Athletes who are interested in becoming more reactive and dynamic in sport need to make sure that their training programs reflect these traits. This means paying close attention to the demands of the sport(s) you compete in, while making sure your training is helping to prepare you for those same demands and sport characteristics.
When it comes to your "big lifts" and developing the ability to create massive amounts of force, athletes and coaches sometimes forget that just lifting the bar is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to athletic preparation. We can't argue that an athlete who can express big-time strength in movements such as Squats, Deadlifts, Lunges or presses will most likely have the ability to create a ton of force that could carry over well to their movement in sport. However, we must not forget that the speed that force is both developed and accepted (aka deceleration) is also a vital piece of the puzzle. Many sports require that athletes change direction quickly such as football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, rugby or ski racing, to name a few.
These sports require that athletes are dynamic and have the ability to react quickly and make decisions. This decision making is derived from an external stimulus such as a ball, a sideline or an opponent with sudden changes of direction and thus changes in muscle and tendon length and tension. The reactive athlete will have the ability to create force and also redistribute force quickly, and this can and should be trained with your lifts. A Deadlift is not just a Deadlift, nor is a Squat just a Squat. Not every press or Push-Up gives the same training effect as another, nor will every Lunge or Split Squat yield the same effect. You must understand the physiological demands of your sport if you want to experience the greatest training effect from your time in the gym.
The following strategies will help you understand how you can make simple changes to some very conventional movements and experience some really awesome results. We have used these techniques with hundreds of athletes with great success. These techniques are also extremely valuable in reducing injuries such as ACL tears, hamstring strains or other soft tissue and ligamentous injury that can occur when tissue is not prepared properly for the speed and joint actions seen in sport.
1. Iso Catches, Drop Catches or Reflexive Eccentrics
These movements will help athletes develop the ability to isometrically retain the energy built up when a muscle stretches so it can be used in the next movement, such as during deceleration or changing direction. By focusing on the bottom of the movement in training and quite simply how quickly you can stop both the body and the load being lifted, the athlete will enhance their ability to absorb energy and stop on a dime. There is great carryover from this training to quicker changes of direction in sport. The key is being able to stop quickly while maintaining a strong and stable position through the entire body or kinetic chain. These can be done in bilateral and unilateral stance or arm positions. Loads will not be maximal, and a good rule for training is that if you look squishy and can't stop fast, it's too much weight. We will incorporate these movements throughout the year both in and out of season. If you're in season, you are already doing a lot of stop and go in your sport, so be careful about overdoing it in your training. Below are a few variations we use with our athletes.
In season = 1 exercise for upper and lower each week.
Out of season = We progress from 2-3 bilateral movements each week to more unilateral approach as the season approaches.
2. Speed Eccentrics
Incorporating overspeed eccentrics or movements that facilitate an accelerated lengthening of the muscles and tendons is a highly effective training strategy for athletes interested in developing explosive speed and changes of direction. Slow eccentrics have been proven to enhance performance variables such as power, maximal strength and force production by teaching the muscles and tendons to more effectively respond to changes such as length, tension and force. It is also important to train a faster eccentric phase of muscle action if you are interested in seeing greater speed and agility on the field of play.
When performing speed eccentrics, we ask athletes to not have an endpoint to the movement and to move through the range of motion as quickly as possible without locking out at the top or stopping at the bottom. It's a pumping or pulsing versus a stop-and-go type of action. When the athlete gets to the top of the movement, they try to immediately relax the muscles and drop or pull themselves back to the bottom. You will use lighter loads, typically 50-60% of 1RM, and move them quicker but potentially for more reps than you would if focused on maximum strength. Using bands is a great way to accommodate higher velocities in the eccentric or yielding phase of the movement. If you cannot be explosive out of the bottom, it's probably too heavy. Also know that full ROM won't be the focus; you will instead be working in the middle ground where there can be a more reactive transfer of elastic energy. This technique works well with movements such as Split Squats or Back Squats, where the movement is more reactive at the bottom with no opportunity for the weight to hit the ground.
We use these during our more ballistic or reactive strength training phases during the offseason with athletes after they have first developed a good foundation of strength and power. Two- to three-week training blocks have yielded some great results for our high school and college athletes. Don't overdo it, and know that adequate rest between sets is vital to performance here. You can do this with any movement, unilateral or bi lateral, with great results.
Please note there is a lot of trauma to the muscle tissue due to the speed and volume of each set, so you will see more soreness as a result. Thus, you must be very careful if you attempt in-season application of this technique.
3. French Contrast Training
Utilization of French Contrast (FC) in your training can make some huge changes in reactivity, explosiveness and speed. True FC involves a heavy strength movement followed by a high speed plyometric or jump, then a loaded power movement, or a jump, and finally an overspeed movement such as a band-assisted jump.
In working with primarily high school and college-aged athletes, we have found great success with implementation of a modified version of FC involving a big strength (80-90% 1RM) followed by a plyo or jump of similar joint action (either loaded, unloaded or assisted). Although this is not true French Contrast training, we are still utilizing a strength movement to potentiate greater speeds and velocities in the more ballistic movement to follow. For athletes and coaches who are under time constraints for their training, this can be an extremely effective form of training.
The training age of the athlete is important and we rarely use this method with our middle school or beginner high school athletes in full effect, as they are simply not prepared for the volume and intensities at a training age that young. With that said, using a modified approach can be very effective for all levels, and something we have had great success with over many years of implementing this form of training with youth through adult populations. Depending on how you structure the rest periods and time between movements, it can be a very effective means to add density to your workouts and thus receive a conditioning effect from the training while still maintaining a focus on your strength, power and reactivity. In other words, if you don't allow big rest times in between sets and are responsible about the training loads being used, this can be a great way to train strength, power and work capacity.
It is my opinion that this is a very effective means of in-season training for athletes who want to maintain offseason strength while also micro-dosing speed and power characteristics into their training programs. It's also a really effective means for helping athletes understand the transfer of training to sport. For example, to help sprinters with their push out of the blocks, I like to use a Split Hex Dead paired with a block start. The strength movement helps them feel the push, and then they can go apply that feeling right to the blocks.