Much of the population that participates in a training program does not know the difference between strength and power. While it is true that most of these individuals understand there is a relationship between strength and power, many of them may not be able to put their finger on exactly what that relationship is.
Strength is a measure of how much force is put into an object - essentially this measures how much weight you can move within a given movement pattern. If you have taken a physics class, you may recognize Work = Force x Distance. In a sense, strength is a measure of how much work you can do. We are measuring how much weight you can move throughout a given movement pattern.
Power, on the other hand, is a function of strength. In a strength and conditioning program, power can be thought of as Force x Distance / Time. Power measures how much of your strength you are able to recruit, over a given amount of time. Power can be associated with explosive movements or lifts, such as box jumps, hang cleans, or med ball scoops/throws/presses. It is extremely important to remember the explosive piece, and that power exercises are implemented with the intent to increase our rate of force development - which essentially means how fast our muscles can contract to reach a desired force output.
Some athletes may notice that their power block is always positioned near the beginning of their workout. This is on purpose, as it should be. It is vital to perform power movements before going on to strength work. This will allow the athlete to put maximal effort into their power movements, which will return the most benefit. In addition, if strength exercises were performed before power exercises, we would be limiting our power output. We would not be able to jump as high or cut as hard, which could be potentially dangerous for the athlete. Power exercises are to be done at the beginning of a workout, with strength exercises to follow.
Strength and power are both essential pieces to being a complete athlete. In theory, the higher your strength level, the greater potential for your power output. It is important to be strong as an athlete, but it is also just as important to properly develop power as an athlete, as this will help us run faster, jump higher, and cut harder.
Generally speaking, there aren’t very many bad exercises. However, there are a few moves we avoid at all costs. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the exercise that causes these moves are bad - it means the individual isn’t ready for the exercise, or the exercise is being performed badly.
Big Thing to Avoid #1 - Spinal Flexion
We joke sometimes that the only rule in our space is “Back Flat.” Being able to maintain a flat back (a neutral spine) is crucial to maintaining long term back health, and is also an indicator of hip function. For those who perform a deadlift or squat and end up curving their back at the deeper points of the exercise, we know that they are at a very increased risk of injury, potentially major injury, to their spine. That curvature also means they are substituting spinal movement in place of hip function, or in other words, because they can’t get their hips to tilt or hinge anymore, they curve their back. So, not only are they at an increased risk of injury, but they also aren’t getting the desired benefit from the exercise. The deadlift, for example, is a hip dominant exercise, meaning that it strengthens the glutes through extension. But, for someone who goes into spinal flexion, they aren’t really strengthening their glutes anymore (or at least not as much), they are using their lower back instead. Increased injury risk and decreased benefits lead to the obvious conclusion: avoid spinal flexion at all costs.
The reasons for spinal flexion can include:
1 - Simply not knowing the exercise properly yet, in which case we need to regress and teach the exercise before loading
2 - Lack of pelvic control, meaning we need use simpler exercise substitutes while we develop pelvic control
3 - A lack of strength, where an athlete is capable of doing the movement properly, but is just loading too heavy. As coaches, it’s important to make sure we train the athlete’s performance, not his or her ego
Big Thing to Avoid #2 - Anterior Glide
Anterior glide is when the head of the humerus pushes forwards to the front of the shoulder joint. The shoulder is a highly complex joint with a variety of functions and a huge range of motion. However, there are positions it can get into that don’t really serve to keep the shoulder healthy. If you imagine an athlete trying to lift their elbow up behind them and the upper portion of the arm tilts forwards, pushing the shoulder forward, you might be imagining anterior glide. This is dangerous, particularly for overhead and throwing athletes, as it puts a lot of pressure on the labrum and the musculature of the shoulder joint has very little leverage to help. A common exercise where we’d see anterior glide is the “dip,” one of the few exercises I find to be bad for everyone. Another example of anterior glide is when the barbell bench press is performed poorly, and the shoulders round forward. Causes of anterior glide are generally neuromuscular patterning, meaning it’s not as deep of an underlying issue for most athletes like spinal flexion is, it’s more about teaching, in which case we’ll eliminate most or all of the load, fix the motion, and then go back to the loaded exercise. We do, however, avoid barbell bench presses for overhead or throwing athletes, and athletes who have a history of shoulder injuries, and instead substitute dumbbell bench press. The ability to rotate our hands when using dumbbells means that the dumbbell bench press has a far lower risk of anterior glide than the barbell variation.
Big Thing to Avoid #3 - Valgus Shift
A valgus shift refers to when the knee sits inside of hip and ankle, commonly referred to as “knock-kneed.” This movement is more common in females than males due to anatomical differences, but equally dangerous for both. Generally, a valgus shift occurs through the early stages of knee and hip flexion when the athlete lacks either ankle mobility or strength in the external rotators of the glutes. The valgus shift, repeated over and over, can lead to lots of knee pain and injuries, including tendinitis and eventually, in extreme causes, ligament injuries.
The root cause of the valgus shift lies at the hip or ankle, which means when an athlete begins to feel the effects of the mistake, it is generally treated incorrectly. Let’s say an athlete has weak glutes, which means the femur rotates internally early during the squat, and creates a valgus shift. If that athlete begins to have knee pain, they go to the doctor and get prescribed physical therapy for their knee pain. The therapist then treats the knee pain, and when the knee feels better, they return to normal activity. But, the issue of the weak glutes remains, and the valgus shift continues, and the knee pain returns. This is a common refrain in sports.
To address the valgus shift, we need to do two things
Most non-contact injuries are preventable. They are really just the accumulation of movements done incorrectly until the tissue or joint eventually breaks down during a motion it should be able to complete. We see the player make a sudden cut on the field and the knee gives out - this isn’t a “freak” thing or an example of the cleat getting stuck in the turf. This happens when maybe a valgus shift has gone uncorrected for years, until it causes catastrophic injury. This happens with spinal flexion and anterior glide as well - years of built of dysfunctional movement, unaddressed by coaches, leads to serious injury. We prioritize correcting movement to prevent these injuries well before they occur.
Most individuals that participate in a training program are dedicated to tracking their progress throughout the program, which is generally monitored by strength gains. Many will find that increases in strength are easy to come by during their first couple months that they participate in a training program - whether that be for athletic performance, bodybuilding, or powerlifting. However, many of these same individuals will become frustrated when the progress begins to slow down, and eventually, in some cases, plateau.
Many athletes can become discouraged by this, however, it is important to keep this in mind; this is not a bad thing, it just means your body has adapted to the current training program you are partaking in. The beginner gains that your body has made have come from increased muscle fiber size and learning new movement patterns/becoming more efficient in those patterns. It is anticipated that athletes will hit this plateau at some point, and it is at this point in which exercise variability becomes important.
At this point, a strength & conditioning coach will make appropriate adjustments to the athlete’s training program. This may mean progressing the athlete's movements to a more advanced movement pattern, if it is safe to do so, or modifying the rep scheme that the athlete performs, usually meaning a higher intensity (heavier weight, lower reps). However, this can also work the opposite way, swinging the athlete into a hypertrophy phase, in which case they would be doing moderate intensity lifts with a higher rep scheme. These are just two of many tools that can be used to push an athlete through a plateau.
It is important to periodically modify your training program, as well as communicate with your coaches about your progress, and how you are feeling as an athlete. Plateaus will happen from time to time, however if you are having trouble breaking through that next plateau, it may be time to evaluate your training program as a whole, and make the necessary adjustments.
One of the common approaches to weight gain or weight loss is the caloric formula, which is the belief that simply subtracting calories burned from calories eaten gives you your net gain or loss. This formula, while an important tool, is woefully oversimplified, and when used alone it can really lead to poor results, whatever your goals might be.
"Calories Eaten - Calories Burned = Gain or Loss"
Before really digging into whether the formula is accurate, I feel it’s important to first point out that it is misleading. Many people believe that calories=weight, which they don’t. Calories are a measurement of energy, i.e. a particular nutrient contains a certain amount of energy per gram. And, different nutrients have different energy capacities. When folks wrongfully interpret calories as a measurement of weight, they tend to avoid all calories indiscriminately, rather than understand that calories are not created equally. 500 calories of broccoli have a different impact on your body than 500 calories worth of French fries. In the same vein, certain types of calories affect certain people differently. If I eat 500 calories of rice, and someone else eats the same 500 calories of rice, our bodies respond differently to those calories. In short, calories are not equal, and are not a measurement of weight.
Now let’s take a look at the “calories eaten” side of this equation. As mentioned above, calories are not created equally, and neither are people’s responses to similar calories. Beyond what’s noted above, eating fewer calories doesn’t always lead to weight loss. The body is going to look for an equilibrium, meaning it is going to adjust to what it’s given. For many, decreasing caloric intake might lead to one, or both, of two options:
1 - The body begins storing more food as fat in a desperate attempt to hold onto as much energy as possible. Since it’s getting fewer calories, it’s going to try to store energy.
2 - The body begins to feel sluggish as it tries to restrict energy output. Since the body is getting less energy, it’s going to try to expend less energy. For those looking to lose weight, this problem now compounds on itself, since less energy to use means less effective workouts or activities, and less tolerance of activity before release excess cortisol (more on that below).
Simply looking at calories eaten as a complete portion of the caloric equation is a severely shortsighted and ineffective approach. Calories are not the same, don’t affect people the same, and the body doesn’t respond to a decrease in calories as a stimulus to simply drop weight.
On the flip side, calories burned is also an incomplete picture. If I tell you that I burned 1,000 calories during my workout, you actually know very little about the ultimate outcome of that workout. Take, for instance, a marathon runner vs a powerlifter. They both might burn 1,000 calories during a training session, but the effect of that workout is very different. In one case, the burn was nearly entirely aerobic, depleting the muscle completely. In the other case, the work was completely anaerobic, meaning explosive strength/power based, tearing the muscle and setting it up to grow. The end result of that 1,000 calories worth of work is very different in each case. One might deplete both fat and muscle, while the other builds muscle and burns fat.
From another standpoint, the idea that more calories burned equals weight loss can lead many towards overtraining. If someone thinks the equation simply needs more calories burned, they can easily put themselves in a position where they over-train and release cortisol (a stress hormone), which causes increased blood pressure, fatigue, disrupted sleep, moodiness, and weight gain.
Ultimately, the caloric formula is a tool that can be used to illustrate some overarching principles, but it really is not a comprehensive picture. It is not enough to count calories if your goals are to gain muscle or lose weight. I could go on for a few more pages on this, but in an attempt to be succinct, I’ll just say that calories are not equal, on the eaten or burned side of the equation. Planning for nutrition and training regimens have to take into account the quality of the diet and the effect of the workout, beyond their total caloric value.