Should I do plyometrics?
It’s a legitimate question to ask because plyos aren’t for everyone. If you’re a couch potato who hates to train intensely and participates in exactly zero recreational sports, plyos aren’t for you. If you lift weights but prefer to only lift very, very slowly (you know, 10 seconds up, 10 seconds down), not for you. If your immediate goal is to climb Mount Everest, you can skip plyos for now and focus on more pressing needs, like securing a good oxygen tank and figuring out how to finance the five-figure excursion.
But if you’re interested in getting stronger in the gym, then yes, plyos would be a good idea. And if you’d like to increase the fat-burning effects of your workouts, again, yes, do plyos. Finally, if you want to improve your performance in virtually any sport, from soccer to basketball to mixed martial arts, plyos are imperative.
Once you’ve decided plyometrics are for you, we’ve got seven exercises to add to your program immediately.
Plyometrics are synonymous with power, but not all power training is plyometric by definition. For an action to be truly plyometric, it needs to be elastic: The foot hits the ground and the muscles of the lower leg contract forcefully to immediately lift the foot back up. If the foot stays on the ground for a while before coming back up, it’s not plyometric. Take a single box jump, for example. If you’re standing on the floor in front of a box and then you jump up onto that box, that’s a power exercise, but it’s not plyometric. Now if you stand on top of the box, drop down to the floor and in a split second bounce off the floor to go back up onto the box, that’s plyos. In this case, the distinguishing feature is either resting on the floor (not plyos) or resting on the box (plyos).
“Plyometric exercise involves incorporating two naturally existing processes within skeletal muscle — namely the stretch-shortening cycle and myotatic or stretch reflex,” says Donald A. Chu, Ph.D., CSCS, who literally wrote the book on plyos with the 1994 publication of Jumping Into Plyometrics and his most recent text Plyometrics, co-written with Gregory D. Myer, Ph.D., CSCS (Human Kinetics, 2013). “These two processes significantly enhance the ability of the muscle-tendon unit to produce maximal force in the shortest amount of time. The key factor in executing a truly plyometric exercise is the use of gravity and ground-reaction forces to produce these faster-than-normal muscle contractions. Whether one runs or jumps, ground contact is the key to making the lower body more explosive. The upper body can use this same principle through various means, namely using the arms to push against either the ground or an external object. In either case, the ground contact or contact with an external object must be minimized.”
Being one of the leading experts on plyos, Chu is inclined to break it down scientifically. Bottom line: Plyometric training will enhance your ability to apply force from the ground up. And considering how many common strength-training exercises rely on pushing explosively off the floor — squats, lunges, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, just to name a handful of the major ones — incorporating plyos into your workouts can boost strength levels in a very direct way. The same holds true for upper-body pressing exercises. If you can develop more power through the chest, shoulders and arms through, say, plyometric push-ups, your ability to press a heavy weight off your chest or lock it out at the top will be significantly enhanced.
More indirectly is how plyos can help the average gym-goer burn more body fat for a leaner physique. Chu states that very little research supports the notion that plyometrics help build muscle mass, but he’s convinced that they can spur fat burning. “Working the energy systems associated with anaerobic training via plyometrics will generally convert body fat to lean body mass by virtue of the amount of work that can be accomplished,” he says. “This is one of the reasons you don’t see overweight sprinters.”
Other exercise scientists agree, including Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quick Total Body Workouts (Alpha, 2012). “With plyometrics or any type of power drill, the caloric burn is through the roof,” Seabourne says. “Because power training is so physically demanding, it requires so many more calories for your body to get back to homeostasis. And that’s why it produces a huge fat-burning effect.”
As for boosting athletic performance, plyometrics is a no-brainer. “Plyometrics are imperative to the development and training of sport athletes,” Chu says. “The specificity of training, the physiological development and the actual measureable benefits are an absolute must as a part of any athlete’s training program.”
To effectively incorporate plyometrics into your training program, Chu offers the following guidelines.
Equipment required: Many plyometric exercises require no tools whatsoever outside of your own body. However, having plyometric boxes of different heights available will enhance variety and overall effectiveness. Other helpful plyo tools include hurdles, cones and medicine balls.
Where to do them:Plyos can be done pretty much anywhere that offers ample free space — a track, a turf field, a basketball court, an open area at your gym dedicated to functional training.
When to do them (in your training split): Plyometric exercises can either be doneon their own as a separate plyo-only session or in addition to weight training in the same workout (i.e., lower-body plyo moves on leg day or upper-body plyos on chest day).
When to do them (in your workout): As a rule of thumb, powerful, explosive exercises should be done first in a workout (after a proper warm-up, that is), so always do plyos before strength-training exercises when combining the two modalities.
How often:I usually prescribe heavy or full plyometric workouts twice a week with 48 to 72 hours rest in between,” Chu says.
How much volume: Because plyometrics are high impact and highly intense, total reps performed in a given workout need to be kept in check to avoid overtraining and minimize injury risk. Chu measures volume in terms of foot contacts and prescribes ranges based off individual experience and fitness level: 50- to 100-foot contacts per workout for beginners; 150 to 300 for well-trained, mature athletes; and 300 to 400 for elite athletes. Reaching a certain foot-contact count — say, 50 — can be achieved in any number of combinations: five sets of 10 reps/jumps, 10 sets of five, etc. To put a time frame on it, Chu states that “actual exercise time” for a beginner’s plyo session should be 20 to 30 minutes.
Volume also should correspond with whatever else is being done in the same workout. If it’s a plyo-only training session, volume can hit the top end of your foot-count range. If you’re doing several strength exercises after plyometrics, keep plyo volume at the low end.
How much load: Again, generating power (speed) is paramount, which precludes loading up with heavy weight. Chu recommends bodyweight only for virtually all lower-body plyometric exercises, or at the very most 10 percent of bodyweight added via a weighted vest. “Gravity imposes a very significant amount of force to the body,” he says.
How much rest: The main purpose of doing plyos is to develop power and explosiveness, so keep it anaerobic. Rest periods need to be long enough to allow you to be explosive on every set. Chu recommends a work-to-rest ratio of between 1:5 and 1:10, meaning sets that take 10 seconds to complete should get 50 to 100 seconds rest in between. A 30-second set would get more than two minutes, and up to five minutes, of recovery.
Lower-Body Plyo + Strength Workout
Do a warm-up consisting of such exercises as jogging, jumping rope, skipping, lunges, footwork drills, lateral shuffling and dynamic stretches, as well as less intense reps of the exercises you'll be doing in the workout to prepare your muscles.
Intermediate-Level Plyo-Only Workout
(to be done separately from a lifting workout)
Do a warm-up consisting of such exercises as jogging, jumping rope, skipping, lunges, footwork drills, lateral shuffling and dynamic stretches, as well as less intense reps of the exercises you’ll be doing in the workout to prepare your muscles.
Box-To-Box Squat Jump
Set up a row of three to six plyometric boxes* spaced a few feet apart. The boxes should be anywhere from 12 to 42 inches high, depending on your fitness level and athletic ability, and all should be the same height. Stand in front of the first box and drop down into a full squat position with your hands clasped behind your head. Jump explosively up to the box and land softly on top of it in a full squat position. Staying in that position, jump down from the other side of the box and immediately go into a squat jump up to the next box, continuing down the row in this manner. Complete as many rows as needed to reach desired rep count.
Rep Count: Do 10 to 12 reps per set.
*Equipment-Free Option: Olympic Hop — Start in a fully squatted position with your hands behind your head. Perform continuous small hops forward with minimal hip and knee extension (more or less maintaining the squatted position) for a distance of 10 to 20 yards.
Set up a row of six hurdles (or other similar barriers)* spaced far enough apart that there’s clearance should one get knocked over. Hurdles should be anywhere from 12 to 42 inches in height, depending on fitness level and athletic ability. Stand in front of the first hurdle and explosively jump over it off both legs, keeping the feet close together throughout the jump and pulling the knees up so the feet clear the barrier. Land softly, but don’t rest on the floor — go right into an explosive jump over the next hurdle. Continue until all hurdles are cleared.
Rep Count: Jumping over all six hurdles equals one set.
*Equipment-Free Option: Tuck Jump — Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, jump up as high as possible and bring your knees up toward your chest. Land softly and go immediately into another tuck jump.
Place two cones (or other markers you have available) 4 to 5 feet apart. Start with your knees slightly bent and feet together, standing just inside one of the cones. Jump laterally off the outside leg, swinging your arms in the direction you’re moving to help propel you, and land with the opposite foot just inside the other cone while allowing the leg you just jumped off to swing behind you (think of a speedskating motion). Immediately repeat the motion in the opposite direction to jump back (off the outside leg) to the cone you started at. Hop side to side continuously between the cones until the set is complete.
Rep Count: Do 10 reps to each side per set.
Medicine-Ball Slam (Side To Side)
Stand holding a medicine ball in both hands with your feet just outside shoulder-width apart. In one continuous motion, lift the ball overhead while rotating your hips and torso to one side, then immediately throw (slam) the ball down to the floor beside you as hard as possible. Pick the ball up, then repeat to the other side. Alternate sides every rep until the set is complete.
Rep Count: Do six slams to each side for a total of 12 reps per set.
Stranding Triple Jump
Stand in an athletic stance with ample floor space in front of you and your feet shoulder-width apart. Perform a standing long jump off two feet and land on only one foot. Immediately jump forward off that leg and land on the opposite foot. Jump forward off that leg and land safely on both feet. That’s one rep. Stand up, reset your feet and repeat the triple jump, either in the same direction or back the opposite way (depending on how much floor space you have).
Rep Count: Do five to six reps per set.
Start in a standard push-up position with a medicine ball on the floor between your hands. Place both hands on the ball. Quickly drop both hands to the floor outside the ball, land with soft elbows, then immediately do an explosive push-up so your hands come off the floor and land back on the ball. Steady yourself, then repeat.
Rep Count: Do six to 10 reps per set.
All plyometric exercises featured here are recommended by Donald A. Chu, Ph.D., CSCS. The sample workouts are consistent with guidelines provided by Chu and incorporate set and rep counts suggested by him directly and are intended for gym-goers currently following a strength- and/or mass-building lifting program.