Laying a base of strength and muscle through controlled resistance training is essential for building and maintaining athleticism, but as with all things, the law of diminishing returns is in effect. While I like the sound of 45 pound plates ringing together as much as the next guy, there comes a point where the juice is no longer worth the squeeze, and many of my athletes feel likewise.
Whether because of age, injury history, personal preference, or just plain lack of necessity, very few of the people I work with are interested in continuing to push up their lifting numbers after we’ve reached an adequate level of “barbell strength,” and I agree with their sentiment. Once a trainee can bench press 1.25x bodyweight, squat 1.5x bodyweight, and deadlift 2x bodyweight, all for sets and reps, barbell training beyond maintenance levels no longer holds any real utility. That having been said, just because we abandon the idea of progress with the barbell doesn’t mean we leave off the idea of progressive resistance training, we just tweak the way we go about manipulating intensity.
During conventional barbell training, intensity is manipulated primarily via load. The more weight you lift, the higher the intensity, the stronger you get. While this works fine for a while, what most trainees find is that a long term focus on conventional lifting results in excess weight gain, development of the “prime movers” out of proportion with the “stabilizing muscles”, a reduction in sport speed and form, and an ever-increasing chance of injury as the weights climb. For most sporting populations, especially those dependent upon speed and agility, these can be serious issues. What we’ve done, in my gym, to get around these limitations is throw out load as the primary means of manipulating intensity, and replace it with speed and/or amplitude.
If you remember back to high school physics, Force is equal to Mass times Acceleration, and since we’ve decided that the mass we’re lifting is heavy enough, that only leaves us with one other option for increasing force output: increase speed. We accomplish this by reducing weight lifting volumes to a minimum and instead focusing on throws, jumps, and rebounds in an effort to further increase both general strength levels and the speed at which we can realize them.
Broadly speaking, these efforts are broken up into two categories:
- Concentric ballistics
- Reactive ballistics
Concentric ballistics are primarily dependent upon voluntary concentric muscular strength and, since they lack a major eccentric/elastic component, don’t create significant levels of neural or muscular fatigue. The opposite of concentric ballistics, reactive ballistics are largely dependent upon involuntary stretch reflex action, eccentric strength, and tendinous contributions, and are much more draining on the system. Regardless of their specific natures, both are useful tools and can be easily incorporated into a general strength program.
For concentric ballistics, the majority of the work we do is in the form of throws, paused jumps, and hammer swings. Whatever the specific movement, the key to reaping rewards from this sort of training is maximal effort each and every rep with full recoveries in between. Submaximal work won’t do much for continued strength gains, and getting anything out of concentric ballistics requires a considerable amount of mental input. The only real way we’ve found to consistently produce this level of engagement is to measure each and every throw and strive to beat our bests from throw to throw and from session to session. While neural learning usually allows an athlete to increase their distances for several sessions before stalling, when an athlete does fail to improve a specific throw over two consecutive sessions, we change either the throw or the load so as to “reset” and give him a new target to focus on. Weights used range from a 10 pound medicine ball to a 120 pound sandbag, and specific movements vary depending upon our goals.
For hinging patterns, we focus on overhead backwards (OHB) and between the legs forwards (BLF) throws with rocks, medicine balls, or sandbags, and try for maximal distance. For squatting patterns, we perform medicine ball or sandbag thrusters, measuring output by either the height or the distance the load is thrown, we also do box jumps from a seated position, thereby eliminating the countermovement. For pressing patterns we perform chest passes and standing shot puts, and again, measure for height or distance, and for abdominal strengthening, we use heavy sledgehammers for both linear and rotational swings, usually into a tractor tire, we also throw and slam medicine balls, though we have no reliable way to measure output in either of these variations.
Overhead Backward Throws
Again, regardless of the specific movement, the focus is always on low volumes (usually ~10 reps per throw pattern), maximal outputs, measurable intensities, constant improvement, and/or frequent load/exercise changes.
For reactive ballistics, the general aim is the same as for concentric ballistics: high quality, full rests, and a high level of mental focus. The difference between the two is that for reactive ballistics, intensity is controlled not via weight and distance, but through a combination of height and ground contact times. While the previous focus was on generating as much amplitude as possible in a single movement, the current focus is on fixed amplitudes with minimal contact times.
In general, concentric ballistics could be thought of as putting a shot with a long, somewhat gradual wind up, whereas reactive ballistics are more closely related to a rubber bouncy ball impacting the ground and immediately rebounding back up. The most common movement we use is box rebounds, where we drop backwards off of a box and immediately rebound back up onto it, striving to move through repetitions (usually 10-20 per set) rhythmically. We also do lateral hops over a suspended line, hopping back and forth over the barrier rhythmically. The third lower body movement we use is bounding, both single-leg and alternating. In the first two cases, intensity is controlled via height (box or string) and/or performing the movement with either both legs or one leg at a time, and quality is assessed via ground contact time, impact sound, and rhythm. For bounds, intensity is controlled by setting out cones a specific distance apart and using those to mark bound length. For the upper body, we use clapping push ups and clapping pull ups, again with a focus on quick transitions, proper impact absorption, and rhythmic movements. Intensity here is increased via slowly adding weight (in a weighted vest) or through adding repetitions.
Lateral Line Hops (over a barbell)
Unlike with concentric ballistics, where a lack of progress indicates a need to change weights or movement patterns, a lack of progress with reactive ballistics just means that more practice is needed, and as volume is accumulated over time, explosive strength will gradually increase. The trick on these is being patient, keeping work quality high, and allowing strength gains to express themselves.
In terms of being incorporated into a training plan, both concentric and reactive ballistics work well as means of potentiation for nearly every manner of work. When performed the end of a dynamic warm up, or if worked into a rotation with skill/strength work, both forms of ballistics can serve to fire up the nervous system and boost acute sporting performance. I’ve found that rest intervals of 4-6 minutes between ballistics and skill/strength work seem to work best. Any shorter and there is insufficient time to recover between exercises, any longer and the potentiation effects seem to diminish. In most cases, concentric ballistics work best at the end of a warm up, and reactive ballistics work best when incorporated into a rotation with other work.
When used as strength builders in their own right, and not just potentiation tools, ballistics need to be treated just like any other general strength means if you want to see long term progress. Increase intensity gradually, and as intensities start to peak, reduce volume to allow for greater expression of strength. No hard or fast rules, just make sure movement quality is kept high at all times.
As covered earlier, concentric and reactive ballistics provide a safe, easily monitored, sport-specific form of progressive resistance training and they are definitely worth a look for athletes whose barbell strength levels are more than adequate. Combined with maintenance level weight training, they can form the backbone of a general training plan and can help take sport specific performance to the next level. Plus, who doesn’t like throwing things and jumping around all over the place? It’s not always easy to get hyped up for a set of squats, but it’s always fun to throw heavy objects and grunt while you do it.
About Roger Nelsen Jr.
Roger Nelsen Jr. CSCS is the strength and conditioning coach for the 212th Rescue Squadron, a special operations unit in Anchorage, Alaska. He also currently runs Body Mechanics Personal Training with his wife, and fellow CSCS, Christal Nelsen, and loves nothing more than bringing people of all ages, backgrounds, and medical histories up to high levels of performance.
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