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Ballistic power vs. strength training for athletic performance

August 11th, 2010

If you’re trying to step up your basketball (or tennis or soccer or whatever) game, which weights routine is better:

(1) three sets of three back squats at 90% of one-rep max; or

(2) seven sets of six jump squats at less than 30% of one-rep max?

The conventional wisdom is that ballistic power training carries more bang for your performance buck, since it simulates the movements you’ll be making at realistic speeds. Other than in sports like weightlifting and football, it seldom matters what your absolute maximum strength is, especially if you can’t summon it instantly.

Certainly, if you’re Roger Federer, you’ve got a custom-tailored, periodized training plan that incorporates both pure strength and ballistic work. But what if you’re an average, non-professional athlete? A study by New Zealand researchers in the current issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise pits these two workout regimens against each other in a group of 24 “relatively weak” volunteers, measuring functional outcomes like maximal power output, jump height, movement velocity and sprint performance. The result: after 10 weeks, the two groups were pretty much identical (and significantly better than untrained controls in all measures).

In both cases, the adaptations were primarily neuromuscular — signals from the brain to the muscles were transmitted and executed more effectively. (The precise neuromuscular changes were different in the two groups: the ballistic group was able to produce force more quickly, while the strength group increased the magnitude of their contractions, but the performance results were the same.) These neuromuscular adaptations are precisely the point of ballistic training — to some extent, that’s all you get from it. The surprising result in this study was that, for “weak” people who haven’t already done a lot of weightlifting, ordinary strength training produces comparable neuromuscular benefits. But if you keep at it, strength training will eventually also produce significant structural changes — i.e. bigger muscles — that provide further performance benefits.

So the moral of the story, according to the researchers, is that recreational athletes who’d like to improve their performance should choose strength training. It’ll give them all the benefits of neuromuscular training, with the possibility of additional muscle growth if they keep at it.

From my point of view, there’s another moral we can draw from it, which is that, if you haven’t been lifting any weights, pretty much anything you do is going to trigger those neuromuscular gains and improve your performance — so don’t get hung up on the details, just do it.

  1. Richard Ayotte
    August 11th, 2010 at 16:21 | #1

    [quote]The precise neuromuscular changes were different in the two groups: the ballistic group was able to produce force more quickly, while the strength group increased the magnitude of their contractions, but the performance results were the same.)[/quote]

    Would running benefit more from the ballistic exercise then?

  2. alex
    August 11th, 2010 at 17:46 | #2

    @Richard Ayotte
    Not in the context of this study. Even though the mechanisms were different (e.g. one group could reach max contraction more quickly, the other raised the max), the measurable changes were identical — different roads to the same outcome, even in high-speed measures like jumping and sprinting.

    In general, though, sticking with the “conventional wisdom,” I would expect ballistic training to produce more functional gains for runners, especially in athletes who are well-trained rather than “relatively weak” as in this study. The message from this study is that any advantages from doing ballistic rather than strength training won’t start to emerge until you’re already quite well-trained (something that most runners, as far as muscle goes, definitely aren’t!).

  1. August 11th, 2010 at 17:13 | #1