36-41.

    2. Bauer, T., Thayer, R.E., & Baras, G. (1990). Comparison of training modalities for power training development in the lower extremity. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research 4:115-121.

    3. Clutch, D. M., Wilton, M., McGown, C. & Bryce, G.R., (1983). The effect of depth jumps and weight training on leg strength and vertical jump. Research Quaterly, 54:5-10.

    4. Hakkinen, K. & Komi, P. V., (1985). Changes in electrical and mechanical behaviour of leg extensor muscles during heavy resistance strength training. Scandinavian Journal of Sports Science, 7:55-64.

    5. Hakkinen, K. & Komi, P. V., (1985). The effect of explosive type strength training on electromyographic and force production characteristics of leg extensor muscles during concentric and various stretch shortening cycle exercises. Scandinavian Journal of Sports Science, 7:65-76.

    6. Harris, G. R., Stone, M. H., O'Bryant, H. S., Proulx, C. M. & Johnson, R. L., (2000). Short-term performance effects of high power, high force, or combined weight-training methods. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 14(1), 14-20

    7. Newton, R. U., and Kraemer, W. J., (1996). Developing explosive muscular power: Implications for a mixed methods training strategy. Strength and Conditioning, 16(5). 20-31.

    8. Wilson. G. J., Newton, R. U., Murphy, A. J. & Humphries, B. J., (1993). The optimal training load for the development of dynamic athletic performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 25: 1279-1286.

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