Power Development for Powerlifters: 3 Underutilized Methods

Power development for powerlifters sounds pretty redundant. I mean, they’ve got “power” in their name so they must be pretty powerful, right?

Actually, powerlifters have the most deceiving title in all of strength sports. Strongmen are indeed strong and weightlifters do indeed lift weights, but by definition, powerlifters are NOT powerful.

That’s because power requires speed. To be powerful, you must apply force quickly. Powerlifters may move massive amounts of weight, but they do it slowly. We’ll get into the semantics and formal definitions later, but this is EXACTLY why power development for powerlifters is so important. This article will explain:

  • Why powerlifters should train for TRUE power to fill in a gap in their strength repertoire
  • The methods that are most effective for power development

WHAT IS POWER?

The definition of power is force times velocity (P = f x v).

Powerlifters are awesome at producing force. Their sport is all about creating massive amounts of force to move a heavy load. However, if they can learn to move heavy loads FASTER, they can ultimately lift more. 

There’s an inverse relationship between force and velocity. The heavier a load, the more force required to move it and the slower it will move (i.e. a 1-rep max squat will move slowly). On the other end, a light load will move quickly but you can’t develop much force while moving it (i.e. you can’t jump slowly – seriously, try it, you can’t). This is demonstrated by the force-velocity curve.

Source: http://www.scienceforsport.com/force-velocity-curve/

Powerlifters spend most of their time in the top left corner of the curve: high force and low velocity. That’s sport-specific for powerlifting. Track and field athletes (sprinters, throwers, jumpers, etc.) spend most of their time in the bottom right corner: high velocity and low force. Both groups of athletes would benefit tremendously from spending time training in the opposite ends of the curve to develop strength qualities that their sport doesn’t directly train.

THE NEED FOR SPEED

Ask yourself this: how many times have you seen an insanely strong lifter bust out a lift at a meet and said to yourself, “WOW, that looked easy!” Of course the lift wasn’t easy, but it looked that way because it probably moved really fast.

What’s the point? Some lifters can still move the bar really fast with heavy loads (i.e the BEST lifters do this). That’s EXACTLY what great lifters do and what novice powerlifters should aim to achieve: the ability to maintain high levels of bar speed even when things get heavy. 

Watch how stupidly fast Andrey Malanichev squats 1,069 pounds. There’s no grind whatsoever.

To develop this kind of rate of force development (i.e. the ability to recruit as much muscle as possible in the shortest amount of time), it takes tons of training and practice. Not everyone can make their 1RM move this smoothly from day one. In fact, in my experience, most novice lifters struggle with bar speed early on because their technique isn’t good yet. They can’t lift fast while maintaining proper form, making it hard to train in that strength-speed range.

So how do we still train for power when we can’t demonstrate good bar speed AND good technique in the powerlifts yet? Simple: use different exercises.

METHOD #1: JUMPS

My preferred method of basic power development is jumping. Jumps teach you to apply force into the ground quickly (or else you won’t jump very high) and to ABSORB force when you land. The ground reaction forces when landing from a jump can be quite high, which does more to strengthen muscles and connective tissues than one might realize.

Jumps work best as an extension of the dynamic warm-up. Perform them after your warm-up and before your first lower body exercise to get your nervous system fired up and ready to go. Or do them in between warm-up sets of squats or deadlifts to fill in your rest periods.

While vertical jumps and box jumps carry over nicely to squats, I’m a big fan of seated box jumps to aide the deadlift. It puts you in a similar hip and torso position at takeoff, and the dead-start nature helps you ramp up to maximal force development quickly for big pulls.

Programming Example:

Squat Day
Box Jumps: 3-4 sets x 3-5 reps @ 70% of max height (1-2 minutes rest)

Deadlift Day
Seated Box Jumps (sit on 18″ box): 8-12 sets of 1 rep @ 80% of max height (15 sec rest)

METHOD #2: KETTLEBELL SWINGS

While jumps are closer to the speed end of the continuum, kettlebell swings move more toward the middle and are slightly more applicable to powerlifting because you’re moving an external load. Plus, the hip hinge movement closely resembles the deadlift, making this one of my favorite moves for power development.

Swings target the glutes and hamstrings, two crucial hip extensors, and teach the lifter to lock out the hips violently. Plus you get good upper back and lat involvement similar to what you need during a bench press setup, so there’s more carryover than what meets the eye.

Similar to jumps, swings fit nicely between the warm-up and big lifts, but I often program them in lieu of a hypertrophy-focused lower body movement like a Romanian deadlift or hip thrust. There’s no eccentric component so you won’t build a ton of muscle with swings, but doing them for high reps can create some decent metabolic stress.

Programming Example:

Squat Day
Prior to main lift: 3 sets x 5 reps @ 60% max weight (30 sec rest)

Deadlift Day
As accessory exercise: 5 sets x 10 reps @ 2 reps in the tank (90 sec rest)

METHOD #3: THROWS

Lower body power development exercises are pretty obvious, but what about the bench press? You can’t exactly throw a barbell (unless you have a Smith machine), so med ball throws provide one of the top options for upper body power.

Why med ball throws instead of explosive push-ups? Well, because most athletes who need to develop upper body power aren’t strong enough to do push-ups with any appreciable speed, so that’s not an option even though it’s more similar to a bench press.

Enter the med ball chest pass. I love this exercise for teaching lifters to “punch” or “throw” the bar while benching. I’ll often program these in between sets of bench press warm-ups to get the lifter in the mindset of being violent with their first push off the chest.

Once lifters have mastered this exercise, we’ll move on to a supine med ball catch to chest pass. This teaches reactiveness and adds an eccentric component. Plus, the supine position closely mimics the bench press, which gives it a little better carryover.

Programming Example:

Weeks 1-4 (Perform between sets of bench press):
Med Ball Chest Pass to Wall: 3-4 sets x 8-10 reps @ 4-10 lbs 

Weeks 5-8 (Perform between sets of bench press):
Supine Med Ball Catch to Chest Pass: 3-4 sets x 3-5 reps @ 10-30 lbs

FIGHT THE POWER

Powerlifting may be the sport of 1RMs, but speed still matters. And if your speed sucks, sometimes it takes more than just trying to move the bar faster. Add jumps, swings and throws into your program to build the velocity end of the force velocity-curve. The gains will show themselves on the other end in faster bar speeds.

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