shape of your life Outside Magazine
It's time to take flight with plyometrics. (Kurt Markus)

Month Four: Unlock Explosive Power

Your foundation is built. It's time to tweak the beast.

shape of your life Outside Magazine
Paul Scott

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As kids we loved to pile-drive our best friends into the couch, but as adults most of us are far too civilized for the explosive work required to build power. Endurance, strength, flexibility—these are all very sane. But power? Power's for short men in bar fights. Professional lumberjacks. The Rock. Unless you have a score to settle with the bouncer or a hole to open off left tackle, why should you hop, leap, or launch the barbells in the gym like an Olympic weight lifter?

“Because climbing, skiing, or whatever, there's a power component in everything we do,” says power-training guru Vern Gambetta, president of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Florida. “It's the athletic expression of strength.” In other words, whether it's outsprinting the peloton or lunging for a climbing hold, sooner or later you'll need power—the measure of how fast and how far you can move an object, often yourself, through space. And like it or not, your steady-as-she-goes strength, flexibility, and endurance work won't give it to you. Which isn't to say those three pillars of fitness are a waste of time. By now, if you've committed to our five-month Shape of Your Life program, you probably feel better than ever. But just because you've got a sustainable plan in place doesn't mean we'll pat you on the back and send you away. Starting today, the program accelerates: You've built your foundation; now it's time to tap your real athleticism by upgrading your power and accentuating its twin attribute, speed.

To back up that promise, we've turned to fitness authorities who aren't typically beloved by outdoor athletes—football coaches, track trainers, and gym teachers. But don't panic—you won't need a Lycra singlet or have to report to the field house. Like the other SYL workouts, this month's regimen can be done in your home gym and at the local park. You'll build power by adding Olympic lifts with dumbbells to your strength routine (think Laird Hamilton, not those huge Romanian weight lifters of yore), and ramp up your speed by starting endurance workouts with jumping drills, aka plyometrics. Yeah, yeah—this means your workouts will be longer and more intense, but quit complaining already. In four weeks, you may not pile-drive your workout buddy for old times' sake, but your rekindled athleticism will punish him just the same.

Power Training 101

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge. (Outside)

Any time you launch an object quickly through space—be it the weight of your body or the collected works of One Direction—physics and physiology require that you undertake two steps in quick succession: recoiling your muscles into position to prepare to move the object (technically, if counterintuitively, called a stretch) and then quickly throwing your muscle fibers into reverse to shorten them. In fitness parlance, these two movements together are called the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), and the production of power lies in the ability to switch rapidly between the two.

Some of the most effective exercises for improving SSC speed are Olympic-style lifts such as the clean (lifting a barbell from the floor to your chest) and jerk (raising a barbell from your chest to overhead). Unlike typical strength exercises like the bench press, depending on your height, Olympic lifts require muscling a barbell a whopping seven to ten feet in one repetition. To do this you have to utilize strength, speed, and momentum simultaneously, and over time this combination increases your muscle elasticity and primes the pathways for electrical signals to and from the brain, the two keys to speeding up your SSC.

Problem is, traditional Olympic lifting requires excellent technique and sound coaching to avoid injury. The solution? Dumbbells. “If you adapt Olympic lifts to dumbbells, you reduce the safety problems,” says Gambetta. “Dumbbells accommodate to your body's structure and individual range of motion.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays of this month, you'll incorporate three Olympic-style dumbbell drills—clean-pulls, rotational clean-pulls, and squat presses—into your strength workout. Starting off lightly with dumbbells weighing 10 percent of your body weight, you'll execute each repetition as fast as you can while maintaining good form. On clean-pulls and rotational clean-pulls, this means keeping your back straight; pushing with your ankles, legs, and hips; and finishing with a shrug of your shoulders, letting your arms bend to accommodate the upward momentum. On squat presses, keep your back straight and descend into a squat before exploding upward, shifting your weight to the balls of your feet, and raising the dumbbells sky-high.

Hot-Wire Your Speed

It's a common misconception that speed is entirely based on the genes your parents provided you. True, your ratio of fast- to slow-twitch muscle fibers defines your maximum potential, but most of us are slow only because we're rusty. “It's a muscle memory thing,” says Donald Chu, director of performance enhancement at Stanford University. “If you don't practice speed, it will desert you.” To avoid that, you need plyometrics—jump training—which is the most proven way to refresh your muscle memory.

“Plyometrics teach your muscles how to go from responding pliantly, like a tomato, to elastically, like a superball,” says Jimmy Radcliffe, co-author of High-Powered Plyometrics. This month, to give yourself more bounce to the ounce, you'll begin endurance workouts on Monday and Friday with a ten-minute plyometric workout. Starting with basic movements (jumping up to a box and stepping down) and progressing to more complex moves (dropping off a bench, landing, and then jumping straight up), you'll relearn the movement required to, say, avoid slamming into a tree while carving a backcountry glade. For sports that require upper-body quickness, such as kayaking, medicine-ball drills—chest passes and overhead throws—will provide plyometric action for your arms and torso. “Whether you're a climber or a skier or a mountain biker,” says Stanford's Chu, “plyometrics will help you get out of unexpected situations fast.”

As your quickness improves, you'll also need to develop your “reserve speed,” says Peter Twist, a National Hockey League conditioning coach and founder of Twist Conditioning. “The kind of speed you get in third or fourth gear.” How? Practice high-intensity, Zone-4 intervals, then chip away at the length of your recovery times. On Wednesdays, sometime toward the end of your endurance workout, launch into a full sprint for 30 seconds. Resume running or cycling, and when your heart rate returns to Zone 2 on the heart-rate scale, do another 30-second sprint. Start with three repetitions and work up to six or eight by week 16. Next month you'll reduce the recovery time between sprints. The drill develops your reserve capacity for speed by reestablishing the neurological pathways needed to turn on the afterburners when you're fatigued.

Combined, sprints and plyometrics will get you off the starting line quicker and give you overdrive power to finish a race strong. And trust us, your muscles will remember—you can't blame mom and dad forever.

Upward Bound Plyometrics Progression

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Click to enlarge. (Outside)

The following two-part workout is designed to improve your overall speed and quickness. A word of caution: Tall boxes are for longtime plyometric veterans only. Beginners should find a park bench or any other stable, elevated surface between 16 and 20 inches high (anything below the knee will suffice). Also, try to work out on grass (it reduces the impact on your joints) and reserve the depth jump (exercise #4) for week 16 only. As for medicine-ball drills, if you're training by yourself, get a rubber ball that bounces (find one at and do the exercises against a wall.

Lower Body

  1. Drop and Freeze: (10 reps) Starting on a box, lightly step off—never leap—and land, moving into a crouch stance to stop your momentum. Freeze for three to four seconds before the next rep. 
  2. Two-Legged Box Jumps: (10 reps) Stand in front of a box, crouch, swing your arms behind and then upward, springing high enough to land coming down to the box.
  3. Split-Stance Jump: (10 reps on each side) Stand with one leg on the box and one on the ground. Push off the box and jump straight up and land in the same configuration.
  4. [Week 16 Only] Depth Jump: (10 reps) Begin just like the drop and freeze. When you land, instead of freezing, immediately jump upward as high as you can. 

Upper Body

  1. Medicine Ball Scoop: (8 reps) Squatting, hold a medicine ball between your ankles, then drive your legs up, jump, and throw the ball as high as you can.
  2. Medicine Ball Chest Pass: (8 reps) Kneeling, hold the ball at your chest and throw it to a partner or against the wall as forcefully as possible.
  3. Overhead Soccer Pass: (8 reps) Kneeling, hold a medicine ball behind your head and throw it forward against a wall or to a partner.

Mixing Speed and Endurance

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Click to enlarge. (Outside)

You elevated your general fitness during the first three installments of the five-part Shape of Your Life program—now you're ready to tap your real athletic potential. For starters, ramp up your power by adding three Olympic-style lifts to your ongoing Tuesday and Thursday strength routine. For each of the lifts, start with dumbbells equaling 10 percent of your body weight in week 13, and then increase every few weeks thereafter. After a ten-minute warm-up, do three sets of six reps as fast as you can while executing good form. In week 16, you'll link cleans and squat-presses into one exercise (the clean and jerk) by ending the clean with a catch—turn your elbows down and your palms up, dip under the weight, and “catch” the dumbbells in the start position of the squat press—and then finishing the rep with the dumbbells overhead. Also, complete each power session with the half-dozen functional-strength exercises pulled from the previous months' routines.

Functional Exercises Group One: Wide-grip chin-ups, dumbbell lunges and dumbbell pullovers.
Functional Exercises Group Two: With swiss ball: oblique crunches and one-legged push-ups.

As for endurance work, continue heart-rate zone training three days per week, with Mondays and Wednesdays slated for Zone-2 workouts and Fridays reserved for intervals. Remember, if your motivation for endurance work is starting to wane, shake things up by mixing in a new sport. If you've been, say, running exclusively, try cycling or swimming this month, etc. You'll also add a speed component to the end of each session. After warming up on Mondays and Fridays, try the plyometric workout before each run, swim, or cycle, to increase your quickness; on Wednesdays, incorporate the Zone-4 sprint intervals described in “Hot-Wire Your Speed” into your endurance work. And of course, after difficult endurance and plyometric routines, you'll need a proper cool-down, which is where your yoga routine from last month fits in. Starting again with Sun Salutations, end each session with the yoga routine from the third installment.

Supercharge your speed and power with the fourth installment in our interactive training plan.