Training for Truly Explosive Strength With Explosive Eccentrics and More

By on August 29, 2017

Contrary to popular belief, there are in fact many different type of strength. When someone asks ‘how strong’ a person is, they are normally talking about their maximum strength or their ‘limit strength’ (which sounds awesome). That is the maximum amount of force that a person is able to expend sure, but what about the speed at which they can expend such force? This is known as starting strength or strength speed. Then there are questions such as relative strength (i.e. strength-to-weight ratio), which has a lot more impact on a person’s agile strength, or their general ability to move like spider-man.

Curling barbell

In other words, you have your hulking behemoths and you have your Bruce Lees… and then everything in between. I have to admit, I’m slightly more excited by the prospect of explosive strength, which is effectively synonymous with starting strength and our ability to recruit huge amounts of fast-twitch muscle fiber in a short space of time.

This is what allows us to throw a powerful punch, to run faster and to jump higher. I’ve been looking into this kind of training for my ‘skills training’ day and I’ve found some interesting concepts that go beyond the usual ‘use plyometrics’ advice.

Beyond Plyometrics

The usual advice when it comes to building explosive strength is to use plyometric training. Plyometric exercises are anything that involve generating power quickly and explosively and the most popular example is the box jump. Simply stand underneath a box and then leap up on top of it to recruit as much fast-twitch fiber as you can.

Leap

You are generating force this way and relying on muscle fiber with lots of mitochondria. This places demands on the body and the body adapts. The SAID principle is never broken (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). Simply put, to jump higher, practice jumping high. To create more explosive strength in the upper body, use explosive movements like the snatch. Or take up bouldering and perform lots of dynos (hang from a good handhold and then propel yourself up the wall with just your arms).

Another personal favourite of mine are calf jumps, where you launch off of your tip-toes without bending your legs. Squat jumps will do something similar. And so too will

But we know all this. How about something different?

A Little More Detail

First, let’s dive into this notion in a little more granular detail.

Yes, explosive bodyweight movements work as long as you perform them in an explosive manner. This is because in terms of initial muscle fiber recruitment, the body will treat speed and resistance the same – it’s all about rapidly applying force.

bin hurdle

If you wish to do the same thing with weight, with the squat or the bench press for instance, then you need to use enough weight. Specifically, you need to observe the rule of 90%, which is to say that you should challenge yourself with 90% of your one rep max in order to recruit the larger, more explosive type IIb muscle fibers.

BUT you also still need to lift the weight in an explosive way. Having the heaviest squat does not necessarily ensure the best vertical jump because you might not be able to call on that power as fast as is necessary to launch yourself off the ground. This is why 90% is preferable to 100% – because for most people the speed of the lift will increase at this point significantly.

You can also increase explosiveness in your regular lifts by focussing on the start of the movement – the beginning of the range of movement (ROM). This might even mean using partial reps (training just part-way through the movement) as you do when you perform 21s, or when using burns at the end of a set.

Accentuate the Negative

Another way we can categorize strength is in terms of the portion of the movement:

  • Concentric
  • Isometric
  • Eccentric

Concentric strength is the contractile strength: the positive strength or our ability to curl the weight up in the first place.

Isometric strength is static strength. This is the ability to hold a weight in place without moving through the range of motion.

Finally, eccentric strength deals with the negative portion of the movement. This is the part where we lower the weight and where the muscles lengthen again – it is our eccentric strength that allows us to handle this in a controlled manner. This is the force you are capable of exerting while muscle is elongated, which happens to play a critical role in our explosive power.

Eccentric Isometric Training

This is because our muscle essentially works like a spring, to store energy while it is stretched. That is why before we jump, we usually squat down slightly first. Likewise, before we throw, we normally pull our arms back first. The reverse punch in karate starts with the first pulled back at the hip and twisted to face the ceiling. That stores potential energy.

And when you then launch yourself up in the air or throw that punch, the stronger the muscle is in the elongated position, the more energy it stores and the greater your power output.

There are other reasons to train eccentric strength too. For one, this kind of training allows you to lift much heavier loads – your eccentric strength is up to 1.75 times greater than your contractile strength. Eccentric training even appears to encourage recruitment of more muscle fiber (reference).

Interestingly, eccentric training is also good for flexibility and can be used for injury correction.

jumping over dustbin

Suffice to say guys, that eccentric training can increase explosive power. And I’ve heard testimony from many fitness coaches who have used this kind of training to help their athletes jump higher, hit harder and run faster.

To use this kind of training, you can try what are known in bodybuilding as ‘negatives’. These exercises involve lifting a weight that is too heavy for you and then lowering it very slowly. You might do this by using a spotter, by using a free arm (for unilateral movements) or by using machines.

To Go Even Further Beyond

Want to go even further beyond? Then how about incorporating depth jumps and ‘shock training’ into your regime?

The idea is that you train in such a way that the body is required to absorb shock and then return that energy in an explosive manner. The best example of this kind of training is the depth jump. Here, you jump from a short height (around 42 inches for maximum benefit) and then you land and spring back up spending less than 0.2 seconds on the ground. Higher heights can also be used but not until the athlete is able to squat 1.5 times their own body weight – as shock absorption from a drop of >42” may be three or four times the athlete’s bodyweight!

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This move requires sudden eccentric strength in order to absorb the impact. This triggers the myotatic reflex – a function of our reflexive strength that causes muscles that are rapidly elongating to suddenly tighten and shorten (this same mechanism prevents us from falling over when we lose our balance).

That causes the individual to be able to jump much higher than they would be able to off the ground. But at the same time, they are also training their eccentric strength in an explosive manner in order to improve their regular jumping ability too. Not only that, but neurogenic effects occur due to the incredibly short time between the stretching and shortening phase. Eventually, the pre-motor cortex anticipates the shock and the firing rate of the myotatic reflex increases. In other words, the CNS learns to spring up from that position and thus the muscle fibres begin to activate faster and faster. Resulting in explosive strength!

Meanwhile the shock massively stimulates the CNS and this increases ‘muscular excitation’ for even more power over time. One study of volleyball players found that they gained 14% increases in jumping maximal strength by using a depth jumping program (study).

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In other words, eccentric training is fantastic for developing explosive power, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that eccentric training performed explosively should be possibly even better! Performing negatives is hard without a spotter, but remember: the body considers resistance and velocity to be the same. If you are slowing yourself from plunging fast, it is the equivalent of performing a negative with several times your bodyweight.

And if nothing else, the ability to shock absorb and to decelerate is incredibly useful in a range of situations – such as changing direction in sports.

Some Cool Explosive Exercises

Other than depth jump, what else can you do to train the eccentric portion of the movement in a plyometric fashion? What other explosive exercises are there?

One is of course the clapping press up. Simply perform press ups and on each rep, launch yourself into the air, clap, and then land and catch yourself again. I did a lot of these when I was younger, which might explain why I always had such a great bench when I started lifting properly.

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Another great move that involves clapping is the clapping pull up. Perform a pull up, launch yourself in the air, clap, catch the bar, slow your decent and then immediately launch yourself back in the air again! You can even drop down and perform a depth jump from the bar, or even transition that immediately into a clapping press up. Can’t clap? Don’t worry, that’s not the point. In this case you can simply launch yourself a fraction over the bar – whatever you’re capable of.

Then there are all those exercises that involve throwing and catching. Perhaps the best example would be kettlebell juggling. But look, there’s nothing stopping you from performing the bench press with a throw and a catch either… I’m serious!

Just start light and be careful. That goes for all of this. If the weight slips you won’t be training explosively… you’ll just be exploding!

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.