• Introduction
  • The basics of power in sports
  • Physiological factors of power in sports
  • Mechanical factors of power in sports
  • Benefits of power in sports
  • Here's how you train for power
  • Final thoughts
  • Ballistic training: explosive exercises that do not utilize the stretch-shortening cycle.
  • Motor unit: a motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates.
  • Plyometric training: short explosive exercises that utilize the stretch-shortening cycle (quick jumps etc.)
  • Rate of force development: a measure of explosive strength.
  • Stretch-shortening cycle: an action where a muscle lengthens before contracting to utilize elastic energy.


In a sports context, power is defined as strength applied at speed. In other words, power combines strength with functional, sports-specific technique for the ultimate performance. This makes it essential for a wide variety of sports and playing positions. Power and explosiveness are not related to muscle size, but rather how well the central nervous system is able to recruit motor units (a motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates) to create a muscle contraction. For example, a high jumper does not need significant amounts of muscle mass to be explosive.

Being such a crucial element in athletic performance, sports scientists have designed various power tests (e.g. vertical jump, broad jump, 30m sprint, Kalamen test, etc.) to measure the current level of performance, track the effectiveness of training programs, and as a tool to gauge new talent. Some of these tests are even used to assess competition readiness and to predict athletic success.

This post explains the basics of power in sports, and what benefits it can offer for athletic performance.

The basics of power in sports

Power describes your ability to exert a maximal amount of force in as little time or with as high of a velocity as possible. This force output is not reliant on the size of the muscle, but rather on intramuscular coordination (the efficiency at which the motor units activate individual fibers inside a muscle), the amount of activated motor units (a motor neuron and the muscle fibers innervated by it) and the rate at which these motor units are activated by the central nervous system to create muscle contractions (rate coding). 

The power output of a muscle contraction is measured via the rate of force development (RFD), which refers to the speed at which the contractile elements of the muscle are able to produce force. This essentially makes RFD a measure of explosive strength – hence the ‘rate’ of ‘force development’. 

Mechanical Power

Force × Velocity

According to several studies, athletes with higher rates of force development tend to perform better in various physical activities (e.g. jumping, sprinting, cycling, weightlifting, etc.). This clearly illustrates the importance of rate of force development in athletic development. So far, the most effective methods to improve RFD on trained athletes are ballistic exercises and resistance training – both of which target either the strength or speed components of power.

In addition to how quickly the body can recruit motor units to produce movements, the body’s ability to store and release elastic energy can have a significant impact on your power. This is more commonly known as the stretch-shortening cycle.

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Power In Sports

Ability to produce as much force in as short of a time as possiblePhysiological mechanisms (storage and utilization of elastic energy or stretch-shortening cycle function)Morphological factors (muscle architecture & fiber type)Neural factors (motor unit recruitment, synchronization, firing frequency, intermuscular coordination)Rate of force development (maximal rate of rise in muscle force in the early phase of a muscle contraction)Improved via explosive full-body exercisesEnhances force production without adding muscle mass

The stretch-shortening cycle

Stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) refers to a muscle action where an active muscle stretch is immediately followed by an active muscle shortening. Thus, producing far more force than a regular contraction (e.g. a countermovement jump versus a squat jump). The stretch-shortening cycle consists of three phases; the eccentric phase, the amortization phase, and the concentric phase.

  • Eccentric phase: The muscle lengthening phase of a movement (the pre-stretch phase).
  • Amortization phase: The transition period between eccentric and concentric contraction, where the tendon is loaded (the ”time to rebound” phase).
  • Concentric phase: Releasing the stored energy by contracting the muscles lengthened in the eccentric phase.

Although this phenomenon is well documented in scientific literature, its exact mechanisms are still under debate. One theory behind it is that muscles and tendons are able to store elastic energy in the pre-stretch phase of the movement, which is then released when the muscle is shortened. The more force is applied to the tendon, the more force it generates as it returns to its normal length (rate of loading). In a way, this makes your muscles and tendons act like a rubber band and generate more force than the relative strength of the muscle.

If you are interested to read more about the stretch-shortening cycle, you can find a more in-depth article here.

Factors that affect power in sports

In addition to the stretch-shortening cycle, there are several other factors that affect your rate of force development. These factors include: 

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Genetics
  • Maximal strength
  • Muscle recruitment
  • Fatigue
  • Training background
  • Technique
  • Joint angle
  • Muscle temperature

Below you can find a more detailed description of each, as well as how they affect your capability to produce power.

Age, genetics & sex

Genetics refers to the biological traits that you have inherited from your biological parents. This includes factors such as height, weight and muscle mass. However, perhaps the most important factor is muscle fiber distribution. Fast-twitch muscle fibers (type I) tend to fire quicker and with more force than slow-twitch muscle fibers. Thus, making them better suited for activities that require strength and explosiveness. Furthermore, the firing frequency (rate coding), motor unit synchronization (the near simultaneous discharge of action potentials by motor units) and coordination also have a significant impact on force production.

Age has a significant effect on force production. The general consensus is that the muscles of older individuals contract with less force, have slower relaxation rates, and show a downward shift in their force-velocity relationship. The main reason for this is an age-related loss of muscle mass called sarcopenia. This loss is greatest in type II fibers which affects total strength as well as the speed of movement. Additionally, studies have also indicated that the ability to rapidly recruit motor units decreases with age.

Sex also has a strong impact on explosiveness. On average, males have more muscle mass as well as a higher proportion of fast-twitch fibers than females. As a result, males tend to have higher strength, both in absolute terms as well as relative to lean body mass. This effect is often attributed to hormonal reasons, especially testosterone, which is an anabolic hormone that boosts muscle growth. Lastly, males also tend to have denser, stronger bones, tendons, and ligaments.

Other factors of power in sports

In addition to the aforementioned factors, the type of muscle action, joint angle, muscle temperature, fatigue and technique can have a strong impact on force production.

Muscle fatigue is defined as a decrease in maximal force or power production in response to increased physical demands. This hinders muscle recruitment, the mechanical properties of the muscle, as well as proprioception and cognitive capability. All of which negatively affect force production, technique, and even reaction time. 

The type of muscle action also has an effect on the rate of force development. Eccentric (muscle lengthening) actions tend to produce the most force, followed by concentric (muscle shortening) and isometric (muscle length does not change) actions. However, it is important to remember that a large amount of power comes from the stretch-shortening cycle mentioned earlier. Muscles also produce varying amounts of force depending on the joint angle. Some studies analyzed that changing the angle alters the neuromuscular activation and changes in contractile response (i.e. twitch and octet evoked responses) of the muscle. This could also influence the apparent stiffness of series elastic tissues and the interplay between these tissues and muscle fascicles. 

Finally, warm muscles also tend to contract faster and with higher force than cold muscles. This makes a good warmup all the more important when looking for the ultimate performance.

Power describes the ability to produce as much force or velocity in an as short amount of time as possible.

How to increase power through training?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (2009), progression in power training can be divided into two strategies; 1) strength training and 2) using light loads (0-60% of 1 RM for lower body exercises; 30-60% of 1 RM for upper body exercises) performed at a fast contraction velocity and each exercise should be repeated for 3-5 times. Thus, power training focuses on improving its two main components; speed and strength. The main difference between power specific exercises and strength training is accelerating the load throughout the entire range of motion of a specific movement.

In practice this means performing explosive exercises with relatively high resistance (50-90% of one-repetition maximum) and fewer repetitions (1-5) per set. Once comfortable with a specific movement, the same exercises can be performed with lighter loads to increase the velocity of the movement. Power training also requires longer recovery periods between sets (up to 5mins), and sometimes even between repetitions. This ensures that the training focuses on rapidly recruiting fast motor units instead of tiring the muscles with multiple repetitions. Thus, allowing athletes to be more explosive without added muscle mass.

Power can be trained in two different ways; cyclically (continuously) and acyclically (one repetition at a time). Acyclical exercises utilize slightly heavier loads and are often used in sports that require a single explosive movement (e.g. shot put, javelin throw, high jump, etc.). On the other hand, continuous (cyclical) exercises improve performance in sports that rely on short (<10s) intense bursts (e.g. sprinting, speed skating, etc.). However, these methods can always be varied according to personal needs. For example, acyclical lifts are still useful for sprinters because they improve the maximal power output of the muscles, regardless of the fact that the competition distance requires powerful consecutive strides.

Although these explosive high-intensity/low repetition exercises (e.g. powerlifting) form the foundation of power training, there are a few distinct training styles that are used most commonly. These include plyometric training (explosive jumps, leaps etc.), ballistic training (explosive throws), and contrast training (exercises with alternating weights). To learn more, take a look at our in-depth power training post.

The benefits of power in sports

Power offers several benefits in a sports setting. These include higher maximal speed, faster acceleration, and better agility. Interestingly, increases in power capability have also shown improvements in endurance performance. The reason for this is that power training can shorten the normal ground contact time (0,15-0,25s) of each step, providing more efficiency for long-distance activities.

However, the positives do not end there. Here is a full chart of the benefits of power in sports;



Muscle fiber activation

Motor units are classified as fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Fast-twitch motor units have a higher activation threshold and conduct signals at higher velocities than slow-twitch motor units. This is why strength and power training offers a stimulus for both types of motor units.

Lower injury risk

Strength and power training can help develop stronger and more resilient connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, and fascia etc.) as well as increase mineral density in the bones. Thus, resulting in lowered risk of injuries.

Improved force production

Power training can improve both the magnitude and velocity of force production. The overall force output is not based on muscle size, but on intramuscular coordination (the efficiency at which the motor units activate individual fibers within a muscle).

Quality of life

If not utilized, type II muscle fibers begin to atrophy as people grow older. Strength and power training can be used to activate these muscle fibers to maintain and increase lean muscle mass. Power training also improves dynamic balance and reduces the risk of falls.

Power training can also produce results relatively quickly. This is because the body learns to recruit motor units both quickly and more efficiently. Thus, the body becomes more explosive without added muscle mass. This has proven to be beneficial in a wide variety of sports activities. Some power-related exercises have also shown a strong link to contest results, making them a great indicator of competitive readiness.

Power refines your maximum strength into a more sports-specific quality and skill.

Final thoughts 

Power is an integral component in sports and athletic ability. After all, being stronger, more explosive, and more efficient with each movement will result in improved performance in nearly every physical activity imaginable –  regardless of how intense the sport is.

With a well-designed periodized training program, both athletes and recreational sportspeople can enjoy the benefits of increased power capacity. A balanced plan not only offers an optimal combination of training and recovery, but also ensures the progressive overload of training. Consistently increasing training volume/intensity prevents plateauing and keeps boredom at bay.

In addition to training, individuals also need to maintain a healthy diet and sufficient rest before they can expect any real results. However, if these three pillars are balanced well, the results will follow in no time.

Did you learn anything new about power in sports? Let us know in the comments below.


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