Friday, March 28, 2014

Lower Body Power for All Ages and Stages

What do Michael Jordon skying for a slam dunk, Wayne Gretsky blasting a slap shot, and Randy Johnson hurling a fastball all have in common? Each feat occurs in a fraction of a second.

In order to thrive at sport -- and in life -- there is no doubt we have to be strong. But strength alone isn't enough. We also have to be powerful. That is, we have to be able to generate force rapidly.

It turns out that it's also power, not strength, that has the biggest influence on function as we grow older. Being able to produce force quickly enables us to do things like stand up from the sofa and avoid falling if we trip.

Power is clearly essential on the playing field as well as off. But how do we train for it in the gym? The clean and the snatch come to mind, but not everyone is cut out for those lifts, at least not right away.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to develop power that are less risky than the Olympic lifts and still highly effective. In this post, I provide descriptions and videos for 7 of the very best lower body power exercises that young and old alike can enjoy.

1. Marching

Marching develops explosive hip flexion and extension around a stable torso. Not only is marching safe for grandma, but it also translates positively to higher intensity drills like skipping.

2. Skipping

Skipping isn't just for kids on the playground. In fact, due to the small hop involved, skipping is actually a plyometric. That is, it takes advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle, or the ability of a muscle to produce rapid shortening in response to rapid lengthening.

Moreover, for athletes, skipping is the best way to slow down and work on the mechanics of sprinting. The focus should be on maintaining a tight core, high knees, and good arm drive.

3. Jump Rope

Jump rope is yet another playground throwback. Little kids seem to be able to jump all day, but for the rest of us, just 30 seconds will cause our heart rates to skyrocket.

Jump rope requires superior coordination, timing, and rhythm -- not to mention a ton of patience and a high pain tolerance for when the rope inevitably whips our shins. The focus should be on doing the least amount of extra work by jumping just high enough to clear the rope.

Challenge yourself to do as many reps as possible in 30 seconds, or see how many reps you can do in a row. If you're really bold, practice double unders (two passes of the rope under the feet for every one jump, see video below).

4. Agility Ladder

Ladder drills are another low-intensity plyometric that improve coordination and quickness in pre-programmed patterns. Whereas jump rope and skipping might become repetitive after a while, the possibilities with the ladder are endless.

It's best to begin at slow speeds with simple drills like high knees, stepping one foot in each rung. Progress by moving more quickly through the ladder and incorporating more complex drills, like the "Ickey Shuffle" demoed in the video below. If you don't have access to a ladder, simply draw one onto pavement with chalk. 

5. Cones

Suicides, slalom, and more. There's no better way to improve our ability to change direction rapidly than by weaving into, out of, and around cones. Arrange several cones in a straight line, and run suicides or alternately slalom to the left of one and the right of the next. Once again, begin slowly and progress to faster speeds. To increase the degree of difficulty, place the cones closer together.

Alternatively, arrange the cones in a square, as shown in the following video. Note the vast array of movement skills incorporated: carioca, back pedaling, lateral shuffling. Be sure to watch through to the :47 mark for the "Here! Here! Here!" reaction drill.

6. Box Jumps

Mention box jumps to most folks over the age of 40, and they probably get a little queasy. The good news is that box jumps need not induce fear. In fact, the straddle box jump variation (see video) is little more than a jumping jack up onto a box. Don't be fooled, though: 30 seconds of these jumps, no matter how fit you are, will have your heart racing.

Once you've mastered the straddle jump, progress to regular box jumps. Begin with an aerobic step or a low box, and focus on landing as softly as possible (like a ninja!). Never jump backwards off the box; simply step down. For safety, stick to low reps. Ten is plenty.

7. Hurdles

Like box jumps, people tend to freeze up at the mere mention of hurdles. There's really no need to panic, though, because hurdles come in heights as short as 6 inches. Furthermore, if you accidentally graze a hurdle as you jump it, the hurdle simple topples over, no harm.

Arrange several hurdles in a row, and begin by jumping one at a time, landing softly and stably and resetting between each jump. Once you become proficient at this, begin to string jumps together, as shown in the video. Get creative and arrange the hurdles at angles, jump over them sideways, and practice all of the above on one leg at a time.

Putting It All Together

No matter whether you're a young athlete or an out-of-shape baby boomer, you can benefit from these 7 exercises. Over the next 6 weeks, devote a 10-minute chunk of time immediately after warm-up to working on one or more of them.

Once you become adept at a particular exercise, feel free to move it to later in the workout, using it for more of a conditioning effect. You might incorporate it into a cluster of strength exercises to keep your heart rate elevated. For example,
3 rounds of { 10 Deadlifts / 10 DB Rows / :30 Jump Rope
Or save it for the end of a workout as a "metabolic finisher:"
3 rounds of { 30 Straddle Box Jumps / :30 Plank
Granted, after 6 weeks you probably still won't be dunking basketballs, throwing 90 mile per hour fastballs, or hitting laser slap shots. But you will without a doubt improve your ability to generate force quickly and in a variety of directions and situations, thereby boosting your performance in sport -- and in life.

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