Want to Be More Explosive? Know Your Five Pillars!

by | February 13, 2015, 9:22am 15

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about how to make gains in your first step and vertical, as well as some troubleshooting for problems in those areas. I’ve been running around the country the past few weeks, working with athletes in San Francisco and Salt Lake (as well as my clients and teams in Seattle) both inside the gym and out, and you know what? They all want to be more explosive!

The more questions I fielded about how to increase in-game quickness, speed and skying ability, the more I realized that my last article could have been clearer about the elements that comprise explosive training for ultimate, and how to measure progress that you make in those areas. We are all unique snowflakes, and some of you need to work on postural stability while others really need to load up a sled and focus on acceleration mechanics.

Being super explosive on the field involves excellence across five categories: strength, power, stability, technique, and plyometrics. You’re already strong? Great, let’s move that weight faster. Now let’s stabilize and control that power instead of losing energy mid-jump. Can you use all that power and stability to cut hard and fast? Can you beat your person with your first three steps and sky them at will? All great players are strong in these areas; visualize them like a circle, with each informing another.

The good news is that you can focus on the areas you need improvement in no matter what exercise you’re doing. A single-leg deadlift can be a stability exercise or a strength exercise. You can focus on technique, power or plyometrics when you’re bounding laterally. You can pick a different focus each set if you want – eventually, you can bring them all together into the same moment. And exercises that allow you to work on all these levels are the most easily translatable into in-game power.

Let’s look at why these areas of focus are important to explosivity, and how to engage with them in a way that will allow you to test your progress and the game applicability of your training.

Strength (Elements: single-leg multi-directional, glute-driven)

You gain strength in the gym. Either you get in there and get stronger, or you don’t, and you’re limited because of it. Unfortunately, strength often gets stuck in the gym as well. It’s important to get as sport-specific as possible, which means more unilateral and integrative core movements, building the kind of musculature that can withstand a full day or two of pounding on turf. In order for that strength to contribute to your game, you need to be working movement patterns that mirror what you’re doing on the field.

Test and Retest: Lateral RM, Marching Sled Pulls

Cues: straight line of force between ankle, knee and hip (no matter the angle)

Power (Elements: hip extension, body functions as a unit)

Exercises for power are difficult to master because, unlike in strength or stability training, everything needs to happen in a very short time frame. And by “everything,” I mean all the RIGHT things. I initially teach the DB Snatch without a jump because far too many people end up skipping the full hip extension and just using the jump to float the weight overhead. Focusing on horizontal force when training for acceleration makes a lot of sense. JB Morin, in his article about new research in sprinting for world-class athletes, says, “Of course, training to both produce more force AND orient it more forward will be the ideal, but for sure at a given same level of force output capability, the highest acceleration will be produced by the athlete able to orient his push the most horizontally.”

Test and Retest: Broad Jump, Vertical Jump

Cues: hips back/hips forward, “all at once” (everything moves together and quickly)

Stability (Elements: pelvic and postural)

When you plant your foot to change directions or sprint or jump, do your hips wash around like they’re caught in a whirlpool? Ever heard the saying “You can’t fire a cannon from a rowboat?” Thom had a great test for this in his first stability series article, and I’m glad to have more minds weighing in on the importance of this topic! No matter how much power you put into the ground or how awesome your arm action is, if your pelvis and core aren’t stable enough to receive and translate that power, it gets lost somewhere in the middle. Not only that, you’ll overstress your hip joints and spine with all that force rattling around. Stability is what makes good technique possible.

Test and Retest: Trunk Stability and Hurdle Step (both from the FMS)

Cues: hips like headlights (in the same plane and even), posture (long and strong)

Technique (Elements: foot strike, agility, shin angle, arm action)

Technique is about applying power in the most efficient way possible. Small tweaks in form and a little drilling can make a huge difference in performance, and this is work you can do at practice or in a track workout with little or no equipment. I’m a huge fan of running a drill multiple times (with full recovery) but only giving people one thing to focus during each repetition (“This time all I want you to think about is putting power into the ground with every step…okay, this time focus on posture.”). Too many cue cooks in the kitchen makes for a muddled result. Good technique recruits power from all available sources. Not just your leg driving into the ground, but your opposing knee snapping up to generate additional force…not just your hips being square, but your shoulders being relaxed enough to let your arms generate more power through your core.

Test and Retest: Modified Serpentine (and/or the original by Tim Morrill)

Cues: choppy knees, stay low, posture, strike with mid-foot, shin angle, arms

Plyometrics (Elements: short ground contact, efficiency)

Plyometric exercises train the technique and physiology of the stretch-shortening cycle. It’s essential for those sharp, sudden, one-foot-in-the-ground-and-EXPLODE moments. I wish I had the equipment to more accurately measure plyometric movements – my kingdom for force plate technology!! Also, I want one of these. Barring that, though, we have to rely on how things feel, doing timed exercises, and video analysis to evaluate improvements. Too much time spent on the ground during plyos allow your force to leak away AND exposes your joints to overuse injury risk. You need to be solid in the other four pillars. If you lack strength, stability, power or technique, you need to choose your plyos wisely, stay close to the ground, keep your sets short and stay heads up for anything that hurts or just doesn’t feel right!

Pro-tip: Find a way to initiate plyos with your glutes: as long as you rely on your calves and Achilles for the stretch shortening, you’re going to be less powerful and risk damaging those tissues.

Test and Retest: 3-Hop Test, Approach Vertical Jump

Cues: explode, get off the ground

Here are a few exercises that are awesome for training on-field explosiveness, with examples of how to focus on one of the pillars during the movement!

Weighted Pivoting – Pivot on each side for 20-30 seconds (both right and left sides!). Then hold a weight in same-side hand as the moving foot, pivoting and faking. End by pivoting again on both sides and noticing any upticks in quickness or core function.

Technique: Keep your knee stable as you fake. Make sure your lunges and pivots are as close to on-field technique as possible.

Stability: Keep your core tight as you pivot, and keep the weight connected to your body as you fake. Keep your hips level, don’t let one sink as you shift weight from backhand to forehand.

Strength: Load up the movement, and make sure you’re initiating with your glutes as you push off your active foot.

Accel Band Work – Find a partner, and put a band (or bicycle inner tube) around your hips. Leaning forward so your body’s on a diagonal, do a quick march across the field, with your partner following you. Progress that into sets of running, going for up to 10-15 yards, with full rest in between each rep to allow for maximal effort.

Power: Your whole body moves as a unit, driving force into the ground as your opposite knee drives you forward.

Technique: Do multiple sets of each version, focusing on one thing at a time (shin angle, posture, arm action etc) before putting them all together for the 10-15 yards.

Plyometrics: How fast can you make those steps without losing power? Push your hips into the band to more strongly access your glutes!

Bounds – These can start small and get bigger as your comfort with the movement grows. Landing on a stiff mid-foot, and propel yourself forward.

Plyometrics: Get off the ground! You’re always taking off…try not to “land” or “absorb” before you’re up again. Hot lava!

Stability: Watch your hips. Does one drop when you land? Try to keep them even! Stiff trunk.

Technique: Use your arms, and drive your knees in opposite directions in mid-air.

Some of my other favorite exercises for developing explosiveness: Dynamic Plank, Slide Lunges, Staggered DL, RLESS, Sled Running, Skater Squat, Weighted Sled Work, Jumps and Bounds (variations and progressions by Boyle), KB Swings, Lateral Hops, single-leg stair work (fun examples here), Band-Resisted KB Swings/Box Jumps, Hang Clean/Power Clean, DB Snatch

And also, here’ a really cool article by JB Morin on sprint mechanics in world-class athletes.

Let me know if you have any questions with any of these exercises or concepts. I always welcome feedback and input! :)

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  • cheese

    Oh so you have to be athletic?

    • Jonathan Neeley

      As a player and coach, I’ve always thought “athletic” to be one of the two most overused and meaningless terms in ultimate. What does it even mean? Is a person who runs a fast straight line 40 and who can squat twice their weight and who is ripped athletic even if they have trouble changing direction or seeing switches on defense or catching while running? I’d say no, but I hear people describe this person as “athletic” all the time. What about someone who’s kinda slow when you race them and can’t jump all that high, but who has excellent throws and field vision and who screws up opponents’ offenses by being in the right place at the right time?

      I’ve played sports my whole life, and I’ve always at least been alright, so maybe I’m athletic. I can definitely say that I want to be a better ultimate player, and on the physical side, thinking about the specifics behind that are a whole lot more useful to me than wondering about how I can be “athletic.”

      • Daichi Ito

        I respectfully disagree. Referring to your example, I would say yes, that person is athletic, just not necessarily a good ultimate player. Just because you are athletic doesn’t mean you will be good at any certain sport. Correct me if I’m wrong but I feel like you’re trying to compare athleticism (speed, vertical, quickness) and skill/experience (throws, field vision). To be a good ultimate player you need to have both.

        Also, different sports require different types of athleticism. What you need (athleticism wise) to be good fullback in football won’t get you very far as a center in soccer, and vice versa even if you know how to play both positions well. Different positions/sports require different types of athleticism.

        • SPowell

          I think you’d still have to agree that “athletic” is a nebulous term at best. Being an athlete is someone participating in a sport (another term without a hard definition, sure) and thus being more or less athletic must incorporate a degree of success within the sport. Because of the dominance in the US (and to only a slightly lesser degree here in Canada) of power sports, most North Americans immediately think strength and speed when they think athlete despite there is much more to athleticism than simply strength and speed. Balance, coordination, agility, and endurance are critical components of many sports, but because they are often secondary in football (grid-iron) and other North American sports they are often given less emphasis when discussing athletic prowess here in NA.

          You said there are different types of athleticism; I suggest instead that there are different facets to athleticism which are required in different amounts in different sports. Neymar is no less an athlete than say Marshawn Lynch even though 5 foot 9 Neymar weighs around 140 pounds and probably can’t squat, bench, or dead-lift half of what Lynch can. It’s also why things like 40-time are pretty meaningless as a prediction of success even within power sports – you need to hit some minimum benchmark, sure, but beyond that there isn’t much to read into.

          The youth of Ultimate as a sport means we don’t yet have our own definitions of peak athleticism and tend to borrow the ideas of the major sports we’re most exposed to (in NA that’s football, hockey, basketball, and baseball primarily). That being said, we’re beginning to see an increase in average height of players at the highest levels, with many teams now comprised of players with a mode of somewhere around 6’1 to 6’3. Players below 5’11 seem to be mostly handlers, a position which requires more quickness and less verticality.

          If I had to identify key athletic facets for ultimate they would be, in order of importance: Handlers: coordination and balance (for throws), quickness/agility (reset cuts), (top) speed; Receivers: explosiveness (jumping, hard changes of direction at speed), (top) speed, coordination and balance (catching, laying out, maintaining stability in air-battles). Please note that those are obviously large generalizations and, like in most sports, competence in most facets of athleticism are required.

          • neeley

            @SPowell, I like a lot of what you said. Especially:

            “You said there are different types of athleticism; I suggest instead that there are different facets to athleticism which are required in different amounts in different sports.”

            In my mind, someone who is athletic can change from sport to sport and at the very least “get it.” No, Neymar wouldn’t do so hot on an NFL field. But at a more zoomed out level, there’s a reason most pro athletes played sports year round growing up, or that most players at Nationals feel fine playing pickup basketball or soccer or going to the climbing gym outside of ultimate: they’re athletic, meaning their bodies and minds are good at picking up athletics.

            So going back to the original “oh so you have to be athletic” comment, sure, that’s the ticket to being good at ultimate. But the reason I like what you said is that we agree that there’s a whole lot more than goes into that than the narrow definition a lot of people use.

          • SPowell

            You’re right that there must be, at its core, a sort of platonic form to athleticism. Good athletes are often, as you said, through a combination of physical ability and mental astuteness to be pretty damn good or at least competent at most sports they try. Similarly, people we’d deem intelligent are often pretty good at understanding and providing some level of analysis or critical thought on topics they may not be experts in. Again, as you said, we often get hung up on definitions that are far too narrow.

          • Daichi Ito

            now that I’ve read more of how you think, I think we’re both right. It seems to me we’re arguing semantics? In my mind, athleticism (being fast, changing directions quickly, jumping high, etc) and skill (sort specific like throwing and field vision) are 2 separate things that are both important to be a good player while your definition include both. Am I wrong with this analysis?

          • SPowell

            I think you’re right that it’s semantic. We love to quantify and categorize everything and anything even if “nature”/reality rarely does itself. I think part of the point I was trying to make is that being truly athletic (as opposed to simply strong or fast) requires application within sport.

            Neely was arguing that strength and speed cannot be applied without some level of intuition and intelligence, and I was trying to make the case that there is more to physical prowess than pure strength and speed. I think we were both trying to fight the somewhat common belief that athleticism = raw physical ability.

            I also understand your inclination to separate skill and physical ability. Again, very semantic but what do you think of athleticism being where fitness meets finesse?

          • neeley

            I wouldn’t say that you’re right or wrong. What I’d say is that “athletic” is a really broad term that’s often conceptualized as only a few things when it’s actually a lot of things, and that you’re likely to either be more descriptive or understand things better if you get more specific.

        • neeley

          My issue is with using “athletic” to mean you’re fast, can jump high, and you’re quick. That’s definitely one definition, so no need to quibble there.

          But to me, the other definition, which more broadly encompasses traits that lead to success in athletics (sports), gets far too little thought from people who legitimately want to be better at ultimate.

          Of course size and straight line speed are important. But I also think they’re cosmetic in that they’re what people see first and have been taught to value, and if that’s all that they put into their definition of “athletic,” they’re barking up the wrong tree.

          Throws and field vision*, along with balance, footwork, and a laundry list that could go on, are physical, trainable parts of the game, and I think it’s a mistake to call someone who has those things unathletic while saying the opposite about the yolked person who has trouble reading a disc and running at the same time (or dribbling and running, or backpedalling as a cornerback, or seeing, saying, and processing “switch” while also exerting physical energy…”)

          *I can see someone arguing this because seeing the field happens in your brain. But being able to shuffle or backpedal for an extra step instead of fully turning your hips is certainly going to increase how much of the field you can see.

          So I agree with you that “different sports require different types of athleticism.” And that’s why I commented: I think what Ren is writing can help someone form the knowledge base they need to perform better, whereas “be more athletic” could end up with them being able to squat an awful lot and run a really fast 400 and dunk… in a sport where you don’t get any points for any of those things.

          • the cheese instigator

            YES, BABY’S FIRST TROLL!!!

  • Leah

    This article is awesome! My frisbee team wants to do once a week strength training in the gym. What movements would you prioritize for a 1 hour, 1 x a week workout focused on strength and quickness. I am familiar with a lot of the movements, just not sure which ones to pick. Thank you!!!

  • Ren Caldwell

    Good discussion on here! :) Just took a video last night of MC doing some work with a weighted sled if you wanna check it out…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kkj-7lBpvqA&feature=youtu.be

  • Mitch

    Great article, Ren! Under the technique section, one of your cues is a mid-foot strike. What exactly defines the “mid-foot”? Is it what most people refer to as the ball of the foot?

    • Ren Caldwell

      Yes and no…it’s the very back of the ball of the foot. The idea is that having strong dorsiflexion and a stiff foot encourages glute-driven power. :)