Tricks of the Trade
Jumping, bounding, hopping—plyometric movements like these are great to have in the toolbox, but like any powerful tool they must be used appropriately and with discretion. Using a progression of exercises, having a strength base and training proper landing technique (soft and quiet!) are all essential elements when building a safe and effective program that includes plyometrics.
For athletes, plyometric exercises help build power and speed, develop coordination and agility, improve sports performance and aid in injury prevention. We use jumps, hops, skips and bounds to help runners utilize and control the explosive power they need to become faster, stronger and more efficient. We want our runners to avoid injury and enjoy a lifetime in the sport, so we include a variety of drills in all planes of motion as part of a dynamic warm-up and/or during a sport-specific conditioning session.
Most people face plyometric challenges in daily life. When clients are ready, willing and able, we add a boost of plyometric intensity to the workouts of everyday athletes. This boost helps them develop the coordination and balance to prevent a fall, power a dash up the stairs to catch the El train or run down the street after a wily toddler. Skipping and hopscotch never fail to make clients laugh and enjoy feeling like kids on the playground. And adding an element of fun to a workout keeps clients coming back!
It’s important to remember that there is an increased risk of injury with any training modality that builds strength through explosive movement. When designing a program that includes plyos, the goals and fitness levels of your clients—along with purposeful exercise selection and gradual progression—should always be your guide.
ACE-Certified Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist, Personal Trainer, Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach
Janice Enloe Personal Training/RUN
Oak Park, Illinois
Using plyometric exercises is appropriate when the client meets the base level of strength, speed, body control and power necessary to perform the exercises both safely and effectively. There are many risks, including ligament and tendon tears from high force production, broken bones and joint sprains. The benefits include increased power and athleticism through improvements in power, speed production, body control and deceleration skills. In my sessions, clients who perform this type of exercise are those who possess the prerequisite substrate skills and have a desire to improve the skills that plyometric exercises address.
Spencer Aiken, CSCS
President, TrueFitness and TrueFitness Educators
San Diego, California
How I use plyometric challenges depends completely on my clients, their needs, their training ages and, most important, their movement-based skill sets. We believe in helping people “get fit for the sport of life,” and we approach each client from an athletic performance perspective—regardless of age, gender, experience or goals.
That doesn’t mean we have clients doing box jumps and plyos from day one. In fact, even with the most elite athletes, we start with a functional movement analysis to determine starting points for posture, balance, stability, movement-based function and mobility. The analysis gives us a great picture of a client’s current capabilities, and when combined with his or her goals, desires, hot-button issues, injury status and personality, we can develop a customized program for that person.
Whether people want to lose a few pounds, get in better shape, train for a specific sporting event or merely be able to lift a child without incurring a back injury, functional performance can help. Our goal is to get clients the results they want (weight loss, etc.) and to give them a toolbox of skills that will help them maintain the good-looking body we help them achieve.
While plyometric training can come in handy in many areas of life, we make sure to properly progress people through the various regressions and progressions of the plyometric spectrum. A typical progression might look like this:
- slow-speed movement sequencing drills (triple flexion/triple extension)
- low-level plyos focused on technique, movement patterning and speed (agility ladders/hurdles)
- ground-to-ground–based jumps (stick landing progressing to repeats)
- easy box jumps (stick landing on box, step down)
- low box jumps (multiple linked jumps)
- gradual progression to higher box jumps, more explosiveness and challenge, depending on the client’s goals and ability to withstand more load and stress on the system
It should be noted that significant speed, power and strength gains can be made from low-level plyometrics, and that most people starting out do not have the base strength, coordination or stability to handle traditional box jumps. Experience (and research) has shown that people are better served by working to master the basics of linked system training, movement patterning and basic levels of strength and stability.
President and CEO, FRESH!
Box jumps are not very “plyometric”—because there is not much tendon reflex involved with them, nor is there an emphasis on minimal time on the ground. It’s more accurate to describe the box jump as an “explosive power exercise.”
However, box jumps can be nice precursors to performing plyometric jumps and are a great “phase one” in a plyometric progression to teach the force summation needed to jump, which is half of what’s involved in plyometrics. (The other half is landing and quickly returning to another jump.) Clients who display optimal knee alignment when squatting can progress to box jumps.
The emphasis on box jumps should not be on the height of the box, because high boxes reward folks who have good hip mobility (e.g., the ability to pull their knees to their chest). To display true jumping ability (i.e., power production), clients should be able to land on top of the box with their knees bent to an athletic stance (about 25 degrees or so). In other words, if they can’t land on the box in the same depth (of a squat) that they took off from, the box is too high.
High box jumps can be a dangerous exercise, as clients can easily miss a jump and fall, scrape their shins or smack their fingers on the box (while swinging their arms forward to take off). Normally, a box that is roughly your knee height is good, even for the highest-level athlete. The goal is minimal hip flexion and knee bending while in the air. Another goal is to avoid using hip mobility to help your feet clear the box and, instead, to use pure lower-body power to clear it. Also, it’s best to land as quietly as possible on each jump. Advise clients to step off—not jump off—the box to start each rep.
Nick Tumminello CPT
Owner, Performance University
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Plyometric exercise varies broadly in both complexity and intensity. With so many plyometric exercises and programs to choose from, most healthy clients—and probably all athletes—can be safely introduced to lower-intensity plyometrics (such as pogos, jump rope, prancing and medicine ball throws) early in the training plan.
Low-amplitude squat jumps may be an appropriate exercise for older adults and beginners. These jumps can introduce them to the stretch-shortening cycle, improve type II muscle fiber recruitment and provide beneficial bone-strengthening, weight-bearing forces. However, to provide a safe training experience, you should ensure that each participant demonstrates minimal knee valgus and consistent spinal bracing during the landing phase from a minimal height.
Box jumps are at the highest end of the plyometric intensity spectrum; therefore, years of training experience are likely required before a client may “earn the right” to attempt such a difficult exercise.
Phillip Bazzini, MS, CSCS
Bazzini Conditioning LLC
Tenafly, New Jersey