This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.
If you’re used to working out in a big box gym, stepping into an athletic training facility might feel like walking into another world. First, there’s a greater variety of equipment—everything from weight sleds and Olympic lifting platforms to truck tires, steel maces, and veritable jungles of suspension trainers, along with plenty of green turf. But just as striking as the exercise tools is how the athletes train: Their feet don’t remain glued to the floor for most exercises.
Sure, they lift heavy, but they’re also shuffling, jumping, crawling, dragging, throwing, tossing, slamming, and generally training to be explosive and agile as well as strong and cardiovascularly fit. And if you want similar results, you’ll follow their lead—especially when it comes to throwing some weight around, or what trainers call “ballistic training.”
What Is Ballistic Training?
If you’ve ever seen anyone jump with weights, perform an Olympic lift, or toss a medicine ball, you’ve witnessed ballistic training. The defining characteristic of such exercises is that rather than decelerating toward the end of the movement to bring the weight to a full stop (think: the top of the biceps curl or bench press), you accelerate through it to project the weight into a “flight phase” (regardless of whether you let go of it or not).
Repeatedly chucking a medicine ball against the wall is the most obvious example of a ballistic exercise. Other examples include Olympic lifts (i.e., snatch and clean and jerk), the squat jump (loaded or unloaded), and even the kettlebell swing. By focusing exclusively on accelerating the load—whether it’s a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or your own bodyweight—you’ll trigger neural adaptations such as increased muscle fiber activation, enhanced force development, and greater muscular coordination, which all add up to the grand prize: greater explosive power.
Ballistic Training vs. Plyometrics
If ballistic training sounds similar to plyometric training, it is. Both involve generating enough force with your legs or arms (e.g., by jumping with your legs or pushing off the ground with your hands) to temporarily defy gravity. As a result, both plyometrics and ballistics are key for building explosive power. But here’s what differentiates them: ground contact time.
When you perform a plyometric exercise (think: tuck jump, skater hop, clapping pushup, jumping rope, even sprinting), the amount of time that either foot remains on the ground is limited to a fraction of a second to take advantage of the “stretch shortening cycle,” or the rubber band-like tendency of a muscle and its tendons to store elastic energy when stretched. Performing such exercises helps enhance that same tendency and, as a result, increase explosive power.
Ballistic exercises, on the other hand, focus entirely on accelerating a load (whether it be external or bodyweight). In short, they’re all about the concentric phase of each rep—or more specifically, contracting the muscle as quickly and forcefully as possible regardless of how long the associated appendage remains in contact with the ground or the weight.
How to Do Ballistic Training
To be clear, ballistics and plyometrics aren’t an “either/or” situation. Both deserve a place in your training plan as each develops unique aspects of explosive power. Weave both into your weekly routine—but not before you build a solid strength foundation first.
Neither plyometrics nor ballistics are beginner training strategies. They’re also not recommended if you’re currently overweight, as they’re both high impact, and can increase your risk of injury if you perform them before your body is in a better condition to handle the strain. But once you are, mixing them into your weekly routine can help you amplify your explosive power, making you a more formidable presence in the weight room, on the playing field, and in everyday life.
Start light with ballistic exercises, selecting a weight that allows you to perform at least 15 reps per set of your chosen exercise. But once you become accustomed to this training style, begin incorporating a variety of loads (light, medium, and heavy), alternating between them on a weekly basis for a given exercise to optimize your results. Need some inspiration? Get started with this six-pack of ballistic exercises to build more power from head to toe.
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