Plyometrics? What is it and why should you care?
Plyometrics is a training method that produced a lot of buzz in the 1960s and is still being used – and widely misused – today. Its benefits in athletic and physical fitness are still being debated, as well as its risks. Plyometric elements appear in many training programs today, so it’s worth taking a closer look at this often misunderstood concept.
Its creator is the late Russian sport scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky. Professor Verkhoshansky was a track coach who specialized in the jumping events. During the winter when the harsh weather forced his athletes to train indoors, he experimented with ways to duplicate the stress on the body during jumping takeoffs, which he estimated could reach up to 660 pounds, or nearly 300 kilos.
When Verkhoshansky tried to duplicate the stress on the lower body with partial squats, the movement created excessive stress on the spine. His solution was to jump off boxes, a method he called plyometrics, and his first work on this revolutionary training method was published in 1964. Many successes followed, and several of his athletes achieved the prestigious level of “Master of Sport.”
German coaches of the time recognized the value of plyometrics and assembled teams of linguists and scientists to analyze Verkhoshansky’s work. In the United States, translations of this work on plyometrics are full of footlong sentences such as this: “Indispensable conditions of training organization which provide extensive and relatively prolonged disturbance of homeostasis, are the precise dosage of loading, as well as.…” No wonder today’s coaches and athletes are still asking “Whazzat?” when it comes to plyometrics.
In simple language, here are eight facts about plyometrics you can use to your advantage:
1. Jumps and squats are not plyometrics. According to the late Dr. Mel Siff, a colleague of Verkhoshansky, plyometrics is “a method of mechanical shock stimulation that forces the muscles to produce as much tension as rapidly as possible. It is characterized by an intense muscular contraction that is preceded by a relaxed state.” Jumping onto a box, skipping rope, squats, and leg presses do not produce enough muscle tension to be considered plyometrics. However, these activities could be considered preparatory exercises.
2. Plyos are a poor conditioning method. Hopefully, you’ve never come across a video produced by actress Tracy Scoggins (she played “Cat” on the Lois and Clark television series) about using plyometrics to increase aerobic conditioning. Bad idea! Due to the high stress level of plyometrics, performing a sufficient number of repetitions of plyometric exercises to stimulate the cardiovascular system would subject you to a high risk of injury.
3. A monster squat is not necessary to perform plyometrics. One recommendation (falsely attributed to Verkhoshansky) was that athletes should be able to squat 1-1/2 times their body weight before performing plyometrics. First, many athletes may never reach such a level of leg strength, and in fact Verkhoshansky said it would be unwise for athletes to wait until they reach this level of squatting ability due to the considerable time and practice it takes to perfect these exercises. As Siff explained, you can perform components of plyometric exercises to build up to the higher stress encountered in the more intense plyometrics.
4. Plyometric workouts must be brief. Plyometric training strongly stimulates the nervous system, so the quality of work must be high and the volume must be low. (Here’s the science: Verkhoshansky conducted a three-month study of track and field athletes divided into two groups. The first group performed 1,472 low- and medium-level plyometric activities. The other group performed 475 high-level plyometric jumps and produced superior results.) In practical terms, an appropriate workout for a beginner may consist of only 2 sets of 5 plyometric jumps, performed twice per week; for an advanced athlete, perhaps 4 sets of 10 jumps.
5. Plyometrics can include the upper body. You’re probably familiar with the lower body plyometric exercise in which you step off a box with the thighs relaxed and immediately rebound upward upon landing. For an upper body plyometric exercise, you can do Marine Corps push-ups: Push yourself up vigorously, clap your hands, and then immediately perform another repetition.
6. Plyometrics should not be performed on soft surfaces. A soft landing surface interferes with the release of stored energy and diminishes the intensity of the reflex stimulation of the muscles during plyometrics.
7. Weight training enhances plyometric results. Plyometrics work best when combined with strength training. As reported in the Journal of Applied Sports Science Research in 1992, a six-week study revealed the effects of plyometrics and squatting on vertical jump performance. A test group that performed only squats increased their vertical jump by 3.30 centimeters, a group that performed only plyometrics increased their vertical jump by 3.81 centimeters, and a third group that performed both plyometrics and squats increased their vertical jump by 10.67 centimeters, or 4.2 inches. This is proof that a combined protocol of weight training and plyometrics is worth your serious attention.
8. Plyometrics can be supersetted with weight training exercises. If you’ve got room in your brain for one more concept, here’s one you can use to boost your success with plyometrics: post-tetanic potentiation (PTP). All this means is that you can get a more powerful muscular response from a second exercise by preceding it with a strong muscular contraction. PTP is what happens when you lift a heavy box and then immediately lift a lighter box – the second box will feel especially light because the same fast-twitch fibers that were activated when you lifted the heavy box are still activated when you lift the lighter one. From a practical perspective, you can use the PTP effect by supersetting a weight training exercise that activates fast-twitch muscle fibers, such as heavy squats, with plyometrics. The result is a more powerful contraction.
We hope this unlocks some of the mystique around plyometrics for you. For more insight, check out two excellent resources by Verkhoshansky: Supertraining, which he originally co-authored with Dr. Siff, and Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches, which he co-authored with his daughter Natalia.