Ever since the dawn of time, humans have been running and jumping - it's in our DNA. Hunting for their next meal, our ancestors had to be able to run fast, jump high and evade predators swiftly. As our lifestyles become increasingly sedentary, it might seem that some of us are losing this ability to move quickly.
When you think of the word athleticism, what does that mean to you? Running fast? Jumping high? Having quick reactions? The ability to repeat high physical efforts? Chances are you thought of at least one of those things.
The question is, how do we train for athleticism? Well, plyometric training is a great way to help improve these qualities and is often considered one of the missing links between weight training and athletic performance.
What is plyometric training? Unlike typical strength training exercises that involve slow, heavy movements designed to increase strength and mass, plyometric training consists of quick, explosive movements designed to increase speed and power (how quickly you can use your strength). Any exercise where the muscle is lengthened and then rapidly shortened to develop the explosive capability of the muscle is considered a plyometric exercise. Jumping, hopping and technically even running are all plyometrics.
Let's say as an example, you do a fast dip down directly before a vertical jump, your centre of mass will be lowered quickly and your muscles will be stretched. Any muscle that is stretched prior to the contraction will always contract with more speed and force, thus allowing you to jump higher. In contrast, if you squatted down, paused for 3 seconds and then did a vertical jump, your height would not match that of the former jump.
This phenomenon is referred to as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), which is governed by your neuromuscular system. By training with plyometric exercises utilising the SSC, we can speed up how quickly our brain transmits signals to contract and relax the working muscles, thus increasing speed and power of the movement. This is crucial for athletes looking to decrease the time it takes to reach maximum force.
Plyometrics can also increase tendon stiffness - which has a direct association with maximal running velocity and stride cadence/running economy. This is done by decreasing how much the tendon deforms once in contact with the ground. The stiffer the tendon, the less deformation it will have on contact with the ground and the body can transfer elastic energy through it quicker (they work like springs). This results in a faster ground contact time, which means faster running and jumping!
A study by Spurrs et al (2003) found that a group of male runners who completed six weeks of plyometric training significantly improved running economy over 3 kilometres. In addition, a study by Adams et al (1992) found that a combination of squat and plyometric training provided a significant increase to hip and thigh power production, resulting in a greater increase to vertical jumping ability than could be achieved from training solely with one program or the other.
Not only does the research suggest performance benefits from plyometric training, it also appears to have benefits for reducing the risk of injury. A study by Myer et al (2006) appeared to show a reduced ACL injury risk in female athletes (largely due to neuromuscular efficiency and improved biomechanics). Furthermore, a study by Wizke & Snow (2000) showed that trends observed in bone mass between groups suggest that "plyometric jump training continued over a longer period of time during adolescent growth may increase peak bone mass."
However, plyometric training needs to follow a graded progression so as to not end up hurting yourself. You can't just go from doing nothing to doing advanced or high volume. This is where we come in - contact us if you would like some guidance on what exercises you should be doing and how often!