Explosive Leg Power To Improve My Game

By Robert Donatelli, PhD, PT

How Can I Train to Move Faster on the Court or field?

Power is defined as the combination of strength and speed. In any sport explosive movement is critical for improving performance. In sports like tennis, soccer, basketball, and football sprinting from one side of the court or field to another is an important part of winning.

The first step of the quick sprint across the court might be the difference in reaching a tennis ball to return it with minimal accuracy or even hit a cross-court winner. In baseball, quickness is measured by how fast can the athlete get a jump on the pitcher when stealing a base or how quickly he can “get out of the batters’ box” after hitting the ball. Therefore the ability to develop speed quickly is important.

Most sports are all about explosive leg power. Quick powerful movements from one end of the court or field to the other can make the difference in winning and losing. Strength and power are often used and are interchangeable. Strength is the ability to lift a certain amount of resistance through the full range of motion of the joint. Power is how fast one can lift a specific weight through the total range of motion. Power is equal to speed. You cannot have weak lower leg muscles and be powerful, but you can be strong and not explosive. It all depends on how you train.

Can we improve speed?

Most exercise physiology textbooks state that speed is an innate skill that changes little with training. However, improving the speed of your first step can be considered the same as increasing our vertical jump height. There are several exercises important to increasing how fast an athlete can initiate a sprint: strength training, explosive weight training and plyometrics.

For strength training, strengthening the muscles specific to the action of jumping should be the bases of any program designed to improve explosive power.

By strengthening the muscles of the hip and legs, the athlete can prepare the leg for the excessive forces created during explosive exercises and plyometrics.

Explosive weight training is exactly what is says. The athlete explodes off a platform such as a leg press footplate or a squat rack platform. The amount of weight used during explosive weight training needs to be only 30-40% of maximum effort. The reduction in weight allows faster or explosive movements.

Plyometrics

One of the best ways to train for explosive power and strength is by using plyometrics. Plyometrics come from Europe and was simply known as “jump training”. In the 1970’s European athletes emerged as powers on the world sports scene. Russia and other eastern block countries were excelling in track and field, gymnastics, and weight lifting. Plyometrics was thought to be responsible for this superiority in track and field events. Plyometrics became essential to athletes who jumped, lifted, or threw.

Plyometrics is defined as exercises that enable muscle to develop maximum strength and power in a short period of time. The physiological basis of plyometric training is dependent on the amount of stretch placed on the muscle during an exercise. For example, if one were to jump off a 12-inch box, upon landing the muscle in the front of the thigh (quadriceps) would elongate and slow down the knee bending force acting as a shock absorber. However, if the muscle stretches too far, a mechanism within the muscle called the “stretch reflex” would facilitate the muscle to shorten thereby protecting the muscle from tearing apart. This coupling of the lengthening and shortening action of muscle takes place within hundredths of a second. Typically, the great high jumpers are on the ground a mere 0.12 seconds. In the plyometric terminology this is referred to as the amortization phase, the amount of time the foot is in contact with the ground after landing from jumping off a box and jumping on to another box. The shorter the time on the ground (amortization phase), the more explosive the muscle contraction and the greater gains in muscle strength. Surprisingly, although strength and innate speed are important, the length of the amortization phase is largely dependent on learning. Learning and skill training to a strength base can be the foundation of improving explosive leg power.

Several important prerequisites to plyometric training are a good strength base, flexibility, and balance. The athlete entering into a plyometric program should be able to perform a power squat with 60% of body weight, perform a one leg partial squat with good form and balance, perform a stork balance (one leg standing) with eyes open and eyes shut, have no knee pain, have no acute injuries to the foot and ankle, and should have a good landing surface. In addition, a good warm-up is necessary prior to plyometric training such as riding a bicycle or jogging for 5-10 minutes.

The most common type of plyometric training is called natural jumping, such as a jump rope, skipping drills, standing jumps, depth jumps and cone hops. The research has indicated that heavy weight lifting and plyometrics as a method of training have effectively improved power output. There are many aspects of training athletes; plyometrics trains a specific fiber within the muscle to gain power and strength. It is important to be evaluated by a health professional prior to starting any training program to determine muscle deficits, range of motion restrictions, and cardiovascular fitness.