Plyometric exercises: are they effective in improving upper body strength?

There is doubt over how useful plyometric training is for upper body development

Plyometric training is now a common element of elite sports training programmes. But, while its beneficial effects on the lower body are well documented, there is some doubt over how useful it is for upper body force development, writes Raphael Brandon.

First documented as an effective training method by Soviet coaches in the middle of the last century, the main purpose of ‘plyometrics’ is to increase the rate of force development, the key ingredient of power. By contrast, the main purpose of heavy weight training is to increase total force production – ie maximum strength.

It is logical for athletes to seek to increase the rate of force development, because most sports involve fast movements for which forces must be generated quickly. The foot-to-ground contact time in the high jump, for example, is less than 100 milliseconds, yet it will take around 500msec to generate maximum force. For elite performance, an athlete’s rate of force development is often more important than the maximum force he or she is able to generate.

The other advantage of plyometric training is that it comprises jumping and throwing movement patterns that involve a stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). The muscle and tendons are first lengthened with an eccentric load – eg pulling back your arm to throw a ball – which may increase the subsequent concentric force production and/or allow release of elastic energy – eg as the arm accelerates forwards to release the ball. Since most sporting movements involve sprinting, jumping and throwing SSC movements, plyometric training can be viewed as highly sport specific.

Plyometric training for the lower body nearly always takes the form of various jumping movements, such as hopping, bounding and drop jumps, while upper body plyometrics often uses medicine ball throwing movements. Both of these types of movements have been well documented (1). However, research into the effectiveness of plyometric training is less readily available than coaching manuals for the relevant exercises.

One study that raises some questions about the effectiveness of medicine ball training comes from Australia’s Southern Cross University (2). Researchers allocated 24 junior baseball athletes into three groups, one performing upper body heavy weight training, the second using upper body medicine ball exercises and the third acting as non- exercising controls.

They found that while the plyometric training – in the form of medicine ball exercises – improved strength but not baseball throw velocity, heavy weight training improved both parameters. This suggests that upper body plyometrics is not effective at boosting rate of force development.

However, these junior baseball athletes had not previously used strength training and the findings might have been different for strength- trained athletes.

Further investigation at the same institution (3) compared the different effects of upper and lower body plyometrics, this time using 41 previously trained subjects, who were assigned to weight training or plyometric training or a control condition for eight weeks.

The researchers tested their subjects’ lower and upper body strength, rate of force development and power before and after the training programme. They found that plyometric training increased leg muscle power but not the rate of force development and power in the upper body.

The effectiveness of plyometric exercises for increased leg power was established by a previous study from the same researchers (4). They found that 10 weeks of drop jump training improved counter-movement jump (CMJ) performance by 10% in previously strength-trained subjects, implying that their rate of force production, or power, had increased.

In summary, the research mentioned so far confirms the beneficial effects of jumping plyometrics for the lower body but not the effectiveness of medicine ball exercises for the upper body.

One explanation for this distinction could be that the relative loading on the legs of a jump is greater than that of a medicine ball throw on the arms.

During a jump exercise the whole mass of the athlete – say 75kg – is moved. The force required to produce this movement comes from the leg muscles, mostly the quadriceps (thighs), gastrocsoleus (calf) and gluteus maximus (buttocks).

During a medicine ball throw the mass of the ball is moved – a 5kg ball being the weight most commonly used by athletes. The force required to produce this movement comes from the arm muscles, mostly the pectorals, deltoids, triceps and latissimus dorsi.

The difference in load between jumping and throwing in this example is 15-fold. This does not mean that the leg muscles are 15 times stronger than the arm muscles. Leg press repetition maximum scores in well trained male athletes are usually 2.5-3.5 times body weight, while bench press rep max scores are 1.25-1.75 times body weight, suggesting that the legs are about twice as strong as the arms. However, in medicine ball exercises the arms are moving significantly less than half the mass moved by the legs in jumping exercises. Thus, the relative load on the arms is less than that on the legs. Theoretically, then, if you use a typical weight of medicine ball, you will not be training the upper body as hard as you train the lower body with jumping.

This conclusion is supported by recent research (5). Subjects were tested for shoulder external rotator and elbow extension power before and after a six-week medicine ball throwing programme, using one specific exercise involving both sets of muscles. They had to stand, catch a 1kg ball in one hand with the arm horizontally abducted and extended, adduct and flex the arm across the body (eccentric phase) and then rapidly abduct and extend the arm releasing the ball. This throwing movement involves the external shoulder rotators (the posterior shoulder muscles) and the arm extensors (the triceps).

Retesting revealed a significant increase in elbow extensor power, but not in external rotator power. The researchers suggested that the greater muscle mass of the posterior shoulder by comparison with the triceps meant that the training was more effective for the latter than the former.

Evidence that a heavier load upper body plyometric exercise can be effective has come from Canadian research (6). The researchers tested female subjects on a medicine ball for chest pass distance (the distance the ball can be thrown forward, measured from the athlete) and on a chest press for strength.

They then performed either a normal press-up exercise (from the knees) or a plyometric version of the press-up, as illustrated below.

The plyometric press-up

The plyometric press-up

 

With plyometric press-ups, you start by kneeling upright, then fall forward onto the hands, absorbing the weight using the press-up lowering movement (eccentric phase), then rapidly propel yourself upwards and back to the start position (concentric phase) with a ballistic movement.

On retesting, the researchers found that both chest press strength and chest pass distance increased for the plyo press-up group. The fact that they improved their performance on the throwing test implies that they had improved the rate of force development in their upper bodies.

During the plyometric press-up a significant percentage of bodyweight – about 40% – is moved. The force for this movement comes from the pectorals, anterior deltoid and triceps muscles. For an adult weighing 75kg, this means that the upper body musculature is working against about 30kg of weight – significantly more than with commonly used medicine ball weights.

The implication of this research is that, if plyometric exercise is to be effective for the upper body, a load greater than a medicine ball must be used.

The plyometric press-up has been shown to provide such an effect for the common forward horizontal throwing movement (the chest pass). For the overhead throwing movement, which is specific to many sports, it may be worth using very heavy medicine balls or ‘powerbags’ (cylindrical sand-filled sacks with handles to hold onto).

I would suggest 15-20kg as a good (male) training load for the overhead throw movement. With this movement, you stand up, take the weight up and behind the head (eccentric phase), then rapidly pull the arms down and forward, releasing the ball or bag.

When performing such upper body plyometric exercises as the plyo press-up and overhead throw, I recommend 3-5 sets of 5-10 repetitions. To promote a high rate of force development, it is important to take 2-3 minutes rest between sets. This ensures that you do not exhaust the fast- twitch muscle fibres that are crucial to force development.

In summary, plyometrics are effective for increasing power. However, the load of the movement must be proportional to the strength of the muscles involved in the movement. Using heavy throwing objects or plyometric press-ups allows the upper body to be trained effectively

 

Table 1: recommended plyometric exercise for the upper body

 

Exercise Weight Sets x Reps Rest
Overhead med ball throw Female 10-15kg ball
Male 15-20kg ball
3-4 x 6-8 2 min
Plyo press-up (body weight) 3-5 x 5 2-3 min
Chest pass Female 10-15kg powerbag
Male 20-25kg powerbag
3-4 x 6-8 2 min

 

Raphael Brandon MSc is a sports conditioning and fitness specialist. He is also London Region Strength and Conditioning Coach for the English Institute of Sport

References

  1. Donald Chu, Jumping into Plyometrics, Human Kinetics
  2. Journal of Strength and Conditioning research Aug 1994; 8(3):198-203
  3. Can Journal of Applied Physiology Aug 1996
  4. Med Sci Sport and Ex 1993, 25(11):1279-1286
  5. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2005; 19(1):129-134
  6. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 14(3):248–253

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