Jump to it!

Plyometric training can be of use to all athletes, no matter what age or event

Posted on January 19, 2012 by
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Jumping is perhaps so ubiquitous within sport that its importance to the coach is often overlooked or forgotten in favour of more specialised or cutting-edge forms of training. Increasingly, scientists and coaches are looking at jumping as one of the most versatile, useful and chronically under-used methods of training in a coach’s repertoire. So what does jumping provide the athlete that they can’t find anywhere else?

The real benefit of jumping is that it gives the athlete the chance to improve a fundamental building block of performance – something known as the “rate of force development” (RFD). To understand what this means and why jumping is very rare in developing this quality we have to go back to the basics and the varying types of strength that exist. Lifting many weights in the gym is a great way of improving your maximum strength or the maximum amount of force you can possibly produce when time is not a factor. However, in athletics, time is always a factor as many athletes are only in contact with the ground while running for 0.1-0.2 seconds.

This is why the athlete that has the best levels of maximum strength is rarely the most successful at a track and field event – even in the shot put where you would assume that this would be the case. Instead, this is where RFD comes in because, more often than not, the person who can create the biggest force in the shortest possible time will be able to throw the farthest, jump the highest or run the fastest. Going back to our shot putter and examining the event more closely, we can see that the putter has only a fraction of a second to accelerate the implement once they have started to unleash it. This is precisely where RFD comes into the equation and separates the world’s best from the world’s strongest.

While the relevance of jump training is obvious to those who compete in the horizontal or vertical jumping events, it is also just as useful for coaches who look after athletes specialising in sprinting or throwing events. This is because jumping also promotes other key facets to performancegain, such as “triple extension”. This is what happens when an athlete extends from their hip, knee and ankle at the same time and is a key movement in athletics, found in every event from marathon running to pole vaulting.

Mechanics of bounding

Another key ingredient of performance catered for by jumping is the “stretch shortening cycle”, which is one of the main ways the human body recycles the elastic energy used in movement. Think of a long jumper sprinting towards the take-off board. As their take-off foot strikes the board (an eccentric movement as the Achilles tendon lengthens), all the momentum they have amassed during the run-up is channelled through their Achilles where it is temporarily stored – like stretching a rubber band. The concentric phase of the movement occurs when the Achilles begins to contract and release the elastic energy stored in it through movement that projects the athlete up into the air. By storing the elastic energy acquired from the eccentric phase of the cycle and recycling it during the concentric phase, the athlete is able to jump much further than would have been possible had they just stood on the take-off board and jumped without bending their legs or taking a run-up.

For what seems like an age, there has been controversy regarding coaches allowing children to perform high-intensity training like plyometrics. These reservations have too often been based upon shaky science and outmoded thinking and in a 2011 study, Sebastien Ratel from Clermont University in France finally offered conclusive proof that plyometrics and other highly-intensive forms of training do not hinder growth or maturation of adolescents. This makes perfect sense when you think about it – nearly every activity a child performs in the playground is in some way plyometric. From hop scotch to running, a game of man hunt or bull dog, there is a plyometric element in all of them.

Hopping and jumping can help stimulate tendon and bone development in young athletes and are an essential part of helping athletes develop and be capable of the levels of durability required for a long career in sport. Research now suggests that, provided that the plyometric activities are supervised, coached and planned properly for an athlete’s stage of development, they should be considered not only appropriate, but also a critical element of training for the young athlete.

These activities are really important and as a coach you should probably have it in your training programme regardless of which event the athlete competes in. But how do you start with young athletes? While jumping is a natural activity, jumping well is a learned skill which requires coaching and practice. The nervous system of children is primed to learn skills such as jumping and running. During childhood the neuromuscular system of young athletes may be more “plastic” or mouldable than when they are older. This makes them capable of making great adaptations to plyometric training which might not occur if training begins when they are older. Skills first taught to young athletes should not have an emphasis on the result, but rather the technique in which they use to perform the jump.

Focus on technique

There are two main reasons for this cautious approach – both with the athlete’s future well-being in mind. Firstly, an athlete who is capable of producing large forces, but who lacks the ability to control them is at a high risk of injury. The stresses placed on muscles, tendons and ligaments are magnified significantly when movements are performed incorrectly. The second reason is almost as detrimental to long-term performance gain, as the correction of a poor movement pattern which has been ingrained over a significant period will take far longer, and is less likely to succeed, than if the athlete is coached toward good movement skills from the beginning of their career.

It is always important to remember that strength and power can only be developed so far. When two athletes are similarly matched in their physical attributes (a common scenario in senior athletics) it will be the athlete with the best technique and mechanical efficiency who prevails.

A constant reminder about the importance of the coach in an athlete’s ultimate success is to understand that, while an athlete’s capacity for generating large forces in short time-frames is defined by their parents through genetics, it is their capacity for technique that is determined by their coach and that is what makes the difference between winning and losing.

So what does correct technique look like? While their charges are performing jumping exercises, a coach should ensure that they do so with good posture and alignment and at all times display good control and balance. If the athlete can maintain these qualities in their technique then they will also be able to maintain their centre of gravity over their base of support.

A sports scientist will tell you that this is critical to jumping technique as it ensures the optimal position for the athlete to deliver force with maximum effectiveness and efficiency and is mechanically advantageous. To put it another way, the centre of gravity is generally around the belly button and the base of support is the contact point with the ground (the foot). In order to jump, force must be applied to the ground, which then affects the centre of gravity. If the centre of gravity and the base of support are not in alignment then the athlete will be unbalanced and unable to perform the movement as well as if they were balanced.

With regards to any movement pattern that is taught to youngsters, all coaches should be aware that as body dimensions change through growth spurts and athletes develop new-found levels of strength, jumping skills will need to be relearned and revisited. This is especially important for female athletes, whose bodies typically change the most during puberty. Athletes gain strength with maturation, but they need to gain the skill level required to utilise it effectively if it is to transfer into better performance.

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