By Juan Carlos Santana. MEd, CSCS.
What it is and what it’s not.
As a performance enhancement consultant, it has been my experience that “plyometric” training is one of the most requested forms of training by athletes. All have heard the stories of great power development accredited to this method of training. To add to the mystery, plyometrics originated as a training method in the secretive eastern block countries where it was referred to as “jump training”. As the eastern block countries rose to become powerhouses in sports, plyometric training was credited for much of their success. In the 1920s, the sport of track and field was the first to employ a systematic method of using plyometric-training methods. By the 1970s this methods of power development was being used by other sports that required explosive power for successful competition.
This article is the first of a three part series. It answers some basic questions about plyometrics and its efficacy in enhancing human performance. The second part of this series deals with lower body plyometric programming. The third and last part of this series discusses upper body plyometric training.
Plyometrics comes from the Greek word “pleythyein” (i.e. to augment or increase). However, the actual word plyometrics was first coined in 1975 by American track coach, Fred Wilt. Based from the Latin root words “plio” (i.e. more) and “metric” (i.e. to measure).
Plyometrics can best be described as “explosive-reactive” power training. This type of training involves powerful muscular contractions in response to a rapid stretching of the involved musculature. These powerful contractions are not a pure muscular event; they have an extremely high degree of central nervous system involvement. The event is a neuromuscular event! It is a combination of an involuntary reflex (i.e. a neural event), which is then followed by a fast muscular contraction (i.e. voluntary muscular event). Sound complicated? Well, it’s really not. We all have seen it, experienced it and continue to use this type of “reactive” movement pattern to develop power. We all do it everyday.
For example, every person that has been to a physician has experienced a plyometric event. When the doctor tapped under your kneecap, causing your leg to jerk, what do you think he/she was checking? The tapped caused a sudden stretch of the tendon that connects to all of the quadriceps (i.e. the muscle involved in extending the knee). Small receptors within the quadriceps create a stretch reflex, which makes the quadriceps responded by contracting explosively. The stretch reflex that caused the leg to extend is called the “myotatic reflex” and is the basis of plyometric physiology. The most common human movement, running, is completely a plyometric event. Other common plyometric events include throwing, swinging a golf club/bat, jumping and skipping!
This stretching of the muscles, prior to the explosive contraction that follows, is often called “loading”. The faster and greater the load, the more powerful the reflex and subsequent contraction. A good example of this is watching any basketball player jump. They jump higher when they can take a few steps before the jump. The reason for this is that the few steps create momentum. This momentum is used to create a bigger and faster “load” on the leg plant prior to jumping. The response to this greater load is a greater contraction by the legs and a higher jump height. The same phenomenon exists with all explosive actions.
Many times people confuse some forms of power training for plyometrics. Plyometric training is only one form of power training. A true plyometric exercise must contain a very fast loading phase. That is, for the stretch reflex (i.e. myotatic reflex) to invoke a powerful contraction, it must occur extremely fast. If the doctor pushed on the tendon below the kneecap, instead of quickly tapping it, would the knee involuntarily jerk up? Of course not, no matter how fast the doctor pushed on that tendon. Therefore, a jump (i.e. from an athletic position) onto a 24-inch box is a power exercise, but not a plyometric exercise. To make it a plyometric exercise one can jump off a 6-12-inch box, hit the ground and immediately jump onto the 24-inch box. The landing from smaller box loads the legs quick enough to create the stretch reflex needed in plyometric training. This is very demanding – don’t try it without consulting a professional!
By now you should have a better understanding of what constitutes a plyometric exercise. Hopefully, they are not as mysterious as you once thought they were. You should realize that everything we do fast has some plyometric component in it. That’s how come we can do it fast!
So, who can participate in plyometric training? The answer is everyone! With proper supervision and progression, everyone can partake in plyometric training, from children to the senior population. If you want to see the real kings of plyometric training, go to any playground and watch children play. Some of the athletes I train have performed many exercise “stolen” from six-year olds. As for my senior clients, many participate in watered down versions of hopscotch and skipping games. Seniors not only get great strength, power and balance benefits from plyometric activities, they relive great times – they love it! The only problem is getting them to stop laughing. Athletes obviously stand to gain significant power development from the prudent use of plyometrics. As with the non-athletic population, proper progression is again a key concern.
Since I’ve harped on proper progression, let’s define it as it pertains to plyometrics. First and most important, the proper strength base must be developed to support the increased force production that results from the stretch reflex. Remember that the reflex involved in plyometric training allows you to contract your muscles with greater force then you could through a voluntary contraction. Therefore, we must make sure that the musculature can support this increased force production. Secondly, a higher degree of balance and stability are also needed for the quick loading phase. Although a specific body part may seem exclusively involved, the percussive shocks that bring about the myotatic reflex are felt throughout the entire body – all structures must have good integrity to support this training. Third and last, simpler skills must be mastered before progressing to more difficult exercises.
Plyometric training has received some bad press. Inappropriate use of plyometric training has been associated with various forms of “over-use” injuries, especially in the lower extremities (e.g. patellar and Achilles tendinitis and plantar faciitis). This type of training, especially when done at a very high intensity, is a high-risk endeavor (i.e. high returns but at high risk). Like any other high-risk maneuver, high intensity plyometrics should not designed or performed without the supervision of a professional overseeing the training, and response, to the exercise protocol.
In closing, everyone should understand that like any other type of training, plyometric training is a continuum. We are all involved in plyometric events everyday. Some of us are exposed to very low levels, while others participate in higher intensities. Regardless of the level of participation, the key to safe participation in plyometrics is proper progression. I can’t emphasize this enough!
Jump Higher for Basketball Season.
Part II of this series deals with the basic categories of lower body plyometric exercises and some general recommendations to safe programming and participation.
In the Plyometric I article we discussed the basic premise of plyometric training. We outlined the basic physiology of plyometrics and also drew a distinction between general power training and true plyometric training. This article will describe a basic plyometric program with an emphasis on basketball lower body power in order to jump higher.
Remember this program is a general example of a simple progression. Plyometric training is very individual and must be tailored to the specific athlete it is intended for. Every athlete has different concerns and needs. Additionally, injury can result from the incorrect use of plyometrics. Therefore, make sure you seek the advice of a professional who is trained and experienced in this method of training before you embark on a serious plyometric routine.
First, let’s describe some program considerations.
As discussed in previous articles, the principle of specificity must govern the training regimen. Thus, the exercises selected for this program simulate basketball movements in speed, biomechanics and resistance.
Safety and proper progression must be at the forefront of the program. It is better to under-prescribe then to over-prescribe. Advanced exercises must be reserved for only advanced athletes. Beginners always want to progress faster than they are capable of. It is the coach’s job to explain, and insist on, proper progression.
Although beginning plyometric programs may be performed by most people, to participate safely in an aggressive plyometric program many authors suggest that the athlete should be able to squat 1.5 times body weight. Therefore, a considerable strength base becomes imperative when embarking on a challenging plyometric program like the one we will discuss. For most athletes, 8-12 weeks of periodized, resistance training should be sufficient to bring strength levels to adequate levels.
A proper warm up and cool down can not be emphasized enough. The warm-up must proceed from general (e.g. jogging or skipping rope) to specific preparatory exercises (e.g. dynamic stretches similar to exercises being performed). The cool down should focus on flexibility via static stretches and allow the gradual return to a pre-exercises state.
The correct dose of stimuli must be provided. High intensity must dominate the plyometric training session. Quality, not quantity, is the cornerstone of plyometric training – all exercises are to be performed at 95-100% effort. However, there must be a balanced relationship between stress and recovery. Insufficient recovery is the most common cause of injury in plyometrics. Generally 1-3 minutes between sets and 3-5 minutes between exercises is sufficient recovery within a single training session. Recovery between sessions becomes more complex due to the many variables to consider (e.g. practice schedules, strength training volume, level of athletic development, etc.). It is here where the experience of a trained professional becomes paramount.
Finally, Individual program design must be part of the final process. Although a general program can be designed for a team. The coach must “tweak” each program to deal with the specifics of the individual athlete. Adjustments to fit the athlete’s characteristics are always made. Because of individual variations, cookie-cutter plyometric programs are a sure way to hurt athletes. Medical history, training age, muscle imbalances, sport and position played are some of the variables that will dictate the specific design of the program.
To organize the voluminous plyometric training information, several authors have described various categories of plyometric exercises. However, for the sake for simplicity we will restrict our discussion to the three major categories of lower body plyometric exercises. The three basic categories of lower body plyometric exercises are jumps, hops and bounds.
Jumps are exercises where you land with both feet (e.g. long jump). The take off can be performed with one foot or two feet. Jumps can be done in place (e.g. jumping jacks) or for distance (e.g. multiple long jumps). Hops are exercises where you take off one foot and land on the same foot (e.g. single leg hopping). Hops can also be done in place (e.g. stationary single leg ankle hops) or for distance (e.g. multiple single leg hops). Since hops are a single leg exercise, they require much more strength than jumps. Bounding exercises are exercises where one takes off on one foot and lands on the other foot (e.g. alternate leg bounding). Bounds are usually done for distance. Bounds can be the most challenging of the plyometric exercises. However, there is over lap between the categories. For example, a very advance jump exercise can be more demanding than a beginning bound exercise.
Now let’s get to the program. I have used the structure of the 12-week plyometric routine illustrated here very successfully with high school and college level athletes. Keep in mind that to assure the appropriate strength base; 8-12 weeks of resistance training would precede this program. The weekly chart includes the number of sets and reps (depicted as foot contacts). I have also included some figures to help with the identification of the exercises.
This routine can be performed during the pre-season, 2 times per week in conjunction with a 2-3-day/week resistance-training program emphasizing functional strength and power conversion. Once season begins, cutting down to once per week may be indicated. This would depend on athlete’s physiological development, resistance training and competition schedule.
The progression allows a two-week block to adapt to each exercise. As the complexity and intensity of the drills increase, there is a corresponding decrease in volume. This allows, and encourages, higher efforts to be put forth in each repetition. As mentioned before, this increase in intensity is essential for optimal power development.
Remember that this program is for illustrative purposes only. It is not meant to be a prescription for you, or any other person. If you are interested in safely participating in a plyometric program, take the time to consult a professional. The knees and ankles you save could be your own!
The last article in this series, Plyometrics III, discusses an upper body plyometric program designed to develop upper body explosive power. Until then, train hard and train smart!
Illustrative 12 Week Plyometric Program for Basketball
Week 1-2 Sets Foot contacts
Ankle jumps (Stiff leg, fast ankle action, on balls of feet) 3 12
Vertical jumps (Go for repeated, fast rebounds under rim) 3 10
Front obstacle jumps (jump multiple cones or hurdles) 3 10
Lateral obstacle jumps (jumps sideways over multiple cones or hurdles) 3 10
Ankle jumps (Increase air time) 4 10
Vertical jumps (Increase airtime and speed between jumps) 3 8
Front obstacle jumps (Increase distance between obstacles) 4 8
Lateral obstacle jumps (Increase distance between obstacles) 3 8
Power skipping (Exaggerated skipping with powerful leg thrusts – distance) 3 12
Repeated tuck jumps (Jump and tuck knees high and feet under butt- height) 3 8
Multiple long jumps (For distance and height) 3 8
Lateral obstacle jumps (Increase distance between obstacles) 4 8
Power skipping (Increase distance covered per skip) 4 10
Repeated tuck jumps (Increase height – lots of air time) 4 6
Multiple long jumps (Increase distance and height) 4 6
Diagonal obstacle jumps (Zigzag jumps over low bench/row of cones) 4 6
Alternate Leg bounding (Exaggerated running –go for distance between steps) 4 8
Single leg hops (Repeated hops on one leg for distance) 4 6
Squat jumps (Increase height of jump) 3 6
Fronto bstacle jumps and sprints (add a 15-20 yrd. sprint after jumps) 3 6
Diagonal obstacle jumps and sprints (add a 15-20 yrd. sprint after jumps) 3 6
Alternate Leg bounding (Increase distance between steps) 3 8
Single leg hops (Increase total distance) 3 6
Squat jumps (Increase height of jump) 3 6
Lateral obstacle jumps and sprints (add a 15-20 yrd. sprint after jumps) 2 8
Front obstacle jumps and sprints (Increase intensity of jumps and sprints) 2 8
Diagonal obstacle jumps and sprints (Increase intensity of jumps and sprints) 2 8
Explosive Training for Upper Body Power.
This is the last article of a three part series on plyometrics. The first article of the series described what plyometrics was. The second article concentrated on lower body plyometrics. Although we discussed its specificity towards basketball, any athlete involved in a sport that required lower body explosive power would have benefited from that program. This last part focuses on the upper body. A program such as the one we will sample below will enhance the explosiveness of the upper body. Upper body power is obviously valuable for athletes who participate in football, baseball, basketball, tennis and a variety of other sports. Before we continue let us quickly review the fundamentals of plyometrics.
Plyometrics revolves around the stretch reflex component. That is, in order for an exercise to be a true plyometric exercise, it must first “pre-load” (i.e. quickly pre-stretch) the musculature involved in the exercise. This pre-load creates a neuromuscular reflex that allows a more forceful contraction to occur, very similar to the knee jerk that results when a doctor taps the patellar tendon. This stretch reflex is what separates plyometrics from other methods of power training.
Another element that is paramount in power development is the ability to “release”. When resistance training with traditional weighted implements, or machines, 25-50% of the energy, involved in the exercise is dedicated to decelerating (i.e. slowing down) the weight. This deceleration is actually detrimental to optimal power development. This is the reason why all of the plyometric exercises for the lower body involve jumping; when one jumps up there is no deceleration. Therefore, all of the upper body exercises, illustrated below will involve the element of release.
As we have mentioned in our previous plyometric articles, it is imperative that an adequate strength base is developed before attempting plyometric training. One must remember that an essential component to plyometric training is high intensity efforts. This higher intensity is accentuated during compressive exercise like explosive push-ups. These percussive exercises put an enormous amount of stress on all of the associated structures (i.e. muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, etc.). If these anatomical structures are not properly developed, an injury is guaranteed if these types of plyometric exercises are undertaken. This is particularly true of the upper body. Unlike the lower body, we do not have “a lifetime” of “base training” for the upper body. We were not born to walk, run, jump, skip and play on our upper body. Accordingly, one cannot view the upper body as one does the lower body when designing a plyometric program. Exercise intensities must be considered very carefully to establish appropriate volumes for the upper body.
The last item, which we need to emphasize, is the most important. Individualization is the key to a successful plyometric program. This is why we must emphasize that the program we will illustrate in this article is not a prescription for anyone. It is only an example of what an upper-body plyometric program looks like. It is here where good knowledgeable coaching is invaluable. Although general plyometric programs are provided for many teams and position, I do not approve of everyone following one program. Body structures, strengths and weaknesses are highly individual and should be addressed in that manner. A cookie-cutter plyometric program, without ongoing evaluation, is a sure way to hurt an athlete. I have seen this many times, a coach making a copy of a plyometric program he/she saw in a journal and using it on their team. Parents should be aware of this and ask questions. This approach to coaching, or training, is lazy, uneducated and unprofessional.
Now let us get to the program. The general components targeted for improvements are: 1) overhead throwing power, 2) rotational explosiveness, 3) pushing power, 4) pulling power and 5) throwing deceleration power. Although this program focuses on upper body power, it is necessary to understand that the energy for each exercise comes from the ground. Therefore, in many of the exercises the lower body and core get considerable residual training. The chain of structures that transfers energy from the ground to the implement used is called the kinetic chain. Enhancing the kinetic chain is a main advantage of this type of upper-body power training.
Like the lower-body plyometric program we illustrated a few weeks back, the program illustrated here is 12 weeks in duration. I have used various permutations of this program very successfully with many of my athletes. The weekly chart includes the number of sets and reps. I have included some figures to help with the identification of the exercises.
This program may be implemented during the pre-season, 2 times per week in conjunction with a 2-3-day/week resistance-training program emphasizing functional strength and power conversion. I often mixed this program with the lower-body plyometric program. This can be accomplished by performing lower-body program one day and the upper-body on the next plyometric training session, or by taking half of each of the programs and performing a mixed program twice per week. Once season begins, cutting down to once per week may be indicated. This would depend on athlete’s physiological development, resistance training and competition schedule. The progression allows the complexity and intensity of the drills to increase with a corresponding decrease in volume. The lower volume allows higher efforts to be exerted during each repetition. As mentioned before, this increase in intensity is essential for optimal power development. As usual, make sure you warm up thoroughly before performing these exercises.
Many of the exercises in this program use medicine balls. The new types of medicine balls are made of durable rubber, offering a comfortable bounce. This offers several advantages. They allow bouncing against walls, which serves to “pre-load” the body structures targeted. The bounce capability of the balls also allow and individual to train by themselves. Some of the exercises I have developed over the years are illustrated in this program. Do not attempt them, they require professional supervision and can be dangerous if not done properly. I have included them only to demonstrate what is possible, not what to do!