How To Build Explosive Strength Like An NFL Linebacker
Written By Garett Reid
NFL Linebackers are the most domineering player on the Gridiron; the epitome of athleticism. Strength, agility, speed, endurance; these guys have it all. They must be able to break through the line on a blitz, tear a running back down in his tracks, and keep up with a tight end or receiver running a deep cut.
And they need to be able to hit and get hit. Hard.
It’s no wonder guys want to train like a linebacker. Who wouldn’t? Lucky for you, we can help you with that.
If there’s one aspect you’re going to need to improve to perform like an LB, it’s developing your raw, explosive strength.
WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY "EXPLOSIVE STRENGTH"?
Explosive strength is the defining attribute that makes a linebacker successful. However, what exactly do we mean when we say “explosive strength” as this term is often thrown around quite liberally.
Explosive strength refers to a very specific skill referring to the ability to accelerate and/or move weight at a high rate of speed. Explosive strength is directly proportional to work and time and is expressed in the equation: Explosive Strength = Work/Time (1).
If you can move the same weight, the same distance, but faster, you have increased Explosive Strength.
Explosive strength in action is often called “explosive power,” which is a perfect way to describe it. We can look at exercises that require speed to perform, such as jumping (go on, try to jump slowly) or performing a clean. Or, we can examine the ability to change direction in an instant or throw off a blocker.
HOW TO DEVELOP EXPLOSIVE STRENGTH
Doing heavy squats and bench will get you strong, but alone, they won’t garner that “BAM!” we’re looking for.
To increase our explosive strength, we don’t just need bigger muscles; we need to teach the muscles we have to work better together. We do this by enhancing our neural control, which includes generating higher motor recruitment and a faster firing rate.
Neural control is best increased by using full-body movements, which can be done explosively. These movements will demand increased muscle activation and higher power production, which will pave the way on your journey to becoming a powerhouse (1). In short, we need an explosive workout to build explosive strength.
Olympic movements are the definition of explosive strength.
Technically, the Olympic movements consist of two movements; Clean and Jerk and the Snatch. However, within these movements, there are several variations such as:
The only downside to these movements is that they are highly technical, so you will need a skilled coach to teach you the mechanics. This means a longer learning curve than other movements, so don’t expect to be throwing up massive weight your first week. But don’t worry, you’ll get there. Great linebackers weren’t built in a day.
While not an Olympic movement, the Push-Press (which is basically the second part of a Clean and Jerk) is another excellent explosive strength exercise and is relatively easier to perform than the Olympic movements.
If you don’t have a coach, you can also perform these movements with dumbbells as they are easier to perform.
PLYOMETRICS AND BALLISTIC MOVEMENTS
There is sometimes disagreement when defining these modes of exercise. Some say they’re different; some say they’re the same; some say ballistics are a subcategory of plyometrics.
My opinion? I don’t really care. The two utilize similar physiological mechanisms and have both consistently been found to increase force production and maximal power output, making them a mandatory part of anyone’s program aiming to train like an athlete (2).
Ballistic movements are velocity-based movements and generally involve the trajectory of a projectile. Common exercises include:
Squat Jumps (bodyweight or with a trap bar or dumbbells)
Medicine Ball Throws/Slams
Barbell Throws (On Smith Machine)
Plyometrics focus on decreasing the reactionary time between eccentric and concentric movements between multiple consecutive movements. These movements include:
These exercises consist of a fast pre-stretch of a muscle immediately followed by a powerful contraction. The focus is on creating maximal force in the shortest amount of time, which is accomplished by two mechanisms.
The first is through the series elastic component (SEC). SEC is similar to a rubber band being pulled back and let go. When a muscle is pulled back, energy is stored in the tendons and muscle just waiting to explode. When the muscle is then contracted forcefully, this energy is released allowing more muscle force.
The second is through muscle potentiation. When a muscle senses a rapid stretch, little organs called muscle spindles can sense the movement and activate, causing reflexive muscle activity. This extra activity “potentiates” the muscle allowing it to produce higher forces.
To take advantage of these mechanisms, the exercise you are performing needs to be done fast. Too slow, and the potential energy will dissipate, leaving you with nothing.
If you are new to plyometrics, start slow and allow your body to adapt. Intensity can be altered by changing weight, jump height, or choosing between double and single-leg movements.
For volume, each session should include 80-100 contacts for a beginner trainee, 100-120 contacts for an intermediate trainee, and 120-140 contacts for advanced (1).
Complex training is a relatively new form of training but it is a very effective and efficient method to use, especially if you’re a normal guy who can’t spend hours and hours in the gym. That’s because complex training is the only method proven to increase your explosive power AND strength simultaneously (3).
Complex training consists of performing a strength exercise followed by a complimentary plyometric (explosive) exercise immediately after. The movement patterns should be similar such as bench press followed by clapping push-ups or squats followed by box jumps.
Since power is increased as time is decreased, studies have shown that peak explosive strength is produced highest with very lightweight (0-30% 1RM) as these weights can be moved very quickly (4,5). However, we need to also use a heavy enough weight to overload the muscle to produce improvements. This conundrum can be fixed by selecting exercises from the different modes of training mentioned above.
For Olympic movements, NSCA suggests using loads of 70-90% 1RM with low reps of 1-51. The focus is on explosive strength production, so these movements are not done to fatigue. Every rep should be clean with an emphasis on form and explosive strength.
The vast majority of plyometrics are bodyweight exercises, so we can use them to achieve peak explosive strength production at lower loads.
For ballistic movements, I would suggest using lower loads of 30-50% of a 1RM. Just guess as I don’t think too many people know their 1RM for a medicine ball throw.
Most studies looking at explosive strength production have used 2-3 sessions per week (2). Therefore, I think one day of Olympic/barbell training and two days of plyometric training is an appropriate place to start.
Strength training is still vital to your program so we don’t want to discontinue it; we want to integrate explosive workout training with your strength training giving us two options. The first option is to do the complex training mentioned above.
The second way is for those who want to concentrate on overall strength and explosive separately. Here, you can alternate upper-body and lower-body workouts. On upper-body strength days, you will perform lower-body plyometrics. On lower-body strength days, work upper-body plyometrics.
NOW GO TRAIN
You may not be a linebacker, but you can start building the explosive strength of one if you start training with some of the above methods. Remember, these explosive workout exercises require strength and speed. You can’t half-ass your reps and expect to improve. You need to focus and put in the maximum effort if you desire maximum results.
When you jump, jump for the clouds. When you slam a medicine ball, try to break it. Make every movement count. Do this, and you will become a force to be reckoned with.
Haff, Greg, and N. Travis Triplett. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics, 2016.
Slimani, Maamer, et al. “Effects of Plyometric Training on Physical Fitness in Team Sport Athletes: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Human Kinetics, vol. 53, no. 1, 2016, pp. 231–247., doi:10.1515/hukin-2016-0026.
Carter, Jeremy, and Mike Greenwood. “Complex Training Reexamined.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2014, pp. 11–19., doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000036.
Soriano, Marco Antonio, et al. “The Optimal Load for Maximal Power Production During Upper-Body Resistance Exercises: A Meta-Analysis.” Sports Medicine, vol. 47, no. 4, 2016, pp. 757–768., doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0626-6.
Cormie, Prue, et al. “Optimal Loading for Maximal Power Output during Lower-Body Resistance Exercises.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 39, no. 2, 2007, pp. 340–349., doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000246993.71599.bf.
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