Building power in the gym means moving weight fast to recruit the most motor units possible. This typically involves a healthy dose of power cleans and perhaps a few variations of the other classic Olympic lifts, but I'm here to help you broaden your training horizons.
When it comes to building serious power and explosiveness, you have options and it's not just 'change for the sake of change.' The more athletes I've worked with, the more I've been forced to expand my power training toolbox beyond just the basics – and the results have been far better than simply power cleaning till the proverbial cows come home.
Each of the following movements should be programmed early in your daily training session, just as you would any explosive movement. You'll get the most out of these power training movements while fresh.
Your goal with each movement is to recruit the maximum number of motor units before fatigue sets in.
You didn't expect a lover of the Oly lifts to choose something other than a variation of an Olympic lift for first on the list, did you? Sorry to disappoint if you did, but the hang snatch wins out for the best explosive power movement.
In terms of power output, the snatch matches the clean closely (1), but for pure coolness the snatch wins every time. And let's be honest, coolness is a big part of a great training program.
The snatch may be heavy on technique, but once you get the 'hang' of it (after some serious coaching, I hope), you'll find its power-creating potential to be unparalleled; power that carries over to the rest of the weightroom. I've never met an athlete that's strong enough to snatch 225-pounds that couldn't squat, clean, and bench with the strongest carnivores in the gym.
I chose the hang snatch over the power snatch because it's much easier for most to achieve a respectable start position from the hang than it is from the floor. The snatch from the floor takes a ton of mobility at both the hips and ankles, and for many athletes this is an area that requires a serious intervention.
The traditional kettlebell swing could also make my list, as it's one of the first tools I use to teach young athletes the power of a well-executed hip hinge movement. However, most athletes will find themselves quickly running out of 'bells as they start to get stronger. Adding band resistance to this movement can add 30-70 pounds of resistance at the top while addressing the end range of hip extension.
It' simple to add band resistance with a half-inch to one-inch band. Just loop it through the handle and then back through itself, then step on the end of the band with each foot and you're all set to swing. This movement has the added benefit of not requiring you to buy giant, novelty-sized kettlebells.
Bonus "No band" Movement: Kettlebell Spikes
What happens when you don't have any bands that fit the bill? Simply enlist an awesome partner to help you perform the kettlebell "spike." At the top of each swing, have your friend mimic the action of a band and spike the kettlebell back toward the ground. This requires you to resist a tremendous eccentric force, so prepare to feel it in the old hammies tomorrow.
At some point, putting a bar overhead became unfairly vilified, much like Ivan Drago after he steamrolled the beloved Apollo Creed in an exhibition boxing match. This is a shame, as the jerk creates more power than any other movement in the gym, and Apollo should've realized that "exhibition" in Russian loosely translates to "ass whipping."
The jerk has been shown to generate more power than both the clean and the snatch (2), and is a tremendous movement for developing power through quad-dominant movement.
The power jerk is an awesome move as well, explosive and total body, but splitting the feet takes the movement to the next level. Much of what you do as an athlete revolves around being able to adapt to changing conditions, and changing from a bilateral stance to an offset, semi-unilateral stance trains you to be adaptable.
It also trains your lead leg to be strong in absorbing force. If you have any aspirations of being fast or athletic, this movement is a must for your training program.
Let's just get this out of the way: throwing things is a good time. It's also an unbridled expression of power. Throwing a medicine ball is unlike anything else that we can do in the gym. No deceleration period, only acceleration.
This is also the first movement on my list that trains power in the transverse plane. Transverse plane power is necessary for nearly every athlete, from the high level football player during a change of direction to the beer league softball player-during all non-beer drinking activities.
Throwing a medicine ball is also an awesome core movement to redirect force from the ground through the upper body. The linkage between hip rotation, core stability, and the expression of power through the upper body is hard to miss and tough to beat. Make sure you generate power through the lower body and rotate the back foot to finish the movement.
In the video one of my athletes is doing a medicine ball side throw, but you could do the same drill with a pressing motion to make it even more effective in your upper body training.
No list of explosive training movements would be complete without some variation of the power clean. For the same reasons that I chose the hang snatch (mobility requirements) over the power snatch, I'm going with the clean from blocks over a power clean from the floor.
For most athletes, cleans from the floor are difficult to do with good form. Starting the lift off blocks provides the same explosive benefits without exposing your back to injury.
There's a performance benefit as well. By eliminating the eccentric lowering of the bar to the start position, power cleans from blocks also help develop starting strength.
In the video I'm doing power cleans from a low block (to work on my transition around the knee), but you could do them from any height that suits your needs.
The Olympic pull is one of the best tools available to improve power, and is an absolute must if you have any interest in being a better Olympic lifter. At higher loads, the pull is a great way to develop power and get acquainted with moving serious weight in the Olympic lifts.
Both the clean pull and snatch pull help improve your feel with either lift, and you can also do a similar movement with a trap bar. The big advantage with the trap bar is that it allows you to keep the load closer to your center of gravity as opposed to in front of the body in the traditional pull.
The pull is great for athletes with flexibility limitations or when trying to reduce the impact on the upper body. Just be careful not to let the quality of the movement diminish when the weights start to get heavy.
In the video I'm doing pulls from a deficit first and then contrasting it with a pull from the ground level. Only athletes that have sufficient mobility should try pulls from a deficit.
We've been able to figure out a ton of ways to increase power; unfortunately, most of these methods occur in the sagittal plane. And if you're an athlete – or work with athletes – improving power in only the sagittal plane will only get you so far. To be truly powerful, in every direction, you need to train in multiple planes.
The crossover sled drag is an awesome tool to train in the frontal (side to side) plane. This explosive move is just like the first step that aspiring NFL players take when they test their lateral movement at the NFL combine. Heavy crossover sled drags also train your backside like nothing you've ever done before and leave you super sore when you stumble out of bed the next day.
This movement was first introduced to me by coach Robert Dos Remedios and immediately became one of my favorite training tools. A simple rotation of the sandbag (or kettlebell, if no sandbag is available) while descending into a reverse lunge will challenge your strength and core stability in the elusive transverse plane.
Then, when you add in the power of a swing, what you wind up with is a really cool explosive movement – the swing requires decelerating the implement at the bottom of the movement before you explode from the lead leg into hip and knee extension.
While most plyometrics take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle to produce power, the seated box jump removes all eccentric loading and allows athletes to focus on only the explosive, concentric action of the movement.
Taking out the swing of the arms will force you to focus on developing power from the ground up. To take this movement to the next level, hug a weight to your chest. Now you have a loaded plyometric movement that doesn't trash your joints. Not too shabby.
Like any box jump, make sure you're truly able to land on the box to which you're jumping. Choosing a box that's too high doesn't make you more of a man, though it will remove some flesh from your shins when you miss.
Most of the movements used to train explosive power have a distinct lower body bias. Training the lower body to be more explosive will make you more athletic andÊ teach you to recruit the muscles needed to power through a squat and sprint faster, but explosive upper body power is also important to being freakishly strong in the weightroom.
The supine medicine ball reactive throw is an awesome tool to improve upper body power. These throws train you to maintain a good position through a fast eccentric phase, and then explode through the concentric motion to finish strong. Try using these throws in a superset with the bench press and watch yourself power through the lockout.
Don't believe the rhetoric that you can't build or improve explosiveness. It can be done, and it begins with hitting the old school staples like the power clean and snatch with gusto.
However, don't be fooled into thinking that these are the only tools in your toolbox. You have at least 10 other drills (to be discussed later?) at your disposal, and the more expansive your assortment of explosive movements, the better you'll be at rising to whatever athletic challenges may be in your future.
- USA Weightlifting Club Coach Manual. USA Weightlifting. Colorado Springs, CO (2010). Print.
- Stone MH. Position paper and literature review: Explosive exercises and training. Natl Strength Cond Assoc J. 1993 Jun;15(3):6.