Article written by Lou Torres
Every athlete and trainee should have a goal in his or her training. My guess is that if you’re an athlete, you compete in a sport that requires a dynamic movement at quick speeds at least once in a while. A wrestler shooting in for that take down, a hockey player furiously slapping the puck, a volleyball player going for the kill or a dig, a football player delivering a hit or receiving a pass that is slightly out of reach, and the innocent bystander all have very different and distinct activities in their sports and lives, yet, at times, require very similar needs in their training.
Most sports and activities only take place over the course of several minutes, but the most exciting, and usually the most important moments tend to happen in the blink of an eye. The game changing swing of a bat and that knockout blow, both seem to happen when you turn your head away for a second. We’ve all heard the adage “Size hurts, but speed kills.” Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to turn our hard earned strength into mind blogging power. This simple guide will help you develop that quick reflex and explosive power necessary to become the game changer in your chosen sport.
First, let’s make it clear that power is merely an expression of ones strength. If an athlete is not sufficiently strong, then any power training will quickly be blunted by a lack of force application. Without getting too scientific in this article, it makes sense to first define what power is. One generally accepted definition is power = work / time. Now what is work? Work is force x distance, or simply, how much weight and how far you are moving it. To increase the power of a given exercise, you can either increase the weight being moved, increase the distance you’re moving it, or decrease the time it takes to do it, with the other factors remaining constant. There is no give and take. For example, if the weight goes up, the distance and time must not diminish for they’re to be a power increase. That’s about as simple as it gets, and some people would certainly have a field day picking that apart, but that’s not the point of this article. The point is, you need to run faster, hit harder, and jump higher, before your opponent realizes what’s happening.
If you are not sufficiently strong, you should not be focusing on power development, but more so on strength development. A mentor of mine once told me “If they’re weak, they shouldn’t be worrying about being explosive. Now comes the time to build absolute strength.”
When I asked how to know if an athlete is qualified for power training, he said, “Depends on their current level of fitness. A good rule of thumb: be able to perform a back squat correctly, be able to squat 1 to 1.5 times body weight, show good core stability, and be able to overhead press .5 times the body weight. That would ensure me that they have gone through enough training that their tendons and ligaments (sinew) strength can handle the vigor of explosive training.” Do your due diligence to develop the ability to move your body with total control slowly with perfect form, entering and exiting body positions easily with proper alignment before attempting to perform ballistic movements.
If your knees buckle inward and your back rounds forward when you squat slowly, for example, that issue will only be exasperated when landing from a jump with greater force and more torque. A few bad reps at high velocity on a weak body with poor posture is a recipe for disaster. You can say goodbye to a healthy back and knees while the only performance you’ll be capable of doing is a really cool squirm to the potty from the bed with busted up joints. There is no substitute for time; it takes time and effort to develop the structural integrity necessary to handle the aggressive and sometimes violent nature of power training.
Some of the best exercises for developing full body strength, prior to power training, would be simple dead-lift variations such as trap-bar-dead’s (stiff legged and one legged), squat variations like front, back, and single leg versions, various rows and presses, and farmers carries. A staple in any strength-training program should include lots of basic bodyweight calisthenics like pushups, pull ups, and lunges. The use of suspension trainers like gymnastic rings creates an unstable environment and helps build very strong and capable bodies when hard work and diligence is applied. These movements are performed relatively slow while developing and preparing the body for the faster and more aggressive exercises to come.
I like to make sure that I have a good pair of brakes on the car before I get the engine running at 120 mph. Most plane crashes occur during the landing, not the take off. Athletic training is the same, most injuries occur while landing on the ground, not jumping off. So assuming you’re physically prepared for power training, multi-directional shuttle runs are a great example of an exercise where the athlete must quickly lower their center of gravity, decelerate, change direction, and accelerate in a different direction, therefore building the integrity of the ankles, knees and hips, all while enhancing athleticism. Practicing proper landing mechanics and good alignment is essential to increased performance. This makes the box jump a far greater training tool for beginners than a broad jump by virtually eliminating the harsh contact with the ground. You can gradually add weight to this movement over time with an athletically fit weight vest, sand bags or even hand weights. Box jumps should also be performed from a static seated position to eliminate the stretch reflex caused by the downward momentum of the jump.
Broad jumps up a grassy hill can also reduce impact on the joints. Performing them on stairs like stadium bleachers is of course possible, but dangerous, and probably not worth it. Sub-maximal box jump heights are preferable, as I have noticed athletes jumping to max height tend to not fully extend at the hip in an attempt to get their feet up quicker, and then snake their feet around the sides of the box and land in a position of great spinal flexion with their heads between their knees and their feet way out in front of their hips. This is not an ideal position, but because athletes love to chase numbers and personal records, the box always tends to get higher and higher, while the mechanics get uglier and uglier. Always remember what the goal is. It is not to see how high of a box we can jump onto, but to see how well the exercise carries over to life or sport. If you find yourself in such a deep squatted position on the field with your back hunched over and your face between your knees, you’re probably getting beat.
Other forms of jumping include trap bar dead-lift jumps with a shrug at the top. Power skips are very good for athletes because most our time is spent on one leg. One leg jumping variations are great, but don’t get too crazy because beauty is found in simplicity. Sprinting can be considered as a form of one leg jumping; I prefer up a hill sprints for short distances, 20-30 meters. Some people get carried away with Bosu balls, parachutes, bands with chains and wigs and all types of silliness. Don’t do it, keep things simple and effective, not trendy and injurious. Always be particularly attentive to the landing and the posture of the athlete while jump training.
Throwing is another tremendous way to develop explosive power. If you are an athlete that already throws as a sport, like a pitcher, I recommend performing lots of movements that do not mimic your already overused throwing mechanics. If you have a sand ball or other medicine ball and a sturdy wall, you can perform shot put throws and lateral twisting throws against it, if not find a partner or do a lot of chasing. Under hand, overhead throws, overhand-pushing throw upwards, overhand slam downwards, and single lunge step overhead throw forward work great. Using a partner is effective because it forces you to rest briefly between reps and not fatigue too much. Remember, this is power training, not conditioning.
If you do not have a strong ball, a basic car tire works great. You can swing it back between your legs with both hands and extend the hips and launch upward and slightly backwards. Throwing a kettle bell at the beach or an open field is lots of fun, as you can snatch throw with one or two hands, as well as shot put it or swing it up overhead and slam it down into the grass or sand, with as much force as possible, without worrying about damaging yourself or the kettle bell. Sledgehammers are great for this as well. Just grab any sledgehammer in the 12 pound range and slam it right into a tire or other forgiving object for a low number of reps to keep the intensity high. Doing hammer work at the end of a workout for higher reps or in intervals is great for conditioning, but here we are keeping the reps low and each strike is as powerful as possible.
Spinning throws, mimicking a discus thrower, are phenomenal as well. Car tires will generally be on the lighter side so you can move fast, you do not want these objects to be too heavy as you are looking for speed of movement, not heavy, slow and sloppy reps.
Finally, we get to my personal favorite means of developing insane speed and power. Weight lifting or Olympic style lifting has been a contested sport for many years. It’s a fact: the best weightlifters jump very high and they run short distances extremely fast. In fact, world-class weightlifters have been known to keep pace with world-class sprinters for about the first 20 meters of a race. Weightlifting is more like a knockout punch than it is a combination, or flurry of punches. You get one shot to hit as hard as possible. The problem is most people do not have access to proper equipment or quality coaching for this type of training to be maximally effective. But if you do, then learning to clean and jerk and snatch some weight can produce extreme power and general athleticism. These movements are all predicated off of jumping, so it makes sense that jumping with weight would help you become very explosive. However, the benefits will be limited if technique is not perfect or if equipment is substandard. The good news is there are alternative means to this desired end of increased power production.
Kettle bells and sandbags are both fantastic tools that enable an athlete to learn typical weightlifting movements much faster, and get more training in smaller spaces and less time. Kettle bells and sandbags are not the same as a barbell, but the general idea remains clear, move the weight quickly and swiftly from near the ground to overhead in one or two smooth movements. The learning curve is much faster with these tools, and they are both extremely versatile, challenging, and accommodating tools as far as movements and exercises go. Truly, your only limitation is your imagination. Of course, not every movement you do will build power directly, but they can also enhance strength, stability and balance in training, which indirectly can help produce greater power. Sandbags can help train you in off balance positions by cleaning and shouldering the weight from a myriad of positions to build balance and lateral stability. There are far too many individual exercises to list and describe in this article as far as kettle bell and sandbag training go. But suffice to say, the act of cleaning, jerking, snatching and all of the supplemental exercises involved with kettle bell and sandbag training, in addition to throwing, sprinting and jumping, will surely develop any athlete into a powerful and dominant force in their chosen arena.
The following is a sample 3-day training template that involves power, strength, and stability training separated into an upper body day, a lower body day, and a full body day.
3-Day Training Program
Day 1: 1. Multi-directional Medicine Ball Throws – 5 x 6-8 2A. Double Kettlebell Jerk – 4 x 5 2B. Double Ballistic Kettlebell Row – 4 x 10 3. Ring Muscle Ups – 3 x 3-5 4A. Dips on Rings or Bars – 2 x submax reps
4B. Sandbag Good Morning – 2 x 10-12 5A. Supine Ring Rows – 2 x submax reps 5B. Prone Power Wheel Ab Walk – 2 x 100 feet
Day 2: 1. Box Jumps @ 2-3 inches below maximal height – 10 x 1 2. Power Jumps holding kettlebells at sides 3 x 4 3A. Rotational Sandbag Clean 3 x 4-6 3B. Dynamic Lateral Hops over sandbag 3 x 10-12 4A. Weighted Alternating Pistols 3 x 6 each leg 4B. Dumbbell Death march 3 x 12 each leg (Walking 1-leg Romanian Deadlifts) 5. Push car around block – 5-10 minutes as far as possible
Day 3: 1 of my favorite workouts 1A. 1-arm Kettlebell Snatch – 2 x 12 1B. Explosive Push Ups – 2 x 12 2A. 1-arm Kettlebell Clean & Jerk – 2 x 12 2B. Reverse Lunges / Jumping Split Squats 2 x 12/12 3A. 2-arm Sandbag Snatch 2 x 10 3B. Hindu Push Ups 2 x 20 4A. 2-arm Sandbag Clean & Press 2 x 10 4B. Jump Squats – 2 x 25 5. Hula Hoop 1 set performed until totally humiliated
Lou Torres is a perfect example of an athlete who wanted to stay connected to his roots. Now turned strength coach to share his passion for strength and athletics with athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Lou has written for several magazines including STACK, The Performance Menu, My Mad Methods Magazine, and guest blogged for colleagues along the way.
Lou’s gym, Triumph Strength & Athletics, was featured in The Performance Menu as a top performance gym to look out for along with other renowned coaches like, Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, and Josh Henkin. Lou is a USA Weightlifting Coach, RKC Kettle Bell, Underground Strength Coach, CrossFit Level I certified coach, NASM CPT,PES,CES and above all else an advocate of all things badass.