5 Pillars of Power

Written by

by Joel Smith

Tell me one person in the gym you know who doesn’t want to be more powerful?

Athletes live and breathe power.  Powerlifters and Olympic lifters thrive on the prospect of being able to turn on more muscle in an instant.  Bodybuilders are be able to lift heavier weights through a high rate of force development, thus allowing them to inflict greater structural damage upon themselves in the rest of their training.  Distance runners and endurance athletes need power to make each and every step in their race more efficient.

Even the mailman could use the occasional burst power to flee a lurking guard dog.

Bottom line, power is important for anyone.  Being a piece of athletic dynamite is a coveted skill, leading to things such as:

  • Explosive squatting, deadlifting, bench pressing ,etc.
  • Enhanced Olympic lifting ability
  • Leaving your competitors in the dust
  • Skying high for a dunk, spike, block, etc.
  • Making the ESPN top 10 list
  • Staying young.  Fast twitch is the fountain of youth

Power is the key that allows athletic feats, big lifts, and overall physical domination.  From a strict lifting perspective, power helps recruit more muscle fibers more rapidly, which in turn benefits maximal strength, which finally, can help improve muscle size and hypertrophy in subsequent phases by allowing for greater tonnage with greater ease!

Anybody can use a little up-tempo work.  You really can’t have “too much” speed or explosiveness!

A “not-so-traditional” way of looking at the circular effect of speed, strength, and size.

When it comes to building power, things like box jumps, the Olympic lifts, or “dynamic effort day” come to mind.  These are all great methods to becoming a more forceful athlete, and becoming one isn’t complicated: lift heavy weights, do some movements to train the stretch-shortening cycle, and play explosive sports often.  This is common sense, and it works!

Although developing power isn’t complicated (lift heavy weights fast and sprint/throw/jump), there are a few tips/tricks/hacks to be more efficient with it, and this is why I am writing this article.

Whether your interest is lifting, athletics, or even bodybuilding, these tips will help you hone in your rate of force development!  We’ll start with a staple of power throughout the ages that is nothing new: compensatory acceleration.

1.     Feedback oriented compensatory acceleration

Compensatory acceleration is a familiar concept to many.  The number one way to transform your lifting is to explode as hard as possible on the concentric (up) phase of each rep rather than cruising through your efforts.  Getting faster and more explosive is not a casual endeavor.  It requires significant mental intensity to move a heavy weight as fast as humanly possible.

Fred Hatfield is thought to be the father of Compensatory Acceleration Training

Compensatory acceleration is simple: trying to blow every rep through the roof, regardless of the weight on the bar and how heavy…. or light it may be.  The goal here is maximal motor recruitment and velocity.  To get the most out of a training program designed for power, using the full spectrum of strength between 30 and 95% of the 1RM is going to provide the optimal result (although circa 80% tends to be the sweet spot).  Switching to this mindset can carry dramatic results for both lifting and athletic personal bests.  Clearly, power based lifting phases are where this type of lifting is seen the most often, but it can be incredibly useful to bang out some compensatory acceleration based reps on the tail end of a strength or hypertrophy based day in more traditional phases.

The key with compensatory acceleration is to stay focused while using it.  Simply working on bar speed is great, but athletes can often use some extra help to improve their results.

Focus and speed can be improved by providing some sort of instant feedback during the lift.  This can happen through the use of a tendo unit or (if you are the 95% of people who don’t’ have a tendo), putting a stopwatch on a particular set.  When an athlete has an outcome goal and is under pressure, they will perform better.  Just think of how high your vertical would be if you never had a rim to touch, a shot to block, or a box to jump on?  Get focused on obtaining a goal and watch your results continue to improve.

2.     Use a variety of methods

When it comes to training power and speed, variety is a critical factor.  The reason lies in motor learning and the way the brain puts together the “motor program” for your next PR.

Once athletes reach the pinnacle of human performance, they can easily get stuck in a rut.  After performing the same skill over and over again, the brain likes to get efficient.  This leads to biomotor “speed limits” and barriers that keep you from your next personal best!

Take sprinting for example; a prime display of power.  After a certain period of learning to sprint, the human body finds a motor program that is efficient given the athlete’s anthropometrics, fiber type, adolescent development, etc.  Once this motor program is wired in, it forms a neural “shortcut” that the body uses every time the athlete runs.  This shortcut, once established is quite difficult to change.

Sprinting is one of the premier means of power development.

To remedy this, intelligent track coaches have implemented a battery of runs challenging the force and speed limits of sprinting.  Sprint training using resisted runs (hills or a sled) and assisted runs (bungee sprints) put into a program alongside standard sprinting will produce results far ahead of just using only sprinting/assisted or sprinting/resisted training methods, due to the all-out assault on the athlete’s old motor program.

Aside from sprinting, it has been suggested that elite track and field athletes in any of the jumps or throws require a greater variety of specific strength exercises (exercises which replicate the sport skill, such as a thrower using heavy or light shot puts in training) relative to intermediates to succeed and put together a world-beating motor program.

Moving to the strength world, alterations in the speed, tempo, or phase emphasis by which a lift is performed can lead to both power and strength improvements.  Any lifting can be manipulated in a variety of ways.  Using the squat as example, my favorite variations for power development are the following:

  • Controlled eccentric with explosive concentric phase.  Applies to full and partial squats.
  • Accelerated eccentric with isometric pause and explosive concentric.  Applies to full and partial squats.
  • Accelerated eccentric and concentric phases.  Can anchor the feet if the weight is under 40% of 1RM to allow greater eccentric acceleration.
  • Timed ½ squats with bodyweight loaded on the bar.  5 second efforts.
  • Timed ½ squats with 1.5x bodyweight loaded on the bar.  7 second efforts.

3.     Maintain quality reps

Power is often trained in certain “phases” throughout the training year in many programs.  If power is the ultimate outcome, however, great coaches realize that it must be touched on in all training phases.  Power can always be improved whether lifting is low or high volume by improving the quality of each individual rep.

For example, instead of doing those 5 sets of 5 with 3 minutes rest between, take the same weight and try 8 sets of 3 with 2 minutes of rest.  Or even 12 sets of 2 on a 1 minute rest.  With Olympic lifts, I have even gone to the point of 20×1 on 30 seconds rest and seen great results, as the volume is maintained, but the average bar speed performed on each rep is higher and the focus is greater.

The key is that during these increasingly broken-up sets, the weight stays the same as the higher RM derivative, even with the lower average rep.  The goal is the improved quality being a product of speed and not more weight with the smaller sets.

A high rep quality doesn’t have to be reserved for the taper, realization phase, power phase of training or whatever you call it.  You can start training like this from square one, in fact for many athletes who are lacking in the power department, I strongly recommend a GPP with some form of power emphasis.  When it really comes down to it, your body knows four things in regards to your workout:

  • How much volume you lifted
  • How intense was the average rep
  • How fast was the average rep
  • The stress response from that volume

Doing things this way allows more speed to be infused into each effort, molding your body into a power-machine.  I will say that there are also times where power is successfully built in higher rep ranges, say the 5-20 range, but the key is that those reps are all fast, powerful and with a smaller, tighter range of motion and they tend to piggyback off of strength.  Let’s talk about that in the next point: waveloading.

4. Do the wave

Nearly every type of strength session involves some sort of wave-load.  Waves can move from light to heavy, heavy to light, or combine both elements through the course of the workout.  In any training setup, light to heavy is the traditional method, such as a common workout of 4×6 with each set getting progressively heavier.  A stand-alone 4×6 featuring 200,225,250 and 275lbs is a standard issue, stand alone workout used for strength.   Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much to help power out.

In order to optimally waveload for power, you’ll have to go in reverse after the strength section of your workout.

Heavy to light waveloading helps the body establish a rhythm of speed on the tail end of the workout.  Finishing a heavy workout with some speed oriented backoff sets is the most natural and common (as well as efficient) way of accomplishing this.  Moving into the higher rep range can also be useful after your heavy sets are done, so long as the rep speed is kept high.

So for example, after a heavy squat workout of 3×3 with 350, 390, and 430lb efforts, you could do any of the following on your backoff sets to put a power premium on the workout.

  • Speed sets of 3 with 300lbs performed every 2-3’ until speed drops off noticeably
  • Speed sets for 3×10 or 2×15 half squat with ~375lbs performed at high speed
  • Speed sets with a different barbell exercise such as 5×3 power cleans with 65-75% 1RM.
  • Higher rep sets of a dynamic exercise such as box jumps, kettlebell swings, or prowler pushes if you desire a bit of a speed oriented work capacity response

For some reason, higher rep work following a lower rep strength stimulus seems to be the acceptable place where this type of thing can be included in a workout.  This is where it is the most efficient, as stand alone sessions with higher rep work don’t seem to accomplish much.

The body appears to crave power work directly after experiencing slower, higher force movement.  For some reason, many commercial “12 week vertical jump improvement” programs make use of this concept, and often piggyback higher rep plyos immediately after a lifting set.  I can attest to the effectiveness of this as well, being a track coach, and in the vertical jump game for a while.

Of course there are movement purists out there who will be saying “that’s not the way you do that”, but for some reason… going higher rep, faster and lighter works for power after the heavy sets are over.  The higher rep sets can also be applied within the heavy sets, ala complex training.

5.     Be competitive

If you want to be explosive, you have to get out there and compete; end of story.  Training by yourself will only get you so far.  How good would the world records be in track if nobody ever raced each other, or competed in front of a crowd with their pride on the line?  I’ll tell you they would not nearly be as good as they are right now!

Nobody sets a record in a training run.  Some athletes I have coached over the years run and jump 5-10% better in a competitive situation vs. practice.  Some research has indicated up to a 12% absolute strength boost with a crowd present.  Don’t underestimate adrenaline and a competitive spirit on performance and pushing you to your absolute limits.

Speed is the hardest biomotor quality to improve and demands fully intense and competitive efforts to fully realize.  Also, competing makes these efforts seem less like work and helps the athlete realize the final goal, which is a useful psychological booster.  Use it.


With all this said, anyone can get more explosive.  Always remember that training fast is only one side of the coin and there is still a time to grind, but this article is all about how to make the most out of any training with that explosive designation.  The potential of the human body is vast and waiting to be tapped into.  If you are looking to become a fireplug in any aspect of training, pay heed to the above five pillars and you will be on the fast track to becoming a more powerful athlete.   Get a vision, get competitive and go get it!

Joel Smith is an assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of California, Berkeley where he works with track and field, swimming and tennis.  He is the founder of, an informational site for speed and power based athletic development. 


Dietz, C. and Peterson, B. 2012.Triphasic training. Hudson, WI: Bye Dietz Sport Enterprise.

John, D. and Tsatsouline, P. 2011.Easy strength. St. Paul, MN: Dragon Door Publications.

Waterbury, C. 2008. Men’s health Huge in a hurry. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale.

Zatsiorsky, V. 1995. Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Siff, M. 2003. Supertraining. Denver: Supertraining Institute.

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