Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Ok so this is truly a 101 article so I will try not to go above all our paygrades with scientific jargon, (a personal pet peeve I have). There’s nothing worse than a coach desperate to show his knowledge, talking about the ‘stretch shortening cycle’ or ‘amortisation phase’ when all his athlete needed to hear was, “jump on the box”.
Hurdle hops, classic plyo exercise for sprinters
Plyometrics or plyo exercises are movements you conduct to help boost speed and power. They are explosive in nature and tend to classify as either ‘slow’ or ‘fast’ exercises depending on contact time with the floor.
Skipping, hopping, bounding, reactive jumping, sprinting are all examples of ‘fast’ plyo movements.
Countermovement jumps (CMJ jump from standing), box jumps (from standing) etc would be slow.
The essential action of the muscles is moving rapidly from an eccentric contraction to a concentric contraction.
Sorry I know I said no jargon but this is the only bit I promise:
Eccentric Contraction: Muscle contracts and gets longer (quad muscles in the descending portion of a squat)
Concentric Contraction: Muscle contracts and gets shorter (quads as you stand up, or an easier example tends to be the bicep shortening as you complete a bicep curl)
There are other forms of contraction but this’ll do for today.
So in order to get the muscles to complete this sequence of contractions we need to move as explosively as possible.
How does it improve performance?
There’s lots of ways it improves performance and lots of ways to quantify ‘performance’ but principally, plyo exercises are used to bridge the gap between strength and speed.
Power the desired result.
Generally you will see athletes in protocols of completing compound gym movements and pairing them with plyometric counterparts.
So you might complete 5 reps of a barbell back squat, take a short rest then conduct 5 explosive jumps onto a box.
Or if you’re not directly supersetting your plyo efforts, you might move from a gym session to a plyo session and operate them separately.
Some idiots will jump over picnic benches for attention rather than gains
Some athletes/coaches will feel that the technical or coordination elements of the exercises require them to be completed before a gym session, so when the athlete is as fresh as possible.
Oh yeah there’s a massive injury risk if you piss about without learning what you’re doing
The faster and more explosive exercises require technical proficiency, motor control and, generally, a knowledgeable eye or coach to make sure your ground contacts are optimal and that you’re not at risk.
If you don’t have the luxury of a world-class coach, don’t fret.
You can still complete exercises like box jumps or mid-level reactive depth jumps with a relatively low risk of injury (exercise below shows a little higher than mid-level but you get the idea).
For majority populations who aren’t looking to improve athletic performance, and just want to mix up their gym efforts, this is more than sufficient.
Things like hurdle bounds, bodyweight bounding, hopping and other more technical exercises need to be completed with care.
I’ve seen a Youtube video demonstrating bounding that has had over 250,000 views where the coach has textbook poor form. You need to be careful where you get your advice and who you watch.
Training volume, how much should I do?
Load is relatively easy to measure (are you doing them with a weighted vest, med ball etc) but assessing volume is a trickier prospect as individuals will have different tolerances, skill levels and training experience for conducting these movements. A simple way to manage load however is to just count your contacts. How many plyometric contacts are you hitting the ground with?
Be smart, start small, count your contacts and build up. The exercises need to make sense for the goal of your training session or phase. Keep reps relatively low as you want to be working at maximum speed to get the required adaptation. You won't get that if you're hanging out of your arse.
Seek advice if you’re unsure you’re doing it correctly and stop immediately if you’re getting pain that is beyond regular post-exercise soreness.
To recap: plyometrics are explosive exercises used to elicit improvements in motor control, coordination, speed and strength (power).
They have a large skill and motor control element and can be dangerous so be cautious if you’re new to them. If you’re experienced, don’t ever feel above further technical advice, we can all brush up.
As with everything in the exercise world, you need to find what works for you. I don’t know an athlete who doesn’t have room for some level of plyometry in their programme.
Generally what you’ll find is that most athletes have been injured by it at some point and worked out their training load or tolerance that way! Not optimal but there you go.
For me personally, when I was running fast, it seemed to be in tandem with when I was able to complete super risky, super hard single leg hurdle hops without pain. See video!
Note: These are not massively well executed, my second and unfilmed set I brushed up on landing contacts, less toey, more flat footed for a more optimal foot strike. Even with my experience you can see that after a break from doing these they still require building confidence to execute well. I should have warmed up with smaller hurdles.
These are incredibly corrosive on the joints even when completed well, so I learnt to be sparing about including these in my programme.
Find what works for you, if it’s for performance gains, make sure it makes sense for the desired output of your event (fast times on the clock if you’re a runner, mad hard punch or kick if you’re an MMA lunatic etc).
Most importantly have fun with it! These are always my favourite sessions and as research and athletic success concludes, it works.