Explosive Strength Training – Applying More Force to the Weights Being Lifted

October 11, 2010

I am cautious about recommending explosive strength training due to a higher risk of injury compared with slow and steady training. That being said, it is an effective way to gain strength quickly when done properly. I haven’t dug in deep into this topic on my blog so far, so I wanted to take the time to do this now. The same weight can generate a different amount of tension to the muscles worked, depending upon the speed at which that weight is lifted. This is what I plan on talking about in detail in this post, along with a way to include this technique into your workout routine.

Explosive Strength Training

[Insert cheesy trivia that “ants can lift 50 times their body weight” here. Another awesome piece of trivia for you? A polecat is not a cat. It is a nocturnal European weasel :) Very important life-changing info for free, brought to you by FBB!]

Strength Training vs Building Muscle

So I won’t go into crazy amounts of detail here, but in my opinion the best way to build muscle is to aim for for fatigue. There are numerous ways to fatigue the muscle, but most include some variation of lifting a few sets to failure or a higher volume of sets which creates “cumulative fatigue”. Both of these methods break down the muscle to a certain extent and fatigue the muscle. The quickest way to gain strength, however is to aim for a maximum amount of tension without fatiguing the muscle. Obviously there are a countless number of ways to build muscle and gain strength, but you will see why the “fatigue vs tension” model works so well.

3 Sets of 10…Using 225 Pounds…or 10 Sets of 3?

Let’s say you can bench press 225 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps. That is 30 total reps using 225 pounds. What if you decided to do 10 sets of 3 reps using 225 pounds instead? That is 30 total reps as well…but it would feel quite a bit different, right? In the first example, using 3 sets close to failure, your muscles would be fatigued. You wouldn’t be as strong as before you began. I like to call this cumulative fatigue, because each set builds upon the fatigue of the previous set. In the second example, you are stopping well short of failure…so your muscles aren’t building up fatigue. In fact, you might actually feel a little stronger after your final set with 225 pounds.

Same Weight, Same Total Reps, and Vastly Different Effects

If you were to use the basic equation of volume lifted it would come out the same…6,750 pounds (30 total reps x 225 pounds). The reason the effect is different is mainly due to 2 factors…fatigue and tension. The first example lifted in a way that maximized fatigue and the second example lifted in a way that maximized tension. In the second example the “average force per rep” was higher. I will discuss that in more detail in a bit.

Faster Rep Speed = More Force Generated to the Bar

In order to bench press 225 rapidly, you need to generate much more than 225 pounds of force to the bar. Does that make sense? If you put exactly 225 pounds of force on the bar it wouldn’t budge…a little more than 225 pounds of force to get it moving slowly…a lot more than 225 pounds of force to get it moving rapidly. This type of explosive strength training is another way to generate maximum tension in the muscles. Although I do believe in lifting in a slow and controlled manner a lot of the time, this is a good supplementary technique.

Average Force Per Rep…Is An Interesting Variable!

So this is really “geeking out”, but helps explain why the 10 sets of 3 reps will make someone gain strength quicker than 3 sets of 10 reps with the same weight. Let’s look at the force generated during a set of 10 reps. The actual numbers of force generated aren’t crucial…it is just for example.

Rep #1: 285 pounds of force <---bar moves quickly
Rep #2: 280 pounds of force
Rep #3: 270 pounds of force
Rep #4: 265 pounds of force
Rep #5: 260 pounds of force
Rep #6: 255 pounds of force
Rep #7: 240 pounds of force
Rep #8: 236 pounds of force
Rep #9: 232 pounds of force
Rep #10: 228 pounds of force <---bar slows down

So the Average Pound of Force Per Rep on This Set?: The way to figure this out would be to add each number up and divide by 10. It would come out to 255 pounds of force on average.

What if this same person stopped at 3 reps? Well then to figure out the average pound of force per rep, you would just add the first 3 reps and divide by 3. So in his case it would be 278 pounds of force.

Training Your Nervous System to Generate More Force

I’ve discussed this a bunch of times on this site, but let’s go over the basics a bit…The nervous system is what causes the muscles to contract. Stronger signals from the nervous system create harder muscle contractions, which leads to greater strength. The nervous system reacts best to positive feedback. In order to increase the ability of the nervous system to send stronger signals to the muscles you must avoid failing in a lift. Succeeding over and over again creates a positive feedback loop. The less fatigued a muscle is the greater amount of force it can generate.

Bad 80’s Movie -or- Brilliant?


[An instructional video on generating force from the 80’s…also known as “the glow”. You think this music is funny…you should be glad I didn’t put up video of the main song from The Last Dragon DeBarge – Rythm of the Night! <---click at your own risk!]

The majority of the population equates bigger muscles with more strength. No doubt that larger muscles have the potential to generate more force, but this is a small part of the strength equation. Developing an efficient nervous system can increase strength (and muscle tone) dramatically without adding muscle size. The way to do this is to train the nervous system by lifting in a way that delivers stronger and stronger impulses to the muscles without fatiguing the muscles.

Explosive Strength Training, Short of Failure

Explosive strength training, done short of failure, is a fantastic way to create a positive feedback loop. You wind up generating high amounts of average force per rep…without approaching fatigue. This is a winning combination if strength training is your main goal. So how do we incorporate this into our routines? Well, my suggestion is to just use this for 6-8 weeks at a time maybe twice per year. Another alternative would be to simply use this method on one body part or even one exercise.

I’ll Setup an 8 Week Example Using Bench Press

Let’s say you can bench press 185 pounds 10 times to failure. So using the example above, we would use 10 sets of 3 reps using 185 pounds. My suggestion would be to begin your 8 week schedule at a little lighter than 185 pounds. This is a periodization approach of taking one step back in order to take 3 steps forward. If you start too close to your limit, you will often hit a sticking point early on. In the following example, I am going to assume that each body part gets worked 2 times per week. So you would bench two times per week. Their would be 16 total chest workouts over an 8 week period.

Workout 1: 175
Workout 2: 180
Workout 3: 185
Workout 4: 180<--- one step back
Workout 5: 185
Workout 6: 190
Workout 7: 195
Workout 8: 200
Workout 9: 195<--- one step back
Workout 10: 200
Workout 11: 205
Workout 12: 210
Workout 13: 205<--- one step back
Workout 14: 210
Workout 15: 215
Workout 16: 220

Notes: Using 10 sets of 3 reps, lifting the weight up with maximum velocity. Lower the weight at a steady speed, don’t drop the weight. This workout uses a “one step back” method of progression to help avoid a sticking point. In this example, if it was easy to complete all 10 sets of 3 reps using 220 pounds, we would step back to 215 and add in a few more workouts to this cycle. In my experience someone who can bench 185 pounds 10 times, has a 1 Rep Max of 225-230 pounds. So benching 10 sets of 3 with 220 pounds is a significant strength gain.

Just Another Technique to Use as You See Fit

So this is simply a fitness tip and technique to add to your workout to spice it up a little. You can get creative with this as well. You could use this technique with body weight exercises such as chin ups or with dips, etc. If it makes sense to add in explosive strength training into your routine then give it a try. The funny thing is that it is the opposite of using irradiation, but works as well. Fitness is funny in that so many techniques work, if you know how to implement them into your routine.

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Rusty Moore

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Wim October 13, 2010 at 9:05 am

I’m starting to take classes in thai box this year. The thing I didn’t really like about it, is that in thaibox it’s all about being fast and strong at the same time. So the problem with my workout in the gym, was that I lifted 5×5 (2sec up and down) and it gives me a great body and definition, but I had the problem i couldn’t push up in high reps, since my body is used to doing 5 reps and slowly. I think I’ll use your new methode then to train. It’ll help me get better at Thai box I think ( well at least the strenght part), yet still gives me muscle tone instead of useless mass. Your thoughts on this?
Ow yeah another question. To save some time, would it be ok to do 5×3 in stead of 10×3/ exercise? Or is the key of this sort of workout the many sets of only 3 reps? and if so, what about resting time in between sets?

Thx already,
Keep up the great posts!

Wim.

Mike Morgan October 13, 2010 at 9:33 am

Rusty, great post.
It made me start to think about how pyramiding sets work or do not work. I always assumed that they allow you to build strength and muscle mass in the same work out. But are they really good for both goals? When you do pyramiding reps, shouldn’t you start with a low rep strength focus and only switch to high rep muscle fatiqueing mass building later. It seems to me that the best combination of strength and mass building in one session would not be a pyramid, but more like 3-3-3-3-12-12.

What are your thoughts on this?

mike

Clement October 13, 2010 at 10:01 am

Hello Rusty,

I’ve just put together a series on my blog called “What the hell is…” and you have the honour of being the first website I’ve blogged about! The link is here and I’d like you and your readers to take a look. In fact, I’ll be writing about Rafi’s blog very soon.

http://eatsleeptrainwrite.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/106/

Alex Allmert - Hardcore Natural Bodybuilding Tips October 13, 2010 at 11:22 am

This training method is great for combat athletes.

-Alex Allmert

Chad October 13, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hi Great article but i have a question that is not in your article you see i wanna have great obliques and long,lean body with kinda like lean hips not thos bulky hips like you know like that Antonio on your pelvic muscle post.The exercise i do is the L sit for the core/obliques and abs but i am afraid(becuase i am 12Bf and dont want bulky abs want that lean and not big abs like a swimmer or kickboxer)that i will get bigger obliques,bulky abs and big hips.I wanna know if The l sit doesnt/does this to my body also if you know how i will achieve the v-cut like antonio and lean hips.Also could you warn me what exercises i should avoid for getting Bigger hips.bulky abs and bigger obliques and i know you have mentioned one like side bends. Thanks for all the help /Chad

Marvin Klein October 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Hi Rusty,

Are you going to do a mobility or full body weight only program again this year?

Marek October 14, 2010 at 4:37 am

Thanks for your posts. I have a question concerning the above one. Is there a difference in the length of breaks between sets in the two approaches (3×10 & 10×3)? And what length would you recommend for the latter?

Lane Batot October 14, 2010 at 9:24 am

…..and did you realize that the European polecat is the wild ancestor of the domestic ferret? And that because you brought that up, you will now have to post a clip from the cult film “The Beastmaster” in a future discussion?(one involving the ferrets in the movie, of course….); Oh, and yeah, what DO you recommend as an appropriate rest period for 10 sets of 3 reps between sets? Seems like they should be quite brief(no more than 30 seconds, perhaps?)…..

Seth October 14, 2010 at 11:28 pm

ah the 80’s! Jerry curls and carefree times! awesome childhood memories! With the post, great as usual. Old Russian techniques work well, I gained the most strength ever doing it this way. I stopped and I don’t know why, I think that part of it is ego. I think to myself why do I need to step back I will just go forward and then I get stuck forever. It’s time to do this technique again. It sounds like you recommend plyometrics as well with the explosive training?

Mark October 15, 2010 at 6:39 am

Good info Rusty. I actually started doing a variation of that sometime ago. Not quite 10 and 3, more like 6 and 4. Mainly because I wanted to lift heavier and just could get more than about 5 reps. Long story short, I still contiue to see improvements.

Thanks

Sidenote: If you have never seen it, check out “Hannibal for King” on youtube. WOW!!

admin October 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Hey guys….thanks for all the comments! I’ll respond to as many as I can in the time I have available.

@ Jordan,

Yeah, both methods work well.

@ Francisco,

I should put something like that together. I need to create a Facebook page at some point for FBB.

@ The Spaniard,

Great to hear from you. It has been a while. Sad about kids parks. They are pulling out slides, monkey bars, and anything that could “possibly” cause injury. In an attempt to protect kids, they are doing more harm then good. If anything, we are in desperate need of more of this stuff.

@ Yavor,

If you haven’t seen that movie, you should. It is totally corny, but kind of good at the same time.

@ The Spaniard,

That is right. I forgot her name. It has been a while.

@ Pete,

That is nuts. Just one rep per week. I could see going into the gym, changing into workout clothes, hanging your other clothes in the locker, walking into the free weightroom, walking over to the bench, pump out a rep, then saying…”done”…walking back into the locker room, taking a shower, changing back into your clothes, etc. Almost sounds like a good SNL skit…except it is real!

@ Rafi,

I just get tired of typing “Fitness Black Book”, so use FBB from time to time. Mainly just on my own site, because it is far from a household name.

@ Craig,

A good friend of mine is a Crossfit fanatic. He is in pretty decent shape…and enjoys how it is kind of competitive in nature.

@ Lauren,

I like to use bench press as an example, because it is just easy to visualize for most. Would work for any lift. Someday that useless trivia will come to use (maybe a crossword puzzle).

@ Geert,

I have heard the term, Myo-reps, but didn’t know what it was all about. I’ll take a look…thanks.

@ Alykhan,

Glad you enjoy Visual Impact. A big goal was to help people understand the difference between pure strenght training, pure mass training, and everything in between.

@ Jason,

I like heavy and slow as well. It isn’t too risky if you stop short of failure. I have read about Westside Barbell…quite a bit different than my goals, but are very successful at their chosen goals. Certainly they know a thing or two about strength.

@ Raymond,

Are you going “mechnical engineer” on me :) Good point about acceleration…and awesome Fruit Bat trivia. Very funny!

@ Alex,

Those old time Russian guys had a great understanding of this stuff…as well as some of the younger generation (Pavel). Good points.

@ Geoff,

Kind of hard to give an exact rest period. Since you are stopping well short of failure you probably don’t need to rest much in the beginning. Maybe 60 seconds? As you do more sets you can increase the rest a bit.

@ Kelly,

Speaking of cloning you should watch “The Social Network” if you haven’t already. There is a set of twins in that movie that are hillarious. Pretty much clones.

@ Howard,

Disclaimer…I do not like DeBarge or “Rhythm of the Night”…that is the sort of 80’s tune that haunts my nightmares :)

The Only DeBarge song worse than “Rhythm of the Night”? Well that of course would be “Who’s Johnny” (which was featured in Short Circuit)…bad, bad, bad, stuff!

[The main singer makes some seriously creepy faces. More Nightmares again! Darn it!]

@ Weight Lifting Music,

I will put together a Facebook page one of these days. Then we can have people post before and after pics.

@ SB,

Putting together a whole routine for someone from scratch is rough. Honestly simply follow Visual Impact. Since you are 15, just scale everything down…less sets and reps. I began lifting at home with a weight set at the age of 12. At the age of 15 you can lift weights…just mkae sure you have a spotter when you are learning how much weight you can lift. Since you are young you will want to insure that you don’t restrict your calories too much (my biggest piece of advice).

@ Dave,

I do like Charles Staley’s info. He does a great job explaining things.

@ Monica,

5 X 5 with 95 pounds is really impressive for a woman. So when you do 8 X 3, go a little lighter than 95 pounds…maybe 75 pounds to begin with. You can always increase the weight 5 pounds at a time and work your way to 95 pounds and beyond.

@ Hamilton Chiropractic,

My brother in law is a chiropractor and helps a lot of people. Nice to see your comment.

@ Randy,

I don’t schedule cheat days…it all happens naturally to a certian extent. What typically happens is that I’ll have a couple strict days per week, 3-4 moderate days, and maybe 1-2 high calorie days. I do believe in mixing in higher calorie days. My rule of thumb is that I need more lower calorie days than high calorie days…which creates a good “weekly” calorie deficit…and this results in fat loss. Hope that makes sense.

@ Wim,

Good call…I always believe that you should “train at the speed of your sport”. Probably no need to do 10 sets if you are also very active doing Thai boxing. Resting in between sets 60-90 seconds will work since you are lifting well short of failure.

@ Mike,

I think pyramids can work, although I have advised against them for the most part on my blog for strenght training. They can be a good way to warmup to work your way to a heavier weight. The set approach you outline is a decent way to get some strength and mass in the same workout. It should work well.

@ Clement,

Thanks a bunch. Very cool of you!

@ Alex,

With all of this combat training, I’m glad I’m not a young guy who goes into crowded bars and clubs much anymore. When I was in my 20’s bar fights would break out in crowded clubs. I never got involved, but usually they were pretty tame. I can image with the UFC being the rage and the rise in popularity of combat training that things can get nasty. 15-20 years ago it was usually just an inneffective flurry of punches and a lot of yelling.

@ Marvin,

I’m going to stick with my gym this year…perhaps next year…because I do want to do TACFIT.

@ Marek,

When you are doing 10 X 3 well short of failure, you don’t need a ton of rest. You do want to rest enough to be able to generate maximum force, but 60-90 seconds would probably be fine…less in the beginning and more later on.

@ Lane,

That is funny…I am a huge fan of Beastmaster…this calls for another Youtube vid.

A Must Watch Movie (It is suppose to be serious…but VERY funny)

-Rusty

Dave - Not Your Average Fitness Tips October 16, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Rusty,
I’m a little late to this discussion, but this post is filled with too much gold to not comment. The issue of strength reps vs. muscle mass reps is exceptionally valuable and something that mainstream fitness “gurus” don’t understand. Throw in the wisdom about tension, not training to failure, and the one step back approach, and this is really a routine that everyone should follow.
Dave

Jason G October 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm

The only thing I would be weary of when doing explosive/fast high rep workouts is it is really easy to vary the tension produced in a workout making progress less measurable. Forexample in one workout you may do eight reps at a medium fast pace and in your next workout you may do nine reps at a slightly faster pace. Did you improve? Not likely, you probably used momentum for artificial improvements. Going into a workout where you can easily perform at the same momentum as the time before will allow you to focus on real strength gains. Moreover slow reps performed with good control will always produce more tension than fast reps.

Muscle Legion October 18, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Explosiveness is key to a big bench press!

Marvin Klein October 18, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Rusty, Rusty Rusty Rusty,
Not to make you feel guilty but… I already bought Tacfit anticipating you would have a private blog again this year. Last year with BBFFL was the best ever, you and the others on the blog was so succesfull. But remember, don’t feel guilty, I’ll wait.

Marvin

David Hussey | triathlon news October 19, 2010 at 6:03 am

The idea is to push yourself harder and harder in order to burn more fat and keep your metabolism elevated for 24 hours or more, after your workout is over. He states that the common healthclub practice of treadmill and elliptical work often occurs at a relatively low intensity and doesn’t do much to increase your metabolic rate.

Fitness Expert October 20, 2010 at 3:54 am

Wonderful way to describe the fitness regimen. I loved it. Keep pushing yourself harder and achieve the goals you have set.

Diego October 20, 2010 at 9:23 am

Thanks for the great info Rusty, its a great technique to avoid Plateauing. Thanks again

Engel October 20, 2010 at 10:05 am

SB:
I am also 5’6ft. I used to weigh 55kg when i was your age. I am still 5’6ft but weigh 74kg. I was skinny fat too. Stick arms but no abs.

Just do 3 exercises per week, spend no more than 1 hour. I like to get mine done in 30-45 mins.

This is my workout during the week: Do 3 sets.
When you can do 10 reps, up the weight a bit.
If you can’t do the exercise at least 5*5*5 then lower the weight.

Do it slow, don’t do it fast.

Monday: Incline Bench press(dumbbells) and tricep extension (dumbbells)

Wednesday: deadlift(bar) and bent over row(dumbbell)

Friday: Bicep curls, military shoulder press, lateral raises, forward raises – all dumbbells.

After 3 months you will notice a change. 6 months and you will have got some good muscles on you.

I’m no professional but I only tell you this, because I was the same as you, skinny guy, couldn’t get muscle. But a simple routine like above worked for me.

You will need to eat food to help you get bigger.
The easiest way to know if you need to eat more is: If you cant lift anymore, just eat more. Normally it is because your body doesn’t get enough food. Forget protein drinks or creatine. Use meat to get your protein.

Don’t worry about using low weights, being skinny and short means we don’t have to lift as much to look big.

If you have access to a gym, I would say alternate on wednesday doing deadlift one week and squat the other week. Squats work so well, but I didn’t do them to get big. I never had access to a gym so it wasn’t safe for me to do squat.

After 6 months you can look into changing your routine, or even add more to what I said. I wanted to do the bare minimum to get big and still enjoy it.

Hope this helps.

Jeff - Lean Muscle Workout October 21, 2010 at 2:35 pm

While I agree that 10 sets of 3 would be better than 3 sets of 10, I don’t think its that it’s a good option. Building muscle is about progressive overload, and I just cant see any person being able to do 10 sets of 3 each week per exercise and progressing. I much prefer the 3 sets of 5 for increased strength and a little bit of muscle size

David Veras October 21, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Great post, it was long read but still very informative.

AllPros October 24, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Great article. I never thought of the concept of 10×3 vs 3×10. Interesting.

Ian - HomeWorkoutBlog November 6, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Pete-

1 rep per week? That’s nuts!

Rusty-

Thanks for the input on explosive training. This approach reminds me of the 5×5 approach, gradually adding weight so that 6 months later, you are lifting a LOT more, with ease.

-Ian

Cai - Quakefitness.com November 29, 2010 at 8:31 am

Hi. This page has been linked back from http://www.quakefitness.com.

Quake Fitness – Connecting Fitness and health blogs

Jack December 2, 2010 at 10:19 am

Excellent article.

Generally I do 3 sets of 8 reps. I’ve read multiple sources that believe this helps create lean muscle at a faster pace. Variation is good for your muscles though, so I may try a weeks of lower reps, higher weight. One thing stopping me from doing a higher weight is lack of spotter. I don’t like using machines, but my apartment complex’s gym only has dumbbells which are difficult to bump up to a higher weight. Any suggestions?

Tommy H December 30, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Rusty – well done on being so consistent. A rare quality.

Where you state nervous systems react best to positive feedback – that is quite an assumption. Do you have any proof of this? My assumption would be that the human body reacts better to stress and negative feedback (I.e damn, you were not strong enough to lift that last rep. Better make you stronger to ensure I can next time). I have no proof but how can you make your assumption?

Sam- Look Like An Athlete February 14, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I like the taking one step back approach. I have tried this as well and it keeps me from plateauing too!
-Sam

Pat February 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Your absolutely right force plays a huge role in training! You must put everything you have into every rep to achieve great fast results.

Eric Troy May 6, 2011 at 10:11 am

Rusty, human skeletal muscle cannot generate more force with higher velocity. You have seriously misunderstood force development here. You scenario with the 225 pounds is incorrect. Lifting a weight “quicker” does not mean you exert more total force to the same load. The force velocity relationship makes this quite impossible. As velocity goes up, tension goes down and so does total force. You may have mixed up force with “power”. I don’t know. The only way to generate maximal force is to lift against maximal loads. There is no way to side-step this.

Lifting with more “explosiveness” against lighter relative weights means that there is a greater rate of force development but the total force is not greater. Most everything you’ve written here violates what we know about the biomechanics. If what you said were possible then there would be no need for those who train for strength to ever approach maximal loads. The reason people eat this kind of misinformation up is that you are telling them then can train for strength with the same types of weights they would use of “bodybuilding”.

Advanced Ab Exercise August 26, 2011 at 3:35 am

I’m getting amazing results with that already. When strength training is my goal, which I plan for it to be, I will come back to this post! Thankyou for this post.

Advanced Ab Exercise

Thomas March 25, 2013 at 11:45 am

I have experimented with the high-velocity explosive reps, using a weight that I can manage about 3 sets of 8 quality reps. While I have not done this routine consistantly enough to assess any gain in actual strength, I have found that increased muscular definition in the areas worked was remarkebly apparent.

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