The folklore behind this piece goes back several decades, to a time when, as an injury-prone athlete and aspiring coach, I encountered two leading coaches in the fields of sprinting and jumps. Many athletes and coaches today know of the exercises dubbed “A’s” and “B’s”—these were coined by Gerard Mach as part of his sprint development system. Today, the notion that these exercises were part of a comprehensive approach to sprint development has been largely forgotten, and the exercises themselves have become corrupted to the extent that many coaches refuse to use them.
When presenting at coaching workshops, I typically have a small group of local athletes volunteering to demonstrate exercises for the participants. When it comes to the “A drill,” 10 athletes will show 10 variants, with few representing the original intended form.
One reason for all the variability is that the exercise allows it—just as running strides themselves can develop huge variations in effectiveness and efficiency, so too do these exercises. During a session by Mach that I attended, one of the coaches asked a simple question that seemed dumb but was on the minds of many: “What are these for?”
With a wry smile, Mach simply replied “posture.” That was it.
At that time, I considered posture to be something static and spinal, and so I shrugged off the response. But, of course, Mach was referring to dynamic posture, and the ability to hold effective form, joint by joint, at any stage of the sprint stride. In hindsight, that response and smile was a great gift that inspired thinking and problem-solving.
The second area of personal exposure at that time came from Zoltan Tenke, who brought with him a system of jumps training from Eastern Europe. This method featured hundreds of leaping, hopping, and bounding exercises, along with extensive medicine ball and body movement work. The group was not used to the dynamics, volumes, or variety. Having grown up with heavy lifting as the major conditioning tool, most of us had to walk down the stairs backward for days due to the incredible DOMS we felt after the initial exposure—the system that he brought to the group was a life-changer. Not only did we have to move through an extensive range of motion, we needed to develop the force-velocity capabilities that allowed for elastic power expression.
Preparation to Train
The two influences mentioned above relate to the focus exercise here: a pickup hop (with thanks to Matt Watson of Plus Plyos, who has written for SimpliFaster on plyometrics training).The pickup hop is a stationary or slowly advancing hop that serves as a preparation exercise for many athletes: essentially, anyone in need of running speed. Click To Tweet
The pickup hop is a stationary or slowly advancing hop that serves as a preparation exercise for many athletes: essentially, anyone in need of running speed. This is the most common exercise I give out for “homework.” (I believe in the value of exercise homework, but that’s another story.) I adopted it for myself out of the Mach and Tenke formats as a quality pathway to overcoming chronic ankle injuries. The incentive for today’s athletes is my assurance that once they integrate the exercise into a brain map and then refine it, they will run and/or jump more effectively and efficiently.
Further, I share that the movement skill itself is a bit like bicycle riding—you never forget how to do it. Now, while I started with a goal of fixing wonky ankles, I discovered that it helped fix a host of imbalances and faulty movement patterns, alluding to the wide-ranging local and global benefits.
Video 1. Front and side view of the pickup hop exercise.
I am careful to emphasize that pickup hops are preparation and not the actual training or practice element. Specifically, I label it as:
Preparation to Train = “Readiness”
Not only are there relevant mechanical factors that help manage the cyclical action and landings, there are neuromuscular factors that feed movement competencies related to running and jumping skills. These readiness features are taken forward into actual training and competitive groundwork. Anyone who has tried to unlearn faulty habits or change technical cues during high-level training or competitions knows how difficult and/or frustrating that can become. By removing those redefining and refinement elements of movement and force-velocity development slightly into preparation, the work on precision and efficiency can proceed without any competitive or self-competitive distractions.
We learn to explore what works and what does not work for us. We also remove the limited feedback of the stopwatch or measuring tape to explore sensation outcomes. The transferable result is a sensation of flow or “zone” that can be taken forward into performance-oriented activities. “Flow” is that state of performance that occurs when we suspend analysis and cue-checking to just let the body do what it has been trained to do.
What Are We Training?
I consider pickup hops to be an “A” drill of sorts: dynamic posture preparation for running and jumping activities. The landing is unilateral with a cyclical leg pattern during the airborne phase, and the movement has similar load-unload challenges for the grounded leg. Both are stationary or slowly advancing with a range of motion that emphasizes load-unload skills. The pickup hop is also different—and in a sense, more challenging—than related running drills because the landings are unilateral on one foot or the other and not alternating. While the running A drill can be performed with sloppy or imprecise landings, the pickup hop tends to fall apart with faulty technique or fatigue.The pickup hop is also different—and in a sense, more challenging—than related running drills because the landings are unilateral on one foot or the other and not alternating. Click To Tweet
In order to accommodate the repetitive landings, the grounding leg needs to cycle faster to be ready for the next landing, and this can double the loading patterns for the ham-glute-psoas connections that power the actions. This is a key differentiating factor between unilateral hops and alternating or bilateral landing selections.1 To achieve the higher velocity, the ankles and knees need to stiffen during contact so that power is generated proximal to distal, and muscles like the gastroc are held almost isometrically to contribute to the posterior chain.
With this exercise, the athlete is developing the optimal stiffness for the task: not too rigid, not too cushioned.2 In the demonstration, the foot lands with the COP (center of pressure) just behind the forefoot, like a sprint stride contact, requiring both capability and capacity to develop within the lower leg and foot tissues. Jumpers would use full-foot contacts akin to takeoff dynamics.
The foot is a somewhat loose, 26-boned array that requires the musculotendinous units to gang together and develop stability-resiliency in finger-snap time frames. Anyone who has struggled with sprint actions after initial acceleration phases will relate to this requirement. In order to accomplish the leg velocity, the arms are used more as a balancing element, and often reflect the difference between novice and competent stages of development—the flailing or overexaggerated arm actions being a clue to inadequate hip control.
Finally, with the repetitive unilateral landings, the athlete needs to develop the concurrent hip and core ability to balance body mass in ways that avoid lateral sway and lurching. Sway will be most obvious with the nondominant leg and is seen with a body tilt compensation to bring the center of mass (COM) over the grounded leg. Lurching, the forward-backward torso heaving during ground contact is also more evident with the nondominant leg and with those who use quad dominant takeoffs/toe-offs.
As with all these features, the elements of faulty dynamic posture that appear during this exercise are the same ones that limit growth during training and competitive efforts.
Why Do I Program Pickup Hops?
There are many potential benefits from using pickup hops beyond those highlighted. As with other propulsive-locomotive exercises (including the A’s, if done correctly), there are development pathways that lead to desired benefits.
Acquisition stages create the map in our nervous system and set out the conditioning foundations for mobility-stability and force-velocity development. This can happen within a relatively short period of time: days and weeks. Beyond that, refinement stages need to occur, and these take months. Imbalances and variability in mechanics and movement chain capabilities become minimized. The tendomuscular units and connective tissues take longer to thicken and shift the tendon modulus. There are also considerations of consistency and fatigue resistance that are key features of quality landing management.
Mach’s A drill, performed with rapid, slowly advancing strides, also has these refinement needs, but it is more often performed as a relaxed, unfocused movement. Pickup hops, because of the heightened demand for an efficient pre-load phase and faster loading phase, are less likely to be performed in a sloppy fashion and are more likely to develop the desired benefits.In short, pickup hops are an exercise that has the ability to enhance and then take the athlete byond the needs of the target skill. Click To Tweet
Do pickup hops ever leave the program? They need not. During maintenance phases, the exercise becomes more dynamic, more precise, and faster, in tune with growth that is happening through training and competition experiences. Keep in mind that good sprinting uses more than five times body mass during contact and develops a stride frequency of more than 4.0 strides per second. In short, pickup hops are an exercise that has the ability to enhance and then take the athlete beyond the needs of the target skill. It is this factor that gives the athlete a robustness that allows for small variations and prevents injury.
How Do Pickup Hops Fit in a Program?
In a program that may already be full to the brim with technical, tactical, and conditioning elements, one starting point with pickup hops can be as part of assigned “homework”:
- On its own, or with a few other activation selections.
- Five to 10 minutes, two or three times per week.
- The space required for the foundation exercise is minimal, and so it is quite portable.
This is one pathway through which the exercise can be learned and then refined. Activation before a longer session is another obvious choice. Hops could be a substitute for sloppy, submax A’s, either in a stationary or slowly progressive fashion (5- to 10-meter path). This approach is probably the most common, requiring some familiarity and capability for applying the challenges of repetitive hops. The other common insert for pickup hops is within a conditioning session that contains other plyometric and locomotive jumps.
The possibilities noted here bring in the notion of limits and risks. Because of the repetitive, unilateral landings, there is automatically a greater force-velocity component to deal with. Ground contact times are shorter than those encountered with most locomotive jumps, becoming reactive and finger-snap quick within a short time. Athletes not familiar with landing management challenges like these are at higher risk and will tend to introduce greater amounts of co-contraction through the hips and core as a protective mechanism. To compensate, they will likely overuse lower leg mechanics or quad dominance.
In this case, it may be better to begin with fast bilateral (what I term “ping” work) or slower unilateral selections from a “Prepare to Move” phase. A “ping” example is shown below using a medball with a leg exchange, combining a full foot with forefoot landings. This is particularly essential for those athletes with obvious imbalances or injury histories. The intermediate stage for pickup hops is to use a light touch variation—with less pick-up height, the grounding foot will rise to about calf height rather than knee height, making it easier to manage. This also works with athletes who tend to use a contact-pause-propel style of landing.
For athletes engaged in developmental programs, I have found that the initial stages of acquisition take about 5-8 sessions. That’s all. After that, the mechanics acquire an automatic component. The exercise is initially programmed for 8-12 landings per set, per leg, acknowledging that neuromuscular depletion and fatigue compensations are never far away during the early stages. After that, you can introduce multiple sets, left-right combinations, and patterns like slaloms and compass points.Pickup hops have proven over the decades to be one of the best, most transferable, and easy-to-manage selections in my coaching toolbox. Click To Tweet
As a coach who has encouraged athletes from novices to international competitors to pursue a lifetime of sport, I needed a few essential exercises that would accomplish the goals of Mach’s A drills, without the vulnerability of technical aberration. Pickup hops have proven over the decades to be one of the best, most transferable, and easy-to-manage selections in my coaching toolbox.
I.Y.R.N.E. (If You Remember Nothing Else)
- Pickup hops enhance dynamic posture. From the small bones of the feet to the top of the head, each body region learns to respond to the load-unload dynamics that occur at speed.
- Pickup hops are preparation. Preparation-to-train exercises such as these serve as a bridge between slower mobility-stability work and resiliency-endurance work. As such, they create a state of “readiness” that the athlete takes into training as a performance-prevention enhancement.
- Pickup hops have limited adaptability. Like the “A” drill of Mach’s system, pickup hops are designed for stationary and slowly advancing formats. Some adaptation of range, pathway, and light overload will evolve with competency, but most adaptations change the nature of the exercise. As such, we can use the neuromuscular skills that develop to feed other running and jumping selections.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
- Bogdanis, G.C., Tsoukos, A., Kaloheri, O., Terzis, G., Veligekas, P., and Brown, L.E. “Comparison Between Unilateral and Bilateral Plyometrics Training on Single- and Double-Leg Jumping Performance and Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2019;33(3):633-640.
- Brauner, T., Sterzing, T., Wulf, M. and Horstmann, T. “Leg Stiffness: Comparison Between Unilateral and Bilateral Hopping Tasks.” Human Movement Science. 2014;33:263-272.