ATHLETIC TRAINING FOR AVERAGE JOES: PLYOMETRICS
Hello dear readers! A bit of a different intro than normal to this ‘Athletic training for average Joes: plyometrics’ article. As with the majority of the country, I am writing this from my ‘home office’ (AKA- the kitchen table). This means unfortunately I have no access to any equipment aside from a few resistance bands and kettlebells. The reason I tell you this is because some of the content in this series ideally requires visual aid for the specific exercises. I will endeavour to give you written instruction on each of the exercises.
As we know, the length of this nationwide lock down is not confirmed, so there may be several articles in this series that will be affected in their content slightly. I will do my best to keep this to a minimum.
With that said, I want to thank you for continuing to follow the series. Some of what’s included can be used at home, and where so, I will highlight these sections of the article so you can still take advantage during your home-based fitness routines.
So, let’s begin with this instalment of the series.
Do you want to increase your power output to make you stronger and faster but don’t know how?
Have you seen people in gyms jumping onto obstacles wondering ‘is this beneficial’?
Maybe you’ve heard of the term ‘plyometrics’ and wondered what it is?
In this instalment to the series, I will be introducing you to the training methodology of plyometrics. We will look at what it is, why it is used and how it benefits the individual. We will also look at how it is commonly misused to ensure you don’t make the same misuse mistakes. I will then provide you with examples on how to include it into your training.
History – what is plyometrics?
Plyometrics began its popularity back in the early 1970s in European circles, mainly in the Eastern Bloc countries. Originally called ‘jump training’, athletes in such sports as weightlifting, track and field as well as gymnastics were seeing rapid improvements in performance due to the inclusion of this ‘jump training’.
The term ‘plyometrics’ was first used by Fred Wilt, an American track and field coach in 1975. The term is Latin: ‘plyo’ and ‘metrics’, which translates to measurable increases.
Plyometrics are a type of training designed to produce fast, powerful movements as well as improve the function of the nervous system. This is usually produced by performing exercises or drills aimed at linking strength through speed movement. Power is what we get when we mix speed and strength optimally. Let’s take 2 athletes: one who is very strong, and one who is very fast. In terms of sports, that could be a powerlifter and a sprinter. Plyometric training can be applied to both athletes, and both will see improvements in their performance.
How do plyometrics work?
Plyometrics can be explained by understanding the function of a spring. As you compress the spring it stores the energy in its compression. Once it’s released, the spring will rapidly expand to generate an explosive movement. This is a simplified explanation of what happens within our muscles when we perform plyometrics.
Our muscle bellies have what is called the ‘stretch-reflex’. The purpose of this reflex is to monitor the degree of muscle stretch. This is to prevent overstretching and any possible damage that can occur to a muscle from taking it past its natural stretch point. When we perform a plyometric style movement the muscle is loaded eccentrically as it lengthens and is immediately followed by a concentric or shortening action. To protect the muscle from damage during this action the stretch receptors send signals to the spinal cord and central nervous system. This results in an impulse rebounding back to the receptors. This creates a braking effect by creating a powerful muscular contraction.
If we go back to the spring, this helps demonstrate a squat jump, or say a tennis player jumping for an overhead smash. The spring being compressed is the same motion as squatting down into the floor. As the spring expands, this replicates the beginning of the jump, and the stored energy is reflected in the height of the jump.
Why use plyometrics?
You may be thinking “but I’m not an athlete, why would I want to include plyometrics into my own training?”. Well, there is one pretty important reason, which is the knock-on effects of using plyometric training. Incorporating plyometric drills into your own training will make you more powerful. Plyometrics is a form of functional movement and muscle training. If you perform it regularly, you will be stronger, faster and more agile. An increase in performance usually also comes with an increase in results. The more weight you can lift, the more damage to your muscles, which will in turn allow you to become bigger and stronger. If you can run faster for longer, you will burn more calories and be able to burn more body fat. When you become more agile, you will become less prone to injury as your reaction times will be increased.
There are a number of other reasons why plyometrics are beneficial to include in your training programme.
- Minimal specialist equipment is required. Pretty much all gyms will have all the equipment you need, namely some light weights and a plyo box or bench. These can also be purchased for home use and are quite affordable.
- Skill level. Most plyometric exercises require minimal skill to perform. As you become more proficient at them, your performance will increase. You will jump higher, jump further or throw further. In the beginning your performance may be low but you can still benefit from using them.
- Bone and tendon health. Due to the impact nature of plyometrics, combined with the muscle activation and training effect, they can contribute to bone and tendon remodelling and growth. We have discussed the relationship between resistance training and bone health previously.
How not to use plyometrics
Before I talk about how you should use plyometrics, I want to first discuss how not to use them. Plyometrics is one of the training methods regularly seen in gyms being performed incorrectly. This is partly due to not understanding the mechanics behind it and thus the application. I will list below the regular mistakes made and how to avoid them.
High box jumps
No doubt you may have seen a lot of these as viral videos or even been lucky enough to witness in the gym. People stacking boxes to chest height, head height or higher. Then taking a run up and jump onto them. Although these are impressive feats of power, they are not practical. They are also dangerous for a number of reasons. When performing plyometric jumps on to a box, there is a set height you should use. To establish the right height, do this: stand tall, raise one leg so that your knee travels up as far as it can without you having to lean backwards. Then, where you foot sits in the air, is the height of a box you need.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “this isn’t very high though?” and you’re right. The idea of a box jump is not to get a run up and dive up into the air to the highest platform possible. For a proper box jump, you should stand 1 inch away from the box. You then squat down and explode up into the air. Whilst in the air, you tuck your knees and land on the box, cushioning your landing by dropping straight into the bottom of the squat.
If vertical height is what you want to focus on, then a standing squat jump without the box is best. The idea is to perform this next to a wall. At the peak of your jump, mark your height with your hand on the wall using chalk. Some gyms will have ‘reach stick markers’ to help you measure. Your goal is to reach further up the wall each jump. This is more practical and safer than trying to jump to a higher box.
Fat burning finisher
Another common misuse of plyometrics is at the end of a workout as a finisher. Some programmes have you using plyometrics as a fat burning method. As explained above, plyometrics are a maximal effort method used to develop power. To give you an example, let’s say I was to programme long jumps for a client. They would perform 3 sets of 6 jumps with 2-3 minutes rest per set. I would instruct them to make each jump 100% effort, trying to cover the maximal amount of distance possible. They would require the longer rest periods to allow for recovery in the muscle fibres and nervous system to allow the next set to be as productive.
However, it is common to see, for example, squat jumps performed for 1-minute sets for a maximum number of reps, 30 seconds rest, repeated 5 times. This is not plyometric training and performing the exercises in this manner will not give the same desired effect as intended.
High rep work
This relates back to the above point. A common mistake seen is plyometrics being performed for high numbers of reps. As explained, power comes from maximal force output. This can not be performed for numerous repetitions. For example, lets take a bench press. You may be able to lift say 100kg, but you may only get 1 repetition. That’s your max power. However, if you were to reduce the weight to 30kg, you will probably be able to perform over 20 repetitions at that weight. Performing high rep Plyometrics would be like asking you to perform 10 reps with the 100kg. It’s not possible.
In order to then make the movement high repetition, you either increase the risk of injury, decrease the efficiency of the exercises or both occur at the same time. Plyometrics are best performed in the single digit rep range for several sets (for example, 5×5)
Generally speaking, most plyometrics will be performed with bodyweight. Some exercises can be performed with added weight. However, that weight is very light. When performing barbell jump squats, the weight should sit between 5-10% of your 1 repetition max, and not exceed 15% for advanced or experienced lifters. The weight added should not impede the ability to perform the exercise. For example, if you can squat 100kg, you should perform weighted squat jumps with a maximum of 15kg – either as a bar on your back or holding a pair of 7kg dumbbells. It’s common to see people trying to perform jumps with heavier weights. This increases the risk of injury and stops the exercise being plyometric. Remember the goal is speed and strength training. It’s hard to move heavy weight with speed.
A point worth making about speed development
A study by Karalejic, Stojiljkovic, Stojanovic, Andjelkovic & Nikolic in 2014 found that speed potential is up to 90% genetic. Performing plyometrics requires maximal functionality and efficiency of the neuromuscular system. This begins to develop in early years and peaks between ages of 8-12. What does that mean? Simply put, some of you are naturally going to excel at speed and power over others. However, this is true for most physical abilities.
As an example, due to my genetic makeup, I have more type 2 or fast twitch muscle fibres. My 1 rep max numbers are considered in the ‘elite’ category for weights. However, I have fewer type 1 or slow twitch fibres, and so my endurance is not as good. This affects such performances as distance runs. I can still do them, and if I wanted to perform well, I would simply need to focus my training on them for a period of time. But it does not come naturally and thus, my performance in distance runs will never be above average, let alone elite.
How to implement plyometrics
I have brushed upon this in the above text, but I will clarify here how best to implement plyometrics into your current training routine.
First, plyometrics should be used in 2-3 sessions per week, spaced out with 24-48 hours recovery in between. This doesn’t mean you cannot train during these periods, but you should not perform additional plyometrics. Let’s say you performed plyometrics on Monday, on Tuesday you could still do cardio or hypertrophy resistance training, but you could not do plyometrics again until at least Wednesday.
If you’re using plyometrics in your weekly routine, you would pick up to 2 exercises for lower body and 2 exercises for upper body. These can be done all in the same session or split into upper body and lower body sessions (examples will be given shortly).
Sets, reps and recovery
In terms of sets and reps, it is best to keep the rep numbers low to allow for maximal performance. For example, 5 sets of 5 reps (5X5) is a good number. The total repetitions want to stay between 40-60 per session. So, if you have 2 lower body plyometric exercises for 5X5, that would be 50 repetitions in total, which is right in the middle of the optimal range.
You want 2-3 minutes rest per set to allow for maximal recovery between sets. Remember, you are not going to feel the same level of muscle pain that you would performing a set of, say, squats for 10 repetitions. However, there will be muscle fibre exhaustion as well as neuromuscular stress that will take a short time to recover from. This is needed to allow you to perform optimally.
Every single rep you perform must be 100% effort. If you are doing a medicine ball chest throw, you need to throw the medicine ball with maximal effort. If you are performing a depth jump, your goal is to jump as high in the air as possible. It is a totally different action to muscle building or endurance building, so do not expect to feel the same effects (sore muscles, out of breath).
There are several exercises that work for plyometric development. Some are selected based on the athlete’s sport to get maximal crossover. As this is for the ‘average Joes’, we don’t have to worry too much about specificity. Therefore, I am going to give you my 2 favourite lower body and 2 favourite upper body plyometric exercises that you can use.
The long jump requires no equipment to perform, just enough space and a means to measure. It is easy to track progression compared to some other methods of plyometrics. You want to mark a start point with a line on the floor. Stand with feet hip width apart (2-3-inch gap between feet) with toes on the start point. You are going to squat down pushing the hips back and down, pulling your arms back behind your body. Once you reach the bottom of the squat, you’re going to jump as explosively as you can and throw yourself forward with your hands. As you jump, reach forwards with your legs and aim to land in a squat position. Doing this absorbs the impact with your legs. That is the movement completed.
When performing repetitions, you have two options. For minimal equipment, you can just turn on the spot, and jump back to the start. The goal will be to jump past the start line. If you manage this, then you have jumped further. A more measured approach, quite literally, would be to measure each jump individually. This can be done with string, a tape measure, or you can buy specific long jump mats with distances measured on them.
It is important that you land each jump into a squat. I advise clients to imagine the floor is made of glass. You want to make as soft a landing as possible. It’s also important to use your arms to aid in the momentum of the jump. Throwing the arms backwards as you squat then forwards as you jump are what help generate distance.
This is one of my favourite methods and requires a small box to stand on. To perform a depth jump, you are going to stand on the edge of the box. Stand with your feet hip width apart. You are going to step off the box. There are two important factors that need to happen. First, as you step off, both feet must reach the floor at the same time. Second, as you touch the floor, you must instantly land into a squat then explode up into a jump as high as possible. The common mistake is breaking this into several movements. Try not to step off – land – squat – jump. The sequence is step off – land in squat – instantly jump up.
Performing the jump by stepping off a box increases the stretch-reflex mentioned earlier. It also allows you to decrease your reaction times. This is a more functional version of a squat jump, because you must make a speedy transition from step to land to jump.
The box must not be too high. Mid shin height is usually a good height for the box. It should not come above knee height.
Medicine ball slams
Upper body plyometrics are a bit more limited in variety. Generally speaking, they involve throwing a medicine ball, or performing plyometric push ups. The first exercise I would choose is a medicine ball slam. For these, you will need a mat on the floor, and either a medicine ball or a slam ball. Medicine balls are not really built for slams, however, if you can not get hold of a slam ball there are plenty of hard-wearing medicine balls available. As mentioned previously, do not use a heavy weight. Use a 4 to 7 kg ball, depending on your own size and strength levels.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, holding the ball. Stretch your torso up (show your chest to the sky) as you reach the ball over head. Then, throw the ball at the floor between your feet. You do this by performing a crunch motion with your core as you throw the ball down. Try and make your lower ribs touch your hip bone. Use full extension of the arms so that you let go when your hands are nearest the floor. If performed correctly, you will feel the muscles in your core, arms and back contracting during the throw. It is a whole upper body exercise, rather than an arm exercise.
Plyo push up
These are a common staple in a lot of fitness montages you might see in action movies such as the Rocky series. However, they can be adapted based on your level of performance. You will want to get into a push up position. You can perform these either on your knees or feet. The important part is that you maintain a rigid line from your shoulders, through your hips to either your knees or toes. Keep your core tight and hips tucked to do this. Imagine you have a tail, try and tuck it between your legs to get the hip tuck.
Lie flat to the floor, hands just to the outside of your chest. At a beginner level, you are going to attempt to throw your body off the floor. To do this, explosively press your hands into the floor. As your arms lock out, you should be able to take your hands off the floor for a fraction of a second. As your hands land back on the floor, ensure to absorb the impact by bending the arms. Then descend under control, back to body on the floor.
This then progresses into a ‘clap push up’. You perform the same movement as before. The difference is you perform a hand clap before placing hands back to the floor. This will require you to throw yourself further, so only progress to these when you’re confident enough you can perform the rep without face-planting the floor.
There are several progressions for clap push ups. You can perform multiple claps before landing. You can clap your hands behind your back, or at an elite level, a triple clap. Here, you perform 1 clap in front, 1 clap behind your back and a final clap in front again before returning to the floor. These require a high amount of explosive power and should not be attempted without enough experience at regular plyometrics.
Example of programme use
If you wanted to add the above exercises in a weekly programme, I would do the following:
Monday – long jump 5×5 and depth jump 6×4
Wednesday – ball slams 5×5 and plyo push ups 6×4
Saturday – depth jumps 6×4 and ball slams 6×4
Remember to perform these after your warm up activities and before your resistance or cardio work.
Speed and strength trained together develop power. Power has a big transfer across most physical skills. Training for power simply involves you jumping or throwing in a specific way. The training should not include heavy resistance, but maximal effort in the movement patterns. Plyometrics won’t leave you in the same state as resistance training, however it will create more neuromuscular fatigue so ensure rest periods are longer than normal. Adding plyometrics 2-3 times per week into your routine will see you become stronger, faster and more agile.