Developing Reactive Strength To Get More Awesome At Stuff

This is one of the coolest things I have ever seen:

So is this:

Oh what the hell, this is cool too:

How does a 198lb man, Phil “Squatzilla” Harrington, achieve a squat almost four times his body weight? The primary answer is working your ass off for decades. The secondary answer is developing a ton of reactive strength.

What is Reactive Strength?

Reactive Strength is the ability to absorb force in one direction then rapidly apply force in a different direction. Using this definition, you can find practical applications of Reactive Strength in every facet of sport competition. Sprinting is one example:

Sprinting is a cycle of repeatedly falling and catching yourself. Let me make this very, very clear: there is no pushing off in a sprint. Gravity is the propelling force when running… yes, even your precious jogging. Even when you are walking, the only thing that is keeping you moving is gravity, reactive forces, and your bodies response to these forces. Think I am full of shit? Stand up right now. As tall as you can with your hips, knees, and shoulders locked completely out. Now, try to take a step forward without LEANING into it first. If a push off actually existed, you should just be able to start moving without any assistance from gravity. This is simply impossible. Even when competitive Olympic sprinters start with their feet in the blocks, there is no push off. There is only a concentric action of the hip flexor complex in order to catch the body off the blocks. Those blocks enable sprinters to begin falling before they start running. This way, they can pretty much start in the most optimal accelerating angle to develop the most speed possible in the shortest amount of time.

As you can see, the lead leg is driving out in order to make sure the sprinters don’t smash all of their teeth out on the track. If a push off were necessary, or even possible, the blocks would be perpendicular to the ground. Instead, they are angles so that the sprinter can optimally catch after falling off the block.

Need more convincing? How about some science! Enter the Extensors Paradox:

Figure A:
This graph is showing the exact moment your quads stop producing force when you are running. The point at which concentric activity ceases is the moment the leg begins to travel BACK down to the ground. Once it contacts, the Ground Reactive Force is absorbed and then the quads must apply force to pull the leg back up to begin another cycle. If the quads were to somehow begin to actively push off the ground, the runner would end up with a toothless face full of dirt.

Figure 2:
Showing the reactive force being absorbed from the ground by the support leg.

Thus sprint/running speed/economy is completely governed by the runners ability to absorb and overcome reactive forces.

Jumping with a countermovent is another practical example seen in sport. Check this out:

When he is not climbing into the stands to beat up an opposing teams fans, he is actually a pretty good football player.

This is a perfect example of overcoming Reactive Forces and completely demoralizing an opponent just by sheer out-awesome-ing them. There are a lot of things in play here. The force he had to overcome to line-up on the defender after the spin, timing the jump perfect OUT OF A DEAD SPRINT, overcoming the horizontal displacement of that sprint, overcoming the landing force and accelerating to a sprint, then accelerating fast enough to out run everybody else for a good 40 yards.

I don’t have anything else to say about that because it is just too awesome.

An often overlooked venue as far as development is concerned, Barbell Strength Sports require a TON (pun intended) of Reactive Strength.

Reactive Strength for Squatting

What exactly did Squatzilla do to get that 755lb un-equipped squat at 198lbs body weight? A lot of this:

Albeit, this is not a true reactive drill with the lack of countermovement, you get the idea: being explosive will get you stronger and being stronger will make you more explosive.

A more appropriate exercise example for squatting:

Hopefully, after my previous explanations, you understand why I dropped the weights on the floor. Those were 50lb dumbbells, if I remember correctly. The weights being in hand upon the landing meant I had to overcome my own body weight plus 100 extra pounds in order to jump to the higher box. Dropping the weights before take off creates an almost overspeed effect. Meaning that I still have to overcome the reactive force of landing (that is the force developed from my 280lb body weight plus the added 100lbs) and jump to the next box without the static weight of the 50lb dumbbells but against the extra reactive force that they developed. This variation is ideal for developing reactive strength for squatting because of the countermovement involved upon landing. It mimics the reversal of the weight after the eccentric phase of a heavy squat.

Other awesome variations:

This was my first time trying this exercise so there are a few problems with it. My contact time with the ground is too long (mostly because that bar weighs 75lbs) and my landing mechanics are really, really bad. My toes are turned out too far and this is causing my arches to collapse and my knees to cave in. Land these with your feet flat and toes forward. This is an excellent variation just because the second jump is forced from a position that almost exactly mimics the bottom or ‘out of the hole’ portion of a squat… again, assuming your landing mechanics don’t suck.

Same thing but with dumbbells:

With a different displacement:

This one involved a broad jump. The horizontal displacement of the forward jump makes the vertical displacement of the box jump much more difficult.

There are about a billion other variations for squatting. Just get creative. The formula is simple:

Jump, land with a countermovement, jump. Keep track of height and weight records. Constantly varying up the exercises and working with increasing weights and heights will.

How Do I Implement Reactive Strength Exercises?

These drills require you to be pretty fresh in order to perform them optimally. With that in mind, you can just add them into your workouts, right after a thorough warm-up and before you being your main work for the day. The most common complaint I get about this recommendation is “Won’t these make me too tired for the rest of my workout?” Yes… if you are ridiculously out of shape. If this is the case, I strongly recommend adding in Reactive Strength exercises to get in better shape.

Don’t be an idiot. Warm-up, work up to reasonable weights and box heights, don’t miss a box and kill yourself, and ease into training this way. Master the basics first. Make sure you can perfectly perform a body weight kneeling jump before you try to do one with a barbell on your back. Make sure you can jump to a given box height before you try to depth jump to it with a 75lb weight west on.

These do not have to be high volume to be effective. They just have to be high intensity. Start off with, after a warm-up, three tough Reactive Strength exercises. After a few weeks, work up to 6 tough jumps then establish a max on the exercise. I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 12 total jumps, after a warm-up, especially if you are squatting or deadlifting heavy that day.

Jumping and explosive strength exercises for deadlifting are a little trickier because a deadlift does not have an eccentric portion… making reactive forces basically non-existent in the lift. I will write up a separate post on “Jumpin’ on Stuff for Pullin’ More Stuff” soon.

Good luck. And again, don’t miss the box and kill yourself.

Solum Per Exitum… unless you can jump over it.


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