Strength training: comparing the effects of a traditional strength programme with plyometric training

Upper body strength training using plyometrics

Much research into the effectiveness of plyometric training programmes has focused on the lower body - ie leg power and sprinting speed. This study looked specifically at the upper body, comparing the effects of a traditional strength programme with a plyometric programme on various measures of strength and power for the chest and shoulder muscles. Thirty-five healthy women completed a six-week programme, assigned randomly to either a dynamic press-up group (DPU) or a plyometric press-up group (PPU). Each subject completed 18 training sessions (three per week) and both groups were matched for sets and repetitions. In this way, both groups completed the same volume of training, differing only in the type of exercise used.

The DPU group performed normal press-ups from the knees, keeping their bodies straight from knee to head, with hands slightly wider than shoulders and lowering almost to the floor.

The PPU group performed plyometric press-ups from the knees. This exercise involves starting with body upright and arms hanging by the sides, then falling forwards, extending arms with a slight bend in the elbow. At contact the fall is absorbed by a further bend in the arms until the downward motion is stopped with the chest just off the floor. You then push back up as fast as possible, extending the arms quickly to return to the start position, performing the next repetition after a four-second rest. If a subject was unable to push back to the start position they were allowed to break form by flexing at the hip at the highest point to help themselves back up. By the fifth training session all subjects were able to perform a full plyometric press-up using the correct technique.

Before and after the training programme, all subjects performed two tests of strength and power in the upper body: 1 RM (see PP143, page 6) chest press and medicine ball putt. They were familiarised with both these exercises before the first test to control for a learning effect. The 1 RM chest press involved lifting the maximum weight possible on the Nautilus chest press machine. The maximum was usually found in 4-8 lifts, with 90 seconds rest between attempts. The medicine ball putt test involved performing a basketball/ netball chest pass throw from a seated position. The subjects' bodies were strapped to the chair so that only their arms were involved as they threw the 2.7kg ball as far as possible. Each subject performed 10 throws and the average of the six best was recorded.

Both groups showed improvements in strength and power following the two training programmes. But while the DPU group improved 2.7kg on the chest press and 18cm on the ball putt, the PPU group showed bigger improvements of 4.17kg on the chest press and 23 cm on the medicine ball putt. Therefore plyometric training appears to be more effective in improving upper body strength.

Previous research relating to the leg muscles has made no clear distinction between the effectiveness of plyometric training and traditional strength training for improving maximum strength and power. However, in this current study, plyometric training was clearly advantageous. One possible explanation is that the two groups used the same resistance level (body weight during the press-up) but at very different power levels. To perform a plyometric press-up the athlete must overcome the momentum of the falling body and then explosively propel the body back to an upright position. This extra workload makes the plyometric push-up much tougher than the normal press-up. (Try it yourself if you're not convinced!)

Therefore the differences in strength gains for the DPU and PPU groups in this study may be explained not by any inherent superiority of plyometric type exercises but by the fact that the plyometric press-up is a more advanced exercise than the normal press-up. But however you interpret the results, it is clear that the plyometric press-up is a very effective exercise for improving upper body strength and power, and I recommend that you include it in your strength programmes.

Vossen et al, 2000 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14(3), 248-253

Varied intensity training produces best results

Periodisation or phasing within strength training cycles is thought to be the most effective way to organise a training programme. A macrocycle refers to a long-term period - eg a year - in which the training will generally follow the pattern of starting with high-volume, low-intensity and general training and gradually progress to high-intensity, low-volume and competition-specific training. A mesocycle refers to a medium-term period - 4-16 weeks - within a macrocycle, in which one or two specific training goals may be prioritised, such as high max-strength training with low-speed and endurance training.

The results of this study may help you to understand the ideas behind phasing or periodisation a little more clearly. Many strength coaches use variety in intensity and volume in both macro- and mesocycles, but former studies have failed to provide conclusive evidence of the relative importance of intensity and volume. Some studies suggest that as long as the total volume of training - ie the number of reps - remains the same, the results will be the same, given similar intensity of weights. This suggests that intensity variation within cycles may not be that important and that a linear programme design will be as effective as a varied programme design of the same volume.

The purpose of this current study was to compare the effects of three strength programme protocols over one mesocycle lasting 12 weeks. Protocol 1 was a linear programme, protocol 2 was a step-phased programme of equal volume, and protocol 3 was a varied intensity programme with significantly lower volume than 1 and 2. The results were expected to provide further insight into the relative importance of training volume and intensity. The three protocols were as follows.

Protocol one - linear

  • 5 x 6RM of major lifts.
  • 3 x 8RM of assistance lifts.
  • Same training level, reps and sets for whole 12-week cycle. 720 total repetitions.

Protocol 2 - step phase

  • Weeks 1-4: 5 x 10RM major, 3 x 10 assistance.
  • Weeks 5-8: 5 x 5RM major, 3 x 8 assistance.
  • Weeks 9-11: 3 x 3RM (1 x 10RM) major, 3 x 6 assistance.
  • Week 12: 3 x 3RM major, 3 x 6RM assistance. 732 total repetitions.

Protocol 3 - varied intensity

  • Weeks 1-2: 5 x 10 major, 3 x 10 assistance.
  • Weeks 3-4: 5 x 5 (1 x 10) major, 3 x 10 assistance.
  • Week 5: 3 x 3 (1 x 5) major, 3 x 10 assistance.
  • Weeks 6-8: 3 x 5(1 x 5) major, 3 x 5 assistance.
  • Week 9: 5 x 5 (1 x 5) major, 3 x 5 assistance.
  • Week 10: 3 x 5 (1 x 5) major, 3 x 5 assistance.
  • Week 11: 3 x 3 (1 x 5) major, 3 x 5 assistance.
  • Week 12: 3 x 3/1 major, 3 x 5 assistance.

590 total repetitions, alternating between heavy and light days.

Each group followed the same exercise programme over the 12-week cycle.

Exercise Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat *   *
Bench press *   *
Assistant 1 *   *
Clean pull   *  
Power shrug   *  
Assistant 2   *  

Assistant 1 = incline press; Assistant 2 = lat pull downs The results of the study were very interesting.

Protocol Before-Afterwards

Protocol 1 - squats/kg 1.88 2.02
Protocol 2 - squats/kg 1.66 1.88
Protocol 3 - squats/kg 1.63 1.88

Statistical analysis revealed that protocols 2 and 3 led to significantly greater gains in 1 RM squat performance relative to bodyweight than protocol 1. This suggests that, even though protocol 3 involved significantly fewer repetitions, the variation in intensity was a more important factor for improving strength within a mesocycle. The take-home message from this study is that, when designing strength programmes lasting for a whole mesocycle, a step-phased or varied intensity design protocol is likely to be most beneficial. Further research is needed to determine exactly which designs are most effective, and this is where the 'art of coaching' still plays a part, as protocols may vary depending on the sport and training goal of the mesocycle. However, regardless of individual preferences in programme design, phased or periodised cycles should be used in preference to linear cycles.

Training the foot muscles improves jump performance

Jumping, whether vertical or horizontal, is a key movement for many sports as well as the specific athletic events of high, long and triple jump. Much research attention has focused on the major leg extensors - quadriceps, gluteals and calves - and how improvement in these muscles aids jumping performance. Traditional strength, plyometric and depth-jumping exercises have all been found to be beneficial for jump performance.

Little attention has been paid to the foot muscles and how they contribute to jump performance, although some research suggests that improving foot muscle strength will result in greater jump height or distance. The foot comprises a multi-joint complex with many small muscles. A whole group of foot muscles can be classed as toe flexors, including flexor digitorum longus/brevis and flexor hallucis longus/brevis. The purpose of this current study was to examine the effects of a specific strength training programme for the toe flexor muscle group on horizontal and vertical jump performance. The results of the study are very exciting and suggest that foot muscle strengthening is important for athletic performance. At the start of the study, 15 healthy subjects, who were active but not involved in any athletic training, were tested for toe flexor strength, vertical and horizontal jump performance. Flexor strength was measured using an adapted hand grip device. Toe flexion involved pulling the toes towards the heel, creating a rounded arch, with the heel staying fixed. Each foot was tested separately. The vertical and horizontal jumps were performed on one leg and the best distance from three trials was recorded for each leg.

Each subject competed three training sessions per week for six weeks, using the Archxerciser (from Elgin Exercise Equipment). The subjects were randomly assigned to training with either the left or right foot, with the other side serving as a control. No other training related to jump performance or unilateral strength work was performed during this period: the only part of the body being trained was the foot flexor muscle.

At the end of the six-week programme, the subjects were retested for toe flexor strength and jump performance. The results were as follows:

  Change in 'control' leg Change in exercised leg
Toe flexor strength -0.64 kg 1.81kg
Horizontal jump 3.57 cm 10.74 cm
Vertical jump 0.2 cm 2.7 cm

The study showed that in the trained legs, the foot muscles gained strength, and jump performance improved significantly - by around 4 cm on the vertical jump and 11 cm on the horizontal. This improvement is of a similar level to the impact of traditional strength or plyometric programmes on the major leg muscles. This shows that the foot muscles should not be ignored in training programmes as they could help athletes gain a performance advantage. Further research is needed into the most effective exercises for foot muscles, the effects of foot strengthening in elite athletes and the specific effects on sprint running performance.

I carried out a web search to investigate the Archxerciser and was unable to find a UK supplier, although there are couple of US mail order suppliers online selling them at $50 plus p&p. The device was designed as a rehabilitation tool for plantar fasciitis, but this research suggests it can also improve sports performance.

Owen Anderson has previously suggested exercises for the foot muscles in Peak Performance. The one most relevant to this study is the standing toe pull. To do this, stand barefoot on the carpet and perform a foot flexion movement, pulling your heel towards your toes to exaggerate the arch; then extend your toes out so the foot returns to a flat position, and repeat the movement. With each repetition you will move slowly across the carpet. Start with sets of 8-10. This is essentially the same movement as the Archxerciser provides and will improve the strength of your foot muscles.

Unger & Wooden, 2000 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14(4), 373-378

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