Plyometric Progressions for Athletes

Ex Rx: Play it smart when using plyometric training.

Sport mimics life in that both are dynamic and ever-changing. Athletes are always preparing to meet the demands of their sport while also working to elevate their performance thresholds to new levels. In sports, as in most things in life, athletes need the ability to read and react in an environment of organized chaos.

Sport is unpredictable, demanding quick decisions and the ability to move explosively in any direction. Just as in life-threatening situations, the key to success is fast body movements and the ability to initiate power immediately. Having a responsive body that can move quickly and dynamically in multiple directions is a key to youthful function, injury prevention and sport-specific performance.

Plyometrics Defined

A type of movement involving the legs, core or upper extremities, plyometrics uses a quick, eccentric-concentric phase to harness elastic muscle properties while using neural drive to increase the number of active motor units, thus netting explosive power and acceleration (Twist 2008).

Plyometric activities involve preloading the muscle using an eccentric (muscle-lengthening), or negative, contraction prior to the concentric (muscle-shortening), or positive, contraction phase. With the addition of a quick countermovement, the force production of the muscle increases. While the elastic qualities and the stretch-shortening cycle are involved, there is also increased neural drive to the contracting muscle mediated through a spinal reflex called the myotatic reflex. The myotatic reflex involves rapid stretch of the muscle spindles that monitor the length of the muscle and the rate of change in muscle length. Activation of the muscle spindles using a countermovement or eccentric contraction activates the myotatic reflex, which increases the neural stimulus for the muscle to contract, resulting in increased muscle force (Baechle & Earle 2000).

When the stretch-shortening cycle and a plyometric effect are used to increase the force of contraction, an eccentric contraction precedes a concentric contraction. The ability to use this effect relies on an athlete’s ability to suddenly stop the eccentric contraction and immediately initiate the concentric contraction. The faster one stops or absorbs force, the quicker force can be generated in the opposite direction. Paramount is the ability (in strength, movement and balance) to instantaneously couple the end of the eccentric phase with the beginning of the concentric phase.

The plyometric effect of conditioning is intended to help bridge the gap between strength and speed. Plyometric exercises increase amplitude and velocity of movements by accentuating the eccentric phase of muscle contraction. They also stimulate more intense demands on the neuromuscular system and the stretch-shortening cycle, thereby stimulating the development of faster, more efficient coupling mechanisms in the body to net powerful concentric contractions (Baechle & Earle 2000).

The Twist Sport Conditioning Paradigm

The body needs movement, balance and strength to work in concert to produce skillful performance. Only an integrated training approach that encompasses all of these characteristics will truly maximize the potential of the human machine. The Twist Paradigm is based on a neuromuscular and proprioceptive training style that fosters a fast and accurate mind-to-muscle connection, resulting in smart muscles that intuitively comply with the mind’s commands. The outcome is a bigger, faster, stronger and smarter athlete.

Purposeful Athlete Progression

Plyometric moves are “sexy”—cool drills!—and they are well received by clients, so there is a tendency to adopt them without qualified coaching. But the risk is higher with this type of workout; safely upgrading to explosive power requires a knowledge foundation, a functional body and precise performance coaching. These are not drills to insert randomly into boot camps and other workouts without a teaching system.

Do not build power on dysfunction, and do not ramp up aggressive power drills without the critical eye to make mechanical adjustments. To progress athletes and other clients safely and effectively using training that increases in complexity and intensity requires a clear understanding of appropriate progressions and regressions to minimize risk while maximizing results.

Focus on the Foundation

When an athlete begins to train, focus initially on developing an athletic foundation (movement, strength and balance). Accomplish this by enhancing the mobility and stability link so the athlete achieves full ranges of motion and establishes maximal joint stability and leverage; this will allow him to control the forces and movement on the joints as the intensity and complexity of the training increase.

Foundation to Function (F2F)

Next, work on executing the neuromuscular and functional skills necessary for power development. Do this by increasing the complexity and neural demand of exercises, while maintaining a focus on the body control needed for the unpredictable demands that today’s athlete must regularly confront: for example, deceleration, directional changes and body contact.

Function to Performance (F2P)

With the power foundation established, the evolution of power production can begin. Before teaching an athlete how to accelerate and generate explosive force, teach her how to absorb force by harnessing power using deceleration training. To have the best application to sport, power production must be tested using multidirectional movements (i.e., hard cuts, evasive tactics) so the athlete learns how to maintain power through direction change. To reach her full athletic potential, an athlete must be able first to harness power; then to produce it; and finally to maintain power production.

Performance to Podium (P2P)

When an athlete has developed his abilities to produce power, to demonstrate whole-body balance and to move efficiently, focus more on the high-level conditioning and training challenges that will progress him from an execution and performance focus to a true elite-level training focus.

The Value of Plyometric Training in Sport and Life

Athletes must be able to produce powerful yet fluid mechanics to succeed in sport. Reacting to incessant, unpredictable changes in direction and speed, they must be prepared for the demands of deceleration and have the ability to attain the transitional balance needed to initiate explosive power in different directions. Plyometric training provides the mechanics required to shift body weight and angles on two feet or one foot and into and out of the coupling stage. Stability, strength, speed and technical efficiency are the keys to successful power development. Ultimately, in order to build explosive power, athletes must train explosively.

The same concept holds true for the recreational athlete who enjoys skiing double–black diamond runs, yearns to increase golf drives, runs undulating trails, chases down a tennis drop shot or plays pickup sports with friends.

Plyometric Training Progression

One of the main reasons trainers and coaches often hesitate to implement plyometrics is that, as the velocity and intensity of the training increase, so does the inherent injury risk, underlining the importance of establishing proper progression (Chu 1996; Twist 2007).

In the past, athletes achieved great success from participating in traditional high-amplitude plyometric training that involved jump training from large heights converted into vertical jumps and massive bounding drills, but this approach exposes athletes to great risk (Chu 1996; Twist 2007). Today’s plyometric moves produce sport-specific benefits, improve explosiveness with less stress on joints and are more than a collection of exciting drills (Twist 2007). Plyometrics is very intense and should be implemented only with an athlete-appropriate progressive methodology. The progression outlined here ensures results and minimizes risk.

1. Smart Muscle

The athlete must be able to produce efficient, explosive muscle contractions. Increased contraction speed is driven by an increase in neuromuscular activation. When the muscular and neural systems are trained together, the muscles become more compliant and easier to activate, thereby creating an athlete who is stronger, more explosive and ultimately more skillful (Twist 2008). To develop efficient neuromuscular activation, so that exercise execution advances from conscious effort to reflexive action, have the athlete perform a blend of dynamic balance challenges, multidirectional movement skills and whole-body strength exercises. Teach the whole-body technique slowly, removing momentum, upgrading weak links and developing kinetic-chain control before introducing speed.

2. Deceleration, Then Acceleration

Part of the plyometric intensity that an athlete encounters early in the learning curve relates to the impact imposed on the body during eccentric, or stopping, phases—particularly in jump drills, where more impact must be absorbed the higher the jump height is. In the Twist method, athletes are taught Linked System triple flexion (Twist 2008) to minimize plyometric impact and to learn effective deceleration. Triple flexion means systematic flexion of all three joints (hip, knee and ankle or shoulder, elbow and wrist), and Linked System teaches the athlete to use multiple joints in the kinetic chain linked together to share the force of deceleration. Linked System triple flexion is a coaching strategy for deceleration, as it forms the shock absorption system of the kinetic chain: the athlete absorbs impact using as many linked body segments as possible to dissipate the force over greater time and distance.

As deceleration forces travel from the ground up for athletic movements such as quick directional changes, deceleration and landing jumps, or from the outside in for controlling forces such as body contact or catching a ball, the body absorbs the eccentric forces through triple flexion of the ankles, knees and hips and stabilizes the forces through the core.

Be sure an athlete can decelerate safely before you shift the focus to acceleration. In the Twist method, athletes learn to accelerate using Linked System triple extension. Triple extension teaches them to extend all three joints (ankle, knee and hip or wrist, elbow and shoulder) forcefully and in sequence in order to systematically link the force production across a maximum number of joints. Linked System triple extension forms the power production mechanism of the kinetic chain. Triple extension drives all explosive athletic movements from the ground up through the ankle, knee and hip and fuels the positive-power-acceleration concentric phase of movement for all athletic skills.

3. Countermovement

Countermovement refers to the time it takes to stop one movement or direction and create a new direction or movement. In other words, it is the time between the beginning of the eccentric phase (ground contact/stopping) and the end of the concentric phase (power into the next movement). Countermovement teaches athletes to decelerate and then accelerate in order to generate a new movement in another direction.

Safe development of countermovement challenges both stability and mobility. Landing a lateral jump into a deep squat with speed illustrates the foundational requirements for stability (the ability to laterally decelerate with control across each joint up the kinetic chain) and mobility (the ability to accept rapid deep ranges of motion during the eccentric phase of plyometric loading) (Twist 2008).

In multidirectional sports an athlete needs to stop and change direction quickly. Therefore, when teaching countermovement, shift the focus to high-tempo directional changes and teach the athlete how to change direction as efficiently as possible.

4. Coupling

The link between the finishing range for stopping (eccentric contraction) and the initiation of the concentric contraction is referred to as contraction coupling. The more the contraction coupling time decreases, the better the athlete is able to generate force and use the increased neural and elastic properties of the skeletal muscle (Baechle & Earle 2000; Twist 2008). Improve this aspect of training by challenging the athlete to focus on both aspects of the movement (eccentric and concentric), with an emphasis on reducing the coupling time.

5. Sport-Specific Energetics and Movement Patterns

To have the greatest impact on athletic performance, the training must in due course shift to a sport-specific focus that incorporates all aspects of the sport into the skill and drill demands. To modify the drill intensity, review the energy demands (energetics) of the sport along with the specific movement patterns (position-specific).

Choose drills to challenge the sport-specific movement patterns, sport-related tempo and work-to-rest intervals so the anaerobic energy system’s demands are matched to the sport’s demands. Challenge athletes to repeatedly work harder than their sport requires, so that when they are engulfed in heated competition, their energy systems will easily comply with the game requirements.

Use Plyometric Training With Intention

Consider plyometric training as a method of training and not simply a battery of exercises. Plyometric training offers high-risk, high-reward exercises and should never be implemented simply for novelty. Although the progression of exercises does increase the amplitude, complexity and intensity of the movement skills in order to increase the challenge to the neuromuscular system, always be prepared to regress exercises based on athlete ability.

Training Paradigm

to Podium P2P

F2P

F2F

the eccentric forces through triple flexion of the ankles, knees and hips and stabilizes the forces through the core.

Be sure an athlete can decelerate safely before shifting the focus to acceleration. In the Twist method, athletes learn to accelerate using Linked System triple extension. Triple extension teaches them to extend all three joints (ankle, knee and hip or wrist, elbow and shoulder) forcefully and in sequence in order to systematically link the force production across a maximum number of joints. Linked System triple extension forms the power production mechanism of the kinetic chain. Triple extension drives all explosive athletic movements from the ground up through the ankle, knee and hip and fuels the positive-power-acceleration concentric phase of movement for all athletic skills.

Countermovement refers to the time it takes to stop one movement or direction and create a new direction or movement. In other words, it is the time between the beginning of the eccentric phase (ground contact/stopping) and the end of the concentric phase (power into the next movement). Countermovement teaches athletes to decelerate and then accelerate in order to generate a new movement in another direction.

Safe development of countermovement challenges both stability and mobility. Landing a lateral jump into a deep squat with speed illustrates the foundational requirements for stability (the ability to laterally decelerate with control across each joint up the kinetic chain) and mobility (the ability to accept rapid deep ranges of motion during the eccentric phase of plyometric loading) (Twist 2008).

In multidirectional sports an athlete needs to stop and change direction quickly. Therefore, when teaching countermovement, shift the focus to high-tempo directional changes and teach the athlete how to change direction as efficiently as possible.

The link between the finishing range for stopping (eccentric contraction) and the initiation of the concentric contraction is referred to as contraction coupling. The more the contraction coupling time decreases, the better the athlete is able to generate force and use the increased neural and elastic properties of the skeletal muscle (Baechle & Earle 2000; Twist 2008). Improve this aspect of training by challenging the athlete to focus on both aspects of the movement (eccentric and concentric), with an emphasis on reducing the coupling time.

To have the greatest impact on athletic performance, the training must in due course shift to a sport-specific focus that incorporates all aspects of the sport into the skill and drill demands. To modify the drill intensity, review the energy demands (energetics) of the sport along with the specific movement patterns (position-specific).

Choose drills to challenge the sport-specific movement patterns, sport-related tempo and work-to-rest intervals so the anaerobic energy system’s demands are matched to the sport’s demands. Challenge athletes to repeatedly work harder than their sport requires, so that when they are engulfed in heated competition, their energy systems will easily comply with the game requirements.

Use Plyometric Training With Intention

Consider plyometric training as a method of training and not simply a battery of exercises. Plyometric training offers high-risk, high-reward exercises and should never be implemented simply for novelty. Although the progression of exercises does increase the amplitude, complexity and intensity of the movement skills in order to increase the challenge to the neuromuscular system, always be prepared to regress exercises based on athlete ability. n

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Peter Twist, MSc

IDEA Author/Presenter
Peter Twist, MSc, is the president and CEO of Twist Conditioning, Inc. He is an exercise physiologis... more less
References
Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (Eds.) 2000. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Chu, D. 1996. Explosive Strength & Power. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Twist, P. 2007. Complete Conditioning for Hockey (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Twist, P. 2008. Essentials of Sport Movement. Vancouver, BC: Twist Conditioning Inc.
March 2009

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