Magnetization excitation and reversal induced by spin-transfer torques is described in terms of power received or dissipated in a macrospin system. This approach provides a clear and intuitive understanding of the effect of both applied magnetic fields and injected spin-polarized currents on magnetization reversal. It is illustrated by solving the case of magnetization reversal in a nanopillar spin valve with perpendicular magnetizations although the approach can be applied more generally. The appearance of critical currents below which spin-transfer torque is no longer efficient is explained by a break in the uniaxial symmetry of such structures. © 2011 American Physical Society.