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Are You Training Your Athletes to be Explosive the Correct Way?

Training Athletes for Explosiveness

We can all identify an explosive athlete. Explosiveness is very noticeable, but extremely difficult to train and incorporate into a traditional high school strength program.

As a coach for arguably the most explosive athletes on the planet, track and field throwers, and owner of a gym that specializes in building the most explosive athletes in Rhode Island, I have been able to incorporate explosive movement training in ways that are non-traditional but very successful. In this article, you will learn how to incorporate these methods into your own coaching and training to build incredibly explosive athletes.

The “As _____ As Possible” Mentality

High school and college strength coaches have traditionally been brought up to think of athletic training in terms of maxes. It is what I like to call the “as _____ as possible” mentality.

For example, strength is defined as moving a weight “as heavy as possible” one time. A great example of this is a one rep max in the squat.

Strength endurance is defined as moving a certain weight “as many times as possible.” The 225 pound bench press for reps test at the NFL combine is a perfect example of this.

Straight ahead speed like you see in track and field sprinters is defined as running a certain distance “as fast as possible.”

Endurance is defined as doing a movement “as long as possible.”

It is my finding through years of training young athletes and speaking to strength coaches around the country that we are taking the wrong “as _____ as possible” approach when we try to build explosiveness in athletes.

What Are We Doing Wrong?

More often than not, when a strength coach approaches me and is having trouble getting athletes more explosive, they are incorporating too much maximum weight into the equation.

For example, I recently had a coach email me his training template that consisted of Power Cleans, Hang Cleans, and Box Jumps to build explosiveness. While these are great exercises to build explosiveness in athletes, his approach was totally wrong.

He had his athletes jumping on to a box “as high as possible” 1 time for multiple sets. He has his athletes doing power cleans “as heavy as possible” for sets of 1 without varying the weight. He had his athletes doing hang cleans “as heavy as possible” for sets of 1 without changing the weight.

“Using a maximum weight for multiple sets
or jumping to a super tall box one time
is not building explosiveness,
it is merely testing explosiveness
over and over again.”

The thing to keep in mind when training explosiveness is that an athlete will rarely have a heavy external load on their bodies while competing. Using a maximum weight for multiple sets or jumping to a super tall box one time is not building explosiveness, it is merely testing explosiveness over and over again.

Finding the Correct Formula

With all of this being said, what is the correct formula for building explosiveness? What is the correct “as _____ as possible” approach to ensure your athletes are doing everything they can to become as explosive as they can be. In order to guarantee your athletes are training for explosion, you must make sure they are training certain movements with “as much force as possible.”

I believe this is why strength coaches have such a hard time training explosiveness. Unless you have extremely expensive testing equipment, measuring force is nearly impossible. It is a lot easier to measure the weight on a bar, the height of a box, or the time it takes to run a certain distance. Add to this the fact that athletes are asked to be explosive and produce force over and over again during the course of a game and the training difficulty multiplies.

Force equals mass times acceleration. So the easiest way to measure force, or for a coach to see if an athlete is applying more force, is to watch the speed that he performs a movement with a selected weight through 5 repetitions.

My favorite explosive exercise to do with my throwers is a one arm dumbbell clean and press for 5 reps per arm. It is a full body movement that incorporates massive force with the lower body, transferring that force through the core into the upper body, and applying that force to the dumbbell. Very similar to the way a track and field thrower applies force to a shot put, discus, or javelin.

The application is simple. Give an athlete a dumbbell you know they can easily clean and press multiple times. Have them perform 5 repetitions with each hand, starting with the non-dominant (non-throwing) arm. Watch the speed that the dumbbell moves. Ask yourself, is the dumbbell moving as fast (or almost as fast) on the 5th rep as it did on the 1st rep?

If the answer is yes, the athlete is allowed to increase the weight of the dumbbell by 5 pounds for his second set.

If the answer is no, the athlete should decrease the weight by 5 pounds on his next set.

When dealing with training explosion, the name of the game is speed. Being able to keep the same speed (or have a very slight decrease in speed) over 5 reps will ensure that an athlete is able to produce maximum force and replicate that force time and time again, similar to what they will be asked to do during a competition.

Sneaking Explosive Training into your Current Workouts

While I truly believe that having a separate day 100% dedicated to training speed and explosion is the most effective way of getting an athlete to produce more force, it is not possible in a typical high school setting. Let’s face it, practicing the actual sport is the most important thing a high school student will do and should take up the most amount of practice time.

If an athlete practices 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, they might only be in the weight room 2 days a week for 30-40 minutes at a time. How does a strength coach go about training explosion with a large team in a small weightroom while the athletes are also expected to be getting bigger and stronger at the same time?

Replace Slow Reps with Explosive Reps

One strategy is to combine the strength and explosive movement training into the same exercise. This is something I have done for the past few years and it works very well, especially with large groups. When an athlete is performing a strength based exercise on a typical linear periodization template, they will normally begin with a very light weight and gradually increase each set.

For example, an athlete with a 225 pound bench press will perform 5 sets like this:

  • Set 1 – 95 pounds for 10 slow and steady reps.
  • Set 2 – 135 pounds for 8 slow and steady reps.
  • Set 3 – 155 pounds for 6 good reps.
  • Set 4 – 175 pounds for 4-5 good reps.
  • Set 5 – 195 pounds for 3-4 tough reps to failure.

Instead, why not add one more set, and work the first 3 sets for 6 reps as explosive as possible?

  • Set 1 – 95 pounds for 6 explosive reps (plates should be clanging)
  • Set 2 – 115 pounds for 6 explosive reps (plates rattling, bar speed never decreases)
  • Set 3 – 135 pounds for 6 explosive reps (weight may slow down at the 5th or 6th rep)
  • Set 4 – 155 pounds for 6 good reps
  • Set 5 – 175 pounds for 4-5 good reps
  • Set 6 – 195 pounds for 3-4 tough reps to failure.

The athlete is still doing the same amount of reps for the exercise in both templates. As you can see, the addition of one extra set of 6 reps makes this one exercise become a blend of explosiveness for the first 3 beginning sets, and strength for the last 3 sets.

Instead of moving the lighter weight slow and steady, he is now moving the bar with as much speed as possible. Every week simply increase the weight by 5 or 10 pounds and decrease the reps by 1. After 3 weeks, change the exercise slightly (move to an incline press or a dumbbell press) and follow this same template for another 3 weeks.

This can be done with all of your basic compound lifts like squats and bench press. You will see great increases in speed and explosiveness without a decrease in strength.

Replace a Slow Assistance Movement with a Fast Bodyweight Movement

Another strategy is to replace a standard compound or isolation movement with a similar exercise focusing on explosion. For example, on the days that you have your athletes squatting, you may have them also doing a lunge variation.

Rather than do the lunge in a typical slow and steady manner, why not change the exercise to a jumping lunge?

So rather than doing 3 sets of 10 reps per leg while holding a dumbbell in each hand, do 6 sets of 5 jumps per leg working on getting as high in the air as possible? Or to look at it another way:

  • Walking lunges holding dumbbells – 3 sets of 10 reps – slow pace – focus is hypertrophy.
  • Repeat Jumping Lunges – 6 sets of 5 reps – explosive pace – focus is producing massive force.

(Both are lunges, both very easy to teach, but two separate results).

The same can be done by switching a dumbbell bench press to an explosive push up, or exchanging a leg press or leg extension with a repeat jumping squat.

Superset an Opposite Explosive Exercise Immediately After a Strength Exercise

A third strategy that you can use that works great with larger teams or if you have limited time is to superset an opposite explosive movement immediately after a strength exercise. For example, if you have your athletes doing a typical 5 x 5 strength template and you have 4 athletes sharing one piece of equipment, you are inevitably going to have athletes taking a large amount of rest between each set while the bar is loaded and unloaded.

Instead of having the athlete finish his set and sit down for a few minutes of rest, have him do an explosive movement immediately after his set is complete.

Here is a great example.

Exercise: Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps – increase weight each time
Superset with clapping push ups – 5 sets of 5 reps – perform immediately after squats.

This is a great way to blend a strength based exercise with an explosive exercise. With this strategy, just make sure that the explosive exercise is opposite (uses a different movement pattern) than the strength exercise. So if the main strength exercise is a bench press, superset with an explosive jumping movement.

In my experience, supersetting an explosive movement with a strength movement that is too similar will be counterproductive. The athlete will be too tired to produce the energy necessary to lift heavy and the heavy lifting will prevent them from being explosive. Truly a lose-lose situation. Neither exercise will accomplish what it sets out to do.

Implementing These Strategies Properly

Properly implementing these strategies should be done gradually so you do not throw off whatever progress you have accumulated thus far. Don’t completely revamp your training templates and switch around what your team has been doing. Take one strategy from the three above and implement it for the first 4 or 5 weeks of the season. Test it out with your team (certain sports and athlete body types respond to each strategy differently) and see if the response is favorable when they play their sport. If it is, try to incorporate an additional strategy for the next 4-5 weeks and see how your athletes respond.

If your athletes show an increase of explosion in their sport, you know what you are doing is working.

If your athletes are looking lethargic and are gassing out during their weight room sessions, that is a sign to pull back and decrease the amount of explosive work.

Whatever is done in the weightroom should enhance what is done during competition. You are training athletes. They can’t be bodybuilders in the weightroom and athletes on the field. They can’t be Olympic lifters in the weightroom and athletes on the field. They can’t be powerlifters in the weightroom and athletes on the field. Train them like athletes by blending their strength training, explosive movements, and hypertrophy in the weightroom to compliment what they do in their sport. You will see over time that their explosion increases along with their strength and muscular size.

-Coach Matt Ellis-

DIESELS, Coach Ellis and I worked together on a project last eyar and we are about to release it. It’s called Grip Training for Track and Field Throwers.

You can get on the early bird list for this DVD release by adding your email to the box below. You’ll be the first to know about it when it comes out.

All the best in your training – Grip for Throwers comes out next week!


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2 Responses to “Are You Training Your Athletes to be Explosive the Correct Way?”

  1. JIMBO Says:

    Good ju-ju. Thanks. -JIMBO

  2. Jedd Johnson Says:


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