Strength: Principles to training for explosive power

by Henry Barrera, columnist

There are many parallels between life and training. One of the most fundamental principles in training for athletic performance is the concept of “supercompensation.” This is the process of transformation when you’re training the right way. The goal is to reach new levels of performance, regardless of what you’re pursuing.

We adapt to stress and even build up resistance to it in most cases, meaning our development is really about dose and response. Endocrinologist Hans Selye, and others who built upon his work, discovered that stress isn’t just harmful but can also serve as a stimulus for growth and adaptation.

Strength and other performance qualities are a product of stress. When you learn to embrace it, special things happen. To grow the mind, body and soul, we have to go places mentally, physically or emotionally that we’ve never been. Are you doing everything you can, or just enough?

Sometimes you have to push the envelope a little bit. Here are three principles of training for explosive power.

No. 1: Understand the goal

Train for a specific and exact response; in this case, we’re talking about power.

Many believe that we were born with a genetic advantage or disadvantage. I do believe some people are born with a slight genetic advantage, but I believe more strongly that we are more than capable to bridge this gap with the right training.

Muscles for the most part are like our mind, meaning that with time and effort muscle fibers can be converted into fast-twitch or slow-twitch, depending on how we train. Dr. Andy Galpin, a researcher and professor at Cal State Fullerton, found that muscle fibers are actually a continuum of six types of fibers, ranging from slow to fast. This is great, because in essence, there are hybrid fibers in our body that are waiting to be told what to do.

Digging deeper, fuel for our bodies is basically produced in three ways. All we’re worried about in this case is the duration of the of “energy” that each gives us:

  • Creatine phosphate: Anything up to about eight to 10 seconds.
  • Glucose: Ten seconds to a couple of minutes.
  • Fat: Anything over a couple of minutes.

This is important because we know that it takes the body about three minutes to recover to about 80 percent of its original “energy.” And it takes upwards of four to five minutes to recover to roughly 90 percent from something like an explosive movement or a heavy lift.

This is about dose and response. Training for explosive qualities is about stimulus management. Players may think they have to add weight to their frames, and that may be true, but adding the right kind of muscle is more important. What kind of muscle do you want do develop? Muscle to run a marathon, or to be an explosive basketball player?

When you commit to a training program, you have the opportunity to convert the hybrid muscle fibers into anything you want. The focus of this program is to create relative power, or the most efficient and explosive pound-for-pound players possible.

Here are a few different scenarios:

  • With three to five sets of 12 or more reps with two to three minutes of recovery at around 60 to 80 percent of your one-rep max, you create type 1 muscle fiber. That means you may gain lean mass but not be very explosive.
  • With three to five sets of six to eight with two to three minutes of recovery at around 80 to 85 percent of your one-rep max, you create type 2a muscle fiber. This is still along the lines of hypertrophy, or lean-mass that’s headed away from explosiveness.
  • With three to five sets of two to three reps with upwards of four to five minutes of recovery at 90 percent or more of your one-rep max, you stimulate type 2b muscle fiber. This moves closer to fast twitch, which is what we’re looking for.

When you commit to the right training program, many of the muscle fibers that were hanging around in no man’s land transition into fast-twitch fibers, increasing strength and power. I really believe that anyone can make improvements in three-weeks if they are strategic in their approach. The magic happens when you layer these cycles from one to the next, taking advantage of the work you’ve already done. We could say the same is true with sprinting or plyometric type movements. The goal is to work at thresholds that elicit a specific and exact response.

In this program, we’re training for power; not hypertrophy. The goal is to help players become more explosive. Every time you build a program, ask yourself these questions:

  • What exercises give me the biggest return on investment?
  • How often should I do them?
  • How many reps?
  • How many sets?
  • How much rest between sets and reps?
  • How do I program these exercises into my big picture to improve performance?

No. 2: Form and function

This should go without saying, but truth is that it’s often overlooked. I can’t stress enough the importance of technique to your training. Whatever you need to do, make sure that your athletes are mastering movements to maximize power.

No. 3: Dose and response

It’s crucial that you give athletes 48 to 72 hours to fully recover from training at these types of intensities. This doesn’t mean that they quit training, but it does mean that they avoid training at this intensity every single day. That said, if players have not been lifting or have limited training experience, this is not a good place to start.

There’s a unique set of tools for transformation. There’s a process and a pattern, but if you are not willing to hit certain thresholds, you will not create the transformation you’re looking for.

Henry Barrera, CSCS, is the director of performance for men’s basketball at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @hoopdiaries