Jan 29, 2015Ready for Blast Off
Training explosiveness can include everything from Olympic lifts to plyometrics. Five top strength coaches go into detail on methods, specific exercises, and their philosophies.
Tune in to the NFL or NBA draft or read the scouting reports and you would be surprised how many times the commentators use the word “explosive.” If you happen to catch a track and field meet on television, you’ll hear the announcers talk about how explosive sprinters are out of the blocks. Even baseball broadcasters marvel over a shortstop’s explosiveness when he reaches to snag a line drive.
Athletes and strength coaches talk about explosiveness, too–and better ways to train and develop it. But specifics on how to train explosiveness are harder to find than examples of it.
To get the answers, we talked to five top college strength and conditioning coaches and asked them their thoughts on training this vital area. They offer their approaches to explosive training, share the training methods they like best, and reveal common problem areas coaches should watch out for.
Jennifer Jones, MSCC, is in her seventh season as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Texas A&M University. She works primarily with the women’s basketball team, which won the 2011 NCAA Division I title, and the men’s and women’s track and field teams, which have both won the last three NCAA Division I outdoor titles.
Mickey Marotti, MS, MSCC, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Florida, where he works closely with the football team. In 21 years as a collegiate strength coach, he has trained 12 first-round NFL draft picks and six first-round NBA picks.
Jim Radcliffe, MS, CSCS, is in his 26th season as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Oregon, and works closely with the football team, which won the Pacific-10 Conference title and reached the BCS championship game during the 2010 season.
Jed Smith, MA, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Northern Iowa. A two-time national weightlifting champion, he was the Explosive Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Minnesota Vikings before joining UNI.
Shannon Turley, CSCC, CSCS, is the Sports Performance Coordinator at Stanford University, where he oversees performance enhancement training, nutrition education, and sports psychology for the Cardinal football team.
T&C: What does explosive training mean to you?
Mickey Marotti: Explosive training should be the intent to produce maximal force or effort in a given skill, exercise, or drill. But the movement doesn’t necessarily have to be done fast. An offensive lineman blocking a defensive lineman is explosive, even though the forces working against him prevent him from doing it quickly. Even though he may not move fast, the intent of the central nervous system, muscular system, and skill system is to move explosively. For example, if an athlete is bench pressing and you want them to move the bar explosively off their chest but the weight is really heavy, the bar is not going to move very quickly. But the athlete is still training explosiveness because the central nervous system and the fast twitch muscle fibers are stimulated in a fast fashion.
Shannon Turley: It doesn’t matter what exercises you use as long as you perform them as fast as you can. When training explosiveness–which is really the rate of force production–you also have to keep the volume very low. You need athletes to be fresh, so I suggest only one, two, or three explosive efforts at a time followed by recovery.
Jim Radcliffe: Explosive training requires focusing on the total body to increase its ability to produce more force (strength) in the least amount of time. It also means having a plan to capitalize on the complete blend of strength, speed, and agility capabilities. Emphasis on one without the others misses the mark on complete power development.
Jennifer Jones: I work with the sprinters on the men’s and women’s track teams, and in a race, the first runner out of the blocks is usually the one who wins. My job is to help them increase their fast twitch muscle fibers so they twitch really, really fast and fire really, really hard with a lot of strength behind them.
What are the best exercises for training explosiveness?
Radcliffe: To develop the concepts of synchronized strength, speed, and agility, we adhere to the Olympic lifts–specifically progressions into and variations of the snatch and the clean and jerk. In addition, dynamic progressions of jumping, bounding, hopping, tossing, swinging, and throwing are applicable in most areas of lifting and conditioning, including explosive training.
Turley: I think plyometrics are time-tested and invaluable, and they’re never going to stop being my primary form of explosive training development. In most sports, performance comes down to applying explosive power potential in a specific vector and that’s exactly what a plyometric exercise is.
The lineman who gets his hands inside of the breastplate of his opponent’s shoulder pads first is the one who’s going to win that battle, whether they’re trying to create contact or avoid contact. So a medicine ball chest pass is good, a plyometric pushup is better, and a plyometric pushup to a box is better than that. We use these kinds of plyometric progressions because they will lead to high-threshold motor-unit recruitment and serious power development.
Smith: People try to come up with a lot of gadgets and gimmicks to train explosiveness, but I’m old school and the primary staples of our training are the Olympic lifts. There is a lot of research on which strength training exercises allow you to generate force most rapidly and it’s convinced me the Olympic lifts are the best.
One of the reasons I like the Olympic movements so much is that they are also the most athletic. A full clean and jerk and a full snatch are the most athletic lifts you can do in a weightroom because there’s so much happening in such a short period of time. You need strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and speed. You also get the triple extension and rapid contraction of the ankles, knees, and hips. It takes a very good athlete to be able to do the full movement rapidly.
However, it takes a lot of time to teach these lifts and when there are 90 football players in the weightroom, it’s hard to make sure they’re all smooth and proficient. All of our athletes learn the full lifts, but we focus more on the power clean and power snatch because they’re easier to teach and be successful at.
Marotti: I like to use to use a lot of plyometrics and jump training. We usually focus on horizontal jumps like broad jumps and bounding once a week. We do single-leg bounds into double-leg bounds, then regular bounding, then switch legs. The second day we do vertical work, which usually focuses on box jumps, hurdle hops, and resistance jumps.
What are the best types of equipment for training explosiveness?
Turley: I think bodyweight exercises are the best because that’s what you’re going to be moving in a sport. Medicine balls are the next best option–you can get a lot of uninhibited power potential with them because the external load is minimized. When you get into standard strength training movements, you’re going to want to use a barbell, dumbbells, and maybe a piece of accommodating resistance equipment. The Keiser racks are great because the air compressor resistance is consistent throughout a movement. And bands and chains de-load and accommodate the strength curves differently, but are also a good choice.
Jones: I don’t get into all the fads and the latest equipment that’s coming out on the market. Plyometrics and Olympic lifts have been tested time and again, and they work for me and that’s what I’ve stuck with. But I do some work with bands and chains, especially with our female basketball players because of their relative lack of experience in training.
Marotti: One of the things I like to use is a Tred Sled from Rogers Athletics that has a blocking dummy on the front of a man-powered treadmill. I control the resistance of the tread so I can make it harder or easier for the athlete. I may have a lineman train for explosiveness when doing specific skill work by having him perform four- to six-second bursts of maximal effort against the dummy.
I also like the Vertimax for vertical training, and I use a progression of single-response jumps followed by multiple-response jumps. We start with five warmup jumps with a focus on landing in an athletic position followed by one set of 10 single-response jumps loaded with the bands. Then we load them up on the hips and do a set of 10 where they explode as high as they can and then stick the landing. Then we do it all again from an unloaded position.
Should athletes in different sports be training for explosiveness in different ways?
Jones: One big difference for me is that track athletes, especially the sprinters and throwers, know the importance of the weightroom. But female basketball players often come in here with a lot less weightlifting experience, and I can’t throw them in the weightroom and expect them to understand the difference between power cleans and high pulls.
I try to keep it simple and use a lot more plyometrics for their explosive training because the players can relate that better to the basketball court. When I first see the basketball team in August, I may just have them do some hops on the stadium stairs. Then as we progress through the season, I throw in box jumps, bounds, depth jumps, and maybe multi-directional jumps. This not only increases their explosiveness, but it also decreases the chances of an ACL injury because they’re strengthening their tendons, ligaments, and muscles at the same time.
Turley: Even within a sport, especially football, you have a lot of different body types and skill sets to accommodate, so there needs to be a large degree of specificity of training. For example, quarterbacks should focus on shoulder stability and keeping their throwing mechanics fluid and integrated through their core. But much of their power potential comes through the ground just like a baseball pitcher. Volleyball players are also similar in that you want them to be explosive, but they have that same swinging component in the shoulder.
Depending on the sport, you can also work on explosive training while conditioning. I did a lot of plyometric conditioning when I worked with volleyball, mostly in the sand and on the court. The longest thing I had them do was a 60-yard shuttle–very short distances and very explosive accelerations and decelerations.
Marotti: There’s certainly a difference between training explosiveness for a sport like football and other athletic tasks like the throwing events in track and field, which are closed skills. Most of the explosive training for throwers is done with an Olympic-based program–power cleans, cleans, push presses, snatches–because their sport only calls for one maximal effort maybe four times in a day. In football and other team sports, there are many more repetitions in a game, and players have to react to things that happen on the field quickly. So we use more plyometrics when training them.
How do you maintain explosiveness during the regular season?
Radcliffe: We like to progress our lifting and plyometric drills to a point where once the season begins we are able to complex two or three of the areas necessary to keep developing strength, speed, and agility. The beauty of utilizing the Olympic lifts is that you are able to pull, squat, push, jump, toss, and throw in sets of one or two exercises, rather than several that would make the workout twice as long.
Jones: In track, it takes very good planning because the athletes are looking to peak for the big meets like the Big 12 championships and NCAAs. We start to taper 16 days before each big meet by cutting the load. For example, if we had been doing six sets of power cleans at a certain percentage, we cut that in half 16 days out, then we gradually taper to the point where they’re doing one or two sets of power cleans, one or two sets of squats, some box jumps, and that’s it. However, there are times when they’re going to have to train right through some of their other meets. We tell them they’re going to be sore, and their muscles aren’t going to fire the way they want them to, but that’s okay.
There isn’t as much science behind basketball training, but I’ve found that it’s mostly about keeping players’ legs fresh. A week or two before the Big 12 tournament, I start to back off. Then once the conference tournament comes, all we do is injury prevention work. They do their ankle program, knee program, and a little single-leg work and that’s it. Once they hit the NCAA tournament, there’s so much travel that the players really don’t have time to get in the weightroom.
Turley: During the season our explosive development occurs at football practice. It’s a specific application in the athletes’ sports skills and that’s why we’re training them to begin with. It’s not something we try to develop or even pretend we can improve in the weightroom in-season.
But it is something we want to be able to evaluate in the weightroom to determine if the athletes need to unload. I use a Tendo unit to measure their speed on the bench press and the squat. They have to be able to create the speed I’m looking for, and if they can’t, that tells me that their explosive potential is diminishing. Then I know I need to lighten up on the heavier movements and focus on more recovery and corrective work. That way, they can get their power production out on the field where they need it.
Smith: Volume should drop during the season, but intensity should stay up so the athletes can maintain peak power. You want to make sure that your staple exercises are still there. You can do cleans, squats, bench presses, and maybe some pulls, but you should be able to get the workout done in 30 minutes.
Marotti: We usually don’t do any explosive training during the season because of the demands of practice. We’ll do a little bit of medicine ball work, but most of the time we just use a platform and a barbell. With the rigors of a football practice schedule, the players’ joints are pretty beat up and for me to give them more work that involves jumps seems ludicrous. They’ll keep their explosiveness as long as they use it, and they’re doing that on the practice field. Instead of pushing against weights and resistance, they’re pushing bodies on the field.
How do you test for explosiveness?
Radcliffe: The clean and the snatch are good lifting tests. Good jumping tests include mainly the vertical jump and standing long jump. Short sprints of 10 to 20 yards give us feedback on an athlete’s explosive development as well.
Jones: In my experience, the athlete who has the highest vertical jump usually also has the fastest 40 time. You can test power cleans, but it’s such a technical exercise that most athletes are constantly making improvements based on their technique, which means that an improvement doesn’t necessarily equate to increased explosiveness. I also use weighted ball throws, both overhead and underhand.
Turley: Football players, and their strength and conditioning coaches, are judged based on the combine tests. In keeping with that practice, I think the broad jump is the be-all end-all test for explosive power. If a football player can create power in the broad jump, then he has a chance to be an explosive player.
How do speed training and explosive training relate?
Turley: They’re thoroughly intertwined. There is no way I would ever consider training these things differently because they support each other so much. It’s the chicken and the egg argument–Does the explosive training make you faster or does sprinting make you more explosive?
One difference between explosive training and speed training is the number of reps you’re going to do. Speed is a more complex equation because it has two variables–stride length and stride frequency–over a given distance. Speed training in football is reflected by the 10-, 20- or 40-yard dash, depending on position. So we count the number of steps in the 10, 20, and 40 and then use those numbers in our explosive plyometric moves. With explosive training we’re talking about just one rep.
Smith: The new research on speed is very interesting. The old idea was that horizontal force production was the key to maximal sprinting. But you can’t alter stride length too much without overstriding, which causes braking and slows the athlete down. Altering stride rate can also reduce ground force production, which would slow the runner as well. The new school of thought is that we can actually do something with vertical impulses, and the fastest sprinters are the ones generating the most vertical force. The Olympic lifts are some of the best movements for increasing vertical force.
Jones: I am hesitant to answer that question because I am a strength coach, not a speed guru. I leave that to our track coaches, and they often help me with suggestions for athletes in other sports.
However, I have asked our track coach, Patrick Henry, the best exercise I could use to help his athletes increase their speed. His response was, “By far, squats. They increase explosiveness, which means the athletes can apply more force on the track, and the more force they can apply to the track the more distance they can cover at a faster rate.”
What are some of the problems that strength coaches run into when training explosiveness?
Turley: I think the biggest mistakes are focusing on the quantity of work rather than the quality, introducing explosive training too early and too often in a developmental plan, and overestimating your role and influence as a coach. When it’s time to play a sport in-season, let the athletes go do that. When it comes to explosive power, my job developing athletes is essentially over once their season starts.
Some coaches also try to develop explosiveness so much and work athletes so hard that they overtrain them. Then you get to test day and the athletes do worse in their vertical jump. If they haven’t had a chance to recover, they haven’t had a chance to accommodate and bounce back, so it’s no wonder they can’t produce the power you want. You have to give them some time off to recover.
Smith: I see some coaches throwing too much in the mix. They use 50 or 60 different exercises, but nobody is going to be proficient at that many exercises. The fact is the athletes don’t become efficient at anything and as a result, they never get really strong. It takes time and practice to correctly perform those staples like the Olympic lifts and squats.
Jones: I think the biggest problem is coaches not understanding the technical aspect of the Olympic lifts. I’ve told high school coaches, “If you don’t understand the technical aspect behind a power clean, do plyometrics. It’s safer for the athletes, and you won’t have to worry about them dropping a bar or hurting their back–and you’re going to get the same outcome.” Unfortunately, I think a lot of new coaches don’t understand that plyometrics work. You don’t have to have the athletes doing power cleans every single day. You can get the same results out of overhead or underhand throws with a heavy weighted ball, doing bounds in the sand, or doing some hops in the bleachers. It’s a different way of training, but it works.