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Explosive strength a 'must' in athletics

Sports require maximal amounts of speed, agility, endurance, power and muscular strength. Successful programs are correlated with a strength and conditioning coach’s ability to manipulate training program variables. These variables are, but not limited to reps, loads, sets, rest, number of exercises, exercise type and the rate of force applied to each power lift. Athletics require high rates of force development, which is the maximum force and the time it takes to reach maximum force through muscular contractions. Rate of force development can also be coined “explosive strength.”

What is Explosive strength? Explosive strength is when a basketball player jumps for a rebound or to dunk. Or when a soccer player jumps up for a header or sprints for a 50/50 ball. Or when a volleyball player jumps up to the net to block or spike the ball. Or when a polo player reacts, stops and reaccelerates in fluidity with the horse. During these movements explosive strength is applied through a strong counter movement (eccentric application of force) before transfer energy into a concentric muscular action. It is through this application of force, post-counter movement, that the greatest level of explosive strength is utilized (concentric muscular action). Athletes who have greater levels of explosive strength / power will typically elevate higher and sprint faster, with all other variables held constant.

Explosive strength utilized during jumping, for nearly all sports, often tracks through nearly the same movement pattern. First, the legs become loaded during the counter movement as the knees and hips slightly flex. Second, the jump leg(s) become fully extended, along with the hips (i.e. triple extension), as the body is propelled (concentric muscular action) into the air. Third, the body impacts the ground during landing and the muscles and tendons involved are stretched and then shortened. In consequence, storage of elastic energy, in both the muscles and tendons, allow for another concentric muscular action to occur due to the neural response by the mechanical stretch stimulus. This counter movement allows for increased concentric capabilities because it activates this mechanical stretch stimulus known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).

The SSC is active in nearly all athletic movements and is directly related to increased jump height and faster speeds. Elite sprinters show greater SSC capabilities. In a sport like volleyball or basketball, where it is vital for an athlete to be able to out jump their competition, the SSC is crucial in the athlete’s performance. An analysis of a spike in volleyball highlights the athlete’s activation of the SSC in motion. As the athlete prepares for flight, he or she begins by loading the leg through a counter movement. The counter movement slightly flexes the knees, ankles and hips thus storing energy in the tendons and muscles involved. The athlete re-accelerates (concentric muscular action) by utilizing the stored energy (SSC). This counter movement happens quickly; in fact, the quicker it happens typically the higher the athlete jumps.

Explosive strength depends on overall muscular coordination between the agonists, antagonists, and synergists. This total body coordination is trainable and must be trained through compound multi-joint movements, as well as core / neurological training. Olympic weightlifting is one of the longest standing training methods utilized by strength and conditioning coaches. No matter what style of training you go with explosive strength / power training results in superior athletic performance and reduced injury risks.

Here are some examples of how to train for power / explosive strength…

  • Upper Body Lifting: bench, military press, pull ups, one arm bench, etc… generally 4-6 sets of 3-6 repetitions is the prescription to increase strength and power. Maximal strength utilizes 1-2 repetitions with 95-100% 1RM. Explosive strength or power utilizes 4-6 repetitions with loads of 65-75%; the load reduction allows for greater explosiveness. Both should be incorporated into a well rounded program. It is worth noting that the upper body responds favorably to high volumes.

  • Lower Body Lifting: squats, Bulgarian squats, deadlifts, glute-ham raises, etc… again, as with upper body, 4-6 sets of 3-6 repetitions for strength and power. It is important to note that hamstrings are a fast twitch muscle and should be trained with heavier loads, lower repetitions and more sets. As well, full range of motion (ROM) squats have shown to be superior over parallel squats in preventing injuries, increasing vertical jumping and speed; the main reason relates to the activation of the glute muscles (3). It is worth noting that the lower body responds favorably to moderate volumes, especially experienced lifters or athlete’s in-season.

  • Olympic Weightlifting: clean, jerk, snatch and variations… the first exercises to be classified as “functional” because of their total body coordination and requirement of the triple extension. All explosive athletic movements involve the triple extension. Carefully program in one repetition max training as well as 3-5 repetition training. The decreased load required for 3-5 repetitions allows for speed and acceleration training. It is important all Olympics are done inside of a program that involves and accounts for training age, progressions, de-loading, complexes and most importantly flexibility / mobility training.

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