Plyometrics was a hot topic in strength coaching in the ’70s and ’80s. In those early years many coaches overdid plyometrics, causing overuse sprains, strains, and overuse injuries in their athletes. Plyometrics fell out of favor for a while, and new training methods and equipment came along to capture our attention. Now that we know how to train smarter, coaches are rediscovering the power of plyometrics.
What is plyometrics? It refers to a movement characterized by the rapid stretching and shortening of a muscle, such that energy is stored and released in the tissues so you can produce more power. Because this power enables you to display force more quickly, you can jump higher, run faster, and – in short – perform better.
Modern plyometrics originated nearly 60 years ago with the late Russian track coach Yuri Verkhoshansky. Lacking access to large indoor training facilities to train inside during the harsh Russian winters, Verkhoshansky started experimenting with ways to duplicate the high levels of stress produced in the body
during the takeoffs for the jumps. He estimated that these stresses could reach 300 kilos (660 pounds).
Verkhoshansky attempted to duplicate this stress with heavy partial squats, but these lifts created excessive stress on the spine. His solution was to step off boxes, such that the quadriceps was in a relaxed state before landing, and then rebound – this “shock” created a reflex response that further increased the explosive characteristics of the movement. In the sports science textbook Supertraining, authors Verkhoshanky and the late Dr. Mel Siff provided the following definition of this more intense form of plyometrics: “…a method of mechanical shock stimulation that forces the muscles to produce as much tension as rapidly as possible.”
Depending upon individual training experience and goals, just about any athlete can benefit from regularly performing a combination of lower- and higher-intensity plyometrics. To get you started, here are five ways to get the most out of plyometrics.
1. Do not perform plyos on especially soft surfaces. A landing surface that is too soft interferes with the release of stored energy and diminishes the intensity of the reflex stimulation of the muscles during plyometrics. Neither should you perform plyos on an absolutely inflexible surface such as concrete; instead, either rubber or grass (either natural or artificial) is ideal.
2. Remember to perform upper body plyos. Most coaches limit their plyometric training to jumps, but there are many exercises that can be performed for the upper body. For an upper body plyometric exercise, you can do Marine Corps push-ups: Push yourself up vigorously, clap your hands, and then immediately perform another repetition.
3. Perform plyometrics in season as well as out of season. Often athletes stop performing plyos during the season, believing that their sport will at least maintain their explosiveness. Unfortunately, neglecting all plyometric training in season often leads to a decrease in conditioning. To avoid such backsliding without placing excessive stress on the body, practice exercises such as box jumps in which you jump onto a box (not off a box) so there is minimal impact on the joints.
4. Try supersetting plyos with weight training. This is a way to take advantage of the effects of post-tetanic potentiation (PTP). PTP refers to the concept that you get a more powerful muscular response from a second exercise by preceding it
with a strong muscular contraction. For example, PTP is what happens when you lift a heavy box and then immediately lift a lighter box – the second box will feel especially light because the same fast-twitch fibers that contracted when you lifted the heavy box are still activated when you lift the lighter one. You can get the advantages of PTP by supersetting a weight training exercise that activates fast-twitch muscle fibers, such as heavy squats or deadlifts, with plyometric exercises such as box jumps.
5. Keep your plyo workouts short. Because of their intensity, you do not have to perform a high volume of plyometric training to get results. An appropriate workout for a beginner may consist of only 2 sets of 5 plyometric box jumps, performed twice per week; for an advanced athlete, perhaps 4 sets of 10 box jumps. Also, plyometric training strongly stimulates the nervous system, so to get the most out of them you must perform them at the beginning of a workout when you are fresh.
Plyometrics can be a great addition to an athletic training program, but only if you know what you’re doing and start easy. Don’t just rely on books and videos about plyos – try to get hands-on instruction from a qualified track coach or strength coach to ensure your workout is soundly designed and you are performing these high-intensity exercises correctly. If you rediscover plyometrics in this manner, you’ll be taking your training to the next level.