By Carl Valle
One of the most common workout routines in plyometric training is hurdle jumps, also known as hurdle hops. Hurdle jumps is both my favorite and most despised option in power development; however, even though it’s my personal favorite, it didn’t make the cut in my top options article years ago. The reason is simple: Outside of a few track programs, hurdle jumps is another example of how ego hurts training. Jumping over hurdles has suffered the same fate as jumping on a box, and turned a good idea bad.
In this article, I cover everything the research could share and give a few tips I have learned from far more accomplished coaches. I promise that you will find this blog to be thorough and you will be left rethinking what you do in your plyometric training.
What Are Hurdle Jumps and Hurdle Hops, Really?
Hurdle hops and hurdle jumps are not as well explained as they should be in coaching education. First, the most obvious issue is the terminology, as hurdles and hopping are not the same as barrier and jumping. Training usually uses hurdles, specifically track and field hurdles, but the market has expanded to using mini-hurdles and other plastic barriers.Training needs clear language, and hurdles and hopping are not the same as barriers and jumping. Click To Tweet
Jumping and hopping are not the same words, as jumping is a two-foot landing and hops are same foot single-leg landing exercises. When we say “hurdle hops,” it technically means the athlete is on one leg bouncing over track hurdles, but they could be two-leg jumping over small rehab height barriers. What I am explaining isn’t unnecessary or picky—it’s everything, because training must use clear language.
Video 1. I shared this video from Hakan Andersson on the SRJT months before this article, and the contrast really shows what we tend to see versus what we want to see. The ability to actually bounce over hurdles is more important than heights cleared.
Most coaches have their athletes perform hurdle jumps with two legs as a plyometric exercise for power development. Most of the time, they line up about five or more hurdles with equal spacing and at knee height to hip height, depending on the goal. The athletes are expected to walk to or immediately start jumping over each hurdle with an explosive and rapid landing, but sometimes a small intermediate jump is involved to reset the rhythm or spacing of the movement.The ability to actually bounce over hurdles is more important than heights cleared. Click To Tweet
The majority of sessions usually have one contact between each hurdle, and it’s a very explosive one that forces an athlete to really exert and challenge their abilities. Sometimes athletes are expected to land and brace themselves between jumps, but if they’re in training for performance, the goal is to use the reflexes of the neuromuscular system.
It will be up to the coach what actual hurdle training is done, but for the most part it’s going to be either active or supportive (static landing). Some coaches manipulate spacing and heights to fit their needs, but the most common approach uses equally spaced and same-height hurdles to elicit rhythmic double leg jumps with athletes. Anything alternative to repeated elastic jumps is possible, but if you want an athlete to truly perform plyometrics, you must have the workout be rapid and responsible. I am sure I will do a follow-up article with an entire set of popular routines, but outlining the core exercise is vital to get everyone on the same page.
Why Is There So Little Science on Hurdle Jumps?
Most of the questions about hurdle jump’s science are because there is scant research, and that is due to a combination of factors. Track jumpers and sprinters use hurdle jumps all the time, but beyond gross power development of the legs, there isn’t much clear rationale for its inclusion in training. Some coaches believe the hurdles help with both stiffness and projection because of visual motion, while some think hurdles are excellent ways to develop the nervous system systematically. Many coaches think the hurdle jump routines are perfect for warming up or even doing potentiation work, and others believe it’s gold for rehabilitation.Beyond gross power development of the legs, there isn’t much rationale for training hurdle jumps. Click To Tweet
As you can see, there are lots of theoretical benefits, but very limited science. This is due to the ability of athletes to perform hurdle jumps with challenging heights, so most of the quality research is on sports medicine. There is some great research that is recent and new on the details of the exercises, like actual forces and landing benefits, and which routines may help speed. Interestingly enough, a lot of research on hurdle jumping is with horses and dogs, so clearly the interest is there, but we still need a lot more on specifics that coaches can benefit from.
Many studies exist on plyometrics, but there are not enough on the exact details of hurdle jumps beyond a brief description or having it be part of an intervention program. Another reason not enough research exists is that many of the routines are arbitrary, meaning they don’t look at hurdle height and spacing with actual precision. Some have used instrumentation to get kinetic data, but the different terminology used to describe the exercises makes it hard for coaches to find the studies except for a few that do share details. Finally, hurdle jumping is just one type of plyometric workout, as bounding and drop and depth jumps are also options to study. My guess is that we will see more and more studies down the road since research is expanding and improving in both quality and variety.
Generally, the science has covered relationships between training and performance, but not hurdle jump training adaptations specifically. So far the research needs more, but we are getting closer as the new studies are shedding a lot of new light onto the subject matter.
What Are Some Problems with Hurdle Jumps?
A lot of problems exist with hurdle jumping, but most of them come from having the hurdle up too high and placing groups of athletes into the same workout. I recently wrote about individualizing training, and perhaps this mode of training is one of the best examples of why cookie cutter routines run by interns is a bad idea. While it’s great to have banana hurdle workouts to warm up groups like in soccer, training to get better is a different ball game.A big issue with hurdle jumps is that most athletes use too high of a hurdle & focus on the barrier. Click To Tweet
The primary issue with hurdle jumps is that most athletes use too high of a hurdle and focus on the barrier rather than on the preceding jump. Due to the fact most programs use track and field hurdles, I don’t blame athletes for worrying about landing on a metal slat. Let’s be honest, if something goes wrong, who is responsible? True, the athlete is part of the equation, but I do think coaches that experience an injury with a track hurdle need to be accountable. I have used traditional hurdles for years and have never had an injury, but I have figuratively held my breath at times.
The easiest change is to use a wider and safer plastic pipe-style hurdle. The reason I said wider is that lane-based widths that hurdlers use are great for competition, but create an optical illusion with height. When athletes see a wide hurdle, they salivate and remove the inhibition and attack jumping with confidence.
In training, I would rather have an athlete use raw adrenaline from self-confidence than tighten up from fear. Reliance on height as a motivational variable usually results in survival-type instinct training rather than the fluid mastery that we see with so many great coaches. If something happens—meaning an athlete has a coordination fluke—a cheap PVC pipe gets broken, not the athlete. Safety is something I worry about, and I feel better that injuries won’t happen from a collision with the hurdle.
Anyone with a low amount of athleticism can jump over a 42-inch hurdle if they train and just want to technically clear it. If you want to get results from that height, you really need to have a great pair of legs. Since 20-25 inches of vertical displacement with a typical knee lift can get the job done with most hurdle heights, the leg recovery becomes too important of a variable for athletes.
Recovery of the leg should be nearly automatic in most sporting actions; almost purely a reflex. If athletes are preoccupied with clearing a hurdle, they focus on what to do in the air and not what they should do on the ground. Elite hurdling is a different story, but the motion is so fluid at elite levels, athletes are not overthinking the action either.
Should Hurdle Training Include Single or Double Legs?
I don’t like hopping with hurdles, unless the athlete is super talented and properly prepared. We sometimes see single leg hops used in rehabilitation for injury reduction programs, but if you watch them up close, most of them look awkward and unlike the mechanisms we see in the research. The adage “single leg for decreasing injuries and double leg for increasing performance” sounds good, but fails to deliver.I don’t like hopping with hurdles, unless the athlete is super talented and properly prepared. Click To Tweet
I have also seen the double leg projection to a single leg landing, but usually the jump to hop sequence is more about footwork training than true plyometrics. The stretch shortening cycle is more about landing and hopping and jumping immediately afterward, rather than landing to a halt. While there are a lot of benefits to landing properly, landing without a leap immediately afterward usually isn’t as effective.
If you watch running and hopping carefully, you will notice the recovery of the foot with jumps is far less than with the gait cycle of sprinting. There is less mechanical recovery with hops because the movement strategy doesn’t alternate legs, and the projection created by hopping isn’t nearly as fast and far as running. What tends to happen is less backside mechanics and more front-side positioning in general. The addition of hurdles usually causes a higher chance of tripping because most athletes lack the power to get adequate projection with hurdles. Advanced or elite athletes are special, and we have seen the videos of Linford Christie putting on a show for the ages.
You could argue that jumps are less specific than hops because we run on one leg. Practices and competition are usually overdosed in modern sport to begin with, thus making additional single-leg training a risk. The benefit of doing jumps is safety, and also that the contraction is faster than one leg alone attempting the same rhythm.
My recommendation will likely to be the same as yours: Double for most of the training and only go single if the athlete is advanced. Most athletes will not be able to get anything accomplished outside stiffness work, so save single leg hopping for the elite. Medial and lateral hopping without hurdles tends to be a challenge for most athletes, and the addition of another challenge is likely unnecessary.
How Can We Set Up Hurdle Jumps Better?
Setting up hurdle jumping is about the height of the athlete, surface used, type of hurdle, and goal of the training session. Most of the time, the hurdle should be low, even when training with high density. I don’t like hurdles higher than 33 inches unless the athlete is a beast because the recovery of the legs over the barrier will then start interfering with the entire point of the exercise: landing and projecting the body with greater performance and efficiency. Remember that the hurdle is a visual reminder and guide, providing just a little marking of height and distance. Theoretically, if no hurdles were present, the athlete should still get the same benefits because, technically, the ground produces the stimulus, not the hurdle.
Now that the point of the hurdle is clearly explained, setting up hurdles should be a snap. Most coaches ask about hurdle spacing and that is a fair question, but when I ask them about the goals of the session I usually get blank stares. I was that coach years ago, so I know what it’s like to have an idea of what I want to do but not a clear specific purpose outside the obvious.Hurdle spacing and height are crucial for deciding what adaptation benefits the body should receive. Click To Tweet
The goal with hurdle jumps is to help with projecting the center of mass forward with elastic energy, and athletes must find a way to use gravity to do so. The space between hurdles is based on the speed of the run or walk-up and the hurdle height. As the hurdle gets higher, the horizontal speed of the athlete usually drops because the angle of projection becomes more vertical. As you can see, the spacing and height settings are critical for deciding on what adaptation benefits the body could be receiving, so it is very important to know what you want.
Similar to the demands of wicket runs, spacing and speeds with each athlete do either require them to accommodate a shared spacing or force coaches to increase the equipment and preparation to ensure the workouts are exactly as planned. Athletes can throttle up or down the effort so they can share setups with others who don’t have the same abilities, but this compromise is a problem as the athlete improves.
Usually, you can group athletes with similar spacing to a point, but binary options are not a problem. I believe that you should use four tiers of hurdles even with athletes of the same age and sport until everyone hits the popular standard of five hurdles at 33 inches high and 1.5 meters apart with great technique. At that stage, group sessions become more manageable.
Can We Quantify and Measure Hurdle Jump Training?
Coaches tend to go down one of two paths: the kinetic or kinematic. Most coaches care about making sure the technique is a priority, but forces and other measures help instruction and feedback as well. If you want to see how much force an athlete is putting into the ground, a force plate does make sense. The issue with force plates is they are excellent for testing, but not for training.
A contact grid that passes under wide hurdles can collect both air time and contact periods, thus giving an indication of how athletes are navigating the jumps over the hurdles. If spacing and height are measured, and knee lift is consistent, coaches can estimate performance with a lot of precision.
It is more than safe to say an athlete jumping over hurdles is going be harmonic and virtually the same for each rep if done properly. If the contact time improves and the athlete is using the same distance and height as before, it’s likely that a small change in performance is occurring during the jump sessions. Adding an IMU on the lumbar spine in conjunction to the contact grid can get really useful data, but just seeing instant feedback and watching the athlete is enough to give the coach and athlete confidence that improvement is real.
Video 2. The use of the Muscle Lab Contact Grid from Ergotest allows immediate capture and display of each jump during training. Coaches can easily throttle up or down training by just looking at the data and making simple adjustments, such as changing hurdle heights.
It’s possible to use video and get contact times and displacements of the center of mass, but again, this is manual and takes a lot of time. An athlete clearing five hurdles needs 10 measurements done by hand on the computer, and all of this is can’t be done in real time. I prefer to use live video feedback and do deep analysis later, not the other way around.With a contact grid, coaches and athletes can see if contact times are trending in real time. Click To Tweet
The benefits of using a contact grid are obvious: Coaches and athletes are able to see if the contact times are trending live, and decide whether the athlete needs to rest, keep going, or change the setup.
Decide If Hurdle Jumps Are Right for Your Athletes
Hurdle jumps and hops have always been a modality that really gets a lot of attention, but few coaches really want to know how well they are reaping benefits from it. Over the years, I have seen some amazing teaching and training by coaches outside track and field, and have been disappointed by jump coaches at some schools that allow really bad mechanics. Most of the injuries I have seen stem from hurdle jumps done wrong, but I have also seen some amazing rehabilitation programs that employed hurdle training. Like any tool, most of the results will come from the craftsman using it, and the more education we have on this modality, the better.