Different Shades of Power

“It is not a measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

courtesy of graphistolage

courtesy of graphistolage

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you’ve probably noticed that my physical performance emphasis centers around improving short burst, peak power output in various movements, with “short-burst” being defined as between instantaneous and 9 seconds or so in duration (emphasis being on the anaerobic energy system, primarily).  If this sounds as if it were an idea culled straight from Greg Glassman’s Crossfit manual, there’s a good reason for it.  I’d consider my “3,000-foot view” training methodology as being “Crossfit for sprinters”.  In fact, my training philosophy centers around tweeking Greg’s idea of “fitness” — maximizing work capacity across broad time and modal domains” — to fit my own, personalized performance goals of maximizing anaerobic energy cycle power production across broad modal domains. It doesn’t have quite the same poetic ring, but that’s my goal nonetheless.   This doesn’t mean that I eschew other training methodologies, or that I think they are of no benefit — it just means that it’s my opinion that the more pronounced and positive outward (physical) and inward (healthy) results can be had by narrowing one’s the fitness scope to seeking improvements in short duration power output.

And to that end, training with an eye toward improving short-burst power production is a slightly different animal than most other training regimens.  TTP reader Bryce Lee of the blog,  A student of Fitness, posted a few questions on the subject, and it occurred to me that I might need to dedicate a full post to the idea.

First off, we need to define exactly what power is, mathematically.  Don’t run off — we’ll just use the simple equation, as it will more than fit our needs:

One’s power output (in Watts) = Force (or external load) x distance/time

Another way to think of this, for real-world applications, is work performed (force x distance) per unit of time.  For some reason, most are more comfortable with that definition; maybe it’s the more tangible terms, I don’t know.  Anyway, let’s take a step back for just a moment and see what an incredible production of  short-duration power looks like in real life; Dmitry Klokov here, with a little demonstration of instantaneous power production for you:

Makes it look easy, huh?  Had Dmitry grown up in the States, he’d probably have become a damn good linebacker.  If location, location, location is the mantra of real-estate, circumstance, circumstance, circumstance might just be considered the mantra of an individual’s successful sporting life.  But I digress.  Here’s another example of extreme power production with an emphasis on the anaerobic (primarily) energy cycle; from the recent Jamaican Women’s Senior Trials:

Anyone care to guess what Shelly Ann Frazier’s power/bodyweight ratio was over that 10 second or so span?

And here’s an example of a girl with incredibly high power/bodyweight ratio, Shawn Johnson:

Now, before we go too much further, we need to define, for our purposes as well, the difference between strength and power; two totally different animals, here.  This is by far the best side-by-side comparison I’ve seen, and it really puts things into perspective for most; an excerpt from Pat O’Shea’s book, Quantum Strength and Power Training, provided here. Check that out, come right back and we’ll discuss what all of this means in a practical sense.

Why train to achieve a high anaerobic, power-to-bodyweight ratio?

The bottom line is this: because the very act of training to achieve this goal, and the maintenance of the required lean musculature to to enable sufficient proficiency (or a decent ratio) therein, is highly, highly, costly in  metabolic terms.   Fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are preferred and proliferate under this manner of training/expression, are energy hogs.  Couple this kind of training regimen this with a Paleo lifestyle and you’ve just put together the most lethal one-two combination known to physical culture.

The sweet spot, and progressing that sweetspot forward

The clips provided above are demonstrations of each athlete’s having perfectly balanced force application against the required distance and/or time period.  Throw an extra 5 kilos on the bar, and Dmitry wouldn’t have been able to generate the speed required (and thus, the power required) to complete the snatch.  All variables having been kept the same, had Shelly Ann come into the race carrying a pound or so less body fat, would she have been able to shave some time off her sprint?  Same power output at a reduced bodyweight — so yes, most definitely.   Remember the power equation, then think of Shawn Johnson’s vault — more speed down the ramp, more force off the vault, a reduced bodyfat level — all would equate to more height off the vault (resulting from a greater power output) and consequently the possibility of an additional (or in the above case, completed) mid-air maneuver.   Note when I mention a reduced bodyfat level, I am in no way implying that Shawn has any additional fat that needs to be shed — far from it, she’s tight as a drum — I only mention this in a manner of mathematical fact.  Of course, these are all world-class athletes. we’re talking about here; the same is true, though — and the power principles are applicable — for for every trainee, and for any modality you can conjure. All one has to do is ask the question, what can I do to positively affect the power output of this movement, and where is the weak link in the chain that prevents me from getting there?

Let’s consider a quick example…

Consider for a moment the possible variations of the regular-grip pull-up; everything from the super-heavy, weighted, grind-it-out single (emphasis being on strength), to it’s power-emphasis cousin, the straight bar muscle-up, as demonstrated here:

Now, let’s assume that I generate the most power in the pull-up movement in that portion of the muscle-up from the hang to just prior to the press-out (remember the variables involved in the power equation — force, distance, time).  Let’s also assume that I can perform this movement for a single rep with 15 additional pounds held between my legs, and that this movement, and with this additional weight, translates to my greatest power production in the pull-up movement — the sweetspot for me, in this particular movement.  What kinds of modalities can I now employ, over time, to bring about an increase in power production in this movement, characterized here by the ability to (1) perform the movement with something greater than 15 lbs between my legs (assuming rep time remains constant), (2) perform the movement quicker, at the same weight, or (3) propel my body higher at the same given weight, i.e., lessen the amount of “press-out” needed to complete the movement?   Well, basically I can work on getting stronger in this particular movement (an increase in raw strength and/or additional hypertrophy, i.e., a bigger engine) or I can work the strength-speed aspect of power production by doing a fast-as-possible chin-up with heavy weight, or I can work speed-strength by doing such things as a jumping pull-up to muscle-up movement.  And it all depends upon where  I consider my wink-link to be.  Am I fast, but relatively weak, or am I strong as hell, but relatively slow?  You’ll become a much better athlete by locating and improving your weaknesses than you ever will by polishing your strengths.  But, hey, that’s true in life as well, is it not?

Sometimes this takes a bit to sink in and make sense.  Give it time; come back, re-consider, ponder, and feel free to ask questions.  Remember the overall power equation, and how it fits into this continuum:

Raw Strength –>Strength-Speed –>{Sweet Spot} –>Speed-Strength –> Overspeed

This would then graph-out as somewhat of a bell curve, with the “sweet spot” as the apex, on a power-to-speed chart.

In health,


4 responses to “Different Shades of Power

  1. Very helpful clarification, Keith. Strength polishing is certainly something I’ve been guilty of lately.

    I think K2fitness is down, because I wasn’t able to access the ‘quantum’ exerpt. The gymnastic clip was pulled from youtube as well.

    Thanks for the insight.

    • I’m not sure what the deal is with K2fitness, hopefully they’ll be back in operation soon. I’ll see if I can find another good vault clip. Powerful girls,indeed.

  2. Keith,

    I like your ‘Power Spectrum’. As I thought about it more, all of mine or a client’s training can fall along a ‘Movement Spectrum’. It has a sweet spot, but the focus depends on the actual individual. I don’t recall if I actually saw this in print before or I put it together in my mind, but here it is:

    Mobility -> Strength-> Strength-Speed -> Speed-Strength -> Speed -> Speed Endurance -> Endurance.

    Thinking in this manner has helped me with program design, instead of using the classic ‘Hypertrophy->Strength->Power.’

    • I think you’re right, Dan. That does seem to me a more refined (and more useful) elaboration on the hypertrophy–>strength–>power triangle.

      Anyone know what happened to K2fitness? You might know it, huh? Right when I link to them 🙂

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