Monday 23 October 2017

The Most Powerful Exercise

Power is the ultimate game-changer. Yes, skill, mental toughness, strategies, and decision-making are crazy important. However, from a physical standpoint, power separates the great from the good. Power is the ability to blow past your opponent, deliver a knockout punch, soar effortlessly through the air and make the big plays that win big games. The big question is –what is the best way to train for power? As a strength and conditioning coach, this question has been a major focus of my life’s work. Last year my strength coach interns and I created an experiment to discover the most powerful exercise. Here is what we found. 

Power 101
Just we are all on the same page, power is a combination of strength and speed. If you want to get technical, here is how you can calculate it:

Work = force x distance (i.e. how much you lift and how far you move it)
Power = work/time (i.e. how much work you do and how quickly you can do it)

Therefore, power consists of these three variables:
  1. Distance
  2. Weight
  3. Speed

If you simply increase at least one of these while keeping the others the same, you produce more power.

Measuring Power
Power is measured in watts. Normally researchers use sophisticated measuring devices such as force plates to measure power output. These are great for scientists wanting to do academic research in a lab. However, I was a head strength coach at a small Christian University on a small budget. One of the things I wanted to get for quite some time was a device that allows you to measure power output in the weight room. Finally, the technology got better and cheaper to the point where we could afford to get a great little device called the Push. Here is a quick video to show you what the device is and to let you see it in action.

Our Power Experiment
To do our little informal experiment, I recruited the help of our student strength coach interns. I wanted to get people who had lifting skills comparable to the average athlete. Then, we took some of the most popular lifts and took turns doing them with the Push Trainer device strapped to our forearm. We started with light and worked our weight up until we saw a decrease in the number of watts we produced. The number you see beside each person’s name is his/her max watts for that exercise.

Our Results
Here are our results starting from the exercise with the lowest watts and moving to the highest watts. 

Exercise 1: Trap Bar Jumps
I love the simplicity of this explosive exercise. It is fast and easy to learn. It is also great for getting an explosive ankle extension (which is very difficult with Olympic lifts). It was interesting to note that the optimal weight for the highest watts varied more between subjects than our other exercises. Some of us did well with really light weights while others did better with heavier weights. However, no one did well when the weights got heavy. 

Andrew: 2045
Graham: 1680
Cole: 1654
Patrick:  1425
Faith:  1323
Erin: 905     

Exercise 2: Hang High Pull
This exercise starts just like the hang power clean, but you just explode the bar up and then lower it without catching it on your shoulders. 

Andrew: 2602
Cole: 2472
Graham: 2314
Faith: 1762
Patrick:  1697
Erin: 1629 

This simple variation of the clean allowed some our subjects to produce more watts than the clean. 

Exercise 3: Hang Power Clean
The hang power clean means you take the bar from a rack and start above knee height. You catch the bar on your shoulders (front squat position) with minimal knee bend. 

Cole: 2986 watts
Andrew: 2823
Dustin: 2195
Patrick:  1925
Stefan:  1785
Graham: 1713
Tobin: 1426
Erin: 1358 

Note: with our Spartan athletes, our watts records for the hang power clean are: 
Men’s Champion: Pearce: 3280
Women’s Champion: Elly: 3264

Clean from floor
For fun, I tried clean from the floor. The watts were not very impressive compared to the hang position: Andrew: 2003 

Since a few of the guys were into traditional weightlifting exercises, we had them do a full clean. This means you only pull the bar up to about belly button height and then pull your body under the bar into a full front squat. This looks amazing, but the results were not as impressive. 
Graham: 1376
Tobin: 1326 

Exercise 4: Hang Power Snatch
Andrew: 3408
Cole: 2954
Dustin: 2486
Erin: 1360
Graham: 1647
Patrick: 1447
Stefan: 2666
Tobin: 1621 

As with the clean, I also experimented with doing the power Snatch from floor. Again, the results were not as impressive.
Andrew: 1902 
Because of their Olympic lifting experience, we also had Tobin and Graham do a full Snatch (i.e. catch the bar in deep overhead squat position). It looked amazing but didn’t give as big of numbers. 
Tobin: 1420
Graham: 1344 

Exercise 5: Jump Squats (straight bar)
We started with a wooden dowel on the back and then increased to a holding a light barbell. 

Andrew: 6284
Cole: 6080 (note: Cole actually won this one with a higher watts jump, but we missed recording it)
Erin: 2104
Graham: 3070
Patrick: 3472 (he was the only one to jump more weight weight)
Faith 4098

With the exception of Patrick (he did better with weight), we produced our best watts with the empty wooden dowel. 

The winner: body weight jump squats 

Measuring device
While I really like the Push device, it is not the gold standard for power measurement. If an actual exercise scientist were to replicate this experiment, they would want to use a more sophisticated measuring device such as a force plate.

More subjects
As with any study, more subjects would help and may give us further insight into this. 

More exercises
Experiments take a lot of time – which we didn’t have. Are there other exercises that would have been better to use? Possibly. For example, some of you might be wondering about why we didn’t use any kettlebell exercises. We played with these a bit. I like kettlebells and find them to be a useful tool for posterior chain work (e.g. swings), injury prevention (e.g. get-ups) and carries (e.g. double-kettlebell racked carry). However, but I have never seen very impressive watt numbers in any of the kettlebell explosive lifts. Dynamic effort squats and deadlifts could also be used. However, for using these with athletes using the Push, I again knew the watts would not be as good.

Lifting skill
Would the results have been different if we recruited elite lifters? Would an elite Olympic-style Weightlifter have better numbers on the snatch and clean? What about an elite powerlifter doing dynamic effort deadlifts? How about a kettlebell master? Yes to all, but it didn’t matter to us. The trick with research is to use subjects that are relevant to you. In this case, we wanted to know more about power training for athletes – not lifters. We used subjects that had similar lifting skills to team sport athletes because we wanted our results to be relevant team sport athletes. 

Practical Applications: What These Results Mean for You
Get stronger
Strength is the foundation of power. The stronger you are, the greater your potential to be powerful. Weak athletes often make the mistake of trying to jump straight into power development (did you catch that pun?). Sorry, it’s not that easy. Making a strong athlete powerful is easy. However, a weak athlete has to get strong before he/she will have success with power training. One of the reasons I often had higher watt numbers than the other subjects is simply because I have been lifting much longer and have more strength. 

Use athlete variations
Athletes are not lifters. For lifters, it is all about your lifting numbers – that is their sport. For the athlete, the lifting numbers are simply a means to improve sports performance. As an athlete, you need to care about your vertical jump and 10meter sprint times (and other relevant performance tests to your sport). As a strength coach, I have had my best results with athletes using simplified versions of the lifts. 

Most of the time we use Olympic lift variations that start from the hang (bar above knees). We take the bar out of a rack or start from blocks. Lifters start from the floor because they have to. They pull the bar a shorter distance and catch it in a deep squat position so they can lift more weight. I coach athletes to catch with very little knee bend. This makes these lifts safer. It makes it faster and easier to learn. It also requires the athlete to pull the bar farther and faster. As you can see from the results of this study, it also results in more watts/power.

Chase watts, not weight
With technology like the Push, you can now have a way to measure more than just the weight lifted. Many athletes try to lift too much weight for explosive lifts. As a result, they end up in what I call the “dead zone”. The weight is too heavy to be explosive and yet too light to build strength. Yes, you want to progress the load on exercises like cleans and snatches, but not at the expense of speed or distance. If you have something like the Push, you can use it to measure watts on the explosive lifts. Then, work on getting strong on squat and deadlift variations. This gives you the complete athletic package. 

Consider the Strength-Speed Continuum
There is a continuum between pure speed (e.g. sprint) and pure strength (e.g. 1 rep max deadlift). For complete athlete development, you will need to be good at many spots on the continuum. Consider your current strength and weaknesses. Are you fast and weak? If so, do more heavy strength work. This is also a good time to use heavier explosive lifts (e.g. cleans). Are you strong and slow? If so, you want to focus on maintaining your strength and using lighter, faster explosive exercises (e.g. jumps). 

Consider Using the Power Snatch
While the power clean gets all the love and attention, you can produce more power with the snatch. This doesn’t mean the clean is bad, just that you may be missing out if you just clean and don’t snatch. The snatch is also a much harder exercise to “muscle” up the weight (i.e. you have to be explosive to get it up – otherwise it is a shoulder press). Note: if you play an overhead sport (e.g. volleyball, baseball), you may not want to add more overhead stress and in this case, the clean can be a better option. 

You may look at this research and ask, “Why don’t I just do jumps for my power training?” Good question! The answer is it depends. If you are an every-day fitness buff or weekend warrior who just wants some more power, you can go a long way by just getting strong and doing basic jumping, sprinting and light-medicine ball throwing exercises. However, Olympic-lift variations can be a great longer-term investment for young, healthy athletes. For example, I love these lifts for in-season basketball and volleyball athletes. During the season, these sports pound on the body and the added stresses of jumping in training is not a wise choice. 

Special thanks
Cole, Dustin, Erin, Graham, Patrick, Stefan, Tobin, Faith, and Adrienne for their help with this research. Your help is much-appreciated folks! 

As always, I welcome your questions and comments below (just no spam please). 

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