Over the past 3-4 years, I’ve spent a lot of time programming Conjugate Method style strength type work for the CrossFit Endurance website and a number of my clients.

I’ve preached the benefit of this style of training for some time now as I’ve seen that a mix of maximal strength work (a.k.a .Max Effort) combined with explosive strength work (i.e. sub-maximal loads and maximal bar velocity – a.k.a. Dynamic Effort) have incredible results in rapidly improving overall strength, especially in the big lifts such as the squat, deadlift, power clean, and press.

Obviously, I’m not alone in thinking this is a pretty good way to get strong…

Just look at some of the monsters coming out of Westside Barbell and you’ll see the Louie Simmons is onto something here.

Everyone pretty much knows that if you want to get strong then you have to lift HEAVY weights…

But this sub-maximal weight lifting stuff is a bit more fuzzy (Get stronger lifting only 50% 1RM, what!?) so I’d like to spend some time digging into this… Ready?

Explosive lifting

Let’s keep it simple…

Explosive strength is basically your ability to exert maximal strength in a minimal amount of time. The Olympic lifts (Snatch and Clean & Jerk) are prime examples of explosive lifts. However, there are a number of ways you can improve your maximal strength with explosive exercises such as plyometric training.

I’ve written before about plyometric training and it’s ability to improve your maximal strength and since researching and writing that post I’ve spent a bit more time playing around with plyometrics in my own training and had a lot of fun with it (and some sweet #GAINZ too).

So, I wanted to take it a bit farther and see how I could mix in more explosive lifting into my routine as well and see if I’d get better results with that.

I did this by starting to incorporate more light lifting (~55-70% 1RM) while focusing on explosively driving out of the bottom of my squats and deadlifts just like you would with a jump squat.

In fact, depending on the load, I was actually coming an inch or two off the ground on those squats.

My results so far?

I’ve added about 20#s to my deadlift and finally got back to my 1RM number from 3 years ago and added 30# to my front squat which was a 20# PR in only a few weeks.

Pretty good considering I wasn’t on a super strict lifting program (But was doing some sort of barbell strength work 4x per week).

I haven’t tested my back squat yet and will probably do so in the next couple weeks, but I did jump squat 245# for 3 reps so the results here look promising for me.

Okay, enough about me…

So the goal of explosive lifting is to improve your ability to recruit as many muscles/motor-units as possible, as quick as possible, and leave them ‘turned on’ throughout the duration of your lift.

While lifting maximal loads will help you with the muscle fiber part of this equation you’ll do it over a relatively longer time period than you would with an explosive lift. You’ve probably experienced this as you were grinding against your last deadlift or squat max.

So, explosive lifting can help with this “as quick as possible” part.

So how can you incorporate this into your training?

Well, it’s pretty simple, here are a couple of ways to do it…

If you squat or perform the major lifts more than once per week, make one of those sessions a ‘speed-strength’ session.

If your training program is packed and you only perform the major lifts once per week then you can alternate between max effort and dynamic effort lifts.

Here’s an example:

    Week 1:

      Monday – Max Effort Back Squat
      Tuesday – Dynamic Effort Deadlift
      Thursday – Max Effort Shoulder Press
      Friday – Dynamic Effort Power Clean
     

    Week 2:

      Monday – Dynamic Effort Back Squat
      Tuesday – Max Effort Deadlift
      Thursday – Dynamic Effort Shoulder Press
      Friday – Max Effort Power Clean

So explosive lifting has been shown to

  • Increase Strength
  • Increase Power
  • Increase Hypertrophy
  • Reduce injuries (When performed properly!)
  • Improve inter- and intra-muscular coordination
  • Sharpen your psychological abilities

Pretty cool huh?

I think it is safe to say that some form of explosive training should be incorporated into your routine if you’re looking to maximize your strength gains and overall athletic ability.

But let’s take it a step further and talk about another important piece of this conjugate method style of training and talk briefly about adding in variable resistance (i.e. Bands & chains).

Variable Resistance

Accommodated resistance, also know as variable resistance training, has been in use in the powerlifting world for quite a while now. I mentioned Westside Barbell, the Conjugate Method, and Louie Simmons above and if you’re familiar with this stuff than training with bands and chains is probably not something new to you (At least the concept of it anyway.)

In a meta-analysis (study of studies) by Soria-Gila et al. (2015) it was noted that variable resistance training could improve an athletes performance by improving rate of force development, recruitment of motor units, and increasing strength through the full range of motion of a movement (i.e. reducing force drop off at ‘sticking points’).

Take-away point: If you’re running into sticking points during your lifts, this might help!

In this meta-analysis, Soria-Gila et al. (2015) noted that variable resistance training led to significantly greater improvements in strength compared to conventional barbell training.

They went on to say that long-term variable resistance training using both chains and elastic bands attached to a barbell was an effective method of improving maximal strength in both trained and untrained subjects.

Take-away point: Even if you’re new to lifting, adding bands and/or chains to your barbell may help you get stronger, faster.

Another key point in the meta-analysis was that the inclusion of variable resistance help the more experienced lifters break through plateaus they ran into on a traditional resistance training program.

Take-away point: If you’ve dealt with the frustration of hitting a plateau (i.e. Stuck at a certain weight for an extended period of time) then adding bands and chains into the workouts could help you overcome these plateaus/

So overall, it seems like adding band/chains to your training can help take you to the next level.

Things to Consider

So if you aren’t already following a program that incorporates this style of training then it might be time to start experimenting with it and mixing it into your current training program.

However, there are a few things you should be looking out for before implementing this stuff:

  • Explosive lifting is complex and required a decent mastery of each lift (i.e. This stuff is a skill and you need to learn to move well before you move heavy/fast)
  • Flexibility may be a limiting factor if you’re new to training or have previous injuries/limitations
  • If you’re just starting out you may want to consider building a foundation of basic strength before you crank up the intensity with explosive lifting

Additionally, here are a few more things to consider…

  1. Whenever you start to increase the intensity of an exercise (i.e. Heavier and/or faster) it is best to do so under the supervision of a coach or, at the very least, a smart training partner.
  2. Beating a dead horse — Make sure you spend time working on that skill. Technique inefficiencies can lead to breakdown and possible injury… Make sure you are spending time improving your movement skill before you start to add bands, chains, faster movement, etc. If you have a hard time maintaining proper mechanics moving slow, you’re only gonna get worse when you speed it up.
  3. More is not always better, especially in the beginning… If you’ve ever decided to throw a bunch of jump squats into a workout, especially if you don’t normally do them, you know exactly what I’m talking about. A sample plan is below and should serve as a decent guide to getting started.
  4. Keep the loads light and focus on moving that bar as fast as possible. When the load gets too heavy you’re going to slow down and this will negate the benefits you are looking for here!
  5. You should be working on moving as fast as possible through the concentric portion of the lift (i.e. Don’t uncontrollably crash down into the bottom of a squat with 200#s on your back).
References:

Newton, H., & Jenkins, S. (2013). Should All Athletes Use Explosive Lifting? International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 8(3), 595-602.

Soria-Gila, M., Chirosa, I., Bautista, I., Chirosa, L., & Salvador, B. (2015). Effects Of Variable Resistance Training On Maximal Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1-33. [epub ahead of print].