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Being muscular is cool. Being strong is cool. Being slow, however, isn’t at all cool. Almost everyone knows the stereotype of the slow, lumbering muscle-head from the gym. They might be big and strong, but they’re clumsy, lack grace, and not at all athletic. Luckily, you can make sure this never becomes you by adding a few well-placed plyometric exercises into your routine.
Plyometric exercises are the brainchild of Cold War era Eastern Bloc sports scientists. Looking for ways to make their Olympic (specifically track and field) athletes more explosive, Soviet trainers started experimenting with different styles of training in the 1960s.
Originally written about and published by Yuri Verkhoshansky in 1964, their research led to what they called “jump training”. Simply put, while traditional strength training exercises tended to be slow, done as heavy as possible, and could often lead to an increase in muscular size, plyometric exercises were intended to be done as fast as humanly possible.
By decreasing the time between the eccentric movement, concentric movement, and the turnaround between the two, athletes could then not only produce more force, but produce that force quickly. When this idea was coupled with exercises that moved the body through space (preferably off the ground so as to not impede concentric force produced), it resulted in trainees being able to run faster, jump higher / further, and so on.
Plyometric exercises were initially done with just the lower body in the form of various types of jumps, hops, bounds, and so on. However, various upper body variations were then developed, too. It was then also found that this idea could be used when moving an external object (such as a medicine ball) as long as that object could be let go of.
Just like a jump or hop variation has the body coming off the ground, therefore doesn’t limit concentric force produced in the legs, by throwing a medicine ball, an athlete is able to achieve a similar result, only for upper body muscles. While lower body plyometric exercises were great for jumpers and sprinters, upper body plyometric exercises turned out to be excellent for throwers (shot put, discuss, hammer, etc).
Because plyometric exercises can be so demanding, the general fitness community has taken to adopting them to non-athlete workouts. While this is great because plyometric exercises can benefit almost anyone, you do have to take care to do them properly.
Correctly done plyometric exercises need to be done as quickly, forcefully, and explosively as possible. They’re a very intense exercise, and should be thought of in the same way as very heavy lifting is. In other words, if you’re going for a new 1-5RM attempt, you’re going to take sufficient rest between sets and put as much effort into it as possible. Plyometrics done for max speed and explosiveness should be performed the same way.
It’s not uncommon to see less intense plyometric exercises done in boot camps, cross training classes, and so on. Examples could include box jumps, medicine ball slams, and more. While these might have started out the same movement, they no longer are as they’re done for a completely different purpose.
For instance, any time a submaximal box jump is done for many reps in order to elicit a conditioning effect, it’s no longer being done in the way or for the reason a box jump was originally intended. This doesn’t at all mean that it’s a bad exercise, though. Box jumps done in this fashion can drastically improve cardio and power-endurance. However, don’t expect the same sort of improvements in maximum explosive power.
To be done properly, plyometric exercises should be done for no more than 2-5 sets per exercise, with each set consistent of no more than 5 reps. You’ll also want to rest at least 2-3 minutes between sets so as to ensure minimal CNS fatigue buildup.
The squat jump is one of the most basic plyometric exercises one can do, so therefore should be one of the first added to a routine. All you have to do is simply get into position as if you were going to do a goblet squat with your feet at roughly shoulder-width apart and toes pointing forward.
Drop down into the squatted position (going down to roughly half way is fine), reverse, and squat back up as quickly as you can, jumping into the air. Try to land softly on the balls of your feet to minimize ballistic shock. If you want to add a little bit of arm swing to increase how high you can jump, then feel free.
After landing, stop to reset yourself. If this takes a second or two, that’s okay. When you’re ready, go ahead and perform your next rep. You could almost think of a set as a series of rapidly done singles rather than a set of multiple reps performed non-stop. In fact, you can apply this same performance ideology to virtually all plyometric exercises.
The next step up from normal squat jumps is the box jump. A box jump is exactly what you think it is – having a tall box in front of you that you attempt to jump onto. This can be done from a standing still position or with a step or two “lead up” to the box.
It bears mentioning that just because you’re able to jump onto a very tall box, that may not translate over into having a high vertical jump. This is because the ability to land on top of a tall box requires very flexible hips that allow you to pull your knees high up toward your torso.
Further, you need to have good strength at an extreme range of motion so that once you actually land on the box, you can stand up “out” of the jump to fully land it. In fact, this is the very reason box jumps are so beneficial to many athletes. They not only force you to be as explosive as you can, but to work your flexibility and dynamic mobility all at the same time.
The only real downside to box jumps is that you have to actually have boxes to jump onto in order to do them. Unfortunately, this isn’t a piece of equipment that many commercial and / or chain gyms have. Unless you work out at a facility that uses this equipment for bootcamp classes or your gym is specifically for training athletes, you likely won’t have boxes to jump onto.
However, if you don’t have access to boxes, you can do tuck jumps instead. Tuck jumps are done just like normal squat jumps, only when you come into the air, tuck your knees up to your torso as high as you can, just like you were trying to land on a tall box. Just be sure to return your legs back to near the starting position quickly so that you can try to land softly on the balls of your feet.
Every jump discusses thus far has had you jumping straight into the air. A broad jump (also called a long jump) will have you instead jumping forward. It’s a good change of pace because it teaches your lower body to not only produce force quickly, but be able to direct that force in more than one direction.
If you ever did a standing long jump test in school, then you can broad jump. Designate a starting spot with plenty of room in front of you. Squat down partially as if you were going to do a squat jump, including the arm swing. Only instead of coming straight up, jump forward.
You’ll probably want to play around with your technique a little bit. Jumping with your arms at different spots as they swing, at a different point your squat upward, with your torso at different angles, and so on, can all affect how far forward you’re able to jump. Experiment a little and see what works best for you.
Jumping with both legs at once will obviously generate the most force and explosive power. However, very little in the “real world” is done with both legs at the same time. More often than not, you’ll have only one leg on the ground, even if just because you’re switching legs (e.g. taking a step). As a result, doing plyometreic exercises with one leg can really make a significant difference.
The problem with one-legged versions of plyometric exercises is that they can be kind of awkward and if your lateral stability isn’t the best, you can risk injury. This happens when you land on one foot, but your knee cocks out one direction or the other because you’re not used to this type of activity.
To get a similar style of one-legged force production, you can do lunge jumps. You’ll be jumping with both legs at once for added stability, but because one leg is forward and one back, there’s still only one side doing most of the work (as would happen in the “real world”).
All you have to do is get into lunge position, drop down, then lunge back up, jumping into the air. The movement execution isn’t unlike doing squat jumps, only from a lunged position. To make the exercise more difficult, add a “scissoring” element to the jump. In other words, start with your left leg forward and right leg back. Jump into the air, switch legs, and land with your right leg forward and left leg back. Then reverse.
All of the jumps so far have had your lower body responsible for absorbing whatever force is created by you squatting or lunging down.
However, a depth jump intensifies this by having you step off a box, platform, or the like, landing, and immediately jumping back into the air. There are many different variations, but the main point is the stepping off the ledge. This is important because now you’re increasing the force with which you land and have to absorb. When you’re able to do this, you’re able to reverse more kinetic energy, therefore are able to channel it into your jump.
This is a fairly advanced level jump, and really shouldn’t be messed with until you’ve been doing other plyometric exercises for quite a while. Even then, a good way to start is to eliminate the actual jump aspect. Instead, step off the ledge or box land in the partially squatted position, absorb the force, and hold. After a second, stand back up, climb back onto your ledge, and repeat.
Thus far, all the plyometric exercises discussed have been for the legs. However, you don’t want to neglect the upper body. Just like the squat jump is the simplest and most basic jump you can do, the plyo pushup is the simplest and most basic of upper body plyometric exercises you can do.
To do a plyo pushup, get into the top position of a pushup. Lower yourself part way, reverse, and push yourself back up to full extension as hard and fast as you can. Ideally, you’ll have done so with enough force that your body comes off the ground, much like it does with a jump.
However, what’s much more likely to happen is that only the heel of your hand – maybe your even your palm – will come up off the ground. This is still technically a plyo pushup, but not a full one. What many trainees then do is pull their hands off the ground and up toward their chest. This gives the pushup almost a “depth” aspect to it like a depth jump, making your upper body absorb the force as you land.
While this can be a quite beneficial exercise, it’s not to be underestimated and not a good one for beginners or trainees without a fairly decent level of relative strength (i.e. – how strong you are in relation to how much you weigh). If you’re not careful and don’t return your hands back to the starting position quickly enough, you can quite literally fall flat on your face.
Because of this, you really want to be able to bench press your bodyweight for at least 6-8 reps before trying plyo pushups. This will ensure you have enough base strength to try them while minimizing the risk of an accident.
Some would say that you could start off by doing them from your knees to reduce the resistance if you’re not yet strong enough, but picking the medicine ball chest pass (described below) would be a much better alternative, and would provide less shock on your wrists as well.
Because the plyo pushup isn’t a good fit for all trainees, here’s an alternative that almost anyone can do. It’s different to most plyometric exercises in that instead of your body leaving the ground in some fashion, it’s going to stay (relatively) still and a medicine ball is going to be thrown through the air.
Now to do a medicine ball chest pass, you’re going to need a medicine ball. However, don’t think you need an overly heavy one. Something that weighs no more than 6-8lbs is more than enough. If your medicine ball is too heavy, you won’t be able to put enough force behind it and throw it properly. Then you’ll be suffering the same sort of problem as the trainee with a weak upper body trying to do plyo pushups.
Ideally, you’ll also have a brick wall you can throw the ball into. That way, the ball can bounce back to you if it has a hard rubber coating (think like a weighted basketball). Even if it doesn’t, it can at least drop to the ground, you can retrieve it, then do your next rep. Though if all else fails, you can go to an open field and throw the ball as far as you can. You’ll just have to chase it down after every rep.
To do a medicine ball chest pass, stand a few feet away from your wall. Hold the ball at your chest with your upper arms forming roughly 45 degree angles with your torso (think what the bottom position of a bench press would look like). Extend your arms outward, throwing the ball at the wall as hard as you can as if you were passing a basketball to a teammate.
While the chest pass will heavily tax the chest, shoulder, and triceps, the medicine ball overhead pass will target more of the lats, abdominals, and core. To do the overhead pass, you’ll again need your medicine ball and a brick wall to throw it against. If you don’t have a wall, you can again head to a field if you don’t mind chasing down the ball after every throw.
Again stand a few feet away from the wall with the ball in your hands. Raise your arms overhead and bend at the elbows so the ball lowers to behind your neck. Take a step forward, and curling your trunk as hard as you can, throw the ball forward. If you’ve ever seen a soccer player throw a ball back into play from the sidelines, this is what you’re trying to mimic.
All in all, plyometric exercises are highly beneficial and should be incorporated by pretty much everyone. You don’t have to do all the movements listed here, but a couple jumps and upper body exercises can help you realize significant improvements in your overall speed and power. Best of all, you’ll have a physique that not only looks good and is strong, but is athletic, too.