Strength, Power, Speed

Three Fitness Characteristics Which Share Common Ground

By: Matt Owen

During my years as a track and field athlete as well as a football player, learning how to properly develop a balance between strength, power, and speed was paramount.  Though I don’t play football on a very serious level anymore, I do still compete in the Long Jump and sprinting events on the track.  As a collegiate athlete, I began to “do my homework” and find different ways I could increase my performance on the track and field.

Strength, Power, and Speed are three different fitness components which all share some common ground.  Strength and speed both contribute positively to power.  Power is simply defined as the ability to produce strength (force) quickly over a certain distance (force x distance/ time).  Simply put, the strongest guy will not be the most powerful, nor will the fastest guy be the most powerful athlete.  Most athletes spend too much time training either speed or strength and nearly completely ignoring one or the other.  Some athletes will benefit more from a healthy diet of strength training while others are “strong enough” already and just require good old fashioned speed training. Training of this nature can be conducted in the gym or on a field.  The more specific the training, the more transferable it is to real life scenarios where the athlete is forced to perform maximally and instinctually.

From a strength standpoint, the back squat, deadlift, and their variants are the most transferable to a wide range of tasks.  Strong legs are indeed more mechanically efficient than weak legs and they can produce more force while using less energy.[1]However, simply going to the gym and performing barbell training will only get you so far as an athlete.  Sure you’ll be “strong” by gym standards, but if that strength isn’t aimed at a particular task, who cares?  Speed must be developed in order to develop power and eventually the need to produce that power over and over again (i.e. power endurance).

In order to improve speed, perform explosive “plyometric” movements such as jumping, bounding, and other bodyweight exercises without resistance to develop the required ligament and tendon strength to support the gains in speed.  In the gym, load a barbell with ~40% or less of your 1RM and perform explosive movements with full recovery between sets.  Sets of two or three reps usually will get the job done.  Once the athlete fatigues, the activity is no longer speed dominant and it turns into a power endurance or conditioning effort.  Use chains, bands, and other tools to develop speed along different points of the lift.  This will also help eliminate sticking points among other things.  In terms of sprinting on the track, perform short bursts of speed emphasizing turnover and rest between each “rep”.  Once fatigue begins to become a major factor, the workout is over more or less.  The objective is to increase the top end rate of force production and not how many times in a row you can produce that force without a significant drop off in power (i.e. power endurance).

Physiologically speaking, average human beings can contract up to 30% of their muscle mass while top performing athletes can recruit around 50%.[2]  As athletes, the goal should be to engage or recruit as much muscle mass as possible without gaining muscle mass.  I would rather completely max out the horsepower of my current engine instead of increasing the size of the engine and maintaining the same power to weight ratio as before.  For sports such as track and field, football, or any other sport where the athlete has to carry their own weight, this is extremely important.  The key to recruiting and engaging more muscle mass is to lift heavy weights, perform quick explosive movements in the gym, and make use of post activation potentiation on a regular basis.  Lifting weights above 80% of your 1RM in sets of four or less reps helps facilitate strength gains without a huge increase in muscle mass.[3]  Performing explosive movements such as box jumps, tuck jumps, broad jumps, and depth jumps will also help recruit and engage more muscle mass.

Post Activation Potentiation is based on the concept of overloading the muscles with a load roughly 120% of 1RM or as much force as the athlete can apply isometrically in 5-8 seconds.  This overloading of the muscle recruits additional muscle mass because the existing engaged muscle mass needs more “help” to apply such great force.  After the lift or contraction is finished, many muscle fibers are online and the pipes are open wide.  The athlete will then perform an explosive movement for 3-5 reps in order to teach these recruited fibers to “go fast”.  So the idea is to invite a lot of muscle fibers to the party then teach them all to work together in an explosive fashion.  In effect and theory, the athlete can train both strength and power simultaneously.

Standard Litvinov Conversions do not have a great effect on increasing strength and power simultaneously but rather the athlete’s ability to change gears from a grinding movement to an explosive movement.  This could be of benefit for any athlete where they go from a compromised state to accelerating through their opponent or toward a target.  In order to properly execute a Litvinov Conversion, pick a slow grinding movement such as a squat, deadlift, or KB movement.  Perform the movement to relative fatigue (8-10 reps), then SPRINT in some shape or form immediately after the slow grinding effort.  If the change-over is performed quickly, the better the effect from a muscular standpoint.  Standard Litvi protocols don’t necessarily train muscular recruitment, but can be confused with post activation potentiation work.  The emphasis here is to be able to explode after exhausting the muscles from a grinding state.

Possessing the knowledge about how strength, power, speed, and muscle recruitment protocols are executed is simply just knowledge if one doesn’t know how to integrate it into a training plan.  At Project Deliverance, we assess what is known as the “Strength Deficit” in the Soviet Training Manual.  This test is performed on a Vertec in order to measure the athlete’s vertical jump capability.  Three jumps are assessed with the thighs parallel as the starting position with no “stretch reflex” in order to elicit a higher jump.  Record the heights.  Rest some.  Then execute three more standard vertical jumps utilizing the stretch reflex via a short yet powerful squat at the top of the jump.  If the difference in the heights between the two different types of starting positions is great, then the strength deficit is high.  The athlete will then benefit from 5RM, 8RM, and 10RM work or “strength endurance” training to increase overall strength.  If the deficit or difference between the two sets of jumps is small, then the athlete will benefit from plyometric or shock training utilizing depth jumps.[4]

Now that the basic knowledge about the relationship between strength, speed, power, and muscle recruitment has been outlined, YOU have to go do your own homework and determine which set/ rep/ training frequency is right for your personal situation.  Check out the referenced articles or books at the bottom of the page, and dig deeper into the subject.  Take a firm hold of your own training and see what you can accomplish through hard work and consistent attention.


A little training for the Pepsi Florida Relays back in the spring of 2010. 4x100m relay handoffs. // @bobbymaximus wrote my preseason prep for this season. Lots of PRs were made, points scored, a championship was won, and we put up a great showing at Nationals. //

Strong legs are more mechanically efficient than weak legs.


[1] Gym Jones: Fundamentals Seminar Material
[2] Gym Jones: Mark Twight, “Relative Strength”
[3] Mel Siff: “Supertraining”
[4] Verkhoshansky et al, “Supertraining”

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