Polish boxes are only a small part of a training program, but if you are interested in every necessary detail, they do make a difference over a career. At first, I thought they were just more of a legend than a valuable tool, but over the years, I have seen a lot of less-talented athletes grow because they were able to train their muscles below the knee better than before. Athlete stiffness, or the rapid ability to transmit energy, means everything in sport.Over the years, I have seen a lot of less-talented athletes grow because Polish boxes allowed them to train their muscles below the knee better than before, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In this blog post, I share my own personal journey and explain why coaches need to consider specific training below the knee more. Whether you just want a few drills to add variety or are dedicated to transforming an existing program into a well-oiled machine, this article explores a relatively unknown training method and justifies the inclusion of a set of Polish boxes in your training arsenal.
What Are Polish Boxes?
It’s perfectly normal to ask what Polish boxes are, since most coaches equate plyometrics to Russian, or perhaps German, origins. When we think of innovation in training, Poland is unfairly misrepresented, as they have done so much for the sport of athletics and weightlifting. Polish boxes are not really a true Polish invention, in my opinion, but since Coach Piasenta so christened them, it’s only fair to allow the name to stick.
Polish boxes are curved or slanted platforms on which you do jumping and other training exercises, and they don’t have any set dimensions or designs that I know of. They are not ramps, jump enchantment, or springboards for athletes. Polish boxes are for in-place jumping and strength training, not for horizontal or vertical jump launch drills or exercises. I first found out about them in the very late 1990s and then made a conscious effort to discover more about them after PJ Vazel mentioned them when talking about “French training methods” in the early 2000s. So far, not much is written or known about them, and that is disappointing.
Video 1. The simplest and most basic exercise is quick jumps back and forth on a slanted box. Similar to the low box training of Lee Taft, this is a great way to take those that have a poor background in general training to the next level.
Basically, the Polish box is a way to challenge the Achilles and knee joint, and it is a moderate-intensity exercise option. The movements are not super demanding, but because of the box’s shape and contour, it loads the joints differently than flat surfaces. True, you can do a lot of different exercises with them, but just because a training device is versatile does not mean it’s valuable. I think it’s safe to say that Polish box training is great for challenging the athlete to be stiffer in uncommon patterns, but it’s not a panacea or magical solution. Athletes benefit from using the equipment; however, they certainly don’t need it to become elite.
Lee Taft and I wrote some compelling arguments for abandoning the addiction to box jumps and suggested low boxes for more stiffness. While a depth jump from a high box is generally a good option for developing elastic capacity, it’s not for everyone at all times. A combination of depth jumps, hurdle jumps, and various low box exercises is a great way to build athleticism. Putting all your eggs in one basket is, of course, a bad idea, but committing to specific exercises does make sense as long as the returns are high.
The Science of Stiffness and Alternative Plyometrics
There is scant scientific support for plyometrics that are not the common patterns of jumping. In fact, take a look at bounding and see if you can find something solid. I have, and the research for less-common exercises such as split jumps is in the single digits. Then add in boxes that are not for depth or drop jumps, and you will be lost for guidance scientifically.
The good news is that there is some research on slant boards and other equipment that enables us to extrapolate and speculate on what is possible. I have looked at Sean Maloney’s research and writings for hints and clues. If you are hoping for a cut-and-dry answer to what science tells us regarding stiffness and alternative exercises on foreign angles or curves, you will be disappointed.
Stiffness is when the body is able to resist deformation and utilize elastic energy. To simplify the process, let’s come up with a primitive model of what is happening at the ankle with the Achilles and other anatomical attachment sites. Some joints, such the hip, knee, and ankle, work differently and have moments of advantage and disadvantage during sporting movements. Generally, stiffness training is high force and high speed, but provided the activity resists gravity and exploits elastic energy, those prerequisites are not exactly perfect.
Coaches have many options for working on stiffness for sport, but most use a combination of sprinting and rebound jumping and hopping. Bounding is great if you are athletic and have a structure that can use elastic qualities of the body, but most athletes benefit from double leg jumping. Graduating to single leg hopping greatly changes the dynamics of the training, as the lateral support needed increases if the landings are not under the center of mass. Nearly all jumping actions, including bounds, have landings close to the athlete’s center line. When athletes start striking the ground further away from their drop center position, the recruitment of muscles changes, and this can be either a positive training adaptation or a risk mechanism, depending on technique and loading strategy.
For those who want a working concept of what we try to achieve with any type of odd surface, be it incline, wedge, slant, or curve, the goal is to overload the lower limbs with an offset stress. In theory, manipulating the foot landing slightly will increase the neuromuscular response to the area and create adaptations favorable to performance when the body is expressing movement in sport. So far, we have a few studies on long jump training with incline boards and a few plyometric exercise studies, but not much on a true Polish box.Based on limited research, it seems that adding a variation to the plane of support has the potential to improve athletic performance in jumping tasks, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Based on most of the conclusions, it seems that adding a variation to the plane of support has the potential to improve athlete performance in jumping tasks. For me, augmenting the landing slightly is an opportunity, but we need to be careful as, historically, anything that loads the Achilles artificially is problematic. I wish I had more to share scientifically, but it’s going to be up to coaches to push us forward, and I hope more researchers can help us out.
The Key Exercises for Curved, Square, and Slant Box Training
Due to the fact there are no specifications on what a Polish box is, I hesitate to prescribe anything with so much detail that it makes those in a different environment unable to benefit from the information. Again, the point of this article is to introduce other means of jumping besides the common hurdle jumps and hopping on a flat surface. I recommend that athletes have a rich background in fundamental or foundational jumping and movement before adding Polish boxes.Athletes should have a rich background in fundamental or foundational jumping and movement before adding Polish boxes, recommends @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Without being too repetitive, most of the following exercises are designed to improve lower limb stiffness, but I include two of them because they are excellent for developing power and specific strength. It is also recommended that you have some eccentric strength developed in the ankle for protective purposes, as going hard into this type of training could be a little problematic with the Achilles in older athletes. I have yet to experience any complications or even reported discomfort after training with the equipment.
Split Bounce Jumps
Video 2. Split Bounces are very low-grade, so don’t expect any increases in power. Split jumps are great for young athletes needing exposure to bounce exercises that have coordination qualities.
Lunge-style split jumps are great for building stiffness if performed with a bounce. The reception needs to be quick and the switch of the legs fast as well. Most of the load will indeed be in the front support leg, but don’t be lazy on the rear leg.
The key to split jumps is the ability to do them well in place with a flat surface, then make just enough adjustments to the boxes to maintain the rhythm. Although they are two different exercises due to the changes in foot strike, the goal is to bounce in place, not be a power exercise and emphasize driving up. You can do the exercise for reps, but I prefer timed periods of 10–30 seconds, depending on the fitness and skill of the athlete.
Video 3. Basketball coaches and those working with athletes in other change of direction sports will love lateral hops. You can externally and internally rotate the foot to add a diagonal component if you want to add even more demand on the athlete.
Single leg pogos are great for return to play, injury reduction, and resilience, and perhaps performance, depending on the development of the athlete. I love them. What makes the movement special is the fact you can do them to help build overall foot strength and specific lateral foot strength, not just to overload the Achilles.
Lateral hops are purposely done instead of jumps because two legs can’t share the same landing position unless they are low box drills, similar to Lee Taft’s work. You can do anterior-posterior hops or even diagonal hops, but the goal is to emphasize the wedging of the box to enhance the foot eversion strength capabilities of the exercise. Short but sweet sets of 6–8 reps are perfect programming volumes, and advanced athletes can go higher provided they are durable and skilled.
Steeple Step Jumps
Video 4. I prefer this strength exercise to bounce step-ups as it encourages strength and can be used to help teach other exercises. You can use the rounded convex box if you wish.
The only exercise where the primary goal is arguably not stiffness is the steeple step jump. While the front leg acts like a ballistic single leg step-up, the rear leg does have a landing component that needs to be active to get the full benefit of the exercise. You can do steeple jumps with both concave and convex boxes, but I prefer rounded bump-style foot positions because they are easier to adopt and might have a better training effect.
Similar to split bounce jumps, this exercise differentiates as it’s more about vertical pushing than switching. You can elect to alternate legs or stay with one leg at a time. I prefer to start with the same leg straight sets for a while before alternatives. Sets of 6–10 reps are common, but lower and higher ranges are fine if you have a good plan.
Video 5. The goal of this exercise is to help speed up the horizontal motion side to side, and that means a low-middle jump to speed up the transitions. The cure really challenges the foot without creating too much instability.
The goal of slaloms is to bounce side-to-side rather than use too much concentric neuromuscular power. You can use various strategies and modifications to help sustain momentum without it becoming a power endurance activity. In order to do this drill effectively, you need to be strong and do the exercises fresh. I find that 30–60 total contacts are more than enough to build smart stiffness, a quality that allows athletes to slow down, similar to the penultimate step of change of direction drills. Be careful on the knees, as plyometrics that are slalom-style tend to be a little more stressful to the lateral aspects of the joint.
Russian Box Bounds
Video 6. The Gopher Performance Russian Box is the best on the market, period. The large surface enables athletes to focus on maximal effort rather than worry about landing, thus increasing output side to side.
Yes, I understand the irony of using Polish boxes to do a “Russian” exercise, but lateral bounding is gold. Specific lateral box products, such as this system from Gopher Performance, are great for athletes of all levels. While stiffness won’t develop much from the exercise, it’s necessary to include it since the training effect is so valuable to athletes beyond ice hockey. Similar to Heidens, the lateral Russian box bounds drill offers such great general deceleration strength that I wish I’d included it earlier in another article. I find that three sets of 10–16 reps (5–8 per leg) work well, but I am sure other schemes are successful with athletes.
Of course, dozens of other exercises are possible, and I have seen skipping patterns and other types of movements on social media. Unfortunately, most of the exercises I see are just fluff or filler-type workouts that seem to be busy work rather than purposeful training. While the workouts above are not foolproof or prescriptive, they do represent a sensible approach to improving performance with specific attributes in mind. I highly recommend experimenting and seeing what you find, ideally observing a cause and effect with performance tests later in your programming.
Testing and Monitoring the Exercises
What is a bit unknown is how to evaluate the effectiveness of a very narrow training modality. Since the exercises are not primary stimuli, you will not see much change show up on a force plate or timing gate. I do think you can observe changes in ankle strength with common sports medicine tests, but the majority of results are not easily seen. Even the RSI (reactive strength index) and other measures may not extract the changes due to the foot strike and impulse being only vertical, but historically, we have seen some athletes improve their RSI from the inclusion of drills and exercises. Manual strength tests and postural sway analysis seen with chronic ankle instability are good ways to demonstrate that the training is helping an athlete improve somewhere. There needs to be research on how all of the training works in performance testing so we can prescribe with precision instead of shotgun guessing.
Testing Polish boxes is a challenge since the curved surfaces make force plates and contact grids nearly impossible to embed. We use video, EMG, and outcome tests for now, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Change of direction is where we look for more clues to foot function, but due to the prolonged contact times of common lateral tests, I don’t expect much from heavy eccentric demand motions. The shifty and elusive patterns often seen in games of tag are example motions in sports that seem receptive to stiffness training. My other experience with some basketball athletes is that ankle health is far better with those who employ this style of jump work, including return to play scenarios with soccer. Most of the challenge of testing Polish boxes is that the curved surfaces make force plates and contact grids nearly impossible to embed. Video, electromyography, and outcome tests are our only guide for now.
Visually, the muscles below the knee seem to be the best indicators of development. It’s subtle, so don’t expect an athlete to morph into an alien, but over time, stiffness work will show up to the naked eye. This change takes a season, at least, as sprinkling a few sessions here and there will not make a dent. Most of the changes will show up laterally and posteriorly to the shank, and it doesn’t take an anatomist to be convinced that the muscles are indeed stronger. It’s going to take a long time for us to monitor progress, but sometimes the simple visual of structural development is enough.
Should You Buy or Build?
Now comes the big question if you are convinced that slant and curve stiffness jumping is for you. Do you build your own boxes, or do you buy the equipment? Well, unlike other simple boxes and tools, building a Polish box isn’t a good idea for most coaches, even those who believe they are carpenters.
I recommend the boxes from Las Vegas (Coach Steele) or having someone professional build them. Trying to save money is a reasonable idea, but if you are penny wise but pound foolish, you will get frustrated, as the amount of time spent and quality of the boxes will force you to do it right the second time around. Since the box is designed to last, think about the cost per year over a decade rather than the upfront cost.
Add Polish Boxes to Your Arsenal
My fascination with Polish boxes began years ago, and now I am finally able to use them with athletes. If you are a coach and want to take training to the next level, I recommend buying a pair of them and adding small doses of stiffness work with your athletes.Polish boxes won’t transform slowpokes into speedsters, but they will build enough stiffness in fresh movements to encourage and foster athleticism, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Polish boxes will not transform slowpokes into speedsters, nor will they take the gravity-bound and turn them into jumping freaks. What Polish boxes do is build enough stiffness in fresh movements that they encourage and foster athleticism. You can do more than split jumps with Polish boxes: They are a versatile tool that enables an enriching environment to train in. Adding them is worth every effort you may make to procure them.
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