Plyometric training: can it improve football performance?

Plyometric type exercises for power and speed are used with great effect but how useful are they for footballers?

At a glance

Plyometric type training exercises for power and speed are used with great effect in a number of sports. But how useful are they for footballers? John Shepherd looks at the latest research and comes up with some surprising conclusions…

Football is a high-intensity intermittent sport. Although players can cover up to 11km in a game, most of this is done in short, sharp bursts lasting seconds, and this performance therefore relies on anaerobic energy, speed and power. Plyometric (jumping) exercises to develop power are used by sportsmen and sportswomen from myriad sports with success. But can they be applied to football and combined with traditional approaches?

A plyometric exercise involves the combination of two muscle contractions coming together to enhance muscular power outputs and therefore speed and power (see box 1). Footballers need to posses agility, speed and strength (see box 2) and plyometrics are a great way to condition these outcomes. Firstly, let’s take a look at some research that has examined the inclusion of these types of exercises into football training.

Box 1

Swiss researchers examined the effect of surface type (grass or sand) on residual muscle soreness, vertical jump and sprint performance in 37 footballers (2). Why residual muscle soreness? Well, if a player suffers from soreness or gets injured and has to be rehabbed back to full fitness, the knowledge of the best surfaces on which to train will be of great benefit to football conditioners, physiotherapists and managers.

The demands of football

Eighteen players followed a four-week plyometric training programme on grass, while 19 followed the same programme on sand. Pre and post-intervention programme, the players were tested on 10m and 20m sprint performance, squat jump and counter movement jump ability. Muscle soreness was tested using a questionnaire. The results showed that both interventions improved sprint speed and squat jump performance similarly. However, it was discovered that the footballers performing plyometrics on sand improved their counter movement jump more than those who jumped from the grass. It was additionally discovered that the players who performed their jumps from sand reported less muscle soreness.

In the world of sports conditioning, specificity is seen as key in terms of conditioning drills and practice, and maybe, therefore, jumping from sand could be seen as less relevant than jumping from grass. However, it’s not always that simple. To perform a squat jump requires the generation of force from a stationary position, primarily using a concentric muscle contraction in the ankles, thighs and hip muscles. But the counter movement jump utilises the eccentric/concentric stretch shortening cycle interaction and jumping from the softer surface will slow this down. Basically the sand will ‘damp’ the explosive capability of the muscles, which explains the reduced adaptation to this training method of the players in that group.

However jumping from sand requires greater strength and this probably explains why the players who performed their plyometrics from this surface improved this jump more significantly. It was as if they were performing their jumps with added resistance, which overloaded their muscles to a greater extent than the grass, producing a resultant increase in strength.

What are the lessons here for football conditioners? Varying the surface from which players perform their plyometrics training could yield physiological and performance benefits, and reduce residual muscular soreness, allowing a player to complete more high-intensity training. However, everything else being equal, it’s probably still better that players train on hard dry grass, running tracks or sprung sports hall floors when performing plyometrics. This is because the harder surfaces will help develop a ‘quick fire stretch shortening cycle’, which will translate into improved on-pitch performance.

Weight training

For comprehensive football conditioning, weight training and plyometrics can be combined. But what kind of weight training protocol works best for footballers? Researchers from Norway examined weight training protocols used by professional football teams (3). Specifically they wanted to find out whether there was a strong relationship between maximal strength, sprint and vertical jump performance among elite players.

Seventeen international players, with an average age of 25, participated in the survey. They were tested for maximum half-squat, vertical jump and sprint performance over 30m and using a 10m-shuttle run. It was discovered that half squat performance was a key determinant of all test performances and it was also noted that this did not compromise anaerobic endurance as measured by the shuttle run. The researchers concluded that ‘elite soccer players should focus on maximal strength training, with emphasis on maximal mobilisation of concentric movements’ (see box 3).

Strength Training

Power combination training

Power combination training combines plyometric and weight training exercises into the same workout. The exercises are usually paired and must work the same muscle groups. Typical examples include the squat jump and half squat, and the split jump and the single leg press. Loadings on the weights exercises must be in excess of 70% of one repetition maximum (1RM). This is to ensure that the exercise targets large numbers of fast twitch fibres (a lighter weight would tend to emphasise slow twitch fibres – which have an endurance role and are consequentially much less likely to contribute to power, speed and strength development).

Power combination workouts have been shown to enhance the power outputs of fast twitch muscle fibres within the workout and over a training period. This is believed to occur as a result of ‘potentiation’, which is essentially heightened neuromuscular activity in the relevant muscles. The net effect is that an athlete is able to recruit larger numbers of fast twitch muscle fibres without conscious effort, thus boosting their power output.
However, there is some research which argues that this method of training may be less beneficial for football players. Norwegian researchers looked at power combination training methods and their effects on professional players (5). Six players were assigned to a heavy weight training group, who also completed 6-8 specific football sessions a week, whilst 8 players performed plyometrics as well as the heavy strength work and the football sessions. A control group just performed the 6-8 weekly soccer sessions.

The pre- and post-intervention tests used by the researchers included maximum half squat, counter-movement jumps and peak power in half squat with 20kg, 35kg, and 50kg loads (basically the players’ speeds of movement were measured during the half squat with these weights and their power outputs measured). In terms of sprint speed, acceleration, flat out speed and 40m times were tested.

The result showed that there were no significant differences between the footballers who had performed the power combination training or the heavy squats only. As a result of these findings, the researchers decided to create just one intervention group with players performing heavy weights and plyometrics. Again, a control group just performed a comparable number of weekly football sessions. The power combination training footballers showed improvements across all tests, except the counter movement jump. These improvements were deemed to be significant for the half squat 1RM and sergeant jump for example. However, non-significant differences were seen on the half squat power tests with 20kg and 35kg loads and all  of the sprint tests.

This led the researchers to conclude that, ‘there are no significant performance-enhancing effects of combining strength and plyometric training in professional soccer players concurrently performing 6-8 soccer sessions a week compared to strength training alone.  However, heavy strength training leads to significant gains in strength and power-related measurements in professional soccer players’.

How can these findings be reconciled with the fact that much other research indicates that power combination training works? Simon Thadani is the conditioning coach at Ipswich Town FC, and believes that football conditioners must be conscious of the training that players are doing with the football coaches and that this must all be assessed and added to the overall training load on the players.

He provides the following real life scenario: ‘One of the football coaches took away several of the defenders for half an hour to concentrate on heading. I watched the session and observed that each player ended up doing 150 plus headers. I therefore decided that the players had done enough and did not need to do the afternoon session, nor plyometrics the
next day.’

Basically, what Simon is noting is that the football sessions were conditioning the jump performance of the players without them having to do a specific jumping workout. This might explain the findings of the Norwegian researchers above; a crucial consideration for football conditioners (indeed conditioners of all high intensity intermittent sports) is that the physiological demands of the sport itself (both through training and competition) cannot be overlooked as a contributor to the overall training and conditioning load.

Conclusion

Developing the maximum power capabilities of footballers is crucial for maximum playing performance. Although plyometric exercises tick all the right boxes in this respect, it would appear that heavy weight exercises, notably the half squat, are perhaps even more effective as part of a properly constructed training programme.
Plyometric exercises, as specific training units, may be more beneficial in pre-season and from an injury prevention perspective (in terms of mastering improved technique and strengthening relevant muscles) in a controlled environment. And, finally, when plyometrics are used, conditioning coaches should also be mindful of the surface on which they are performed, in terms of training response and potential muscle soreness.

John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper

References

1) Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2007) 6, 63-70
2) Br J Sports Med. 2008 Jan;42(1):42-6. Epub 2007 May 25
3) Br J Sports Med. 2004 Jun;38(3):285-8.
4) Periodization Training for Sports, 2nd edition: Bompa Et al, Human Kinetics, 2005
5) J Strength Cond Res. 2008 May;22(3):773-80.

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