By Joel Smith
Plyometrics are only truly useful if there is a specific intent behind them. They aren’t a magic pill. They must provide an overload in at least one of the following areas to provide a real athletic benefit:
- Muscle recruitment
- Speed of recruitment
- Muscle coordination
- Ground reaction force
Doing plyometrics for the sake of their fancy name or promised benefits won’t lead you down the path to athletic excellence.
There is an inherent joy in leaving the pull of the earth’s gravity. In reading through Joe Navarro’s The Power of Body Language, it became clear to me that acting against gravity is a bodily sign of pure joy. What is in the mind is in the body. Jumping is a universal sign of happiness and excitement.
Jump training has been a huge part of my life, and they joy of getting just a little farther off the ground than the last week, month, or year has been a driver in my search for training methods and philosophies surrounding this human movement.
For this article (series), I am whittling much of those ideas down into three primary forms of effective plyometric exercise to help usher one’s jumping ability to its fullest potential. We’ll start with the usual method informed coaches and athletes turn to for building vertical jump ability (if they are physically ready for it), shock plyometrics, and then get into two less considered, yet vital, training ideals for building more vertical and reactive power, variable and “pliosoidal” jump training, and also that of contrast/cluster work.Jumping is a universal sign of happiness and excitement. Click To Tweet
I wrote his article with the track and field coach and athlete in mind, but the following workouts can apply to any athlete interested in jumping higher and becoming more explosive. These methods are also covered and arranged in detail in my latest book Vertical Ignition.
High Powered Shock Plyometrics
If you want to jump high, then you need to train the jump pathway at a more intense level than you ever have before.
The number one priority of jump training is for the athlete to learn to produce more force in less time, and put that force in the right place. Nothing is better suited to this task than a proper selection of intense sprints and plyometric exercises. Since sprinting is another topic, we’ll just stick to plyometrics for the sake of this article.
Before plyometrics were given their “American” name, they had a far more fearsome and intimidating label: “shock training”. I doubt the term “plyometric” was being thrown around shortly after the Soviets tricked the Americans by telling them that an 8-9 foot box was the optimal height in which to drop from in the depth jump exercise.
Shock training was (and still is) a series of landing and jumping exercises based on the depth jump. Jumping itself is a volatile, violent event, where an athlete must handle multiple times their bodyweight in an instant. Jumping, like sprinting is a hindbrain activity, where reflex action is key.
Plyometrics designed to overload the jumping process should, therefore, yield even greater forces, or rates of loading than jumping, and do so in a precision manner that allows force to be properly channeled for the ultimate leap. As far as improving vertical jump is concerned, plyometrics that teach athletes to utilize maximal forces in the vertical and horizontal vectors reflexively are paramount.
Granted, not everyone can just set out and start banging out depth jumps from a 48” box, or performing a standing triple jump from a 24” elevated start position. Shock plyometrics are best used once an athlete has reached physical maturity, has good training experience, and more importantly, good proficiency, in lower level plyometric takeoffs and landings. As I see it, there are two basic types of shock plyometrics that can be used in the training of track and field jumpers, and other aspiring vertical jump athletes:
- Depth jumping and related activities
- Triple jump family bounding
Depth Jump Family
When it comes to jumping higher, coaches and athletes should have a close relationship with the depth jump. 2.40m high jumper Rudolf Povarnitsyn did.
Regarding the basic depth jump, the exercise is easily modulated towards the ability level of the athlete. An 18” depth jump is as different from a 48” depth jump as a 135lb squat is from a 405lb squat, and you don’t hear many in-the-trenches strength coaches going around telling half of their athletes to avoid barbell squatting.
The use of low boxes in depth jumping is one of the best ways to teach younger athletes, who are ready to train more seriously (late middle school, early high school), landing mechanics in a “single response” format. On the level of higher boxes, depth jumps are directly scalable to the landing and reactive ability of the athlete as they progress through their athletic career.
Learning to perform a depth jump in a single response format is the base work for many other plyometric exercises. As legendary strength coaches, such as Dan John, have said: learn the proper position first, then do it in volume, and finally, start increasing the load. Low intensity, repetitive plyometrics are a useful tool for younger and less experienced athletes, but if the first rep isn’t correct, the middle and last ones generally won’t be either. Starting with the single response is the ground work for success of multiple repetitions.
Depth Jump Family: Single Leg Versions
An advanced version of the depth jump that is particularly useful for all athletes, and not just the track and field variety, is the single leg depth jump. Interestingly enough, the single leg depth jump has much more in common with the two leg jump than it does a single leg takeoff. Why? Contact time.
Single leg depth jumps tend to yield a relatively long contact time compared to its two leg counterparts (although this time can be lowered considerably when rebounding over a hurdle). Since this is the case, the single leg depth jump is more closely related to the “explode” quality of a vertical jump than the driving, “reactive” quality of single leg leaping. Think of it as a GPP exercise for single leg jumps, and an SPP exercise for double leg jumping.
Again, with this in mind, I’ll almost always use a hurdle, or a series of hurdles if I am implementing this type of work. Otherwise, the ground contacts can be a little too long to be usable. Below is a sample of a single leg depth jump over an (importantly) collapsible hurdle. For even better results, perform this exercise in a series over lower hurdles where posture can be easily maintained, and contact time kept in check.
Depth Jump Family: Hurdle Hops
Where depth jumps are of a more powerful, single dose, nature, hurdle hops are a rhythmic, vibration like counterpart. In the landmark book “Running”, by Frans Bosch and Ronald Klomp, sprinting is noted to be a cyclic activity, with each stride closely linked to the last via reflex action. It is for this reason that high and long jumpers will often increase the cadence of their last few strides leading into takeoff because a faster frequency will allow a faster reflex of the takeoff mechanism itself (from the inverse-extension reflex). Each step on the approach is related to the step before it, and therefore, the plant step is related to the penultimate, and each step prior. Nobody jumps too high or far off one leg with long, loping strides all the way until the plant. Good jumpers will instinctively escalate the cadence of their pre-takeoff strides to yield a better reflex connection into the takeoff step. In this manner, each hurdle hop is related to the one before it.
Although hurdle hops are a bilateral activity, they are still cyclic in nature and based on reflexive mechanisms that bind each jump together. Because of this nature, along with the fact that the presence of a hurdle leads to quicker contact times, the hurdle hop is an invaluable counterpart to the depth jump in the world of shock plyometrics.
Also, because hurdle hops are an easier exercise to perform in a higher number of repetitions, they are an excellent tool for solidifying, and building on the mechanics learned through single response depth jumps. These can be done off one, or two legs, and I strongly recommend collapsible hurdles in either scenario! Hurdle hops can be spaced according to the goal of the day, or simply for variety’s sake. Farther apart hurdles will yield shorter touchdown times, and a premium on maintaining momentum. Closer hurdles will have a more powerful effect on the knee extensors muscles.
One of my personal favorite developmental plyometrics for the high jump event specifically is the double hurdle + big hurdle jump. In this exercise, two hurdles set the cyclic rhythm of the jump, and the last jump is over a max height hurdle. It’s a nice exercise for mimicking the quicker steps that tend to precede the powerful takeoff stride, along with a nice induction of variety into the training montage. You can see this exercise below in one of my “classic” (extremely poor quality and editing) YouTube videos.
Triple Jump Family
The next style of shock plyometrics goes into the “triple jump family”. Where depth jumps and hurdle hops develop the ability of an athlete to store and release energy in the vertical plane, bounding variations overload the sweep-like planting mechanism in the horizontal plane. There are plenty of ways to perform bounding for the sake of a better vertical jump, not to mention improved acceleration and sprint abilities. Here are a few bullet points on my thoughts regarding the art of bounding for improved jump power.
- A combination of bounding styles is best. Even if athletes aren’t triple jumpers, they will still benefit greatly from learning single leg, and left-left, right-right styles of bounding, as these work different portions of the stumble and inverse-extension reflexes seen in sprint gait.
- The single leg, and left-left, right-right style bound in particular trains an athlete to reduce excessive backside mechanics in the sprint gait cycle, the nature of the bound forcing a quicker transition back into a forward rotation of the swing thigh after the foot leaves the ground in push-off.
- Bounding should be addressed from both the shorter, multi-jump arena (such as standing triple jump), as well as the longer bounding means (various combinations over a distance of 20-40m). Short bounds develop power, and longer bounds build elasticity and jump reflex action, as well as some general jump capacity. The means of bounding that has the highest transfer to almost all track jumping events (as referenced in “Transfer of Training”) is a 10-fold bound from a standing start, which is a bit in the middle of short and long bounding sequences.
- Perform bounds from both a standing start, as well as a run-in. Record best distances for both styles.
- Don’t be afraid to end a shorter bounding session with a single “endurance” set, of 40-60+ meters. This works similarly to the way that a single high-rep drop set works in a strength training session. It is also useful practice for heavier jumpers with more muscle mass, as “endurance” work can assist in the rapid relaxation qualities of their muscle fibers.
The categories of bounding that I’ll generally use are that of:
- Short multi-jumps (3-5 jumps from a standing or running start).
- Longer bounds of 20-40m, which are nearly always done in the form of a “complex” where different types of bounds are performed in a circuit.
For multi-jumps, there is usually only one type of jump trained each day, and it is measured and recorded. A different approach is taken during the longer bounds. Since when doing a series of bounding of a moderate distance, muscle coordination is a premium adaptation, rather than raw power and recruitment, it also makes sense to include a variety of types of efforts. On training days where you are following up some specific jump efforts with plyometrics, I prefer the majority chunk of those auxiliary plyometrics to be more of the muscle-coordination variety, rather than all single effort bursts.
Bottom line, use short multi-jumps as a source of long-term measured improvement and use longer bounds in variety to build elasticity, muscle coordination, and some specific jump capacity.
Putting it all together
I often use a shock plyometric workout as a stand alone, or in partial volume to finish off an event specific practice on a high CNS training day. This type of workout is one that requires the athlete to be fairly fresh coming in, either off a day of rest, or a potentiation based day of resistance training and coordination based elastic work.
Most of my articles are a bit short on things like exact exercises, sets and reps, but in this one, I’ll give you a snapshot of some sample training constructs. The following are linear versions of my favorite combinations of high-powered shock training:
Vertical Vector Power Emphasis
- Double leg depth jump to a target (3-5 sets x 2-5 reps)
- Single leg depth jumps over a hurdle (2-5 sets x 2-4 reps)
- Hurdle Hops (2-3 sets x 4-8 reps)
- Bounding Combinations (100-250m)
- Shot Throws (5-20 reps)
In this workout, the quality and breadth of the depth jumping will determine how many repetitions of the lower level, coordination based plyometrics are performed, such as the hurdle hops, and bounding combinations. The shot throws have more of an explosive, high-velocity reset nature to them, but their reps are also variable.
To steer this type of workout towards a raw force nature, the double and single leg depth jumps can be performed in a “drop-off” format, where the exercise is stopped as soon as an athletes maximal rebound jump starts to go down.
Vertical Vector Power-Speed Emphasis
- Double leg drop jump over hurdle, or to another box (3-5 sets x 4-8 reps)
- Double leg depth jump over a hurdle (3-5 sets x 3-6 reps)
- Hurdle hops with generous spacing (2-4 sets x 3-6 reps)
- Bounding combinations (200-400m)
- Shot throws (5-20 reps)
Horizontal Vector Emphasis
- Multi-jumps from a run-in, e.g. 5 bounds from a 5 stride run-in (x 4-8 reps)
- Hurdle hops with generous spacing, 5-7’ apart (3-4 x 4-6 reps)
- Depth Jumps, shorter box, shorter rest (3-6 sets x 4-8 reps)
- Shot Throws (5-20 reps)
Combined Emphasis Sample I
- Double Leg Depth Jump over 2 hurdles (4-10 sets x 1 reps)
- Standing Triple Jump (x3-5)
- Hurdle Hops (2-3 sets x 4-8 reps)
- Bounding Combinations (100-300m)
- Shot Throws (5-20 reps)
The depth jump and triple jump exercises, and their various offspring allow for a myriad of high-powered possibilities in the world of athletic development. Each exercise on its own is never the magic 8-ball of results, but putting powerful exercises together into complexes begins to sow the seeds of one’s highest level of athletic jump performance.
The next “workout” in this series will be that of plyometric (and human) variability. Stay tuned.