The Power Zone

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

George Bernard Shaw

I spend the vast majority of my workout time laboring in the power zone.  But what does that mean, exactly?  Other than the fact that I devote an inordinate amount of blog space to droning on about it 🙂  Well, the fact of the matter is that the “power zone” is to exercise (ergo, physical ability) as Paleo is to diet; this, my friends, is your body, at it’s best and most able, engaging with the natural world.  But where exactly is the power zone located on the continuum from “rapid force development” (something we’ll consider in an upcoming post) to the production of “raw strength” and, for illustration purposes, what are some practical exercise examples along the way?  First, let’s look at things from a 30, 000 foot view (Note: this is not intended to be an all-encompassing representation, but more of a generalized progression):

Now, many people become confused when the term “power” is bandied about in relation to weightlifting, and this is usually attributed to the term’s unfortunate association with the sport of power lifting, a sport that is seriously misnamed and, I’m sure suffering an identity crisis as a result; the sport should more properly be called strength lifting, or raw strength lifting – something along those lines. Real power lifting, of course,  is more fully exhibited in the sport of Olympic lifting, where speed of movement execution is of paramount importance.  I don’t bring this up so as to be a schoolmarm of sorts, but to point out the correct association of speed to power production.  And it has always been my contention that (with equal skills) the athlete who possesses the greater power/bodyweight ratio in a particular set of movements is, hands down, the better athlete.

That said, let’s zoom in a little closer, and take a look specifically at the power zone:
In many of my workout write-ups you will see the term speed-strength or strength-speed emphasis used as an identifier – what I’m identifying is, which of the two available power equation variables it is that I’m choosing to emphasize in a particular workout. If you look at the elementary power equation (which is fine for our purposes), you see that there are only two variables for a given movement that we can realistically affect – speed and external loading.  Yes, “distance” may vary slightly between similar movements, but not enough, in relation to speed and load, to precipitously effect the overall outcome.

In considering the overhead press as an example, here, we can see that as I slide the fulcrum from dead-center toward the left that I begin to enter to realm of added speed emphasis, and hence the realm of the “jerk” variation of the movement.  In contrast, sliding the fulcrum further to the right has one loading up the bar – but at the expense of execution speed; the push-press would be a good example here.  Now we’re in the realm of strength-speed, with the movement still rather fast in relation to raw strength or bodybuiling-type movements, yet “slow” in relation to that same movement done with an emphasis placed on speed.  Ideally in this zone what I’m shooting for is an equal and overall high power production from the movement – a play of speed against external load – attempting to hone in one the sweet spot of peak power production from the particular movement.  Realistically, though – and as is expressed in Olympic style lifting (and in the Oly derivatives) – speed of execution will trump external load.  That is to say, once external loading has increased to the point of slowing the movement down, power production will begin to suffer.

I’ll touch on these concepts a little more in some upcoming posts.

In health,

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10 responses to “The Power Zone

  1. Keith,

    Assuming you could calculate everything perfectly, and select the weight for a weighted pullup that required the same power output that a muscle up required, would there be any benefit to doing one movement over another since power production would be the same?

    Similarly, if I could calculate and subtract that force contribution of the hips in a jerk, and thus determine the exact power contribution from the shoulder complex, would there be any reason to favor the jerk if I could select a weight in the press that allowed me to produce exactly as much power? i.e. just a light, over-speed press?


    • Yes, because the cns is being trained to fire and relax at an increased frequency – think overspeed work – which is an important but separate (though, closely related) animal from power-oriented work. In fact, I’d consider muscle-ups (for my bodyweight and abilities) to lay at the upper RFD end of the scale, with a 20 -25 lb external loaded muscle-up at the peak power output. Just realize that RFD and power are different modalities, just as power and strength are different modalities. I’ve got a post in the works specific to RFD work, and Marv Marinovich’s heavilly RFD-based training of Troy Palomalu.

  2. Keith: I hope you’re keeping all of your diagrams for a book. I truly appreciate your explanation here and look forward to the others. I’ve started a binder. also, as a fine artist, I’m happy to have some visuals!

    • My version of Paleolithic art, Beck 🙂 Glad you find them useful; I just wish there was a better way to post them – a picture of a whiteboard sketch is kinda cheesy, but not many other options exist.

  3. Keith,

    I am intrigued by your assertion that the “power zone” is the movement analogue to a Paleo diet. The body at its “best and most able” is a fairly subjective evaluation.

    Can you please substantiate this claim? It is clearly a fundamental tenet of your power-biased training philosophy.

    I sincerely appreciate the content you conistently generate. Have a great day.

    • No, this is nothing that I can substantiate, it is simply what I’ve noticed from years of observing athletes, and dissecting those factors that separate great athletes from the merely good. It always boils down to which athlete (skills being equal, of course), possesses the greater power/bodyweight ratio over a set of representative movements. Taking this a step further, I also believe sprint athletes posses a greater quiver of raw survival skills and are a more accurate reflection of evolution’s shaping of our genotype (evolution vis-a-vis extreme environments not withstanding) for survival. I realize, of course, that endurance athletes and strength athletes would take serious issue with my conjecture 🙂 To put it another way, speed and power always trump raw strength and endurance in sports (and survival?) where body control is of the essence. Just my opinion and observation, though.

      • Keith,

        Thanks for your quick & thoughtful reply.

        I would counter that success in sports and survival is always context-specific. In other words, speed and power trump raw strength and endurance in contexts where speed and power are more valuable. Likewise, endurance and raw strength dominate in contexts where they are more valuable.

        This can be seen easily in sporting contexts (e.g. PL vs OL vs girevoy sport), but I think it is also true in the evolutionary context. Just as Cordain has shown us that there is no single “paleo diet” per se, it is wise to remember that there is no one survival context.

        Thanks so much for drumming up these interesting thoughts.

        • I would counter that success in sports and survival is always context-specific.

          Agreed. I believe, though, that the more one narrows the context down to that of “overall health” or “healthiest phenotype expression”, the more one must eliminate the more fringe ends of the diet/sporting endeavors. Just my humble take on things, though – short on science, though long on empiricism 🙂

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