I could hear them from across the parking lot.
The thuds, booms, clanks, and rattles pierced the air and shook the windows. You almost thought the building was coming down. The noise was as if a construction site, a bowling alley, and a thunderstorm were making sweet, thundering love.
When I entered the weight room I saw row upon row of platforms, 30 or so students, and barbells and bumper plates as far as the eye could see. They were working on their power cleans, and with each rep, the bar would drop to the floor with a thundering boom.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM!
Over and over again the floor would shake and my chest would pound. I shook hands with my mentor and screamed “HELLO!” trying to overcome the thundering around me.
These were gifted athletes: some of the best in the area, and their strength coach was a dear friend and mentor of mine. I knew they were in good hands and out of harm’s way.
Explosive barbell lifts like the clean, snatch, and jerk are phenomenal exercises. Even beyond how much fun they are to do, they’re an incredible tool for developing upper and lower body strength and power.
But here’s the catch: these are high school athletes and are under the supervision of a well-trained strength and conditioning coach. They’ve been practicing these lifts for years and demonstrate proficiency.
You and I are not high school athletes. More often than not we’re training alone or with a friend and without the supervision of a professional. We have limited experience with the Olympic lifts and even with some experience, we don’t often have a coach observing and correcting our technique, making sure we’re doing it correctly and with the finesse of a well-oiled machine.
While these exercises are really cool and fun, there are a few issues:
- They require years of practice and repetition to develop the correct technique
- They’re incredibly fast: from start to finish an Olympic lift takes ~1 second. That’s the point: move a heavy weight as fast as possible. From the initial pull to the catch, that one second leaves a lot of room for errors. Get one movement wrong and an injury, either acute or chronic, is bound to happen
- They require hip, wrist, and shoulder flexibility that most of us don’t have. Maybe as high schoolers we did, but those years are gone. Today we’re not required to get into those positions anymore. Forcing those positions may work over time, but we’re likely to cause more harm than good.
Given the technical difficulty, the years of practice and dedicated time to mastery, the potential safety risk, and the mobility requirements, are we just doomed to never develop explosive power ever again?
Not a chance.
I’m all about finding safer and equally effective training alternatives to help you reach your goals. My goal is to keep you safe: if you’re hurt, you can’t train; if you can’t train, you can’t reach your goals.
Stay safe and healthy and you’re in this game for the long haul.
I know what you might be thinking: Why should I care, Andy? Is explosive power that necessary? Will I get hurt if I’m moving this fast?
Power is an expression of force over time. If you move a heavy object fast you’re demonstrating power. The heavier the object, or the faster you move it (or a combination of both) = greater power
If you’re powerful, you’re already strong. And if you’re strong, you can handle daily tasks with relative ease and without risk of injury. You can keep up with the family pet or those screaming kids. When your kids start playing sports, you’ll be an active participant in their development, instead of an out-of-breath bystander on the sidelines.
Want to live a healthy and long life? Get stronger. Then turn that strength into power. Then let your physical abilities take you to places no other grandma or grandpa could go.
The Olympic lifts are fabulous. If you’re able to do them, please continue. But if you’re someone who’s unfamiliar with those lifts, or has a limiting injury (like myself), then check out some of my favorite alternatives for power development. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but this should occupy your time for awhile:
Note: power, or our ability to produce force quickly, is limited by our muscles’ storage of phosphocreatine (PCr). This energy source is depleted in a matter of seconds. That’s why when you try high-rep box jumps your first couple reps go great, and then the rest are sloppy.
This is due to fatigue, or the exhaustion of this energy source. Fatigue = sloppy reps. Sloppy reps = increased chance of injury
Stay safe. Don’t do these exercises for a ton of time or reps. Pay CLOSE attention to the prescribed sets and reps and you’ll not only get stronger and faster, but you’ll remain injury-free in the process.
Medball Overhead Throw
Why: This exercise uses triple extension, or the extension of your hips, knees, and ankles, much like you would see with a box jump or Olympic lift. This exercise helps you drive force through the ground, launching your body into the air. If you’re powerful here, you’ll have no problem jumping, cutting, or sprinting.
How: Grab a medicine ball (MB) of about 5-15 pounds. Be careful choosing your weight. Remember, the objective is to move as quickly as possible. Go too heavy, and the ball will slow your attempt to be explosive. Set the MB on the ground or between your knees, and as quickly as possible, launch the ball overhead, extending your body in the process (“get as tall as possible”). Catch your breath, retrieve your MB, and go again.
Sets x Reps & Rest: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps, with about 20-30 seconds between reps, and 2 minutes between sets.
*Don’t kill anyone with this exercise, please. Find a safe place, like a gymnasium or outside, to perform this exercise.
Why: throwing sports, like baseball, football, lacrosse, or even tennis, require fast and powerful arm actions like those seen here. Being fast and powerful means a longer throw; a harder shot; or a faster serve.
How: grab a MB of about 5-15 pounds, again going light because it’s more about the speed and force than the weight. Carefully lift overhead, then throw into the ground as forcefully as possible. Grab the MB and go again.
Sets x Reps & Rest: 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps, with about 3-5 seconds between reps, and up to 2 minutes of rest between sets.
Squat jumps/Broad Jumps/Box Jumps
Why: similar to the MB launch above, all three exercises require rapid force production from your legs, propelling you off the ground. A more powerful squat or broad jump can translate to a quicker start off the line, a faster spring, and a taller jump (to catch a ball or dunk a basketball).
How: all you need is some space; use a countermovement by swinging your arms down, loading the hips, and the EXPLODE off the ground. LAND SOFTLY. I can’t stress that enough. Your legs should be like springs: when they catch you it should be soft like you’re landing on egg shells.
Measuring progress: each week, try to jump further with the broad jump; higher with the squat jump; and onto a taller box with the box jump
Sets x Reps & Rest: 3-8 sets of 3-5 reps, with about 10 seconds between reps. Rest 90-120s between sets.
Did you know? The reason for the box isn’t so you can impress your friends on Instagram. “What comes up, must come down.” If I weigh 175 lbs and jump into the air, that’s 175 lbs + distance + Earth’s gravity yanking me back to the ground. Pardon my physics, but that’s a metric shit-load of force on my joints. The box acts as a “catch” to allow you to jump high without the detrimental stress to your joints. Keep that in mind next time (and use caution with your squat jumps).
Skater Jumps/Lateral Bounds
Why: being able to change direction quickly and safely makes you a force to be reckoned with on the field, court, or rink. Like the squat jumps and broad jumps above, only these move from side to side and put more stress on one leg at a time, training strength, stability, and power in the outer hip, making cutting and stopping easier and safer.
How: all you need is some floor space. Step one foot behind the other, loading the outer hip, then launch across the floor landing on the other foot (softly!). Rebound back and forth, launching as hard and fast as possible with each rep
Sets x Reps & Rest: 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps per side. Rest 60-120s between sets.
Hill Sprints (short distance)
Why: Sprinting helps you get faster, but hill sprinting lets you focus on your mechanics more. During a sprint, your body has a forward lean with power driving from your hips. Uphill running closely resembles sprinting body position and power production.
Uphill running is less damaging to your body. The amount of force going through each stride is lessened by the incline of the hill, as opposed to flat-ground running, where your body weight and speed produces a ton of force on your legs (and increases injury risk). Uphill running lets you refine your technique, get more sets and reps in, and reduce the impact on your body
How: find a hill. Run as fast as you can to the top of it or for about 5-10 seconds, tops. Remember that energy source PCr that we deplete quickly? That’s why your hill sprint should be hard, fast, powerful, and most importantly, short in duration.
Sets x Reps & Rest: 5-10 sets (depending on sport and abilities) of 20-40 yrds in length or 5-10 seconds in duration. The incline doesn’t need to be extreme. Even a slight incline will be useful. After each sprint, walk back to the start, catch your breath for about 60-120s, and go again.
Why: much like the throws, being able to forcefully push off of something will make you unstoppable as a football, lacrosse, hockey, or basketball player. Not an athlete? No big deal. The plyo push-up will translate to a stronger push-up, dumbbell bench press, or even a barbell bench press. Remember: greater force over a shorter time = greater power output
How: set up on a bench or smith machine in a push-up position. Push yourself as hard as possible away from the bench, then carefully catch yourself again, making sure your arms act like “springs” on the way back down to protect your joints and ligaments.
Sets x Reps & Rest: 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps, with 60-120s between sets
Your key to explosive success:
Use the above exercises to develop strength and power in your training, which in turn will make for better performance in the gym or on the field.
Be careful not to overdo it: remember, the primary energy source for these exercises depletes quickly, acutely leaving you without the ability for a repeat performance. Give yourself plenty of time for full recovery, and watch your explosiveness soar.
In the strength and power game, repeat performance on each and every rep is key: not only will you produce strength and power faster, but your risk of injury is greatly reduced if you take your time and focus on the movement and the process, not how “out of breath” you are.
Choose 1-2 of the above exercises per workout, and track your performance over time. Take your time to learn and master the movements before moving on to more advanced variations.
Get after it!