Bill Victor: Plyometrics gives athletes a leg up

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photoBill Victor, Vancouver fitness consultant.

With so many physical assets being necessary to a successful athlete, I have always been mystified by the amount of attention given to the vertical jump. This action, coupled with one’s ability to run 40 yards as fast as possible, have been adopted by the sporting public as two indicators of pure athleticism. Undeniably, there is something spectacular about watching an athlete defy the force of gravity with a graceful and powerful disrespect.

It doesn’t matter if they are going to the hoop, to the ball, over someone or something, the vertical jump at its best is a sight to behold.

From a pure physical perspective, a person’s “vert,” as it is frequently called, can be an accurate indicator of their explosive ability, or at least potential, which can be harnessed to other athletic movements -- whether it be in the weight room, the field or the court. The reason for this is because the same muscle types (basically, three different kinds using different energy systems) used for the vertical jump are used in these other applications, as well. Without being too much the “science guy,” there is also an event called the “stretch shortening cycle,” which is related to the speed at which a muscle can lengthen and then forcefully contract within tenths of seconds. The name assigned to the training method to elicit this cycle is “plyometrics.”

Plyometrics, while an excellent training method for developing explosive muscle types, is incorrectly associated as solely a jumping activity. Plyometrics should instead be regarded as any movement where a muscle undergoes a quick shortening movement before it undergoes an extremely fast lengthening. It is the speed by which that muscle can lengthen and shorten that increases an athlete’s quickness, power and yes, their “hops,” too. The act of sprinting would qualify as a plyometric based on the fact that as each foot strikes, the muscles of the ground contact leg shorten and then explosively lengthen into the next stride. While it applies primarily to lower body speed, it can also be developed to hand-arm speed as well. If an individual wishes to increase their vertical jump and overall speed through the use of plyometrics, attention should be placed on the following:

• On instead of off: Probably the biggest mistake beginning athletes, coaches and fitness trainers make in jump training is focusing on jumping off heights that are excessive. Start at 4-, 6- or 12-inch boxes with an emphasis on jumping onto the box versus jumping off the box. Learning to land with chest forward and arms back to pre-tense for successive jumps must become a “reflex” for all athletes.

• Forward versus up: Progressions are designed for a reason. If an athlete’s musculature, technique or age can’t accommodate the impact of landing, then emphasis should be placed on quick forward jumps at low heights, always emphasizing the shortest ground contact time.

• Earlier vs. later: Plyometric movements put tremendous force on joints, muscles and tendons. Performing these activities at the end of practice or weight training increases the chance of injury. It should be done after the warmup but early in practice when the athlete’s body is fresh.

There are countless intangibles that are part of the complete athlete, but plyometric training should be a part of every athlete’s and coach’s arsenal.

Bill Victor is the owner of Victor Fitness System Professional Fitness Trainers, Flashpoint Athletic Speed & Agility Specialists, and Performance Nutrition Consultants. He can be reached at billv@victorfitsystems.com, 360-750-0815 and online at www.theflashpoint.org and www.victorfitnesssystems.com.