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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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! :)