Building dynamic qualities and sustaining long-term growth within an athlete is an art. For new athletes beginning their sports performance journey, the simplest answer is often the most effective. Basic progressive overload and a consistent dose of sprinting and leaping goes a long way.
In the beginning, nearly anything reasonable works, but it will not work forever. As the athlete nears exhaustion of their initial adaptative reserves, it becomes critical to have a long-term strategy in place to maintain progress. This plan should include management of energy resources (acute versus chronic loading) as well as an effective means to develop specific muscular actions/contractions (isometrics, eccentrics, concentrics) by employing a variety of “similar, but not congruent” methods to tastefully shake things up at the appropriate time and avoid stagnation.
Speed-oriented exercises that can both dissect and ultimately rebuild the stretch-shortening cycle faster become necessary to maintain the growth of explosive attributes in an athlete. I like to affectionately refer to this process as “teasing out the twitch” because it is so delicate and unique to each individual athlete. With that said, you should view this blog post more as a compass and less as an absolute road map. It provides general insights accompanied with more specific “bang for your buck” exercises and examples to hopefully set you in the right direction and allow for your own critical thought and experimentation at important training crossroads.
It is easy to see when an athlete is light on their feet. However, expressing this quality in words can be a bit more difficult. Adjectives that describe bounce can be subject to interpretation and take on different meanings for different people. In the world of strength and conditioning this can be fodder for contentious debate.
Without getting too caught up in semantics, I find “bounce” to be synonymous with elasticity, which is defined as the ability of an object to return to its original state or shape after experiencing stress. Visually this aligns nicely with the simple one-dimensional model of the stretch-contraction cycle typically used to explain how muscles absorb and ultimately produce force. The tendons then provide the critical link, allowing transmission of energy from force-producing muscles to the skeletal system permitting movement. Since the entirety of the musculotendon apparatus is critical to movement, it is important to make sure both tendon and muscular function are developed equally. Unfortunately, all too often the tendons are overlooked at the expense of the muscles.Lack of balance in the development of both tendons and muscles will not only limit performance but also put an athlete at risk for injury, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
It’s easy to become fixated on exclusively chasing muscular development. After all, the muscles are the most conspicuous and quickest to adapt, allowing for faster appreciable change, so they become the ultra-attractive, low-lying fruit. Tendons are stubborn—like ligaments, they have poor blood flow and are significantly slower to develop as a result. Tendons lack the same visibility that muscles do, so out of sight, out of mind can frequently apply. Just keep in mind, lack of balance in the development of both tendons and muscles will not only limit performance but also put an athlete at risk for injury. Too much, too fast can cause unnecessary and easily avoidable setbacks.
Extensive Ground Contacts: Building a Strong Foundation
Slow cooking the intensification process is always best practice as it relates to training in general but maybe even more so as it relates to building better bounce. As previously stated, tendons are slow to budge, so subtlety is most effective. This contrasts with the more overt measures required to develop the explosive, muscular-driven torque created by heavy squats, pulls, and presses, as well as singular throws and jumps. Elasticity is delicate and needs to be coaxed out gently. Extensive ground contacts then fall under the broader umbrella of posture, balance, and rhythm drills that are designed to both condition soft tissues and develop a high degree of familiarity with the ground.
Video 1. Simple rebound jumps for stiffness are the cornerstone for learning to bounce with elasticity. Do them multiple times a week to get better—far more effective than lazy sessions of skipping rope.
I always stress with my athletes in the Riverhounds Development Academy that I want them to be able to feel the ground without having to look at it. One of the most telling things I see with young athletes (and older athletes who lack formal training) is their propensity to want to look where they are going at all times with eyes fixed on the ground. This immediately lets me know they at least subconsciously do not trust their own movements when decisive movement with conviction should always be the aspiration.
In general, basic low-impact, two-footed rhythm hopping in all planes of motion is a great starting point for soft tissue prep as well as posture, balance, and rhythm. These drills can be progressed to one leg to drive proprioceptive abilities that push for higher degrees of self-awareness. These same drills can then be translated into more run-specific motor patterns such as skips, prances, gallops, and dribbling.
Pogo Hops, Progressions
My love for pogo hops has no bounds, pun intended! It is perhaps the single most effective exercise for establishing posture, balance, and rhythm. “Strong as steel head to heel” is a simple way to reinforce just how valuable the entirety of the body is to even the most rudimentary drills. Maintaining a neutral head position with eyes fixed forward and not down is also critical to the final quality regarding execution.My love for pogo hops has no bounds, pun intended! It is perhaps the single most effective exercise for establishing posture, balance, and rhythm, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
As previously suggested, rhythmic hopping in place with good posture is the goal, but it is not necessarily as easy as it sounds on paper. Common pitfalls include piking at the hips and eyeing down, which typically contributes to the piking as result of inefficient posture. One of the first things they teach young gymnasts is that the body will follow the head, so being extra critical of head positioning becomes important for all extensive plyos. Posture and movement standards begin here, so you must coach them hard. If an athlete cannot maintain position or defaults to poor shapes under limited duress, there is no way they will magically adopt the appropriate position under the more intense conditions experienced in maximal outputs such as sprints, leaps, and heavy lifts.
Video 2. Hops should be done in all directions and at all angles. Side-to-side options are great for cutting and reducing ACL risk.
The best place to start is the athlete beginning with two feet in place and going for as long as they can maintain quality. “Quality” is subjective, so make sure you know exactly what you are looking for. For me, I specifically want to see the extensors of the ankles and knees working in a coordinated manner while maintaining the previously mentioned good posture. As a coach, it should not only look rhythmic but sound rhythmic. You should be able to look away (depending on surface and footwear interaction, of course) and still know the objective is being achieved.
This is a great opportunity for coaches to warm up as well. Acuity in a coach’s senses is rarely if ever talked about, but it needs to be trained just as much as their athletes’ bodies do. Each individual athlete will have their own nuance in movement strategy and unique cadence, so using low-level extensive work to familiarize yourself to the individuality of the athlete is helpful.
After an athlete demonstrates comfort in place, the addition of mobility in all planes of motion—sagittal, frontal, and transverse—under the auspices of maintaining fluid, rhythmic bounce are simple progressions. From this point, removing the arms in a variety of manners is a subtle way to progress and avoid stagnation. Removing the arms immediately forces an athlete to stabilize through the core in a more specific and functional manner. Ground-based anti-rotation and anti-extension work will always have a place, particularly on low-CNS days when it is best just to get an athlete off their feet. But when given the opportunity and choice, opting to incorporate bracing within extensive skill work is an effective time management strategy.
Hands on hips, hug, plane, prisoner position (hands behind head) and arms extended overhead are all great variations, and each brings their own unique problem that the athlete must solve. Typically, the higher you hold your arms and the further you spread your arms out from the center of mass, the harder it becomes to maintain stability. Here there is no right or wrong, as there are unlimited degrees of freedom and myriad progressions, so feel free to experiment. Just make sure you do not lose the plot.
If positioning becomes disruptive to the rhythm and quality of ground contact, regress or change trajectory. Adding subtle constraints would be the next step—small hurdles and low boxes or stairs are great options to challenge the athlete’s spatial awareness. Like anything, constraints have their time and place, so it’s best to fall in like as opposed to love with certain modalities and drills.
As with the arm positioning, feel free to explore and experiment, but just be mindful it does no harm to the skill and coordination of the drill. Since most constraints require hopping onto or over something, too often these exercises become a demonstration of “knee tucking” instead of ground striking, and there is a huge difference between the latter and the former.
Not All Extensive Hopping Is Created Equal – Think LATERAL!
If extensive multiplanar hopping is the gold standard for movement and tissue prep, then more lateral single-leg and rotational single-leg ground contacts are the platinum and double platinum standards, respectively. They are so important and unique that they warrant their own subsection within the intensification process. Great intensification within the individual session is so subtle that it is hard to discern where the warm-up ends, and the work truly begins.
While making sure to be mindful and not rush this process, the quicker you can progress an athlete to one leg and moving laterally and eventually rotating, the better. One-leg hopping is a great way to organically increase an athlete’s self-awareness without overly complicating the process. To fulfill rhythmic bouncing on one leg, an athlete must strike the ground correctly right under their center of mass. What an athlete might be able to get away with on two legs, they cannot hide on one. Single leg hopping then becomes a great litmus test for a lot of important athletic qualities.What an athlete may be able to get away with on two legs, they can’t hide on one. Single leg hopping then becomes a great litmus test for a lot of important athletic qualities, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Merging single leg benefits with greater glute medius recruitment by moving laterally amplifies the return on time management investment. Efficiency is accomplishing more by doing less and should always be the goal of the training process. Thus, one-leg lateral movement has extraordinary “bang for your buck.”
While traditional glute/hip band walks have value, they lack the velocities experienced on the field. The increased speed demands crank up stresses ever so slightly and fire up the nervous system in turn. Adding rotations and arm constraints “doubles down” on the neural recruitment, sending proprioceptive feedback through the roof.
Joint Angle-Specific Isometrics
Developing isometric strength by holding task-specific joint angles is a great way to add integrity and back the extensive ground contacts with some serious substance. These positions are highly specific to each individual due to differences in limb lengths and torque-producing tendencies, so it is important to put the athlete in positions that are both advantageous and disadvantageous for performance at times. Isometric holds in unfavorable positions are great ways to address weak points and enhance general preparedness qualities while advantageous positioning fortifies already strong kinematic positions. Both are necessary, but sport specificity is found in the more favorable angles yielding a greater performance effect, so having a strong idea of what you would like to accomplish with isometrics and working backward becomes helpful.
Holding sport-specific positions allows an athlete to feel critical intermuscular and intramuscular links before complicating with movement and velocity. Experience has shown that simultaneously intertwining extensive ground contacts and isometric holds proves to be a formidable stimulus to really “grease the groove” and prepare the athlete for the more intensive efforts to follow. As it relates to positioning, a good hold should begin on the ball of an athlete’s foot and unify the ankle, knee, and hip extensors (soleus, VMO, glute med/max).
Video 3. Simple medial hops were popularized by Ted Banks in the 1970s and can be traced to when Bud Winter was coaching high jump. Remember, speed athletes need to be good at simple plyometrics, not be competitive horizontal jumpers.
Athletes should never be caught flat-footed, and this is a great opportunity to reinforce this sentiment. The more “acute” the joint angles an athlete can adopt, the more aggressive their athletic position. Acute is typically far from comfortable, so isometrics become a great way to condition the athlete to becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For dosing, I have found 10- to 15-second efforts of max intensity appear to be optimal for allowing the individual to maximize tension and maintain high quality. To progress the holds, I prefer to increase intensity as opposed to increasing duration. You can accomplish this by placing the athlete in a more challenging position, adding load, or incorporating contract relax-type principles.
The contract relax method is unique because it requires the athlete to quickly relax and recreate tension with tiny oscillations at the specific joint angle in question. I like this because it captures the best of both worlds with respect to position while encouraging subtle movement, which more closely resembles what is happening real time on the field, as athletes are not statues. Specifically, a simple superset of a loaded isometric immediately followed by an unloaded oscillatory iso is a great way to quickly fire up the nervous system!
Concentrics: Overcoming Inertia
Newton’s first law of motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest or an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by an external force. Being able to harness these forces means everything to an athlete. Moving explosively out of static positions, then being able to skillfully maintain and eventually stopping or redirecting is a tremendous undertaking. Therefore, I often like to remind our athletes that inertia is an athlete’s best friend and worst enemy at the same time, the ultimate catch 22!
Specifically as it relates to “bounce,” deliberately disrupting the rhythmic fluidity of extensive ground contacts at certain times is a neat trick to maintain continual progress. Eliminating the stretch phase and forcing an athlete to overcome any variety of static positions with a dynamic movement are the simplest ways to go about developing this unique quality. The classic example of this is the relationship between the squat jump (no stretch) and countermovement jump (stretch).Eliminating the stretch phase and forcing an athlete to overcome any variety of static positions with a dynamic movement are the simplest ways to go about developing this unique quality. Click To Tweet
The countermovement jump should be about 10-15% better than the squat jump. If the margin of difference is too narrow (< 10%), more “bounce” development is in order; conversely, if the separation is too extreme (> 20%), more strength is likely needed. For strength building and the efforts skewed more toward maximal force and rate of force development on the force-velocity curve, concentric-only deadlifts—trap bar deadlifts with different starting heights with different stances—are great for developing an athlete’s ability to overcome. However, if it is speed you seek, med ball throws are king.
Video 4. Adding an external load and larger knee angle will decrease the elastic energy, but it does teach the body to use momentum properly. Experiment with ways to jump efficiently without tendons and elastic energy.
To stay on topic with the concentric-only theme, I am specifically referencing concentric-only “scoop” throws both vertically forward and overhead backward, or any other throw from a static position. Med balls are great because they are subtle. They are heavy enough to enhance feedback but still light enough to really create some velocity.
When it comes to incorporating speed with concentrics, I gravitate more toward throws, as I see them as an opportunity to very lightly load. Additionally, in my experience, releasing an object naturally teaches extension better than not releasing an object, as athletes capitalize on continuing to accelerate as joint angles become increasingly favorable. When emphasizing development of maximal outputs like speed and power, which tend to skew toward heavy (strength speed, max force) or ultra-fast (bodyweight sprints and jumps), it’s often easy to overlook the value of more subtle means like lightly weighted throws.
Mastery over Stretch Reflex: Hit the Brakes!
The stretch reflex is one of the most powerful tools an athlete possesses, and developing powerful brakes with hard decelerations and landings from various heights and angles is an invaluable way to challenge the eccentric muscular function under more sport-specific velocities. Slow eccentrics will always have their place in training and are of great value to young athletes establishing positions as well as more advanced athletes deliberately seeking increased time under tension during periods of general prep for instance. However, outside of a handful of specific scenarios, fast eccentrics will always have greater carryover to the field.
Athletes endure lots of stress from the high velocities and abrupt braking forces, and they cannot efficiently overcome what they cannot first absorb. To deal with greater forces, bigger brakes must be built with a good strength training regime and more sport-specific decelerations and landings. If an athlete struggles to deal with these stresses, the resulting visual is continually being a step behind and, even worse, potentially one step away from soft tissue injury.
Video 5. Looking at the medial hops again, you can see how the foot contacts are long enough to help roll the body towards the inside.
Gradually preparing the athlete for higher forces in training then becomes important, and building an athlete’s braking apparatus by gradually increasing eccentric velocities becomes the fourth and final piece to accompany the low-intensity ground contacts, sport-specific isometric positioning, and concentric medicine ball throws. The human body is incredibly resilient and will adapt to the demands imposed on it (SAID principle). An athlete can then be gradually conditioned to endure greater and greater magnitudes of stress in training, so when exposed to the same scenarios within the game, they are first and foremost likely to stay healthy and, as a by-product, perform at a higher level.
“Extreme training” in a highly controlled and tastefully progressed manner best prepares an athlete for the field of play. Limiting an athlete to submaximal outputs in training and merely hoping for the best typically never goes as intended on match day.
Decelerations, Altitude Landings
My starting point for high-velocity eccentrics begins with simple two-footed “snap downs.” To execute properly, an athlete starts tall in a fully extended position and then must move with maximal intent into a flexed, athletic position as quickly as possible. In essence, they are violently jumping straight down and abruptly hitting the brakes trying to freeze as if they are a statue in their joint angle-specific athletic set. Again, this will vary from athlete to athlete because of different heights and limb lengths, so it’s not necessary to try to fit square pegs into round holes.
Athletes should move their feet during the landing process, and as they get increasingly better and better at the skill, the landings should get louder and louder. As a coach you should be able to HEAR the force. As they move their feet, it is equally important that an athlete specifically locate the balls of their feet. It does the athlete no good to land flat-footed, as this is the last thing we want happening on the field.
Braking with maximal purpose and abruptly locating balance on the balls of the feet is much trickier than it looks, so it is good to drill it continuously to reinforce development for youth athletes and quickly touch on it frequently as professionals even if during warm-ups. To progress the snap down slowly, adding heights of just a few inches at a time subtly increases the stress upon landing. Again, the strictest landing mechanics must be maintained, as eventually there will be a specific height for each individual at which the quality degrades and intended effect is lost. Quality always supersedes quantity and best to “stop a mile early than one inch late.” Next would be adding lateral falls and falls with twists and eventually restarting the entire process over on one leg in a similar progressive manner.
Drop Jumps, Depth Jumps
After thoroughly dissecting the stretch-shortening cycle, drop jumps and depth jumps tie the entire stretch reflex together again. Upon falling from a height, the athlete now must quickly reverse the landing upon ground contact and leap explosively vertically, horizontally, or eventually off a single leg. Initiating with a fall increases an athlete’s acceleration prior to takeoff and, if executed correctly, should yield higher resultant force. Simply put, athletes should be able to jump higher or bound further after the fall.
Video 6. Box to Bounce to Box is nothing more than depth jumps with the right height. Monitor the Reactive Strength Index (RSI) in order to make changes in box heights.
If an athlete lacks the requisite strength and the fall hinders performance, then you should regress the exercises to a lower height, or they should not do them until they are strong enough. The amount of time spent on the ground is directly proportional to the height of the fall so attention to detail really matters, and it is important to know the desired effect. Drop jumps are more speed-oriented and require quicker ground contacts, so box heights must be lower.
Visually they look like a pogo with limited knee bend and maximal lower limb stiffness upon reversal. However, depth jumps are slightly more force-oriented and require more hip-dominant torque so encourage slightly greater heights, and they closely resemble your typical countermovement jump. Both variations are necessary, particularly when the goal is to tease out highly specific qualities. For instance, if you look at ground contact times of sprinters, the slowest grounds contacts occur during the first propulsive steps of acceleration, and the fastest ground contacts are demonstrated during max velocity.
Despite the subtle variations in speed and execution that exist between the two exercises, they both fall under the same distinction of plyometric exercise designed to enhance the speed of the stretch-shortening cycle and are just slightly varying degrees of FAST! Simple jumping and rate of force development exercises such as weighted jumps and throws often get mischaracterized into this category. For an exercise to be a plyometric it must have a fast ground contact (approximately 0.2 seconds) and specifically address enhancing the speed of stretch, transition, and contraction.
Be mindful that these specific types of plyometrics are force- and energy-intensive, so you need to closely monitor volume and use them only sparingly. I liken drops and depth jumps to a “NOS button” for performance, and I like to use them prior to more significant competitions or showcases for our youth academy or to quickly burst through a training plateau and jump-start further progress.
Keep It Simple!
Maximizing bounce and developing any speed-related quality takes time, as it is the last adaptation to manifest itself, so extreme patience is required. Good development should never be rushed—maintain a process-oriented approach and stay the course with the lower-intensity, skill-building, extensive ground contacts and the obligatory strength work to maintain health and build power, and it will pay off in the long run. This truly should comprise most of an athlete’s training, as it keeps them prepared and healthy. After all, there’s no ability like availability!Maximizing bounce and developing any speed-related quality takes time, as it is the last adaptation to manifest itself, so extreme patience is required, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Tastefully injecting more intensive plyometrics in controlled doses at just the right time will raise the ceiling just enough to make sure trends can always remain favorable, but it’s all about picking and choosing your moments. Doing the simple stuff better and being able to get the simple stuff to create the desired effects is truly the name of the game in the end, and it will keep your athlete light and springy along their athletic journey.