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What are plyometrics? (And how do I use them?)

Have the Olympics captured¬†your imagination? We were trying to measure long jump qualifying times in our kitchen the other day… The super-human feats of explosive power are something to marvel. So if you fancy a trip to Tokyo in 2020 then maybe you should read this piece on plyometric training and how it can improve your performance.

*By reading this you are still highly unlikely to make the 2020 Olympic games. 

 

Most sports require explosivity in some capacity to achieve optimum performance. The ability to perform fast movements is key to increasing the likelihood of winning. Whether its field sports like rugby or football that require acceleration and agility, combat sports that require the execution of powerful strikes or even sports like golf, where a powerful drive will get you closer to your goal, the ability to perform explosive powerful movements will undoubtedly give you an advantage over the competition.

What are plyometrics?

Plyometrics is a form of training specifically designed to increase speed, acceleration and explosive power. Many sports people will tell you that they incorporate plyometrics (plyos) into their training, but few really know what they are, and how to use them. Plyometrics training is essentially manipulating the stretch-shortening cycle to convert strength gains achieved in training to explosive power gains in sport. It’s about increasing not only speed and quickness, but also skill execution.

Stretch-shortening cycle

Think of your muscles like elastic bands. They can store energy and quickly release it during and after a period of stretch. When you pull hard on an elastic band and then quickly release it, you create a stretch-shortening effect that releases energy into contraction (allowing you to ‘ping’ an elastic band across the room). Essentially the same thing is happening within your muscles. Lets take the muscles around your ankles as an example – an involuntary stretch such as stepping off a high box, will accumulate elastic energy in the muscle and then release it into those muscles causing a more powerful and faster contraction! ( It should be noted that all this happens in a time frame of less than 0.5 of a second. in fact e quicker the better!) This is why many Plyo drills contain jumps, but not all jumps are plyometrics. It is the stretch-shorten cycle that is key to development of explosive power.

Using Plyo in your training – a word of warning

Now plyos are great, but due to their intense nature we must take several issues into account before we start a full Plyo program.

Due to the nature of the exercise, large demands are placed on the central nervous system. This means that in order to avoid injury and maintain quality of movement, plyo workouts should favour quality over quantity and generally be relatively short in session length.
As mentioned above, due to the high demand of the CNS and the stress caused to the muscle by involuntary eccentric (stretching) contraction volume and intensity of Plyo sessions must be monitored. If volume is high, intensity must be low, and vice versa. For example, when using ankle jumps, because the intensity is relatively low, we can generally get away with doing a few more repetitions in a session. If however we are doing depth jumps, a very intense Plyo, then we must keep the repetitions to a minimum.
Having the relative strength is important before starting plyos. Again due to the high stress of plyos on joints and connective tissue like ligaments and tendons, it is important that you have a baseline level of strength to aid in support of see structures. Some coaches suggest a 2x bodyweight squat, which I personally believe is a bit excessive. I do however suggest that a good solid grounding in traditional strength training is imperative to get the most out of plyos while not increasing injury risk.
Prepare correctly. Warm up, and start with low intensity plyos at the start of the session and move onto more intense movements later in the session. Before doing any Plyo training make sure you have mastered stability of landing first. I.e. before bounding and jumping make sure you’re actually able to stabilise your ankles and hips through landing first.

Follow this regime to avoid problems:

Warm up > mobility drills > practice landing > low level Plyo’s > high level Plyo’s > cool down.

Now it’s really beyond the scope of this brief post to discuss all the relevant techniques and coaching of major Plyo movements. However it’s important to suggest that before incorporating a Plyo program into your training, go and see a qualified s&c coach who can help you progressively and safety merge some exercises and drills into your current training regime. Once you start to see the benefits, you will wonder why you weren’t using them earlier.

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