Q: I run track and also play basketball and football. Should I be doing calf raises to help my speed and jumping ability?
A: Most track and field athletes do very little specific calf training in the weight room even though you would expect they need stronger calves than any other athletes. The reason they don't need much calf work is because their calves get plenty of stimulation from all the hops, runs, and bounds that they do in training. The loading on the calf musculature at impact from a jump is 6x bodyweight or more which is difficult to replicate in the weight room.
If you're on your feet frequently enough what your calves really need is more recovery, not more training induced fatigue. To illustrate this go in the gym and do one 10 rep maximum set of standing calf raises. After this take a few days off from sprinting, running, or jumping and make an attempt to stay off your feet. After this rest go back in the gym and again test your 10 rep maximum calf raise and you'll probably find you can increase the weight. You didn't suddenly become stronger from doing one set of calf raises you became stronger by allowing your calves more recovery from what you were already doing, something which is difficult to do when you do a lot of speed and jump training.
Also, regardless of how strong your calves are they still won't contribute near as much in running or jumping as the muscles of the hips, hamstrings and quadriceps. Your time would be better spent improving the strength of these muscle groups. As long as your calves are strong enough to absorb the impact of ground forces and transfer force coming from these muscle groups you'll be just fine. If you train calves in the weight room at all it should be during the offseason when the volume of sport specific training is lower. Bodybuilders need more calf training because they don't do volumous sprints, hops, etc. and they also need to increase the size of their calf muscles. However, there isn't any correlation between calf size and running or jumping ability - in fact it would appear the inverse is more true.
Q: What do you think of the power clean? Is it a necessity that I do it to develop explosiveness?
A: Personally, I like the power clean but I like it because I think it's fun not because I think it's a necessity to develop explosiveness. The reason the power clean is included in a lot of sports programs is because olympic lifters are known as some of the most explosive athletes around. It's not uncommon to see O-lifters with standing broad jumps up well over 10 feet, 20-yard dash times rivaling those of sprinters, and vertical jumps approaching 40 inches. However, what a lot of people don't realize is that when other countries look for young athletes to develop as O-lifters they look for the most explosive young athletes in tasks like sprinting and jumping and then take them and turn them into o-lifters. It's nearly a pre-requisite that in order to be a successful Olympic lifter you gotta be fast and explosive to start with, so these feats of athleticism are no wonder.
The benefits to the olympic lifts like the power clean are that they inherently require a high velocity component to execute correctly and require a large power output (force x velocity). You can't perform a proper power clean without accelerating the bar. The main benefits occur during the "catch" phase of the movement where the force stabilized is very high. For this reason the full squat clean as performed by O-lifting competitors is even better because the "catch" involves squatting all the way down and quickly up which involves strong reactive contractions by the lower body. But you can create even more power and build up even more force by using traditional exercises such as squats and deadlifts with a focus on performing them explosively and a focus on building up velocity during the negative and exploding out of the hole.
Another thing is the technical components of exercises like the power clean require good coaching in order to execute correctly. This can require a lot of time that could better be spent focusing on other sports related tasks instead of using that time learning olympic lifting specific skills. Some of the movements by young athletes I've seen passed off as power cleans leave a lot to be desired. This isn't the athletes fault it's just that these lifts are sports events in themselves and there are few qualified coaches that know how to teach these lifts correctly. The full squat clean requires even more time spent perfecting. This is why I say the clean is fun - It's an athletic event in itself.
So the bottom line is if you can perform it correctly you can implement it but I wouldn't waste a whole lot of time learning it if you think it will make you more explosive on it's own. Generally an increase in clean poundages will transfer into improved sprint times over short distances (0-20 yards) and jumps from a standstill but not always. In fact I recently saw an athlete increase his power clean poundage by 40 lbs over 2 months yet his vertical jump went down by 4 inches and he got slower. The problem was he was so intensely focused on driving up his power clean poundages that he avoided paying attention to abilities more directly in line with his sport - and these should always be key.
Q: What do you think of agility ladders, unstable surface training, and other things designed to boost sport specific ability? Do you use them much?
I do like using agility ladders and some other agility specific training in my extra/restorative workouts because they are non-taxing. The agility ladder is also beneficial for youngsters 12 years old or under who are still learning basic movement patterns.
But as far as training sport specific ability, first, the game itself provides plenty of specific ability so if the objective is to make all your training specific then the best way is to simply have no offseason and play your sport year around. The off season is the time to advance strength, speed, and the other necessary physical qualities to be incorporated into skill-work later.
My feelings are that ladders, balance balls, etc. are never going to develop movement patterns as well as playing the sport will, but variations can be used to enhance strength qualities needed to improve agility. For example, jukes, stutter steps, and cuts are all about absorbing and applying force so drills that enhance or increase the level and speed of force absorption and application can transfer well, but the key thing in this is that the training specific movement be executed under conditions of high force, something which most agility specific exercises, devices, etc. don't take into account. Take a look at the "Football Speed" articles for some ideas.
When we hear the word "agility" most of us think of an athlete's moves.I have yet to see anything improve an athletes moves better than playing the sport will. People tend to pick up moves from watching others and then try to use them in their sport. Some do it rather naturally and others have to practice in their bedroom after getting tackled or have someone break their ankles in hoops. Rest assured the top performers you see breaking peoples ankles in the NFL or NBA didn't learn those moves as teenagers by standing on a beach ball or balance device at a high-priced training facility. Watching some great athletes play their are a few classic "moves" that people do. These are jukes, stutter steps, cuts, etc. If you increase the physical qualities of strength, speed, and the ability to absorb, stabilize, and react against force and then let the game develop the "moves", you can expect the proficiency of the moves to improve as well.