How to make plyometrics sport specific

How to tailor a plyometric programme to the needs of specific sports, with the emphasis on younger athletes and the sport of basketball

Plyometrics can help train explosive strength by shortening the time taken to switch from an eccentric action (such as landing) to the concentric action (such as jumping). You’re basically training the muscle fibres and motor neurons to work more quickly and in synchronisation with each other. It follows therefore that the jumps and drills you should use are those that train the actions and timings required in your sport.

Young athletes

The legendary coach Tudor Bompa states that it can take up to fours years of progress before youth athletes are ready to do plyometrics(1). If we also consider the fact that some coaches recommend that athletes should be able to squat one and a half to two times their body weight before doing plyometrics, it seems as though athletes shouldn’t do plyometrics at all!

However, anyone with young children will know that from a very young age, children like to jump. They jump off benches, chairs, walls and swings without a thought; looking at it technically they’re performing depth jumps – as many as 100 repetitions a day, every day! Hopscotch is also a plyometric activity as is ‘tag’, so plyometric exercise is in fact just a normal part of playing.

The general principle with youth athletes is to use a wide variety of training, with not too much intensity or volume in any one aspect. If plyometrics are incorporated into a training programme, therefore, they can help prevent injuries. But if they are just done on their own, without any other form of resistance training or agility training, they do not appear to be effective in reducing injuries. So for example, rather than have a PE lesson with 40 minutes of plyometrics one week, then 40 minutes of circuits the next, it may be best to merge the two and the merged session more frequently.
There is absolutely no need to do ‘loaded jumps’ using extra weight with youth athletes. Instead, games and fun drills can be incorporated into the training, using a variety of surfaces. However, it is important to make sure that some structure is in place so that both left and right legs are worked equally to avoid potential overload and imbalances in the future.

One size doesn’t fit all

Even if we consider just lower body plyometrics, we should realise that simply doing plyometrics will not help all athletes equally. Volleyball players, basketball players and high jumpers all need to be able to jump high. The difference is that the ball players need the ability to be able to reproduce these jumps rapidly.

For example, a player might do a jump shot in basketball, miss it, and then have to re-jump to get the rebound. In contrast, a high jumper may have 15 to 45 minutes’ wait between rounds before his or her next jump. The training should therefore reflect this.
In a similar vein, triple jump and high jump use a heel to toe jumping action, whereas martial artists and ball players tend to use a ‘ball of the foot’ action due to the constant need to react rapidly to the (unpredictable) situation at hand. In reality this means that even with a depth jump or a countermovement jump, depending on the sport that the athlete is doing, the foot mechanics will be different. Just doing set after set of work without addressing the actual technique may not help translate into improved sporting performance.

Real world

The problem with conducting studies around programmed jumping activities is that they don’t necessarily translate to the sporting environment. For example, a basketball player doing depth jumps may improve vertical jump ability, but he or she needs to consider why they’re trying to improve their jumping (for example, to get a rebound or to shoot). A player may have an amazing vertical jump score when testing, but it’s no good if it can’t be applied in a game situation.

The solution, according to some researchers, is to combine the jump training with decision making through free exploration, as this is how athletes are best able to discover solutions to movement problems(11). This is not about the cognitive decision making associated with tactics, but the physiological responses to differing situations.

Ankle, foot and knee mechanics all change according to the surface, the timing and the situation of the jump. The jump mechanics of a basketballer change when there are defenders around, so practise of plyometrics should incorporate some jumping with jostling and the kind of decision making involved in a match situation(12). This is best described as ‘deliberate practice’, rather than just ‘work’, and requires some mental involvement from the athlete(13).
The coach can help here by providing goals for the athlete’s intention and cues for their attention. By giving the correct goals, the athlete’s intention, such as ‘try to jump as high as I can’, is more likely to result in performance gains(14). If the intention is not focused then the physiological gains will not be as great.

Similarly, attention is best focused on external cues, such as what an opposite number is doing, or where the ball is going to be placed for a shot (see box 1 below). This compares to internal cues such as looking at oneself in a mirror when exercising or trying to isolate specific muscles and contracting them when trying to jump. This may seem obvious, but with subtle differences in what the athlete’s intention or attention should be, the movement mechanics and outcomes of the jump can and will differ.

Conclusion

Plyometrics are an effective tool for increasing vertical jump height. If the sessions are planned and the initial training level of the athlete is taken into account, they can be used for most athletes, including young athletes. Once the basic landing and jumping techniques have been learned and can be performed effectively, then the correct mechanics for that sport should be taught, and rehearsed in situations that require decision making. This requires sound coaching, but it should make it more interesting and effective for the athlete. Box 2 summarises the effective practice of plyometrics.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company

References

1. Bompa, T. Periodization, Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics. (1999)
2. Am. J. Sports Med. 6: 180-184. (1978)
3. National Strength Coaches Association Journal 4, 28-31. (1982)
4. Scandinavian J Med Sci Sports, 9: 4-7 (1999)
5. Amer J Sports Med. 27(6) 699-706 (1999)
6. Am J Sports Med. 28(5):659-62. (2000)
7. Br J Sports Med ;8:89-94 (2004)
8. Am J Sports Med, 33, 1003-10. (2005)
9. J Bone Joint Surg Am 88(8): 1769-74. (2006)
10. Scand J Med Sci Sports 18 (5) 596-604 (2008)
11. J. Sports Sci. 15:621–640. (1997)
12. Ergonomics 43:1651–1660. (2000)
13. Psychol. Rev. 100:363–406. (1993)
14. J Strength Conditioning Res, 17(1), 177–186 (2003)

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