Plyometrics: The Science Behind the Exercises
Plyometrics can be a powerful way to enhance your current workout program and create gains that you thought were never possible. Perhaps you’ve heard of this term but are unsure of what plyometrics means? If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place.
This article will offer a working definition of plyometrics, explain how plyometrics can benefit your workout program and provide practical examples of exercises that you can include in your strength training and conditioning program.
As part of our exploration, I’ve also included information to help minimize the risk of injury; something that can happen when an athlete tries to do too much, too soon.
Clinical research has been included as a way of scientifically demonstrating the benefits of including “plyos” as part of your training program.
PLYOMETRICS: A PRIMER
Plyometrics are explosive movements designed to increase strength, power and speed.
These types of high intensity exercises cause a stretch reflex and elastic recoil in the muscles that encourage vigorous contraction, creating a force that overloads the Type I and Type II fibers, thereby stimulating strength and power.
Related: Muscular strength vs. power
WHO INVENTED PLYOMETRICS
In truth, plyometric type movements and exercises have been with us for centuries. The term itself was coined by U.S. Olympic Long Distance Runner Fred Wilt, who readily admits it’s not the best name for these types of movements.
According to the literature, he came up with the name after watching the Russians warm up in preparation for competition back in the 1980’s.
In his observations, he noticed that the Americans were preparing for events using static stretching while the Russians were using “jump type” movements.
Wilt hypothesized that one of the reasons the Russians performed better in competition directly related to how they were warming up.
There certainly were others who contributed to the plyometric phenomenon, including Yuri Verkhoshansky, who is considered the “Father of Plyometrics” and Michael Yessis, a sports performance trainer and biomechanist.
PLYOMETRICS AND BODY BUILDING
People involved with body building are usually interested in including plyometrics as part of their workout routine because they’ve heard that adding explosive movements can help increase gains.
The research data certainly backs this up. One study, conducted by the University of Pittsburg Medical Center, recorded major increases in both strength and power for athletes concerned with upper body size.
And the gains aren’t restricted to just chest and shoulder areas. Use of plyometrics as part of a comprehensive approach to body building has shown gains for the lower extremities, particularly thighs, hamstrings and calves.
HOW PLYOMETRICS WORK
Plyometrics work off the basic principle of sports physiology that a motor unit is trained in proportion to its recruitment. In plain speak, this means a person can improve his capacity for powerful movements only if the motor units are trained during the activity.
And so as the thinking goes, if you want to improve your power, you need to overload your muscles at high speeds. We know from years of research that the principle of muscle overload is what sparks growth.
Related: What is progressive overload
Generally speaking, lifting weights as part of body building involves the use of different muscles at the same time. For example, arm curls are exercises designed to grow the biceps.
But the truth is when you execute a rep, let’s say with a 30lb dumbbell, you’re also pulling in a number of different muscle groups.
That’s where plyometrics come into the equation. That’s because the plyometric construct recognizes that you’re not just using your biceps when you curl but also (to a lesser degree), your brachial muscles, trapezius and deltoids are employed.
Most weight training exercises focus on overloading muscles using compound movements. And while these types of exercises can certainly help to build a targeted muscle area, they don’t do a lot to train muscles to work in tandem.
And so you can have someone with really huge biceps but that doesn’t mean he’s got a lot of upper body strength. For that to happen, muscle equality, consisting of strength and power, must be in place.
PLYOMETRIC EXERCISES AND INJURY RISKS
As with anything involving fitness training, it’s important to remember that any physical activity designed to increase muscle mass carries with it the potential for injury.
When doing plyometric and speed exercises, you will want to start out gradually and progress slowly. If you experience pain or if it persists after the exercises, modify what you are doing and include fewer sets and repetitions.
Bear in mind that there are various forms of plyometric exercises that range in motion from simple jumps (like jumping in place) to full on thrusts, like “parachutes”.
And it goes without saying that prior to engaging in any type of training program, it’s important to gain medical clearance from your doctor.
Always maintain control of your spine during plyometric and speed exercises. The goal should be to direct the strength of energy through the length of the spine rather than across it.
PLYOMETRIC EXERCISES AND CLOTHING
Generally speaking, the type of clothing you’ll wear when doing plyometric exercises is similar to what you’d normally put on when you head to the gym.
Think light fitting shirts, shorts and sweats that allow for ventilation and movement. Since this is a guy’s website, I also want to encourage you to wear underwear that gives your waist and thighs the ability to move without a bunch of friction.
Always maintain control of your spine during plyometric and speed exercises.
Adidas makes a great sports performance climate brief that is suitable for indoor or outdoor plyometrics and meets the criteria mentioned above.
PLYOMETRIC EXERCISES AND FOOTWEAR
There’s no easy way to say this except to just come out with it. Your shoes are going to matter a lot when you do plyometric exercises.
That’s because when you do plyos, you are releasing a tremendous amount of kinetic energy from your body, which usually channels through the legs and is absorbed in the foot. A regular pair of sneakers just won’t cut it.
I highly recommend a well cushioned cross-trainer, such as Nike’s Dual Fusion Running Shoe. Not only does this one help with the absorption mentioned earlier, it also aids in maximizing the “jump” aspect of your plyos so that you can reach new heights.
It’s all related when you think about it – right?
KEEP IN MIND
Before moving on to example exercises, it is critical to keep the following in mind:
- Plyometrics stress quality over quantity
- You should perform movements as quickly as possible: i.e., land and jump immediately
- You need to build strength and fitness before attempting plyometrics
- Always maintain control of the spine during plyometrics
- Don’t do advanced exercises (one-leg and box jumps) until you have mastered easier ones (two leg exercises from the ground).
- Don’t do plyometrics more than 2 to 3 days per week.
- Modify or stop program if you get injured.
The exercises below are just examples. There is no way I could list all of the different types of plyos you can do on one page. At the end of this post, I’ve offered additional resources for you to consider.
TUCK SQUAT JUMPS
Tuck jumps are great for building strength and power in the legs. Excellent for explosive power.
How To Do Tuck Squat Jumps
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart; bend knees slightly.
- Jump up and drive arms upward. Tuck knees at the top of the jump.
- As you land, extend legs and retract arms and prepare to jump again.
- Do 5-10 repetitions, taking as little time as possible between jumps.
ONE LEG SQUAT JUMPS
If you want to focus on building leg power to augment some of your weight training exercises for the lower body, consider one leg squat jumps.
How To One Leg Squat Jumps
- Stand on one leg and bend your knee slightly.
- Jump up and drive your arms upward.
- As you land retract your arms and immediately jump again.
- Do 5-10 repetitions, taking as little time as possible between jumps.
What’s great about lunge jumps are their ability to increase muscle size and power. Warning, these are a lot harder than they look.
How To Do Lunge Jumps
- From a standing position, jump up, then land in a split position with your right leg bent and your left leg extended in back of you.
- After landing, immediately jump up, and again land in a split position with your legs reversed.
- During this exercise, try to keep your body straight and jump up as high as possible.
If you are like most guys, you want to grow your calves. One great way to do this is to include calf jumps in your leg routine.
How To Do Calf Jumps
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart and hands on hips.
- Bend knees slightly.
- Using mainly calf muscles, jump rapidly in place for 10 repetitions.
One of the very best plyometric exercises you can do is rope jumping. In addition to helping workout your core, you’re also building strength and power through cardio endurance.
The most effective types of ropes you can buy are the leather ones with wooden handles and have ball bearing swivels. Almost all sporting goods stores sell these or you can get something online. Dig Health has an excellent rope that many MMA Fighters use.
How To Do Rope Skipping
Jump roping is fairly self-explanatory. You can do these at the gym, in your garage or even in your living room (space provided).
- Hold the handle in each hand with the rope behind you.
- Swing the rope over your head and jump over it when it reaches your feet.
- Continue swinging the rope and jumping over it.
- Speed your jumps as you continue to improve.
- Begin with 10 segments of 15 seconds each and progress to 5 to 20 segments of 1 to 3 minutes each.
As the name implies, box jumping involves jumping from boxes, benches or steps. They are great for building lower body power and strength.
Use caution with box jumps because they can cause injury if you jump from too high. Also, if you have back problems, be mindful of your spine. See this post on effective back exercises.
How To Do Box Jumps
- Stand on a box or bench with feet at shoulder width, knees bend, and spine erect.
- Step off the bench and land with bend knees.
- Upon landing, immediately jump up using both legs and arms.
Hopefully, you are already including pushups as a mainstay of your fitness routine. One of the best upper body exercises you can do to encourage muscular growth – plus power – are plyometric pushups.
A great one to start with is the Bounce Pushup.
How To Do The Bounce Pushup
- From a standard or modified push-up position, push up forcefully, extending your elbows fully until your hands leave the ground.
- Bounce back to your hands; then repeat the exercise.
- Clap after you push-up as fitness improves
PLYOMETRICS: OTHER THOUGHTS
Remember that any exercise involving speed and power means intensity will likely be high.
That’s why you will want to do your plyos gradually, building endurance and momentum over the course of time.
Depending upon your level of fitness, you may be able to include plyometrics in your exercise routine several days a week and not feel exhausted.
If you are new to plyos, it is very possible you’ll find doing the exercises stressful. This is normal. Like anything else in life, there’s a learning curve involved. In the case of plyos, that curve is both physiological and mental.
PLYOMETRIC EXERCISE RESOURCES
If you are looking for a really good book to teach you more about plyometric exercises, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Dr. Donald Chu’s, Jumping Into Plyometrics.
Inside, you’ll find page after page of information with 100 exercises specifically designed to build strength and power. This one is especially good for off season workouts that you might want to add to your routine.
Because the world of body building and sports often swirls in an environment of myths, I thought it might be fun to list some of the major whoppers associated with plyos.
- Plyometrics are for men only
- Plyometrics rob you of energy
- Plyometrics can’t be integrated into body building
- Only football players use plyometrics
- Plyometrics is for high schoolers
- Plyometrics aren’t for people over 40
The last part of this post deals with your real world use of plyometrics. Feel free to choose which best describes your current relationship with plyos.