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How to Improve Strength and Speed Through Weight Training

Young woman lifting weight

Getting strong is one thing, but getting powerful requires another element in your training. Power is the combination of strength and speed over time. You can build power with weight training. Learn what exercises and workouts you need to add to your routine.

Building Power With Weight Training

Power training is important for sports where sudden bursts of activity are required—sprinting, jumping, changing direction, moving solid objects quickly, and so on. You can see how football, basketball, cricket, track and field athletics, golf, and baseball rely on power for some elements of performance.

Specific training programs for these sports all have a general preparation phase in which basic strength, muscle, and general fitness are the primary focus. Power training follows this preparatory phase.

Gym Exercises for Power Development

Ultimately, training for power requires that you do exercises in which the speed of the exercise movement is relatively high, includes a load, and is executed with some explosive intent. This might be done in the gym or on the track or field. For example, runners might use plyometric exercises like bounds and jumps and marches and footballers might use special tackling machinery and equipment.

Below is an example of a generic workout program for developing power in the gym. This could be followed with sport-specific training to enhance power development in concert with movement patterns.

The Olympic Lifts and Derivatives

The Olympic lifts—the snatch and the clean and jerk—form the basis of many power programs. Derivatives of these lifts are useful for power development. These whole-body, compound exercises work the upper and lower body and are usually performed with explosive intent. The load should be light enough so that you can move the bar (or dumbbells or kettlebells) through each repetition with speed and explosiveness.

These are the main power training exercises derivative of the Olympic lifts:

  • The clean: In a standard clean, you lift the bar from the floor to the upper chest/shoulders while dipping under the bar with a squat to full depth or “ass to the ground” (ATG). In the full clean and jerk or press, the bar is then thrust overhead from the shoulder position.
  • The hang clean: With the hang clean, you start with the bar at the thigh, instead of the floor, as if you’ve just completed a deadlift, then you do the full ATG squat and lift bar to shoulders.
  • The power clean: In the power clean, you start with the bar on the floor but you only squat half way or higher and you don’t go ATG before lifting the weight to shoulders.
  • The hang power clean: Some trainers make no distinction between hang cleans and hang power cleans but technically this is not correct, and it is important. In the hang power clean, you start with the bar at the thighs, you don’t squat ATG, and the bend at the knees may only be at right angles or even higher, then the rest of the lift to shoulders is the same.

It’s worth noting that the power versions—in which you don’t do a full squat—are really only possible with a lighter (for you) weight. As the bar gets heavier, you are more likely to need to squat lower to get under the bar before the push up to the shoulders.

Hang, Pull, and Press Exercises

Don’t be fearful of these exercises because you often see big, hulky men lifting big weights. Even though they are best performed after proper instruction, all of the “hang,” “pull” and “press” exercises can be done with dumbbells and they make very efficient weight training exercises for a variety of goals because they engage upper and lower body and expend a lot of energy.

  • Push press: The push press is the last phase of the clean and press in which the bar is thrust overhead. In a push press, you have the weight on the shoulders and you press it up overhead with the help of a little dip with the legs and hips. It’s similar to the standard military or overhead press except you use the legs and hips to help the push.
  • High pull:  The high pull simulates the first part of the clean or clean and jerk except you don’t steady the weight at the shoulders. It’s not like an upright row at all because in this power context you want to do it with speed, and the grip is much wider. You can do this from the hang position as well.
  • Romanian deadlift (hanging deadlift): You start in the upright position with the weight at the thighs, bend to the floor keeping the back straight and without setting the bar down on each repetition. Make the lift to standing at fast speed.

A Sample Power Program

The exercises above form the basis of a sample program that follows. You can try various combinations of the above exercises once you get used to this form of training. If you’ve not done any weight training previously you should start by reading up on the fundamentals and introducing weights gradually before attempting these exercises.

Follow these guidelines in power weight training.

  • Don’t choose a weight that’s too heavy. You need to be able to thrust the weight into position with explosive speed. Yet, the weight needs to be heavy enough to challenge you over a short series of repetitions.
  • You will rest between sets until fully recovered. That means about 3 to 5 minutes. Power needs to be expressed when the phosphocreatine energy system is fully reconstituted.

Power Program Workout: Perform these exercises:

  • Hang Power Cleans: 3 sets of 6 reps, fast
  • Push Press: 3 sets of 6 reps, fast
  • Hang High Pulls: 3 sets of 6 reps, fast
  • Romanian deadlifts: 3 sets of 6 reps, fast

Remember, this is not a bodybuilding program so you are not aiming for a pump or lactic acid build up in the muscles, although by the end of the workout you inevitably will get some. You want each lift to be as explosive as is appropriate. The selected load should be heavier than a bodybuilding program but not as heavy as a strength program.

You can use dumbbells instead of barbells for the upper body work if you prefer. Adjust the loads, sets, and reps until you get something that works for you. An experienced trainer can show you the best form for these lifts.

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