As all basketball players know, power is a vital ingredient in the game, and coaches constantly search for ways to improve power - most specifically the ability to jump higher and run faster.
Surprisingly, there is tremendous controversy on the most effective way to achieve this, The aim of this article is to clarify exactly what is needed to achieve true peak performance as a basketball player.

Two Schools Of Thought
Currently, there are two main schools of thought.
 1. Boost Power By Mimicking Sports Skills
    Proponents of the first believe athletic power is best-improved by performing strength training movements that 'mimic' sports skills. These movements are ballistic in nature (performed at a high velocity) and rely heavily on the involvement of momentum.
Examples include the power clean (and its closest derivatives), medicine ball training, and various 'plyometric' exercises. These movements are performed in the belief that the power exhibited during training will directly transfer to and enhance the specific sports skill in question.
 2. Weight Training Is Useless For Sports Skills
    The second school of thought holds that the weight room and the playing field (or court, track, etc) are completely separate entities and no movement performed in the weight room is capable of improving any specific sports skill (except, of course, for the specific sports skills of Olympic and Power lifting).
Proponents of this school of thought believe all strength training movements should be performed in a controlled manner (i.e. at a low velocity), eliminating as much momentum as possible.
They argue that power is best-improved by strengthening all of the body's musculature and by spending countless hours practicing the specific sports skill they are trying to improve - not trying to mimic the movements in the weight room.
I have no reservations advocating the latter theory. However, it is not my purpose to discredit or try to 'punch holes' in the training philosophies and beliefs of the first school of thought (despite the fact that, in my humble opinion, many of these practices are not just unproductive but extremely dangerous).
Instead, I want to focus on what I believe is a safer, more efficient, more productive and certainly more practical way to improve athletic power.

Improving Athletic Power
In order to find a way to improve athletic power, we first need to define it. Power is simply the rate at which work is performed. Work is defined as 'the product of force and distance' (work = force x distance). To express this definition in practical terms, we can use the following formula:
If you examine this formula, you can see there are several different ways to improve athletic power:
 1. Increase Force
    Increasing the force applied to a specific sport skill (while keeping distance and time constant) is one way to increase athletic power. In order to increase the application of force, you have to boost your strength levels because strength and force are directly related.
Strength can be defined as "the ability of skeletal muscle to produce force." Therefore, if you increase your strength, you increase your ability to produce force, which in turn, results in an increase in athletic power. For example, the more force a linebacker can put into the skill of tackling, the more powerful the tackle will be.
I believe the safest, most efficient, and most productive way to increase strength is through high intensity interval training (HIIT)- any strength training that is hard, brief and infrequent, utilizing deliberate and controlled repetitions.
    In order to develop strength effectively, an athlete should subject the musculature of the body to constant tension (for 50-120 seconds) until the point of momentary muscular failure. This should be done in a manner that optimizes joint and muscle function and not to mimic a specific sports skill.
 2. Increase Distance
    Increasing the distance over which force is applied (while keeping force and time constant) is another way to improve athletic power. The most efficient way to do this is by increasing
    , defined as the 'range of motion in a joint or group of joints'. An increase in range of motion can result in an increase in distance which, in turn, boosts athletic power.
One example is improving low back, hip and shoulder flexibility to allow for a greater range of motion in a golf swing. By increasing the distance over which the club head can be brought back prior to the swing, you increase your power (providing, of course, that force and time are kept constant).
The same can be said for 'cocking' your leg back to kick a soccer ball. Improving flexibility in order to increase the distance over which force can be applied can be achieved through a combination of sensible full range of motion strength training as well as a comprehensive flexibility and stretching program.
 3. Decrease Time
    Decreasing the time during which force is applied (while keeping force and distance constant) is yet another way to improve athletic power. In essence, decreasing the time it takes to perform a skill means increasing the 'speed' at which the skill is performed, which leads to an increase in athletic power.
The most effective and practical way to achieve this increase in speed is through countless hours of task-specific skill practice. You need to practice the specific skill exactly like it will be used in competition.
For example, the more a center practices the specific skill of snapping the football and then executing his particular blocking pattern during 'game-like' conditions, the more proficient he will become at performing it.
Increasing proficiency means it will take him less time and effort to perform the specific skill and this will lead to an increase in athletic power. I believe proper skill training is the most underappreciated aspect of trying to improve athletic power.
Competent coaching, videotape analysis and hours of practice are the best ways to increase skill proficiency.

Genes First
It should be obvious that any combination of the above (for example increasing force and decreasing time) will lead to an even more pronounced improvement in athletic power. But I should also point out that every athlete's potential to improve each of the components of athletic power is, for the most part, predetermined by their genetic make up.
For example, some athletes are inherently predisposed to obtaining higher levels of strength while others are more neurologically efficient. It is the athletes that are born with all of the right genetic determinants who have the potential for producing the athletic power seen in such U.S. sports legends as LeBron James, Barry Bonds and Lavar Arrington.
This is not to deny that every athlete can make relatively significant gains in strength, flexibility and skill proficiency, but to point out that not everyone has the genetic potential to become a world-class athlete.

Other Factors
Two other areas worthy of mention in relation to improving athletic power are excess body fat and overall conditioning, both of which are involved in more than one component of the power formula.
 Excess Body Fat
    Excess body fat (which is "dead weight" for an athlete) may inhibit both flexibility and skill proficiency, while maintaining an appropriate percentage body fat will maximize the potential for both.
 Overall Conditioning
    As for conditioning - what use are strength and skill proficiency if they cannot be maintained throughout an entire competition? Preventing or delaying the onset of fatigue is crucial to performance.
All athletes should strive to be as strong and as skillful in the fourth quarter as they were in the first, and a high level of conditioning is key to this goal.

In summary, if an athlete is to improve power in a safe, efficient, productive and practical way, he or she needs to do the following on a consistent basis:
  • Increase strength (using the guidelines and principles of high intensity training);
  • Increase flexibility (using full range of motion exercises and a stretching program);
  • Increase skill proficiency (investing countless hours in practicing specific skill work);
  • Decrease excess body fat (adhering to a sensible nutritional plan);
  • Increase conditioning level (increasing both aerobic and anaerobic capacities).
This article was first published in 'Hard Training Newsletter.'
  • Asanovich, Mark, The 1999 Buccaneer's Strength and Conditioning Seminar (March 1999)
  • Brzycki, Matt, A Practical Approach to Strength Training (3rd Edition), Master's Press, (1995)
  1. Schmidt, Richard, Motor Control and Learning (3rd Edition), Human Kinetics (1999)