You are strong, powerful, but are you also explosive? Explosivity concerns the time you need to develop (maximum) strength. Explosivity plays a role in many sports. In strength sports such as powerlifting and weightlifting of course, but also in athletics and various other individual and team sports.
For example, explosiveness largely determines who wins the 60 m sprint: the one who is the fastest out of the starting blocks and who can then develop maximum power the fastest. On the 100 m, a lack of explosiveness can still be compensated by pure speed and the faster athlete has enough time to catch up with the more explosive athlete. World record holder in the 100 m (and 200 m) sprint Usain Bolt is a good example of this. After 60 m he is invariably behind his competitors, but after 100 m he is usually glorious.
Alright, so much for the comparison between the explosive and the fast athlete. Now you may be wondering, where does power come into play? Well, the most powerful athlete would be the one who would win a 100 m race where you would have to carry 100 kg.
Power, explosiveness and speed go hand in hand; they are variables in the same formula, although pure power is always the basis. Without strong muscles, you will never explode and you will never develop enough speed.
Pure power comes down to the maximum number of muscle fibers you can recruit, explosiveness is the time it takes to recruit this number of muscle fibers. ‘Power’ is in fact the sum of these two, of pure power and explosiveness. Powerlifting, for example, is a combination of the two. It’s not called powerlifting and not strength lifting for nothing. In powerlifting, not necessarily the most powerful participant, nor the most explosive, but the one with the most power: the one whose sum of strength and explosiveness yields the greatest result.
In weightlifting and shot put, for example, explosiveness plays an even greater role. Weightlifters and shot putters are among the most explosive athletes. Also the heavyweights weighing more than 120 kg. Only their mass prevents them from being really fast, but they sure are explosive. Here you can see shot putter Reese Hoffa (147 kg!) covering the 10 yards – over 9 meters – in just 1.68 seconds. Pure explosiveness.
Explosivity has a huge transference to strength exercises. The explosive athlete pulls a weight off the floor faster on the deadlift, springs up from the bottom position on the squat, and explodes the weight off his chest on the bench press. After all, once a weight is in motion, it takes less force to keep it moving. That is why the deadlift is also seen as the ultimate exhibition of power. After all, you have to pull a ‘dead’ weight off the ground.
At some point in your strength-sports career, it’s probably also working on your explosiveness that helps you break through plateaus. To recruit a maximum number of muscle fibers faster, rather than increasing this maximum.
EXPLOSIVE AND REACTIVE POWER
Almost everyone knows how to train for strength. By doing heavy weights and low reps on strength exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead or millitary press. But how do you actually train for explosiveness?
You can actually train explosiveness in two ways: with explosive strength exercises and with reactive strength exercises, also known as plyometric exercises. The difference is that with the first you do not use your stretch reflex and with the second you do.
Explosive power is the ability to quickly develop power seemingly out of nowhere. Reactive force or plyometrics is in fact the rapid conversion of a movement into a counter-movement, or the rapid switch from eccentric to concentric muscle contraction. This also requires explosiveness.
An example for clarification:
When a weightlifter lifts a barbell off the floor, he develops force out of nowhere. This is explosive power. The same goes for a deadlift powerlifter or a sprinter who shoots off the starting blocks. At first they do nothing more than stretch their knee and hip joints.
Jumping is perhaps the best example of reactive power. When you jump, bend your knees and hips first before explosively stretching them. You draw the bow before you shoot it. This is the difference with purely explosive exercises, where the bow is already tense.
Many use “plyometrics” as a synonym for jump exercises. That’s not quite correct. Jumping from a squatting position, for example, is strictly speaking not a reactive but an explosive exercise.
Although explosive and reactive exercises differ, in practice they are often used interchangeably and are grouped under the umbrella of plyometrics. And that is not so strange and in fact not very bad, because in both cases it is about the speed with which you develop strength. The difference is that you use your stretch reflex in reactive exercises and not in explosive exercises.
Enough theory. Here are some of our favorite explosive exercises.
For pure explosiveness, nothing beats the Olympic lifts – the clean and jerk and the snatch – and variants thereof: cleans, power cleans, hang cleans, jump shrugs, push presses, hang snatches et cetera. The power clean and hang clean are our favorites for explosiveness. One or both exercises should not be missing in any (strength) training program.
Perhaps the most famous plyometric exercise is box jumps. These have become hugely popular, thanks to well-known strength & conditioning coaches like Joe DeFranco and, admittedly, also thanks to CrossFit.
For box jumps you don’t need anything but a box or other platform to jump on. Choose a relatively low box for reps or a high box for maximum attempts. If you get as high as two thirds of your height, you can say you are explosive.
BOX JUMPS FROM SITTING POSITION
By starting box jumps from a sitting position, you take the stretch reflex out of the exercise and actually make the exercise more difficult. Now it’s purely about your explosive power and not your reactive power, which we talked about earlier.
Instead of going as high as possible, you can also try to jump as far as possible (from a standstill). Limit the number of jumps. You can also combine high and long jumps in stair jumps, where you skip two or three steps while jumping.
In rope slams, not to be confused with rope waves, you grab both ends of a rope that you have looped around a pillar or something similar. Raise your arms above your head, straighten your body and hit the rope vigorously against the floor.
PLYOMETRIC PUSH-UPS OR CLAP PUSH-UPS
In this push-up variant you push yourself up explosively, so that your hands come off the ground. The clapping is optional and is actually intended for show-offs. It is of no practical use and makes the exercise unnecessarily dangerous. Are parallel push-ups too hard for you? You can also lean against a wall at a 45-degree angle and force yourself to push away.
For this exercise you need a (power) sled, a sled that you can weigh down with weight plates. You push this sled over a given distance by sprinting vigorously. If you can’t sprint any further, continue sprinting without a sled. No sled? Hill sprints are a good alternative. You sprint up a short steep hill as quickly as possible.
MEDICINE BALL EXERCISES
An ‘old-fashioned’ medicine ball may be all you need for an explosive workout. You can do a lot of exercises with just one ball:
Medicine ball slams, for example, where you ‘just’ hit the medicine ball from above your head as hard as possible against the ground. Or overhead throws, where you throw the ball as far as possible with both hands above your head. Chest throws, where you throw the ball away from your chest by extending both arms vigorously. You can throw further by jumping forward at the same time. And Twist throws, where you throw the ball as far to the side as possible by rotating your upper body. What you can’t do with a ball…
PLACE EXPLOSIVE EXERCISES IN YOUR TRAINING
Everyone benefits from explosiveness. Powerlifters and weightlifters, athletes, but also bodybuilders and football players, basketball players et cetera. What your power training looks like exactly depends on your sport and goals.
An easy way to integrate explosive work into your training is to end each (strength) training with an explosive exercise. Strength training has been shown to be more effective when the training ends with explosive work!
The most important thing in explosive work is to do every repetition with full dedication. It is of no use to perform ‘explosive’ exercises half-heartedly. That goes against the essence of the exercise. It makes little sense to do many repetitions with explosive exercises. Rather do more sets of 2-3 reps, and you’ll get really explosive.
Finally, remember that explosive and reactive power is nowhere without a good power base. Absolute or pure strength is and remains the most important factor in strength training. If you lack strength, it is of little use in athletic terms that you can develop that strength fairly quickly.