Plyometrics: Not Just for Kids


Not Just for Kids
Not Just for Kids

Way back in the day, exercise involved plenty of calisthenics, jumping, running, push-ups, tossing medicine balls, skipping rope, flipping or dragging tires, swinging a sledgehammer and so on. Maybe you've seen old clips of athletes doing this stuff in bulky two-piece gray sweat suits. Most of us would consider these methods out of date. While high-tech fitness may look like the final answer, conventional machine training is actually making us slower, sedating our nervous systems, weakening our postural muscles and damaging our joints. When you neglect the basics, you limit everything that follows. "Functional exercise" should dominate our training programs.

That's where plyometrics comes in. When we were kids, we were actually doing plyometric training, or "plyos," on a virtually daily basis. We kicked, threw and caught balls. We chased each other, climbed trees, skipped rope, hopped and jumped.

Re-creating these typical childhood activities as part of a training regimen will raise your game, boost your speed, and make you more physically explosive and powerful. You'll punch harder, swing a club or bat faster, and be more agile. Plyos are so vital, in fact, that no fitness routine is complete without them.

Known originally as "jump training" and sometimes referred to as "reactive training," plyos have their roots in Europe. However, it was Fred Wilt, a farsighted American track and field coach, who coined the term "plyometrics" in 1975. During the late seventies and eighties, athletes in various sports began to see how these training concepts could supercharge their performance. Coaches in volleyball, football and weightlifting started incorporating them. The only limiting factor was that coaches and athletes lacked practical knowledge in applying plyos. The belief that "more was better" was also faulty.

The desire to acquire more power, strength and speed, and improve overall performance is common to every sport. One point, however, is key: You can be strong and still not be powerful. Power is defined as the ability to apply force at an accelerated rate to give the body or an object momentum. Power is essential to punching harder, increasing bat speed or club-head speed, and the like. Strength gains can only be transformed into power by the application of specific methods of training, and the best and most successful of them is plyometrics.

Load Those Muscles

Plyos work off the stretching-shortening cycle. Basically, your muscles are "loaded" during the lengthening, eccentric phase-like stretching a rubber band-which is immediately followed by a shortening (concentric) maximal contraction. Studies by Komi (1980) and Schmidtbleicher (1984) confirm that a muscle properly stretched before contraction will more forcefully and rapidly contract. The way you wind your body to create the stretch reflex before hitting a golf ball or bend the knees before jumping are example.

Schmidtbleicher, Gollhofer and other researchers have shown that high-intensity training such as plyos results in the quick mobilization of nerves within the body, the recruitment of most motor units and their corresponding muscle fibers, and an increase in the firing rate of the motor neurons. The increased innervation produces considerable power.

Bompa provides perhaps the best reason to use plyos: ". . . the need to activate the motor units more quickly, in order to cause a better neurological adaptation." To get the most from the stretch reflex, the muscle must be forcibly stretched and with velocity, causing a rapid increase of the neural firing frequency of the muscle spindle. Unfortunately, most conventional programs overlook the nervous system, but in functional exercise and plyos it's a prime focus.

Take heed of this if you want to exercise most efficiently, particularly if you're an athlete. In most sports, the time for applying force is incredibly brief-approximately 120-150 milliseconds. However, the force curve speed in conventional weight training averages 250-350 milliseconds-over twice as slow-so high-repetition training is of little use. The correlation between the exercise performed and the sport is crucial, too. For example, bench press and biceps curls have absolutely no correlation to the golf swing.

As a further example, let's look at five other popular sports: baseball, basketball, rugby, soccer and tennis. I think you'll agree that athletes playing them are often moving as fast as possible. When the ball is hit deep in the hole, the fast break is on, both players are volleying at the net, or the scrum breaks, the nervous system fires and recruits as many muscle spindles as possible to drive the activity. If you don't train for that, you won't have it when you need it!

Programming Pointers

Designing an exercise program requires understanding some specific aspects. For one thing, plyometric training must mimic key movement patterns as closely as possible, and improve dominant skills, prime mover power and biomotor abilities. Gains in power generally translate into improvements in skill.

At EastWest Fitness, we use both Jump Stretch bands and the VertiMax balancing platform for plyometric training. We also have the very unique VersaPulley. They allow you to practice high-speed movements and unbelievably athletic and challenging exercises in a multi-plane, multi-dimensional, multi-speed, multi-velocity environment. We can set any of hundreds of resistances to duplicate the unique vectors encountered in certain movements. Professional athletes in a variety of sports use the VertiMax to boost their vertical leaping abilities and acceleration-based competitive moves.

Observing the principle of individualization is another primary requirement of any fitness program. Each athlete must be cared for according to his or her current condition, sport, sex, ability, training age and chronological age, potential, and assessment findings and goals. Certainly, sprinter Marion Jones would have a different training regime than marathoner Naoko Takahashi, and their routines would both be quite different from K-1 fighter Bob Sapp's.

The principle of progressive increase in training load, the fundamental foundation of all planning of athletic training, is key as well. Whether you're a fitness beginner or an elite athlete, your workload must gradually increase, geared to your psychological and physiological abilities. The nervous system and neuromuscular coordination must also cope and develop over time. Failure to increase your workload will lead to a loss of the training gains.

I hope you're beginning to see the necessity of functional training, tempo, movement pattern conditioning, and nervous system activation. Incorporate these things into your workouts and you'll see immense benefits. Guaranteed!

Jeff Libengood,
The Fitness Doctor

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