Quick: Which of your muscle fibers are the strongest ones? Your hand probably just shot up faster than a dumbbell snatch to answer, "The fast-twitch muscle fibers, coach!" Right. And how do you train those fibers? By performing movements—every movement—explosively, right? Whether it's a bench press, squat, deadlift, biceps curl, or rope press-down, you move that weight aggressively. Everybody knows that!
Well, maybe everybody is wrong. I'll admit that I've drunk this particular Kool-Aid in the past, and I've told people to train this way. But over time, I've come to see a couple of problems with the "all-out, all the time" approach:
When you have less time to perform a rep and try to do it as quickly as possible, you have less control. This creates more room for error—and injury. This is a common stumbling block for younger lifters who may be athletic, but lack training maturity and discernment.
Failing to lifting weights explosively doesn't magically negate the muscle-building effects from training. During the first 10-15 seconds of any working set, the body relies on the phosphocreatine energy system, using ATP and creatine. As long as your sets are within that time window, and you're using a substantial load, you'll be primarily utilizing your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Today, I believe there's a time to be controlled, and a time to explode. Instead of messing with your concentric tempo by using fast reps, save your explosive power for exercises that must be done explosively.
Perform the following three techniques properly, and yes, they will help you tap into your high-threshold motor units, slap on some lean pounds, and send your conditioning through the roof. But "properly" is the operative word. So let's jump right in!
1. Contrast Sets
This is the easiest way to incorporate both bodybuilding training and unloaded explosive training in the same workout—and boy is it effective. Contrast sets involve a loaded movement that's immediately followed by an unloaded, plyometric variation of the same movement pattern.
This will "trick" the muscles being trained to overfire, since they'll contract using the strength needed to move the load. Here are a few superset examples:
You'll be sweating and sucking wind pretty quickly, but make no mistake; this isn't cardio. It's hypertrophy training! The "overfire" component tricks the muscles being trained, stimulating your fast-twitch fibers like crazy.
Until you're willing to learn Olympic lifting—not a bad suggestion—this is perhaps the best way to turn explosive movements into lean mass gains.
2. Box Jumps—the Right Way
Box jumps are a gym staple for a reason: They're great at building strong, fast, tireless wheels that can lift big in the gym and back it up on the tarmac or pitch. But here's the problem: Almost every time I enter any gym, I see some lifter butchering box jumps.
You'd think an exercise this simple would be something people could perform in their sleep, but alas, the highlight reel of box-jump fails is immense and growing every day. So let's set the record straight.
Whether you're jumping onto a 12-inch box or one of those 4-footers that looks like a small building, the same principles apply:
Stand far enough from the box that your hands don't knock into it on your way up. You need enough space to go through a full, aggressive arm swing. At the same time, make sure you don't stand so far from it that you land with lots of forward momentum.
Land on the box with bent legs, making as little noise as possible on the box. Keeping your weight more on the balls of your feet and less in the heels will help with this. If you can't land softly, the box is too high, and it's doing more harm than good. Practice jumping with a knee-tuck in order to make this more of a possibility.
Treat each rep as its own set. That means you pause before you take off, and pause in a half-squat position once you've landed. Don't be one of those spastic jumpers with no regard for precision. Set your feet, slowly squat down while staying tight, coordinate the arms, and then explode.
After you've jumped onto the box, don't jump down. This is plyometric training 101, people. Step off the box. Jumping down is an injury waiting to happen for most of us, so leave the depth jumps for the competitive athletes. If your box is too high to step down from, set up a bench or lower box to make a mini-staircase.
This can't be emphasized enough: box jumps are a power exercise, not cardio or conditioning, so train them for low reps. I never prescribe more than 6 reps of box jumps at a time for myself or clients. Form goes down in a hurry once fatigue becomes a factor. Focus on quality, not quantity.
3. Plyometrics and Sprinting
One- and two-legged bounding, stair hops, plyo push-ups, and basic sprinting over short distances are great full-body muscle developers. Unlike box jumps, they can also make for great additions to the early part of a cardio routine. However, similar to box jumps, sprinting in particular is a skill that takes time to learn.
Master the fundamentals, though, and you'll get rewarded with both added muscle and overall athleticism. To hammer home proper form, implement the following three classic drills into your warm-up. Perform enough of each of them to feel warm and limber before your sprints, then cool down with a few minutes of light jogging and stretching afterward.
In each case, notice that I never let up on my arm drive. This is important, as the arms basically direct the legs and dictate their power and frequency. I was a national-level sprinter, so don't expect your form to look like mine right away.
Take it slow and build a foundation before you embark on an ambitious sprint program—and the same goes for jumps and contrast training. Then, once you're ready, explode off the ground and leave your old body behind!