For more than a year now, society has had to drastically change the way it operates to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries, states, and cities around the world have been forced to balance the safety of their citizens with keeping businesses open in order to prevent a total economic collapse. Too few regulations have been met with the repercussions of higher case rates and too many regulations have been met with resistance from civilians, as they are unable to work, socialize, and maintain their livelihoods in such uncertain times. On many occasions, there has been some type of regulation placed on the utilization of gyms, training facilities, and the like to prevent the spread of the virus; whether by limiting the number of people allowed in a facility, mandating masks throughout, or closing all gym facilities completely until further notice.
This has presented many issues in training, as athletes have long depended on relatively unrestricted access to resources in the weight room to develop alongside their team and coaches throughout the year. With facilities under different regulations, athletes and coaches have been challenged to find creative ways to train to avoid losing all of the progress they’d made until the pandemic hit.
I’ve seen more athletes performing isometrics with pickup trucks, flipping tractor tires, and swinging sledgehammers than ever before. I’m both encouraged and inspired to see so many of our community leaders and young athletes finding solutions to stay in shape without their usual performance tools and equipment. It goes to show just how resilient humans can be when we brainstorm to find ways to solve problems and situations that otherwise would prevent us from being great.Given the circumstances of the pandemic and what I’ve seen…there are more conventional & safer ways to continue to build force production capacity when traditional training isn’t easily accessible. Click To Tweet
Given the circumstances of the pandemic and what I’ve seen, I think there are more conventional and safer ways to continue to build force production capacity when traditional training isn’t easily accessible. There is a false notion that an athlete must be lifting a barbell in order to perform any meaningful strength work. While it may be easier to throw plates on a barbell and lift to progressively overload training, you don’t always need a ton of resistance to improve your explosiveness. If unable to find challenging resistance, you can still get a great quality training session by altering the velocity, sets, reps, and rest intervals (among other things) to challenge the body in different ways and continue to improve in a meaningful way.
Adding a Final Touch to Medicine Ball Throws
It may seem odd to some, but an extremely effective way to improve power is to start incorporating medicine ball throws into your training program. The beauty of the medicine ball is that it can be utilized in a multitude of ways, ranging from a simple chest pass to the overhead backward toss, a jump to throw variation, slam, and much more. The fact that they are relatively light in weight compared to the weight you might put on a bar for a back squat or deadlift allows the athlete to perform the movements with much more velocity than they’re used to. In my experience, it has served as a great key performance indicator because as medicine ball throws improve in various planes, I have also tended to see gains in the broad jump, vertical jump, triple broad jump, 10-yard sprint, and bar speed in the weight room.
Medicine balls come in a variety of weights to allow you to continue to challenge the athlete in new ways. There are some coaches who don’t believe medicine balls should ever be heavier than 6-8 pounds, while there are others who believe you should exclusively use medicine balls that are 10-12 pounds or heavier for it to carry over. I recommend starting somewhere in the middle as an initial assessment, and you can increase or decrease the weight based on what you see. It is also worth being mindful of the diameter of the ball as it can significantly affect the throwing capacity of each athlete.
There are many ways you can assess the medicine ball throws over time, and I know that there may be differences out there. A common method is to compare the body weight of the athlete with the weight of the ball and then use that ratio to objectively grade the medicine ball throw. How far did the 150-pound athlete throw a 15-pound medicine ball? How long was the medicine ball in the air on a vertical throw? What is the max velocity of the ball?
Pay close attention to the projection angles and make sure that you’re coaching the loading, swing, and release phases appropriately. A few degrees in one direction or the other can be the difference between a flat laser beam throw, a moon toss, and an incredible throw.
Video 1. An example of what I call “popcorn throws,” in which an athlete or group of athletes performs max throws for height off of the bounce of the previous throw. It keeps all athletes engaged, provides opportunities for intra group competition during the exercise, and most importantly, it’s fun!
In 2001, Barry Stockbrugger and Robert Haennel published a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that showed overhead backward medicine ball throws are both reliable and valid measures of explosion with regard to total body movements and general athletic abilities. Personally, I use this test along with the between the legs forward (BLF) throw for power testing. I also like to use the chest pass, rotational throws, popcorn throws, and reactive catapult throws for development.
You don’t have to include a ton of throws for a good CNS response. I’ve had good success with my athletes using 1-3 sets of 3-5 throws and choosing anywhere from 1-3 variations depending on which part of the season they’re in, how long I’ve been working with them, the sport(s) they play, what they’re doing outside of my sessions with their teams, and myriad other factors. Additionally, if you notice the distances begin to fall off, it may be a good time to take set rest or end the throws entirely. You may have overestimated their readiness for what you had planned for them and getting ahead of it is extremely important as you may be reaching a point of diminishing returns and digging them into a deficit.
Sprinting for Deep Neuromuscular Adaptions
The ultimate exercise to both express and develop speed and power is sprinting. No matter which form it takes, proper sprinting is an extremely potent stimulus that, under the right circumstances, has acceptable risk with substantial rewards.
In the weight room, even with velocity-based training, a fast rep is when the bar is moving 1-1.3 m/s or slightly faster. For traditional weightlifting standards, this is the extent of “speed” and power training, and for some readers, these velocities may seem eye-popping. On the track, a 1.00 m/s average velocity would be the equivalent of a 100-second 100-meter dash, whereas a competitive high school time would be anywhere from the low 11-second to the high 10-second range (around 9-9.3 m/s average velocity).
Sprinting allows us to prime and improve the maximum potential of the CNS, the rate that it recruits motor units, the number of motor units recruited, subsequent force outputs, and the ability to contract and relax quickly as our muscles switch on and off throughout the stride cycle. Can you guess what other activities may benefit from these qualities being improved upon? You guessed it: jumping, throwing, changing direction, and lifting, along with a laundry list of other important athletic attributes. Time and time again, I’ve seen athletes with relatively little weightlifting experience, formal jump training, medicine ball work, etc. put up insane numbers when performing testing following the speed training work that they do with me. Sprint training really is THAT powerful.The biggest mistake many coaches make is overvaluing the benefits of conditioning while overlooking the massive training effects that can be unlocked with maximum effort sprinting. Click To Tweet
The biggest mistake many coaches make is overvaluing the benefits of conditioning while overlooking the massive training effects that can be unlocked with maximum effort sprinting. Conditioning can be done through properly structured team practices by repeatedly exposing athletes to the demands of the sport. What team sports don’t typically achieve is maximal speed efforts that lead to further development. Setting aside time in structured training to do maximal short sprint work (0-60 yards), whether socially distanced or remotely, can be the missing link that begins to tip the scales in your favor.
Video 2. Sprinting, the ultimate plyometric, takes an athlete out of their comfort zone to perform coordinated, repeated, violent limb swings that require optimal core control for adequate performance. If a sprint quality is lacking—such as stiffness, limb velocity, striking mechanics, posture, or any other attribute that is important to performance—the overall sprint times will suffer accordingly. Being able to screen for these deficiencies provides coaches with opportunities to audit their own programming and provide individualization to address the deficits in their athletes.
Mastering, Managing, and Modifying Plyometrics
In team sports, many times plyometrics are used to warm up or fill time, but rarely are they tediously prescribed or performed with a given focus in mind (from what I’ve seen). I recently shared an article outlining the benefits of proper plyometric prescription, and I believe they’re a great complement to max effort sprint training. I don’t tend to use them as a filler, but rather, I use them as movement prep and a CNS primer prior to sprinting.
Think about the high jumpers and long jumpers who progress over time. While technical improvements are certainly pivotal in making these gains, the biggest differential for many is the ability to produce a lot of force very quickly and orient it in the right direction at the right point in time. The more you practice something, the better you get.
So how do you think these athletes are improving their jump measures? It is not from random plyometrics sprinkled throughout the program (though some of them may be helping), but rather, performing high jump, long jump, and exercises that resemble the demands of their competitive events in training. For team sport athletes, a blend of activities that require accelerating, decelerating, changing directions, or lateral, rotational, or backward movements along with reactionary components serve the athletes well in developing the whole package.
The key is we need to ensure these drills are advancing and redirecting the center of mass throughout. If the feet are just moving really fast and the center of mass isn’t moving in a meaningful way, we need to coach the athlete up or spend our time on other drills that will progress those attributes.A simple bang for your buck is using the vertical jump or broad jump tests to double as training modalities to improve speed and power, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
A simple bang for your buck is using the vertical jump or broad jump tests to double as training modalities to improve speed and power. Progressions may consist of double leg stance, stagger stance, single leg, assisted or resisted variations of each, and then chaining jumps together with and without obstacles. Another way to alter these is to change the landing parameters. Some coaches prefer to have athletes stick landings, while others prefer to limit ground contact times as much as possible. Working each in isolation and then mixing them together in various phases throughout training will likely yield the best results, as we are working every aspect of athletic development rather than only one piece of it.
If we focus in too much on one-dimensional drills and training, a lot is left on the table. An example of this would be an athlete who focuses too much on lateral movements and not linear. They may be shifty and good at mirroring athletes at lower speeds, but they may not have the breakaway speed to run away or run down an opponent.
On the flip side, an athlete who is too focused on linear work may have the wheels to get into position to make a play but lack the deceleration and reactionary capacity to finish the job. It’s best from a plyometric standpoint to develop the totality of the athlete to improve qualities that they’ll call upon frequently during competition. This will allow them to thrive in uncertain conditions and ultimately maximize their playmaking abilities along the way.
Video 3. There are virtually no limits to plyometric prescription other than a coach’s imagination and ability to instruct, as well as their ability to identify faults and correct them in real time. Due to the nature of tendon loading, high force demands, and the potential multidirectional nature of plyometrics, it is imperative that safety and proper dosage are incorporated throughout.
Old School Hill Sprints for Athletic Development
Because sleds can be expensive and/or cumbersome to set up and put away after every training session, I deferred to the use of hill training early on in my performance training endeavors. They are as cost effective as they are convenient, and with a little bit of searching, you can likely find a hill that suits your needs. Whether the hill is excessively short and steep or very long and gradual, you can adapt your training to match what you have available to you.
Similar to medicine balls, the hill can be a diverse training tool in developing speed and power. Because the incline can vary, hills have different levels of difficulty that present a spectrum of challenges for your athletes. As the grade of the hill increases, the force requirements to successfully navigate the hill increase as well.
Due to requiring extra force to be successful, steeper hills or hills in general may expose shortcomings in force production in weaker sprinters, whereas the stronger sprinters will likely thrive. Weak and strong sprinters aren’t determined by their numbers in the weight room, but rather by the ability to effectively use their force production capacity to accelerate and build momentum in a given training or competitive environment.I don’t think it’s as common for coaches to have their athletes perform plyometrics and drill progressions on a hill for contrast effect, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
I believe that It is intuitive for most coaches that sprinting on a hill can be an effective training stimulus. What I don’t think is as common is for coaches to have their athletes perform plyometrics and drill progressions on a hill for a contrast effect.
For example, when an athlete performs an activity on the hill, they get used to applying x% greater force to be successful in the task. When you take them back to flat ground to perform the same task, there may be a temporary spike in their performances as they’re recruiting more motor units than they usually would to execute the task. I attribute this to learning how to overcome the hill followed by using the newfound feeling of greater force recruitment and applying it to flat ground sprinting, jumping, medicine ball throwing, etc.
While it may seem I only like the hill for the short term, I think it serves as a great continuous learning opportunity and occasional reference point in the long term. The weaker athletes get the benefit of simulated “resisted sprinting,” and the stronger athletes can refine their execution of the acceleration over time. I’ve not done any force plate assessments or things of that nature to measure the effects of the hill; however, immediate improvements in sprint times, jumps, and medicine ball throws all lead me to believe that the effects are potent. As athletes gain more exposure to the hill, I feel that the coordination paired with the increased muscular demands over time further improve the KPIs listed above.
Due to the increased demands of the hill, it doesn’t take as much training volume or rep distances to achieve your desired outcomes. I’ve found good hill sprint work to take place within about a 4- to 9-second time frame with casual walk back rest between, or longer if the athletes are approaching fatigue.
Additionally, it may be good to limit sprinting on the concrete, as shin splints can become apparent with too much volume on the incline and an unforgiving surface. A good grass hill can be a good substitute, just make sure that the hill isn’t wet and slippery. Safety should come first with any training approach, so be cautious before forcing any new training into your program.
Video 4. Hills provide unique challenges and situations in which unique drills can be implemented as well. In addition to the usual plyometrics, mechanical drills, and sprint workouts, you can come up with some abstract exercises to help emphasize the push and gradually bleed the new skill into other drills and speed work.
Look Beyond Traditional Weight Training
When it comes to training, coaches historically have turned to the weight room for solutions to everything. The idea that the weight room is needed for all speed and power solutions is a tale as old as time. It has led to many athletes feeling like they are losing all of their progress since they’ve been prohibited from weight training facilities during the pandemic. In reality, speed and power are complementary qualities that we can develop very effectively outside of the weight room. The categories listed above are very broad and can be as useful as you make them. However, they are not the only ways to improve force-producing capacities.The idea that the weight room is needed for all speed and power solutions is a tale as old as time, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
Resistance bands are a very cheap and effective way to replace certain components of the weight room. While the overload principle is limited to the amount of tension your bands can provide, working muscles in different planes with bands has been a popular workaround in these troubling times. Another popular one I’ve seen is loading up backpacks with canned goods for resistance training.
The point here is that the four topics I mention above are not by any means the end-all, be-all to speed and power development outside of the weight room. Rather, they are effective ways to improve the total athlete in the absence of traditional weight training.
My recommendation is that you find something that is easily accessible, affordable (or free!), and safe to perform consistently. The first time you perform some of these activities, it may seem hard and discouraging. Your balance may be off, you may have difficulty controlling your body, you may not be as fast as you’d like to be, you may feel sluggish accelerating out of your cuts, or you may just not be firing on all cylinders. The more often you can practice doing athletic things, the more likely it is that you’ll be ready to do athletic things when the time comes. Consistently train what matters and the performances will take care of themselves.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
Stockbrugger, B. and Haennel, R. “Validity and Reliability of a Medicine Ball Explosive Power Test.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2001;15(4):431-438.
Beato, M., Bianchi, M., Coratella, G., Merlini, M., and Drust, B. “Effects of Plyometric and Directional Training on Speed and Jump Performance in Elite Youth Soccer Players.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2018;32(2):289-296.