Ballistic training is a type of weight-lifting exercise characterized by movements in which trainees apply maximal force to resistance with the intent of moving or lifting weight as quickly as possible. Some ballistic movements, such as explosive push-ups and jumping squats, actually result in practitioners launching themselves — or a loaded bar designed for use during exercise — skyward at the peak contraction of the movement. Other ballistic training movements, such as Olympic lifts, apply maximal force but require individuals to keep full control of the bar.
The primary advantage to ballistic training is that it allows for maximum acceleration to be applied to the weight, resulting in activation of more fast twitch muscle fibers. Fast twitch, also known as type II, fibers are most heavily recruited during explosive movements. Training these fibers results in better performance on sports that require quick, explosive movements such as boxing, sprinting, and football.
For an example of the action at work in ballistic training, compare a ballistic movement like the jump squat to a regular squat, which would qualify as a non-ballistic training movement. In a jump squat, a trainee actually jumps into the air at the peak of the movement, but in the regular version, the trainee is unable to apply maximal force at the top of the movement, since the goal is to prevent themselves from leaving the ground. In the ballistic version, the muscles get a more complete workout because the trainee is free to continue accelerating through the entire range of motion.
One major disadvantage to this type of training is that it can be hard on the joints. Ballistic training movements such as jumping squats or explosive pushups require the trainee not only to leave the contact surface, but to absorb the impact upon landing. Especially when a heavy resistance load is used, this can stress the knees, elbows, shoulders, and other joints. Over time, overuse of ballistic movements can result in injury. To avoid this, it's important to balance the use of ballistics training with other exercise regimens, especially in trainees with a history of joint issues.
Another disadvantage to ballistic training is the relatively light loads involved. The goal of ballistic training is to accelerate as much as possible, so using a load higher than 90 percent of the trainee's one-rep maximum (1RM) can impede their ability to maximally accelerate the weight. Therefore, ballistics training generally involves nothing but sub-maximal weights, which fail to teach the trainee to handle maximal loads. To avoid this, consider using ballistic movements not as a complete system of training unto themselves, but as tools within a broader training program that also incorporates maximum strength training and other forms of conditioning.