Explosive Reverse Hypers
If you are ever waiting in line somewhere and the guy behind you is standing too close, I find this exercise quite handy. And after performing a few discrete repetitions, you realize that he happens to be much bigger than you, it will also help you to run fast! Seriously, though, if you want to increase your strength, speed, power, reaction time and add some muscle mass, this is the exercise.
Many people are under the impression that the reverse hyper originated as a cure for ADHD. Actually, the reverse hyper was originally popularized by Louie Simmons, who you all should know by now, has produced some of the strongest powerlifters in the world at his Westside Barbell Club. This exercise thoroughly stresses the posterior chain (erectors, glutes and hams.) Some strength authorities believe that the reverse hyper has greater specificity to sport with respect to hip extension than other popular exercises (such as the Romanian deadlift.) For instance, strength coach, Kim Goss, feels that the reverse hyper is an excellent assistance exercise that does not compromise technique on the Olympic lifts. It is an effective exercise that can be used by many athletes to improve their performance.
You can perform the reverse hyper on a dedicated reverse hyper machine or simply backwards on a regular back extension machine. I’ve had clients do it over a high counter/bench (just make sure that you have something sturdy to hold on to.) Although not my favorite choice, it can even be performed over a large Swiss ball. Use a Swiss ball only if you do not have access to a reverse hyper or back extension machine (or even a high bench for that matter!) Unfortunately, the ball tends to absorb and dissipate some of the force from the working muscles as well as shift too much stress onto the shoulder stabilizers detracting emphasis from the hip extensors. Furthermore, in order to carry out the vital ballistic recoil action during this exercise, the legs should be able to swing right underneath the body to effectively prestretch the hip extensors. Thus, the Swiss ball is useful only for fairly slow, limited range hip extension movements. Paul Chek, Juan Carlos Santana, and Lorne Goldenberg show many variations of the Swiss ball reverse hyper in their presentations (you can refer to their work for more info.) Just a reminder, though, for those guys that use this as some sick hybrid movement, make sure that you put the plug back in the ball after you “get off!”
One such application for use of the Swiss ball is during rehabilitation. Typically, the tempo can be slow and controlled favoring isometrics if the aim is rehab. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps with a static hold of 5-10 seconds at the top. Keep the rest interval fairly short (up to a minute) and do not increase the load (i.e. by using ankle weights, or a dumbbell or medicine ball between the feet if you do not have access to the reverse hyper machine) until you are able to complete 12 reps with the 10 second isometrics (which equals 120 seconds or 2 minutes TUT.) This exercise is considered quite safe since it encourages a natural concave (as viewed posteriorly) lumbar curve at the point of greatest overload. By reducing the lever arm and bending the legs, greater emphasis is placed on the glutes. Allow this only if the individual is unable to keep their legs straight (a progression would then be to straighten out the legs over time.) In fact, many physical therapists use a simple test of palpating the hams and glutes while performing hip extension (essentially the reverse hyper.) If the hamstrings contract first and the knee subsequently bends, there is generally weakness in the glutes.
Or, you can do it the way Dr. Mel Siff taught me – explosive! In this approach, your feet should be free to swing under the bench to offer different levels of prestretch. As mentioned above, you cannot statically or dynamically prestretch the hip flexors while lying prone over a Swiss ball so choose the appropriate equipment for this version. Take advantage of the plyometric effect! Here you will utilize the concept of compensatory acceleration training (or CAT for short) as coined by Dr. Fred Hatfield, the first man to officially squat over 1000 pounds. By deliberately accelerating through the concentric range, you will increase muscle tension. On the way down, you can resist the action, thereby adding a decelerative eccentric component to the training.
Tudor Bompa suggests 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps with a 2-4 minute rest interval for maximum power development (although, you will experience strength and hypertrophy gains as well.) Start off with a light weight (even no weight at all) and concentrate more on speed than strength. Remember, Newton’s 2nd Law states that force = mass x acceleration. Therefore, concentrate more on the speed (i.e. acceleration component) and less on the load (i.e. mass component) to increase force!
So, if you wish to rehab your back, run faster, or simply make more room in a line-up, try the reverse hyper.
Explosive Standing Calf Raises
This is another beauty inspired by Dr. Mel Siff. (By the way, if you ever get the chance to attend one of his lectures, don’t hesitate!) This version will allow for a stronger contraction of the gastrocs. Please, only attempt this exercise if you drive a car with automatic transmission.
First a little anatomy. By now, everyone is aware that the soleus is primarily composed of slow-twitch (ST) fibers and the gastrocnemius is made up of mainly fast-twitch (FT) fibers although other muscles are also involved in the calf raise (i.e. plantaris, tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus, and flexor hallucis longus.) However, it is the FT fibers that have the greatest capacity for the 3 S’s: size, strength and speed. Yet, they have the least capacity for endurance. Also, since the gastrocs are so far away from the heart and have only one major blood supply (the sural artery), they tend to fatigue quickly as metabolic byproducts accumulate. This is the reason why calves are notorious for cramping. (I’m sure you’ve experienced this at least once in your life when, in the middle of your sleep, you are awakened to such severe knotting in your calves that all you can do is put the pillow over your face and scream as loud as possible until the pain subsides!) So, let’s take a look at all these factors. For strength of these FT fibers, high loads are necessary, but these loads should be moved at high speeds to garner their full potential. Since you are working at such high intensities (loads) and the capacity for endurance is low, do not perform high reps. Instead, do enough sets of lower repetitions to gain adequate size (hypertrophy.)
Next, let’s review some biomechanics. The soleus crosses only one joint – the ankle. That’s it! Therefore, it is primarily stressed with the knees bent (as in a seated calf raise.) Nothing new here. However, the gastrocnemius is a biarticular muscle meaning that it crosses two joints – the ankle and the knee. It is primarily stressed with the knees locked (as in standing calf raises.) Again, nothing foreign here. But, have you noticed that when you are doing a standing calf raise, you can lift more weight by bending your knees slightly? This reflexive action usually occurs near the end of a set as you fatigue. It is a natural way to perform a greater amount of work by eliciting an effective prestretch in the gastrocs (through the concurrent action of ankle dorsiflexion and knee flexion) and calling upon other muscles (i.e. hamstrings) to help out. Some call it cheating; we will term it controlled ballistic action in the context of this article. If you are not convinced, here’s an excerpt from the book “Facts and Fallacies of Fitness” by Dr. Siff that explains this phenomenon further:
“Try performing jumps on the spot with knees kept straight versus jumps which allow knee flexion. The fact that the latter permits you to reach a much greater height shows that bent knee action allows you to produce greater driving force, which in turn offers better conditions for calf development.”
Since some bodybuilders have a hard enough time spelling their name, I’m going to quickly review this exercise. Position yourself under the pads of a standing calf raise machine and lift the weight (the pads should be set low enough so that when you lower the weight to a full stretch position, the plates do not touch.) You will be pivoting, of course, on the balls of your feet. Let me make that clear: “of_your_feet!” If there are handles, grab on for the ride. And that’s all there is to it!
Positioning of the feet will influence the line of pull in the calf raise. Rotate the feet out and you stress more of the medial (inner) head; whereas, if you rotate the feet in, a greater emphasis is placed on the lateral (outer) head. This is old news that everyone should know. Well, here’s another trick to add to your arsenal of training info. Keep your feet straight (about hip-width apart) and roll over your big toe to emphasize the medial head or over your little toe to hit the lateral head. So, with just a few small adjustments, you can customize this exercise to fill in the gaps so to speak.
On the concentric (or weaker) contraction, it is important to: a) bend the knees slightly to create a prestretch or a spring-like hydraulic action to generate a great amount of force, and b) explode the weight up as fast as you can to activate as many motor units as possible. On the eccentric: a) the legs will extend at the top of the movement so keep them straight all the way down, and b) go slow on the way down (since you only recruit about half the fibers on the stronger eccentric contraction, the tension is actually double. This will induce some viscous microtrauma and encourage growth.)
I recommend a heavy weight (start with a load that is at least 20% greater than your regular 4RM load with the legs straight throughout.) If your machine does not have enough weight, do the exercise unilaterally – there should be more than enough weight if you use only one leg at a time (remember to start with your weak leg first.) Use a 4-6 set/rep scheme (4-6 sets of 4-6 reps.) The tempo is crucial: the positive contraction must be EXPLOSIVE (I mean put the machine through the ceiling!) and the negative contraction must be slow and controlled. A 4-1-X-1 tempo will dissipate some of the plyometric effect between contractions; an alternative would be no rest whatsoever between contractions (4-0-X-0) which will allow for even greater weight to be used. Take at least 3-5 minutes rest. You may wish to throw some abs in between.
To get a truly intense workout, another alternative is descending sets. Perform 2-4 reps and immediately drop the weight by about 10%. (Depending on your fiber type, you may need to adjust this percentage. Just try to achieve the same amount of reps – i.e. stay within the 2-4 rep bracket – with each drop.) Rest only long enough to change the weight and then go again. Repeat this process 2-3 times then make sure to take a minimum of 3 minutes rest before performing another set. This should give you just enough time to complete your rain dance (you’ll know what I mean once you try it!) I recommend a total of 3 sets every 4-5 days for optimum results. Hot bathes with epsom salts and some light stretching may be in order to deal with the subsequent soreness.
There you have it. Explosive standing calf raises may be the key that finally unlocks those stubborn calves into growth.
1. Bompa, T. Periodization of Strength. Toronto, ON: Veritas Publishing, 1993.
2. Siff, M.C. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness 4th ed. Supertraining International Denver, CO, 2000.
3. Supertraining Discussion Group.