Plyometrics: Are they hurting or helping you?

Plyometrics are the cool kid in the exercise world. I mean, even the name sounds cool: Plyometrics. And they have a cool nickname: plyos. What’s not to love?

Here’s the thing: Like the cool kid in school, plyos tend to be more flash than substance. It’s definitely nice to have flash. But flash without substance is almost always problematic. Plyos without the less cool tools like weight training, muscle activation, foam rolling, and stretching, is almost always problematic. And unfortunately this is how they tend to be used. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone talk about an awesome 45 minute plyo session. They may be fun 45 minute plyo sessions; and they may make you feel tired; but I guarantee they are not awesome.

Here’s the simple truth: Plyometrics are awesome and you should use them, but there are a few things you should know before you do. Here are four simple guidelines to help ensure your plyos are helping you perform instead of helping you get injured.

1. Less is more
Plyometrics is a tool for developing power. It is not a cardio tool. Yes, plyos can make you sweat. They can also make you injured. Plyos are very taxing on your body, and are generally high impact. If you value your joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles, do not do 45 minute plyo sessions. Plyometrics in my gym take about 5 to 10 minutes out of a 1 hour program. I follow the great advice that Michael Boyle (my most influential mentor) often gives: no more than 25 foot contacts per workout. You maximize power by firing more muscles, not by doing more reps. In other words, this approach is both safer and more effective. How many foot contacts in 45 minutes do you suppose?

Another way to think about this: How explosive are you in your 35th minute of your plyo session? Long plyo sessions are the modern incarnation of high impact aerobics classes. Don’t do it.

2. Jump up before you jump down

Most people seem to have this backwards. They start by jumping off a box instead of jumping onto a box. I think because it seems easier to just step off something than it does to jump onto something. This is half true. Jumping off something requires less effort. The thing is, it requires much more absorption, which means it is much harder on your joints. If you think about it, doesn’t it make more sense to develop strong muscles (jumping onto something) to support your joints before you ask your joints to absorb force (jumping off something)? Use gravity for deceleration before you use it for acceleration.

Before embarking on a plyometric program, please make sure you understand proper progression. At it’s most basic, jump up before you jump down.

3. Strong comes before powerful

As noted previously, plyos are about power development, which is essential for sports performance (hitting a baseball, accelerating out of the blocks, jumping higher), but is also important in daily living (avoiding a fall after a mis-step). Power is the product of force and velocity (P = Fv). Power increases by either increasing the velocity (physics-speak for speed) or by increasing the force (strength). We can improve power by either getting stronger, getting faster, or both. Plyos is a way to improve both at the same time. But a word of caution: power without strength is a dangerous thing. I’ll go the cliche route by using the analogy of shooting a cannon out of a canoe. Without a secure base of support, power is both useless and dangerous.

Build strength first so that you can safely and effectively apply power (by the way this goes for speed training too: working on speed if you are weak is a recipe for injury).

4. Calibrate your brakes to your accelerator

We think of plyometrics as a means to develop explosive power, but as in politics, too much power can be dangerous. One of the big mistakes people make in their training is that they work on jumping higher and further without being mindful of their ability to land. The phase one plyometric drills I use with my clients include stability hops. The client does a series of hops where he or she starts on one foot, hops forwards or sideways, and lands on the same foot. The catch is that they must be able to “stick” the landing before proceeding to the next hop. If someone can’t control the landing, then they hop a little less high or far until they can stick it. I use on-field examples from their sport to explain why we do this first: think of a situation where you are jumping or lunging for a ball in whatever sport you play: what happens if you have the power to get to it, but don’t have the ability to land properly? Odds are you will sprain your knee or ankle. Develop the ability to control your power first and then develop more power, and you can prevent (or drastically reduce) these situations. Once you can land the jump or hop, then go bigger! But do it gradually. Training deceleration is also critical in improving your ability to change direction quickly. Which as it turns out is kind of important. ;)

Train the brakes as well as the gas pedal for optimum performance and injury risk reduction.

Do you do plyos? Love them? Hate them? Do you do them properly?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, helps athletes improve performance and reduce injury risk in Ottawa, Canada.

6 thoughts on “Plyometrics: Are they hurting or helping you?”

  1. Elsbeth, I must say this is a very well thought out and entertaining article you’ve written here. I’ve been doing a little research on this subject due to a back injury I suffered recently and your article makes so much sense I feel dumb for never realizing any of it before.

    I will pass this along to my friends and thanks very much for the common sense!

    -BD

  2. Great Article….all very true and you bring up some great points. Everyone loves plyo but are they really ready for all that impact? Like anything else, crawl before you walk. Also, if you have any injuries such as lower back pain, pain in your butt, ankle or shin pain…..you may want to be very careful with the Oh so loved , plyometrics. I do them once a week now and went into a lower impact program that still pushes my cardio, balance, and power limits. Cardio or a good workout does not always mean you have to be running or moving fast, you can be in one place and still sweat like crazy…a difficult yoga session is a good example.

  3. Thanks Larry. Love the term “plyoattrition”! I wonder if there is a more abused and ill-used exercise than plyos. I don’t think so.

  4. Nice post, Elsbeth: it should be required reading for high school strength coaches (and it wouldn’t hurt for coaches at other levels to be familiar with your arguments). It makes sense that you want to do power- and speed-increasing exercises while you still have power and speed. The way plyos are often performed, they may as well be plyoattrition.

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