Develop Explosiveness with Power Training!
Quick: Think of a powerful athlete.
If you’ve ever watched a professional sport or seen a commercial for a sports brand, chances are you didn’t find that too difficult.
We’re used to seeing athletes flying through the air for that dunk or pummeling through defenders at top speed. However, actually becoming one of those human machines is a completely different challenge that requires work ethic and proper training.
So what is power, exactly? In physics, power is defined as the amount of work done in a certain amount of time. And no, your day job isn’t the type of “work” we’re talking about.
Work, in this case, is the force that moves an object. Since power is work divided by time, the more work you can do in a shorter amount of time, the more power you produce. Increasing force production increases work output.
Back to physics again (I bet you’re wishing right now you had paid more attention in school, huh?). The more mass (a.k.a weight) you can lift, the more force you’ll be able to produce. More force means more power, more power equals more gravity defying dunks, explosive side steps, and so on and so forth. So basically, just get stronger and accelerate harder.
There is a principle in sports called the specificity principle which explains that the training that you choose to do, should be relevant and appropriate to create your desired training effect. Lifts like squats, hip thrusts, bench presses, and barbell rows have you picking up very heavy things with multiple joints. They mimic athletic movements to give your desired effect – more power. Because of the specificity principle, if you combine playing your sport(see part II for more on this) with the training the movements listed above you will see improvement.
In order to become more powerful in your lower body, you need to train your lower body. In the same way, you’d want to focus on your upper body in order to stiff arm someone or drive a lineman out of your way. Basically, those bicep curls and calf raises might make for a nice picture in the mirror, but they’re not necessarily going to translate to superhuman power.
Vertical power: the power clean
If you’re in a sport that involves getting off the ground (such as basketball, football, soccer, rugby, baseball… the list goes on), you should start doing cleans. Now, I say this with a small caveat: you need to be doing cleans correctly. Otherwise, you’ll probably just get really sore traps—and maybe quads—but you’ll miss the important part.
As you’ll see in this breakdown, a proper clean mostly uses the glutes, quads, and calves, with a little help from the traps during the final pull. It’s NOT an excuse to reverse curl, shrug, or do a back extension as you muscle your way under the bar. I recommend getting one-on-one coaching from an expert to really get these down. Keep yourself safe, and see your strength and power levels skyrocket.
The power clean is basically a heavily loaded vertical jump. Remember, we’re trying to increase force production with these lifts. Placing a quickly accelerated movement (jump) under a heavy load generates a lot of force in a short amount of time.
Now, imagine if that barbell was an opponent—a running back trying to evade your tackle, a looming center looking to block your drive to the lane, or even the wall at the edge of the park as you make a gamesaving catch. Things are going to stand in your way and try to stop your dominance. Don’t let them. Be aggressive with these lifts, just as you would in a game.
Again, there’s no substitute for good coaching here. In fact, there are so many technical elements in the power clean that there’s an entire sport based off of it.
Here is the basic technique for a clean:
- With the loaded barbell on the floor, squat down as close as possible to the bar, keeping your chest raised.
- Grip the bar just outside shoulder width. Keeping the arms straight, use your legs to pull the bar upward until it clears your knees.
- As the bar passes your knees, keep the barbell close to your body as you jump upwards, extending the hips and knees. Shrug slightly as you explode the weight up towards the ceiling.
- At the height of the pull, violently pull yourself back down underneath the bar and whip your elbows around. Catch the bar on your shoulders in a front squat position with elbows parallel to the ground, then stand up.
Horizontal lower body power: barbell hip thrust
Bret Contreras researched exercises in the gym and their translation to horizontal speed on the field. And which exercise prevailed? The barbell hip thrust. When you’re sprinting, your body is vertical but you’re traveling horizontally, generating a force into the ground that drives you forward.
The hip thrust is one of the only barbell power movements that actually moves weight perpendicular to the body. If you’re doing a clean correctly, you’ll extend your hips forward before redirecting the weight up. This takes a LOT of good coaching to get proper glute and hamstring activation.
Therefore, during the hip thrust, it’s much easier for your body to understand that you’re exploding from the hips, generating a violent horizontal force that allows you to blow past a defender.
Not sure how to hip thrust? I’ll let the guy who came up with it tell you about it in detail here, but these are the basics:
- Set up with your shoulders on a bench and a loaded barbell resting on your hips. (You’ll probably want some sort of towel or bar pad wrapped around the bar for cushioning.)
- Keeping the feet hip width apart, bring them close to your glutes so your shins are vertical, heels on the ground.
- From there, drive the floor away with your heels and thrust your hips as high as possible towards the ceiling. Make sure to squeeze the glutes and keep a neutral spine.
- Lower the weight under control and repeat.
Upper body power: banded bench press and pendlay rows
Sure, it’s no secret that you should do these compound movements for size and strength. But these two slight variations will help bring incremental increases in performance. And every little edge you can have on your opponent counts, right?
Banded bench press
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the difference between good ol’ regular bench press and one with bands, specifically measuring the differences in acceleration.
They found that with their subjects, the banded bench press allowed for acceleration through a greater range of motion, meaning the athletes continued to produce force for longer.
In a normal bench press, the exercise actually gets easier at the top due to biomechanics and gravity. There may be a sticking point in each lift, but once you get past that, it’s almost a coast to the top.
However, adding a band counteracts that effect with less tension at the bottom and more at the top (where the band is stretched the most). This gives you a more balanced amount of effort required throughout the lift and a longer force production.
Try it! You’ll feel like you have to power all the way through the lift, which can have practical applications on the field when you have to power your way to the try zone (for all you rugby players out there).
Another cool thing that bands do is provide an element of surprise, especially if you’re used to pumping out reps on chest day. As much as we try to plan for sport, any good game involves a moment of “no way did that just happen.” The more you can include the unexpected and force your body to adjust on the fly, the more prepared you’ll be for those moments on the field.
A slight variation from the traditional movement, Pendlay rows take the barbell bent over row to the next level.
In a Pendlay row, you must place the barbell back on the ground between each rep, making sure you don’t cheat or swing the weight up. You also get to rest your grip between reps, which helps prevent forearm weakness by limiting the amount of weight you can pull with your powerful, massive back.
Combining these two moves allows you to unlock the greatness that is your pulling prowess.
And bonus: the set up is very similar to a conventional deadlift, so increasing your pulling strength with this movement brings greater strength in a power clean, yielding a domino effect to dominance on the court.
Here’s how to do a Pendlay row:
- Set up close to the bar with feet planted hip width, butt back, and back in a neutral spine position. If hamstring flexibility is an issue here, you can set the weight up on blocks or in a power rack, but be sure to keep that spine in line.
- From there, use an overhand grip to rip the weight off the floor towards the bottom of your sternum. Keep the elbows tight to the body and punch your elbows back toward the ceiling. Make sure to bring the weight to your chest, not bring your chest down to the weight.
- Control the weight back down to a dead stop on the floor, then readjust your grip and go again.
But wait—there’s more!
These barbell movements will definitely add power to your game and make you an unstoppable force. That being said, simply being strong in the gym isn’t enough. Even if you can lift a house, it doesn’t matter if you can’t lift it before someone comes along and smashes you.
If your sport isn’t Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting, you’ll likely need to move the weight of your body quickly to escape an opponent. In order to do that, you’ll have to step away from the barbell for a second.
Check out Power Training Away from The Gym -Tips from a Pro Athlete to unlock the real secrets for field or court athletes and read How to Train Like an Athlete to get an inside look into what it takes to become one.