Using Plyometrics to Power Up Your Gains
Guess what? It’s leg day!
Now, before you run over to the leg curl or leg extension machine to warm up, you may want to hear just a bit more about what this leg day will entail. Here’s a hint, it’s both insanely fun and extremely humbling all at the same time. Exactly what leg day should be.
Fair warning, today’s leg day will be VERY different from your conventional leg day full of squats, leg curls, leg press, and calf raises. This new leg day harkens back to the inner child in all of us that use to exercise their legs by hopping, skipping, jumping and bounding.
Remember how much fun that used to be when you were younger? If you don’t, it’s time to get reacquainted with your inner child and embrace the wonderful of plyometrics!
It’s a different type of challenge than you’re probably used to, but once you’ve learned the basics, incorporating plyometrics will lean to new levels of size and strength previously unheard of!
Let’s “jump” on in!
What are Plyometrics?
Plyometrics is also known as “jump training” or “plyos” for short, is an advanced training technique that was originally developed for top-tier Olympic athletes looking to increase their explosive power. Over the past 10-15 years, however, plyos have become insanely popular with fitness enthusiasts of all ages and aptitudes.
Plyometrics first came to light during the Cold War in the Soviet Bloc under the watchful eye of a Russian scientist named Yuri Verkhoshansky.  Dr. Verkhoshansky developed a system of exercises he called “Jump Training” which prescribed repetitive jumping in order to increase the both the explosiveness and speed of Russian track and field athletes. He published his findings in 1964.
It was also at this time that Soviet athletes dominated the track and field events at the Olympics and had the Americans wondering what in the world these pinko-Commie bastards were doing that made them so successful. We’re ‘Merica after all and no one should be kicking our tail!
This continued whooping by the Soviets ultimately led then-American track and field coach Fred Wilt to investigate how the Soviets were training, and he observed their training involved lots and LOTS of jumping exercises including jumps from the ground, off boxes, and even skipping around.
After studying their protocols, Wilt brought his findings back to the States, tagged the form of exercise as “plyometrics”, and began implementing them into his own athletes training.
If you consider traditional strength training modalities, you’ll quickly realize that the vast majority of movements are slow and controlled, aimed at increasing time under tension or overall strength. Plyometrics, however, are the exact opposite. They are quick, violent, and explosive movements specifically designed to make you faster and more powerful.
As an example, let’s look at the traditional bread-and-butter leg builder, the squat. When performing the squat, you initiate the movement by breaking at the hips and sitting down and back which lengthens the muscle. Once you reach your maximum depth, you contract the leg muscles to drive yourself out of the hole and back into a fully upright position, again under control.
The goal of plyometric exercises is to limit the amount of time between the concentric and eccentric portions of the movement. Basically, the idea is that reducing time between the two movements translates to a faster, more explosive and more powerful athlete.
Recalling the squat example above, the plyo equivalent would be the squat jump whereby you rapidly “drop” into the bottom position of a squat and then explode off the ground as hard and fast as you can instead of standing up in a controlled manner. Any muscle that is stretched (lengthened) prior to a concentric contraction will always contract with more speed and force, just like a rubber band.
This coupling of eccentric / concentric movements is termed the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC). These details may seem a bit tedious to explain, but it’s essential to understanding proper plyometric training.
How do Plyometrics Work?
The key training principle behind plyometrics is rapid force development. Using the squat jump as our example again, each time you land, you must immediately produce an explosive force to drive your body off the ground. Repeating this process for the prescribed number of reps allows you to overload the intended working muscle, allowing you to enhance both explosive power and strength.
Benefits of Plyometrics
The vast majority of you reading this aren’t world-class competitive athletes (though a few of you may be!), but don’t let that deter you from attempting plyos. There are a wide array of exercises that range from ultra-high intensity moves (like depth jumps) to low-intensity moves like hurdle hops.
Furthermore, just because you aren’t competing in some form of sport, doesn’t mean plyometrics can’t also benefit your typical “bro-style” bodybuilding life. In fact, much of the research into plyometrics has investigated its effects on leg strength, power, and size.
Guess what… Researchers found that combining weight training and plyometric training resulted in greater overall leg strength and power as you might expect.  But what researchers also found was that plyos provided “significant increases in type IIB fiber hypertrophy.”  Basically, you’re leaving a truck load of gains on the table if you’re not employing plyos into your weekly training.
Aside from the aforementioned benefits of plyos, regular practitioners of them also experience:
- Better athletic performance
- Greater CNS activation
- Improved coordination and agility
- Increased fat loss
- Higher resting metabolic rate
- Lean mass gains
How to Incorporate Them Into Your Training?
There are several ways to use plyometric training in your workout routine. Here are a few options:
Add them to your current leg day
Plyos make a great “primer” movement to use at the beginning of your training session. Doing a circuit or two of plyometrics helps fire up the CNS ahead of your heavy compound lifts and will allow you to lift greater loads due to your body already being prepped for battle.
It’s crucial that you keep the total reps on the lower side though, as doing too many plyometric activities before a heavy lift will result in excess fatigue and negatively impact your primary lifts.
Employ contrast training
We’ll have a more in-depth post on contrast training (a.k.a. Post Activation Potentiation), but as an overview to contrast training here’s the basic format. Load up a compound lift, for example squats, with your 6-10 rep max. Perform your set stopping one rep shy of failure and, after racking the bar, proceed immediately to perform a plyometric exercise that mimics the movement pattern of the weight-bearing exercise. In our example, this would be squat jumps for the same number of reps.
In essence, you are “tricking” the targeted muscle group to fire more powerfully by first overloading your CNS with a heavy weight, then allowing it to muscles to fire more powerfully on the squat jump since the CNS in essence still thinks you’re lifting some heavy ass weight!
Contrast training gets a little more technical than this, but this is the main gist of the training protocol. Stay tuned for the full-length piece to come!
Give plyos their own day
Let’s face it, doing cardio is BORING! However, you can save both time and misery by using a few plyometric circuits as your form of cardio. Think of this as a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Your body will experience a tremendous bout of metabolic stress, thereby ramping up your metabolism and allowing you to shed that unwanted blubber.
The key still is to focus on proper form and keep breaks between circuits short (about 60 seconds), so as to keep the heart rate elevate. Substitute these circuits in place of boring steady-state cardio and you’ll never look to a treadmill or bike again!
Plyometrics for the vast majority of you offer an untapped reservoir of gains as well as a means to embrace your younger self. Not only will you improve your overall athleticism, but you’ll also experience significant increases in power, strength, and size!
Whether you incorporate them into the start of your current leg day to “test the waters” or fully embrace plyos and give them a separate training day, the dividends you’ll see will be well worth the time spent performing these explosive movements.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series of plyometrics where we start to break down some of the most common plyometric exercises as well as point out the follies of some modern plyo training!
1) Mihael Yessis (2009). Explosive Plyometrics. Ultimate Athlete Concepts. ISBN 978-098171806-4.
2) Verkhoshansky, Yuri V., and V. V. Lazarev. 1989. “Principles of Planning Speed and Strength/speed Endurance Training in Sports.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 11 (2): 58–61
3) Rahimi R, et al. The Effects of Plyometric, Weight, and Plyometric-Weight Training on Anaerobic Power and Muscular Strength. Physical Education and Sport Vol. 3, No 1, 2005, pp. 81 – 91
4) Blakeyl J, et al. The Combined Effects of Weight Training and Plyometrics on Dynamic Leg Strength and Leg Power. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 1(1) · February 1987 with 548 Reads DOI: 10.1519/00124278-198702000-00003
5) POTTEIGER JA, LOCKWOOD RH, HAUB MD, et al. Muscle Power and Fiber Characteristics Following 8 Weeks of Plyometric Training. J Strength Cond Res. 1999;13(3).