Plyometric training: increase your speed and power

Boosting muscle and tendon strength with plyometric training

Want more hang time, more sprint speed, greater rotational power and greater stopping ability? Then plyometric training is your answer. Plyometric training was the brainchild of Eastern bloc sports scientists in the 1960s – although jumping exercises, which it involves, had been part of the training routines of athletes for many years before 

Why are plyometric moves such great sports conditioners?

Plyometric drills closely reflect both the movement pattern and the performance speed of numerous sports and sports skills. This is something that weight training cannot do. An elite sprinter’s foot will only be in contact with the ground for a split-split second (0.084 seconds, to be exact) and even running at a moderate running pace can result in a foot strike time of 0.2 seconds. These are speeds that just cannot be replicated in the weights room – most standard weight training lifts, even when performed at their quickest, take around 0.5-0.7 seconds to complete. 

What’s a plyometric exercise?

Basically, any exercise that involves a dynamic shift from absorption of force to expression of force is a plyometric exercise. A typical example would be two consecutive bunny (two-footed) jumps. On landing from the first jump the muscles of the thighs, calves and ankles would be put on stretch (this is technically known as an eccentric contraction); they then transfer power by way of a shortening muscular contraction (technically known as a concentric contraction). Research (and practice) shows that muscles are able to exert much more force when they perform plyometrically.

Still need convincing? Try this:

Stand next to a wall and, using a double-footed action, jump as high as you can. Now – after a pause – take a step back and step into the double-footed jump: you will find that you jump higher.
The eccentric contraction primes the concentric one for a greater power output –  so you jump higher. It’s a bit like pulling out a spring to its fullest length and then letting it go: immense amounts of energy will be released in the split second the spring recoils.

Improving your plyometric capability

Although the body naturally performs the plyometric action when required, this does not mean that the response cannot be improved. In fact, the right training programme can significantly lift your power and speed. This is achieved by boosting muscle and tendon strength and improving the neuromuscular activation of the response (basically, your brain becomes better at coordinating what is required).

Table 1 ranks plyometric drills by their intensity. It is very important to realise that a low-intensity drill is no less important than a higher-intensity one. It’s just that the former places less strain on the body. It’s very important that familiarity is achieved withplyometric exercises gradually and progressively as they can place a lot of strain on the ankles, knees and back (and shoulders, when upper-body plyometrics, such as ‘clap press-ups’, are performed). Technique is therefore obviously important – you’ll see the majority of the exercises listed in the table being performed in the associated video clips.

Table 1:  Plyometric drills and their intensity

Type of plyometric exercise   Examples Intensity
Standing-based jumps performed on the spot  Tuck-jumps, split-jumps, squat-jumps  Low
Jumps from standing Standing long jump, standing hop, standing jump for height   Low-medium
Multiple jumps from standing 5 consecutive bounds
2 x 6 bunny jumps
Double-footed jumps over hurdles
Double-footed jumps up steps

Medium

Medium

Medium

Multiple jumps with run-up  3 x 2 hops and jump into sand pit, with a 6-stride approach

2 x 10 bounds, with a 6-stride run-up

High

High

Depth jumping (Recommended drop height 40-100cm) The higher the height, the greater the strength component; the lower the height, the greater the speed    2 x 6 jumps – down and up High
Speed bounds 4 x 20m      High

 

How to warm up for plyometrics

After 3-5 minutes of easy running, perform some dynamic movements, such as arm and leg swings and walking lunges. You may also want to do some runs of gradually increasing speed over 30-40m. Active and passive (held) stretches have little relevance to plyometrics (and other dynamic movement) and can actually impair performance. In fact some research has indicated that stretching this way can lead to injury. 

Plyometric training tips

  1. Always warm up suitably
  2. Wear well-cushioned, supportive shoes
  3. Perform on dry, flat grass, a running track or sprung sports hall floor
  4. Remain focused and in the zone throughout your workout
  5. In the majority of cases, quality of performance is key – if your reactions start to slow then you’ll ‘pattern’ this slower movement into your body’s neuromuscular system. You need to make your ground contacts as quick as possible
  6. Don’t perform plyometrics close to important competitions – allow three to four days clear
  7. Think about the needs of your sport and tailor-make specific plyometric drills (see part 2 – specific plyometrics)

How much plyometric training should I do?

This will obviously vary in regard to your sport, experience, the time in the training year and the intensity of the plyometrics being performed, but here are some guidelines:
For jumps on the spot or from standing, measure the volume in terms of foot contacts.

As a guide, a beginner in pre-season training in a single workout could perform 60-100 foot contacts of low-intensity exercises – for example, 5x 5 tuck jumps and 5 x 5 hops on the spot (left and right) and 5 x 10 split jumps.

Intermediate trainers might be able to do 100 -150 foot contacts of low-intensity exercises.

Advanced trainers might be capable of 150 - 200 foot contacts of low-to-moderate intensity exercises.

Intensity is the key: the more dynamic the move and the greater power generated, the more there is a need to reduce the number of foot contacts.

Bounds and hops can also be measured by ground contacts but are made more intense by the distance over which they are performed, and whether a run-up is used. A top-class triple jumper might perform 10 x 10 bounds with a six- stride run-up and find this of moderate intensity, whereas a novice footballer would not be able to complete this workout. It is always best to underestimate what you think you can achieve – this will provide you with a starting point from which you can progress. 

A note on muscle soreness

When starting a plyometric training programme, some muscle soreness will be inevitable. You must warm up thoroughly and warm down after your workouts and progress slowly.

Weight training and plyometric training

Weight training will strengthen your soft tissue (ligaments, muscles and tendons), making them less prone to strain, and should always be part of a training programme that incorporates plyometrics.

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