Need to be athletic and explosive? Here’s how to do it without the Olympic lifts. Bonus: You can do these at home or in a regular gym.
- In the short term, explosive exercises activate high-threshold motor units to recruit more muscle during your training. More recruitment means more weight and more muscle.
- In the long-term, explosive exercises allow you to recruit more muscle fibers with less effort. This makes it easier to smash heavy weights.
- You can maximize this muscular recruitment by lifting more heavy stuff, or by lifting, jumping, or throwing lighter stuff faster.
You desperately want to improve your explosiveness, but your gym doesn’t allow Olympic lifts (shame on them). Nor do they have boxes, bumper plates, or any other implements that allow you to easily train like an athlete.
You could give them the finger and find a better gym, but that’s not always practical. Don’t worry, you have other options – exercises that require minimal equipment that don’t have the steep learning curve of the Olympic lifts.
In the short term, these explosive exercises improve your workouts by activating high-threshold motor units to fire on all cylinders and recruit more muscle during your training. This means you’ll be able to lift more weight and stimulate more growth during workouts.
In the long-term, you’ll recruit more muscle fibers with less effort. This makes it easier to call all the troops to action and smash heavy weights, thus improving your explosive power and muscle-building potential.
This works the explosive shoulder extension, forcing the lats, triceps, posterior delts, and pecs to rapidly generate force. It also forces your core to work double time, transferring force from overhead towards the ground while preventing your spine from flexing forward.
How to do it: Use a non-bouncy medicine ball and hold it overhead. (If the ball is bouncy, you’ll need to wear a nut cup and mouth guard.)
Brace the abs like you would before someone pokes you in the stomach. Now, with the weight overhead and abs braced, throw the ball to the ground while keeping the chest tall and eyes straightforward.
Your goal is to throw as hard as possible without bending through the waist or rounding in your shoulders.
How many: Three sets of 4 to 6 reps with 60-90 seconds rest between sets. Use about an 8-12 pound ball. Perform on upper body training days before you hit the weights.
The incline plyo push-up is an awesome exercise for horizontal pressing power.
Compared to a clap push-up, elevating the hands on a bench allows larger individuals to generate maximum force with less compressive stress on the joints while maintaining a neutral spine position (non-saggy push-up position).
How to do it: On a bench, assume a push-up position with the hands aligned with the shoulders, legs fully extended, abs braced, and back straight. Don’t allow the hips to dip.
Lower yourself rapidly to the bench and then explosively push your body away. The energy should make you rock back to mid-foot or heel.
As gravity carries you back to the starting position, slightly bend the elbows at impact to reduce stress and “stick” the landing with minimal movement through your torso. Re-set and repeat.
How many: Three sets of 3 to 5 reps with 60-90 seconds in-between sets before you start your regular workout. These should be done before a heavy pressing day to groove the pressing pattern and stimulate the nervous system for better motor unit recruitment.
Broad jumps are awesome for developing explosive horizontal hip power and athleticism.
How to do it: There are three phases to the broad jump: loading, exploding, and landing.
Loading: Set up with feet about shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance with arms up at chest height. Then, during the loading phase, simultaneously swing the arms while flexing at the hips and knees, loading up the legs.
Exploding: Immediately after loading, swing the arms simultaneously with the jump, driving off the legs and pushing the hips forward. Aim to jump both out and up, because adding a vertical component to the jump reduces shear stress on the knees.
Bring your feet and arms back in front of you in preparation for landing.
Landing: Drop your hips as you near the ground to absorb force in a flatfoot position. Stick your landing for a moment to reinforce proper position, then get high fives for your acrobatics.
How many: Broad jumps are an extremely stressful exercise. Therefore, keep jumps to a single response, meaning you land each rep and re-set before the next.
Do three sets of 3 to 5 reps with 60-90 seconds between sets before you hit the weights. Use broad jumps before cleans or deadlifts to groove explosive triple extension.
Squat jumps mimic the squat and a vertical jump, bridging the gap between jumping in sport and squatting in the gym.
How to do it: Just like the broad jump, there’s three phases: loading, exploding, and landing.
Loading: Set up with feet about shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance with arms up at chest height. The loading phase utilizes a simultaneous downward arm swing with flexing at the hips and knees, thus loading up the legs.
Exploding: Rapidly swing the arms up while driving your feet into the ground and extending the hips and knees, and then taking off on the balls of the feet. Fully extend the arms overhead and aim to fully extend the body with the ankle, knee, hip, trunk, shoulder, and ear all being aligned.
Landing: Bend your knees into a squat position and absorb force evenly through the foot, not just through the toes. Keep your chest and head up, looking directly ahead. Your shins should be vertical and knees straight to avoid valgus and varus positions, which put more stress on the knees.
How many: Three sets of 4 to 6 reps with 60-90 seconds between sets before you do your regular workout. Perform on a lower-body training day, before or in place of a squat.
In 1965, Harvard physiology professor, Dr. Elwood Henneman, released a study on the important function of motor neurons.
His team found that smaller motor neurons require less input than bigger motor neurons to be “switched on,” correlating directly with the size of the motor unit.
Low-level input from your brain recruits small motor neurons and muscle fibers. An example would be hitting the down arrow while you read this.
High-level input recruits larger muscle fibers for more force, like when you jump out of your seat to sign for a Fed-Ex package.
Taken into the context of training, when you un-rack a near maximal weight, sprint, jump, or throw something with maximum intent, your nervous system goes into overdrive, sending massive signals to your body to increase muscular recruitment to perform a given task.
Done repeatedly over time, you’ll learn to recruit more muscle fibers with less effort. We can maximize this muscular recruitment in one of two ways:
- Lift more heavy stuff. Since most of us do plenty of that already, you should opt for option two to balance things out.
- Lift, jump, or throw less-heavy stuff faster, with maximum intent, as described above.
By training fast, we’re able to improve three main factors:
- Rate Coding: The capacity to increase firing rate (motor unit discharge rate) in order to express more strength.
- Recruitment: Recruiting more motor units simultaneously when performing a muscular action.
- Synchronization: The ability of muscle units to contract with very minimal delay.
As a result, these three factors improve intramuscular and intermuscular coordination.
Intramuscular coordination is the secret sauce that separates smooth, explosive athletes from rigid, uncoordinated ones. For the athlete or lifter, this requires practicing a specific movement (intermuscular coordination) patterns for optimal transfer.
As an example, a lifter should practice a training movement like a barbell jump squat to prime an athletic movement like a powerlifting squat.
Better intramuscular coordination improves how well the nervous system and muscle work together. As a result, you’re better prepared to improve intermuscular coordination and nail the movement you’re training.
By improving your body’s hardware with specific movements, you’re able to increase the weight on the bar or increase running speed by improving the key components of the specific task.
It all comes down to this:
Explosive Movement + Movement That Mimics Goal Activity = Increased Motor Unit Recruitment. And that means gains.