I like to keep things simple. So a general statement like, “always lift the weight as explosively as possible and lower it under control,” works pretty well for me in most cases.
But there are definitely some exercises that you do NOT want to explode on. Doing so can result in sloppy form, training muscles other than those you intended, and injury.
Exercises that you don’t consciously explode on are known as high-tension exercises. That means that being tight is more important than being fast. Although I’ve always preferred my ladies to be both.
Explosive lifts are high velocity exercises where speed of movement is the most important factor.
After training for a few years you’ll figure most of this out for yourself. But to save you some time I’ll briefly cover the two and the differences between them below.
High Velocity Exercises
Jumps, throws and Olympic lifts should all be done explosively. This should be obvious to anyone who’s ever done a single pushup in his lifetime. There’s really no way to jump or throw anything slowly.
You can kinda do a slow Olympic lift if you go too heavy and use shitty form, but that’s like eating a steak well done. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
All forms of barbell pressing exercises should be done explosively. You are usually using these for maximal strength development and performance enhancement so it makes sense to move them with speed. Control the descent then drive the bar back up rapidly, imagining that you’re trying to blast through a piece of wood someone is holding at the midrange.
All forms of barbell squats (front, back, safety bar, box, Buffalo bar, etc.) should be done explosively as well. On the way down you want to preload the muscles with tension, staying as tight as possible, then explode up to lockout.
Kettebell swings and snatches should also be done explosively. Some kettlebell guys will tell you to do these more rhythmically but that’s bores the piss outta most people and seems more like slow cardio than hard strength training to me. Snap the hips and really move these suckers. That’s far more enjoyable.
Deadlifts are a combo of high velocity and high tension. You initiate the pull off the ground with high tension and grind the weight up slowly. If you rip it with reckless abandon it’s much harder to maintain a neutral spine and you lose power.
Proper technique involves slowly grinding it up off the floor and then explosively driving the hips forward to complete the lockout after the bar clears the knees. Of course, with a heavy weight, the explosive hip drive may not actually be that fast, but it’s the intent that matters. So go slow until you clear the knees, then explode the rest of the way through.
If you’re Olympic lifting from the floor (which I don’t usually advise unless you plan to compete) then the same info about deadlifts can be applied.
That’s really about it as far as true high velocity exercises go. To recap, you always do the following exercises explosively:
• Olympic lifts
• Barbell presses
• Barbell squats
• Deadlifts when the bar is above the knee
High Tension Exercises
Before we get into high-tension exercises it should be noted that most of the exercises listed as high velocity movements also require you to maximize tension from head to toe. You can’t squat or press heavy weights without being drum tight. Jumps, throws and kettlebell exercises are a combination movement that require you to be like Bruce Lee- loose but able to instantly maximize tension for a brief second, when required, to produce the highest level of force.
Pure high-tension exercises are usually those done with bodyweight on rings. They can also be any type of advanced bodyweight exercise that requires full control and maximal tension such as:
• Suspended dips
• Suspended pushups
• Handstand pushups
• Suspended flys
• Pushups on furniture slides
• Flys on furniture slides
• Leg raises (most people swing these but you don’t want to be one of those people)
• Side planks
• Front levers
• Stiff arm pull ups
• Muscle ups
• Ring chin ups
• Inverted rows
When doing those exercises you always want to brace the abs, squeeze the glutes, use a crushing grip and move a bit slower on the way up and down. Something like two seconds in both directions works (except for the iso holds, of course), but for the love of all things good, please don’t start consciously counting during your sets. Just control each rep, maximize tension and be sure that the muscles you intended to target are actually doing the work.
Somewhere In Between
Certain exercises that are typically referred to assistance movements usually fall somewhere in between the high velocity and high-tension range. Pretty much every type of row and chin up variation would be in this category. If you explode too fast you end up using momentum and don’t really feel the muscles working properly. So instead of using maximal acceleration you should use fast but controlled concentric on each rep.
I see plenty of guys flailing around on a chin up bar, going up and down faster than Jenna Jameson in her prime, with zero lat development. That’s because they’re letting momentum and other muscle groups take over. Slow the movement down just a bit and you will feel and build the lats more effectively.
The same holds true for rows. Initiating them too explosively can lead to injury and it also decreases the effectiveness of the exercise. If you can’t hold the weight at the top for a second or two the weight you are rowing is probably too heavy.
Hip thrusts and glute bridges are two more exercises that should be slowed down just a bit. I see the value in doing them explosively if used by an Olympic lifter as assistance work. But most people will feel the glutes a lot more and do the exercise with better, and safer form, if they slow the rep speed down just a bit and hold them for a second or two up top.
Eventually, when you have mastered the exercise, are feeling the glutes more than the low back, and are sure there is no dysfunction going on you can start to crank up the speed.
Other movements that fall into this category are single leg exercises, glute ham raises, back extensions, most abdominal exercises and curls. But in all seriousness, if you’re consciously exploding on curls you probably need to dial back on the caffeine and get laid a little more often.