On its surface, training to develop maximum muscular power may seem counterintuitive. Unlike training for size and strength, power training demands a relatively light weight, typically about 50% of your one-rep max (1RM) on a given lift.
You won’t be doing high-rep sets, however, because developing power requires you to move the weight as fast and explosively as possible. Load the bar with 90%–100% of your 1RM and your rep speed slows down dramatically.
Likewise, as you approach muscular failure, the speed at which you move the bar will decrease. And if you’re not moving the weight as fast as you possibly can, well, you’re not training for power.
So why would anyone want to train solely for power? The answer lies in the research: Various studies have shown that the more power you possess, the stronger you’ll be when it’s time to put real weight on the bar because power and strength go hand in hand. And the stronger you are for your 1RM, the stronger you’ll be for an eight- or 10-rep max. This, of course, translates directly to muscle growth.
The following nine exercises — one for each major muscle group, as well as one that hits a multitude of bodyparts — are the best in the business for maximizing muscular power, which in turn will boost strength and size. Now who said power training was counterintuitive?
Best for Back
One-Arm Smith Machine Power Row
- Best Way to Do It: Set the bar at the bottom of the Smith machine and stand sideways with your right foot 12–18 inches away so there’s plenty of clearance to release it. Grasp the bar with your right hand, bend your knees slightly and keep your back flat. Using your back muscles, pull the weight up forcefully and let go of it as you pull your shoulder blade back. Let the bar fall back to the start; it’ll be cushioned by the bumper springs. Repeat for reps, then switch sides.
- Best Weight: 40%–60% of your one-arm row 1RM
- Best Set/Rep Range: 3 sets, 3–8 reps (each arm)
- Best Time to Do It: As the first exercise in your back workout
- Why It’s the Best: Like the Smith machine power press for chest, this version of the one-arm row prevents you from having to decrease force production at the top of each rep. Because you can let go of the bar safely, you can apply explosive power all the way through the range of motion. Regularly performing this explosive exercise will increase your strength on all rowing exercises.
Best for Delts
Dumbbell Overhead Push Press
- Best Way to Do It: With your feet shoulder-width apart, clean a pair of dumbbells to shoulder level, palms facing forward; this is your start position. Take a deep breath, expanding your chest and raising your shoulders while contracting your abs and lower back to keep your midsection tight. Dip straight down, bending your knees to 45 degrees, then explosively extend your hips and knees, similar to a vertical jump. The drive should provide enough momentum to push the dumbbells almost to the top (arms-extended) position. When the leg drive is complete, press the weights the rest of the way overhead.
- Best Weight: 50%–80% of your overhead push press 1RM
- Best Set/Rep Range: 3 sets, 3–5 reps
- Best Time to Do It: As the first exercise in your shoulder workout
- Why It’s the Best: Due to the assistance from the legs, the push press lets you drive up more weight than you’d be able to with just your shoulders and arms. Plus, the drive from the legs supplies momentum to the dumbbells. Weight and speed are the two most critical factors in developing power.
Best for Chest
Smith Machine Power Press
- Best Way to Do It: Lie faceup on a flat bench inside a Smith machine so the bar is above your middle chest. Grasp it with a shoulder-width grip and rotate it forward to unhook the safeties. Slowly lower the bar to your chest as in a standard press, but press it up explosively, throwing the bar as high as possible so it leaves your hands at the top. Keep your arms extended with a slight bend in your elbows to catch the weight. Adjust your grip before the next rep.
- Best Weight: 50%–80% of your bench press 1RM
- Best Set/Rep Range: 3 sets, 3–5 reps
- Best Time to Do It: As the first exercise in your chest workout
- Why It’s the Best: In a standard press, you slow down the bar at the top, meaning you decrease the force applied to it. That’s counterproductive for developing power. With the Smith machine power press you don’t need to slow the path of the bar, thus allowing you to produce the most power possible.
Best for Legs
- Best Way to Do It: Hold a loaded bar across your upper back as you would for a standard squat. Slowly descend into a squat, keeping your chest out and back flat, until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. Explode up as fast as you can so your feet leave the floor at the top of the motion. Land with soft knees (never with your knees locked out), stabilize yourself, then repeat for reps.
- Best Weight: 40% of your squat (bodyweight only) 1RM
- Best Set/Rep Range: 3 sets, 3–10 reps
- Best Time to Do It: As the first exercise in your leg workout
- Why It’s the Best: Because you don’t need to slow down the weight at the top, you’ll not only build maximal lower-body power but also lift more on standard squats and other leg exercises, which will enhance strength and size.
Best for Triceps
Close-Grip Bench Press with Chains
- Best Way to Do It: Perform this as you would a standard close-grip bench press: hands spaced just inside shoulder width, elbows in tight. The difference is you add chains to each end of the bar. We suggest you order the complete set of chains from a retailer such as elitefts.com, which comes with two 3⁄8″ chains and two 5⁄8″ chains. The 3⁄8″ chains (5 pounds) wraps around the ends of the bar to hold the 5⁄8″ chains (20 pounds) in place. It’s crucial that the 5⁄8″ chains rest completely on the floor in the bottom position and halfway on the floor in the top position.
- Best Weight: Load the bar with a weight equal to 40%–70% of your close-grip bench press 1RM; the remaining resistance will come from the chains. Because only half of the 5⁄8″ chains will be off the floor in the top position, you’ll have about 30 pounds of additional chain weight.
- Best Set/Rep Range: 3 sets, 3–8 reps
- Best Time to Do It: As the first exercise in your triceps workout
- Why It’s the Best: The use of chains provides what’s known as linear variable resistance (LVR): resistance that increases with range of motion. This means the resistance gets progressively heavier the higher you press the bar, which necessitates applying more force toward the top of the lift and, in turn, limits the power-robbing slowdown at the top of the exercise.