The recent surge in high-intensity training modalities such as sprinting, jumping, and other explosive activities has helped shift the training paradigm in a positive direction from a big-picture standpoint. More coaches are abandoning less useful training alternatives for maximal sprinting and plyometrics (plyos) in the pursuit of improving speed qualities. These qualities include stiffness, speed, power, reactive measures, and increasing the potential of the central nervous system (CNS) overall, among other important components. This is great, and I hope more coaches will continue to explore these effective, more applicable methods of training.
With this trend, we have also seen a sharp increase in teams doing “stuff” in pursuit of these favorable traits. By “stuff,” I refer to any array of various plyos grouped together with arbitrary doses, minimal precision, and little information as to what they’re being used for. Some coaches use them for active recovery, others use them to stimulate, and I’ve even heard some coaches say they just use them to fill time doing something athletic. Again, I’m extremely pleased that teams are using plyos more, and I hope that they will continue. However, as they continue using this approach to develop stiffness and other traits, I hope that coaches can become more tactful in what they choose to incorporate in their plyo programming as well as how to go about it.It is one thing to throw random plyo activities together, and it is quite another to pick and choose very specific ballistic exercises to pursue various movement qualities in your athletes. Click To Tweet
It is one thing to throw random plyo activities together, and it is quite another to pick and choose very specific ballistic exercises to pursue various movement qualities in your athletes. Additionally, being able to properly coach and assess the plyos you choose is vital to achieving the goals you’ve set. While it would be great if it was as simple as picking X exercises and having athletes perform arbitrarily for Y dosage, I personally believe that it is much more complex than that. The goal of this article is to provide insight into plyo prescriptions, how different types of plyos address different aspects of sprinting, and how you can be more thoughtful in making choices when implementing them in your programming.
What Are Plyometrics?
When I was in elementary school, I remember going out to recess to play any array of games on a given day. Sometimes it involved hopscotch, jump rope, kickball, tether ball, red rover, racing, catch, and much more. We used to climb all over the playground and jump from various heights to the ground. Children skipped around in all directions, played freeze tag, and did backflips out of the swings.
There is an unfathomable number of activities children perform at recess and during physical education that improve a variety of qualities related to development. All of these jumps, hops, skips, turns, throws, and other athletic feats would be considered by many to be plyometric activities.
While plyos are routinely referred to as jump training, the term “plyo” seems to encompass a broad spectrum of ballistic movements. The definition allows us to get a better understanding of the infinitely massive permutations of exercises we can string together to constitute a plyometric workout day. Coaches routinely use them all over the world to develop seemingly all facets of athleticism across sports and performance. Plyos are also often used as a substitute when athletes don’t have the physical capacity to fully participate in practice on a given day. The utility of plyos is endless, which is a good thing in most cases, but it can present problems when deciding which to include, which to leave out, how to coach each, and how to progress them appropriately.
Video 1. The biggest mistake with hurdle jumps is a lack of projection forward and up. Too high of a hurdle and too long a response time will render this exercise an optical illusion instead of a valuable means to gain explosive strength.
What Is Speed?
Speed is a conglomeration of performance qualities that cycle in and out during any given sprinting repetition. These traits may come from a genetic predisposition, environmental factors, positional habits, and/or tissue loading, along with other stresses and adaptations that may occur throughout an athlete’s lifespan and training experience. Not every stimulus positively correlates to enhancing the coveted qualities related to sprinting, but knowing what qualities you’re after may help you become more strategic with the way you choose training stimuli over time.
What Does It Take to Be Fast?
For an athlete to build up to and maintain max speed requires immense power, coordination, body awareness, endurance, and strength, among other things. Developing the components to produce force is one thing that many athletes do extremely well, whether by sprinting frequently, jumping, bounding, or lifting weights. While producing force is great, it is another thing for the body to be able to orient that force, withstand the force, and preserve it throughout any given sprint effort.
Elastic properties, tissue stiffness, the ability to contract and relax muscles in rhythmic sequences, and the loading capacity for structures in the body become pivotal in achieving mechanical success. As the foot strikes the ground with a downward force, a ground reaction force (GRF) of equal magnitude and opposing direction is imposed on the body through the foot. If the foot does not have a good balance of the characteristics listed above, it may collapse under the pressure, resulting in a suboptimal force transmission from the ground through the body. This presents a problem in withstanding and preserving forces over the course of sprinting.
What is more interesting is that this phenomenon is not limited to the foot and ankle, but also happens to the knee, hip, pelvis, spine, and more. Collapse may be attributed to a lack of any number of the qualities listed above and may be improved upon with strategic implementation of plyometric exercises.
This collapse is problematic because we get a fraction of the energy return on our initial investment to help propel us forward, upward, laterally, rotationally, and essentially any direction you can imagine. This decreased return means that we will have to work harder to move faster when sprinting, which again is an issue. The goal of sprinting is to get from A to B as fast as possible, which means we need to maximize efficiency in the A to B direction while minimizing energy bleed and consistently build momentum rather than stop it.
Video 2. Simple, repeated broad jumps and alternating bounds are excellent training and testing exercises because they don’t require any technology to show improvement. Plyometrics just “sprinkled” in or added without purpose are just as foolish as random lifting and sprinting programs.
Plyometrics as a Sprinting Solution
Okay, so now that I’ve presented these problems, it is time to circle back to plyos and the role they can play in sprinting development. Before I dive in, I want to preface this section by saying that nothing will replace max-velocity sprinting. Speed determines an athlete’s ceiling and directly influences speed reserve, a frequently visited topic. While plyos are an extremely effective training modality to complement various components related to sprinting, I do not believe they are as effective at improving max speed as sprinting itself. With that, I begin…
When an athlete sprints and they have prolonged ground contact times (GCTs), I would immediately check out some simple plyo drills to assess stiffness. Stiffness, to me, is the ability of the joint to withstand force eccentrically on ground contact and maximally transmit these forces (GRFs) in a meaningful direction. It is worth noting that I watch for these impairments throughout the warm-up and my never-ending assessment, but I understand that it is not always easy to catch on to these subtleties without video or in a large group setting.When an athlete sprints and they have prolonged ground contact times (GCTs), I would immediately check out some simple plyo drills to assess stiffness, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
Plyos that I’ve found useful in addressing ankle stiffness are typically instructed by me to minimize GCTs while maximizing vertical and/or horizontal displacement. An athlete who appears to spend a lot of time on the ground with these may benefit from smaller amplitude plyos initially and gradually begin to explore larger amplitude variations. An example of this would be to start with small ankle hops in place, progress to moving forward, backward, and laterally, and then graduate to medium ankle hops with similar progressions.
Video 3. Stiffness comes from controlling joints and creating projection. Moving up and down without the right coordination only helps so much in sport.
I have also had a lot of success with 6 to 12 o’clock line hops as well as 3 to 9 o’clock. With mastery of each exercise above, you can progress from two feet to one foot, small to large amplitude, different directions, variable patterns (right, right, left versus left, left, right), and more. The beauty of plyos, as previously stated, is that there are so many to choose from, but what is often undervalued is the degree with which you can vary any single exercise to continue raising the bar.
Knee and Hip
When we get to the knee and hip, I tend to attack with a similar strategy (low amplitude to high amplitude), with the eventual addition of exposure to higher velocity impacts. What I mean here is that, unlike ankle hops that rely on gravity to get you back to the ground, these knee- and hip-oriented plyos require active muscular acceleration of the limb into the ground in addition to gravity. I like variations of knee tuck jumps, rocket jumps, hop-hop-vertical continuous, hop-hop-vertical-pause, hurdle hops, depth jumps, incorporating hops into medicine ball throws, bounds for height, and more of the same.
For low levels of trunk stiffness or a tendency to bend in the spine, I find it useful to incorporate various arm positions during the exercises to better recruit the paraspinals. Arms overhead during drills, sprints, wicket runs, etc. helps promote an upright posture without excessively cueing trunk extension. We want an optimal amount of recruitment, not to swing the issue in the other direction.
The difference with the paraspinals is that they do not inherently produce much movement and subsequent force, whereas the muscles surrounding the joints of the extremities do. This means it could be of greater benefit to additionally work these muscles in the weight room with back extensions emphasizing neutral spine versus extended spine. Ideally, this helps develop a higher level of tone, endurance, and capacity to transmit force through the spinal column that will again minimize energy bleed that may occur between each spinal segment.
Core development may be a good complement to the paraspinal work, as the body’s natural corset consists of a variety of muscles working together to stabilize the trunk during extremity movements. There is a general rule of movement that requires optimal proximal stability in order to achieve distal mobility. In other words, the better the core stability, the easier it will be to move the extremities.
Wrap Up Stiffness
It would be impossible for me to list every plyo that can address these insufficiencies, so these are just a few approaches and progression tips that I have had success with, in terms of addressing stiffness-related issues. Not all of these are practical to perform unilaterally, such as hurdle hops, which can be subbed out for wicket hops. Also, ensure that you begin with a lower volume of plyos initially, then increase plyo density over time. Many jumps and variable landings tend to aggravate the lower legs if overdone.The beauty of plyos is that there are so many to choose from, but what is often undervalued is the degree with which you can vary any single exercise to continue raising the bar. Click To Tweet
Extensive plyos are great, just be wary of how many you choose to implement and the way you implement them. Have sensible progressions that start with generally lower difficulty and gradually expose the athlete to higher plyo demands over time.
Whether producing force vertically or horizontally, there is undoubtedly a demand for immense power during sprinting. Many athletes have high force development capacity, but the rate with which they recruit it is often too slow or the process is rushed. In my experience, this is most notably seen in the acceleration when athletes pitter-patter across the turf with choppy strides and relatively shorter GCTs. The problem is that, initially, acceleration actually demands longer GCTs in order to give the athlete time to produce more force and create displacement. So, knowing these things, we can look to reproduce those similar traits through plyos to address the issue.
The options are seemingly limitless, but here are a few things that I use frequently. It is worth noting that you can perform these with or without wearable or other external resistance to increase the force demands of the plyos. I like to use a variety of plyos for distance in a series consisting of broad jumps, triple broad jumps, continuous broad jumps, single leg bounds, alternating bounds, skips, medicine ball throw variations, resisted sprinting, and more.
If you do not have access to variable resistance, you can find a hill or stairs. The steeper the hill, the longer the GCTs typically, as athletes require much more force to perform successfully. As the athlete gets a general skill acquisition, it is important to revisit sprinting on flat ground without resistance to influence carryover. It will not always click right away, nor will they always carry over perfectly, but gradual exposure to activities that mimic the demands of acceleration may influence a shift in the right direction.
Video 4. Speed bounding is useful for athletes who want to merge horizontal speed and leg power. Limb velocity is a popular topic, but without actually challenging ground reaction forces moving fast may not get you faster.
Max-velocity sprinting requires forces to be oriented more vertically with faster GCTs while also generating lots of power. We went over plyos oriented toward developing stiffness that influences GCTs and efficiency above. Any combination of those plyos, in my experience, will improve various aspects of max-speed sprinting. Additionally, looking at a lot of the acceleration-oriented plyos, we see that the focuses are on horizontal displacement and long GCTs.
We can use an array of the same plyos and emphasize vertical displacement instead of horizontal to apply more specifically to max sprinting. I typically use a combination of various vertical jumps and throws, skips for height, bounds for height, etc. Another creative way to make the plyo velocities faster, particularly when stationary and in a safe environment, is to perform them with a band, partner, fence, or rail assist. This decreases the bodyweight demands for the activity and allows you to work a different aspect of the force-velocity curve.
Plyometric creativity is not limited to sprinting, and I would argue that it is worth exploring in nonlinear activities as well. I’ve had success experimenting with lateral plyo work with baseball players to help their push leg with batting, throwing, fielding, base running, and stealing. I’ve had similar success combining aspects of lateral, rotational, and linear activities to help multidirectional components in ball sport athletes. While it is easy to look at an exercise as being one-directional or one-dimensional, there are plenty of ways you can alter it to make it applicable to a task the athlete needs to improve in.Plyometric creativity is not limited to sprinting, and I would argue that it is worth exploring in nonlinear activities as well, says @BrendanThompsn. Click To Tweet
Instead of “Stuff,” Be Strategic
When it comes to plyos in sports and performance, we often see coaches and athletes doing “stuff” rather than any goal-oriented activities. Coming up with “stuff” to do is easy; devising a strategic progression of plyos to target insufficiencies and sport demands is difficult.
First, you have to know what the sport or activity requires, as this will ultimately help you understand the options you have to address different components. Then, it helps to know what to look for when evaluating. This allows you to identify what component(s) you want to assess and begin the critical-thinking process. Next, make sure that you start the plyo at an appropriate level. While initially it may seem extremely basic and simple, it is better to test the lower levels out prior to progressing to upper level activities.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to get creative. No, I don’t mean our favorite NFL stars juggling colored sticks on a BOSU Ball creative. I mean that plyos have a seemingly infinite spectrum of variations that you may find useful both in isolation and in combination. Conversely, there is also beauty in simplicity and sticking to the basics. Start with your progressions, and based on what you see, you should feel comfortable branching out accordingly.
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